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2

In San Francisco the streets shone wetly. So steep, as in an ancient cataclysm. The air was harshly pure, blown inland from the fog-obscured ocean.

And the fog! Outside the windows of their twentieth-floor suite in the San Francisco Pacific Hotel the world had collapsed to a few feet.

The world had collapsed to a gleaming piano keyboard.

The breath of God.

It was so. There could be no other explanation. That hed become at the age of seventeen a young pianist named Zacharias Jones, his thumbnail-sized photograph in the glossy program of the 1974 San Francisco International Piano Competition. And shed become Hazel Gallagher.

In their hotel suite, a dozen red roses awaited. A cellophane-wrapped wicker basket stuffed with gourmet foods, bottles of white and red wine. They would have laughed wildly together like conspirators except theyd grown wary of each other in recent months. The son had aimed at the mothers heart, hed struck a deep stunning blow.

Unknowing, Gallagher had become the mediator between them. He had not the slightest awareness of the tension between mother and son. Nudging Hazel, when they heard Zack whistling in his adjoining hotel room, Listen! Thats a good sign.

Hazel did not know if it was a good sign. She, too, had become strangely happy in San Francisco, in the fog. It was a city of wetly gleaming near-vertical streets and quaintly clamorous trams. It was a city utterly new to her and Zack. It had a posthumous feel to it, a sense of calm. The breath of God had blown them here, as whimsically as elsewhere.

Downstairs in the hotel gift shop, Hazel bought a deck of cards.

Alone in the suite she tore the cellophane from the deck and rapidly shuffled the cards and slapped them out onto a glass-topped table facing a window, for a game of solitaire.

So happy, to be alone! Gallagher had badly wanted her to come with him and Zack, to the luncheon honoring the pianists. But Hazel remained behind. On the plane, shed seen two teenaged girls, sisters, playing double solitaire.

So happy. Not to be Hazel Jones.

Hazel? Why the hell are you wearing black?

It was a new dress of softly clinging jersey, graceful folds of cloth at the bodice. Long-sleeved, long-waisted. The skirt fell to mid-calf. She would wear black satin pumps with it. The October night was cool, she would wrap herself in an elegant black wool shawl.

Shouldnt I? I thought

No, Hazel. Its a gorgeous dress but too damned funereal for the occasion. You know how Zack interprets things. Especially coming from you. A little more color, Hazel. Please!

Gallagher seemed so serious, Hazel gave in. She would wear a cream-colored suit in light wool, with a crimson silk scarf, one of Thaddeus Gallaghers more practical gifts, tied around her neck. It was all a masquerade.

Outside the tall windows, the fog had cleared. San Francisco emerged at dusk, a city of stalagmites glittering with lights to the horizon. So beautiful! Hazel wondered if she might be forgiven, remaining in the room. Her heart clenched in terror at the prospect of what lay ahead.

Hey Dad? Come help.

Zack was having trouble with his black tie. Hed been in and out of his own room, lingering in their bedroom. He had not been very comfortable that day, Gallagher had said. At the luncheon, and afterward. The other pianists were older, more experienced. Several exuded personality. Zack had a tendency to withdraw, to appear sullen. He had showered now for the second time that day and he had combed his hair with compulsive neatness. His blemished forehead was mostly hidden by wings of fawn-colored hair. His angular young face shone with a kind of panicked merriment.

The men were required to wear black tie. Starched white cotton dress shirts with studs, elaborate French cuffs. Gallagher helped Zack with both the necktie and the French cuffs.

Chin up, kid. A tux is a ridiculous invention but we do look good. Dames fall for us. Gallagher snorted with laughter at his feeble joke.

Through a mirror Hazel observed. She could not help but feel that the little family was headed for an execution and yet: which one of them was to be executed?

Gallagher fussed with Zacks tie, undoing it entirely and trying again. Almost, you would see that the two were related: middle-aged father with a high bald dome of head, adolescent son nearly his height, frowning as the damned tie was being adjusted for him. Hazel guessed that Gallagher had to restrain himself from wetly kissing the tip of Zacks nose in a clowns blessing.

The more edgy Gallagher was, the more jocular, antic. At least he wasnt doubling up with gastric pains, vomiting into a toilet as hed done at his fathers house. In semi-secrecy (Hazel knew, without having seen) hed unlocked the minibar in the parlor and taken a swig or two of Johnnie Walker Black Label Whiskey.

