Ariadne After Hours

I finished my first set at MacKibbons, and went outside, smelling myrtle and pine in the thick summer air. My fingers were hot and sore from pounding ivory, and I had them cooling in the pockets of my tuxedo pants. But I took one handful out and snapped them. Across Main Street, in a window on the second floor, a faint glow strained through the dry, yellow parchment of an old-fashioned shade—the kind that traps flies in late summer, the kind that hangs aslant and shows shadows.   

     A brighter light came on in one of the doorways below, surprising me because at dusk, all the shops along Main Street except the liquor store were shuttered and dark. The door opened, and the frame held a woman’s silhouette. I thought of how an actor waits in the wings before entering the nimbus of the stage. But this must be a real person—I told myself—not a shade. To see better, I squeezed my eyes shut and opened them. 

     The hour was between day and night, an equatorial, a crossing over of an infinitesimal line, driven by the loss of light, yet the woman wore dark glasses. I wondered if she might be blind. Although she had no cane or dog, she thrust her face out as blind people do—her neck stiff, chin up, questing for direction and balance. Her smile was rueful, as if she knew that stepping onto the sidewalk meant giving up on a long anticipated arrival. She touched her hair. Then she set off, high heels clacking on the sidewalk, and I watched till she entered the liquor store five doors down. 

     MacKibbon’s eyes pressed against the back of my neck, and I returned to begin the second set.

 

***

 

The next night, I saw the woman again and, having some time before I had to go on, crossed Main Street against the light. I arrived just behind her in the liquor store, and heard the owner, Constantius, address her by name—Mrs. Bernhelm. 

     Her hair was wrapped in a kerchief, and that—along with the stylish sunglasses and shining high heels—made me think of beautiful women incognito, hurrying to romantic assignations. Of Italian movies. She did not speak, only nodded when Constantius indicated a quart bottle of vodka behind the counter and again when he asked if he should charge her account.  

     Still mute, she took the parcel and turned around, darting directly at me. I pretended to study a display of Californian cabernets and pressed myself flat to allow her passage down the aisle. In her wake, there was musk, a perfume full of exotic spice and longing, an essence of what a lonely person knows. After the street door closed, I approached the counter and asked Constantius who she was.

     “Ah, Mrs. Bernhelm. One of my most loyal customers.”

     “Yes, but she lives in one of the apartments above—is that right?”

     “She’s a traffic stopper, a bottle-upper. Excuse me.”

     The phone had rung, and Constantius turned his back and began whispering into the mouthpiece. By the time I returned to the street, the sidewalk was empty. I’d only imagined—I decided—hearing the click of a closing door.

 

***

 

It became my habit to walk down the other side of Main Street, passing the doorway from which I’d first seen the woman appear. I put one foot in front of the other, heel-to-toe like a tightrope walker. As if I had to fill myself with anticipation in order to pour out music, I always walked there before my first set.

     It was an idle and passive activity. I had no agenda—other than to satisfy my curiosity. And I was curious. Curious and hungry—I see that now, looking back. It was due, no doubt, to the many evenings I spent at the piano watching men linked to glittering women sheathed in beautiful dresses and draped with jewels. I saw all the small flirtations—hands touching sleeves, widened eyes—but felt apart, like those fellows in the cave who are chained to the wall and made to watch the reflections of a more real life. 

     So like some itinerant singer of songs, I lingered beneath the woman’s window; it was inevitable that I would encounter her. But the circumstances were unexpected. One night, just as I’d begun my second set, someone took a seat behind me at the small bar. Allow me to explain. MacKibbon had placed the piano—to his credit, a Yamaha baby grand—between two rooms. That is, it jutted out into the main dining room from a smaller room where I—the player—actually sat. Behind my bench, rather too close, a small bar faced the other direction, so that the bartender, a generous woman named Megan, often bumped up against my shoulder with her trouser-clad bottom, an intimacy which—by common consent—we made no mention. 

     And I thought little of someone settling into the bar till heard Megan say “Mrs. Bernhelm, good evening.”

