The Golden Flute
William H. Coles
ost of the lawn-party guests at the country club were Jean’s friends from childhood, and we knew from her brittle greeting and fixed smile that she was upset. My God. Most of us would have been weeping behind a locked bathroom door. She welcomed us alone–although the invitations read “Hosts: Jean and Tim”—without a word about Tim’s whereabouts. We knew the essential: Tim hadn’t returned from a surgical meeting in south Florida. We were curious. Who was he with? What did Jean know? But she looked too fragile and we’d been friends too long for me to ask.
Near the open-air bar my distant-cousin Patrick talked to three women. He was one of Tim’s surgical partners for twenty-five years. I waved and pointed to a giant oak where we might have some privacy.
“She’s devastated,” I said. “Where’s Tim?”
His look scolded me.
“She’s flying solo here to save her self-respect,” I said.
“She’s embarrassed …” he said.
“She sees it as demeaning.”
"No one knows what goes on behind closed doors," he said as if he might smirk.
I cringed. “She doesn’t deserve this, Patrick.”
"I find that disingenuous, Carole."
Patrick would never believe the friendship Jean and I had over the years. He couldn’t forget or forgive the brief, secret affair Tim and I had when Jean was pregnant with her second. What had happened was in the past. Let it go!
I grabbed his arm but he pulled it away.
"Tell me where Tim is," I said.
He laughed. "You want to go to him? Is that what this is about?"
“I care, Patrick. She needs me. I need to bring him back, make her feel whole again.”
“You don’t need to bullshit me, Carole. I’m not telling you where Tim is.” He backed off a few inches shaking his head.
“I only want to help Jean. I don’t give a damn about Tim,” I said. “We were only friends.”
Patrick laughed again.
“It’s true,” I said.
“I don’t know why Jean puts up with you.” He stared into his glass and swirled straight scotch around a lone ice cube. “Stay out of it, Carole. As best friends go, you don’t rank very high.”
“Damn you,” I said. Kin or not, he had no right to insinuate that my wanting to help Jean was devious. Totally unwarranted.
He left and after a minute or so of silence; I walked back to the guests by myself.
Even after an hour, guests still avoided eye contact with Jean, uncomfortable with the unstated knowledge that was now in the collective consciousness of the guests. I asked friends what they knew about Tim's leaving and whereabouts, but they changed the subject, unwilling to voice opinions or facts. One of my ex-husbands, who was a partner with Tim and Patrick, kept his distance and never acknowledged me. Conspiratorial cohorts of feminine denigration, every one of them.. I'd paid my dues for my past fling with Tim, and Jean and my long friendship proved it.
By the second hour, Jean knew her party was failing. She tried to whip up innovative activities. Finally, ahead of schedule, she herded people toward a croquet-patch of lawn for the traditional three-legged race.
I quickly paired up with Rubin, who, since his wife had died two years ago, had been a growing romantic interest that I’d pursued cautiously since he had always been on the edge of social acceptance and, by Jean's standards, close to poverty. Rubin and I went to concerts and movies. He’d been over to dinner at my house a few times. He seemed interested; we laughed a lot. I'd needed male companionship since my last divorce and Rubin had filled the need for the past few months.
Jean announced that race pairs could not be spouse or significant others; I was sure the rule for significant others was new. Why was unclear until she grabbed Rubin’s hand and didn’t look at me as she enticed him away from me. She'd not let her famous allure be tarnished by Tim's defection. Rubin was capable of adoration of anything feminine, and Jean could use his adoration as a display that her skills of enchantment with males had not faded..
Rubin seemed pleased. He had played classical-music duets with Jean for years, and had intensely courted her before she was married and in college. I watched the race with the twenty or so other guests. The manager tied Rubin’s massive right leg to Jean's thin, muscular left leg with a strip of torn-off, white sheet. Staff assisted other pairs to the start line.
“Three, two, one … go!” yelled the manager and seven leg-bound couples started off. Jean strained … excessively I thought … pulling Rubin forward. Rubin’s head bobbed trying to insert some common rhythm into their progress and strands from his full head of white hair fluttered in the air.
“Concentrate,” we heard Jean urge him. But they were the last couple to stumble over an imaginary finish line between two folding chairs; he fell, gasping and wheezing, to the lush country club grass, dragging her down with him, trapping her under his heavy thigh; she looked in pain and moaned unable to reach the bed-sheet knot to free them and if Rubin sat up he’d crush her. The manager rushed over to untie them.
After prizes were awarded, Jean circulated and I went to Rubin, who was exhausted. He managed the local life insurance agency and didn’t exercise.
