Lita stepped off the steel curlicue of the taxi’s riding board and entered the cool moving air of the apartment complex. Five in the evening, fresh from another nasty day at the Harper Gazette. Outside everything was still and stubborn, wilting in the humidity. She ascended the stairs barefoot, high heels in her hand. The rattling metal fans in the hallway were her only reprieve from the refrain of the piano.
As soon as she set down her purse and shoes, she could hear him in the apartment above. His fingers crept up the piano scale and eased back down, a graceful rise and fall. The same meandering song, the one he always played. A melody somewhere between recurring dream and insanity.
Lita imagined it was a waltz that would drive the feet of ballerinas, but the pink-clad dancer in her mind had only three moves that she repeated ad infinitum: first a graceful step; then a tilt as she sweeps from one foot to the other; a little twirl with a deft movement of the wrist; and then she pauses until the refrain repeats. He ended each coda with a contemplative silence during which Lita hoped the music would stop altogether, but inevitably he played it again without alteration or novelty. She longed for an ordinary neighbor that would argue with a wife or pound nails into a board all day.
Lita went to the icebox and poured herself a glass of milk. She had nothing to eat for dinner, and the cupboards were all but bare — part of her effort to move out, which had begun a year ago and gone nowhere. She removed the only occupant of the fruit bowl, a bruised pear, and climbed through the window. There was no breeze on the fire escape. Engine sounds from the traffic drifted up, and the downtown train rolled along the bridge in a rhythm like a drumline. People on the sidewalks below plodded miserably along in the heat.
Lita ate the pear and then lit a cigarette. Hal’s window was open; his playing was even louder out here than it was in her apartment. Not that it was too loud — he played softly, like a lounge pianist. Eternally in the background, in the periphery. But his damn melody was drilled into her head. She hoped her cigarette smoke would bring him away from the piano, and it did.
“How much longer are you planning on keeping that up?” Lita asked the drowsy evening.
“Why don’t you buy a radio?” he called from inside. “Tune me out.”
“I told you, I’m moving out.”
“Still?” She could hear him take his usual position with his elbows on the windowsill.
“Besides, you’re not half bad. Just wish you’d play something else.”
The melody was still playing in Lita’s head. Hal began to whistle it almost inaudibly with his front teeth.
Lita blew a long stream of smoke. “I said something else. That song is going to drive me crazy.”
Hal was silent for a moment before he pushed off the sill and his voice receded: “All right, Lita, I’ll play you something different.”
She heard the scrape of his piano bench and then the clunk of the fallboard. Ash fell from the cigarette between her fingers and spun on a breeze too weak to really feel. Hal’s thrift store piano came back, this time up-tempo and jazzy. He hopped between chords and sprinkled in glib notes, a song that sounded like romance and cocktails.
She stabbed the remains of her pear into the dirt of the empty planter beside her and added her cigarette butt. “I’m starving, Hal,” she said.
He kept playing.
“Starving,” she said, louder.
The piano went unsteady and the music evaporated. Hal counted himself back in with four taps of his foot and picked it back up. “I have dinner left over,” he said, trying to balance talking and playing. “You bring me something to drink, and I’ll feed you.”
“That’s not what I meant,” Lita said, but she didn’t have the energy to be heard over his lively playing. She stepped back through the window and snatched the bottle of Cabernet off the counter on her way upstairs. The music had stopped. Hal’s door swung open before she knocked, and he gestured her in. Hal had blond hair and eyes that made him look as though he were always concentrating on something, even when he smiled. He went to get glasses from the cupboard and hastily tucked in his shirt.
“No need for formality,” Lita said. As she perched on the chaise, she glanced at her stocking feet. “Hope you like warm wine.”
“Just right for cold supper,” Hal said. He brought two juice glasses, and Lita filled them. He drank his while making up a plate for her at the stove: tomato bisque and French bread with basil. He set the dish in front her. It was not cold at all, and the aroma made her stomach growl.
“This looks delicious! Is that what you do when you aren’t playing that same song over and over? You’re a world-class chef?”
