“How’d they get it in here?” I asked her, staring at the huge, gleaming Steinway that filled the middle of the study. Even the main entry into the room, with its twin sliding doors, was too narrow by a couple of feet to allow the piano to pass.
“I imagine they did it carefully,” Katina said, smiling at her joke. “Truthfully I don’t really know. It has been in this room long before I was born. I imagine my mother playing it…” and her voice trailed off.
I wanted to ask about her mother, but Katina’s face was still, her eyes were closed and lips pursed tightly as if trying to hold in some troubling thought, or trying to fend it off; I couldn’t tell. She looked over at me and smiled sadly.
“Would you like me to play?” she asked.
“Sure. I don’t know anything about piano music, you know classical music,” I said.
“It’s not complicated,” Katina said. “It’s like rock ‘n’ roll for its time, or jazz, all syncopation, volume, rhythm, playing with feeling, letting the passion expressed in the notes open the air, letting it flow through your fingers to your body to release sensations within.” She walked past the piano slowly, one finger caressing the wood, and then sat at the keyboard. She softly touched random keys one at a time, setting off a pure, ringing tone from each; then in pairs, in chords, releasing a stream of sounds that filled the room like a chorus of birds. Then she stopped and closed her eyes. She touched her fingertips together and pressed them until her palms met. Her breathing slowed and her face, so animated when she talked, mobile and alive, biting her lip when she laughed, eyes bright and deep, became a mask.
I had changed my paper route so that I could deliver the Herald to Katina’s house last, which gave us a few minutes to talk. At first it was just at the side door, me in the driveway and she standing with the door half opened. Then one day when it was raining, she invited me to stand in the dark hallway, laughing at her rudeness, she said, for letting me get wet while standing outside. Then another day it was in the hallway with the only light flowing in from the outside because she had shut the tall kitchen door. I tossed her the paper – “Catch,” I said — and she dropped it. Then she sat on the second-most step in the hallway, legs together at her knees, elbows resting on her thighs, and hands softly wrapped around her chin.
“If I had broken a finger, my career would be over,” she said, shaking her head.
“I, um,, I, didn’t mean…I’m sorry,” I stammered, unable to get my brain and my mouth to coordinate.
I must have had a look of sheer horror on my face because Katina started laughing.
“Oh, James. It was a joke,” she said, smiling. “I might have broken a nail, but that would hardly end my career.”
Eventually we would sit around the oak kitchen table with the massively carved legs and drink sodas and talk. She would hand me the cold bottle and then nod at the coasters, which I under no circumstances could avoid using. “Grandmama would be most upset to find watermarks on the oak,” Katina said.
And I would think, “Well, we wouldn’t want to upset Grandmama, now would we.”
It was early summer, so the sweaters and skirts and knee socks she had worn in the cooler weather had given way to sleeveless tops and shorts, and bare feet. She would stretch her slim legs out to another chair and cross them at the ankles while like a cat she put her arms above her head and stretched to her full length, fingers and toes straining, back arched, head thrown back and the muscles in her neck taut. Then she’d relax, place her hands behind her head and look at me.
Sometimes we just stared at one another across the table without speaking; there was no need.
And at those times I would think about how amazing she was, Katina, how special and unbelievable and how if she was let loose on the world, what a different place it would be. Because, I’m just Smitty, just me, some knock-around kid, but she was Katina, the amazing Katina.
Then walking home, I’d wonder about what she never talked about because sometimes in the silence that filled the kitchen, you could feel the weight of that sadness behind her smile. Then somehow knowing the mood was changing, Katina would wad up a napkin and toss it at me and smile. I’d fall again into the endless pool of her dark eyes.
That was the Katina I had come to know.
At the piano, it was Katina transformed.
I don’t know what she played. She might have told me, but the names and terms were so foreign she might as well have said it in German.
She paused over the keyboard, the room silent.
Then it wasn’t.
Two concussive chords blew the air out of the room Ta Dum! Ta Dum! Then two more, followed by a run of notes unbroken by even a breath.
Katina leaned her head low over the keyboard and it moved from side to side, weaving up and down with the notes as if they would not be heard unless her head was in motion. Her face was serene, concentrated on the sound, her eyes closed and soft smile on her lips as her fingers struck keys, then rose, and then struck again.
While she played a series of notes with her left hand, she ran her right hand through her hair and smiled at me. “Watch this,” she said.
Then she leaned to her left and began a series of syncopations, chords, then runs of bass notes; she took a deep breath and licked her lips as a sweat broke out on her forehead. She rocked side to side and bobbed her shoulder up and down as the music overtook her body, her hands and arms and legs reacting to every chord, tempo change, every note.
I sat transfixed as I watched Katina engulf the music and be engulfed by it, watched as the silence of what she could not speak poured through her and into the piano and out; at times it wept and other times, shouted joyfully or crashed angrily.
There had been a moment’s pause when she stopped playing and the echo of the music settled from the hard walls to a silence while the air still trembled.
“Here we go,” she said, and began a series of speeding notes arriving at my ears so swiftly it seemed the were all played at the same time, but were in fact played one by one as Katina’s fingers slid over the keyboard. First the deepest notes that started a rumble in my hands as I leaned on the piano; then as she moved up the keyboard octave by octave I began to understand the progression as I heard the tones of the higher octaves slip into the holes in the sound left as she abandoned the lower, deep notes; then as quick as that the composition was at a higher octave, then another higher still. Through it all Katina rocked back and forth and her head rolled and her eyes were closed and her mouth open in a broad yearning smile; then the run changed as a new chord crashed the air followed by a run of uncountable notes, then another chord, more runs, then another chord, then a swifter run as Katina’s breathing took on the rhythm of the sound, a deep breath as the chords crashed, then shorter, shallower breaths as the runs began; then a deeper breath as her face took on the most beautiful allure, her head back, her mouth open, and as she finished the run of sound, she struck two resounding chords, listened to the echo, then two more, stopping playing and shouted, “Yes!”
She leaned back and placed her hands in her hips; her eyes were blazing and her breath was deep and hard. She was shaking.
I watched. Whatever demons resided in her gentle soul had been expelled, for that moment, at least.
She pushed the stool away from the piano and crossed to me, and as her head rested on my shoulder I embraced her.
“That’s me, James.”
I was the luckiest kid in Three Rivers.