New Voices: “The Unattended Moment” by Marcia Peck

May 20, 2024

“Lies come in many forms, some very easy to detect,” begins this excerpt from Marcia Peck’s novel-in-progress, The Unattended Moment. In this chapter, Ellie, a cellist in the Minneapolis Orchestra, is in the midst of a tumultuous summer. Her daughter is preparing to leave for college; she is keeping secrets from her husband, who may be keeping similar secrets from her; and perhaps worst of all, her prized cello has been stolen. Ellie’s whole future seems to depend on the choices she makes—or doesn’t make—in this promising excerpt from Marcia Peck.


June 2000

Lies come in many forms, some very easy to detect, Ellie thought after she had checked in and was seated on the plane back to Minnesota. When she was eight or nine or ten, if her father asked, “Have you done your practicing yet?” it was easy to lie. “Yes,” she would say if she had reason to believe he couldn’t know for sure.

It was harder to fool her mother. Her mother was always able to see through her, as if her falsehoods were as sheer as tulle or organza. Her mother was never guilty of a mistake other parents made; she made a point never to try to catch Ellie in a lie. She never backed Ellie into a corner, forcing her to perjure herself further, never asked, Then why is your cello still in the same position by the back door as when I left? or Mrs. Del Tredici next door says she didn’t hear you. If queried by her father, Ellie could have answered blithely, “I put it back just the way it was,” or “She had her radio on.” Obvious little fibs, meant not so much to deceive as to enable him to drop the subject, the easier, less contentious path. But Ellie’s mother, while she would also choose not to argue, had a way of letting the lie wrinkle and bunch in plain sight between them before letting it drop, her silence turning the lie back on Ellie so that Ellie knew deep down that it was no longer about whether or not she had practiced, but about whether or not she was an upstanding girl, or thought her mother deserved to be duped.

The theft of her cello was a lie in a way, Ellie thought. Taking something that wasn’t yours. For the first time she felt some understanding for her thief—by now she thought of him as her thief—because now she had a secret of her own, which by her silence would turn into a lie, and the strength of her desire not to be discovered seemed an indicator of the magnitude of the lie. Ellie talked herself into casting her lie in a kinder light. Why upset Grady when it was a simple mistake? An echo from her earlier life. She had already promised herself it wouldn’t happen again. She knew she shouldn’t make excuses, but Grady had been so little help, had hardly even tried to understand in the many months since her cello was stolen. She had found momentary comfort in the arms of an old friend. But now this was the end of it. She did wish she could get some closure, one more moment with Hugo to understand what had happened, to understand what he thought had happened. But she couldn’t honestly say what good that would do. She would still be in limbo, waiting for her cello to turn up, waiting for May to leave for college, waiting to see what that void would feel like.

The truth was that Ellie, already on the flight home, was beginning to feel the weight of her secret. She was beginning to realize that burrowed into every conversation, into every argument, into every declaration of love or frustration would remain hidden this noxious thing. She wished she could tell Grady. She wished there were nothing to tell.

* * *

But perhaps he had a secret of his own. He seemed preoccupied when he picked Ellie up at the airport on his way home from Chicago, more interested in having timed the four hundred mile drive accurately than with the fruitfulness of their respective trips. She asked if it was good to see Charlie, the tuba player with whom Grady had said he would stay. Fished for any indication Lisa had been there. Lisa, the pretty new violinist who kept calling to ask Grady about a ride to the Windy City.

“Charlie’s good,” said Grady, which wasn’t exactly what she had asked.

“But you didn’t find a horn you liked?”

Grady drained the last of the coffee in his thermos. The daffodils were almost gone by, but lilacs were in bloom in the yards alongside the freeway, a good two weeks behind Philadelphia. He looked tired.

“Nothing better than what I’ve got.” But he was planning another trip to Chicago, this time to play for Jacob Arnolds at the university. Every brass player in the country went to Arnolds when they needed help.

“You mean, like a lesson?”

“Not like a lesson. A lesson. Why?”

“I don’t know. You’ve never done that before.” Playing for someone made you examine what you were doing, helped to identify bad habits. It refreshed your thinking. Lots of people did it. But never Grady. Even after a stumble like the one that night on the Dvorák, he’d be more likely to buckle down and try to work it out himself.

“Ellie, I’ve spent all year worrying about you. It’s time I did something for myself.”

Later, Ellie dialed Yumi in New York.

