Sundrop Sonata: First Chapter

IZZY

A chill shot down my spine the instant our eyes met. Nola Pack looked ten years older than she had a week ago when we met in town. She stood in her open doorway, clenching its frame. Her red eyes sought mine as a breeze teased her disheveled hair. The ranch wife I remembered from previous meetings would never have appeared with even one stray hair on her immaculate swept-up bun.

I smiled and greeted her, but her grave face stole the sunshine from the bright spring morning. I no longer heard songbirds sing in the nearby flowering orchard as I searched for clues to her distress.

Nola didn’t return my smile, nor did she speak. Her bloodshot eyes narrowed as she studied my face. She stepped aside, still clutching the ranch house door with a grip that raised veins on the back of her hand. I stepped into the picturesque entryway, put my tool case down, and stooped to remove my shoes.

“No. It’s fine. Come in,” she said.

“You don’t want me to remove my shoes?”

“Not today, Mrs. Woods. Come in.”

“If you’re sure,” I said, wiping my shoes on the entry mat before I stepped onto her white carpet. “And please call me Izzy.”

Awash with sunshine, the music room issued a warm invitation. A sofa and two chairs faced the walnut grand piano across the room, its lid open on full stick. A violin leaned against a matching walnut music stand that filled the piano’s graceful curve.

“What an improvement over the old upright,” I said. “When did it arrive?”

“About ten days ago.”

“Anything I need to know before I begin? Problems? Concerns?”

Her brow narrowed. Still unsmiling, she shook her head and looked over my shoulder to the window beyond the piano. I set my tool case against the wall and tucked a stray curl into the hair clip on the back of my head. “I’ll get started then,” I said over my shoulder.

“Wait, please,” Nola said. “I need your help.” She closed her eyes. Her voice almost a whisper, I strained to understand her words.

“You don’t want me to tune your piano?” I asked.

“No. Not now.”

“A few minutes then? Or did you mean not today?”

“Not today.” Her voice carried unmistakable urgency. “Please. Come with me.” She turned and walked into the hallway beyond the living room.

Another chill raced through my body. I stood rooted to the white carpet. Nola turned and looked at me from the other end of the hall. With a frantic wave she beckoned me to follow.

I walked from the music room, past four closed doors. Two doors displayed a child’s colorful paintings. I knew there were children in the house, or at least a child. During an earlier call a girl had peeked at me for a moment before Nola scolded her. I had never been invited beyond the music room though, until today.

The hallway opened into a glassed-in dining room aflame with spring sunshine. Nola led me outside to a redwood deck extending over a pond, water slapping the rocks beneath us. In the far corner of the deck, a slender girl slumped on a lounge, her arms wrapped around her chest. She stared at the blue water, humming in a split voice that sounded as if she sang in two pitches at once.

I tilted my head toward Nola and narrowed my eyes.

Nola met my puzzled gaze. “She’s talking to herself. She does it when she’s under stress.” Her voice was devoid of any emotion, fear still in the undercurrents.

Nola brushed aside a tree branch bursting with fragrant blossoms and knelt at the girl’s knees. In a soft voice she said, “Laura, this is Isabel Woods, the lady I told you about. She’s our piano tuner.”

The girl didn’t move. If anything, she hugged herself a little tighter.

“Look at me, sweetheart,” Nola said.

The girl turned to her mother, but her gaze shot beyond Nola toward me. Her eyes didn’t appear to focus. I offered a tiny smile, but Laura didn’t respond.

LAURA

Laura Pack squeezed herself, as if tightening her grip on her own shoulders could wring the stench from her mind. All morning the awful smell had overwhelmed her. The pungent odor of putrid diapers drove her mad. Baby poop. Hour after hour, the reek of excrement filled her mind. She couldn’t sleep. She even tasted the stuff. She swallowed, desperate to stop the bile rising in her throat.

Why this happened, she didn’t know. Every time she faced her fears, every time her world went wrong, this same awful odor permeated her nostrils and filled her brain. Mama didn’t believe her. She would shake her head and say she made it all up, that there was no rotten smell because Mama couldn’t smell it.

But after that awful phone call, Laura sure could.

And it grew stronger and stronger until it filled her mind. Mama had decided to send her away. So she’d be safe, Mama said. She didn’t think it would make her safe. She didn’t think she’d ever be safe without Mama.

Laura heard her mother call her name. It sounded so far away. She turned her head, dazed. The awful smell – why wouldn’t it stop?

I can’t see you, Mama. I can’t see you. Don’t look at me. I don’t want to see you. Can’t see you. Can’t see you. Can’t see. Why do I have to go? Why? Why? Why? Don’t want to go. Won’t go. I won’t. I won’t see you, Mama. Don’t look at me. No. No. Baby poop. No.

No – wait. Look at me. I want to see you. Look at me. I see you. I see you, Mama. I’m scared. I’m so scared. It smells so bad. I hear you. I hear your voice. You say I’ll be safe. I’ll be safer. Why? Why? Why? You come too. Be safe. Be safe, Mama. Be safer. Look at me. I can see you. I see you. I don’t want to go. Don’t want to.

Laura’s gaze focused on the piano tuner. The strange woman’s frizzy gray curls struggled to escape from the loose clasp on her head. Laura found no comfort in this stranger. Not even when the woman smiled.

