Ophelia Vladimirescu was the last of her line to ever make an accordion.
I was a kid when it happened, and now as an old man, when I wake in the night shouting her name, there she’ll be, responding to my call as if she were still alive, hard as stone standing next to my bed in rippling petals of flame.
I’d cut off my legs if it meant I’d never see her again, but cowardice restrains me.
Such a claim requires context to be taken seriously, I know. So allow me to make what happened very plain, for all of those who read this.
The Vladimirescu family had been in the business of making fine European inspired accordions for more than 100 years, and Ophelia had inherited the company along with the Vladimirescu Accordion Factory, located in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, in 1910 just after her debutante year. She was an elegant young woman whose demeanor spoke of old money. And though her hereditary wealth was a little mouldy at the edges, it had long ago launched an accordion empire that had cornered markets worldwide.
I won’t go into the swampy genealogy of the Vladimirescu family here, though it may come up later. For now, you’ll have to content yourself in knowing that the family line included a succession of eastern European patriarchs who it was alleged slept in coffins, and played their own accordions by the light of the moon, accompanied by the distant music of howling wolves. There are empty tombs and disturbed graves far away, and secrets that abide in dark corners, but that is all for another time.
Several trademark lines were manufactured by the Vladimirescu factory, including the world renowned Schrammel Extravaganzo and the Concertina Republica. Each instrument was assembled by hand by skilled but hoary Europe craftsmen, whose specific origins and precise ages were impossible to calculate, and whose continued presence in Canada relied upon the procurement of ill-gotten work visas.
The widely held rumor that there was a small unseen army of illiterate orphan slaves, paid in tobacco and candy bars, in the service of Ophelia Vladimirescu, is true. I know, because I was one of them.
We carved the mother of pearl inlays and the perfect onyx buttons, and used our clever little hands to produce the reeds, ranks and switches, as well as the silver and brass accents. We orphans were invisible because we lived in the factory’s unnavigable maze of deep subbasements, in which the Vladimirescu family hid us, and other unforgivable secrets. Hence, there was no proof of our existence. We were only the whispered racket of lunch counter gossip, but mysteriously, the buttons and other accoutrements of manufacture were always in plentiful supply.
Cruelly, when a soldier in our army of orphan slaves grew too old to continue, due to ever growing hands and increasing appetite, he or she was given a midnight bus ticket out of town.
On the night it happened to me, I was dragged from my bed, given a worn out coat, and escorted up to the surface of the planet in a freight elevator. Then I was driven to the city’s Greyhound station, where a ticket and a ten dollar bill was forced into my hand.
I remember watching the deep green Packard sedan that brought me there that night, drive away into the unconditional darkness, as I stood in the parking lot. The mysterious driver of the car, a man wearing sunglasses, in spite of the darkness, and dressed in jodhpurs and high laced boots, told me to get out of town, or else. And that was it.
The ticket was for Moosejaw, and the moon was full.
In the bus station, I noticed a calendar on the wall, as I sat and waited for departure. I’d never seen one before. It was the photograph of a sleek wheeled vehicle with a dog on the side that caught my attention, and I asked a hollow cheeked woman with a gaunt child at her side what it said. April, 1938, she replied. The woman’s coat was ragged, and her shoes were salty and cracked. It was the Great Depression.
I and my fellow passengers that night were a nondescript gaggle of shabby dustbowl drifters, citizens of a prairie commonwealth of midnight, where shadowy farm houses floated like derelicts on tideless black sea. A woman in a faux fur coat and a leghorn straw hat adorned with a flower, sat next to me eating something, and dropping husks onto the floor. The light was very dim; she was nearly a silhouette. She paused when she saw me looking, and then handed over the bag.
“Go ahead kid,” she said. “I’ve had my fill, and you look like you need ‘em more than me.”
“What are they?” I said, taking the bag.
“Peanuts, of course.”
I put a whole one, unshelled, into my mouth, unaware of my error. It was terrible. I began to gag.
