From his seat on the front row of the mezzanine, R watched the conductor gesture to begin the concerto. On the stage below, the polished piano overwhelmed the harp, the tuba, and the bass drum, all at rest. Eventually clarinetists would lift their reeds, violinists would nod into their strings, and the score would call for brass, but this movement belonged to the percussive monster with its lifted lid, and to Bette, R’s latest Conservatory Girl. She was dressed in blend-in black, her long skirt brushing the floor.
Seated, Bette was normal-sized. But standing she was 6’4 or 6’5, R guessed, several inches taller than him, flat-footed.
The music she played, a lyrical dirge, placed her between the living and the dead. As her fingers trilled, R danced in his chair. His knees shook as he tapped his feet. One hand fluttered as if playing along with phantom fingers across silent keys. This was the only way R stood out from other members of the audience, for he too was bald and wearing serious square-framed glasses. He had a silver mustache and thick, stern eyebrows.
R regretted that he had come to appreciate music so late in life. One winter five years previous, his neighbor, Fred Fairbanks, a composer on faculty at the Conservatory, invited R and his wife Yvonne to a performance of Handel’s Messiah. The holy trumpets! The triumphant voices! R felt unexpectedly gladdened by the music: the choir had offered him news that the world was better and more beautiful than he thought. He wished he knew the words; that he might sing along. R felt then that music could provide him special access to what it meant to be alive. He clapped until his hands hurt. Yvonne was bored by it all. “My mind always wanders during these things,” she said. R purchased a recording and kept playing it long past Christmas. He built a collection from Beethoven to Rachmaninoff, from Gershwin to Cage. Yvonne begged him to get over Sleeping Beauty. He listened to Caruso sing Vesti la giubba with quivering rejection on the crackling 1904 Victor recording, surprised by the pain he felt though he couldn’t understand the words.
Fairbanks invited R to other performances, and then later, to give to the Conservatory. By then, R was devoted to the symphony and thrilled by the Phil. He was embarrassed that there was nothing he could really play proficiently beyond maracas and the tambourine, though once his daughter Karen taught him a few piano ditties (he was decent at Chopsticks). R paid to have his name engraved in a brick at the Conservatory, among donors who had grown up breaking bows and turning pages.
Yvonne hadn’t questioned his patronage at first, the donations to the Chamber Society, tickets to the opera, the singular brick. But that hadn’t been enough for R. It didn’t bring him close enough to making the music, knowing how it worked, or why it made him feel what he felt. He had wanted to save just one struggling artist. He ended up saving several.
From his mezzanine seat, R watched as Bette’s face intensified. Oh, if she might cry! She wasn’t this way with R, never teary or discomposed, and for a moment, he envied the piano. Couldn’t they share a moment like this? Bette made him feel he wasn’t old. It was death she beckoned with the bell-like tolls she played, but death she warded off.
She closed her eyes and tilted her head back, her blonde bun unraveling, her lips just parting, then opening wider, her fingers stretched tight for a moment’s passionate pause. Her whole body bounced on the bench. R wiped his forehead ineffectually with the program.
Bette! She had no intention of making a career of accompanying fledgling sopranos who wouldn’t make it to Broadway. Her life, she had told R, would be a glamorous series of recording sessions, music hall matinees, and opening night galas.
She was his first aspiring pianist.
* * *
R’s Conservatory conquests began by accident, with Miss French Horn. She was full-cheeked with orchestral ambition, and she suffered from Satchmo’s syndrome, a facial malady common in mouthpiece musicians. Over time, the instrument was tearing her lips from her face, slackening her pout, shifting her smile. R approached her after a recital at the Conservatory. She lugged the horn in its snail-shell case. R offered her a grandiose compliment (he could no longer remember the clever phrase) and he could see the amusement in her ruptured cheeks. He meant only to encourage her, but her response had encouraged him. After taking her to several dinners he found she’d only been kissed once, by a trumpet player who instantly regretted it. He realized how easy it would be to kiss this lonely sore-jawed girl, so he did.
“I’ve never been able to talk to a man about my music,” she said.
