Short Story #2…

© L.E. McCullough 1991

“La’neesha. . . La’neesha Cox, come say hello to Miss Marguerite.”

The portly, red-faced nurse stood the tiny girl in front of a thin, white-haired woman huddled in a wheelchair.

“Miss Marguerite can’t talk, but she can hear you,” said the nurse, nodding vigorously as her staff herded a murmuring press of elderly men and women into the room. “When Miss Marguerite was your age, she played the piano just like you.”

The child stared at the old woman’s wrinkled face and at the gnarled, spotted hands trembling in the blanket-smothered lap. “H’lo, Mizmargeet,” she mumbled, looking away from the woman’s piercing blue eyes and thinking that this was the oldest person she had ever seen. Maybe even the oldest person in all the world.

The nurse prodded the girl toward the battered upright piano that leaned against the bridge table in the corner. “La’neesha is eleven years old, Miss Marguerite. She’s going to play for our Valentine’s party here at Harrison House Senior Center tonight.”

Across a distance of more than eight decades, Miss Marguerite Naomi Hippelkamp regarded the youngster perched on the edge of the metal folding chair serving as a makedo piano bench. She admired the smooth chocolate skin, the sparkling brown eyes, the slender, tapered fingers silently fingering the keys to a private melody, the matchstick legs kicking in steady four-four time to the beat of a young, strong heart.

I had beautiful slim hands like yours once, Miss Marguerite thought, and the child abruptly ceased fidgeting, whirling around as if someone had called her name. My first recital was on Valentine’s Day, too.  19 and 11, at the Woodruff Club. . . I wore a burgundy muslin frock mother made. . . almost the same color as your dress. . . there were thirty of us or more, all Mrs. Pletcher’s pupils. . . I won a prize, a green ribbon mother pinned on my dress, and they served tea and oysters from Pop June’s and the most delicious dainty little German pastries from Vadbunker’s Bakery. . .

“She been on the piano only four or five month,” declared La’neesha’s mother, fussing with her daughter’s hair braids as an aide wheeled in the food cart stacked with grease-spattered piles of cold chicken wings and stale pork nachos.   “She don’t read music or nothin’,  uh-uh,  she just pick it up on her own. She play London Bridge, Row, Row, Row, Closer My God — all she wanna do is play piano! The girl got the music in her.”

“Miss Marguerite was quite a popular piano teacher in her day,” replied the nurse, gesturing for the side doors to be closed. “They say she even studied in Europe.”

Europe! The word still sent a shiver of excitement through Miss Marguerite. What a city was Paris in the ’20s! Concerts every night at Pleyel’s and the Ballet Suedois. . .  endless cafe conversations on the Boulevard St. Michel with Stravinsky, Bloch, Satie and Cocteau. . . dusk-to-dawn soirees with Borisov, Boulanger and LeBlanc. . .

After only a few months abroad Miss Marguerite returned home to care for her mother. When her mother died a few days after Pearl Harbor, Miss Marguerite had been teaching piano lessons in her small apartment at 35th and Delaware for more than fifteen years, and she continued teaching for another forty-six, until her own poor health had made living on her own impossible.

Me-fa-so, la-so-fa-re-ti. . . Miss Marguerite hummed a silent countermelody as La’neesha glided effortlessly through Greensleeves, her opening number. Now stand and curtsy, she prompted when the child finished and sat stiffly, staring nervously at the keys. Let your audience know you love playing for them more than anything in the world. . .

La’neesha rose and half-turned, smiling shyly and mouthing “Thank you!” to a brief skirl of applause and coughing.

Miss Marguerite closed her eyes and let the sturdy, octave-striding vamp chords of Comin’ Round the Mountain hoist her aloft and carry her back through the years, back just across the street to Mrs. Velma Pletcher’s small studio flat above Langenwald’s millinery shop at 12th and Central where she was eleven years old again on a warm summer’s afternoon awaiting her weekly piano lesson.

The bright sunlight streamed through the pink lace curtains and danced along the polished arms of a mahogany spinet piano in the corner. The room was filled with the aroma of chamomile, for Mrs. Pletcher was a connoisseur of exotic teas from around the world and always kept a fresh pot brewing. Master J. Whitcomb, the plump tabby cat Mrs. Pletcher spoiled with buttermilk and sardines, dozed on the beige settee next to the piano.

“I’ve chosen the Mazurka in G Minor,  Opus 67,  Number 2 by Chopin for your recital piece,”  Mrs. Pletcher announced,  extracting  her  new  pince-nez  glasses  from the  grasp of  the lush ash-blonde tresses pinned above her head. “This piece must be played cantabile — ‘singingly’ — as if it were the delicate melody made by the wings of a hummingbird floating on the wind. Listen closely as you play, Marguerite. Listen to the fine nuance of each note, each like the timbre of a leaf rustling in a quiet wood on  a moonlit autumn eve. . .”

