Ch. 1 – That Day in Beforeworld (1)

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Glamor and glitz, women with short hair in brimless hats and Chanel coats, and gold, lots of gold, and fame, lots of fame—such were the glories that Zacharias Steele had vowed to be surrounded by once he left his home in the middle of a never-ending cornfield and moved to New York. Because back home, the twenty-something Zacharias had thoroughly believed that he’d succeed, he’d expressed his convictions to his father in a rather insulting manner during their last big fight. In fact, when his father had offered to take this matter outside and fight with boxing gloves and all, like real men, Zach had indignantly refused.

“Don’t think that hands mean the same thing to everyone, or that the phrase ‘real men’ means the same thing either.”

Those had been the exact words Zach had used.

God forbid that Zach endangered his calling just because his father had a primitive definition of “real men.”

God forbid that Zach injured his precious hands—the hands with long, beautiful fingers, ideal for playing the likes of Liszt and Rachmaninoff, but also perfectly suitable for one of those brand-new pieces, called jazz, or jass, something like that, people couldn’t seem to decide which was which.

As his father shouted curses sprinkled with the dogmatic belief in the sanctity of physical labor, Zach had packed the few disintegrating, old piano scores that he owned, bought himself a train ticket, and traveled across half the country.

That had been ten years ago.

Presently, Zacharias was thirty-two years old. It was the first month of the year 1929. His hands, which he’d so ardently protected all his life, were bandaged from a recent injury. And he was in New York all right. Except, not in New York City.

Instead, he sat in the shabby dressing room in the quiet basement of the Luminary Theater, a small venue in Carningsby, New York. It was an insignificant town, located as far away from the City as Mississippi or Kentucky, practically speaking. Everything outside the City was just that: the outside, the non-City, the rest.

But even if the Luminary were moved to the heart of the City, no amount of the honking traffic, the theatergoers’ rambunctious laughter on the streets, and the reek of tobacco smell would have made Zach feel like he was in the center of art and culture. Mainly, because none of that could have pierced through the thick walls of the Luminary, and especially not through the ceiling and walls of this basement dressing room.

The original purpose of the thick walls had been to keep the noise from going out rather than from getting in. But the barrier worked both ways. Someone had designed the theater with soundproofing as the only requirement, not paying attention to aesthetics or ambiance.

And no wonder. In the City, there was something called a “theater district.” The moderately wealthy people who frequented the nicer theaters lived elsewhere. In Carningsby, the Luminary was the only lonely theater venue that was mainly used for religious plays funded by the local church. There was no district for multiple theaters. From the outside, the Luminary looked as somber as the rest of the buildings in the tiny downtown area, populated by a barbershop, the town hall, and a doctor’s office.

And there were homes nearby. Too nearby. Stately homes, where monied people slept and hoped to have some peace and quiet. Everyone in Carningsby was more or less well-off (as far as Zach knew, he was the only person in town who worried about his next meal), and that meant that everyone more or less liked their peace and quiet, or at least liked pretending to like them.

Such monied people didn’t need the Luminary to do any actual illuminating, because they owned plenty of brilliant chandeliers. Besides, if there was ever to be any enlightenment, it’d come from God and the ethereal meanings that the church plays conveyed, not through some physically attractive theater.

And by God were they all proud that Carningsby had escaped the sins of the modern times! It was probably the only town in the United States of America that had adhered to the Volstead Act.

No jazz bars. Boring. Bland. Predictable. Same. Like a two-hour scale practice session without a purpose or a larger picture. Therefore, safe, trustworthy, pious. The ideal Protestant town. Spending extravagant money on prettifying a building was vain and un-Christian. So, the thick walls of the Luminary stayed.

Zach didn’t mind the thick walls and the aquarium-like quietness that made his ears hum. He also didn’t mind sharing a town, a street, a building, or a room with people who were into somberness. He used to sleep with his six brothers and sisters in one crammed little bedroom that had barely allowed them to stretch their legs by the time Zach had reached the age of nine. He was used to sharing and living with all sorts of preferences thrown at each other and colliding all around him.

