By Tom Sheehan
Elsie heard the music coming from the garage—guitar music, the chords, the melody, and pretty decent at that. She nodded at her assessment. The summer air carried them clearly across the short walkway to the house, up onto the porch, coming home. Alec, after all the fuss, really had an ear for music he didn’t know he had. Now she’d get her piano. By God, by whatever means, she’d get her piano.
There had been discussions, or arguments, but only about fitting a piano in the living room. What corner? Why? Why not? The children should be hearing piano music every day of their young lives; that’s when it counts. She really believed what she was thinking, though work needed to be done, action started.
The chord came again; she’d know it forever.
From the doorway Elsie called out to her husband who had recently bought a used guitar, but a good one. “Alec, bring that instrument into the house. Play it in here. No need to play in the garage. You are not consigned to the garage. You’re not a leper at music. You’re not tone deaf. You sound pretty damned good … for a beginner.” From her and from the garage, loud and long laughter followed her commendation.
For the rest of the day, even during naps for the two children after they enjoyed their father as a different person, Alec strummed the guitar. Chords — “really decent chords,” as Elsie called them — carried into all corners, lifted up the stairs, and went out-bound to the porch and beyond. Ought to grab listeners with that stuff, she thought.
A neighbor’s head lifted and cocked to one side as he listened and smiled. In the know about his young neighbors, he thought, Now Elsie will get her piano. Another chord, vaguely familiar from the deep past, caught him up in quick enjoyment; an image tried to form itself but lost out. The chord remained familiar. It would come to him during the day, happening that way, like an unbreakable habit coming unannounced.
The neighbor went back to trimming the shrubs, the long hedge between their properties, between him and the young couple barely out on their long voyage. He smoothly clipped away at the hedge and began to whistle.
Elsie kept searching for a piano, knowing it would have to be a used instrument; they could not afford a new one. Her friend Jess said she’d help by looking in the want ads. An hour later, Jess called back and said, “I’ve got a phone number for you. An elderly woman in Newton wants to sell her piano. Says it’s not been played in a couple of years. I’d call today if I were you. Lean on her about the kids needing a piano in your house—besides your wanting to play it so bad your back teeth hurt.” Jess’s sincere laugh followed.
Elsie waited until the children had been fed, showered, storied, tucked into bed. Alec, coaching the golf team, had the team out under the lights at a friendly driving range, a donation from a former teammate on their high school defensive line. Back then, they’d been fast pals, jokers, whistling between plays, driving their opponents to certain distraction, an earlier form of trash talk with a beat, a tune. They loved jazz, country, light classics, but had no great talent at any of them.
Elsie knew Alec would be home late. When silence settled its invisible mantle about the house, she dialed the Newton number. The “hello” brought with it an image of age.
“I’m calling about the advertisement about a piano for sale. My name is Elsie Brookings, and my children are really anxious for me to get a piano, and I can only afford a used one, and I’m wondering if yours is still available. If it is, we could be in Newton in the morning at whatever time you say is best.”
“Oh, my dear girl,” the elderly voice said. “It’s a splendid idea to have a piano around for the children. I had one in every house I ever lived in. Of course, this one is still available. Not many people have called.”
“That’s fortunate for me,” Elsie said, “but not for you. What kind of a piano is it? How much are you asking for it?”
The woman introduced herself as Edith Jodrey and explained that selling the piano was part of what she called ground cleaning. “I have to do it at my age. I’m alone and have no relatives anywhere near here. I sold my home when my husband died, oh, a dozen or more years ago.” She paused. “Now I live in an apartment. I know I won’t be here forever. It’s lovely to think some children would use this piano: learn to play it, love it just the way I did. A piano always gave me such pleasure. I really think my husband married me because I played the piano … I was a good at it, I might add.”
When Mrs. Jodrey paused, Elise thought it might have been to catch her breath. But the woman continued: “I have to admit I am getting a bit excited by this idea. It’s almost exactly like I dreamed it or thought about it on many occasions. The piano is a Strause upright. It has a lovely tone, a lovely finish. Did I say I asked for $1,800 for it? It’s $1,500 for you—a nice round number. Did you say how old the children are?”
Elsie could almost see her, a bit befuddled at the phone, a tear in her eye, a happy thought that she could place the piano into a family with children, “We have a girl of 7 and a boy of 5, Pamela and Richard. They have an interest in music. I can tell already, and that’s exciting for me.”
“Splendid!” Mrs. Jodfrey replied. “Believe it or not, my sister’s name was Pamela and my brother’s name was Richard, but we called him Windy most of the time. Pammy and Windy. Isn’t that strange to hear it said like that?”
