Leslie Johnson’s fiction has been broadcast on NPR and published in literary journals such as Threepenny Review, Glimmer Train, december, Cimarron Review, Third Coast, and Colorado Review. Her work was selected for the 2017 Pushcart Prize and will appear in the Pushcart Press anthology Love Stories for Turbulent Times. She teaches at the University of Hartford and leads workshops for the CT Office of the Arts.
At the age of thirty-eight, Bethany started piano lessons. She’d won a month of free half-hour lessons at a holiday fundraiser for the Community School of the Arts. She’d gone to the festive auction as a guest of the man she’d been dating at the time, a professor of political science at Eastern Connecticut State University, where Bethany worked in the admissions office. He was a vegan and a player of the mandolin and an all-around supporter of local environmental initiatives and authentic arts in the community, which were all such admirable things to be, and Bethany used to remind herself of this as she sat through Friday night open-mics sponsored by the University where the professor and some of his colleagues liked to perform their original poetry. Once she pretended to be sick and snuck away and met up with the other secretaries at Margaritaville. They didn’t make it through January as a couple, but in March, during another lingering Connecticut winter, she came across the certificate for piano lessons in the basket of catalogues and magazines she kept in her apartment’s dining nook.
She decided to cash it in. It struck her as a whimsical thing to do. That was one of the criticisms she’d received from the professor when they’d argued after New Year’s and broken up: that as a person she was neither serious nor whimsical enough. Was she supposed to be both at the same time?
She’d never played an instrument before in her life. In middle school, when all students had the choice of joining an introductory band class, she’d opted instead for “film appreciation,” because that’s what the basketball team signed up for, and Bethany had had a crush on the point guard.
She’d doubted she would actually stick with it when she showed up for her first lesson at a large Colonial home in a nice neighborhood in the town of Woodlin. The teacher, Mrs. Calendar, an older but not elderly lady, seemed surprised to see Bethany when she opened the door.
“Is your child here?” she asked.
“I don’t have a child,” Bethany said. “I’m here for me. For my first lesson.”
“Oh! I teach children. I thought from your phone message you were scheduling for your child. Your son or your daughter.”
Bethany shuffled the soles of her shoes on the braided welcome mat. “It was for me.” She held up her certificate, which Mrs. Calendar accepted with a pleasant but bemused smile.
“Well, come in then, dear.” She opened the door a bit more widely, wide enough for a child to enter, and Bethany thought maybe she should just leave, yet found herself pushing in and stepping into the foyer, shrugging off her parka and hanging it on a beautiful brass coat rack.
“Follow me, please,” said Mrs. Calendar, “to the piano room.”
And now, here Bethany was, three weeks later, sitting in Mrs. Calendar’s piano room at the end of her fourth lesson – her final one for free. In less than a month she’d learned “Mandarin Masquerade” from the Level One Book of Songs and could play a full scale in G major, one hand at a time, crossing her fingers over and under in the right places. Playing smoothly with both hands together was still challenging for her, but Mrs. Calendar said not to worry, not at all, as she was so very close to synchronicity, amazingly so for a beginner. Mrs. Calendar had taught her how to hold her hands on the keyboard as if they were cupping invisible balls, the size of tennis balls but not as heavy as tennis balls, not yellow or fuzzy like tennis balls either, but invisible spheres of rainbow colored light that softly lifted and energized Bethany’s palms and fingertips. And Mrs. Calendar had said that Bethany’s hands, in their keyboard position, had the most naturally graceful poise of any beginning student Mrs. Calendar had ever seen.
She had found herself coming home from work and practicing on the electric keyboard she’d bought for thirty-five dollars at Best Buy. She had found herself at the office on Monday mornings already looking forward to Wednesday evening – to her piano lesson.
Bethany was now sitting on the love seat in the piano room, waiting for Cookie Time. So far, Cookie Time had always lasted for precisely fifteen minutes following the conclusion of her evening lesson, including these moments of waiting for Mrs. Calendar to return from the kitchen with the cookies. Bethany’s eyes drifted with ease around the piano room: the walls hung with woven pastel tapestries; the plush, padded carpeting wall to wall; the mosaic ceiling light in shades of mother-of-pearl casting its soothing glow. The grand piano, a glossy black Baldwin, stood before a floor-to-ceiling window.