“You gave it a good try,” I said.
He laughed. “I was tied to the best. She’s strong … that one.”
We talked about his not-publicly-announced estranged-daughter, who was off at college, the source of much grief. His smile faded when he talked of happier times, and it touched me.
By afternoon, the sun burned in a cloudless aquamarine sky and a gentle breeze rustled the oaks on a perfect setting for the outdoor buffet dining the club was famous for. After dessert, staff rolled an upright piano on the lawn before a three-row deep semi-circle of folding chairs. Joan introduced Rubin–whom we all knew—as he stood with his flute behind the crowd. Rubin joined her to stand proudly next to the piano as she sat down and adjusted the piano stool.
He raised his nickel flute with tender respect, a used instrument flecked with indentations and scratches. Jean was an accomplished pianist, and president of the Board of the Symphony, who played well even though she tended to drown Rubin out in the fast passages. Still, his sound was so breezy soft, his melody so pure, that the performance pleased everyone, even me–I preferred Frank Sinatra. Jean jumped up to lead the applause of the awed guests; Rubin bowed; then the crowd wandered away … back to party anxieties as to how to leave for home without appearing ungrateful. I left early and drove home alone. Jean had invited Rubin to her place, not only to pronounce her self-perceived charm was still intact, but to irritate me. She was well aware of my interest in Rubin. I didn't deserve her disdain.
I was in bed asleep when Tim called from Florida–just after six the next morning.
I couldn’t speak.
“Carole?” he repeated.
I’m here, I almost said. Had he called for advice? Comfort?
“Yes?” I said.
“I thought I had the wrong number.”
I turned over pulling the covers up around me and cradling the phone close. “Are you back?” I asked.
“No. Of course not.”
“We missed you at the party.”
He laughed. “She should have cancelled.”
“That’s not Jean.”
“Tell me about it.”
Words failed me.
“Look,” he said, “I call the house and she hangs up.”
“She’s angry, Tim.”
“I talked to Gary. He said separation is legally tricky. That Jean won’t let anything out of the house.”
He paused. I waited. His voice pleased me more than I wanted to admit.
“I want my golf clubs,” he said. “The signature Palmer ones. They’re irreplaceable. Could you ship them for me?”
“You want me to … to steal them?” He should have taken them with him. All this was more impulsive than I had thought. I tried to figure out a way to say no.
“Just take them to that UPS store on Genesee. They’ll pack them. I’ll mail you a check.”
My chest ached. I wondered if his companion was close by.
“I didn’t know who to ask,” he said.
“It’s okay,” I said, and I couldn’t suppress a laugh. “Everyone thinks you’ve left for good. But she’s acting rock solid in public—as if there’s nothing wrong.”
He made a derisive sound. “She’s indestructible.”
“She’s made moves on Rubin. At the party.”
“I could care less.”
“I don’t believe that.”
“Hey. No need to dig in the crap, Carole.”
I clutched the phone. “I’ll think about,” I said.
“I want to play a reciprocal-club tournament here.”
I let him wait. I could get his clubs somehow. I wanted him to call again.
“Okay,” I said. “It’ll take time.”
“Send them express when you get them,” he said.
With phone in hand, I went to my desk near the full-length bedroom window that opened onto a patio where I tended my roses. I wrote down his address. Sunset Retirement Villas. I listened, but I didn’t hear any sounds from a bimbo in the background. And I was afraid to ask.
I went to Jean’s house before eight the next morning, earlier than usual; we played tennis with our group at 9:30 on Mondays as regular as sunrise. She was already dressed in a crisp white outfit, with a new fluffy white sweatband on her right wrist, her hair shiny from a morning wash. She looked good but on the court her timing was not good , and she was obsessed with self-recriminations during a game; our group tolerated her mostly for the energy she put into every match.
“You’re early,” she said.
I poured coffee from her silver urn into one of her antique Limoges porcelain cups.
“I need to find Tim’s golf clubs.”
Her back was to me as she put dishes from the sink into the dishwasher.
“You talked to him?” she said.
I didn’t answer.
“How could you, Carole?”
“He wants his clubs. I told him I’d ship them.”
“The separation is official. Nothing leaves the house until we’ve settled.”
“These are special to him. You’ll never use them.”
She’d taken out a toaster and was separating English muffins with a fork. “I want to do something nice for Rubin,” she said. “His birthday’s coming up soon. We've been friends for so long.”
I looked away.
“He said they were in the garage near the Porsche,” I said.
