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book cover for Sweeter Music Sweeter Music
a novel by Charlotte Vale-Allen

Instead of going straight home, as she usually did after classes, she began walking, heading downtown. She walked along River Street toward the city center, crossing to the far side of Old Street, heading north. As she was passing the old Colony Club she stopped, hearing a music unlike anything she'd heard before. Sounds that roared against each other, subsided briefly, then flared again; tauntingly, daringly meeting.

As she drew toward the doors to look in the windows, the tendrils of music wrapped themselves around her, holding her attention. It was dark inside and she couldn't see. She pushed open the door and stood, hypnotized by the circle of red light centered on the elevated bandstand. In the circle three black men were playing with flying fingers, their foreheads creased and damp with sweat as they smiled, making little approving grunts to each other.

"Hey! We're closed!" a thin blond man called to her from behind the bar.

She stood unhearing, lost in the music.

"Hey, kid!" he said again. "Split! We're not open!"

She moved several steps, needing to be closer to the music, not noticing the figure that stepped out of the shadows beside her.

"Go polish some glasses, Harry," he said, sounding confident Harry wouldn't argue, as he took Lisa's arm under the elbow. "You like the sound?" he asked, and watched her nod. "Come on. We'll sit down over here."

He led her to a table in front of the stand, propelling her gently into a chair.

"How old are you?" he asked, examining her face.

"Sixteen," she lied, not looking at him. "How old are you?"

He laughed. "Too old to answer that." He tilted back in his chair. "What's your name, dear?"

"Lisa," she replied, unable to break away from the sounds. "Lisa Hamilton. What's yours?" She turned to look at him for the first time.

"Nick Montefiore." He held out his hand to her, palm upward.

She laid her hand across his. "Why did you make him let me stay?" she asked, already turning back to the music.

"I like the way you listen," he said, knowing she'd stopped hearing him.

When the trio closed the final eight, Lisa let out her breath and swiveled round to look at Nick.

"I feel that way," she said.

"You feel that way. You play?"

"I can."

"You want to play now?"

"All right." She looked up at the piano.

"Come on then," he said. "I'll get you set up."

He switched on the mike, turned the spot back on, then returned to the table, curious to see what she'd do. The boys in the trio were standing at the bar drinking brews, making signals at Nick with uplifted shoulders, asking what the hell he was doing. Nick held up his hand. "Wait!" he said, smiling.

She started "Lover Man," laying down the introduction in a nice, easy four-four, letting her left hand pump a steady, insistent bass. She rolled up to the opening eight, letting the first words slide out.

The sound of her own voice coming from the speakers thrilled her. It was as if her most private, secret thoughts were being magnified into a public statement. And she was awed, listening to the low dreaminess of herself spreading out like open fingers, touching at the vacant chairs and tables, moving up and out, down to the bar. Hands of sound - she made them - wrapping themselves around the heads of those listening like the touch of a comforting mother, bringing her sweet babies safely close to the nourishment and sustenance of her ample self, holding them with tenderness as they took strength from her.

Everyone fell silent as Lisa sang, even Harry the barman, looking at one another almost sheepishly, grinning. Nick listened, not so much surprised as satisfied with his instinctive judgment. Lou came over and slid into the vacant seat, setting his beer down on the table.

"What you got there, Nick?" he asked, his drummer's fingers beating out Lisa's tempo on the tabletop.

"Sixteen years old," Nick said. "Perfect pitch. True as pure gold. D'you believe that left hand?"

"She's got great time," Lou said. "Shit, man! Gotta go play with the girl."

Lisa approached the chorus, laying down harder with her left hand, heightening the tempo, letting her right hand plow into the changes, building. She felt reckless, totally freed from herself. The brushes came at her like insinuating little thrusts, adding punctuation to all she had to say.

Daniel set his glass down on the bar, climbed over the rail and picked up the bass, coming in on the second bar of the last eight before the repeat.

They went back to the top, playing eights with Lisa doing the first chorus, then hanging out while Daniel filled eight bars full of his message; telling her he knew about all of it, thrumming and stroking the bass as if it was his lovely, brown lover; all the way down to the last note where Lisa picked up to sing the bridge. With her back cushioned by the wall of Lou's brushing and Daniel's deep, plucking probes, she restated the dream coming down, easing off, sliding in to the final eight. Her fingertips rested on the frontpiece; she half-closed her eyes as Lou picked up the sticks to thrash through eight bars. She took a deep breath as they played out together. Silence.

"Do another," Daniel said, leaning toward her, his voice very close to her ear. "Go on, sweetheart. It's fine!"

Fine was sweet and round. Fine was beautiful and had no need of words.