Bethany sank more deeply into the sofa, breathing in air fragranced by the fresh flowers that Mrs. Calendar always kept in a large cut-glass vase on a pedestal table near the curve of the piano. Classical music played from an iPod dock that Mrs. Calendar turned on with a small silver remote before she went to the kitchen. Normally, Bethany wasn’t the kind of person who liked to wait for things, but in the piano room, for some reason, she felt like she could wait forever.
When Mrs. Calendar re-entered the room with her teak-wood tray, Bethany smiled at her, and Mrs. Calendar smiled back immediately with her beautiful face. Even the wrinkles that fanned from her widely set eyes to the tops of her strong cheekbones seemed elegant to Bethany. Today her shoulder-length white hair was swept back in a thick ponytail by a silver clip adorned with small, barely visible gems of translucent green. She wore a beige tunic over a pale gray top and pants and soft suede shoes. Mrs. Calendar was tall and slender. When she stood still, her shoulders and hips aligned themselves and her neck lengthened like a dancer’s; when she moved, her gestures were fluent, one leading slowly to the next, with no sudden jerks or reversals of direction.
Now and then over the last couple of weeks, Bethany had tried imitating Mrs. Calendar’s way of moving as a little game for herself to pass the time at work in the admissions office. Spinning slowly, for example, in her desk chair and arising smoothly to the balls of her feet, then gliding evenly across the room to the file cabinet, pulling open a drawer and reaching in an arc – first with her right arm, and then with her left – to the contents within, rotating each hand with a slow-motion flourish. After five minutes or so, Bethany would forget her intention and find herself slouching on the counter or clog-stepping to an upbeat tune on the radio behind her computer station. Moving with grace and fluency did not come naturally to Bethany, as it did to Mrs. Calendar.
“Here we are,” said Mrs. Calendar. Her voice was deep, slightly raspy, and reminded Bethany of a particular old actress. What was her name? The one in that old movie with Dustin Hoffman. Mrs. Robinson, but that was the character’s name, not the actress.
Mrs. Calendar set down the tray. It was arranged exactly the same way as the last two times: a pair of ivory dessert plates with three cookies on each; two pale green cloth napkins; and two small glass goblets filled with an inch or so of sweet wine the color of apricot marmalade. At her first lesson, the drink was ice water with a thin lemon slice floating on top, but at her second lesson Mrs. Calendar had asked her if she’d enjoy a taste of Late Harvest Riesling. Bethany understood that this offering was a compliment, and she was honored.
Bethany waited till Mrs. Calendar picked up her glass before picking up her own. Mrs. Calendar held her glass aloft, and so did Bethany. “Na Zdrowie!” toasted Mrs. Calendar.
“Polish, dear! In honor of our dear Fred.”
“Our Frederic Chopin!”
“Ah, Chopin!” Bethany chimed in.
Mrs. Calendar leaned slightly forward, so Bethany did, too, clinking her glass too sharply against Mrs. Calendar’s, making Bethany cringe at herself inside, but Mrs. Calendar kept smiling and brought the goblet to her lips. She reached for the little silver remote on the coffee table, turning the volume of the music up slightly, and let her eyes flutter closed as she listened and sipped her Riesling.
Bethany spread her napkin on her thighs and bit with anticipation into her first cookie, which was so deceptively plain and unassuming in its appearance: a tan disk about two inches in diameter with no showy embellishments of candy chips or frosting. This was no grocery store cookie; it was homemade by Mrs. Calendar, its texture slightly crisp on the outside and firm yet moist on the inside, and as Bethany chewed it, the zing of ginger balanced by the comfortably mingling flavors of buttery honey and almonds and dark brown sugar made her marvel that she never would have picked such a cookie if it were among other choices on a cookie plate at a party or holiday buffet, and yet now this was Bethany’s favorite cookie in the world.
