“Rouge Noir” is a short story from Goldsby’s new collection: Manhattan Road Trip
Courtesy of Bass Lion Publishing
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Alarm rings. B-flat. Fingers tingle; they always tingle on concert days. Wish I could start my morning with meditation. Been awake for an hour, worrying, fretting, betting something horrible will happen in the next twelve hours. Twelve hours. Got to get through half a day before I walk onstage this evening. So much easier if I could hop out of bed, into the shower, and onto the piano bench. Performance isn’t hard—waiting kills me. Playing the Rachmaninoff Concerto No. 3 in D minor this evening with the Pittsburgh Symphony. Performed the Rach 3 at least thirty times over the last decade. Still kicks my butt. Like running a marathon in thirty-five minutes.
Sheets tangle between my legs, my hair tangles between my fingers, my stomach tangles in knots. Slightly nauseated. Hope I’m not pregnant again. Hope I don’t have stomach cancer. Hope I didn’t eat bad shrimp last night at Fred’s Fish Factory. Why did I let that chirpy concert promoter talk me into eating crustaceans in a landlocked town? What’s her name? Right. Madison. I’m an idiot when I’m hungry. I’ll eat anything. Hope the zipper closes on my gown tonight. Should fast today—no, last time I tried that I fainted two hours before my New York Phil concert. Ended up drinking a vanilla milkshake to revive. Stomach bloated from the lactose. Rachmaninoff and bloat. Bad combo.
I hope the hair guy shows up. I hate big concert halls with balconies. People sitting above see my roots; high-rent folks in orchestra seats see my double chin. I’m screwed in two ticket-price tiers.
Wish they would just close their eyes and listen.
I really need to play the damn piano; always makes me feel better to play, at least in real life. Crawled into bed last night out of sorts and full of doom. Finally conked out, had a nightmare someone splattered the Steinway keyboard with olive oil. I’ve had this nightmare on the eve of every concert performance for fifteen years. Always the same—fingers slip and slide, and my performance, no matter what I do, veers from controlled elegance to sadistic slapstick. The audience laughs. I stand to leave the stage, humiliated and broken. I notice oil stains on my red evening gown. Guy in the front row of my dream looks exactly like Mr. Dominick, my childhood piano teacher. He wears a houndstooth jacket with mustard-colored suede elbow patches. “See?” he snarls. “I told you. You’re no good. And not only that, you’re fat.” Then I wake up.
I am Samantha Lockney. Used to be the toast of the classical piano world, girl with the platinum fingers, sweetheart of music critics everywhere, except in parts of Ohio, where, for some odd reason, they’ve always hated my emotional interpretations of Baroque music. They also hated me in Duluth and Phoenix. Fine with that. I am. Don’t know anyone in Ohio, or Duluth, or Phoenix, except for my agent’s mother. Met her once, when I played the A minor Brahms with the Cleveland Orchestra. My hands aren’t really big enough for Brahms, so I had to stretch like crazy. That was back when I had big banging balls and I still tried to play pieces that didn’t suit me. Before the agency and Classical International Records started promoting me as a glamour girl. Back when I didn’t have to worry about sucking in my stomach and wearing false eyelashes. Now, when I should be exhaling and leaning into the best years of my career, I face dwindling audiences, dismal record sales, and a substantial slab of flab around my middle. Not so noticeable when I’m upright, but I can’t perform the Rachmaninoff Piano Concerto No. 3 in D minor if I’m not sitting down.