"Yes, okay," she said. "We'll do ‘By Myself,' in the original key."

Nick knew, hearing her sing, that Lisa Hamilton was a natural. With problems. Listening to her, captivated by the husky, intimate yearning of her voice and the wild urgency of the chords and changes she played, he had an intimation of the interior, hunched-up, private person behind the sounds. A living instrument. But hung-up.

At the end of the second number Daniel set down his bass with extravagant caution, then kissed Lisa's cheek, letting his hand fall lightly on her shoulder.

"You're beautiful, child," he said. "You make me dream." He walked off the stand, pausing at Nick's table to say, "I think I just had a vision. It was rare!"

Lisa came back to the table and sat down.

"Where are you going with that music?" Nick asked.

"I'm studying at the conservatory. What do you do?"

"I'm an agent."

"You get jobs for people?"

"I do. You want me to be your agent?"

"What would I have to do?"

"Play and sing. Like you just did. How much material do you have?"


"That's right!'

"A lot," she said thoughtfully. "Dozens."

"You'd have to join the union."

"I see."

"I can't think of anybody who sings the way you do," he said. "Of course, now that I know about your background, the changes you play make sense to me. That took a little figuring."

"Oh?" He'd instantly captured her attention.

"They're not typical, your changes. Very innovative, with the classical trim. You play very ... neatly. None of those sloppy arpeggios amateurs think are jazzy." He questioned her eyes. "Ever performed publicly?"


"Pretty girl," he said offhandedly. "Taking voice?"


"How'd you pick up the bel canto?"

It was her turn to question his face. He knew the words, the right things to say.

"From my mother's old records, I suppose. That's where I get almost all my material. I liked the way Jo Stafford sustained her breathing. Sinatra does the same thing. I'd listen, waiting to hear them breathe. But if you hear the records, you notice right away they don't breathe in the natural breaks. They hold and carry through."

"Any brothers or sisters?" he asked.

"An older brother, Jimmy."

"Jimmy. What does he do?"

"He goes to university."

"Do I make you nervous? You seem kind of uptight."

"No, I'm fine."

"Okay. So, listen! What're you going to do with it?"

"Oh, I don't know. I'm tired of school. If I thought I could, I'd probably quit and ... do something. I don't know."

"That turned you on, eh?"

"I liked it," she admitted, glancing up at the darkened stand.

"Yeah." He laughed softly. "It shows. You look good singing. Another maverick."


"It's what somebody called me once. A maverick. One of the ones who run around outside the herd. Not intentionally. But like being permanently out of stride. You know?"

"I think so."

"What do you think about?" he asked.

"Music. I hear my own voice singing inside my head. It's always music. And songs I hear that make me stop, make me listen. Sometimes I catch the first four bars of something I've never heard before and I have to stop what I'm doing and just listen."

"For example?"

"Lots of them. Lots of the Beatles' songs. ‘Yesterday,' and ‘In My Life.' Do you know that one? It's very beautiful. I take the songs and put them inside my head and I can hear my voice way off, up there somewhere floating, singing the words, over and over, all the time."

"And that makes you happy?" he asked incisively.

"Some. What d'you do when you're not an agent?"

"I used to try composing. But I couldn't go anywhere with it. I'm not innovative, like you for example. I couldn't seem to get past all the other music I'd ever heard."

"I don't understand," she said. No one had ever talked music with her before. It was as though she had suddenly discovered she could speak in another, very familiar, language.

"It's pretty simple. Like wanting to be a writer, say, but having read so many books that influenced you, they've managed to interfere with your own style - whatever it is. You're so hooked on remembering this and that about other people's books you can't seem to cut through their stuff to get down to your own. Like the stuff I wrote. A bit of Tchaikovsky, a bit of Rachmaninoff, a bit of Mahler, a bit of Vivaldi, a bit of Dvorak, a bit of this, a bit of that. But no little bits of Nick Montefiore. I couldn't work through the bits to find my own style. So I cooled it and started with something I do well."

She wasn't altogether sure what had happened. She thought about the sensations she'd experienced hearing her own voice amplified for the first time; about the odd privacy established by being in the center of a circle of bright light that seemed to illuminate herself to no one but herself. It had been twenty minutes of extraordinary revelation. Seeing herself, hearing herself, feeling out new, unthought-of boundaries for herself. She wanted to go back and do it all again. But with more people, an audience; people to see and hear. But only see and hear, not touch or explain, or try to convince. They'd have to accept what she was willing to give. And she didn't know yet what or how much she was actually willing to give, but she wanted to think about it.

