Table of Contents
Jump to the Prelude
For a long while, Zach stared back through the open window of the emerald car. The huge pink mass that was Nora Shevlin eventually became a little pink speck. Then, she disappeared from view.
Zach sat back. The wind slapped one side of his face as his savior, the emerald car, sped through the streets of New York.
He sniffled. His nose felt icy. He breathed through his mouth because his nose didn’t get the job done. Then he placed his trembling hands over his freezing ears. All the mouth-watering that had happened when he’d entered The Underwater Grille had reversed. Now, his mouth felt dry and he’d lost all appetite. The breathing-with-the-mouth thing didn’t help make him feel better.
But maybe it was good this way. Maybe the sooner he erased all traces of ever having been in that restaurant, the better. It’d been so disturbing—everything that the headwaiter had said, Nora Shevlin’s actions, and Zach’s own inexplicable, exaggerated reaction. He could have let the poor woman drag him to a table and eaten there. Who cared about the rude waiter?
But Zach hadn’t done that. He’d felt sick to the stomach because of what had happened and what he knew would happen, if he stayed: he definitely wouldn’t have just “let the poor woman drag him to a table and eaten there.” He’d have wanted to tell Mr. Shevlin how his employees treated his wife like a circus animal in a cage.
Did that count as snitching? Of course not! That was called minimizing the pain of daily life for a poor woman. But regardless of the validity of what he would’ve done, Zach also knew that such messing with other people’s affairs was totally laughable. Zach thought that people shouldn’t be treated the way Nora Shevlin was treated by those sly waiters; but obviously, not everyone thought so. What if Mr. Shevlin himself didn’t agree with Zach?
So what had Zach done? He’d run. Like a little kid, he’d run away to avoid the problem. And worse—he’d run away from poor Nora Shevlin.
One, two, three; two, two, three.
Zach removed his hands from his ears. He glanced at the gloved hand that tapped a triple time waltz rhythm on the leather back seat next to him.
It was the hand that had pointed at the Grille’s door, warning Zach of Mrs. Shevlin’s impending escape from her glorified cage. That hand belonged to the woman who’d allowed him to get into this car, which, now that Zach had recovered his normal breathing, smelled of new leather and floral perfumes—that distinct scent of material wealth and social success.
Um-pah-pah; um-pah-pah, the woman’s finger continued to tap, and she hummed too—hummed Zach’s melody…
…of the piece he’d played back at The Underwater Palace.
Mesmerized, Zach stared at the woman. She was a specimen of the city species. That was how Zach viewed the city folks: as a species entirely different from his own. Especially the women. Those beautifully groomed modern women were untouchable, too sophisticated.
She looked barely twenty. Under her thick burgundy velvet coat, she wore a thin satin dress of a green shade deeper than the emerald of her car. A green, close to the shade of the deep forests back home. Forest-green. And that color matched her eye color perfectly.
Long white gloves. Glittering jewelry around her neck and dangling from her ears. Fancy high-heeled pumps—new, without a trace of ever having been used for stepping on dirty roads. Their sole purpose had been to protect those small feet from lack of style. This woman was no stenographer, no clerk. She was an image of prosperity from the latest magazines. Like one of those models in the ads telling people to Buy more.
But despite the intimidatingly expensive items on and around her, the woman had an air of carelessness to her. Out of all specimens that he’d seen of her species, she was the most natural-looking. As in, perhaps she was a cross between a city girl and a country girl?
Her makeup wasn’t as thick as the other girls.’ One of her fancy shoes dangled from her toes, in rhythm with her um-pah-pah. Instead of being absorbed in herself, she seemed absorbed in the melody that she was humming, which now shifted to:
Syncopation! Improvisation! More harmony!
And this city-country-girl was precise. Zach couldn’t believe that anyone could remember what he’d done with such accuracy. Even he had forgotten what he’d done, but now that he heard it again, from her, he was certain that that was how he’d played, precisely as she was humming.
At the sudden rush of pride and curiosity mixed with affection, Zach inhaled deeply, then exhaled. Such a beautiful girl, remembering his music, the music of a nobody…
“Stop staring,” the woman said.
Zach blushed and looked away. “I’m sorry,” he said, “and thank you very much for…”
Zach was glad that the cold wind entering through the open car windows had slapped one side of his face for some time now. It was only natural for that side to be flushed. But the other cheek—the side that the woman could see clearly—was the problem. It had no reason to turn this red.
Sure enough, the woman noticed how Zach blushed further and further. She laughed, but not like the waiters. Hers was a friendly, confident laugh of a person who’d never once doubted in her life that she’d get everything she wanted from the world and more.
“I’m sorry if that offended you,” she said. “It only looked like you were running from danger.”
“No need to apologize,” Zach said. “You did rescue me. From danger, I don’t know, but from… a possibly unpleasant situation.”
She smiled and resumed humming softly while gazing out of the window. The wind made the blond curls that had escaped her hat dance out of rhythm, randomly, which Zach found particularly charming. In fact, at this point, he would’ve called anything that she did or say charming.
“Have you been listening at the Palace?” he asked, gathering up all his courage.
