The Piano Man
The day Sacco and Vanzetti got the electric chair, I found out my mother was a fraud. It was the summer of 1927, a time of Bolsheviks, labor strikes and bombs, and radicals in a frenzy over unfair trials. I made my way to an address scribbled on a scrap of paper. A boat horn blew an eerie note from the harbor. Aside from the click-clack of my footsteps, the streets were hushed and still as a hurricane’s eye. I located the townhouse and ascended the stoop, humming a Bach cantata, entirely innocent of the bombshell that was about to drop.
Still humming, I lifted the knocker and rapped. No response. Is Marie not expecting me? Marie had been recommended by my professor at Boston University. Her piano instruction was acclaimed in Paris. I glanced at the address, rapped again on the door and began to pace. The wait seemed endless. My fingers fidgeted with a button on my shirt, then reached out and drummed on the railing. The cantata in my head faded and even the harbor grew quiet. The clicking of a lock brought me to sudden attention. The door flew open. I had expected a frail, elderly matron.
“My Conrad!” the young woman in the doorway exclaimed, as I got a glimpse of girlish ivory cheeks and too-red lips. “So sorry for you to wait.” Her French accent flowed, as lush as her perfume. She turned and motioned me inside. I followed behind, watching her flapper skirt sway and her black bob give little bounces. She led me to the parlor, to the Steinway, and patted the piano bench, where I sat down awkwardly, my hands seeking pockets. She joined me on the bench, scooted close and peered into my eyes.
“I am Marie.” The lines on her face affirmed her age—a tad older than I, perhaps thirty. A bit taller, too. And beautiful, in an odd, painted sort of way. “So nice meeting you,” she said, her treble-toned voice almost girlish, giddy. “The professor told me much about you.” Reaching to my face, she tossed aside that wavy tuft of dark brown hair from above my right eye. “Yes, you do have that ‘Beethoven tuft,’ just like the professor told to me. With your pressed trousers and buttoned up shirt, I see your hair is that one... how do you say... that one unkempt part of you.”
What? Leaning back, I gave her a nod, as her fragrance forced a thin cough from my throat.
“Okay.” She turned to the keyboard. “Play for me something. What have you brought?”
“Wagner.” I placed a Wagner book on the music rack and opened it to the opera Tannhäuser.
Marie sighed, as if encountering a new thought. “The professor, he brags for you. And you, so handsome. He did not tell me that.”
My fingers hovered over the keys, waiting to begin.
“And,” she added, “such dark eyes. Of course, dark. Like theirs.”
“Dark?” I said, perplexed. “Like theirs?”
“Oh, Conrad.” Marie laughed. Her head dropped to her hands as she let out a soft moan. When her face finally lifted, her blue eyes blinked, glistening and moist. “You know.” She reached for a handkerchief and dabbed at her nose, her face as painted as a cathedral. “The Italians.”
Could Marie be a bit daft? “Perhaps we should try again... tomorrow... when you’re feeling better.” I stood up and closed the Wagner book.
“No, no. You must stay. I so need a friend today.” Marie grasped my arm and pulled me back down to the bench. “So sad, no?” She gazed at me, her eyelashes fluttering. “About Monsieur Sacco, and his dear friend, Vanzetti? Such an end for those fine Italian fellows.” She shook her short bob. “And you, certainly, should care.”
I should care? I shifted on the piano bench and stared at her, her fingers still gripping my arm.
“After seven long years,” Marie continued, “of trials, and more trials. And then refusing food—they rather to starve than be killed by the false evidence.” Her tears began to dribble anew. “They did not rob that bank. They did not shoot those men. I know this.” She sucked in a sob. “They were... how do you Americans say... framed.” She snorted and sniffed. “False evidence. They were... goats... how do you say... escape goats.”
Marie spoke of politics as if she were wearing trousers. True, the ladies could vote now. Her views, of course, were soft and unschooled. I let her go on, though the talk was unbecoming.
“And Nicola Sacco’s dear wife, Rosina, with those two darling children.” Marie took my hand and cupped it in her palms as if to console me. My hand turned stiff as hard wood; however, I let it remain. Her skin felt surprisingly tender, smooth. She opened my thin fingers and gave each a gentle stretch. The sensation was not... disagreeable.
At university, I had come to tolerate foreigners. College life does that. One had to admit the superiority of the German composers. And the French, though tied to the Pope, were at least clean. Like Marie.