Each morning, music case in hand, she set out for the conservatory. She spent the day going from one class to another, scarcely aware of the goings-on around her; automatically performing; automatically absorbing information; occasionally coming alert when something interested her. But once the classes ended, there was nothing she wanted to do. She began staying after-hours to play and sing in one of the practice rooms. She felt inhibited about experimenting with her songs at home. So she spent an hour or two in a drafty practice room in the after-class silence of the building and sang, remembering how she'd sounded that afternoon in the old Colony Club. She played and sang and got through each day and finally the school year ended.

And her routine all at once gone, an itchiness inched its way through her brain until she took to sitting in the park afternoons, idly considering her home and the people inside it.

They'd never been where they were needed, she thought. Nobody was ever there. Except Jeanette. And sometimes Jimmy. But as a small child, those times when she said to herself, "Now they'll see and be sorry," as she brought a scraped knee or bruised elbow - gingerly, like rare gifts - home to be repaired, it was always Jeanette who shook her head sympathetically and went for the iodine and bandage. Not Letty or her father. They didn't know, weren't ever there to see and be sorry.

She remembered family friends contriving to say how much she looked like Letty. She used to try to see what they meant by that since there seemed to be whole worlds of difference between the woman upstairs and the child downstairs with Jeanette.

Their hair was a similar color. Her mother's hair, Lisa thought, looked like sunlight breaking through the study windows on a cloudy day. Her own hair was always long. It was trussed into painful pigtails Jeanette laced up every morning. Neatly, with ribbons. And at midday when she came home, the ribbons were trailing or lost. Her mother's hair was hidden behind her head, between the back of her neck and the pillow, and Lisa couldn't ever imagine how it would look all spread out, loose around Letty's face.

Those same people too often said Letty had been, "so beautiful." And the way they said it, quietly, reverently, with sober-looking faces gave Lisa an uncomfortable, tight-stomach sensation. It was as if what they were really saying was, "She was a beauty. Too bad she ..." She couldn't ever finish the statements in her mind because the word "dead" or "died" inevitably figured in and she didn't want to think about that or believe it could happen. She had never, she realized, wanted to believe that.

Though her mother and father rarely appeared where or when they were needed, Lisa never came through the door without hoping - it was a perennial surprise party in her brain - that her mother would be there, smiling at her, saying, "Well, it's about time you got here." And her face would be soft and rounded and secretly amused and Lisa would know her mother was happy to have her home, finally.

Papa was semi-retired, he said, but he went every day to his office. In a pin-stripe suit and camel-hair overcoat, with a hat and a black umbrella, he went out. And when he returned, after shedding the coat, hat and umbrella, he went straight upstairs. Lisa would listen, hearing the particular way his feet sounded on the stairs, then the half dozen steps down the hall, followed by the opening of the door, an exchange of words, then the careful closing of the door. She wondered what it was they said to each other day after day, for so many years.

She held whispered, imaginary conversations with herself, pretending they said this and this, or that and so. But the words rang hollowly and she knew that whatever they did say, it had nothing to do with the weather and how things went today at the office. She knew that what they talked about had to do with the reasons why Letty no longer left her room or her bed.

She and Jimmy were adopted. And that was why, she decided at age six or seven, the two of them had so little to do with her and Jimmy. Jimmy had come from somebody else too, wasn't her real brother. He'd been four years old and she'd been six weeks when they'd been brought to the house in the park. And she wondered endlessly why they had brought her and Jimmy to live there in the house if all they had ever wanted was to be upstairs together in that room.

They said they loved her. Every night before bed, she went down the hallway to say goodnight. She'd sit on the side of the bed while Letty asked about all the things Lisa had done during the day, and Hugh stood, arms folded over his chest in an attitude of listening as Lisa responded. Lisa looked into the faces that smiled at her, her mother's especially. Letty's eyes sometimes seemed not to see. Her mouth gave Lisa quick, dry kisses. And she'd get the strangest feeling, sitting there making up stories for these two people, her mother and father, as if, if she could only say the right combination of words, think the proper pattern of thoughts, Letty would get up out of bed, brush her hair and dress herself and, at last and forever, be downstairs waiting when Lisa came home from school or play. But she could never think of the right words, although she knew they were all up there, hidden away inside her head, and all she had to do was pry them loose and set them out in the air to be heard, to work their miracle. It never happened.

So at the end of her spiderweb of fabricated schoolday adventures she'd stop, gazing into the sometimes green, sometimes gray-blue of Letty's deep-set eyes, waiting. And Letty - who had invariably been studying Hugh during Lisa's entire recital - would touch Lisa's face with her cool hands and say, "I love you. Kiss me goodnight, now." And Lisa would. And Hugh, too. And go to bed. They said they loved her.

