Now, I could see only violet flashes of heat lightning playing in the clouds over New Jersey. Other than the vespertine chorus of crickets and tree frogs chirping and trilling in the overgrown gardens that encroached the colonial-era, fieldstone house I was housesitting for Peter Humphrey, a professor of French literature at Temple University and his wife, Mary, that first summer after I graduated from college, after my mother had walked out on my father during my senior year and my dad had auctioned off the house and everything in it and had moved into a small townhouse, after I was free not to return to the assembly line at the Ford Motor plant in Lorain, Ohio where I grew up but where I no longer felt at home, and after my godfather, my mother’s cousin, a dashing and ebullient man who loved opera and Broadway musicals and Caribbean cruises, had called me during the last week of the spring semester and asked if I wanted to spend the summer applying to graduate schools free of rent two hours from the Jersey Shore and even offered to get me a job at the Bucks County Courier Times as a copy boy, I heard nothing unusual. I ran my fingers gently through the silky fur on the nape of Strauss’s neck. His ears settled. I turned back to my book.
Moments later, the curtains stirred. Strauss raised his head and peered intently at the open window. A breeze, warm as a breath and lightly scented with lilac whispered through the screen. Now I heard it. Floating on the fragrant, early summer air, and seeming to accompany the serenading insects and amphibians, were the faint notes of a vaguely familiar melody.
The breeze subsided, the curtains settled, yet the notes, like stars at twilight, grew brighter. They became countless, whirled, rose into the night, eventually coalescing into a scintillating, musical constellation. We’d heard them before, Strauss and I, always in the evening, though the forms into which the notes gathered themselves were mercurial, at times arcane and esoteric, sometimes haunting, then so familiar I could hum along: Summertime from Porgy and Bess segued to Beethoven’s “Fuer Elise,” a Bach prelude preceded Liszt’s “Hungarian Rhapsody” which was followed by “Rhapsody in Blue,” and finally “Tales from the Vienna Woods.” Somewhere nearby someone was playing a piano so masterfully that I could not sleep. Varying in length, interludes when all I heard were the crickets and frogs occluded the musical starlight like passing clouds. When the last note of a piece had faded, I was transfixed with anticipation; it was all I could do to endure the interruption until the next incandescent notes twinkled out of the darkness and gathered themselves into yet another classical masterpiece.
I got out of bed and went to the window. The celestial strains emanated from a wooded hillside across the street. Entirely hidden from view by a copse of oaks and sycamore during the day, at night, on the few occasions I had heard that magnificent sound, I could spot the amber glow from a single window of a secluded house among the leafy branches.
I climbed back into bed. Strauss stretched and rested his head on my chest again. His eyelids slowly pinched closed. I lay back on my pillow and imagined myself and Strauss on a raft floating along on the notes, drifting serenely on the tranquil nocturnes and sonatas, skillfully steering our way through the wild concertos, toward no particular destination. Two hours after it started, shortly after midnight, the music stopped. While a few crickets continued ratcheting in the darkness, I slid serenely over the brink of consciousness and fell asleep.
Again, the following evening, as twilight yielded to night, tantalizing notes glimmered out of the darkness moments after I had settled into bed and opened up my book. It was as though the performance were intended solely for me, perhaps as a lullaby to entrance me, or to lure me, like the song of the Sirens.
A decade before, my importuning my aunt to teach me some new, easy tune – “Chopsticks,” “Twinkle Little Star,” “Happy Birthday,” on her piano whenever we visited her led, eventually, to my grandmother buying me a piano. I came home from school one day and there it was in my bedroom, a second-hand, Baldwin upright.
I took lessons from Mr. Miko, a dapper, wiry young man, and the church organist. Not just any church organist, whenever Mr. Miko played the huge pipe organ in the loft of St. Mary’s, the entire congregation craned around to watch him. Mr. Miko would set the church ablaze, transposing Bach and Beethoven into fire and brimstone. After mass, as many, sometimes more people crowded around Mr. Miko waiting to compliment him and shake his hand than waited to greet the priest. I even overheard whispered suggestions that Mr. Miko was a musical apotheosis (apparently prayed for by some members of the congregation to replace his predecessor, an arthritic old nun who had passed away and who made the organ sound like a set of bagpipes) with whom God had blessed St. Mary’s. Yet, after only two years as the church organist, choirmaster, and sixth grade teacher at the Catholic school I attended, the diocese quietly let Mr. Miko go. The justification for his dismissal was never made public, but I suspect it may have had something to do with his penchant, during my instruction, for keeping time by tapping the inside of my thigh. I suppose I tolerated it out of naivety, and because I didn’t wish to jeopardize my opportunity to study with a virtuoso, particularly one so revered by the community.
