She smells their sour exhalations in the velveteen darkness, hears their involuntary animal noises: coughs, sighs, rear-ends squirming in wooden seats.
“The trick is to keep the baffles moving, no matter how slow or how small the movement,” Rusty Nail had taught her. “Constant motion, like you never stop breathing. Breathing is the key. Don’t take those big gulps and then collapse. Slow and steady, so’s you hardly look like you’re breathing at all. And smile, smile, smile. Smile till it hurts and then smile, smile some more.”
She was rehearsing “Fly Me to the Moon” when the light in the basement room suddenly dimmed, and a large, rounded shadow fell across the music on the stand. She lost her place, her fingers faltered, the accordion wheezed open.
Gary Junior, in the window, his pants and undershorts down around his ankles, the pink-white cheeks of his ass pressed up against the windowpane.
“Father, it’s been one week since my last confession.”
Father Durham’s stale breath wafted through the mesh screen. “And how have you sinned, my child?” His voice was tubby and intimate in the tiny cubicle.
“I called my brother a demented pig.”
Father Durham sighed. “Siblings can be such a trial,” he said in a weary singsong. “I suppose the Good Lord puts them on Earth to test our faith and humility. Three Hail Marys and prayer.” He paused. When his voice returned, it was low and furtive, a near whisper. “Tell me, do you still play the piano?”
Sherry was shocked, but not too shocked. She and Father Durham went back a long way. Besides, things were loosening up. Fish on Friday was optional. “No, we sold the Bösendorfer. I play the accordion now. Why, Father?”
“The accordion! That’s even better. Listen, the Knights of Columbus have their annual talent contest next month. On the 15th, that’s a Saturday night. This year promises to be as dreadful as last year. We always get the same ones — the twirlers, the rock bands, this one terrible comic.” He clucked in despair. “I remembered how you used to play the piano, that recital you gave in the Parish Hall. The Mozart sonata in particular.”
“But Father, I’ve never …”
“There’s a cash prize and the winner goes on to the state quarter-finals in Camden and then, God willing, to the semi-finals in Union,” Father Durham continued in a rush. “The finals are in October in Newark. From there, for the winner, it’s on to Radio City Music Hall and a spot on The Ed Sullivan Show!”
He paused, out of breath from excitement. But when he spoke again, his voice was at a lower pitch. “We’ve never had anyone from this parish even reach the semis. It’s embarrassing: Every year the animal clubs do better than we do.”
“You know: the Elks, the Moose, the Lions. Of course, as I remind the archbishop, the animal clubs can bring in a ringer, and nobody knows the difference, whereas we are bound by our rules about who’s a Catholic and a Knight of Columbus. They’re necessary rules, of course. We can’t just take in anybody off the street. But the truth is, Sherry, we’ve never had anyone with real talent enter in the first place.” His voice brightened. “But an accordionist, and a good one! Think of it, Sherry! It’s not impossible. God willing, with a little effort, you could be on national TV!”
The stall didn’t feel as claustrophobic anymore. “My mother signed me up for secretarial school in the fall,” she confessed, in a sudden gush of emotion. “She paid a $100 deposit.”
“Well, first prize happens to be $150.” He paused, then added primly: “And, of course I’ll be one of the judges.”
“How many numbers should I work up, Father?”
“No more than two, but make them your best two.”
“Da dum da dum da da dum dum dum. Third finger then first then second. That’s right. Very good. Now do it again, this time in tempo.”
Her life, it seemed to her, had been dictated by her fingers. Long and thin and agile, they made up not quite lovely hands, she believed — too pale, too utilitarian. She’d discovered them, as if quite by accident, at the age of 6, when Mrs. Penny sat her at the old Bösendorfer upright in the living room. A John Thompson primer was open on the stand to page one. Within a year, Thompson gave way to Hanon and Hanon to Scarlatti and Scarlatti to Chopin. By age 9, her hands shook if they were away from the Bösendorfer for too long. Her fingers were calmed only by the greasy, supple touch of ivory, a bench fat with music beneath her bottom.
“Da dum dum dum da dum dum dum, yes, one and three and one and three.”
Now every Saturday, Sherry gave lessons on the Baldwin in Mrs. Penny’s living room, while Mrs. Penny sat on an orange stool at the minibar, chain-smoking and drinking martinis. Mrs. Penny’s black hair was dyed and swept up in a cone, her cheeks were rouged, and she had great purple eyelids, like two enormous bruises. She wore violet-and-red Harem pants and sparkly paisley blouses. Her husband had left her five years before, had vanished into Manhattan one sultry summer evening and had never returned, not even for his clothes.