They gave her a piano when she told Jeanette she'd like to have one. It was there on a Thursday when she came home from the park. She hung the park key on its hook beside the back door, noticing that Jeanette had an unusual look about her, a flush of color and a hot look in her dark eyes. She could read Jeanette, understand the meanings of her gestures and inflections, because Jeanette had always been with her, as far back as her memory could go.

"Someone put a surprise for you in the study," Jeanette said that day. "Viens, chérie!"

Jeanette's hand, too, was hot as it closed over hers, leading Lisa through the dining room to the front of the house and into the study. When Lisa pushed open the door and saw it, the breath leaked out of her lungs like air out of gashed bicycle tires.

"Mine?" she asked, feeling Jeanette's hand tight around hers.

She'd been unable to take her eyes from the polished gleam of the upright Baldwin, the inviting expanse of perfect black and white - like a photograph. She wriggled her hand free to move several steps closer, forgetting to breathe, lost in astonishment.

"I can have lessons?" she asked, whirling to look at Jeanette who was leaning against the doorframe, smiling.

"But of course!" she said. "Mais certainement!"

"How did they know?" Lisa asked unnecessarily. For Jeanette was the bearer of all messages and the guardian of all secrets and injuries.

Lisa stared at her piano, feeling air returning to her lungs in big, painful pushes that made her throat hurt and her eyes sting so that she ran to hide her face against Jeanette's breasts and cry.

Jeanette stroked Lisa's head, making small sounds at the back of her throat, murmuring, "Such a strange little girl, Lisa. You are pleased, chérie?"

She wanted to ask all the "why's" again: Why didn't they come down to surprise me? Why isn't Letty here to say this is mine, for me? Why? Why? Instead, she nodded her head into the comforting abundance of Jeanette's breasts, clinging.

"Alors!" Jeanette eased her away, reaching into her pocket for a tissue. "Blow! Then upstairs to thank mama and papa, hnnh?"

At that time, when she was eight, Lisa had been convinced Jeanette was her real mother and had somehow contrived to lend her to Letty. She couldn't supply any logical reasons behind this munificent gesture of Jeanette's, but she was quite certain that this was the case. Jeanette, for one thing, seemed so much younger than the woman upstairs, more likely to have an eight-year-old daughter. And she did all the things mothers were known to do: the running of the house, making up menus for the cook, ordering the wines and groceries, buying clothes for the children, telling the cleaning lady what needed doing. Everything. Lessons in French until she and Jimmy could converse without groping for appropriate words or tenses. It was Jeanette who, often and spontaneously, went for her sweater or coat, then took down the park key and, her hand enclosing Lisa's, led her to the park for fresh air and an appreciative tour of the flower beds. It was she who took Lisa to see Fantasia and each newly arrived Disney film. Jeanette took her to museums, to art galleries, to afternoon concerts, to the fair every September. And when they went on these outings people assumed Jeanette was Lisa's mother. After all, she dressed very well, not like a servant or an employee of the household; she was very pretty and young and good to be with. So people assumed Jeanette was the mother. Lisa did too. Except that she wasn't. Jeanette told her so. Regularly.

"Go thank mama!" Jeanette told her.

She blew into the tissue, mopped her eyes, took another incredulous look at her piano and went slowly upstairs to express her gratitude to Letty.

Letty said, "Your color is very high, Lisa. Are you happy?"

Lisa nodded, her eyes fixed on Letty's long, graceful neck.

"You say so little," Letty said softly, cupping Lisa's chin to raise her head. "What are you thinking?"

"I don't know. Just things."

"Your father and I want you to be happy, you know, Lisa."

"I know that," Lisa said quietly.

"I hope so. Could I have a kiss?" Letty held out her arms and Lisa leaned into them, pressing her lips against the cool smoothness of Letty's cheek. She longed to remain there, gently held, breathing in the scent of Letty's cologne, her hair softly stroked by the long, always-cool hand. But Letty said, "I should be resting now. It was just that I wanted to see you. Jeanette has cake for you. I will see you later, to say goodnight."

Jimmy came home and admired the piano, standing pounding his fist into the palm of his catcher's mitt, saying, "Gee, Lee! You're going to have to practice all the time. Maybe you shouldn't have said you wanted it."

"I do want it. I'm going to have lessons."

"Well, that's great." He pulled her pigtails. "I'll come hear when you can play something."

It was a landmark time. Hugh changed his pattern. Instead of proceeding directly upstairs upon arrival home, he stopped first at the study door to watch and listen to Lisa practicing. No words were exchanged. He'd stand for perhaps two or three minutes, then turn away and continue on upstairs. And, even while her fingers moved on the keyboard, Lisa listened for the sound of those six steps down the hallway, the door opening, the lift of voices, the closing of the door. And then she returned to her music.

