by Anne Timberlake
The piano is rolling down Winnemucca Boulevard and Joy is on top of it.
Sophie blinks to get the schmutz out of her eyes but yes, it’s really Joy, her black curls cut close to her narrow skull. She’s swathed in a puffy, floor length beige coat, and her hat is encrusted with sequined reindeer. The hat is wrong. Joy would never buy something like that. The whole scene is wrong: Joy lives in New York. She is famous. She plays pianos; she doesn’t ride them down Winnemucca’s dusty main drag.
Sophie scrabbles backward. In doing so, she brings one sensibly-shod foot down hard on the instep of her boyfriend Henry, who yelps. Henry has a weak chin and a strong will and Sophie loves him with a queasy, narrow kind of love that reminds her of riding the merry-go-round over and over again as a girl.
“Joy.” Sophie jerks her chin.
“Joy? Marshall? Beachwood High? What’s she doing here?” Sophie hates the way she heaves the ends of her words upwards, transforming them into questions. It’s not like Henry would know the answers, because the truth is that he’s old, older than Sophie and older than Joy by somewhere between fifteen and twenty years (he won’t tell Sophie his exact age, but she’s seen the Rogaine he hides behind his toilet tank), and he isn’t from around here. Henry was born in Santa Fe, in a pale, non-descript house in a pale, non-descript neighborhood. Sophie’s only seen pictures, but she can imagine.
Now he’s got his collar up against the cold, and is watching the St. Patrick’s Day parade with an air of infinite patience. The piano is getting closer. It’s a baby grand, very large and very black and polished so that the white of the keys stands out like a movie star’s megawatt smile. And Joy has adopted a movie star’s pose, sitting on the side of her hip with her legs stretched out and one hand propping up her torso. The other hand, encased in a baby pink glove, is waving.
“Who?” Henry says.
The piano says: Lessons, 3 for $50.
Marnie at the community garden fills Sophie in. “She hitched a ride. From Reno.”
“Hmmm? Sophie darts a glance toward the green-painted glass doors of the Winnemucca Community Garden Office and Supply Shed. Lately she’s been doing that: looking at doors, checking on windows. Joy’s out there somewhere, wandering around among Winnemucca’s 7,000 other increasingly older souls; there’s no telling when she might enter or exit.
“Reno, I said!” Marnie is in her fifties but looks, with her orange curls and the deep lines framing her mouth, much older. Sophie likes to watch her talk, likes the way her supervisor’s whole body shakes when she wants to make a point.
“I heard you. Reno. But why’d she come?”
“God knows! Apparently Joy just showed up, out of the blue, in that coat. Her mother’s long gone, but Joy went straight to Emilia Boyce’s.”
“Her piano teacher?” Actually, Miss Boyce had been Sophie’s piano teacher as well as Joy’s, but Sophie had been such an indifferent student, with plodding technique and a capricious sense of rhythm, that she doesn’t think it counts.
“That old bird!” clucks Marnie. “She’s lost her eyesight, but she recognized Joy’s voice.”
“Joy has a beautiful voice.” Sophie hunches her body over an invoice for seeds.
“She used to. They say she’s been smoking.”
“Joy? Smoking? No.”
Marnie shoots her a sharp look from under purple eyelids.
“Or something, yelling, maybe. The girl took one look at Emilia Boyce and wrapped her arms around her. Squeezed her so tight the old bat let out a woof just like that dog she keeps.”
Sophie checks off three packages of watermelon seeds (barely ever fruitful in the high desert but perennially popular) and considers. “How do you know she made that sound? How could anyone get close enough to hear?”
The look Marnie gives her is withering, the kind of look that discourages seeds from sprouting, the kind that makes the community garden a place of bravery and derring-do, somewhere to work if you are in search of an adventure.
Sophie shrugs. “I’m just saying.”
“Some things you just know,” Marnie reproves.
It’s true what Marnie says, that some things you just know. Sophie has always known that, despite what she might have once said to Joy, despite what she swore into the fluff of her pillow when she was sixteen, seventeen, eighteen, she would never leave Winnemucca. Not when she graduated from high school, not when her best friend left, not even after her parents, overcome by the effort of living, year after year, among their neighbors, deeded their neat blue ranch house to Sophie and moved to Clark County. She’d grown up to fit the town, a grape vine trained over a trellis.