My Grandfather Markham used to rail against the Catholics—he was descended from pure English stock, a nearly straight line from 1630, the first Puritans in Salem. Had he been alive, he would have been appalled at my free thinking. However, even I, with my modern views, was horrified at the rabble pouring in off the docks from places like Sicily, Slovakia, and God knows where.
“To honor those poor dead men,” Marie said, “why don’t you play a Scarlatti sonata, my dear.” My face flushed at the word dear. It sounded so superior. I retrieved my wooden hand from her grasp and flipped the Wagner sheets back to the prelude. My fingers moved over the keys. She listened a moment, till my hands muddled two notes in an intricate measure. That’s when she leaned toward me.
“Conrad, did you know,” she lowered her voice as if to share a bit of gossip, “that Sacco’s father asked to Mussolini—Il Duce—to save his son’s life?”
I closed the Wagner book, crossed my arms and let out a sigh. “Why should Mussolini care about a couple of anarchists?”
“Well, of course. Because they were innocent.” Marie’s red lips pursed together in a pout.
My arms crossed more tightly. “You immigrants certainly stick together.”
Marie gasped. “We immigra—?”
“Yes.” I jumped to my feet, my bile rising. “All those immigrants mobbing the newsstands last night, way past midnight. And you joined them, no doubt.”
“No, I did not.” She also stood, her jaw plummeting.
“The Boston Globe reported it all—the fainting, the weeping, the rending of garments.” My hand tugged at my shirt in a mocking gesture. “Even the Jews came out. For Christ’s sake, for a couple of Italian anarchists?”
Marie frowned. “Well, some of these, as you say, ‘anarchists,’ are not like you think. Some only are joining to the unions to make better—”
“Unionists, Wobblies, whatever. If they come here to throw bombs, they get the chair. Mussolini would surely do the same.” I sat down again, hard. “Now, let the lesson begin.” Jerking open the Wagner book, I began to beat the notes to the Tannhäuser prelude.
After the fourth measure, Marie turned and looked at me with those innocent blue eyes. And that’s when she dropped the news like a bomber from the Great War. “You should know about Mussolini. He is Italian. Like your father.”
“My father?” My fingers slowed, toyed and tinkered with the next few notes.
“Yes. You know, your other father. The Italian.”
My hands froze on the keys, a sudden chill filling my chest. “Ha! You must be mad!” My head shook, and my Beethoven tuft fell again to my eye.
“Of course, you know. The professor told to me right here in my parlor. He told me much about you, that you have... how do you say... talents. From abroad, from the Continent. It’s in your blood. Your mother… Elsie, right?”
That’s her name. My head inclined slightly.
“He told to me that Elsie was married before The War. To an Italian from the Old Country.”
What? I stared at her in horror.
“Her father forbade the marriage, yes. But she ran away to him. This you must know.”
My neck began to throb.
“Her father never forgave,” she continued. “They stayed together maybe two years. Then came a terrible secret, and she left his—”
No! Lies! Consummate lies! I stood abruptly at the keyboard with the sensation of having been forcibly disrobed.
Marie sucked in her breath and her eyes widened. “Surely... So you did not know this? Oh, mon Dieu. Perhaps I was not to tell. But you are nearly a grown man.”
“Nearly? I am a grown man!”
Marie clutched my arm.
I broke free of her grasp and found myself standing in the middle of the room, my jaw clenching. “Who is this Italian? Tell me!”
“Please do not shout. I am sorry.” She pursued me and hovered a few shameful inches above me, her lower lip quivering. “It is not such a... how do you say... scandaleux... such a scandal, such a shameful thing, divorce. You are not even Catholic.”
“Does my father know this?” My fingers balled into a fist.
“I do not know.”
“Of course he knows. That... that explains it.” Hastening to the divan, I grabbed my books and sheets of Bach and Schubert.
“Oh, I don’t know, everything.”
Marie tailed me to the door.
I spun to face her. “Who is he, this... this Italian?”
“The professor told to me he sells pianos.”
“In a shop, at the North End. But, oh, mon Dieu. Perhaps this secret was not mine to tell.”
Again she moved to me, as a woman moves—cheetah-like, stalking. “Please do not go. I thought this you knew.” She took my hand in her soft fingers.
With one last glare, I jerked my arm free, yanked open the door, and hurried out onto the darkening street.
My heels beat the sidewalk on the two-mile trudge home. The rows of porches passed in a blur as I rounded the last corner and headed down Newbury Street.