“I’m asking friends to buy him a new flute. Would you start the giving? A few hundred dollars.” I couldn't tell if Jean was deliberate in the request to suggest that by requesting a donation I couldn't socially turn down, she was flaunting her desirability over mine by feeding Rubin's puppy-dog but life-long attraction to her.
I sipped my coffee, concentrating. “Is the garage open? I could put them in my car?”
She still had not looked at me. “That thing he plays looks like a drain pipe,” she said.
“Is it open?” I asked.
“I want to give him something elegant. He plays so well, don’t you think?”
I placed my cup firmly on the porcelain tiles of the center kitchen-island. It clanked and chipped at the base. Jean made no move.
“I’ll be back,” I said. I went out to the three-car garage. The side door was locked. I peered through a window. I saw the clubs in a bag propped against the wall next to his car.
“Muffin’s ready,” Jean called from the kitchen door.
Two toasted English-muffin halves were on a bread plate with preserves in a small matching bowl. My cracked cup had been replaced by a Styrofoam to-go cup, which I preferred anyway.
“Would you like orange juice?” she said. “I may have a grapefruit half.”
I declined. I took a bite of muffin.
“Maybe a few hundred dollars?” she asked. “To get things rolling?”
I paused. “This isn’t right,” I said.
“You’re his friend,” she said.
The air was tense. Rubin had probably spent the night consoling her.
“I’d like to present it to him at the annual symphony donors’ dinner next month,” she said. “He’s playing Mozart with a string quartet for the entertainment. You’ll be there, won’t you?”
I always attended this dinner, as she well knew. I sat on the symphony committee for marketing and promotions. She had appointed me, a social coup for me a few years back.
“We’ll be late,” I said, removing my racquet from her kitchen closet where I stored it between games.
She put the toaster into a cupboard and stacked the dishes in the sink.
“He’s down there fucking some bimbo,” she said without looking at me.
My thoughts scattered. “Do you know that?” I said. But from the first I seriously wondered who his bimbo was.
“I called the office, Carole. The plump receptionist with the frizzy hair? She’s gone too. ‘On vacation,’ they said.”
“That doesn’t mean she’s with Tim …” I said hesitantly. But I hoped it wasn't the receptionist. How tacky.
“Don’t be naive. She’s not his first,” she said. Of course, I didn’t look at her, afraid to know her true meaning.
The dishes clattered in the sink as she cleaned up.
“Can I count on you?” she asked. “For Rubin?”
“I’ll think about it,” I said.
Under stress, Jean defaulted to fundraising, her most accomplished skill. It was no surprise that raising money was her plan to snatch Rubin, and in two weeks she had more than fifteen hundred dollars. It was not enough but she would make up the difference. She could easily afford it, and she enjoyed seeming generous.
She asked me to go to New York to pick out the right instrument and with my still-present-but-waning interest in Rubin, I didn’t turn her down. Deep down I knew her leech-like attachment to Rubin in her moment of stress would not last.
The woodwind shop was on Thirty-ninth Street near Broadway.
“I’ve heard of Rubin,” the proprietor said, standing behind the counter and opening a purple, velvet-lined case. “This golden flute is handmade by Patronelli. Drawn tone holes with an offset G.”
It looked expensive … and ostentatious.
He handed the instrument to Jean who looked it over.
“Shouldn’t Rubin pick it out?” I asked.
“He can try it,” Jean said. “If it isn’t right, he can always exchange it.”
“Of course,” the proprietor said.
”It’s so personal. Maybe he wants another color,” I said, suddenly realizing there weren't many choices for the colors of flutes.
“I doubt this would not please any player at any level,” the proprietor said, obviously offended at my suggestion that flutes might be preferred by color.
“What’s the rush? Let him come here,” I argued to Jean. This gift had become her proclamation of her feminine attraction, intact and functioning.
“It’s a surprise for the Gala. He’s to be honored, Carole.” Jean said. “There needs to be a tangible object. It’s the way to raise money. Trust me.”
“Excuse us a moment,” I said to the proprietor and tugged on her arm until she reluctantly joined me on street.
“You can’t do this," I said. "He won’t refuse your gift but he loves his old flute. You can see it when he plays.”
I was getting red. “Give him a gift certificate or something.”
“That won’t do, Carole. This is part of the ceremony.”
I was turning ugly red, I was sure.
“You're too nosy,” Jean said, "Keep out of this." She returned inside, leaving me on the street and spoke to the proprietor who nodded. I left.
Two hours later I met her at her seamstress’s shop, where I knew she had her usual periodic appointment. The flute glittered in its velvet case, a gold-plated brass plate on the case cover with Rubin’s initials, resting on a chair for display while she discussed fabrics with the seamstress.