“It gives my fingers a rest. Chopping vegetables, stirring the pot.” Hal brought his piano stool over so he could sit across from Lita at the coffee table. There was only room for her dish, but she ate rapidly. She tore up the bread to immerse in the soup.
“I’m not the prying sort,” Lita said, “but you’ve never given me a straight answer. Why that song?”
“It’s only part of a song,” Hal said.
“Where’s the rest of it?”
He clutched the stool under his arm, crossed the room, and deposited himself in front of the piano as if in a trance. With his left hand he played half of the song, only the low parts. Something about that rough sketch of it was even more haunting.
“I’m lost,” Hal said, and he watched his left hand meander the keyboard. “Playing this helps me feel closer to something.” The music stopped and he let his hand fall. “I’m not sure what, but something.”
Lita finished her meal. It was delectable, and it made her wonder why she’d only been to Hal’s place once or twice. There had been a Christmas when they’d been snowed in and instead of visiting family they drank bourbon on the fire escape in the cold. Hal came downstairs for Thanksgiving once, and Lita cooked for him — now that she knew how good a cook he was, she realized how charitable he’d been about her dry turkey. Beyond that, she knew little about him. He worked at the library downtown but was always evasive about his exact role. She assumed he was a librarian, or maybe he swept floors and felt embarrassed about it, but one thing she never thought he could be was lost.
Lita ran a few possible responses through her head — how can you respond to that? She discarded them one after the other, the way the editor-in-chief had done at the Gazette during her first week. She had an indelible image of Mr. Meyer standing over her desk and sweeping her pages one by one into the wastebasket. “These are trite. This is cliché. Your copy needs to fly off the page! It needs zing!” That had been the first time she cried at work. It was most assuredly not the last.
“The wine helps a little, I hope,” Lita said, just to fill the silence. In her mind’s eye, Mr. Meyer shook his head.
Hal nodded. “Thanks. It does, I think.” He placed his empty glass on the high back of the piano and began playing again. “I’ll play the whole thing, start to finish.”
Evening brought little weak breezes that hardly pierced the apartment windows. Hal played a somber melody, and Lita tried to drown it away with wine. The refrain was waiting somewhere inside the song, and she couldn’t help but listen for it. It gave her the same morbid fixation as scanning the room at a party to look for an ex-boyfriend — hoping you’ll see him, wishing you won’t. Notes here and there pricked her ears through the diaphanous melody. Something subliminal told her the refrain was about to begin, and she rose from the chaise.
Lita leaned over Hal and lifted his right hand off the keyboard. “It’s lovely, really — but if you play that part one more time, I’ll scream.”
Hal hadn’t heard her cross the apartment, and for a second he was shocked. The left hand played a few more notes on its own before he stopped it. “Sorry, I didn’t mean to upset you.”
Lita retracted her hand. “I’m not upset. I’ve just been hearing that same song in my mind for weeks on end. If you’re lost, you’ve dragged me down with you.”
“I didn’t realize. At this point, even when I’m playing it, sometimes I don’t hear it anymore.” He looked away and held his hands in his lap.
“Well, if you’re lost, you can’t keep wandering in circles,” Lita said. She pushed onto one end of his tiny piano bench and touched the ivory keys. Her fingers were poised like a dancer awaiting the return of the refrain. Hal quickly mimicked her positioning one octave down the keyboard.
Three glasses of wine made it a little hard to remember the two piano lessons she’d taken a decade ago, but she pressed a few keys at random and came away with something charming. Hal pressed his keys in the same unsteady tempo but then played it over and smoothed it out. Lita tried to repeat the notes but couldn’t find them again. Hal followed her lead, adding a flat to cover a sour outlier.
Lita removed her fingers, and Hal played both exercises together. “What is that?” he asked. “These are just notes.”
“It’s called music.” Lita held her thumb and middle finger slightly apart, as if she were about to pick up a domino, and pressed keys in a few different places. “You can’t get lost if you’re trying something new; that’s called exploring.”
