Ch. 18 – What Happened Last Time (4)

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Mr. Shevlin’s quiet cursing continued upstairs, through the open sliding door-wall. Meanwhile, Zach warmed and stretched his fingers, then placed them on the keys.

He stared at the old sheet music on the piano rack: a waltz. On the yellowing paper, the black beans with their long stems hung at varying steps of each set of five horizontal lines. Sometimes those black beans were filled; at other times, they only had an outline. And at regular intervals, vertical bars separated the beans and stems into groups. This went on for several pages until, at the bottom of the last page, bold double bar lines marked the end of the entire composition.

Zach’s job was to translate that code into something immediately understandable and enjoyable. He knew he could do it well. Back home, on the rare occasions when the villagers gathered to celebrate Christmas or Thanksgiving, Zach had been able to make the grumpiest grandpa fidget his shoulders in rhythm with the music because Zach had stirred an emotion that was impossible to hold back.

Zach had this music memorized, and knew that he could play better if he played from memory. He’d only brought the sheet music just in case he’d be too nervous; just in case the auditioner wasn’t an openminded person like Mr. Shevlin.

But presently, there was nothing to be nervous about. Zach didn’t have an audience; maybe half an audience, assuming that Mr. Shevlin was half listening, and half paying attention to when that mechanic was finally going to cross the street from the Grille to the Palace. And Zach had no auditioner at all. Mr. Shevlin had said that Zach already had the job, and that he’d just wanted to meet Zach in person and check that he liked the piano.

So, practically speaking, Zach might as well be alone. Everything in this grandiose Luxury Hodgepodge Kingdom seemed to exist only for Zach. The brilliantly lit chandeliers, the fragrances from the many flowers, the brand-new piano—all of them, only for him, even though he was a nobody from nowhere who wore a shabby, donated suit; a nobody who had to warm and stretch his fingers extra-carefully because he couldn’t afford a pair of gloves on this freezing cold winter day.

A nobody had nothing to lose. All this nobody had to do was play a waltz, one that’d make people want to dance and drink more. It needn’t be a waltz that came from sheet music. It could be any waltz.

So, a waltz, he did play. In clear triple time, he stayed—at first, at least.

One, two, three; two, two, three.

Um-pah-pah; um-pah-pah.

This waltz came from Zach, finally free to explore all that he’d wanted to explore since the time when he’d stared up at the bare ceiling of the little, crowded bedroom back home, at night, aided by the starlight shining through the window. And there’d been many stars, all visible, too, because no streetlight or store signs competed with the light of the true night, of nature. His many brothers and sisters had slept soundly and without worry. Zach had stared up, because with open eyes, wide awake, was how he dreamed best.

On such nights, melodies had awakened in Zach’s heart, or mind, or soul, or all three. Or maybe they were all one and the same.

It didn’t matter. What mattered was that nobody cared.

One, two, three; two, two, three.

Um-pah-pah; um-pah-pah.

But now, with more improvisation! Syncopation! Dance, dance, dance!

Nobody could agree on anything anyway, except that something new and different had popped up in the music scene: that beautiful alien or mutant child that had been born two decades ago in Chicago and New Orleans. Now, its many branches were converging in New York, and that was where Zach was. Even that classical child from the old world, that child with a long, respectable lineage, had come here, to evolve and to be reborn.

Nonsense elitism; equally nonsensical populism—who cared?

Zach didn’t care.

He played. Played, played, every melody, every rhythm that came to him.

Someone cleared his throat upstairs. Zach flinched awake from his concentration and looked up, but didn’t stop playing; he’d only missed a beat. At the top of the staircase, Mr. Shevlin stared down with a broad, fascinated grin. He hadn’t been the one who’d cleared his throat; the man who’d done that wore old blue denim overalls and stood behind Mr. Shevlin. That had to be the mechanic.

“That’s great, Zacharias,” Mr. Shevlin said. “Do you like the piano?”

“I love it very much, sir,” Zach said, not stopping.

“Great, that’s great.” Then Mr. Shevlin turned to the mechanic and said, “Look at that boy. Just look.”

“I don’t care, Gus, I told your wife—”

“Oh, goddammit.” Mr. Shevlin turned to Zach. “Keep playing. Great, it’s great.”

Then, Mr. Shevlin stepped over to the bookstore side. He angrily pushed the brick-button to close the sliding door-wall. It didn’t work in one smooth motion.

“See that?” he said. The mechanic didn’t respond. “Look at this stupid thing.”

The thing was stuck. Mr. Shevlin heaved. He put all his weight on the door. Inch by inch, the door budged. Eventually, it closed fully with a slam.

Zach heard Mr. Shevlin’s muffled cursing and hissing, followed by the mechanic’s protests. The never-ending waltz was thrown into the mix, in the spirit of the Luxury Hodgepodge Kingdom. Zach laughed. What chaos!

Then the sliding door-wall opened again with an ugly screech.

“You hear that?” Mr. Shevlin said. “I need this to be smooth. It has to work elegantly, with the gentle poke of a finger—gentle enough for ladies to open the door. Do you understand?”

“Yes, Gus,” the mechanic said with such surprising meekness that Zach glanced up.

He couldn’t see the mechanic’s face, but heard the clink-clanking of tools. The mechanic had become unexpectedly obedient.

“Zacharias,” Mr. Shevlin said with a kind grin, “come up. That’s enough. I love it. You’re hired. You start next week.”

Zach finished the waltz with a cheerful chord and jumped up from the bench.

“Thank you, Mr. Shevlin,” he said.

“Thank you. Now, come on up. Go across the street to the Grille. Tell Nora I sent you. Ask for a steak or a lobster.”

Zach’s mouth watered. He realized that he’d been hungry since yesterday. His stomach had only stopped grumbling because it had given up all hope. But upon hearing the word “steak,” it awoke again. Zach blushed. He was glad that the pit of the Palace was deep enough to obscure a noise as private as a stomach grumbling.

“Steak?” Zach said, just to be sure he’d heard right.

“Yes, come on, come, come.”

Zach hurriedly collected the sheet music, shoved them in his briefcase, and ran upstairs.

© 2022 Ithaka O.

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