October Berceuse


Ann Beattie

          Emmet returned early from Italy, tired of rising in the morning and soaking his hands for ten minutes to warm them before sitting at the piano. He complained that the sink itself turned to ice the second the stopper was removed and the water swirled down the drain. As a prodigy, he’d gotten more sympathy. Now his playing was less good (in his opinion) and he was too old to be considered miraculous.

Maine was where Emmet had returned, not to the Upper East Side apartment that was being painted and glazed, where his step-sister, Jules, who really was a prodigy, was camped out with her best friend or lover – who could know; it seemed that the two young women only fought – making the paintings she now devoted all her time to. She’d gotten her undergraduate degree from Columbia by age nineteen, realizing along the way that she preferred to do the thing itself, rather than study painting as a subject. Emmet had sometimes modeled for her. Then he’d gotten the award and gone to Rome. From which he’d now returned.

His mantra was, You’re home now, but his step-father’s camp didn’t feel like home. Neither had the succession of other houses, year-round houses, Audwin and his mother had lived in since their marriage ten years before, the day after her divorce from Emmet’s father became final. They still had two of those houses, one in Lenox, the other in Aspen. And of course the New York apartment. “Of course” because Audwin considered himself a New Yorker and wouldn’t sever his connection to the city. So in the apartment lived his step-sister, Jules, eight years younger than he, who still retained prodigy status, and her friend or girlfriend, and that person’s idiotic Labrador, Gunter Sachs. It would be years before Emmet knew it was a joke – all run together: GunterSachs – though the joke would remain obscure, even when he was told the dog hadn’t been randomly named.

He’d called Jules to tell her he might want to crash with her a few nights when he returned early from Rome, but while she’d responded warmly, something had made him book a flight into Portland, instead. In this season, he’d have the house to himself. He thought he needed rest and quiet. Jules was relentless about including him in everything, some of those things too tempting to pass up. What he needed was rest (he thought again), peace, warmth. A wood stove was something you could count on. At least, if the wood delivery had been made. Even if it hadn’t – maybe it was still slightly early to drop off the cord of wood, to anyone but sissies? – he could easily round up enough to suffice until more arrived. He’d become fond of some of the people who performed various services and made regular deliveries to his mother and step-father’s house over the years, though to a person, when he’d tried to help them, they’d protested, Oh no, your hands!

Oh no, my hands! he thought. And drew them out from under the covers and held them extended, as if some noble spirit might appear to slide on warm gloves. Or as if he might bring his hands together, point his fingers down and dive into the pool, the one in the back yard in Lenox, probably still filled with water, since it could be heated. Of course the pool could be heated.

One of the other Fellows (Emmet danced his fingers through the air, playing “For He’s a Jolly Good Fellow”) had e-mailed, saying he was missed. “Do you know what Penelope did?” his friend Sonya asked. “She knew the director was coming to the main house for a big dinner, so she snuck into the parlor and rounded up the magazines (the New Republic and The Paris Review, things like that) and replaced them with Hello! magazine and Avenger of the Universe comics. Penelope had previously caused amazement when she’d secretly changed the water in the vases on the little dining tables that defined one’s personal cosmos while at The Place (the Fellows called it what the natives did): assigned seating with those the director felt would most profit by one another’s company. He thought, wryly: Now, Earth, maybe you’d like to rotate around Sun. Penelope had awed him by noticing the tightly budded roses one night, as the tables were being set. She’d thought, What would happen if they opened in speeded-up-time? Dinners were interminable when there was a guest speaker, and that night they’d be visited by Henry Kissinger, with his cane and his wife who looked like a second cane, tall, her head bowed, as tall girls inherently ducked their heads. So she’d filled the vases with hot water, and sure enough, second by second the flowers opened, until eventually everyone’s attention drifted from the speaker to the Disney-esque animation happening before their eyes, as the buds fireworked into full flower.

He’d tried to sleep with Penelope, and she’d turned him down kindly. “It’s me, not you,” she’d said. “I can’t do that until I know I’m over Robert.” It was some consolation that she hadn’t taken up with anyone else there, either. She was a writer. A lot of them who were there were, and not one of them comfortable with the notion.

Now, he tried to remember what Henry Kissinger had talked about, but he could not. It was unlikely that the film of Robert MacNamara’s mea culpa that the Fellows had seen a week or so before Kissinger’s visit, in the drafty auditorium, was something Dr. Henry Kissinger would have known they’d seen. Audie had been a medic in Viet Nam. Amazingly, his fifty-ish looking step-father (he was sixty-nine) with still-dark hair and perfect posture and – as the joke went – a stomach so flat, you could iron clothes on it, had once run across fields to rescue the wounded and dying. Except for his rather maudlin taste in classical music, and sometimes a second brandy after dinner, Emmet saw few indications of what Audie undoubtedly remembered. Audie had cracked up before his mother met him. Long before. He’d been, as Audie himself said, “Reshuffled, re-wired, and sent back.” Why his mother didn’t seem to sense his ebb tide of desperation, or didn’t let on that she did, which amounted to the same thing, he couldn’t imagine.

What could he imagine, then? He could imagine a lovely woman sleeping beside him, to do with as he wished. Though who could love someone and awaken them from sleep? How did mothers all around the world manage to shake and cajole and criticize their sons and daughters, who would not rise from their warm beds to go to school? He could imagine sinking lower in the bed and closing his eyes to synchronize his breathing with the phantom woman, the perfect beauty, the compliant, intelligent and lovely (though mysterious) Abrielle. Who lay beside him now. Who was his responsibility, even if she insisted he had no reason to feel that way, as she’d willingly agreed to fly from Rome to Portland, in her first visit to the United States. If you could call this limbo a “visit.”

