The Girl with Twenty Fingers
Mozart was merciless to Sarah, who breaks up with the piano — until she meets an elderly German in Munich with an ivory-clad Bechstein, strained family ties and a Nazi past. When Sarah tracks down his long-lost friend, a jazz-playing Black American GI, she discovers that music alone won’t set her free..
Read an excerpt from my forthcoming debut novel below. Watch for the whole book coming soon!
The Girl with Twenty Fingers (excerpt)
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 opened the door to her quiet one-bedroom apartment, screaming at her over the racket her key made in the lock.
You should be practicing. YOU SHOULD ALWAYS BE PRACTICING. The voice that had sometimes coaxed, sometimes goaded her for so many years didn’t go into hibernation when she stopped playing. 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. 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 music school.
Clink-clank! She tossed her keys onto the desk and turned on the TV. Any noise would do to cover up that black box’s whining. 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, who founded his piano manufacturer in the 19th century and earned international renown, had a name that meant “mold” in German. 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, Stefanie, her boss at the food magazine she worked for, 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 were 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. She envied those who could lie with a straight face and a clear conscience, but when she was hired, her language skills proved more relevant than her non-existent food background.
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 experiences with barstool banter were equally as rare as Germans that made small talk. “I mean, I used to be,” she’d add in the interest of candor.
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 to the hottest setting. Hunger was taking its pick axe to her wine-stained stomach.
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, just 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. During her piano studies, she would trek with gloved hands to Professor Rosenstein’s studio each Monday for an hour of critique. Before lessons, she drank a hurried espresso macchiato at the hole-in-the-wall coffee shop between the practice room and the studio, avoiding her face in the crooked mirror hung to make the joint look bigger, visualizing instead the first few bars of her assigned piece on the battered 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 in 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.
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 the 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 nearly undetectable, a slight affectation. She recorded her piano pieces on the same device, imprinting it with an aural mosaic of biographical utterances, polonaises, sonatas.
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.