“No, no, no,” the woman said. “Spit that out. Here, you open ‘em like this, and you eat what’s inside. See?”
She cracked one open, and popped the contents into her mouth. It made so much sense.
“Where’ve you been, kid?”
“In the subbasement,” I said.
In a moment, I’d eaten my first ever peanuts, crunchy and good. Then I ate more as quickly as I could.
“Slow down or you’ll puke,” said the woman. Then she held out her hand. “Felicity Crenshaw’s the name,” she said. “Pleased to meet you.”
I looked at her hand, as I wiped peanut skins off of my face with my own.
“Shake, pal,” she insisted. “Good to meet cha.”
I shook my shoulders for her, a little confused.
“Na! You tryin’ to be funny? Shake my hand, like this.”
She took my right hand in hers, and moved it rapidly up and down.
“That’s how one compadre greets another, get it?”
Not really, but I kept that to myself. It seemed a very strange thing to do, shaking hands. But I’d never seen a Greyhound before, either. Nor had I known that it was April, 1938.
“Now you tell me your name, see?” Felicity Crenshaw said.
I didn’t want to tell her my name. I wasn’t sure that it was a fair trade for a bag of peanuts.
“Huh,” she said. “You gotta have a name. Where’s your momma?”
“Maybe someone oughtta hand you over to a church, or something, if you ain’t got no folks.”
I shrugged again.
“Well I’m on the road,” Felicity Crenshaw said. “I’m a travelling saleswoman. My old Model A gave up the ghost in Swift Current, so I’m riding the dog. Maybe I can pick up an old beater next stop. My point is, don’t get too attached to me. I can’t look after no kid.”
“No one asked you to,” I said.
“Then stop making it with the big eyes.”
That was how Felicity was, I found out later. She saw a rotten world, and assumed it wanted to be saved, but she didn’t know how. So she tried to be tough, instead.
I looked away, not knowing why, and stared down at the peanut shells on the floor. It got quiet after that, except for the sound of the wheels on the road and a passenger snoring in the seat behind us. Felicity had the window seat, and watched the stars.
Then, after a while, she said, “You read music, kid?”
“’Cause that’s what I sell, quality sheet music and piano rolls to the yokels. Finger snapping hits from the Iglehart Music Company of Chicago, Illinois. I’m a wholesaler, to reputable retail outlets.”
“Sheet music’s stupid,” I said.
“Say, what is your name? I don’t wanna talk to a kid without a name, if he’s gonna call a girl’s bread and butter ‘stupid’.”
“Rufus,” I surrendered.
“Well Rufus, how do you figure sheet music’s stupid?”
“I just do better without it. Too many rules. There usually aren’t enough notes on a sheet of music, anyway.”
“So you improvise. What do you play?”
(Learning to play the accordion at the Vladimirescu Accordion Factory wasn’t guaranteed. An orphan needed to show some talent, and even then it was only for those who worked in quality control. I was pretty good at quality control, which was why I was sort of surprised when I got my bus ticket.)
“I never knew a fella could improvise on an accordion,” Felicity said, “without him makin’ a racket, that is. You look a little bit too young for that, anyway. What are you, ten?”
I didn’t know my age then, any more than I know it now. So I ate some more peanuts.
“You got it with you?” said Felicity. “The accordion, I mean.”
“Never had one of my own.”
“Okay, okay,” she said. “So now you got me curious. I’m dropping in on a particular music store in Moosejaw. The proprietor’s a good egg, and he sells musical instruments. If he’s got a squeezebox in stock, you can play it and show me your stuff. Just fer fun. But I gotta drop you after that, understand? You can find a soup kitchen somewhere, and see what happens from there.”
I shrugged yet again. It was fine by me.
We arrived in Moosejaw at 6 in the morning, and Felicity retrieved her luggage from under the bus.
“Samples,” she said to me, kicking the larger of her two suitcases. “Heavy, too. It’s why I gotta get a goddamn car.”