On the trip home, on the Thruway, I was silent. Jean enjoyed her conquest. My irritation mounted. Rubin was not glamorous enough for her. And he was poor. He was a temporary salve. I wondered if he would ever show an interest in me again. We’d had some good times together.
The next morning, when I arrived for tennis, Jean announced Consuela would take her place. She was no longer playing tennis.
The Armory was a relic from the early twentieth century, now listed on the historic register, and with vast open spaces once dedicated to military ceremonies. In the Grand Hall, I was assigned to one of the sixty-plus linen-draped tables at the left rear, a spot roughly determined by the average yearly totals of my donations to the symphony endowment as related to others, almost all more generous and capable donors than me. Rubin and four others sat around me amid hundreds of formally dressed “Friends of the Symphony.” The main course had been cleared and the dessert bowls were placed in front of us.
On a portable stage with a floor mike, Jean thanked us for our support. She glimmered in a sequined, off-the-shoulder, form-fitted dress. She spoke without notes, always confident in her achievements: philanthropist, revered socialite, incredible fundraiser, three perfectly-mothered difficult-to-manage children.
Jean had made the secrecy of Rubin’s gift my responsibility and when she gave me her signal, I weaved among the tables to hand her the golden flute that had been hidden in a decorative sideboard at the side of the hall.
I handed the flute up to her on the platform. She presented it to Rubin, who flushed when the weak applause quickly dissipated. I was pleased the patrons had not been overwhelmed with enthusiasm by the presentation. It was exactly the opposite of what Jean had thought it would be. Jean had succumbed to honoring Rubin as a way to heal her own wound by hogtying Rubin's ever-present devotion to her when she really didn't give a damn about him.
The guests were served desert wine. I followed Rubin into the green room where the quartet musicians and Jean waited. They congratulated Rubin. He handed the golden flute to me, then unpacked his old one.
“What are you doing?” Jean said.
Rubin stared at her.
“You have to use it,” she said. She was breathless. “People gave. You can’t disappoint.”
“I’ve never played it,” he said.
“Use your lip plate. You’ve played others like that.”
The musicians and I fell silent: we waited for him to refuse. But after many seconds, he nodded. “Of course, you’re right, Jean,” he said.
She smiled. The cellist glanced at the first violinist, but no one spoke. Rubin played a few notes, fidgeted with a key. His brow creased.
The musicians left for the stage. Jean went to the table for dignitaries, and I returned to my seat.
The music started. Even with a tin ear, I knew the essential unity was lost. The usual gazes of admiration in the audience shifted to uncomfortable glances. A few serious listeners walked out. I feared others were about to do the same when it was finally over. The spotty applause ended quickly and guests left.
I returned to the green room. Only the musicians and Jean were there. The snaps of latches on instrument cases were as sharp as rifle shots in the tense air.
“I’m sorry,” Rubin finally said.
“Nothing you could do,” said the first violinist.
The cellist touched Rubin’s arm. “Not your fault,” she said. “It wasn’t our night.”
Rubin left the room without looking at Jean or me, his lips in a tight line, carrying his coat and the golden flute. He’d forgotten his old flute and I picked up the case to give it to him when I next saw him.
Jean stiffened. “I’m not responsible,” she said.
The musicians stared.
“No one is blaming you,” I said.
“Of course not,” said the violist.
Jean left flushed with anger at her failure to evoke the sympathy she thought she deserved. I sat alone, silently, as the musicians dressed to go out in the cold.
I went out into the walkway that surrounded the main gallery, ready to go home. At the end of the corridor Jean stood motionless with her back to me. The golden flute lay deeply scratched and beat into bizarre angles on top of the metal radiator flush against the wall.
“They’ll never take that back,” she said with strange dispassion.
“He was humiliated,” I said.
“Ungrateful,” she said.
“If you cared for him,” I challenged, “you’d hurt for his pain.”
She paused. “You’re jealous.”
“You led him on, Jean.”
“He’s always wanted me, Carole. He didn’t love his Wanda. It wasn’t just the cancer that took her?”
Blaming Wanda's death on lack of affection was hard to believe.
Jean remained silent and rigid for a few seconds, and then she sighed. “I’m so sorry, Carole.” She was crying. I didn’t move. She wrapped her arms around me in a hug I didn’t return. “I need a friend,” she said. She let me go and stood back. “Don’t turn on me after all these years.”
I looked away. She was a stranger; she did not follow as I left her alone with Rubin’s destroyed golden flute.