Not that grapes will grow in Winnemucca. What grows in Winnemucca, during the soggy season which interrupts, briefly, the great, bleak charge of the desert, is mostly hardy vegetables and a few quick-growing tomatoes, the kind that are green one day and bloody-nose-red next. Sophie appreciates these tomatoes. She likes the heft of them, the way their crevices seem to ache for her tongue. But she’s not fool enough to get used to them.
“How’s tricks? Henry motions Sophie over to the bar. The Alamo is the only bar in town, a white, misnamed shack miles from Texas. It’s frequented by DNR flunkies and bearded, flannel-shirted geologists drinking Long Island ice teas while passing around pictures of the families they’ve stashed in Carson City, Reno, or Salt Lake.
Henry still has a geologist’s stark haircut, the flannel shirt tucked into sturdy jeans, but the wife and son in Tucson are gone. Sophie never met them, but sometimes, usually in the early evening or very late at night, she misses them anyway. They provided a counterweight, a dimension of otherness to Henry’s flat façade.
“Tricks are tricks.” Sophie shrugs. Henry, in one fluid motion, hands her up onto the high wooden barstool, and motions the bartender for a drink. Sophie likes this about Henry: his unexpected physical grace. She lists it on the pro side when she’s trying to decide whether or not to dump him.
“I saw your friend.” Henry chews on one side of his moustache.
Sophie cups a hand around her drink. She used to drink coke, or occasionally a Long Island if the geologists were buying. Now she drinks sidecars. It’s a drink Joy described towards the end of one of her letters from New York: brandy, triple sec, lemon juice, and lime juice. Sophie brought an Internet printout for the bartender.
“The pretty girl on top of the piano,” Henry prompts.
“You think she’s pretty?” In fact, everyone thinks Joy is pretty. Sophie thinks Joy is pretty. But she’s still a little surprised that Henry, with his nearsightedness and his scorn of all things ornamental, is able to perceive it.
“Yeah. I don’t know. Maybe.” Henry eyes Sophie warily. “She was down at the store.”
“I didn’t see. You want some wings?”
“No. No, come on, you must have seen something. What did she buy?” Sophie knows it’s irrational, her need to know what Joy is purchasing, what was sitting in her cart when she took her small hands out of those baby pink gloves to dig for cash in the strange, puffy beige coat
“Why don’t you ask her. She’s the one who sends the letters, right? I mean, you know her.”
“We grew up together. Joy was really talented. Miss Boyce encouraged her. Pushed her to go to master classes, competitions, things like that. Found her a voice teacher in Reno. Joy’s mom couldn’t afford the lessons, so the whole town chipped in.”
“Huh.” Henry’s gaze is focused halfway between the television screen, where two men with long hair and singlets are duking it out, and Sophie’s nose; Sophie can’t tell the extent to which he’s paying attention. Henry is dangerous in this way: it’s difficult to tell what he notices, what he doesn’t.
“Joy went to New York,” Sophie continues, “after high school. She had the train ticket and five hundred dollars and she just left.”
“The town gave her all that?” Henry tears his gaze from the sight of a man stepping on another man’s chest.
“No,” Sophie admits. “I did.”
Sophie stalks Joy.
Only a little, only in a casual way, not like on T.V. where the pockmarked man with enormous binoculars sleeps outside the window of the pretty girl. Sophie’s binoculars are small, the size of a toy you pull out of a cereal box, and she sleeps in her own bed. It’s true, she’s hidden a blanket behind the shed in Miss Boyce’s bare backyard, but she only watches for a couple of hours, tops, and anyway she’s only catching glimpses. Miss Boyce’s grey head bobbing toward the table, a fragment of Joy’s white, mobile wrists. Nothing substantive, nothing damning.
She waits until Joy has trundled off to the general store and rings the doorbell.
On the fourth ring, Emilia Boyce answers. She was old before but she’s startlingly old now, shriveled and purple as a raisin. Her eyes are covered by a pure white film.
“Joy? Are you back already?”
