Published in Clare Literary Journal in July 2016
The doorbell. Peter ignored it. He was near deadline for the piece on his computer screen — puffery to accompany the statistics of a corporate report. After two days of starts and stops, he had a handle on it. Finish this, and get back to the novel.
The doorbell again, more insistent. He sighed, left his study and went to the big Dutch door in the kitchen that served as front door. A small man, graying, with a black bag. “Mr. Keating? I’m here to tune the piano.”
Of course. Meg’s reunion was just a few days away; an out-of-tune piano would be an embarrassment if Beth visited and wanted to play a few bars. “Come in, Mr. . . .”
“Casey. Howard Casey. Been years since I was here. It must be way out of tune.” Shown to the living room, he set his bag beside the bench, took off the piano lid with astonishing ease, stood it firmly against a sofa, turning to take in the wide arc of sliding glass doors that framed the piano. The garden was coming into spring bloom; at the forest edge, burgeoning oaks and maples began to fill winter’s spaces between dark firs and pines. “I wish I came more often. I look after a lot of pianos. This has far the best view.”
“Thank you,” Peter said. The money for their sylvan retreat, in Meg’s home town, was a bequest from her aunt, but the concept was his. The only room without such a view was his den. His cave, Meg called it, a small bookshelved room whose skylight provided ample daylight with only an occasional storm to distract him. The music room/living room was the architect’s crowning achievement, but he had also given their bedroom, the guest bedroom and their country kitchen ample glass looking out at gardens, mountain laurel and Berkshire forests.
“Your view,” Mr. Casey persisted, “might inspire a composer.” Taking tuning forks and a brass key out of the black bag, he surveyed Peter. “I guess you’re not a composer. A poet?”
An unintentionally painful question. He had tried newspapering, hoping to work his way up to music critic, but found the deadlines oppressive and the work unrewarding. A cynical old-timer, seeing his long blond hair parted down the middle, turned Keating into Keats, greeting him daily with “Good morning, Poet.” The derisive moniker stuck; he quit. “No,” he told the tuner, “I write mostly corporate stuff.”
“I knew you weren’t a composer, or you’d keep it in tune.”
“My wife plays, but she has a piano at school.” Meg gave up hopes of becoming a concert pianist before their marriage, but found satisfaction in coaching students from wretched dissonance into a well-received orchestra that won a regional prize now and then.
“She’s planning the big reunion, isn’t she?” He struck a tuning fork on the heel of his hand and began at middle C. “Getting Bethany Pond to come back was a coup. I have a few of her recordings.”
“Yes,” Peter said. “I’ll leave you to your work, and go back to mine.”
In his cave, he tried resolutely to put Beth out of mind, to frame corporate words. None came. All right, focus on the work next door. Most strings were wildly off-pitch. Mr. Casey tuned the middle octave, then started the next one up. Peter found himself waiting for each note. Middle C and the C above must resonate, and on up and down. Even untutored ears recognize the harmonic, as they do when an orchestra is tuned to the oboe’s pitch.
He might work this into the novel. The piano as metaphor for expectation. A lesson from a music professor, years ago: Most listeners hear when a dominant-seventh chord resolves into the tonic, or a minor-key variation returns to the major. Few could name it, but most recognize it. Western music is built on such anticipations, ears conditioned over centuries to await those resolutions.
He got back to the annual report, but his mind’s ear half-listened until each string in the living room was tightened to the right pitch; he didn’t get as much work done as he’d hoped. Mr. Casey finished, ran off a few scales, then began a pretty little piece, probably Mozart. Peter went into the living room as he finished, gave him a polite bit of applause, wrote him a check and showed him to the door.
After lunch, Peter got back into the rhythm of the corporate piece. He was almost finished when he heard Meg arrive: tires on the gravel drive, garage door opening and closing. He imagined her putting her school stuff away and changing into comfort clothes, maybe that clingy pants-suit. The clink of glasses and a ritual knock on his door announced that she had wine and cheese in the living room; he joined her. “Hello, love.”
She gave him a perfunctory kiss. “Sorry I’m late.” A huge, expectant smile. “Do I look any different?”
