Lorna saw her father coming from across the street. The sun was behind his head, but she knew his shape, his lope, that old big man who brought her from Cochin to Kowloon and then all the way to Oklahoma, just to leave her alone in Bartlesville. She was sitting on the hydrant at the corner of Johnstone and Fourth with her sheet music at her feet. The only thing that could shake her up her more than seeing Father, our Father anywhere outside in the daytime would be if Chi Chi ever came close to picking her up on time. That will happen, but Daddy-man was crossing the street right now.
Standing beside him was a little girl with yellow hair. She was wearing a satin Royals jacket and pink tights, and she came up to her father’s rib cage. Lorna imagined the kind of mother that would make a kid dress like that, a gray house dress with soft legs and soft arms sticking out, fat fingers pulling stringy yellow hair and forcing small pink tights onto kicking legs, pulling little hands through the lemon satin sleeves. She imagined TGWYH walking to school in her tights and her coat, and the soft arms driving slowly a hundred yards behind her to make sure she didn’t take the jacket off. TGWYH seems obedient if you looked at her from behind, but spin around and get a good look at her face, you can see volcano eyes, and you know there will come a day when nobody would ever touch her again. Lorna looked up again, and that’s when she saw her father take TGWYH’s hand.
She panicked. She tried to slide backwards off the hydrant and run away, but her knees buckled, and she rolled on to the sidewalk. Did he have another family ? Did he have another daughter that he loved more than he loved her ? Lorna duckwalked behind a bus bench, holding her skirt so her pleats wouldn’t flap in the wind. She couldn’t remember holding his hand ever in her life.
When they stepped out of the street up onto the sidewalk, Lorna saw that this was no little girl. She was an Oompa Loompa with hips and tits and pink lipstick. Lorna’s ridiculous heart hammered against her ribs. She closed her eyes and waited for him to see her and ask her questions.
“Where is your mother?” he’d ask. “What are you doing here?” She waited for her heart to slap twelve times and she opened her eyes. He was gone. He and the pink dwarf had passed by his own and only spawn, passed by her tar-black bowl of hair and her oversized portfolio of sheet music, and now they were walking into the Copper Bar.
Lorna stood up and wiped her palms on her skirt. By the time La Madre pulled up to the curb in the Nazimobile, she understood she had the power to disappear, and she couldn’t stop thinking of all the ways she was going to use it.
Chisato Aoiki will steal your heart and play it like a Kawai. Chisato Aoiki doesn’t have a key to your heart — she has 88 of them. Chisato Aoiki plays the Kawai Model 500 Grand Piano, so shouldn’t you ? Chisato Aoiki sat as still as a stone while she played watered down jazz at the Au Lapin Agile in Yokohama in 1985. She could play. She could play Bill Evans on a good night, but she never had a good night. The Phillips engineers who came into the bar wanted to hear Burt Bacharach and Ray Charles. She’d made a record, she’d played on television, she was the face of a piano company all over Japan, but she lived at home and her mother still tied a braided cotton rope that was stapled to the piano leg around her ankle every afternoon until she practiced for three hours, as she had done every day since Chisato was seven. So when Paul Malloy bought her a Long Island Iced Tea and told her she was better than Toshiko Ashiyoki, she knew this was her chance. She was twenty-nine, he was sixty-two, she was a virgin and he’d never been married. She went out for air between sets one night and never came back.
“Were you a beautiful man?” she asked him as they boarded a plane to Bangalore. He didn’t reply. “When you were younger, I mean.” He walked down the aisle until they found their seats. He let her have the window and he wedged his long legs into the aisle and ran his hands down the front of his aran jumper, straightening the weave before he closed his eyes. She began to feel bad for asking him the question. He hadn’t seemed sensitive about his age before, but she knew nothing about men.
“I was if I’m beautiful now. I’ve looked like this forever.” He spoke with his eyes closed. By the time they were in the air and he was asleep on her shoulder, she had convinced herself that this was the best answer. Ever.
Chisato played the piano twice more before Lorna was born, and then she never played again. The first time was the funeral for Paul’s translator, Nalin, who threw himself in front of a train in Bangalore. The organist was ill, so she played from the hymnal in the Methodist Church on Myrtle Street, bored and resentful of the tempos. The last time was on roof of the Taj Malabar hotel. Some friends had thrown a party for Paul when he found out he was being transferred to Oklahoma. Somebody noticed an old upright piano under a tarp behind the bar. A few others rolled it out and asked her to play. Paul wanted her to play. She wanted to play too, something grand and romantic for him, for them. But when she sat down, she couldn’t remember anything. She looked at Paul, but he was looking up at the sky. She tapped some Chopin with her right hand while she tried to decide what to play, but she had trouble remembering even those lines she’d played a thousand times before. She trailed off and began to tell Paul she didn’t know what was wrong, but a few drops of rain splashed across the piano and then a deluge hissed everyone inside. When she learned she was pregnant a few days later, it made what happened make sense, but she never wanted to play again.