“Grady? No way!” said Yumi. Ellie didn’t divulge her own offense. “I know Grady. He wouldn’t cheat. Not if Brigitte Bardot begged him.”

Only Yumi, Ellie thought fondly, thought Brigette Bardot was still a sex kitten.

Ellie decided to forget about Lisa. She hated feeling suspicious and yet at the same time almost—only almost—wished Grady was having a little fling with Lisa. That would make them even. They could forgive each other, chalk it up to a bad year, and put it behind them.

* * *

After Grady left for rehearsal the next morning, Ellie took Hugo’s Grancino from its case, tightened the horsehair on the bow, and tuned the open strings. She had tried to explain to Grady that this cello of Hugo’s was on loan. It was not a sign that she had given up hope of finding her own. Hugo didn’t need an answer until September.

“So, what if you don’t like it? And you don’t find yours?” he had asked. Asked unfairly, knowing as he did that she didn’t know the answer.

She began with C Major, building the scale slowly, no vibrato, trying only to sense the contact of the bow on the string so that she could focus on the naked sound. She had so far to go. But she had a plan: each day a new scale until she had made her way through the circle of fifths with all relative minors. Each day she would concentrate on another aspect of the fundamentals: intonation, vibrato, and tone production until she was ready to tackle bow strokes—spiccato, staccato, martelé—and pick up speed.

Going back to basics reminded her of her mother. Her mother driving her to her lessons or calling from the kitchen to turn off the TV, time to practice. Her mother seated on the piano stool, waiting while Ellie dallied, fidgeted, or fumbled with her music books. Her mother, now and then glancing at the music stand to check notes; the occasional, Isn’t that an F sharp? Or, You can get that smoother, or, Now up to tempo.

Ellie used to want to quantify her progress in metrics, either in minutes or repetitions. It came as a shock when her mother invalidated those targets. “You must listen,” she said. “Don’t keep blindly repeating the same mistake. Once right beats a hundred times wrong. Find the hard spot. Figure out what makes it hard. In a whole page of sixteenths it might only be the space between two notes. Practice that.

Evenings, after Ellie had finished her practicing, her mother would sit at the piano, often well into the night. Bach was her man. Not the monumental organ works but the human-scaled masterpieces: the Inventions, the Partitas, the Goldberg Variations. And Schubert. She always circled back to Schubert. Ellie now suspected music was the one thing that had provided her mother with daily proof of the world’s beauty and a sense of personal competence, something Ellie had found missing in herself ever since last September.

She worked on long tones, willing each finger to regain strength. Her right arm gradually remembered the physics behind the production of an even tone throughout the length of the bow whose every inch possessed different properties.

At the end of the first week, when her fingers were too raw to continue to practice, she dug out an old lamb recipe from the days when she used to cook, uncorked a bottle of red, and applied a little mascara and blush. As if in acknowledgement that she was making an effort, Grady reached for her when they got into bed that night, and Ellie was relieved that despite all the complications their minds could invent and despite all the impediments their feelings could impose, their bodies had simple desires and knew how to fulfill them. They had good sex, very good sex, without any preamble or afterword. There was an intensity to Grady’s concentration, an absorption he gave to each part of her body that Ellie found both riveting and a little frightening. This time it felt less furtive than their recent middle-of-the-night episodes, and afterward, when Grady was withdrawing to his side of the bed, Ellie held him in one long, extra, unscripted embrace, grateful he had not insisted she must come to a decision about the cello.

Hugo said he could wait until September. If Ellie didn’t want the cello, he’d post it at Curtis or on orchestra bulletin boards around the country and get the word out. It was actually a good thing to have her playing it after such an extensive restoration—it would help it to settle.

It was now the end of June, and in fact Ellie had very little of the insurance money left. She had accepted Herb Lund’s settlement with the understanding that if her Grancino turned up, she could keep the cello and return the money. Herb Lund intimated that with an appropriate amount of interest, that bargain could stand for quite some time. But little by little over the year she had whittled away at the insurance money to compensate for her lack of a paycheck. While Hugo would allow her to make payments over time (and for payments over time in any amount she would have to go back to work), she still could not bring herself to purchase an instrument that was not her own. It seemed a betrayal on a scale equal to sleeping with Hugo.

* * *

The letter from the orchestra arrived at the beginning of July. It stated cordially and firmly that they would need a decision by Labor Day.

