At first it was play. He believed it must be play. Like singing, humming. Under your breath. In secret. A way of being happy, the two of them needing no one else.
Speaking to strangers in her quiet proud voice His name is Zacharias. A name from the Bible. He was born with a musical gift. His father is dead, we never speak of it.
He believed it had to do with keeping-going. She spoke of what their lives were as keeping-going, for now. The names of towns, mountains, rivers, counties ever changing. Never in one place for more than a few days. One day Beardstown, the next Tintern Falls. One day Barneveld, the next day Granite Springs. The Chautauqua River became the Mohawk River, the Mohawk River became the Susquehanna. He saw the signs beside the highway. He was eager to pronounce the names for he loved the sounds of new names strange in his mouth and he was eager too to learn their spellings but the names so frequently changed he could not remember and she seemed to have no wish that he remember as she had no wish that he remember his old name now that he was Zack, Zack-Zack she hugged and adored telling him solemnly Now you are Zack. My son Zacharias. Blessed of God for your father-her eyes vague, bemused-has returned to Hell where they’ve been waiting for him. Laughing, and lifting his hands inside hers in the patty-cake game she’d begun when he was a baby clapping the soft palms of his hands together inside hers so that he was made to laugh and their laughter mingled breathless, joyous.
As he could not recall when memory began. When first he’d opened his eyes. When first he’d drawn breath. When first he’d heard music, that startled him, quickened his pulse. When first she’d sung and hummed with him. When first she’d danced with him. Though recalling how in one of the caf'es there had been a piano, a jukebox and a piano and the jukebox an old Wurlitzer, wide, squat, stained-glass colors darkened by a patina of grime through which a glaring light shone throbbing with the beat of simple loud percussive popular songs, when in the late evening the jukebox lapsed into silence Mommy led him (so sleepy! his head so heavy!) to the old upright yellow-keyed Knabe back beside the bar, Christmas tinsel and strings of red lights, a powerful smell of beer, tobacco smoke, men’s bodies, Mommy was saying in her excited voice clear as a bell for others to hear Try it, Zack! See if you can play piano gripping him in her strong warm arms so he would not slip from her lap, her sturdy knees, at such times he was a clumsy child, a stricken-shy-mute little rat of a child, the badly scruffed piano stool too low for him he could have barely reached the keyboard, there were men looking on, always there were men in these caf'es, taverns, bars to which Mommy brought him, the men were uttering words of hearty encouragement Come on, kid! Let’s hear it and her breath was hot and beery against the back of his neck, trembling with excitement she seized his small pliant hands and placed them on the keyboard, never mind the ivory keys were stained and warped and their sharp edges hurt his fingers, never mind the black keys had a tendency to stick, the piano was stained and warped and out of tune, Mommy knew to place her son’s hands at the center of the keyboard, Mommy knew to place his right thumb at middle C, each of his fingers sought its key by instinct, there was comfort to it He was born with the gift, God has designated him special. He don’t always talk so well. At such times she spoke strangely, forcefully, with such certainty and her eyes unwavering and her mouth shaped in a smile of such raw hope, though he was hurt at her words, he felt the falsity of her words even as he supposed he understood their logic Feel sympathy for us! Help us he was frightened for her, not for himself that he had no gift, he had been born with no gift and no god had designated him special, it was for her sake he was frightened that the men who’d seemed captivated by her a few minutes before should suddenly laugh at her, but when he began to strike the keys at once he would cease to hear the men’s jokes and laughter, he would cease to hear his father’s low mocking outraged voice in the voices of these strangers, he would cease to be aware of the tension in his mother’s body and the heat radiating from her, depressing the keys, those that weren’t sticking, in a rapid run, the scale of C major executed with childish enthusiasm though he had no idea it was the scale of C major he played, almost harmoniously both hands together though the left trailed the right by a fraction of a second, now he was striking chords, trying to depress the sluggish keys, striking black keys, sharps, flats, no idea what he was doing but it was play, piano was play, play-for-Zack, what he did felt right, felt natural, out of the piano’s unfathomable interior (he imagined it densely wired and with a glowing tube, like a radio) these wonderful sounds emerged with an air of surprise, as if the old upright Knabe shoved into an alcove of a roadside caf'e in Apalachin, New York, had been silent for so long, unused except for purposes of drunken keyboard banging for so long, the very instrument had been startled into wakefulness, unprepared.