It was believed to be contrary to nature, that a man might love another mans son as if he were his own son. Yet Gallagher loved Zack in this way, Gallagher had triumphed.

Of five pianists scheduled to perform that evening in the concert hall of the San Francisco Arts Center, Zacharias Jones was the third. Next day the remaining eight pianists would perform. The announcement of the first, second, third prize winners would be made after the last pianist played that evening. The Gallaghers were relieved that Zack would play so soon, the ordeal for him would be more quickly over. But Gallagher worried that the judges would be more inclined to favor pianists who played last.

Still, it doesnt matter, Gallagher told Hazel, stroking his chin distractedly, how Zack does. Weve said this.

Their seats were in the third row, on the aisle. They had a clear, unimpeded view of the keyboard and the pianists flying hands. As they listened to the first two pianists perform, Gallagher gripped Hazels hand tightly, leaning heavily against her. He was breathing quickly and shallowly and his breath smelled of a lurid mixture of whiskey and Listerine mouthwash.

After each of the performances, Gallagher applauded with enthusiasm. Hed been a performer himself. Hazels arms were leaden, her mouth dry. Shed heard hardly a note of music, she had not wanted to realize how talented her sons rivals were.

Abruptly then Zacks name was announced. He moved onto the stage with surprising readiness, even managing to smile toward the audience. He could see nothing but blinding lights and these lights made him appear even younger than he was, contrasting with the preceding pianist whod been in his early thirties. At the piano, Zack seated himself and leaned forward and began playing the familiar opening notes of the Beethoven sonata without preamble. Though Hazel had seen Zack perform in numerous recitals it was always something of a shock to her, how abruptly these performances began. And, once begun, they must be executed in their entirety.

There were only three subtly contrasting movements to the intricate sonata, that would pass with unnerving swiftness. Ever more swiftly Zack seemed to be playing it, than at home. So many months in preparation, less than a half-hour in performance! It was madness.

Gallagher was leaning so heavily against Hazel, she worried he would crush her. But she dared not push him away.

She was in a state of suspended panic. She could not breathe, her heart had begun to pound so rapidly. She had told herself repeatedly, Zack could not possibly win in this competition, the honor was in simply qualifying. Yet she feared he would make a mistake, he would blunder in some way, he would humiliate himself, he would fail. She knew that he would not, she had absolute faith in him, yet she was in dread of a catastrophe. Vivid crystalline notes exploded in the air with hurtful volume yet seemed almost immediately to fade, then to swell, and to fade again out of her hearing. She was becoming faint, shed been holding her breath unconsciously. Gallaghers hand was so very heavy on her knee, his fingers so tight squeezing hers she felt he would break the bones. The music that had been familiar to her for months had become suddenly unfamiliar, unnerving. She could not recall what it was, where it was headed. There was something deranged, demonic about the sonata. The swiftness with which the pianists fingers leapt about the keyboardHazels eyes filled with moisture, she could not force herself to watch. Could not imagine why such a tortuous spectacle was meant to be pleasurable, entertaining. It was sheerly hell, she hated it. Only during the slower passages, which were passages of exquisite beauty, could Hazel relax and breathe normally. Only during the slower passages when the demonic intensity had ceased. Truly this was beautiful, and heartrending. In recent weeks Zacks interpretation of the Appassionata had begun to shift. There was less immediate warmth to his playing now, more precision, percussion, a kind of restrained fury. The rapid, harshly struck notes tore at her nerves. Zacks piano teacher had not liked the newer direction in which Zack had been moving, nor had Gallagher. Hazel could hear it now, the fury. Almost, there was a disdain for the fact of the sonata itself. There was disdain for the showy act of performance. Hazel saw that Zacks jaws were tight-clenched, his lower face was contorted. A patch of oily moisture gleamed on his forehead. Hazel looked away, flinching. She saw that others in the audience were staring at the pianist, fascinated. Rows of rapt listeners. The hall had five hundred seats in the orchestra and balcony, and appeared to be full. It was a musical audience, familiar with the pieces the pianists would perform. Many were pianists themselves, piano teachers. There was a contingent of supporters from the Conservatory, Frieda Bruegger among them: Hazel sought out the girls face but could not find it. Here and there in the elegantly appointed concert hall with its plush seats and mosaic wall tiles were faces you would not expect to see in such a setting. Very likely they were relatives of the performers, ill-at-ease among the other, more knowledgeable listeners. A crack of memory opened, sharp as a sliver of glass. Herschel telling her that their parents had once sung arias to each other, long ago in Europe. In Munich, it would have been. In what Anna Schwart had called the Old Country.