A long pause ensued. “They’re gone now, and my older brother, Harold, too. I’m the last of the Hunters. Oh, dear, does that sound terrible, being the last of the Hunters while I’m a Jodrey?”
Briefly, as if a switch had turned, Elsie imagined some joy spanning the elderly woman’s features, lighting up the eyes and the quickly pink cheeks, curving her soft lips, lifting her chin; her old brow suddenly losing some of the indelible marks of care and worry.
Better try some humor, thought Else. “Not at all, Mrs. Jodrey. I’m the first of the new Trotters. When you hear that, can you see Rockingham Park or Suffolk Downs in there somewhere, or Hialeah Race Track?”
The giggle came from Elsie, but she could picture the elderly woman, the last of the Hunters, relaxing a bit more as she replied, “Dear heavens, no, but I’m dying to meet you. Bring the children so I can see who will be learning at my old piano as it gets born again.”
Her small ecstasy carried through on the phone.
Elsie handed her husband the paper on which she had written Mrs. Jodrey’s address on Washington Street in Newton, with notes of landmarks near her building. She also told Alec what she knew about Mrs. Jodrey, and added, “We have to bring the kids because I think they swung the deal for us, from $1,800 down to $1,500. It’s a Strause upright, in good shape. Let’s get a truck, and you’ll have to marshal up some of your pals. Husky ones. Some blankets. One of those thingamajigs you guys are always talking about when you move a refrigerator. A dolly, is it?”
Alec nodded at each point of the preparations, per order of the woman of the house from the woman of the next house.
“Dell,” Alec said later on the phone, “Alec here, asking another favor. I need your truck and your muscle in the morning to move a piano we’re buying in Newton. Need whoever can come with us….”
A parade of vehicles, three of them, came down Washington Street from the highway. One truck with Alec and Dell, Elsie in the car with the kids, two pals in a sports car, the top down, the muscles showing on the passengers.
“There it is,” Alec said, as he spotted the clump of trees blocking a decent view of a yellow apartment building. “We can run the truck right to the front door. The lady said the piano is on the first floor. Looks easy from here.”
Mrs. Jodrey invited all of them into her apartment and stood aside so they could look at the piano. It shone. It had luster. It looked tuned. With a wave of her hand the kindly old woman said to Elsie, “Please play a song for us, see how it sounds to you.”
Elsie sat primly on the edge of a chair, as if she were sitting down for a concert.
At the first note of Claude Debussy’s Clair de Lune, Mrs. Jodrey closed her eyes and kept them closed, her head swaying for long moments, finding places to rest, swayed again, for more than four minutes of the song until Elsie finished her recital for the purchase of the piano.
“Oh,” Mrs. Jodrey said simply. “Oh,” and then, “Still lovely. I can’t explain where I disappeared to or what I did. Simply lovely.” Shadows fought for her eyes, took them.
Mrs. Jodrey spoke quickly, a litany in a nonmusical rush. “Be sure the children learn the old favorites that will stay with them all their lives. Chopsticks, Twinkle Twinkle Little Star, Mary Had a Little Lamb, Happy Birthday, Away in a Manger, Greensleeves, and of course, your own Clair de Lune.” She stood up and said, “The piano is yours. With my gracious thanks.”
The piano, with some little difficulty, was finally in the truck, covered with blankets and a large canvas. The four men secured it in place.
On parting, Mrs. Jodrey hugged Elsie and the children. “I know you will get great enjoyment from it,” she told Elise. “But I will think of what a gift the children now have.”
Elsie said, “Alec will be right back with the check. Thank you very much for a real bargain. We will have a new life with it.” She went out the door, ushering the children ahead of her, looking back once to smile at the woman.
Mrs. Jodrey, with a sudden start as if waking from a dream that disappeared instantly, looked out the window and saw the vehicles parked in front, the big upright block of darkness tied onto the truck, a fire engine-red truck. The car carrying the children, with their mother driving, pulled away from the curb. She knew it would be the last she’d ever see of them and she had forgotten their names. Oh, so quickly.
The little sports car, almost no taller than a hydrant, also pulled away from the curb. She heard the deep hum of the engine sounding as if it was tunneled in a garage. She heard power, velocity, distance.
One of the bigger men, a giant across the shoulders, climbed into the truck on the driver’s side. For a moment she ignored the thought in the back of her head.
Then there was a knock at the door. She opened the door for Alec.
“I’ve got your check here, Mrs. Jodrey. This has been a marvelous morning for my family, my friends, and me.” He handed her the check.
With a trembling hand, she accepted the check, looking down sheepishly.
As he turned to go, Alec spun about and said, “I was wondering if there is a bench that goes with the piano.”
