With A Gentleness More And More Caressing And Poisoned

from North Atlantic Review

You have turned pages for six other concert pianists before falling in love with Sergei, privately, in your insomniac heart. Watching his naked hands sweep music from the Steinway’s strings, you ignore that most pianists keep their fingers unadorned, and that deep down in Sergei’s pocket there may lie a soft ring of promise to another, much like the one worn by his manager.

His manager would not be despicable were she to always dote, but her disposition can suddenly thud the other way, like a piano lid fallen shut, booming discord intent on not being hushed. Now, though, she is speaking Russian to him between quick kisses. These are drops of water on your kindled doubt of his matrimonial status. Nevertheless, you continue stoking at his coldness toward the woman, at his separate arrivals and departures. You would rather tend a tenable possibility than know for certain. Her kisses crackle and steam off, leaving you alone with Sergei.

You sit in a chair while he leans forward to mark his copy of Scriabin’s piano sonata with a dull and stubby pencil. You have prepared for this. You reach into your purse.

“Here, I have a sharp one.”

“Oh, it’s all right. This one I like. It is light and I don’t have to see what I write if I don’t want to. That can have its advantages, yes?”

You would pluck a year off of your life for every day you could sit there, alone on his left where he will soon need you to turn the page. His fingers fit the keys like a mold from which they were cast, but each digit limber, lifting the notes off as though from a harp. The music rises and his fingers bleed into angry dissonance, the music wavering through his body, rising through the glinting brass pedal into his feet and legs and causing Sergei to shift on the bench. The music continues to throw itself into his body, waving his elbows, tightening his shoulders, turning his neck to putty. He grunts slightly, air sucking into his nostrils with a faint whistle, as though he has been holding his breath until after this difficult passage. Your eyes stumble through his black hair, slide down his profile to the feverish sweat beaded above his lips. You want to touch those lips. You are lost.

When to turn? You throw yourself into the page, trying to catch your eyes on a clump of eighth notes, a crescendo or grace note, a marker by which you can find your bearing. There. Quickly, you pinch the top right corner of the printed music, feeling the soft and wrinkled paper as you whip open the next two pages. Sergei tilts toward you as you sit, coming closer in a musical descent, but then the steps calm and he climbs back up the keys. Your eye catches the double bar of the last measure and you wish for anything but the approach of the end. Sergei soothes through the final line, the music rising in a flutter of trills, higher and higher. Evaporating. You savor the fermata. His hands lift from the keys and hover there a moment. Sergei clenches them into fists in the air, then releases.

“Better,” he says.

You look at your own fingers and find that the tips have turned a dark silver. You realize that you have been pinching and turning the end of your pencil between them.

“We take five minutes,” Sergei says, rising.

You stand. “Would you like me to bring you a coffee?”

“Thank you. No.” He holds his long pale fingers toward you, the cuticles cut nearly to the pink above crescent moons. “These shake from caffeine.”

He walks off behind you. You hear him speak to someone in passing, and then it is quiet.

In your apartment you have several of his recordings either bought or loaned. You know everything about his professional life that can be extracted from liner notes: born in 1962 in Kiev to an engineer and housewife, educated at the conservatory under Z. Koztrokoff, first concert age fourteen followed by a tour in the Crimea the following year. Since then, fifteen years of concerts, records, teaching, and then the last five years of silence. Until now. On the cover of his last recording, he is seated at the piano, facing away from it, looking straight into the camera. His skin looks soft, his sideburns are long and curled, his hair in complete disarray. But he is smiling.

Alone on stage, you stand and walk around the enormous piano. It is a symbol of another world, where being proficient in the language doesn’t mean you can speak it fluently. But there you are, bulging and twisting in the lacquer of the instrument. There you are turning its pages.

You have a piece of music which you have been memorizing. You have planned to play it at just a moment as this so that he, Sergei, will walk in on you and catch your ability, a shadow of his own of course, but enough to show your understanding and complicity in, in what? Why don’t you take the bench now? There. It is still warm. At a moment like this, the imagination of any other person’s ego would people the empty hall. But in your mind, you see Sergei walking in with his coffee—no, a cup of water. Yes, and then halting by the curtains, beside the wall corded with ropes and pulleys, musing: so this is how well Claire can play. You can feel his stare touch the nape of your neck, the tingle spreading down and across the wide of your back. And what do you play? Something strong, technical, yet stirring in its perfection. You play Bach—surely he will not hold Johann, like sharp pencils, in disfavor. You begin, but find yourself feeling the keys drunkenly, your fingers slurred and slow, sounding notes of a timbre so different from your small upright—so loud, so heavy—that you stumble and halt. The measure ahead is too high. You try the phrase again, but fall once more. Retreating several measures to gain a running start, you notice the leaden smudges your fingers have left across the keys. You wipe them off, one note at a time, then move back to your seat. This is why you are an assistant, a page-turner. You can read, but don’t have the voice. This doesn’t bother you; it is something you’ve resigned yourself to long ago. But that Sergei might have heard, this embarrasses you. That for a moment, you might have slipped into believing otherwise.