Blurred with distance as with time, their faces hovered at the rear of the concert hall. The Schwarts!

They were stunned, disbelieving. They were immensely proud.

We always had faith in you Rebecca.

No. You didnt.

We always loved you Rebecca.

No. I dont think so.

It was hard for us to speak. I did not trust this new language. And your father, you know what Pa was like

Do I!

Pa loved you Rebecca. Used to say he loved you most, you were most like him.

Hazels face was a brittle doll-face, covered in cracks. She was desperate to hide it, that no one would see. Tears gushing from her eyes. She managed to cover part of her face, with one hand. Seeing the neglected and overgrown cemetery. Always the cemetery was close behind her eyelids, she had only to shut her eyes to see it. There, grave markers were toppled over in the grass, cracked and broken. Some of the graves had been vandalized. The names of the dead had been worn away. No matter how carefully engraved into the stone the names of the dead had vanished. Hazel smiled to see it: the earth was a place of anonymous graves, every grave was unknown.

She opened her eyes that were flooded with tears. On the stage, the pianist was completing the final, turbulent movement of the Beethoven sonata. All of his young life was being channeled into this moment. He was playing his heart out, that was clear. Hazels face must have shone with happiness, that had been strained and hard for so long. There came the final chord, and the pedal holding. And the pedal released. At once, the audience erupted into applause.

With childlike eagerness the pianist bounded from his seat to bow to the audience. His young, vulnerable face gleamed with perspiration. There was something glaring and fanatic in his eyes. Yet he was smiling, a somewhat dazed smile, he bowed as if stricken with humility like sudden pain. By this time Gallagher was on his feet, lifting his hands to applaud with the rest.

Hazel, he did it! Our son.

There should be some reason why she survived.

She knew. She knew this fact. Yet she did not know what the reason was, even now.

So restless!

It was 2:46 A.M. Though exhausted she could not sleep. Though spent with emotion she could not sleep. Her eyes burned as if shed rubbed them in sand.

Beside her Gallagher slept, heavily. In sleep he was childlike, strangely docile. Leaning his hot, humid body against her, nudging her like a blind creature ravenous for affection. Yet his breathing was so loud, labored. Sounds in his throat like wet gravel being shoveled, scraped. In such breathing she foresaw his death: then, she would know how deeply she loved this man, she who could not articulate that love now.

She was one whose childhood language has been taken from her, no other language can speak the heart.

Must get out! Slipped from the bed, left the darkened bedroom and the sleeping man. Insomnia drove her like red ants swarming over her naked body.

In fact, she wasnt naked: she was wearing a nightgown. Sexy-silky champagne-colored nightgown with a lace bodice, a gift from Gallagher.

In the parlor she switched on a lamp. Now it was 2:48 A.M. By such slow degrees a life might be lived. It was five hours since Zack had played the Appassionata. At the reception afterward the girl with the blunt beautiful face had embraced Hazel as if they were old friends, or kin. Hazel had held herself stiff not daring to embrace the girl back.

Zack had gone away with her. Her, and others. Hed asked Gallagher and his mother please not to wait up for him, theyd promised they would not.

Rain was pelting against the windows. In the morning again there would be fog. The nighttime city was beautiful to Hazel but not very real. At this height of twenty floors, nothing seemed very real. In the near distance there was a tall narrow building that might have been a tower. A red light blurred by rain rotated at its pinnacle.

The eye of God.

It was a curious thing to say. The words seemed to have spoken themselves.

She wouldnt take time to dress, she was in too great a hurry. Her trench coat would do. It was a stylish olive-green coat with a flared skirt and a sash-belt to be tied at the waist. The coat was still damp from that evenings rain. Yet she would wear it like a robe over the nightgown. And shoes: she could not leave the room barefoot.

Looking for her flat-heeled shoes she found a single shiny black dress shoe of Gallaghers lying on the carpet where hed kicked it. She picked it up and placed it in a closet beside its mate.

