Delmarva Review: Cantabile by John J. McKeon

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Schubert, it is said, had fat and awkward hands. Though his music sings, he never learned to play the piano really well. Contrast this with the plaster cast of Chopin’s hands, supposedly done immediately after his death. The fingers seem to me implausibly slender and long, but no matter. We impute magic to objects like an artist’s hands, just as we weighed and measured Einstein’s brain, looking for some simple fact of flesh and structure that would enable us to shrug and say, well, no wonder. We have no similar preoccupation with Beethoven’s hands. Rather, his hair, flying, unruly. He had Einstein’s hair, or perhaps Einstein had his.

Occasionally someone will remark on my own long, thin fingers, and if they know of my pianism, they will smile and nod in just that knowing way. Of course. How could Liszt or Rachmaninoff hold any terrors for a woman with such big hands? And I did launch my career on just this basis: the flirty ingénue, the merest wisp of a girl, rampaging through the alpha male repertory, all while showing more skin than might be expected.

It worked for a while. I did the global whirligig for a decade, until the bookings began to slow. I have read an account that states simply that Annie Molloy disappeared from public view after marrying a surgeon. Some truth there, I suppose. God knows I enjoyed my husband more than the umpteenth night of Prokofiev in Poughkeepsie.

Today I am no wisp of a girl, and if I am flirty it is in the manner of an elderly lady who thinks she can get away with something.

What saved me, and saves me still, is Cantabile, my immense and ramshackle house on the edge of the Choptank River near Cambridge, Maryland. I have no children, and my husband is gone, taken by a heart attack a decade ago. But the house endures, and I along with it.

It is, as I say, a big house, twenty-six rooms in all, and I have filled it with pianos: a showcase grand in the main parlor, and other uprights and grands tucked in everywhere. Eight times a year, I also fill the house with amateur pianists from all over the country, some of them coming year after year to spend two weeks living and breathing piano. I’ve recruited a staff of skilled and patient teachers. I teach myself, and I love it. We have an excellent cook, and my campers bring their own booze. I don’t take anyone under 21.

Philip was the exception, from the day his uncle’s Volvo dropped him at my door fully 30 years ago. A glorious day of early fall, the herons at the river’s edge holding their poses, the grass bright and the river like blue ice. Philip was sixteen, and I welcomed him because the chairman of the music department at New York University, an acquaintance who had once wanted to be my lover, said he had never heard anyone like Philip and two weeks with me would be just the thing.

Philip had the ideal pianist’s hands, I noticed from the kitchen window. It was arrival day, and the house was loud with laughter and greetings. Philip dropped his duffel bag on the gravel and clutched to his chest a thick canvas case in which, I guessed, he had brought along every scrap of sheet music he owned. He clutched the case like the floatable cushion from an airplane seat, hoping it would keep him alive but somehow doubting it. His fingers curled around the bottom of the case, the knuckles visible from a distance, the flesh very white. I forced myself to stop spying and hurried outside to greet him.

As I had feared, Philip never did fit in. He was decades younger than the others and sipped Dr Pepper during happy hour while the others whittled down their wine stocks. The older women embarrassed him with their attention, while the men ignored or visibly resented him. He couldn’t tell a joke, didn’t follow sports, and couldn’t answer a question with more than a syllable or two.

What he could do was play the piano.

That first morning, I found myself drawn upstairs by an unfamiliar sound: scales. When I say our campers all love the piano and want earnestly to play better, I do not mean to imply any enthusiasm for such tedium as scale practice. Yet there it was. In every key, major and minor, not just the easy keys with the standard fingerings but the variants and oddities as well, four octaves up and down, slowly and quickly, in four-four time, three-four, triplets, in parallel and contrary motion, even with the left hand offset by half a bar. And all played with perfect evenness and fluidity. I noted the room from which this marvel was emerging and checked the day’s schedule: Philip.

At our first lesson Philip told me he had been working on the Chopin Etudes. Not unusual: nearly every reasonably proficient amateur wants to tackle an etude or two to measure himself. Which etudes? I asked.