It did no one’s psyche any good to be labeled a prodigy. Yes, his hands had once been able to fly, the tips of his fingers bringing forth tears from the keys, as the sob of music resounded. He’d thought of the piano as a body, but that was before he’d actually explored anyone’s body. Then that comparison went out the window. It flew out like the notes Madame Bovary heard, drifting over the town, in that sad, narcotizing book that raised and staunched every reader’s desire. The headlights from the carriage lamps. Emma Bovary’s fleeing lover’s last light. So frightfully moving, like certain movements of Albinoni. What a surprise that was what his step-father listened to late at night, the volume turned down so the brandy could ring equally in his head.

He was in awe of Jules’s choice about what path to pursue. He could never step away from music, nor did he want to. But of course his heart ached for his lack of progress, not just his hands from lack of warmth. Not to take a step forward, after so much practice, was to take huge steps backward. Again he withdrew his hands from the covers (Oh no, your hands!) and studied the left one, the non-dominant hand, dropping the other carefully on top of the covers, under which Abrielle slept.

Soon he’d have to tell the family about her. That pacing the cobblestone streets in Trastevere, in despair, he’d gone into a church, because the sun had been relentless (his eyes teared easily, though people romanticized him and were moved that he was so moved by music). Inside, he’d seen only one person to ignore – a seated figure, and the departing Priest, his black vestments sweeping the marble beneath his feet as he exited stage right. Emmet had walked past the young woman, settling himself several rows ahead of her, then worried he might be blocking her view, or that she might think it odd he’d sat so close, because the church was otherwise entirely empty – that she’d judge him for not inspecting the painting to the left of the altar, or the famous relic (at that point, he had no idea what was in the church, and still did not care) of the saint’s finger, which every guidebook told you how to find, though the ornamental box with its little viewing window was placed obscurely. He’d gotten up, intending to move several pews closer to the altar, but instead it was as if he’d fallen to pieces and those tiny flecks he’d decomposed into were powerless against a magnetic force sucking him backwards. He’d found himself seated next to her, and it was only then, when she looked up with such surprise (or dismay? What had her expression meant?) that he realized she’d been studying her dimly glowing cell phone, Yes, he’d done something odd, even aggressive, certainly to many women it would have seemed threatening, though her real concern remained with whatever she’d read on the phone’s screen. He imagined – now, so much later, he could only imagine – that he’d indicated curiosity. That had been the first time Abrielle spoke to him, of course in Italian. And while he knew a bit of the language, he’d thought it best to tell her straight out that he was an American, he really did not understand. She’d remained silent. He’d feared she had no English. But after a pause, she’d said, “Ragazzi sono cretini. Men are jerks.” “Me?” he’d said, wounded. He’d never been called a jerk. An elitist ass, yes. Mr. Too-Big-For-Your-Britches, that too. A slacker (his first, most beloved piano teacher). “If this is not so, why do you sit here, when there is the whole church?” she’d said, gesturing toward the emptiness. Later, she’d insist that what she said had only been the result of her boyfriend’s having broken up with her in a text message.

Emmet had taken her hand. Fortunately, she hadn’t jumped. She’d gripped the phone, whose screen had gone dark, and let him grasp the other hand. Though he was not mystical or romantic, and while he understood that another person could not feel what you loved (music), something had happened in those first wavery seconds, so that by the time she looked into his eyes, and he, of course, into hers, a truth was already known. She’d looked at his hand as if seeing something absolutely perplexing, such as a clam shell on the sidewalk on Fifth Avenue.

She stirred. He willed her to stay asleep. That way, he could continue to remember, rather than feel obliged to talk. Remember the light coming through the stained glass, such a cliché, yet so beautiful, its dust-filled stream striking the old wood on the empty benches across the aisle, angling across to light their ankles. He’d moved his foot as if he needed to react against the light. As if the shaft might have been the piano pedal, the excellent piano at The Place they’d had adjusted for him by Rome’s best known tuner, a more expensive instrument than he’d ever own, because while Audie was rich, you couldn’t just want, and buy, such an instrument. So few pianos of its kind existed. You had to let the piano choose you. Like love.

Abrielle was looking at him. No longer did she rub her gritty eyelashes or brush hair from her face upon awakening, or alter the slack expression of her mouth. She was who she was, which was of course the thing anyone would most desire about the state of being in love.

The state of. The USA. Her visit. Maine.

He danced his fingers in a parody of someone pounding the keys, making Ragtime air music. When she didn’t smile (though he had a smile plastered on his lips, to emphasize the stupidity of what he did), his smile also faded. He could feel it go Maybe it went like the edge of a tired, bored Priest’s robe, to drag through the drafty corridor. She wouldn’t know what he played next – sometimes the simplest things were the most profound, as every musician knows – but he knew. Brahms’ Lullaby: Go to sleep, go to sleep … . Days had a way of being too animated. Something about October’s riot of color, bird calls carried across the lake by the too-strong wind to echo from high rocks on the other side, diminishing sound swaying back and forth, like a metronome.

She watched as his hands made of the air a keyboard, then played in a minor key, the melody’s repetition indicated in the sameness of his floating gestures. As she watched, her eyes narrowed, then fluttered shut. He could call his composition October Berceuse, indulge in the melodramatic. But would he be the genius of his own creation? Such a strange thing, though it happened often: you composed; others executed your music beautifully, with greater feeling, as if it had always been theirs. He’d segued from Brahms into the next piece without even thinking. His hands were on their own in the air. In his head he heard each clearly struck note of silence.