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“Excuse me.” The black man wore a puffy double-breasted brown suit that was too large for his enormous frame. The tie seemed to have been tied just once, then loosened, removed and put back on, over and over again for years. His black shoes had quite thick soles and heels, the kind of footwear worn by security guards, so that what they give to the wearer in comfort, they lose in style. This man also carried a large Trader Joe’s paper bag that contained a number of sheet music manuscripts, the covers of which, Monk could see, had faded badly or were scuffed along the edges. “May I ask you a question?”
Monk Samuels had been looking at an old Bechstein B grand piano that he frequently came to admire, jealous that such a fine instrument could be sitting alone – music itself, as it were, waiting to be played – on the showroom floor. His jealousy was restrained, though, because he was also very glad that the piano store, called Debussy, on West 58th Street, had the good sense to display this instrument. It had been sold back to the store recently, and rebuilt. The refined beauty of its finishing, its general appearance so dignified and perfectly lacquered ebony, were matched – overwhelmed actually – by its somber tone. This piano played intimately, yet with a heartfelt resonance that made the delicacy of feel in its keyboard seem a miracle. Monk was thrilled to be able to come into the store and, watched always by the salesman Sergei, play one or two little things.
They had become friends. One of Sergei’s duties was to protect the pianos from amateurs, unless of course some amateur had just bought one of them and the bank had transferred the funds. He had learned though that Monk knew what he was doing, even though he was not doing, say, Mozart. More often Monk did Bill Evans or Duke Ellington. But that was OK with Sergei because Monk understood those fellows so well.
Monk looked up from the piano bench. “A question?”
He had seen this man in the store on several occasions. He too appeared to savor the pianos. He walked around studying them, always with the bag of sheet music hanging from one hand. Monk had never seen him play, and had even asked Sergei about him.
“I’ve asked him if he wanted to try any of the instruments.” Sergei’s Hungarian accent remained slightly noticeable in his otherwise American English. He had come to New York as an infant, after the 1956 uprising in Hungary. He had, he often said, difficulty selling an instrument to anyone who resembled Nikita Krushchev. Sergei played piano well enough, but his real talent lay in understanding the workings inside the instrument. He had perfect pitch, and could fix almost anything that had been broken for whatever reason. His angular frame was all bony and slow moving. He thrived on hearing and then repairing the least noticeable of problems in a piano. Indeed, he seemed to rage within himself in search of such things.
“But he never has wanted to. I know he understands the music, the way he talks about the piano. And all that sheet music. He finds it in second-hand shops. He even has a copy of a Mozart sonata signed by Rubinstein.” Sergei placed a hand in the pocket of his suit coat and brought out a pipe, which he tapped against the palm of his left hand. “But, play? No.”
“Yes.” The man dropped the shopping bag to the floor, and then ran his right index finger along the lacquered surface of the Bechstein. “It’s just that I think you are not American.” His accent was Hispanic, Monk guessed.
A large grin appeared. “For one, you say things like ‘Good morning’ and ‘How are you?’”
Monk extended his hand. “Aren’t you talking more about someone who isn’t from New York?”
“Maybe that’s it.”
“Because I’m not from New York.” Monk took the man’s hand into his. “I’m Monk Samuels.”
“Thank you. And I am Rodney Echeverría.”
Rodney’s left shoulder dropped, a bit of despondency. “No. Cuba.”
“I’m from California.”
“Ah, that explains it.”
“Your seeming so foreign.”
Rodney invited Monk to join him for coffee at a place on 57th, across the street from Carnegie Hall. It was there that Monk explained to him why he was named Monk.
“The great one, who played so out of tune.”
“Yes. My father was a fan.”
“He was a musician?”
“No, he helped fund companies. Apple Computer and so on. Cisco Systems. He was very successful.”
“Unlike my father…” Rodney made a circle with his right index finger on the tabletop. “Who taught piano for an hourly fee.”
“Mine loved Thelonious Monk because he played so many bad notes. He knew it was intentional on Thelonious’s part. He loved the comedy of it.”
“Just the comedy?”
“No. He also felt that Thelonious played with more delicacy and understanding than almost any of the other guys.” Monk wrapped the fingers of both hands around the warm mug of coffee. “The sorrow in all that discord.” His eyes blinked as he thought of his father, who had been a far better venture capitalist than musician, but who had known, somehow, who played well and who didn’t. “Thelonious Monk was a very great man.”
“He’s gone, your father.”
“A few years ago, yes.”
“And he enjoyed your playing.”
“I think it amazed him. He always asked from where, in his or my mother’s DNA…”
“Where did it come from?”
“And so, you are named after Thelonious, bad notes and…”
“Yes, bad notes and all.” Monk nodded toward the paper bag. “But why do you go to Debussy?”
“It’s that Bechstein, Monk. My father brought it with us from Cuba. We had lost everything except for that piano. Imagine trying to get an instrument like that out of danger when danger is everywhere. Our escape took all his money. But then he had to give up the piano itself because eventually we still had no money.”
“He sold it.”
“Yes. To Debussy. I was just a little kid when it happened. Like Sergei when he came to this country.” Rodney hid a smile behind his right hand. “There are a few differences between us, of course. I’m a black caribeño, and he’s…he’s…” Rodney looked over his shoulder. “He’s a northern European white boy. The Communists put down the rebels in his country.”
“And in yours, the Communists won.”
Rodney’s lips tightened as his shoulders sagged. “Yes, sadly.”
“How long have you been coming to Debussy, Rodney?”
“This year, it’s fifty years.”