Philip sat at the piano in my studio with his legs crossed. Mine is the finest instrument in the house, and Philip had taken it in with his first glance on entering and now sat running his fingertips along the keys. “Well,” he said, “all of them, really.”

Over the next hour I discovered that he could, indeed, play all twenty-seven etudes well and from memory. In such a case, the teacher becomes more of a coach. There was nothing I could teach Philip, no technique he lacked, no errors to correct. So I tried to coach him on interpretive choices, to encourage him to listen to himself more closely, to show him the little energy- saving tricks that could help a performer get through such large swathes of difficult music without cramping or breaking down.

When we were done, I said, “What are your plans, Philip? Juilliard? Curtis?”

“I’ll be starting at Johns Hopkins in September,” he said.

“So,” I nodded, smiling, “Peabody. I know a number of the faculty there. You’ll do well.”

“No, not the conservatory,” Philip said. “Engineering.”

“Engineering?” I realized as I said it that I sounded shocked and patronizing, and hastened to add, “Have you not considered a career in music?”

“I don’t want to be a professional musician,” he said.

“With your gift, you’d be…” I almost said “a natural” but stopped myself because I don’t believe such a thing exists and because I knew very well how much labor had gone into creating what I had just heard. “You could be extraordinary,” I said.

“Look, I just don’t want to,” he said. “I won’t be anyone’s performing seal. Okay?”

“Okay, sure,” I said. Philip was looking down and scratching the back of his hand. I suspected I had stepped into a long-running argument, and while Philip seemed uncomfortable telling me to mind my own business, that was just what he had done and would do again if pressed.

He stayed the two weeks, filled his practice shifts, warmed up only slightly in social settings, and, as his contribution to our informal concluding concert, played something relatively easy. I was sure I would never see him again, but the final day, after the last car had pulled out of the drive, as I walked through the hallway of the again-silent house, I took from the table the advance signup sheet for the following year, and there was Philip’s name, halfway down. He would be back. I chuckled, shook my head, and thought about practicing more myself.

Philip did come back the next year, and the next. I tried to guide him into new repertory and paired him with a couple of other accomplished campers for some duet work. When the fourth year began looming and he had not signed up, I dropped him a note to say that if he hadn’t decided yet, I could still hold a spot for him for several more weeks.

He wrote in reply to thank me and to say that he had enlisted in the Marine Corps.

A legend about Glenn Gould, one of the many, concerns the way he walked away from his public career at its peak. He was world famous, in enormous demand. One night, he was pacing backstage when a stagehand asked for an autograph. He signed the program, dated it, and wrote “my last concert” under the date.

I have built myself a similar legend. How I played an afternoon recital in San Diego. Hall half empty, mind elsewhere. Afterward, a dozen or so autographs, the usual smiles, all dinner invitations declined in favor of room service. The next morning, someone named Richard Salazar said in the newspaper that my Liszt Sonata had been “the longest 30 minutes in many a year.”

I tried to work up a robust hate for this man I did not know, but couldn’t. He was right.

Besides, plenty of seats had gone unsold before anyone knew what a snore my recital would be. Time for honesty, I thought on the return flight. I had met Charles and wanted no more Sundays anywhere but home. I had another half dozen commitments to fulfill, but I let my managers know that would be it for a while. I don’t recall any disappointed groans.

Charles was then finishing a clinical fellowship at Johns Hopkins Medical School. He owned a beautiful rowhouse in Baltimore, and that’s where we lived when we first married. I moved my small grand piano from my old apartment. I gave lessons to kids who didn’t want them, plus the occasional adult who lived for them. I found I loved my sessions with the grown- ups and, little by little, weeded the kids out of my garden. Then I read about an adult piano camp in Vermont and thought: I could make a go of that here. I had always lived frugally, and my savings were more than ample to buy Cantabile when I stumbled on it and to gather up a bunch of old but sound pianos. Charles toured the house once, declared that the plumbing and electric bills alone would break the bank, and let me know he would never want to live there. OK, I said, I don’t mean to live here, either, except during camps.

