1: The Metronome
Ernst Barbakoff, former Wunderkind, now a stooped eighty, spent every morning at the Pearl Street Branch of the Cambridge Library. He would read for an hour and then talk to Miss Virginia, the librarian. She wanted to know about his life before he came to America, how he survived the German invasion of his childhood streets and lived in the forests, and escaped at last to Palestine. She wanted to hear about how, when still only a boy, he became a world-famed pianist. And for reasons he did not bother to understand, he told her.
One morning, late in May, she asked about how he had won the Sao Paulo competition, but instead of talking about the day that had brought him instant international fame, he found himself describing the outdoor concert in Santiago, at the end of his South American tour. It was three days after New Year’s; the sun, beating down, a furnace blast, blinded him with his own perspiration. Instead of turning the pages of the Brahms, which he knew by heart, Carlotta, his lover, took to dabbing at his forehead and the closed lids of his eyes. The audience of Chileans cheered, as if her white handkerchief had been a bullfighter’s cape. They were both fifteen.
Carlotta had no idea he was at the library. She thought he was with his Academy pupils, the ones who called him Mr. Barbershop. That was because he made a point of leaving the house at the usual time every morning, with his school satchel, a hinged gadget, the sort doctors used to carry in the movies. He sat in a coffee shop in Central Square until the library opened at ten. Such was his routine since, on a bright February morning, after an ice storm, the principal of the pilot school told him his services were no longer needed.
Who could blame them? With his twisted and swollen fingers, like root vegetables, he could no longer keep up with his students. Mothafucka can’t play for shit, was how one of them put it. But he did blame himself; that was why his wife could not know.
After a month of this ruse, he asked Miss Virginia if she would place a small advertisement on the bulletin board.
WORLD RENOWNED PIANIST
Victor Recording Artist
Now offering private lessons
“This is how God plays the piano” —Arturo Toscanini
[leave replies with librarian]
He dared not write his name or his telephone number. It did not matter. Two of the half dozen messages that Miss Virginia held at the desk had guessed. One, unsigned, said, “I heard you play Mendelssohn in Israel.” Was that possible? This person would have to be—what? In his eighties or nineties. Or more. Still, someone in this small world had seen the prodigy, the toast of Tel Aviv. In his little cutaway coat. His hair, slick with pomade, shining like a count’s. Thus the word went out.
Soon he had enough students to make up much of the salary he had lost at the Academy. As many afternoons as he wished, at thirty, then fifty dollars an hour. One woman, who owned a rare recording of his Mendelssohn recital, insisted on paying him with a hundred dollar bill. He was fed tea and tea cakes, handfuls of cigarettes, and there was often the black sail of a Steinway Grand. The secret life of a piano teacher.
On this same warm day in May, he said, “Good afternoon, Miss Virginia,” and she said, “Good afternoon, Mr. Barbakoff,” and off he went to his lesson. Two lessons actually, and each of them a fair distance away: one at Longfellow Crescent and one all the way to the river at Memorial Drive. He had to walk. One of his quirks, a stupid one he knew, was that he would not ride in any vehicle since his son, Daniel, had been killed in a car. That had not been a problem in New York. He could walk anywhere in the city, including to the public and private schools in which he began to teach. He could have continued his career, at least in the concert halls and recording studios of Manhattan; but that ended with the accident, as well. When they moved to Cambridge, to take up the position at the Academy of Arts, he trained himself to pick up the pace.
Trudging along Massachusetts Avenue, however, he felt the heat of the day. Not torrid, nothing like Santiago, where, in his youth, he could have run to the top of the Andes; but enough to make him stop at the corner of Lee Street to catch his breath. There, a turning truck, its wheels up on the curb, made him jerk back. In his satchel, along with his metronome, his out-of-season muffler, and the daily Times, was the book he read each morning in the library. A journal of a young man who had survived the conversion of Bucharest to Nazism, and then the Nazis themselves, only to be struck by a truck at the end of the war.
That was the way the gods amused themselves. Had they not, in their parlor game, put another truck, with the smoke pouring from its nostrils and hot sparks at its tail, in the lane next to his on the Franklin D. Roosevelt Drive? And did not one of the players, perhaps Yahweh himself, mumble lazily through his beard: Let’s have that fellow, the bearded teamster, fall asleep at the wheel?
And another of the deities, glancing down: What? That gas-guzzler? They aren’t allowed on East River Drive.
Then let’s make him drunk, said the fun-loving son of God.
Very well, very well. And with that He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named flicked his fingers. We’ll have him drift from his lane and crush that little blue Plymouth, the one with the man in the white shirt and the boy with the China-bowl haircut.
Merriment on Mount Olympus.
Franklin D. Roosevelt died just before the war ended. No one, Mr. Barbakoff reflected, arrives in the promised land.
But he arrived in Harvard Square. He stopped for a glass of water with a peel of lemon, and then struck out on Brattle Street for Longfellow Crescent. There his two pupils, the Isenberg twins, were waiting. Although identical, only one of them, Isaac, had talent. Ivan, clearly bored, made jokes and never practiced. That afternoon, watching Isaac make his way through the Scarlatti, his hands skipping across the keys like stones over water, his teacher told him, “Very good. I like this. You play in the manner of Haskil.”
“Who’s he?” the boy asked, looking up so that the mop of his hair seemed to tilt to one side of his head.
“A she. A Romanian. A fine pianist.”
“You mean I play like a girl.”
When it was Ivan’s turn he stood a few feet away, so distracted that he did not notice that the boy had stopped playing. “What is it, Mr. Barbershop?” he asked. The nickname, the old man knew, had mysteriously followed him from the public pilot school into his private practice. “Daydreaming?”
“No, no,” said his brother. “He’s thinking about that pianist. So poetic. So pure.” And they both laughed, ringingly, together.
But he wasn’t thinking about Clara, though her escape through the forests had been so much like his own. He was thinking of his next lesson, of the girl, Lislelotte. He had seen at once that something was amiss. The eyes, when she first looked up at him, were squinting and somehow, indefinably, off line. Bangs covered a bulging brow. The nose, a button nose, what people called pug, was nothing like the blade of her mother’s, Madam Novakoff, who had opened the door of their high, sun-filled apartment and ushered him in. The girl’s smile, constant on her lips, as if everything she saw, including the tall, stooping, wild-haired piano teacher, amused her.
“Or not so pure, right Mr. B? You made poetry with her. Ha, ha! Couplets!”
Mr. Barbakoff felt, and could almost taste, something like bile rising to his throat. “No,” he said. “You have not understood me. You do not play like this—goddess. I look at you and your identical brother and I see American children. I mean by this, Jews without suffering. So, Mr. Isenberg, you cannot play like that artist. Not yet.”
And though the hour was not yet completed, he walked out the painted yellow door of their house and into the Crescent and then into the streets.
He was no less angry when he turned toward the river on Hawthorn Street. Even his Academy pupils knew more of life than these feckless boys. The blacks, the Hispanics: they rose at five in the morning to reach the school. No wonder they fell asleep at the keyboard. He did not mind their laughter when he hit two notes at once. He stopped. He leaned against a parked car. He felt breathless. It wasn’t the heat of the day. It was fear of the lesson to come.
He thought once more of the first time he had met young Miss Novakoff. The teenager had come, limping and smiling across the Persian carpet and held out her hand. A small one. Her mother, with pearls, and that hook of a nose, introduced them.
