Archives for November 2016

A Broken Hallelujah

steinway_lalique

November 9th. One day after the election. I live in Germany and, because of the time difference, have stayed awake all night watching the USA empty its bulging veins into a roiling river of fear and hatred. I’m scheduled to perform my one-woman concert program tomorrow night for a large group of American women in Berlin. I arrive at Tegel Airport, an out-dated structure with low ceilings and fluorescent lighting that illuminates every crack in my tired face. Laugh lines? Not exactly. I wait for my ride. Do I stand here in the greenish glow or go outside and freeze? I opt for fresh air.

At tomorrow’s benefit concert—sponsored by Steinway & Sons and the American Women’s Club of Berlin—we’re raising money to help educate impoverished girls. When I booked this gig I thought Hillary would win. I anticipated a celebratory event, complete with champagne, high-fives, and “you go, guurl” whooping. I would play joyful music and read uplifting, funny stories. Now I’m rethinking my program. I’ve played for a handful of memorial services over the years. Perhaps I should treat this like a family funeral. Music to soothe the trampled soul.

America has elected Donald Trump—the spray-tanned hero of white-hooded men—to be its leader. Surely there’s more to worry about than my stupid concert, but for now, I need to focus on the event. The concert is sold out.

There’s no business like show business.

My-Linh Kunst, President of the American Women’s Club of Berlin and organizer of tomorrow’s shindig, picks me up at Tegel. My-Linh, a Vietnamese-American, former boat person, mother of two, photographer, and multi-lingual Wharton graduate, has been up all night sweating the returns. She also made a brave, puffy-eyed, articulate morning-after appearance as a guest American on German national television. She fumbles with the navigation system in her car and off we go.

We cruise through Berlin chatting quietly about the disaster that has befallen the USA and what a setback it is for women. Here we go again: One step forward, two steps back—a dance performed by women since the beginning of time. Swing your partner round and round. Shake your booty. Dip and disco and do-si-do. Ladies choice? You’d think with all the fox-trotting, sashaying, and shuffling we’ve been doing for, say, the last thousand years, we would at least be making progress at a slightly faster tempo.

My-Linh parks the car across the street from my host’s home, a beautiful building in the Dahlem district. I open the car door and step confidently into the autumn night, thinking my foot is firmly planted on the sidewalk next to me. It is not. My boot wedges between the car and the curb and I fall. Hard. Splat. I feel my knees bleeding, but I know I’m not seriously injured. I start to laugh. My-Linh cannot see me—I have disappeared under her car. She rushes around to my side and tries to help, but I am truly stuck, twisted in a downward dog position that leaves me—butt up, head precariously close to a manhole—unable to move or think. So I laugh. And laugh. My-Linh laughs harder than I do. Here we are, two temporarily defeated American women on a Berlin street lined with villas, stuck between a curb and a hard place, laughing our asses off about nothing and everything. We could cry, but we’ve done enough of that over the past twelve hours.

Let’s call this the November Pratfall.

I am off balance. Out of sorts. Punch drunk and suffering from hysterical paralysis. Stuck! I take deep breaths—punctuated by giggles and sobs—and slowly remove my leg from under the Volkswagen.  I reach into my purse to use the flashlight feature on my phone. The phone is crushed. Toast. My bag cushioned my fall and protected my wrists—thank you, Longchamp—but my poor phone has taken my full weight. I must be heavier than I think. I feel like I’ve gained fifteen pounds in the last fifteen hours. And it’s all in my heart.

I go to my room, lie in bed and hold my phone, hoping for signs of life. I plug it in and poke it a few times, but it won’t respond. No light, no sound—just my own reflection surrounded by a web of thick, splintered glass. Before I drop into a fitful, achy sleep, I think: This is what women do. We dance, we fall, we pick ourselves up, we start over. It’s klutz-friendly choreography that serves us well when the odds are against us. No big deal, this Trump thing—just one more trip around ye olde dance floor, looking for the exit. We’re good at this. We know the steps to every dance. Electric slide, mambo, tango, funky chicken. Bump to the left; sway to the right.

This time around our choreography has failed us. Trump has given closet bigots permission to exercise their racist, misogynist tendencies. Regardless of education, economic status, or gender, a vote for Trump was a vote for white, male, heterosexual supremacy. If you vote for a racist, you condone racism; it’s that simple. You can claim you voted for “change” until you’re orange in the face, but we know what kind of change you mean.

In the ultimate Big Baby Diaper Pants move, complete with tantrums, shit-slinging, and bobble-headed bullying, Trump has coerced the great white unwashed—teeming with resentment and threatened by women and minorities—to get down, get dirty, get groping, get great again. Decades of slow progress towards gender and racial equality seem to screech to a halt, leaving ugly orange skid marks on the potholed highway to equality.

I spend the next day working on the text for my concert. I have two options: I can go ahead and do the happy-happy Piano Girl program I’ve planned and hope to distract these good women from the scourge of the last two days, or I can tackle the tangerine elephant in the room and remind my audience that we can, we will, we shall overcome. Really? Really. I think of Hillary Clinton and her life of service. “Speak up for what’s right,” she tells us.

