My brain tends to do weird things when I am in a familiar place and I see a familiar face that has no connection to that place. That happened one Thursday morning when a short girl with long red hair walked into the store.
“Hey,” I said, in a familiar tone, because I knew her. Of course I knew her; it was Renee Robertson, and she had been my prom date a little over a year ago. My brain caught up then and became confused, because I did not expect to see Renee in Books & More. Somehow my brain took those thoughts of confusion and turned them into the spoken words, “I know you.”
Renee appeared to be as surprised as I was when she turned and looked at me. “Greg!” she said. “I forgot you worked here.”
“How are you?”
“Actually, I’m here for Catherine. I’m putting these flyers up around town. Do you think I’d be able to put one up here?” Renee put a flyer on the counter. I read it.
VOICES OF AUSTRIA
Choir & Orchestra Performance
Wednesday, August 23, 1995, 7:00pm
Good Shepherd Church, Gabilan
“So this is a choir made up of people Catherine knew when she was in Austria?”
“Yeah. She put together this trip where we’re going to do a tour of performances around here. Gabilan, Mount Lorenzo, San Tomas, and Bay City, I think. And we’re going to sing the national anthem at a Titans game.”
“That’s so cool!” I said.
“Yeah. Just contact Catherine for tickets.”
“For sure! I will!”
“So where can I put the flyer? Do you need to ask your supervisor?”
“She isn’t here right now, but I’ll ask her later this afternoon.”
“How is your summer going?” I asked.
“It’s pretty good. I’m mostly just hanging out with family and Anthony,” Renee answered. “I’m glad he was able to come home. It was hard having him so far away last year.”
“I’m sure it was.”
“How’s your summer?”
“Nothing too exciting here. Just working here. I’ve been going to a lot of San Tomas Mountain Lions roller hockey games. And I took a day trip to Jeromeville with my family and my cousins.”
“That sounds fun. I haven’t been back to Valle Luna all summer. Hey, I need to get going and put up the rest of these flyers. But it was good seeing you!”
“You too! I’ll definitely be at your show. Say hi to Anthony for me.”
“I will! Thanks!”
Jane arrived about an hour later, and she approved of me putting the Voices of Austria flyer in the window. She wanted to know more about what exactly they would be singing. I did not know anything beyond what was on the flyer, and I told her so.
When my shift ended that day, I did not go straight home. Instead, I went to the Lucky grocery store across the parking lot from Books & More. Lucky stores disappeared a few years later in a merger with Albertsons, and they reappeared in the early 21st century when Albertsons sold all of their holdings in this part of the country, including the Lucky name, to another company. I walked straight to the greeting card aisle and looked for birthday cards. Greeting card companies made special cards for 18th and 21st birthdays, because of the legal milestones involved, and special cards for people turning 30, 40, and 50. But to my knowledge there were no cards for turning 20, as the person I was shopping for was doing. My own birthday was coming up next week also, and there were definitely no special cards for turning 19.
After a few minutes, I chose a card that had a cartoon drawing of an elephant, saying, “Of course I remembered your birthday!” On the inside, the card said, “Who are you?” I chuckled loudly for a second, in the middle of the store, when I read that.
After I got back to the car, I thought for a few minutes, then started writing on the inside.
Happy birthday! How are your classes going? I hope you’re doing well. Things really aren’t very exciting for me. One of my friends from high school came into the store today; that was a nice surprise. I can’t wait to get back to Jeromeville and see everyone again. I hope you have a great birthday! What are you doing for it? My birthday is coming up on the 15th, but I don’t have anything planned, probably just cake and presents with my family. See you soon!
I had carefully prepared for this moment. I left the house today knowing that I would probably have to mail Megan’s card today in order for it to get to Jeromeville by August 12, her actual birthday. I had a stamp and a scrap of paper on which I had written Megan’s address in the glove compartment. I put the stamp on the envelope and copied the address onto the envelope: Megan McCauley, 2525 E. 5th St. #202, Jeromeville, followed by the state abbreviation and ZIP code. I knew that the mail at the nearest Post Office did not get picked up until five in the afternoon, so I drove there to mail Megan’s card, which would most likely get it to Jeromeville in two days.
I drove home, still nervous about what I had done. Sending a friend a birthday card should not have been a big deal, and Megan and I had been periodically in touch by email for most of the summer. But this was not just any friend. Megan was a year older than me, the first older friend I made at UJ other than my dorm’s resident advisors. She was so nice. And she was cute. I felt kind of dumb. I probably didn’t have a chance with her. She probably saw me as a silly little kid.