I painted the house myself. I sanded and refinished the floors. I hung my old concert posters, programs, photos, and framed reviews all over the halls. By way of cementing my commitment, I took one last big bite out of my savings and bought a big new grand piano. And one day, while waiting endlessly for a delivery of new kitchen appliances, I dragged out my thick book of the Beethoven Sonatas, Volume I, opened to Sonata Number One in F minor, and started again to learn.

The day years later when I got Philip’s note about joining the Marines, I went to my studio and found Volume III of the Sonatas, creased, stained and dog-eared, on the floor next to the piano. I opened to the last of the thirty-two in C minor, turned to the final movement. And when I was finished I sat on the bench and cried, thinking of Philip in fatigues, thinking of his beautiful hands adjusting the telescopic sight of a sniper’s rifle, thinking I would never see him again or hear him play, thinking this was a great pity, a great pity.

Then, one day about four years after Philip’s note, his name turned up in a monthly report from my CPA. He had paid a deposit to return to Cantabile that fall.

Students for that camp began arriving about two hours after Charles departed. My husband, the distinguished and now wealthy surgeon, had taken the better part of one of his valuable days to drive out from Baltimore because he felt he needed to tell me face to face that our marriage was, from his perspective, less than optimal; that he felt he owed himself the opportunity of a fresh start with someone who would be more…what was his word? Committed, yes, committed to him and only him.

Charles also felt that he was still relatively young and that, statistically speaking, his field of choices was encouragingly large. He would be quite generous in terms of a settlement, anything I wanted, really, and since I clearly did not want the same stylish urban life that he did, this was really for the best.

I suspected he had already winnowed his encouraging large field of choices to one, a distinctly stylish and urban young yoga instructor with the right body and the right hair to be just the right ornament for his Mercedes convertible. But as he stood in the foyer making his oh-so-persuasive case, I found I didn’t care much, just wanted him gone before the campers arrived.

The Philip who was dropped off at my door that August was bigger than the boy I had last seen, and he had let his hair grow. He lugged a duffel bag of clothing and a slim portfolio case of music, and he walked with a slight limp. When I came to hug him, he pivoted toward me oddly, and it was only a minute later, as he made his way up the hall stairs, that I realized his right leg was prosthetic.

I had heard about the embassy bombing, of course, but I had not seen Philip’s name in the newspapers. Three of his fellow Marines had been killed, and a dozen injured, and committees in both houses of Congress wanted to know why this and why that and why some other thing.
“It was a dangerous place,” was all Philip would say, the first evening in our welcome reception.

A hot night, faint breeze through the big screened porch where we gathered. Philip had come downstairs in shorts, and his artificial leg was the unmentioned center of attention. He knew quite a few of his fellow campers and seemed at ease, though he still preferred Dr Pepper to wine. The conversation danced around more or less gracefully, until finally a fellow camper asked, “So, do you pedal with your left leg now?” Philip laughed. And then the subject vanished in laughter, drink, and music-chat. I realized, also, that I had blindly made a wise choice by rooming Philip with Bradley, a veteran of the first Gulf War, Operation Desert Storm. Bradley—never just Brad—walked with a slight limp and had, he said, a picturesque web of scars on his lower back as the result of an encounter with an amateur bomb in Kuwait. I saw him now, gazing benignly at Philip, and then his eyes shifted to meet mine and I thought he nodded, ever so slightly.

And I saw them in conversation, around dusk the next day, sitting on the low concrete wall that reinforced the riverbank. I noticed a tiny red glow passing between them and smiled, sniffing the air.

Any big old house makes noise, and if you sleep alone in such a house you come to terms with the noises. The porch screens hum in the breeze, and each time the refrigerator cycles on, the picture frames vibrate in the stairwell behind the kitchen. That night, or rather in the quietest hours of the morning, I found myself lying awake, thinking intermittently about my defunct marriage and empty future, staring up into the darkness and listening for a tiny sound that was not part of the usual.

