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Story Hour: The Salad Maker Listens
Part 5, The Final Installment
Today I’m posting the final installment of my serialized, work-in-progress story. Initially, I gave it a working title of “The Salad Maker Listens to the Piano.” Since then, I’ve been hunting for a title that achieves more and pleases me better. For now, I’m truncating the original: “The Salad Maker Listens.” I think the shortened version holds more potential and lets readers bring questions into the story.
What do you all think?
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And now, the final installment.
Monday afternoon, Edith marched east out of the hotel’s service entrance. A breeze brushed the backs of her legs and fluttered her skirt, reminding her that spring would come, maybe soon. The daffodils Dwight planted in the beds under the front windows when she moved to Campbell street were poking shoots through the scrim of snow still left.
Thinking of this, Esther hurried her steps. The things she hadn’t done for Dwight, the things she had done that he never saw, the set of his shoulders as he knelt on her lawn poking holes in the earth for the tiny bulbs, all of it rasped at her. She was grateful when a man in a pea coat jostled her at the corner. The bump set her thoughts into a new groove, and her quick steps had more of to than from in them.
Before long, she reached her destination. A sign hung over the front windows: Vehicle City Vinyl. Edith smoothed her skirt and pushed through the door.
Inside, young men slumped in front of bins full of albums. They were boys, really, boys who had ought to be out working, half of them wearing raggedy dungarees like the ones her boys had no choice but to wear and been ashamed of. These boys, who seemed to be dressed this way by choice, flipped slowly through the records, searching for treasure they seemed sure they would find. Three stood beneath a poster of a bushy-haired man in silhouette. One held an album, and all talked in mournful voices, though what they should have to be gloomy about, lounging inside in the middle of the afternoon with nothing to do but shop and visit, Edith couldn’t think.
Beautiful, one said, shaking the album slightly. Transcendental. Pure poetry.
At the word poetry, Edith pinched her mouth into an expression much like Dwight’s, though she didn’t realize that. Harold had liked to read poetry. His grandmother had been a schoolteacher who owned a complete set of the works of Shakespeare, big dusty tomes they had carted everywhere with them even when they couldn’t make room for the little cherry end table Edith had inherited from her mother. Now Edith tried to imagine Harold in this place, saying these words, but couldn’t. She hiked her purse further on her arm, stuffed her gloves into her coat pocket, and approached the clerk. He, at least, was dressed in slacks and a shirt and tie.
He lifted his head from a column of numbers he’d been adding. “Something I can help you with, ma’am?”
“I want a hi-fi console. And an album.” Edith drew a folded sheet of paper from her purse and held it up for him to read.
The clerk read, then looked at her with surprise in his eyes.
She jutted her chin, and his expression cleared like he’d swiped a damp rag across it. “Yes, we have Chopin’s Scherzo in B Flat Minor. Which recording would you like?”
Edith laid the paper down, its opposite side showing. “I want him, the fellow who wrote that music there.”
The clerk leaned close over the paper, then glanced sharp at her. “Where did you get this?” His tone was urgent, like she’d stolen something.
“From him.” Edith poked the paper again. The Salad Maker Listens to the Piano, the piano player had printed at the top of the page. Under that was his name, Eyrevine Wojciechowski. Beneath that was a scrawl of lines with notes riding atop like hobos on a rail car. Edith knew that was the notes that spelled out the song he had made up for her after they talked on Sunday.
“You’re putting me on.”
Edith shook her head. This slangy way of talking was unfamiliar, but she knew what the clerk meant.
“Eyrevine Wojceichowski gave you this?”
“I work at the Durant. He was playing there last weekend.”
“I know he was. I was there both nights and Sunday afternoon as well.”
Edith nodded. If this young man had seen the performances, less explaining would be needed, which suited her. She waited for him to direct her to the album she wanted, but the clerk continued eyeing her. “Do you know who he is?”
“He’s a man from Poland who plays the piano.”
The clerk snorted, though not so rudely that it raised Edith’s hackles. “He’s the greatest living pianist on earth, is who he is. Who’s ever been in this world, though not everyone would agree with me. He doesn’t call himself that, though.” He tapped the paper. “He calls himself a composer. Composes songs about everything, all the time. Short little ditties, elaborate symphonies, everything in between. He’s not near well known enough in this country. A waste. Unforgivable, really.” He studied the page again. “You’re sure you didn’t make this up?”
Edith scowled at him.
“Right,” he said. “No, of course not. Why would you? How would you know to?”
Edith’s feet were beginning to hurt. The hotel required its workers to wear lace-up black oxfords, and hers rubbed on her bunion. She flexed her toes as best she could, waiting for the clerk to say something useful.
