the eighty-eighth key
She was sitting on the sand enjoying a perfect afternoon at the beach with her father, sifting fine white sand between her toes, watching the way the grains fell and wondering why. Why one grain fell this way and another that way – and what might cause such disparity in action and reaction? Was it gravity, or was there an unseen coefficient of friction at play? Then she looked up as a small breaking wave rippled and came to the beach – and the same question darted through her mind…if each wave is essentially the same, why does each individual wave look and, sometimes, behave differently too?
‘There’s something happening here, something happening beyond…’ she said to herself – but she stopped, lost in a sudden thought, lost in ‘the beyond…’ of the moment.
“But how can things happen in such chaos,” she said next, and so loudly it startled her father.
“What things, daughter?”
“I was looking at the waves, father. Each one is different, though often only in very subtle ways, yet the conditions here are almost uniform. So, why aren’t they identically shaped?”
“Well, are the conditions really identical – even ‘almost’ so? No, really, think about it. Are there sudden shifts in wind direction or strength, even very small shifts, or are there even harder to detect shifts in air pressure? And let’s not even mention the same possible variables happening underwater.” He looked at his daughter, at this little human being by his side, and while he felt a not so modest pride at the workings of her mind, he often observed a strange duality at play.
One moment, just like this one, where Imogen was caught up in the physical world all around them, – engaged with deciphering the inner-workings of nature – he felt little intermezzos within these inner passages…a sudden stillness, then an equally sudden irrational outburst of energy. What was happening, he wondered, within these thoughts?
He felt one coming-on again, right now, and he watched her face, saw manifest curiosity give way to startled fear, and he held out his hand in front of her face and waved it up and down, watching the pupils of her eyes for signs of constriction – but he saw nothing. Inexplicably – nothing. ‘How is this even possible?’ he asked himself as she twitched just then, and suddenly it was as if she was warding off blows from an unseen assailant.
He grabbed her and held her close, now very much afraid he just might understand what was happening…
“What is it, Imogen? What is happening to you right now?”
She moaned as he hid her face in her father’s robe, then she pushed herself closer – into the scent of the clean fabric and the faraway places she went when she could smell his skin. Her arms wrapped tightly around his waist, pulling herself closer and closer, still trying to escape the grasping fingers of the man in the black cape…
But his cane was out now, and the caped man was conducting a symphony…a symphony in the clouds…as if the storms he summoned were orchestras in and of themselves.
But then she was trying to feel for little variations in wind speed and direction, even the smallest changes in air pressure, yet as the raging storm gathered around her she felt herself smile at the power he summoned…
Parish was standing at attention, his eyes level and focused dead-ahead, trying not to move a muscle as the colonel read through his personnel file.
“I don’t get it, captain,” the colonel said. He was reputed to be a fine general surgeon – and a career military officer – but suddenly Parish was aware he respected this physician for the choice he’d made. “You’re due to head home in less than a month…and you want to re-enlist?”
The old man read a few notes from the file, shook his head more than once, then looked up at Parish again. “I said ‘at-ease,’ doctor. Now, would you sit your ass down and tell me what’s really going on here? Is it a girl?”
Parish sat, tried to gather his well-rehearsed thoughts once again before he began…
“No, sir. I’m not needed at home, Colonel. I don’t need to join a country club and I don’t need the big house. I do need to get back out to the men. I am needed out there…and it’s where I belong…”
“So, you got yourself wounded and now – all-of-a-sudden – you’ve had your ‘Come to Jesus moment’ and want to get back to the trenches. Is that it? Because looking over this file I see a fine surgeon masking as a world-class fuck-up. What happens when this little epiphany of yours fades away? You think the Medical Corps needs a screw-up in the ranks?”
Parish looked down, studied his hands before he spoke again: “I think it’s something more than that, Colonel, but I’m not sure I could even get it into words right now. Anyway, I want to make this official. I want to make this my home, and I want to make taking care of these guys my life’s work. Maybe I don’t really understand where all this is coming from, but I do understand the choice I’ve got to make is right here staring me in the face. And I feel comfortable about it, about the choice I’ve made.”
The colonel nodded, then pulled out a sheaf of carbon-copied papers and handed them over to Parish. “Read ‘em over, Captain. Take your own sweet time about it, too. Maybe a week…or hell, I dunno, a month…then sign ‘em if that’s what you really want to do. But this is a big decision, son, maybe the biggest you’ll ever make. So…you be sure you know what you’re doing before you sign. Okay?”
Parish read through the pack of documents right then and there, then he took one of the black ball-point-pens from the colonel’s desk and began signing his name…in triplicate, and on all the forms. When he was finished he looked up, looked into the colonel’s eyes and he thought he saw recognition in the old surgeon’s eyes. He saw the ribbons on his chest then, too, at least a dozen Korean campaign ribbons, and in that moment Parish felt the old man knew the score. He’d been there once himself, hadn’t he?
When he walked out of the building and into the heavy Hawaiian air he looked up at the flag and felt a gut-punch of pride, because now he knew exactly where he belonged. And why.
But first, he had to scoot over to personnel and see about getting back to C-Med.