A porter put the suitcases in the trunk of a taxi, and we were off.
“Hotel Wilhelmina,” Felicity told the driver.
“That dump?” the driver said. “You sure, lady?”
“Just get us there alive, fella.”
“Okay (your funeral).”
The Hotel Wilhelmina was, as the cabby had put it, a dump, whose single greatest outward accomplishment was looking lopsided from the street, while the lobby, where I sat in a dusty, threadbare overstuffed chair until she returned from her room, resembled an abandoned funeral parlour, in both sight and smell.
“What a joint, eh?” Felicity said when she arrived back, wearing clean white blouse, and a different hat. “They’ve really done things with the ol’ place, yessiree. The manager says there ain’t been a murder here in five months.”
“It smells,” I said.
“That’s the perfume of antiquity, kid,” she said, taking an unhealthy whiff. “Just savour the pong of time.”
I tried to hold my breath.
“Okay, sunshine. Let’s go.”
We arrived at Barney’s Music Barn after breakfast at a diner called Chinese Joe’s. As it turned out, the proprietor of the Music Barn, Barney himself, did have an accordion in stock, and I recognised it immediately as a Vladimirescu model 1021-Q, also called the Romanian Pearl. I was still just a small kid, but the Pearl was big. So I sat down in a chair to play, after I struggled into the straps.
“Made in Saskatoon, that baby is,” Barney said. Then, “Say Felicity, what’s this all about?”
“A bit of a lark, Barney-boy. I met the kid on the dog. Says he’s so good that he can play without sheet music. I figure that’d be really something for just a pup, and I wanna see if he’s rattlin’ my shackles.”
“How old are you, boy?” Barney said.
“I don’t know.”
“He ain’t no more than ten,” said Felicity. “Just look at him.”
“Alright then,” Barney said to me, “play us something.”
“I can’t,” I said.
“Well shit-niblets,” Felicity said. “I guess I knew it all along.”
“No,” I said. “I mean, I can play. It’s just that I need a cigarette, something awful. I haven’t had one since I got dropped off at the bus station, and I’m getting shaky fingers.”
“A cigarette?” said Barney. “Forget it. What if someone comes into the store, and sees a little squirt like him smoking and playing accordion?”
“Okay.” I began to take off the instrument.
“Wait! Whoa there,” Felicity said, and pulled out a pack of Player’s. “Take one. Here’s a light. I ain’t missing this over a little delinquency.”
My eyes rolled up to heaven as I took my first puff, and I held it in for so long that there was nothing to exhale. It tasted better than breakfast at Chinese Joe’s, which had been pretty good.
Then I said, “Requests?”
“Kid seems a lot older than ten,” Barney said.
“He’s an artist,” said Felicity. “That’s how it is with them.”
“Okay,” Barney snickered. “Flat Foot Floogee,”
“Nah,” said Felicity. “Get serious. What do you wanna play, kid?”
An ash fell onto the carpet as I thought. Then placing the cigarette back between my lips, I began to play one of my favourites, Beethoven’s Piano Sonata No. 14. It wasn’t exactly written for the accordion, and the Pearl wasn’t built for it (known to play a little shrill), but I loved making it all work. My body moved with the music as it always did, as the cigarette smoke coiled up past my eyes, shut in the ecstasy. I might have played for six minutes or six years, but when I opened my eyes again, the two of them remained silent.
Until Felicity said, “Ho-ly shit.” It was almost a whisper, as though she’d just witnessed the risen Jesus with a kazoo.
“Ain’t that something,” Barney said. “And isn’t that money I smell over the tobacco smoke?”
Turned out that it was. A switch had been turned in Felicity Crenshaw’s brain, and in that moment, she made the mental transformation from prairie sheet music saleswoman to accordion child prodigy promoter.
“How much for the squeeze box, Barney?” she said.
“It ain’t the best,” I said.
“Too bad, kid. We gotta start somewhere.”
“Twenty bucks,” said Barney.
“Piano rolls and sheet music, in trade?”
