To the surprise of all her classmates at the Barker Conservatory of Music, as well as to her teachers there, Cynthia Ang won the Annual Debut Night Competition and would soon play at Symphony Hall. Cynthia was no less surprised herself, which perhaps explained why her talent seemed to go to pieces. The closer the date of her performance grew—only three weeks!—the more notes she missed, the more her own perspiration stung her eyes, the heavier her arms, her hands, her fingers became. Then one night she had a dream. She was sitting next to her old teacher, Ernst Barbakoff, and turning the pages of the score for him while he played as beautifully as she imagined he had in his world-famous youth.
Later that day, she told Isaac, whom she was living with, what she could remember. “I stood up to turn the page and then sat again on the piano bench. And when he was done, he lifted his hands—they were beautiful hands, not the way they are now, all twisted, but the white hands of a boy—and the music faded and I sat there applauding like mad. I’m trying to remember what he was playing. Something romantic. Was it Rachmaninoff? Was it Chopin?”
Isaac, beside her on the living room couch, said, “That’s really weird. I haven’t thought of him in ages.”
“I don’t think I have, either. He wasn’t nice to me when he was teaching English. Even though it was my fault.”
For a moment they both thought of the coincidence that had brought them together. An entire year had gone by at the Conservatory before they realized that each of them had once studied under the same teacher. Mr. Barbershop! They had shouted that out to each other. You had him, too? That’s when their friendship began.
Cynthia said, “You know what it means, don’t you?”
“What what means?“
“It doesn’t mean anything. You can’t even remember what he was playing. It could have been a jingle for soap.”
“It means I’ve got to find him. It means that he’s the one who can help me.”
“That’s just crazy, Cin-Cin. He was rotten to you. He mocked you in front of your whole class. Because you had forgotten a poem.”
“Because I stole someone else’s poem.”
“And he walked out on me. Refused to give me any more lessons. He’s ancient. As moth-eaten as his clothes. I don’t think he’s taught anybody for years.”
“I stood in the classroom in front of everyone: Angela and Mid and Q and Nadine and I couldn’t speak. I couldn’t think. I couldn’t move. I was paralyzed then and Isaac, my Isaac, I am paralyzed now. I think this means that he is the one to free me.”
“With what? A magic wand? Like a princess in some fairy tale? Those hands: he can’t teach any more.”
“But he did once. You know it yourself. We both learned everything from him. Can’t you admit it?”
He ignored the question. Instead he said, “Look, I’ve got a bad feeling about what you are saying. If you really want to find to him, don’t do it by yourself.”
“Why not? What do you think is going to happen to me? He’s like a hundred years old.”
“I don’t mean that kind of bad feeling. Not physically. I mean nothing good can happen. You’ve moved on, Cin-Cin. You’ve become—you know what you’ve become. An artist. A virtuoso. And everyone is going to know it. I’m afraid he’ll pull you back. To being a schoolgirl again.”
As it happened, he gave this warning with his hand well up her skirt. He’d already played all he wanted to with her breasts.
“Well, I maybe wish I were that schoolgirl.”
He laughed. “If you mean your virginity, that’s long gone.”
She didn’t mean that, exactly. She meant the way she had once been at the piano: learning, and wanting to learn more, an eager person. And now? A shadow had fallen over her. She jumped at the least sound. She was timid. People would see her. People would hear her. She knew nothing made sense. The schoolgirl should be the shy one. She, the virtuoso, ought to be unafraid. She made up her mind to think this through. But not now. Now she was pulling at the zipper of Isaac’s corduroy pants. She threw a leg over him and watched how his penis sprang up at her like a dog for a treat.
A few days later Cynthia, with her little sprig of flowers, the first daisies of the year, got out of the T at Central Square and made her way down Magazine Street. She turned left on Allston and came across a beggar in rags. He was propped against a brick building, his legs pulled up to his chin. She dug into her purse for a dollar and held it out to the bedraggled man. He did not look at her. He did not say, God bless you.That feather, the splinter of good will, did not fall on the scale.
In less than a minute the girl arrived at Ernst Barbakoff’s house. She double-checked the address against what the woman at the Pearl Street Library had written on a piece of paper. This, the thin, three story building, had to be the right one. She had no idea—the librarian herself did not know—if her teacher still lived there. Or, indeed, if he were still alive. She had called the number on the paper scrap; the phone was no longer in service.
“You’ll be taking a chance,” this Miss Virginia had said, when she wrote down the information. She showed Cynthia the advertisement for lessons that Ernst Barbakoff had once posted there. World Renowned Pianist. But there was no name, no address, no number. Leave replies with librarian was written at the bottom. Isaac had told her that was how, years earlier, his mother had contacted the teacher. All Cynthia knew was that he had long-since stopped teaching at her old pilot school and that his wife had died. Angela and Malcolm, her classmates, had gone to the funeral. Miss Virginia was the name spelled out at the reception desk; when she’d finished writing down Mr. Barbakoff’s address and phone number, she’d said, “I am that librarian.” She held out the scrap of paper. “I took a chance, too.”
Cynthia walked up the stoop. The warped portal that confronted her there was not fully closed. She pushed through and began to climb the flights of stairs. Twice she stopped, wishing she had accepted Isaac’s offer to come with her. At the top floor, a closed door, no buzzer, no bell.
A great pianist would not take the risk of rapping. You could dislocate your knuckles. Graffman, Fleisher, that crazy Glenn Gould: the legends about their injured hands. Nonetheless, she knocked. No answer. Oh, and Schumann, too: but he had syphilis. At that word, not even spoken, she felt her cheeks getting hotter. Isaac had told her what all that blushing was about. He’d read Freud. The excitement a maiden—he actually used that word, maiden—feels in the lips of her vagina and the cheeks of her buttocks when, say, the gentlemen make off-color remarks, she then displaces upward to her other lips and other cheeks. “You see?” Isaac exclaimed. “She gets to enjoy the sexual excitement and assert her innocence all at the same time.” He’d looked at her, his finger at his chin. “You never wear lipstick, do you?” he’d asked.
Cynthia knocked again. She heard a noise inside the apartment, and then someone, it was Mr. Barbershop, called out, “Who is it?”
“It’s Cynthia, Mr. Barbakoff. Your student. Cynthia Ang.”
“Who? What student is this?”
“Do you remember me? From the Academy of the Arts? Cynthia?I was a pianist. I’m at the Barker Conservatory now. On a scholarship.”
Her teacher had come closer. She thought he was on the other side of the door. “But I stopped teaching the piano. Years ago.”
“You came to our Senior Concert. I saw you in the audience. The Franck sonata. The A-major sonata. You frightened me. I did not dare miss a note.”
A chain, she thought, dropped. He was fumbling at the lock. The door opened a crack. Half of him was standing there at the jamb. “The A-major,” he said. “I remember that. I remember Miss Tillery-Hicks. The one with the mother. Do I remember you?”
“I don’t know. I was wearing a white dress.”
He stepped back and stared at her. She was wearing, on this cool spring day, jeans and a sweater over her blouse. And a round, off-red woolen cap. “These glasses,” he said. “That’s what I remember. You were a charlatan. You did not write your own poem. You made a substitution. It was an act of—” He broke off. He removed his own glasses, the round black spectacles he wore for reading. Cynthia saw that he had a thick book in the crook of his arm. He put the glasses on again and shook his head. “There is a blockage. On occasions I do not think of the word.”
“Plagiarism,” Cynthia said. “You wrote it on the blackboard.”
