The Heart of the Baldwin
To some people, music is background noise. Like that ridiculous kid on Sunday morning that has to take his Captain America action figure and smack it against the brown-carpeted floor until you think the kid is going to snap the poor doll’s head off, music has the ability to drive people nuts. I don’t agree with them. To me, music is a pulse. Any sound can be music. I see music as life, and if “life is our dictionary”, then music is our language. It’s more than the metaphysical mood ring that too many simpletons have made it into.
If only I could convince my sister, Beth.
Beth would be exceedingly happy if I would just sit in front of Grandpa’s Baldwin piano, (which by some miracle she inherited because it was my Grandpa’s dream for his favorite to play his piano), and play endless renditions of pop songs by Vanessa Carlton. I can only play “A Thousand Miles” before I start to involuntarily play it backwards and in a minor position, making the thousand miles seem so miserable that by the end of the song your limbs are perfectly content with severing themselves from your body and falling lifelessly to the ground.
Beth never notices. I spent last summer staying with my sister in her apartment in Cuyahoga Falls. It was a good deal: I stayed rent free while caring for Beth’s two dogs, Elliot and Louise. And do laundry. And do dishes. And wash her car. Heaven forbid I should be unemployed for two minutes at a time.
It was mid July, and I was still hopelessly unemployed without any remote source of distraction. The heat surged outside, like Ohio was pretending to be Tahiti, but without causing worry to Ohio residents who knew that the clouds of Cleveland would return tomorrow. As could be expected, the first rain drops hit the oblong window beside Grandpa’s Baldwin. Gloomy white daylight penetrated the oblong glass window beside the piano. I sat hunched over on the bench, staring at the keys as if expecting them to reach up with long white fingers and arms to embrace me. I slowly lifted my hands to the keyboard. The keys were cold beneath my fingers, but the heart-strings of the piano yearned for the warmth of resonance.
Knowing my own abilities, I found the ‘E’ key beneath my fourth finger and walked my fingers through Fur Elise. When I had finished, the last note cut off subtly as I lifted my foot from the pedal. Baldwin seemed to bask in the sweet silence. I was not so satisfied. The silence was too loud for me. I started into Purcell’s Rondeau from Abdelazer. Feeling the transcendence in the melody, I closed my eyes, taking Baldwin by the ivory hand.
“Anna!” Beth screamed from the doorway.
I turned to face her. Her bleached-blonde hair blended in with the bright white walls that surrounded us. So much so, that her blue eyes looked like giant sapphires lodged in a mound of liquid foundation. Beth flashed her just-whitened toothy smile.
“Are you ever going to take out this trash?” she asked me.
My eyes glazed over. “Sure” I said. Anything to get her to leave me alone. Like a good little girl, I dragged the three-week-old trash out to the cans by the road. The sound of black plastic rubbing against old faded gray pavement made me want to peel off my own fingernails. After I had dragged the bag about ten feet, I noticed that the dead weight seemed to get lighter. Puzzled, I looked behind me only to find a stream of molding trash pouring out of the bottom of the bag. Somehow between taking it outside and getting it to the can the black plastic bag had given-way and allowed the precious, stinking cargo to spill hopelessly out through the frayed hole in the plastic bag. Gritting my teeth in annoyance, I squatted down to put the used Ziploc bags and orange rinds back into the bag, but then stopped. There, lying on the pavement smeared with spoiled milk were photographs. Like a curious child I crawled towards them, picking them up one by one, aghast at what I was seeing. I recognized myself and one other person, Freddie Risoluto, standing in front of the Marshall Field building at Sarah Lawrence College in New York. I picked up the few photos, hoping to save them from a dishonorable death by spoiled dairy, and headed back inside.
Stealthily passing Beth again, who was still glued to her episode of Project Runway, I headed for my room and closed the door behind me. I took a tissue from the box on my desk, and laid it down flat, spreading the rescued photos across it. I took another tissue and wiped the disgusting dairy grime off of each picture, replacing each one to its original spot on the desk. When I had finished, I looked at the pictures for a second. I focused on one; it was taken on the last day of our trip to visit the campus.
It was late May, and seventy-five degrees. The sky was absolutely indescribable. If you’ve never been to New York, you’ve never seen a blue sky before. The skies are so blue, as a child it is possible to imagine that it is one giant carton of Blue Moon ice cream that could fall out of the sky and into your open mouth at any moment. Freddie and I were looking at our friend Jane who was holding the camera, and insisted on taking a picture of us in front of the building that in a decade would be renamed after us. Jane had intended to digitally alter the photo to say Risoluto Music building, but she never got the chance. Freddie and I were arm in arm, wearing smiles so big that they barely fit on our faces.
Squinting, I analyzed the picture. There was a black rim around the blue sky. I bent the black rim back, revealing another picture, one from my senior prom. Stuck between them was a piece of notebook paper folded into a paper football. My heart began to beat a little bit faster. I carefully lifted the edge of the paper football, peeling it away from the photograph. Now thanks to rotten milk, there was a hazy triangle around mine and Freddie’s faces. Wonder where he is now, I thought. I laid the photos out to dry on my desk, leaving the paper football note on the desk with them. I sat down in front of my keyboard, sinking down onto my stool like a lanky, languid lump of lard. Perhaps I was more dejected than I thought. I scoffed; there was one quick fix for mild, irreversible depression – Brahms. I opened the score and poured every emotion and every bit of energy into Hungarian Dance No. 5.