She spent the last three months of her pregnancy learning to drive a 1972 Mercedes 280SL around the snowy roads of Oklahoma. It had belonged to Paul’s brother in Kansas, but it sat forgotten under a hayloft for years after he died. The seats were cracked and brittle. The suspension floated and rolled around each corner. The heater only worked when it was turned to high. But Chisato had never driven before, and even if she had, she could never have imagined the roads in northern Oklahoma. At first, she stayed close to home. She would turn south onto East Mountain Road, and then pull into the first wide drive on the other side of the road. She’d negotiate some multiple of a three point turn and then head back home. Next, she found Highway 123. Then it was Nowata Road, then Bartlesville Road : all flat, fat, and empty. On days when the roads were dry, she pushed past eighty and laid off only when her palms were too slippery to turn the wheel. She pulled over to nap for a while, and then she drove again until she was hungry. She didn’t eat anywhere but in her own kitchen or pee anywhere but in her own toilet, so the month before the baby came, she could drive to the health food store north of Johnstone for salt cod and dark tea, and then back again.
Lorna was born in the spring, a day after her father’s 63rd birthday. Later, when she was sixteen and on the run, she liked to tell boys, “I wasn’t born as much as I fell out, and nobody seemed to notice me.” They didn’t get the reference, but it wasn’t far from the truth. Lorna was quiet from the start. She made people uncomfortable because she didn’t cry or fuss, and she stayed still wherever her mother put her down. Paul got laughs when he pulled a camping mirror from his coat to show guests that the baby was breathing.
On Thanksgiving, Chisato tackled a turkey for Paul and his family. She got up while it was still dark and began to chop and roast and bake. She put Lorna in a nest of towels on the kitchen table and got to work rolling out pie crusts and trussing the bird. When she turned some sausages in the pan, grease splashed across her arms and onto the floor. She ran to the sink to flush her skin with cold water, but when she turned around the kitchen was on fire. She couldn’t reach the baby – with just one step toward the table, her lungs burned and her hair sizzled against her face. She ran out the small service door behind her, across the breezeway, and around to the front door. It was locked. She didn’t know what to do. Her palms began to blister. She couldn’t hear the baby cry, but then the baby never cried. Neighbors looking out their windows saw lazy puffs of smoke rise above the yellow Chinese pistache trees, and they began to call for help. When the first engine arrived, Chisato was still trying to open the front door, and she seemed surprised that anybody knew what was happening inside her home.
“My baby is inside.” She said it again to the fire fighter who was pulling her away from the door. “A baby is inside.”
The fire fighter yelled out, “We got a baby,” and he ran to the truck. The rest of the crew dropped the ladders and hoses and ran back for oxygen. Then they ran into the house. A moment later, the Captain stepped up behind her, his helmet under his arm and his face The Captain stepped over with his helmet under his arm.
“Ma’am ? Where is the baby?”
“In the kitchen,” Chisato said.
“My guys don’t see a baby, Ma’am.” The Captain was wiping soot from his eye. Chisato turned to go into the house and he stopped her with the bill of his helmet against her shoulder. “Is there a baby?”
“In the kitchen. On the table,” she said. He spoke into his shoulder radio while staring at her with his good eye.
“She says it’s in the kitchen. On the table.”
And a second later the reply. “Negative. Table’s gone.”
Chisato began to dig her fingernail into her chest, her gray skin blooming yellow like the smoke in the pistache trees.
“What’s your name ? Do you live here?” The Captain wasn’t angry, just tired. This wouldn’t be the first pyro wish-mommy he’d run into, but it made putting out the fire that much slower. She wouldn’t look at him now. Instead, she brought her hand down behind her as though she were about to sit down. And then her knees buckled underneath her. The Captain took her arm as she collapsed and helped her to the ground as gently as possible. “Easy. Easy. I’m going to get you some help.” He spoke into his radio again, calling for the EMTs and some water.
Chisato couldn’t let the idea of her daughter being hurt or dead infect her mind, so she tried to visualize the sheet music she memorized as a girl, the pages of hand-drawn staffs and notes and dynamics. Which is why her response was a low sfz to ppp moan – Bartok’s Sustenuto ? Duke Ellington ? The Captain was sure she was stroking out.