She looked at him with those deep forest-green eyes. “What about the music?” she asked.
“That music. Were you at the Palace when I was playing it?”
She stared at him wordlessly for a long, uncomfortable moment, then said, “I don’t know what you mean by the palace.”
“Oh, goodness, right.”
Zach shut his mouth and shook his head. Stupid him. Stupid, stupid him. Mr. Shevlin had told him about the crazy, dangerous, nonsensical vision, and he’d managed to keep it a secret for less than half a day.
“Never mind,” he said.
“I was at the dressmaker’s,” she said, easing her stern expression. “I heard the music there. Thin walls.”
“That was you? Playing the piano?”
Zach wanted to change the subject badly. “Yes, yes,” he said, then quickly, “and, again, thank you so much.”
“You did what you could,” she said.
“You did what you could, with that woman back there.”
Nora Shevlin wasn’t Zach’s favorite subject either. So, he simply said, “Well.”
“I can tell, from how they laughed and how she was sad to see you leave,” the woman said, “that she saw you as a friend.”
“She looked lonely.”
“She was. Probably. I don’t know.”
The city-country-girl smiled sadly. “I’m Angeline Conners.”
They shook hands. Zach had never shaken hands with a grown woman before, because back home, he’d known every villager for his entire life. Most newcomers weren’t there to stay, and even if they stayed, any grown women among them had no business shaking hands with a cornfield farmer’s crazy son, who thought he’d make it big as a pianist one day.
As it turned out, Zach found this first handshake with a woman somewhat titillating. And he felt ashamed for lacking in experience with the other sex as well as normal social manners.
“Where shall I drop you off?” Angeline asked.
Oh, no, she’d noticed his odd behavior. She must have read his mind, he was sure.
“Just around the corner,” he said quickly.
The car turned around the corner to reveal meatpacking buildings.
“Here?” she asked, perplexed.
“I’d be glad to drive you to wherever you live. It’s really no trouble at all. Right, Seamus?”
“No trouble at all, miss,” said Seamus the chauffeur, even though his glaring eyes silently told Zach, It’s very much a trouble. A big, big trouble.
“That is very kind of you,” Zach said, speaking slowly to choose the right words. It seemed that today was the day on which he tested the limits of his cheeks’ blushing capability. “The thing is,” he said, “I just moved here and I don’t know where I’ll be staying. So you might as well drop me off here.”
“You just moved here?”
“I arrived just this morning.”
Angeline laughed, apparently delighted that Zach wasn’t from around here.
“Oh, do have some tea with me then,” she said.
Was this the way of the New Woman of New York? This outgoing air, this ready hospitality to a stranger?
Zach’s stomach grumbled and he found out, once more, that he could always blush more than he already had. At this point, he felt inclined to conclude that in fact, his blushability was limitless.
“Don’t be so shy,” Angeline said. “Where’s your bag? Should we pick it up from somewhere?”
“I lost it,” Zach said.
“I’m sorry to hear that. How did it happen?”
“I— I was sleeping on the train and someone took it.”
Angeline grinned. “Not from a place where people steal while you’re asleep, huh?”
“Yes, but only because where I come from, there aren’t enough people to notice who sleeps where, and when. There’s too much space for us to run into anyone by chance, asleep or otherwise.”
Angeline laughed. “Always so interesting to hear about other ways of life. Now that you’ve confessed that you have nothing holding you back, you can’t possibly decline my invitation.” She leaned in toward the front seat. “Seamus, drive us home.”
And from that moment on, until they arrived at their destination, Angeline led the conversation with such liveliness that Zach forgot his self-consciousness.
A New Woman she was, indeed, infinitely curious, capable of forming her own opinions. Well-read—not only in the subjects of dead philosophers and their long-collapsed civilizations, but also about other continents in the here and now.
Correction. It wasn’t really a conversation. Zach mostly listened. Perhaps that was why she tried so many different topics: to allow Zach to choose which ones he preferred.
So, are there any places you’ve wanted to visit once you got here? Perhaps you might want to try Hotel Pennsylvania. It just opened.
Where are you from?
Oh, how I’d love to see an airplane take off, in person! I’ve heard that commercial air travel will become a reality very, very soon. Then it’d only take less than ten hours to get to where you used to live.
I’ve picked up a few books the other day. Out of everything, I liked Die Verwandlung the best. It’s actually a short story. Metamorphosis in English. He only writes weird stories, doesn’t he, that Kafka? Have you read any of his books?
I speak some German. Do you speak any foreign languages?
Are you interested in foreign languages?
Eventually, Angeline ran out of lighthearted subjects and arrived at: What do you think about Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht’s deaths?
And then, reluctantly, she returned to the subject of music. Clearly, she’d only held off so far because earlier, Zach had so abruptly changed the topic from piano playing to anything but that. Also, there’d been that awkward moment of him mentioning a palace, which must have sounded nonsensical, since she didn’t know about Mr. Shevlin’s hidden business venture in the basement of the bookstore.
But now, they managed to talk about music at the more theoretical, ethereal level. Nothing real-world. That was the tacit agreement between them. Best, talk about dead composers: the Austrians, Russians, and French. Also, talk about forms with pretty names: nocturnes, minuets, and mazurkas.