Ten years earlier, my childish lack of self-control led to a new family tradition in the Dennison household. I had asked for an obscure computer game for my birthday, the first birthday after our family got our first computer. I woke up at 1:30 in the morning, asking if it was time to open presents; Mom told me to go back to sleep. I woke again at 3:30, asking if it was time to open presents; Mom told me to go back to sleep. I woke again at 5:00, asking if it was time to open presents, and Mom handed me a box, saying, “Here’s your stupid game! Now let me sleep!” Since then, we have always opened mine and Mark’s birthday presents on the night before, so I would not be too excited to sleep on the night before receiving presents. To this day, I visit my parents every Christmas, and we still open Christmas presents on the night of December 24.
My 19th birthday was August 15, five days after the day Renee came into the store. Although I felt that I had probably outgrown the insomnia-inducing excitement on the night before receiving birthday presents, Mom still insisted on giving my presents on the 14th after dinner. Many of this year’s gifts were practical things for the new apartment.
“Thank you,” I said after opening a cookie sheet. As I began opening a package the size of a compact disc case, Mom said, “This is more of a fun gift.”
“It looks like music,” I replied. I thought I knew what it was, because I had only mentioned one CD that I wanted, and I was right. It was the album Cracked Rear View by Hootie & the Blowfish.
“And I thought you would like this,” Mom said, handing me what appeared to be a wrapped paperback book. I had spent enough time around books that summer that I recognized the shape and size. But as I began unwrapping it, it felt like it was not entirely solid, more like it was several thin paperback books. “Oh!” I said as I had removed enough wrapping paper to see the name Stephen King on the side of each thin paperback. “The Green Mile.”
“Part 6 isn’t out yet. So you’ll have to watch for it at Books & More. Or at the campus store in Jeromeville.”
“I can do that.” I had read that Stephen King had been working on publishing a novel in monthly installments, but I knew nothing about the story. I read the descriptions on the backs of the first two books, something about a murder and prisoners awaiting execution and something mysterious happening at the prison. Of course there was something mysterious happening; it was Stephen King.
The best birthday surprise came two days later when I got home from work. After Mom said hi to me, she said, “That girl you know who is in Jeromeville this summer, is her name Megan McCauley?”
I felt a jolt of excitement. “Yes,” I said, trying not to draw attention to my thoughts.
“You got something from her. It looks like a birthday card. I left it on the table.”
“I see it. Thanks.” I picked up Megan’s card from the table and took it to my bedroom. Looking at the envelope, I realized that I had never seen Megan’s handwriting before. It did not look like what I would have expected; the lowercase letters were much smaller than the capital letters, with a lot of space between them. After so many years of being in school and seeing people’s handwritten work, it seemed odd that I could know someone for a year and never see her handwriting.
I opened the envelope. Inside was a card with a picture of a birthday cake with candles, and “HAPPY BIRTHDAY” in large colorful letters above it. The printed text on the inside said, “Celebrate your special day!” Megan had added a note in her own handwriting.
Happy birthday! Thanks for the card! I hope you’re enjoying your summer! I’ll see you in the fall.
It wasn’t a very long note, but it was better than nothing, and I was getting emails periodically from Megan so I already knew the basics of what was going on in her life. Still, though, it was nice that she thought of me and took the time to send a card.
Mom and Dad and I arrived at Good Shepherd Church slightly better dressed than usual. I was wearing a shirt with a collar and no writing on it. I saw an older couple dressed nicely and realized that I might be under-dressed for an event like this, but looking around I also spotted others dressed similarly to me, so I was probably okay.
I was unsure what to expect. I looked through the program and saw names of pieces of music that I did not know, many of which were in German or Latin. A few of the composers’ names were familiar, like Mozart, and that made me feel a little smarter. This was no big deal; I should not be this nervous. I was watching my friends in a performance; I belonged here just as much as anyone else. No one was going to judge me for not knowing classical music. I continued looking through the program and recognized the name of a song: Edelweiss, from The Sound of Music. I had seen that movie many times. It was one of Mom’s favorites, although watching it with her meant having to hear her sing along to everything.
Mom nudged me, with her program open. I looked up. She pointed to the last three words of the title “Gott nahe zu sein, ist mein Glück,” and whispered, “It’s my gluck,” pronouncing the last word as if it rhymed with “pluck.”
“Don’t make me laugh,” I said, trying to stifle giggles at this silly randomness.
A few minutes later, the performers walked onto the stage, the choir standing on risers placed in front of the altar, and the orchestra seated in front of them. Catherine walked to the front of the stage. “Welcome to Voices of Austria,” she said. “My name is Catherine Yaras. I grew up here, but I spent my senior year studying in Austria. I performed with some of these musicians here during that year. Now they have come out here to perform and do some sightseeing. This is the first of six performances we will be doing, including the national anthem at a Bay City Titans baseball game. So please sit back, relax, and enjoy the show.”