It was always "her" music. She thought of the scales, the Hannon exercises, the short pieces in the first books as hers, no one else's. She went through them, one after another, eating up the music with avid eyes and fingers, treasuring every newly learned chord and interval until little else seemed to matter but her music and the increasing access to it within her ability. Miss Comstock, her teacher, was cautious but consistent in her praise, privately confiding to Jeanette that she'd never before had a student of Lisa's caliber and talent. Jeanette beamed with pride.

Upstairs the door to the master suite now stood open between four and seven, during Lisa's practice hours. Letty lay with her eyes focused on the ceiling, letting the vibrations from below penetrate her, entirely open to the sounds.

"She has talent," Jeanette said, bringing up the afternoon tea. "She will perhaps do well with this."

"Perhaps," Letty said. "Perhaps."

Letty closed her eyes and listened to the quiet clinking and liquid melody of tea being poured, everything falling within the bubble of music that enclosed the house.

"Does she talk to you, Jeanette?" she asked from behind her closed eyes.

"Un peu," Jeanette admitted. "She is a silent child. It is not her way to talk."

"Do you think she understands?" Letty opened her eyes. "Do you think so?"

"No," Jeanette said truthfully. "I do not think that she does. But in time. In time."

Letty's hand rose. Jeanette held it.

"You do so much for all of us," Letty said. "Where do you find it? Is it from your religion?"

"No longer," Jeanette said obliquely, concealing the full truth. "Some, perhaps."

"I fear for both of them, Jeanette. I think sometimes we've done the wrong things. I get so confused. If I could believe the way you do ..."

"It is not everything," Jeanette said.

"Jeanette," Letty cried out, tears pushing from her eyes, "I get so frightened sometimes, about so many things. I hate to think of Lisa being ... harmed ... by all of this. How can she be expected to understand?"

Jeanette held her, calming her.

"She will be fine. She is a good child, très ombrageuse. Understanding will come to her. You should not make yourself to feel so very unhappy. All things will come, in time."

She talked on, cradling the younger woman in her arms as she prayed silently Letty would go. In her sleep. Peacefully. Soon.

Jimmy was four years older, red-cheeked and black-eyed, with lustrous blue-black hair. "An Irish buccaneer," he once called himself fancifully, fielding imagined line drives with his mitt. He was bright, openly uncomplicated and immensely popular. He had many friends. They populated the basement game room and, upon occasion, were requested to lower their voices or refrain from telephoning after nine o'clock. It was Jimmy who, through a sense of filial obligation he felt but couldn't comprehend, ushered Lisa into her kindergarten class on her first day of school. It was he who explained, "He thinks private schools'll wreck us, so we have to mingle with the regular kids. Whatever that means." Hugh's reasoning made little sense to them. Neither of them had wanted to go to the private schools that had been a topic of discussion upstairs and down for many months before the matter was settled.

Midmornings and midafternoons, during recess, Lisa stood in the schoolyard waiting out the half-hours. With time, her thoughts turned to her music and she stood alone, her head filled with sound, her mind emptied of everything but the melodies she played to accompany the overhead flight of a bird or the wind whipping the leaves on the trees. The music gave her a certain positive insulation, relieving her of the need for anyone or anything else. School was never anything more than waiting time, time to get through until she could go to her lesson and then home to practice.

The summer Lisa was twelve she spent most of her afternoons - when not practicing - alone in the park, reading or listening to the sounds inside her head, wondering about the combinations of this note and that, making that sound. It was a preoccupying mental exercise she enjoyed enormously.

The last Friday in July she was sitting in the park, smiling to herself as she ran up little melodies in her mind, when slowly her attention shifted directions. She thought she must have sat on a wet bench without noticing. She stood up and looked down at it. Nothing. No wet slats. Nothing but cracking layers of paint, well dried by the sun. She peered over her shoulder at the back of her dress, twisting around, catching sight of a blur of red. Her breath caught in her throat. Glancing around to confirm she was alone, she lifted her dress to see that her underpants were wet with blood.

She dropped her dress and stood staring sightlessly in panic, low whimpering sounds coming from her mouth. Something terrible was going to happen to her - was already happening. Her lips quivered and her eyes flooded with tears. In terror, consumed by thoughts of her imminent death, she ran home to hide in the downstairs closet.

Jimmy, arriving home about twenty minutes later, opened the closet to find her huddled under the coats, wracked by convulsive sobs.

"What's wrong, Lee?" He dropped down on his knees. "What're you doing in here?"

"I'm dying." She sobbed, her face chalky.

"You're what?"

"I'm bleeding to death. I know I'll die."