Sergei returns and extends a coffee to you.

“Thank you,” you say.

“I did not mean me only for a break,” he says, then inhales on a cigarette.

“Oh, I know. I like it here.” Ashtray, you tell yourself. Remember.

Sergei lets the ashes from his cigarette drop into his hand and watches you sip the coffee—it is too hot but you take a swallow nonetheless—and then he looks at the rows and rows of seats as though appreciating them for the first time.

“Yes. Sometimes it is very nice.” He looks back at you. “You play well.”

“No, not terribly.”

“No, not terribly at all. You do more than assist, yes?”

“Yes. I teach some lessons. Beginners, mostly.”

“How do you find it?”

“It’s all right.”

“Then you like it much more than me.” He laughs. “That Bach Invention you were playing, I recorded once.”

“Oh?” you say, but of course you know that.

“It was done without enough practice. It was a terrible week. I was sick with influenza. As I play, I think it isn’t good. But when they played it back, the recording engineers like it. I did not want to play it again, so that one stayed. One’s playing always sounds better to others.”

“I think you could have given this concert a week ago.”

“See? Exactly. But for myself? No. Still no.” He drops the cigarette to the floor and steps on it. Then he holds his cupped hand toward the imaginary audience and blows the ashes into the air. “You give me your address,” he says abruptly, slapping the remaining ashes from his hands. “I’ll send you that record.”

“I’d like that,” you say, reaching for your purse and something to write on. You pull a flash card from the rubber-banded pack which you use for your beginning students. Each card has a note on the staff, both clefs, which your students must learn by heart. While Sergei reads through the sonata in front of him, you write your name and address between the staff lines on the flash card. You are about to hand it to him, but stop and return it to your knee where you write your area code and telephone number on the back, where the answer is printed.

“I’ll leave it here,” you say, placing it on the piano.

“Ah,” Sergei says. “F sharp. My favorite note.”

You hope he doesn’t only see the note, but that what you’ve scribbled around it is as legible, even if he’s not looking for it. You should have used a pen, you tell yourself.

“The Black Mass, again,” he says.

The notes descend as though down a flight of stairs, but then rush back to the sound of a chord, slammed like a door. You wonder on which side you stand. You reach for the corner when Sergei approaches the last measure of the page, and turn it, but he’s no longer using the notes. It is as though they are for your benefit, the reader reading at two in the morning, unable to sleep, needing something to follow through the sickly sweet hours. Turning pages, alone.

2.

I have enough time, the concert not beginning for another seven minutes. Out of this half-lit hall, across the soft lobby of carpet to the door, a heavy push, a vacant urinal. Relief.

“Say, Conlin. How’re you doing?” It’s Grady, drying his hands.

“Hey, there. All right,” I say, letting the after dinner decaf and the glass of Metamucil stream out blissfully. “Out on the green today?”

“Nope. Didn’t think you’d be here, though. I talked to Kate yesterday and she didn’t mention she was dragging you along.”

“Yes, well, have to appease the wife, you know. I’d be committing a snafu staying at home,” I say, although the truth is that Kate’s afraid of leaving me alone with my ticker after what happened. “You know she’s holding the little mingle afterward?” I say. “You coming?”

“Have to meet the maestro, right?” Grady says.

“Good. I’d turn stone bored, otherwise. I can’t even drink now, you know.”

“Don’t feel so bad. Neither can I.”

“But Grady, you never did.”

“Yeah, I regret it now.”

The soap, the water cooling my hands, a paper towel, another.

“Well, good to see you’re looking so well,” Grady says, exiting.

I take off my glasses, dab them with hand soap, and run them under the faucet. My shirt itches against the hairless pink scar that goes down my chest like a long swipe of putty. There, under my white shirt, time lies coiled around my heart, licking the heat. A fuse. My blurred reflection looks young. I could be forty there, a man with time who didn’t quite believe in death. A man who jumped at the chance for concerts and society. But is this all that’s left? Trips to the islands in winter, music tonight, brunch someplace tomorrow? No. There must be something bigger and more meaningful I can face without resignation.

