A South Bay Scribe
The following is a wonderful little short story by South Bay Scribe, Kelley Dupuis, that combines music, talent, failure and his mother in the mix.
Kelley Dupuis was born in Vermont in 1955. He grew up in Chula Vista and attended CV High. He was a journalism and history major at San Diego State University and went on to work at a newspaper and in radio journalism. He was also foreign service officer of the U.S. State Department for fourteen years and taught English in Georgia, China, Russia and Turkey. He is the author of five books.
Shot Down In Philadelphia
I had just taken a job with a Baltimore-based technology company called Cyserve. Cyserve built custom software applications for businesses and organizations. This was a relatively new field at that time, and the company had a lot of young employees, most of them younger than myself. Even the CEO, Don, was a couple of years younger than I. He was a software engineer himself, a former employee of Microsoft who had decided to start his own company. A few years later he decided that his expanding company needed its own marketing department. I had some background in that, having taken a marketing course while pursuing a business administration major in college, and also having worked on marketing projects for various companies on a contract basis over the previous few years. Cyserve hired me as a writer of marketing materials and web content.
Aside from its corporate headquarters in Baltimore, Cyserve had five branch offices: Atlanta, Chicago, Bethesda, Reston and Philadelphia.
One day Don asked me if I would accompany him to Philadelphia. He was to give a presentation at a breakfast meeting for the branch there the next morning.
I didn’t get to see much of the city aside from the downtown Marriott, where the breakfast meeting was to be held. Don had reserved rooms for the night for both of us. After the morning meeting, my instructions were to take a cab to the train station, get on Amtrak and return to Baltimore. Don would be staying all day for mid-level management meetings at the branch.
Don and I had drinks and then some dinner in the downstairs grill. Later I went upstairs, feeling a little tipsy. I showered, got into bed, reached over and switched on the radio, tuning it to WFLN, offering Chopin’s C-sharp minor Scherzo played by pianist Cyprien Katsaris, as I learned from the back-announce.
Katsaris’ name sounded familiar. I put my hands behind my head and stared up at the ceiling from my pillow, trying to remember where I might have heard his name. I had never met him, I knew that for certain. I would have remembered something like that.
Chopin. Freeze-frames of memory began to pile up. Among them appeared my old school chum Richard Finney, who had studied piano in New York and knew Katsaris from there. He had mentioned Katsaris’ name a few times, and I think we had even sat together in his room, Richard and I, and listened to recordings of Cyprien playing…maybe it was some piano transcriptions of other music. Many years earlier it had been Rich who first introduced me to Chopin’s music. So: Chopin, Katsaris, Finney. Memory is the oddest little pinball game there is.
Richard was playing the piano and my mother was crying. I was sixteen; Rich about fourteen, more than a quarter-century earlier.
As WFLN segue’d to a Brahms string quartet, the picture returned as vividly as if it had been last week. Richard was 43 now. I was 45. But as I lay there staring at the ceiling, the Chopin scherzo still going around in my head even as the Emerson Quartet played Brahms, my mind conjured up the October afternoon in the early 1970s when I brought Richard to my family’s house for the first time.
It was long after school, already starting to get dark. Mom was in the kitchen, where she usually was at that hour of the day. She and my father always sat down to dinner punctually at six. I ate later, in the kitchen, so I wouldn’t have to sit at the table with them. Remember, I was sixteen.
There was a spinet piano in the living room. It served two purposes: first, it was for Mom to practice on. She was a church organist and used the spinet to keep her fingers in training. Secondly, my older sister, who had started college by then but was still living at home, was very fond of choral singing and had joined her college choir as soon as she registered for her first semester of classes. My sister had no training on the piano, but would sit at the spinet and slowly parse the chords of whatever piece she was trying to learn.
I don’t think I had to ask Richard to play; in fact I don’t think I did ask. He was fourteen, saw the spinet was just naturally attracted to it, the way a mosquito is attracted to a sleeping camper’s ass.
There was a mirror on the wall over the spinet. I remember the glint of the late-afternoon light from the street reflecting first off the mirror, and then off Richard’ glasses as he placed his hands on the keyboard. He began playing what he told me later was a Chopin polonaise. I was only sixteen myself and had not yet discovered Chopin.