“I would like to introduce master and pupil to each other. Lisle, this is Herr Barbakoff. A very great pianist. Herr Barbakoff, this is my daughter, Lislelotte. I cannot tell you how pleased I am that you shall be working together.”
The girl’s hand was still out. “How do you do?” she said.
Mr. Barbakoff took it. “It is my pleasure.”
“When Herr Barbakoff was your age he was known all over the world. He won the first prize at the Sao Paulo competition. He made recordings for the Victor company. Do you remember, little Lotte? I used to play for you his Mendelssohn. Songs Without Words.”
“Nipper!” the girl exclaimed. That is when Mr. Barbakoff saw that the smile, like the squint in her eyes, never left her lips. “His master’s voice!”
“That isn’t the point, darling. The point is how lucky we are to have such a great artist for our friend and teacher.”
“Not at all,” said Mr. Barbakoff, one of the courtesies left over from his own childhood. “I find her charming.”
“Because he nipped at everybody’s ankles,” said the encouraged Lislelotte. Then she cocked her head at precisely the angle that the little spaniel had on all his recordings. He was, in fact, if just a little, charmed.
“Isn’t it time you two got to work?” said Madam Novakoff. “Lisle has so much to do before her recital. I am going to deny myself the pleasure of your first lesson.” She started toward a hallway, but stopped to say, “Oh, and Herr Barbakoff: I hope you will call me Elizaveta.”
Barbakoff turned toward where the piano—not a Steinway but a smaller Chickering, something of an antique—was waiting.
But the girl in her black pumps and white stockings stood rooted. “I’ll tell you what I don’t understand,” she said. “What I don’t understand is how there can be a song without words.”
“Perhaps,” said Mr. Barbakoff, “we can take the example of the birds.”
Lisle, delighted, clapped her hands together. Then she walked to the bench. Her teacher followed, motioning for her to sit, which she did.
For a moment Barbakoff stood looking down at the shining black hair of the girl. It was cut short, exposing her neck and her shoulders, which, along with a section of her shoulder blades, seemed in contrast the color of chalk. By association, perhaps, he remembered the Academy rules: no contact with a student. He would not be allowed to stand like this, much less sit beside, one of his pupils on a piano bench. The door of the room had to be left ajar, so that a supervisor might overhear. God knows what they thought a man of his years, and temperament, might do.
He gave a snort: America!
“Would you like me to play?”
“Yes, Miss Novakoff. Then we’ll know what to do next.”
“This? The Schubert?”
She nodded to where the score of a sonata rested on the fallboard.
“If you would be so kind as to begin.”
She did. For a half-moment he held himself in suspense. He did not know what to expect. Was this venture merely a family folly? Was he going to hear, from this flawed child, nothing but a makeshift din? Or, no less likely, and just because of her imperfection, would the notes soar, like the mathematical conceptions of an idiot savant?
The answer was neither. She hit the notes correctly, molto moderato, but without variation, without coloring or any sense of rhythm; he thought for some reason of a person walking determinedly through a storm, with an umbrella providing shelter from any sensation. This pianist needed to get wet.
“Halt, please,” he said.
She did, looking round at him, her mouth half open.
He had broken himself of a bad habit: humming aloud any melody the way he would have played it—humming because he no longer trusted the paws of his hands to perform the task. Yet here he was, sounding the notes aloud, groaning like the conductor Toscanini or the pianist Gould at the keyboard.
The girl grinned, nodded up and down and then up and down again, and began to play once more.
What Mr. Barbakoff heard filled him with desolation. She was obediently reproducing exactly what she had heard. He leaned close, with his hands behind his back, as in an old tintype of Brahms. He wanted to say, Like a bird, remember my dear. Not like a parrot. Here, over her shoulder, close to her neck, he saw that she wore a chain: a thin gold strand that held—what? A cross? A Star of David? Or some childish toy, a panda, a penguin? A charm? He followed the cord down to where it disappeared between her half-formed breasts. He took in his breath: no brassiere, and between the two rose tips, a golden Chai.
“Halt,” he said once more, as his pupil, faithful as a recording device, continued to duplicate the sounds he had provided. This time, cruelly, his impulse was to call her a mocking bird. But he only said, “Very good. Let us go on to the second movement. Andante sostenuto.”
“Are you unhappy with me?” she asked, squinting up at him.
“No, no. Certainly not, my child. Truthfully you did not miss a single note.” And no less truthfully, he wasn’t unhappy—not with her. His dolor, if that was the word for it, had been nudged aside by what he had observed: the black strands of hair, the subtle movement of her shoulder blades beneath the cotton-white skin, and the glimpse of her unprotected breasts. Also, now, the sight of her hands, too small, too plump to master the instrument beneath them.
Lislelotte raised them and fumbled for the correct page in the score. Then she began plodding through the soft, sweet notes. At the forty-second mark, eight bars in, her teacher said, Pedal. Don’t you understand, fool? Here we swell. Here is the heart, the feeling. Pedal! Though as it happened the fool spoke those words only to himself.
They ground through the sonata. Madam Novakoff joined them at the end of the hour. “Wonderful! Truly wonderful!” she exclaimed. “We should book a hall. In a few months we’ll have our recital.”
The girl turned toward her teacher. “Can that be? Mama talks. She talks all the time. But the truth is I am an oaf.”
“In my opinion, there is much promise,” Mr. Barbakoff replied.
“There!” said Madam Novakoff, beaming. “You see? And this comes from Ernst Barbakoff!”
The man so named reached into his satchel and took out a piece of sheet music. “Here we have Mendelssohn. What you once heard on the recording. Just a single piece. Opus 19. Number 4. Study it, please. Prepare for our lesson next week. Also Tuesday.”
“Oh, Tuesday!” The girl clapped her hands together. “Two-a-day. Two of us. Tuesday.”
Mr. Barbakoff smiled at the girl. “I believe that Mendelssohn wrote this piece for someone very much like you.”
For that lie, and all the others, he received his reward. At the door Madam Novakoff, Elizaveta, handed him an envelope. When he opened it in the elevator, he saw that it contained a hundred dollar bill.
As they dropped from floor to floor he thought he must be going insane. Only a madman would think what he was thinking now: What would it be like to be that little pendant, hanging on a chain? Warm, safe, protected. With hillocks on either side. Sacred, that Chai. An emanation, as the ancient scholars once wrote, from God.
On Hawthorn Street, he gathered his strength to move on. He stopped after a single block. He put a cigarette to his lips and pulled out his lighter—solid gold, the prize for his victory at Sao Paulo. The fools: to give such a thing to a child. He inhaled the smoke from the tobacco down to the very stub. This was to be his eighth lesson with Lislelotte. She was, as an artist, as hopeless as ever—not only because of her small hands, with their short, pudgy fingers, but because of her narrow emotional range. They had moved through much of the Mendelssohn, the duetto, the Venetian Boat songs, but everything—even the contrasting Funeral March and Song to Spring—came out the same. He had told Madam Novakoff that he had done all he could. The girl was stymied, at her limit. And so—and this was what he feared the most—was he. The woman, laughing, would not hear of it. She said that she could recognize her daughter’s progress, even if he could not. How remarkable it is. Lisle, at her recital, is going to have a great success. He did not argue back.