He stared at her for several seconds, then reached to cup his hand over the back of her head.

"You're not dying, Lee," he said softly. "Hasn't anybody talked to you?"

"What about?" She stared back at him with enormous, fearful eyes.

"Wipe your face." He gave her his handkerchief. "We'll go upstairs."

She got up and came out, feeling miserable and uncomfortable, letting Jimmy take her hand and lead her upstairs. He didn't knock at the bedroom door the way they were supposed to but just opened it and took Lisa inside. Letty looked at the two of them, letting the book she'd been reading drop onto the blanket, prepared to smile. The smile got lost as she took in the look on Jimmy's face and the red-eyed misery on Lisa's.

"It's time for you to have a little talk with Lisa," he said meaningfully.

Letty looked confused. Lisa looked down at the dusty tips of her shoes.

"You know," Jimmy said, his hand in the middle of Lisa's back, gently urging her to move toward Letty.

Letty didn't know what he was talking about. She looked at him and then at Lisa and then back to Jimmy, who inclined his head to one side, trying to visually transmit his message. Lisa heard the front door open and Hugh's footsteps on the stairs and felt her stomach muscles clenching up like a fist. She wanted to go to her own room. She didn't want to stay there.

"What've we got here?" Hugh asked, coming around behind the two of them to stand beside Letty at the bed.

"You ... She has to talk to Lisa," Jimmy said, feeling anger slowly building inside. Why the hell were they being so thick?

"Oh!" Letty said suddenly, a faint wash of color painting her cheeks. "Oh, I see!" she said, holding her hand out. "Come here, Lisa," she said.

Jimmy turned to go, then looked back at the door, noticing the back of Lisa's dress for the first time.

"Oh, holy hell!" he whispered to himself, running downstairs to get Jeanette.

Lisa stood staring at Letty's hands which were fastened whitely to the flowered border of the blanket. Hugh couldn't make sense of what was happening. The silence in the room was fraught with unstated opening sentences and Lisa was about to start crying again. Then she heard Jeanette's footsteps on the stairs and held her breath and her tears.

Jeanette appeared in the doorway and Letty looked at her hopefully. Jeanette understood at once and said, "Lisa, viens, chérie. You will talk to mama in a few minutes."

Gratefully, Lisa hurried across the room.

Hugh caught sight of the back of Lisa's dress and felt faintly nauseated as he sank down into the chair beside the bed, slowly letting out his pent-up breath.

"You will have a bath, chérie," Jeanette said. "Then your mama wishes to speak with you."

Lisa took her bath, all the while listening to Jeanette who stood in the doorway staring at the far wall, explaining.

"I had thought mama had already spoken of this to you," she said, sounding a little angry. "Or long ago, I would have made certain you knew what it is to be a woman." She bent to pick up Lisa's dress and stood for several moments examining it. "This is ruined," she said, at last. "It is too bad."

"Why don't they love me?" Lisa asked, her voice sounding very small in the big bathroom.

"Ah, they love you. You must comprehend, chérie. Illness turns the eyes inward. Your mama is good, very gentle. She would hurt no one, not ever. But she has great fear and it fills up the mind. Understand this, chérie, and be forgiving of her. Someday, a time will come when you will wish you could fly backward to make changes."

"You all treat her as though she's the child in the house and not me."

"Don't be jealous, Lisa!" Jeanette said sharply, folding the dress into a small parcel. "To be jealous of a sick woman is to be a foolish, foolish child."

"I'm not jealous," Lisa lied.

Jeanette said nothing.

"Is she going to die?" Lisa asked.

Jeanette's eyes grew very dark, her mouth tightening.

"What is it you ask?" she said in a voice that held all kinds of danger signals.

"Is she?"

"Not yet," Jeanette said slowly. "But do not ever think death will bring attention to you, Lisa! You must love her without thought of the things she does not do for you. Think of all that she does do. Remember what I tell you, because a time will come. I promise you. It will come. And then you will wish you had never thought the things that you do."

"I don't want her to die. I never said I did. I want her to get up and do things."

"I think," Jeanette said, holding out a towel, "no one would wish this more than your mama. Now hurry. She waits to talk with you."

"Is she very old, Jeanette?"

"Old?" Jeanette folded her into the thick towel and turned her so they were facing. "Old, chérie? You think she is old?"

"I don't know. Is she?"

"Come," Jeanette said, going into the bedroom.

Lisa followed, watching as Jeanette selected underwear from Lisa's bureau. "Put these on," Jeanette said, moving to the closet to select a dress. "I am older than your mama," she said. "She is thirty-four. It seems very old to you, chérie?"

"No, but ..."

