In Piano Girl, a man enjoys listening to the young girl in the apartment next door practice playing the piano. Late one night, the man hears the girl sneak out of her apartment. Concerned about the girl’s safety, he follows her through dark streets to a jazz club.
About the Author
Robert Grant Price teaches writing at the University of Toronto Mississauga. He is the editor of several short story collections.
Robert’s poetry has been published in The Fiddlehead, The White Wall Review, and other journals. His book of poetry, Tandem Bicycle, is available on Amazon.
Learn more about Robert and his work at his website: robertgrantprice.com
Piano Girl by Robert Grant Price
Next door, the girl practiced piano. She wasn’t bad, but she played slowly—too slowly for me to make out the melody. The notes sounded dreamy through the wall and window like the world was waking up.
One summer morning, as she practiced, her mother moved around the kitchen. The tap ran water, a pan clanked on the stove, and slippers slapped tiles. A kettle whistled; something sizzled. The girl played.
At close to ten o’clock, the girl stopped playing. Birds chatted between the buildings, and a noisy truck hauled itself up the road. I listened, hopeful the girl might play a little more, and when I decided she had finished practicing, I put my books into my bag and left my apartment for the day.
* * *
Sometimes she played in the evening. When she did, she polished her technique, going back and forth over the opening bars of a Beethoven concerto until she got it right. When she got it right, she stopped playing that piece and moved onto another concerto that she hadn’t yet perfected. She played the rough section again and again until she got it right, and then she stopped.
On the evenings that her mother worked, I could hear them talking through my kitchen window. Her mother would say she needed to lock her in, and the girl would agree or say nothing. Then the door locked, and music rose from the piano.
Usually, I went out for dinner at the pub. But on the nights when I knew the mother was working, I stayed in and read, or toiled over spreadsheets I brought home from work. I felt better knowing the girl was not alone.
One night, I sat at my kitchen table with a coffee to keep me awake and worked on the papers spread in front of me. The clock neared midnight. I heard movement in the kitchen next door and knew the girl was awake. I went to my window and listened. Her feet were heavy—she was wearing boots. A zip sounded as she put on her jacket.
I went to the front of my apartment and slid my feet into my shoes. The door to her apartment unlocked, the chain fell, and the door opened. I looked through the peephole and saw the little girl in her yellow raincoat and rubber boots pulling the door to her apartment closed. I yanked on my jacket, still wet from the day, and grabbed my umbrella. I heard the bell of the elevator ring, and I hurried from my apartment to follow her.
* * *
I could have stopped her. I could have said, “Where are you going?” I could have, but I was curious. Where was she going?
I had never learned her name or her mother’s name. I knew nobody in my building. Before that night, I had only seen the girl once. On that day, she had left the building holding her mother’s hand. She was eight years old (at most) and was small and delicate with a gait that reminded me of a dive-bombing bird: her head leading the way, her body angled forward, arms swinging and swishing, jacket blown out behind her, and her feet motoring to keep up.
I caught up with her in the lobby. The elevator door opened, and she shot out as I emerged from the stairwell. She passed through the lobby doors and into the rainy night. She was so small that a car driving through the inky roads could mow her down without the driver even noticing.
The girl shuttled down the street, moving with a quickness that surprised me. She jumped a puddle, ran acrobatically along a flooded curb, and dashed across a road before the approaching cars. I had to run after her at some points. When I caught up with her, I fell back to watch.
She darted through the scabbier part of town, dressed in rain gear and what looked like her Sunday clothes, and yet nobody paid any attention. Men in hats and boots stood on the corners smoking as she deked between them. They acted as if this was normal. A pair of hookers standing under an overhang saw the girl run by and said nothing. Even a police officer sipping a coffee in the light of a deli’s neon sign reacted calmly when the girl shot past him. He just smiled and said, “Ev’ning, pretty lady.”
For a moment, I thought this happened all the time. Then I reconsidered. I hadn’t heard her leave the apartment on any other night. And these people didn’t know her. They couldn’t know her. No, that was impossible.
She finally slowed on Marlborough Street. Most of the streetlights were dark. Tenements loomed on either side of the street, frowning on the shadows they cast. Steam that smelled like fish dumplings rolled from the sidewalk grates. Otherwise, the street was empty except for her and me, although I knew we weren’t alone. Invisible eyes stared at us from the windows of the apartments. The little girl peered up at the buildings to read street numbers and bolted down a staircase set into the foundation of an especially dilapidated tenement.
I hurried after her. Music thumped behind the red door at the bottom of the stairs.
