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Book Jacket

Trade Paperback
304 pages
Feb 2004
WaterBrook Press

The Duet

by Robert Elmer

Review  |   Author Bio  |  Read an Excerpt


Chapter 1

All the good music has already been written by people with wigs and stuff. —FRANK ZAPPA

So where can I put you, my little man?” Joan Marie Horton parted the white lace living-room curtains with one hand to clear a space for Johann Sebastian Bach. He would fit perfectly on top of the short bookcase the movers had centered under the street-facing four-paned window.

Or nearly centered. But she would fix that later, when her daughter’s husband, Shane, stopped by after work. For now she placed the little ceramic bust of the maestro where it could be seen from Delft Street and from her piano, where it would remind her of Jim, who had given it to her for her forty-fifth birthday, just before the accident.

She still wondered if things might have been different had she been a better wife, a better mother. Perhaps he would have been helping her unpack in this early summer heat, not their eight-months pregnant daughter, Alison.

“Mom?” came the question from the kitchen. “You want this china put up in the hutch?”

She did. But goodness, after six years one would have thought she’d grown used to the idea of being alone, grown past the tears. Joan tensed her jaw and reached into the box of packing paper to remove a framed eight-by-ten. Wouldn’t you know it would be the shot of Jim and their only son, Randy, sitting in the back of the Millers’ ski boat at Great Sacandaga Lake, each with a bronzed arm around the shoulder of the other, each wearing the same ridiculous grin.

At the time she had scolded them for ruining the shot. Now? She would set it in the middle of the fireplace mantel, a place of honor in her cozy little rental home for her upcoming sabbatical year. And really, the smiles seemed fitting. After all, it was really no one’s fault that Jim had died in the blizzard—not even Jim’s. She knew he had been depressed, but she also knew—more than anyone—that he had wanted desperately to make it home. It was just one of those bad things that happened to good people.

All of which was simple enough to say, nearly impossible to live with.

If only, if only. And up until now she had dealt with it by escaping more deeply into her teaching, her music. That had worked for a time, but she could only go so far before she had to come up for air. Perhaps this move would help her take the first real steps toward putting the guilt behind her and setting her life straight once again.

Step one: Get Randy out of his flea-infested apartment and set him up in her empty Long Island home, with a fully stocked pantry. Who better to housesit? By the time he ran out of things to eat, he would be getting a small paycheck from his new job stocking shelves at the Port Hamilton Market. Of course, at age twenty-four he could certainly land a more promising job. But at least the market was within walking distance so he wouldn’t need to drive. And with Randy’s license suspended after the DWI arrest, she was pleased their pastor, Tim Jenkins, had promised to look in on him every few days. At least the DWI had forced her to act, pushed her to take…

Step two: Escape New York and move across the country for a year to the small town where Alison and Shane now lived. Reconnect with the daughter she hardly knew, the self-sufficient one whose young life and accomplishments had been passed over during the years when Joan and Jim were so busy trying to deal with Randy’s teenage crises. Could a grandmother now atone for a mother’s shortcomings? If only she had it to do over again.

But where did she now find herself? My, the operative word here was small town. Because from what she had experienced so far, a crowd in Van Dalen, Washington, meant four people in line at the post office during lunch hour, waiting to mail their letters and packages. Or the families who lined the sidewalk during the Wooden Shoe Fest last weekend when she had arrived in town. Or perhaps the occasional Wang-Li Excursions tour bus that pulled up to the quaint Dutch-styled downtown and disgorged a load of fifty video-toting tourists from Vancouver. Now there was a crowd.

This morning, instead of gawking at the lace shops, she had decided to hang a bit of her own over the little window in her front door, just like all the other houses on Delft Street. No matter that she was only going to stay for a year. It would be home.

“So!” She gave the lace a satisfied tug to help it hang just right. “I can look just as Dutch as the neighbors. I’ll even change my name to Van Horton.” The only other accessory she needed was a pair of kissing Dutch figurines for the front lawn or a foot-high windmill, but she wasn’t prepared to plunge quite that far into the ethnic experience.

“Did you say something, Mom?”

No, nothing. But a movement out the side window caught her eye: the lawn service at her neighbors’, Fred and Judy Vanderstraat, who had introduced themselves the day Joan’s moving van arrived last week. The local father and son gardeners had turned Fred and Judy’s front lawn into a putting green with their special rotary mowers, and they were now power edging the corners with a vigor matched only by Bill’s Barber Shop downtown.

Joan assumed it was Bill who stood on display in his shop window, draping the town’s menfolk in pinstripe blue sheets and hand-trimming their heads for $5.25 plus tip. And no, she had never seen anything like Van Dalen lawns anywhere else in the country. Not even in the real Holland, which Van Dalen had done its best to emulate.

In any case the lawns were enough to make Tiger Woods proud. Fred and Judy had assured her this was the way things were done here. Except, Fred laughed, never on Sunday, which had been followed by a generous elbow in his side from Judy. But he was right. Sunday was the day local church doors were opened wide so throaty hymn singing and organ music could waft down Delft Street past all the closed stores. Fred had told her quietly how one of the restaurants had tried to open on Sunday—once—but the resulting firestorm of righteous letters to the editor had put a quick stop to that. He’d heard that someone had posted a little sign on the front doorknob of the place. Something about “Honor the Sabbath Day!”