I continued playing piano through college, and though I found other teachers with whom to study I never again had the privilege of sitting next to anyone on a piano bench with the virtuosity of Mr. Miko. Now, coming through the window, was a sound that suggested that I might have that opportunity again. I threw back the covers and got up.
Anticipating a walk, Strauss watched me intently, his gaze following me back and forth as I paced by the foot of the bed. “What if the pianist is a she,” I wondered out loud. I went into the bathroom and slapped some cologne under my arms. Brushing my hair, it occurred to me that the pianist might actually be a celebrity. Indeed, there were many extremely accomplished and famous people – authors, composers, academics, actors, politicians…keeping low profiles behind tall, wrought iron fences, dense hedgerows, and old stone walls throughout pastoral, patrician Bucks County, particularly in and around New Hope whose colonial pedigree, quaint, upscale chic and relative solitude offered a refined retreat for the noteworthy and the famous wishing to keep their private lives private and a sanctuary for those with proscribed sexualities. Their seclusion clearly intimated their wish not to be bothered, even by well-intentioned admirers. I opened my dresser and picked out a black, oxford shirt. “I’m only being neighborly,” I said to Strauss who was still stretched out on the bed as I pulled on my Levis and buckled my belt.
I sat down on the upholstered chair in the corner of the bedroom. Strauss eyed me dubiously. He cocked his head. “What?” I said as I pulled on my boots. I tugged the cuffs of my jeans down over the tops of my boots and then sat in the chair, hesitating.
Suddenly it struck me. “Oh, you’re right,” I said despairingly. Of all places to be knocking on some stranger’s door at…what time was it anyway? I glanced at the clock on the nightstand: 10:20 pm; I might just as well be going out for a drink at the Prelude, the gay disco just outside of New Hope, and expect everyone in the nightclub to realize that I’m straight and leave me alone. Hello!!
Strauss stood up on the bed and, in what struck me as a faintly smug manner, shook himself. Then he sat on the rumpled bed and looked at me hopefully. I stared back at him as I puzzled over the dilemma. “Of course,” I nodded. Strauss’s tail swept briskly over the sheets. “You’re a genius!” I told him. He had the solution all along; indeed, there would be much less of a chance that I would be invited in if I had a dog with me. I would simply introduce myself, express my gratitude for the privilege of eavesdropping on the pianist’s sublime, presumably private sessions, and come back and return to my bed. Then, provided that I wasn’t intruding and that I was welcome back – though if the pianist was a he, not overly welcome, I could pose the question of private lessons at another visit. I stood up and patted my thigh. “Go for a walk,” I said.
Strauss leapt off the bed and bounded into the hallway and down the stairs. I followed him, gave him a quick brushing in the kitchen, swept up the hairs, and grabbed a bottle of wine out of the wine rack. I buckled Strauss’s good, leather collar with his name embossed on it around his neck and attached the braided leather leash, both of which I had custom-made for him by the leathersmith in New Hope, an affordable extravagance as I had no monthly expenses besides gas and groceries. After unlocking the front door, I opened it and switched on the exterior light. Peering out, I noticed a faint sprinkle of rain streaking through the glare from the shaded lamp above the door. I turned, grabbed my black, leather jacket and oilskin hat off the coat hook, put them on, and turned up my collar. I closed and locked the door behind me and then Strauss and I followed the field stone path to the edge of the dooryard, jogged across the road, and proceeded up the pea stone driveway toward the origin of the enchanting music.
Soft, warm rain misted my face as I rounded a bend in the driveway and saw the lighted window which apparently had been the flicker of light I’d seen through the trees, though the view I had of it from across the street was only a fraction of what was, in fact, an expansive bay window. Awestruck by what I saw through the grilled glass, I faltered. Strauss shook off the rain and sat down by my side and waited. A man in a baby-blue sweater, his face and shoulder-length blonde hair burnished by the warm glow from a brass piano lamp, sat at the keyboard of a magnificent grand piano playing intently. The piano’s broad lid was propped open, its underside facing into the room. A crystal chandelier sparkled above and beyond the piano in the center of the window.