     Well—each note I played became important and exposed. Because of the position of the piano, the only way to see the bar was to lean across the keys and catch a view of the mirror hanging in the dining room on the opposite wall. I canted myself forward, trying to give the impression of being absorbed and overtaken by my muse. In the mirror, there were three figures: two of them belonging to a couple who’d already stayed too long—loudly demanding that their table be readied—and the third, female, petite, her hair a splay of ringlets, caught up behind a bare neck like a bolt of embroidered fabric with a ravel at one end. I hastened to look away—smiling at my moving hands—and played a short set, frantic to think she might leave before I finished. 

     The most sincere thing seemed best, and I sat down one stool away. “Hello, I’ve seen you…” I faltered because she looked so alarmed. I remembered my earlier impression of her, and wondered if I’d stumbled onto some assignation, some illicit rendezvous.

     “What did you say—you’ve seen me? That’s not likely.”

     “Across the street, you live across the street. I’ve seen you walking.” With her usual discretion, Megan passed me a glass of soda, and I sipped at it. “You’ve never heard me play? And I’ve been here six—no, seven months already. I’m a bit deflated.”

     “I’ve never been here, at least not since the change of ownership. I used to come here a lot—with my husband.”

     I waited in expectation of a story, a scandal, but the silence lengthened and grew awkward. It wasn’t, I decided, so much that the woman was holding herself back, more that memory had taken her far away, to a place where many partings might be recurring. She glanced at me with widened, kohl-rimmed eyes and wiped at the streaks of condensation on the bar with her cocktail napkin. 

     “You play well,” she said. “I know some of the old tunes. My husband—he was an older man.”

     “Ah, I’m sorry.”

     “Why did you say that?”

     “You said, he was older, I assumed he was—”

     “Was? He still is—I suppose you could say. Persisting in his enjoyment of kitsch, I’m sure. As far as I know—”

     The word kitsch stung; it distracted me from what else she was saying. “Kitsch?” I said. “You think show tunes are kitsch?”

     “I mean no offense. If they’re done well, in a certain—venue. But here—these people don’t appreciate your music, and their inattention demeans it. Demeans it and makes it overly pretty and false. Kitsch.”

     She’d spoken some truth. People did talk and eat their dinners through my creations—I never minded, after all, that was why they were there, to eat. I always thought I was lucky to have steady work. If I could hook even one person a night—watching like a fisherman to see when a song or a particular rhythm might make them pause, fork suspended before their open mouth, roiling the blank surface of their conversation—then I was satisfied. 

     “Only,” I said, “you sound so harsh. You have a point, but you see, I don’t judge my audience.”

     “Of course.” She narrowed her eyes and lips.

     “And,” I continued, “I try to play with as much depth as I can. At every moment.”

     “Uh-huh.”

     I was surprised at how challenged I felt, the strong urge I had to impress her, to begin my third set right away. Just wait, I wanted to say. Will you wait and listen? Like an anatomist, I planned to strip away any vestigial trace of falsity from each phrase, pare fat from bone with my scalpeled ear. And I’d be sure to play the most banal songs—“Tea for Two” or even “Hearts and Flowers”—etching them with figures written in blood and unfiltered wine. By the Gods, I’d make the whole room shake and roar.

     “Let me tell you my theory,” I said, a little out of breath. “The project of solo piano implies ambiguity. It’s generally agreed that the left hand accompanies the right, the higher notes standing out in song. But I find that the melody can also accompany the accompaniment. Very small changes in phrasing scribe the chords’ curved figures in a different way, pulling the rhythm to and fro like a pendulum fixed to an offbeat clock. The melody has already been written; it’s the accompaniment that’s mine. As I stride through a song, propelling it forward with those grand tenths, I sing inside, utilizing an odd, aural calculus to plumb my depths.”  

     She turned her head to one side and then mimed applause with her hands. “Interesting. I have a piano, an old one—out of tune, I’m sure. But I’ve been told it’s a joy to play. If you’re a player. The action—it’s very gratifying.” She looked down at her drink, touching the pattern her lipstick had made on the rim with a slim, manicured nail. “There’s something wrong with it though. One of the keys—an important one—sticks.”  