I read “Pretty, Pretty: Piano Girl vs. Trump,” an essay I wrote in October. It’s angry and honest and sad and just a little bit funny. I conclude the reading with a quiet solo piano arrangement of “Hallelujah,” the Leonard Cohen song. I feel better. Almost. We raise thousands of Euros for girls who need our help.

A broken hallelujah is still a hallelujah.

The next morning we hear that Leonard Cohen has died.

Call me naive; call me a bleeding heart liberal; call me an elitist. Maybe I’ve always lived in a bubble. A big, beautiful, bebopping bubble inhabited by open-minded men and women who believe in love and hope. I surround myself with artists, writers, musicians, intellectuals, strong-willed individuals of all sexual orientations and faiths who make tolerance and kindness part of their daily routines. Tonight, standing with this group of expat American women, I feel better about myself. Call me happy.

My friend Laurie Richardson, paraphrasing Walt Whitman (because Laurie is the kind of woman who does such things), takes me aside after the show and says: “We are large. We contain multitudes.”

My audience has rescued me. I have absorbed their positive energy. In spite of the Trump campaign’s shameful spew of hostility and its queasy aftershocks, these fearless women, buoyed by hope and Sauvignon Blanc, will keep working tirelessly to transform the lives of marginalized girls around the world. They will do all the good they can, as long as they can. They will do small things in a great way. They will speak up, push, and brawl with the big bad boys when necessary. They won’t give up and neither will I. We contain multitudes.

We dance, we fall, we pick ourselves up, we start over. We’re still dancing. Another Leonard Cohen song comes to mind:

Dance me to your beauty with a burning violin,

Dance me through the panic ’til I’m gathered safely in,

Lift me like an olive branch and be my homeward dove,

Dance me to the end of love,

Dance me to the end of love.

*****

A nod of gratitude to Leonard Cohen for all the beautiful words. Rest in peace.  Special thanks to My-Linh Kunst, Ira Philip, AWC Berlin, FAWCO Region 5, Mary Adams, and Steinway & Sons Berlin. Photo of RMG and the Lalique Steinway Model B by Karen Axelrad.

Robin Meloy Goldsby is a Steinway Artist. She is the author of Piano Girl; Waltz of the Asparagus People: The Further Adventures of Piano Girl; and Rhythm: A Novel.  

New: Manhattan Road Trip, a collection of short stories about (what else?) musicians. Go here to buy Manhattan Road Trip!

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TAPS

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Photo courtesy of The National Guard

Master Sergeant Grace Elizabeth Wilson balances her eleven-month-old daughter on one hip while she runs through a series of warm-up exercises on her bugle. Arpeggio up. Arpeggio down. Grace’s lip feels good—supple and stretched and strong—and she’s positive today’s ceremony will proceed as planned, despite the early spring chill.

Violet squirms in Grace’s arms. Arpeggio up. Arpeggio down. How many times has Grace played this exercise? Ten thousand, twenty thousand. Something like that. The sound of the horn doesn’t bother the baby—she’s used to it—but Violet is hungry and it’s past breakfast time.

“Where’s your grandma?” Grace has a red ring around her lips, one of the hazards of the bugle trade. She looks out the window just as an icicle drops from the garage roof and lands like a dagger in the snow-covered flowerbed. “She should have been here fifteen minutes ago.”

Violet, her head buried in Grace’s shoulder, responds with a kick and a muffled yell.

“Okay, okay. Applesauce it is.” Grace places her horn in the velvet-lined case sitting on the kitchen counter, sets Violet in her high chair, and grabs a jar of applesauce mixed with smashed carrots. Just as she opens it, she hears her mother’s car in the driveway. She turns to look, Violet snatches the spoon, and a glob of the golden orange goop plops onto Grace’s blue pants.

“Shit,” says Grace. The baby cries. And in walks Grandma.

“Why is it whenever I show up you’re cursin’ and the baby is bawlin’?”

“Timing.”

“Sorry I’m so late, hon,” Grace’s mother says, her Texan accent bouncing off the kitchen walls. “The traffic was terrible cuz of a big old motorcade on the way out of the city. Must be a funeral at Arlington. Tied everything up. Is that the ceremony you’re playin’? Must be someone famous.”

“Shit,” says Grace again. She runs to the sink and scrubs at her pants with a dishcloth.

“Language, Grace!” Grandma, still wearing her coat, begins feeding Violet. Violet laughs.

“Can you see the stain?” says Grace.

“No, honey. It’s just a little wet spot. You look beautiful in that uniform. Or handsome. Or something.”

“I look official, Mother. Like I have a job to do.”

“Yes, you do. Official. That’s the word. I never get tired of seein’ you in uniform. Makes me proud. Reminds me of your daddy, bless his heart.”

“Even with the applesauce stain.”

“Even with. Have you lost weight?”

“No.”