"Thirty-four is young, chérie, understand? It is very young to be always in bed, already for four years. Think of it! Do you know she cannot stand without someone to help her? And the medicine. Pain." She shook her head. "Do not have jealousy of your mama, Lisa. She is not this way because it is her wish, I promise you. Put this on. But you have something more in your mind? True?" She sat down on the bed. "Dis-moi, chérie. Qu'est-ce que tu as?"

"I want to go to the conservatory," she said at last, studying Jeanette's face. She enjoyed looking at Jeanette, enjoyed speculating on the reasons why she seemed so content to shape her life around the Hamilton family.

"I see," Jeanette said at length. "You wish me to speak of this to mama and papa."


"I will find a time," she said. "We shall see."



"Why didn't you ever get married?"

Her eyes opened wide and she smiled.

"I have never wished to be married," she said.

"But wouldn't you like to have your own house and children?"

"I have enough," she said. "I am not unhappy with my life."

"What did you do before you came to live with us?"

"I worked in the store, with your papa."

"You did?"

"I was his assistant. When you children came here, he invited me to work in the home. It was a satisfactory arrangement. I enjoy doing for your family many things I would not enjoy to do for myself." She laughed softly.

"I don't understand."

"To be paid for certain duties makes them pleasurable in many ways. And I have much freedom and privacy. This is very good."

"But ..." Lisa stopped, unable to find words to fit to the question.

"I have no need for more," Jeanette said, straightening Lisa's pigtails. "We each have need of different things, chérie. Mine are fulfilled here. I work and I am able to sleep each night. Now, no more of this. I will speak to them about the conservatory. One thing more."

"What?" Lisa stopped in the doorway.

"I have six years more than your mama, chérie. I am forty."

Lisa stared at her, then turned and went down the hall to Letty.

Lisa did not question Jeanette's ability to make whispered wishes come true. Perhaps it was because neither she nor Jimmy had too many requests to make. So, when a few weeks later, Hugh sent for her, Lisa went to him, knowing it had to do with the music school.

"It is my understanding," he said, "that you no longer wish to attend the public school."

"No, papa."

"You wish to attend the conservatory?

"Yes, papa."


For some reason, she hadn't been prepared for that question. It stopped her cold. She sat gazing at him with a feeling similar to the one she'd had when summoned to the school principal's office at the start of grade five. It had been, she later learned, a purely routine visit. But at the time she'd been filled with doubts, trying to imagine what she could have done wrong to warrant the summons. For the better part of fifteen minutes she'd sat opposite the man, her head bent, replying to his questions in monosyllabic undertones until, finally, he'd said, "Do I frighten you, Miss Hamilton?" And, looking up, she'd seen that he was a smiling, sympathetic man who couldn't ever frighten anyone. "No, sir," she'd answered, wondering what she had been frightened of if it hadn't been him.

Looking at her father, noticing the clean side parting of his blond hair and the faint gloss of his manicured fingernails, she wondered now why she was so tongue-tied and heart-thumpingly scared. All kinds of words knocked against each other inside her head, like the kids at school all hurrying to get through the doors at recess.

"It would make me happy," she said uncertainly, studying his gold tie bar and cufflinks, the brilliant sharp-looking whiteness of his shirtfront and cuffs. She could smell his Lilac Végétal. She knew the scent so well. Once, she'd gone into her parents' bathroom and stood for a long time holding his bottle of Pinaud's Lilac Végétal, the top in one hand, the bottle in the other, eyes closed, breathing in the crisp, satisfying fragrance.

"Certainly your mother and I wish you to be happy," he said, steepling his fingertips precisely, tip to tip to tip all in a row. "But ‘happiness' is hardly sufficient reason to enroll you in such an intensive course of musical studies. I've been in touch with the registrar and investigated the requirements and curriculum. Both are stringent. And while I have no doubt whatsoever that you're sufficiently gifted to meet the entrance requirements; I do wonder about your intentions, Lisa." He let the steeple collapse and his hands folded one over the other. "What will you do - if you manage it - after you complete the eight years?"

"I don't know. Play the piano. Something."

"That's not good enough." His voice was patient, indulgent. "There has to be something more substantial."

"Can't I decide later what I'll do when I finish, papa?"

"Please understand me." His voice softened, his eyes looked darker green, warmer. "I wouldn't interfere with your progress, Lisa, if I could see a productive end in view. But you can't simply leap headlong into eight years of training and study on feeling alone. How would you feel if I said you'd have to continue on at your present school?"

"Oh, please!" she begged. "Please don't make me go back! I can't talk to anyone there. I don't understand arithmetic or why I have to study history and geography. Why do I have to study those things if I don't understand them? I understand my music. I ... I love it. I feel ... right ... when I play. Please, papa!"

