Scales, scales, and scales. Their sound filled the tunnel leading to the grand piano chamber, and Vincent smiled, while approaching it. Like long ago, and like many nights more recently, Rolley had not joined them for supper. This time, along with his admiration for the young man’s perseverance, Vincent was carrying a loaded tray.
Rippling sound as the scales moved a little faster, and faster still, each time. Ringing sound for the chords as 'scales' was often a thing not just accomplished one finger at a dancing time, but by the whole hand, spread into position and brought down, with steady speed. Tempo. Tempo. Adagio was for the beginning. This was not the beginning, now. Vincent saw perspiration sheen on the black skin, as Rolley worked. Sweating, down here, was no easy feat, especially if one was seated, and Rolley was. And he was sweating. And sitting on his treasure chest. Reading its priceless contents, in front of him. There was a stub of a pencil in his mouth, and he stopped to make some sort of random note on the page in front of him. Vincent knew he hadn't had much in the way of food in that mouth, not lately. His passion and his addiction had something In common. Both kept him thin.
Vincent carefully put down the tray on the piano lid, and resisted the impulse to stop those frantic hands with his own hand, like long ago. He simply stood, respectfully waiting for Rolley to remember on his own that he was still much more than his music for his tunnel family.
The sweat-slicked hands stuttered as the tray settled on the lid of the piano. Reset, and tried again. Slower at first, a little, then with their building tempo. Then, another stumble. They both heard it. He was going too fast, trying to do too much, too quickly. "Gotta practice. Gotta get good." It was so much like what he'd said when he was young that Vincent's heart broke for him, a little. Dark eyes darted back to the beginning of the line of music and tried again.
It was so much like what he’d said, so much like what he wanted to accomplish then, that Vincent fleetingly wished that all the time in-between could magically disappear, with its burden of pain and soul scars. He slowly poured a glass of water from the jug, and his hand crossed the wall of notes being built by the keyboard to place it in front of the young man’s nose. The wall crashed down, and Rolley looked at it confused.
Water. A glass of water. Rolley stared at it as if he'd never seen one, as if he'd forgotten its use. The confusion that clouded his dark eyes lingered a moment longer, and his tongue went out in an unconscious gesture to lick his parched lips, yet he ignored the relief before him. "Why'd you do that?" he demanded of Vincent.
"Do what?" Vincent asked.
"Stop me. Interrupt. I need to work, Vincent. Got to do this." Vincent wasn't sure if the dark eyes looked like they were asking for understanding or holding a touch of mutiny. Either way, there was an emphatic nature to them which Vincent recognized all too well.
“I want you to do this too, Rolley. We all want it. But a dehydrated and starving body doesn’t help you to do it, don’t you think?” He kept the glass in front of him. “Please?”
Rolley stopped, frozen. He looked at the water, and longed for the drink. His hands remained on the keys in the position they'd ceased playing in, fingers raised to touch both black and white, thumbs spread, the index finger of his left hand curled, just a bit, preparing to come down. "I'm afraid," Rolley admitted. "I'm afraid to stop."
Vincent placed the glass on the tray. “Why, Rolley?”
Rolley swallowed, his Adam's apple working up and down his too-thin throat. His parched lips wanted the water, but something wouldn't let him reach for it. His skin gleamed from sweat, and his hands still remained poised. "Don't know. Adagio... Adagio won't work for this." He let the hands come down so that they lightly touched the keys. "Can't be slow. Can't... can't leave her there." Rolley's eyes blinked with a terrible realization.
“Tell me,” Vincent said, quietly.
"You can't always be adagio, Vincent. You can't. Sometimes..." a vision of a distant past haunted him. "Sometimes you have to be fast." He resumed playing. Rapidly.
“Where do you think you’re leaving her, being slow, Rolley?”
His sweating fingers crashed the last note and slipped off the keyboard, unable to hold position. Done. Done because there was no other choice for him. Black keys gleamed wetly from his efforts. They'd need a towel, to wipe them with. "You know where," he said, looking lost. "There. I couldn't come out. Too afraid. Too slow. Too... adagio." He finally reached for the glass, his fingers so slick with perspiration it nearly fell through his grip.
Vincent watched the glass being emptied with quick gulps. Then he took it from Rolley’s hands and firmly replaced it with the napkin from the tray. The young man was suddenly aware of a subtle but evident shift in his demeanor. He was still the gentle, quiet friend, but Rolley realized that he’d better pay attention to him. He glanced at the imposing figure while wiping his face and hands. Vincent also took the napkin from Rolley’s now dry fingers, put it on the tray and quietly said, “Come with me, Rolley.”
Vincent didn't look back to see if he was being obeyed, and Rolley knew better than to argue. The big beast's long stride chewed up the ground and Rolley's much weaker legs had to struggle to keep up. The problem with staying stoned for a living was that it cost you a lot of muscle tone, along with everything else. The black man was nursing a stitch in his side by the time they reached the area near Eli's shop.