“I’ve read he likes to do this sort of thing,” he said, talking to himself as far as Edith could tell. “Play for common folks best of all.” Here, his fair skin pinked up. He cleared his throat. Touched the paper again with one fingertip. “Well, I envy you. Hang on to this. It’s priceless.”
“In its way, yes.”
Edith folded the paper and slid it back into her purse. “So, the hi-fi and the record?”
“We don’t sell hi-fis here, I’m afraid. You’ll have to go to Sears Roebuck or Smith Bridgman’s, but a record, of course, I can help you with. We just need to decide what artist you’d prefer.”
Edith scowled again. Her feet throbbed, she was too warm in her coat, and her head ached. She was beginning to wish she had not lit out on this adventure. “What do you mean?”
“Who do you want playing it?”
“I already said. Him. The Pole.” She could pronounce his first name, so like her dead boy’s, but wouldn’t. She couldn’t be sure she’d pronounce the string of letters he’d wrote down as his last name right and didn’t want to embarrass herself by trying.
“Yes, well, of course, I want that as well. But there are no recordings of Wojciechowski doing this piece or any piece. I heard a rumor about something coming down the pike from RCA, but that was years ago. He’s been mismanaged.”
“Helly said that.”
The clerk tugged on an earlobe. “Helly’s right, whoever she is. And as a result, there are no recordings of him at this point, something I wish I could change but cannot.”
Edith’s shoulders sagged, and the clerk touched her arm. “We’ve got a fine recording of Askenase on Deutsche Gramaphone doing this same piece, or there’s Horowitz. That’s the one I’d recommend.”
He came out from behind the counter and headed for a rack of bins at the far side of the shop, and Edith trudged after him.
The deliverymen from Smith Bridgman’s brought the hi-fi that very evening. Edith had them shove the couch close to the coffee table to make room for it. When they were gone, she stood and stared at it. Its brown wood cabinet shone quietly, seeming almost to give off its own shimmer like a living being. It was the most expensive item she had ever purchased, and she hoped she would not regret it.
Finally, she went and changed into her housedress and slippers. When she emerged from her bedroom again, she gingerly lifted the hi-fi’s lid, slid the album from its package, and worked it onto the spindle in the player's center. She lifted the arm, and the record began to turn. Edith startled, then set the needle down on the disc's rim as the salesman had demonstrated. After a moment, the opening notes of the scherzo came forth from the built-in speakers. Edith felt her jaw gape. She closed it quick, as if the red-headed floor manager was eyeing her, and sat in the arm chair, which was now crammed into a corner. She placed her feet flat on the floor, rested her hands on her knees, and kept her back straight.
She was still sitting that way when Dwight showed up an hour later, though she’d listened to both sides of the album and restarted it from the beginning in that time. He appeared in the living room, and she reared back in her chair.
“I didn’t hear you.”
“I thought I should make sure you got home all right from whatever your errand was.”
His voice was thin the way it got when he felt slighted.
“Well. I’m fine.” Edith’s cheeks flushed.
Dwight stepped further into the room. “Is that a hi-fi, Mother?”
His childish ways race into her mind. The hurts he clung to as if they were toys. His hunger for words she would not say, tokens she would not give. Would not is how she thought of it, but even as she did, one part of her mind chimed in, It’s could not, Edith. Admit it.
She was determined to keep silent, though. He ought to have been satisfied with the oatmeal and the caps and the mittens, for if that was not the love he yearned for, she didn’t know what was. All his hurt feelings and pinched-lip looks ought not to be encouraged. But then he tightened his big hand— for his hands had grown large though the rest of him had not— on the doorframe, and she recalled the afternoon he had asked her, during the long months of his illness, why Papa’s air shone green out in the barn with the horses but turned to black again when he was inside the house with her.
For once, she hadn’t spanked him or snapped at him for mentioning the shimmer. But she hadn’t answered his question, either. She had just looked at his hands, big even then, and flexed her own in and out of fists. It was as close a moment as the two of them had ever had together.
Now she sighed. It would be easier if Dwight was a grandchild she could entertain with the crushing of a can of beer or soda. “Ain’t you going to set down?” she finally asked.
Dwight settled on the arm of the couch without looking at her. He clenched and unclenched his hands while the song reached its end. The needle rode in its last grooves, sending a soft hiss through the hi-fi’s speakers, and then the arm lifted on its own and returned to its cradle.
Edith went and flipped the record over again. On her way back to her chair, she handed Dwight the album cover. “It’s good music, isn’t it?” she said.
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