It was called a Refrigerator Cookie. Every Sunday evening Mrs. Calendar made the dough, which she divided into five equal parts which she rolled into perfect logs and wrapped in wax paper, sealed with kitchen tape, and then kept in her refrigerator. One log was removed daily, Monday through Friday, and sliced into rounds and baked fresh in the oven for Mrs. Calendar’s piano students, who were each handed three cookies wrapped in a napkin at the end of their lessons. Each week so far Bethany had seen the pupil ahead of her, a freckled boy with a walking cast, stuffing two in his mouth and clutching the leftover in a paper napkin printed with music notes as he headed out to his mother’s SUV waiting on the driveway. Hey, Bethany always wanted to ask him, how did you hurt your leg? But his mouth was always overflowing with Refrigerator Cookies. Not that Bethany could blame him. They were just so delicious.
Since Bethany’s lesson was the last of the evening, and since, Bethany assumed, she was an adult rather than a child, she and Mrs. Calendar had Cookie Time together. And possibly, Bethany thought, it was because she and Mrs. Calendar shared a special affinity for each other. Bethany hoped this, but was it true? Of course she couldn’t ask this question of Mrs. Calendar.
Actually, she had learned not to ask Mrs. Calendar any questions at all during Cookie Time, unless it was something to do with piano. At her second lesson, Bethany had asked three questions in a row about the Refrigerator Cookies, but by the third question she noticed how Mrs. Calendar’s head had tilted in a critical angle; her eyes had squinted, and her voice had lifted in what seemed to be discomfort, as if Bethany had been asking her what kind of underwear she liked to wear and in what size and color. Abruptly, she stopped asking, even though she wanted to know what brand of honey Mrs. Calendar preferred in her recipe, and within a few minutes Mrs. Calendar’s head righted itself and her eyes, to Bethany’s relief, softened again.
As far as she could remember, the only question Mrs. Calendar had ever asked Bethany that didn’t relate to piano was, “Would you care for a taste of Late Harvest Riesling?”
And it was actually refreshing, Bethany felt now, to have an acquaintanceship that felt somehow intimate and yet utterly free of any personal small talk. Was there a Mr. Calendar? Bethany believed so, because once during her third lesson she heard the faint sound a toilet flushing upstairs. But she didn’t know for sure. And Mrs. Calendar seemed totally unconcerned about Bethany’s marital status or lack thereof, and that was nice for change, Bethany thought. Wasn’t it?
She forced herself to take smaller bites of her third cookie to make it last. She found it difficult to transition to the Riesling; its syrupy texture reminded her of childhood medicine, but if it were an acquired taste, Bethany was determined to acquire it. As she forced herself to pick up her glass and start drinking, something about the music playing struck her as haunting and familiar. “This piece…” She widened her eyes at Mrs. Calendar, waiting for her teacher to identify it.
Mrs. Calendar nodded. “Prelude number fourteen. In E-flat minor. It’s one of my favorites.”
They both straightened their spines, listening intently, and the chords swelled and subsided, again and again, with their sad, somber melody.
“Listen,” said Mrs. Calendar in a hushed voice, “and you can hear it. My sorrow.” She looked into Bethany’s eyes and cleared her throat with a delicate rumble.
Bethany held her miniature goblet against her stomach and settled back in the loveseat again, ready to listen to Mrs. Calendar’s anecdote. So far, each week during cookie time, at about seven or so minutes in, Mrs. Calendar shared a little story about the life of whatever composer they were listening to that evening. Tonight she said, “When Frederic was twenty-five, he fell deeply in love with a seventeen-year-old girl named Maria, the daughter of family friends in Paris. She was musically gifted, artistically sensitive. His true soul mate, he believed, and after a year of romancing her he proposed and her family agreed to a trial engagement. But the family feared of giving Maria over to an artist, with an artist’s erratic lifestyle, and after another year they finally rejected him and ended the engagement.”
“Ouch,” said Bethany.
