Back to reality

The Piano

copyright 1995, 1999 Maggi Rohde

  Perhaps the hardest decision every person must eventually make is what
to do with one's life.  Jennifer didn't have a problem making this
decision.  She knew what she wanted to do.  She'd always known. 
  She had played the piano since she was able to climb up on the bench. 
Her parents paid for the lessons, even when money was tight, because
she never asked for anything else.  

  When she was happy, she played Mozart.  When she was angry, she played
Beethoven.  And when she was lonely (which was often), she played Brahms. 
Brahms comforted Jennifer; it reminded her that there was always beauty to
be found in her piano.  She never stopped playing, even when things were
at their worst. 

  In high school, she competed in regional contests.  Sometimes she lost,
but that was okay.  Sometimes she won, and that was okay too, although she
didn't care much for all the crowds and news reporters.

  When she went to college, she moved on to the national competitions.  
At first she lost a lot; she couldn't understand why all her opponents
became so cutthroat over some silly title.  But she didn't stop
practicing, and eventually her own bureaus and mantles and shelves grew
cluttered with trophies of all shapes and sizes.  Her parents were so
proud.  They would point at the trophies and beam and say to their
friends, "Look!  Isn't that tremendous?  Look how wonderful our daughter

  And Jennifer would watch from across the room, and sit quietly, and 
perform when she was asked.  She didn't mind.  She never stopped playing.

  But she grew tired of competing.  The bitterness and petty backbiting
drove her to solitude more and more often.  In the safety of her room, she
began to write strange and wonderful melodies, great sonatas and concertos
of her own.  They had depth; they were full of inspiration.  Jennifer knew
they were better than anything she had ever done. 

  She played them for her parents.  They smiled, clapped politely and
asked if she wouldn't mind playing some Brahms. 

  She played them for her teacher.  He pointed out the structural flaws,
complemented her on her fine attempt and wanted to know when her next
competition would be. 

  She played them for her lover Deirdre.  Deirdre wept at the beauty of
the music, and told Jennifer she was a genius.  Between kisses, she begged
Jennifer to move to California with her, to compose and perform her work. 
Jennifer, enraptured by her lover's passion, agreed.

  That night, she played Mozart for hours. 

  She entered into no more competitions.  Her parents protested.  "Why
don't you go to Europe and tour?" they suggested.  "What about the Van
Cliburn?  It's very prestigious," they said.  "Won't you at least consider
graduate school?" they asked.  Jennifer would not.  She closed her bank
accounts and used a portion of her savings to buy two train tickets to San
Francisco.  Then she waited, and wrote, and played, and waited.

  Four days before they were to leave, Jennifer recieved a message on her
answering machine from Deirdre.  She said she was moving to British
Columbia with her new lover Natalie.  She was sorry, but she just didn't
feel the same way any more.  She wished Jennifer all the best.  She would
call as soon as she could.  But she left no address and there were no
tears in her voice. 

  Jennifer went home and played Beethoven for six hours.  Then she told 
her parents what had happened.

  Her father was furious.  "I can't believe my daughter's a queer," he

  Her mother wept.  "Why didn't you tell us sooner?" she wanted to know. 
"We could have gotten you the therapy you needed." 

  Deirdre, who had been Jennifer's lover for three and a half years, never 

  Jennifer left four days later for California with three bags, a box of 
music, and nothing in her heart.  She had stopped playing.

  The doorbell was surrounded by chipped and faded paint.  Jennifer was
sure it was broken.  She pressed it anyway.  It came off in her hand. 

  Before she could knock, she saw a wisened old face peered at her through
the lace draperies of the old California home.  Then the door creaked
open. "You must be Jennifer," said the woman. 

  "I'm afraid I broke your doorbell," Jennifer apologized, and handed her
the ancient device.  The woman took it in one hand and welcomed Jennifer
with the other. 

  Light through the yellowed lace at the windows made the room seem
smaller than it was.  Jennifer crumpled the personal ad she clutched in
her fingers: Room for rent, third floor of house, reasonable rates, no
parties please.  It was attempt number six at finding a place to live. 

  "You'd have your own bath," said the old woman, "and there's a lovely
view of the neighborhood from the third floor, but I'd expect you to help
with the cleaning... dear?  Are you listening?"