I couldn’t make out much more of the house in the dark, yet the imposing scene through the window was sufficiently intimidating that I wanted to turn around and return to the cottage, undress, slip back under the sheets, and try to be content with the free performances while allowing my neighbor’s identity to remain a mystery. I stood, mesmerized. The window must have been partially open as the notes were so distinct that they were almost visible. They shimmered like raindrops cascading through beams of sunlight. They gathered into a deluge. Allegros rushed into languid adagios. The music flowed, dipping and rising. Notes drifted lazily over the deep pools and swirled in the eddies before being swept back into the entrancing current that ultimately carried Strauss and me up the flagstone steps and stranded me on the small patio in front of the door. When the last note faded, I pushed the lighted button and rang the doorbell.
The opulent chiming that reverberated throughout the house startled me out of my reverie. I turned and started to slink back toward the steps. When the chimes faded I heard footsteps approaching the door. Strauss began to growl.
“Shush,” I said and crouched down beside him. What was I thinking ringing a stranger’s doorbell at this time of night?
The door opened and the man in the blue sweater I’d seen at the piano stood before me in a halo of light.
“You’re Gustav,” said the figure pleasantly. “Like Gustav Mahler”.
“How do you know my name,” I asked as I massaged Strauss behind the ears to keep him calm.
“Peter told me you’d be house-sitting for him this summer. I’ve been meaning to come over and introduce myself, but I’ve just been so terribly busy. It’s a wonder my friends are still speaking to me.”
I stood up. “Your music…it’s…it’s so beautiful…I just wanted to thank you,” I stuttered.
I walked up to the bottom of the steps and timidly held out the bottle of wine.
“I’m Everett Greene,” said the man as he graciously accepted the wine. He held out his hand. I shook it and began to turn away.
“Won’t you come in?” said Everett.
“Oh no,” I said. “You’ll be sweeping up dog hair for a week.”
“Nonsense,” retorted Everett. “I’ll be sure to tip my housekeeper. That is the most gorgeous dog I have ever seen! What’s his name?”
I turned back. “Strauss.” I said.
Trim and square-shouldered, Everett stood with his left hand on his hip, the other holding the wine. “Can he waltz?” he joked as he arched over and ran long, graceful fingers delicately down Strauss’s neck while Strauss sniffed at the wine bottle.
Everett looked up. “I was just about to have a snack,” said Everett. “I would love it if you joined me.”
I stroked Strauss’s neck and glanced at the shining window and the grand piano. Then I led him up the steps past Everett and into the brightly lit foyer.
As I entered Everett’s home, I was subdued by the same hushed deference one gets upon setting foot in a cathedral or a gallery. Massive, ornately framed oil canvasses lined the walls of the short entranceway. The fossil of an extinct, coiled ammonite seemed precisely balanced atop a tall, black marble stand. I drew Strauss closer to me. The air inside the house had an imposing aroma, spicy, sophisticated, and thoroughly unfamiliar.
The foyer opened into the living room. There was the grand piano regally posed by the large window. Overhead, hemlock beams spanned a high, honey-colored cedar ceiling. At the back of the living room, a wrought iron, spiral staircase led to a second story balcony over a wall of bookshelves with hundreds of books. Plush, oriental area rugs partially covered a polished, wide-plank oak floor.
“May I take your hat and coat,” asked Everett from behind me. “And will Strauss be a gentleman without his leash?”
“Yes, absolutely,” I said. I unfastened the braided leash from Strauss’s collar, took off my hat and coat, and handed the items over to Everett.
Beyond the piano, a cream-colored, stucco wall bristled with an imposing collection of crystals, more fossils, awards, and mementos on glass shelves. The entire array was beautifully illuminated by gallery lights hidden in recesses above the shelves. I walked over to the display as Everett put my clothes and Strauss’s leash into a closet in the hallway. There were elaborate wooden sculptures, delicate corals, an enormous amethyst geode, a ceremonial African mask, a tiger maple music box with pairs of tiny, waltzing figures on the lid, numerous plaques and trophies, and, under a glass case, reposing on a polished, ebony pedestal was what appeared to be a conductor’s baton.