I dry my glasses, slip them on, and watch the wrinkles sprout across my face. I check my watch.

A concert isn’t time wasted, but cultural enrichment hasn’t been one of my dire needs, lately. It means more to Kate, who is on the board of trustees and now sits there: row B, seat 17. I take 18.

“See,” I say to her. “And a minute to spare.”

She has hair black as octopus dye. Visits the salon twice a week. I’ve often thought of what could have happened had the attack occurred then, with me alone in the house or in the pool, unable to get help. I am living when I could be dead; I should treat each day as a gift. But even at nearly seventy, seventy!, I’m unable to feel this fortune.

Applause washes the pianist to his instrument and the house lights fade to a hush. Then the flip of tails signaling the entering of something, the musical experience or some such bunk. I cared once, but not now, not like Kate, her hair one with the black sound, her face tense, eyes fixed. She has never relaxed to music—always afraid of a mistake as though she were there on stage where he sits. Who again?

“What’s his name?”

“Sergei Talenko.”

“Him, Sergei?”

“Shh.”

So this is the comeback kid, is it? Not looking particularly refreshed. No, graying a little on the sides, even. Look how far he sits from the piano, like it might snap at him. Ha. Compared to that gal creeping to turn his notes, he looks weathered.

When he finishes the first sonata, the hall sounds with a heavy rain to which I add my own drops, one hand against the other. He deserves it, after all. Wouldn’t it be something to play like Sergei and sit there awash in applause for your talent. And have a woman like that beside you. She’s concealed herself behind him, but my mind is still caught on the freshness of her face and the dark sway of her hair. My thoughts drift. I tell you, what images I can take hold of, and at my age. I still feel as amorous as a thirty-year old, and not only in my heart. Imagine! That, that, that. After all, to tell Kate I do not love her, not for decades now, but have lived with her merely in amicable comfort, would be nothing. So it is with her. So it is. But now, down to the bomb, perhaps only inches left, I want, I want, what? To leave everything that I thought comforting, but now stifles like some overdecorated room? To be with a woman young enough to be my granddaughter? Is this what it comes down to after nearly seventy years? Whittling off accumulations and returning to simple plain desire? To hold smooth skin and not let go? Or is this merely a sublimation of fear? No. Yes!

I can imagine the piece that Sergei now performs continuing forever, his never stopping, never growing tired. Yet his efforts, too, are only temporary vibrations in the air, darting into the blackness, mingling in it, hiding in my wife’s hair, that was brown, not black, when we were young. Somehow I’d thought it would be brown forever, like her skin once was, but that hue has drained to the indelible stains of age on her hands. Where is she? Where is the young woman who feared flying and with whom I slept on a train heading back to Los Angeles? We were returning from visiting her parents in Virginia. The train jostled us lightly in our compartment, which we had to ourselves and locked. It seemed we could be as we were, forever, lying in the heat on the narrow fold down beds, the world’s shadows flickering on the drawn curtains. We passed a glass of iced tea back and forth between us and caressed. I remember sliding open the window for air and seeing the winks of light in distance desert homes, like holes punched in a canvas scene. I believed that no matter what borders we crossed, we would come out on the other side, beautifully unchanged. I would never run out of borders.

Now, at the reception, my hands quiver around a glass of mineral water, ice jingling on the inside, beads condensing on the other. Margaret, my wife’s assistant, is telling me more about my wife’s next project, a seventeen year old violinist from South Korea. I’m watching the people pick up their drinks at the bar.

Kate comes forward and presents Sergei, the pianist.

“I’d like you to meet my husband Conlin,” she says to him.

“Hello,” he says, gripping firmly. His other hand is clenched.

“Beautiful playing,” I say. “Very moving.”

“Thank you.”

“Enjoyed it very much. Nice to see you back.”

“Thank you.”

“So, what cities do you hit next?”

“I have one concert in San Francisco and then I have one week free.”

“Sounds good.”

“Oh, you can’t do that,” Margaret says. “Surely you have a recording planned.”

He shrugs. “I don’t know. We will see.”

“Let him rest those fingers,” I joke. I wonder, though, why he is performing again at his age. After all, in his business you are a relic by thirty. Perhaps to prove that he can pull himself back to the form he once held. Maybe to pay bills.

