It was my job to bring the old ladies to life—the stained mahogany boxes, the rows of broken black and white keys, many of them true ivory—and to restring the cluster of notes one, two and three octaves above and below middle C. It took patience and vision to recover what someone’s great-aunt, who’d thumped out hymns since 1942, beat out of the Chickering upright that took up half the family parlor, back when people knew what a parlor was. When the flesh-and-blood little lady passed on, her nephews and nieces had no idea what to do with the huge music box, which by then had collected potted plants and cat fur, like jungle real estate.
I knew what to do. They ended up in the back of Starbuck & Co.’s Music Emporium, just off the downtown in Weaverville, L.A.—Lower Alabama, that is. Ellwood Starbuck needed a piano tuner and a rebuilder, if he could find one. My mother’s family had sold him the plot on which the Starbuck family built their home when they emigrated to Weaverville in the thirties. My ten years’ experience at a more cosmopolitan place, with Emile & Zardoz in the big city of Birmingham didn’t really count to anyone. I moved back to town to work for Mr. Starbuck—and to care for my elderly mother and her sister. Back then, not so long ago, the elder son did that sort of thing, especially if he wasn’t supporting a wife and a family of his own.
But a man needs work in any case, if anything just to past the time, and time barely moved in little old Weaverville, where green summer twilights lasted forever. I learned to do without and to do with: country radio stations, okra, and ancient, still, great-uncles in white short-sleeved shirts. Keeping busy was the thing. Ten, twelve hours a day, a waiting game without an end in sight. It was what I had, and I didn’t blame myself.
I didn’t see them arrive. Mr. Starbuck stuck his narrow head around the corner of my back-store workshop. “Boss,”—as everyone but my family called me—“you got company.”
Company meant customers. The two followed, first a country mother about forty to fifty, with plump arms, narrow eyes, and a calico dress.
The girl trailed her mother, a full yard behind, a spindly child of about thirteen with limp blond hair and simple, open eyes.
“Boss, these are the Bedenbughs. Miss Lisa”—Mr. Starbuck nodded toward the girl—“plays. See what you can do for them.”
Not much, I read by his expression. The mother nodded to me and lifted her chin the way some country people do. “Elsie is my Christian name. Here is my child, Lisa.”
Lisa blinked and blushed and looked at the floor. I gave a smile and said, “Now who’s the musician?” The mother frowned.
“See what you can do,” Mr. Starbuck repeated. His head vanished.
The mother pushed the floor-gazing child forward. “Baby, help the man out.” But Baby didn’t speak. Her mother continued, “She’s the one that plays. Her teacher down at the church loaned her a piano and said she needs her own, there isn’t anything more she can teach her, not unless she gets her own piano.” She gave a tired sigh. “Know what I mean?”
“I sure do. How long has she been studying?”
The mother shrugged. “Two years.”
“A good investment.”
“I don’t know anything about investments. She gets taught for nothing, otherwise it just wouldn’t happen.”
“For free? Really, now?”
“It’s just one of those things. So don’t show me something for the King of Finland. We’re poor.”
“But don’t try and fob off a piece of junk neither.”
“You sure do understand a lot.”
I led them through a warren of piano cabinets and stopped at a faded Cable, 1926 vintage, tall and a ton of wood. Lisa appeared soundlessly at my elbow and leaned forward to study the row of yellowed keys. “Please,” I said. It was the first time I’d spoken to her. “Go right ahead. It’s all yours.”
She drew back. The mother nudged her forward. “Go ahead, child. But I got groceries to buy and your sisters to feed.”
“Please.... We’re all friends here,” I said.
I didn’t want them to go hungry. I figured we’d wind up selling a cracked spinet for a few hundred dollars. A few were warping by the loading dock. You never knew, though.
The girl slid onto the bench, hunched her thin shoulders, and stretched her long fingers over the keys. She glanced up once, bit her lip, and played Bach.
The wide, cool room filled with a Bach fugue, a huge piece from the second book. The adjectives came to my mind: soaring, falling, majestic. I forgot just who was playing. I heard the perfect-sounding reproduction of the music, years beyond the written page, and a fluid retelling of what the music meant, now being made alive with the technique of someone less than half my age.