He was about to plea for an “adagio” pace after all, when he realized where their hurried stroll along the tunnels was bringing them. Memories flooded at the sight of the rough wooden door in front of which Vincent finally stopped. Panting a little, Rolley savored the pause as Vincent opened the bolt and pushed the door in. He recognized the dusty staircase that could be half seen in the dark, and suddenly remembered the feeling of Eli’s big hand holding his own small one, the first time they descended those stairs from the basement where Eli had found him… one lifetime ago.
The close confines of the narrow staircase made Rolley feel claustrophobic, and that was before Vincent stepped aside and pushed him firmly through the open doorway. Rolley's sneakered foot kicked up dust on the dry boards and the steps creaked under even his slight weight. They protested even more as Vincent came up behind him, effectively blocking any avenue of escape, and gently pressuring his slender body up the narrow walkway. Rolley could touch the walls on either side of him if he put his arms out, and did so, now. Eli, like Vincent, was a broad shouldered man. Rolley wondered how the two of them had fit in the narrow space the first time Eli had ever taken Rolley below. Had he really been so skinny, once?
"Don't be afraid, just be careful." The low tones of Eli's voice echoed in his memory.
"The stairs are steep. Be careful, Rolley," Vincent cautioned. They were steep. And still, the narrowness of the tight space struck him. Before him, the door to Eli's shop loomed. The fix-it shop Rolley had sought sanctuary in, from the New York cold. The shop where so much began. He remembered Eli's furnace. Remembered curling next to it on a blanket, for warmth. His hands tested the dried wood of the narrow door. It needed a coat of paint. His fingers nearly came away with splinters.
“Knock, Rolley,” he heard Vincent’s voice behind him. “Hard.”
Rolley raised a fist to do as he'd been bid. His palm was still sweating, and a closed fist made that worse. He gently laid his knuckles against the dusty, dry wood and just set them there, not moving. Eli's basement had been a stolen "home," once. Did you knock to enter your home? Even a stolen one?
“That’s… adagio, Rolley. Remember what you said? Adagio won’t work for this. Bang on it!”
How to make his friend understand? Did you knock, to enter your home? And besides that, Vincent was wrong, even as he was right. Rolley's hand on the door wasn't just "adagio," it was something else, as well. There were other words. Other words he needed. "Adagio. Fortissimo. Piano, pianissimo. Grande. Allargando. Poco allargando." Rolley mumbled the words and searched his memory for the language Miss Kendrick had taught him. Rolley parrot had needed to learn Italian, at least musician's Italian, to keep up with his studies. They were directions. They told you what to do. He kept his raised fist against the wood, and drew back, preparing to knock again; searching for the words he needed, in a language he barely spoke.
“It’s one of the most rapid tempos, Rolley. In Italian it means Soon, in music it means Fast.” It was... it was... “Presto”! Yes, Presto. Fast. Fast! That’s it. Fast, please, Presto. He tentatively banged on the door with his fist... Fast, soon... He banged again... Presto... and again... fast, fast!...bang... Fast!... bang... Before this unnamed horrible ache devours me... bang... this horrible ache that’s now my horrible home... bang, bang... let me in... or out, somewhere else, please... bang! bang!... Presto, fast, soon, whatever, please, please... bang! bang! bang!...
Presto! Presto! The banging sound became loud, in his sensitive ears, and because he was Rolley parrot, had always been Rolley parrot, it began to take on the rhythm of music, and after a moment more, it was a rhythm he recognized. Rapping in thirds, to a 'one,two,three, one,two, three' beat, the banging sound became a terrible, presto version of Beethoven's sonata for "Moonlight." Rolley heard it, as he played it on the dry wood of the door. Tears ran down his dark face as triplet notes climbed the entrance to the first home he'd ever stolen.
I think that this is God’s favorite piano piece.
Because it’s so like Him, Rolley... While banging that obsessive, ominous rhythm on the most absurd of the keyboards, the youth’s peculiar memory could now remember Miss Kendrick’s words almost literally, and see her nimble fingers flying on the keys to let him hear what she was saying. The triplet notes are the clouds, hear?... low, dumb and dark, heavy, menacing… G- C- E, G- C- E… and suddenly… tan… ta-tan… that high G… the moonlight ray shines through them… G… G-G… and the clouds are not menacing any more… they are the background to make the moonlight shine even brighter, and they make quite another sense…
As moonlight broke through the clouds in Rolley's mind's eye, it broke through his memory, as well. No, you didn't knock to get into your own home. You used your key. Rolley stopped, and much to Vincent's amazement, unbuckled his belt and slid it effortlessly through the loops of his shabby pants. He didn't want to admit that the belt was a must, for an addict, since he used it to tie off his arm. Now he used it for what he'd used it for when he was a boy. Kneeling, he used the hasp of the belt as a lockpick. It was how he'd gotten into Eli's basement, to begin with.