But he hadn’t seen it himself, and he thought that was a little extreme, even for Van Dalen. Still, he maintained Sundays were for quiet, and Joan had readily agreed. Van Dalen was just different that way.

Wasn’t that part of the reason she was already falling in love with this town? Her little house had probably been built in the 1920s, and its quaint Craftsman style fit in nicely between modest turn-of-the-century Victorians nestled quietly beneath a canopy of full-blown elms lining Delft Street. They paraded up to where the windmill signaled a shift from homes to shops. Everything modest, everything in its place, and above all, everything orderly, from the homeowners’ little name-tag signs by the doors to the occasional white picket fence and spit-shined windows.

Joan returned to unpacking but couldn’t help picking up the photo once more. And once more she tried to memorize Jim’s features, the nose, the eyes. Yet the guilt-laden thought occurred to her that even if Jim were to approach her on a busy Van Dalen street today, six years after his death, she might not be able to pick him out of the crowd.

Well, perhaps he wouldn’t recognize her, either. Jim hadn’t actually lived long enough to see for himself how many cruel tricks time played on women in their early fifties. For one thing, her thick raven hair had been invaded by stealthy shocks of gray. Even worse, little crow’s feet had crept unbidden into her Mediterranean complexion, originally inherited from a vivacious Greek grandmother. Now Joan had been left with missing hormones, frozen emotions, faded memories, and twelve months to figure it all out in a town where nearly everyone was a stranger. At least she still held on to her grandmother’s slender build.

The photo, however, slipped from her grasp, hitting the brick hearth with a crack that must have launched her a full three inches into the air.

“Mom?” Alison called from the kitchen, where she was still unwrapping china. “You all right?”

“Just clumsy!” Joan berated herself as she dropped to her knees. She turned her head so Alison wouldn’t see the tears and picked up the cracked oak frame by its corner to survey the damage. The photo itself was okay, but wicked glass splinters littered the bricks.

“Oh, I’m sorry.” Alison waddled up behind her. “Your favorite photo. Here, I’ll help you with that.”

“No, no, it’s all right.” Joan blinked her eyes fiercely, shook the last of the shards from the frame and hurried to set it on the mantel. “You didn’t come here to be doing deep knee bends.”

“Yeah, I get enough exercise with the aerobics and the ten-mile jogs.”

Alison smiled at the look of concern that flashed across her mother’s face.

“Just kidding, Mom. But I’m taking vitamins and drinking plenty of local milk. I’ll be just fine.”

In truth, she probably would. After all, Alison had inherited a good share of her father’s square-jawed Teutonic build, not unlovely by any means, but more naturally suited to childbearing than Joan. Even eight months along (and despite the waddle), Joan’s only daughter still carried herself like the confident track star she had always been back in high school, back in New York.

“I know you will.” Joan studied the damaged photo. “Now, your brother…”

Alison followed her gaze, and her voice softened as she slipped her arm around her mother’s shoulder.

“Remember all the hurt animals he used to drag home when he was little?”

Joan couldn’t help a small smile at the memory: the butterflies, the baby birds, the puppies… Randy, the sensitive, protective one, out to rescue the world. But now Alison’s smile had faded, and they both knew where her thoughts had wandered. Now it was her mother’s turn.

“It’s not your fault, Alison. You’ve tried to stay in contact. He’s made his own choices.”

“It’s just that he changed so much after Dad died, like he was never able to handle it. It’s always scared me, Mom.”

You have no idea, Alison. But Joan couldn’t voice her own guilt, so she simply tried to think of something encouraging to say.

“I’m praying the next year will be good for him.”

“Me, too.” Alison bit her lip and nodded…before wincing in pain.

Joan’s heart nearly stopped.

“Alison? What’s wrong? Are you—”

Alison only held up her hand and shook her head. No, she was okay.

It was just a kick, and it happened all the time. All she needed was to sit down for a moment, catch her breath. This little one was a kicker.

Even so, Joan would be taking no chances with her only daughter. In fact, she would have preferred that Alison rest on the love seat, had it not been piled high with boxes of sheet music, and had the doorbell not chimed just then.

“Your first visitor?”

Alison steered herself toward the bedroom, and Joan told her to lie down on the bed with her feet up, for goodness’ sake. A cheery follow-up knock came at the same time Joan spotted an eager face peering through the lace at her. Joan found a smile to match her visitor’s and pulled open the door.

“You are the new piano teacher?” A tall older woman with an enormous sharp nose shuffled right up to the door. “I thought for a moment you veren’t here.”

“Uh, no.” Joan stepped back so the visitor wouldn’t step on her toes.

“I mean, yes, I am. May I help you with something?”

“Ve’re the Van Dalen Velkomvagen.”

In the visitor’s distinctly Dutch accent every velkom started viss a v.

“Joan Horton. Please excuse the mess, oh, and the broken glass there.”