“It’s me, Miss Boyce. Sophie Tucker? Your old student? I played in the First Annual Winnemucca Musicale?” It dawns on Sophie, with a mix of trepidation and relief, that Mrs. Boyce is blind as a bat, that now would be the perfect time for someone to move in, pretending to be Joy, and take advantage. An imposter: someone with just enough of a passing resemblance, just enough information.
Sophie asks, “Is Joy here?”
Miss Boyce jerks to life as if she’s a pull toy and someone’s yanked her string. “Oh, honey, you just missed her. Isn’t it wonderful? Joy! Here! I never thought I’d see that girl again.”
“She’s after something,” huffs Marnie.
“What could she possibly be after? She’s famous.” Sophie fingers Joy’s first letter, wedged into a hole in the lining of the pocket of her green goosedown vest. The rest of the letters, freed from their confinement in a shoebox, are spread across the dining room table at home. Henry, shuffling the letters around to make room for his cereal bowl in the mornings, has begun to make small, disgruntled noises in his throat, but Sophie ignores him. She’s looking for clues.
Thank you thank you thank you a million times over for everything you’ve given me, but especially for your good wishes. The train ride was long but I’ve made it to New York in one piece. A nice man on the train said I looked like Raquel Welch. Everything is so big here! I am staying at a small hotel near the train station. It’s a little worn around the edges, but it has a rustic charm. Yesterday I went to an audition, and although I didn’t get called back, the director looked as if he wanted to. I know it’s only a matter of time before I land something. I should probably wrap this letter up because the hotel management wants me out of the room between ten and four every day. Which is good, because it forces me to have adventures.
Much love, Joy
“Famous!” Marnie scoffs. “Or something. Evelyn Taylor says she looks pregnant.” Marnie fumbles with the keys to the Community Garden office. It’s a dry day; the sky has the flat, cold sheen of flypaper.
“She can’t be pregnant. Her career keeps her too busy.”
“What’s that monstrosity of a coat for, then? Listen, I know you and she were close when you were younger, but people change. Look at Evelyn: tomatoes and potatoes and kale last year, then this year she lets the plot rot where it stands.”
Sophie compresses her lips. She hates it when people in the town change their orders at the garden; it upsets her sense that they’re who they say they are, that they’ve put down roots. Back when Henry was sniffing around Sophie he’d leased a plot and planted two packages of watermelon seeds. They never came up, but Henry never came back to check, either. For this, Sophie reserves for Henry a cold dollop of hate.
“Anyway, this concert? With her and Emilia Boyce?” Marnie gestures toward the plate glass front of the office, where a full-color poster half the size of the window overpowers flyers for kittens and used power mowers and tarot readings from Madame Jenks. In large blue and silver lettering the poster reads: Second Annual Winnemucca Musicale and Coffee Hour, Wednesday April 4th. Joy didn’t put up the poster during business hours, or if she did, Sophie didn’t notice.
“The Musicale, you mean?”
“Whatever. She’s using it somehow. She wants something. Big city girls like her don’t come back to places like this without a reason.”
Sophie can’t explain why this stings, why she’s stricken with a flash of desire, however brief, to seize Marnie’s hand and squeeze until she feels under her fingers the particular pressure of bone on bone.
“Maybe she just wanted to come home.”
“No one ever wants to come home.” Marnie raises one hand to her yellow curls. “They say they do, but it’s just for show.”.
I’ve moved again, so I may miss some of your letters. It’s not a big move, just down the street; I needed to find something a little less expensive. But the new place is lovely! It’s a grand old boarding house like they had in the 1930s; there are some wonderful old actors here. One of them told me I had a voice like an angel! I told him he was an old flatterer. You ask me about performing, and if I’m getting any jobs. I have a call back tomorrow, as a matter of fact, and I’ve got a very good feeling about this one. I liked the way the director looked at me in the first audition. Write me more! I’m dying to know all the Winnemucca news!
It was night when Joy left. Sophie had felt that was exactly right, because important things were supposed to happen at night. Only, because they were in the desert, because there was so much land around them that lay unwanted and, except for the desultory forays of the DNR flunkies, uninhabited, the sky was as bright as a city. Sophie had that sense of all those stars above her, a nervous itch in the hairless space behind her ears.