“Very good, Miss Ang. I am glad you have learned that lesson.”
“I’m sorry. I apologize. I was petrified because I could not think of anything on my own.”
He was a tall man still, though bent. He looked down on this diminutive girl, with her silly hat. It had a pom-pom at the center. “This act, for me, had consequences,” he said.
Cynthia said, in little more than a whisper, “I know.”
The whole class knew: his outburst at her, the disturbance that day, had cost him his job. What she half-knew, what they had all half-guessed, was the chain of events: the private lessons he had been forced to give; the woman he met—that same librarian who had written out this address; the death of his jealous wife; and so the disheveled man, wild-haired, not shaven, who stood stooped before her.
“I’m sorry,” she said once again.
But it seemed that her old teacher, Mr. Barbershop, had been following a different train of thought. “The river, you know, had frozen during the course of that night. It was white. The sky blue. The trees were covered in ice. The smallest twigs were encased in little shining pipes, as if they were a certain kind of insect, the pupa of an insect, inside its cocoon. I saw a red scarf, the color of your hat—it is a silly hat, why do you wear such a thing?—blowing down the ice. I felt that I was the one inside that chrysalis, about to be born. I came to you and your fellow students a man who had been renewed by the charm of nature. Then the foolishness. The barbarity. I say barbarity because you were heedless; you were immune to beauty. The boys showed their buttocks.”
“We weren’t thinking.”
“Thoughtlessness is in my opinion a source of much harm. The man who left the classroom that morning was not the man who entered it. A strangulation occurred. I was once more the man I had been. You see the specimen before you now.”
The girl took off her cap, revealing the strings of hair that pulled at the skin of her face. “Is that better?” she asked.
He did not seem to hear her. “It is perplexing. I thought of the word chrysalis. And that foolish hat is called, I believe, a tam o’shanter. But other words elude me.”
“I want to tell you something, Mr. Barbakoff. I’ve been chosen to play at Symphony Hall. The Two-Part Inventions. For the Annual Debut Night. I’ll be on the radio. And maybe television. It’s—well, they say it’s a big deal. I wanted to say this because I know I owe it to you.”
His reaction surprised her. “You should step away from my door. I do not want to talk to you. What you have to say—it is a masquerade. I had nothing to do with this—this big deal. I am well aware of my failures as a teacher. It was the wrong step for me to take in life. None of my hundreds of students has had—what do people seek? Fame? Fortune? To attract beautiful women? I did not instruct you, Miss Ang. Lucky for you I did not.”
“Why do you say that, Mr. Barbershop? What about Mid? What about Q? And Malcolm? They all say you were their best teacher ever.”
“I taught them literature. It was tomfoolery. I could not find in English the proper word, just as I could not at the keyboard find the right note. I was defeated by my disease.”
“You remember Angela? Angela is in Cincinnati. With the orchestra there.”
“You mention the exception; it proves the rule. Miss Tillery-Hicks played the violin.”
“You make me want to stamp my foot, Mr. Barbershop! You did teach me. You talked from across the room. You said—that’s not right: you shouted, No, no, no, no. Miss Ang. Can’t you hear yourself? It is a piano. A piano, not a stove top. Your fingers will not be burnt. Be brave, little bird. Do not be impatient. Patience. Patience. Do not surrender. You don’t remember?”
“Little bird. How could a man like me say such a thing?”
“I am patient. I don’t take my hands off the keys. I am your pupil.”
He did not, in the seconds that followed, reply. She did her best to keep her eyes on his whiskery face, so that she would not cause embarrassment by taking in the rest of him: the thin, naked ankles in mismatched slippers, the pooled bottoms of his pajamas, the half-opened bathrobe with the yellow stain of what must have been the yolk of an egg. Finally he said, “Why are you here? What is it you want of me?”
“I want you to help me, Mr. Barbershop. I am just like what I was before. With the poem. Petrified. The concert is only a week away.”
“I can do nothing for you. You see my hands—”
He started to raise both of them; at once the thick volume slipped downward. The old man caught it against his hip. Cynthia thought of the illuminated slide they had shown at the Academy. Moses by the sculptor Michelangelo. The art teacher said Moses was angry at the Jewish people. They were misbehaving so he almost dropped the tablets of the law. That’s not what happened when Mid and Q pulled down their pants and Malcolm made his bugling noise. Their teacher, Mr. B, hadn’t been angry He only took out a cigarette. Was that because of the beautiful river?
“What’s that book, Mr. Barbershop? It looks so heavy.”
“It is heavy. It is the first volume of Gibbon. The Decline and Fall. You know, Miss Ang: of the Roman Empire.”
“I don’t know. You did not teach us that.”
“I did not know it myself. Now I hope to learn.”
Cynthia took a breath, then spoke as rapidly as she could. “I want to learn, too. That’s why I am here. I had a dream about you, Mr. Barbershop. You were playing. I was turning the pages. I can’t go home. My mother says I am a disgrace. I feel so bad. We all slept together because the Steinway completely fills the only other room. You have to edge your way around it to reach the keyboard. It’s second hand. Or third hand. But my father worked a whole year to buy it. I don’t know how old I was. Maybe four. Maybe five. Now I sit there and it is like I am turned to stone. My mother hit me with a rolled up newspaper. She said I had dishonored the family. She screamed it. I had dishonored all Chinese people. You no good! You rotten! I think she wanted to kill me. Qiechâng! That’s what she said in our language. Stage fright. And the terrible thing is: I think what she said is true.”
“Please, Miss Ang: do not stamp your foot again. Do not be angry. But I cannot help you. If your mother has made the correct diagnosis, you must see a doctor for the mind. I wish you well. But I also wish to say goodbye.”
He stepped back and started to close the door. Without thinking, and at some small risk, she thrust her hand with the little bouquet through the opening.
“What is this?”
“But this you know is foolishness. An apple for the teacher. I am not your teacher.”
“I missed the funeral. For Mrs. Barbakoff. Malcolm told me about it. Malcolm Wells? He played the trumpet? He told all of us about it.”
“The funeral? That was almost three years ago.”
“But I didn’t forget. I still feel bad I wasn’t there. So these are very late, but they are for her.”
With his free hand, Mr. Barbakoff took the paper cone.
“Thank you. I shall put them in water. Now do not think me rude, but I am asking you to go away.”
Cynthia took a step back. He started to close the door. She said, “I am your pupil. I am not going to surrender.”
The door closed in her face. But soon it opened again.
He said, “This big book. The Gibbon. I have been carrying it about, from table to chair to sofa for a number of days. I have great difficulty reading the pages. I fear that the entire endeavor is quixotic. Don’t you agree? To begin a work you cannot hope to finish? So you see, my dear Miss Ang, I suffer from stage fright, too.”
This time the door closed for good.
There stood Ernst Barbakoff, Edward Gibbon in one hand and premature daisies in the other. Befuddled: that is the word for him. His mind oddly enough was on the young woman’s hat, with its ridiculous little pom-pom, a red one, on top. Not, in truth, the hat but her hair when she took it off. That was when he remembered her: the stuttering girl with the stolen poem. I was wearing a white dress, she had said; with an effort he was able to evoke her entrance at the Academy of the Arts. Then he recalled the music: the left hand accompaniment to the treble notes, D and F-sharp, and how, through all four measures, she had kept her fingers on the keys.