But Zach did mind the cold in a situation like this, in which Donald Todd, the bearish middle-aged owner of this wretched establishment, had taken Zach’s coat, pants, and shirt for “cleaning purposes.”

“What cleaning purposes?” Zach had asked, confused that Mr. Todd had asked for Zach’s clothes as soon as he’d arrived at the dressing room to play that same night.

“People’ve seen you go around in those shabby clothes of yours,” Mr. Todd had said in his hoarse voice.

His head blocked the light from the ceiling lamp and dumped his face in shadow. That doubled his threatening impression. His breath reeked of whiskey, though he claimed he’d quit drinking. The lying, albeit cowardly, made total sense; his neighbors would never forgive him for ruining the good Christian reputation of Carningsby if he drank openly.

“And they heard about the accident,” Mr. Todd said, “and just—all in all, it’s not good. Not good at all. And it’s just past Christmas, a time of sharing.”

“It’s been a month since Christmas,” Zach said.

“And only sharing when it’s Christmas is un-Christian.”

“What will I wear during the concert?”

“I have something prepared for you. Don’t worry.”

Impatiently, Mr. Todd helped Zach take off the coat, because the bandages around Zach’s hands made him clumsy. But Mr. Todd only slowed down the process even more. His hands shook from decades-long drinking that was still secretly ongoing and his eyes never found focus for the same reason. At least Zach’s hands never shook and his eyes never lost focus.

“Well, that’s very nice of you, Mr. Todd,” Zach said, because Mr. Todd looked so embarrassed at his total failure at the removal of a coat. “I’m fine on my own. I really appreciate it. I really do.”

“Yeah. Well, doesn’t look good to have our star player look so shabby and hurt and all.”

Eventually, Zach took off the coat on his own. Mr. Todd watched—or his darting, restless, focusless eyes watched, seemingly operating independently from the commands of Mr. Todd’s brain.

Now it was the turn of Zach’s suit pants and shirt.

“May I, eh, have a moment to myself?” Zach asked.

The idea of a large, perpetually drunken man watching while he undressed made Zach real uncomfortable.

“Oh, well, yes. I’ll turn around, and I’m going to take your clothes right away to the cleaners so…”—here, Mr. Todd’s eyes rolled upward as if he had to recall something—“so that you can go home in your own, clean clothes after the concert. If you want.”

“Wow, that quick?”

“That quick.”

Then Mr. Todd turned around to give Zach a modicum of privacy.

A strange affair, really, to ask a pianist for his clothes right before the performance, and to offer to have it cleaned so quickly that by the end of the concert, it was to be ready for pickup. And on top of that, to have concert wardrobe ready—that was some A-class treatment that Zach had never experienced before.

Mr. Todd had promised to return in ten minutes with a new suit.

It had been thirty minutes now, according to the wall clock.

Presently, all Zach was left with was his yellowing worn undershirt, his gray boxer shorts, and the bandages around his injured hands. And his socks and worn leather shoes, of course. They made his appearance doubly awkward.

And because Mr. Donald Todd liked to cut corners, heating remained a foreign concept at the Luminary despite the freezing temperature. If there’d been functioning lightbulbs around the square mirror on the dressing table, Zach would have held his bandaged hands at it, hoping that those devices were inefficient enough to emit more heat than light. But none of the dozen lightbulbs around the mirror were lit. None of them had been removed from their sockets either. Basically, no one had bothered in any shape or form to make this dressing room cozy.

The sole source of light was the dim ceiling lamp. That hung too high up even for Zach, who was tall enough for his eyes to hover above everyone else’s heads whenever he sat in the audience to watch someone else’s performance. (Not at the Luminary. But he occasionally visited the City to further his education in the performing arts.)

Zach sighed. A white breath cloud dispersed and the cobweb hanging on the bottom corner of the mirror quivered.

Normally, none of the cold or lack of coziness dispirited Zach. Breath clouds, dusty air that irritated his nostrils, even the general idea of mistreatment toward artists or art venues could have a certain picturesque charm, if temporary. But recovering from injury and the fear of losing one’s dream certainly did push a person to depressing corners of thought.