Mrs. Calendar gave her a rueful smile, and as she did, Bethany remembered the name of that actress: Anne Bancroft. It wasn’t just her voice that was similar, Bethany thought, but also those gorgeous cheekbones. Bethany had always felt her own face was so forgettable: there wasn’t any one feature that stood out in any way as exceptional. On the up side, she didn’t inherit her mother’s oddly bulbous eyes, or her father’s deeply cleft chin. She’d ended up with the most ordinary features of each of them.
“He never got over it,” Mrs. Calendar said. “He was a man who suffered all his life from a variety of physical ailments, but he is known to have confided to friends that the pain from all of his illnesses combined didn’t match the pain in his soul from losing Maria.”
Mrs. Calendar tipped back her head to finish the last small swallow of her Riesling, arching her swan-like neck, so Bethany did the same; as the cloying liquid traveled down her throat, she gave a brief, involuntary shudder, which Mrs. Calendar interpreted as Bethany’s empathy for Chopin.
“I know! You can hear it, can’t you? In all his later work. The deep, unhealed sadness.”
Bethany followed Mrs. Calendar’s motions, like that childhood game of mirror, as she slowly leaned forward and placed her empty goblet on the tray and lifted her fingers as if stroking the musical notes that filled the air. Not just the notes, Bethany thought, but the broken heart of Chopin. She could almost feel it pulsing in her hand as it gradually returned to her lap, like Mrs. Calendar’s.
“He went on to find companionship and nurturing with his long-time lover, George Sand. But it wasn’t the same, of course. Not nearly the same. And for his whole life, he kept all the letters he’d received from Maria and her family tied together in a bundle with a ribbon and labeled in his own handwriting: ‘my sorrow.’”
Mrs. Calendar’s chest lifted with a deep inhale, and Bethany joined her in a prolonged sigh. “We all have it, I suppose,” said Mrs. Calendar, looking directly at Bethany with her dark Anne Bancroft eyes. “Hidden away somewhere inside of us, tied with a ribbon of velvet and marked in our own hand…my sorrow.”
The image of Danny Demarco filled Bethany’s mind, so quickly that it gave her a wave of nausea. His shaggy brown hair lightened on the ends by the summer sun, his tanned skin, his thick teeth and lopsided smile. She didn’t want to think of him; it seemed pathetic and embarrassing after so many years. But then again, if Chopin could long for his seventeen-year-old girlfriend till the very end of his life, why couldn’t she think about Danny Demarco? No one would call Chopin an emotional defect, stuck in perpetual adolescence. They’d call him highly sensitive, an expressive genius.
“How awful,” Bethany said, “to love a seventeen-year-old more than any adult person you met for the rest of your life.”
Mrs. Calendar’s gaze shifted from Bethany and settled on some point in the room near the vase of lilies, but Bethany could tell she was really looking within, at some unspoken memory. Who was it? Bethany almost asked. But what she really wanted was for Mrs. Calendar to ask her. She wanted to say when I was seventeen and visiting my Aunt Libby in Maine I met a boy named Danny Demarco and he was the most open-hearted person I ever met. And she wanted Mrs. Calendar to settle back in her wing chair and say tell me. Tell me all about him.
Mrs. Calendar clapped her hands lightly, bringing them back to the present moment. With the sleeve of her tunic flowing, she gestured grandly with one arm at the picture window, where the moon had fully ascended over the oriental maple tree in the darkened yard. Tonight the moon was a milky half circle, balanced above the branches, partly obscured by clouds. “I’m ready with mine,” said Mrs. Calendar.
Bethany smiled and nodded encouragingly.
Mrs. Calendar brought the fingertips of her right hand to her clavicle and gave Bethany a playful wink. “When the moon’s a bowl about to tip, avoid long journeys by land or by ship.”
“That’s a good one.”
This was their game, and Bethany had started it. Looking out the window at the end of her first Cookie Time, she’d thought of a saying her grandmother had told her as a child, and she’d said it out loud: “New moon smiling on a clear starry night, young maidens find your virtue and clasp to it tight.” Mrs. Calendar had laughed, and Bethany had laughed, and since then, at the end of Cookie Time, they each made up a rhyme about however the moon looked, framed so perfectly by the tall window behind the piano. This, Bethany was sure, was their own special ritual.