  Jennifer wasn't.  She was gazing across the room, past the shelves of
decade-old knicknacks, past the dusty overstuffed furniture, to the
cherry-wood grand piano that stood in the corner. 

  "I'll take it," she said.

  "Don't you want to see the room first?"

  "I'm sure it's fine," she said, and her eyes never left the piano.

  The room was fine, but it was warm.  At night, Jennifer lay on
top of her covers in the darkness, learning the unfamiliar sounds an old
house makes.  Her head was numb and full of unwritten music.  But every
time she turned on the light and went to write down a phrase, her
vision clouded, and she could see nothing but Deirdre, and the angry face
of her parents.  The music receded into her subconscious, leaving
her with an empty page of staff paper and trembling hands. 

  Later, in the depths of night, as she lay with silent tears stagnating
in her eyes, she began to hear someone playing the piano upstairs.  

  It was Chopin's Nocturne, Op. 27, No. 2. She knew every nuance of the 
piece.  The mystery player knew them slightly less well than she did, but 
nevertheless it was a lovely rendition.  

  As the piece drew to a close, Jennifer felt some of the tension leave
her, and she fell asleep just as the sun crested the trees outside her

  She helped with the cleaning.  As they were washing up the lunch dishes, 
she asked the old woman who lived on the fourth floor.

  "No one lives up there," said the old woman.  "It's just an old attic." 

  "But I heard someone playing the piano last night," said Jennifer. 

  "It must have been a dream, dear.  There's no one up there." 

  Jennifer spent the rest of the day sitting at the cherry-wood piano,
the lid down, staring at her book of Chopin's Nocturnes.  

  The next day, she found a job.  The music library at the university
needed a staff person who knew enough to help the students find what they
were looking for.  She qualified.  Three days later she began working. 

  The work was slow and quiet and left her with plenty of time to herself. 
She spent most of it humming the Schubert piece she'd heard the night
before.  The mystery pianist hadn't gone away; it had returned every night
that she'd been at the house.  Jennifer was reasonably sure she wasn't
dreaming.  Why, last night, the pianist had made a mistake in the second
movement of the Chopin which she never would have included in any dream. 
It must have been real. 

  The music haunted her, plagued her waking hours; and yet she still
couldn't manage to compose one note.  Her head was full of inspiration,
but she couldn't coax it out onto paper.  Nor could she bring herself to
touch the keys of the cherry-wood piano. 

  The weeks passed.  Work, then dinner and washing up, then restless
nights spent listening to the piano and trying not to remember her parents
or Deirdre.  It was a kind of life, and Jennifer got used to it after a
while, but she could feel something slowly fading inside, like the memory
of a dream. 

  One fall Sunday, the old woman had visitors.  It was her daughter and 
three grandchildren.  

  "Grandmama!" cried the youngest, throwing herself at the old woman's
knees.  The others smiled shyly at Jennifer.  She smiled shyly back. 

  The old woman's daughter introduced herself as Nicole.  "I hope my
mother's not giving you too much trouble," she teased.  Jennifer liked her

  She also liked the three grandchildren.  The eldest was June, then
Wendy, and the littlest was Michelle.  They were somewhere in-between the
age of walking and the age of hating their parents.  It was the perfect
age for visiting their grandmother.  They tore around the little house
with controlled enthusiasm, and as a consequence nothing got broken.  The
old woman seemed to enjoy it immensely.

  While the grown-ups had lunch together in the dining room, the three
grandchildren amused themselves on the piano.  No one had not touched the
piano in the months Jennifer had been there, and she was surprised to hear
it was in tune. 

  June, eldest child, had apparently had some lessons, and she played a
nearly-recognizable version of "Farmer in the Dell."  Jennifer smiled.  
At that age, she'd been learning Mozart's Sonata in B flat.

  The sound of the piano reminded her of the mysterious midnight concerts. 
"I'm still hearing the piano at night," she said, explaining to Nicole
what she'd heard.

  "Perhaps it's one of the neighbors," said the old woman. 

  "How strange," Nicole said.  "On the fourth floor, did you say?  Isn't
that --" 

  "That old attic's been locked up for years," the old woman said.  "You
really must be mistaken." 

  "I wonder if I might go up there and take a look around," said Jennifer,
but the old woman shook her head. 

