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.

https://www.watermarkbooks.com/book/9781530303830

https://bracebooks.indielite.org/book/9781530303830

In the Shadow of the Wind: Prologue

Lord, make me an instrument of Thy peace.

Where there is hatred, let me sow love.

Where there is injury, pardon.

Where there is doubt, faith.

Where there is despair, hope.

Where there is darkness, light.

Where there is sadness, joy.

O divine Master,

Grant that I may not so much seek to be consoled as to console;

To be understood, as to understand;

To be loved, as to love.

For it is in giving that we receive.

It is in pardoning that we are pardoned.

And it is in dying that we are born again into eternal life.

St. Francis of Assissi

Lord, make me an instrument.

If it be Your will, use me as Your pen.

Make my mind like a blank piece of paper

And write upon it Your truths and Your wisdom.

Lord, make me Your instrument.

                                                             Ann Christine Fell  1985

 Prologue

“It’s okay, Daisy Pup,” I said. The small spaniel whined. I drew her to my chest and we cuddled together. Thunder exploded in the air above our little tent. The after-rumbles faded. Seconds later rain pelted the nylon roof of my fair-weather shelter. Daisy shivered in my arms. “It’ll be okay.” I tried to convince myself.

I felt foolish. How could I have thought this was a good idea? How could I have dreamed that I would be able to withstand forty days in the wilderness? The rain turned my plan into a futile effort that bordered on the edge of insanity.

A drop of water stabbed my forehead. In the gray afternoon light, I saw hundreds of droplets hang heavily from the inside of the tent roof. The threat of a cold shower hovered inches away.

“Good Lord, Daisy—it’s going to rain inside the tent.”

There was no escape from the chill in the air. No escape from the fingers of cold that crept up from below. No escape from—“Oh, my God, the sleeping bag is wet.”

I shifted sideways in the orange tent and discovered we huddled in a growing pool of water, now about an inch deep. “Oh, God, this is crazy.”

My canine companion stood and shook.

“You need to go out?”

She wagged her stubby tail and shook again. I unzipped the door and she jumped into the deluge. I grabbed my boots and began to pull one over a damp sock. On second thought, I tied the laces together, removed my socks, and backed out of the low-slung tent. I pulled my backpack into the soggy afternoon, zipped the tent door shut, and stood barefoot in black ooze.

Daisy splashed through standing water. She located a slight rise, squatted, and relieved herself. I glanced at the sodden landscape. Water stood everywhere, and I was already soaked to the skin in the downpour. What were we to do? I turned in a circle and searched for shelter. An old railroad boxcar, the only farm structure that remained on the abandoned farm, stood behind the tent.

I stooped to look under the boxcar. We could wiggle under it. I quickly discarded that idea. The prospect of lying in muck was no better than sitting in a wet tent. Though padlocks secured the sliding doors of the boxcar, the aged wooden sides looked weathered. One ragged gap at the leading edge of the north door panel appeared almost large enough for me to wiggle inside.

I slogged to the side of the boxcar and grasped the lower edge of one wooden slat. Frantically, I tugged on the worn end. I put my entire weight behind my efforts and ripped panels, inches at a time, until the opening had grown twice as large.

“Come here, Daisy. Let’s check this out.” She was instantly at my mud-covered heels. I patted the dark floor of the boxcar, which stood forty inches off the ground. Daisy leaped. With an assist from me, she scrambled into the dark interior. I stuffed my backpack behind her, slogged to the tent and pulled my boots and the bedding into the storm. I struggled to maintain balance as I slipped back to the hole in the door and crammed the bundle of blankets inside. Then I leaned into the darkness of the abandoned car and jumped. On my stomach, legs dangling out the opening, I snaked forward a few inches. With flailing arms, I reached into the darkness in search of something to grab.

There. Something metallic. Perhaps an old piece of farm equipment. I didn’t know. I could see very little. But it didn’t budge, so I was able to pull myself into the relatively dry interior of the old boxcar. Across the car, Daisy explored the darkness through her nose. She snuffled and sneezed a couple times. I stood and felt my way around the area. After locating a pile of old shingles along the south wall, I propped the backpack on the floor beside them. I shook the bedding. All of it felt damp. My clothing was soaked through, so I wrapped the blankets and sleeping bag around my shoulders. I sat on the shingles and leaned against the wall of the boxcar.

Daisy jumped lightly onto my lap. We shared each other’s warmth as the deluge continued outside. Moments after we both settled down, I heard scratching noises inside the boxcar. Light-footed creatures scampered about the interior now that we sat still. I hugged Daisy a little tighter. I could see pinpoints of light here and there, small eyes that reflected the afternoon light filtering in through holes in the wall. Oh, my God.

Rats. Lots of them. I screamed.

“I am such a fool, Daisy. Why do you put up with me?”

She licked my chin.

I spoke to my husband Craig. “What am I going to do? I can’t do this. I can’t live without you.”

He didn’t answer. I was on my own.