Twenty years is long enough to make any husband wary. “You always look wonderful to me.” He studied her. A figure almost as lissome as the day they’d met, waistline unsullied by pregnancies they had decided against. Brown eyes and pert nose and full lips. Perhaps tonight. Chestnut hair now released from its schoolmarm’s bun. Oh, yes. “You’ve been to the hairdresser’s.”
“You’re a dear to notice.” She pirouetted to make it curl and flounce on her shoulders. “I cancelled the after-school rehearsal to make the time. Told the kids it was a bonus for sounding good.”
“A bonus for me.” He blew her a kiss across a coffee table littered with programs for the weekend. “You’ll look great for your reunion.” He thumbed through one. Ads she had assembled: To the Class of ’88. Compliments of . . . A high school photo of Beth on the cover: Special guest, pianist Bethany Pond. Benefit the Scholarship Fund. “They should be grateful for the work you’ve put into it.”
“By the way, your tuner came. I guess you’re expecting Beth may stop by for a drink?”
“Oh, my. I should have told you.”
“She’s staying with us.”
“Staying here?” He had always wondered whether Meg knew. It had been torrid but transient. Beth broke it off, wanting a lover or husband who could afford to follow her around the world on concert tour. He’d met Meg on the rebound — and now counted himself fortunate. “When is she coming?”
“Tomorrow night. I’m sorry. I should have asked first. Are you okay with it?”
“Her staying here.”
“You know. Old flame and all that.”
“Oh.” He hesitated, studying the wine label. “I didn’t think you knew.”
“Peter! Everybody knew. You were carrying on in every empty classroom!”
“Well, that was a long time ago. Over.” He poured the wine. “I don’t need to rekindle old flames. I have you.” He clinked her glass. “To us.”
“To us.” She sipped, put the glass down and came around behind his chair to tip his head back and give him a kiss. A real kiss, one with promise. “It wasn’t my idea, you know. I had her booked at the hotel. She asked if she could stay here so she could practice.”
This was safer ground. “She has to practice?”
“She wants to spend most of Friday rehearsing her program for Saturday night. You won’t mind a little background music?”
“Wonderful. Today the piano tuner. Friday, scales. Never mind; I’ll manage. Let’s go to the kitchen and get some dinner. And then early to bed.”
“Dinner, at least. I have to do a little more work on the reunion.”
The next night Beth was ensconced in the guest room. Still a beautiful woman. Meg met her at the station after school, brought her home. What seemed a studied introduction: “You remember Peter, of course. My husband.”
“Of course.” Nonchalantly. “Hello, Peter.”
After dinner in the kitchen, Peter left them talking reunion and went to his den.
He had expunged those few weeks before Meg from his mind, or at least suppressed them. Now he wanted to recall them, get them down in black and white. He might develop a whole new episode in the novel. But his fingers remained poised over the keyboard like threatening but rainless clouds. He felt disloyal. Memories came, but words did not.
After a half-hour, he put the novel aside and began work on a new corporate commission, ad copy for an integrated line of kitchen appliances. Practical enough to focus the mind. He made some progress, and quit when he heard them in the living room on the way to bed.
“I should have guessed you’d have a Steinway,” Beth was saying as he joined them.
“Just tuned,” Meg said.
“You’re too thoughtful. May I?” She sat down, and ran off a few bars — Chopin? — that used the full length of the keyboard. “It’s lovely. I can’t wait to do some work in the morning.” She turned and saw Peter. “You won’t mind?”
“Of course not,” he lied. “But shall we call it a night now?” He put an arm around Meg, steering her toward the bedroom, wanting Beth to notice. A statement.
“You’re right,” Meg said. “I have school in the morning. Good night, Bethany,” she said over her shoulder.
“Good night, you two.”
They did not make love, though. In most marriages, there are less physical rituals of reassurance: a hip tucked solidly into a groin; a hand resting almost idly on that hip, or cupping a breast. A murmuring, a kiss, then a lazy rolling apart to find more comfortable positions for the night. It took only moments for Meg’s breathing to slow. After a time, he slept too.