“Vatch the door, Earl.” Mrs. Velkomvagen pointed outside before Joan, still taken aback by the brassy entrance, nearly closed the door on visitor number two.

“Oh, dear, I didn’t see you.” Joan pushed open the door. “Please come in.”

The baldheaded Earl nodded and held out two brimming-full plastic bags, the kind with the cutout hole at the top for hanging inside a car.

They were emblazoned with the logo of Hank’s Ace Hardware.

“This is for you.”

Just four words told Joan that Earl had been born on this side of the Atlantic. But after handing over the free welcome samples, he simply backed into the living room’s flowered wallpaper while the missis launched into her presentation. She was obviously quite used to making herself heard in a way that Earl could understand with his dual hearing aids.

“Filling in for Linda Klopstra, I hear?”

Well, yes… They stood between the two pianos in Joan’s living room, this soon-to-be music studio. A toilet flushed in the background.

“I’ve been asked to take her students for a year while she’s in Romania.”

While Joan continued, the visitor nodded as if she already knew the details, which she undoubtedly did.

“Also my daughter, Alison, is having a baby…I mean, not at the moment, but she’s due in two weeks. So I’m helping her while I’m here. I’ll be a grandmother for the first time.”

“Vahnderful.” The woman paused to admire one of the pianos. “I have tventy-seven grandchildren. And your people are from vhere?”

Joan paused and tried to straighten a box of music books on the floor with her foot. Her people? Joan could entertain her with stories of the Sicilian great-grandmother or the shopkeeper grandfather from Athens who was separated from his parents for half a day on Ellis Island…

“Er…I used to teach at a music school in New York, if that’s what you mean. We raised our two children on Long Island.”


So the woman wanted the whole story. All right then.

“I’m sorry. My husband, Jim, and I, our daughter, Alison, and our son, Randy. Randy’s my baby; well, actually he’s twenty-four, and he’s living back in Port Hamilton. Long Island. Alison, she’s the one expecting. You may know her. Her husband is the county extension agent, Shane Nelson; they live over on Twin Creek Road at the edge of town. Shane was transferred here about a year ago.”

“Shane Nelson.” Joan’s visitor rolled the name around on her tongue with some difficulty. “And vhat does your husband do?”

“Oh. Jim, ah…passed away, was killed in an accident. Storm related. A blizzard.”

The catch in her voice surprised even Joan. But obviously the visitor wasn’t out for blood, and she wasn’t going to ask for all the details about the accident. She finally nodded and stepped around a small pile of sheet music on her way back to the door.

“I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to pry.”

“That’s all right. It’s been six years.”

Mrs. Velkomvagen mercifully changed the subject. “I hear they’re looking for a pianist at Second.”

Nothing like moving the conversation along.


“Second Reformed Church. It’s just down the street.” She pointed.

“Around the corner from First Reformed; two blocks from Third. Perhaps it vould be a good way to get involved in the community. I could tell them you’re interested.”

Joan paused, wondering how to graciously decline.

“That’s very kind of you, but I’m afraid I’ve never attended a Reformed church.”

The woman raised her eyebrows, as if she had stumbled across an alien or a pagan. Never? And for one brief contrary moment, Joan considered leaving it at that. But no.

“I was raised in the Church of the Nazarene,” Joan went on, “which I suppose is quite a different tradition. My father was a pastor, mostly churches in the Midwest. But I understand there’s a small Nazarene fellowship that meets in a Grange hall just west of town.”

The visitor took it all in while color returned to her drawn face. This newcomer was not Dutch. Not Reformed. Not Dutch Reformed. And her last name didn’t start with a Van. What had she expected?

“Nort’ Valley Grange Hall on the Simble Bridge Road. Past the fairgrounds. Isn’t that right, Earl?”

That would be North Valley Grange Hall on the Thimble Bridge Road, of course. Earl nodded politely, but Joan could tell this conversation was over by the way he started edging for the door. Joan thanked them as Mrs. Velkomvagen produced a clipboard and counted several lines with her finger.

“Sree, foor, five. Ve vould stay to chat, but ve have five more homes to visit today for the vagen. So many new people.”

Which could be good or bad, depending on one’s perspective. Joan nodded and clutched the bulging plastic bags studded with stickers from the Van Dalen Downtown Association. A coupon for a free key at the Ace Hardware fluttered out. Earl picked it up.

“Five more to visit.” Mrs. Earl tapped her list again. Maybe she’d gathered all the intelligence she came for. But she paused on the way out, looking over her shoulder.

“Be sure to use the dinner coupon for the Vindmill Grill,” she said.

“Best hutspot in town.”

Joan couldn’t be sure if hutspot was something to eat or someplace to eat it, but Mrs. Earl assumed everyone knew. Joan shook their hands, thanked them again, and smiled as she watched them totter down the steps and off to their next appointment.

Nice people. Maybe Alison would go with her to find out what a hutspot was. “Alison!” As if in answer, her daughter’s strained voice drifted in from the bedroom.

“Mother!” This time Alison’s voice took on an edge that snapped Joan to attention. “Could you call Shane at work? I think my water just broke.”