Once, when I had first moved into the house, a swarm of bees had somehow taken over the living room, and they had made just such a faint clamor by banging against the bay window in their effort to get out. But this was different, far too rhythmic, and it stopped altogether from time to time. I got out of bed and passed, barefoot and stealthy, through the short corridor linking my suite to the rest of the house.

Dim light rose through the stairwell, and I moved slowly halfway down the stairs. The noise came from the keys of the digital piano on the landing below, left there for silent practice during quiet hours. I had never realized the keys made any sound at all. Even now, only a few feet away, I had to listen acutely. More audible were Philip’s grunts, snorts, and occasional whispers as he stopped, clenched and unclenched his fists, and jumped back into whatever he was so furiously practicing. His leg lay on the floor beside the bench; he was practicing without pedal, working on accuracy and speed. And he was becoming increasingly frustrated. At any moment he might quit and turn around; not wanting to be caught spying, I crept back to my bed.

So it went for four days. In truth, I was frightened by the energy I sensed in Philip’s silent practice, by the way he lunged through every setback and seemed to want to tear gashes in the music and leave it panting. I crept to the stairwell each of three straight nights, lingering where I could retreat should he turn abruptly, watching his hands, those white, big-knuckled hands that had fascinated me on my first sight of him flying⎯sometimes a foot above the keyboard, and sometimes sinking deeply into the keys to draw out a love song. I had first risen from bed because I could not sleep. Now I could not sleep because I wanted, every night, to sit here and listen to Philip’s stunning, exhausting silence.

When not enthralled by his hands I gazed at the stump of his leg. His prosthesis lay on the floor. The stump projected eight inches from his gym shorts, the crisscrossing surgical scars not yet faded. It embarrassed me. It seemed a shockingly intimate sight, the nudest thing I had ever seen. Yet I could not turn away.

I sought him out one afternoon as he sat on the porch and gazed across the river.

“Philip,” I said, “forgive me for prying, but what are you practicing at night?”

My question startled him. “Have I disturbed you? I was using the earphones.”

“Oh, no, no, I’m sure you aren’t bothering anyone. I simply stumbled on you the other night, when I had gotten up for some other reason entirely. Point is, you were going at it hammer and tongs.”

He smiled briefly. “Hammer and tongs,” he whispered. “It’s Liszt. The Don Juan Fantasy.”

“Wow,” I said, and meant it. “I can’t even play that.”
“I doubt you’d want to,” he said. “It’s junk.”
“Then why do you want to play it?”
He leaned forward to rest his elbows on his knees, falling into a series of small nods. “I have been meaning to ask your advice on something,” he said. “I have been invited to play at the White House, on Veterans Day.”

“Philip, that’s wonderful!”

“Is it?” he held my gaze for a moment. “Or is it a PR stunt? The Marine Band is pulling together a whole bunch of us wounded warriors, a bunch of guys who left pieces and parts in various shithole corners of the world but somehow manage to live rich and rewarding lives through music. It’s supposed to be inspirational.”

“Sounds like you doubt it.”

“My first impulse was to tell them to go fuck themselves.” Perhaps I still thought of Philip as a little boy, but the obscenity struck me hard.

“Then I thought,” he went on, “maybe if I do really well, somebody will hear and want to hire me for other stuff. Even accompanist gigs, piano bars, anything would be better than just sitting around my mom’s house.”

“It could happen,” I said. “Though I’d hate to think of you doing requests for a room full of drunks.”

“I’ve done it before. It ain’t that bad.” “But.”
“But,” he said, and fell silent.
“What does Bradley say?”

“Bradley is strongly in favor of the go-fuck-yourself option,” Philip said. “In fact, he says I should accept, perform, knock them on their asses, and then tell the president to his face to go fuck himself.”

“And you? What do you think?”

Philip was silent a long time, or it seemed so. Finally: “When I first came back, I was in the hospital in Bethesda, and on Memorial Day they loaded us into buses and brought us down to the Mall for the concert. Got us nice seats, front row, so we’d all be on TV. There was some C-list actor who got famous playing a disabled vet, plus a bunch of Hollywood bimbos emoting about how much they appreciated us, what heroes we were. All the while I’m thinking, if I approached you in a bar, your bodyguards would beat me bloody. Then they loaded us back on the bus and brought us home. Hurray for the vets, now go away.”