She taught him the basics of musical notion and some trivia and terminology, all the most relevant isimos and antes. She laughed when he professed to love Fur Elise. In the comfort of his midtown apartment, a place that he’d owned since the 70s, she recommended new recordings for the pleasure of easy listening. Sometimes he held ice to her mangled mandibles, worried for the day she’d encounter men who admired beauty far more than talent.
She liked books—he bought her many—and she had an incurable sweet tooth, a penchant for hand-dipped chocolates. Ms. French Horn had gone on far too long, and she had taken it far too seriously. R was relieved when she graduated, moving to Cincinnati to fill out their symphony.
Many months later, R watched curls sweep the soundboard as a harpist plucked and strummed. Off-stage, he found Glorious Harpist limp-haired, pallid-faced, gawky, and woodwind-thin, more austere, less heavenly. He bought her silk dresses and bouquets of pale roses. She asked for help with her rent.
Yvonne found out, and Glorious Harpist, by necessity, retreated. Yvonne insisted on a trial separation. She threatened to take everything. R hated the thought of a divorce. He remembered Yvonne’s better qualities: her impeccable memory, her excellent childrearing (Karen, now nearly forty and living in Westchester, really was an angel), her knack for decorating and lawn games. There was even something attractive about her rage. They reconciled. But she promised that if he repeated the offense, she would leave. He stayed away from the Conservatory until Glorious Harpist moved to Berlin, where she had family friends and hopes of living simply while learning German.
Bette, the Grand Piano, began like the others, with a performance (hers a concerto) and a handshake. Emboldened by his record, R was surprised and dismayed when she wouldn’t sleep with him, no matter the gift or occasion.
Weeks of early evenings ended in chaste kisses. He booked a suite for the weekend at a historic hotel: “There’s no convincing me,” she said. “Don’t complicate things.” She squeezed his hand, as she might an old friend, a beloved neighbor. But if she’d let him, he could do what a younger man might. She had filled him with a new capacity for these things. He would undress her slowly, in his own time.
“Is there nothing I can do?” he asked, repeatedly.
“Nothing,” she said.
Finally, she provided a new, albeit exasperated, response.
“I’ll sleep with you if you buy me a piano,” she said.
“A pianoforte?” he said.
“It’s embarrassing when you talk like that,” she said.
A grand would never fit in her apartment. Maybe she’d sleep under it. R imagined Bette crammed beneath a mahogany mammoth with her pillows and blankets, under so many hammers and metal strings. It was wonderful to think of.
The hypothetical piano had become a joke between them. Bette resisted every advance, and then, with an acquisitive voice, she’d say, “Show me the Steinway!” or “Remember my grand!”
But the time came when R began to take it seriously.
He had the money. He owned one very lucrative patent: he’d invented a chemical coolant for ice rinks, and it had thrilled refrigerator people and the hockey-loving Canadians.
It would be delightful to hear her play, just for him alone, a private audience. He’d request the Carmen variations: cheerful cascades devolving into chromatic chaos.
Yvonne would not like this purchase.
He couldn’t help himself.
It was awful when Bette left the city for a week to attend a piano competition in Salt Lake City. It was as if R’s world had grown quiet and small. He felt sick. He worried he was closer than ever to death, but hoped it was only boredom and anticipation that made his steps seem heavier and slower—adagio; his heart beat rapidly with even the minor exertion of climbing stairs—affretando; or in one case, as he stood on a corner to hail a cab—fermata, in which instance he pressed his hand to his chest and wondered: Am I still alive?
He decided, once and for all, that he must buy the piano. He could not wait any longer.
* * *
R entered Steinway Hall on 57th Street through a door guarded by a bas-relief of Apollo. The door led into a domed room that smelled of the slow deterioration of velvet upholstery.
R was approached by a piano expert who looked like an upright: a compressed box with his arms glued to his sides. R had noticed that pianos had that way with people after a while. Even in music-less moments, Bette would tip forward as if leaning closer to the keys to better hear the chord progressions.
“I’m here to purchase a piano,” R said, not making eye contact.
“How wonderful! Have you visited Steinway Hall in the past?” He hadn’t.
The Piano Expert led him to a gleaming nine-footer.