His manager approaches. From my wife, I’ve heard about this woman’s malcontentment with nearly every arrangement, from performance dates to limousines. The blond woman nods to us, then speaks a few Russian words in Sergei’s ear, as though it is sovereign to her.

“Please. Excuse us,” Sergei says, the two of them pulling each other out of the lounge.

There is a metal sculpture on a narrow table in front of me and I touch it, running my hand across the smooth bulging form that feels abstractly organic, like the way a blind man would hold the shape of a woman’s body in his mind.

I snap out of my thoughts. Don’t get complacent, I tell myself. I have to think how to spend my length of fuse.

“Darlin’,” I say. “I think I’ll go home.”

“Why? We’ll be here hours yet.”

“I know. I just feel a tad tired.”

“Wait, Conlin. Margaret will go with you, won’t you Margaret?”

Margaret takes my arm, as though I cannot walk on my own. Kate withdraws to mingle, and as Margaret and I leave the room, we come across Sergei and his manager in the hallway, arguing in Russian, not even noticing us as we pass.

Yes, I suppose I am a lucky man, I think to myself. I have been happy and perhaps I am even a little now—even if it exists only in the presence of another’s unhappiness. I am on borrowed confidence, Margaret on my arm, pretty, half my age, gentle and smiling to her core.

It is pouring.

“Wait, Conlin. Let me find us an umbrella.”

“No, don’t bother. A little rain never killed anyone.”

Women run with purses over their heads, men’s shoes splash, everyone laughing like children, like Margaret. Even I chuckle as we part quickly through the rain, my arm around her and leading her toward our limo, opening the door for her, her face glistening, giggling as though we are going somewhere. We are going somewhere. I slam the door and wait for the driver to move.

3.

Richard crouched in anticipation in the back of the limousine he chauffeured, his eyes on the TV.

“Come on. Come on,” he urged. His eyes darted between the numbered ping pong balls tumbling into a line from the chaotic whirl, and the lottery ticket he held before him.

Richard worked as a chauffeur full-time, although it wasn’t what he enjoyed doing. What’s done because you have to do it, was his characterization.

Richard wrote music. Over the past three years, he had only sold two songs, although he had a few being considered by an agency. Earlier, he had written ambient music to a television commercial, had composed one radio jingle, and had written the background music for the lottery drawing. There, in the back of the limousine he knew so well, drinking what he wanted, his tie undone, his own music playing in the background earning him royalties, he felt he should win. As though he should have wealth, not debt.

No such luck.

The door opened and a couple entered, soaked and laughing.

“Oh, sorry,” they said, and climbed back out. It was the strangest thing. He had never said a word. Richard crumpled up his ticket.

With the passing minutes, the rain let up, turning into a mist that clung to the windshield in beads. Ushers began to bear out flowers. Richard opened the door for bouquet after bouquet, some with tiny cards.

Richard had seen Sergei a week earlier when he had picked up the pianist and his wife at the airport. Sergei was short, with skin like paraffin, but peppered from a missed shave. The lady was a yellow blonde and looked older, like she had endured a very bad flight. She had been shouting when he placed their luggage in the back and when they drove off she did not stop her barrage, except for breath. Misshapen, slithering words made up her voice, and when she spoke it seemed as though she were tasting every word and every syllable had a bad flavor.

Richard had good reason to relax, then, when he spotted Sergei coming out the music center doors, alone. A little surprised, too, at his lack of escort and the way he moved hurriedly, like a man after a cab, not a pianist who had completed a concert.

“Evening,” Richard said, then shut the door.

“Please, let’s go,” Sergei said, once Richard was behind the wheel.

Richard put the car in gear. He could see Sergei in the mirror, taking off his tie, loosening his shirt, much as he himself had done a half hour earlier.

“The hotel?” Richard asked.

“Yes.”

Richard pulled away from the curb.

“No, wait.”

The car floated to a stop.

“Not the hotel. Just drive.”

As he pulled into the street once more, Richard saw Sergei’s wife come out of the exit. A hand shaded her eyes, as though day had come, and a bright one at that. Richard wondered if Sergei could see her, but he seemed lost in thought, kneading his temple with his index fingers. Maybe Sergei had played badly, Richard thought. Every musician has a bum day, after all. Didn’t he know.

Richard drove in rectangles for one hour. Twice they passed the hotel. The first time the cell phone rang, Sergei answered, speaking angrily. The next time he let it ring for the distance of two blocks. The third time, he picked it up again.

“You know what disgust sounds like?” he asked. His English was good, but he pronounced disgust like his wife, the word sliding from his mouth with an onomatopoeic foulness.