Time is a funny thing. To a child, a year seems a long time. Ten years, an eternity. To a grandmother, those same ten years are but a blink of an eye. For Craig and me, a young couple in love, ten years before us was hard to visualize. But the decade passed too fast, too soon. If we had known that all our joys and memories, our plans and dreams, would have to be packed into one decade would we have spent our days differently? Would our choices have been laced with more love and wisdom, or with desperate lunacy? Based on the law of averages, we had every reason to expect several decades together.

Yet there was barely one.

“It’s not fair! It’s not fair!” I railed against the universe.

Daisy whined softly and licked my chin again as if she understood. The storm mirrored the anguish in my heart. The entire universe wept with me. “What are we going to do, girl? I don’t know where we’re heading. I only know where we’ve been.”

 

Following a series of tragic losses, at age thirty the author struggled alone in a strange and frightening world.  The young widow and bereaved mother retreated to the wilderness for comfort and healing. Planning to stay forty days, she set up a solitary camp on the river bank of her family’s abandoned farm homestead. Marooned by rising flood waters after only a few days, she faced her own mortality.

There is life after loss. Through a sequence of extraordinary events, In the Shadow of the Wind tells how one ordinary woman learned to dance on the threshold of fear, to cherish every moment of life, and to believe in her inner resources to conquer adversity.

To read more, order from these book suppliers or come to Art in the Park in Winfield, October 3.

https://www.watermarkbooks.com/book/9781502478375

https://bracebooks.indielite.org/book/9781502478375

https://www.amazon.com/dp/1502478374

This Whirlwind Called Life

Do you ever feel like we’re caught up in a whirlwind? Daily disasters headline every news source. Everyone feels like we’re doomed if “the other side” wins the coming election.

(And we are, aren’t we?)

I am overwhelmed with topics to consider for posts on my blog. Book reviews of memoirs written by significant characters in the 2020 dramas, highlights of critical climate situations, hopeful solutions to drawdown the carbon/greenhouse gas levels in our atmosphere, life issues, family issues—the list is so long, I am paralyzed with indecision about where to begin.

What’s a writer to do?

Maybe we need a breather. Let’s step back for a few precious moments and just think about something else. Indulge our frantic minds with something trivial and entertaining. Perhaps through perusing something unexpected, something less dire, we might actually come out with new ideas and readiness to continue onward with renewed hope and a glimmer of optimism. I hope so.

There is a weekend approaching that offers some refreshing diversion. The first days of October bring two opportunities to take a break, go a different way, rejuvenate and refresh with a bit of entertainment and social interaction of a different sort.

2019 KAC convention in WIchita, Kansas

I refer on one hand to the annual Kansas Authors Club convention, often the first weekend in October, as it is this year. For the very first time ever, the 2020 convention was planned for District 7, out in Colby, Kansas. I was looking forward to that, since my childhood years were spent in Colby. I still have good friends there, not to mention many fond memories from my early life. But when COVID hit, the convention plans switched to an online format, another first for KAC.  It’s not too late to register for this online convention. Check it out here: https://kansasauthors.org

While disappointing in one way, I am enthusiastic in another. Since online access to virtual events can be found anywhere, I can be in two places at once. The second place is the annual Art in the Park event in Winfield, which I have missed for several years. But this year, I plan to set up a table for my books.

The layout will be a little different this year due to the COVID restrictions. More space than usual will be allowed between booths. Though this is an outdoor event and the park is spacious, vendors and visitors will wear face masks.  Amble among the booths, allowing plenty of space between families and small groups of art lovers. It will still be fun–and a much needed activity during this difficult time.

Come to Island Park on Saturday, October 3, to amble through the displays. Stop at my book table. Perhaps you are someone who needs a break from the disastrous news headlines. Look to find diversion through fictional stories. Lose yourself in a book, or two, or three.

In preparation for both events that celebrate the arts and literature, I will share the introductory chapters of my three books in the next few days. In blog posts, take a look at what you might find in the virtual KAC bookroom, or at my table in Island Park.

On that first Saturday in October, don your favorite facemask and head to the park. Drop by my table to say hello. Practice your smeyeling! Perhaps a mask contest for the most unique or artistic creation is in order. Details coming soon.

 

We Need More Hugs

Meadowlark Books (https://www.meadowlark-books.com/) recently sent a book I’d ordered, accompanied by a couple of bookmarks and a “Thank You” insert. On the back side was a list, “How to Hug an Author.”

I started thinking about hugs. We all need them but they’ve become scarce in this age of social distancing. A quick google search will turn up beneficial information. Family therapist Virginia Satir is credited with this: “We need four hugs a day for survival. We need eight hugs a day for maintenance. We need twelve hugs a day for growth.”

That gives us a real quandary during the pandemic. Of course we can rely on our housemates for a few genuine squeezes, and of course, we’ll reciprocate. But will it be enough to keep us sane?

What happens in a hug? More google information: “your muscles relax, circulation increases and this helps release endorphins that reduce tension and soothe discomfort. Hugs can increase levels of dopamine and serotonin, which elevate your mood and relieve depression.”