“You said you wanted my advice,” I prodded. “I haven’t heard a question yet.”

“Should I do it?”

“Play at the White House, yes. Insult the president, no,” I said.

“That simple, is it?”

“To me. I’d also consider something shorter and less aggressive than the Liszt. It’s a social occasion, after all.”

Philip smiled, his gaze unfocused across the wide river. “Well, I guess I’ll think about it.”

I lumbered on: “Or, if you really must bring down the house, work with me on it. I would never program it myself, I meant it when I said I couldn’t play it. But I studied it with Alfred Brendel back in the day, and I know it, I know where the snakes are. Stay here for the next six weeks. You’ll have your room to yourself, all the privacy you want, and you can practice on the Steinway in the living room. We’ll work on it together every day. Put a fine edge on the piece before you ride it into battle.”

“I couldn’t afford that,” Philip said.

“No charge. Throw a little something into the grocery fund from time to time, is all.” I stood to leave, and at the door to the house I turned back. “You’re not a performing seal, Philip,” I said. “Seals do things for scraps of raw fish. I don’t know what payoff you’re after.”

That fall, as Philip practiced in the living room, I began work in my study. I would assemble a recital program, I thought, then call in whatever IOUs I might still have to see if I could stage a comeback. A small venue in DC or Baltimore would be best, affordable but still credible as a professional stage. Instead of my old pyrotechnic warhorses, I would play a thoughtful program, suitable for a mature artist, and we’d see what happened.

What happened, most immediately: On our fourth day of work, I had put my hand onto the Steinway keyboard to illustrate a fingering, and all at once Philip’s hand was on top of mine, softly enclosing, and he turned toward me on the bench.

“Philip, we have work to do,” I said.
“Yes,” he whispered.
“Not that kind of work,” I said. He let his hand linger a  moment, looked into my eyes, and squeezed. He did not mean to alarm me, I don’t think, but the strength in his hands made me imagine bones crunching. “Philip, please,” I said. “I’m old enough to be your mother.”

“And I’m missing a leg, or hadn’t you noticed?” he said, not letting go.

“Please let go of my hand,” I said softly. He did not let go.

“I know I’m damaged. But everyone is damaged somehow,” he said, now turning and taking my other hand in his, though I tried to squirm away. “Philip,” I said more sternly, rising from the bench. He let my hands slip away and hung his head.

“I’m sorry.”

“Don’t be. I’m flattered. But we’d never be good for each other.”

“We’d be great together, and you know it.”

“I don’t know it. And if this sort of thing happens again, you will have to leave.”

We went back to work. Philip did not try again. He certainly could have forced me, I realized. We were alone in the house, and he was very strong. Was I attracted to him? Of course I was; he was beautiful. Those hands! But I thought his ardor for me reflected deprivation and proximity more than anything else. He could have better than me, but I would do in a pinch. I was much older than he, and gravity had had its way with my body. Yet I was sure I could please him. I wanted to, and I knew how. And after all, my Charles had gotten himself a new toy⎯why shouldn’t I? Then I thought: I won’t do it precisely because Charles has.

None of this kept the thought from my mind, often at the most unlikely moments. Finally, I made a pact with myself. Later, after the concert, after his triumph—our triumph—we would return to Cantabile that night, no matter how late, and we’d come back into the dark, welcoming house, and if he were still interested then, I would make love to him, all he wanted, and almost enough.

Sometimes in life, you have to wait for the punchline. In Charles’ case, he lived the life he wanted for another six years after he left me, with his box at the opera and his club seats at the football games, and he and his magnificent Celine blasting their megawatt smiles at the photographers at the Cancer Ball.