I don’t know that lady. Who is she? I’m scared. Scared, Mama. I see you. I see you, Mama. I see her. She’s looking at me. She’s smiling. I see her. Okay. If you want me to go, I’ll go. I see her. She smiles. She’s kind. She’s kind of – not you!

Don’t want to go. Don’t want to, Mama. Don’t want to. Don’t want to. Don’t want to leave you. Baby poop, Mama. It’s baby poop. You come too. Be safe. Safer, Mama. Come too. Come with me. I see you, mama. I see you – I see you – I see you. I love you, Mama.

Nola clasped her daughter’s hands in her own. She pulled the girl to a stand and pressed Laura’s hands together over her heart. Their eyes met.

 IZZY

After a few silent seconds, Nola nodded once. She turned to me.

In a shaking voice she said, “I don’t know how to ask you this. We need your help. Could you – please – would you take Laura for a while? We’re desperate.”

Oh, my God. I don’t believe this. I coughed, choking on my response.

Laura pulled away from her mother.

“She could be in danger and I need time to sort things out,” Nola said.

I glanced from mother to daughter. The girl’s shoulders shook as she sobbed, her head buried in her hands.

What was I to do? I couldn’t take a strange child with me, drive out the driveway, head toward – head where? My appointments filled the day’s schedule. This would never work. What in the world was happening here?

But, I’d never been one to turn down a plea for help. What could I do?

“Please.” Nola’s whisper screamed in my ears.

I shook my head. “I need to think.”

“We don’t have time.”

“Are there no family members? Grandparents? Aunts or uncles?” I asked.

“My family lives in New York. They’re too far away. I need help now.”

“What about neighbors or friends?”

“I don’t know anyone around here. Except you. ”

That I could believe. The Pack family was a mystery to their neighbors. Hints and stray comments dropped when I tuned pianos a couple miles up the road confirmed nobody knew these people. They had no local friends. Just the piano tuner.

Incredible.

“Ranch hands?” I said. “You must have hired help.”

“I don’t trust them.”

“Is that why you think Laura’s in danger?”

“Please. There isn’t time to explain.”

I scratched my head through the mess of curls. Frizzy Izzy. I was living up to my childhood nickname, the hair an outward manifestation of my inner turmoil. “Have you called the sheriff?” I said.

“No. I can’t call the police.”

“Maybe you should.”

“Please. I can’t involve them.”

“This is crazy,” I said. “I can tell you’re desperate. But you haven’t told me why. You want me to pack up your daughter, the girl you’ve never even introduced to me on prior visits – load her up and take her away. But why? ”

“It’s an emergency. I need Laura to leave for a while.”

“I kind of want to leave too. In fact, you’re making me want to race from here as fast as I can go. But I don’t know why.”

“Just take Laura with you. Please.”

She had me. Could Nola read people enough to guess I’d find it impossible to refuse? My passion to help others usually served me well. I was, after all, in a service profession, traveling all over the countryside to tune pianos for people. Service with a smile, was the homily I always told myself. Make harmony from discord. And I loved the work. I loved the people. I found pianos fascinating, each one a variation on an ingenious theme.

This, however, was a first. This was different. Not a discordant piano today. This time, I was being pulled into a desperate situation.

Nola, should I tune your life?

A knot of anxiety hardened in my stomach. I didn’t know how to refuse. “For how long? How long is a while?” I asked.

“Might be only an hour or two. Perhaps a couple of days. I’ll call you when the crisis is over. Don’t call me.”

Chills raced through my body. “Why not? What if something happens?” I said. “What if I need to get in touch?”

“I’ll contact you as soon as I can. Just don’t call me.”

I closed my eyes and took a deep breath. Take the girl. No police. Don’t call Nola.

Laura wilted into the deck lounge and wailed.

In a soft voice, Nola said, “Izzy, believe me, if there was any other way, we would never put you in this position. The situation blew up on me this morning. You’re the miracle we need right now.”

“Please tell me why you’re so afraid,” I said.

She shook her head. “There’s no time. You need to go now.”

I touched the girl’s trembling shoulder with my fingertips. “Laura, are you okay with this? Will you come with me until your mother calls?”

Still sobbing, Laura ventured a tiny nod and turned to her mother. They grabbed each other in a desperate embrace.

Nola gently pushed the girl away. Taking her hand, she said, “Let’s go.”

She pulled Laura through the open doorway and gathered a few bags from the dining table. We dashed down the hall and into the music room, the bags in Nola’s arms brushing Laura’s artwork as she ran. I collected my tool case and hurried out to the waiting Blazer.

After I tossed my tools on the back seat, Nola handed me a briefcase. “Don’t lose this,” she said. “These things can’t be replaced.”

What does she mean? Another wrinkle.

I scrutinized her for a moment before I set the briefcase behind the driver’s seat.

Nola deposited Laura’s bags on the back seat and tucked her daughter into the passenger seat. She leaned inside and kissed the child.

“God be with you, Laura. I’ll see you soon.” A tear dropped into the girl’s stringy blond tresses.

Nola wiped another tear from her cheek and glanced at me. “Now quickly – go!”

