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The Piano Bench

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The longest stretch of words Keith speaks at one time in 1928 is his proposal to Kate.

It doesn’t need to be, technically. He could just ask the question; he knows she will say yes, and his reticence has never offended her. He is sure that she would be touched even if he simply offered her the ring he chose for her without a word.

But he her needs to understand: he is asking her to become a widow.

Considering his line of work, she is almost certain to outlive him. It’s not guaranteed; tuberculosis took Keith’s mother when he was young, leaving his father to manage both a precarious mafia outfit and three growing boys (plus a rambunctious pair of neighborhood children) until the effort finally overcame him. But in this business, Keith’s parents were the exception by far. By 1928, Keith has already offered condolences to his own men’s widows more times than he likes to count.

(It’s Luck who keeps count, each new death weighing down his heart like an anvil. He’s not cut out for this. But he won’t back down now, so all Keith can do is support him, and bear as much of the burden he can on his own.)

He decides to ask her after dinner one night, and makes a special effort to get home that night. She goes to the piano when they finish eating and begins to play. By coincidence, she chooses a song from the first film he heard her play at. He smiles at the memory, taking the ring box out of his pocket behind her back and turning it over in his hands. But when she finishes playing, he slips the box away before sitting down next to her, and then he explains, and he asks.

She says yes.

The ring looks beautiful on her, just like he knew it would.

*

In 1930, the most he says at one time is the explanation of what he’s become.

On that chilly November afternoon, after taking care of Dallas and the other scum, he changes into a suit without bullet holes in it (he keeps a few changes of clothes at the office) and then he goes home. Firo’s words circle in his brain, scattered; he takes out a pack of cards to shuffle them, as though that will reorder and quiet his thoughts. Kate notices his agitation, and she gives him his space while sitting near enough to assure him of her presence. He appreciates her. He loves her.

Someday, she—

He’s never prepared himself for that thought.

That night, she goes to the piano before dinner, and plays one of his favorites. It’s not the frenzied ragtime that she’s so good at, but a careful, methodical song used in moments of contemplation. There’s a heroic, hopeful air to some of the chords. She is playing for him, playing reassurance to his turmoil. Ushering in a scene of peace after the chaos of yesterday and this morning.

And it works. He’s able to put away the cards, finally, and just listen to the music she produces for a little while. The song ends and she begins another one: this time, a tender love song. He goes to sit next to her on the piano bench, his hand on her shoulder, feeling her muscles shift as she plays. And then, when she finishes that song, she waits for him to speak. With a deep sigh, he takes a knife out of his pocket and nicks the fleshy part of his palm to show her what he will explain. Her brow furrows as he bleeds; then her mouth falls open as the blood retreats back into the cut and disappears.

He tells her what’s happened.

They stay up late into the night that night, together.

*

By 1983, he’s speaking even less; the people he cares about most know how to read him and know that he prefers not to speak. Still, there are some things that are faster to convey over the telephone, and so Luck calls after Kalia’s appointment with the neurologist.

Her dementia snuck up on all of them, little by little; she’s always had a bit of an unreliable temper, which made her a good match for Berga, but her energy has gone downhill in the past few years, and so has her memory. Now her self-sufficiency is going, and Luck finally convinced Berga to get her in to see the doctor, and the news isn’t good. The deterioration will be fast from here, the doctor explained to Kalia, Berga, and Luck, and Luck now explains to Keith. They can make her comfortable, but there’s nothing they can do against the progress of the disease.

Nothing, Luck repeats softly over the phone, and elaborates: Berga has already made demands of Firo, but Firo doesn’t know how to produce immortality and can’t ask Maiza and even if he did, even if Kalia could be preserved like this, what she’s already lost can’t be regained. It doesn’t work that way.

Kalia is dying by inches; soon, she will be gone.

Keith thanks Luck for telling him. He is already reaching for his coat, an offer to spend time with his family on his lips before he knows it; but Luck anticipates the words and refutes them before Keith can get them in order. He’ll take care of Berga and Kalia for the night. Keith, he insists, should spend his time with Kate.

The suggestion wakes thoughts that Keith hadn’t wanted to deal with immediately, and for a moment he feels faint instead of like the hardened mafia don he is. But Luck will hear no argument. Tomorrow, when Berga has had time to absorb the news and calm down, they’ll meet for lunch, all three of them and Kate and Kalia and maybe Firo and Ennis and Felix and Chane too: a loving family. But tonight is for smaller, quieter matters.

When Keith hangs up the phone, Kate is waiting for the news. She can tell it’s bad; a shake of Keith’s head is all it takes to confirm the gravity of the situation. She takes his hand and leads him to the drawing-room. To the piano bench. It’s the same piano they’ve had for almost sixty years, the one he gave her as a wedding gift. The sound has only grown warmer and more comfortable over the years. She begins to play the first song he ever heard her play, letting the vibrations of the piano and the warmth of her body radiate comfort. They’re reassuring in a way that words can’t possibly be right now. There are no words that will erase reality, after all: the pale, paper-thin skin of Kate’s hands stretched over bony fingers, the way she doesn’t hit the loud notes as hard as she used to because her strength is failing. She is still so beautiful, but she is old while Keith’s body still thinks it’s just 35. One day, someday soon, this will come to an end. 

Kate pauses between songs to wrap an arm around Keith’s shoulders. He sighs and leans into it, knowing that an outside viewer would mistake them for a son being comforted by his mother instead of seeing the sixty beautiful years they’ve spent together as equals: as man and wife. 

He lifts one hand and rests it tentatively on the white piano keys, not enough to depress them. Kate’s hand comes to rest atop it. She presses his thumb down, and a clear note rings through the air. “That’s a C,” she tells him, and continues down the rest of his hand. “D—E—F—G.”

Like the alphabet, he thinks. He presses the keys in sequence. The sound is simple and organized, proceeding neatly up a scale. C-D-E-F-G.

He stretches out his pinky to the next key, like he’s seen her do, and presses it down.

“An A,” she says, and then sings the next two pitches as she plays them. “B—C. That’s a scale.”

He presses the eight white keys in sequence, hitting the last two with his index finger because he doesn’t know how to properly handle them. Then he plays the same notes in reverse. He is reminded of years and years ago, when he used to arrive early to silent films to hear her warming up before anyone else arrived.

The piano—music in general—has always been her domain. It has been something he can look to her for as the years go by; something he can associate with her and rely on her for. But maybe he’s been wrong. Maybe he should have made it into something they could do together, so that when she is gone, he will have this piece of her to hold onto.

He presses down the lower C again, and then tries to pick out another warm-up he’s heard her play, something that skips notes on its way up and down the scale. It takes a few tries, but he finds it.

She smiles, deepening the crow’s feet around her eyes. “An arpeggio,” she tells him.

He nods, and takes his hand off the keys for a moment to embrace his wife. He kisses her hair and then asks, softly, “Will you teach me to play?”

“Of course,” she says, just as softly. But they don’t move out of the embrace for a long time.