Grimacing, Zach undid the bandages around his fingers and examined both hands.

A clear straight line of purple bruises stretched from his left pinky to right pinky. When the piano lid had fallen on his hands mid-performance yesterday, the entire audience (ten people in a hundred-person hall at the Luminary) had gasped in delight. Add that experience to this forlorn dressing room and the ridiculousness of sitting in the cold in boxer shorts and undershirt, plus socks and worn leather shoes—what kind of a person wouldn’t be a bit dejected?

And Zach was a pianist. He played Chopin, Schumann, and Beethoven. And, unlike so many stuck-up, formally educated pianists, he also played—used to play, and was willing to play again, should the opportunity arise—relatively newborn music that made him want to dance and hum and made him feel all hot and passionate.

Ah, the days when he’d thought he’d play them all!

Anything and everything that could be done with the piano, he’d been willing to do. He’d never understood the segregation of music, as much as he hadn’t understood the segregation of people. Never had he cared about the skin color of the person who’d discover him, because no matter what that hypothetical person looked like, he or she was going to be a brilliant visionary. (In the early days of Zach’s independence, to be precise. Back then, he’d been so very sure that someone was bound to “discover” him. Now, Zach didn’t care about the skin color of that imaginary person because he’d given up on the discovery.)

The point was: Zach had loved uncertainty and undefinability. He’d thought them necessities for expressing every ecstasy, every tragedy. But with each additional year away from home, his liking for those necessities had dwindled. He’d hated himself for it, for becoming a more cowardly person.

Nevertheless, that gradual change didn’t mean that he’d completely lost his natural inclination for achingly strong feelings. He was a pianist. The player of every kind of music that could be played on the piano. So, it was inevitable that even now, in this dressing room, after ten years and lots of failures, Zach felt all ups and downs with greater clarity than the average person.

Just looking at his wounds pained him all over again. Physically, as well as psychologically. That delighted reaction of the audience, more than the bruises themselves, had made him wonder: What the hell am I doing in Carningsby when I’m not a twenty-something boy anymore? I’m thirty-two, for heaven’s sake.

That audience reaction had proved that the residents of Carningsby weren’t interested in Zach’s piano play, or anyone else’s music, for that matter. The only reason they attended a concert was that they were so thoroughly bored.

What happened? they’d whispered. How is it possible that the lid just fell on his hands? Who did it? Did someone do it? Intentionally, I mean? How exciting. Phew, I was almost falling asleep, I only came here because Mother thinks it’s a lot more befitting for a lady to go to a proper piano concert than to one of those jazz clubs. She doesn’t like me leaving Carningsby. So much filth elsewhere. And the immigrants. Then the lid just fell on his hand, and…

Yes, they were pious like that, the people of Carningsby.

The taste of excess whiskey that Zach had consumed in the past twenty-four hours revitalized in his mouth at this memory. He’d had to get a bottle from the City, because there were none to be found in Carningsby, the perfect little Prohibitionist town. (Mr. Todd probably kept his bottles hidden somewhere nearby, but Zach hadn’t wanted to be the one who broke the unpleasant news: I’ve always suspected that you were secretly drinking, Mr. Todd, and everyone else thinks that too. Do you have a spare bottle for me?)

With liquor, Zach had tried to erase the pain in his fingers, the fear of never playing again, and the words of those people in the audience. But he’d failed to forget their words, wasn’t sure if he could play at the level he’d done before the injury, and the pain still lingered.

Zach felt ashamed. Because, to Zach, the one and only reason a human was born in this world was to do something. Abstract and imprecise, yes, but of course there was no way for Zach to determine what specifically a person had to do.

But, so long as a person did something, wasn’t that life well-lived? If not to accomplish something, why toil? Why sleep? Why eat at all to keep going forward?

But then, forward to where? What was the point of all this?

Zach had amounted to nothing.

Perhaps he should have stayed with his father. Zach had never been angry at his father for doing what he did. Not at all. What his father did was, in fact, admirable.

That man had every right to say, “I was surrounded by a cornfield and that was all there was, therefore I did my damned best to tend to that cornfield and feed the United States of America, so don’t blame me for failing to make a mark beyond feeding those who made more distinct marks in this world.”

