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.
“Sí, 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. “Sí, 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.”
She met his gaze with a grateful nod.
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.”
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.
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: Sonata of Elsie Lenore premiering today at the 2020 Keyboard Duet Festival.