“Dum de dum dum. First then fourth then third then first.”
Today, the house smelled as if Mrs. Penny had accidentally tipped over a bottle of Calgon and had forgotten to clean it up. In the bathroom, where Sherry washed her hands between lessons, the various perfumes clashed noxiously: Jean Nate, Tigress, tuberose, My Sin.
“It doesn’t mean anything unless you do it with the metronome, Janey. Have you been practicing? Well, maybe you will for next time.”
Right on cue, Mrs. Penny drifted off her perch toward the piano, clutching a cigarette in her hand, purple lids half-closed, smiling widely for the girl. “See you next week, honey,” she said in a merry gravel voice. As soon as the screen door slammed, she said to Sherry, “My God, she’s an ugly runt, isn’t she?”
“I suppose so.” Sherry drew in a breath. She rubbed her hands together nervously. “Mrs. Penny, I think it’s time we gave the Baldwin a good tuning.” She paid Mrs. Penny 25 percent of her fees for use of the spinet and the living room. In Sherry’s opinion, the tuning was Mrs. Penny’s responsibility.
Mrs. Penny blew a gout of blue smoke above Sherry’s head. “Oh, what does it matter? Those monkeys can’t tell the difference anyway.”
“But it sets a bad example, Mrs. Penny. You always kept it tuned for me.”
“Oh, but you, you … oh, but you were different. You had talent, my dear. Real talent. How can you even compare yourself? Anyway, these monkeys never practice, I can tell, even if you can’t. Their parents don’t make them practice.” Smoke dribbled out of the side of her mouth, like foam. “What do these monkeys know of Beethoven, Sherry? Their parents, either. We’re the last of the breed, you and I.”
“Maybe so, Mrs. Penny. But, still, the piano …”
“Sherry, just think of all the glorious music we made in this room. The Slavonic Dances for four hands, Mozart, Bach. Oh, and Clara Schumann! Beautiful Clara. Why she ever married him, that brute who stole all her ideas. They were all her ideas, you know.”
“Yes I know, Mrs. Penny.”
“She wrote every last note of his piano music and then let Robert take the credit. Out of love. Now he’s immortal and she’s a nobody. That’s what love gets you. Oh, Sherry, Sherry. You were my prize, my Clara, my rare jewel.”
Sherry swallowed around a lump in her throat, a bittersweet, brackish taste. “I don’t know, Mrs. Penny.”
“If I had the money, I would pay your way myself. I swear I would. I would sacrifice myself. I would throw myself on a sword for you. You know that.”
“Yes, Mrs. Penny, I know that.”
The first thing every morning, as soon as the house emptied except for her father, she strapped on the accordion and ran all the chords and played all the scales. She’d decided on a moon song, but she couldn’t decide on what else. She had no idea what they wanted, what would please them. Mrs. Penny knew those sorts of political things, like a kind of sixth sense, but Mrs. Penny didn’t know the accordion and she didn’t know the Knights of Columbus. She knew how to curb the flying pinkie and tame the wild ring finger and how to keep a child’s wrists and dreams of glory from collapsing under immense strain. She knew the art of the Sunday afternoon recital.
That was Mrs. Penny’s milieu: the irritable mothers, the fidgety siblings, the bored fathers, all in their slightly wilted Sunday best, as if church had gone on for hours too long. And Sherry’s peers, her co-competitors: the flouncy, rosy-cheeked, brown-haired girls in taffeta dresses who chewed gum and talked dirty when their mothers weren’t around. They pitied Sherry because she was small and pale and not so pretty and she got nervous and wrung her hands a lot. Mostly, she noticed, she perspired and they did not. For a while she thought it was something glandular, something horribly wrong with her. Mrs. Penny told her, “You sweat because you care. The others don’t care.”
The senior audition was held in an art gallery in Newark. First prize was a scholarship to Marlboro College. Second prize was failure and obscurity. The piano was an 1872 square grand. It was bought by one of New Jersey’s richest dowagers for $10,000 from a European antique dealer who claimed that Franz Liszt had once brushed his fingers over its keys in Vienna. The old woman died and willed the piano to the art gallery.