It was night because Joy had arranged a ride to the train station in Reno from a DNR man, and that’s when he’d had to go. The DNR man was waiting in a white pick-up truck, DNR hat pulled down low, his fingers drumming on the dash. To Sophie, it seemed as if he was some kind of witness, like the magi, come to lend importance to Joy’s departure.
She said, stupidly, “Be careful,” even though they both knew the point was not to be careful but to be careless, without obligation.
Joy fussed over her bags. She was beautiful even in the dark, her face smooth with shadow. “Piece of cake,” she said.
“Duh,” said Joy. She was looking past Sophie towards the DNR man, who waggled his fingers impatiently. “I have to go. Thanks, Soph.”
But Joy wasn’t waiting for her response; Joy didn’t care. This was the thing Sophie loved about Joy, the thing that had kept her close, as close as she could get without one of them tripping over the other, through school and piano lessons and the playground and nights whispering in each other’s ears. Joy’s attention was always elsewhere, one step ahead or two body lengths to the left, escaping like steam from a kettle. When she was with Joy, Sophie felt free.
Joy started toward the truck, turned back. She had Sophie’s five hundred dollars in her pocket, along with a train ticket and a piece of lucky rock one of the miners had pressed into her palm when she and Sophie were shivering, mini-skirted, in the parking lot of the Alamo one January night. She said, “I could have raised the money myself.”
“I know,” Sophie said, because sometimes friends lie.
The DNR man said, “Let’s get a move on,” and Joy sauntered over, dumped her bags in the back, and climbed in the cab. The truck rumbled to life at her touch, like Frankenstein under the electric current. The DNR man swung the wheel and flipped the headlights. Sophie watched the truck pull out, at a moderate speed, and set its nose toward Reno. The stars blazed and the dark flickered and Sophie thought about what a perfect moment it was, one of those moments when life, real life, is close enough to the surface of the world to jump like a pulse under your hand.
Joy’s last letter arrives on Tuesday. Sophie is at work. Henry, on the other hand, has the day off, so it’s Henry who strolls out to the mailbox and greets the postman and slides his fingers into the cold iron box. It’s Henry who gets to check the postmark and stroke the envelope, Henry who weighs the evidence, understands in his bones that the letter is unequivocally from far away, from elsewhere.
“If she thinks sweet tea is the top of the world, she’s got another thing coming,” Henry says.
“Why’d you have to open it?” Sophie is irritable, banging pots and pans in the kitchen. They are having baked chicken again: low-fat, for Henry’s heart.
“I figured you’d want to know ASAP. You’ve been on enough about her, Joy.” In fact Henry had called Sophie at the Community Garden and read the letter aloud while Sophie stared down at her ledgers and tried, because of Marnie at her elbow, not to look interested.
“Well, maybe I wanted to open it myself.”
“Why’d she write, anyway? She’s here.”
“Maybe she thinks I’m not,” says Sophie.
Henry snorts. He hunches forward over the newspaper. Sophie can see the way his spine will look in ten years, curved like the stem of a tulip.
“Look, you’ll see her tomorrow and then you can just ask her. And then she can tell you and you two can be friends again and she can come over for some sweet tea, if she wants, but count me out of it. It’s just too weird.” Too weird is the phrase Henry uses for his ex-wife and son, as well as for politics, religion, and all vegetables except Zucchini.
Sophie bristles. “You don’t understand.”
Henry spreads his hands. “You’re right, I don’t. So tell me. Show me. I’ll even come with you to that…singing thing tomorrow. And you know how I feel about singing.”
New York is beautiful this year. They’ve put the tree at Rockefeller Center out early, and lit it, and evenings after the show lets out I put on the fur coat the senator gave me and stand and watch the lights come on one by one. I keep hoping it might snow, just a few flakes, something for me to stand at the stage door and watch during intermission when the set changes and everybody wants me out of the way. Yesterday I was caught during the break by group of autograph seekers off a bus from New Jersey. They were just girls; they still had those shining eyes. I thought of us, Sophie, you and me that afternoon of the First Annual Winnemucca Musicale when everyone clapped and Mrs. Boyce handed out sweet tea and we were on top of the world.