He eventually deceased himself, as they say, while in the act. I smirked to think of God tapping him on the shoulder right in the middle of that most pleasurable of moments. His quietus smacked him in the chest and he let out a gasp, and a gush, and then his lifeless face landed perfectly between Celine’s spectacular breasts. And she thought he was merely spent, and went on stroking his hair for several moments, until his unresponsiveness annoyed her and she poked him in the ribs. Surprise, Celine.

I didn’t know any of that when I made my pact, but I knew the long-term future was a sucker bet, and I started the next day content with my decision.
As Veterans Day approached Philip put me on his guest list for the White House concert and left off practicing three days beforehand. Enough, he said, he was ready.

The concert would be recorded the afternoon before the holiday and broadcast the next night.

Of the event itself, I have minimal impressions. I was seated well to the back of the East Room, and the acoustics were awful. The president spoke without a microphone. A cellist played, and a blues guitarist, and a young woman did a good job on a tough aria, and then it was Philip’s turn, and he brought his volcanic piece off without a hitch. So much so that the East Room, a well of polite applause if ever one existed, erupted in a standing ovation that went on for three minutes.

Then the president stepped forward and held out his hand, and Philip put his hands behind his back. He said something I couldn’t hear. The president’s smile never faltered but his eyes darted and in a moment Philip had been whisked away. In the post-concert crush I made my way to his side and asked, “What happened?”

“Just what I intended from the beginning,” he said, staring at me and daring me to scold him. “Let’s get out of here,” he said.

“No, Philip,” I said. “You go. I’ll stay in DC overnight. You take tomorrow to clear your things out of the house.”
“Annie? You’re throwing me out?”

“Music isn’t meant for spite, Philip. You can’t do what you did and be with me.”

At that, he pulled himself up straight and gave me an overstated, sarcastic salute, then walked away.

He was entirely excised from the broadcast, the twenty- minute gap made up with filler. It was as though he had never played, had never been there at all.
Was I wrong to think music could heal Philip? To think something as prosaic as playing the piano could untie so many knots? It was a faith of sorts. We hear the ecstasy in Beethoven’s late music and forget the wretched man. He wrote of kisses for all the world, but his own last gesture in life was a raised fist.

My faith had not even saved me, really. I was alone, in the quietly echoing house on the river. The sun was going down, the birds skimming across the water, diving to bring sudden death to tiny fish deceived to the surface by the dwindling light. So it went, I thought. We watch our weight and eat our veggies and get cancer anyway. We volunteer in soup kitchens and shelters only to be hit by a bus on our way home. We pull ourselves up, shake our fists at heaven, and still die.

I was so exhausted that night that I considered sleeping in my reading chair. But in the end I got up and went to the piano and played, and played through the night to the dawn, ending by playing Bach chorales and singing at the top of my lungs in my lousy German. And then the sun was up and the day had begun and Philip was gone and the fish in the river were doomed.

Well, I thought, there we are. Music doesn’t cure. It doesn’t save, nor redeem. But it’s the only thing I know that doesn’t make everything worse.

Maryland author John McKeon grew up in an Irish family in Brooklyn, New York, though half of his relatives are Italian, and his grandparents spoke German at home. He is the author of two novels, The Point of the Spear and Other Harbors, and the short story collection Cantabile and Other Stories. His story in Delmarva Review was nominated for a Pushcart Prize. It will be aired on “Delmarva Radio Theatre” at 8 p.m., Sunday, December 16, on Delmarva Public Radio, WSCL 89.5 FM. Poet Anne Colwell will read in the main role.

Delmarva Review is a literary journal of national scope, with regional roots. The nonprofit review discovers and prints compelling new fiction, nonfiction, and poetry from authors within the region and beyond. It is supported by individual contributions and a grant from the Talbot County Arts Council with funds from the Maryland State Arts Council. Visit: DelmarvaReview.org. Order copies at Amazon.com.

 

Letters to Editor

  1. Thank you to Spy, for publishing “Cantabile,” from the current Delmarva Review. It’s a delightful and thoughtful story, on several levels. In addition to enjoying the writing, I was impressed by how well the author, a man, created the female voice of the narrator.

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