Father would not be at home. He ate his dinners at the Jehovah’s Witness hall which had become his home, his family, for longer than I could remember. They even called him Brother Markham. Father... so handsome and tall. So quiet. I’d always marveled at his mind, the mystery of his thoughts, his rich brown eyes forever focused on something in the dark distance. While yearning for them to focus on me.
Did Father know about the Italian? Of course, he must. That would explain why... why he’d never shown me the building uptown where he worked, shown me his office, his desk, his stenotype machine, never drove me out to the poultry farm where he’d spent his boyhood, never taught me how to tie a knot on a fishing line. Or bought me a Hardy Boys book. Never embraced me... I mean the way a father would. Like my neighbor did once to his son, Don—I saw him do it; he just grabbed the boy by the shoulders and called him ‘Son.’
The lengthening shadow of a solitary dogwood seemed to lunge at me. My throat clenched, cutting off breath. Stumbling to the tree, I ducked a branch of blood-red berries, gripped the thin trunk, and lowered myself to the ground, clutching at my neck and sucking in air. My stomach knotted and heaved until, to my horror, a muffled sob emerged, and another. With a gasp and a snort, I set my jaw tight and thrust my body up to standing, as straight as an Army doughboy, breathing briskly to gain back my senses. Was I going mad?
Mad I’d been, yes… at nine, at ten, muffling my boyish moans in bed at night, wishing my life would end. But please God, no more! Above my head, the dark, leafy branches blocked the blackening sky. Did you hear, God? I’m a man now. And I leaned stiffly against the tree trunk, remembering...
When the whippings began, I must have been seven. Mother and I had been sitting at supper, alone as always, the two of us, in silence, when the smell of smoke rose from a pot on the gas range. She rushed to grab it and flung the pot into the sink. The clanks and clunks echoed on the high ceiling. Her body leaned over the sink as if vomiting, and a low mutter emerged from her throat—an animal sound, like a wild thing caught in a bog. I clasped my ears, my elbows jutting out, and knocked over a glass of buttermilk. It shattered at my feet. She ran from the room, returned with Father’s brown leather belt, and slapped my legs till the welts rose. I screamed and shouted, “Father!” But Father wasn’t home.
She seemed quite sorry afterward, sitting on my bed, sniffling and rubbing lotion on my legs, calling me her ‘best boy.’
Through the years, her episodes arrived at random moments. The waiting was the worst.
Until one day, at age twelve, something shifted inside me, like a falcon spreading its wings. I was almost her height by then. Playing hide and seek with an imaginary friend, I bumped her bedroom dresser, knocking to the floor that old daguerreotype, the photo of her father. She ran for the belt and held it in a cocked position, fixing me with her feral blue eyes—skin-piercing eyes. When the belt came flying, that falcon, it rose, it lifted, it flew. For the first time, I didn’t cry out, or even flinch. My lips pinched tight and narrow as I returned her stare with new, fearless eyes.
She dropped the belt and backed away. And she never hurt me again. She didn’t dare.
But now, after all these years, the memory came slashing back. I leaned on the dogwood under a blue-black sky. My throat drew taut and another sob emerged. “She dared... she dared to hurt me anew.” My hands clutched at the tree, trying to steady my breath. “I’m a man,” my voice called to no one. “But she dared.” Clenching my jaw, I shoved back from the tree and hurried home, eager to see the whites of her eyes. She was the cause, the cause of it all. She would pay for this madness—the liar.
A sliver of light shone from the kitchen window. Stealing up the porch steps, I pressed open the door and didn’t bother to wipe my feet, just moved into the living room in the shadows, and watched her in the kitchen with new eyes, as she moved about in her house dress—the one with the little pink and green roses—the skirt at her knees in a quiver.
Her eyes scanned the doorway… and seemed to see me… but, no.
She turned to the wooden ice box, pulled out meat and butter, and crossed the lemon-colored linoleum to the vegetable array on the counter, her short heels clacking. With a shake of her bobbed brown hair, she leaned a knife into the white onions, the celery and potatoes, her swift hands slicing carrots to a confident rhythm. Chop… chop. It occurred to me that her steel blue eyes still held that animal look. She draped a piece of beef on the chopping block and leaned into the cutting with a thunk, thunk, thunk.
Throbs of blood pulsed into my neck. Thunk, thunk. The Wagner book slipped, spilling pages on the hardwood floor.