Sherry was third in line, a fatal position, as it turned out. Before her was a chubby girl who played expert but listless ragtime and a towheaded boy who executed three of Chopin’s most difficult études with the tip of his tongue poking out of the side of his mouth. By Sherry’s turn, the piano was completely out of tune, because, as Mrs. Penny later lamented, the old woman had been taken by the antique dealer. By the time Sherry began the first of Schumann’s Kinderszenen, the notes were not where they should have been. Mechanically, her fingers kept moving, but everything was wrong: the air, the light. The pictures on the wall were askew, the silent, frowning crowd too close. Perspiration streamed down her brow into her eyes and blinded her; the keys disappeared into one another, black into white and white into black. She was drowning. At last she came to some kind of ending and fled, pursued by a thin titter of applause. Backstage, she wept while Mrs. Penny boiled and paced and swore revenge.
The towheaded boy won. Soon after, Sherry’s father lost his job and her mother sold the piano. “Learn something practical,” her mother snapped as they hauled it away, “learn to play an adding machine.”
The adding machine remark, Mrs. Penny said, was like a stake through her heart.
The first time Sherry picked up an accordion, in Moe’s Melody Shop, she was surprised by how light it was and yet so dense. All those tiny black and white buttons, the miniature keyboard, the pleated baffles that opened and closed. It was sitting in Moe’s showcase window, off to the side, crowded out by fancy electric guitars, but sleek and bright and friendly even in their midst.
“You should see one of these things gutted. What a contraption! It’s like brain surgery fixing one up,” said Moe. He was balding with a florid face. He played the drums. Sherry had known him for a very long time. He liked to disappear into the back room where he had a drum set and play along with Glenn Miller records.
Rods and levers and reeds. Cotton swatches, tunnels and vents and tubes. Its ornateness fascinated her. The baffles were made of cardboard, folded and pleated, brown and gold, with soft leather gussets in each corner, reinforced by calico strips of plastic and rounded chrome caps to protect the cardboard. Odd that such a crucial moving part would be made out of paper, she thought, but it felt as tough and supple as hide. Her fingers moved over the unfamiliar buttons and keys in an idle yet knowing manner. It was, in essence, a portable piano. You could strap it on and take it anywhere you wanted. Have accordion, will travel. The tag said $300. “Aah, it’ll never move at that price,” Moe told her. “Two bills and it’s yours.” A week later, she put $50 down and took it home.
Mr. Rusty Nail had red hair, of course, a short, fat, sloppy man, with his belly tumbling over his belt, pinstriped shirt untucked in back, suspenders. Red nose, chalk-white cheeks. Sherry thought it strange that an entertainer could care so little for his appearance.
In the daylight, the Skyview lounge looked seedy and forlorn, with the lights off and the chairs up on the tables. The bandstand was carpeted in pea green, and smelled of beer. On stage, a microphone, a black stool, and a portable organ decorated with two dozen hats, masks, and dolls, including Kermit the Frog and Barbie in black garter belt and stockings, with a tiny whip in her hand. On the organ bench was an accordion, closed up tight, like a compact, brown-and-white suitcase.
“You wouldn’t want to know some of the places I’ve played,” Rusty Nail said. “Strip joints, porno houses.” He rolled an eye toward her to see how she reacted to this. “Worked the lounges around Camp Lejeune, just for example, along the coast of North Carolina, the largest Marine compound in the world. Wall-to-wall Marines and every damn one of them hornier than Hugh Hefner.” He coughed and a little redness intruded upon his cheeks. “Excuse my French, little girl, but I didn’t make the world. The point is, a certain moment would come and go and they didn’t like nothing I played. Nothing. You name it: Vic Damone, Elvis, Pat Boone, the Big Bopper, Frankie V. They took offense at it, even if it was one of them requested it. Wanted to punch my lights out.” For a second his face took on an expression of faraway, puzzled hurt. His mouth curved downward and his lower lip rose into a grotesque pout. His bloodshot eyes opened wide, seemed to probe Sherry’s eyes for the answer to an ancient mystery. Then his expression collapsed into a bent, cynical grin. “I kept a baseball bat in the backseat of my car for years.” He chuckled. “That’s how you learn to play the accordion, little girl, in the face of fear and insults.” He took out a wrinkled red-and-white hanky and gave his nose a honk, hawked something up from his throat.
“First thing you do is learn the polkas. When they’re dancing, they ain’t listening too hard. First law of the circuit. Listening too hard to music makes people ornery, ever notice that? Especially in a bar. When they’re drunk, everybody’s a critic. They always think they got a better idea of a tune than you.