“I’m dreaming of a white Christmas,” sings Joy, “with every Christmas card I write.” It’s one of the songs she sang ten years ago, accompanying herself on the baby grand. She wore a red dress, velvet and high-necked, something her mother had ordered from the Sears catalog. Sophie, watching her play, was already imagining the night Joy would leave, the way the white truck would peel out of the lot under a cold, white moon.
“May your days be merry, and bright,” Joy croons.
Sophie and Henry are late. They stand outside the double glass doors of the general store, waiting for a break in the action. Inside, people are pressed up against the glass, shoulder to shoulder, some sinking to the floor as their feet give out. There are dozens and dozens of people; it feels like the whole town. Outside, Sophie and Henry huddle together. Marnie, the weave of her yellow sweater plastered against the glass, shoots them a disapproving look: you’re late.
I know, Sophie wants to answer. I know I’m late. But this is Joy, and I just got her letter, and I wasn’t sure I wanted to come.
But then the doors open with a small huff, the sound of someone getting the wind knocked out of them, and she and Henry are thrust into the warm yellow room with its kittenish pile of bodies and its hundreds of staring eyes.
“Got hung up?” Marnie hisses.
Sophie doesn’t answer. It’s not Joy at the piano; it’s Emilia Boyce, dressed in a flowing black caftan that emphasizes her cloudy white of her eyes. Joy is leaning up against the piano, ten years older, her dress still red, but loose, cheap, with shiny silver straps and a plunging v-neck. Sophie sees all at once the important things: that Joy loves to sing, that she’s pregnant, that she’s no longer young.
“I thought you said she was famous,” says Henry.
Sophie kicks Henry in the ankle.
Marnie says, “Shhhh.’
“I’m just saying.” Henry’s whisper grates against the side of her neck. “She’s singing Christmas music in April. She looks hard done by. And her voice…I’ve heard better in Reno.”
“Shut up.” Sophie talks through her teeth, talks through the listening she’s doing, straining her ears toward Joy like a plant in a room with only one window, and that window facing north.
Henry lifts his hands, palms out, in that gesture of supplication: Come on now. Let’s not pretend.
“Emilia Boyce said Joy was the greatest talent she’d ever heard.”
“The old woman in the caftan?”
People are beginning to look at them, Sophie and Henry, darting them small, puzzled glances from beneath half-closed lids. But the glances aren’t sharp enough, or frequent enough; they should be fast and stinging and furious, a swarm of bees. Marnie’s “shh” sags in the middle. Joy, onstage, takes one breath and then another, her breasts and belly straining against the front of her dress
“Hurry down the chimney,” she sings. Her arms are outstretched; her face, even with ten years slapped on top of it like a bad plaster job, is transfigured. Sophie can see, underneath, Joy as she was at the First Annual Musicale, and Joy as she will be ten years from now at the Third, when Marnie and Emilia Boyce have died and Henry has gone back to his wife and Sophie, at long last, packs up the house and buys a one-way ticket to Los Angeles.
Joy is happy. That’s the meat of the betrayal. Not the letters or the money or the baby. Happy with the hot, stiff air and the buzzing of the lights and the sawdust under the legs of the piano, happy with the miners and their dirty fingernails and their distant wives, happy with Miss Boyce and the music and the way her voice warbles, tilts on its axis like a gyroscope spinning off true.
Come on now, Joy is singing to Sophie. Let’s not pretend.
Musical Contribution: “Sonata Decima”
In Their Own Words
“The piece is called Sonata Decima, by Dario Castello. It’s a live recording from a concert we did in Chicago in January. On this track, I am playing the recorder. Yes, that thing you played in fourth grade. The group is called Wayward Sisters (www.waywardsisters.com), though the most wayward of our members is, in fact, a man.”
Anne Timberlake graduated from Oberlin College with degrees in music, fiction writing, and psychology. Her poetry has been published in The Beloit Poetry Journal, Sycamore Review, Poetry Midwest, and the Pebble Lake Review. Upholding her long tradition of doing too many things, Anne works as a freelance musician, speech-language pathologist, and classical music critic in Richmond, VA.