The Violin Factory

by | Apr 9, 2024 | Fiction, Issue Thirty-Eight

The factory was quiet, but our fingers were busy. It was delicate, painstaking work and we always kept our voices low. I told my parents to do the same.

“Sorry,” said my mom. She always vaulted into gaps in conversation, afraid of what silence might drag out of her. “This is where you live?”

“That’s right,” I said. “We have bunks upstairs.” The rooms were simple, but warm – nothing like the gleaming steel of the factory floor. After a long day most of us would just read until we slept, sometimes turning pages together in happy synchronicity.

My father wore a sour expression, the same one since he arrived for the tour. I’d pulled him away from his happy retirement reading books about World War II. When he finished each one, he’d snap it shut like a gunshot. I could still hear it. “They feed you here, too?”

“The portions are bigger than you’d think,” I said. He didn’t laugh.

I handed my dad a jeweler’s loupe and, once he had it to his eye, I unwrapped a small, dark cloth from a nearby workbench. I held it out and he stared into its folds. He said, “Is there meant to be something in here?”

Sometimes it was hard to tell. Making the violins required steady faith as much as steady hands, and I was grateful for proof when it arrived. Like at night, lying in bed, when I’d realize I had breathed in too deeply that day. Every exhalation in the dark an F sharp.

“Why’d you want us to come?” asked my dad.

“Don’t be like that,” said my mom. “She wants us to see where she works.”

“Well, we’ve seen it,” said my dad. Some of my coworkers glanced up in sympathy. There were three dozen of us, all in the same jumpsuits, all the same kind of people. We loved small things. Model trains, doll’s houses. More than one of us admitted to hand-painting faces on grains of rice.

Anything smaller than we felt, growing up.

My parents wanted me to play the piano; I had the fingers for it, but not the patience. I butchered great composers until I was allowed to stop. The best thing about our violins? It isn’t that they’re perfect objects, honed over generations, shrunk to microscopic size. It’s that anyone can play them.

“We export violins all over the world,” I said, a quaver in my voice. Parents can always make children of us again. “Men and women use them every day. They don’t even think about where they come from. The violins are there when they need them.”

“When they need them?” said my dad. “Need them for what? Sarcasm?”

“Yes, for sarcasm,” I said.

“Well, that’s just great.”

“Listen,” I said. “Imagine a teenager, hair in her eyes. She’s stuck at work. Retail, maybe. Her boss is telling her that she has to work late. You understand. He’s saying no one knows how hard it is, balancing work and family. All his responsibilities. That kind of thing.”

I resist the urge to scratch under my hairnet. Some violins had gotten under there, gritty against my scalp. I’d use a lice comb to get them out later and see if any could be salvaged.

“The teenager can’t say no. She can’t talk back. But she can wait until the boss walks away, then rub her thumb and forefinger together. The world’s tiniest violin, playing just for him.”

“Please.” My mother remembered to whisper. “Try to understand things from our point of view.”

“All we ever wanted was for you to do something with your life!” My father’s exclamation point fizzed like a bottle rocket; everyone on the floor cringed. “Instead, here you are. Every day. Making nothing.”

He held out the dark cloth and shook it. We have a room for tuning the violins. It’s entirely soundproofed. To stand in it is to become aware of all your body’s noises: blood pumping like a giant’s footsteps, the crackle of your nervous system.

In that room, the violins my father let fall to the ground would sound like the end of the world. Out here, though, we’d just wear them home, embedded in the soles of our shoes.

I sighed. (B flat.) “It’s fine. You can go.”

“Is it so terrible,” said my mother, wiping at her eyes, “that we want to be able to tell our friends what you’re up to?” My father put an arm around her.

In the pocket of my jumpsuit, I let my thumb and forefinger find each other, rubbing back and forth. My parents didn’t notice.

“We just want to be proud of you,” my dad said, voice cracking.

In the silence that followed, I saw my coworkers watching us. One by one, they started rubbing their thumbs and fingers together too. No rehearsal, no conductor.

I could almost hear music.

Pin It on Pinterest