I turned the Blazer onto the long gravel drive and spun the wheels as we left.

Accelerando, Isabel. Step on it.

We jiggled across the pasture lane. Laura shrank against the opposite door and wailed. Her thin voice vacillated with bumps in the road. At the end of the long driveway, we rumbled across the cattle guard and through stone pillars. The remotely controlled gate surged to life as soon as we cleared it.

“Your mom must be listening,” I said.

Laura’s strange two-tone whine rose a notch in volume.

I braked enough to navigate the turn onto the deserted county road. Heading south, I floored the accelerator. Less than two miles later, we met a two-ton flatbed pickup. It raced toward us, engine roaring.

“That guy’s in a hurry,” I said.

Laura gasped. Mouth open, eyes wide, she clung to the door, her gaze riveted on the truck. She ducked, hiding her eyes behind her long hair.

“Laura?”
The truck aimed straight for us. I swung the steering wheel right and braked hard. The farm truck thundered by as my Blazer crept along the shoulder. “Dang, take your half out of the middle,” I said.

Laura dissolved into hysterical sobs.

I pushed our speed again. We sailed along the road, sunlight streaming through the windshield. The bright morning mocked the grim mood inside our cab. Tears streamed across Laura’s cheeks. She reached up with her right arm and wiped her face with her sweatshirt sleeve. I reached over and squeezed her rigid hand.

“That was a close one, wasn’t it? You recognized the truck. Did you know the driver?”

Laura nodded. Her chest heaved. She worked her jaw, as if trying to speak, but her words didn’t form through her wail. She screwed up her face, knotted her hands into fists and managed to blurt in her strange split-tone voice, “My dad.”

“Your dad?”

She nodded and shrieked heart-wrenching sobs.

Her dad?

Was he the source of Nola’s panic this morning? Were her urgency and desperation because her angry husband headed home? Why would Laura’s life be endangered at her father’s hands?

I wished I could have stolen a look at the truck driver. I’d never met Laura’s dad. In all the previous service calls, not once had he been home. Did he look into my car? Did he recognize Laura? The thought horrified me.

“Honey, do you think your dad saw you as we passed?”

She shook her head. She must have watched his face, even if I didn’t get a peek.

“Is your dad the reason your mom sent you with me?”

A hesitation. Then a quick nod. This was a family dispute.

Nola’s words echoed in my mind. Her life is in danger. I shuddered.

In danger from her dad. Something she failed to mention.

No police, Nola had begged. Why not?

“It’ll be all right, Laura,” I said to reassure her.

Would it though? I was unconvinced.

Why is the girl afraid of her dad? How long will Izzy have to look after Laura’s well-being? To find out, order your copy of Sundrop Sonata at these suppliers, or come to Art in the Park October 3 in Winfield.

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Only in a Leap Year

Well, here we are. Through yet another quirk produced by Leap Day, we are six months to the day past the invigorating launch of Sonata of Elsie Lenore on February 9, 2020.

Today is another Sunday afternoon on the prairie. Only in Leap Years would you find this to be so. Six months to the day, same day of the week.

I know. Who would think of something like that?

I do. It’s a quirky attribute of my mind, looking consciously (or subconsciously) for patterns. Now this doesn’t happen to all months, due to differing lengths of various months. But February to August?

Check.

Dates match days of the week up until August 29. Only in a Leap Year.

And only in this particular Leap Year did the intervening months dissolve into obscurity. The pace of our ratrace life slowed and we sheltered at home, away from all but our most intimate contacts. It’s almost like we collectively took a long nap.

It’s time to wake up.

We’re still mired in the consternation of a deadly pandemic. The sun rises and the sun sets. We get aggravated at each other. The ills of our culture are scrutinized under a microscope. We’ve re-evaluated priorities, taken stock of where we’ve been and where we want to be. And we have little clue how to get there.

Take a deep breath.

After watching a time-leap movie last evening, I started wondering, “What if?” What if I could wrinkle up the last six-months in the space-time continuum (thank you, Madeleine L’Engle) and return to February 9?

 

What a day that was! Busy from dawn to dark with “The Last County-Wide Duet Festival,” hosting guest artists, several writer friends, Elsie’s illustrator,

Cover artist, Onalee Nicklin

concert attendees—and then performing.

At the close of the concert, Sonata of Elsie Lenore was available for the first time and I signed copies for forty minutes straight.

That was an exciting launch. But then, after catching my breath, and recuperating from the madness, before I could even consider my next project, COVID hit.

And we slammed into a wall. The world stopped spinning. And we’ve been in limbo since.

Now jump that wrinkle to today. We’re in no better place with COVID than before, and there’s no end in sight. Yet given the auspicious parallels between February 9 and August 9, I decided to revitalize Elsie with a promotion. Perhaps some of you could use a diversion to get your mind off other things. If that’s the case, I invite you to consider taking a break to read Sonata of Elsie Lenore or even Sundrop Sonata if you have yet to do that.

Toward that end, I have taken some difficult steps for someone with my distress for public scrutiny. Just so you know, I set up a brand new author page on Goodreads, (https://www.goodreads.com/author/show/8596325.Ann_Christine_Fell),  revised my Amazon author page, (https://www.amazon.com/author/annchristinefell) and started a Facebook page (Ann Christine Fell, author) devoted to posts about books and the writing process.