“Well. Your uniform is very slimming. I still need to lose a few pounds. I’ve given up pie and started bowling.”

“Ah. The anti-pie diet. That usually works.” Grace considers pulling her horn out of the case. She wants to continue her warm-ups, but, just as she reaches for her bugle, another car pulls into the driveway. It’s a light green sedan. A military driver, wearing a white hat and gloves, steps out of the car and waits. This is the hard part. The transition from mother to soldier. You’re in the army now.

Grace looks in the mirror. Invisible makeup, invisible emotions. Polished brass insignia, shined shoes, everything sparkling and new and crisp. There. Her hair is perfect for once, not a strand out of place and tucked neatly under her hat. She pulls on cotton gloves and kisses her mother goodbye. She kisses Violet goodbye, too, carefully avoiding the applesauce jar. They wave and smile at each other. Grace squares her shoulders, picks up her horn case, and steps into the soggy morning.

“Good morning, Sergeant.”

“Private Demarco.”

Demarco holds the door of the car for Grace. Before she slips inside she turns and looks through the kitchen window and waves again to her daughter. But Violet ignores her, choosing instead to stare at the spoon that feeds her.

“Where are we going, Demarco?” Grace asks. “Arlington?” She usually plays formal funeral services for military elites—VIPs who die of old age.

“Not today, Sergeant. Quite the opposite. We’re headed outside of Baltimore, to Woodpark Cemetery. Dicey area—close to the projects. It’s a mess there. Local government tore down some of the public housing—blew the buildings up, actually—and there’s a heap of rubble right next door to where those poor people live. Looks like a war zone.”

“The fallen soldier—did he come from the projects?”

“Yes. But the deceased is a woman. The mother of the deceased requested a female bugler. Operations is lucky you were available.”

The day thaws around them. Slush splatters the streets, trees drip, and tissue-thin layers of ice crunch under the wheels of the sedan as they cruise through Grace’s manicured neighborhood and onto the Beltway.

Grace’s stomach flips over. Playing “Taps” is part of her job, but this is the first time she’ll perform it at a young woman’s military funeral. Since she left New York City five years ago, Grace has been a ceremonial bugler for the United States Army. It’s how she makes her living. World War II veterans are dying off, and young soldiers continue to be slaughtered in Afghanistan or die long, slow deaths in the trauma units of military hospitals. Grace stays busy, busier than she was in Manhattan, where she had to do part-time office work to afford her music career.

Grace’s father had spent his entire career in the military, first in active duty in Vietnam, later as a chaplain at Fort Hood, Texas, where Grace spent most of her childhood. She started playing the trumpet at age nine and began a parallel study of the bugle a few years later. Grace loved the bugle—the way the tones resonated, the subtle bounce of a major triad, the many moods created by so few notes.

Grace’s father died five and half years ago, at age sixty. His medical records claimed liver cancer killed him, but Grace thinks complications from exposure to dioxin—Agent Orange—might have been the unspoken culprit. A hobby trombonist, he encouraged her to pursue a music career. “Leave,” he used to say. “Go to New York. Make a name for yourself. Get out of Texas.” After a four-year stint in the classical music department of the University of North Texas, she did exactly that. Her father, already weak from liver disease, stood next to the car the day she moved from Denton, Texas, to Manhattan.

“Go, Grace, go!” he said through the open window.

It took a few years, but Grace eventually picked up some substitute work, mostly in Broadway pit orchestras. The contractors liked her confidence, she could sight-read anything, and she was usually available at the last minute. She was warming up to play a silly musical called Meet the Piggies when she found out her father had died. Not quite sure what else to do, she played the show and tried not to cry. At intermission she called the contractor and asked him to find another sub for the evening performance.

Grace stood next to her mother at the graveside in Texas and wept for the man who believed in her and her music. The color guard showed up, the flag was folded, and then, much to Grace’s shock, a real soldier with a fake bugle raised the horn to his lips and pretended to play “Taps.” The sound came from the bugle, but the bugle was a toy, a boom box in the shape of a real instrument. The mournful sound of “Taps” fooled just about everyone attending the burial, but it didn’t fool Grace. It broke her heart. Her father deserved better. The next day, when she inquired about the mime with the bugle, Grace found out the practice was commonplace—the United States Army didn’t have enough buglers to cover all the military funerals.

Grace left Texas, returned to Manhattan, drank too much and ate too little, slept with a handful of married men, started a genuine affair with one of them, and then auditioned for the United States Army Field Band. When they offered her the job, it seemed like a good fit. Why not? Health insurance, a steady music gig, the chance to perform with great musicians. She could play, she could march, she could handle boot camp and a rifle, if necessary. And, with her ceremonial bugle skills, she could play at funerals, sparing other families the agony of listening to a fucking toy horn.