The child found the last chord and looked up at her mother and giggled quietly. I swallowed and asked her, “Have you got something else you want to play?”
“I got groceries to buy,” the mother interjected.
“I’ll knock off two hundred. Let her play one more piece.”
The mother shrugged. “It’s your dime.”
Lisa giggled, young girl that she was—until she played a Chopin étude, Opus 25 in C-sharp minor. She didn’t miss a note or a phrase. I knew she wouldn’t. I stood still until I found my voice. “How long did you say you’ve been taking?”
“’Bout two years, wouldn’t you say, Mama?”
“How many pieces could you play for me, right now?”
“Sheesh,” her mother snorted. “We can’t be here till next week.”
“The piece you just played,” I asked carefully, “how long before you learned it?”
“It’s in my head. I dunno.”
“A few weeks?”
She blushed and giggled. “A couple of times....”
“It’s just one of those things,” she murmured, and covered her mouth with her hands. I turned to the mother. I felt a little light-headed. “This girl could be a major talent.”
“You said two hundred off. I got witnesses.”
“Make you a deal. Nothing for the instrument, you let me set up an audition for Lisa.”
The mother’s faced opened up in surprise. “I got witnesses to what you just said. When would this come about?”
“Next week. I’ll set up an appointment. I’m thinking full a scholarship eventually, a hundred thousand dollars worth, maybe.”
“For what exactly?”
“For the music.”
She rubbed her neck a moment. “You put that in writing.”
“The instrument is yours, I can promise that. The audition is up to you.”
“I’ll see to that. When can we expect delivery?”
She nodded absentmindedly and twisted her daughter’s hair. “Looks like we got some new furniture.”
Lisa never lost her smile.
I wrote Mr. Starbuck a check after Mama and Lisa went to get groceries. I held up my other end of the bargain—I phoned Herr Doctor Mister Graf, eighty-one, though he seemed to me much older. He belonged deep in a part of century that almost nobody can remember anymore—the Europe of culture, breeding, coal smoke, and bigotry. Despite forty years in the music department of our state university, he still lisped in Russo-German English. I tried now to use measured phrases in communicating my discovery to him, but I knew I sounded breathless.
He sighed. “You are aware that I am an old, old man?”
“This is different.”
“What? Another Hoffman?”
“I think so.”
He began, “Your father—“ and stopped. “Your father was one of my best pupils....” Ever, he wanted to say. “Too bad,” he said. “Such a waste.” I held the phone. He exhaled. “Next Saturday. Three o’clock. But only if I get tossed off my feet do I take another student. I hope you didn’t make promises. Understand?”
I called the mother and got her to let me take the girl on a twenty-mile drive to the state university. I couldn’t say how long we’d stay. If unimpressed, Graf would finish the audition in three minutes. Astonished, he might keep the child for three hours. He hadn’t taken a child pupil since my father. He hadn’t taken me.
On the Saturday the weather was hot and still. I followed little roads to Lisa and her mother’s house. Lisa was dressed up just as she might be for her first day of school, a yellow dress and leather shoes and her hair tied back in a ponytail. The mother refused to come along. She stuck her head through my car window and glared, and had Lisa ride in the back seat.
Graf’s studio took up a corner room in the oldest stone building in the university. He stood as Lisa entered the room, and bowed and shook her hand. “I hear you are very special,” he said in his grandfather’s voice. “What do you say to that?”
Lisa blushed and giggled.
“Good. What piece have you got for me?”
She answered so quietly I didn’t understand. Graf stepped back. Lisa slid onto the piano bench and began playing on the first ebony Steinway Grand she’d ever seen.
It didn’t matter—the performer and the thin girl weren’t the same person. She played a selection from Schumann’s Carnaval. Each note, each nuance was there, and more. I heard phrasing, rubato, technical precision, even drama and imagination, everything that should be, not mimicked, but created.
The music died away. The girl didn’t move. Graf looked up at me. He cleared his throat and turned to the child. “Something else. Please.”