The next day I made no attempt to talk to Jean and she didn’t call, but I worried about Rubin. He would not take the performance failure lightly. I could use the excuse to return his flute, which was still in my car, to see him. Just after noon I went to his modest bungalow in a declining neighborhood. He did not answer my knock. I tried the knob. It was unlocked.
He was lying on his back, in boxer shorts and a V-necked white undershirt, on a sofa in the living area. He looked half-dead.
His eyes snapped open to look at me. He focused. “What are you doing here?”
“Are you all right?”
He closed his eyes without changing his position.
I scanned the area for signs of whisky or beer, but saw nothing.
“Should I call a doctor?” I asked.
He still didn’t open his eyes. “You curious?" he said. "Or have you come to collect some compensation for that trashy gold flute?” His eyes were still closed but he was obviously thinking clearly. “Jean’s little lackey.”
“I came to see if you were okay!” I put his flute case on the coffee table. He didn't acknowledge the favor I had done.
“Why would you not expect me to be ‘okay,’ Carole? What am I missing here?” He sat up with his elbows on his knees, his head in his hands. “I’m sick of Jean. I don’t want to talk about it.” He smiled, “But I’m not suicidal.”
I flushed. He had no right to belittle my concern. “I don’t care now,” I said. “Die for all I care.”
“I’ve got a hacksaw under the couch. I’ll cut my head off. You’ll always carry my death on your conscience.” He laughed again.
“I came to help,” I said.
“Help with what?”
“Yesterday. I didn’t think it was right. What Jean did.”
“Jean is Jean.”
“She said you’ve always loved her.”
He paused and I waited.
“Typical. Jean thinks everyone is in love with her,” he said.
“She said you cared for her, not Wanda. That Wanda wasn’t cared for.”
“She died of cancer.”
“It’s obvious you’ve always loved Jean," I said, spiteful at his guarded responses. "Even at the party. And then at the concert, putting up with her demands.”
He stood, reached for his pants on the floor, and began to dress.
“You don’t deserve to know how I feel about her. What you did to her … with Tim.” He spoke with restrained anger.
“Right. Unfair. Her best friend.” He shook his head.
“Years ago,” I blurted out.
“Carole. No one respects you.”
“No one knew.”
“Everyone knew.” He slipped on a shirt with effort.
I was breathless. “Don’t trash me with your own guilt, Rubin.”
“Jean survived despite you. You and your fake guilts and meaningless regrets. You made her what she is, Carole. You made her feel worthless. She’s been trying to feel good about herself for years.”
“You’re an asshole.”
He sat now, fully dressed. He sighed. “I have loved Jean. And she’s needed me. She doesn’t love me, or anyone, but she did need me.”
“You’re sick,” I said.
“Go,” he said. He stretched his arms upward then lay down again, on his side, his face to the back of the sofa. “You’ll never be a Jean for me.”
“I don’t want to be.”
“Thank God you’ve cleared that up.”
How pathetic. This bulk of an old man.
“You’re insane,” I said.
“Go.” His voice muffled in the upholstery.
I stood, my heart pounding. He turned and belched with such force I could smell the sour acid.
“I won’t feel guilty about your suicide,” I said, pushing open the front door. “Don’t comfort yourself with that.”
“Slut,” he said.
“I am not a slut!”
When he didn’t answer, I backed out onto the porch. I imagined him smiling behind the closed door. I drove around aimlessly for more than an hour before going home.
That night, I was alone in bed but awake with the lights off. My red digital alarm displayed 10:14 in a steady glow.
Tim called. “You got the clubs?” he asked without a greeting.
“Not yet,” I said cautiously. “I saw them.”
“They would make my isolation more tolerable, Carole. I’ll give you the alarm code so you can get in when she’s not there.”
I hesitated. “What about your friend?”
A silence, short but significant. “Friend?”
“The receptionist, Tim. Jean knows. Everyone knows now. Please don’t deny it.”
“I didn’t run off for a woman, Carole. I left Jean.”
I weighed the possible truth for a few seconds. But I had never known him to lie to me.
“Sorry,” I said softly. “It’s the rumor.”
“Spread by her.”
“I don’t think it was only her.”
“Those clubs would make my life happier,” he said.
I stood up. Something in his voice moved me.
“Are you still there?” he asked.
I paused. Was this what I’d always wanted?
“I’ll bring them myself,” I said, almost as a question.
“A silence pervaded.
“Is that okay. My coming down?” I finally asked.
“You’re Jean’s best friend,” he said.
“Do you have room?” I asked.
He paused again for what seemed like an eon. “Of course,” he said.