“Taps.” Four notes. A major melody comprised of overtones. The saddest song in a long history of sad songs. Played graveside to honor those who have served. Performing “Taps” takes control and caution and confidence and compassion. Balance is key. Too much compassion, and the player loses control. Too much control, and she loses her sense of purpose. Too much confidence, and she’ll cuff the high note or curl the edges of the middle tones. Too much caution and she’ll run away from the grave, ashamed and weeping because she doesn’t want to be part of a system that sends young men and women to shoot guns and drive tanks and face fiery deaths on frozen hills when they should be home reading books and planning careers and listening to music and taking care of small children in high chairs.

Stop. Now. She cannot think of these things. She must focus on the task ahead. Grace pulls her mouthpiece from her case and blows through it, keeping her bottom lip warm and nimble. She’s happy she has remembered to take her beta blocker this morning. She cannot perform “Taps” without it. Her knees shake, her hands sweat, and she risks fainting. Fainting soldiers are not looked upon kindly by the ceremonial division of the U.S. Army.

“This might be hard today, Demarco.”

“I’m sure it’s never easy, Sergeant.”

“Did you read the report?”

“Yes. Read it early this morning. The soldier was twenty-two. Military nurse. Mother of a toddler.”

Focus. Now. Grace continues to push air through the mouthpiece as the March wind blows pieces of white plastic over the Beltway exit ramp.

“Nothing much left of her, from what I read in the report. IED hit her vehicle. God, look at this neighborhood, Sergeant. Terrible.”

The car passes an Army recruitment sign. Be all that you can be. It looks like an invitation to glory. Maybe the government should take guns away from soldiers and teach them how to play musical instruments. There’s an idea her father would have embraced.

After boot camp, Grace moved to Washington to begin her military music career. For several years she continued to see her married friend back in Manhattan. She cut things off with him when she discovered she was pregnant, or maybe he cut things off with her. Doesn’t much matter. Grace’s mother left Texas and rented an apartment nearby. She shows up almost every day to help with Violet. Grace’s double life as a musician and mother feels purposeful. Really, she should count her blessings.

Demarco drives through more urban sprawl. Fast food, fast cars, billboards that promise more of everything. More ice cream, more bang for the buck, more and better and bigger and beautiful. God saves and Jesus loves and thin is in and toys are us. Come on, sign up, and all of this is yours, yours, yours. Army strong, no mission too difficult, no sacrifice too great, duty first, today’s Army wants to join you, but don’t inhale any chemicals. Don’t get blown away by an improvised explosive device hidden in the middle of a dirt road, placed there to rip off your legs, blast gravel under your skin, make your brain rattle around in your skull like a marble in a tin can, and destroy a future you signed away because you couldn’t find a job or afford an education at home. This we’ll defend. Duty, honor, country.

Play the horn, Grace. Don’t think. Just play.

Anxiety curdles in her throat. The sedan rounds the corner and pulls through the gate. The slushy patch of gray-green cemetery plopped in the middle of the rubble-strewn subdivision seems glaring and artificial. This is not Arlington. It is a poor person’s graveyard. Grace stares at the faint applesauce stain on her pants leg. She cannot watch a mother bury her daughter. She cannot watch a child stand at her mother’s grave. She cannot. She just cannot. But she will, because this is her job and it pays for rent and food, and even though she’s a musician she’s also a single mother and a soldier. Like always, a compassionate soldier with a stern face will drape a lonely American flag over the coffin. Family and friends will gather, shiver, and hold hands. The color guard will stand to one side, regal, respectful, reverent. A pastor will whisper words of solace that sound empty because hearts stripped of trust can never be again be full. Stoic and calm, the edges smoothed by Inderal, Grace will stand at attention when the color guard folds the flag into an impossibly small triangle and hands it to the soldier’s mother. To those attending, the ceremony will mean everything and nothing. Grace will raise her bugle and play her notes and stand up straight and hope her lip stays strong even if everything inside her collapses and caves and crashes in receding waves of sorrow for someone she doesn’t know. Her bugle will shatter the silent spring with piercing streams of silver. Four notes will hold up the sky while they echo through the cemetery, layered like too many tears on a little girl’s cheek.

The car stops next to a tented area by an open grave.

“What is her name?” Grace asks.

“Who, Sergeant?” says Demarco.

“The soldier,” says Grace.

“Sorry, I’ve forgotten. It’s in the report back on my desk. Chaplain will brief you as soon as he arrives.”

“Thank you, Demarco. Do you mind if I get my horn out and play through some warm-ups in the car?”

“Not at all.” Demarco steps outside the vehicle. “We have ten minutes, Sergeant.” He closes the door.

The family of the dead soldier will hear real music this morning: real music played to honor a real woman who served her country. Grace places her bugle to her lips. Arpeggio up. Arpeggio down. If she does this enough times, she’ll be ready.

*****

TAPS is excerpted from Manhattan Road Trip, Goldsby’s collection of short stories about working musicians. Reproduced with the permission of Bass Lion Publishing. Photo credit: The National Guard

Robin Meloy Goldsby is a Steinway Artist. She is the author of Piano Girl; Waltz of the Asparagus People: The Further Adventures of Piano Girl; and Rhythm: A Novel.  