His eyes directed themselves to the window, then turned back.

"It's a fine day. Would you care to go for a ride? We'll talk more. You look pale. It might do you good."

"I'd like to."


She sat beside her father as he steered the car effortlessly, his eyes moving this way and that, attempting to anticipate the unanticipated from other drivers on the road.

"I don't understand your craving for music," he said after a while. "I can see you have talent. There's no question of that." He glanced over at her. "But eight years seems an awfully long time to spend strictly on music, with some sort of musical career in view and an indefinite one at that. What makes you so positive this will satisfy you, Lisa?"

She watched his mouth moving and his hands on the wheel, thinking, He talks to me as if I'm old, grown-up. It made her head ache slightly, trying to match, within her own thoughts, the tenor of his words.

"It's how I feel." She was close to tears, hating having to try to explain to him things she couldn't explain to herself. "It's what I know I want to do."

"Is it so awfully difficult to talk to me?" he asked, looking over again. "Is it?"

She couldn't answer.

"I see," he said. Stopped for a light, he extracted a cigarette from his monogrammed case, lit it and returned the case to his pocket, exhaling an aromatic stream of smoke.

She hadn't been keeping track of where they were going and looked around in surprise when he pulled into the public parking lot at Indian Hill Park.

"I think it's mild enough for a stroll through the zoo," he said. "Do you like the zoo?"

She didn't. She didn't like the smells or the sounds of the animals but said, "Yes, papa," and got out of the car, nervously smoothing down the flaps of her coat pockets.

She walked along beside him, glancing sidelong at him every few steps, thinking he looked and smelled so good.

"You're twelve years old," he said, staring into an enclosure containing a dirty white polar bear. "You'll be twenty if and when you graduate from the conservatory. My primary concern is that you don't misdirect your talent and energies to find, after eight years, you've done something you'd have been wiser not to. Why do you look at me that way?"

"What way?" she said guiltily.

"Suspiciously," he said softly, tossing his cigarette away, his eyes searching hers.

"I ... I'm not ..."

He put his hand on her shoulder and she felt emotions lumping up in her throat, making her blink several times.

"We do care about you, you know." He smiled a gentle, encouraging smile. "Things would be very different if your mother weren't ill. You have to understand, Lisa. None of this is what we had in mind when you and Jimmy came to us. I know we leave much too much to Jeanette. But without her, we simply couldn't manage, none of us. It's important to me, very important, that you have what makes you happy. I know you have certain ... needs that aren't being fully met. I know that. And it worries me. I'm guilty of not spending nearly enough time with you children. But there are other things ... priorities. It's difficult to explain."


"That's right." He brightened, pleased by what he believed was her intuitive understanding. She was tall for her age but she seemed very, very young - somehow unformed - to him. He wished, for a moment, he could put his arms around her and hold her. But the expression on her face, the mix there of confusion and suspicion, acted as a barrier between them. "It all has to seem very bewildering to you now," he said. "I suppose we expect a great deal - too much, probably - from you and Jimmy in terms of understanding. I can't honestly say I understand all of it myself. But we are here if you need us and you shouldn't be afraid of approaching us. But you ... never do. What is it, Lisa? You say so little, seem so hidden away behind your twelve years. Can't you talk to me?"

"I want to," she admitted, feeling the heavy weight of his hand slowly driving her down into the earth. "I don't know what you want me to say."

His hand came away from her shoulder and she breathed deeply, as if she'd been swimming underwater for a long time.

"Would you like something?" he asked, spotting a vendor across the walkway.

"No, thank you, papa."

"I think some peanuts." He smiled, taking her hand, leading her across the walk to wait while he bought a red and white striped bag of peanuts.

"You don't want any?" he asked, holding the bag out to her.

"No, thank you, papa."

They started walking again and she looked at the unopened bag in his hand, its top neatly folded over and she wanted the peanuts now, after saying she didn't.

"We've made arrangements for you to take the entrance examinations," he said, opening the bag, looking inside then closing it again. "Next month."

"Examinations? What will I have to do?"

"Play a selection, sight-read. All things you can do easily. Transposition, harmony, theory. Miss Comstock has more than adequately prepared you. I don't think you'll have any problem passing."

"Oh." Her mind raced through the pages of the books she'd gone through with Miss Comstock, afraid she wasn't prepared.

"We'd better start getting back," he said, sensing the outing had failed. It gave him a heavy feeling, a certain guilty sadness. "You're sure you don't want these?" He held up the bag of peanuts.

"No, papa. Thank you."

She watched him drop them in a wire trash basket, wondering why she'd said no. Now that they were gone, her mouth was wet for the taste of them.

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