I invite you to check each of these. If you find it to your liking, follow one or more of these pages. Those of you who are so inclined can post a review, especially if you think somebody else might enjoy reading the tales.

May each of you stay healthy and evade the notorious virus. I’ll see you when we emerge from this cloud of uncertainty and face our new and improved futures.

Having Nothing is Living Free, 3

(The third part of a series recapping my 2019 tour of Cuba which helped refine scenes in the new Sonata of Elsie Lenore, another piano novel-of-suspense featuring Cuban--and Kansas--pianos and musicians.)

From Cienfuegos we took a day trip cross-country to Trinidad, a historic colonial city, ca 1514. On the UNESCO world heritage list, downtown Trinidad offers a walking experience much as the residents in the 16th century would have found.

Very rough cobblestone streets paved with rounded fist-sized stones set into the hillside and multi-storied buildings with tile roofs were typical in Trinidad.

My favorite excursion was ascending the bell tower of an old monastery, no longer used as such.

The views across the surrounding terrain were extraordinary.

Adding to our complementary cocktail list, in Trinidad we twice enjoyed drinks that we were told were peculiar to that city—the canchanchara (Fizzy with lime, honey, and rum over ice. Served in a special goblet.)

On the return trip to Cienfuegos, I saw things I’d missed before.

Many fields and yards were fenced by prickly cactus—the kind my father had that grew fast with very sharp and prolific needles.

I suspect it was trimmed with machetes. Densely grown it would make an effective barrier to keep in livestock like piglets or chickens. It would also keep out unwanted intruders.

The following morning we packed up again for our last cross-country journey. We headed east from Cienfuegos along the Caribbean coast.

We stopped at the Playa Giron (“Bay of Pigs”) museum and learned about that effort from the Cuban perspective. The US planned invasion failed due to the fact that the plan was leaked and printed in the New York Times; the expected assistance from the locals did not materialize because life for the rural folks had already become much better than it was before the revolution; and the expected assistance from the US Air Force never came. The invasion failed and the Cuban revolution stood.

We drove along the coast of the bay to a cluster of cabins and businesses. During our lunch there, a park ranger told us about the Zapata Park Conservation efforts, and afterward we enjoyed a walk on the beach or a dip in the bay.

Twenty-three percent of Cuba is protected from development and Zapata National Park is the biggest and oldest of Cuba’s natural sanctuaries, founded in 1937. The ranger explained its mission: Conservation, Preservation, and Protection. There are over 5000 square km in this preserve, including swamp, coastline, bay area, and coral reefs. Cuban and American crocodiles interbreed here and have developed a new intermediary species. Five hundred green and red Cuban parrots were released to the wild. A thriving coral reef is preserved in the bay itself.

There are 52 animal species unique to Cuba, including three species of tree rats.

Zapata is the surname of the owner of the land with Spanish ancestry, from the 16th century. It does not refer to the shoe shape of the area, or the translation of the word, “shoe.”

From there we traveled on to Havana. Closer to the city, the cactus fences changed to stone fences.

The narrow road became a 6-lane highway, though traffic was still light. Solitary people walked at random places along the road, tended grazing livestock in the roadside ditches, or rested in the shade.

A modern and bustling city, Havana presented a marked contrast to the easy-going countryside we had experienced to this point.

Having Nothing is Living Free, 2

(The second part of a series recapping my tour of Cuba which helped refine scenes in the new Sonata of Elsie Lenore, another piano novel of suspense featuring Cuban--and Kansas--pianos and musicians.)

Los Caneyes hotel was unique in my experience. Named for some of the aboriginal inhabitants of Cuba, the Caney people, the lodgings spread across several acres. Footpaths connected buildings that housed about four suites each, as well as smaller cabins that were single rooms. My room was one of these small cabins with twin beds, an air conditioner with Celcius degrees, remotely operated, a shower (no tub), and an ironing board with an umbrella hanging on it. The cabin stood beside a solar water heater set between two other cabins. I noticed my water was hot even early in the morning. Each structure in the facility was topped with palm-thatched roofs.

We dined in style with a buffet dinner. At dinner, a young man played clarinet continually, quite well, good old familiar show tunes. Later in the evening, there was a fashion show around the outdoor pool.

Tall, long-legged, black Cuban girls in 7-inch stiletto heels paraded around the pool area in swim and beach wear, as well as one young man for men’s beach fashions.

At the far end of the pool, a band struck up tunes—fully live tonight with guitar players, singer, uke, banjo, maybe a keyboard, drums. They performed long after I retired for the night.

The next morning I woke early—before 4:00, and rested until the alarm went off on my phone. Though it was still dark out, birds chirped and roosters crowed. It sounded like small bantams. I packed my bags and set off on an early morning walk. The lodgings at Los Caneyes were fascinating with all the thatched roofs. Most of the group buildings had a central courtyard around a statue of some figure significant in aboriginal stories, or perhaps Santeria saints.

There were several dead tree trunks with faces carved in them.

Ornamental plants, including a variety that I have enjoyed in my own home since I was in grade school, provided attractive landscaping. Blooming bushes, mimosa trees, song birds, plants growing out of tree stumps, palm trees, begonias, bougainvillea, and ficus trees with massive exposed roots lined the paths.