She was up early. By the time he showered and shaved, she had the kitchen redolent of bacon. Beth sat in the breakfast nook, sipping some tea she’d brought. “Redbush,” she said to Meg. “You should try it. Rejuvenating.” He willed himself to stick to his granola-and-yogurt regimen, reading the newspaper while the two gabbed about recent travels, mutual friends, which classmates were coming, how to dress. He glanced up occasionally, half-listening. Appraising.
Most people their age showed the years: Bodies sag; faces grow creases. He and Meg were lucky, younger-looking than most of their contemporaries, but would hardly be mistaken for the short side of forty. Beth might: She could be in a women’s skin cream ad, the ones you think must surely be retouched. Or an ad for that tea she’d brought. Brows plucked thin and high over eyes unbetrayed by wrinkles or bags. Chin carried high and blonde hair brushed back to display a neck as smooth as alabaster, plunging into a peasant blouse that suggested still-taut breasts.
He and Meg kept the house cool and wore sweaters. “You must be chilly,” he interrupted. “Shall I turn the heat up a notch?”
“Thank you, I’m fine. Hot-blooded, I guess.” She gave him a half-smile and went on with Meg about some math teacher who was coming. He went back to his newspaper.
“Peter’s disciplined,” Meg said as she set off for school. “At his desk at eight-thirty.” What seemed a pointed suggestion that their guest shouldn’t expect much small talk. She came around the table to give him a peck on the forehead, but didn’t object when he turned it into a real kiss. “Just leave the dishes in the sink. Back about four.”
Being alone with Beth wasn’t as awkward as he feared. “You’re having a successful career,” he offered.
“Thank you, Peter. Yes. A lot of travel, though.”
“New York is your base?”
“Boston, actually, not so far from here. A nice condo, but I’m never home. Can’t keep even a cat, let alone a husband. I envy your settledness.”
“We’re comfortable. Meg enjoys her work. I do enough corporate work to help keep bread on the table, and have time for more creative writing.”
“You’ve published? I’m away so much I could easily miss a rave review.”
“A few short stories. Novel in the works. Speaking of which, it’s eight-thirty. Work time.” He stood. “You’re welcome to linger over the newspaper; I’ve read enough.” He poured himself a cup of coffee and popped it in the microwave for twenty seconds so its heat would linger. “There’s more in the pot.”
“Thanks, but I’m disciplined myself. Two hours every morning, more before a concert. I’ll just load the dishwasher for Meg and get to work; hope I won’t disturb your writing.”
The steaming coffee suffused his cave, a practiced Pavlovian prompt to work mode. He’d hardly gotten his mind wrapped around kitchen appliances, though, when he heard the piano next door. First scales, not calculated to inspire the writing mind but not intrusive. He got through a few paragraphs. Then she began the sonata. Beethoven. The Moonlight. Pianissimo. He could hear the left hand playing the octaves Mr. Casey had tuned, the right hand doing gentle triplets. The piano tuner had been less distracting. He persisted a few minutes, clicking at his own keyboard, but couldn’t concentrate. He slipped into the living room.
There was a trace of perfume that he hadn’t noticed in the kitchen. The matte black of the piano diffused the morning light. The lid, closed, mirrored garden colors. From the doorway she was half-profiled, facing away. Some pianists hunch over the keyboard. Beth sat with shoulders back, chin high, eyes open as though reading some invisible sheet music. Perfect posture maximizing physical assets. He made himself close his eyes to focus on the music. He should urge Meg to play at home now and then. He edged back toward the door to go back to work.
She must have caught the movement in the corner of her eye; she looked over. “Oh, hello there, Peter. I must be disturbing you. I should practice more softly.”
“No, please don’t stop. I have to get back to work. I was just enjoying anticipating where you’re going.”
Those carefully-shaped eyebrows arched quizzically, hands still fingering the keys. “What does that mean, please?”
“I’m probably saying it wrong. Professor Schmidt’s theory: Great music leads us to anticipate the next passages, almost yearn for them, be satisfied when they appear.”
“Of course. It’s been years since I’ve thought about old Schmidt.” She smiled archly. “But if I don’t meet your anticipations?”
An intentional play on words? He would ignore that. “I’ll enjoy the variations.” He had the words out before hearing his own unintended double entendre.
