My first piano teacher, Mr. Nohl, still plays a recital at the County Fair on his tours. This year it really sucks. He’s playing Beethoven’s Für Elise (For Elise). It is like slop to the hogs and this crowd is eating it up. I can’t think of a more brain-molding bunt than that piece.
Mama used to play it all the time when I was a child; her swaying like she was snake-fascinated. Mr. Nohl would tell me when I started piano lessons, “In measure seven on the G clef the second note to be played is supposed to be a D, not an E as it is in most sheet music. No one really knows the real manuscript of Für Elise since all we have are questionable transcriptions and some sketches by Beethoven himself but Beethoven’s sketch has a D there.”
Like it should matter to me. Please. I can’t wait to leave this town. Even if I do get favors because I play piano. How far can even the biggest favor in this town take me? I just can’t wait and Mama knows it.
And thank God this recital is over. So there it is: I did what Mama asked and I saw Mr. Nohl play. I need a cigarette. Now if I can just sneak out of here without having to talk to Mr. Nohl. Well, I’ve made it out onto the road without him noticing me. Nice night. Time for that cigarette. Oh, Mercy Christmas, someone is calling my name.
“Elise? Elise is that you?”
It is Mr. Nohl. I turn and hold my cigarette between us.
He is grinning as he trots closer, saying, “How have y’all been, Elise? How is your mama?”
I reply, “Mama is just fine.”
He asks, “Still playing piano?”
I reply minimally, “Mama and me both still play.”
He says, “Yeah, yeah. I have heard. Well that is just fine, really fine. I’ll bet you are really quite the fine pianist by now.”
He hesitates, like he is waiting for me to say something. Oh, fine, I can say, “It was a real nice recital back there.”
He closes his eyes and lowers his head, like I am blessing him, and he says, “I am glad you liked it, Elise, really glad. I always dedicate Für Elise to you and your mama.”
Oh, great. I take a drag on my cigarette and blow smoke as I say, “Yup. That piece is special, especially to Mama.” I don’t say Way too special to Mama. I know Mr. Nohl had something with Mama a long time ago. What does he want with me?
Mr. Nohl says softly, “I am sorry to hear about your mama, Elise, but I heard she is doing fine?”
I blow more smoke and he fades to me for a moment, “Mama can’t work anymore. But thanks to you I can jam at Sticky Finger’s Pourhouse whenever I want and I earn money.”
Mr. Nohl looks like I hit him, “But, isn’t that place… Aren’t you only… How can…”
I say real cool, “Nobody cares. They know me there as ‘Babette’. I can play jazz and blues and some classical arrangements, to ‘classical-up the place’ like Wanda tells me; Wanda is the owner.”
Mr. Nohl is struggling for something as he asks, “Elise, can we talk? Let’s go get some lemonade.”
My very own little devil, I call her “Babette”, has an idea and I say, “Sure. But under one condition.”
Mr. Nohl would say yes to anything and he prods with a nod.
I say, “We can have some lemonade at my house. Mama is up and I’m sure she would like to see you, Mr. Nohl, for old time’s sake?” I laugh, “Für Elise?”
Then Mr. Nohl surprises me (and Babette) when he says, “Elise, praise God, that’s what I wanted to ask you. I would like nothing better.”
Babette didn’t see that coming. So we walk on down the road in the moonlight. Disoriented now, I offer Mr. Nohl a cigarette and he refuses but he doesn’t admonish me.
Mr. Nohl finally says to me quietly, “You are turning into a fine little lady, Elise, and I mean that.”
Babette gets nervous, and I say, “Thanks, Mr. Nohl. I had to grow up kind of fast. Wanda had to show me some dirty fighting. Not everyone at Sticky Finger’s is a ‘music lover’. Wanda has been like my big sister.”
Mr. Nohl says, “Then I like Wanda already. You were always precocious, Elise. Do you remember starting to play piano at four years old?”
I sigh, “Mama never lets me forget. She still tells me she named me after that most famous piece of music (Babette won’t let me say Für Elise) that no one is really sure who wrote the version we all know. How flattering.”
Mr. Nohl suddenly starts monologuing, “If my life was sheet music it would look like one long chromatic arpeggio. A solo on one string in thin air,” he gestures, “Even a dirt road is headed somewhere. I’ve been thinking that I need to root or I’ll just disappear and no one will know or care,” he pauses a long time, “I never stopped thinking about your mama and you. I want to make things right with your mama and you. Elise, do you know what I am saying?”
Babette, where are you? I say, “What do you mean ‘make things right’?” and I am angry. Babette isn’t talking.
Mr. Nohl stares up at the stars, “I mean I want to take care of your mama the way she deserves, the way she needed me to, and especially now…” he stops and faces me.
Babette! I feel abandoned, frightened, saying, “What does that mean? We’re doing just fine. Mama and me are just fine ourselves. Without you. I always knew you made Mama sad! Who needs you?” I raise my fist in defiance.
Then I swear that I could feel Babette push me into Mr. Nohl’s arms and I start to cry as Babette makes way for Mr. Nohl’s daughter, Elise.
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