And here was the river, glittering in the light of the late afternoon sun. He could not feel, from its surface, the least breeze. The sails of the boats hung slack. A single bird skimmed over the surface, in forlorn hope of a fish. Suddenly he wished to thank God for the unseasonable heat. What dress would she be wearing? Light, flimsy, hanging loose? He would see the flesh of her ankle, her foot, the row of toes.
His pupil was waiting for him, already at the piano. She wore a white blouse, like a nurse. The little skirt—mauve, purple, violet: he didn’t know—ended above her bent knees.
“Mr. Barbershop!” she cried. “That is what someone called you at school”
“Yes, my other pupils—”
She interrupted. “But you need a haircut, ha, ha, ha!”
It was true. Especially in the summer, without the pressure of his hat. He looked like a wild man, like Toscanini.
“Well,” he said, “have you been at work for your teacher? Have you practiced? With diligence? Come, child. Let us see.”
Lisle shook her head. “No. I did not practice. I know I am going in circus—I mean circles. I make you bored. Because I am stupid. Because I am so hi ho-hum. Hum drum!”
The words filled him with alarm. Had she overheard what he had told her mother? That he had done all he could? But his dismay had another cause: that he would not be able to stand behind her, like old man Brahms, while she bent her head toward the keyboard and the line of vertebrae came to the surface of her neck.
“No. This is not true. There has been great progress.” He heard himself echoing Madam Novakoff’s words. “I am able to say that you now have a flawless technique.”
She did not answer. She sighed, so that her breasts went up and down beneath the white cotton cloth.
“So? I think now we must begin to play.”
She looked up at him through her squinting eyes. Then she laughed. “All righty! All righty! It’s my master’s voice.”
She began with the Mendelssohn. He hardly knew which one. He stood, for the moment, a little to one side. Because he had seen something shine under the Chickering, at the edge of the parallelogram made by the sinking sun. Her left foot was on the carpet, but the right was pressing on the damper pedal and around that ankle was a little filigree of gold, as fine as a strand of Rapunzel’s hair. The skin swelled above it, and below it he knew, were a hundred small bones, as if her foot were the body of a quail. He felt the breath being forced from him; his whole long body, he felt, was being squeezed into that little girl’s shoe. Which was no longer moving. She wasn’t playing. She was talking. He tried to listen.
“Have you ever heard the story of King Midas? We learned it this morning in school. Everything he touched turned into gold. He thought it was a blessing but it was a curse. He wanted to smell a flower, but it turned to gold and didn’t smell at all. Sometimes I think I am like the king and when I touch the keys whatever I play is like everything else. Even this. Sadness of Soul—”
She leaned forward, her large brow almost at the fallboard, and began to play, cantabile, in a singing manner.
“Do you see? Do you hear? I know it is supposed to be sad. Sometimes it is oh so beautiful to be sad. But it comes out like the Spinner’s Song or some other fa-la-la.”
As the melody spun on he moved closer, his hands—it was his Johannes Brahms pose—behind his back. If she had the Midas touch why wouldn’t she place her hands on him, so that he could hang on a chain between her breasts or, like an almost invisible thread of gold, be looped around her ankle?
“Do you know why? Little Lisle knows. She has no soul. It has been turned into—I don’t know, a lump of something. Like that stupid flower.”
He was now directly above her. He saw the white breasts beneath the white cloth. The rose-colored tips. She was not a flower. The smell that rose from her, from below her fitfully moving arms, was tart, slightly sour, like a product past its date of sale. He pressed his body closer, against the blades that shifted beneath her shoulders. He was in a reverie.
A bang, a crash, brought him out of it. The girl had slammed down the fallboard. She sat rigid and unmoving, as if fossilized.
“Oh, the poor man! Poor king!” She said these words piteously, in a wail. “He had a daughter!”
Before he could speak, before he could move. Elizaveta Novakoff swept into the room.
“What has happened here? What was that noise? Why aren’t you—”
She stopped, mid-sentence, staring.
Mr. Barbakoff felt his bones turn to stand. He saw through her eyes: the child, head hanging, in tears; he, the aged man, his belly and lower parts plastered in the heat of the day against her rounded back. He tried, without a skeleton to support him, not to fall to the floor.
“What happened to the Mendelssohn? The lovely Mendelssohn? She was playing so beautifully.”
Mr. Barbakoff picked up his satchel. He risked a step toward the door. “Madam, the lesson is over. All the lessons are over. I must now speak the truth. I fear that you have been deluded—”
“Deluded? Ernst Barbakoff, I see very clearly.”
I mean about the talents of your daughter. There can be no recital.”
The woman laughed. “What do you think of me? Of course there will be no recital. Did you think there would be? Then you are not an intelligent man.”
“What about Lislelotte?”
“You are tricking your daughter. Is it not heartless?” He looked at this mother. The long, thin neck. The blade of the nose. Was she some Aztec, sacrificing her child?
“Really, I never dreamed a great artist could be so foolish. It seems you understand nothing. What do you think of my daughter? That she is an idiot? A recital? I really am going to laugh. Lislelotte has known who she is from the age of two. I do not imagine she will be invited to parties, do you? Not so very many. But if anyone were interested she can play her empty Schubert and these Mendelssohn trifles and answer requests for Cole Porter and like an organ grinder’s monkey roll out Rhapsody in Blue. Isn’t that right, my Lislelotte? No one can fool you.”
With a start, Mr. Barbakoff realized that they had been talking about the girl as if she had not been present. They both turned to where she sat on the piano bench, with the tears being extruded from her narrow eyes. She said, “I have been turned to stone.”
The piano teacher took another step toward the door. He wanted to say a last word to the child: You must go to the Charles, my dear, and dip your hands in it. That was what the king did, according to Ovid, in the River Pactolus. Then he thought: I must jump in the river myself.
Then the girl said, “He touched me. Not with his hands.”
“No, not with his hands,” her mother replied. “He stands behind you. He won’t touch the keyboard. Even though I have paid him hundreds and hundreds of dollars. The master is ashamed of his hands. Look, Lisle. Do you see? He slips them into his trousers.”
“But why? I love his hands.”
“Then you shall have them. Herr Barbakoff, I think we must begin at the beginning. As if you had not given her any other lessons. Lislelotte, move to the side. The maestro is going to sit beside you. This will be the start of your first hour.”
The girl moved over. She looked up, the smile once more back on her lips. Slowly, by the drop, the blood was returning to Mr. Barbakoff’s veins. He moved to the bench. He sat at the empty spot.
“Music,” Madam Novakoff said.
The teacher opened his satchel, took out the metronome, and placed it before his pupil and himself. He put it in motion. Back and forth, it went, tick and tock, without halting, like a lunatic in an asylum. He put his hands on the keys.
The last of the sun was dissolving, like an aspirin in water, as Mr. Barbakoff made his way down the Drive toward Magazine Street. He turned left at Allston and reached for the keys that were somewhere in his trouser pockets. Carlotta had not yet arrived at their third-floor flat. He smoked a forbidden cigarette. He put on his headphones to listen to Bach and Gould, then changed his mind and put on Mahler. He was deep into the second movement, with its marches and dances, the distant cow bells, when he saw the front door open and Carlotta come in.
He watched as she set her bag of groceries on the floor and hung up her torn straw hat. She looked past him, or through him, sitting like a bee or a bug with the yellow headphones over his ears. She moved slowly toward the bathroom. Why had she left the groceries on the floor? Why had her eyes passed over him as if there had been no one occupying his chair? He removed the headphones, so that the forces of the orchestra, for all of their multiple exertions, were reduced to the fumblings of an insect against a pane of glass.