Once the phrase left her lips, she made an effort to remember it, though she knew she wouldn’t. It sounded like the kind of thing that might stand a chance of impressing Mr. Meyer. Nonetheless, it gave her a little confidence, which seemed to help her abysmal piano playing.
Following the trail of chords Lita had played, Hal added some flourishes and sustain with the pedals. He played through the whole sequence she’d outlined and smoothed it here and there like he was ironing a shirt. When he reached for a higher note, one her hands were covering, he hesitated. But then he placed his hand over Lita’s and played the key with her finger. His face was, for a moment, nearly blank. His mind seemed to go off somewhere else while he played.
“Still feeling lost?” she asked.
“A little.” He removed his hand from hers and played an idle scale with the other. Then both of his hands left the piano and landed on his thighs. “Is my playing the reason you want to leave? Or is it the reason you stayed?”
Lita chuckled and played a few more keys at random. But the doleful look on Hal’s face told her he wasn’t making a joke. To name only a few, Lita was unsatisfied with her job and the city itself and the long drives to see her family. Hal’s playing wasn’t a deciding factor, but maybe he thought it was. He must have had some other reason for endlessly playing the piano and having dinner for two ready-made.
“If you want to get a girl’s attention,” Lita said, “playing the same song over and over isn’t the best way.”
Hal gave her a fleeting smile. “But you still came over, didn’t you?”
Without the warmth of the piano, the apartment building fell quiet. Metal fans buzzed on the other side of the wall. The smell of sun-beaten asphalt was replaced by the evening, heavy and humid, smelling of wine on breath and thrift store piano and tomatoes with basil. Lita searched Hal’s eyes for a long time, but she could not find what he had been so long seeking.
With a scrape of two piano bench legs, she rose. “Thank you for the dinner and the lovely time. I should be going.”
Hal shot up. “Yes, of course. It was so good to have you over. I should clean up these dishes,” he said, snatching the glasses from the top of the piano, his and hers. He moved to close the piano, but Lita held the fallboard.
“Sit down, Hal. Keep playing,” she said. “Something new, something different.” As he sat down again and began feeling the keys, she opened the door and said, “I’ll bill you later for the piano lesson.”
“Right,” Hal said with a bright smile. She could feel his eyes still fixed on her after she closed the door. She stood for a moment smiling as wide as he had, and as she paced to the top of the stairs she was still looking at the door.
The music didn’t begin until she was halfway down the stairs. She stepped slowly and quietly and strained her ear past the buzzing metal fans. In her apartment, she lay on the bed in her clothes listening to the music float through the window and descend from the ceiling. He folded her two-finger chords and haphazard notes into a lovely fugue. Her vague description of a song disappeared into a melody built for it, built from it. A dream of her. The suffering of a humid night was ornamented with music.
When Hal went to bed, Lita was left to roll and languish in silence, which faded into the low hiss of the city. She was not, for once, at the mercy of the refrain trapped in her skull. She was lost. Trapped even by the sound of the word as it rang in her head, each peal setting the stifling air to tremble. Notes from the fugue reassembled themselves in the shape of that dormant refrain, which then grew louder and louder in the darkness.
Lita knocked until he cracked open the door. His blonde hair looked dark in the weak light of the moon.
“Please let me in,” she said. “I can’t sleep. I know you can’t either.”
“I think I was sleeping. Why are you up here?”
“Please. Just play a little more for me. I can’t stand the quiet.”
Hal let the door swing open on its crooked hinges. Lita came eagerly into the dark room and joined him on the piano bench.
“I don’t know if I can play,” Hal said, stifling a yawn.
Hal’s yawn made Lita yawn, too. “Come on,” she said, tapping a key. It was unexpectedly loud. “Just play something. It’ll help me fall asleep.”
Hal’s fingers were impossibly light on the keys as if he were playing the piano with feathers. He played a slow, blue song that sounded like a country river in the moonlight. Lita was immediately drowsy. She settled her head on Hal’s shoulder, and in a moment her breathing matched the slow rise and fall of his chest. He was playing only the chords now and humming the rest, soft and gentle.
“I’m lost,” Lita murmured.
“We’ll get there,” Hal said. “We’ll get there.”
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