Felicity opened her sample case. “Take what you want,” she said. “I won’t be needin’ it anymore.”
It turned out that he was right. After three auditions, I was on the radio and playing the evangelist circuit, Closer My Lord, to Thee being my trademark tune. Every God fearing dirt farmer, truck driver and lunch counter waitress from Fort St John to Winnipeg was listening in.
It wasn’t long before I was able to replace the Vladimirescu model 1021-Q for a model 1235-B, bigger even than the Pearl, fuller sound and greater range. It was the best instrument ever made by the Vladimirescu Accordion Factory, so far, and they called it the Transylvania Star.
“You ain’t big enough for it,” Felicity said, when she saw it in the Winnipeg showroom.
“Maybe it ain’t big enough for me,” I replied, haughtily. Stardom having already gone to my head.
I played it that night on the Reverend Philip St Philip’s Rival Radio Hour — playing How Great Thou Art, Amazing Grace and Closer My Lord, to Thee. Near the end of the program, just after the Jell-O commercial message, reminding us all of the manifesting season of Jell-O salad, the Reverend Philip St Philip, talking to the whole of dirt farmer Christendom through his microphone, had this to say.
“Lord Jesus, you say it is right to rejoice in music, in your name. But music is often of the devil, diverting good men from the road to righteousness. On our stage this evening, however, is sitting a gift that you, Lord Jesus, have bestowed upon us, and Rufus is his name.”
Here the Reverend closed his eyes, and placed a hand redolent of rancid hair oil, on my shoulder, and said —
“Dear Lord, bless this marvelous boy with his ear for your crystal composition. His music is Holy, and inspired by Thee. And I say onto you in the radio audience tonight, rejoice in it. The Bible testifies to the power of music, for all good Christians, in the worship of God. It is a joyful sound, when played by the angelic.”
Then Reverend did a double jointed trick, squeezing my shoulder and running a finger tenderly up and down the back of my neck. After which he tugged gently on my earlobe, and looking down upon me, seated in my chair, pinned beneath the ponderous Transylvania Star, he blew me a silent kiss off the tip of his middle finger.
All of the studio technicians and special guests looked away, all except for Felicity, who after the director said cut, walked up and whispered something into Phillip’s ear. Whatever it was, it was enough to make the Reverend step back with horror in his eyes, and I was spared the predatory temptations of Christian pastors for evermore.
Indeed, I was a celebrity on the Evangelist Circuit. I had money, and all of the tobacco and candy bars I wanted, and I had the protection of my manager, Felicity Crenshaw (who took her 25% off the top).
How could I have known, under such glad circumstances, that Ophelia Vladimirescu was listening? Since my expulsion from the factory basement, she had mysteriously achieved an unexpected, scheming wickedness, and listened to me on her parlour radio whenever a performance of mine was broadcast.
No one could have known, in fact, until the evening I stepped out of the back door of the CFAM radio studios in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, for a cigarette. It was during a commercial break on the Pastor Peak Perkins Revival Revolution program, sponsored by Jell-O Gelatin. (Seems the Christians loved their Jell-O.)
There in the alley, as I lit a Player’s plain, appeared the deep green Packard sedan I remembered from another time. It stopped and out stepped the mysterious driver, the man wearing sunglasses, in spite of the darkness, and dressed in jodhpurs and high laced boots.
“Get in the car,” he said, holding open the backdoor.
I hesitated. Where was Felicity?
“Don’t make me put you in the trunk, boy.”
No, not the trunk. Who knew what lurked in there? I complied, and the door closed behind me, locking magically without aid of a human hand.
And so, I was driven against my will, to the Vladimirescu mansion, on the outskirts of the city. It was a cheerless palace, both Gothic and Baroque at once, menacingly placed on a rise on the land at the end of a long private road, guarded by a sinister-looking gate. Silhouettes of massive, looming animals – elephants, bears and lions – trimmed out of boxwood, roamed the front lawn, as a single light burned in a top floor window.
