by Helen Middleton Amos
SADIE could see Dunc Forester from her place in the front row right, as close as she could get to the piano, which was her life. She played for him, and had for fifty years. She was his accompanist, which his pudgy wife never let her forget. Sadie wondered if Cora suspected. She pushed back her thinning hair nervously. Not likely. No one in town would ever dream that Sadie Campbell could want anything more than caring for her parents until they died and then continuing to live on in the drab cottage on the back street giving music lessons to generations of reluctant scholars and, of course, being pianist for Dunc Forester.
She remembered the first time. At high school, it had been, and she’d had a pale blue dress with tiny pink rosebuds on it, and a pink ribbon in her hair, and he’d worn white trousers and a navy blazer, and his blonde hair shone in the light and his sea-blue eyes were so earnest, and when as if by magic her fingers found the tempo that suited him and his song the best, the golden notes had poured from him, round and strong and mellow, and in the fusty auditorium there had been a silence before the applause which was more eloquent than the hand clapping and the foot stomping.
Afterwards, with Cora linking her plump fingers possessively through his, he had thanked her. “We seem to be a team,” he’d smiled and that was it. For the rest of her life, she thought dazedly, she’d play for him. And love him.
Ten years later Cora had the nerve to ask Sadie to play at the wedding. She declined on some pretext, she forgot now what, but was obliged to attend the ceremony because Riverview was such a small town and everyone went. She slipped away before the reception, pleading her mother’s illness, and everybody understood.
Dunc did well as a partner in his father-in-law’s drapery firm, but Sadie knew his heart wasn’t in it. She was organist at the church and he was lead male singer, and Thursday evenings came to mean something special – choir practice, the chance to be near him, and the joy of knowing that her direction and her music aided that rich golden voice to sound forth. Cora was bored with her role shortly, Sadie suspected, but there was nothing definite. She stopped coming to choir practice with Dunc and took up golf. Her father grew frailer and the younger man assumed more and more of the responsibilities of the business.
There were no children. Sadie was truly sorry for that. They would have lightened Dunc’s life, and doubtless she’d have got to teach them piano. However, every time there was a concert or special occasion in town, Dunc was asked to sing. And of course it was understood Sadie would accompany him. Once she had the flu. Old Doc Harvey forbade her to leave her bed and stopped by the next morning to see how she was.
“Had to cancel Dunc’s part,” he grumbled. “He just put his foot down and said you’d played for him for twenty years, and he wouldn’t open his mouth for anyone else, and that was that.” he wondered briefly why she was so suddenly flushed but put it down to fever.
And now it was the annual Christmas party, and once again she’d bring from the keys the melodies the townspeople loved to hear Dunc sing and store up yet another memory to warm her heart.
The hall was filling up. A noisy group shuffled into the row behind her, the mother fretting because they were so late and had to sit at the front. Finally they were settled, and Sadie resumed her daydreaming. A sentence shattered it. She thought with a constricting pain in her heart that she’d never forget the raspy sound of an older man’s voice as he said flatly, “One thing – old Dunc don’t sing like he use to. Wouldn’t you think he’d know it’s time to quit?”
Love is supposed to be blind, Sadie though, stricken. Probably also deaf. To her, Dunc’s songs were as rich and full and wonderful as they’d always been, but that wasn’t necessarily true for his other listeners.
She sat there in the semi-darkness massaging her worn fingers that had developed a little arthritis, and she was not conscious of the parade of performers on stage, the angel-children and the gawky Joseph with his sweet-faced Mary. She scarcely heard the carols, and Sid Evans, the M.C., had to repeat her name after his announcement that Dunc Forester would favor the assembly with one of his delightful songs, accompanied by Miss Sadie Campbell.
Dazedly, she mounted the three steps to the platform and took her place at the battered piano which she’d played so many, many times. Her green plaid dress did little to flatter her sallow skin, but it had been cheap on sale at Maria’s, and pupils weren’t as plentiful as they had been. She was very conscious of Dunc leaning against the piano. He used to stand so straight and tall. Curious, she’d never noticed him seeking support before. He wore a muted tweed suit, and the hair that had once shone sun-bright was now thickly mottled with grey. Seventy, he’d be, she thought painfully, to her 68.
She needed no music. Fifty years of playing for him had made all his songs note-perfect in her mind, and in all the fifty years she’d never struck a wrong one for him.
She did now. He had just nicely begun, his voice still strong but lacking the vitality and resonance she’d grown so used to, when she faltered and then recovered quickly, as if it had been an accident. He hesitated, threw her a kind smile, and went on. Twice more before he’d finished his customary encore Sadie hit a wrong note. There was a little silence, and then the loyal audience broke into applause. “Atta boy, Dunc!” they shouted. “Give us another one!” But he held up his hand, and finally they subsided. As was his habit, he escorted Sadie carefully down the three steps and over to her usual seat, but this time, instead of going back to Cora, he sank down in the next wooden chair.
On stage, a gaggle of self-conscious teenagers were whooping it up with “Santa Claus is Coming to Town” to the delight of all youngsters present. Dunc’s hand covered Sadie’s trembling one. “You’re crying,” he said with astonishment.
She made no attempts to hide it. Father, forgive me for the lie, she whispered inaudibly. To Dunc she said, “I’m tired. My fingers ache and I’m 68 years old and I’ve been playing long enough. Get yourself a young pianist, Dunc. Muriel Davidson is pretty good….” She managed a smile. “Ought to be… I taught her myself. I – I just can’t carry on any longer.”
It seemed as if the light went out of his face. Something left his eyes, too, some spark of enthusiasm and zest that she’d always loved. All about them people fidgeted, weary of the concert, anxious for Santa to bring the treats so they could get the children home to bed. Such a crowd jammed in together had made the hall hot and stuffy, and the smell of damp mittens and rubber footwear mingled with the scent of greenery. Sadie felt as if the curtain was going down for her, but she held firm. Let them talk about her, if talk they must – but not about Dunc. Let them shake their heads and dolefully intone about poor Sadie, what’ll she do now she’s lost her music?
It was common knowledge that Dunc wouldn’t perform without her. She’d just mentioned Muriel to save his pride. The girl couldn’t play for him. Nobody had the knack of bringing out the best in his singing except Sadie, and he knew it. At least, she thought he did. She held her breath, waiting for his reaction.
It seemed a long time before he spoke. His big hand still covered hers. “If you won’t be playing,” he said, “I won’t be singing. It’s as simple as that. Perhaps we’ve had our day, come to think of it. I get tired, too.” There was a world of sadness in his eyes. “Thank you for everything, dear,” he murmured, and got up and walked slowly over to sit beside his wife.
Next day a delivery van brought three dozen white roses to Sadie, ordered from the county seat 40 miles away, and a silver locket. She cried all afternoon.
Hand set in Deepdene. Display type is Typo Roman Shaded. Text stock is 50-lb. Offset. Ink is Van Son 40904. Published and printed by Jake Warner in an edition of 490 copies at the Boxwood Press, Greenbelt, Maryland 20770.