I hate sounding like a whining, weight-obsessed, middle-aged woman, but . . . If I’m not at the piano, I’m standing in front of a mirror freaking about how I look at the piano. Twenty years ago, on my agent’s advice, I poured myself into a silver slip dress and jiggled onstage at Carnegie Hall. I actually believed, silver dress and all, the audience understood and admired my music. Wasn’t the music they dug, it was the package. That’s what the record company called me—a package. Yeah, I was talented. Yeah, I mastered Rach 3 when very few women even considered playing it. Yeah, I was the new kid on the scene. But I really got noticed for being classical piano’s “It Girl.” Or was it “Tit Girl”? Now the “It” part is gone; tits are sagging; career is tanking. I’m scared. I need to keep working. I need guidance. My own stupid fault. Other concert pianists have survived middle age without losing momentum—but they built careers on solid music, not on how they looked in a silver dress.
Classical International didn’t pick up the option for my next recording, so now I’m a free agent.Therapist says anger gets me nowhere. Agent says anger gets me nowhere. Accountant says anger gets me nowhere. I pay a staff of professionals thousands of dollars a month to piss me off and tell me I’m getting nowhere. This morning, nowhere features a junior suite with two red velveteen chairs, king-sized bed, pink marble bathroom, and too many mirrors. The suite is a little smaller than my usual offerings—okay, a lot smaller—but the birdish Madison, a zipper-thin twenty-something, told me the pop singer Baby checked in yesterday and her handlers insisted on the Governor’s Suite, the one originally reserved for me. I’m at the William Penn Hotel in downtown Pittsburgh. Didn’t make a scene about the suite. I was tempted. It feels, I don’t know, a little insulting to be jostled out of position by a chlorine-blond named Baby. We’re both from Pittsburgh. Read somewhere she went to my elementary school, twenty years after I was there.
Saw pictures of Baby in Vanity Fair last month. She was wearing a latex mermaid costume. Even with flippers and fishtail, she’s a looker. I remember how that used to feel. Seas parted, doors opened, men with coffee breath and thinning hair stared at my breasts and told me I was extremely talented. Got the best tables and widest smiles, and potbellied photographers told me I wasn’t just extremely talented, I was lovely. Funny thing, I believed every word. Every single word. Fans surrounded me like fruit flies on a ripe peach.
Why bother with nail polish on my toes? It chips. Chanel Rouge Noir. Love this color. Scrape a few blackish-red flakes onto the flocked carpet. They disappear into the weave. Wonder what else is buried in there.
Ashamed to admit this, but I expected a warm reception since I’m a hometown girl. Thought the concert would sell out, that today would be filled with press appointments. But Madison, whose diplomacy skills lack finesse, told me critics and journalists had no interest. “It’s, like, so hard these days to find anyone willing to write about classical music, unless it’s, like, some hot new artist. You know, like, the younger ones. I thought, like, since you’re older, I might call Walter Wipton.”
“Walter Wipton? Is he still on staff at the Pittsburgh paper? My God, that guy has been writing the same shitty review of every young female concert pianist for the last forty years. Is he coming tonight?”
“No,” said Madison, checking her phone. “Let’s see. He says he already reviewed your performance of the Rachmaninoff.”
“That was ten years, ago,” I said. “That guy is a sexist idiot. I quote: ‘Samantha Lockney might play like a man but she definitely looks like a woman. Sensual and sexy, her body moved with the music and brought to mind moments of passion and release.’ Basically, Madison, he compared me to an orgasm. Doesn’t get more sexist than that, does it?”
“Wow, you still remember that?” she said. “You’re, like, a feminist?” I didn’t know how to answer without shaking her. So I said nothing.
“Well, you know, Baby’s in town,” said Madison, her voice excited and growing squeakier by the second. “It’s supposed to be a secret, but every reporter in Pittsburgh knows she’s here. They’re all, like, camped out in the lobby. Evidently she’s here to attend a funeral.”
Fucking Baby. She shows up for a funeral and it’s a major press event. I arrive to play the most difficult piano concerto ever written and no one cares.
I pull the covers over my head and try to push away the morning.
Phone rings just as the waiter arrives with my breakfast. Phone tone is an A-natural. Doorbell to the suite is a G-sharp. I’m caught in the crossfire of a half-tone war. God, that’s awful. Grab the phone and my robe at the same time.