“Where’s that water?” he asked. A firefighter came around the corner holding something tight to his chest.
“Got it,” he said. But he meant the baby. He meant Lorna. “She was wrapped up in a towel.” The Captain lifted Chisato to her feet, and she pulled back the towel, still humming. Lorna’s face was sooty and her eyes were red, but she didn’t make a sound.
Paul drove to the hospital angry. Angry he had to learn about the fire from Mrs. Nunn across the street, angry that Chisato left the baby inside while she ran out onto the lawn (Mrs. Nunn watched from her kitchen window ; she called Paul after she finished cleaning her turkey and could take off her rubber gloves). He was angry he hadn’t been there to help, that he’d have to explain where he was so early on Thanksgiving morning. He walked into the Emergency Room waiting room and saw her sitting in the chair closest to the Intake window.
“Where is she?” Chisato didn’t say anything. She looked at him for a moment. Then she leapt up and hurled herself into his body, crying with her face buried in his chest. Paul could feel her sobs in his ribs. He put his arms around her and shut his eyes so he could visualize the worst : a tiny casket, a grave stone with a small lamb perched on top, a dark and quiet reception back at the house. But Lorna was fine. The Intake Nurse said her blood O2 levels were good and her respiration was strong. She could go home with them later that day.
“She sure is a trooper,” the nurse said, “She never made a sound.” Chisato never asked him where he’d been that morning, only if he could forgive her. When he looked at her, her face seemed compacted by anguish ; her hands felt like they were wrapped in glassine. She’d suffered already. He had to forgive her, but he couldn’t forgive Lorna for being too goddamn good a baby.
It started as a joke. Chisato looped a Christmas ribbon from the pedal to Lorna’s ankle because it made her smile. Paul didn’t like it, but Lorna didn’t mind. She stood on the bench and played the room like a circus barker, waving her hands and falling on her bum for laughs. When the laughs stopped, she turned around and started on the piano. She machine-gunned a key until her finger throbbed then climbed up to watch the strings vibrate. She feathered a key just enough to make the hammer fall. She crawled inside the piano and tapped down on the keys with a violin bow. She sat high and played low, and then she hopped onto the vibrating strings to mute them with her knees. She didn’t know her shins were lacerated and bleeding until Paul yanked her out and carried her by her wrist to the kitchen sink.
After that, Paul locked the fallboard, and Chisato replaced the ribbon with a short rope. Lorna could slide across the bench, but she couldn’t stand on it, and she couldn’t walk away until she practiced. By six, she was giving recitals. By nine, she was bringing home ribbons. She worked hard and never complained, but the rope remained. Chisato never knew Lorna hated the piano and hated her until her audition with Ted Sgambati at the Ledbetter Conservatory on her twelfth birthday. The piano room was small. Sgambati sat in a black club chair near the piano, and Chisato sat on a metal chair near the door. Before she began, Lorna pulled a rope out of her skirt pocket and tied one end to the piano leg and the other end around her ankle. Chisato wanted to cross the room and squeeze Lorna’s arm, but she noticed the Maestro writing in his notebook with a half smile, so she stayed by the door — Sgambati had a reputation for turning prodigies into stars.
Lorna began to play, but her tempo was erratic. Chisato didn’t know Sgambati also had a reputation for fondling his prodigies, which is why he lived in Oklahoma rather than return to Rome where he faced charges and possibly prison. Lorna was playing very slowly now, and too quietly, making Chopin’s Nocturnes sound like a creepy horror movie soundtrack. Sgambati stopped smiling and shifted in his seat. Then Lorna paused, her fingers an inch above the keys.
“What is wrong with her?” Sgambati asked.
“Lorna,” Chisato said. “Lorna!”
Lorna and her eyes on the keyboard. Chisato got up and went to the piano and snapped Lorna on the back of her head. Sgambati was alarmed and jumped to his feet, his notebook falling to the floor. Chisato snapped her again, and Lorna began to pound the keys as hard as she could. Her expression didn’t change but her body bounced as she banged.
“Mrs. Malloy!” Sgambati said. “That’s not necessary.” Chisato didn’t seem to hear him ; she tried to yank the rope off the piano leg. Sgambati pulled on her shoulder, but she yanked again and Lorna crashed to the floor. Chisato started to scold her, but the old man stomped his foot so hard the window pane rattled.
“I’m sorry,” he said, but he meant get the hell out, because he had spun Chisato around and was pushing her out the door. Lorna pulled the rope off her ankle and rubbed her head and her leg until they didn’t sting anymore. They were talking outside in the hall. She saw his notebook on the floor and crawled over and picked it up. She saw a drawing of herself, naked, with a rope around her leg and her hands tied behind her back. Her eyes were shut and her mouth was open like a dark round hole. She didn’t like her big eyes, but her legs were perfect. She didn’t know what it all meant, but she understood it right away.
