Duets and Solos

Published in Talking River:  2010


The piano in the family’s old stone house on Juliana Street was just a piece of furniture, a shelf to display family photographs, until one autumn Sunday when Alice and Clare were eight. The family had gone to Sunday dinner as usual at the inn outside of town. Nestled in a deep hemlock forest, the inn was an old-fashioned oasis of white linen tablecloths and candlelight, never crowded. That particular evening there was one table of out-of-town guests. Priscilla Crichton, the proprietress, showed off the twins’ tall, patrician father like a trophy. 

“Let me introduce the editor of our paper,” she said to the visitors.

“Like the goose who laid the golden egg,” whispered the girls’ mother, leaning on her plump, freckled arm.

Alice and Clare finished eating before their parents.  It was too cold and dark to go outside to the old bowling alley. Instead, they played ping-pong in the basement Game Room and then went upstairs to the Lounge to work the perpetual jigsaw puzzle left on a card table for guests. Mrs. Crichton came in as they sorted puzzle pieces into edge and corner, sky and sea. She did not speak to them. No pets. Children over seven only, said the sign at the reception desk, though she had let the twins come since they were five, “Because of your father,” said their mother. The girls thought that Mrs. Crichton, with her long nose and dark clothes, looked like the wicked witch in The Wizard of Oz.    

Mrs. Crichton sat down at the gleaming grand piano in the corner and began to play. Clare and Alice laid down the puzzle pieces and curled together in the big wing chair close to the piano.  Their parents found them sitting, hypnotized,  “As though listening to the pied piper,” said Mother. Clare begged for piano lessons and Mrs. Crichton offered to teach them.

 Mother had their old upright tuned. Clare looked forward to the first lesson; Alice was apprehensive. “Don’t worry, Allie,” her sister reassured her. “She just looks a little like a witch.”  Mrs. Crichton proved a serious but patient teacher as she introduced them to scales and chords. The notes on the page began to make melodies, more quickly for Clare than for Alice until the day Mrs. Crichton gave them a duet book. Playing duets unlocked music for Alice . Sharing tone and tempo was natural, like the way the twins’ hands shot up in unison at school in answer to the questions, even though their teacher seated them across the room from each other. 

When the girls turned ten, Mrs. Crichton said it was time for a new teacher,  “I’ve taken them as far as I can.”

“Who would you suggest?” their mother asked.

“There’s someone good in Johnstown . She studied at Peabody .”

“ Johnstown ?  It’s an hour from here.”

“Believe me, it would be worth it. Clare has a real gift, and Alice has promise, also. I’d be glad to take them.”      

So one afternoon a week they were excused early from school and rode with Mrs. Crichton in her big black sedan, one of the cars left behind by her husband. He had left her behind, also, their mother said. The girls lolled on the soft leather back seat, comfortable as a sofa. They rolled their eyes at each other as Mrs. Crichton repeated her stories of hearing  “Maestro Kousevitzky.”  The best part of the journey was at the end, riding the inclined plane, two counter balanced cable cars, up to where the piano teacher lived. “The most exclusive neighborhood in Johnstown ,” Mrs. Crichton said with her thin smile. 

The teacher was slender and reserved and smelled of sandalwood soap and mothballs. She corrected their finger placement with hands cool and veined as marble.  Each girl had half an hour of individual instruction, her sister standing by and turning pages. They finished with duets. Mrs. Crichton sat in a dim corner of the room and listened throughout.  Afterwards, the girls had lemonade and crisp sugar cookies in the kitchen while Mrs. Crichton and the teacher talked in the music room.

They played duets every evening before dinner, making music together was pleasant as sharing the swing in the back yard or whispering stories to each other at night before they fell asleep.

 Mrs. Crichton asked to take the girls to Pittsburgh for their first recital dresses.

“It’s really not necessary, Priscilla. You’ve been too generous already,” their mother said.

“It’s a pleasure for me, being part of this. Please.”

“She wouldn’t take no for an answer,” said Mother to their father. 

“What’s the harm?  She’s a lonely woman,” he said. 

The girls tried on frock after frock at Kaufmann’s. Mrs. Crichton selected her favorite, “The lavender is best, with your fair hair and gray eyes.” The girls spun in front of the dressing room mirror, giddy at the sight of their reflected loveliness in matching clouds of tulle. 

The recital was in an old church wedged against the town’s mountainside.  Clare played first and dropped a deep curtsy, smiling into the applause. Then it was Alice ’s turn.  The faces in the audience blurred. She could not catch her breath until she imagined Clare beside her on the piano bench; she shook out her trembling fingers and stumbled through the piece.  Ducking her head so she would not have to see the crowd, she bobbed to acknowledge the polite clapping.  Next the sisters played a duet, crushing the puffy dresses onto the piano bench.  Alice sheltered behind Clare’s skirt to take a bow.  Mrs. Crichton gave them each a bouquet of carnations….