That had been the take of Zach’s father, a man who’d worked the field day in day out without complaint until he’d realized that Zach, one of his sons, thought that certain precious hands with long beautiful fingers had more impractical things to partake in than physical labor.

The reason Zach had nevertheless been furious was that his father simply couldn’t see that Zach wasn’t meant to do the same thing. The idea that everyone had to prefer the practical feeding of the masses over the impractical making of music had been so suffocatingly bizarre that Zach had had to leave.

At any rate… Now, here.

Carningsby, New York.

Not New York City. So close to NYC and yet so very far because of that very locational proximity. Now, Zach could physically get to the busiest intersection of that city in several hours. But that still couldn’t bring him to its heart. Moving physically had its limits. Zach had reached those limits long ago.

And it had taken ten years and a piano lid falling on his hands for him to realize that.

There’d been a few times early in his career in which he could have made it big. Back then, he’d actually been in the City of New York. He’d been willing to do anything. He’d gone to bars, clubs, concert halls, theaters—truly anywhere, including a speakeasy masquerading as a bookstore—and showcased his skills and offered his services. Owners had loved him. At least they’d said they loved him.

Then, nothing.

For a while, Zach had simply thought that there were other piano players for the owners to love more. The city abounded with artists, after all, and Zach was from the middle of nowhere. The fault must lie in him, being so utterly unable to keep up with the speed of the city dwellers.

Then the lack of follow-through became more mysterious. Deals fell apart all the time because Zach didn’t receive a message or didn’t send a message that he was supposed to send but hadn’t known that he was supposed to. When he showed up to play, someone else was there, and it was as if the owner and everyone who’d seen Zach audition didn’t remember him anymore.

Such a turn of events had confused and frustrated Zach greatly. It was as if someone was working against him very deliberately. As in, intercepting-messages-and-bribing-venue-owners-not-to-hire-Zach level of deliberateness.

But who would do such a thing? Zach was just an insignificant little prawn in the magnificent ocean that was New York City. And if someone were sabotaging Zach and evidently succeeding at it, how was Zach to find out who was behind it? Must be a damn powerful person to pull that off, and stealthy too.

Better to think that he just wasn’t good enough. Better keep playing. Otherwise, the feeling of lacking control would be too much to bear. Wise decision, no?

No. That humble but shortsighted strategy in his first month in New York had created lasting impacts: it had steadily pushed Zach out of the core of the City’s music scene. He’d built a reputation for being tardy and irresponsible. By the time Zach thought he had to correct the misunderstanding by explaining in granular detail what exactly had happened, it was too late.

Which eventually brought him to Carningsby. To this dusty dressing room with cobwebs and poor lighting. To this state of having bruised fingers and having the audience be delighted by his accident. Being suitless. Being in boxer shorts and an undershirt. Cold.

He’d lost all his connections from the first weeks of his City life, except for one lady friend whom he’d not invited to tonight’s concert: his Angeline.

She was a city girl from a good family. The embodiment of glamor and glitz in a tiny, energetic person. She alone represented the kernel of his original dream, the one he’d harbored since the nights spent squeezed between his dear brothers and sisters.

Though Zach’s heart ached from loneliness as much as his fingers ached from the bruises, bringing Angeline to the theater had always been out of the question. Zach used to be hopeful, yes, but delusional? Never. And he wasn’t going to start that now. He knew that his situation wasn’t likely to improve. So, he hoped to separate Angeline as much as possible from his artistic misery.

She, the place he could return to.

She, a home for his dead dreams.

Too melancholy? Melodramatic? Pathetic, because unsuccessful people didn’t have the right to love?

But Zach couldn’t let go of this one last beautiful aspect of his life.

After the concert, he’d take the train to the City, no matter how long the trip, no matter how tired he was, and how cold. He’d buy a single rose as pink as Angeline’s cheeks, no matter how expensive. She’d smile in surprise. He’d kiss her. And for a few hours, he could forget all about his misery.

After this. After he was done doing what he’d left the cornfields for.

© 2022 Ithaka O.

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