While talking, Zach observed this woman who’d rescued him, this intelligent, beautiful woman with whom he could talk about music all day long, and possibly about many other subjects, too, so long as he educated himself.
Did he dare hope to meet her again? Funny how he thought about any “again” even before having the first sip of tea with her. What if her family saw him and kicked him right out of their house? Zach wouldn’t be surprised if they did. He was no beggar, but most definitely not of their social class.
Angeline’s forest-green eyes sparkled as she talked. The one pump that had been dangling on her foot had dropped on the floor of the back seat long ago. She didn’t care.
Zach responded with equal enthusiasm. She complimented that enthusiasm. She also complimented his long fingers. Zach wanted to compliment her, too, but didn’t know where to begin.
“We’re almost here,” Seamus said.
“Slow down,” Angeline said.
And slowly, the emerald car crept toward a luxurious apartment building, at least ten stories high.
“No one here,” Seamus said, examining the streets.
Angeline nodded. “Pull over. Thank you.”
The car stopped. Angeline hopped out. Zach crawled out.
“Come on, hurry, it’s so cold,” she said. “I live on the top floor.”
“The top floor of that?” Zach said, and leaned back.
He’d seen tall buildings the moment he’d gotten off the train, but someone living that high up was an entirely unexpected concept.
“You know, it’s becoming trendy now, living in the penthouse,” Angeline said, walking up the stairs toward the entrance door. “Some people still think that the top floors belong to the servants, but not so anymore, no. Of course, in many cases it’s a tragedy, with the servants being moved to the cellar, but I know for a fact that the servants of this building here have been moved to the first floor, not the basement floor. I made sure of that. No one should live in the basement.”
“Yes,” Zach muttered, massaging his neck. How much easier it must be to look down from the top floor than to look up from the bottom floor!
He hurriedly ran after Angeline until he noticed a man emerging from around the building.
“Zacharias Steele,” the man said.
Both Zach and Angeline whirled around.
The man wore a dark coat and a hat. Zach didn’t recognize who he was until the man grinned slyly. He was the headwaiter of The Underwater Grille.
The headwaiter handed Zach his briefcase and the baggy cap.
“You left these behind,” the headwaiter said. “One at the restaurant, the other on the piano.”
Zach accepted the returned objects and asked, “How did you find me here?”
“An emerald car, easy to find.” The headwaiter grinned at Angeline.
For the first time, she blushed.
“By the way, Mr. Shevlin says not to bother to come back,” the headwaiter said.
“What?” Zach said.
“You heard me. Don’t bother coming back.”
The headwaiter turned on his heel, bundled himself tighter in his coat, and walked away.
“What did you tell him?” Zach shouted at his back. “Did you tell him that I was the one who upset his wife?”
The headwaiter didn’t look back or respond.
The headwaiter turned around the corner. He was gone.
“What did he mean, ‘Don’t bother coming back’?” Angeline asked, worried.
“I think I lost the job that I’d just gotten,” Zach said.
“It’s fine,” he said, though of course it wasn’t fine. “This is all my fault.”
He really didn’t blame Mr. Shevlin. Zach did push Nora Shevlin and she’d fallen. For the waiters to insult her was one thing; for Zach to hurt her physically was worse. Zach only hoped that Nora Shevlin hadn’t been hurt too bad. He also hoped that the waiters hadn’t lied to Mr. Shevlin. Zach could be blamed for what he’d done, but only for that. Nothing more, nothing less.
More. Less. What was he thinking? He had nothing no more. Only more less.
He had no money, no job, no home. Trying to remember what the original plan had been, had Mr. Shevlin not offered a job today, Zach stared down at the sidewalk. Unlike the one in front of The Underwater Palace, this sidewalk was extremely clean. Zach stood in a neighborhood much better than before, but his situation had gotten much worse. The contrast only disheartened him further.
“Please, do come in,” Angeline said.
“I don’t think I should.”
“You absolutely should.”
She said this with such determination that Zach looked up at her, standing on the stairs.
“Let’s have tea,” she said, holding out a hand toward him. “I’ll make a few calls and see where you can audition again.”
“You’ll do that for me?”
And so, Young Zacharias Steele, aged twenty-two, climbed the stairs. He took the hand of Angeline Conners, who guided him into the plush apartment building, into warmth.
As soon as they sat down in her sitting room, Angeline made the calls. Over the next few weeks, Zach auditioned a few dozen times, all leading to nothing. All venue owners made up one excuse or another: that Zach had shown up at the wrong time, that there’d been a miscommunication and they didn’t need a new pianist, that the contract hadn’t been signed on time…
Nothing seemed to work out, except for Zach’s relationship with Angeline. In fact, the closer he got to Angeline, the less successful his musical career became. (Though, of course, it was tricky to say “less successful,” when said musical career had never properly begun in the first place.)
Then, Zach ended up in Carningsby.
That had been what had happened last time.
© 2022 Ithaka O.
All rights reserved.This story is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, businesses, companies, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.No part of this story may be reproduced in any form or by any electronic or mechanical means, including information storage and retrieval systems, without written permission from the author.