The first change was they were talking to each other—the whole group, together, when ordinarily they only talked in twos and threes. One of the children said it was likely a car accident that was keeping them, and the idea caught on quickly. Soon, in this story of theirs, all the teachers had died. Piano music was at risk of being snuffed out entirely.
They were an immodest crowd of thirty-seven children, the mingled collections of four different teachers, and they’d come to play a recital at the nursing home. Those who wanted to be there had a variety of reasons: Len, for example, hated the piano but hated baseball more, and the recital fell on baseball day; Pauline hated the piano but hated family fishing trips more, so hers was a similar case. Margaret had worked up a pleasant something or other with grace notes and was anxious to show it off. Gareth had mastered a seventh chord, which he agreed was rather fun, regardless of whether it landed in the right place. Samantha was excited about wearing her cape. Her parents had ruled it was for special occasions only.
But the combined enthusiasm of these passionate few could not match Francine’s. She was on the brink of something important, a fact she was waiting, indeed desperate, to unveil. But the moment needed to be right, and thus far it hadn’t come. Her parents worked late and the resulting hours of isolation were just right for perfecting this miraculous thing she was brewing. What was it—some union of Thelonious Monk and Bach? Some betterment of Bartók? Something rousing yet delicate that would make her audience sob with pain and happiness? Yes. And while her name on the program was attached to “Ode to Joy,” the humble rendition she’d been playing weekly for her teacher was not to be: Today’s recital was the moment she’d been waiting for, and very little in her life would remain untouched in the wake of it.
“You tell us, then,” said one of the smaller girls to a bigger one. The bigger one had just dismissed the smaller one’s idea of taking up a collection from the audience to hire a detective.
“Let’s wait,” said the bigger girl, who was generally studious and slow to act.
“It’s quarter to three,” said a boy.
The words lit Francine’s insides with fear. The recital was supposed to be at two-thirty.
“Are you sure?” said a boy to the statement Francine hadn’t made.
“What do you mean?” she said, startled.
He pointed at Margaret, the girl next to her. “Are you sure it was supposed to be two-thirty?”
“That’s what she said,” said Margaret, pointing at Francine.
Samantha stood engulfed in her cape. Her parents were out there in the room already, mingling with the residents, so everyone whose presence mattered was accounted for; and she waited, sleepy and unconcerned, gnawing the insides of an orange.
“I thought it was three-thirty,” said a voice from the back of the group.
“It is,” said another voice. “It’s three-thirty.”
“Isn’t that what we’re talking about?” said someone a bit behind the times.
“I think they went in their own cars, and I don’t think all the cars would have crashed all together,” said someone else.
“Where does it say the time? Does anyone have a program?” asked Margaret.
No one had a program, not even Francine, who could picture its blue front and structured insides, with tiny lettering to accommodate the thirty-seven names. The playing order had worked its way into her memory during the dozens of times she’d read it. But she searched her mind for numbers and didn’t see any. Two-thirty, she thought. Two-thirty, two-thirty, two-thirty. She couldn’t remember having seen it anywhere.
“What do we do?” said Len to Francine.
Francine was sixteen. Her age and height made her an imposing figure among them, most of whom were under thirteen. Though she was generally silent, her large boots and strange, leaning posture gave her words gravity. There were no adults around, as they’d all taken their seats in the audience. Who would the children ask but Francine?
But she only stood with her face serious, and behind that serious face were a hundred miseries, a thousand thwarted desires.
“They really should be here,” said a calm older child.
“They’re dead,” said young Rita, and she cried into a handkerchief.
“They’re all dead,” said Barnaby, to clarify.
Even at sixteen, Francine tucked in her stuffed crocodile carefully at night and kissed the top of his fuzzy head three times. While this crocodile dedication did not help her with her grades, or with athletics, it did result in a highly-structured approach to dinner: vegetables to the left of rice to the left of casserole, eaten counter-clockwise. It made for closet doors that stayed tightly closed at all times, so thorough was she in checking for avoidable space between the door and wall (five times, seven, ten, twenty, thirty-three, and good). So the piano business was nothing new. She’d worried a lifetime’s worth over every recital piece she’d played—worried if it was too fast or too slow, if the pressure of her fingers was right, if others heard in it the same magnificence she did and what she might do if they didn’t. She’d cycled mistakes through her mind a dozen times—one dozen for each mistake to eradicate the possibility of its return. When she came up with the idea to swap meager “Ode to Joy” for her own composition, that composition won all her loving focus. So what if this focus hid her dismay? And so what if it was not a transitory dismay, but something continuous and hard to access—a pain in the inner bone? Her composition was here now, the first of many, the start of a new mind. Everyone would recognize the secret importance she carried. Things could change for her in a hundred ways.