Pop! Pop! Pop-pop-pop-pop-pop! The muffled pizzicato of gunfire a few blocks to the east punctuated La’neesha’s final measure of Row, Row, Row; Miss Marguerite started awake as a jagged glissando of sirens screaming by on 16th Street added a furious, dissonant cadenza. Just outside the window on Central, the sharp soprano cries of strolling prostitutes faded underneath the thunderous crescendo of a booming car bass rounding the corner.

The sudden cacophony unnerved La’neesha. She pushed back her chair and hunched over onto her knees, arms crossing her chest, hands tucked inside her armpits.

“What’s wrong with her?” demanded the nurse. “Don’t tell me she’s got stage fright!”

“Go on play that Man on the Flying Trapeze, baby,” whispered La’neesha’s mother. “Or do that Row, Row, Row some more.”

The child remained motionless, body frozen, eyes staring at the piano keys. Help me, she pleaded silently. Somebody, please help me!

Miss Marguerite closed her eyes and spoke quietly but firmly. Let’s try Chopin’s Mazurka in G Minor, she recommended. Three-four time. . . just listen to me. . . first phrase. . . so-so-la-so-re-mi. . .

La’neesha raised her head and slowly untensed her limbs. Second phrase, coaxed the voice in her ears. Do-so-la-ti-do-ti-fa-so. . .

The room fell quiet as the youngster at the piano carefully picked her way through the first sixteen bars of the main theme and sauntered smoothly through the challenging development section, easily negotiating its darkly dissonant diminished chords and moody parallel sevenths, then rendering the senza pedale bridge with exquisite elegance before once again rolling gaily through the gently arcing main theme recapitulation with a soaring, unfettered glee.

Again? asked the girl, oblivious to the surrounding uproar and hearing only the thin, guiding voice in her ears. Do I play it again?

Yes! cried the voice. Yes! Again! Again! Again!

By the time La’neesha was halfway through the first part of the second section, the audience had hushed once more. They stayed silent to the end of the piece, and they remained silent during each of the next nine times it was played without pause from beginning to end. When the piano finally ceased to ring, no one in the room spoke or moved for almost a full minute.

La’neesha turned and smiled at Miss Marguerite. The old woman’s lips twitched for an instant, but no sound came forth. Then her eyes fluttered shut, as a violent tremor shook her frail body from head to toe.

“Baby, where you learn to play like that?” exclaimed La’neesha’s mother.

“Miss Marguerite, it’s not bedtime yet,” frowned the nurse. “We have to have our snack.”

She bent over the figure slumped in the wheelchair. “Miss Marguerite!” she repeated loudly. “Miss. . . ohmygod! . . . she’s. . . her heart. . . she’s. . . someone. . . quickly. . . help!”

Miss Marguerite opened her eyes and found herself standing alone in a room, a room she knew well but had not visited for many, many years. Bright afternoon sunlight streamed through the pink lace curtains and danced along the curved polished arms of a mahogany spinet piano resting in the corner beside a small beige settee. As she walked across the room, the aroma of freshly brewed chamomile tea teased her nostrils, and she heard a cat on the window ledge mewing for its dinner of buttermilk and sardines.

She settled herself on the piano bench, carefully smoothing the folds of her new muslin dress, and gazed at the book of Chopin favorites in front of her, open to the new piece she’d begun preparing for her Valentine’s Day recital. “I am so very fond of this mazurka,” she told Mrs. Pletcher, who stood at her right shoulder, pince-nez glasses dangling from beneath a tangle of ash-blonde tresses. “If I could have one wish come true in all my life, it would be to hear this melody as long as ever I live. . . and forever and ever after that! Do you believe in wishes, Mrs. Pletcher? Do they ever come true? Do they?”

A loud meow answered from the window ledge. Slowly, Marguerite began to play, fingers treading softly among the worn ivory keys, caressing and handling and shaping each note as if it were the delicate melody made by the wings of a hummingbird floating on the wind, or the timbre of a leaf rustling in a quiet wood on a moonlit autumn eve.

Cantabile, Marguerite,” cautioned Mrs. Pletcher, her lilting whisper as soft as the fragrant azure mist wafting into the room from the cloudless summer sky outside. “Cantabile.”


Lobo Newfield’s Last Hand & Other True Tales from the Late Post-Elviad
– 9 Short Stories by L.E. McCullough –

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