“Sì sì,” the Maestro was saying as they came back inside. His smoker’s tongue made it sound like “Chi chi”, but when he saw the notebook still open in her hands his voice fell off to a whisper. She stood up and looked at him. His eyes were small and dull and set deep in his face. She handed him his book.
“I’m sorry I’m not very good.” She walked out of the room. Her mother followed her out and they both got into the car.
“Do you have anything to say to me?”
“No, Chi Chi.”
“You have to apologize to me.”
Chisato wiped something from her eye. Lorna leaned forward and could see some tears starting to grow.
“I’m sorry, Chi Chi.”
Chisato laughed. “He was a strange man.”
“I wanted to eat his eyes.” Lorna opened the visor mirror and opened her mouth like she was going to scream.
“His eyes?” Chisato started the car.
“They looked like the olives in bread.” She stretched her mouth even wider and let her eyelids relax.
“Are you going to tell me what happened in there ? Why did you play like that?”
“I was nervous, Chi Chi.”
“No you weren’t. You did it on purpose.”
Lorna pushed her lips out and narrowed her mouth until everything looked perfect.
A few days later, Lorna was behind the house murdering ants with her father’s magnifying glass. She herded them them to a crack in the cement and burned them as they tried to climb out. At first it wasn’t the killing she liked so much, but how a circle of sunlight no bigger than her fingernail could hide death inside itself. But soon a mass grave was growing in the crevasse, evidence of her war crimes, and she decided to see if she could wound rather than kill. She anchored her elbows and blew her hair off her cheek. Her skirt tickled the back of her knees so she she scissored her legs up and down until it rode over her underwear. When she looked back, she saw Chi Chi watching her in from the kitchen window. She left her skirt up and went back to murdering. Some of the ants in her pile were still alive, and she was trying to decide which ones deserved to live. She split a blade of grass to lift the wounded up to safety when a hand yanked her skirt back over her bottom.
“Get your sheet music and get in the car.”
“No way, Jose,” Lorna said, but she did it anyway. Chi Chi was too good at being quiet. She grabbed the rope too, figuring she was on her way to another audition. Instead, her mother drove into downtown and pulled over at the corner of Fourth and Dewey.
“Go up to the second floor.”
“Your lesson. I’ll pick you up in an hour.”
“Why aren’t you coming?”
“It’s not my lesson. Go.”
Lorna had never done anything like go into a building alone or go up a flight of stairs to find someone she didn’t know. Now she’d get slashed or killed because Chi Chi was too lazy to get out of the car and be a mother. She slid out of the car and shut the door with her foot walking away. Chisato waited until she was all the way inside before she drove away. Lorna clomped her way up the concrete steps to the landing on the second floor, its green carpet yellowed by the sun and high glass atrium. She walked down the landing until she came to a door with a small gold placard that read The Right Staff with a treble clef on one side and a bass clef on the other. While she was deciphering it, the door swung open, and a kid and her mother pushed into Lorna on their way out. Lorna swung backwards and almost fell, but the mom grabbed her arm and helped her get her balance.
“Sorry — these doors open out for some reason. Are you okay?”
A heavy guy and a girl with hair down to her waist came to the door to see what happened. The girl had silver rings on each of her fingers. The guy had blue pince-nez sunglasses. Lorna hoped he was her teacher, because who plays piano with rings ?
“Are you Lorna ? Is your mom here?”
“She dropped me off.”
“Oh, shoot. Really ? We needed to talk with her,” said the guy.
“We can talk to her when she picks her up. Come on in. I’m Bina. This is Troy.”
It turned out they both were her teachers, graduate students from Tulsa, and even though she tried not to, Lorna liked them right away. For the first half hour, they just sat down and talked with her about school and TV and friends. Lorna didn’t have friends or watch TV, and she didn’t know anything about her school because she was starting middle school next fall. But it didn’t matter. Troy and Bina went to Madison too, and they told her about the good drinking fountains and the bad bathrooms. Bina told her about Mrs. Grady the art teacher who picked her nose during assemblies and wiped them on her shoe. Lorna snorted out a laugh so ferocious that she had to blow her nose.