She laughed. “I’d forgotten how clever a wordsmith you are. Come sit for a minute.”
“No, really, I should get back to work.”
She didn’t stop playing, but shifted to her right on the wide bench. “Peter, I won’t bite!”
“Only for a minute.” He sat down. At the computer, he always curled into the keyboard like a comma. Now he put his hands on the piano bench to force himself into better posture, conscious of hers. “Right there, for instance. You’ve drifted into another key, but I know you’ll come back to the home key.”
“”You’re playing this tomorrow night?”
“I am. He wrote it for a student, you know.”
“I remember,” he said. “Poor lovesick Beethoven. In Hungary, right?
“When she wouldn’t marry him, he went back to Vienna.”
“Never returned to Budapest?”
“We don’t know. There are sometimes second chances.” She paused, hands poised. “Here’s a variation. He’s turned the melody upside down. But you can still recognize it?”
He could because she’d told him. “And I can anticipate that you’ll turn it right-side up again.” She laughed. He waited, and heard it come back. “Ah, there it is. I can go now.”
“No, stay for the finale. Presto agitato.”
The music turned stormy, but still familiar. Emphatic chords in the left hand. She leaned into him to reach them, her thigh warm against his hand. Her fingers strong, sure amidst the black and white keys. Her breasts were creamy. He found himself waiting for the bass chords, aroused. He took his hand off the bench. He ought to get back to work. Put the appliances aside, and get some of this into the novel.
She came to Beethoven’s soft conclusion. “Now the moonlight.”
“I remember. Like a Fantasy, he called it.”
“You’re good. Someone later gave it the name we all know.” Her fingers rested on the keys as the final notes faded into the silence.
“That was lovely,” he said. “Thank you.”
“No, thank you. I’ll take a break and have a walk in your lovely garden. Perhaps you could name the flowers for me.”
He demurred. “I’m afraid it’s Meg who’s the gardener. I’ll get back to work.”
In his den, he tried to capture the last few minutes, carefully choosing to write in third person, searching for words to describe the moments beside her on the bench. After a time, he heard her come back to the piano, a piece he couldn’t place.
They had soup and a sandwich at noon. “That music after your break. Was it Beethoven too?”
“You have a good ear. The Appassionata. In case I’m asked for an encore.”
She went for another walk in the garden after lunch. He made himself work on appliances. After a time, she came back to the Beethoven. He kept working. She quit when Meg got home, earlier than usual, giving him some respite; he made real progress.
They were gossiping over coffee, Meg still in school clothes, when he emerged. “You had a good day at school?”
“Not bad. The year-end concert’s coming along, but I’m sure you heard better music here. Bethany didn’t disturb you? You got some work done?”
“Made some progress this afternoon, yes.”
“I’m afraid I ruined his morning.” Beth gave him a frowny-face, eyebrows beetled, lips pouted, then turned back to Meg. “We talked music theory. He’s pretty good.”
“He worked at it when he thought he might end up marrying a concert pianist, or becoming a newspaper critic.”
“But he’s forgotten a lot,” Peter said, finding his way back into the conversation. “Some of it recollected, though. Theme and variation. Anticipation. Yearnings.” He stopped; he hadn’t intended to go down that road. “Tell Beth more about your orchestra.”
After dinner they took brandies to the living room. “Meg, why don’t you two play together for me?”
“I couldn’t! Too rusty.”
“We might try,” Beth said. “In our first year at conservatory we played Brahms’ Lullaby together. I’ll bet you still have the sheet music somewhere.” She stood.
“I don’t need it; I’ll remember.” Meg went to the piano with her, taking the left-hand side. “Good music before bed.”
He recognized it. Guten Abend, gute Nacht. Good evening, good night. Meg wasn’t as regal at the piano, but was nonetheless a very pretty woman. All three of them sang the final words: Morgen fruh, wenn Gott willt, Wirst du wieder geweckt. They applauded each other.
“A nice evening,” Beth said. “God willing, see you in the morning.”
“But not too fruh,” Peter said. “We don’t get up until eight on Saturdays, and you have your concert.”