Still, Ellie couldn’t bring herself to commit to Hugo’s cello.

She spent July avoiding the decision by observing Grady more carefully than she had in twenty years. She tracked his expressions, reactions, his tics and tone of voice, the way he could not boil an egg without asking how much water or how many minutes. The little tremor in his hand as he held the saucepan under the faucet, the way he bit his tongue as he measured the water. Little irritations that had become endearments over the years became dearer than ever now, when she contemplated losing his trust or losing him over Hugo.

Grady continued to practice long hours even though that particular summer season didn’t present unusual challenges. He let the yard work go. She noticed he had changed his warm-up. He had been doing the same warm-up since they met; Ellie could have sung it in her sleep. This one took longer. It seemed a slower, more thorough workout, one that navigated the horn through a variety of twists and turns that couldn’t be accomplished without extreme attention.

May, who had rejected Ellie’s help while applying to college, now needed her input on everything: how many sheets and towels she would need, which comforter to order, how large a trunk to ship, how to set up her petty-cash account. Ellie put together an emergency kit with needle and thread, cold medicines, aspirin, Band-Aids, ointments and remedies for everything from athlete’s foot to zipper repair. They went to the mall together and bought enough underwear for a small army. They spent more time together than they had in ages, and May seemed strangely grateful.

Ellie insisted she wanted to splurge on a pair of jeans for May, one dynamite pair that made her feel like a million bucks. She sat on the stool outside the dressing room while May tried on dozens, each of which looked fabulous to Ellie, but each of which in May’s eyes had some disastrous flaw.

“Too high-waisted!”

“Just look at the pockets!”

“The crotch hits me here!”

May’s first pair of jeans—she must have been six or seven—came from the kids’ clothing exchange. Stiff, shapeless, and so big on May’s scrawny hips that she had to keep them up with a belt, which she buckled with adamant precision in the same predetermined hole every day for a year. Ellie wondered what ever happened to those jeans. She would have kept attics full of May’s old clothes if Grady hadn’t insisted they cull the keepsakes. Grady had a sweet sentimentality all his own: His favorite gift was an original poem, no matter how corny, and the right thirty-second ad could move him to tears. He just wasn’t attached to material things. In fact the more he liked something, the more likely he was to give it away, a quality Ellie found both baffling and admirable.

May decided on a brand Ellie vaguely recognized from the magazines at the grocery-store checkout line. “These are great,” May said as she modeled them for Ellie and the size-zero salesgirl, turning to view her butt in the three-way mirror. “Aren’t they great?” Her hands fluttered at her thighs in an imitation fashion-shoot sort of way, one heel cocked to achieve a flattering angle, and Ellie saw that what she had known all along must now be obvious to everyone: May was beautiful. “But are you sure, Mama? They’re so expensive.”

“Not when you figure you’ll wear them every single day,” said Ellie. Not when you factored in the happiness on May’s face.

* * *

By August Ellie felt ready to add some Bach to her practice regime. She had worked her way through the standard étude books: Dotzauer, Duport, Sevcík, Popper. Grady was hoping to limp their air conditioner through another year, and so Ellie drank pitchers of iced tea and left droplets of sweat on the fingerboard as she practiced with the window open in the spare bedroom upstairs that she used as a studio.

Thoughts of Hugo filtered tantalizingly through her practice hours. It was hard not to think about him when she knew it was due to his efforts that she was playing at all. She wondered if he thought about her. “I’ll leave it in your hands,” he had said when he put her on the plane back to Minneapolis. “I’ll leave it up to you to call. I’ll be here.” She wanted to call. She wanted to know if that night caused him as much pleasure and pain as it was causing her. Probably not, she decided. For him it would not have been the momentous event it was for her—he was divorced. She resisted calling. And she was both disappointed and relieved that he hadn’t tried to get in touch. She willed him from her thoughts, and sometimes succeeded. But he was always there when she practiced.

She worked hard to learn her way around this cello, to tease out its qualities, both good and bad. She dug out her dog-eared volume of unaccompanied Bach, the French edition with the hard-to-decipher notation on the partially disintegrated paper, and opened to the G Major Suite. It took her a week before she could play the sixteenths evenly, another week before she could begin to phrase. But as she worked she made an unexpected discovery. She had played the same cello for so long that it came as a surprise to her that not every defect in her playing was due solely to her own shortcomings. Even though she was still learning how to manage this cello’s idiosyncrasies, some things were actually easier. She was better able to negotiate Bach’s cussed string crossings; a muddiness in her lower register disappeared; the intervals as she moved up the neck better fit her hand. The robust D string had a strength missing in the majority of instruments. And the slight but unusual narrowing of the shoulders allowed Ellie to shift more comfortably over that trouble spot between fifth and thumb positions.