As they began singing and playing, I started to feel out of place again. I did not know what to expect at a classical music performance. I guessed it was probably frowned upon to sing along or wave lighters or shout “FREE BIRD!” in between songs. Everyone else seemed to be sitting still and clapping at the end of each song, so I did the same. I wondered if any customers from the bookstore were in attendance tonight. This was their world. Probably not, though.
As much as I did not know classical music or understand the lyrics, I really did enjoy the performance. All of them sounded beautiful, and for as much fun as rock and pop music could be, classical music had complexities far beyond that of most rock and pop music that gave it a pleasing sound.
When they got to the Glück song, I noticed that that word was not pronounced like Mom said, rhyming with “pluck,” but with a vowel that does not exist in English, close to rhyming with “Luke” but not exactly. I leaned over to Mom and whispered, “It’s ‘Glück, not gluck,” attempting to replicate that sound.
“I hear that,” she whispered back.
At the end of the performance, I waited in my seat, watching for Catherine and Renee so I could go talk to them. When I saw them come out from the room behind the altar, I said to Mom and Dad, “I’m going to go say hi to Catherine and Renee.”
“Okay,” Mom replied. “We’ll wait over here.”
I approached Catherine and Renee; they were with a few of the other performers. “Greg!” Catherine said as she saw me approach. She walked up and gave me a hug. “Meet my friends. This is Helga; she was my sister when I stayed in Austria. Helga, this is Greg. He was one of the people who wrote me letters that year.”
“Oh, yes,” Helga said. “It’s nice to meet you.”
“You too,” I replied.
“And this is David, Matthias, Lisi, and Katharina,” Catherine continued as she introduced me to the rest of the group.
“Hi,” I said as they waved and greeted me in return.
“I’m so glad you could make it! Thank you very much!”
“I enjoyed it. You guys are really good.”
“Thanks,” Renee replied. “I felt like I messed up my part on one song.”
“I didn’t notice,” I told her. “I don’t know what it’s supposed to sound like, so if one part is a little bit wrong, I won’t know.”
“That’s what I said!” Catherine exclaimed. “So have you ever thought about performing in a choir?”
I was not expecting that question. “Me?” I asked. “I’m too self-conscious up on stage. You know that.”
“I think you should try it! Find a group to sing with in Jeromeville.”
“I don’t know. Maybe.”
“It’ll be good for you.”
“So you guys get to sing at a Titans game? That’s really cool.”
“I know! A baseball game seems like such an American thing to do.”
“I haven’t been to a game in two years. I’m still kind of upset at baseball for being on strike last year. Matt Williams was going to break the home run record. But I’m sure you guys will have fun.”
“I need to go say hi to some other people, but it was great seeing you! When do you go back to Jeromeville?”
“End of next week. September 2.”
“And is that when classes start? I thought you guys started later?”
“We do. But my apartment lease starts September 1, and I’m kind of ready to be back up there.”
“That makes sense. I don’t know if I’ll get to see you again before then, though, since I’ll be busy with these guys for the next week.”
“Yeah,” I replied. “If not, I’ll be home for Christmas.”
“Call me before you leave, okay?”
“Bye, Greg. Thanks again for coming.” Catherine hugged me.
“Bye,” Renee added.
“See you guys later. Enjoy the rest of your performances.”
I walked back to the car with Mom and Dad. “That was really good,” Mom said. “They’re all really musically talented.”
“I know,” I said.
“Yes,” Dad agreed.
“I know I say this all the time, and I don’t want to bug you, but I always wish you would have stuck with music. You were always good at playing piano and singing.”
“I guess,” I said.
Mom started talking about something else as Dad pulled out of the parking lot, which was good because I was tired of this topic. I took piano lessons when I was a kid. I quit when I was 10. I was too concerned with my image, and playing piano did not seem cool to me. But also, more importantly, I got tired of Mom making a big deal of my piano playing and making me perform every time we had company or relatives come over. I was too self-conscious to perform music in front of people. I love music, but as for performing, I was content to sing along in the car while driving alone.
But Mom and Catherine had basically told me the same thing tonight, that I should get into music again. I could not even remember if Catherine had ever heard me sing. And three years earlier, in tenth grade, I had attended our school production of The Sound of Music (Catherine played the Mother Abbess), and one of my teachers, Mrs. Norton, asked me why I wasn’t up there singing and performing. I knew Mrs. Norton had never heard me sing. It was strange. Did Catherine and Mrs. Norton see something in me that I did not see in myself? Was being part of a choir singing in front of a group something that I could do?
As I sat in the car headed north on Highway 11 on the way home from the Voices of Austria concert, I had no idea that that question would be definitively answered less than two months later.
A big thank you to Catherine for finding this t-shirt from the tour at her parents’ house.