Samantha was still eating her orange, and everyone was miserable with jealousy; dead teachers or no, this waiting around was extremely boring.
“It’s quarter to three,” said the same boy as before.
The waiting area was not very big, with seating for only a handful, and the children circled past each other uncomfortably. Two of the smaller ones began playing tic-tac-toe with paper and pen they’d found in a drawer, and a discussion started up about whether a different configuration would or wouldn’t change the game in any particular way.
Someone said it would, but someone else said it wouldn’t.
“You can put one box in the middle, or two or three or four. It doesn’t matter,” said Len.
“You can’t,” shouted one of the smaller girls from across the room.
“There’s ‘tic-tac-toe’ and then there’s ‘tic-tac-toc,’ and they’re not the same,” said Pauline.
“I want to play tic-tac-toc,” said a boy.
“You’re dusty,” said a girl, and she looked at her shoes as she said it, so it was impossible to know whom she was talking to. But it was true, regardless: As the children bumped around, the curtains and upholstery released clouds of dust into the dim light.
“The floor’s dirty,” said a boy, kicking at the paisley carpet.
“There’s an old plate under there.”
“I won’t play tic-tac-toe. I want to play tic-tac-toc.”
Francine’s worries were so much greater than this nonsense.
“I’m tired. I want to go home.”
“They’re never coming.”
“They hate us.”
“They hate you.”
“I’d rather be outside,” said someone in a frilly dress.
“I’m leaving right now!” said someone who didn’t move.
“They’d better show up, or no one will be around anymore.”
Francine drew back the dense curtain and peeked into the main room. Not ten feet from the piano, the nursing home residents ate bread and greens. Parents waited in the room’s stillness and heat. Caregivers shuffled by with trays, mistaking parents for residents, bumping into furniture in the gloom. The sight of everyone congregated there, with their slumped-over heads, spoke to her of a great wrong—a wrong whose face was that bumping, that slumping, those restless mortals in front of her, and those restless fools behind. “What’s going on?” she said. But it was a great calamity they were all caught up in, that much was certain; and that calamity was much too sneaking a creature to misstep or slip up, and as such, they were all doomed.
“We’re doomed,” said Gareth.
The solution came over Francine in a flash, exactly as it should. She took James by the shoulders and attempted to thrust him to the other side of the curtain, as if doing so would ensure his prompt seating at the piano, his elegant commencement. “Go!” she said to James. “Go.”
The program had been ordered, in terms of pieces, from the easiest to the most difficult; in terms of students, it was worst to best—language less frowned upon than one might think among these teachers, who were largely a tired group, frustrated with their students’ lack of finger control, or insight, or whatever it was that kept them rehashing their mistakes. James, a six-year-old with a song scarcely longer than a few notes, would be followed by Alejandra, ten, whose persistent hand drumming did not translate well to the keyboard. Next were five others, including Samantha, who at that moment, wished she could walk up the wall like a fly; and then came Francine. Perhaps she had not considered the implications of her position—eighth out of thirty-seven—or perhaps she had.
James looked at her with his wide eyes.
“Go!” she said.
James wrapped himself in the curtain to protest.
“Alejandra, you’re next,” said Francine. “Alejandra, go!”
Everyone was diseased with waiting. Everyone was falling apart. But rhetoric was not Francine’s strong suit, and she had no tools with which to explain her urgency. What was she looking at? What was it she saw? Was it something to do with disappointment, with spice cupboards, with weekends, with plastics? Should Alejandra have asked, Francine would have merely towered there in her large boots.
But Alejandra only shook her head, hard—all the way left and then all the way right. And she seemed to find a solace there, standing like an oscillating fan.
“We can’t start without the teachers here,” said Jarmal.
“Yes,” said Francine. “We can.”
“I’m pretty sure we’re supposed to wait,” said Sylvia, and Rex nodded his head—with vigor, to show his agreement was not merely polite.
“They’ll be here,” said one of the calm older girls. “Let’s just wait.”
“It’d be weird,” said Ava, who was very much hoping the teachers would never arrive, sparing her the misery of performing the Sondheim song she was fully aware of having ruined. In her pocket was a Pac Man Pez dispenser, and she liked to open his mouth and then close it.
“No, it’s…” Francine had too much to say, which was, as usual, resulting in a drought of words. The other students were wrong, wrong, wrong, that much was clear. Beyond that curtain people needed something. They, the piano children, could help in some way. It was made clear by the spotted arms of the worn sofa that currently held Gareth, Margaret, Rashi, and Ed. It was made clear by the smallness of the room and its smell of mildewed cloth and paper, and by the noisy mess Samantha was making with the pith of her orange. A caregiver stuck her head in accidentally, thinking the room they were in was some other room, and the look on her face made something clear as well. Francine didn’t know if it was there in life or only there in her head, but somewhere outside that room was a lament, a withering melody.