“This model is most popular among serious musicians,” he said. “This is the macassar ebony finish. You might also like one of the rosewood options.” R touched the glistening frame with just one finger.
“We can open it up,” the Piano Expert said. He found the prop then steadied the lid, revealing the intricate insides of the piano, its many perfect components. It seemed somehow improper. R swallowed.
R reached his arms out to the side, as if to measure.
“If you have the room, we recommend the grand,” said the Piano Expert. “For the sound, of course.”
“Does the size really affect the sound that much?” R wondered aloud.
“If you need something smaller, we can look at the Boston line.”
R couldn’t imagine Bette beside a Boston baby grand. It was insulting to think of how the diminutive instrument might make her seem less than she was.
“No, certainly a grand. Absolutely a grand. This one is very nice” The paneled walls of Steinway Hall registered the slight increase in R’s volume. He heard it repeat back to him.
“You ought to play it.”
“That won’t be necessary,” R said.
“I insist. You should play.” The piano expert pulled out the bench, and R sat down. He could have simply stated that the piano was not for him, but he didn’t want to explain.
He pressed his foot down on one of the pedals.
He found middle C.
R realized he couldn’t even plunk out Heart and Soul, another childish duet he learned from Karen. He stretched his fingers to their span, nearly an octave, he knew, and leaned his head close to the keys the way Bette did.
The piano expert was watching him, expectant.
R lifted his foot from the pedal. He looked down at his fingers again.
He couldn’t touch a Steinway! He wasn’t qualified! It was disgusting to think what he might to do it, how it might sound if he let his fingers press down on the keys. He slammed the fall forward and the sound of wood against wood echoed through the room. The piano expert looked down at the floor.
R stood up.
“I don’t like this piano. I don’t trust it. I don’t want to touch it,” R said, shaking his head. The piano expert buttoned his jacket.
“We’ll look at another model.”
“No, no. Everything is going to be off. The sound is going to be off. I can feel it. This can’t work.”
“This is a marvelous instrument,” said the piano expert, gliding his hand along the bend side of the piano.
R hurried through the gallery and the rotunda, the piano expert half a step behind him. His footsteps were thunderous, unmusical.
“I’d be happy to make an appointment with you for another time.”
“And these floors! Just listen to them!” R said. “They’re ghastly!”
Once outside, R reeled with a sense of exposure. He should’ve known the right questions to ask about the piano. He should have asked Bette, or Fred Fairbanks. Of course the size made a difference! He shouldn’t have sat when the expert pulled out the bench.
He would get Bette a piano, and soon. But there must be another way. He could never show his face in Steinway Hall again. He stood waiting for a cab, but none rounded the corner. It would be a long walk back to his empty apartment, and by the end of it, his feet would ache.
* * *
With Bette out of the city, R took the train to Connecticut, to the house he shared with Yvonne. It was a white Colonial on five acres of green lawn with a circular driveway, a swimming pool, and numerous empty bedrooms. Like any man who had lived in a house for three decades, R suffered from house blindness. He couldn’t provide an inventory of his possessions or account for their storage and display. A painting in the hallway became part of the hallway after a time. He didn’t know whether they’d always had lemon trees in the sunroom, or if the wainscoting was original. He walked from room to room as if looking for his glasses or his keys, waiting for Yvonne to dress for dinner out in the neighborhood. And there it was in front of him, in his own house: what had seemed a dusty old forgotten table at the end of one room, hidden behind tall houseplants, was a piano.
It lacked the shine of the showroom Steinways. Its strange legs weren’t clean and tapered, but bulbous balusters turned out. The keys looked sturdy, but decaying, like coffee-stained teeth. Any piano, he reminded himself, would be a generous gift.
He pressed down on two keys, one quiet hapless chord.
This time, he played Heart and Soul.
He would move the piano for her. While he played, he imagined the whole operation, the piano bolted to the top of a semi-truck in the open air, the keys moving on their own, like a player piano with a perforated ragtime roll and pumping pedals, as the truck passed commuters. Sightseers on the Hudson River, on cruisers and in sailboats, might look up and point to the piano that had suddenly appeared in the distance, briefly intruding upon the tree line, providing the whole city with a soundtrack for the afternoon, a cakewalk, a march, a highway waltz.