“I’ll be sure you’re geweckt,” Meg said. “I’ll knock on your door.”
“Thank you. Gute Nacht.”
He hummed the tune as he and Meg went to their room, remembering more of the words. “How about we schlupf’ unter die Deck? Slip under the covers?” She was at the bathroom mirror in her nightgown, brushing her hair. He gave her a kiss on the back on the neck, his hand sliding down.
“Of course, dear, but then to sleep; tomorrow’s a busy day. Or do you need to be distracted?”
“It wouldn’t hurt. She’s still a pretty woman. But so is my wife.”
“You’re sweet. A little sag under the jaw, but never mind the tea, I could hide that if I kept my chin up in the air.”
Oh, a little jealousy. An unanticipated collateral: Might envy make the heart grow fonder? He nuzzled under her chin. “Your chin tastes fine to me.”
She turned unexpectedly to give him a long kiss, pressing against him while reaching for the light switch. “Come to bed, love.” In the darkened bedroom, she turned the covers back and stood, enough starlight through the uncurtained picture window to silhouette her as she slipped the nightgown off. “We’ll sleep in a little longer in the morning.”
Appassionata, he thought as she began unbuttoning his pajamas. She wanted no foreplay, as aroused as he and quickly astride him, her breasts soft but nipples hard as he reached up to hold her, share her rhythm. It had been years since she initiated their lovemaking, and he managed to hold back, savoring every thrust, until they came together like a starburst. After a time, they rolled over to lie belly to belly as he softened and slipped away. “I love you, Meg,” he murmured as he kissed her gently.
“And I love you too,” she whispered back. “Remember that.”
After breakfast, the two women busied themselves in the kitchen, making hors d’oeuvres, reminiscing about conservatory days. Retreating to his den, he finished a good first draft of the appliances piece, earning himself a few hours to work on the novel. Finding a place for a piano tuner didn’t seem too contrived. After lunch, Beth ran through the two sonatas on the evening’s program, then she and Meg both went for naps. He found where a pianist might fit in, and tried the first few paragraphs several times. Unsatisfied, he left all the words on the page, unfinished, and went to the bedroom to join the nap brigade. Meg didn’t stir as he eased onto the bed.
The reunion turned out well. Meg had rented the church hall, bigger than needed but the only building in town with decent acoustics, she said. A few blue and white crepe streamers, the school colors, for atmosphere; tables of six clustered around a hardwood dance floor to be used later. She’d urged everyone to bring a folding-poster display of then-and-now photos. Most had; they were on tables at the back of the room, along with yearbooks and trophies.
There were more than a hundred, mostly couples, maybe a dozen singles. After an hour to get reacquainted over hors d’oeuvres and a cash bar, an ample potluck supper. At their table were a couple and a bachelor he didn’t know, but chatted with. A local combo played mostly oldies and Big Band numbers. Beethoven was definitely not background music; Beth’s performance would be the grand finale.
Before that, though, Meg had left time for more socializing, and dancing. When the dishes were cleared, and most people had refreshed their drinks, she had him take her out on the floor to get people up and moving, then went back to table-hopping, gossiping with classmates.
Beth knew everyone too, of course, and did her share of making the rounds, then saw him sitting alone. “May I have the next dance?” They were playing an oldie, Begin the Beguine. A bossa nova. She took his hand to be led to the floor, then turned into his arms. “Just like you said about the sonata,” she murmured.
“You lead well. It’s easy to anticipate where you’re going,” she laughed up at him. “Expectations. Isn’t that what you said it’s about?”
“Of course. I don’t think we ever danced.”
“No, we didn’t,” she said. “Listen to the words.” She softly sang along with the combo’s vocalist: and now when I hear people curse the chance that was wasted/ I know but too well what they mean./ Oh yes let them begin the beguine. . . .
There was a tap on his shoulder. Meg. “May I cut in? I want to dance with my husband again before you play.”
“Perfect timing,” Beth said graciously. “I need to visit the powder room before my performance.” She gave him a smile. “Thank you, Peter.”
