The Girl with Twenty Fingers

Sarah wouldn’t feel like a freckle, a misprint, if it weren’t for her great divorce — from it, that box of hammers and strings that watches her aloofly from the living room, pointing its 88 fingers. All because of merciless Mozart. A used-to-be pianist, she now lives in Munich (although Pacific salt water flows through her veins), arguing with flaky food writers about kimchi and commas while subsisting on pretzels and wine.

Make music your Rubik’s cube and turn it until a new color comes up, Theo tells her — an artist, her brief, orgasmless affair. Even dickheads can be smart. A second chance for Mozart shoves her into a musty music shop, where she meets Herr Steinmann, a green-jacketed Bavarian four times her age with an ivory-clad Bechstein, no less, that once belonged to his Nazi-sympathizing mother. They meet to play and Mozart soon becomes a rhinestone on Sarah’s muslin Mondays, Herr Steinmann’s past an enigma she unravels. He joined the Hitler Youth, was later enamored with a Black American GI — Benjamin West. A dish, Herr Steinmann calls him, with fingers like cheetahs on the hunt; he’d taught him about ragtime and liberty.

Over Kaiserschmarrn and faded photos, Sarah and Herr Steinmann find they each have reconciling to do. He with his two surviving children, she with Wolfgang, Heimat, that noisy box that shouts her insufficiencies. But as Sarah pries herself free, she discovers that music wasn’t enough to save Benjamin — or her.

Read an excerpt from my forthcoming debut novel below. Watch for the whole book coming soon!


The Girl with Twenty Fingers (an excerpt)

I. Allegro

January 7

Sarah half expected it to disappear one of these days, gone missing without an afterthought or a “Reward” sign, as if it had never left two footprints on her floor. But of course it was still there gloating when she climbed the wooden steps to her one-bedroom apartment, screaming at her over the racket her shoes made in the quiet house.

You should be practicing. YOU SHOULD ALWAYS BE PRACTICING. The voice that had sometimes spurred, sometimes goaded her for so many years didn’t go into hibernation when she stopped playing. Instead of coaxing, the box of hammers and strings watched her aloofly, pointing its 88 fingers.

Da-da. She cast a sideways glance at the pouting Schimmel, but what she heard was a Bechstein and the yawning octave that opened the piano solo in Mozart’s D Minor Concerto, then nothing. It had been a mistake to put the instrument there, filling her new life in Germany with her past. What did her drunk grandmother know anyway?
A week after moving to Munich from New York, Sarah had bought the decent Schimmel upright — made in 1993 just like her — with the inheritance money she received while still in college. In one of her alcoholic dazes, her grandmother had told her before she died of breast cancer (officially, though Sarah had overheard her parents mention sleeping pills) that it was intended for her first piano when she had a place of her own. “I won’t live to see you play in Carnegie Hall,” she’d slurred, “But maybe I can help you get there.”

“Your Nana loves the ocean so much she wants her ashes thrown into it when she dies,” her dad said, wistfully staring into the Pacific, when they pulled over at a lookout point near the Golden Gate Bridge. Sarah was 14 or 15 and they were on their way home from “The City” after another audition or youth competition.
From her apartment window, Sarah could only glimpse the Isar River in the winter, when the trees were naked. It was the main reason she’d signed the lease, but it wasn’t the ocean. When she was a child, her family would occasionally go down to Monterey, where the water made her bones shiver (she hated not being able to feel her fingers), but also made her long to belong to it, in it, not as an elegant mermaid or garish fish, but as an invisible sea cucumber tucked into the sand, free from snorkelers’ stares, silently withstanding the weight of the ocean on her back.