He made his way to the kitchen and to the sink, where he intended to throw out the half dozen daisies. He got as far as opening the cupboard; the smell of rotting trash made him pull back. Instead he poured water into a glass and thrust the stems inside. Then he reached above the sink for the box of tea bags: empty. The canister of sugar was nearly empty, too. Mr. Mackay, the beggar on the corner, hadn’t been by in three days. That meant he would have no more bread, no more eggs. Was it warm enough for him to go out himself? Judging by Miss Ang, her flushed cheeks and the way she was dressed, the answer was no. He knew, on this late April day, that warmer weather was coming. But he also knew, in some deeper, hidden part of himself, that he intended never to leave his apartment again. Then he entertained the following thought: perhaps her cheeks were flushed not from the chill but from exertion, the three flights of stairs. What he did not, even fleetingly, entertain: the idea that her cheeks were glowing because of him.
Miss Ang, far from surrendering, returned two days later. On this occasion she did not have to knock twice. And on this occasion Mr. Barbershop was not wearing slippers; his feet were inside of shoes. His trousers were drawn into pleats by a belt with a dangling curl at the end. The buttons of his cardigan were in the wrong holes. His chin, though, and his cheeks were shaved. Looking at the near-miniature girl beneath him, he saw that she was dressed as before, except that the sweater was a different color, aquamarine. Once more, out of politeness, she removed her comical hat. He noted, again, how her eyebrows were pulled up in astonishment by the ropes of hair that were coiled into something like a winch at the back of her head. But this time he noted the small black mole half lost in her hairline.
“So, Miss Ang: my discouragement had no effect. Here you are again.”
“Yes,” was all she said.
“Then I must give you a failing grade: perhaps in deportment; perhaps in cooperation.”
“But an A in perseverance? You said that to all your students: lots of people were talented; to succeed you had to persevere.”
Was he, with those long lips—in truth, not that carefully shaven—forming a smile? “Not so many have talent,” he said.
The words, of course, pierced her, as did his eyes; they seemed, beneath the impossibly tangled brows, to bore inches in.
“That’s my trouble,” she said. “I have begun to doubt my own.”
She feared, unaccountably, that he was going to step back into his apartment and shut the door. But he remained motionless. “You succeeded in reminding me of the evening at the Academy. The Senior Concert. The Leonore was played poorly; this was an inappropriate choice for the—let us say for the forces available to perform it. The ballet and the modern dancing. The syncopated music. It has all come back to me. Of course the Franck Sonata. Yes, the white dress. The hardly visible curtsy before the crowd. I have in the past paid the greater part of my attention to Miss Tillery Hicks, to when the violin arrived in the key of B-minor. But over the last two days I have recalled and played in my mind the start of this music: the left hand accompaniment to the treble notes, in D and F-sharp. And I am aware, Miss Ang, of how through all four measures you did not remove your fingers from the keys. Lack of talent is not your difficulty.”In a whisper: “Could you tell me what is?”
“No, I cannot. I am not your teacher. As I have told you before. It is a problem of disposition. You are far from the first person to realize that in spite of great gifts it will not be possible to play in front of an audience. You may be discovering this trait in yourself, a quirk in your nature, at a young age. With others—”
“Did this not happen to you?” She said this without thinking. And without thinking she plunged on. “You never play. You haven’t played in a hundred years.”
He was not carrying a heavy volume of Gibbon now. So he was able to hold up both hands. “Have you seen these?”
Of course she had. They were frightening, like a pirate’s hooks. But it was not that sight that made her want to turn and flee. It was be-cause the idiot girl had remembered—too late!— what the whole world, the world of music, knew: that Ernst Barbakoff the prodigy had stopped his career at the death of his son.
Then a greater fear: that if she did not flee, he would. Instead, with one of those twisted fingers he pointed at the white paper bag in her left hand. “What have you there?” he asked.
“Scones. From the bakery.”
“This is a kind of muffin?”
“I thought you might like them.”
“Well, come in and we shall see.”
He stepped back, pulling the door wide. Cynthia stepped into the flat.
“This way,” said her host, leading her through a living room with a sagging couch and haphazard furniture into a small kitchen. “You will sit there.” He nodded toward a small table whose wooden surface was scored by what must have been a myriad of unattended cigarettes. She lowered herself onto the seat of a bentwood chair. He had turned his back and was reaching high into a cupboard. “I believe I have tea. Ah: I was not wrong. Do you see?” He turned, holding two Lipton satchels by their little tags.
“That would be lovely,” she said.
“Alas,” he said, “I am out of sugar, and I do not need to look in the ice box: I am out of milk.”
“Oh, I like to have my tea black,” she said. “Unless it’s green tea. Then I like to have it green.” As soon as she had made it, she regretted this little joke. It was too forward. All he had known was the tongue-tied girl, the plagiarist. But he did not seem to have heard her. Perhaps because the water from the sink was splashing into the kettle. He turned on the blue flame. He addressed her over his shoulder: “Do these scones require butter? Are they best with jam? I can see about jam.”
He walked to the refrigerator and bent to look inside. Cynthia saw with dismay that he had forgotten to put the kettle on the stove. Should she get up and put it on herself?
She did not dare. He rose eventually with a glass jar. “Success,” he said. “Strawberry.”
“Strawberry would be wonderful.”
Another bad moment: he was trying with the flat of his hand, just his palm, to open the top. Now she did stand and moved to him. “Let me,” she said. “There’s a trick to it.” She knocked the thing against the side of the sink and twisted it open. Then with a quick movement, she hoped it was invisible, she put the kettle on to boil.
He looked at her, a finger under his chin. “Perhaps I am the one who should sit,” he said. “And you should prepare our meal.”
“Oh, no!” she declared. “I hope I am not—”
But he was already approaching the table. “I mean what I said. It is an honest proposal.”
He took a seat. He pointed. “Cups are there.” He pointed again. “The silverware, the spoons are there. And knives, if they are needed.”
Was he mocking her? She made up her mind to busy herself: not only cups, but saucers. Not only spoons, but two knives and a white, chipped plate. And the napkins she found in an adjacent drawer. She sawed each scone in half and pushed them open. The tea was ready. In pantomime she held up the bags and the pianist, the former pianist, pointed to the cupboard beneath the sink. The garbage bag there was overflowing, the smell that came from it sharp and oddly metallic. That made her look into the jelly jar; it was coated with a gray film. She shuddered: was everything about her rotting? She scraped away the mold.
“You should not have worn it,” said Mr. Barbershop when she came up with the steaming cups.
She thought he meant what he had called her foolish hat. “I won’t any more,” she replied. “It was a gift from a friend.”
“What are you talking about? I mean the white dress. It is a violin sonata. The accompanist is to wear black. She is to be discrete. So as not to draw attention from the soloist. And more: it is the practice to give a bow. A very slight one. You are not before the Queen of England. You do not curtsy.”
Cynthia put down the saucers. She gave a little laugh. “Another F. For etiquette.” But she was trying to recall her dream, the one in which she had turned the master’s pages: Was her dress white? Was it black? Or—was this possible? Was she wearing no dress at all?
“Miss Ang? Isn’t that your name? Time is going by. Are we going to eat?”
She brought the napkins and the plate with the spread-eagled scones. Also the jam. And two knives. She debated whether to give a little curtsy to this king, but decided against it. She said, “I ought to be angry and you should be angry. It’s not fair. I played as many notes as Angela. Why isn’t it called a duet? We pianists should go on strike.” She laughed again, but he did not join her.
“If you are willing,” he said. “You might spread the preserves.”