After breakfast, we loaded the bus and headed into Santa Clara. Our first stop was the Che Guevara monument. It was a lovely place, very tidy, free of charge, and our guide filled us in on Che’s story, which ended badly at the hands of a US CIA sting operation in Bolivia several years after the revolution.

Che (Ernesto) was born in Argentina and educated as a medical doctor. As a young man he traveled through much of Latin American, which changed his perspective on life. He met Fidel Castro in Mexico and joined the Cuban revolution to free the people from tyranny. A guerilla commander as well as a physician, he orchestrated the conquest of an armored train, derailing it in Santa Clara and acquiring the arms inside. That was a turning point in the revolution.

He laid siege to a hotel in downtown Santa Clara, and bullet strikes are preserved on that building where many of Batista’s officers sought refuge. Two days later they surrendered, having run out of ammunition. This was a significant victory for the rebels, the beginning of the end for Batista.

Around the square below the historic hotel, a goat pulled a cart for children’s rides. At a nearby club for Abuelos (grandparents) they danced and played games, told us the story of fan language, used by young women to signal young men at dances, under the watchful eyes of chaperones.

We drove to the airport to fetch one lady’s luggage that had been lost and on to Cienfuegos over rough pavement, swaying back and forth.

In Cienfuegos, we attended a string orchestral concert by Concerto Sur Cienfuegos that was delightful with a variety of classical, popular, and Cuban compositions. Before it was done, they had us all up and dancing with their dance leader.

We headed back along the coast to our hotel in downtown Cienfuegos where dinner was served in the rooftop restaurant with windows and balcony door open.

Another ensemble provided music from the indoor balcony in the dining room.

Having Nothing is Living Free, 1

In early March, 2019, I flew to Miami for the first time in my life where I met the rest of a tour group bound for Cuba the next day. Eight of us in the group took a tour with Mario, a Cuban-American bus driver, to see downtown Little Havana, a rough and tumble place. He bought Cuban coffee shots for those who wanted to try it from an outdoor café and we walked along the streets, finally arriving at a Cuban pub for a first experience with mojitos– and very loud salsa music. It was interesting to see the art hung around, even from the ceiling and watch young (or not so young) dancers. Though the lead vocalist, a woman from Puerto Rico, and  the percussionist were live, the main melody was a recording, so I would didn’t agree that it was live music. Toward the end of our stay, a guy joined in on the previously silent grand piano. Alas, the music volume was so cranked up, the piano was still unheard. I had not remembered earplugs, but started carrying them with me everywhere I went. However, I never needed them again. Cuban street music and performed music is genuinely live and is not limited to fortissimo volume.


A mural nearby showed some black girls in white, representing a weekly Sunday ritual in Havana, a silent protest against the communists in Havana.

The next day our group caught a flight to Santa Clara, Cuba. Our tour was a People-to-People tour sponsored by Road Scholar. I didn’t know what to expect, but I was ready for anything, to soak up the experience as research for the scenes from Sonata of Elsie Lenore that are set in Cuba. 

My first view of Cuba from the airplane was through clouds, but I identified agricultural fields, and a field of solar panels. The time was 4:45 pm EST. We landed at the Santa Clara airport* at 4:55, de-planed down a set of stairs and walked to the airport door. My first step in Cuba occurred at 5:02 pm.

It was a long day of waiting for a little bit of travel, but we had finally arrived and worked our way through Cuban customs. One lady’s checked bag was lost, but the rest of us gathered our bags, met our Cuban Guide Ilen (pronounced “Elaine”) headed to the waiting bus where we met our bus driver, Ernesto. Our first views along the road included horse-drawn wagons, rough dwellings, banana, guava, and maybe tobacco fields, and lots of palm trees. Trash was piled at intervals in the roadside ditches, or in waterways. Dogs scratched through the refuse. A dead dog lay in one ditch, with vultures gathering.

Then we arrived at our lodging, Los Caneyes, and WOW!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

*In the last few months travel to Cuba has been restricted only to the Havana airport. Americans today would not be able to duplicate the itinerary we enjoyed.

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Chapter One

LENA VALDEZ CRINGED when her husband hammered the Steinway piano lid with his fist.

His rage growing, Enrique’s knuckle bones threatened to burst through his skin. “I told you,” he said, “no more of this Lecuona crap. Do the jazz. Tonight we want the best Cuban jazz.” The youngest of the three Diaz brothers punctuated every other syllable with his fist until the piano’s heavy bass strings vibrated with a rising cacophony.

She shrank from every blow.

“Understand?” he yelled.

, Enrique,” she said.

“Get to the jazz. I’m counting on you tonight. ¿Comprendes?

She looked down, her fingers rubbing the familiar ivory ridges of the piano keys.

“¿Lena?” he said.

She felt rather than saw his arm rise and spoke with haste. “Please, Enrique. Don’t hit the piano.”

“Jazz then. Hear me?”

She nodded. Yes, she heard him. How could she not? She could hardly recall a time he spoke to her without yelling. “, I will play jazz.”

“One hour. Then we dress for the show. No more Lecuona.”