He was glad for Meg’s intrusion; they danced very close. Another oldie, a fox trot. Was it coincidence that she sang along, too? Night and Day, you are the one. He hummed with her, then pulled back to do a few fancy steps. They had always danced well together, and he could see other couples watching admiringly; they won a little round of applause as the song finished. Meg, blushing attractively, let him lead her back to the table, but had him sit down while she went to the bandstand to do the introduction.
“Many of us remember Bethany Pond as the most musical person in our class. She’s gone on to an international career as a concert pianist. We’re delighted to have her back.”
People were mostly talked out, welcoming a chance to sit, and the Moonlight Sonata was like another favorite oldie. No words, but he felt as though he could hum the whole thing, anticipate every note. When she reached the finale, presto agitato, leaning into the bass notes, he could almost feel her thigh against his hand. He pushed the thought aside.
The combo could have gone home, but had stayed to listen, and led a standing ovation, inviting an encore. Beth played the final movement of the Appassionata as urgently as the name deserved, and earned more applause. Meg went up to thank her, thank everyone for coming, call it a night.
It was late when they got home, but Meg and Beth poured nightcaps and sat in the living room comparing notes on whom they’d talked with, what people were doing, who had aged most. He stayed with them for a few minutes, then yawned and headed for bed. They talked long enough that he hardly felt Meg slip in beside him.
Sunday they slept in. He succumbed to a breakfast of waffles and bacon. A lapse of discipline, he scolded himself silently. They read the newspaper in the living room, passing the sections around, admiring the sunny profusion of flowers through the glass doors. The two women strolled the garden, then came back to try a few more four-hand pieces. At Meg’s suggestion, they drove to visit a recently-restored historic homestead a half-hour away, then had a late-afternoon dinner at a very good restaurant where Beth insisted on grabbing the check.
Back home, he read a book in the living room while Beth practiced for her next performance back in the city, another Beethoven sonata, and Meg went through her yearbook adding notes. They had brandy. They went to bed early. “Straight to bed,” Meg warned as she shut the bedroom door. “I’m exhausted.”
“It’s been just lovely,” Beth said to Meg at breakfast Monday morning. “I’ve enjoyed your home, and your writer husband — and your piano. A superbly warm instrument, in perfect tune, in that perfect setting. If I were invited, I’d stay another day.”
He looked up from his newspaper. Meg had turned back to the bacon for a moment. My perfect-hostess wife, he thought, can’t possibly want to leave me alone with this woman another day. He would help her out. “Isn’t it tonight that your cousin from Indiana comes to visit?” he invented.
She must have gotten the offered fiction, but didn’t seize on it. “No, that isn’t until Tuesday,” she said, and turned to Beth. “You’d certainly be welcome. “You don’t need to get back to the city?”
“Not until tomorrow. It would be nice to have another quiet evening with you two.”
“You make yourself at home,” Meg said, “and enjoy the piano.” She paused. “Peter hasn’t seemed to complain, so I guess you’re not disturbing his writing. I’ll try to slip away from school as early as I can.”
“Wonderful!” Beth said.
“I might even get back for lunch.”
He could not remember when Meg ever came home from school for lunch. He excused himself, gave her a peck, went to his den and closed the door. The unfinished new page in the novel stared at him. He tried a few more words. It seemed an eternity before he heard the garage door roll open, the car start, the scrunch of gravel as Meg backed down the drive. The engine sound faded. He heard Beth take dishes from the sink and put them into the washing machine. Her footsteps came down the hall into the living room, then went beyond, perhaps to the guest bedroom.
Or she was spinning a web? The image crossed his mind.
At last he heard her come to the piano and begin the Appassionata. He willed himself to write a few paragraphs. They didn’t come out well. He would risk a peek into the living room. He wondered: Do flies not see the web? He half-expected to see gossamer strands from the edges of the room to the piano. There were none.
She must have been watching for him. “Good morning again!” She moved this time at the bass end of the bench, leaving room for him at the treble keys. “Come,” she commanded.
He sat down on the bench, but with his back to the piano. The morning sun sparkled on dewy flowers. “Good morning indeed.”
She smiled, lips slightly parted. Their eyes met. Her fingers led Beethoven into a dominant-seventh chord, then paused. “Can you anticipate what comes next?”
He stood. “I can,” he said.