In the unsettled days of 1972, music is the steady focus of Ruth’s life and the high point of each college day. But when her happiness derails in the span of a few seconds time, Ruth is left to piece together a life that becomes fraught with confusion and emotional turmoil.
Paul has worked hard to school his stormy personality into a career that satisfies his love of music and a desire to teach. Yet his own actions threaten to rob him of his vocation, his reputation, and his view of himself. Confronting his own shortcomings was not part of his plans. But when he meets Ruth, everything changes.
Amid the challenges of life in the politically and socially turbulent 1970s, both must find comfort and support through the music they love and each other.
Ruth Snow bolted through the lunchroom doors and straight into a strong, cold blast of wind. Her music folder fluttered up, threatening to go airborne and she slapped it down against her choir notebook. A quick glance at the clouds looming over the community college’s buildings revealed heavy gray thunderheads. She couldn’t tell if they held rain, snow, or both. Fall weather in upstate New York rivaled the daily headlines in unpredictability.
She smothered a laugh when a student raced by, arms outstretched while he chased some swirling papers, shouting commands at them as though they’d obey. He lunged and captured them, righted his shaky balance, then looked her way. She shot him a grin and raised a victorious fist pump. Another gust of wind tossed strands of her long, fine hair into her eyes. Drat. Mom always said her brown hair would thicken when she grew older. Twenty had arrived with her second year in college and she still had little-girl hair. Oh, well.
Ruth hustled to catch up with Megan and Kate and join their speed walk toward the music building, where the high point of her day waited. Choir practice. The vocal music, enhanced by Mr. Stanley’s admirable instruction, provided an oasis and source of pleasure unrivaled by anything else in her daily classes. It also served to counteract the depressing gloom generated by the current events class she attended before lunch. Sometimes the news they discussed disturbed her so that she had to forego eating.
Other than stewing over depressing global and national news, life would be grand if she hadn’t agreed to perform a solo. What a mistake that was. About a month remained until the upcoming choir concert. Prickles of dread attacked her every time she thought of it.
She caught up and matched her stride to the pace of her friends. “Hey, girls.”
Megan asked, “Don’t you love grilled cheese and tomato soup for lunch?”
Ruth nodded and grinned at her friend. “My stomach’s still warm inside.”
Kate shook her head. “Mine isn’t.”
Ruth marveled at the way Kate’s thick, curly hair remained in place as if there were no wind. Megan flashed a grin at Kate’s remark and slipped a wayward blonde lock behind her ear. “Maybe if you ate more than fruit and carrot sticks for lunch, your stomach would be warm too.”
Kate snorted and fixed intense eyes and crinkled brows on Megan. “Yeah, warm and a lot larger.”
Megan’s cheery face turned solemn, and her large, brown eyes trained on the sidewalk. Ruth’s shoulders tightened and her jaw clenched before she forced out the words, “Shame on you, Kate.”
Kate’s eyes widened. “What? I was only kidding.”
Megan remained silent and Ruth asked, “Does she look like she thinks it’s funny?”
Kate pressed her lips together and averted her gaze. Ruth wouldn’t play diplomat and smooth this one out. How unfair Kate could be, so easily, as though she possessed the right to spout anything she wished. Maybe because she had no siblings to react to her, she didn’t understand how much her words could sting.
Ruth’s quick anger softened. Sometimes it proved to be such an uncomfortable dance, trying to be friends with both of them. She didn’t want to take sides, but couldn’t stand back and let them throw darts at each other, either. She sighed. Besides, Megan would endure most of the barbs and then shrink into herself.
No, Ruth had to speak up. “Shouldn’t we be past stuff like this? We’re adults. This is junior high garbage, Kate.”
Megan’s voice wobbled. “Don’t fight on account of me.”
Ruth’s throat ached with empathy for Megan. “It’s not your fault. What Kate said was mean, even if it was a joke.”
Kate halted and stood near the entrance of the music building. She rolled her eyes and barked, “OK, already. I’m sorry.”
Kate’s gaze rested on Megan and her voice softened. “I am sorry, Megan.”
Megan glanced up at them. “OK. No offense. Gotta run or I’ll be late.” Megan delivered a quick wave and scurried into the adjacent building.
Ruth lowered her voice. “Why do you do that to her? I know how she feels. You don’t. You’ve never been fat.”
A group of brightly clad, laughing students approached, in tie-dyed regalia, long hair tossing in the wind. Kate shot them a disapproving glance and waited until they’d gone inside before she muttered, “Idiots. Probably laughing about all the Watergate news.”
Ruth passed up the opportunity to debate her in another Nixon argument or defend the other students again. “Never mind them. I want you to stop needling Megan.”
Kate flipped a hand in the air. “You know how much she likes boys. It would be good for her to lose weight like you did. She’d get more dates and attention and be happier. Also, she’s short. Short people look larger with the same weight, so she needs extra encouragement to slim down.”
Ruth rubbed her forehead. “Let me get this straight. So you said what you did to help her? Why not tell her that instead of putting her down? You shouldn’t make her feel guilty for enjoying her lunch.” She pointed at Kate. “Besides, I ate as much as she did, and you didn’t say anything to me. She’s fine as she is.”
“She’s not fine as she is. She gets constant crushes on jocks, and you know as well as I do that jocks don’t date overweight girls. Only greasers or hippies do and she never looks at them.”
Ruth exhaled in frustration. Why did Kate agree with all the bird-brained terms for everyone? It was 1972 after all. How short-sighted to clump people into a labeled box. Maybe she should ask Kate which box she’d put her own self in. A slight grin quirked her lips at the thought. Kate would invent her own unique classification, but only for herself.