She started to perform the task. She left her own scone bare.
“Carlotta,” he said. “I believe she brought this jar. From the market on Prospect Street. That was some years ago. By now it must be spoiled. Yes, it was Carlotta.”
He took a sip of tea and bit into his scone. He took another bite, then put it down. He looked at the girl sitting across the table. “Why are you here? Why is this happening?”
She was made almost dizzy by what rose in her. She reached across the scorched surface of the table and touched one of his hunchbacked hands. “I knocked. You opened the door.”
“I know that. It is an obvious fact. I want to know why you are here. Is it to discuss music? I don’t want to talk about music. I don’t listen to it any more. When the piece is over there is nothing to think about. Books are different. I read books now.”
“I know,” said Cynthia. “I saw. The volume of—what did you say? Gibbon?”
He blew across the tan surface of the tea. He said, “I’ll show you, it is in the living room.”
She stood quickly, spilling a little of her brew into the saucer. “I saw it. I’ll get it. On the arm of the sofa.”
She retrieved the book, trying not to look around at the room, where dust covered the furnishings—table, chairs, lamp shades, carpet, floor—like the mold on top of the jam. She brought it back to the kitchen table.
“Turn to page one,” Mr. Barbershop said. “Not the charts or the drawings. Not the introduction. Go to the author’s own first words.”
She followed his instructions and smoothed down the right hand page.
He tilted his head up, so that he gazed at the dimpled ceiling. He started to recite: “In the second century of the Christian era, the empire of Rome comprehended the fairest part of the earth, and the most civilized portion of mankind. Is that correct?”
She was astounded. “Yes. Word for word. I am impressed.”
“It is a feat of memory,” he said.
“It certainly is. Are you going to memorize the whole book?” She checked: “Eight hundred and forty pages?”
He seemed, in his crooked way, to smile again. “The frontiers of that extensive monarchy were guarded by ancient renown and—and—”
She held her breath, waiting, but he only picked up his cup and took another sip of the cooling tea. A moment went by. He no longer seemed aware that she was there. By association, she recalled the line on the library notice: World Renowned Pianist. And what had Toscanini said? Didn’t he compare him to a god?
Mr. Barbakoff seemed to read her mind. “It was my first intention to check out this work from the library. But I had a second thought. There are 2500 pages in total. In order to renew the volumes, I would have to walk to the Pearl Street Branch many times, and as these days pass I go out less and less. There is a person there. Better for her and better for myself if we do not meet.”
“Oh, I think I know who that is. Is her name—?”
But he had gone from a moment of silence into unstoppable speech. “I bought the edition you see—did you notice the Piranesi etchings?—from the Antiquarian book shop on Church Street. I pulled them behind me in my shopping cart. This, too, belonged to Carlotta. But the stairs! The flights of stairs! I paid Mr. Mackay, he is the man who begs on the corner, a Scotchman, three dollars to carry them to my door. That is one dollar for each volume. It is he who brings my groceries. He is not always reliable. That is why I do not have sugar or butter for this excellent muffin. It is why I do not have eggs. Now I must make a confession. I have not read beyond the first page. The first half of the first page, to be exact.”
“I remember what you told us in class. That every great book should be read three times. In youth. In middle age—”
“Yes, and at the close of the curtain. But I have not read the illustrious Decline and Fall even once. It’s a pity.”
“Oh, but you are reading it now. And memorizing the words. That is so brilliant.”
“Oh, Miss Ang, do not be fooled by this magician’s trick. It gives me an excuse not to continue reading. And I have another reason for dawdling. In my childhood, which took place during the Pleistocene age, I saw for myself what occurs in the most civilized portion of mankind.”
“Do you mean Germany? Do you mean during the war?”
He did not answer. He sat with his chin propped on his palm and his elbow propped on the table. His eyes had dropped shut.
Cynthia rose to clean up. She made sure that no knife clinked against the fluted porcelain. She thought by the time she rinsed everything in the sink he would wake, but when she turned around, his forearms were crossed and his head lay heavy across them. She retrieved her hat—he was right, it was laughable; in fact, Isaac had laughed when he gave it to her—from where she had placed it on a hook by the door. But she didn’t go out. Instead, tiptoeing past her sleeping teacher, she retraced her steps to the kitchen. She bent to the cupboard beneath the sink and, holding her breath against the stench, hauled up the plastic sack that was overflowing with waste. She had to use both hands to carry it to the door. Mr. Barber-shop woke before she could pull it open.
“I know why you are here. You are having difficulty with your technique. With the Two-Part Inventions. For your performance at Symphony Hall. Really, Miss Ang, can you not remember any of the things I taught you? First, full acquaintance with the piece. So that you may practice it with the same confidence that with your toothbrush you brush your teeth.
“And have you forgotten what I said about breathing? You must play the piano as if you were playing the oboe. There is no difference. For a long, complex and demanding passage, a deep breath and then the exhalation as you release your weight onto the keys. Do not think of percussion: you must be a woodwind player. And above all minimal distance between you and your instrument. Imaginary glue: Do you not live with this motto, as I once told you to do? So that you and your instrument are never separated, not only when playing, but when walking on the pavement, as a dog follows on a leash, and even in your sleep. You shall discover that in time you do not play the piano, the piano plays you. The force of gravity will bring you all the way past the aftertouch to the bottom of the key; the repetition lever will bring you back to the light and to the air. Maximum effort from the instrument, minimum effort from you.
“What a disappointment you are. These pieces were written for amateurs. For children! They are songs that sing themselves. Cantabile! Cantabile! When you learn them you will have learned everything you need to know about composition. You will be a composer of counterpoint yourself. Remember this: they are the words of Bach. Goodbye, Miss Ang. No, no, wait: when you take your bow—a bow and not a curtsy, as I have explained to you—you may very lightly touch the surface of the piano. Not for graciousness, though it is gracious. Because of the secret: the contact has begun. Why are you standing there? I have nothing more to say to you.”
When the young pianist next sat at the kitchen table, her cat was in her lap. Mr. Barbakoff, across from her, was scooping up what was left of the omelet, with onions, cheese, and bits of ham she had made him. She had never seen a man with such an appetite. Quite unlike Catherine, her tabby, who when she snuck a piece of ham under the table, turned up her nose. She had made this breakfast from the groceries she had carried up the stairs. She had carried them by Mr. Mackay as well, but stopped, set both her cat cage and shopping bag down, and gave him the three dollars she feared she had robbed him of. He raised his hand to take the money but, as in their previous encounter, did not say a word.
Between bites, Mr. Barbershop was telling her how his first piano, a Bechstein baby grand, was too big to fit into their narrow hallway and had to be lifted by a crane and brought in through the window. “When it was in the air, I ran and stood underneath it. I was only a child, you understand. I thought I was a hero. Risking my life. Carlotta did not like me to tell this to anyone. She thought the story belonged to her. That is because she first heard it when she was a child herself. We make much of what happens to us in those years, and in the years of adolescence. I was a child of ten when Toscanini conducted La Boheme on American radio. I had just arrived in Italy. I heard the music coming through the open door of a house. Perhaps it was a broadcast. Perhaps it was a recording. But I have never been able to listen to any other production of that opera. These things become stamped on the unformed brain. Such a lot of trouble from Carlotta. When she learned I had told this—the piano in the air—to Miss Virginia. Yes, that is the name of the woman at the library. I feel what you might call a pang of guilt when I tell it to you.”