He’d rent a crane, order the giant delivered through the windows, lodged in the sky, dangling over fleet-footed pedestrians, creating a noisy traffic-stopping affair.
He was singing, though he couldn’t quite remember the words: “Never before was I so strangely willing.”
* * *
When Bette returned from Salt Lake City, R took her to his apartment. He showed her the space he had cleared in the living room for the piano.
“You really bought me a piano?” she said, turning to him, reaching down to clutch his arm, her height melting into the stoop she adopted when she wanted her face to meet his.
He cupped her face with his hand, but she turned away.
She wasn’t covering him with kisses, or even squeezing his hand with tender appreciation. He expected excitement, fanfare.
“R,” she said. “You think I’m worth a piano?” She looked down at him with earnest incredulity, as if she’d be shocked if he told her she wasn’t.
“Of course you’re worth a piano!” he said.
“Why are you bringing it here?”
“You don’t have room for it.” His apartment, to his way of thinking, was the perfect place. This way, Bette and the piano would never be together without him.
“It’s all the way across town. It’s very inconvenient. It’s not what I wanted.” She lowered herself to the floor.
“Now don’t be too grateful, or I’ll take it back,” he said, standing over her, seeing the top of her head.
“It’s not that. It’s fine. Thank you,” she said, folding her arms around her knees, becoming smaller still. “I can’t practice here. You’ll be here. It won’t be mine.”
“It will be entirely yours. I’m not here all the time, you know.” She was a product of her generation, a petulant brat.
“When will it be here?” she asked.
“Next week. But don’t tell me you’re going to make me wait that long.” He wanted to watch her play, and then play her. He wanted to make her make a sound.
“I don’t think it’s fair.”
“Take off your dress,” he said.
She stood up, towering over him, putting both hands on his shoulders.
“No, I can’t do that,” she said. “I’m going to leave now. Goodbye R.” She kissed his forehead.
She crossed the room and let herself out the door. R was still standing in the spot where he imagined undoing all her formalities, performing the act his heart had so often rehearsed.
* * *
R didn’t worry when he hadn’t heard from Bette for a few days.
He arranged for the Wilson Piano Moving Company to transfer the piano the morning of his trip to Vermont, where he would meet up with old friends from the coolant industry. The five movers arrived on schedule, wearing blue jeans and matching black shirts and caps.
“I’m Isaac Wilson,” one mover said, tucking a clipboard under his arm and extending his hand.
R led the men to the piano. Three movers knelt down to assess it from below. Two others leaned against it, adopting the posture of lounge singers.
“These legs aren’t detachable,” Wilson said. “Gentlemen, we should prepare for an as-is move. Do you know the piano’s approximate age, sir?”
“I have no idea,” R said.
“It looks at least one hundred years old,” Wilson said.
“I’d say,” another mover added, pulling out a measuring tape and jotting down figures. “7’4,” he said.
“We can start wrapping,” Wilson said. “But I’m not sure yet how we’re going to get it out of here.”
“What do you mean?” said R “That’s your job, isn’t it?”
“Maybe we’ll take some doors off,” Wilson said. “Large windows are also helpful.”
Yvonne appeared as if anticipating guests, her hair round-brushed to high heaven. R loved her hair like that, the whole exaggerated effect of it. She wore a pleated skirt and a white short-sleeved blouse.
“What are you doing?” she said.
“I’m moving the piano. It’s gathering dust,” R said.
“It’s dusted twice weekly.” She nudged Wilson aside and put her hand on the case, lifting it to show R “Where are you moving it? Who is it for?”
“I’m taking it to the apartment,” R said.
“Do you have any idea what this piano is worth?”
She glared at R, then at Wilson and his team.
“Just let me take the piano,” R said.
“It’s extremely rare!” Yvonne said. “You can’t have it because it isn’t yours. It’s mine.”
“How about you call us when you know for sure if you’ll be moving this piano?” Wilson said. The movers retreated.
R sat down on one of the chairs.