     Was this, I wondered, the sound of a door opening? A glimpse of a way out of something, through and into something else? I moved closer, occupying the stool between us and began to speak, intoning that all the keys were important, but hesitated, stuck on the image of a man and a woman talking at the bar, in a way I’d observed done by countless other men and women. Inauthentic. I didn’t even know her first name. 

     “What is your name?”

     She gave me a look, of reproach, it seemed, as if we had been doing quite well without names. 

     “I know your last name, it’s Bernhelm,” I blurted out. “I saw you at Constantius’ and asked him about you.”

     My confession seemed to ground her restless energy, and she peered at me with a slight, supple smile. “Asked about me. Call me Luisa. Maybe you’d look at my piano sometime. And yes—I’ll stay and listen. Not all the way to the end, though.”

 

***

 

Before my last song, she paid her bill and left. After changing out of my tuxedo, I was five minutes behind her. The street was deserted; even Constantius had closed. Her doorway was set in several feet from the facades of the stores along Main Street. I expected a number of buzzers and mailboxes; after all, there was a whole row of windows above. Somehow I’d never noticed—there was only one bell, dark like the mouth of a silent oracle, protruding from the frame. When I pressed, it hardly gave at all, and I couldn’t be sure it had worked. But her voice murmured through a tiny meshed speaker, and I replied. There was an electronic ring, and the door yielded to the palm of my hand.   

     On the stairs, I wondered about the husband she’d mentioned—he was alive, she’d said. Surely she wouldn’t invite me to her apartment if he were there. But a trace of him, I was sure, would linger—even as absence; being with her would be like being with someone at an airport window, watching as they watched till a plane joined with the sky.

     The first thing I noticed when she opened the door was that I could see two sides of her: the front, because she was facing me, and the rear, because—immediately behind her—there was a wall, covered with a full-length mirror. “Make yourself at home,” she said. “I won’t be a minute.”

     I turned to the left, and entered a large room. The floor and the sofa and chairs were littered with open cardboard boxes containing balls of wadded-up newspaper, already yellow with age. She must be in the process of moving, I thought.

     “This is my storage room,” she said when she returned. “You must excuse the clutter. There’s so much space here. I’m spoiled, really.” 

     She led me through a doorway into what must at one time have been a separate apartment. There was something strange about it—walking in, I faced a couch with a floor lamp to one side. Turning around, I saw the exact same arrangement against the wall behind me. The couches were of the same size and shape but subtly different—not covered in the same material. Above each couch were framed oil paintings, depicting two identical landscapes, except with the images reversed. The lamps were twins. It seemed to me right away that if one looked into a mirror in this room, it would be quite confusing—disorienting, to say the least. Another doorway stood in the opposite corner from the one through which I had entered. 

     “Are all the apartments yours?” I asked.

     “Well, they’re all connected.”

     “Don’t you ever get lost?”

     “No, I have ways to remember where I am. Little tricks.” 

     “Ah, a ball of string, breadcrumbs?” I said, grinning. “But is there a monster?”

     “Oh dear.” She got to her feet and began to pace quickly from one side of the room to the other and then went out to the hallway.

     “What is it?” I asked, when she returned, shaking her head.

     “My keys, I’ve lost them again. Help me look.”

     “There’re probably still in the lock.”

     Together we inspected the outside of the door to no avail. “Think about every place you’ve been since you got back,” I said. “Recreate all your steps—they can’t have just vanished.”

     She looked at me with skepticism but then went back to the front door and, opening it, stood in the passageway. Then, with a somnambulist’s dignity, she began walking down the hallway toward the back of the building. I followed.

     The hallway was hung with many pictures in sepia and gray, punctuated by bursts of brilliant light. They contained images of men in tuxedos and women in evening dress, smoking cigarettes, laughing, posing with shining faces and arms draped around each other’s shoulders. Some had inscriptions of dates and places, and they had all been matted and framed in the same style, as if they formed an archive. “I’m astonished by your photos,” I said. “Had no idea there was a museum here.”

     “Most of them are of my parents, my family—all gone now.” She stopped before one and waited for me to catch up. The photo was different from the rest—a formal pose of a big-boned man sitting with his head canted up toward the light, so that his features gleamed like marble. “My husband.” Alongside it a smaller frame contained newspaper clippings entitled—Millionaire Disappears Mystery Deepens. 