My mom came out of the kitchen. Richard’s playing was what brought her out. My mom was a bit of a wino in those days; she’d start hitting the Inglenook around 4 p.m. and by five she would be getting mawkish. She was a sentimental drunk. That might have had something to do with what happened next, but I could never be sure.
As Richard struck the last notes, Mom had tears in her eyes. “Richard, that was so wonderful!” she said, wiping away a tear. “You play so well. You must have an excellent teacher!”
Later, in the kitchen, perhaps sobered up a bit, Mom said to me, “I forgot for a moment that he’s only fourteen. You can’t talk to him like he was an adult.”
By the time Don and I made this overnight trip to Philadelphia, Finney had been living in New York for almost twenty years. After high school he’d attended the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, then decamped to New York for further study at Juilliard. He lived in Brooklyn now, and since I’d just begun a new job, and Baltimore is only four hours from New York, we had already discussed my driving up to visit him some weekend.
I called him as soon as I got back to Baltimore the next day and told him where I’d been. “Hmm. I played a gig in Philly last winter,” he said. “We played the Brahms G minor quartet. That was the first time I had played in Philly since I was a kid.”
“When did you play there as a kid?”
“I auditioned at Curtis.”
“You never told me that. So why did you end up going to Juilliard?”
“Curtis turned me down.”
“You never told me that either! You were turned down by Curtis?”
“Yeah. Then Juilliard accepted me and the rest is history. Still here.”
“Why? I mean, why didn’t Curtis accept you?”
I couldn’t see Finney, but I knew him. He was shrugging over the phone. “Curtis is an odd place,” he said. “They have their own set of secret handshakes. Did you know they turned down Van Cliburn?”
“No shit. You know, my mom auditioned at Curtis when she was about eighteen.”
Memory then did one of those rock-skips it’s so good at. The night before, the memory that I was remembering the night before. Like looking at a reflection of a window in a window. Someone had told me, at some time in the past, (maybe it was Mom herself) about this.
Then I was on the phone again, this time to California. “Hi, Mom.”
“Oh, hi, dear. How’s the new job going?”
“Couldn’t be better. Great bunch of people. The CEO took me to Philadelphia with him last week to sit in on a branch meeting.”
“How did you like Philadelphia? I remember being there once when I was a girl.”
“I know. Well, I didn’t get to see much of it. We were only there overnight. Mom, do you remember the first time I brought Richard to the house?”
“Heavens, no. How long have you two known each other? That was ages ago.”
“Richard played Chopin in the living room. You started to cry.”
“Not sure why, unless it was because Richard played so well, even when he was a kid.”
“Well, as you know, in those days I was—“
“Yes, we all know that. Mom?”
“Did you know that Richard auditioned at Curtis and was turned down? I can’t imagine you would, because I was the only one who could have told you, and I didn’t find out myself until a few days ago.”
“The poor thing. He must have been so disappointed.”
“It worked out okay, because as you do know, Juilliard took him. He also told me that Curtis turned down Van Cliburn. But I remember you telling me that you auditioned at Curtis yourself when you were what, eighteen?”
“Uh! There was a fool’s errand if ever there was one! Imagine your grandparents dragging me all the way back there with the little talent I had. They didn’t know what the heck they were doing.”
“You did okay, Mom. Most people wouldn’t have gotten through the front door. I mean, they turned down Van Cliburn.”
“I’m not complaining, dear.”
“They turned you down. They turned Richard down. They turned Cliburn down. Who needs them?”
The October afternoon when Richard and I were kids was filed away and, for a while, forgotten. But I was glad to have this other, after my mother died ten months later. It was something to carry around. Something to keep handy.
“[1948. 15th April.] Curtis. Audition by Van Cliburn, from Texas. (Not accepted for lack of places.)” Mecio: Reminiscences of Mieczyslaw Horzowski. (Erga edizioni. Genova. 2002.)
I didn’t learn this additional detail myself until after she was dead. Well, I could not be charged with mendacity, anyway. That was something to keep handy, too.