They had returned to the hotel suite to celebrate, together. Gallagher had called room service to order champagne. On the marble-topped coffee table was a silver tray and on the tray a spillage of wrappers, bottles, glasses. Remains of Brie cheese, rye crackers, kiwi fruit and luscious black Concord grape seeds. And almonds, Brazil nuts. After the emotional strain of that evenings program Gallagher had been famished but too excited to sit still, hed paced about the parlor as he ate, and talked.

He had not expected Zack to play so well, perhaps. He, too, had expected some sort of catastrophe.

In May, the elder Gallaghers had had a medical scare. Gallaghers gastric pains continued, something cloudy had showed up on an X-ray but was not malignant. An ulcerous condition, treatable. Theyd decided not to tell Zack, this would be their secret.

Zack had gone off with friends from the Conservatory and other young musicians theyd met in San Francisco. After his controversial performance Zack would be something of a hero, among pianists of his own generation at least.

Hazel would not approach the door to Zacks adjoining room. She would not turn the knob, gently: she knew it would be locked.

Yet surely the girl would not be in that room with Zack. In that bed. In such proximity to the Gallaghers. She had a room elsewhere in the hotel and shed come alone to San Francisco and if she and Zack were alone together in any bed, exhausted now in the aftermath of lovemaking, they would be in her room. Probably.

She would not think of it. She was no ones daughter now, and she would be no ones mother. All that was over.

She would say, You can live your own life now. Your life is your own, to live.

Shed brought with her, to San Francisco, the most recent of Thaddeuss letters. Love letters they were, of increasing passion, or dementia. Opening the stiff, much-folded sheet of stationery, to read by lamplight as her husband slept oblivious in the adjoining room. The letter was clumsily typed as if in lunges, in the dark; or by one whose eyesight is dimming.

Dearest Hazel Jones,

You wld tickel an old mans vanity if youd replied to my appeals but I see now, you are Hazel Jones and a good wife and you are a worthy Mother to your son. So you wld not reply, I rever you for it. I think that I will not write to you agin this side the grave. You & the boy will recieve a consumat Reward for your fathfulness & goodness. Your shallow husband the Mouth of Liberal Consience does not have a clue! He is a fool unworthy of you & the boy, that is our secret Hazel Jones isnt it. In my will you will all see. The scales will fall from the eyes of some. God bless you Hazel Jones & the boy whose music of beauttu is to outlive us all.

Hazel smiled, and folded up the letter again, and put it away in her handbag. A voice echoed faintly as if in rain beating against the windowpanes You-you are born here. They will not hurt you.

Pushed her arms into the sleeves of the still damp trench coat, and tied the belt tight around her waist. No need to glance at herself in the mirror: she knew her hair was disheveled, the pupils of her eyes dilated. Her skin smarted with a kind of erotic heat. She was excited, jubilant. She would take money with her, several twenties from her purse. She would take several items from the mini bar: miniature bottles of whiskey, gin, vodka. She would take the playing cards, dropping them loose in a pocket of her coat. And she must not forget the key to room 2006.

She stepped into the empty corridor. Shut the door behind her waiting for the lock to click into place.

The corridor leading to the elevators was longer than she recalled. Underfoot were thick crimson carpets and on the walls beige silk wallpaper in an Oriental design. At the elevators she punched down. Swiftly she would descend from 20 to G. Smiling to recall how in the past elevators had moved much more slowly. You had plenty of time to think, descending in one of those.

At this hour the hotel appeared deserted. Floor G was very quiet. The piped-in Muzak of daytime, a chirping of manic sparrows Gallagher called it, had been silenced. Though she had never been in this hotel before Hazel moved unerringly past windowless doors marked employees only and private: no admittance. At the end of a long corridor smelling of food was kitchen: employees only. And room service: employees only. Twenty-four-hour room service was a feature of the San Francisco Pacific Hotel. Hazel heard voices on the other side of the door, a sound of dishes being stacked. Radio music with a Latino beat. She pushed open the door, and stepped inside.

How the eyes snatched at her, in astonishment! Yet she was smiling.