Richard shrugged.

“Here,” Sergei said. “Listen.”

Richard held the phone to his ear and recognized the bad flavor of the woman’s voice he had heard earlier.

Sergei took the phone from Richard. He spun it in his hands, as though deliberating throwing it out the window.

“You can turn it off.”

“Yes. Please,” he said, handing Richard the phone again.

He switched it off and returned it to Sergei. “Where would you like me to take you?”

Sergei did not respond. Richard wondered if he’d been heard until Sergei thrust forward a postcard. Richard held it up to the window where it caught the sweeps of light from the street lamps. The stiff paper felt wrinkled and soft. There was a black dot on one side. A note.

“Can we stop there?” Sergei asked.

“Sure,” Richard said, reading the faint address. He thought a moment, weaved into the right lane, and prepared to turn.

A half hour later, he held the door open for Sergei and a plain-looking woman, both exiting an apartment building. She did not look dressed for dinner. He hoped, now, that he could drop Sergei off at his hotel and check in the limo and go home himself. He hated the hours. It was their type of life, not his. He was sick of all the driving.

“What is to the west?” Sergei asked.

“The ocean.”

“Would you go east, please?” he asked.

The woman with Sergei laughed. She acted like Sergei had pulled off a joke. She looked younger and conservative, with straight hair, a wide face, and eyes that caught his own in the mirror for a moment before looking away, shyly. She ran her hands along the seats and played with the window and air controls with the uncertainty of someone who has never been in a limousine before. She fondled the row of glass decanters, spun the glasses, poured, took ice from Sergei’s hands, and spilled. In the mirror, Richard watched Sergei sit back and smile, as though he’d set something free and was watching it now, wondering where it would go and what it would try to do. The odor of flowers was strong. Richard did not like the looks of things.

“Where east do you want to go?”

“Nowhere,” Sergei said. “But please continue to drive.”

“If you want.”

“Thank you.”

The black opaque window slid up the nape of Richard’s neck. He checked the time. Nearly midnight.

He drove out of Los Angeles, toward the San Bernardino Mountains. In the smooth glide of the limo, he sensed a shift, recognized the movement behind him, and thought he heard a dull sigh. He smiled and turned on the radio. But gradually he began to feel upset at how Sergei was a man who got what he wanted. He tried not to feel jealous.

He headed north through the mountain range and then eastward again, toward Barstow. But no matter how fast he drove, he couldn’t put distance between himself and the lovemaking going on behind him. If it was east they wanted now, well they would have that, too, he thought. He pulled off the highway and headed dead away from west, ripping down roads that paved into darkness. The radio station descended into waves of static and drowned. He drove until the tank was dry, then coasted to the side of the road. He flipped off the headlights and clicked on the dome light. The car was still.

Reaching under his seat, he pulled out a book which listed homes for sale back east and which he read and highlighted in his spare time. The homes were only eighty, ninety grand. There, money was worth two, three times what it was in L.A. He envisioned himself and his wife living in a house tucked into some woods. One of the rooms, the basement maybe, he’d convert into a studio. He’d already thought about the materials required for the job. His wife had just started working full-time, but if he could convince her that they needed change, that moving could save them, then he’d be content. He could get work someplace. He wasn’t doing what he wanted now, he thought. What did another job matter? He flipped through page after page of homes until the sky lightened.

Richard climbed out of the car and stretched. The red hills held back the sun and turned the sand blue. Up ahead at an intersection, a gas station stood among a cluster of buildings. He popped the trunk and lifted out an empty gasoline canister. The air above the black roof danced. He wondered how to wake them and extricate himself from the situation. Out of modesty, should he go back up front and honk the horn? With his fingers under the door handle, he willed himself to be alone.

The humid scent of flowers was overpowering; several blossoms fell from the car onto the sandy turnout. Inside, stems and petals and curled wisps of colored cellophane adorned the floor, like the interior of a hearse. The woman moved slightly, half naked amid the flowers. She looked beautiful, like another woman. Richard could see Sergei asleep in the dark corner, his shirt unbuttoned. He despised him.

He swung the door completely open so she would have air, then walked up the road a few feet to think. He turned and looked at the limo, its doors open like the wings of some strange insect, drying in the sun. Then he looked at the gas station in the distance and continued walking with the red canister in hand, his feet treading on the thin shadows of the power lines that bowed like musical ties from post to post, like the sound of one single note that held and held and held. The gas station would not be open yet, he knew, but he could wait.