Sam Nolen

Posted on June 25, 2018


With Feeling

Under normal circumstances, she wouldn’t have accepted male students at his age. It would have been creepy. Teenagers were bad enough.  But he had come recommended by a family friend, this erstwhile titan of Wall Street, recovering from a stroke, regaining his legs and his consonants. It was hard to refuse a healthy bump in her hourly rate, at least until she’d cut her losses on her French degree. And what’s the difference, really, between a decrepit old patriarch and a child?

So she took the subway to the address she’d scribbled down, where a mammoth brownstone awaited her in the gloom. A nurse greeted her with an sympathetic smile, speaking in a whisper. When he introduced himself, his tongue thick in his mouth, she could see the man he must once have been. It only took a little squinting. Right side of his face drooping, right hand palsied and weak. A figure dwarfed in that high-ceilinged receiving room by long rows of bookshelves and a Steinway baby grand.  

Did he play, before? she wondered. Had his wife played? Or only the guests who must once have filled the room, amateurs who’d just put down their champagne flutes, or concert pianists condescending to entertain the crowd?

“Let’s begin,” she said.  

She had him pick out a few scales, erratic as rain on the Village cobblestones. The fourth and fifth fingers on his right hand merely spasmed, useless. Yet he pushed on, each scale ending with a discordant plonk in an upper octave. Tremors wracked him from his knees to his fingertips.  

He was a determined man. He improved quickly, over three weeks, then three months, and he gained strength in his fingers. Soon he could get through the Für Elise with only a little trouble, very much like a precocious child just beginning. And like a child he was growing confident. Already he looked ten years younger.

He smiled and poured a steaming, floral cup of tea for her when she arrived, crossed his legs as they sipped together before the lesson. Almost debonair. 

“You’ll have to play for me, sometime,” he told her.

“Oh, I don’t play, not really,” she said. “I mean I don’t perform.”

“You might be selling yourself short,” he said. 

He was grinning, but his eyes were hard, locked on hers. And she was put off, for the first time, by his need for her to admire him. Not like a child at all. A lonely man, hiding behind facile charm.  Hadn’t she seen this face in the crowd, leering at the girl she’d been at fourteen, on the stage in an itchy red dress playing Chopin? No, she was overreacting. She was imagining something that wasn’t there.

“He wants to own you,” her boyfriend told her, as they lay in bed. “Trust me. Even if he never makes a pass at you. There is no other reason for a man like that to go looking for a young woman’s help.”

“He is harmless,” she replied. “Just a bit bored. It’s nice to see the change in him, but I’d be relieved if he could take the work a little less seriously.  It’s therapy, not an audition for Juillard.”

“He’s getting something out of this and I wouldn’t call it therapy.”

“I wouldn’t be so certain,” she said, and turned away.

She wasn’t certain either, watching him working through Bach’s Prelude in C Major, shoulders stiff, rigid with effort. “Relax,” she said. “More freely.”

“I wrote this for you,” he told her, when the lesson had ended, handing her a sheaf of papers, handwritten music. A sonata. She looked at him curiously. And gently he approached, so much more graceful had his movements become, and kissed her on the corner of her mouth.  

“I’m sorry,” she said, not knowing why.

“I owe you everything,” he told her.

She didn’t tell her boyfriend what had happened. She looked through his sonata at home, hiding away in the bathroom in the early morning. The piece wasn’t too difficult; after all, he had written it so that he could play it. She flipped back to the front. He might have signed his name, she thought. The kind of man who likes to leave his mark on things.

Was it good? No. But it was idiosyncratic. No small achievement in art. And wasn’t it clever that he’d written in—a phrase which echoed and reverberated throughout the piece—the plonk of the fifth finger on the right hand, the weak and paralyzed fifth finger, slipping across two white keys.

The joke struck her as disingenuous. He can’t stand his weakness, she thought.  

I shouldn’t go back.

But she did. She stopped the question on his lips. “I’ll take you up on your offer,” she said, “I’ll play for you.” And she played his sonata to him. The allegro, harsh and sarcastic, fortissimo. This is what I think of your joke. And as she reached the andante, her fingers softened, and a cruel tear ran down her face. The mallet blows of her fingertips softened and caressed the little slur, the half-step dissonance. After a beat, then four, of silence, she reached out, not yet turning, and touched his hand on the armrest of his great leather chair. It was as still as the fading chord he’d written—almost a minor seventh—and as cold.


Sam Nolen is a programmer, philologist, and ne’er-do-well living in San Francisco, CA with his cat Lentil. He holds a Ph.D. in mathematics from Stanford University. In his free time, he enjoys procrastinating, running, and arguing about Jacques Lacan.

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