A Debussy prelude. Graf studied her hands, with his own hand propped underneath his chin. When the music ended he said quietly to her, “Again. Anything you’d like.”
Beethoven—Graf’s favorite. Graf didn’t move, even when Lisa had finished, lifted her hands and stared down at the keys. He was quiet for a few long seconds. “Yes,” Graf said, almost to himself, “Yes, yes, yes.”
He stood quickly and pulled me to one side. “Not since Hoffman.”
“I get it.”
“No you don’t. You haven’t the foggiest. Take this to the parent. Lessons on Saturday, three o’clock. I expect no compensation.” He patted Lisa on the shoulder. “You are very blessed. You have no idea what I’m talking about. Maybe one day you will.” He turned to me. “Make sure she gets here. That’s all you’ve got to do.”
Graf phoned me during the week. “You haven’t forgotten, have you?”
“It’s in the bag,” I answered.
“In the bag,” he repeated this Americanism to himself. “What do you get out of this?”
Blood rushed to my face. I thought he was being European and old-fashioned. I wouldn’t tell him the truth—that she could be who my father refused to be, and that I just wasn’t able to be. Instead, I just said, “I hate waste.”
I had a few days and made good use of it. I got the piano delivered. The boys who carried it out mentioned that the mother had them deposit the thing in the middle of the garage around back from the big house, where she’d practice by the light of a naked bulb, and surrounded by a hard dirt floor.
On Saturday I knocked on the mother’s aluminum door an hour early. She answered and mumbled, “Come on in,” as if she’d just as soon close the door in my face. The girl waited on the couch, clutching an edition of Chopin’s Opus 10 Etudes I’d given her to her chest.
“How do you like them?” I asked her politely.
“Very nice,” she answered sweetly.
“You people,” her mother sighed, and we were off.
I made sure we arrived early at Graf’s studio, with its creaky wooden floors, stacks of music, and murky oil landscapes. He was waiting for her at the door. “Liesl,” he breathed softly as he squeezed her hand. He led her directly to his piano. I followed. She sat and put her hands on the keys. Graf gave me an irritated glance. I stepped away and closed the heavy door behind me.
I waited outside a full two hours. I listened: his touch was heavier, hers quicksilver. The difference, otherwise, between the two wasn’t so much. I don’t think the child understood—she couldn’t.
At the end, the door opened and Graf let Lisa, or Liesl, as she’d ever be known to him, into the hallway. He seemed exhausted from the afternoon’s intensity and nodded briefly in my direction. The girl walked ahead, holding the music like a shield, slid into the back seat, where she never said a word during the trip back home.
At their house I pulled into the weedy driveway. She popped open the door and started to fly out. “I’d like to talk to your Mother,” I managed. She banged on the door to the house and called out, “Mama! Mama!” except with the local accent it sounded like Mamer! Mamer!
The door opened. I followed the mother farther into the house, where she was working with a pan piled high with okra. “It went well,” I started. She slid the pan underneath the faucet and let the water run full blast. “It went extraordinarily well.” I tried explaining. “My guess is that he’ll want to present her in a recital in Atlanta in a year or so.”
She elbowed me farther down the counter. “Who’s paying for all this?”
I licked my lips. “They’ll pay her, would be my guess.”
“It’s a tradition, paying the artist.”
“The person who plays the music.”
She looked up from the okra and studied the green horizon. “Ah-ha.” Lisa ran past, changed into her blue jeans and a big T-shirt, and rushed past us again without looking up. “Ah-ha,” her mother repeated.
By working until nine an extra two nights a week I made sure that I didn’t have Saturday work that summer. Lisa got to all her lessons on time.
I say “lessons”, but they were more, of course. I sat in the hallway and listened. One week Graf slipped her the score to Beethoven’s Fourth Piano Concerto, along with a recording. The next week—I’m not sure she ever did more than glance at the music itself—I listened to a flawless performance of the three solo parts. Graf never interrupted. Afterward, after she’d hurried past us, he came to the door. For the first time I noticed that he limped with a cane. He nodded to the girl clacking down the stone hallway. “Thank you,” he murmured after her, “Danke, Liesl.”