Kate raised her eyebrows. “Truce?” Kate’s open expression hinted at the possibility of mutual understanding. Maybe.
Ruth shrugged. “I guess so.”
They hustled through the entryway. Intermittent swells of music or song sounded when a practice room door opened, and from the nearby auditorium, the disordered tones of the orchestra tuning up hummed through the hallway.
Kate grinned at Ruth. “Ready for the crazy man?”
Ruth hung her coat and backpack on a peg next to Kate’s. “Mr. Stanley’s not crazy, just intense. He’s very talented.”
Kate shook her head. “He’s why I quit choir, and yes, he is crazy. I bet he gets into fistfights with that temper of his.” She acted out the swagger of a big, strong man and punched her fists into the air.
Ruth laughed. “You make him look like a bully. He’s just got a quick temper.”
“Quick temper, my eye. Remember the time he pulled Rick’s goatee and yelled at him to open his mouth more when he sang? That was it for me, and for Rick. Quitting time. I’m much happier playing violin in the orchestra. Our conductor isn’t nuts.”
“That was over a year ago. Why don’t you forget it?”
Kate huffed out a laugh. “Hah. No way.”
“Hold whatever opinion you like. I think he’s a great director.” Ruth headed to the choir room and turned to wave.
Kate called, “Maybe you’re nuts too.”
She flashed an exaggerated grin and chuckled at Kate’s scowl. Ruth hadn’t bothered to try and persuade Kate not to quit. Kate’s opinions were as immoveable as a granite slab. But Ruth had launched several attempts to coax Rick out of quitting. He’d fixed her with a dreary expression and announced, “I don’t like singing that much.”
Ruth did. She’d never quit choir—ever. She entered the choir room to the sounds of murmurs and chair legs squeaking on the floor. Mr. Stanley riffled through papers on the lectern at the front of the room, his brows crinkled while he peered down. She studied him. He’d be handsome if he didn’t scowl so much. Ruth knew he was close to thirty, so his juvenile flashes of temper struck her as hilarious in a teacher, especially one as decisive and focused as he.
His short, trimmed beard suggested a desire for tidiness, yet he tousled his hair during practice, through energetic head and arm motions while conducting or frustrated head rubbing when he responded to mistakes. He looked wind-blasted by the end of each session.
She perched on a chair in the soprano section and opened her music folder. Mr. Stanley cleared his throat and rolled up the sleeves of his dark blue dress shirt. His students knew the signal well. They ceased their conversations and the rustling sound of everyone opening their folders filled the room. He raised his baton and they stood.
Ruth delighted in the warm-up exercises of what he called “moving chords.” Under his commanding direction, their vocal tones would mesh, then swell and contract, travel from major to minor, clash in dissonance and resolve into harmony. Moving chords always shivered her into goose bumps. As practice continued, the students’ voices warmed up while their attention and focus improved under their director’s resolute style.
While they sang a difficult section of one of their pieces, Mr. Stanley barked, “Bass singers. You sound like you ate peanut butter for lunch. Clear your throats and try again.”
Ruth glanced over at the bass section and caught Chuck’s eye. His lean body stood relaxed and his features appeared calm as always, but mirth danced in his eyes when he grinned at her. After the rumble of throat clearing subsided, Mr. Stanley trained his attention on the wayward singers. His brows drew down while his blue eyes glittered as though sparks would fly out. The poor bass section caught grief in nearly every class. Why didn’t they practice more?
“Again,” Mr. Stanley shouted, and raised his hands and eyebrows, an expectant expression on his face. After the third bungling try, Mr. Stanley slammed his baton down, causing more than a few students to startle. The baton skittered onto the floor, furnishing the only sound in the room. His face thunderous, he yelled, “You sound like you’re puking out of your lousy, skinny necks.”
He grabbed a sheaf of papers off his lectern and flung them above the bass section. Ruth’s eyes widened at the display. Most of the boys ducked or stood dejectedly, but unflappable Chuck gazed up. The sheets fluttered down around him and he commented in an impressed tone, “Wow.”
Ruth suppressed a laugh. As fast as Mr. Stanley’s wrath flared, it drained from his features. He pressed his lips together, the short beard hairs under his lower lip sticking out straight for a moment. He ran a hand through his disheveled hair and heaved a sigh.
“How can you possibly not know this section by now?” He stared at the boys, boring his gaze into them one by one. After a pause, he sang the passage in his clear, melodious voice. “There. Now, how hard is that? Please pick up the sheets and we’ll try again.”
Ruth’s brows furrowed. Mr. Stanley should have to pick them up. He’d thrown them. Well...at least he said please.
Students retrieved the scattered papers and handed them to Chuck, who sauntered forward and deposited them on the lectern. His curly mop of hair bounced while he took long strides back to his section. Good old Chuck. Nothing fazed him.
Mr. Stanley nodded. “Thank you. Let’s break into smaller groups and work on this portion. Bass section, you stay here with me. Other groups, go to a practice room. Bob, lead the tenors, Janice the altos, Ruth, sopranos.” He glanced at his watch. “Be back here in fifteen minutes.”
Ruth rolled her eyes at Chuck and grinned while she filed out with the sopranos. Elena, elfin and pretty, flicked back her long, black hair and shot her a sly grin. She sidled up and whispered, “Teacher’s pet. He never yells at you.”
Elena laughed when Ruth furrowed her brows at her. “It’s just because he knows I practice a lot. He yells at anybody he thinks isn’t trying hard enough, no matter who they are.”
“Does he have to be so rude?”