Not everything was easier. She had to learn how to tap the cello’s power, release its sweetness, push its dynamic range. She adjusted her fingerings; experimented with bow pressure, speed, placement. And this cello rewarded her efforts. By the middle of August her Bach began to dance.

And then it was time for May to leave.

* * *

They took two days to drive to New York. Grady discovered too late that the Toyota’s air conditioner must have needed more than the simple shot of Freon he had given it, so they sweltered with the windows open, the noise of the trucks even more blistering than the heat. The highway numbers looked like tempo markings: 94 (Allegro), 90 (Moderato), 80 (Andante).

The drive reminded Ellie of their many trips to Idaho. During one of those long hauls across South Dakota, she had come out of a truck stop bathroom to find May—she must have been four or five—in a sea of Harley Davidsons, talking to one of the menacing, black-leathered, sweaty, sunburnt drivers. May was wearing that pink cotton sundress with the bathing suit she wouldn’t take off, her hair was in two lopsided pigtails, and Ellie, horrified, rushed over in time to hear her say in her sweet, child’s voice, “That’s a nice motorcycle, mister.” And the man who looked like a convict but was probably a stockbroker or a dentist said, “Why, thank you, little girl.”

Ellie had loved those drives, the whole production. She used to pack a cooler full of sandwiches, Raffi songs for May, something to occupy her hands while Grady drove, a now long-abandoned knitting project that had seemed important at the time. They would listen to Arlo Guthrie, Ian Tyson, Quartetto Gelato, friends of Grady’s from his Montreal days. Grady filled the miles with talk: speculation about the future of orchestra contracts, why John Adams’s music wouldn’t have staying power, the flaws inherent in capitalism, stories about working at the bike shop when he was a kid, ideas for inventions he’d never pursue, and gossip, lots of gossip, like which conductors had tried to get into whose pants.

He did imitations. “Who’s this?” he would ask, scrunching up his face into a sneer and adopting a chalky voice. “Hey, you. Yeah, you. Take a walk, see?”

“I give up.”

“Don’t give up. Here it is again.”

“No, I give up. Really.”

“James Cagney! Can’t you even get James Cagney?”

It was funny: now that Ellie was trying to force herself to think about going back to work, Grady had stopped asking her about it. He had stopped nagging, stopped joking, stopped teasing, stopped reminiscing, stopped pressing her to be herself again. For the entire two days to New York he was upbeat, even cheerful, cross-examining May on what she was most excited about, most scared of, what would be the biggest surprise.

May played along until the last question. “How should I know,” she said. “It’s a surprise.

They stayed at her sister Dodie’s; Dodie was away doing a project in South America. Ellie woke first the next morning and tried to dress without waking Grady.

“You getting up already?”

“Go back to sleep.”

“Come ‘ere. Couldn’t you sleep?”

“It’s okay. I’ll go for bagels.”

Ellie slipped out of the house and walked the three blocks to the bagel shop. It was one of those beautiful late-summer mornings, not too hot, with a faint breeze off the Hudson carrying the scent of gasoline and roses and the sound of a Metro North train clacking by on its way into the city. Come ‘ere, Grady had said in the voice he used to use before any of this happened, when she must have been easier to love. Couldn’t you sleep? It touched Ellie that he sounded so kind this morning. Because whatever Grady knew or suspected, whatever he held against her about the cello, whatever this Chicago business was about, she knew he understood that they were giving up their May today. Their threesome would never be the same threesome again. And Ellie already knew that the world May had picked, the world they would soon relinquish her into, would seem irreconcilably large and indifferent to Ellie. May, May would do fine. And they would always be her parents. But Ellie would go home and sense May’s absence, May not on the sofa doing her homework, not talking on the phone, not standing in front of the fridge. When Ellie next stopped to listen outside May’s door on her way to bed, she wouldn’t hear her gentle breathing.