What his mother meant by designated by God. Not his hands which were fumbling blind-boy hands, but the piano-sounds that were like no sounds he had ever heard so intimately. Out of the radio he’d heard music since infancy and some of this had been piano music but it was nothing like the strange vivid sound that sprang into life from his fingertips. He was dry-mouthed in wonder, awe. He was smiling, this was such happiness. Discovering the way individual notes fused with others as if his fingers moved of their own volition. Not a child to be at ease in the presence of strangers and the roadside places to which his mother brought him were populated exclusively by strangers and most of these were men perceiving him with the glazed-eyed indifference of the male for any offspring not his own. Except he had their attention now. For he was discovering in the maze of stained, warped, sticking and dead keys enough live keys to allow him to play a pattern of related notes he could not guess would be instantly familiar to these strangers’ ears, Bill Monroe’s “Footprints in the Snow” he’d been hearing repeated on the jukebox in that dreamy state between sleep and wakefulness his head lowered onto his mother’s folded coat in one of the caf'e booths, he had no idea that the succession of notes constituted a song composed and performed by individuals unknown to him and that those who heard it would be drawn to marvel at it-“Jesus, how’s he do it? Kid so little, he don’t take lessons does he?”
He wasn’t listening to their voices. Eyes shut tight in concentration. The fingers of his right hand picked out the predominant pattern as if already it was familiar to him, the fingers of his weaker left hand provided chords, a filling-in of gaps in the sound. Play. Playing. This was happiness! The old piano’s notes running through him-fingers, hands, arms, torso-like an electric current.
“Ask can he play ”Cumberland Breakdown.“”
Mommy told them he could not. He could only play songs he’d heard on the jukebox.
“”Rocky Road Blues‘? That was on the jukebox.“
He was discovering that he could play a cluster of notes and then replay it as an echo, in a different key: raised by a half-note, or lowered. He could change the pattern of the cluster by playing the notes faster or slower or with emphasis upon certain notes and not on others, yet the pattern remained recognizable.
He could not reach a full octave of course, his hands were far too small. He could not reach the pedals of course. Had no idea what the pedals were. Nor would his mother know. The piano-sounds were choppy, broken up. This was not the smooth music you heard on the radio.
The men who’d been drawn by the child’s piano playing began to lose interest. Began to drift away. Soon their loud voices resumed, their braying laughter. One man remained, and came closer. He placed his foot on the right-hand pedal and depressed it. At once the choppy sounds melted into one another.
“You need the pedal. You pump it.”
This man, a stranger. But not like the others. He was smiling, he’d been drinking but he knew something the others didn’t know. And he cared, he appeared to be genuinely interested in the child fumbling to play an instrument he’d never touched before, astonishing how raw and instinctive the child’s playing was. And there was the child’s young mother holding him in her arms, smiling, so proud, a glisten of madness in her face.
Afterward asking who they were, where they were from. And the young woman said evasively, though she was still smiling, “Oh, up farther north. Nowhere you would know.” And the man persisted, “Try me, honey: where?” and the young mother laughed fixing the man with her calm dark seemingly imperturbable eyes shadowed with tiredness and yet beautiful to him, saying, as if she’d rehearsed these words many times, “Nowhere is where we are from, mister. But somewhere is where we are going.”
A roadside caf'e in Apalachin, New York. Just south of the Susquehanna River and a few miles north of the Pennsylvania border. It was late winter 1960, they had been in flight from Niles Tignor for nearly five months.
It was the first time he’d played any piano. The first time she’d led him to any piano. Possibly she’d been drinking, she had seen the piano shoved into an alcove of the caf'e and the idea came to her as so many ideas came to her now: “The breath of God.”
Not that she believed in any god. Hell, no.
Still there were these wayward breezes, sometimes. Sudden gust of wind. Whipping-wind of the kind she’d grown up with, rushing at the old stone cottage from the vastness of Lake Ontario. A cruel suffocating wind, you could not breathe. Laundry was torn from the line, sometimes the very posts collapsed. But there were gentler winds, there were breezes gentle as breaths. These she was learning to recognize. These she awaited eagerly. These she would guide her life by.
Beyond this night there would be other caf'es, taverns and restaurants, hotels. There would be other pianos. If circumstances were right, she would lead her gifted child Zacharias to play. If circumstances were not so right, sometimes she would lead her gifted child Zacharias to play anyway. For he must be heard! His musical gift must be heard!
Each time Zack played there was applause.
You don’t look closely into the motive for applause.
And each time there would be a man who lingered afterward. A man who marveled, admired. A man who had money if only a few dollars to spend on the strange young mother and her spindly-limbed little boy with his pale, intense face and haunted eyes.
Tell me your name, honey. You know mine.
You know my son’s name. That’s enough for now.
No. I need to know your name, too.
My name is Hazel Jones.
“Hazel Jones.” That’s a pretty name.
Is it? I was named for someone. My parents kept the secret but now they are gone. But one day I will know, I think.