He pushed himself to his feet. He walked to the bathroom. All was silent within. He would count to ten, he decided, but was only at six when he tapped a knuckle against the wood and said, “Carla? Carlotta?” No response. What he heard in his ears now was the sound of his own racing heart, like a drumstick against the skin of a drum. “Carlotta, are you well?” He knew no answer would come. He had been through this before, the first time in New York. When? He knew very well—five years after the accident. Not to the day but to the month: June. In the bathtub. The wrists. Amazing how such a small amount of blood, a thimbleful, could turn an ocean red. The scratches weren’t serious. A strip of gauze. A bandage. But the crimson water, lapping at the porcelain, made him shudder. What was the word Lady Macbeth said? Incarnadine.
“Carlotta! In the name of heaven! Let me in.” He struck the door with the meat of his palm.
The second time was also in the East Village. Another five-year anniversary. Also June. And the last time, at the turn of the current century, was in this same bathroom. They did not have a tub. She did her bleeding into the sink. He never discovered what had reminded her. All she said, and it was enough, was “Baseball.” Daniel played for his high school. Mr. Barbakoff had volunteered to drive him to Westchester, so that he would not have to take the team bus. He never understood the game. You hit the ball. You ran around bases. That’s not what his son did. His son threw the ball so that others could not hit it. The boy did not read a note of music. He could not carry a tune. Carlotta was distraught, but his father was content. Let him throw the ball. It curved, seemingly against the laws of physics, just as his tin ear, his tone deafness, seemed to be against the laws of genetics.
He tried to calm himself. This was not June. A month too early. Ah, but the weather was like that of a summer day.
He thought to try the knob. The door swung open. His wife stood at the sink. Her blouse was half-buttoned and her hair, a foolish red, was hanging over one shoulder. She did not turn toward him. She stared ahead, into the mirror. The Mad Scene, Mr. Barbakoff thought. Lucia di Lammemoor. And then, with malice, By an overstuffed soprano. His eyes darted everywhere: no hint of blood.
“Carlotta, you frightened me. Why—?”
He saw her closed fist, held low against her right hip. With her left hand, she undid another button. The mirror reflected the swell of her overgrown breasts. It really was a mad scene. He stepped forward.
“What have you there?”
He was beside her. He pulled on her arm. “What’s that? Let me see.”
She would not open her hand. He tried to pry loose her fingers. She was stronger than he, with his clumsy hooks.
“Carla. Dear. What have you done? Won’t you let me help you?”
She seemed—was it the word Dear?—to hear him. On her own she raised her fist and shook it in the air. The sound it made was like a baby’s rattle.
“What’s that?” he said.
She opened her hand. A plastic bottle bounced across the floor. He bent to retrieve it. It was Tofranil. To change her moods. He felt of a sudden light-headed, as if he had taken the pills himself. He worked to pry off the cap. Two of the dark tablets fell into his palm, like drops of chocolate. His mouth went dry at the sight.
“Where are the rest?” he asked. “How many did you take?”
She turned. She looked at him, unblinking. Then her lips stretched in what he thought was a sneering smile. “All,” she said.
For an instant he felt himself sway, then saw that it was she who was tottering. She reached for the side of the sink to steady herself. In two strides he was beside her, catching her under her arms. How heavy she was! He staggered under the burden, like a porter with a steamship trunk. “This way, this way,” he said, trying to maneuver the two of them through the narrow door and round the corner to the living room couch.
“You will be fine. I will help you. I’ll make you well.”
Her legs, in her tight black pants, dragged after her. One of her shoes remained on the carpet. The arm around his neck was choking off the air, the way a drowning man will pull his rescuer into the depths. They stopped. He disentangled himself and rolled her onto the cushions.
“Can you breathe?” he asked. “Take a deep breath. Oh, you silly woman. Silly. Silly. Please, keep breathing. That is the way. Again. Again.”
She lolled on the couch, her head thrown back over the crest, her legs splayed. But her chest, half exposed, rose and fell.
“I must go. For help,” he declared. But all he meant was that he was going to the phone that hung on the kitchen wall. He plucked up the receiver and pushed the emergency numbers. But his shaking finger struck the wrong buttons: silence. He hung up and tried again. This time a woman answered.
“My wife. I think she is dying. Will you come?”
The operator was calm. She asked him how he knew she was dying. What were her symptoms? Had anything happened? Was there a pulse? Was she breathing?
To all of this Mr. Barbakoff uttered one word: Poisoned. Then he gave the Allston Street address.
He went back to the living room. Alive or dead? Alive. Now tears were streaming from her eyes. His own, at this sight, welled. He went onto his knees. Like a suitor he took her hand.
“They are coming. They are on their way. Just a few minutes. Can you breathe? Take a breath for me.”
Her chest heaved at the command. With his free hand he dug at his breast pocket. An old fashioned man, he kept a handkerchief there.
“Here,” he said. “Let me.” He touched it to her cheeks. He dabbed at her eyes. “Don’t cry, my dear. Why are you crying? They will be here soon. A doctor. The ambulance. No reason to cry. Carla, please do not be sad.”
At that the tears came gushing anew. He was alarmed to find his handkerchief soaked. He put a finger under her eye, as a sort of dam.
“Don’t touch me,” she said.
He was startled, as if a manikin or a statue had started to speak. “Ah! Wonderful. To hear your voice.”
“I told you, Ernst. Take your hand away.”
He did so, and saw that the flow of tears had stopped on their own. Now her eyes narrowed. What was the phrase? Looking daggers. He thought again of the murderess: Lady Macbeth. Abashed, he turned his own eyes aside. He started to babble.
“Where is the ambulance? They said immediately. This is unacceptable. But you are going to live. You understand that, don’t you? But I understand nothing. Why have you done this thing? After so many years. Can you tell me that? This is not June. This is the month of May. The buds have not yet opened on the trees. I saw this on the way home.”
“On the way home? On the way home from where?”
Where was the ambulance? It seemed as if an hour had gone by. He jammed, haphazardly, his handkerchief into the slice of pocket. “That’s what confuses me. Did you not look at the calendar? I mean, Daniel was killed in—”
“He died in June. And you always—Forgive me, Carlotta: it has been a long time. I thought. I hoped. That perhaps—”
Her chest rose again, so that the remaining buttons strained. “On the way home from where?”
“Why, from work.”
“You know. The school. The Academy.”
She did not answer. She put both her hands in front of her face. She held them there, like a Jewish woman before the Sabbath candles.
“All this—it’s upsetting. You should not talk. It’s my fault. I should not have brought up the boy.”
Her hands flashed away. “It’s not about the boy,” she said. “It’s about you.”
“Shush. Shush, Carla. You must rest. They’ll be here soon.”
“I don’t want to rest. I know what you think. I am not demented. And I am not a fool. I know how you spend your days Not at the Academy. Not anymore. Not for a long time.”
“Be calm. Please. You don’t quite know what you are saying. That’s understandable. It’s the pills.” But he was not calm himself. Though it was cool in the flat, he felt himself begin to perspire.
