The arpeggio sounds so familiar to Allie that it could be silence. She looks down at her hands to where her fingertips press the white keys down with precision. They’re on autopilot, controlled by muscle memory and nothing else. A marionette come to miraculous life. This is the first few minutes of every lesson she’d had since her mother first signed her up 10 years ago. Tennyson stands beside the keyboard, shoulders squared and humming low to match her warm up.
Her mind drifts back to last night, to the smoke-filled rooftop patio with stringed Edison bulbs hanging over the lattice. She was with some friends, trying to listen to their stories. But she was distracted by the beginning melody of “Maggie May” from a man with gray hair playing guitar in the corner. There was a mic nearby, but he wasn’t singing, and a few dollars in change shone silver in his black case. She told her friends she would get another drink, but she stopped by him and listened to the rest of the song. He bent slightly forward over the guitar, looking down at his hands with a vivid awareness of where his fingers landed, where they would go next. He plucked out the twanging high notes, strummed the harmony. This broke every rule of performance Tennyson had taught her over the years, but the music.
She placed 75 cents into his guitar case during his next break. “That song was nice,” she said.
He took a swig of water, some drops falling down into his beard. “‘Nice’ wasn’t what I was going for, but I’ll take it.”
“I mean,” she said, “it sounded like breathing. I’ve always thought guitars sounded like that.”
“Do you play?” He patted the body of the guitar still hanging from his shoulders.
“Ah, percussion. The heartbeat.”
She nodded like she knew what he meant.
“It tells you what the song is about better than any other kind of instrument,” he said, curling his fingers like he was holding drumsticks.
“Sad, happy, thrilled. You know, that zing in your heart when you’re excited about something. When you know this is it.”
It. “I need to get something. Good luck with the rest of the show,” she said, and he waved her off. Later when she was back sitting with her friends, swirling ice around in her glass and watching it dilute the color, she glanced up again at the guitarist. She could see now that a small smile hid behind his beard, one that came so naturally he probably didn’t even know it was there. Maybe that’s what it is, or at least his it.
“Don’t close your eyes,” Tennyson says, bringing her back into the present moment. She stumbles in her practice set for the first time in a long time, moves back again to middle C. She looks at her hands hovering a half inch above the keys. Her fingers are long and thin, with nails cut short. They’re pianists’ hands, though she isn’t a pianist.
She sets a slower pace than usual, hearing the notes round and whole. The way they connect to each other, bleed together like watercolor paints. Each press of a key is exact, intended. Tennyson isn’t humming anymore.
It feels like a new song beneath her fingertips, even though it’s likely as old as piano itself. If Allie were to name it, she would call it “Curiosity.”