“Conrad, honey, is that you?”
After collecting the pages, I stepped to the kitchen door and into the light.
“Conrad, you startled me.”
My eyes stayed fixed on her.
“Supper’ll be late, but I’m hurrying.”
“You going to leave me alone again?” She gathered the cut carrots and ran the faucet to fill the pot. “I’m tired of eating alone.”
I watched her hoist the heavy pot to the counter.
“Conrad.” She came closer, her heels clicking across the floor. “Your father and those JWs.” Her hand reached out to brush that tuft of hair from my eye. My head jerked from her touch. Her gaze froze on me a brief, cold second. She returned to the sink and shut off the tap. “If they really loved God, they’d be home loving their wives.”
I stared at her back.
She slid the pot onto the stove. “A husband ought to eat supper with his—”
“The Italians got the chair.”
She turned abruptly, her eyes stabbing as if she could see right through me. It was creepy.
I backed off, entered my room and crouched at the piano, at the honey-wood upright by the bed, then leaned my head on the music stand.
A plan, I need a plan.
On the shelf sat an orange book of sonatas, a collection of Scarlatti—Domenico, the son. Opening the book, I fingered the shimmering notes of Sonata in F major, K6. The tension in my neck seemed to ease, until a thought knocked into me, wrenching me forward at the keyboard—I’m Italian!
Rushing to the wall mirror, I searched for signs of an anarchist, examining my brown eyes, thin nose, sunken cheeks. No. I cannot be anarchist rabble.
But wait. My thoughts twisted and raced me down an unexpected path—if I’m Italian, perhaps the blood of Julius Caesar pulses through my veins. Or Caesar Augustus. Or, at least, Mussolini. Perhaps they are not all rabble. Il Duce is promising greatness, glory, a new Roman Empire. At the mirror, I mashed my thin nose to match Mussolini’s thick nose, puffed out my pale cheeks to model his round fleshy face, and drove down the corners of my lean lips to create his pouty boy appearance, as if stamping a boot, announcing to a world in chaos an emphatic—NO!
Il Duce is not an anarchist. He wants order.
But no, no, no. My own foot stomped. I am a Puritan. English. My blood is pure.
That evening, I curled up on my bed, listening to the clinks of Mother’s fork on her plate, the sounds of clearing dishes and running water. What now? What should I do?
Around midnight, Father’s footsteps echoed softly down the hall. Mother’s voice rose in waves of hysteria: “…home... wife... those JWs...” Father remained silent, as always. Their bedroom door closed with a clunk, muffling her voice as her low sobs and thin crying began.
That’s when an idea crept upon me. An incredible, frightful idea.
My mind drifted into a dozing dream: black boots, soldiers, the clattering of swords. Mussolini stood on a balcony, bellowing to a mob with broken, underwater words that bubbled, and roared: veni, vidi, vici!
The image shifted and he emerged—the face of the photo in The Globe, the executed anarchist: Bartolomeo Vanzetti. In the dream, to my horror, he lay on an iron-post bed with Mother, gazing at her with those piercing eyes, naked. I saw their sinful acts, his thick mustache tickling her white neck. They were laughing like a couple of anarchists. In the corner of the room, a cradle rocked.
My body jerked awake. And my head pounded, filled with fury and a plan. Yes, I would go and see this Italian, this Piano Man. And I would do more than see him.
In the rising rays of dawn, I slipped out early, rode the trolley to the North End, and stepped off at Langone’s Funeral Parlor on Hanover Street. Red and brown balconies towered above the walkways, lined with rows of rippling shirts and sheets and black trousers. The scents of smoking garlic and olive oil drifted. A round, swarthy woman leaned from a window, and shouted “Vieni qui!” at a boy running across the road. I flagged a passing man and inquired about the piano shop. “Laggiù, there,” he said, pointing up a narrow side street, “two blocks.” I made my way through a sea of dark-haired pedestrians who stared at me as if I were the foreigner. After being directed up one lane and down an alley, then traipsing six more blocks, I stood in front of the shop and gawked.
“THE PIANO MAN” formed bold letters in a high arch above the carved wooden door. I pulled on the brass handle and entered the musty-smelling room. On my left lay a large open space with ten or twelve pianos. To my right, a man leaned over a polished counter, a pencil in hand. He glanced up from his papers… and I released an inadvertent gasp—the Italian!