G - C- E, Tan-ta-tan...
Vincent silently stood a few steps below, watching his moves, feeling his turmoil, praying that something would give away in his tortured soul, and more than one rusty, dusty door would open. “Can’t leave her there”, Rolley had said, barely stopping his frantic practicing that had now become the new obsessive, senseless, agonizing hell which he had locked himself into. And Miss Kendrick’s words suddenly got a new meaning. One that had little to do with music. “He’s got to go back to the beginning, to forget what he knows and learn it all over again.” Looking at the boy now frantically struggling with that rusty lock which marked a threshold between worlds, and lives, and destinies, he wondered about the whim which led him to bring Rolley here… he felt “her” presence, somehow, and allowed himself a little smile.
Rolley jiggered the belt hasp inside the lock, and either because of rust or age, Vincent worried that the tumblers inside wouldn't move. But Rolley picked locks with the same vigor with which he used to practice. He did it until he got it right. Got to get good. So they'll let me stay. Rolley's nimble fingers gave a mighty twist, and the lock sprang open.
He stood up, and looked back at Vincent.
"What's back at the beginnin', Vincent?" Rolley asked.
"What is at the beginning of every song, Rolley, but the opening notes?" Vincent replied.
Rolley shoved at the door, kicking up dust as it swung inward.
And with a little, strange grimace that Vincent recognized as an out of practice smile, he rejoined, pointing to his belt before putting it again into the loops of his pants: “No, Vincent. There’s the key”.
The door of the old room was on hinges as old as the lock, and it squeaked inward, as Rolley stepped into the cluttered space. The door caught on an old trunk that had been placed just a little too close to the door to swing open completely, but Rolley's slender frame slipped through, much as it had when he was a boy. For Vincent, however, entering Eli's basement was always a bit of a struggle. Turning his big body sideways, he pressed through.
"A key is a wonderful thing to have," Vincent replied.
“Never had one. Sneaked into things. Into homes. Into music.” Rolley said, looking around the unkempt place. “Eli not using this door now?”
Vincent shrugged. "Considering how loudly you were knocking, I assume he isn't home, at the moment. Would you like to go up and see the fix-it shop? Wait for him?" he asked, as the furnace kicked on. Opening the door to the tunnels had caused a blast of cold air to waltz into the room with them. It was a patched-up relic, and it was loud. The same as it had been when Rolley had "stolen warmth," behind its metal ductwork.
But both the furnace clatter and Vincent’s words were lost to Rolley. He was looking at the piano, in the corner, roughly covered with a dusty cloth. Yes, Eli was not going through that basement that often now, as Rolley had immediately noticed and Vincent had tried to discount. Losing Rolley, all those years ago, had been hard for Eli. He had uncharacteristically let his hopes get entangled up on the child, and was silently nursing his bitter disappointment ever since. Even now that Rolley was back, Eli kept his sceptic distance. And the old piano - where everything began, Vincent mused - was gathering dust. While the furnace jarring noise filled the silence, the boy slowly crossed the room to the instrument.
The furnace rattled, and Rolley remembered the sound. The concrete floor was cold, and hard to sleep on, and Rolley remembered that, as well. The walls were cinder block, and the room wasn't insulated, since it was a place meant for the furnace, and life's cast offs, like an old rocking chair in need of sanding, that sat in the corner, or the piano. Or me, Rolley thought. He even remembered that the piano bench wasn't a proper piano bench. It had no lid to lift, and the height was even a bit "off." It was long enough to seat two, but just a little high. Rolley remembered having to reach down for the foot pedals. Pedals he could still see, now. Soft pedal. Sustain pedal, to get the sympathetic vibrations of the strings. He remembered the left one was stiffer than the right one. But as he settled a dark hand on the dusty cloth, he wasn't sure what else he remembered.
While he pushed the dirty fabric away from the smooth surface of the piano, that out-of-practice smile twisted the corners of his mouth again. Like pushing clouds away and see the moonlight. No, not away. The clouds stay. But they… what did she say?... make a different sense.
The heavy, dusty cloth fell to the side, revealing battered treasure. His first piano. The one old Eli had heard him playing Rachmaninoff on. He wondered if the G key still stuck, a little. He wondered if the old seat would feel the same as it once did, hard, yet comforting, under his backside. He knew he wouldn't need to 'reach' subtly, to hit the pedals. Slender fingers traced the top, in a returned lover's caress.
"Right now, it's an empty gift."
"Can you help him to fulfill it?"
... to be continued
After "Chamber Music" CLEAN COPY part II
Dueling: CindyT and S
Setting: The [working] title says it
Setting: The [working] title says it
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