September, which, so far south, means no more than a letting-up of the heat, keeps everyone busy. It means school, which means football, which becomes the reason for school. Lisa played in the band, tooting on a plastic clarinet that the band director loaned her. The school band practices by the hour, three nights a week, plus special practices on Saturdays.
Meanwhile, Graf limped into his studio, unlocked the door, and waited among the dark drapes and brown-leaf photographs of a lifetime in a Europe long lost, an unrecognizable Budapest. He waited one hour, then two, interrupted by frantic phone calls from my cell phone. No Liesl, no mother, not until I heard the distant band marching on the practice field as I drove away from the town square. I remembered in a flash, and drove there double-time, spinning gravel.
A few parents hung around on the bleachers. Lisa’s mother sat alone, shading her eyes with her hand. I parked close to the field—I should have picked a spot farther away and given myself some cool-down time. The gravel crunched underneath my feet. She didn’t even turn around, and I stood stock-still until she did. “Hullo,” she growled at me.
I answered in a tone I wanted to hide, “I thought we had an appointment.”
She tapped her elbows. “The child has got other things to do.”
“Yea, well, she’s got other things to do.”
“Other things,” I sputtered. “When a teacher of Graf’s stature consents.... Your child’s gift comes through you! It’s a waste—that’s the awful thing. If you’ll listen—”
Color frilled her face. Now, she sputtered. “Where”—it came out as whur—“do you people get off? Your mother is no countess. What about the child? What do you people think you’re going to do for her? You think she’s happy with you people?” By then the band was resting on the sidelines. The mother’s voice carried. “It’s my fault for letting this nonsense get started. What do you think you people are going to do for her? How’s she going to make a real living? None of it’s right. I want you and that messy old man out of our lives!” She stood and threw her arms toward me. “We’re finished with you and your kind!” She edged closer and closer, flinging her arms. I retreated. She stopped just as I bumped into my car. She whirled around and stomped away.
I glanced around. A line of teenagers, cradling glittering trumpets and trombones stared. Some snickered. Halfway down the line, a thin blond-haired girl, with her hair bound up in the Tyrolean style, looked down. That was almost—almost—my last glance of Lisa, or Liesl, or whatever she would be. As for what she’d just seen, how much of it she’d heard, and what her thoughts might be, all these were things which I just had to block out of my mind.
I called Graf. He blamed me, of course. What had I said? Didn’t I try to enlighten the mother? He muttered something in German and hung up.
They disappeared, Lisa and the mother, the way their kind often do. Later, I drove past their house; the blinds were pulled down, weeds grew in the yard, and the cheap aluminum door banged in the November wind.
Myself, I got busy afterward, met a social-science teacher and, after a year, got engaged to her. We planned the wedding, and went searching high and low for a split-level house, and negotiated with Mr. Starbuck for a half-interest in the business. When Graf passed away the next spring, I sent flowers. I never knew the essence of the man, I decided, and I myself never took on another pupil as a Special One. Everybody, no matter how sausage-fingered or tone-deaf—or not—got the same treatment from me, the same talk. It moved mahogany boxes, made me a living, besides making Mr. Starbuck beam.
I was finished forever with unusual things, except once. The following spring, when the weather was starting to glow after a frosty winter, I was searching near the river for somebody’s grandparents’ house, and a spinet there that needed tuning. Woods grew thick and close to the county road. I drove the company truck slowly; I wasn’t in a hurry, anyway. A warped, slab-boarded house appeared. A single, ancient water-oak shaded the front yard. On a low, strong limb, a gaggle of little children rollicked around a tire swing. A teenage girl watched over them, careful with her new job so full of responsibility.
I had kept the truck window rolled down that day, and now I leaned out on my elbow. I was suddenly filled with good feelings. I glanced at her: Lisa, Liesl, now taller, a girl with dignity, her straight hair framing her face, her eyes bright underneath her tall forehead. But when she glanced back, in the second our eyes met she gave me a look of pure hate, and ran inside the house, suddenly abandoning to the yard those same children she’d been so diligently watching over, just as I—you can’t convince me it’s not true—had abandoned her.
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