Then Troy and Bina each played something on the piano for Lorna, “so she could get an idea where they were coming from.” She didn’t know what that meant, and she didn’t recognize the music they played, but she could tell they knew what they were doing. When they were talking, Troy blinked a lot and was always touching his collar or rubbing his fingers together, but when he played, he was almost still, and his eyes didn’t blink at all. He had huge hands, and his runs were so fast and percussive that the pencils on the bookshelf danced in their jar. (Later in the summer, he started calling them “fuck you runs” because “If you got them or if you didn’t, either way they made you say fuck you.”)
But Lorna liked Bina’s playing more, like she was looking for a secret in the music nobody had heard before. She played slow but with destiny. And she was beautiful. Her wrists were thin, her fingers coppery and calloused, and the way the light danced off her rings made her hands look electric. When it was Lorna’s turn to play something for them, she realized that she loved to play the piano.
They gave her Carl Vine’s Sonata No. 1 to work on first. She hadn’t heard music like that before, and she was sure she was playing it all wrong – the dissonant runs, the simple sappy parts, the cartoonish dynamics – she was ready to give up until her mother walked past one morning with a wrinkled nose shaking her head. Lorna now practiced two times a day, mornings and afternoons. She dissected the piece into small phrases of a few measures at a time and played them quarter tempo dozens of times in a row until she played perfectly. The faster runs had to be done one hand at a time until she could put them both together. Then all again half tempo. It took the rest of June to get that far, and she knew Chi Chi had to be hating it, because she didn’t ask what the piece was or how lessons were going ; she didn’t ask how Lorna liked her teachers or why she started wearing a silver ring on each hand. Even when Lorna wandered back to the piano one more time late at night after she’d taken a bath and was supposed to be in bed, Chisato was silent.
The only time Paul said anything was when Lorna started yelling “Fuck You” while working on a difficult run. It was the Fourth of July weekend, and there all his work people over for pig and fireworks. Some of them brought their kids who ran around the yard with sparklers, screaming like Paul was turning a small pig on a spit in the fire pit and Chi Chi was in the kitchen making potato salad and drinking wine. Lorna wanted to watch the pig and see what happened to its eyes, but she didn’t want anybody to confuse her with the regular kids and tell her to run around like a monkey for no reason. So she practiced a particularly dissonant passage, finishing with a Fuckyou that grew louder each time she messed up. Some of the other kids heard her through the window and told the rest what was going on. Soon Paul and some of the work people wandered over to investigate. Lorna finally played the passage perfectly at full tempo, and she yelled “Fuck You, Run!” and slammed her palms down on the keyboard. She heard the screen door in the kitchen slam open, and she got up and walked into the den to see what was happening.
Paul and the work people were laughing. Chi Chi was standing behind him with her back to the house and her head up to the night sky. Paul tried to hand Chisato a beer : “Don’t make anything of it. It’s funny, really. You gotta admit she’s getting pretty good.” A couple of the work people were playing air piano and yelling a boozy Fuck you ! at the same time.
Lorna felt nailed to the ground. She’d never heard her father say anything about her before, good or bad. Now was Chi Chi going to kick the pig into the dirt and run away in tears ? Would she laugh and start saying fuck you to everybody ? She was in a no-win situation and Lorna began to feel for her. But then Chi Chi just turned around and gathered up the empty plastic cups and paper plates on the table, and when one of the monkeys told her the dip was the best he’d ever had, she thanked him by patting him on the head before she went back into the kitchen.
The summer was her ally. She felt a kinship with the cicadas and the dry lightning and the long shadows of evening that gave way to slivered moons and constellations that sparkled as bright as satellites. She played the piano. She lingered after her lessons, pulling stories out of Bina about New Mexico and the Apache way of things. Even after Chisato honked her horn down on the street, Lorna would pretend she didn’t hear it so that Bina might keep going. But at the end of August, Bina asked Lorna to play the Vine Sonata all the way through. Lorna wasn’t ready and didn’t want to do it.
“That’s okay, you don’t have to, but I thought it’d be nice to see how far you’ve come for our last lesson.”
“It’s not our last.”
“Well it is for now. Didn’t your mom tell you?”
“Tell me what?”
“Well, Troy and me have to go back to Tulsa for school. We just teach the summers in Bartlesville. We told her back in June, but maybe she forgot.”
“She didn’t forget. She’s a goddamn bitch,” Lorna said. But she realized that maybe Chi Chi did forget. Lorna was starting middle school next week, and she and Paul had been arguing a lot lately too. But so what, she was a bitch for forgetting.
“Well don’t fall in love with your new teacher too much ; we’ll be back next summer, okay?”
“Okay.” Bina gave her a turquoise pinky ring on a chain, and Lorna hugged her tight until she was sure she wasn’t going to cry. The horn honked, and this time Lorna ran out the door.