New: Manhattan Road Trip, a collection of short stories about (what else?) musicians. Go here to buy Manhattan Road Trip!

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All the Sad Young Men

Hands

“Why do they call it a fake book anyway? Is it for fake piano players?” says Michael the waiter. “That would be good for me.”

“You play the piano?” I say. It is five minutes to five and I’m standing in the kitchen of the Omni Park Central, eating spicy corn chips and drinking a coffee while leafing through an old fake book for ideas. My gig is a five-hour marathon, six days a week, and I need material.

“Yeah, I played a lot while I was growing up,” he says. “It was like therapy for me. Saved me from having to try out for the basketball team. I either had to learn an instrument or play a sport, my parents said.” He is carefully arranging flowers into the individual bud vases that will be placed on each table in the lobby cocktail lounge.

“Too bad there wasn’t a florist club at your high school. You would have been a hit,” I say.

“Fat chance, darling. There was only one florist in my hometown, and she was strictly a carnation-and-chiffon-butterfly kind of gal. I used to collect the butterflies whenever my mother got an arrangement. I decorated the ceiling of my bedroom with them. So tell me about this fake book thing.”

“It’s called a fake book because it gives you just the basics of the song. Just enough. Then you can fake your way through it,” I say.

“So how do they decide which songs to put into the fake book?”

“They pick songs that people want to hear. You know, popular songs, standards, that kind of thing.”

“But you never play with music in front of you.”

“Yeah, I try to avoid having music on the piano. My teacher always said it was unprofessional and most improper to play solo piano in public with music in front of me. To this day I swear a bolt of lightning will come out of the sky and strike me dead if I dare to perform with a piece of music on the stand.”

“So why lug the fake book around?”

“In case somebody waves a twenty-dollar bill at me and asks for a song I don’t know. For twenty bucks I’m willing to risk the lightning bolt. I might be professional and proper but I’m not stupid.”

“I don’t know, honey. Some of these titles look suspicious,” Michael says as he thumbs through the book. “Like this one. ‘Turkey in the Straw.’ Has anyone ever asked you for that?”

“No. But Thanksgiving is coming up. You never know.”

“Or here’s a real classic: ‘The Rambling Wreck from Georgia Tech.’ Or what about ‘The Livery Stable Blues?’ Or ‘Too Fat for the Chimney’? Who plays this stuff? Oh wait, this is good—‘Born to Hand Jive.’ How are you gonna play that on the piano? Look! A whole section of marine-animal songs. Here’s ‘Flipper.’ And check this out. ‘The Theme from Sea Hunt!’ I’ll bet that’s a popular request on the cocktail piano circuit. Ha!”

“Maybe if you had a cocktail piano gig at SeaWorld?” I’m half serious.

“God I used to love that Sea Hunt show. Nobody ever looked better in a wetsuit than Lloyd Bridges. I learned to swim because of that show.”

Petra, the manager, rounds the corner. “Uh, Michael, the flowers? It’s ten past five!” He loads the thirty vases, each one containing a fragile stem of snow-white Friesia, onto a tray. On his way past the white Kawai grand, he takes a extra spray of blossoms out of his apron pocket, and places it on the piano.

The Omni Park Central is an older hotel between Fifty-fourth and Fifty-fifth streets on Seventh Avenue. Right before I started playing at the Omni, the lobby was gutted and redone in white marble. The furniture is white, the reception desk is white, the Kawai grand is white, and Lord knows I’m white. The management team has even asked me to wear white dresses. They’re doing their best to make some sort of theme statement with the interior decorating, but I can’t imagine what it is.

There I sit, night after night, right smack in the middle of the lobby, looking like I’ve blown in from the Alps. My piano is about twenty yards away from the revolving doors that lead to the grit and grime of the city streets. Michael calls me Heidi on Seventh.

“He’s here! He’s here! He’s here!” Flustered, Michael runs to the piano around tables and chairs, briefcases and Louis Vuitton travel bags, all the while balancing a mixed green salad and a Chardonnay on his tray. “He’s here!”

“Who’s here? Calm down, your face is all red,” I say. I continue to play “Memory” from Cats, the hit song of the decade.

“Lloyd Bridges. Do you believe it? Where’s your fake book? Get the fake book! Get it! Get it now! It’s your chance to play ‘Sea Hunt’!”

I’m caught in the frenzy. Lloyd is checking in at reception. He’s wearing a white suit—someone must have tipped him off—and he’s very tan.

“The book is in the back, Michael. Next to Hector’s station. Go get it. Fast. Before Lloyd splits. Hurry up!” Michael drops his tray on the piano and races to the kitchen.

“Here,” he says, out of breath. “Page 134. ‘Theme from Sea Hunt.’ You go for it, girl.” Michael walks to edge of the platform, strikes a spokesmodel’s pose and announces: “Mr. Lloyd Bridges, we welcome you to the Omni Park Central. Here is a song prepared by our lovely pianist especially for you.”