It was up to her. She was the hero after all.
A clatter of post-lunch dishes caught everyone’s attention, so when she brushed back the curtain and walked around residents and dodged wheeled carts and reached her arms to the piano and sat there, no one seemed to notice. She wobbled on the seat a minute and looked at the people. She thought she saw her parents’ faces transition into surprise; they were sitting toward the back, and they were talking to someone, enjoying some story—here at her most profound moment. The surprise tainted their eyebrows, at least she thought it was their eyebrows, only briefly; they re-engaged with their story, and a sudden exhaustion threatened to send Francine back to the waiting room. But her parents would be jarred from their complacency soon enough.
She positioned her fingers high over the keys and brought them down with a bang. It was how the piece began. Some people started in their chairs, and a caregiver jostled a cup of water. Some of the residents looked up, and some did not. Several bangs followed. Then, when she’d wrapped up the banging, she ran her fingers up and down and in all directions, which was precisely what she’d designed the piece to do. She played As and Bs, over and over in succession, and she played Cs in abundance, and she played sharps and flats without concern. She played single notes by themselves, and she played groups of notes all at once.
The people looked around, and at each other, for explanation. A resident suggested to no one in particular that someone turn the music down. Francine’s parents looked at their laps. The other parents did more or less the same, though some craned their heads past those in front, curious; ah yes, it was merely Francine, the tall one who didn’t talk; the one with the large boots. And they went back to their conversations, looking forward to the next phase of their lives in which this noise will have stopped.
Unfortunately for them, her piece was quite long; and in this unrestricted state, where she was not only performing but also saving the lives of everyone around her, she abandoned all effort to squeeze it into the two-minute slot she’d anticipated. She played and played, and she reached far to one side and then the other, and she settled her fingers in all sorts of surprising places. She was uncovering a world of satisfaction with a complicated, variegated soul, and it was more multifaceted and intricate than she could have hoped. (To discover the wovenness of life! To see and experience it for herself!) The longer she played, the more she uncovered, and the closer she was to setting things right.
This went on and on.
Several people decided it was a good time to use the restroom, or perhaps unwind their uncomfortable legs outside where the door would close behind them, and it’s possible one such person was Francine’s mother—though the room was dark there in the back, and it was hard to know for sure any particular individual’s comings and goings.
The other children sat and stood, respectively, in that back room, no longer peeking around the curtain, and no longer particularly concerned about this business unrolling before them. It was only Francine, after all, and her life did not particularly affect theirs, which was a relief.
There was a commotion in the lobby and suddenly the four teachers burst in. The children had been right, and the children had been wrong: There was a setback; it was a car’s fault; the teachers had opted to travel together and were thus mutually delayed; it was indeed an unfortunate set of circumstances, a coincidence; no one was dead; the recital was not at two-thirty, nor three-thirty, but three. They were decidedly late, as it was now nearly a quarter past three, but not so much that they could have anticipated the mountain of sound they’d walk into. The teachers took in the situation without a word. They might have spoken to each other quite comfortably, so loud was Francine’s playing, and they might have chuckled together over the spectacle of it. But instead they saw at once that the moment called for understanding.
And so they waited and waited and waited, adjusting bits of clothing—a spotted scarf, a pied tie. The parents and caregivers began to catch their eyes, looking for someone to come to the rescue. Meanwhile, Francine’s song repeated itself. It was comfortable with its repetition, and it did not become better or worse.
Everyone looked to the teachers for help.
“Let me think about this a minute,” said one of the teachers.
Finally she stepped forward and put her hands on Francine’s shoulders. “Francine,” she said. “Francine. Francine. Francine. Francine.” The room had gotten hotter and more yellow; it was properly late afternoon. “Francine, Francine.” The warmth of the teacher’s hands, and the gentleness and goodwill they demonstrated, stirred Francine, but such emotion manifested only as volume, as more notes and more key shifts, as more sharps and more flats. “Francine. Francine. Francine. Francine. Francine.” The people in their chairs were restless now. Their eyes snapped with meaning, and they gestured with frustration. They welcomed the respite the teacher offered, and they hastened it with a frown and shake of the head. “Francine, Francine!” So the teacher held up her arms, high above her own head, and clapped as loud as she could, which started up the others in clapping—the parents, the other teachers, the caregivers, the residents, the children, a twosome of visitors in the lobby—and very soon the room was full of it. Francine startled. The clapping drowned out every regret, every flicker of hopelessness, every fleeting uncertainty, and every bit of grief, and there was nothing for her to do but lift herself from the piano seat and stand.