“Through the window?” said Cynthia. She was smiling at the absurdity of it. “With the legs on? How can a baby grand fit through a window?”
The old man looked at her. He started to say something—that he was joking? That it was just an old family myth? That stories from childhood can’t be trusted? But then he looked away and said, to the far wall, not to Miss Ang, “Toscanini conducted the premiere. Puccini was there. He does not play it too fast.”
“Mr. Barbershop, do you remember what I said about our used Steinway? The one that takes up a whole room? It used to be above my head, too. That’s because I used to lie underneath it. In the early days when all I could play was Chopsticks and the first three chords of the Chopin Polonaise. And I thought when I was lying there that I could hear in all those tight strings the same notes I had put into them that very morning. It was like an Aeolian harp. From the breath of the wind that came in the window.”
A bad sign. He had propped his head on his hand. He was drifting from her. She pushed the words out as quickly as she could: “I thought the pedals were like the golden feet of a princess or a prince. When I slipped my ballet slippers over them, they were a perfect fit. I still have very delicate feet. The poor middle pedal was uncovered, so it became my favorite and I pet it and stroked it and said, poor little thing, poor little thing. That was because the other pedals had my silky slippers and because one of them could make the notes longer and the other one could make them softer, but this petal so bare and hard and shiny and straight was left out in the cold with nothing to do. Ha! Ha! Ha! I was a silly girl!”
He had not fallen asleep, but he was tilting toward the table edge. She went on: “But then I hated it, the whole piano, because I had to play six hours a day. I was a slave. Like a galley slave rowing and rowing. My mother did not whip me but her words could be like lashes. Stupid girl. Lazy girl. Girl no good. I’ve run away, you know. I don’t live there any more.”
Her former teacher was clearly looking under the table, trying, she thought, to look at her pretty little feet. It occurred to her that at the Academy, in the recital room, she had caught him peeking down as well. She thought it was to see if the little doll of a girl could reach the faraway pedals. What was he looking at now? Her pride got the better of her. “Size five,” she said. “The smallest there is!”
But he said, “Why have you brought this cat?”
“Oh, I had no choice. Mama can’t beat me—and not just with the newspaper. With a pillow. A head of broccoli once. The hard part of her hand. So when I moved out she started to beat Catherine instead. I thought it would be no problem, but it was. Because my boyfriend is allergic to cats.”
“Who is this person?”
“You know him. He certainly knows you. One of the Isenberg twins.”
But how can this be? You with a boy like that?”
“He’s so talented! One time you told him he played like Clara Haskil. Because of his lightness of touch. Because of his Scarlatti.”
“It cannot be possible that you know such a person. At the Academy of the Arts there were only the poorest of the poor. The Negroes of the city. The Spanish speaking. A rare Asiatic such as yourself. He was rich. He lived on Longfellow Park. He had a fool of a brother. Ivan. Ivan and Isaac.”
“We didn’t meet at the Academy. We met at the Conservatory. It was such a coincidence. We still laugh about it now. The funny part was that it took a whole year before—”
He broke in on her. “It is all nonsense. I did not have time to teach you or the boy. It takes many years. I had only months.”
“But months with Ernst Barbakoff! They made all the difference. For both of us.”
“It is false, all false. Clara was the genius. She came to my concert in Basel. We sat in the garden. We walked about the streets of the town. She told me of her life. We had in common not talent: I do not think even in my youth, at my strength, in Brahms, I could compare to her. What we shared was the Germans. It brought us together. This the fools on Longfellow Park mocked as if this friendship were a thing not pure. As if it were sensual. My wife had the same thoughts. She was a jealous woman.”
Cynthia and Isaac had exchanged their Barbakoff stories. So she knew about the Isenberg pranks and how they had made fun of the two pianists—the one so young, the other so much older—in the garden. But she had also seen Isaac hunched over the keyboard, like a starving man over a steak, his ponytail crazily flying, his lips back in a snarl; yet the music came out from beneath his arched elbows and spidery hands in a filigree. She always heard, when he played Scarlatti, the master’s harpsichord, buried inside the piano. Was it possible for a hammered string to make such a tender sound?
“If he was foolish once, Mr. Barbakoff, he is not any more. He has grown. Everyone at the Conservatory thinks he is the most talented pianist, no, no—the most talented musician they have had in years. A finer artist than any of our teachers. They were shocked that he was not chosen for the Debut Night. I think they were more shocked that they chose me. They all think I’m a squirt. I think I’m a squirt. Maybe in the whole world only my mother wasn’t surprised. And Isaac. The other students didn’t say a word to me. The violinists, the cellists, all the string players: they just walked by me the way they do the custodians, the cleaning people. But Isaac came into the piano room, where I was practicing by myself. Not the Inventions. It was Prokofiev. I jumped up. He came to me. Don’t pay attention to anyone, he said. Don’t pay attention to me after this moment. Just listen to what I’m saying now. You deserve it. You understand? You are the best there is. He reached down and with his right hand played the next notes of the sonata, at just the point where I had stopped.”
What she didn’t tell Mr. Barbershop, now wiping his rubber lips with a napkin, was how he hadn’t looked down at the keyboard when he played through the measure. He was looking at her blouse and her breasts, dainty as they were. She willed herself, as if such a thing were possible, not to blush. She knew that her lips were trembling. What she had wanted was for him to kiss her. He bent toward her, then bent still lower—she was, after all, only five feet tall. Her cheeks were hot. She feared he would burn his hand if he touched her. He didn’t touch her; but he did grant her wish.
“Did I explain about your breathing? Do you remember?”
“Of course I do. And my posture. My alignment. Letting my forearm hang down. You told me four years ago. I haven’t forgotten anything.”
“Then your difficulties with the concert have been solved. Any teacher is pleased to have such a pupil.” He displayed his tarnished teeth in a smile of such foolish benevolence that she had to clench her own shut in order not to break out in a demented laugh. She felt Catherine stir in her lap, as if the animal sensed the tears that were about to fall.
“Don’t mind me, Mr. Barbershop. Don’t look at me. I think I’m about to start crying. Nothing is going right. The posture is correct. Everything is correct. Yes, the bench height, too. I see the next passage is complex. I take in the proper breath. Then the thoughts start whirling in my head: Why am I not playing these notes today as well as I did yesterday? Why am I not saying anything? It is because I have nothing new to offer? Then what am I doing here? It should be Isaac. My hands: why are the fingers cramping? They aren’t large enough to reach the right keys. This piece was written for children. Mr. Barbershop said so. Any child could play it better than I. No one is going to want to listen to me. And on the radio! Thousands of people! And a thousand more at the Symphony. Listening and watching! They will ask for their money back. You said the trick when there is a problem, the key to good practice, is to play it more slowly: so I do, lento, lentando, tardo, rallentando, until I come to a stop. Or I try to cover up my clumsiness with more pedal, and then even though I have memorized everything I am sure that in the next measure or the measure after that I am going to forget—and all these thoughts and lots more, that basically everything was a mistake, they meant to choose someone else: they are racing after each other in my mind, and all the time my mother is screaming, as if she were actually sitting beside me on the bench, You rotten girl. Girl no good, no good, no good. And then I am like I was when you caught me with the poem and you said, Proceed, Miss Ang. Enlighten us. And I sit like a block of petrified wood or like the Egyptian statue in the Museum of Fine Arts, a king or a pharaoh with his hands cemented to his knees. I warned you, didn’t I, that the tears were coming and now here they are.”