“Mommy?” It’s my daughter, Caroline. Her voice sounds raspy. Make a note to ask Gary if her asthma has been bothering her again. Latrobe isn’t far away—should try and get out there to see her. Maybe Gary will bring her to the concert tonight—I already sent tickets. Have to remember to pick up a present—hate to meet her empty-handed. Caroline chatters on about getting ready for school. I look in the mirror and try to iron the lines out of my face with the palm of my hand. Doorbell rings again, followed by loud knocking.
“Yes, sweetie. Yes, sweetie. I miss you, too. Just a minute, okay? Breakfast is here.” Fluff my hair and open the door.
Snarky kid with a pierced nose smirks and says, “Room service.” These hotel workers get younger every week. His nametag says “Jefferson.” Of course. Jefferson. Is every person under the age of twenty-five named after a damn president? Jefferson—wearing a white military jacket with golden buttons and scarlet epaulets and a pair of gravity-defying black pants— slouches into the room without even trying to sneak a peek under my robe. Pull up your pants, I want to shout. Little Lord Fauntleroy from the waist up, original gangster from the waist down. Way too skinny for me, anyway. Not tempted.
I don’t look bad for my age. I don’t. I remind myself of this at least three times an hour. Been playing really well the last few years—playing better than ever, actually—but all the newspapers and magazines want to write about—if they write about me at all—is my puffy face or how much weight I’ve gained. They say I’ve “matured in stature.” They write about whether I should have a face-lift. Or speculate whether I’m losing my hair. If I’m a good mother or a bad mother. If my third marriage will work out. If I’m a lesbian. Downward spiral. Falling face.
To the Jeffersons of the world I am invisible. Rach 3 is too long, too demanding, just too much of everything for a YouTuber like Jefferson. He’ll watch a cell phone video of Baby hailing a cab, but an aging formerly-hot classical pianist? Forget it. To music critics—the know-it-alls who fell in love with me when I was waif-like and perky-boobed—I’m one sonata away from menopause. I glance in the mirror as Jefferson rolls the tray table into my suite. Ragged. Chunky. I look my age. And you know what? Just don’t care. Really. I don’t care.
“Where do you want it?” Jefferson says.
“Funny you should ask.” I use my flirty voice. Jefferson ignores me.
Shit. I remember my ten-year-old daughter is still on the phone, hanging on every word. “Well now, Jefferson, over there. Next to the window.” I grab the phone from the nightstand. “Caroline, honey, I’ll call you right back, okay?” Already hung up. Guess she has gone to school.
Jefferson, disgusted, places breakfast—a pot of Earl Grey, a bowl of bran flakes, a glass of vivid green juice that will taste like liquid tree—on a window-side table overlooking a broad Pittsburgh avenue. Grant Street? So long since I’ve been in town. Hardly remember the names of the streets. Jefferson unfurls a single linen napkin, places it next to the tree juice and says, “Will there be anything else?”
“Here.” I hand him ten dollars.
“Wow. Thanks,” he says.
“You’re welcome. Would you perhaps like tickets to my concert this evening? It’s not sold out and I have some—”
“What? You a singer or something?”
“No. I’m a concert pianist. I’m performing with the Pittsburgh Symphony this evening.”
“Oh. Yeah. I heard of them. But I got plans. I’m not supposed to tell anyone—this is top secret—but I guess you’re cool. Baby is in town. I hear she might stop by the Rooster Shack tonight and sit in for a set. At least, that’s what my bartender buddy at the Rooster Shack told me.”
“Right. Well, then. The Rooster Shack. Imagine that.”
“Enjoy your breakfast.” Jefferson walks backwards, dragging the empty food cart. He doesn’t even glance at me as he backs out of the room.
I eat all of my breakfast. Stroll downstairs, pick up a newspaper. Baby buzz circulates around the reception desk, though she’s nowhere to be seen. A grand piano sits right in the middle of the lobby—maybe later I’ll challenge Baby to a duel.