My breath froze as if caught in a floodlight. The Piano Man was Vanzetti—the one in the dream, with his massive mustache and bushy brown hair, his piercing eyes: not brown, but as blue as the Tyrrhenian Sea. His long-sleeved black shirt gave a sense of mourning, and his maroon vest could have been cut from a carpet.
He straightened up tall, to nearly six feet. “Can I help you?” he asked in English trimmed with an otherworld edge.
“Um... no. I’m... uh... just looking.” My chest thumped like a bass drum. “I’d like to... play one of your pianos.”
“You may.” He watched me while I wandered, caressed a chocolate Steinway, fingered the keys of an upright black Baldwin, and tinkered a bit at a blond Bösendorfer. At the Steingraeber grand, I gathered the courage to try a sonata. To my embarrassment, my hands fumbled a flat note and, in a sudden panic, I jumped up and bolted past him and out of the shop.
On the teeming streets, I rushed to Hanover, sucking in air, and halted at the trolley stop. My lungs eased. My plan had been senseless, after all. The Italian didn’t know me and didn’t care to. I had a father—and everything a boy could need.
A black Model T swept by, clipping the curb at my feet and billowing a cloud of dust that twirled like a funnel, forming what appeared to be the round, prickly head of Mussolini. From the center of the haze came a vision: Il Duce mounted on his white horse, high and lofty before a hushed crowd. I saw the scene, or felt it, imagined it perhaps. Then, from nowhere, came the tenor sounds of an Italian aria. The eerie notes pulled at me like blood, like the draw of the moon on the sea—a pull only a musician can sense.
I jumped up and headed back to the piano shop.
The Italian emerged from a back room carrying a bench. He placed it at a piano, his muscles bulging. “You again.”
“Yes, I... came back. Uh... do you rent pianos?”
The man pointed his chin toward the big room. “Those four uprights against the wall. Two dollars per month, plus three dollars delivery and pick-up. You live in town?”
“Uh… we do. Er… I do.” My hands fidgeted. “Can you deliver tonight?”
“That depends. Where do you live?” His eyes bored into mine.
“In Brookline. Ivy Street near Cottage Farm. Here.” I wrote the address on a scrap of paper.
He glanced at the note and tucked it into his pocket. “The shop closes at six. How about six-thirty?”
“Fine.” I pulled money from my wallet.
“Don’t you want to pick one?”
“Oh... um, of course.” My fingers fumbled the bills, which scattered like leaves along the counter. “Just... let me pay first.” The man gave me a long, lingering look as I gathered the strewn bills and held them out to him, keeping my distance.
But distance was no longer what I wanted. It was time to end the distance, the secrets. The lies.
“Mother!” I burst into the house at six o’clock. “When is supper?” No response. Her bedroom door stood ajar. I stepped forward and peered in.
The curtains hung closed and drawn. A tiny sliver of light crept in, casting a lacy glow on the yellow coverlet.
“Mother?” My eyes adjusted to the semi-dark.
Mother’s stocking-legs lay stretched out on the iron-post bed. She sat up slowly and inched her legs off the side, the bed springs creaking. “I’m here.” Her voice sounded croaky—grating, like the croup. After smoothing her rumpled hair, she pulled her stockings higher and followed me into the kitchen, her eyes puffy and red, her beige skirt fluttering at her knees. “You haven’t eaten supper here in so long, I thought I’d rest tonight.”
“Well, I’m here and hungry, and want to eat with my mother.”
“Oh. Uh, yes, Conrad.” A thin smile tugged at her lips. “I’d like that. There’s roast and potatoes. Won’t take more than a minute to heat. And also some—”
“I want something special tonight. Spaghetti. And meatballs, with sauce. And mozzarella cheese.”
She bent down to survey the contents of the ice box, then opened a cabinet door and moved tins of fish to peer into the back. “We don’t have spaghetti. I’d have to shop.”
“That’s all right.”
“It’s quite a walk, and—”
“I can wait. I have to practice piano anyway. Marie is teaching me some Italian sonatas.” My voice rose at the ‘Italian’ part to observe her response.
Nothing. Her rummaging resumed among the spice boxes and canned beans.
“If you buy the food,” I said, “I’ll help you cook.”
“What? Conrad, help me cook? What’s gotten into you, dear? I can cook. You just eat.” She gathered her shopping bags and, with a click, click, click of her heels down the stoop, hurried to the walkway and was gone.
Six-thirty came. Six-forty-five. Seven. My skin began to itch as I paced the living room and peeked out the window again and again.