She flexed her fingers, took a deep breath, and leaned into the keys. A recent island melody by Jorge Marin swelled from the piano. Swinging with the beat, Enrique danced out the door of the Caribbean Breeze, a nightclub in New Orleans.

Her hands flew over the keys as she coaxed melodious rhythms from the worn Steinway. It wasn’t that she hated jazz. After all, jazz expressed Cuba’s heart and soul. It sang of the courage and beauty of her countrymen. She loved jazz, but she loved classics more and she needed Lecuona right now. Their mother raised her and her brother on Lecuona, embracing classical Cuban tradition.

Lena completed the Marin number and stifled a sob.

“You okay Señorita?” Roberto, the bartender and manager of the nightclub, peeked in from a back room.

She nodded. “I will be fine.”

“I heard some yelling,” he said and cocked his head, inviting her to say more.

She forced a laugh. “Enrique. He’s always yelling,” she explained away the outburst. “It will be fine.”

“If you’re sure.” He turned back into the storage room.

She waited a moment, gathering her nerve, her fingers silent on the piano keys. In a timid voice, she said, “Roberto?”

When he didn’t respond, she tried again, louder. “Roberto?”

He stuck his head through the swinging door again. “You say something?”

“I just wondered if you would tell me where I could mail a postal card.” She fished a postcard from her handbag.

“Sending greetings from good old New Orleans?” he said with a smile.

Sí. I want to contact my brother.”

“Stefano? How is he anyway? I heard he’d tied the knot with a beauty from up north somewhere.”

She nodded. “I just want to let him know I am here. Where could I mail the card?”

He extended his hand. “Leave it with me. I’ll make sure it goes out tomorrow.”

Gracias, Roberto.”

The bartender disappeared into the back room with her card. Lena took a deep breath before she continued her rehearsal. If only Stefano would meet her here. Would he even get the postcard in time? He didn’t know she was booked at the Caribbean Breeze, their old favorite nightclub. Maybe he wouldn’t even believe she was here, set to perform on Mama’s piano, “Elsie Lenore.” He sure didn’t know she’d married into a family of drug smugglers or that she was miserable.

He didn’t know.

She launched into another Marin number. At its close, she whispered into the keys, “Elsie—Elsie, what will I do?”

Unexpectedly, her mother’s voice whispered in her mind. “We do what we must.”

In a flash of recollection she visualized the lewd sneer of her former stepfather as he appraised her youthful body and her mother stepping between them— “Not my daughter, you bastard!” Her mother had split up with that man before the next week passed.

A year later a new gentle suitor presented her mother with the same Steinway she’d lost after the Revolution. A gift from her father when she was young, she had fondly dubbed the piano Elsie Lenore. It was offered as a wedding gift for the woman he’d loved all his life and Lena’s mother could not refuse his proposal. Lena and Stefano had grown to love that piano as much as their mother did.

Her mother’s voice whispered again. We do what we must.

“Yes, we do.” Lena’s hands teased the keys as she pondered her limited options. Elsie Lenore and her brother Stefano offered one thin thread of hope. Surely he would understand. He had to.

Her fingers caressed the keys and cajoled an Afro-Cuban piece from the belly of the piano. The melody grew, and then waned. She dropped her left hand and allowed her right hand to sketch a rhythmic melody up the keys as she diverted her left hand to the piano case.

Following the melodic sequence, she ran her fingertips to the treble end of the mahogany trim at her waist and pried upward. With a full-keyboard glissando, she moved to the bass end and inched up the trim until the keyslip was free of its mounting screws. She placed it across the music desk without the slightest click.

The music soared again when her left hand joined in. She strummed repeated staccato chords, lifted her hands at the finale, and froze, listening.

Silencio.

Roberto must have gone out for a few moments. Nobody remained inside the club.

She retrieved a set of dining utensils and a paper napkin from the nearest table and spread the napkin beneath the bass keys. Slipping the knife tip underneath a key, she scraped against the key frame, teasing a fine white dust to the edge. She repeated the process under four keys, and scraped the powder onto the napkin. Tossing the knife to the floor, she lifted the napkin’s corners, cradled the powder into its middle, and with a sigh folded it into a tiny envelope. Her brother would have been proud to know she’d learned some intricacies of piano construction. She, for her part, was grateful for his fascination with the technical side of the instrument.

Gracias, Stefano,” she whispered.

She tucked the parcel securely into her cleavage, replaced the trim, and lost herself in the music.

Will Stefano get the postcard? What did she write to her brother? What exactly did she decide she must do? What’s the white powder she collected from the piano? Find the answers: order Sonata of Elsie Lenore from these suppliers or come to Art in the Park in Winfield, October 3.

https://www.watermarkbooks.com/book/9798621039660

https://bracebooks.indielite.org/book/9798621039660

A Cycle of Leap Years

2004

Twenty-eight years ago, a new friend and piano client told me about the county-wide duet festival. She invited me to play with her in that 1992 event and I had a blast. We diligently practiced the two duets chosen for the first of two adult groups. On the weekend of the festival, we met for a group rehearsal at the county’s junior college. Twenty home-sized upright pianos stood in a scattered array on the gymnasium floor at the college. We chose one, watched the conductor give the downbeat and joined the piano ensemble in one of the most memorable experiences of my life.

