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Toothbrush Symphony

by Bob Brill

Dedicated to the memory of Ken Mullin

As I sat in the concert hall listening to the music, I noticed that the conductor was directing the orchestra with a toothbrush. I could have sworn he’d begun the concert waving a long slender baton. Then I saw that one of the violinists, dressed in a nightgown, was holding a baby in her arms, feeding it from a bottle. The rest of the musicians were in formal dress, the men in tuxedoes and the women in long black gowns. But when one of the trumpeters stood to take a short solo, he was wearing long winter underwear.

I turned to my wife and started to ask what she made of it, but she shushed me. Apparently she was engrossed in the music. Her eyes were closed. When I looked back at the performers, laundry was hanging across the whole width of the stage on a clothesline stretched between the harp and the farthest double bass. I looked around at the audience, but no one showed any sign that something peculiar was happening. The kettledrum had turned into a sink, and the percussionist was shaving. He was still wearing his black trousers, but his suspenders hung from his waist, and his hairy chest was covered only by his undershirt.

Everywhere I looked the performers were ironing clothes, making beds, sweeping floors, preparing food, brushing their teeth. I couldn’t understand how the music could continue without a hitch, but continue it did. In fact, it was growing in intensity. I saw the violinist set down her baby in a woven basket, pick up her fiddle and join the passionate crescendo that was building. Then, her part done for the moment, she picked up her baby and resumed the feeding. The musicians moved dexterously from musical performance to household tasks and back again with no loss of continuity.

While I was totally perplexed by what I was witnessing, I was carried away by the glory of the music, which reached a pitch of passionate intensity that surpassed anything I had ever heard. When the end came, the audience leaped to its feet, myself included, and gave vent to a great standing ovation. The conductor turned to the audience and bowed. He was now dressed in pajamas and bathrobe, the toothbrush dangling from his hand. Not a soul on stage remained in formal wear. As I looked around the audience I saw that it was the same with us. I discovered that I myself was wearing an old frayed T-shirt, jeans and sandals. My wife was wearing her gardening overalls and a pair of old sneakers.

For some time now the ceaseless atrocities of the front page had soured me on the human race. There were days when I was ashamed to be a member of the species. Yet here before me was a crew of motley ragamuffins, slaves to coffee and toothpaste, tied to the wheel of life with all its anguish and sorrow, who somehow pulled themselves together long enough to take us on a transcendent flight of the spirit. It was not just for the glorious music that I applauded, but for the miracle that mere humans could bring such ecstasy into being.

When the applause finally quieted and we took our seats, I saw that the conductor once again wore tails and held his long elegant baton. We were all once more dressed in our finery. The epiphany was over, and daily life had already resumed. As we slowly filed out of the hall, I was thinking of tomorrow’s meeting when my bosses would disclose their decisions about staff reduction.

First published in A Flasher’s Dozen (Spring 2006)

Copyright © 2006 by Bob Brill

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