“It’s not the pills! My mind is clear. Do you remember a week ago: you left without your satchel. Your satchel! And you call me demented. You make your jokes about Uncle Al. You might just as well have walked out without your pants. I looked inside. Your metronome. Your scores. I thought you would need them. I thought that you might have a concert. I took a taxi. You were not in your classroom. A woman was there. She said see the principal. I saw the principal. And she told me, Ernst. She told me you haven’t been at the school since March. The month of March!”
He found himself, like a schoolchild, or for that matter like a man with brain softness, counting on his fingers. Twenty-thirty-forty: how many days? She was silent. She was waiting.
“I was fired, Carlotta. I was ashamed to say this before you. I cannot play the notes. I miss them. I hit two at one time.” Mothafucka can’t play for shit. “But I am being paid for—”
“You should stop talking, Ernst. I followed you to your coffee shop. I followed you to the library. I talked to that librarian. Miss Virginia. She showed me your notice. WORLD RENOWNED PIANIST. With that quote from Toscanini. She did not know you had not told me. Music lessons. All over the city. A big secret. Ernst Barbakoff, the Wunderkind, the prodigy, has a Big Secret.”
“But why are you shouting? Why are you upset? Did you take the Tofranil because your husband gives music lessons?”
“Music lessons to women! That’s why it’s a secret. But I know everything. I know about the woman on Memorial Drive. The one with her nose in the air and her pearls. She thinks she’s a countess.”
“It was the daughter I taught. A young girl. And that—that is now over.”
“But the other houses! With other women! What about the house on Longfellow Crescent? Opposite where the poet lived. Don’t tell me that is over. You went there today!”
Mr. Barbakoff was about to explain: Ivan, Isaac, the way he played like a Haskil. But he didn’t say anything because at that moment, the buzzer sounded from the downstairs lobby.
“The ambulance!” he exclaimed. And indeed he saw the reflection of a winking red light on the windowpane. “The doctors!” He strode to the button by the door to let them in.
They weren’t doctors. They were not much more than boys—one black, with a shiny, shaved scalp; the other, tall and thin, with a red beard in patches. Were they old enough, Barbakoff wondered, to drive their own machine?
“Is that the patient?” the Negro asked. He was pointing to Carlotta, whose head once more lay back against the top of the sofa. She was staring at the ceiling.
“How are you feeling?” asked the white boy, kneeling beside her. “Hello? Can you hear me?”
His partner came up with the folding stretcher. “Looks like she’s out of it.”
The taller EMT had a stethoscope around his neck. He put the tips to his ears and raised the diaphragm toward a spot between Carlotta’s ballooning breasts.
“I heard you,” she said, and waved the instrument away.
“Poison,” said the black man. “That’s what the dispatcher said.”
“Did you take poison? Did you swallow something?”
Mr. Barbakoff answered. “Yes. Look—” He dug into his jacket for the plastic vial. “Tofranil. The whole bottle.”
The two men looked at each other. The black one turned to Carlotta. “We’ll take you to the hospital.”
“She will be all right?” Barbakoff asked.
“We’ll get that stomach pumped.”
Together they began to take hold of her body, to roll her onto the stretcher.
“Wait,” said Carlotta. She swung herself forward, so that her feet, one with a shoe, one without, were on the floor. Then, using her hands, she began to push herself upright.
“You can walk?” asked the half-bearded boy.
“No, no,” said her husband, stepping forward. “She needs assistance.”
“I need nothing.” With those words Carlotta rose and stepped lightly over the poles of the stretcher.
“How long ago did you swallow those pills?”
Again, Mr. Barbakoff answered. “A half hour ago. Forty minutes. You were a long time coming.”
The tall young man paid no attention. He addressed Carlotta, who stood with her arms crossed, as if she meant to defy them. “How many of those pills did you take? He—” he gestured toward the distraught old man—“said the whole bottle.”
“He has become a simpleton,” Carlotta declared. “You should take him away.”
“So you did not swallow the whole bottle?”
Carlotta shook her head.
The other man spoke up: “Then how many? It’s important. We have to know.”
To the surprise of everyone, but most of all Carlotta’s husband, she started to laugh. Then, while they watched, she dug into the side pocket of her slacks. After a moment she removed her hand and opened it. A dozen, more than a dozen of the mahogany-brown tablets lay on her palm.
The technicians looked at each other. “You didn’t take anything?”
Instead of answering she nodded toward her husband. “That’s Ernst Barbakoff. The world renowned pianist. And the fool who made everything up.”
They turned now toward him. For a second or two he did nothing but stare at the score of tablets in his wife’s hand. A simpleton indeed.
“Carlotta,” he said. “Why have you done this? To make such a comedy?”
The Negro had already retrieved the poles of his canvas stretcher. It was balanced under his arm. “This is no comedy,” he said. “A new call could come in, and we’re messing here.”
The other EMT stepped forward. He had a paper and a pen. “You called in the report? Then you have to sign.”
Mr. Barbakoff did so, without looking at the text.
“Could have been a tragedy someplace else, you know. But you called us in to see this unhappy woman.”
“I am sorry. I apologize. It has been a misunderstanding.”
“So sayeth the fool,” said Carlotta. She twirled her finger beside her head. It was the international symbol for a madman. For an instant Mr. Barbakoff thought they would heed her and take her demented husband away. But the two young men departed without a word.
What now? Mr. Barbakoff watched while his wife walked over to her missing shoe. She slipped her foot inside.
“I will get the groceries,” he said and then carried the bag into the kitchen.
Carlotta followed him. She put the contents into the pantry, into the refrigerator, and then set the items that remained on the cutting board, next to the sink. With her back turned she began to run water from the tap. He picked up that morning’s Times, plucked out the section on the arts, and started to read what little they had to say about musical events. A concert here. A recital there. And all this popular music. With guitars. And half-dressed women. Still, it was a pleasant domestic scene. Of the bourgeois type. Man with paper. Woman at her tasks. Where were his slippers? Where was his pipe?
“It’s not the women,” Carlotta said, speaking to the tile on the wall.
He did not answer. He thought about how he had called her dear. He thought about the tears that for an inexplicable moment had filled his eyes. Now he wondered why she was still alive.
“I know nothing happened. Not with the countess. Not with any of them. Oh, a dalliance. A dalliance does not matter.”
He rattled the newsprint, to indicate that he was there. And that he had heard her.
“No. What matters is that one.”
Now he held still, the way a listening animal will wait to discover what approaches. Did she mean the girl? Madam Novakoff’s daughter?
“That woman. Miss Virginia, they call her. Does she even have a last name? My God, Ernst, don’t you know she is in love with you?”
He put down the paper. “She has a last name.”
“You don’t deny it? That she loves you?”
“Of course I deny it. Why talk such absurdities? That is why I worry about you.”
“I observed her. I know, even if you do not.”
“Why must I speak to your back? For heaven’s sake, Carlotta, turn around.”
He started when she did so. Her blouse was completely unbuttoned and the two sides of her brassiere dangled, undone. Her breasts hung to the folds in her belly.
“All I had to do was say the name Ernst and the pupils of her eyes went wide. She could not control them. Or her lips, her trembling lips, whenever she said Mr. Barbakoff.”
“This is nonsense. If anything, it’s the music she loves. She heard a recording.”