I had played piano since age 7, and was involved in annual recitals, 4-H Day competitions, and accompanying school musicals, but never had I played in a piano band such as this. The feat of tuning those twenty pianos for the Sunday afternoon performance was mind-boggling to contemplate, not to mention moving all of them. Twice.

2000

The 1992 Keyboard Piano Duet Festival changed my life. I enjoyed it so much I wanted my own children, and my other students, to have this experience, so I joined the county’s music teacher association. Every year we hosted a group event, with the duet festival every four years. This just happened to coincide with Leap Year. Every Leap Year since 1992, I have helped choose duets for seven progressive skill levels, from the earliest beginner to advanced adult groups. Our association has cooperated with the college, local music stores, and other music clubs, to put on a duet festival every four years.

2000

However, not since 1992 has the festival been held in the gym. And in 1996 as well as each event since, the genuine acoustic pianos were replaced by electronic keyboards. But the students and adult pianists of Cowley County have enjoyed playing duets every Leap Year in a monster piano concert.

This year, on February 9, 2020, at 6:00 pm, we proudly hold The Last Duet Festival on the auditorium stage at Cowley College. The planning committee has dwindled from an association of a dozen active members, to three. Conflicting events from different towns presented obstacle after obstacle that made preparations increasingly difficult to the point that we aging teachers realized we could not do this again in another four years.

2008

It is fitting to conclude the long-standing tradition this year, 28 years since my first duet festival. Leap Years cycle every 28 years and this is the very first year since my debut in the duet event where the calendar days match the days of the week all year long. This is the very first year since 1992 when Leap Day is on a Saturday. The intervening Leap Years cycled randomly through the other days of the week—Thursday in 1996, Tuesday in 2000, Sunday in 2004, Friday in 2008, Wednesday in 2012, and Monday in 2016. Now we’re back to Saturday. It will be 2048 before this calendar repeats itself day-for-day.

To conclude the tradition, we have planned a few special treats. This year, for the first time ever, we will use the stage concert Steinway along with the Clavinovas. My partner from 1992 is playing again, with her daughter. My partner this year is a young man in his 28th year on Earth. Born in Havana, Cuba in 1992, David Pérez is currently working toward a graduate degree in organ performance at Wichita State University. It will be awesome to have this classically trained Cuban master musician play with the local students.

Many of the duets we selected this year were featured in previous festivals. All pianists who choose to do so will be invited to help conclude the program with Walnut River Rag, a duet we commissioned from composer Melody Bober for the 2008 festival.

There will be tables set up in the lobby for an autograph party afterward. Student performers in this memorable event will be invited to autograph programs. I hope they all trade signatures with me.

By special request, my new piano suspense novel Sonata of Elsie Lenore, will premiere to the public after the last note of Walnut River Rag has died away.

2020

Folks can meet the artist who designed the cover for the book, Onalee Nicklin, as well as the Cuban keyboard artist David Pérez.

If you have the means to get there, you won’t want to miss this fantastic event. Brown Theater, Cowley College, Arkansas City, Kansas. Sunday, February 9, 2020, 6:00 pm.

See you there!

2004

 

Launching a New Book

The year I completed my examinations process to become a registered piano technician, a New Yorker named Ben Treuhaft attended the national piano convention. Treuhaft campaigned through the nineties for donations of pianos, repair parts, and technician service to upgrade the condition of Cuba’s musical instruments. He made a plea at the convention for help with the project called “Send a Piana to Havana.” After the Soviet Union pulled out of Cuba, people and their instruments suffered due to the lack of supplies for all kinds of pursuits.

I contacted Mr. Treuhaft to offer help. Several months later, he brought a beautiful and talented Cuban pianist on tour across the country and she played an amazing concert here, at the local college. The sample CD of her recordings that arrived with promotional material for the tour has remained a favorite disc in my collection. Her appearance in my hometown planted the seed which 20 years later has blossomed into the fictional suspense novel Sonata of Elsie Lenore.

I’ve been asked to officially launch Elsie Lenore at a county-wide monster piano concert February 9. The quadrennial event serves as a fund-raiser for music scholarships at Cowley College. The invitation to make Sonata of Elsie Lenore part of the 2020 Keyboard Duet Festival surpasses anything I could have dreamed. Even better, we’ll have another professional Cuban pianist joining the county’s piano students at this event.

Last year at this time, I was scrambling to prepare for a big adventure to Cuba. I made lists of things to bring, sorted clothing and supplies, checked everything multiple times, and packed my bags. The first week of March, I joined a group of strangers from across the US in Miami and we toured Cuba together. The day before I left, I posted a short note to my Facebook page.

“Getting ready for a big adventure! Nail-biting nervous to be heading out with a group of soon-to-be friends on an educational and good-will mission trip to Cuba. Yes, Cuba. Down there south of Miami. I hear it’s a unique and fantastic experience.”

A number of people responded on the post itself with excitement and encouragement, but I also received a private message from a piano technician colleague in Wichita. “I hope you have time for two friends to meet you in Cuba,” he wrote. “One is a technician involved with our donations of pianos to Cuba project. The other is coming to WSU next fall for graduate study in organ and piano.”