Bethany clicked her tongue a few times, thinking. She said, “Half-moon hiding in filmy clouds…soon you’ll be dressed in funeral shrouds.”
Mrs. Calendar said, “Oh!” Her elegant eye wrinkles deepened.
“Ha!” Bethany said. They always chuckled at the end of their moon rhymes, she and Mrs. Calendar, so Bethany laughed, hoping that Mrs. Calendar would laugh again, too, and finally she did, although Bethany had the feeling it was out of politeness. Note to self, Bethany thought: next week come ready with a pre-planned moon rhyme. Something upbeat.
Bethany felt better when Mrs. Calendar, upon standing and picking up the teak wood tray, ended their evening with her usual words: “Bethany, dear, it’s been delightful.”
“Yes,” Bethany responded as usual. “Thank you. I’ll see you next Wednesday.”
Mrs. Calendar paused with the tray, swiveling her head, very smoothly, to look at Bethany. “This is your fourth lesson. Isn’t, dear?”
Bethany nodded, reaching for her purse where she’d placed it on the floor beside the love seat. “Should I pay now? For the next month? I have my checkbook.”
“My regular teaching schedule, you see, is full at the moment. I normally don’t teach from seven-thirty to eight.”
“Maybe,” said Bethany, “I could pay extra. An adult rate.”
“Oh, no, dear. That wouldn’t be called for. I’m a teacher of children. That’s what I am. I made an exception for the auction certificate, which is now fully redeemed.”
“But it’s been working out so well…”
Mrs. Calendar seemed to stand even straighter, if that was possible, holding the tray at her waist. Bethany could tell that Mrs. Calendar’s body was sending her the message that she should stand up, too. Stand up immediately and be on her way. But Bethany didn’t move. What was it? Was it the way Bethany’s foot had clunked too heavily on the Baldwin’s pedal when they were practicing arpeggios this evening? Was it the way she clanked her wine goblet so crassly against Mrs. Calendar’s? Was her moon rhyme too foreboding? Was it just something about Bethany herself?
You need time to develop your gravitas, Dan, the political science professor, had told her during their break-up fight, and she’d thrown a piece of tempeh at his forehead.
“I want to keep playing,” Bethany said. Was she pleading? Was that how her voice sounded?
Mrs. Calendar rested the tray against her hip; her beautiful eyes had narrowed. “I’m sure you will. But it’s time to leave now, dear.”
Bethany pushed herself up from the love seat; she lifted her purse as though something too heavy were hidden inside. “That Chopin!” she said to Mrs. Calendar, forcing what she hoped sounded like levity into her voice. “His music – beautiful! But in person? He sounds like a real piece of work, doesn’t he, Mrs. C.?”
Beneath her gauzy tunic Bethany could see Mrs. Calendar’s chest rise and fall with breaths of exasperation. Her dark eyes were almost glaring now.
“Beautiful music isn’t everything, I guess,” Bethany continued. “It doesn’t necessarily make you successful. As a person.”
Mrs. Calendar shifted her weight, and the small goblets toppled over and rolled to the raised edge of the tray. Had they chipped? Mrs. Calendar pretended not to notice, but Bethany could see a faint flush of color rise on her neck. “You know, Bethany,” she said. “I met my husband when I was seventeen. We were high school sweethearts. We were the loves of each other’s lives.”
Was he dead now? Maybe that was someone else flushing the toilet upstairs last week. Bethany wanted to know. She wanted to ask. She wanted to take the tray from Mrs. Calendar and set it down gently and take the woman’s arm and guide her to the loveseat and say tell me. But that seemed impossible. It was impossible. “Actually,” Bethany said. “I have a child. I had one. I didn’t keep him. But if I did, he’d be twenty–one next month. In April. Too old for piano lessons.”
Mrs. Calendar looked toward the window, so Bethany did also. The moon wasn’t visible from this angle. They each turned at the same time: Mrs. Calendar exiting with her tray to the kitchen; Bethany seeing herself to the foyer.
* * *