“A middle-aged woman, this music lover. With dye in her hair. All a-flutter, as Americans say. Like a teenager. A bobby soxer. A schoolgirl. And she knew about the piano. Your piano. Oh, the Bechstein! The Bechstein in Bratislava. How it was hoisted, so high in the air, into your flat. How the neighbors all watched. And you, the brave boy, dared death by standing beneath it. I felt a knife go into me. Deeper with every word. It killed me, you damned, damned foolish old man. I was already dead: the pills would have been useless. Oh, damn you, Ernst.”
“Carlotta, what is it you want from me?”
“It was our story!”
“You should take a pill. For this mood. The excitement.”
But it did seem as if some tablet or lozenge were working.
She said, “Do you remember, my prodigy, how wild we were and what we did with each other?”
“What am I to remember? What is it you are talking about?”
“In Haifa? I know you remember. At the port. Before we sailed for South America.”
“You are talking of a time when we were children. Fourteen years old. Fifteen.”
“And on the boat. Night after night. And in the daytime, too. With the light coming in from the porthole. On you. On that part of you. On that part of me.”
He looked at his wife. He thought he could see the pull of the earth on her breasts, with the browned nipples as large as eggs in the pan. He had met Einstein. They had performed, the old man and the boy, a duet. Playful Mozart. These breasts were the proof of his theory: gravity was a function of time. What he wanted was to keep up these thoughts in order not to hear what the wreck of his wife was saying. But he did hear:
“You wanted to practice on me. You have not forgotten that. How you made me your keyboard. Liszt. Schumann. Oh, the Brahms. On every part of my body. What do I want from you? That’s what I want from you. I know it’s madness. Call me any name you want.”
Her blouse was now on the floor. He got up from the scarred kitchen table. He was before her in two steps. With the claws of his hands, inept, he played across the skin of the crazed and gasping woman.
The next morning Mr. Barbakoff resumed his day’s routine. He walked through the warming, windless streets to Central Square. He drank his cup of coffee. He opened the Romanian’s journal, the book he was reading. Then, at ten o’clock, or a few minutes after, he went to the library. Miss Virginia was, as usual, behind her counter. Did the pupils of her eyes expand when she saw him? Or did Carlotta say they had contracted? No matter: he noticed nothing.
“You have no lessons today?” she asked.
“No. I mean, not now. In the late afternoon.”
Then he went to the nook, which was unoccupied, set his satchel on the table, and read about how the great thinkers and philosophers of Budapest had turned their backs on their threatened friend. An hour passed. Then Miss Virginia—she did have a last name; it was Michaud—sat catercorner from him and leaned in his direction. “Tell me,” she said. “I want to hear how you met your wife.”
“You know, I believe, how I arrived at Brindisi.” This is how he began. “I have spoken of the terrible journey. When I arrived, children were on the beach. There were no parents. Some of us had tents. Some slept by the bonfires. The older ones often abused the younger ones. They made us pick pockets. They made us steal food in the markets. They did things to the girls. And to the boys. There were smugglers. Jewish smugglers. You could not resist them. They had the food. They had the tickets to the boats. I was nine. I had to smuggle cigarettes. To the island of Sicily once.
“At night, some nights, we could see the lights. Out in the Adriatic Sea. When we woke at dawn, ships would be anchored. Ships for Australia. For Canada. For the little nations in the Caribbean. Our Jews—they had already been through so much: beaten in the camps, beaten now by their own people. They had survived all of that, but some went mad at the sight of those ships, their lights at night, sitting motionless in the day, and then sailing off with a trail of smoke.
“Nobody prayed. Or if they prayed the older boys would mock them. They would turn the Hebrew words into a babel. I tried to stay alone. I spoke to no one. I was waiting for a boat to Palestine. And I was waiting for my mother, who had been, as you know, Miss Virginia, shot before my eyes. Perhaps I had gone mad, too. But I knew she would come. I never stopped hearing her voice. I waited for my father, too.
“But you could not be alone. You would starve. You had to become a criminal. Or work for the smugglers. Or join a gang. We all did terrible things or watched terrible things being done. Our hearts were cold.
“At night we wanted entertainment. We turned some people into clowns. Other people juggled or did tricks. It was like a small circus that tramped from bonfire to bonfire. Sometimes, if a boy or a girl showed real talent, the smugglers would take them and sell them in Naples or Rome. I did not tell anyone I played the piano, though they had dragged an upright onto a distant beach. People found instruments or parts of instruments buried in the sand or in Brindisi itself. There was a musical instinct in us.
“One night my gang was up drinking. They had straw-covered bottles of wine. I pretended to swallow, but in the darkness I poured my cup to the ground. Their voices grew loud. Soon another gang came. They spoke a language I did not know. I knew only a few of the Yiddish words. Do you know Yiddish, Miss Virginia?”
She shook her head. Under the table she was holding his hand.
“Of course everyone became drunk. Even the young children. And of course fights broke out. I remember the flaming sticks the boys threw at each other. The new gang had girls with them. I had seen, we had all seen, how the sexes would fornicate. They did this in daytime, like animals, on the beach. But these were young girls. Some were no older than I. Everyone was laughing. They were shouting. They were dancing. You could see the light of the fire in their eyes. The older girls took off their clothes. Then they took off what the younger ones were wearing. They made a parade before the boys. The gang took one, she seemed the youngest, and made her stand on a crate. A wooden crate. I remember it had a star on it, a red star, because it had once held bottles of mineral water. San Pellegrino. The girl was thin and had a chest like a boy’s. The gangs were howling. A well-known smuggler shouted, `Make her sing! Make her dance!’ She could not sing. She shuffled her feet. The boys grew angry at this. They threw handfuls of sand into her chopped-off hair. Then one of the smugglers came up and handed her something small, something silver. We did not know what it was.
“ ‘Play,’ he said.
“She put the instrument to her lips. She did not know how to play. All she could do was breath in and out, making a donkey’s noise. At first everyone laughed. But as the sounds went on the laughter died away. The shouting stopped. No one danced. After a minute or two everything was completely silent as the boys, who were still only children, listened to the sounds of the breathing girl.”
“And then?” asked the librarian, who still pressed her friend’s hand.
“Then people went to their tents or to their sheds or to where they slept by a fire. I walked to the girl and handed her the clothing she had lost. We went to my own weak embers. I told her my name was Ernst. She told me her name was Carlotta. We spent the next weeks together. She told me about her life. I told her the story of mine. The day the piano, a Bechstein, was lifted through the air into our flat. How I played the ‘Spring Song’ with the tips cut off my mittens. This, too, you already know. With her, I no longer waited for my parents. I told her that we were orphans and that I was her father and she was my mother. The ships arrived. They sailed away. And then, on a boat that was meant for fishing, we crossed the sea to Palestine.”
Miss Virginia rose from the bench and went to her station. Mr. Barbakoff remained, turning the pages of his book. Then, when the light in the sky started to fail, he went out to give his music lesson.
3: Songs Without Words
I do not remember my mother. Only waves of blond hair that fell on either side of a face that is for me, in my old age, blank. Perhaps red lips. Perhaps darkened eyes. But that might be a memory of a cinema poster. Also a scent. Mint. Not her breath. Not perfume. But the two candies she gave me every night, even after the war had started. They lay on an open palm, with a drop of chocolate inside. Then, as if the film had ended, or she had been cut from the scene, she was gone.
