This story was published in a The Potomac Reviews Fall 1994 and Moments in time from Genoble France 1996. I was trying to create a character indirectly using details. The idea came to me when I was listening to Nina Simone, although this is definitely not Simone.
Fingers slightly lighter than the half notes caress the keys. The pianist doesn't smell the dust of the theater nor feel sweat dampening her brow. Nor does she hear the stagehands yelling at each other in French as they arrange the orchestra's chairs.
Despite spending 20 years in France, she has never learned the language. Even when she chatted with Jean-Pierre Foucault on Sacred Soirée the night they dedicated their entire program to her she wore an ear piece. A woman backstage translated what was being said into the ear piece. She isn't against learning another language in principle. In reality it would take too much time from her music.
She knows her audiences at Montreux, the North Sea Jazz Festival or her concerts come for music, not chit chat. She never talks to them other than to say merci, danke or whatever polite word is required.
She never plays in the States. She had one hit there in the early sixties. Americans from that time when they discover she plays in Europe say, "Oh, I thought she died."
Her close-cropped hair, once a political statement, is one less thing to distract her from her playing. Her manager sees it as her trademark. Her last CD cover displayed the silhouette of her head with her nose titled up. Without her name and with the title L'amour toujours it went gold in 22 days.
She has seen many lovers come and go. At first they were entranced to know the body of a European legend. Then frustrated by her inattention, they faded away. With an exception or two she never really cared about their departure, missing their bodies in bed more than their demands out of bed.
Her children by her two lovers know their mother more as the woman who phones weekly and visits each April. "You're ain't takin' our baby traipsing around Europe. That child is staying in the good old US of A." Her mother, called Old Mom, had said firmly after each birth. It suits both women.
She likes her month off from her concert circuit to get reacquainted with her country and children. There are a series of rituals that give her comfort. Each morning her son and daughter crawl into her bed, their three bodies sticky despite the fan rippling the single sheer curtain. Although the kids have grown bigger than their mother, they still wrestle and laugh with her. Sometimes they talk of school and friends, many of whom are the sons and daughters she knew when she went to the same school.
They stay in bed until Old Mom calls them to eat bacon, eggs and grits. At the end of the meal Old Mom clucks as her daughter heads for the piano. "If I'd known you'd be so fanatic I'd never have let you take those lessons." Even as she complains she moves the fan from the bedroom to the living room and places fresh wildflowers in a green vase on her daughter's piano. "How can your mama practise with all that caterwauling?" She says pushing the children out of the room.
That house smells of lavender unlike the Paris theater which carries both the smell of frying onions from the bistro next door and the mustiness of dust accumulated from fifty years of seeping into floor boards and red plush seats.
Tonight hundreds of people will pay 400 FF excluding baby sitters, dinner and parking to hear the pianist. She will play more for herself than or them. She can do it no other way.
Once a reporter from Elle asked her, "Are all your sacrifices for your music worth it?"
She'd said "I can't answer." She'd meant she could no more change her devotion to music than she could tell her blood to pause ten minutes in her veins. The interviewer had written she was uncooperative.
After that she gave no more interviews. At first her manager begged her to talk to reporters, but he finally realised as her mystique grew, however unintentionally, that it was better the way she wanted it.
She lifts her left hand while her right tinkles the last notes. They fade and die. As her body slumps, she glances up to ask the stagehands to move the piano slightly to the left. They are gone, but she sees she has an audience of one, standing at the opposite end of the stage. "Do you know that song?" she asks the boy standing there.
To escape a shower he'd ducked into a side door and was caught by the music. His jeans and Pink Floyd T-shirt are damp. Because he's a mouth breather with too many allergies and too large adenoids, she can see his top two middle teeth are missing.
He doesn't understand, although he knows she is speaking English. He has never heard music like hers. He listens only to the rock his brother blasts through their apartment while their mother works. It sometimes drowns out the cartoons he wants to watch.
"It's You'll Never Walk Alone," she says.
As the woman holds his eyes prisoner, she sees his confusion. "That's the name of the song I was playing. Come here."
He creeps over as she reaches to take his dirty little hand in hers. He lets her lift him up on the bench between her legs. His sun bleached hair is cut as short as hers except for a few strands braided into a tail at the back of his neck.
"Je veux jouer," he whispers.
She knows what he wants. They squiggle back on the bench. When he looks over his shoulder at her, she smiles and the fears vanishes from his face.
Holding him with her left arm, she takes his right hand in hers but only after fingering his tail. Together, with her manipulating his fingers, they play the first few bars of You'll Never Walk Alone." She stops.
He turns to looks at her. She nods and he picks out the notes on his own. She matches him note for note in the base. She doesn't know she makes him feel the same way his mother does when she pulls the covers up tight around his neck before kissing him good night.
They play the notes over and over. Each time it sounds stronger. From the way his left hand twitches she knows that he wants to try the base. She shows him a few chords, but his hands are too small, too untrained for dexterity. He misses several notes. "Try this," she says and shows him an exercise to limber his hand.
"Irena, you ready? We've got to ring Geneva." A man calls from the rear of the theatre. His face is hidden by shadow, but his jeans and boots are visible. The boy's smile washes from his face.
"Soon Julian." The pianist says to the man. The jeans and boots disappear. With her hands she asks the boy, "You want to play more?"
He nods feeling the vibrations as he gets it almost right. He wants to do it exactly right. Like her.
"Irena. Come." The man's voice is angry. It's a tone he needs to use to get her from the piano to the other activities she needs to keep her career going. She's easy to manage. Very little alcohol. No drugs. All she asks is one month off a year.
"All right! All right! I'm coming." She closes the piano. Holding out her two fingers, the boy grabs on. He trots along until they reach the stage door where the man waits.
As they leave the theatre a limousine waits in the alley. The driver stands next to the open door. Julian pushes Irena into the back seat.
The connection to the boy breaks.
Before the limo pulls out, she opens the window to wave goodbye.
As she waves she thinks of the first time she ever played the piano.
"He's like me 30 years ago," she says.
Julian tells the car to move on.