“This is it, boy,” said the mysterious driver. “Get out.”
Now the door unlocked itself, and swung open.
“The front door of the house is unlocked,” said the man. “Go in, take the lighted candle, and climb the staircase to the third floor. You’ll figure it out from there. And don’t do nothing stupid, like run. She’s got a hundred ways to make you suffer, if you do.”
Here he adjusted his sunglasses in the moonlight, as though they caused him some great discomfort, and then he drove away.
The front door of the mansion was huge and carved with the faces of gargoyles, damned it seemed from their expressions of horror. It opened without a sound, and I stepped into the dim and cavernous entry hall, filled with dusty alabaster and thickly carve mahogany. Here skulked the shadows of statuary, bent and smirking.
A lighted candle was on a small table, at the foot of the staircase. I took it and began my ascent, past marble carved dragons, and bitter grinning angels holding swords and severed heads.
Arriving on the third floor, I discovered a vast, glass domed ceiling, allowing whitish moonlight to fix in crystal a once magnificent, but now cobwebbed, ballroom.
“Come in my beautiful orphan,” a voice called out.
Yellow light surrounded a partially open doorway, off on the far side.
I approached, but stopped at the door, dreading what I might see inside. It was Ophelia Vladimirescu’s voice, certainly. I recognised it from her visits to the basement sweatshops. But an animal fear had overcome me.
“Enter, Rufus,” said Ophelia Vladimirescu. “I have something for you. Something I’ve had made especially for you.”
Then I heard a strange plaintive whisper in E flat major. An accordion sigh? Perhaps, but the sound it made was different than any instrument I’d ever heard before. Just a breath, heard through the door, expressing ages of joy and anguish. It was a low exhalation of grief so beautiful that even in my childish mind, I knew that I was being seduced.
I pushed open the door, and there she stood, in the centre of a chamber with a cherub painted ceiling. Ophelia Vladimirescu, pale and lovely, dressed splendidly in purple silks and golden brocade, the room filled with an oddly unwholesome lantern light and the hushed scent of day old roses. The uncanny effect was that her youth remained unbroken, in spite of her age.
And next to her, in a chair resembling a royal throne, sat the instrument I’d heard breathe through the door, gilded and covered in diamonds, rubies, sapphires and emeralds.
I stood in wonder, sure that it was now calling me by name.
“It’s exquisite, no?” Ophelia placed a hand upon it. She had the husk of a Eurasian accent, passed on to her in the cloistered company of her eccentric and reclusive parents.
“I heard you on the radio,” she said. “If I’d known of your true talent, I never would have let you go. But happily, I have made it right. Come, look at my gift to you.”
I stepped forward and touched it with my fingers, and heard disembodied weeping. There was no adequate reverence or esteem.
“It drove my father mad,” said Ophelia. “He spent half a lifetime designing it, all the while tormented by the voices of his forefathers, imploring him to carry on, to the unending sound of Thême varié très brillant pour accordéon methode Reisner, performed in the candelabra shadows of a distant Carpathian chateau. It was mere torment until he took up the task, and then it became torture. Though he finished the plans for its design, he died believing it would be impossible to build.
“The finished diagrams were given to me when he passed away, and I worried over them for more than twenty years. I asked darkness for guidance only when the light failed me, and then I found a way. Now it is done, and you are the one chosen to play it. No one else. It needs to feed. Your youth will be its food. And in return, you will prosper beyond your wildest ambitions.”
“I ain’t got no ambitions,” I said.
“Shoulder it, hear it whisper, and you will. Its name is Vladimirescu Valentino Diavol.”
“It’s too big.”
“It will make you strong.”
“Put it on boy.” It was the man in the sunglasses who spoke now, standing like an idol in the shadows, the candlelight mirrored in his dark lenses.
He stepped out into the flickering light, took the Vladimirescu Valentino Diavol from its throne, and forced the straps over my shoulders, an action verging on brutality. I wonder to this day if it was necessary. My fascination with the Diavol was increasing rapidly, and it was inevitable that I would shoulder the instrument.