“I learned all the polkas right off the Man himself. That’s right, Frank Yankovic, the King of the Polkas, they call him. Better than that stiff Lawrence Welk uses, Myron Floren. Ever notice Floren’s got a hairlip? Well, there’s the ‘Beer Barrel,’ of course. ‘Hokey-Pokey Polka,’ ‘Milwaukee Polka,’ ‘Acapulco Polka,’ then that great one. Even sung by Elvis himself, ‘Just Because.’”
He winked at Sherry and strapped on the accordion for the first time. It looked smaller bumped up against his big belly. His fingers moved over the plastic keys once playfully, but then the bellows began to move in and out. Music emerged as if by a miracle and he sang, “Just because you think you’re so pretty …” in a surprisingly beautiful voice. But he stopped right away, self-conscious, and the melody hung in the air, incomplete. “I used to be what they called an Irish tenor, before I smoked too many of those things.” He nodded over to a pack of Lucky Strikes on the organ. “Cancer sticks. I always tell them young guys now: ‘You got a choice. You can sing or you can smoke but you can’t do both.’”
He got down to business. “Now the way these buttons are arranged, you got two rows of bass notes and three rows of chord buttons, divided into the four chords for each key: major, minor, seventh, and diminished. Remember your music theory? You got to know a little to work an accordion. Not a lot. But the most important thing is, you got to keep her breathing. Squeeze in, squeeze out. It don’t matter how fast your fingers are moving if she ain’t getting any air.”
At first it sounded like Gary Junior, outside her door, pounding a roll of caps with a hammer against the cement floor. But the caps always went off in a steady, maniacal rhythm, and this sound was tentative, hesitant. Plus it was Tuesday, a school day. It took her a minute to identify the sound as her father, tapping on the old black Royal with the purple ribbon and the cracked T and E keys, making another stab at his science-fiction novel. He tapped with his two index fingers and he wasn’t very fast. He gave up after half an hour.
That day they had a picnic lunch by the side of the road, near a culvert and a large overpass. The Garden State Parkway roared above them. The river was brown and sluggish, half the surface covered with yellow soap bubbles. The sun was strong and baked Sherry’s neck as they sat on the large beach towel and ate ham-salad sandwiches.
“New Jersey used to be a pretty state, believe it or not. Even the Rahway River, before it became the Raw-Sewage River. We used to fish this stretch as kids. Now anything you catch you’d better throw back. I wonder if there’s anything alive in there anymore. Maybe a few dead Gambinos with cement shoes on.”
The longer he was out of work, the more eccentric her father became. He grew a beard for a while, ate mayonnaise straight out of a jar with a spoon; he became addicted to puns, said things like: “Accordion to your mother, dinner is served.” For a solid week he spoke everything in a fake-Cockney accent, like Dick Van Dyke in Mary Poppins, until one night at the dinner table, Sherry’s mother asked him none too pleasantly to please knock it off.
“You know, one summer as a boy I built a boat,” he went on now. “Took me all summer, too. Huge thing, a monster, about the size of a small car. Made out of these old planks, these heavy, heavy two-by-sixes I took out of an abandoned shed Uncle Chuck had out on his right-of-way. They were coated with lead paint, I remember. Used to flake off in a cloud of silver specks, made me sneeze. But I didn’t care because I was determined, boy. It made me mad that Frankie Tilley and his brothers slapped together these boats out of a sheet of plywood and inner tubes, tied on with rope, then they’d buy these plastic oars out of their big allowances. I didn’t think that qualified for a real boat.
“Mine, though, had a bow and a stern and a rudder,” he continued, “and a nifty fake-cabin structure, with a steering wheel made out of an old bicycle rim. It was like a huge sled, really. Oh, you should have seen it. Painted it white. I named it the S.S. Jersey, had it stenciled on the bow. Then one morning I called Frankie and told him it was finished. He came right over with his brothers to see. I could tell even he was impressed. We dragged the darn thing down to the river that morning, more than a mile from the house, must have taken us close to an hour, and launched it. It was me and Frankie on board, with his brothers pushing us away from the shore. It’d rained the night before and the current was running swift and strong. I was elated, I felt on top of the world. As soon as his brothers let go of us, though, the thing rolled right over and sank. We were lucky we didn’t drown; it went down so fast.”
For a long time, Sherry just stared at her father, appalled. When she spoke, her voice trembled with indignation. “But you said it was made of wood, Dad. Wood floats. For Pete’s sake, why didn’t it float?”