“Do you like Amaretto,” asked Everett from behind me.
I turned around. Beyond a vaulted post and beam archway that separated the living room from the kitchen, Everett stood in the glow from a light concealed inside a copper, funnel-shaped hood suspended on chains above a combination stove, sink, and cutting board island in the center of the kitchen. All sorts of glass and cast iron cookware dangled around the edges of the copper hood. The soft, amber light illuminated Everett’s face like a perfectly placed studio light. It would be cruel to say he was handsome; he was, quite frankly, beautiful, like he’d just stepped out of a Raphael portrait. He appeared to be in his early thirties, about ten years my senior. He had a fair complexion with sapphire blue eyes, high, prominent cheekbones, a slightly aquiline nose, a pronounced Adams apple, and a dimpled chin. The sleeves of his blue sweater were hiked up to his elbows revealing taught, sinewy arms. He had a white apron in his hand which he wrapped around his waist. He tied the strings into a bow just above the thin belt of his pleated, white trousers. Behind him were a stainless steel refrigerator and dishwasher, a black, granite counter that stretched along the entire back wall, and a creative and efficient cabinetry of hickory for china, glasses, and herbs and spices. There was also a large latticework of cubbyholes in which about two dozen bottles of wine reposed like bodies in a catacomb. What little bare wall showed between all the appliances and the lavish woodwork was covered in luxuriant green wallpaper with a pattern of embossed ferns.
“Yes, very much,” I said.
“Help yourself to the pistachios,” said Everett.
I looked over my shoulder. On a white marble coffee table near the piano, I noticed a bowl made from a mosaic of what appeared to be small tiles of jade. The bowl was filled with pistachio nuts. The green meat of the nuts, which was visible through the partially split, flesh-colored, shells, complimented the bowl’s shimmering green and turquoise iridescence.
Turning back to the piano, I walked around to the front of it. Noticeably insecure in the unfamiliar surroundings – I hadn’t taken him anywhere beyond the small yard in back of the cottage since I brought him home from the shelter, Strauss remained by my left ankle as though he were attached to it with Velcro. The body of the piano was all black on the outside with the exception of the brass trim on the edge of the lid, and brass pedals and castors. It was so polished that I could have used my reflection in the underside of the lid to shave my face. I peered inside the harp-shaped piano, at the intricate array of steel and copper-wrapped strings and the evenly spaced hammers so precisely arrayed over a gold-painted sounding board. The piano was immaculate; there wasn’t a hint of dust on its ebony finish or anywhere inside. The brilliant keys gleamed, their perfect reflection in the mirrored fallboard interrupted only by the gold-lettered inscription, “Steinway and Sons”.
Everett came into the living room with a silver tray and set down a small stoneware bowl and two sherry glasses of Amaretto.
“The bowl is for the shells,” he said, and then he returned to the kitchen.
I sat down on the brown, leather sofa beside the coffee table. The hardwood floor underneath the table was covered with an extremely shaggy area rug of ropy white fur. Intrigued by the fur, Strauss crept under the table and lay down on the rug. He sniffed through the hairy rug while I helped myself to the pistachios.
“Your uncle is a delightful man,” said Everett over his shoulder as he prepared a snack at the kitchen counter.
“You know him?” I said.
“Of course,” replied Everett. “Peter, Mary, your uncle, me, and several of our friends all went on a cruise to the Virgin Islands together last winter to celebrate Peter’s becoming emeritus professor. Peter and Mary still travel to France every summer to scavenge libraries for literary treasure, so when Peter mentioned that he was looking for a house-sitter, your uncle offered to ask you.”
That’s how you and I became neighbors,” said Everett as he returned to the living room with two stoneware platters, one in each hand, and silverware rolled up in green, cloth napkins.
“Mary seems much younger than Peter,” I said as Everett placed the platters and napkins on the table.
Everett grinned. “She was his student; they just celebrated their 10th wedding anniversary.” He looked up, puzzled. “Have you met them?”
“No, they’d already left when I arrived. My uncle gave me the keys to the house. But there’s a photo of the two of them on the dresser.”