Over the years and to this day I have attempted to arrange the puzzle pieces. She disappeared, I think, in 1943, before I had turned seven. Mutzi told me that one day she walked out the door and did not return. Anything could have happened. We, the few of us who were left, were being taken on the street. Every day a Jew or a Jewess committed suicide. The Strassenbahn ran behind our flat. She could have thrown herself on the tracks. Or from any rooftop. Later on it occurred to me that she was blond. Perhaps she was beautiful. She might have decided that on that day she would no longer be a Jew. I remember the line of Mutzi’s mouth. It was a knife blade of bitterness.
Ernst tells me—over and over—that when he was in the forests and caves every good citizen wanted to kill him or hand him over to those who would complete that task for them. As a hobby, he says. He ate roots. He ate the worms in the ground. Or he did not eat at all. I had the mints, even when there was no bread. He told me about the prostitutes, the Gypsies, the horse thieves: they were the kind ones. How could he eat the bark from the trees? Why did he remain alive? Because he knew his mother was waiting for him. But his mother had been shot before his eyes. I don’t think he is crazy. He knew he had been loved. He says that no matter what happens to you in life, even if you have become a criminal, all you need to be saved is a happy memory from childhood. I am disturbed because no matter how hard I try, I can’t think of even one. Well, the taste of the mints: no, not the taste, but the constancy. Every night, the last thing before I went to bed, always the two of them and the way the chocolate always made its appearance at the center. That made you forget the troubles of the day. I won’t eat chocolate now. I have a mental allergy. And I have become fat.
What about the Weissensee Cemetery, where Jews were allowed to walk? I was half-happy when I held Mutzi’s hand. We went to the center, where the tombstones leaned against each other, and the vines and the shrubs grew wild. I would hide from him in the jungle. But he never played. He sat with a book and waited for me to come out on my own. Then we would take the dangerous journey home. After a time even the cemetery was forbidden. We had to stay in the flat.
One morning, late in the year 1944, Mutzi came to where I was still lying in bed and told me to hold out my arms. When I did he took out a bottle—I think now it must have been Jodtinktur, iodine or mercurochrome—and began to paint dots on my skin. Not just my arms but on my legs and then on my face. I thought it was a game. I told him it was my turn to paint him. I wanted both of us to be like my doll that had a hundred or a thousand of these Sommersprossen. But he told me to get dressed, and then for the first time since my mother had disappeared we went into the streets.
No one taunted us. They turned their heads. They moved away. We went along a boulevard I did not know. Smoke came from buildings that were still on fire. I remember the fire wagons and the water that came from the hoses. We came to the Wedding District. We came to the Krankenhaus for the Jewish People. We went through the entrance. A bald man stood in front of us. He started to laugh. He said I was a smart little girl and would I lend him my paintbrush. He wanted to put the spots on all of his patients. We did not leave that building until the Russians arrived at the door.
I do not feel that these memories from childhood can save me. I too have developed a bitter mouth, which surprises me in the mirror. Ernst had no mother, but he knew he was loved. Little Carlotta had a mother, a blond woman in the city of Berlin. But was the doll’s spots that saved me, though I must ask, seeing my life as I live it now, saved me for what?
There sits my husband, pretending to read the New York Times. If I turned round I could see the white wisps of his hair above the edge of the paper. They call him, his students, Mr. Barbershop. But I am the one who is the barber. Think of the money I saved the man. A billion dollars! I would cut it this minute, if he trusted me with the scissors. Now that I think of it, that was the first thing I ever did for him. Well, aside from bringing driftwood for our fire. I chopped the layers away with a knife. He was brown from the sun. He looked like a Bushman. He gave me back my clothes. He said that he would be my father and I would be his mother. He told me about the piano that rose in the air. I knew it was an important memory for him
The Russians, as I said, came to the door of the Krankenhaus der juedische Gemeinde. I have learned what they did to German women. I do not excuse them. But these boys were sweet to me. They made the shadows of rabbits and wolves move across the walls. From what spot on this earth did they find oranges? Their magic trick was to peel them in spirals that never ended. They asked for our address. They would throw out the intruders. They would take us home. Mutzi said yes, good, thank-you, come for us in the morning. That night we left the hospital and walked through smoke and flames to the south.
I do not think it necessary to speak of our journey. Terrible things happened. It seemed to make no difference that Jesus said you would drown with a stone around your neck if you harmed a child. But a woman gave us a little kettle so we could boil water. A man showed us how to make a net out of rags. With this we fished in the ocean. These small acts taught me a lesson that I try not to forget. Carlotta, in this world there are good people.
Mutzi took only one thing with him. A book by Immanuel Kant. He kept it even after both his spectacle lenses were broken. He still wore the spectacles, without any glass. I thought it was a not-funny joke. But that was the reason, when we reached the nation of Italy, everyone called him Professore. Did I say we were going to Palestine? I did not know even the word when we began. I was in a certain way looking back, over my shoulder, as I thought of those nice Russian boys.
The camps for Jews stretched all the along the coast. We went from one to the other, heading south, always south, like birds that were migrating in the wrong direction. One day a man offered us a ride in his cart. What I remember is his straw hat. I climbed in because my feet were swollen. Mutzi reached for the side of the cart, but his eyes betrayed him. He fell. The startled animal, a donkey, stepped backward and the rim of the wheel rolled over his ankle. It did not seem serious. He was barely cut. We rode on to the next camp. Mutzi never left it. His ankle grew to the size of a melon. Then, in days, his whole leg turned red and shiny. It was hot when I touched it. After that he lost his mind and kept talking in the German language and then in a language I had not heard before. It seemed he was speaking to his pupils, as though he meant to give them in a single hour the lessons he had been unable to teach them for the last ten years.
What should I say killed him? A donkey? The useless spectacles? Is the murderer the man in the Ukraine who for sheer sport struck him on both sides of his head? You can go back and back over the years, though it is perhaps best to stop on any German street with any German citizen: this one, that one, any one you want. Carlotta, Carlotta: There are good people in this world. But not enough.
So I was alone. I did not have even his book. The boys said the boats were leaving from Brindisi. They promised to take me there. They kept their promise, but because of what they did with me it would have been better if I had leaped into my father’s grave.
He still reads the paper. Or pretends to read it. I pretend to chop vegetables, to cut the fat off the meat. I’ve unbuttoned my blouse completely now. I’ve unfastened the brassiere. My breasts drop to the counter top. How does such a thing happen? Over years, of course. It seems overnight. I don’t care about his women. The countess on Memorial Drive. Whoever he sees on Longfellow Circle or Longfellow Crescent or whatever it’s called. As long as he has stayed away from his students. Is that why they fired him? I should have thought those girls would have run screaming. The dirty old man. And the boys? I won’t think that thought. My head is spinning. As if in a dance someone had whirled me around. I did take two of the pills. Is that why I am not depressed? Is that the reason I feel what I feel? I want his hands on me. I want him to bite me. I want his tongue in my mouth.
An amazing thing in our modern world is that in the whole of my childhood, I mean my childhood in Europe, I never once heard a piano. I do not think I ever heard the word Klavier. We had a radio, but I remember nothing coming from its speaker before we were forced to turn it in. We did not have a musical life. At times, beneath our windows, an SS or a military parade. A child remembers a glockenspiel. A child remembers the brass of a tuba. In Brindisi Jews danced and Jews sang, and now and then someone would come by to play on the remains of a violin. Ernst, black Ernst, with the bare blades of his shoulders, with, now that I think of it, the ribs of a glockenspiel: he never played any instrument. He waded up to his hips and threw the harmonica into the sea.
