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)

I. Allegro

January 14

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.

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.

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.

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.” Even after three years, Professor Rosenstein’s crickity voice still echoed in Sarah’s ear. During her piano studies, she would trek with gloved hands to his studio each Monday for her weekly lesson, chewing gum to distract from the knot in her stomach, even though she knew his criticism would be kind, kinder at least than the other faculty.

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 or her runs sloppy — if he found out she had swapped Middle C for asdfghjkl and had hardly touched her instrument since her last lesson. 

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. On an old tape recorder, dug up from the depths of her parents’ closet, she had recorded herself saying Ich heiße Sarah, ich spiele gerne Klavier and ich komme aus Kalifornien. 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.

Nevertheless, he had known right away, when their paths had crossed earlier that evening on her way home from work, before she’d uttered any words at all, that she wasn’t from around there. Resting a hand on Sarah’s elbow after stepping off the train with her at Munich’s central Stachus station, he had said, “I would regret it later if I didn’t stop now to find out where you’re from and where you’re going.” That wad of kitsch should have made her ears bleed, if he hadn’t sounded so sincere. It wasn’t that she hadn’t noticed him, standing at the door on the subway train with ear buds peeking out like plastic sideburns, his summery curls straying from beneath his woven winter hat. He didn’t fit what Germans would call her Beuteschema — he was taller, stockier, blonder —, but his casual assertiveness was magnetic.

Sarah held the scrap of paper in her hand with 11 little numbers on it, written hastily in his tall and narrow script, the 1s with long trunks, the 7s with belts, German style. “Here’s mine,” she typed. “Maybe next time above ground?” Her phone hiccuped as it slung the message across town. It would take a stranger from the train to reunite her with what she’d lost.