Catherine, from empathy, or was it scorn, jumped from her lap. Cynthia wiped her eyes with one of the linen napkins that Mr. Barbakoff had insisted on laying on the table. With a monogram. “It’s funny, isn’t it? I didn’t cry then. I was a brave little soul. I just pushed up my glasses and said, I think I shall never see a poem as—”
She broke off. “Where did my damned cat go?”
Mr. Barbershop said, “This Lampenfieber, a sort of hysteria, has not been a problem in my career. Everything I feared has already occurred.”
“Yes, your son. Your mother. Your father. The war.”
He looked at her through his spectacles, as if she were a text. “What are you doing here, Miss Ang? What is it you want of me?”
“I want you to come with me to the Conservatory. I want you to ride in the elevator down to the piano room. I want you to stand in the corner. I want you to shout and to grumble and to wave your arms and then cross your arms and pull on your hair—I could see it all with the eyes in the back of my head; and to now and then nod, yes, yes, that is acceptable. I want you to teach me.”
“My dear young woman, this is quite impossible.”
“All right. It’s all right. If not at the Conservatory then at my house in Southie. We’ll lock everyone out. Only the sun allowed in. Or if you are scared of my mother—I’m scared of my mother—we can go to the Steinway and Sons on Columbus Avenue. They don’t care. They once gave me a free lesson. It doesn’t matter where we go. There’s a piano on the fourth floor of Hillel at BU. I think it’s a Steinway. That’s the only thing that matters. Not because it’s my piano. But because that’s the piano at Symphony Hall. I am supposed to go over there in two days. They are going to show it to me. I’m supposed to try it out. They called me at home. Of course I wasn’t home. But they found me at the Conservatory. The director called me in. He handed me the phone. Two days! It’s terrifying.”Mr. Barbakoff put his misshapen hands, they were like root vegetables, on the table top and pushed himself to his feet. “Be so kind, Miss Ang,” he said, “as to follow me.”
He led her out of the kitchen, through the living room, and to a closed door off the hall. He turned the knob and opened it. Cynthia saw it was a bedroom. On the far side of the bed was a window, with Venetian blinds. The floorboards, wide and blond, pine perhaps, were uncovered. Confronted with this, and by the tall man looming over her, she remained unconcerned; as if, for all her adventures with Isaac, the array of their entanglements, and his mockery, she had remained virginal. Her teacher was pointing.
“That is the bed where my wife cut her wrists. It is where she died. Too much grief.”
“Oh, no. Oh, Mr. Barbershop. I didn’t know. I mean I knew she had died. I knew about the funeral, but—”
“You know nothing. Nothing about two people in a marriage. I played on her body. Schumann and Liszt. On her bare back. That is how she helped me learn.”
“I don’t know what to say.”
“Say nothing. Please, once more, follow me.”
They went back through the living room. Cynthia kept her eyes on his back. She did not want to see the broken down couch or the rest of the furniture. They returned to the kitchen. The tortoise shell cat, in her own corner, stared unblinkingly at the intruders.
“You can sit down if you wish,” said Mr. Barbakoff. “In the same chair.”
She obeyed. He took his own chair and pulled it to the left side of the sink. “Do not rise,” he said. “I need no assistance.” What he meant was that he wanted to stand on the seat without her help. It took him, with one hand on the counter and one hand clutching the wooden loop at the top of the chair, three attempts. She watched as he stretched to a row of cabinets hard up against the nine-foot ceiling. He opened one of them and, fumbling a bit, brought out a small box, of brass to judge by its color. Balancing a little frighteningly, he held it toward the young woman.
“This is the urn that contains my wife’s ashes. Do you see it?”
Cynthia nodded, her eyes on the little casket.
“Good. Now I am going to tell you something. I wished to bury this receptacle in Queens, New York, inside the grave of my son. I made inquiries. For a payment, it would be allowed. This was good news. But I promised myself, if there were difficulties, perhaps some legal impediment, I would at least scatter the ashes over the mound of earth that covers the boy’s remains. I told myself this with sincerity. I think for a year or more than a year this was my dearest wish. It is not impossible that it endures until this moment. Yet the dust of my wife remains here, unburied. I have not completed this task.” He fell silent for a moment. Then he turned and with some effort replaced the urn in the cabinet and shut its yellow door. He got down from the chair and dragged it back to the table, where he sat down next to his former pupil.
“Now, Miss Ang, I want you to think about what I am going to ask you. If I could not leave this apartment to do this for Carlotta, why in the name of God would I go into the streets of the city for a person who has for me no significance whatsoever?”
She did not reel. She did not gasp. They were only words, but they had enough force to propel her to the door.
“You are leaving?” he asked, as if he were unprepared for her departure. “You flee from me the way you did your mother?”
Cynthia turned in the open door. “Now, Mr. Barbershop, I am going to tell you something. I did not run away from my mother. A rolled up newspaper: that doesn’t hurt. Her words didn’t hurt me, either. She was only telling me what I already knew myself. It was my father. At the end of the day he’d come home to our building. He’d climb the stairs to the second floor. Right away he’d go to the room where I was playing or I should say trying to play the Inventions, making a shambles out of the counterpoint, thinking there’s going to be a better artist in the audience, thinking my arms are getting tight, too tight, I’ll never be able to finish, thinking, thinking. And I could smell the radishes on him before I saw him. The radishes and the soy and the chicken and the marinade from the chicken and the shells of the shrimp and all the other shit he’s spent his whole life cooking for other people. I’d look up. He’d be standing in the doorway, sometimes still in his apron. And he’d be beaming! Beaming! He’d say, Very beautiful. Very beautiful music. That’s what I ran away from, Mr. Barbershop. It wasn’t bearable. You’d run away, too.”
With that she was gone. Half way down the staircase, she had a thought. Too bad she had not brought him a dog instead of her poor old cat. With a dog he’d have no choice. He’d have to go into the streets.
The next time Miss Ang and Ernst Barbakoff had a meal together, it was on a red and white tablecloth with paper plates and paper napkins, plastic utensils, an old fashioned thermos with a screw top, and a wicker basket, from which all these things, and the grilled mango chicken her father had cooked, had been taken. It was the first truly warm spring day, but the checkered fabric had been spread on top of the same table in the same kitchen they had eaten in before. “If you won’t go outside for a picnic,” Cynthia had announced, the minute she came through the door, “then we’re bringing the picnic inside to you.”
She wasn’t carrying the basket. Isaac Isenberg, his hair still in the same long braid he had affected years before, was. He had his left arm crooked through the handles. There was a smear of beard on his cheeks and chin. “Hello, Mr. Barbershop!” he half-shouted as he stepped into the room. “It’s been a long time.”
The old man was, in his fashion, dressed up. That is to say he had on an ancient Brooks Brothers shirt, frayed at the collar but correctly buttoned from top to bottom, and a cotton vest, not buttoned at all. His pleated pants hung over all but the tips of his shiny oxfords. Water, and perhaps some sort of brilliantine had been rubbed into his hair, which had already, and stiffly, started to rise. He looked down, to where his former pupil was holding out his hand. All three of them might have been having the identical thought: Where the teacher had once stood taller than his pupil, the pupil now loomed over him.
“We thought we’d give you a pleasant surprise,” said Cynthia.
Mr. Barbakoff took the extended hand. “Such a thing,” he said, “does not exist.”
The two young pianists began to bustle about, preparing the table for their feast. “You don’t have to do a thing,” said Miss Ang. “Just sit here or on the couch and we’ll call you when everything is ready.”
