It's for occurrences like this that I cut the fingers off my gloves.
We came across an old spinet in an alleyway, discarded by some bar in favor of a jukebox and half-hidden in a snow drift. It's depressing to see an instrument all alone in the cold, more so because, pianos being rather cumbersome objects, there was no way in hell I could save it.
We stood there, the girl and I, looking at this machination. I couldn't not play it, but I was freezing and so was it. It was in rough shape, looked like the pressure of a finger on a key would break whatever magic
was keeping it in one piece in the first place, as if bringing my reality into contact with its reality would reduce it to dust.
I opened the keyboard cover and it failed to implode, though it groaned a little.
The girl, not one for flights of fancy (I had to drag her into the alley to explore; she was cold too and didn't have this new love to keep her warm) was strangely silent. I don't know what she was expecting, exactly, but she kept looking from it to me and back again, daring one of us to get to it. I closed my eyes and figured out what I was dealing with.
The keys stuck. The pedals were frozen. There was a horrible twang in the upper register. The keyboard cover kept threatening to come crashing down on my fingers. The felt covering the hammers was soaked through with precipitation and beer, changing clarity of sound into a muffled, barely tonal thump. Its boards were swollen with moisture, leaking songs out over the pavement like a cracked hourglass.
It was divine.
I played for a bit, feeling the ivory (ivory!) beneath my fingertips and learning which of the eighty-eight I should steer clear of. I wasn't trying to play anything in particular, but what came out was this wonderfully dissonant melody, full of accidentals that would make my old music teacher cringe because of the inherent wrongness of them, but it worked. Maybe it was the reverberation of strings on cabinet and cabinet on brick, but it worked.
I played and she danced, improvisational to a slightly perverted extreme - a back alley piano prepared by nature and bad luck, and a back alley girl (for the moment) willing to dance to this extremely personal soundtrack. Something melted in that alley, a certain hardness that I have since reacquired. It was one of the few moments through all the years I loved her that she wasn't looking for a back door and checking her blind spots.
- - -
For Christmas that year, our last Christmas together, I gave her a polished sliver of ivory on a silver chain.
For Christmas that year, our last Christmas as kids in a world of responsibilities, she gave me calfskin gloves and a pair of silver scissors.