This opportunity iced the cake. Cuba’s musical contributions to the world stage are legendary and I was, after all, heading to Cuba to learn more about its music, its musicians, and its pianists in particular. Within two hours David Pérez Martinez emailed me. Together we worked through language barriers (I speak very little Spanish), as well as phone and internet systems with vastly different procedures. The evening of March 11, 2019, we met in person on the grounds of Hotel Nacional in Havana for a delightful visit at a table overlooking the Malécon Boulevard and the Atlantic beyond. Employed professionally as a pianist and harpsichordist in Havana, David was in process of pursuing further training in organ performance. He had applied to a few universities in the US, including Wichita State University.

Five months later, David arrived at Eisenhower National Airport, WSU having offered him the best situation.

It has been thrilling to return hospitality to this son of a nation that offered exemplary hospitality to me last March, and to keep up with his graduate studies and performances at WSU. His unparalleled joy at the keys warms the heart and provides inspiration to students of all ages here in Cowley County.

Mark your calendars: February 9, 2020, 6:00 p.m., Brown Theatre at Cowley College, 125 South 2nd, Arkansas City, Kansas. It will be a spectacular event!

(Note: This post published in the 20th minute of the 20th hour of the 20th day of the year 2020!)

Writing is Like Gardening

I was recently asked to share some tips on how to market an indie book such as mine. I admit marketing the books I’ve written is a big challenge for a reclusive person like me. Part of this endeavor is like gardening. First you prepare the garden plot, then you plant a few seeds.

How do you prepare the plot?

There is no better way to spread the word about your new book than to have folks tell others it is a page-turner. For this reason, it’s imperative to put your best efforts out there. Don’t release the book until every page, every paragraph and every sentence has been reviewed and polished by you and a team of readers you select.

Revise, revise and revise again. Tighten the prose. Make every word count.

Be willing to assist your friends in their writing also, giving good reviews for others in online avenues. Enter writing contests.  Receiving recognition for good writing can help spread the word.

Make your book stand out so that readers will tell others about it. The garden is ready. Plant a few seeds and see what happens.

Plant a seed. I notified groups of friends who may enjoy the book, my musical family and community, which extends around the world, as well as the writing community.

Plant a seed. I set up a blog to post memories about my writing journey, my book releases, and my life. In each relevant post I add links to the Amazon pages of my books so readers can access them instantly.

Plant a seed. A friend designed a banner to use as my cover photo on Facebook when the suspense novel was released.

Plant a seed. I started a mail Chimp account to share the news with my contacts.

Plant a seed. I scheduled a book release party in a local gallery and sent a press release to the local paper.

Invitations to present programs for others filtered in. Though I consider myself shy by nature my mantra when asked to share my books or my experience is “Never say no.” Unless I am already booked for their meeting date, I make myself available and put together a presentation that fits the theme of their meeting. To date, I have prepared and presented thirteen public programs, with two more on the calendar later this year.

Plant a seed. Alert for new ways to publicize the books, I was honored to present a sample of my work to Robin Macy at the Bartlett Arboretum earlier this spring. She had requested that I come tune an old piano at the Arb. (http://www.bartlettarboretum.com/) Coincidentally, she let me know that beloved folksinger John McCutcheon would be performing on the TreeHouse stage July 9. (https://www.folkmusic.com/)

Another seed: Since there is a significant sequence involving the Walnut Valley Festival in Sundrop Sonata in which McCutcheon is mentioned by name, I made plans to attend this event. I met him before the concert, shook his hand, and handed him a book.

Plant a seed. See if it grows.

Sometimes it takes courage for a recluse like me to even plant seeds. Courage, I learned at my home church last Sunday, means being true to your core. I am a writer at my core, and have always been. I’m a writer who loves pianos. This week at the national convention of the Piano Technician’s Guild in St. Louis, I pinned my writer’s business card to my technician name tag. (http://my.ptg.org/2017convention/home)

A little seed. Perhaps it will grow.

Writing is like gardening. First prepare your very best work. Then plant a few seeds. It’s an adventure to see what might grow from those seeds. Follow the leads and see where your journey takes you.

http://www.amazon.com/dp/B01AZUMTZS

https://www.amazon.com/dp/B00NUA5VVU

 

Ten Good Things to do with an Old Piano

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They do wear out, in spite of claims to the contrary. Nothing that is under tons of tension for decade after decade will last forever. What do you do with an old piano after its useful life is over?

Here are ten good ideas.

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Frame the keys to make wall art.

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Create a tear-drop hanger from the keys to display house plants.

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Use the pent-up pressure in hammer felt to unleash intricate insect sculptures.

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Set the cast-iron plate by your porch steps for a sturdy railing.

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Use the lid and legs to make a piano-shaped table.

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Create a coat rack from the keys and music desk.

 

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Re-purpose the cabinet into a desk and book shelf.

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Put the piano shell on buggy wheels for parades and public functions.

Sundrop Sonata Cover

Give the piano a leading role in a suspense novel. http://www.amazon.com/dp/B01AZUMTZS

OR EVEN

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Rebuild the piano and learn to play it.

Through creative ideas and a bit of hard work, an old piano can bring pleasure in many ways to a few more generations.