Clink-clank! She tossed her keys onto the desk and turned on the TV. Any noise would do to hush up that black box. The neighbors were always the best excuse for tuning out the voice. It was too late, the bass tones would be too loud, the piece too unrehearsed. No one had ever complained, though. They kept to themselves, especially during Munich’s dark winter months when everyone was glad to throw on a fleece and curl up when they got home from work.
Even Christian from the ground floor had become rare, the 30ish German who covered his flabby belly in brands, parked his BMW i8 Coupe at a cocky angle in front of the house. He had driven her to dinner in it one night, during a lull with his 20ish girlfriend, ordering for both of them without a glance at the menu at the kind of place downtown that offers a tiny, well-seasoned ameuse-geule and a slit of a parking space.

During the third course (and as many paired wines), he’d told her that he had shot and killed his brother when he was three, the brother four, with a family heirloom hanging on the wall. It hadn’t been loaded, he’d thought, hadn’t even been touched in a generation. They were playing cowboys and Indians. Christian was nonchalant, possibly not knowing what a firearm accident meant to an American, unaware of whether Sarah was herself a trigger puller because, it seems, there are only two kinds of Americans: those with guns and those without.

He had rung Sarah’s bell seven times before she heard his girlfriend’s voice in the echoey stairwell again, never making advances, always with a reason to converse (a new big-screen, an English grammar question), but oblivious to the music maker she lived with.
The Schimmel stood up straight adjacent to the front door, sleek and stately like a tuxedo. It looked lonely, casting a geometric shadow on the otherwise undressed wall, the only one it fit against. Wilhelm Schimmel founded his piano manufacturer in the 19th century and earned international renown, but the name meant “mold”. How fitting, thought Sarah; gone to waste like her talent.

It was only Monday, but her week had already started off as a get-under-your-skin tritone, the devil’s interval. Just yesterday, Three Kings’ Day, Bavarian third graders dressed as magi were serenading her at her door, collecting coins in a tin for an orphanage in India. This morning, her boss, Stefanie, had chewed her out in front of the whole department. “What do you mean, your author can’t deliver on time? And why do I get the feeling you’ve never heard of a fucking dal before?”
Fresh takes on Indian classics — that was supposed to be their cover feature for March. The food writer Sarah had commissioned had promised a colorful portrait of three successful Indian chefs living in Munich, complete with make-at-home recipes and the mouthwatering no-filter hues of Fenugreek and turmeric. He was a reliable freelancer with the hard-to-find tendency to deliver pristine copy ahead of deadline. Had been. A cancellation without explanation had arrived in her inbox over the weekend.

Was it so hard to keep your word? Sarah hadn’t lied when she got the job a year ago as commissioning editor at Fork & Messer, a bilingual German-English food magazine that aspired to keep print alive, although it had more readers online. She envied those whose lies were as straight on their faces as their consciences were clear, but when she was hired, her language skills proved more relevant than her flatly confessed, non-existent food background. You don’t even have an accent! Every other American’s blemish.

Actually, though, Sarah was a pianist.

Eigentlich bin ich Pianistin.” That was her standard answer to the, “So what do you do?” question, although her experience with barstool banter was equally as rare as Germans that made small talk. “I mean, I used to be,” she’d add in the interest of candor, more for herself than the male measuring her up.
She opened a bottle of Bordeaux and filled up an Ikea water glass with the dark liquid. It had been on sale for €3.29 at Aldi, but the label looked fancy. French, at the very least. She grabbed a bag of frozen mixed vegetables from her glaciered freezer and poured them into a pot, turning the stove up as high as it would go. Hunger was taking its pick axe to her wine-stained stomach.

She remembered Tim’s hand brushing her arm like a feather that morning, as if it hadn’t, as the staffers gathered up their scratch paper and pens, scurrying from the conference room to the smoking balcony.

“You okay, Sarah?” If he’d been a singer, he would have been a baritone. Instead, Tim was the picture editor, a tall, lanky German with ears that stuck out over the arms of his conspicuously stylish glasses. Sarah admired the ease of his standout accessory; on her, they would look pretentious.

“I’m fine.” She had hoped he wouldn’t suggest, for the fourth time, that they meet for drinks later.

