[Note from a wary writer: The following blog entry was written a month ago, but for reasons which should eventually become apparent to a patient reader was not suitable for publishing at that time]
“Cello $700 Beautiful cello for sale. If interested call 413-xxx-xxxx.”
The listing on Craig’s List is straightforward, no-nonsense. No wistful testaments to the owner’s fabled history with the instrument. No arduous defense of the decision to trade up. Nothing personal. Good cello. Need cash.
$700. Hmm. A little over my budget, but as prices for student cellos go, still in the ball park. Probably one of those penny-bright, Chinese assembly-line toys with the faux European monikers. Like my rentals: squeaks, but shines. I can live with this. Maybe I can get them down to $550.
The ad appears on May 17. I hit the reply link on the 18th. “Very interested. Do you know the make? Is the price negotiable?”
The day passes. Night falls. No answer.
I’ll wait a few more days. Nobody gets back right away in Western Massachusetts. The plumbers. The contractors. The medical clinics. The wood delivery people. Three calls over two weeks before you hear back from anyone, if you’re blessed. And if you’ve left two or three follow-up messages. New Englanders want to be wooed.
Three days. Still waiting. Perhaps they got a buyer already. But the ad is still running. Why didn’t they remove the ad? Keeping their options open, no doubt. The Craig’s List clientele can occasionally be, um, insincere. The ones who are not merely psychopaths.
Five days. Still no answer. Perhaps they’re just very busy. A professional musician. A university professor buried under a mound of final papers. Did I put them off with the negotiable question? They think I’m a jerk. But really: An ad on Craig’s List, and there’s no wiggle room?
After a week, a reply finally arrives. “Hi Jan, Sorry to take so long to respond, wrapping up end of the semester stress.” (Aha. I nailed it. Those academics, what can you do?). I read on. “I have two full sized cellos one is an Andrew Bednarski which I’d be willing to sell for $500 and it doesn’t have a case. The other is Antonius Stradiuarius Cremonenfis and that is $700 with a soft case. I can take pics and send them or we can arrange a time to meet if you are still interested. Thanks, Al.”
I’ve pursued so many leads for cellos on Craig’s List that it all seems very business as usual. It doesn’t occur to me, at least from the get-go, to question why a Stradiuarius is selling for $700. I’m not a stickler for editorial detail, so I neglect to catch that the sender’s sign-off, Al, is different from the sender’s name posted at the top, John Bridget. And even if I did notice, what of it? Everyone veils themselves on the Internet. As well they should.
I write back, distractedly addressing the letter to John rather than Al. In a day or so, I will wonder why it seemed perfectly reasonable at the time that I will get another letter back, signed “Bridget, John’s wife.” Bridget wants to set up a time to see her cellos. Or her husband’s cellos. They are one of those merged couples with the binary email addresses.
Who is Al: John or Bridget? Must be Bridget. Women have more reason to fudge gender in public ads. Keeps the Norman Bates’ at bay, yes?
I get Bridget on the phone. I agree to see her at 11:30 on Friday. She gives me tortured directions to the house, which I scratch, along with address, on a small piece of paper. 102 W. ———- Street..
I set off on the big morning, flush with expectations. Driving through town, I realize I will be a few minutes early, so I pull over to pick up a newspaper, leaving my cell behind in the car. When I return, a message awaits in the inbox. It’s Bridget, asking me if I would please meet her at a different address than the one she had first given me. “We’re in the middle of moving,” Bridget explains in a slightly woozy voice. “It’s just a few blocks away from the old house.”
I pull away from town and the cell rings. Bridget. Concerned. Did I get the message? Did I understand the directions? Yes and sort of.
As I approach the revised destination, the neighborhood comes into shape: a motley collection of modest ranch homes, bicycles lying lazily on the grass, brightly-colored plastic toys and go-karts spilling from open garages. Bridget stands before the driveway of a plain, gray cottage, waving me down. She is a pleasant seeming woman in her 30s; her appearance, but for a hair-lippish quirk about the mouth, is as nondescript as her home-to-be.
It is 11:30, and Bridget seems harried. And why not? She is in the middle of moving, after all, and, as she further explains, she has to be at the high school in a couple of hours to help her daughter in a school play. “The A——- Regional school system is such a good one,” she says over her shoulder, leading me to the door. “So I’ve been told,” I reply, only half-noticing that the garage is markedly free of moving boxes.