Unexpectedly, I managed to get through the first phrase with ease, remembering the last time I’d played it almost five years ago. It was my last recital before I graduated from high school. My mom was at work, my dad was in Tuscany, and Beth was hopelessly uninterested. I didn’t even care. There in the audience was the one person who would not have missed the performance for the world. He’d even gone so far as to help me pick out which of Brahms’ masterpieces would best show case what he thought was “talent.” I remember walking out onto the small stage in my piano teacher’s church and looking for him. When I didn’t see him, I paused for a second and then sat down in front of the coal-black baby grand piano and whispered a prayer.
My head snapped to the right. Seeing a dark haired guy sitting within view just over my shoulder, I smiled. Freddie settled in his seat, content that he was looking over my shoulder.
Lost in my own memory, I played through the first phrase with ease, but when I accidently struck a white key instead of a black one, my rhythm was thrown off completely. The sixteenth-note runs sounded like multiple train wrecks that could not have been avoided, even by the grace of God. I tried to continue, but succumbed to my own frustration and misery, shattering my vicarious memory of the past.
I heard Beth stirring in the other room. Setting me up was one of her favorite past-times, but tonight there was nothing she could do to persuade me to go out. She told me she was trying to educate me in the ways of the world, but it seemed like I was her own subject for a ridiculous sociological study. This habit was one that instituted itself when my dad returned from Tuscany and decided that Freddie and I were together too much, and that my GPA would suffer from my lack of concentration. He was right. My concentration was suffering. Instead of maintaining my 4.0, it dropped down to a 3.9 – what a tragedy. Freddie and I, and Jane and Tom went to New York that weekend to visit Sarah Lawrence right before I told Freddie that we needed to take a break. What I wouldn’t have given to go to New York and never return. To watch Freddie improvise for hours on their endless supply of Baldwin pianos, and get lost in the even the simplest melodies of silence was enjoyment enough for me.
“Anna!” Beth bellowed from down the hall.
I opened my door and peered out at her. “What?”
“Since you refuse to go come with us to meet Will, we’ve set him up with Lydia. I’ll be back in a while. Don’t wait up,” Beth angled her gaze with the ceiling, pointing her nose upward as if she were two feet taller than me.
Once Beth had left, I went back to my room to check on the photographs. Some of them had dried and still maintained their glossy finish, but others had white splotches. I stared at the picture from prom. The triangular frame left by the wet paper football perfectly framed our faces. I picked up the paper football, which was now also dry. The tab on the right side popped out without an effort. I unfolded it and gasped, recognizing the handwriting.
It was Freddie’s. It was the note that he’d claimed that he wrote me right before graduation that I swore he lied about. When I told him in New York that we needed to take a break, he said that he would think about it. The day before our graduation, he showed up at dad’s house expecting everything to be the same. In my naive stupidity I listened to my dad, thinking that I could leave Freddie behind, and look forward to my bright future. My dad’s threats did more than I would like to admit in persuading me. He said he wouldn’t pay my room and board at Sarah Lawrence if he knew that I was going to see Freddie there. Knowing that money was no object for him, I knew he was serious. When Freddie came to my dad’s house that day thinking that nothing had changed, ignoring my wishes, I couldn’t take it. I was stuck between the will of my dad, and the will of God. What about my will? Where was that supposed to fit in? Who was to win? Needless to say, Freddie left and never came back.
Sighing, I sat down on my stool, reading Freddie’s parting line:
If time is what you need – take it. Time will not change anything, believe it. Lock everything you’ve told me away, and come back to it when you’re ready.
Tears welled in my eyes, but I would not satisfy them. I scooped up all of the pictures from my desk and the note and threw my door open. I sluggishly walked down the hall, my heels hitting the floor in a rhythmic pattern, as a headed for Grandpa’s Baldwin. I set the pile of pictures and the note down on the bench, and lifted the lid on the top of the piano. One by one I proceeded to slide each picture between a string and hammer down deep inside the piano. Closing the lid, I saw one tear fall on top of the piano and quickly wiped the stream from my face. I lifted the lid on the piano bench, laid the note inside, and then as if saying goodbye all over again, I closed the lid on the bench, sat down, and cried. Out of my frustration and anger, I stopped my foot down on the sustain pedal.
Suddenly, the Baldwin’s hammers struck a few strings. I froze; still as a corpse, I reached out to touch one of the keys. I pushed down, asking for a response – nothing. I went up an octave, pushing down on a different key, sending the hammer straight for the string. Like a steam engine driving through the darkness on Christmas morning, the string resonated louder than I had ever heard. I struck another key – nothing. Frantically, I went back to the other key. Hearing a sound unlike any resonance I’ve ever heard. I held one hand down on the key, and lifted the lid on the Baldwin with the other. Catching my breath, I gaped at what I saw down inside the Baldwin. The hammer struck right in the center of my prom photograph – right in the center of the milk-made triangle that perfectly framed our faces.
I heard the door open.
“Anna!” Beth’s voice was shriller this time.
Realizing that I had been lying across the piano bench as if wrapped in the side-panel arms of the Baldwin, I sat up, looking back at the keys of the Baldwin. I struck one. It resonated. I struck another. It also resonated.
“Anna!” Beth stood in the doorway.
Instantly, I stood. Positioning myself in front of the Baldwin, I glared at her. “Why did you take Freddie’s note and keep it from me?”
For the first time, Beth looked away, backing away from me. “Before you say anything, I think you should see.” She motioned towards the foyer.
I stormed past her, ignoring the sound of footsteps in the hallway. A dark figure collided with me. I shoved him back.
Freddie stared back.
“What are you doing here?” I said smiling at him.
“I wasn’t going to leave without seeing you,” he said glancing at Beth. “Will is my roommate. He said he had a blind date tonight with Lydia Steventon. I was curious.”
For the next hour and a half, Freddie and I sat in front of the Baldwin sharing stories from the last four years. Much to my surprise, time had changed nothing. It was laughable – finding someone who spoke my language – music to my ears.