  "Those floor-boards are probably all rotted away by now.  I don't want
you getting yourself hurt, dear." 

  Jennifer promised that she wouldn't. 

  Nicole, the children and the old woman spent the rest of the evening
playing card games in the parlor.  There was much shouting and merriment. 
Jennifer did the washing-up and watched them with a wistful eye. 

  I can't believe my daughter's a queer.

  I'm sorry, but I just don't feel the same any more.  I'll call you as
soon as I can.

  She sat at the piano and watched them until Nicole and the children 
gathered up their things and went home.

  An enormous crash of thunder tore Jennifer from a fitful sleep.  It was
late into the night, but the lightning outside was frequent enough to make
it bright as day.  She sat, panting with fright and nervousness, on the
edge of her bed, watching the play of electricity drive bolts of white
across the ebony sky. 

  Over the noise of the storm, she began to hear the piano. 

  It was a quiet Debussy piece, at odds with the fury outside her window. 
The sound of it calmed her.  She sat and listened, and by the time the
piece had ended, the disturbing dream had vanished. 

  Then the pianist began one of Jennifer's favorites, a Brahms cappricio. 
She began to be lulled back to restfulness -- when suddenly the music

  She stood up and listened intently, but the house was silent. 

  Without really thinking about what she was doing, Jennifer pulled on her
bathrobe and stepped into her slippers.  She knew where the attic stairs
were.  She'd stood at their foot many times, not climbing them to the top,
but standing and looking, and wondering if she really wanted to know what
was behind the locked door. 

  She climbed them now.  And when she reached the top, the door was not

  The floorboards weren't rotted away, either.  It was a cozy, if musty,
little room, with bits of old carpeting scattered about and boxes and
crates piled in the corners.  And yes, there was a piano, an ancient
little spinnet, with a layer of dust so thick on the keyboard that one
touch would have sent anyone into a sneezing fit. 

  Jennifer clicked on the single light bulb.  She did not go to the piano. 
Instead, she knelt before the only thing in the room not coated with dust: 
an enormous maple chest.  Carved on the lid was a relief picture of a
grand piano. 

  She opened it, not expecting it to be locked.  It wasn't. 

  Piled inside were stacks of letters, tied together with yellowed ribbon,
each one addressed to the old woman.  They were all from the same person: 
Beth Fitzroy.  Most were infused with words of love and longing.  The most
recent letter was dated June 23rd, 1943. 

  There was also a box of black-and-white photographs.  They told the
story of a family: one daughter and two mothers.  Jennifer recognized the
daughter as a very young Nicole.  There was one picture of the old woman
and Beth together, with their arms around each other.  They were laughing. 
Jennifer recognized the look on the old woman's face.  It was the same
look the old woman had had when she'd watched her granddaughters playing. 

  Jennifer was careful not to let any tears drop onto the photographs. 

  The last thing in the trunk was a stack of music manuscript, written in
a careful, precise hand.  They were signed simply "B. Fitzroy." 

  She unfolded the first piece across the music stand on the little
spinnet piano.  Delicately, she dusted off the keys and the bench.  Then
she sat, and with no hesitation she began to play.  The piano was
perfectly in tune. 

  The piece had had depth; it was full of inspiration.  Jennifer knew it
was better than anything she had ever done. 

  She played the piece through from start to finish, and when it was over,
she looked up.  Standing in the doorway, crying, was the old woman. 

  She bent and picked up the black-and-white picture of herself and Beth
laughing.  She looked at it, then held it to her heart.  "She died six
years ago," said the old woman quietly.  "Breast cancer. I never thought
I would hear that piece again." 

  Jennifer went to her and put her arms around the old woman.  They held
each other; they healed each other.  And for the rest of the night,
Jennifer played all of Beth's manuscript pieces, each one more beautiful
than the last, on the cherry-wood grand piano in the parlor.  

  Jennifer never went to graduate school.  She earned her teaching license
and set up a school for gifted young pianists in the San Francisco area. 
She took Beth's piano pieces to a publisher and had them bound and
released posthumously.  They were immensely successful. 

  The old woman died three years later.  She left the house and everything 
in it to Nicole and her grandchildren, except for the cherry-wood grand
piano.  That she left to Jennifer.  It stands in her studio, and is played 
often by Jennifer, her wife, and their two sons.

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