Bridget leads me through the dark, empty house to a bedroom where three cellos have been set up on the floor. (Three? First there was one beautiful cello. Then two. Now three). Bridget has set up a chair for me by the window. One is shiny and blondish, its strings unstrung and flopping loosely over the bridge. This must be the bargain, the Chinese hack job for $500. The second is seemingly older, a handsome instrument of richly burnished (cherry?) wood that, like its owner, bears a signifying blemish on its face. This must be the $700 one. The third is the most beautiful of the three, a ¾ or ½ size cello with a voluptuous antique walnut. But it’s too small, what a drag.
I drift immediately to the cherry one. I sit, pull out my little tuning box and attempt a D scale. It is wildly sharp. The needle jumps to the far right of the tuning box screen, disapprovingly. As I adjust the fine tuners below the bridge, Bridget fumbles with the strings on the lighter colored cello, trying her best to thread them over the pegs. She knew I was coming, why is she first dealing with this now? She admits that she is not a cellist, explaining that she had studied music vocal in college and had taken a basic course in string instrument assembling. Or something like that.
As she labors with the strings, she remarks off-handedly that the cellos belonged to her aunt, who has recently died.
“Oh,” I say with genuine interest. “Did she play in an ensemble or orchestra?”
“No.” Bridget dithers with a peg, trying to decide which way to turn it. “She just enjoyed playing the cello, for herself.”
After wrestling with the fine tuners for a few minutes, I attempt a little Bach march I have been tooling around with for the last month. The sound is deep, dimensional, free of wolf tones. Does this woman know what she is selling? This is far more fabulous than anything I could have expected for the money. I could do worse. Surely. And for $500 or $700, I probably couldn’t do better.
“You can see the labels inside,” said Bridget, who is becoming a little rattled restringing the blond cello. “That one is an ‘Andrew Benarski. Bednarski?” This one is a—“ She squints into an F-hole of the one she is holding and reads “An-to-nee-us Stradi-var—-.” She halts, mid-surname. “That can’t be a Stradiavrius.”
I’m confused. Didn’t she say so in the emaill? Is she having doubts? Or is this supposed to be bait: a little soft shoe from the souk merchant? Bridget resumes stringing, emitting flustered noises. I am getting the feeling that she just wants me to look at the two cellos, choose one and go. The school play is calling. I volunteer, “You know, we can do this on another day, when you have more time.”
Bridget mutters that we may have to, and continues. A string snaps, flying up toward her face. This is getting dire.
As I reach down to retrieve the string, I notice there are no fine-tuners below the bridge. Not promising. When I point this out, Bridget stops what she is doing, grabs the ¾ cello (which does have fine tuner knobs), and compares the size of the tailpieces to see if they can be switched. Surprisingly, they are a match. Grabbing the small cello, she removes the tailpiece with its fine tuners intact, swiftly and without a trace of sentimentality. As it sits there, dunuded and forlorn, she transfers the tailpiece to the blond cello and begins the task of restringing it one more time. Somewhere, I can only presume, there is an urn where Auntie’s ashes are shifting in horror.
I pick up the Bednarski again and vamp a few more times with the Bach march. After a few more minutes, she hands me the haphazardly reassembled instrument. I draw the bow across the A string, keeping an eye on the tuning box. The pitch is so off the map, the indicator doesn’t know whether to flee to the left or the right.
I glance at my watch. Almost an hour has passed. This is taking much too long. I feel as if I had been in this dark little room for three days. How strange that she and her husband had not prepared the instruments in advance; do they really expect anyone to buy the “Stradiuarius” in its present condition? After several collaboritve efforts to tune it come a cropper, I suggest to Bridget that she go back to her moving work and I will try to adjust the tuning myself. Maybe I should just buy the Benarski and go.
She agrees, tentatively, leaving the room. A few minutes later, she returns. “Are you having any luck?: I bow the A string of the can’t-possibly-be-a-Strad, then the D. The tuning needle winces. “It sounds kind of wobbly,’ I reply.
“Which cello sounds better to you? “ she counters, half-hearing. I can feel her pressing for a decision. But I haven’t even tested the second one.
I turn a tuning peg a notch, then another. Suddenly, there is an ominous cracking sound from below. I look down. The bridge has collapsed and shattered into pieces.
We gasp, in unison, the sound of disbelief made whole.
I can almost feel my blood freeze. I am mortified. Maybe a wee bit irritated. But really mortified. I calculate in my head how much doing the right thing will cost me.
When I insist I will pay for a new bridge, Bridget rejects the offer. “No, absolutely not. “ We stand there looking at the broken bridge parts, which sit in a sad heap like an unwanted jigsaw puzzle..
“Really. Don’t worry about it,” she insists, sounding a note of quiet desperation. “Which one would you like?”
So this is how I will finally buy a used cello. I ask which one is $500 and which is $700.
“You can have either of them for $500, with the case.” She wants the money. She wants me out of there.