I play “Sea Hunt.” Not very well, but I bang it out. Mr. Bridges nods and points in my direction. He seems totally unimpressed.

What?” says Michael. “Like every piano player in the world plays that song for him? He’s lucky anybody even knows who he is. You’d think he’d at least come up here and thank us in person or send us a drink or something.”

“Maybe he didn’t recognize it. I played it pretty badly. If I had known we were going to have a Sea Hunt moment, I would have practiced.” I stand up. It’s break time.

“Honey, even I recognized it and I haven’t seen the show since 1975.” He casts a disdainful look in Mr. Bridges’ direction. Sitting at the piano, Michael looks at the fake book and takes off his glasses. He plays the first four bars of ‘Sea Hunt’ and flips backwards off the piano bench, just like Lloyd used to do off the side of the boat when he was about to go battle a shark in dangerously deep water.

***

“Table two wants to buy you a drink, honey. That fab-looking guy in the navy blazer,” says Michael.

It’s almost nine o’clock, time for my last break of the evening. I’m ready for a glass of wine. “Okay,” I say to Michael. “The usual. Do I have to sit with him?”

“Don’t know, darlin’; he says he wants to book you for a party. It wouldn’t kill you talk to him for a second. Looks like he’s got some money.”

“Michael, everyone here has money, except for us.”

“Testy tonight, Missy Robin?”

“Tired. Just tired.” I’ve been playing five hours a night, six nights a week and going to acting classes during the day. I need a vacation.

I finish the set with “Long and Winding Road” and go to table two. The man sitting there springs to his feet.

“I’m Reginald Thomas Simpson,” he says as he holds the chair for me. We exchange a few banal pleasantries, and he asks if he can book me for a party at his penthouse.

“That shouldn’t be a problem,” I say. “You can contact my agent and he’ll take care of the details.”

“Can’t I work with you personally,” he says. “Without the agent?”

“I’m sorry, Reginald, I’m under contract.” Not true, but I decided long ago to always use the agent buffer as a security system. “But do call Harlan Ellis, my agent. He’s a great guy. Thanks for the wine. Hope to see you again!” I give him Harlan’s card and return to the piano for my last set, not thinking too much about Reginald, just wanting to go home.

“You’d better get some sleep, honey,” says Michael. “You’re looking awfully pale. If you get any whiter you’re going to just fade away in this room.”

On my way out of the hotel I notice Reginald across Seventh Avenue, leaning against a building and smiling at me. I scoot down into the subway station where the train is waiting. As it pulls away, I see him again. This time he isn’t smiling.

***

“Robin, you’ve got mail. I left it on the piano.”

“Me? Mail? Okay, thanks.” I’ve taken a few days off to fly down to Florida with my boyfriend. I’m not as tan as Lloyd Bridges, but I’ve gotten a little color. The sunshine has done wonders for me. I open the letter.

Oh, God. “Michael, check this out!”

“Fan mail?”

“Not exactly.”

The letter says Robin you will die. The letters have been cut out of newspaper print and pasted on a plain white sheet of paper.

“Wow,” says Michael. “This is like a bad movie.”

“Who put this here?” I ask him. My palms are sweating.

“No clue,” he says. We look at the envelope, hoping for a clue. But it’s blank.

“You know what, honey? I think I’d better call security.”

I start my first set with “Windmills of Your Mind.” A security guard comes to the piano to pick up the letter, makes a couple of jokes about it, and leaves.

Later that evening, as Michael and I are pounding out a four-hand version of “The Ben Hur Chariot Race March,” I look up and see a street person enter the lobby from the Seventh Avenue revolving door. He lurches towards the reception desk and waves a stained rag in small circles around his head. The lobby bustles with late check-ins and frazzled business people rushing off to important places. No one looks at the homeless man—they avoid his stares and step over and around him like he’s just another hurtle on a New York obstacle course. The man shuffles in a wide arc around the cocktail lounge. Suddenly he stops, crouches down low on the white marble floor, looks directly at me, and grins. It is Reginald. The sophisticated and elegantly dressed man has vanished. He’s dressed in a torn and filthy coat and layers of dirty sweaters. He’s wearing old ragged slippers and his skin is sooty. He has foam in the corners of his mouth. But the grin is the same.

We are coming to the big finish of our “Chariot Race March.” A handful of people, Michael’s customers, are sitting close to the piano cheering us on.

“Michael, that’s him,” I say as we play the last chord. The beginning of an anxiety attack creeps under my collar. I’m sure that Reginald, with his multiple outfits and maniacal smile, is the author the death threat. Michael runs to call security, but by the time they arrive, Reginald has disappeared.

“Darling,” Michael says. “Looks like you’ve got yourself a stalker. How dramatic!”

***

I’m the house pianist at the Omni, but Michael is the real entertainment in the lobby. He tells jokes to his customers and sings songs with me accompanying him. Whenever we get a chance, we play one of the four-hand pieces we’ve rehearsed. The guests adore him. I adore him.