“Oh,” she said again, embarrassment flooding her features, “I am dreadfully sorry for forgetting the bench. A man from a music store answered an earlier ad, maybe six months ago. He didn’t want the piano but took the bench. He said he would have to take it with him to evaluate it. He’s never called back. At least, not yet.” One hand was on her cheek in a manner of punctuation.
An image rose up in Alec demanding, an explanation. “Did he look over the bench when he was here?”
“Yes, he did.”
Alec saw the image forming. “Did he look inside the bench?”
“Yes, he did. I can see him doing it.” She closed her eyes for a few seconds, and repeated, “Yes, he did.”
“Did he see anything inside the bench?” Alec almost saw the whole image before she answered.
“Yes, but just a bunch of papers he looked at quickly.”
The image was almost complete for Alec. “Do you remember his name, where his place is?”
“No, I don’t. But after he left, I found a business card on the floor. It must have fallen from his pocket.”
“Do you have the card now, Mrs. Jodrey?” Alec hoped all the questions did not disturb her.
“If I do, it’s in my desk over there.” She pointed across the room. “Check the little cubby holes on the top level.”
Alec found a card for the Top Note Music Shop, with the address printed like sheet music notes on the bottom of the card. “May I keep this, Mrs. Jodrey?” He showed her the card.
“Of course,” she said. “I have no need of it now.” She looked around the room as though seeing it for the first time.
Alec jumped into the red truck and said, “Dell, we have a short detour on the way home.” He held up the card.
Alec entered the shop to face a lone employee, or owner, setting a guitar up on a wall bracket and knew from the first look that it was a Gibson. Even his $1,500 check would not have bought this guitar, but that revelation did not cut into his errand.
The man presented a musical appearance: suave, sleepy-eyed, a long face that a neatly trimmed beard had changed. His blue shirt had an open collar, and his sleeveless white sweater was fully unbuttoned.
“Are you Mr. Saunders?” Alec asked, as he withdrew a small notepad from his pocket and a ballpoint pen. He looked up at the Gibson, now a highlight for the whole shop as it hung on the wall. He made an entry in the notepad.
“Yes, I am. Have we met? Can I help you with anything? I see you know your guitars. Have I seen you playing locally?” Saunders looked at his latest display on the wall, out of reach of the careless, those without loving hands, the common let-me-try-it-out customer.
Alec looked around the shop. “No, we haven’t met, but we have a mutual acquaintance, a Mrs. Jodrey on Washington Street. You remember her, don’t you? An elderly woman who had advertised a Strause piano for sale.”
Saunders flinched, showing a reaction in his jaw, and twisted his mouth in a grimace that rode up one cheek. “No, I don’t. If I met her before, it must have been long ago.”
“How about six months ago, in her apartment when you carried off her piano bench to evaluate it and never went back, never called her again.”
“Oh, it must have been worthless. I vaguely remember now. Just worthless.”
“So, you do remember what it looked like?”
Saunders did not answer.
Alec jotted on the pad of paper. “How about anything inside the bench? Remember any of that?”
“Junk, from what I can recall. We often get odd material that’s stuffed into anything of size. One drum, for God’s sake, had a pile of notes taped on the inside. A life story, mind you, of an incendiary creature bound to burn in hell.” He laughed, his whole face working on the big lie.
“All junk that you threw away—is that right? But you remember what it looked like, Mrs. Jodrey’s piano bench?” Alec scribbled again on the pad.
Saunders was coming apart, Alec could see, the telltale jaw in high gear every time he spoke.
At his immediate right side, Alec noticed a decent looking bench. The polished stain looked like that of the Strause piano now in his pal’s truck.
He picked up the bench, held it over his head, “Did it look like this one?” His voice carried past Saunders and ran into the back end of the shop, basso profundo all the way, heavy as a threat.
“Yes, it did,” Saunders said and seemed to shiver.
Alec walked to the door, turned once before he left the shop and said, “Thanks for nothing, Saunders. Call the cops if you want. But screw you—thief!”
The bench sat upside down on his head as Alec left the shop, headed for the red truck, then home to Elsie.
Tom Sheehan, (30 years retired), now in his 94th year, (31st Infantry, Korea 1950-52; Boston College (1952-56), has published 52 books, the last three with Taj Mahal Press in India. He has multiple works in Rosebud, The Linnet’s Wings (Ireland-100), Copperfield Review, Literally Stories (UK-147), Frontier Tales, Green Silk Journal, Rope & Wire Magazine (400+). He has 18 Pushcart nominations, 6 Best of Net nominations (one winner). Several books are in submission status. His story, “The Tale of Trot and Dim Johnny,” recently won the Ageless Writers contest, and his article, “The Great God Shove in Charlestown” was in the Boston Globe Sunday Magazine on April 25, 2021.