He gave her a puzzled, slightly wounded look. “I guess it was too heavy, honey. Wood or no, it had no buoyancy.” He took a bite of his sandwich and shook his head, gazing far down river. “Could have been that lead paint, I suppose,” he said after he swallowed. “Or all those 20-penny nails. I must have used several hundred, maybe even a thousand. Never could hammer a nail straight, so’s soon as one would start to bend, I’d just pound it in horizontal and start again with another. What’s one more nail? I thought, never figuring. I kept pounding them in, one by one. That’s the trouble, never figuring, never thinking. Too busy dreaming. It’s the little stuff that slips you up, again and again.” By now, the tears had arrived, brightening his pale blue pupils. He looked at her in silence, beseechingly.
One Sunday, Gary Junior was outside the door of the basement room, simultaneously belching and pronouncing “Eat me!” over and over. The words came through the door with perfect clarity, like a bullfrog mocking human speech.
Sherry’s face and the back of her neck stung with rage. She set the accordion down and, elbows flailing, charged the door. She whipped it open.
He was leaning over with his hands on his knees, his little pig-eyes nearly crossed in an ecstasy of concentration. For a second, he gazed up at her in blissful surprise. Then he took off up the stairs three at a time, slamming the door behind him at the top.
She stood in the doorway and stared at the spot where he’d been. The cellar smells of sewage and heating oil overwhelmed her. She felt clammy and debased, the incarnation of all the invisible effluences surrounding her. Squares of pale light emerged through a skinny, trisected window. The light penetrated the gloom, but only a scant few inches before dying abruptly in midair. Below it, she felt in a hole as vast as all eternal darkness.
She flexed her fingers, and it came to her: “The Beer Barrel Polka!” A showpiece, a chance to execute some fancy button work with her left hand and show off her dexterity on the keys with her right. Sixteenths. She could smear the last chord in the turnaround and modulate up a half-step for the final chorus, so that the song would end up sounding brighter than it had begun.
On the morning of the 15th, she and her father visited the Knights of Columbus to check out the stage. The building looked like an armory, made of ugly red brick, built low to the ground. The crucifix that hung on the back wall behind the stage was made of stained cedarwood and was very graphic. Jesus Christ bearded, bare-chested, in a loincloth, nails in his palms and ankles, vivid rivulets of blood dripping from his temples, hands, feet. At that moment, he looked very dead and very alone. Beside him were two flags: one American, one for the state of New Jersey. Further downstage was an upright piano with its guts exposed, its keys yellowed and cracked. Long lines of masking tape marred the pattern of squares on the parquet floor, with Magic Marker instructions: “Jesus,” “Mary,” “Joseph,” “Colonel Pomerini,” they read. Overhead were three banks of stage lights.
Sherry decided to stand where Colonel Pomerini had stood, although who he was or who he was supposed to be in relation to the other three, she had no idea. She unsnapped the bindings from the accordion and lifted it up, strapping it on. She toed Colonel Pomerini’s line. She wondered if anyone were around; felt foolish and self-conscious.
“Go on, honey. Go ahead and play,” said her dad. His voice sounded unnaturally boomy and authoritative in the large, empty room.
She obeyed, as if it were a command from God, and began the chords for “The Beer Barrel Polka.” The music overwhelmed the room, seemed to fill its four corners beyond its capacity, bouncing back to her slightly off-key.
She is halfway through “Fly Me to the Moon” when the first doubts arrive, the inkling that this might all be a mistake, that her fingers, those once reliable soldiers, are about to betray her, are about to turn and flee in the face of incoming fire. Her smile wilts, the bellows gasp for air and she fumbles through the bridge and the final chorus. There is only scattered, indifferent applause — no more, really, than that received by the twirler, the rock band, the girl who did a Groucho Marx impression with a plastic nose and glasses and a plastic cigar.
Mrs. Penny, Rusty Nail, Father Durham — she smells their disappointment in the darkened rows of seats before her, imagines her mother’s impatient sigh, her father’s wan and helpless smile. She senses Jesus twisting on his cross on the wall behind her, his eyes suddenly alive and filled with pity for her. She launches into “Beer Barrel” with little hope for redemption. She closes her eyes and lifts her face toward the hot lights. Sweat streams down her forehead, over her eyelids and cheeks.
“You sweat because you care,” Mrs. Penny had told her.
By the second chorus of “Beer Barrel”, the crowd is clapping along with her. When she modulates, they roar with delight. When she finishes, they stand and applaud and stomp and whistle. She opens her eyes and smiles and lets their love and approval wash over her.
She feels anointed.