“Ah,” nodded Everett. He returned to the kitchen and took off his apron and draped it neatly over a brass bar at one end of the island. Then he came back to the coffee table, pulled up a wicker rocking chair, and sat down. On one of the platters was an assortment of various cheeses, multi-grain crackers, white grapes, and toasted slices of French bread. On the other, Everett had arrayed slices of tangerine around a generous scoop of some sort of dip or flesh-colored paté. He glanced down at Strauss who was still snuffling through the tangle of fur at my feet.
“I see you’re admiring my rug, Strauss,” said Everett. Strauss lifted his nose out of the shag and peered up at Everett. “Do you know what that is,” asked Everett. Strauss cocked his head. “It’s a yak skin from Tibet,” Everett told Strauss. Strauss wagged his tail.
“Strauss has impeccable taste,” said Everett as he lifted his glass of Amaretto.
“You’re the one with the impeccable taste,” I said. “There’s nothing in this house that isn’t exceptional.”
Everett cast his eyes about the room.
“I’ve always felt that one should enjoy being at home more than anywhere else” he reflected. I spend far too much of my life in dreary hotel rooms. I want my home to be my paradise, my nirvana.”
“Besides,” said Everett impishly, “I love pampering myself. Now, what shall we drink to?”
I picked up and raised my glass of Amaretto. “To your music,” I said.
“Don’t be silly,” said Everett. “It has to include you and Strauss,” he insisted.
“Alright, then,” I said. “Then I propose a toast: to Strauss, may he live a long and happy life. To you, for your wonderful hospitality, and the music that introduced us. And to me, for having had the courage to ring your doorbell.”
Everett laughed and extended his glass of Amaretto toward mine. We clinked our glasses together and as we sipped the Amaretto I caught his eyes darting from my eyes to my lap and back to my eyes, much as I might briefly avert my glance from a conversation with a friend in a cafe toward a pretty girl in a short dress crossing her legs in the table across from us. The distraction was almost subliminal; perhaps Everett wasn’t even aware of the indiscretion. I might have felt disquieted though I had caught similar glances from men since arriving in New Hope and had gotten accustomed to them. I dare say I found them flattering. Anyway, who’s to judge me for allowing a lascivious glance or two in return for a fine collation and such gracious hospitality? Together with the music I’d been eavesdropping in on, I considered the exchange to be a fair bargain.
“What do you do, Everett? I mean professionally,” I asked.
“I’m a concert pianist,” replied Everett.
“Of course,” I said.
Everett smiled as he spread some of the fleshy dip on a cracker. Then he waved the cracker in front of Strauss who, having become accustomed to the lingering odor of yak, had dozed off, his relaxed body seemingly subsumed by the furry rug. He awoke to the enticing aroma of the canapé, sniffed at it finically, and then gently accepted the offering.
“What is that,” I asked.
“Smoked salmon paté,” said Everett as he prepared another cracker with the pale pink spread and handed it to me. I savored the cracker and then chased it with a tangerine wedge and some Amaretto. Strauss stared up at Everett greedily, eager for more.
Everett offered Strauss another cracker lightly coated with the extravagant paste. This time Strauss didn’t hesitate but eagerly took the cracker as soon as it was within reach.
“From death row to smoked salmon paté,” I said shaking my head.
Everett’s eyes flashed. “Death row!” he exclaimed.
I took a sip of Amaretto. “That’s right,” I said. “I rescued Strauss from the Bucks County Animal Shelter just over a week ago, two days before they were going to put him down.”
“Why on Earth would anyone destroy such a perfectly wonderful animal,” decried Everett.
“He had kennel cough. It’s extremely contagious so the kennel immediately disposes of any dog that comes down with it. It’s easily cured with antibiotics; he’s already fully recovered,” I said and nodded approvingly at Strauss. “I hadn’t planned on adopting a dog, but I ended up in the parking lot of the shelter during a heavy downpour. I couldn’t see the road ahead of me so I pulled over and decided to ogle the dogs and cats in the shelter while I waited out the rain; I thought it’d be like going to the zoo. The Humphrey’s were very kind to let me adopt him.”
“Why did you pick him?” asked Everett.
“He was the only dog not barking at me,” I replied.
“How awful,” remarked Everett and he knelt down on the yak skin carpet and put his face up close to Strauss’s head. “You’re a beautiful boy,” he cooed. “Yes, you are,” he said as he ran his hand gently across Strauss’s flank. Strauss turned and licked Everett’s nose. Everett didn’t mind. Then Everett looked up at me and cocked his right eyebrow. “And however did he get his name,” he asked.