At the cramped, steamy bagel place, with barely enough room to shut the screen door behind her as she took her place in the disorderly line, faced with the prospect of having to choose from seventeen kinds of bagels, not even counting bialys, Ellie stepped to the counter when it was her turn, stammered, and twisted the clasp of her wallet while the line behind her pressed ever closer. She scanned the trays yet again hoping for guidance, prodding herself to order something, anything, but drew an absolute blank as the stout woman behind the glass case said, “What’ll it be?” for the third time in ever more exasperated tones while a man who must have been her husband rang up a stream of orders for other, more obliging customers. This was to be their last breakfast; it had to be right. Ellie felt her eyes sting and blur. She attempted to speak just as the person behind her jostled his way forward to take a number from the spool that until that moment had gone unnoticed, and the clasp on Ellie’s wallet clicked open spilling and scattering the contents of her change purse, a fistful of quarters she was sure they would need for parking in the city, across the floor. The space was so small there was hardly room to stoop to pick up the coins and before Ellie could do so, the heel of her hand went to her face in a fruitless effort to staunch the tears that were now boiling freely down her cheeks. Ellie, whose entire attention it took to prevent an audible sob from escaping into the crowd, sensed a sudden collaboration as the other customers squatted to collect her change, acting as a unit, passing the money from hand to hand, looking to see that it was all there.

The stout woman’s husband abandoned his post at the cash register to ask Ellie, “So. Was that a dozen then for you? That way you get one free,” in the gentlest possible voice, as if he were talking to someone either very, very young or very, very old, and Ellie nodded because she could not speak.

“I’ll pack you a nice assortment.”

Ellie held out the pile of change that had been placed in her hand by strangers.

“That’s okay. You can pay me tomorrow.”

She tried to compose herself enough to say two words, thank you, and wondered what sadness in these people’s lives made them so attuned to the sadness in hers. She turned, and the customers made a space for her to stumble to the door, carrying two bags of bagels, one sweet, one savory, and the worry that she didn’t know how to solve the difficult problem of paying, since she wouldn’t be here tomorrow.

Tears burned her eyes the three blocks back to Dodie’s despite her determination to get a grip before May could see her. She cried again when she discovered the bags contained all their favorites: Poppy Seed, Cinnamon Raisin, Everything. And again when they met May’s roommate, who didn’t seem stuck up at all. And aware that her tears only made things harder for May, determined to keep their good-byes cheery, she stood by the car on 116th Street, and cried yet again when she saw May’s chin begin to quiver.

Grady shed some tears too—although the necessity to take out his handkerchief seemed to embarrass him—and as they crossed the George Washington Bridge Ellie was certain that they shared this loss, eighteen years in the making, even while they knew it was their greatest success. But by the time they were through New Jersey, Grady had dried his tears, had stopped squeezing Ellie’s knee sympathetically. By Indiana he had begun to cast sidelong glances at her, observing, taking the temperature of her mood, glances that Ellie felt were a sign that he was impatient for her to move on.

“So,” he asked finally while passing a produce truck outside Tomah, Wisconsin. “So, here we are entering a new phase. I’ve been thinking, will I be enough for you?”

Warning signals went off in Ellie’s head. “What do you mean?” She had never thought of herself as someone subject to “phases.”

“I mean, am I going to be enough for you? Now that it’s just the two of us.”

Ellie’s breathing slowed, stopped, resumed at a crawl. The question sounded ominous, asked in a way that did not seem a prelude to the sharing of confidences. She wondered if hidden in that sentence was some reference to Hugo. Or to the beautiful, talented Lisa. It wasn’t a suggestion that now they might have the luxury to do more things together, say, go out to dinner or take walks, redo a room, that they might return to a more romantic time in their relationship, before May was born. It was more of a challenge, as if he already had a complaint about her future behavior.

“Of course you’re enough for me,” she answered dutifully, even though she was oddly unsure that was the answer he was looking for.

Grady went on to spell out some grievances he had been harboring. With May away at school, now was a good time to take stock, make changes. He wanted to eat dinner together, he wanted to get rid of the clutter in the house, he wanted Ellie to help train the knuckle-headed new dog, acquired after Bramble died. “And I want you to come back to work. You’re a better person when you’re working.”

By the time they crossed into Minnesota, Grady insisted he had really said happier person, and Ellie agreed to go back to the orchestra when the new season began right after Labor Day. She would call Hugo in the morning and tell him she wanted to keep the cello. But the decision left her feeling let down. She had expected this to be a joyous turning point, when her life would finally once again be back on track. Not this painstaking bargain.