Head back to my room. Think about tonight’s performance. This damn concerto. Rach 3. I play it really well, but it’s never easy. Only a handful of pianists can do it justice. I’m one of them. Pretty much the only thing anyone wants to hear me play these days. It’s exhausting keeping up with it. Kicks my ass every time, even after all these years.
Took me eleven months to master Rach 3. A “normal” concerto—I can cover that in a month. I remember first looking at the score; it was written for an octopus. No break for the pianist, not even in the second movement. Fell in love with it at eighteen and decided if I never accomplished anything else in my life, I would tame this beast. I did. Now when I play it I become my own orchestra. Two orchestras onstage; the one with eighty-three musicians, and the one behind the Steinway—me. I’m an army, an unbeatable force, a solo musician with the weight of the world balanced on ten fingers. I’ve sacrificed a lot for Rachmaninoff over the years—childhood, a normal education, several marriages, my daughter, friends—but it’s worth it. When I’m playing this concerto, the muscle of the music strong-arms real life. I win. I’m free. I’m home. I’m an unconquerable goddess. I am alive.
Wish I had ordered pancakes or a cheese omelet or something substantial for breakfast. Need real food—potatoes and bread and bacon. If I had a piano in my fucking junior suite I could distract myself with practicing, but the days of the promoter providing a Steinway in my hotel room are over. I look in one of the dozens of mirrors lining the walls. There is a hair growing out of my forehead. My forehead! Jesus Christ, how long has that been there? Oh my God, it’s white and it’s an inch long. I take a moment and Google cosmetic surgeons in Manhattan. Hair removal, liposuction, Botox, face-lift, fillers—maybe I need a complete rehaul. Might even need an ass lift. No I don’t. Yes I do. Not like an ass lift will make me more of an artist. How long would I have to take off from sitting on a piano bench to recover from butt-lift surgery? Forget it. I’m not kowtowing to contemporary beauty standards. Harness my physical well-being to an industry norm? I am what I am, and all that. I pluck the hair.
But maybe if I looked better, if I recaptured my youthful fizz, I would book more gigs. I need to work. I paid off my Manhattan apartment years ago, but I’m so far in debt I’ll need to play 150 concerts a year until I’m ninety just to make a dent in what I owe. This is my first gig in a month. I’m not destitute, but I need to pay my staff of anger experts, two ex-husbands, and child support. Maybe there’s a direct correlation between weight gain and concert loss. Maybe I’m just too old for this. Not old. Not young. Maybe I’m too fat.
Stop it right now. Just stop it.
I know. Go for a walk. Outside. Fresh air. Breathe. Still have three hours before hair guy shows up. I’ll go practice for an hour at the hall. Buy a new dress. Shop for Caroline. What size is she these days? Put on sunglasses and head for Macy’s.
Nobody recognizes me in the store, even with sunglasses. Relieved and pissed all at once. I try three separate times to give comp tickets to sales people, but no one seems interested—they act like I’m trying to give them discount coupons for fabric softener. Try on an Oscar de la Renta bright-pink beaded evening gown that costs $2,000. I look like a spangled hippo in a mother-of-the-bride dress, plus the beads chafe my upper arms. Thirty-five minutes of Rach 3 in that thing and my triceps would look like raw meat. Try on a subtle Calvin Klein black sheath dress and I resemble a stout nun settling in for an evening of biblical Scrabble. Try on strappy high-heeled sandals with bits of feathers at the toe. Am I getting cankles? No. Ankles still slim. No ankle lift for me.
How cute! Who ever thought to add feathers to shoes? Could be my new signature style. If Katia Labèque can make a concert pianist fashion statement with red-soled Louboutins, then why not me? Feathers at my feet. Wings on my heels. Fly like an eagle. Buy the shoes. Hope these aren’t eagle feathers. Four hundred dollars. Shouldn’t, but I do.