Finally, a battered truck pulled up and squeaked to a stop, the Italian at the wheel. I dashed out to meet him. Another man—short and dark—stepped out from the passenger’s side, a Sicilian, no doubt. The two men opened the tailgate, slid the black Baldwin off the truck bed, and rolled it up the drive and across the walk to the stoop. After a series of strained maneuvers, they managed to work the musty-smelling piano up the steps and into the living room.
“In here.” I led the Italian and the Sicilian into Mother and Father’s bedroom, and pointed to the windows beyond the bed. “Against that wall.”
The men moved the bed away, heaving and pushing the wrought-iron frame, the yellow coverlet swaying and sweeping along the hardwood floor. Then they shoved the heavy oak dresser to the corner.
Can’t they hurry? My breath caught in my throat.
They rolled the piano across the room and settled the instrument against the far wall. The Italian inched the piano to and fro to straighten it.
Nearly finished. My hands fidgeted.
The Sicilian left the house and returned with a mismatched bench, which he placed carefully at the piano.
Good. The job is done. Now, where the heck is she? I ran out to the street. Several blocks to the east, she appeared, moving slowly—a small figure with shopping bags. The timing was perfect… almost.
Hurrying back, I leaned on the door jamb and watched the workers thrust the bed back to the center. My lungs released a long exhale. Any minute now. The men slipped past me to the living room toward the front door.
“Wait.” I rushed around them and blocked their way. “The piano goes in the corner, and the dresser beside it.”
The men exchanged narrowed glances. The Italian raised a brow. The Sicilian gave a slight nod. Then they turned and traipsed into the bedroom and, in time to the Sicilian’s audible sighs, they forced aside the iron-frame bed, slid out the dresser, and heaved the piano to the corner. With one final push and a groan, they slid the bed to the center of the room, its metal feet screeching.
The Italian pushed the bed one last inch to the wall, gripping the frame and bending over Father’s pillow.
That’s when Mother arrived at the bedroom doorway, shopping bags in arm. “What is going on here?” she demanded.
The Italian straightened up tall.
Mother caught his eyes and froze. “Lord have mercy…”
The two stood, silent, still as a deep lake, gazing at one another.
And the waking dream began. Real time stopped, and another time, another story, breathed life into the room, like a motion picture with ghostly grays and blues and greens. Now, I’d not gone mad; why, I was saner than most, though equipped with a musician’s fiery imagination. Yet, certainly, I saw it all—this vivid dream, this underwater world projected to the middle of the room above the bed. And I stared, breathless…
He’d come to the big house with a bag of tools. While he tuned the Steinway in the parlor, he watched Elsie watching him. She was seventeen, and he, a man of twenty-four, handsome in exotic brown vest and trousers, dark hair, and intense blue eyes. His arm muscles flexed as he twisted his lithe body around to reach the strings. He came again the next day just to see her. And he came again, and again. They stood on the front walkway in the gas lamplight of the porch, talking and laughing in whispers.
One day, her father spotted them through an upstairs window. He stormed down the stairs, yanked her by the hair across the porch and upstairs, and whipped out his belt, lashing her legs till the welts rose.
“I’ll marry you,” the young man yelled before fleeing.
The night she slipped from the darkened house, her father was away on business, her mother and sister asleep upstairs. Elsie walked briskly down the small town street carrying a carpet bag, her long black skirt rustling. He waited for her by the corner gaslight. They took the night train to Boston, hid in a honeymoon suite, and rushed in the morning to the county clerk to sign the papers. A boat appeared: a honeymoon cruise in the harbor. Elsie stood on the boat clinging to him in the wind, a great joy on her face.
The dream lost focus, muddied, moved to a dingy room. In the dim lamp-light, Elsie sat by a travel trunk pulling out bundles of yellowed papers from under folded trousers. A photograph slid to the floor. Holding it to the lamp, she discerned a strange dark-haired woman with a small boy in her lap, sitting with a man who looked like her husband. And letters in Italian addressed to him. Elsie picked out the bit of Italian she’d learned. Denaro, the woman needed more denaro, money, for the boy—his boy. She used endearments, like mio caro and, to her final horror, marito—husband!
The scene shifted. The Italian appeared, slumped in a doorway by an iron-post bed, his shirt-tails loose, a dark green bottle hanging limply from one hand. Elsie rose stiffly, clutching letters. She hurled the letters, handfuls of them raining on him like a tempest. He waved his fist and smashed the bottle on the bedpost. She screamed. He slapped her. She swung her arms, flailing against his chest. He turned away and crawled onto the bed, crouched over a pillow, sobbing.