Goodness knows we need lots of that these days.

On a roll: “Hugs boost oxytocin levels to decrease stress hormones and reduce feelings of loneliness, anger, and isolation. They build trust and a sense of safety. They strengthen the immune system.”

But when your health and survival depend on keeping your distance, how do you manage to keep up with the hugs?

A local friend, instructor at the private college in town, encountered my daughter this summer while she was home for a few days. His first inclination was to wrap her in a big hug, to let her know he was glad to see her. BUT, he couldn’t do that, given all the unknowns, and unseens, and risks that are too great to be ignored. His solution was to reach toward her, keeping the prescribed distance, and draw his hand to his own chest, over his heart, with a smile. See the suggestion here:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yfuRYBsX9F0&feature=share&fbclid=IwAR3cyfU45kSKp1g8J5jhtymOyQF7-Q6pnw7tqWodvDRgp8eBiey0feP62nk

I have been in Zoom meetings where at the end participants all reached their open palms toward their computer/phone cameras as if they could touch those in the meeting, no matter how far they were scattered. There are ways to connect, emotionally and mentally, even without physical hugs. We benefit from little votes of confidence, nods of our worth, and respect for our efforts in life, the little hugs regardless of the way they arrive. But without a genuine physical squeeze, we may need more than 12 to prosper.

The note inside the cover of Julie Stielstra’s new release, Opulence, Kansas listed a few simple steps for “How to Hug an Author.”

  • Read a book
  • If you like a book, tell everyone—friends, family, people you meet in passing
  • Write a review of a book you enjoy and share it on social media, an online bookstore, or with your local independent bookseller!

We all need hugs. I resolve to give more bear hugs to my family, and more virtual hugs to those I encounter online, more encouragement to my distant friends with acknowledgement of their accomplishments, musically, rhetorically, physically, intellectually, and in the publishing world.

Hope to get some back!

Here’s a hug for Julie.

Opulence, Kansas This story follows a high school student as she harbors with distant relatives to heal from a family trauma. It is labeled YA (for young adults) but long past my teen years, I found it enticing. I loved that Kate was a photographer. I loved the scenes set in the underground tunnels of a town in central Kansas, much like Ellinwood. I loved that she discovered the secret that we Kansans guard so well: that there is mystical, magical beauty in our rolling hills and heavenly vistas. Kate faced lots of life’s social challenges in one short summer, almost too many to be adequately explored in the 37 chapters of the book. It left questions that made me wonder if a sequel is planned. What will Travis decide to do? Will the friendship between Kate and Travis grow? What, exactly, did Kate’s dad do that triggered his suicide? How did she come up with the book’s title? I hope there will be further stories to answer these and other questions.

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.

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On the Courthouse Lawn

The annual Flint Hills Folk Life Festival was held last weekend on the shady lawn surrounding the historic Chase County Courthouse in Cottonwood Falls, Kansas. Each June, the organizers of this event plan it to coincide with the Flint Hills Symphony concert performed by the Kansas City Symphony.

“The Earth Has Music”

A freak storm on the eve of the symphony weekend ended up cancelling the big musical performance, but the Folk Life Festival continued. Wandering music lovers discovered music on the lawn, just a few miles up the road. There was even a bit of dancing.

If you took a closer look at the exhibits, you’d find artists demonstrating skills from the nineteenth century. You might find a basket weaver. Or an artisan busy making handmade soap. You’d find a field station for a frontier army, and Union soldiers patrolling the grounds. A mountain man displayed crafts and toys made from feathers and skins. A row of tents under the elms held many textile crafts with artists hard at work. And you might even be invited to try your hand at various activities. I helped with a quilting bee, learned about Tunisian crochet and rug twining, as well as conversion hints to turn my grandmother’s old red-eye Singer 66 treadle sewing machine into a hand-cranked version.

You could find a potter, busily throwing new kitchen pots on an old-fashioned kick-wheel or a woodworker making spoons from chunks of firewood. If you get thirsty, how about some homemade lemonade, or even root beer? And to remedy the nibbles, some kettle corn, hot and fresh. You might even find a book or two written by a prairie author, featuring life in those Flint Hills surrounding the historic courthouse.

If you took some time to sit in the shade a spell, and exchanged pleasantries with some of the other visitors, you would encounter people from several nearby communities–Council Grove, Americus, Emporia–as well as Wichita and Kansas City. You  might even find folks from as far away as Minnesota and Texas, who had chosen this weekend to explore the Kansas Flint Hills.

Disappointed symphony fans who took the time to look around returned home with an unforgettable memory from picturesque Cottonwood Falls. With nature weirding into increasingly unpredictable and extreme weather events, the skills on display at the courthouse might even come in handy in the not-so-distant future. Take cues from the youngsters dashing around the courthouse, inventing games, twisting ropes, and flying feather kites. Life without all those electronic gadgets might have its upsides too.