“I was brushing him in the Humphrey’s living room while listening to an album of Strauss waltzes.” I said.
“That’s a marvelous story,” exclaimed Everett. He stood up, set his glass on the coffee table, and stepped over to the Steinway. He sat down on the piano bench, leaned the sole of his tan deck shoe against the damper, and rested his hands, palms down, on his lap. Then he turned and winked at Strauss.
“This is for you, Strauss,” he said jubilantly. When he turned back and raised his hands to the keyboard, the hairs on the back of my neck bristled.
If I said that in the next moment I listened to music, that would be an insult. I was immersed in music! Notes swirled around me like stars spiraling around the galactic core of a brilliant galaxy. In the same overwhelming instant I recognized the melody – it was Johann Strauss’s “Voices of Spring”, I also noticed another remarkable feature of Everett’s living room – it was acoustically perfect. I had never before and have never since experienced music in the same way. The music was so sublime that I was overcome by a powerful sense of honor of having been invited to an exclusive performance by the virtual incarnation of Johann Strauss himself, of the momentary privilege of having my thumb on the pulse of the cosmos. The antithesis of death by a thousand cuts, each note, each beat of the cosmic heart was ecstasy, and instead of death, transfixion.
When Everett struck those last chords and looked up from the keyboard, words failed me, though I wasn’t speechless; my tears spoke volumes. Everett smiled at me, his eyes evincing perhaps just a bit more care than what the situation called for. His solicitude struck me as incongruent. Perhaps I should go, I thought. It seemed wrong to stay, but I couldn’t move. I could barely breathe.
Everett stood up and came back to the coffee table. He picked up his glass of Amaretto. “To Strauss,” he said glancing down at Strauss. Strauss looked up at Everett and thumped the rug with his tail. Then Everett looked at me and held out his glass. “And to you, for rescuing him,” he added.
It seemed to take all of my strength to lean forward and lift my glass off the table. It was nearly empty. I stood as Everett went into the kitchen and returned with the bottle of Amaretto. I held up my glass, but my hand was shaking. Everett cupped my wrist in his right palm to steady the glass as he poured the golden liquor. Then he refilled his own glass and set the bottle down on the coffee table.
Everett’s eyes remained fixed on me as we touched glasses. I wanted to avert my eyes, to look down at Strauss, to look anywhere but into Everett’s eyes, but I couldn’t. “To Strau…,” I stammered. I cleared my throat, swallowed, tried again. “To Strauss,” I said, the strain in my voice discordant as a wrong note.
We sipped our Amarettos. Then, as if he were asking me to dance, Everett held out his hand and, feeling obliged, I took his hand as if to shake it. Without closing his fingers around my palm, Everett escorted me over to the piano bench. I sat down on the end of the bench nearest the big picture window while Everett went to the kitchen and brought back two coasters and set them on the burnished, mahogany window sill. We placed our glasses on the coasters, then Everett sat down on the bench next to me. Again, he rested both of his hands, palms down, on his lap. He breathed deeply for a moment, then lifted his hands gracefully to the keyboard and shut his eyes. The diamond in the ring on his pinky flashed a rainbow of color in the light of the piano lamp as the perfectly played notes rolled off the keys in waves. A few measures in, his fingertips almost imperceptibly brushing the keys, higher notes, like a soft sea breeze, floated above the waves seemingly carrying with them whiffs of Everett’s exotic cologne. The breeze freshened. The waves grew more robust. Soon, rapturous music slowly lifted the room, like a boat on a rising tide, the notes subsuming reality and bathing the surreal roomscape in moonlight from Beethoven’s luminous “Moonlight Sonata.”
* * * * *
I awoke suddenly, as if from an unsettling dream. Strange surroundings wavered before me momentarily like shapes seen through water or in a Salvador Dali painting and then settled, hardening into definitive, somewhat familiar forms. Startled, I called out my dog’s name. Strauss came over smacking his lips and laid his head across my chest. I ran my hand over his neck and then I remembered the Amaretto and the music and Everett’s hands dancing across the black and white keys. Mourning doves cooed outside the picture window on the far side of the Steinway. A wooden clock on a small shelf aside the spiral staircase began chiming. As I counted the chimes – eight in all, I recalled that the last time I had heard that clock, it had chimed three times.
