by Simon Hoodikoff
“You’ll be great, Mr. Eastman,” says Frances Sheppard, tugging the cuff of my tuxedo. I simply nod. She’s the only other of the group dressed formally, most likely planning to watch the performance from her seat at the front. She’s that kind of agent, the one who refuses to let the luxuries of business dilute the mysticism of spectacle—at least that’s the way she puts it. After a year of representation, she still refuses to call me Ted.
The crowd reacts to my name being announced and they cheer as I cross over into the light of the stage. Even through all the applause, I still hear the usual three-piece band of the cane, my foot, and the swishing of my other foot most prominently. Thud, step, swish…thud, step, swish. Cameras flash and the spotlight briefly flashes in my eyes. The crowd is a black sea of bobbing heads. I sit.
I picture sonatas as arguments. This might be different from most pianists, but I’ve had enough arguments to understand how they work. When I learned how to write a sonata, it was much the same. The one I’m playing tonight will be its debut. While there may be a full house—11,129 seats filled, Frances mentioned earlier, as if to calm me—the idea is to make sure it’s just me, back in my study at Lake Louise.
The bench there isn’t creaky anymore, but it wobbles because of the rug underneath one of the legs. I leave it. I like this place. Comfort is a state of mind, and I’m comfortable. Sunlight splays out on the hardwood while shadows of fir branches dance around it. A bed and some wicker furniture are neatly placed in the corner, all with fabrics matching the colour of the mountains that skirt the lake. There’s a door behind me, and that’s where she would stand. That’s always where Callie would stand when she listened to me play. This is where our argument would start.
I give a nod to the audience, even though I don’t really see them, before I bring my fingers up to the keys. If she’s there in the black sea, or in the imaginary doorway somewhere behind me, I hope she asks what happened after the accident—what it changed—because that’s the argument I want to have.
Sonatas typically begin with an introduction, essentially the main movement slowed down, pronounced, and tethered to the bare mechanics of chords. It helps the audience identify with the piece, giving them something to hold on to—to remember throughout the rest of the number. In other words, a thesis. “I’m glad you asked that question,” I say to Callie, who’s behind me, slowly approaching the window of the cabin that has the best view of the lake. On stage, I hit a hard D chord that snakes into a variation of the main movement, illuminating the important details. “Really glad.”
“Why would you be glad?” She snaps. This is one of her traps, the one where she plays chess with our conversation, setting up a flank three moves ahead. “Every time I bring it up, you say it’s not a good time. What makes this a good time?”
“Because you’re not here,” I say, smiling as I move up the keys, hitting a few sharps to add a complexity to the final stages. “I’m not even here. I’m on stage in front of over 10,000 people, and you’re….”
She paces towards the bookshelf, browses, and then tugs out a hardcover with her index finger. She thumbs through the pages, then claps the book shut. “Speak up, Teddy. Stop playing around.”
I play the first few notes of the climbing scale, peaking at an unconventional minor note—bleak. “I was hurt. Not just the leg, either. Everything hurt, all the time. I had to learn to live with it.”
She turns to me. I’m still looking at the keys, but I can see her in my peripheral vision. I can even see her head tilted in that disbelieving glare she does so well. “But you couldn’t live with me?”
“No.” If I’ve learned anything from being with Callie, it’s that there’s no time for the best answer, only time for the truth. “I know you don’t like that answer,” I say. No response, but I know she can hear me. She wants me to continue talking myself into a hole so all she has to do is walk up with the shovel and start filling it in. “You wouldn’t have wanted to, is all. I threw plates against the wall just because I dropped a spoon I couldn’t pick up. I couldn’t control myself. I was destined to hurt you. I’d done it before.”
She never seems affected by anything I say. It’s like she waits for the sound of my voice to finish instead of actually listening to it. “The accident. It was nothing I could imagine, but hurt me? You couldn’t hurt me. Could you?”
“I didn’t want to take the chance,” I say, tensing up. I cram a few extra notes in before the transition, creating a sense of urgency. My toes curl in my shoe. Callie’s voice changed from pleasant to disappointed in a matter of words. “I couldn’t know. Some days it felt like I could jog around the block, other days I wanted to rip it right off. In between was a constant nagging in my head. I couldn’t get any rest, and every time someone asked me a question I just—” I stop and the sonata slows down as it treads along a gentle coupling of the thesis’ two main medleys. As it livens up again, climbing into the second half of the exposition, I hear her get off the couch and take a few steps closer. That perfume, not the one I bought her, the one I liked. The aroma flutters under my nose for a second before it wafts away.
“Do you know how I saw that accident? I saw it as a blessing.” Her voice wavers, almost losing its ground, and slips into a deep sob. “Meet the Eastmans, a couple too busy for a normal marriage, a couple who has no idea how to be parents and don’t know squat about how to have a family.” She slams a heel on the floor. “Will you look at me?”
“I’m playing,” I say calmly. The second half of the exposition is slower than the first, to reinforce the musical dialogue, moments of lucid repetition. “I had three sisters, you had two brothers. How can you say we knew nothing about family?”
“I’m talking about now, Teddy,” she sighs, as if I’m playing dumb. “Our own family.”
Here it comes. The part that explores the harmonic and textual possibilities of the sonata’s main themes. It begins with a string of minor chords. Everything’s a minor chord these days; it’s all people can really understand. “After the accident, you were a better husband than you ever were before you got on that train. You came back to me happier.”
“It couldn’t last, Callie. Eventually, whatever it was that was making me happier would go away, and I’d be nothing you want, and nothing you’d remember. Just a shell of someone you used to know.” She scoffs, and it only makes me angrier. “I could see it coming, you couldn’t. That was the difference. I was…I was s—”
“You were sick,” she whispers in my ear. It startles me, and I make a “ghost” mistake—a mistake no one else notices. I pause, and then use the momentary silence as a dramatic segue into the recapitulation of the piece. Traditionally, this serves as the sonata’s last chance for the sections to reappear in the tonic key. If it matters, it will come up here.
“Yes, I was sick,” I say. “The pain turned into a numbness I had always planned to deal with later.” My leg throbs again, and I wince through it. “It’s just that ‘later’ came a lot sooner than advertised.” The notes gather, almost effortlessly, at my fingertips. “I had no choice, and unfortunately that meant that you had no choice, either.”
Her hands slip onto my shoulders. They’re warm, delicate, and exactly how I remember them. Her thumbs make small circles on either side of my spine, sending a pulsing burst of relief through my shoulders. The circles get bigger and navigate slowly through my upper back. Each circle connects with a note, and for a moment we play together.
“You see?” she says softly, hoping not to startle me. “We can share the pain.” Her hand wanders down my arm and touches my hip, where the train’s steel window frame jabbed into it as I lay, barely conscious, derailed just outside of Alberta. Her hand grasps my left leg, the centre of the pain, and squeezes. Hard.
A coda is the part of the sonata that can give the movement a distinctive ending that indicates whether the sonata will continue or conclude. In this case, I play the concluding cadence during a period of thirty seconds in which my pain is completely gone. I hear the notes with such clarity, precision I chase in every song, total sequential agreement.
She’s gone now. I can’t smell her perfume or hear her moving about. She’s gone and it’s just me finishing this piece, with the winding of the notes puttering to their close and the pain in my side rising like a bath.
I conclude slowly, with a high inflection that I hope invokes a happy emotion as the sonata ends. I take my cane to limp off stage to the applause of the entire auditorium, but they urge me to stay and give a bow. The house lights come up, 11,129 faces in the black sea. I look for her, tell myself I shouldn’t, but she’s not there.