Grady seemed satisfied, if not jubilant. And in this cautious accord Ellie thought she had guessed what this negotiation was really about: Grady was really asking if Ellie was enough for him. 

* * *

Back in Minnesota, late August seemed to have spent itself, exhausted by exertions of summer. Foliage hung limp with heat and humidity, while the lawns had dried up from lack of rain. Even from the outside, the house looked emptier when they drove in the driveway. Ellie went next door to pick up the dog from the neighbor’s. Popcorn raced into the house, searched every room, and barked accusingly at Ellie as if to say, “What have you done with May?”

She called the personnel manager first. “This is great news,” he said. “Wow. A little bit of a surprise. But, no, I had a feeling. I’ve got subs lined up but it’ll work. We’ll make it work. Tell me, I’m afraid to ask. They still haven’t found your cello? No, I thought I would have heard something. Well, I’m not giving up hope.”

The call to Hugo required more care. She must have fingered the slip of paper with the number in his handwriting a hundred times, but hadn’t called. Since she had seen him in June, she had caught herself daydreaming at odd moments, pointlessly imagining what life might have been like had she married him. How many children they might have had, what she’d be doing now. She confused the conscientious Hugo of today with the audacious, charismatic Hugo of their schooldays who had swept her off her insecure feet. And she confused both Hugos with Grady, who had always seemed so dependable, but now had demands that came out sounding hypercritical and disapproving. This much was clear: it had been for the best that Hugo had dumped her for Eunice. She had had to grow into a self of her own to get over feeling beneath him.

She knew that every time she revisited the night with Hugo in Philadelphia, the memory multiplied her sin. But she couldn’t stop herself from reliving it—the feel of him next to her. And she experienced an inward loss when she saw that, with the passage of time, the intensity of the memory—that overwhelming, exhilarating, charged memory—was fading.

Grady watched her dial. He ground coffee beans, filled the coffeemaker with water, clicked the Start button, checking her assiduously neutral face over his shoulder every few seconds. He turned when she said, “Hugo, it’s Ellie.” With all the narcissism of the guilty, Ellie assumed he was monitoring her expression, her posture, the movement of her hands, her breathing, for whatever revelations could be gleaned from them while the coffeepot hissed and burbled behind him.

She had meant to hold Grady’s eye, to anchor herself to him. She had meant to complete her business with Hugo in short, dispassionate order, no matter if it left Hugo guessing about her feelings.

But Hugo changed the course of things.

He began to speak, and Ellie listened. Within seconds she forgot the microscope of Grady’s curiosity. She forgot to regulate the degree of excitement in her voice. She sensed that the incoherent little gulps and gasps she emitted in response to what Hugo was saying must have sounded identical, whether they expressed hope or fear.

“So, what was that all about?” Grady asked when she placed the phone slowly back on its cradle and stared at it in disbelief.

“There’s this cello… It could be mine…” She plowed breathlessly into the story and Grady had to tell her to back up, start again, slowly, because it was getting all jumbled in her disjointed, headlong rush to repeat what Hugo had said.

A cello coming into Italy had caught the eye of an experienced Italian customs official.

“What customs? Border crossing? Airport?”

“I don’t know. Airport, I think.”

“Which airport?”

“Grady, I don’t know!” The cello was in the possession of a young man who matched the description of both the usher in Minneapolis who had vanished right after Ellie’s cello was stolen and the guy on the Lincoln Center security-camera footage. The young man’s name was Anthony Lavazza. Practically a kid. Said he bought the cello at an outdoor market in Paris. Paid cash, so there was no record of the transaction.

“You mean there was no transaction,” said Grady. “No outdoor market in Paris.”

He cleared customs before the inspector decided to act on a hunch and notified the Italian authorities of his suspicion. You don’t pay cash at a flea market for a cello that old and of that obvious quality. Even if you know what you’re doing. It just didn’t happen anymore. The inspector had made a note of the name. He had an address.

Insurers with a stake in rare stolen works of art tracked leads with dogged persistence. It didn’t take long for the news to reach Allied Insurance. Herb Lund called René Morel in New York to find out who in Italy could track down the cello. René called Hugo last night.

“Why Hugo? There’s no one in Italy?”

“I don’t know. He knows the cello, speaks Italian. He’s available.” And Morel would have remembered that Hugo had a personal interest in it, Ellie speculated to herself. “Hugo’s offered to fly to Milan.”