“Will you take a check? I’m good for it. You can trust me.”
“Trust, yes,” Bridget says with an ambiguous sigh. “We all really need to trust one another.”
I write a check for $500 to Bridget Morehouse, take the Bednarski and wish her luck with the move. As I drive home, I ponder how much I should send her for a replacement bridge.
So, I own my own cello. A lovely cello. I want to feel elated, but the whole experience has been messy and deflating.
Once I return to the house, I pull out my new purchase and peer again through the F hole at the label. Printed in small letters below “Andrew Bednarski,” are the words “William Harris Lee, cello workshop Chicago. 1995.” I open the bow envelope in the cello case and find two bow protectors. I shoot an email to Bridget, telling her I was given an extra bow case and that I would be happy to drop it off in the next few days.
No response. Bridget wants nothing more to do with me.
A moment passes. A frisson of weirdness shoots through my body. Something is off here.
I get into search position at my MacBook and Google “Andrew Bednarski.” A couple of links come up. He is an actor in a Canadian TV series called “Katts and Dog.” He is the author of a book titled
“Holding Egypt: Tracing The Reception Of The Description De L’Egypte In Nineteenth-Century Great Britain.”
I try again. I Google “William Harris Lee cello workshop” and come upon “William Harris Lee & Co.” Top-drawer website, checkered with photos of serious violins. A class act. “William Harris Lee & Co. has established a reputation for making the finest-sounding, most affordable hand-crafted violins, violas, cellos, and basses in the United States.” The cellos on sale range in price from $1750 to $8500. Nice.
I Google one more time and find one 1992 William Harris Lee cello being offered by a seller for $5,500 and a 2000 model being sold for $15,000. I am having an Antiques Roadshow moment. Maybe I have stumbled upon a little jewel, direct from auntie’s attic. I’ve done well for myself. Very well. Possibly too well.
I start to feel a little antsy. I am having a flashback to my conversation months back with the sales clerk at the Lincoln Center music shop, when we talked about the black market for stolen instruments. Could it be possible? Have I bought a hot cello?
I run my suspicions by Matthias and he laughs. Jan. You bought a cello on Craig’s List. What should I expect?
Back to Google. I enter the name “Bridget Morehouse.” I find an old news item from the local paper which lists her as a graduate of A——– High School, with a masters in education from the Universtity of Massachusetts. Good for her.
My eye wanders to the next listing. DailyGazettenet, “January 2010: Bridget Morehouse, 102 W——– Road, was arrested Monday about 1 p.m., on an arrest warrant issued by the Eastern Hampshire District Court where she was later charged with 12 counts of uttering a false prescription. Police said Morehouse used forged prescriptions to obtain narcotics.”
I check my on-line bank statement. My check for $500 has cleared the bank.
I reflect upon the chain of events: the first belated email from the pseudonymous Al, the empty house with no electricity, the dead aunt, the rushed sale. With the benefit of hindsight, everything smells.
At a friend’s dinner party that evening, my anxieties are met with semi-amusement by our host, who seems reasonably appalled that I had bought the cello first and done my research after. He implies that my suspicions and snooping are a vestige of my New York City self . “We don’t do that here in Massachusetts. We accept things as we find them. We just say, “Oh, whatever, it’s fine.’
His word to the wise: “Rewind the tape. Go back to where you started. You didn’t look up anything, you didn’t uncover anything.”
Perhaps he’s right. I need to let it go. It’s fine. I have a beautiful cello.
In the morning, I open my email. The empty Google search box nags at me, hungry for breakfast. I am incorrigible. What haven’t I checked out?
I feed it a new combination. “Andrew Bednarski cellos.”
A link for violinhunters.com mentions a Polish violin maker in an alphabetical listing of distinguished luthiers.
Above this link, I spot this entry:
Crimewatch: Brookline, Massachusetts.”
I click the link: A website for “Wicked Local Brookline,” featuring news from the Brookline daily rag. I scroll down:
On March 4, police responded to S……. Road for a reported past breaking and entering of a residence. The victim said he and his wife left for a trip on Feb. 11 and returned home March 3 at approximately 11 p.m. to find their house burglarized. Missing from the residence were a black Toshiba flat-screen television, a black HP laptop computer, cash, coins, a Peter Wamsley cello (circa 1740), an Andrew Bednarski cello (circa 1995), two cello bows and cases, a student cello with accompanying bow and case, a Hans Schrimer violin from Adorf, Germany, a violin bow stamped A. Lamy Au Paris and a violin case.”
I read the crime watch report five times. Bridget still hasn’t responded to me regarding the extra cello bow case.
Or case opened?