He didn’t sit. He pulled her aside, into the living room. “What is the meaning of this?” he muttered. “It is not a surprise. It is an ambush.”
“Be good,” she said. “You mean a lot to him. Because of the past. I want him to see the side of you that has very nice manners. Old world manners. Not the man that likes to play the tyrant, like one of your Roman emperors.”
“Nero,” he said. “Caligula. Commodus. I could kill a hundred animals.”
“You can’t fool me, Mr. B. I know you still haven’t read past page one. Please. I am showing him off, too. So you’ll understand: he is a serious person.”
“Serious? He is a trickster. Shallow of mind. Didn’t I make this clear? He is not the kind of person for you. I fear a calamity.”
At that she started to laugh, but stopped when Isaac called out, “Come and get it, people. Luncheon is served.”
They went into the kitchen. Mr. Barbakoff took his place at the table, but Cynthia exclaimed, “There she is! My darling!” and ran to take the indifferent cat into her arms.
“Careful,” said Isaac. “Don’t let her scratch you. It’s bad enough that I already want to sneeze.”
“I wish she would scratch me,” said the girl. “Or bite off my fingers.”
The boy beckoned to her and pulled out her chair. “Yes, you’d like that. You’d have the excuse you’re looking for.”
She walked to the table while looking significantly at Mr. Barbershop; it was as if she meant to say, See? He is the one with the manners.
In truth he stood waiting, then helped push in the bentwood chair. She took on the task of pouring what turned out to be remarkably hot coffee into three paper cups.
“Don’t burn yourself, either,” said Isaac.
“How he looks after me!” she exclaimed. “I’d be better off back with my mother.”
He made a show—to Mr. Barbershop it was a show—of kissing her hand. “The hand of a virtuoso,” he said. “Now it’s protected. By a magical kiss.”
To this she said nothing. Isaac fell silent as well. For a moment they ate while looking at their plates.
“I am it seems the host,” said Mr. Barbakoff. “So it falls on me to make conversation. Not only that, a request has been made that I be nice. Therefore: tell me, Mr. Isenberg. What has happened to your prankster of a brother. In a penitentiary? That much I presume.”
“You’re not far off, Mr. Barbershop. He’s a sophomore at Harvard. Like all the gentlemen there he’s majoring in finance. They’ve already turned him into a cold-hearted Republican. We don’t talk a lot. I hardly recognize the goof-off and all his gags.”
The piano teacher put down his plastic knife and his plastic fork. He looked at the young man. “I wonder: Do I recognize you? Am I to believe what I am told by your paramour? Concerning your seriousness? Your talent?”
“Oh, yes, Mr. Barbershop. Isaac—”
“Talent, yes. The day you played for me Scarlatti. In F-minor.”
“Kirkpatrick 69,” Cynthia said. “He plays that all the time at—”
Again, her teacher ignored her. “But the seriousness. The music was beautiful, yes. Poetic in the style of—”
This time it was Isaac who interrupted: “Haskil. The Romanian pianist. You told us about her.”
“You possessed something of her finesse, her refinement. In one so young. I thought for a moment—”
“I know what you thought,” Isaac said. “That I might in time play like your friend.”
“The moment passed. The joke with the flies and Die Rosinen. As you played, your brother, the Wall Street tycoon—he pretended to kill the insects and eat them. Off the palm of his hand. A true Katzenjammer. But you are as they say not off the hook. The two of you. Laughing at my astonishment. Such uncontrollable laughter. With the notes of the great composer still hanging in the air.”
“If you would accept my apology now, I would make it. I am ashamed of both of us.”
“Oh, it was only—what? High jinx. Foolishness. Did I not return a week later?”
“Yes. But that lesson stopped as soon as it began. You never came back.”
“Come back? Young man, how could I? You mocked a great artist. Frau Haskil. You joked that our relations were impure. That was an instance of true Schweinerei.”
“You didn’t have to return. Because I remembered the lesson. I remember it to this day. It wasn’t about playing the piano. It had nothing to do with music. It was about the war. With what you went through. With what the Romanian, Miss Haskil, went through.”
“This is your mistake. To separate music from life. You still do not understand. They are one and the same.”
“It was a hot day. But you had that crazy muffler around your throat. You turned at the door. You looked at me. You said terrible things: that I was an American child. That I was a Jew without suffering.”
Mr. Barbershop said, half under his breath, “I remember those words.”
“You are right. You can’t separate music from a life. In that moment something in me was crushed.”
By then Mr. Barbershop’s hair had fully risen, as if he were not indoors, in his apartment, but outside, at a real picnic, and in a fitful breeze. For a moment he sat with his chin on the back of both wrists. When he spoke, it was in a low voice, hardly audible: “That is a form of suffering: to have squandered the gift of talent.”
Miss Ang heard him. “That’s not right. Isaac is a great talent. Everyone at the Conservatory knows it. The teachers—they practically bow down to him.”
Mr. Barbershop addressed the boy. “I am often in the wrong, my young friend. Perhaps I have been so about you. I believe it may be time for me to offer you my hand.”
Oddly, Isaac did not move to take it. He said, “Don’t listen to her, Mr. Barbershop. She’s the artist. You should have heard her yesterday morning. On the stage at Symphony Hall. They even put a spotlight on her.”
“I have not forgotten, Miss Ang, that yesterday you and your instrument became acquainted with each other. But I hesitated to ask, I was too fearful to ask, about whether the meeting was a success.”
Cynthia looked toward the corner, where Catherine, her cat, was loitering. But the animal refused to answer for her. “I suppose I have to say something,” she began. “They could not have been nicer. All of them. From the men who rolled out the piano, it was of course a Steinway, to—well to Mr. Nelsons. He was going to conduct that night. He didn’t have to be there. But he was and he smiled so warmly that—I am talking this way because I really don’t want to talk at all. It was a disaster! Mr. Barbershop, it was so terrible. Oh, the piano was wonderful. Well, until I came up close and saw that it was scratched, scratched everywhere, and the reason why was that it was I don’t know maybe a hundred years old. That made everything worse. I sat on the bench. I looked at the keys. And of course I thought of everyone who had been there before me. Rubinstein. Horowitz. I think even Paderewski. What horrible ghosts! I just sat there. I was paralyzed. That’s why you have to help me, Mr. Barbershop. It happened the way Isaac said. The room went dark. And then there was a spotlight. And I thought, this is how it is going to be on Sunday night. Except there will be a thousand people sitting in the dark. And a microphone will be hanging like, I don’t know, like an insect over my head. I could just make out those men I told you about, the stagehands. They were standing. Smiling and waiting. Smiling and waiting and nodding. In overalls! They were old men. Old as Paderewski. So I thought all right I’ll just play for them and make them happy and as you both know the first Invention is in C major and the right hand has this little finger exercise with an upward movement that never stops and the left hand just plods along with a simple melody in the bass. Mr. Barbershop, help! Because my hands—they seemed to belong to two different people. I could concentrate on one, yes, okay, fine; or I could concentrate on the other, just keep trudging, keep trudging, but I could not connect the two. What do they call that, a split personality? Did Rubinstein play with my left hand, Horowitz with my right? I thought I was going crazy. And the worst of it? The very worst? When it was over—not only the two gentlemen, the stagehands, but Mr. Nelsons too, they applauded. I wanted to run out of the room!”