“So, tell me about your mother. What’s going on with her?”
Callahan looked at Stacy Bennett, then down at her plate. “I see you liked the abalone. It’s supposed to be the best in the city.”
She smiled her approval but he could see by the look in her eyes the deflection wasn’t going to work.
He sighed while he rolled some linguini on his fork, but then put it down and looked her in the eye. “It’s kinda hard to tell from one report to the next. Not being there, not seeing what she’s working on, well…it’s like flying blind…”
“Is she still working on the nuclear stuff?”
He shook his head. “I don’t know…she’s not really stable enough right now – but who knows? I think she works on her music, but I’m not really sure.”
“Works? You mean, she writes music?”
“Yeah, and she’s actually really good, or so I’ve heard. Her first piece was well received, and she was seven years old!” He shook his head as he thought about what he really knew about her, then he sighed. “She wrote at least two more works in the 40s, during the German occupation of Denmark. Very political stuff, supposedly got her in a lot of trouble.”
“What kind of trouble?”
“The concentration camp kind. After they took her to work on some kind of weapons project, and she refused to cooperate. But a lot of people worked behind the scenes to keep her safe.”
Stacy shivered. “How could you ever be safe in a concentration camp.”
Callahan shook his head. “I don’t know. And it’s like a forbidden topic. Avi…he’s kinda like my step-dad…he doesn’t even want me to bring it up. He’s terrified, as a matter of fact, but I think I understand why.”
“You’ve never heard any of her music?”
“No, I haven’t. No recordings were made, and I’ve never heard of printed scores being available commercially, so they’re probably lost works.”
“Have you ever checked? Isn’t there a good dealer here in the city you could check with?”
Harry thought for a moment, then his eyes brightened: “Yeah, there’s Rosenthal’s, an old place over by the park. They have a reputation, I guess, for more popular works, but their staff knows just about everything there is to know about composers.”
“Funny you’ve never asked, don’t you think?”
“Funny? No, not really. I grew up with her stuff, she played all the time when I was growing up, and, well, she was my teacher. I think I’ve already heard all her compositions, just fragments though, one at a time.”
“You want to go? See if they have any information?”
“Where? To Rosenthal’s?”
Stacy nodded and smiled. “It might be fun. Besides, I love watching you play. You have sexy fingers.”
Callahan looked at her, then down at his fingers. “Sexy – fingers?”
“Um-hmm. And I do know from where I speak, Inspector Callahan.”
They hailed a taxi and rode from Fisherman’s Wharf up to the park; they got out by the aquarium, walked on wooded trails between museums and among all the sun-seekers across to the ancient music store and stepped inside.
“It looks like a record store,” Stacy said as she took in the rows and rows of scores. “I never knew such a place exists!”
“It’s more like a museum than a music store, I think. Scores are arranged by genre, and then alphabetically within each genre, but once you get into it you’ll see that genres are almost always a chronological listing. You can just about place each of the genre in here alongside a particular period in history, so once you know someone’s…”
“And where would your mother be? What genre, I mean?”
“That’s the question, I guess. I have no idea.”
“Then we ask,” Stacy said, making her way to a counter.
There was a wizened old man standing there, very short and straight and ancient looking – with a plain black yarmulke covering the back part of his head – and he looked up at Stacy as she approached.
“How may I help you, young lady?”
She smiled, took a deep breath: “A Danish composer from the pre-war era. Imogen…”
“Yes. My friend here, that’s his mother…”
The old man’s head turned slowly, his owlish eyes now fixed on Harry Callahan, his demeanor suddenly steely cold. “Ah, and you are Imogen’s son?”
“Yes, I am,” Callahan said as he got to the counter, “but I thought you knew that. We used to come here a lot, the two of us.”
“I remember.” His eyes narrowed, his face flushed.
“Were any of her works published,” Stacy asked, now looking at the exchange between Harry and the old man with some concern of her own.
The old man turned to Stacy and smiled. “The First and Third concertos we have from time to time, the Second is almost never available.”
“Do you currently have any in stock?” she asked, now clearly perplexed at the interplay going on.
The old man looked at her then shrugged, turned and walked back to a musty office near the rear of the store.
“What is it with that guy,” she whispered. “He looks like some kind of wizard…”
Callahan crossed his arms over his chest and sighed as he watched the old man rummaging around in the office, then he rumbled: “I have no idea. We used to get along, at least we did when my mom was with me. A friend, a girlfriend and I used to come up here almost every weekend…”
And then it hit…and Harry wondered if that was it. If word about June’s death had reached even this quiet little enclave, and if the stain would follow him around forever. Then he saw the old man returning, and he was carrying a very large manilla envelope with him.
When the old man got to the counter he handed the envelope over to Harry, then gave Harry a dismissive flip of the hand. “That’s all I got for you, Mister Harry Callahan. Go now, and please, you don’t come back no time.”
Harry took the envelope but stood his ground, opened the flap and pulled out the contents…
…and Stacy watched the old man. His lips began to tremble, his eyes watered, then he turned away…as if he couldn’t stand to watch what was unfolding any longer…
Callahan looked at the six bound scores with something akin to awe in his eyes, then he noticed an envelope tucked inside the last bound volume and slid it free. He opened this one and pulled out a typed letter, and he slowly began to read through the first page.