There were kitchen workers in soiled white uniforms, and a man in a dark, neatly pressed uniform who had just returned to the kitchen pushing a cart loaded to capacity with trays of dirtied plates, glasses and bottles. The kitchen lights were very bright, the air much warmer than the corridor had been. Amid the strong kitchen odors of grease and cleanser was a sharp garbagey odor. And a beery odor as well, for some of the kitchen workers were drinking beer. Even as the alarmed-looking man in the dark uniform began to speak, Maam, excuse me but- Hazel was saying quickly, Excuse me, Im hungry. I can pay you. I have my own drinks but I dont want to drink alone. I didnt want to order room service, it takes too long. She laughed, they would see that she was in a festive mood and would not send her away.

Hazel would not afterward recall the sequence of events. She would not recall how many men there were for at least two continued working, at sinks; another came in later by a rear door, yawning and stretching. Several befriended her, cleared a place for her at their table setting aside tabloid papers, a crossword puzzle book, emptied Coke, 7-Up, beer cans. They were grateful for the miniature bottles shed brought from the room. They would not accept her offer of $20 bills. They were: C'esar, a youngish Hispanic with pitted skin and liquidy eyes; Marvell, a black man with skin the color of eggplant and a fleshy, tender face; Drake, a Caucasian of about forty, with an oddly flat face like a species of fish and glinting wire-rimmed glasses that gave him the look of an accountant, you would not take for a nighttime cook. And there was McIntyre, suspicious of Hazel initially but by quick degrees her friend, in his fifties, the man in the hotel uniform who made room service deliveries on call through the night. They were so curious of Hazel! She would tell them only her first name which was a name strange to them: Haz-el pronounced as if it were an exotic foreign word. They asked where she was from and she told them. They asked was she married, was her husband sleeping up in their room, what if he woke and saw that she was gone?

He wont wake. When he wakes, I will be there. Its just I cant seem to sleep now. This time of nightThey say that people check into hotels who are planning to commit suicide. Why is that? Is it easier, somehow? I used to work in a hotel. When I was a girl. I was a chambermaid. This was back east, in upstate New York. It was not so large and luxurious a hotel as this. I was happy then. I liked the other hotel workers, I liked the kitchen staff. Except

The men listened avidly. Their eyes were fixed upon her. The Latino music continued. Hazel saw that the kitchen was vast, larger than any kitchen she had ever seen. The farther walls were obscured in shadow. Numerous stoves and all the stoves were mammoth: a dozen gas burners on each. There were large refrigerators built into a wall. Freezers, dishwashers. The space was divided into work areas of which only one was currently lighted and populated. The linoleum floor shone wetly, recently mopped. Plates were removed from carts and garbage scraped into plastic bags, the bags were tightly tied and placed inside large aluminum cans. The mood of the kitchen workers was heightened, jocular. Hazel might wonder if her presence had something to do with it. Shed taken the playing cards out of her pocket and stacked and shuffled them. Did they know gin rummy? Would they like to play gin rummy? Yes, yes! Very good. Gin rummy. Hazel shuffled the cards. Her fingers were slender and deft and the nails had been lacquered deep crimson. Skillfully Hazel dealt the cards to the men and to herself. The men laughed, their mood was exuberant. Now they knew Hazel was one of them, they could relax. They played gin rummy laughing together like old friends. They were drinking chilled Coors beer, and they were drinking from the miniature bottles Hazel had brought them. They were eating potato chips, salted nuts. Brazil nuts like those Gallagher had devoured up in the room. A phone rang, a hotel guest calling room service. McIntyre would have to put on his jacket, and make the delivery. He went away, and within a few minutes returned. Hazel saw that he was relieved she hadnt left yet.

Cards were tossed onto the table, the set was over. Who had won? Had Hazel won? The men didnt want her to leave, it was only 3:35 A.M. and they were on room-service duty until 6 A.M. Hazel stacked the cards together and shuffled and cut and shuffled again and began to deal. The front of her trench coat had loosened, the men could see the tops of her breasts pale and loose in the silky champagne-colored nightgown. She knew that her hair was disheveled, her mouth was a cloudy smear of old lipstick. Even one of her fingernails was chipped. Her body exuded an odor of old, stale panic. Yet she supposed she was an attractive woman, her new friends would not judge her harshly. Dyou know gypsy gin rummy? If I can remember, Ill teach you.


| The Gravedigger`s Daughter | Epilogue