“Go on.”

The young man had no papers for the cello, obviously. But his was a reputable family; violinmakers for generations. Hugo hadn’t wanted to alert Ellie when it was such a long shot, but then she called.

“So who has the cello now?” asked Grady.

“Apparently this Anthony Lavazza has it. Somewhere near Milan. He swears it’s his. Who knows? Maybe it is.”

“So, is it a Grancino or not?”

“There’s no label inside.”

“I thought they have all sorts of ways to identify an instrument. I thought the label was the least important thing.”

“But mine has a label.”

Grady thought for a minute. He had been all business until now. “Labels can be removed.”

“True, but…”

“You should go,” he said suddenly. “When’s he going?”


“Tell him to stay home. You go.”

Ellie’s mind had been racing, to be sure, but it hadn’t yet raced to that conclusion. Face down her thief? Her? “Grady, I can’t go. I don’t even speak Italian. Besides, we can’t afford it.”

“Use my miles. I know you, Ellie. You’re not going to take anyone’s word for it. Not even Hugo’s.”

He did know her. If Ellie ever wanted to be able to put the loss of her cello behind her, if she didn’t want her sleep to be haunted, if she didn’t want to live with regret for things left undone, she needed to see this cello for herself. But ten months—was it that long already?—had sapped her energy. She felt geared in slow motion, like running in a dream. Her thinking felt sticky and labored. Where would she even start? The thought of booking a ticket, packing a bag, dealing with Italian customs or police (carabinieri: wasn’t that what they were called?) who probably didn’t speak English, tracking down a cello that, unlike hers, didn’t even have a label, and seizing it from a man who claimed it was his in a city as vast as she assumed Milan to be: it was all so daunting.

If it was her cello, there would be legal work.

Grady said that was what insurance companies were for.

And if it was not her cello, what then?

Then she’d be no worse off than she was now.

“Come with me,” she said, surprising herself. How simple it would be if Grady could help her. If Grady would help her.

Grady looked momentarily taken aback, as if the possibility she might suggest this had not occurred to him and he was caught without a ready explanation for his reluctance to do so. “No,” he said tentatively. “No,” now more decisively. “Ellie, I’ve got too much coming up.”

“You can’t take a few days?”

A pain crossed his face, one she didn’t recognize. “No. No, I can’t. You know what the season looks like. I’ve got to be in shape.”

It was so unlike him to worry about upcoming repertoire. He was the kind of self-assured player who took things in stride. And she was trying not to listen to the voice in the back of her mind, the fiendish little voice that was saying, “You can go with Hugo.” It was perfect. Nothing illicit. Hugo knew his way around Europe, could provide his professional opinion. A few days in Italy. With Hugo. Someone who made her feel…liked.

“I’ve got to keep my lip up. Besides, I need to get in one more trip to Chicago before the season starts.”

“Chicago?” The orchestra was on vacation. Lisa was on vacation.

“Come on, Ellie. You knew that.”

“No, I didn’t.”

“Look, if what’s-his-name…”

“Hugo,” said Ellie, enunciating with sudden firmness.

“If Hugo is going, meet him there. Go get your cello, Ellie.”

Marcia Peck’s debut novel,
WATER MUSIC: A Cape Cod Story, runner-up for the Faulkner-Wisdom Novel-in-Progress award, was released in 2023 by Sea Crow Press. 

Marcia’s award-winning fiction has appeared in New Millennium Writings, Chautauqua Journal, Gemini Magazine, Glimmer Train, 26 Minnesota Writers (Nodine Press), Tribute to Orpheus 2 (Kearney Books), three volumes of Open to Interpretation: Fading Light (Taylor and O’Neill), A Sense of Place: Cape Women Writers, among others. Her flash fiction, “Long Distance,” was nominated for a Pushcart Prize.

Essays have appeared in Showcase: the Magazine of the Minnesota Orchestra, Strad Magazine, Strings Magazine, the Minneapolis Star Tribune, and Musical America

Before joining the cello section of the Minnesota Orchestra, Marcia studied cello at the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia and Schumann Konservatorium in Düsseldorf. Her life in music has inspired her to look for the rhythms and sounds of music echoed in language. 

Marcia’s current novel-in-progress, The Unattended Moment, was a finalist for the Faulkner-Wisdom Novel-in-Progress award. 


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