The piano recital on the Friday just after the Great Appalachian Snow Storm was Glenn Lee’s eleventh, and it was the one in which he stopped part way through Grieg’s “To Spring.” He had been playing ever since the first grade, terrified each time the annual trial by public performance occurred, but never until his junior year in high school had he failed to make it to the end of whatever piece the teacher had chosen for him. Miss Payne had whispered to him, encouraging him to re-start, but he had shaken his head and left the piano stool and returned to his seat among the other students.
Miss Payne circulated among her pupils and their families, who ate cookies and sipped punch from glass plates and cups. The teacher strode over to where the Lees were standing, all quietly munching with bowed heads except for Glenn’s father, whose barely audible voice didn’t mask his angry expression.
“Now Mr. Lee!” she said, as if she might be going to say more if he didn’t stop berating Glenn, but their father just pursed his lips. She chatted with Glenn, assuring him that his predicament was common among musicians. She had seen it often, she said. Glenn was surprised when she asked him whether he liked the piano, because his preferences had not seemed relevant.
“All but the recitals,” he answered, surprised again that this truth was out.
“I wish I’d known that,” she said. “Nobody has to take part in the recital. Some students don’t. Why don’t you just finish up your senior year with no recital on your horizon?” She seemed to notice that Mr. Lee was about to speak, so she kept talking but turned away from Glenn and toward his father. Still addressing her pupil, she said, “It’s settled then. I think you’ll enjoy your senior year much more without facing a recital.” As if she was not quite sure the father would stay quiet even then, she concluded by ordering Glenn and his sisters to get another serving of refreshments. “Help us eat those cookies up.”
His sisters filled their plates and returned to stand near their mother. Glenn didn’t know any of Miss Payne’s other students. He stood alone in the crowd for a moment, downed what was left of his punch, and filled his cup with hot coffee. Then he walked down the hallway and outdoors to the Art Center’s wide porch. It was cold, but his wool suit jacket gave some protection.
A girl sat on the top step, leaning against a pillar. “Sit down,” she said, “unless you’re too nervous and you want to pace around. I felt so bad for you!” He sat. The marble step felt icy.
“Aren’t you cold out here?” he asked. She admitted she was, but said it was better than being inside with all those strangers. She explained that she was socially awkward, as firmly as if it were an established diagnosis.
“Were you surprised?” she asked. At first, he thought she meant surprised to see anybody out on the porch in such weather. When the snowfall had stopped, a few days ago, it had left more than two feet of snow on the city. Even higher were the piles where people had shoveled and machines had plowed. The city looked as if it had been carved from pale marble.
“No, I could see it coming. I just didn’t know when it would hit.” He told her how he had always hated the recitals, because it was hard for him to memorize music. He explained that when he did succeed in playing by heart, the memory seemed to be in his hands, not in his mind. Miss Payne gave her students work sheets meant to teach music theory. He pronounced the word with the three, slippery syllables Miss Payne always gave it, making is sound ethereal and ladylike, and then he felt bad for mocking the teacher who had never mocked him and had so recently come to his defense. He said he could bluff his way through those exercises on paper but that his mind could make no connection between notes and lines and actual tones and chords and key signatures, whatever key signatures really were anyway.
He went on to tell the girl that using an unfamiliar piano seemed to erase what muscle memory he did have. The keys on the family’s piano and at Mrs. Payne’s studio had become familiar, but those at the Art Center, which he faced only once a year, seemed unusually smooth and resistant to pressure. His hands stumbled in strange territory.
She told him there must be a use for fingers that noticed such small differences. “Maybe you could be a surgeon,” she said. She took his right hand in hers and separated the fingers. She said that her sister, the piano pupil, was working on “The Great Gate at Kiev” by Moussorgsky, but her fingers were too short. “Anybody can play those big chords in kind of a ripple, if they want to,” she said. “But I think they’re supposed to sound majestic, and she makes them sound like hiccups. So, do you like playing the piano? What kind of music do you like?”
“Honestly?” he said. “I don’t know. I play what they give me. What about you? Are you interested in music?”
“You’re not supposed to ask me,” she answered. “Girls are supposed to be interested in whatever a boy is interested in. We’re supposed to draw you out in conversation. Our interests are assumed to be trivial.”
He didn’t know what to say, so he said repeated, “What do you like?”
“Kissing,” she said, and she put her cold had on the back of his neck, drew his face toward hers, and kissed him. For a while. Then she sat. back. “Do you?”
She told him that she had found that whenever she fled a crowd in which she felt out of place, she would go somewhere like this porch and often find that she was not the only escapee. “I sometimes meet people I like when I do that,” she said.
“And you kiss them?”
She laughed and told him that part was newer. “Only since I lost my reputation,” she added. “And I lost my good reputation just last week, on Thanksgiving, when the snow started.” She explained that she had gone out for a walk after the big dinner. She had wanted to see how pretty it was, but the snow fell faster than usual. She got cold and a little confused, because everything familiar was covered in white so quickly. A carful of boys from her neighborhood stopped and offered her a ride home. Going down a slippery hill, the driver lost control and hit a parked car. The only casualties were to the cars themselves, and they were minor. Still, they had to report it to the police.
Word got around. She was to have joined the Rainbow Girls after the holidays, because her dad was a Mason, but the Worthy Whatever called her parents and withdrew the offer.
“Why?” Glenn asked. “It was an accident, and you weren’t even driving.”
She shook her head and stared at him pointedly. “Think about it. Remember I said we live by different rules than you do.” When he still looked confused, she said, “One girl alone at night in a carful of boys? You have to jump to nasty conclusion. But now, do you get it?”
“Hence–,” and here she put a finger to her lips and then to his. “The Rainbow Girls dress in pure white for their meetings, even their shoes. Imagine them out here in the Big Snow. They’d almost disappear.” Then she sat up straight and spoke as if she were delivering a campaign promise. “Anyway, I plan to use my supposed boy craziness since I’m stuck with it. I plan to become very good at being bad.”
“That could be dangerous,” he warned. She was small, probably only a freshman.
“Maybe not, since I’m socially awkward,” she said. Then she shrugged. “We’ll see.”
“Who says you’re socially awkward?”
“The girls I used to run with. When we started high school, they ditched me because they said I was socially awkward. Well, I won’t see them anymore anyway. As soon as the snow melts, my parents have got me enrolled in a private school, all girls.”
They had only a little more time together until his sister appeared at the door and told him it was time come in and get his overcoat and go home.
The snow squeaked under the Lees’ shoes as they trudged toward their car. Glenn had gloves on his hands, and his hands were jammed into his pockets. On the right palm was her telephone number. “We can’t ever talk long,” she had warned “because my father’s a doctor, and the patients have to be able to get through.” She had pulled a little, two-tone green ballpoint pen from her purse, clicked the button that made the inked tip appear, and written on his skin because they had no paper, a gesture that his hand had recognized as even less businesslike than the kiss.
His father came up beside him and grumbled, “I hope you’ll take a lesson from tonight.” Glenn just nodded. His father surely had some obscure lesson in mind that Glenn couldn’t guess, nor could his father imagine the lessons flying thick and fast as the barrage of snowflakes melting on their faces, each one reputed to be unlike any other.
Ann Birch is a reference librarian in the border city of El Paso, Texas. Her stories recently appeared in The Ocotillo Review and Funicular Magazine. Another is forthcoming in Half and One. Check her out on Facebook.