The Symphony Next Door

It’s Thursday morning and Travis and Mark are at it again like champions. I can hear them through the wall of my dining room as I sit and watch my overheated cup of peppermint tea cool. I always make it too weak, so that it tastes like grass clippings floating in a rain puddle, or too strong, so that I feel like I am chewing on a pine bough. The row next door begins with Travis knocking sharply on Mark’s door like a conductor calling his drowsing orchestra to attention.

The opening overture is a familiar one, reminiscent of Tchaikovsky; that is, if Tchaikovsky had decided to orchestrate arguments about rent instead of stories about listless princes who had nothing better to do besides sit woodenly beneath Christmas trees and chew away at walnut shells. The theme is beautiful in its simplicity, memorable enough that I can hum along from my rickety chair in my forget-me-not blue kitchen. Travis wants the rent. Mark doesn’t have it.

Next comes the first solo: Travis, in a stunning monologue about responsibility and property damage and smoking indoors. I recline back in my chair, enjoying the lively, crisp tones of his barely-controlled outrage. Then Mark enters into the melody, his own slow, sweet molasses voice crooning like a bassoon that his boss still hasn’t paid him, and the smoke Travis smells must be from the candles he had just been burning. He was having a morning vigil to honor the death of Kurt Cobain.

The theme builds in complexity as Travis launches into a new refrain about last month’s fire, which nearly burned down the entire building. Mark interjects with staccato precision that the fire in question was all Jameson from 6A’s fault. How was he to blame if Jameson decided to light off fifteen strands of Chinese firecrackers in his bathtub? If he had realized how drunken Jameson was, he never would have sold the firecrackers to him.

There is a quarter-note rest as both men take a breath. I test my still-steaming cup of tea and get a burned lip for my trouble. On the other side of the wall, Mark is surprisingly the one to seize the melody, singing out a complicated motif of criminally high rent, drafty windows, and leaky facilities. He powers along for almost twelve measures without a single rest, hoping to pummel Travis into submission. His efforts are all in vain, because on the thirteenth measure Travis jumps in, accusations pounding away like an entire timpani section, increasing in tempo and volume until Mark has been almost entirely drowned out.

In prior performances, they have often ended at this point, the final crash of Travis slamming the door resounding through the hall, but today there is an unexpected rally as Travis returns to the original theme, his voice building to a deafening crescendo. For a moment, there is a breathless stillness, and I swear I can hear the steam rising from my chipped coffee mug. Then I hear the click of a gun and I realize that the musicians have reached a new level of innovation in their careers. Anticipating what’s coming, I rise to my feet, feeling like the queen of England when she first heard the Hallelujah chorus. Mark’s is the only voice now, repeating back Travis’ final notes, a single clarinet, alone on a stage as vast as Carnegie Hall, echoing in the center of my chest. The timpani resound in perfect unison one last time, and then Travis hits the ground, the sound thundering through the apartment like applause.

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