I look at a crystal bracelet. Forget that. Pick up a topaz ring for Caroline. Adorable. Topaz is her birthstone, I think. Got to do something about my nails. Looks like I’ve been digging up potatoes bare-handed.
Scoot down to the cosmetic department and pick up three new lipsticks, a $20 bottle of a nail polish called Cream Cake for my fingers, another bottle of Rouge Noir for my toes, and firming cream guaranteed to restructure a sagging jaw line. Has horse cartilage in it. Or shark fin. Or some awful thing, but Vogue says it works.
Hungry. What I eat now is critical. Too much and my stomach will blow up and I’ll look five months pregnant onstage and even the feather sandals won’t distract from that. If I don’t eat enough I’ll be shaky, top-heavy, and likely to tip over. Do men think about this shit? No. I’ll bet Martha Argerich doesn’t either. Should have built my career the way she did.
I find a little Japanese place and order a tempura California roll. Hold the cream cheese. Avocado is good, right? Right. Would kill for some wine, but that’s a no-go. I order another California roll. No soy sauce—last thing I need is water retention. There. Full, but not. Perfect.
Over to the hall to see if I can play in these feather sandals. I have my doubts. Piano pedals swallow shoes and long skirts. Test run required. A policeman waves at me. Nice—hey there, big guy. I wave back, but he’s not waving at me—he’s directing traffic. Pittsburgh pigeon poops on my pink pashmina. I do the best I can to remove the goop with an old Starbucks napkin stuffed in my pocket.
Hands feel cold.
Should have had the wine.
What was I thinking? I’m onstage, running through warm-ups before the technician arrives to tweak the Steinway. Feather sandals are a disaster, heels skid on the wooden floor, I lose control of the pedal. Fuck the feathers. I’m a pianist, not a stripper. I kick them off and keep playing. Stupid idea to buy these stupid shoes. Focus. I should return them, but I’m out of time. Shit. Focus. Was I supposed to call Caroline at lunchtime? I’ll try later. Help. Stop and clear my head. Play through the cadenza in the first movement again.
And again. Again. There. My hands move so fast I can’t see or feel them anymore—a blur of sinew and flesh. Part of me, but not. I float above myself, in a trance, listening. Got it now. Stand, stretch, collect my Macy’s loot and grab a cab back to the hotel. Time to have hair teased and tussled, face spackled. Salon promised to send someone at four. Could use a piece of cake. Pace back and forth in the suite and wait for hair guy. Think about the Rach. Pace. Stop thinking. Therapist tells me to think of nothing before a performance. Thinking about not thinking. Nothing helps. Keep hearing repetitive patterns in the third movement. Doorbell rings. Scares me. I’m always jittery a few hours before. It’s the stylist, a short guy named Doug. He smells like grapefruit.
“Come in, Doug. May I offer you a soothing cup of tea?” ***
Five minutes before eight. Orchestra waits onstage. I wait in the wings. Stretch. Good. Shoulders nice and loose. Hands warm. Neck slightly stiff. Normal. I can see the audience from a gap in the backstage wall. I try not to look. Lots of empty seats. Caroline sits in the third row, with her grandparents and Gary. I’ll play the Rach for her tonight. Play it so she’ll remember me. The music. Me. The music. Me. The music. Don’t think. Don’t even think about thinking. The music. Me. Breathe. Believe.
The stage manager taps my shoulder. Walk onstage. Walk. Sit. Maestro raises his baton. The music. Me. Believe. Breathe.
Robin Meloy Goldsby is a Steinway Artist. She is also the author of Piano Girl; Waltz of the Asparagus People: The Further Adventures of Piano Girl; and Rhythm: A Novel.
Coming on April 6th, 2016: Manhattan Road Trip, a collection of short stories about (what else?) musicians. Go here to buy Manhattan Road Trip!