In Michael’s’ free time he serves meals at a Manhattan soup kitchen. He also donates his time to GMHC, Gay Men’s Health Crisis, a non-profit group in Manhattan. The city has been ravaged by AIDS. We fear it will get much worse. At GMHC Michael persuades gay men to be tested for HIV.

One week he misses five days of work. I can’t reach him at home and I’m worried. Nobody at the Omni has heard from him. Finally, on the sixth day, he returns.

“What’s going on with you?” I ask.

“Meet me by the telephones on your break,” he says. There’s a private area upstairs, by a bank of public phones. I race up there after my first set.

“I’m sick,” he says. “Full-blown AIDS.” He starts to cry. The marble floor beneath me feels like it’s vibrating. One of the pay phones begins to ring.

“I thought I was in the clear. I haven’t had a partner for nine years. I didn’t even bother with an HIV test because I’ve been celibate for so long. I live like a fucking nun. Here I’ve been out counseling other men to be tested when I should have been tested myself. How stupid is that?”

I embrace him and we cry together. I can’t speak. I can barely breathe.

The pay phone keeps ringing.

He pulls himself out of my arms and squares his shoulders.

“No one here can know about this. They’ll fire me. And if I lose my health insurance I’m doomed. I’m going to fight this. I’ve already contacted the NIH and put myself on the list for experimental programs.”

         Ring, ring, ring.

Michael picks up the phone and says, “Fuck you, fuck you, fuck you.” He slams it back down.

I sob. I want to be strong for him, but I can’t get it together.

“Honey,” he says. “It’ll be okay. Looks like we both have stalkers. We just have to wear them down.”

We return to the cocktail lounge. I play. He works the room, shuffling back and forth with kir royale and chicken satay. He sings and plays the piano with me and fills the lobby with his tragic optimism. Watching him tonight is like watching a ray of sunlight, the kind that catches you by surprise and dances around your living room on an otherwise cloudy day.

***

It’s early November and Reginald continues to make appearances in the lobby.

“What fashion statement is he making today?” Michael asks. “Dumpster or Brooks Brothers? Do you think he carries that paper bag in his Gucci briefcase, just in case he wants to change his look midday?”

Reginald T. Simpson, whatever he’s wearing, is clever enough to avoid being caught. He sneaks into the lobby, stares at me, waits for a waiter to call security, and then runs out of the hotel before they arrive. Not once in three months has any member of the security force actually seen the guy. Some nights Reginald lurks outside of the hotel, waiting for me to leave. I always know when he’s there. He hides in the shadowy recesses of the Carnegie Hall entrance, and I can feel his eyes burning through my heavy winter coat as I hurry along Seventh Avenue. I stop taking the subway home. I take cabs. One of the waiters, Michael usually, escorts me out of the hotel and waits until the taxi door closes behind me. I’m terrified that Reginald will jump into another cab and follow me. Taxi drivers don’t pick up street people, but they do pick up Caucasian businessmen wearing good suits. I breathe a sigh of relief on the nights when Reginald wears his ragged clothes.

“Not a thing we can do, Robin,” says Bill, the chief of hotel security. “We can’t touch him unless he actually attacks you on hotel property. Sorry.”

“Do you think you might post a guard in the lobby? I mean, wouldn’t that be a good place to have a guard anyway? I know you guys come through the lobby every so often, but this Reginald guy has been coming in every night for months and you’ve never even seen him.”

“You have to call us, Robin, the minute he arrives.”

“But your office is a two-minute walk away from the piano. Reginald bolts as soon as he knows he’s been spotted. It takes him five seconds to get back onto the street.”

“Look, our hands are tied. Nothing we can do but wait until he does something nasty on the property. Then we’ll nail him.”

“That’s reassuring,” I say.

“Sorry.”

Two nights later, just as I’m playing the bridge to “As Time Goes By,” Reginald appears at the piano, on my left side. He leans over me. His body is rigid and he stinks like raw onions, rotting meat, and mildew. I turn away from him and try to escape from the right. He grabs my arm and pushes me back against the wall. Then he holds up a large closed umbrella and shoves the point of it against my throat.

“I’m gonna fuckin’ kill you.” His voice is rough and strained.

The umbrella doesn’t have any fabric on it. It’s just the handle, the spokes, and the point, which is sharpened to a spike. I’m unable to move or scream for fear of being impaled. There are scores of people around me and no one is paying any attention.

         Please. Someone. Look. This. Way.

Michael spots me from across the lobby, throws his tray to the floor, and races towards the piano. Just as fast, Reginald drops his umbrella and escapes out the side door. I don’t know what to do—I’m out of breath, frozen with panic. But I feel an urgent need to finish the song I’d been playing when Reginald attacked me. I sit back down at the piano and resolve the cadence. The chord hangs for a second, then I bolt for the kitchen. I sink to the floor and sit there, shaking, until Michael packs me into my woolen coat. He escorts me into the darkness on Seventh Avenue and stuffs me into a taxi.

Two weeks later I return to the Omni in a Valium-induced daze.