* * *
The club stank of cigars, cigarettes, and old, flattened carpet. A huge man sitting on a chair by the door charged the cover. Ten bucks. I handed over wrinkled bills from my pockets.
The music sounded good, although I didn’t consider myself somebody who appreciated or understood jazz. The drummer wore sunglasses and a fedora and slumped over a pile of drums and cymbals. I would have thought he was asleep if he wasn’t smiling a huge smile. He tap-tapped the high hat, beat the snare, and executed fast, complex, and irregularly timed fills. The bass player slapped an upright with long fingers. His shoulders see-sawed in the groove. In the centre of the stage, a grand piano stood with its top open in the spotlight. A fat pianist sat behind the keys. He wore a white tuxedo with a royal blue bow tie. His baby face shined with sweat, and he smiled at the entire world as his fingers ran up and down the keyboard, although I couldn’t hear any melody in the notes. He played his song, and the other musicians played theirs. It was like listening to three virtuosos soloing wildly at the same time.
I stood in the corner and surveyed the room. Men—mostly middle-aged or older—sat alone at tables or with young girls they might have paid as escorts. Smoke ribboned from ashtrays, and candles flickered. A bartender leaned against a pillar and listened to the music with his head bobbing. The patrons, entranced by the music, didn’t make a sound, not even a cough or a sneeze.
The song ended in a flourish of keys and cymbals and applause.
“Thank ya, thank ya,” the pianist said in a gruff voice. “Now we gonna play a song I wrote.” He mumbled a word I didn’t recognise. It sounded like “Apenanana.” His fingers sprinkled a melodic opening bar over the keyboard, and the band slipped into a song that sounded exactly like the song they had just finished.
I wove through the tables looking for the little girl. She sat alone on the far side of the stage. She had purchased a drink—in the dim light it looked like a Shirley Temple. I sat at an empty table, and a waitress appeared at my side.
She whispered in my ear, “Something to drink?”
I ordered a martini because that’s what she suggested. In the smoky darkness of the club, I listened to the band play the same song over and over and watched the little girl. Too small for her chair, her feet swung as she studied the piano player’s manic fingers. She sipped through a straw and nodded to the beat.
An hour later, the piano player ended a song with a string of notes that sounded like lights going out in an apartment building.
“That’s all for tonight, baby,” he said. “Thank ya.”
The audience clapped politely. Somebody whistled. The musicians bowed. I looked over, and the girl was gone.
* * *
I moved through the crowd, into the street and the falling rain. People followed me out, so I knew the club was closing. Taxis pulled up and took away the men with women. The single men dispersed south like the rainwater rolling in the curbs. I waited and didn’t see the little girl come out. I waited, and I worried, and I jogged along the street looking for her.
But I couldn’t find her.
* * *
The next morning I rose early. I didn’t really sleep at all. I made a cup of coffee and listened for the little girl’s morning music. Birds whistled from outside, but the kitchen next door was silent.
I sat at my table and considered what to do. I had to do something. But the more I thought about it, the less I knew what to do. What would I tell the police? Why did I let her run away? How did she know where to go? Why was it my business?
I combed my hair in the washroom, washed my face, and brushed my teeth. After pulling on one of my better shirts, I went next door. I knocked three times and waited. The door opened, and the little girl’s mother answered. She wore lipstick, curlers, and a housecoat over a nightgown.
“Hello?” she said behind the door chain.
“Hi,” I said. “I live next door . . .” I looked over her shoulder. The little girl sat at the kitchen table and wrote in a notebook with a pencil that seemed colossally large in her tiny hand. Her hair was braided, and she was dressed for school. She glanced across the room at me and gave me a cool look that told me to say nothing.
Say nothing, and we’ll go out again tonight.
“I live next door,” I said, “and . . . and I’m . . . I’m all out of sugar for my morning coffee. Could I bother you for some?”
The woman tightened her eyes, no doubt thinking I might have been asking for something else. Then she sighed, said, “Just a minute,” and closed the door. After a long pause, the door opened again. The girl was writing in her notebook, and her mother passed me a baggie of loose sugar.
“Thank you,” I said.
She nodded and pushed the door closed again.
Back in my apartment, I felt better, so much better that I even put the sugar in my coffee. Not long after, the little girl played the piano like she did every morning—at a measured pace like she was testing the sound of each key. I thought for a moment that I heard the song from last night—Apenanana or whatever it was called.
It might have been that song, but I don’t know. She played it too slow to tell.
About the Story
Strange things happen at night. But few things are as strange as what the narrator of Piano Girl experiences on a summer night—a night when he learns that we all have our secrets. Even the youngest among us.
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