“An American’s ‘I’m fine’ can mean a million things.” A facetious grin had colored over his disappointment at her superficial reply.

When the vegetables started dancing, Sarah drained the pot and threw in two eggs, watching them coagulate. Scrape, scrape, scrape. A generous dollop of ketchup to cover the brown spots, and voilà. She’d picked up a soft pretzel on the way home, six minutes before closing time, rescuing it past its prime from a basket full of crumbs. Dipping it into the mass on her plate was sacrilegious, but she savored the snowflake-sized salt morsels, letting the red wine flow over them.

Sarah was no stranger to criticism like Stefanie’s. Are you sight-reading this, or did you prepare? During her piano studies, she would trek with gloved hands to Professor Rosenstein’s studio each Monday for an hour of critique and down a double dose of it at every masterclass and chamber rehearsal. Before lessons, she would drink a hurried espresso macchiato at the sardine can-sized coffee shop between the practice room and the studio, like other musicians had a habit of schnapps ahead of concerts, avoiding her face in the crooked mirror hung to make the joint look bigger, instead seeing the first few bars of her assigned piece on the battered, scribbled-on countertop.

Nein! Much too heavy! Yu need a morr delicate touch ven you play Mozart. Caress ze instrument. Don’t forget zat he did not haff a modern piahno.” Professor Rosenstein had never returned to Munich after fleeing for New York: 1938, a time when music was the least of people’s worries, but perhaps the best of their solutions, the only goodness left. He would be pleased that Sarah was there, in his hometown, but would tsk tsk — like when her pedaling was too heavy, her runs sloppy — if he found out she had swapped Middle C for asdfghjkl and had hardly touched her instrument in three years.

For Sarah, criticism was like getting a facial, enduring the discomfort of picking blackheads as a process of purification. Beauty knows no pain. At work she was constantly afraid someone would call her bluff.

Four felt-tipped, leather-bound journals, smeared here and there by her left palm, and a collection of short stories set in former East Germany, saved as “Train Tickets to Jena” on her laptop, attested to her affinity for words. Food was another matter entirely, something she viewed with a certain degree of flexibility and a heaping spoonful of grace. Her coworkers, on the other hand, not only lived, breathed and ate food journalism, they could make lumpless white sauces from scratch and slice onions into equally sized cubes — at least according to the bit of last night’s dinner chatter they dropped at meetings. She felt a pang of guilt when she plodded back to her desk and saw the signature at the end of her emails:
Sarah R. Johnson
International Food Editor
Fork & Messer

Sarah wiped the ketchup off her plate with the last bit of pretzel and leaned back in the kitchen chair, its legs perpetually off-kilter on the decades-old wooden floor, warped from season after season of humidity changes. Krick-krack! Wood in any form hides music in its fibers.

She put her red-smeared plate in the sink and turned up the volume on the TV. Some reality show with amateur chefs. It was lighter fare than the stuff she’d watched in high school to teach herself German — the classic crime series Tatort and Wim Wenders films — but not a bad way to expand her vernacular vocabulary. Back then, she had found an old tape recorder on eBay, a 00s model, to record herself. Mein Name ist Sarah und ich komme aus Kalifornien. Ich spiele gerne Klavier.

At first, she was mortified to detect the swallowed Ls and upfront Rs that outed her not just as a foreigner, but as an American; then her accent improved until it was undetectable to her. She recorded her piano pieces on the same device, imprinting it with an aural mosaic of biographical utterances, polonaises, sonatas.
As an adolescent, she had been the oddball Europhile who wore blouses instead of hoodies, the one her classmates clammed up around when she walked past. Now, Bavarians would occasionally mistaken her for a compatriot from the North, making her proud. Of almost being from here, if not from around here. Close to us, if never exactly one of us. At home, she was a freckle, a misprint. That could have been different if it hadn’t been for her great divorce.