     “What happened?”

     “He was supposed to take me with him, but I waited—too long.” She looked at me with unfocused eyes, showing me how she’d stared at the empty horizon. “Too long,” she repeated. “My keys.” 

     Still moving slowly and stiffly—so much so that I decided she was being playful—she entered a small bathroom and turned on the light. She looked in the mirror and adjusted her hair. We continued to a kitchen where she went to a counter and examined a telephone. At the sink, she mimed drinking from a glass of water. 

     “Okay, now I came back to you,” she said. “That’s when I realized they were gone.”

     I followed her as she returned to the room we’d started from. The keys were underneath one of the couches. We’d both gotten down on our hands and knees to search after she’d said that was the last place she remembered seeing them. Her head was very close, and I tried to kiss her on the mouth, but she twisted away. 

     “No,” she whispered, getting to her feet. “The piano, it’s in here.”

     She led me through the doorway and turned on an overhead light. In this room, the walls were lined with bookcases, and in the center, placed on top of a thick rug, was an ancient baby grand piano—a Steinway, I noted with mounting excitement.      “It’s quite valuable,” I said, running my hands over the covered keyboard, sniffing for damp. “Very old.”

     “Pre-war. Go ahead.”

     I lifted the cover and found the ivory keys yellowed and stained. Pits and gouges ran across their surface. Monstrous indeed, I thought, pulling up the stool to sit. Some people shouldn’t be allowed to possess such fine things. I touched the keys, daring to make a dense chord with both hands. Of course, it was out of tune, but all the gentle hammers flexed and struck, and—instead of the brittle clang I’d dreaded—a rich, ringing tone rose and echoed across the book’s spines.

     “One of the black keys. That’s what’s broken. There—that one.” She pointed with the same nail she’d touched the glass with earlier. But now it was chipped.

     A lower E flat, stuck like a wounded songbird. “I can fix it,” I said. “But I’ll have to open up the insides. Is there any more light? And do you have any tools?” 

     As if I were a mechanic going under the hood of an antique Rolls, I opened the lid all the way and climbed halfway inside. Luisa sat on a couch, tucking her stockinged feet beneath her hips and putting her chin in her palm. A vault of soft, bare wood and taut wire surrounded me, and a smell—not unpleasant—of old oil and varnish. Following the circuit of the compromised E flat, I found the hammer and disengaged it. 

     A needle had been inserted on a diagonal path and driven deep, so that the tip would catch on the adjacent hammer and prevent it from sounding. It troubled me—such a thing could not have happened accidentally; it was an act of deliberate sabotage. I took a pair of long-nosed pliers and pulled the needle free, reminded of lion’s paws and thorns. The only damage was that the velvet pad had been slightly torn but in such a way that it would not interfere with the sound. The piano still needed tuning, but all the keys, white and black, were free. 

     I faced her. I’d had every intention of showing her the needle, confronting her with it, having decided she must be responsible. But I was no longer sure. I wondered if someone else might have placed it there, placed it in such a way as to spoil music and performance, perhaps to spoil her happiness as well. I felt sorry for her, her elaborate make-up and hair seemed wistful and lonely, referring to an earlier age of starlets and big cameras; it was all too much for a small, suburban town. She needed a grander stage, a place where men slew monsters and kept their promises. From this place, something had sailed away, leaving her stranded and bruised.

     “It’s all right now,” I said gently. “May I play something?”

     An inchoate beginning, as I listened for my cue. Then a song began in my wrists—a theme, full of equal parts grief and laughter. I was its master; I packed it into a variation, made it leap out again onto center stage. It was not something thrown together, something made of late night leftovers for half-hungry guests. It sprang from a deep well fed by immortal springs, sheltered by olive-groves—a place where a goddess might dwell.

     When I was done I realized she’d lit a candle and held it with both hands, the light spilling upwards onto her shoulders. Her face was high and curved with shadow, like the arches above an altar. 

An earlier version of this story was published in Gone Lawn Journal #5, 2011.

Alan Bray, Contemporary Author of Fiction

al.bray22@gmail.com

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