Yvonne sat on the piano bench and turned her knees under the frame. She straightened her back and lifted her chin. She played a series of runs, mostly minor chords. The music sharpened R’s attention.
“It’s shocking that you don’t remember what this piano means to me,” she said, still making music. “It’s an 1842 Pleyel. This piano has been in my family for generations. My mother promised it to me before we were married. I made the mistake of letting Lucas and Angela have it in their house, remember, because we didn’t have room in the beginning? Then their children pounded it out of tune, and when I asked for it, Lucas said it was his, because it had been in his house for so long. Angela finally gave in, years later. I begged Karen to take lessons.” She smoothed her skirt. She looked great sitting at the piano. “Both my mother and grandmother learned on it,” she continued. “This piano was made in France, then taken to Switzerland, and came to Boston by boat with my great grandparents.” She finished the final measures, holding the last notes past their time signature. Perhaps she had basic skills, R conceded, but she lacked real talent.
“I think I remember the bit about Lucas and Angela,” he said.
“Tell me you’re going to stop doing this to me,” Yvonne said, raising the keys, prying them up from their sockets, then pushing them down soundlessly.
He knew he should make her that promise.
“Let me take the piano,” he said.
Yvonne stood. Contained rage had somehow flattened her hair. “I told you I wouldn’t tolerate this,” she said, and exited the room.
R was left with the piano. It was almost too much to be alone in the room with it.
He called Bette, but she didn’t answer.
* * *
R had three days in Vermont to think it all over, but he felt that he had no options. He had found one piano, and now it seemed the only piano. He wanted to tell his friends from the coolant industry about Bette while they tossed back shots and planned summer excursions to the Cape. She was a tune that followed him wherever he went. If he told them they weren’t sleeping together, not yet, they would laugh at him. Didn’t he know she was probably sleeping with someone else? If he told them how tall she was, what she demanded, they’d suggest she was already with an erudite basketball player; a younger, livelier man. They’d tell him to buy a castoff upright, but something so ordinary could never save him.
He left Bette a phone message, telling her to come by the apartment on Sunday evening.
“Anytime,” he said. “If I’m not there, let yourself in and wait for me.”
It was agony, knowing he would return with no piano. He hoped the news of the Pleyel, a thing odd and old and unusual, but of one magnificent piece, would be enough.
* * *
R rushed to his apartment from Grand Central, hoping Bette would be waiting for him. He carried a box of maple leaf candies under his arm. But she wasn’t there. Instead, R opened the door and encountered the Pleyel, resting on his rug with its bulbous legs and its tooth-decay keys. How it had happened? He hadn’t given Isaac Wilson the address, and certainly not a key. Had they removed doors and windows, hired a crane, all without his knowledge? The piano stood right where he wanted it, at the center of the living room, as if moved by his will alone.
Bette would be so grateful. He’d request a little night music, a love song for after dark, the rich bass muffling her appreciative sobs. He’d ask her to play in her underwear, maybe a midnight blue set with peachy pink lining. Then when she finished, he’d bend her over the closed lid. She’d have the piano, and he would have her. They would make an unlikely trio: a massive piano, a giant girl, an old man.
R walked around to the bench. Where sheet music would have rested, R found two pieces of paper. One might have been a bill from the movers, he reasoned. On closer inspection, it was a note written on graph paper, torn from of a notebook. It read:
Thank you very much, but I can’t see you anymore, and I can’t use the piano. Now things are just too weird, you know? You can look for me at Carnegie Hall.
P.S. I did lift the lid, just out of curiosity, but it hasn’t been tuned, so I didn’t play it. I was thinking of a fugue. Your wife suggested a requiem.
And then a second note, on a folded linen card with a familiar golden monogram.
“For the patron of the arts,” it read.
We’re thrilled to post “Patron of the Arts” by Kate Finlinson as our first New Voices publication. Kate was shortlisted for The Masters Review last year. Her work shows refinement and simply drips with talent. We know we’ll see great things from her in the future.
Kate Finlinson is a recent graduate of the Michener Center for Writers at the University of Texas at Austin. Her work has appeared in The Cincinnati Review, Crazyhorse, Cream City Review, Mid-American Review, and PANK.