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.

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