“It’s light as feather,” I said, amazed, when finally I wore it.
“You begin to see its magic,” said Ophelia. “Play it,” she gasped. Her fists were clenched, and her eyes had grown wide.
Without a thought, I found myself playing Mozart’s Requiem – Dies Irae, an epitaphic masterpiece, and the last composition I’d ever have thought would come out of an accordion. There was a choral accompaniment, its source invisible, filling the room, Ophelia swaying in a trance with the dark candle chandeliers above. And when the blood fell from the clouds surrounding the cherubs painted onto the ceiling, we three were coated in a slick shimmering crimson black.
And that is when the unwholesome lantern light exploded into an inferno.
“Yes, my demon!” Ophelia shouted to the man. “Come to me. Our work is finally done. Now is our time.”
The man in the sunglasses then took her in his arms, and forced her to the floor. Falling with her, he and Ophelia embraced and immersed themselves in the pooling blood. And when his dark spectacles fell away, I was stunned to see that he had no eyes at all, only skin stitched tightly across the sockets where they once had been. He took that moment to grin at me, and then turning back to his lover, stuck out a long reptilian tongue, wrapped it round Ophelia Vladimirescu’s throat and snapped her neck, as he entered her in intercourse.
She died in a state of rapture.
I continued to play throughout it all, unable to stop, as the blaze engulfed the chamber, and I surely would have burned alive had not a hand reached in, gripped me by my collar and yanked me out of the room.
“Jeepers, kid!” Felicity hollered over the roaring flames. “You sure do get around. Let’s vamoose before the whole damn place comes down on our heads.”
We ran out onto the lawn, and through the prowling menagerie of looming boxwood creatures, Felicity pulling me along by the hand, while I dragged the bejewelled accordion behind me.
Looking out of the back window as we drove away, I watched the growing conflagration fade into the distance.
“That’s a caper you don’t wanna share with no one, kid,” said Felicity.
“Who’d believe it, anyway?”
“And what about the squeezebox?”
“It’s one of Ophelia Vladimirescu’s suckers, just like me,” I said, aware that, in my boyish way, I was feeling an irrational empathy for what appeared to be an inanimate object. “We got things in common. I figure I’ll keep it close-by, until I know better.”
Felicity’s story was that she’d seen me get into the car as she came out through the studio’s back door with a cup of coffee, too late to intervene, but soon enough to get into her new Plymouth and follow along.
“The biggest problem,” she told me later, “was getting into the goddamn house. It was sealed up tighter than a killing jar. Good thing a city girl like me’s got a little lock-picking savvy, or you’d be a pile of ash same as them two monkeys. Lordy, what a pair. I mean, I like a good rascally romp every now and then, but there’s a limit.”
* * * * * * *
It lives now in a large safety deposit box in the basement of the Royal Bank at 685 West Hastings St, in Vancouver. That makes the Vladimirescu Valentino Diavol just a short drive away.
Felicity Crenshaw was killed on the street during the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour, where she’d followed a no-good US Amy Sergeant in 1940, who dumped her like a hot rock first chance he got. Zeros were strafing the city, as she sat on the sidewalk comforting a dying sailor. She didn’t even know the guy. I know this because she visited me shortly after, in a dream. She said it was swell on the other side, and I’d get there just fine, as long as I minded my Ps and Qs.
I haven’t willed the Vladimirescu Valentino Diavol to anyone, but I’ve left instructions that it be dismantled after my death, the valuable parts sold, and the proceeds donated to orphans’ charities.
I still hear Mozart’s Requiem – Dies Irae, when I wake out of my recurring nightmare, and see her in the dark. I probably always will.
The box containing the Diavol is opened only once a year, on the anniversary of the day I first played it. Then the sound of me sitting in the little safety deposit box guest room, playing Beethoven’s Piano Sonata No. 14, echoes through the halls, and the bank staff are all smiles.