In Israel, against our wishes, we were separated: a home for girls, a home for boys. We learned Hebrew. We learned the skill of rolling gauze. He came to visit each Sabbath afternoon. Every other week he went to Tel Aviv. Once, without permission, we went together. Inside of a large building there was a board. It covered the whole wall. And on it were slips of paper. They were supposed to be in the order of the alphabet, but they were not. Ernst would not leave. Even after he had read the slips, he stayed because the three women, each with her hair in bun, kept pinning new slips among the old ones. The mad boy: he was looking for the magical name of Iris. To tell him where in this new land his mother could be found. He told me to look for mine. I told him I had forgotten her name, and the surprise was that as soon as I said what I thought was a lie it became true. I laughed. I was as mad as he: because I thought I knew she was alive and making a shameful living in the ruins of Berlin.
After that he no longer came on the Sabbath. Later on I was sent to a kibbutz near the town of Hedera. A year and a half went by. I tore my fingers when I plucked eggplants. I went to a hospital for the disease of malaria. At times even now I soak the sheets with sweat. Perhaps it is not malaria. Is it a sign of what my fool of a husband calls Uncle Al? It is he who is demented. Chasing after women! That librarian. She is in cloud cuckoo land about him. I know the signs. I told those attendants: put him in a straight jacket and take him away. I can’t chop vegetables forever. I am going to turn around. In a moment. I shall expose myself. What in the name of God will happen then?
One day, at breakfast, after we had already been in the fields, a man came to where I was sitting. He said he was from a kibbutz not far away, Ma’ Aborat, and that he wished to invite me to a concert there that night. If I accepted he would return to drive me himself.
I somehow knew that the request had come from Ernst Barbakoff. I was too excited to speak. I stared at the pale green slices of cucumber and the dashes and dots of red tomato scattered over my plate. Then I said yes.
Because of mechanical problems, that’s what the man told me, he came late. The music had started by the time we arrived. It came through the open windows of our little bus. Of course I had no idea what that music was. A lot of instruments playing, all together. Sometimes fast. Sometimes slow. Loud for a moment. Then soft. We sat still on our seats. I suppose it was dark out. I suppose there were stars. The music kept coming, through their windows, into ours. A slight pause: and then the chords of what I soon learned was a piano and what I soon learned was Brahms. But at that ignorant moment I sat without taking a breath and felt the air shifting around me and a hand, that is what it was like, moving between my legs. I was then eleven years old.
We left the bus, the man and I, and went toward the big wooden building. He opened the door, and I walked inside. Hundreds of people sat in white shirts. The orchestra was playing on a stage. At the front, in the middle, a piano was sitting; and on the stool of that piano, in profile, with short, black, shining hair, was my friend. The orchestra played. He played. Then they played together. I stood, swaying. His hands rose and fell on the keyboard. Impossible. Because at the same time they were on my body and between my legs, which began to tremble so much from pleasure that I had to take hold of the stiff slats of a nearby chair: that kept me from falling a slave to the power of music to the ground.
Of course, looking back, I understood that this concerto—it was to become his signature piece, his most famous recording—was a ramshackle affair. I have heard Ernst Barbakoff play with the greatest orchestras in the world and with the greatest conductors. Even the children at the Academy, also in white shirts, were more accomplished than the members of the Ma’ Aborat kibbutz. He cannot play anymore. His hands. His fingers. Better for him if it were his brain, the visit from Uncle Al.
His last concert was as an accompanist for a Negro girl. They played the Franck A-Major. He bungled it. He lost his place. I saw the same girl when I brought his satchel to class. He says he was fired because he can no longer play. But was it because of this girl? Something immodest? They should throw him in a dungeon! With bread and water!
I refused to go back on the bus. I threw a girlish fit. I remained at Ma’ Aborat. In a children’s dormitory. Instead of eggplant I worked in the grove of avocados. Ernst taught me how to read music. He became famous in Israel before Israel was born. He played on the radio. He played Mozart in Tel Aviv with the American, Bernstein. Another time in the desert with the same American. He played Gershwin. Then he gave recitals on his own. I stood on a box to turn the pages. Sometimes I would glance out, to see if a woman in the audience or even a man was feeling what I was. In a trance. Ravished.
Because of Bernstein he entered the Sao Paulo competition. After he won the prize he played in every capital city. Even outdoors. So that in the heat of the sun I had to wipe the perspiration beads from his eyes. He keeps the gold lighter in his pants. What a thing to give a child! We never touched each other until we sailed on the Negba. We undressed in my cabin. I saw the beautiful long line of his penis. But he used only his hands. The fingers of his hands. He did not know I was impure. That he had been touching me since the night he played Brahms. But it was a long voyage, days and days, and with the sun coming in on us he entered me.
I have been jealous two times. With this Miss Virginia, who must be thirty years younger than he—her paramour—and with the pianist, Haskil, in the Swiss Alps. With her long neck and long arms, she must have been forty years older. How dare he go off with her? A walk in the garden, he said. In the middle of the night! He isn’t so beautiful now. I know what he’ll see when I turn around. He doesn’t like these breasts? Then look in the mirror, great maestro. Your sack of balls hangs even lower. Like an animal. Dragging on the ground.
We were married by the time the Liberté brought us to America. We made the famous Brahms recording practically off the boat. I think it was the last that Toscanini ever completed. We became citizens in 1958. I remember the judge’s name: Solomon Gitlitz. Daniel was born a year later. He lived for fifteen years. How could he be crushed to death in the passenger seat and the driver have only a broken foot? He does not even limp.
Daniel was not going to be a musician. Or a mathematician. I think possibly a writer. I’ve saved only one thing of his. A story. I think from when he was five or six. It was called “Jin Gets a Bite,” and it was about how this brave boy goes into the forest—foret is what he wrote—and saw a snake and so he ran away. The end. The snake looked like a tadpole. And Jin looked like a Chinese ideogram. Daniel wasn’t going to be an artist, either. But a writer? When I said, “But, Danny, he didn’t get a bite,” he crossed his arms—not stick arms, but plump, pink ones—and he stomped his little foot and said, “But he could have!” This story is saved not on paper but in my head. I went to all the record stores in the city of New York and bought as many copies of that recording that I could and smashed them in the gutter. What Ernst said is true: June is hard for me.
On the beach, telling me about his life as a child. His mother. His father. A grandmother, too. But always coming back to the day that they raised the piano into the air and how he stood beneath it in an act of derring-do. I didn’t know what a piano was. Something black. Something heavy. He doesn’t fuck her. Let him fuck her! But what he does is tell her the stories he once told to me.
I don’t have derring-do. I’ve already counted to three. But my back is still turned. Like any fishwife I start to complain about his women. About his dalliances. Then a stroke of luck: he asks me to turn around. I don’t have the strength to resist. I see him jerk back. He is startled. But soon he asks me what I want from him. I am not shy. I am not afraid. I tell him.
He played all winter long in his mittens. With the tips of the fingers cut off so he could feel the keys. He had a grand project. I did not know then who Mendelssohn was. I know now. That, too, in an occupied city was an act of courage. In the spring he opened the windows. So that the entire street and the entire neighborhood and all of the thousands of people in the city could hear the Songs Without Words.
Leslie Epstein teaches creative writing at Boston University. All three of his Leib Goldkorn books will appear as a Trilorgy (no typo) in fall, 2022.