The Violinist

by Emily St. John Mandel

Imaginary Oklahoma is an ongoing project in which some of today’s most important and influential writers combine with artists to provide a fictional take on this place we call home. Through a wide variety of voices, styles and literary devices, these works prove that “Oklahoma” is much more than a place, it’s an idea.

They move with inhuman speed, the commuters, and it took me some time to get used to this. I myself am not a fast man.

            “That’s because you’re eighty-three,” my brother-in-law Joachim says on the phone. I’ve yet to explain to his satisfaction why I sold my farm and moved to the city. His sister, my wife, has been dead for two years.

            “Eighty-two,” I say. He knows how old I am. We’ve known one another since we were both seventeen. “And I don’t think I was ever fast.”

            I lived all my life on a farm and by the time I was old enough to have a farm of my own, small-scale farming had become mostly a matter of watching. You watch the robots move over the fields. You tinker with their settings sometimes but they’re well-made, they adjust themselves mostly, they don’t need you for much. You play your violin in the field just to keep yourself occupied. In the distance the airships rise with the speed of fireflies, but they’re faster up close: now when I play my violin at the airship terminal they ascend so quickly that it’s as if they’re falling upward, gravity reversed.

            I play Beethoven and watch the commuters, blank-faced between their earbuds, rushing to their gates. They glance at me sometimes, toss coins in my violin case. I thank them, try to make eye contact. I watch their ships carry them up into the early morning, to jobs in Los Angeles, Boston, New York. I think of their souls moving fast through the morning sky.

            When my wife died I kept up the farm for another year and then thought, to hell with it. I felt that without her I might disappear into thin air, out there by myself. Just me and the dog and the farm robots, day after day. All that empty space. At night I sat on the porch with my dog, avoiding the silent house. Playing the game kids play, where you squint at the moon and half-convince yourself that you can see the brighter spots of the colonies on its surface. Distant over the fields, the lights of the city, and I realized I’d been longing for those lights all my life.

            “I’ll take you with me,” I said to my dog, Odie, who doesn’t know he was named after a much dumber dog from a comic strip my grandparents read, and he wagged his tail.

            “Oklahoma City,” Joachim said, when I called him that night. “John, brother, you’ll get swallowed alive there.”

            But I wasn’t. I’ve been thinking about time and motion lately, about being a still point in the ceaseless rush. I walk my dog through these streets and play my violin in the airship terminal, happy in a way I can’t explain, and I don’t need the coins tossed into the case but it’s a comfort in this seething crowd to be seen.