“And the piano’s been there…”
“It’s been in the store, off and on, since that first time that my father brought me.” Rodney stirred some sugar into his coffee. “They would sell it and it would be gone for a while. But then it would come back…the most recent owner had died or had bet wrong on the market or something. And then my father would come back.”
“Why haven’t you ever played it?”
Rodney gave Monk a look of hurt and even, very briefly, dismay. “You would ask me to betray him?”
“No. Rodney, I…”
“The piano’s been in prison, don’t you see?”
Monk searched Rodney’s eyes, a petition for forgiveness. “What was your father’s name?”
“Wilfredo Echeverría Bourbón.”
“What did he do that first day he brought you to the store?”
Rodney remained silent for a long moment. “He too was heavy, like me. He breathed with difficulty, a raspy sound that he had to quell when he was playing. He often said to me that he was afraid the children he taught would think him a ghost, a ‘fantasma’, as we say.” He spoke haltingly, as if a wound had seeped open. “With chains running around his lungs. That day, he stared at the piano a long while.”
The wound flowed. “No. He placed his right hand on the keyboard and played a few chords.”
“Do you remember which ones?”
“Brahms. And Beethoven, of course.” Rodney lowered his voice, almost to a whisper. “Before Fidel and the revolution, my father had been considering a concert career. Even though he was black, he was arranging for his first appearances in Europe, but…” Rodney took in a breath. “Fidel and Che, they didn’t think much of that idea.” Rodney sipped from his coffee, replaced the cup on the table, and fingered a small macaroon – his favorite cookie, he had told Monk – as he considered what next to say. “A career extinguished before it could even get started.” He brought the macaroon to his lips, savoring the coconut. “My father loved Brahms. But he often told me that he could barely speak of Brahms in the same breath with Beethoven.”
“And he couldn’t afford to buy the piano back.”
“Never. He played on all kinds of other instruments. Friends’ pianos. Pianos in the public schools where he taught. Tinny, elderly pianos. Out of tune, exhausted pianos. His students’ pianos when their mothers would allow a black man like him to come into their apartments. But that Bechstein…he called it ‘my Debussy’. The loss of that piano broke my father, Monk, almost as much as the revolution did.”
Rodney exhaled, a bit of gravel in his own breathing.
“It broke his heart.”
They did not see each other for several weeks. Mid-summer blazed, and Sergei told Monk that Rodney suffered from the heat, and that he had been staying at home. “It’s his weight, I think. I worry about him.”
Monk had floated the loan finally, cleared the space in his apartment on Riverside Drive, and the moving men delivered the Bechstein on a Friday afternoon. He asked Sergei to come to the apartment the next day and check the instrument’s tuning. In the early evening, after Sergei had completed his work, he asked Monk to play.
Monk poured out two glasses of sauvignon blanc and sat down at the piano to play a version of “I Got It Bad, And That Ain’t Good”. The lilt and frivolity of the tune made both men smile, especially when Monk played it in a few different styles…Art Tatum’s, Oscar Peterson’s and, of course, Thelonious Monk’s. Like Thelonious, Monk intentionally missed notes, came up short on the chords or played chords that were heavily discordant. He did not know whether Sergei could imagine the fruitlessness of such a task, since Monk’s playful clumsiness was so much less accomplished than Thelonious’s would have been. Monk knew that he had talent as a pianist, but not talent like that.
Nonetheless, as the lowering sun approached the gilt-tinged river, Monk also knew that this was the piano that he had been searching for all his life. The many recordings he had made, the critical acclaim he had garnered, and his ongoing career as a Grammy-winning jazz pianist…all had been aiming at a piano like this one, and now, finally, the piano was his.
“Bravo.” Sergei raised the glass in a toast to Monk’s superb playing.
Marta insisted on making coffee.
“My wife makes the very best coffee in the world.” Rodney sat in an armchair smoking a cigar. “She is Cuban, after all, and so you would expect such excellence.”
A small woman in a burgundy colored dress, her very black hair detailed with a white gardenia, Marta went into the small kitchen in Monk’s apartment, exclaimed about Monk’s good taste to have a proper Bialetti 6800 Moka Express 6-cup stovetop espresso maker “ready to roll”, as she put it, laughing, the “R’s” burbling from the end of her tongue with correct Cuban gusto, and set to work. She also found the package of coconut macaroons on the sink, which Monk had bought earlier from Zabar’s, and went about arranging them on the plate he had left for her.
“Well, Rodney?” Monk sat in a second armchair. He had taken great care with his appearance on this afternoon, making sure that the double-breasted gray suit he wore fit him well, was properly pressed and formed a formal, modest witness, with the deep blue silk tie and paisley green kerchief, to what it was about to hear.
Rodney stood, placed the cigar in an ashtray on the coffee table before him, and warmly examined Wilfredo’s Debussy. “Thank you, Monk.” He walked toward the piano, and then ran a hand across the ebony lacquer, lightly strummed the strings inside the instrument and listened to the buzz-like response that resulted, a sound that had always reminded Monk of some sort of laughing threnody. He loved the sound, the shimmering anguish of it.
Rodney sat on the lacquered bench and began playing. It was a small Mozart piece. “Köchel 311, Monk. Second movement.” Marta stood silently in the doorway to the kitchen, her right hand resting against her right cheek, as she watched her husband. He played the piece with unsettling slowness. His head hung over the keyboard, almost motionlessly. Tenderness riffled from the instrument, Rodney’s very large fingers making the lightest of impressions on the keys. The music formed a small stream of sound hurrying through smooth caressing stones, beneath a dawn filled with slowly warming light. It was a sad memory brightly recalled, played so lightly that the lightness itself became an elegy, an expression of true mourning.
(This story is from my book New York.)