“I’m leaving,” Michael says to me. “I’m going home to Wisconsin. My parents will help me with money. I need to be able to get back and forth to Washington for these treatments and tests.”

“When are you leaving?”

“Next week.”

“It will be terrible here without you.”

“Yes, darling,” he says. “It will be dreadful. Abysmal. Devastating. But I suspect you’ll all deal with it. Here, I saved something for you.” He takes me in the back, and there, next to a stack of booster seats, is the stick umbrella. He has tied little pink ribbons around each bare spoke.

“Michael,” I say. “That’s awful.”

“Well that’s the beauty of it, honey. It’s art. A little too big for your coffeetable, but I’m sure you can make it work somewhere in that gorgeous apartment of yours. Now stop sniveling and go play something pretty.”

Reginald doesn’t come into the hotel on my first night back, but I sense that he is outside, somewhere, waiting, waiting, waiting. At ten o’clock, just as I’m finishing my last set, Bill, the security chief, shows up at the piano.

“I’m sorry about what happened,” he says. “We’d like to make sure that you get into a taxi safely tonight.”

“Yeah, well, Michael’s been seeing to that for the last few months, but I think it would be a good idea for you to take over,” I say. “I’ll go and grab my coat.”

I kiss Michael goodbye and push my way through the revolving doors. Brooks Brothers Reginald, in plain view, stands just across Seventh Avenue, holding his briefcase.

“That’s him,” I whisper to the security guy.

“Where?”

“Over there. In the suit.”

“I thought he was supposed to be a street person,” he says.

“Sometimes he’s a street person. He changes his clothes. I’ve told you all of this before.” Reginald jumps off the curb and into the traffic. I panic. He bounces off a taxi cab and continues walking. Toward me.

“Shit, He’s coming. Fuck. What should I do?” From across the wide street I see the intensity in his eyes. He looks right at me and ignores the honking horns and screeching brakes. He begins to run.

“He’s gonna kill me. What should I do? Please tell me what I should fucking do.” I stand frozen, staring at Reginald running toward me. I want to move but I can’t.

“Turn around and walk into the hotel,” says the security man. “We can’t grab him unless he’s in the hotel. Listen to me! Walk real slow and go into the hotel. Let’s hope he follows you.”

“I don’t want him to fucking follow me!”

Bill pushes me toward the hotel, hard. “Trust me. Now go.”

I set one foot in front of the other and force myself to look straight ahead. I hear the hollow echoes of the voices and laughter around me and a vague thump thump thump of Reginald’s footsteps as he draws nearer and nearer. I walk, in slow motion, through the door. Now Reginald is directly behind me. There is a whirl of movement as Michael, who has been waiting inside the lobby with four security guards, grips my arms and jostles me away from the door.

“Get out of here fast, honey. You don’t wanna see what they’re gonna do to this guy,” says Michael. I turn to look just as one of the guards snatches Reginald. I manage to close my eyes just before they knock him to the ground.

***

The cognac laps against the sides of the oversized snifter. An hour or so has passed. Michael comes into the bar, his face ashen. He is breathing hard.

“Those security guards are total thugs,” he says. “What do they do when they hire these guys? Go to Rikers Island to recruit the senior class of convicts?”

There is blood on his shirt.

“Michael, are you hurt?” I ask.

“No, honey. I just got a little involved in the tussle out there. This is Reginald’s blood. He was on the floor and they were still hitting him. Kicking him, even. Someone had to get them to stop.”

“Oh, Michael.”

“Yeah, do you believe that? Me. In a fight. Someone should have sold tickets.”

“Where is Reginald now?”

“Oh, he’s upstairs being questioned and printed and photographed. All of which would have been possible without the pummeling in the lobby. I don’t think he’ll be hanging around here anymore.”

A waiter brings me another cognac. I give it to Michael and it’s gone in one gulp.

“So. I think tonight was my farewell performance,” he says. “I intended to stick out the week, but I’m too tired. Plus the Steven Seagal act tonight would be a tough one to follow.”

We’re quiet for a few minutes. Beneath the loosened collar of his shirt I notice the outline of a lesion.

“It’s not fair, Michael.”

“What do you mean it’s not fair? That I’m sick? Or are you talking about Reginald? He’s sick too, you know. None of it’s fair. But I’m lucky, honey. I have a family who loves me. I have an entire collection of Bette Davis movies. I have friends and music and flowers, and chiffon butterflies on my bedroom ceiling. I have a place to go. Not to worry.”

As we say goodbye I touch the sharp contours of his smooth face. He’s still a boy, really. He puts me in a taxi and balances on the curb as the cab pulls away, a brave young man in a black leather jacket, leaning into the cruel winter wind.

I know that I’ll never see him again.

***

Excerpt from Goldsby’s book, Piano Girl. Reprinted with the permission of Backbeat Books.

Robin Meloy Goldsby is a Steinway Artist. She is the author of Piano Girl; Waltz of the Asparagus People: The Further Adventures of Piano Girl; and Rhythm: A Novel.  

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