"I dunno how ye stand it. How the hell aren't ye deaf by now?"
When I turned away from the keys, there at my right elbow and only slightly taller than the bench I sat on, was the figure of a gnome as if carved from a knotty old pine.
Her features were stubborn, she had weathered against her will. The powerful jaw and cheekbones still jutted, but the cheeks themselves had caved in, a face of an emptying hourglass. Her cotton-wool hair was old lady-standard, but unlacquered, maybe tamed by hand. The head itself had sunk in between her shoulders so that her long, rubbery ears could rest near her collarbone.
The eyebrows were thatchy black though, and sprung up a bit as I looked at her, as if surprised for us both. Hard eyes, a little filmy, but sharp as pub darts and flaring with a hard humor besides.
"How do I stand it...?," I asked her. Going into it blindly seemed the thing to do. I kept on playing, but kept my focus on the knotty gnome at my side.
Her mouth had pursing lines radiating from it, like a balloon at its knot. It pulled at a corner into a thin smile, and revealed the edges of a moustache I'd have been proud of, had it been mine.
"What yer playin'. Sour notes, the lot of them. Can ye not hear it for yerself?," she said.
"Sour...?," I asked, and felt like a goddamn parrot.
"Not ye, boy. Ye play fine. And I don't know the fahrst thing about music, but that pianah's gone sour. Don't they tuuune the damn thing?"
I smiled at her, kept my hands going but what they kept was time. Noodling. The piano wasn't out of tune, as far as I could tell. It was a beauty of a cherry wood Steinway, and the charity house that owns it shows the instrument the most reverent care. The Steinway is tuned even if only pushed across the room. I show up now and then, and revere it some more. I touch it a little sweeter, a little brighter than I do other pianos. It's easier to get happily lost on that one, when the landmine keys don't stick and others don't plunk or twang, and the damn thing just purrs and shimmers for you. That's rare.
But to my knotty gnome, it was sour. Or maybe she said so just to provoke me. You can usually tell a sour soul from a cranky one. She was the latter. She was a prehistoric ballbuster. I liked her already.
"Let's just keep that between us. Doesn't seem as if the others have caught on anyway," I told her.
It was an East Side cocktail crowd accustomed to fundraisers and honorary dinners. The vodka-sodas are quick, the scotch-rocks sipped, the Pinot Grigio's count their calories. Not a fundraiser this time, but instead honoring a Monsignor. The old boy had decades of service to this charity to his credit, and fine, noble work it was. That night was his reward. That, and a limited edition of Steuben Glass. As I spied him across the room, mild and pale and cheerful to be glad-handed and shoulder-hugged for photos, I figured the Monsignor was limited edition too.
"I like what ye play. Don't often hear songs like that," she allowed, and gestured at the keys with her glass, seltzer fizzing.
"With a 'c' or a 'k'?"
"With a 'c'. You have to be taller and blonder to deserve the 'k'."
I'd wanted to get more of a laugh out of her. Amy found it funny, but she skipped the laugh. Somehow I felt that all the jokes had to be hers, and that was fine by me.
"Love muuusic, always have. Calms a person, don't ye think? Can't play meself. Too poor as kids. But I love it. Hear it at church for the most part."
"The organist?," I assumed. I wasn't sure why I was interested, but went with it.
Amy nodded absently. "And choral director, yah. He's lousy." She shook her head and the lined mouth furrowed. "I tell him it's sour too, though that's him and not the pianah."
"Got a Steinway, have they?," she asked, eyeing the cherry wood. I nodded, told her they had a few.
"Oh. Doin' well then, are they?" She wasn't asking anymore.
Amy was staring at my hands, while I hadn't looked at mine at all. I was looking at her: the limp, polyester black-and-white dotted blouse, the rounded sensible shoes, the pride pushing back against the slouch in her spine.
Shifting over on the left of the bench, I offered Amy room to sit. She hesitated, blinked a bit, before puckering her mouth and shaking her head and insisting she didn't need it.
"Is that what brings you here tonight then, Amy? The church," I asked her.
"St. Monica's, yah." She was less pointed than before, airy. Was it the song? I wondered if I should tune back into it, at least for her sake. Then she roused. "Ever been?"
"No," I told her. "Near here isn't it?"
"Sure. Between First and York. Grand place. There almost ev'ry day."
"So you know the Monsignor well then," I ventured.
Amy shrugged and her ears vanished. Across the murmuring room and crisscross of waiters, the man of the hour was laughing at a shared joke.
I didn't want to lose the thread. Again, I didn't know why. So I went with the blandest thing that leaped to mind and hoped she'd bite at it. I asked Amy where she was from. Those thatchy black brows crinkled.
"Good God, can ye not HEAR it?," she barked contentedly.
"Glasgow," she declared, and I'd swear her chin popped a few defiant inches.
"And how do you like living here?," I asked her, happy to play the idiot.
"Eh. Not sure. Haven't decided if I'm gonna stay."
"How long have you been here?"
"Sixty-three years," Amy said, quick and flat and twinkling. She was a pro, an old ham, I had her number.
"Best not to rush into things," I said. "Miss Glasgow?"
She shrugged. I wondered if I'd given her some sadness. Then Amy spread her arms wide.
"Judges didn't like me in my swimsuit."
I squinted at her. Then I laughed through my nose.
"Children?," I asked, still laughing.
"Three," Amy announced. "But I REFUSE to have any more!"
I turned even further from the keys, but kept my hands hopping. Amy's pub dart eyes met mine and her chuckles were breathy.
"Eric, yer not very good at this, are ye?," she said finally with affection and a bony hand on my shoulder.
The cocktail hour was thinning. The charity's hosts benignly shepherded guests to their tables. One of the hosts leaned on the piano and asked if there was any musical cue that inspired people to take their seats. I thought about it and said no, mostly it was intended to get people out of them. Having tried, he went off to make a plea from the podium.
From the milling guests, a man in a mud-brown suit emerged and stopped next to Amy. He was unremarkable, a man vacant in his own suit. She seemed to recognize him. He mumbled that it was time to take their seats for dinner.
Amy raised a lean hand and patted him on his lapel, her face turned up and mouth moving in a light stammer, buying a minute or two. "Okay, okay," she relented, "I've been talking to this young man, I'll be right there."
The empty mud-brown suit melted away. Amy placed her free hand on my forearm, leaning on it as she came closer to me over the bench. We were chummy co-conspirators now, escapees who had never left the room.
"Eric, if I asked ye for a song, would ye play it just for me?," Amy asked, demure as a little girl on a lap.
"Anything. Name it," I nodded, facing forward.
"I've asked the lousy pianist at St. Monica's to play it for me a hundred times, but he never knows what I'm talkin' about. Maybe ye will..."
"God but it would please me if ye could play 'Far, Far Away'?," Amy asked, and without seeing her face, I could feel the rascally curl in her smile.
I laughed of course, and she launched into her dry, breathy chuckles. Amy mock-slapped my forearm and ably straightened herself.
"Yer still not very good at this, my boy," she said evenly as Mud-Suit returned, and she took his elbow as he led her off to their table.
"We'll finish after the dinner!," I called out to Amy. With a sliver of her profile to me, she nodded and fanned the back of her hand over her shoulder in light farewell.
Amy and I didn't cross paths again, nor did I spot her. I had a date clear across town, and my gig had wrapped late. The clock was against me.
Besides there was no point in looking for her.
I hadn't yet had time to improve my game, as she'd pointed out.
© Eric Yves Garcia 2013