Isaac Isenberg was the one smiling now. “But you didn’t. You played the second C-minor Invention. And it begins just with the right hand. And I swear to you she was brilliant. That’s why they applauded. And when she was done with this one, and the next one, and all fifteen, they applauded again and if they were wearing hats you better believe me they would have thrown them up in the air.”
“No!” Cynthia cried. “Don’t say that!”
“Haven’t you figured it out, Mr. Barbershop? It’s all in her head.”
“About this, Mr. Isenberg, I fear you are correct.”
“And it’s a pretty little head, isn’t it? What do you think of those glasses? Plastic and pink. She never takes them off.”
“Yes,” Mr. Barbakoff replied. “She wore them in the classroom many years ago.”
Cynthia laughed. “I’ve had them longer than that! Ever since I was diagnosed with myopia when I was twelve. I’m blind without them.”
“I can’t make up my mind,” Isaac said. “I’m torn. On the one hand, they are ridiculous, don’t you agree, Mr. Barbershop? I’ve heard her miss notes when she shoves them back up her nose. They make her look like a little girl. And we have to face facts: she’s too old now to be a prodigy.”
“We’ve talked about contacts. We’ve talked about laser treatments. And if we could afford—”
“No, no, no. There’s the other hand—just like the Two-Part Inventions. The glasses could be a kind of trademark. For after the concert. For when she is famous. And you know, Mr. Barbershop, and I know and you know, too, Cyn, that’s what you are going to be. It’s the real reason you think you are having troubles.”
“Stop. Please stop, Isaac. You don’t know what I’m feeling.”
“I grew up in Chicago. Until I was ten. I was a Cubs fan. I should explain to Mr. Barbershop that that is a baseball team. Baseball? Our national pastime?”
“As it happens,” said the old man, “I know much about that sport.”
Isaac hurried on. “Anyway, when you go to Wrigley Field, that’s their stadium, all you see is a big pair of glasses and everyone knows: that’s Harry Caray, their announcer. He’s still alive, even though he’s dead. Well, Pink Glasses: they mean Cynthia Ang. It could be your angle, if you’ll excuse the very bad pun.”
“Mr. Barbershop doesn’t want to hear this. Neither do I. I think it’s bad luck. The way you put me on a pedestal. I don’t like it.”
“Just give me one more minute, Cin-Cin. I have an idea. Stand up, please.”
Cynthia did stand, as if he had the ability to control her movements.
Isaac looked at her with narrowed eyes. “The hair,” he said. “What can we do with the hair?”
Mr. Barbakoff said, “What is happening here, Mr. Isenberg? What are you doing?”
But Isaac kept staring at her, while rubbing the black stubble on his chin. “Is there any hope for that old lady’s bun?”
Involuntarily Cynthia reached up to the back of her head. In one stride, Isaac was beside her, knocking her hands away. “Let me do it,” he said.
He stretched out his long arms and began to fiddle with the coil at the back of her head. Mr. Barbershop could see, and she could feel, how he tugged this way and that, trying to undo the knot.“Mr. Isenberg, I ask you to sit down. This is not what Miss Ang wishes. You are not treating her as an artist. Why do you wish to give her a signature? It is her gifts, her great brilliance, not her glasses or her hair, that will bring her success. Again, you must take your seat.”
But at that moment the hair, all the locks and tresses, came loose, plunging in a landslide to her neck, to her cheeks, to her shoulders.Cynthia turned to her teacher. “It’s all right, Mr. Barbershop. Really, it’s all right.”
Isaac did not seem to hear either one of them. He took a step back. He shook his head. “No,” he said. “It’s my mistake. It won’t work. That’s the last thing we need in the world of music: another squint-eye.”
“It is shameful, Mr. Isenberg, to insult this young woman. I do not mean your vulgar remark. That is perhaps another of your jokes. I mean that you treat her not as an artist but as merchandise.”
“Don’t you see, Mr. Barbershop? He’s been humiliated. I forgive him. Forgive him for everything. Won’t you?”
“I see this: that I was not wrong about him. I say now to this man: please gather your things. On this occasion you will leave my house.”
But Isaac was already striding to the door. The girl ran after him.
“No, Miss Ang. I would like you to remain. There is no reason we cannot finish this excellent picnic meal. Perhaps then we can have a lesson.”
Isaac pulled open the door and then paused, holding it open. It was as if he knew she would come after him. She did. The only thing she said as she stepped through was, “Please. Take care of Catherine.”
Isaac said, “It’s true. The way I felt then. I thought my life was over.” He went out after the girl.
Mr. Barbershop watched them go. To the closed door he said, “Yes, yes. I have grown fond of this cat. She is indifferent to existence.”
The next thing he did was go to the sofa, where the closed volume of Gibbon lay on its side. Miss Ang had been right: he had not read beyond the first page. But he knew his history. He found the chapter that described the reign of the son of Marcus Aurelius. He wanted to make sure that he had, after all, and in the arena, slain one-hundred animals.
The next day, Saturday, at dusk, Miss Ang knocked on the door. Mr. Barbershop opened it. Her face was quite pale. She nodded. He turned and, dragging a little, led her into the living room. He was still wearing the vest and the Brooks Brothers shirt. It was wrinkled, as if he had slept in it. He took both garments off. He wore an undershirt. Awkwardly, somewhat like a machine, he removed that as well. Then he lay face down on the couch. She dropped to her knees beside him. She saw what seemed a sea of moss swirling on the skin of his back. She plunged both hands into it and then began, first with one hand, and then the other, to compose in counterpoint.
Mr. Barbershop spent most of the next day with his spectacles on, reading. Now and then his attention wandered; he did get beyond the first page. In the afternoon he napped, though in truth he had nodded off from time to time in his chair, on the sofa, and once, briefly, while standing. When the sun sank in the late afternoon he turned on a lamp. He thought about eating, but did not. Mostly he paced until eight o’clock. Then he sat down and turned on the radio. Half way through the broadcast he noticed that Catherine, the cat, came into the room. It occurred to him that of course she had heard these same notes before. Nonetheless, she walked in her detached manner from the room. A little after nine o’clock he shut off the radio, an imported Grundig model, and walked from the room himself.
Much later, close to midnight in fact, Miss Ang, with a coat thrown over her white formal gown, walked to the edge of the Charles River. Mr. Barbershop was sitting there on a bench. She moved across the sprouting grass until she stood behind him.
“I knocked on your door,” she said. “Knocked and knocked. Then I thought you might be here.”
“And here I am,” he said.
“I’m not alone.”
At that he turned. He saw the girl, of course, and behind her, well back, two dark shapes. She motioned and a woman stepped forward.
“This is my mother,” she said.
This surprised Mr. Barbakoff. He had imagined someone thick, stout, and looming; but this woman was wiry and like her daughter a sort of person in miniature.
“And this is my father.”
Slowly a man, larger and plumper, came very slowly up to the others.
“They wanted to thank you,” Cynthia said.
“Yes, we thank you,” said her mother.
Her father held a paper bag out to him. “Thank you for beautiful music,” he said.
Mr. Barbershop took the sack, which was filled with something warm and soft. Buns perhaps.
“I knew you would be here,” Cynthia said. “I never forgot what you told us in our last class. About the river and the ice.”
“A long time ago,” he said.
“But tell us again,” she said. “Tell my parents. About how everything was shining. And the branches and the twigs.”
He did what had been requested of him. The little family stood together as he told them about that morning, the frozen white river and the red scarf; and, yes, the twigs, enclosed in pipes and pipettes of ice. The same trees were there now, but in the dark of night the new buds were black against the darker black of the sky.