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.”

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.”

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: Sonata of Elsie Lenore premiering today at the 2020 Keyboard Duet Festival.

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!)

A New Chapter

Earl Nightingale said the hardest job you can tackle is thinking a thought through to its end. That’s what writing is. You get an idea and not only have to think it through but revise it many times to make it more effective.”

— Marvin Swanson

This morning I headed to the college in Arkansas City to prepare pianos for the spring semester. My mind was drawn to the day I worked at that same task one decade ago. While busy twisting tuning pins, getting the fleet of pianos tuned up after the dry winter air soured them, my phone rang. It was the hospital in Winfield. My dad had arrived and was having “a little heart attack.” To this day, I cannot fathom why the medical person called it “little.” They had decided he should go to the Heart Hospital in Wichita. Do I need to drive him there, I asked. No, she said, we will send him in an ambulance.

Thirty-six hours later, after a procedure in Wichita, after  my sister from northern Kansas arrived, after a lengthy visit or two in his hospital room, laughing and remembering, and saying “I love you,” after a last phone message recorded on my answering machine while I was en route home, (“Please bring my walking stick next time you come up. Don’t make a special trip.”), another heart attack took his life. It was January 13, 2010.

We were called back to the hospital late at night by a nurse who didn’t think he’d make it through this one. This was the Heart Hospital. She ought to know. Kay and I dressed hurriedly and rushed back, fretting through a cantankerous stop light that refused us a green, running it red, racing to the parking lot and dashing in, only to learn he had just passed.

And so, in that moment, the role of grizzled and wise family elder passed to my sisters and me. We were orphans.

That was ten years ago. I marvel at what he and my mother missed in those ten years. Though I miss them more than ever, life goes on. Things my dad missed include weddings of several of his grandchildren, and break-ups of others, births of my three grandchildren, as well as several of my sister’s, watching them grow,remodeling our house—complete with geothermal heat pump, solar panels, and wind turbine,

 

remodeling a building in downtown Winfield into an art gallery,

friendships renewed, new friends made, international travel opportunities, heartaches and joys, hopes, dreams, and disappointments.

Life goes on.

I also marvel at the way my dad’s death opened a new chapter in my avocation. He was a master at new chapters. And he taught me well. When you face inescapable changes in life, it is far better to embrace them and turn a corner to new adventures than to wring your hands in despair. Losing my dad reminded me that you can’t take life for granted. If there’s something your heart urges you to do, do it. Conversations and events in the days following his exit convinced me to return to writing, an ambition from my early years. It was time to finish a book I’d started 28 years previously. I’d put it aside to raise a family, and to get beyond the emotional upheaval of those times. For ten years now, I have risen early to put pen to paper. And I have finished three books in those ten years.

In the Shadow of the Wind went to press in 2014. Two years later I finished Sundrop Sonata, a novel of suspense started in my wild imaginings 12 years previously during the summer following my mother’s death.

And as I write this today, Sonata of Elsie Lenore, a sequel to Sundrop Sonata, is ready to upload to the printer. It should be accessible by February 9.

Book #3 has been an adventure of another kind, taking me to Cuba ten months ago, bringing new friends into my life and bolstering old friendships. (More about this in future posts.)

Three books in ten years. I think my dad would be pleased.

With his career thriving and a baby on the way, life looks good to Stefano Valdez, a Cuban classical pianist. Then a postcard from the past shatters his world. Days before the expected birth, he heads south to find the author of the card, a sister he long believed to be dead. Trailing her to Cuba, he unwittingly places his Kansas family in the sights of the crime ring that destroyed his sister. Will he discover the hidden message in her hastily-penned words in time to save his family?