By the time he was into the second page his hands were shaking, and by the fourth he was openly weeping – his breath coming in gaping sobs as his mind tried to grasp the meaning behind the images the words conjured. Stacy took the pages and began reading – but she stopped somewhere on the second page and put the letter down on the counter.
The old man looked at them then put the pages back into the envelope, and he did so almost reverentially, Stacy thought, before he gently taped it shut. Before he looked up at Harry.
“You want I should keep this Harry,” the old man asked softly, his voice now a kindly visitor from the past, “or you think maybe I should just throw it away?”
“I’d better take it,” Stacy said as she gently took the envelope from the old man, “until Harry’s calmed down.”
The old man looked down, though he shuddered once as the envelope left his hand: “What happened in all that,” he whispered to Stacy as he trembled, “shouldn’t have ever happened to another human being. Your mother is a strong soul, Harry, and don’t you never forget it.”
Then the old man came out from behind the counter and walked up to Harry Callahan, and without words coming between the two men they hugged for the longest time, both of them crying again, then the old man pushed away, wiping away his eyes.
“A lot of us didn’t make it, Harry. They almost got me too but she saved me, Harry, just like she saved so many of us, and she sacrificed herself to do it. When you play the Sonata, the unpublished one, you read this again and you think about what she did. As God is my witness, Harry, I beg you to think about the price she paid every time you even look at this music. Now please, leave an old man in peace, would you?”
They walked side-by-side through the park, both her arms wrapped tightly around his right, yet they both tried to ignore the weight of history hovering in the air just overhead – and somehow just out of reach. Harry thought about the old man sitting in the Jetstar, thinking about the destruction of his home once again, and the impossible, suffocating reality both Imogen and Avi had endured just to get where they were today. Just to have a little peace before their time on earth was up…
The choices that had been forced on them…the lasting and almost unendurable suffering she had visited on herself…
He hailed a taxi and they rode in silence to his apartment, and once upstairs he took the smaller envelope and placed it in a dresser drawer, then he took the music out and sifted through the bound volumes until he came to the unpublished sonata, and he opened the cover…
The pages had yellowed a little, and the ink had faded some as well, but here it was – exactly as it had been on a very dark night more than thirty years before.
He looked at the notes on page and played them in his mind.
Startling simplicity, yet fresh chords he had never seen spiraled into view and suddenly all he wanted to do was get his fingers to the keyboard…
…but then…there it was again…
He looked towards the Golden Gate and saw a storm rolling in.
The city grew dark as clouds rolled in from the sea, and time itself seemed to dissolve as lightning pierced the sky, followed by thunder that rumbled across the bay, and Stacy joined him by the window.
She winced involuntarily. “That sounds awfully close. And powerful.”
He nodded, if only because the power seemed so familiar.
“It is powerful, Stacy.”
“It’s like a huge hammer – striking an anvil.”
She looked at Harry, and the faraway stare in his eyes, but she’d never seen anything like this look before. “Harry? What is it? Is something wrong?”
He turned and looked at the piano, then walked over and sifted through the music once again until he found the unpublished sonata. He opened to the lead and formed the chords in his mind…
“The hammer of God,” he whispered.
“What,” Stacy said as she joined him by the piano. “What did you say?”
“It is a hammer. The hammer of God.” He sat, then pulled himself up to the keyboard and placed the music on the stand, staring at that first chord and wondering where it came from. He thought of her forming such power out of nothingness, her music like the splitting of an atom…but no, that wasn’t quite right, was it?
“No, Stacy,” he said as he moved his hands to form a hammer in the air above the keys, “it’s the hammer of an angry God.”
Across the city thunder rolled and rain fell from a very dark sky, and in a small music shop near the Golden Gate Park an old man fell to his knees and cried, before he leaned back and gazed into the abyss one last time. He raised his hand and made a fist, then he shook with all the fury of an angry God. “I’m coming now, you bastard!” Saul Rosenthal cried. “I’m coming for you now!”
He clutched his chest and settled on his heels, only to smile when he heard the chord – as he heard her infinite music at play amongst the clouds once again. He smiled as the pain grew – until at last the white light came – then he stood strong and pure, ready for the eternal fight to begin again.
© 2020 adrian leverkühn | abw | and thanks for reading…
[note: I typically don’t put all a story’s acknowledgements until I’ve finished, if only because I’m not sure how many I’ll need until the work is finalized. Yet with the current circumstances that might not be the best way to proceed, and I’d hate to have this story stop ‘unexpectedly’ without some mention of these sources. Of course, the source material in this case – so far, at least – derives from two Hollywood films: Dirty Harry and Bullitt. The first Harry film was penned by Harry Julian Fink, R.M. Fink, Dean Riesner, John Milius, Terrence Malick, and Jo Heims. Bullitt came primarily from the author of The Thomas Crown Affair, Alan R Trustman, with help from Harry Kleiner, as well Robert L Fish, whose short story Mute Witness formed the basis of Trustman’s screenplay.]