I stood, speechless. My lungs could scarcely take in a breath. As previously stated, I am an educated man, a college man. Of course these fanciful images, wholly false, had emerged from an intense daydream, the product of a vivid imagination, as those with the gift of music, such as I, are wont to possess, and yet… the dream seemed as living as flesh. And I watched, frozen, my hand fastened to the metal bed post.
Then the spell broke.
Mother spoke first. “Get that thing out of my house.”
The Piano Man glanced at me. I nodded. He motioned his partner to remove the upright. Now was my chance. I had to know. While they wrestled the piano out, I stepped close to the Italian—near enough to smell his sweat. Eyeing him closely, I studied his every muscle, his face, his pale blue eyes, which never cracked with a sign, never gave me a ghost of a look that a father might—not compassion, not anger, not even shame. Not a single curious glimpse. Nothing.
“Scusi,” he muttered, asking for room to pass. I stepped aside. Out staggered the men, pushing and heaving the load. What seemed an eon later, the truck squealed away.
The house resounded with packages slamming onto the kitchen counter. Mother.
When I tiptoed past the kitchen door, her eyes locked onto mine in a sudden stare as a stalking lioness might with a cornered stag. Her bitter glare entered me deeply, like in a quiet whisper: How could you?
I broke free of her gaze and slunk to my room. Behind the closed door, I sat at the piano, opened Wagner’s Lohengrin, and paused. My neck felt that terrible grip again. As my throat struggled for air, an impossible image appeared—Mother’s joyful face, the scene on the boat, her hair whipping wildly in the wind. How could she have ever been so young? So happy? Mother. Elsie.
Standing abruptly, I forced a breath and gripped the brass knob to my bedroom door. My hands moved with a curious tremble. I gave the door a push, thinking to go to her. The door swung wide. But, wait. A thought gave me pause: such beauty, such joy in her—it could not be. No. Mother was never capable of passion—of bliss. It was pure imagination.
Resettled at the piano, I took control of my wavering hands, spread my fingers across the keys, and began the prelude to Lohengrin despite the tight band creeping around my middle—the rising madness. My chest fought and heaved to fill my lungs. Yet still I played—strong, sure notes. Marie would be pleased, that—
Her voice startled me. I turned to see Mother in the doorway, pale as an infant, her face gaunt with lines of animal hunger… as in the final photo in that morning’s Globe, the flashing steel bars, the starving Sacco reaching his fingers through the cage to touch his tearful wife, his beloved Rosina, one last time, hearing Rosina’s final words to him: Nick, I am dying with you.
Mother stood motionless at the door.
“Do you love me?” she asked, her voice thin as a razor.
A breeze blew down the hallway and fluttered the beige skirt around her knees, the only movement in a house as still as death. I stared at her quivering skirt a long second. Elsie, the eloper. Elsie, the bride.
They say when you begin to die, God meets you at the gate and, if you’re not ready, may grant a stay. At that moment, my churning stomach eased, my choking throat opened like a river of breath. In the sudden flow, I met her haunted gaze head-on, my eyes rimming with boyish tears. And, turning to the piano—the only idiom I knew—I caressed the blond wood, closed the Wagner, and opened Scarlatti, spread my fingers to the keys, and tinkered at a few notes… then poured through the house wave after wave of sonatas, allegro—sparkling light, and rain and storms, of midnight and of dawn. I played with a depth and passion that, previously, had only come to me in dreams.
Elsie the child, the bride.
I sensed the sway of her skirt behind me. Her softening hand reached out and settled on my shoulder. The shimmering notes soared; they floated; they filled the house with a rising swell of sound as I felt her beside me, breathing, breathing, breathing.
Casey Robb’s careers have included physical therapy and civil engineering. Her poetry has won awards and been published in multiple journals, and her short stories have appeared in “Menda City Review,” “Fiction on the Web,” “Foliate Oak,” “Foundling Review,” “Literary Nest” and “Kaleidoscope.” Her story in Kaleidoscope was one of the winners selected by the Silver Pen Writers 2018 Write Well Award, and is available on Amazon in the 2018 Write Well Award Anthology. Casey is a Texan who lives in Northern California with her two adopted daughters. Her website is at: www.pikapawpress.com.