I folded back the plush quilt that covered me and sat up on the sofa. My head ached. Neatly centered on the coffee table was the bowl made of jade tiles. It was empty, but leaning against it, facing the couch, was a small, dark green envelope. My name was written on the front of the envelope in an exquisite, cursive hand.
I picked up the envelope and opened it. Inside was a matching card at the top of which was inscribed “From the desk of Everett Greene” in raised gold letters. Below that was a note from Everett.
I very much enjoyed our evening together and I truly hope that we will visit again after my tour. If I had not had to catch a morning flight, I would have taken you for mimosas and breakfast in New Hope. I do hope that you will accept a rain check.
I thought that Strauss might enjoy a plate of crackers and cheese, which I left for him next to a bowl of water in the kitchen, in case you slept in. (You are indeed very fond Amaretto!) Please be sure to discard any food scraps and to lock the front door when you leave.
Until our next interlude,
I remain your friend,
I washed the plate and bowl Everett had left for Strauss, folded up the quilt, and found my hat and coat and Strauss’s leash in the hallway closet. After clipping his leash to his collar, I led Strauss through the front door, turned the lock in the doorknob, and shut the door. Squinting against the sunlight that shimmered off the flagstone steps which were still wet from that night’s rain, I took a deep breath to clear the cobwebs from my head. The air was fecund with the smell of wet earth. Not wanting to go back to the stuffy cottage, I walked down to the river hoping the fresh, morning air would help ameliorate my hangover, and to give Strauss some exercise.
Snippets of memories, muddled and disjointed, guttered in my mind: Everett closing the lid on the piano, my jokingly offering to be his personal assistant on his tour to Australia and New Zealand and him saying that were it not for the short notice and my responsibilities to the Humphreys, he might have considered it, his arm around my waist as he helped me to the sofa, the clatter of dishes being loaded into the dishwasher, the clock striking three in the morning, my gazing at that glass case with the conductor’s baton as Everett covered me with the quilt. Poised to throw a piece of driftwood for Strauss to fetch on a gravelly beach along the river, I paused as I held the stick above my head. Suddenly, I remembered my asking Everett why he kept it in a glass case. Strauss peered anxiously up at the stick, pointing, his right leg cocked under him, tail straight as an arrow.
My throat tightened as I recalled how Everett had gently brushed my hair out of my eyes while he answered my question the moment before I must have passed out on the couch. “To keep the dust off of it, of course. It was a gift from Leonard Bernstein.”
I threw the stick. It landed in a shallow eddy. Strauss splashed into the swirling water, snapped up the stick in his teeth, then bounded back down the riverbank and dropped the stick at my feet. After he shook himself off, he struck his rigid “on point” pose again, his eyes following the stick as I picked it up and reached back to throw it again. We played fetch until the sweet air had soothed my head. Strauss’s exuberance, the utter delight he took from the simple task of splashing into the river to fetch the stick, felt like an absolution. I knelt down in the gravel by the river, scooped some water from a riffle, and wet my face. I wet my hands again and ran them through my hair. Then I stood up, attached the leash to Strauss’s collar, and we walked back to the cottage, Strauss prancing at heel and proudly clenching the bleached driftwood, now peppered with teeth marks, in his jaws.
After unlocking the front door, I turned and stood on the old, chafed mill stone just outside the threshold looking across the quiet road. Strauss lay down at my feet and gnawed on his stick. There was no sign of Everett’s house through the trees. I could not even make out the driveway; it angled into the wood lot in such a way as to almost entirely conceal it. There was no mailbox, nothing but the elegant, green stationary in my shirt pocket to suggest that anyone lived on the low, forested hill across the road.
Over the next couple of weeks, thousands of people would pay nearly a hundred dollars a ticket to hear Everett play in concert halls across Australia and New Zealand. They will not be treated to Amaretto and pistachios, let alone be invited to sit next to a friend of Leonard Bernstein on the piano bench and see the rainbow flash from the diamond as his fingers glide over the immaculate keys. As the sun rose above the oaks and sycamores and tendrils of mist spiraled up from the wet road, I wondered, when Everett returned to New Hope, what price I would be willing to pay for those private lessons.