My mother believed that her entire life would have somehow been different had she been given piano lessons as a girl. She said this often, with a little sigh that made me feel I had better run through my scales one more time. She had grown up, as she often reminded me, "a sculptor's daughter," which I later learned to translate into "poor." I did not take the piano in our family room for granted. My parents found it at a garage sale, a big brown upright with the face of Ray Charles painted on the frontpiece. I always approached it reverently, with the impression that my piano lessons were going to somehow transform me.
In outright mimicry of my neighbor, Callie, I'd demanded that my piano instructor be Cole Curtin. He would appear at our doorstep chewing his thumbnail, invariably late, sheet music stuffed into a paper bag. Entering our house, he strained his neck to glimpse my mother chopping vegetables in the kitchen. In demonstrating a technique or correcting an error, he could play a ten-minute cadenza and then look surprised to find me sitting there beside him. After I'd struggled through my scales, his only reaction might be to say, "Your mother is extremely beautiful."
According to Callie, Mr. Curtin treated her mother no differently. Neither Callie nor I questioned such behavior. We were best friends, both of us ten years old, with a little brother each that we didn't much like. We lived next door to each other and owned identical yellow jumpers. It seemed appropriate that we have the same piano teacher, and that he be in love with both of our mothers.
My father might never have made the fuss about Mr. Curtin had he not been home from the office early one Thursday. In my worldview, fathers were either "at the office" or "on the porch." When mine came home, winter or summer, he retreated to the little screened-in space that nosed into our backyard. There he had installed a large rocking chair (it had been in the family, Russ and I were often reminded, for over one hundred years) next to a table full of wood for whittling. My mother explained this to us as "Daddy's downtime." Winters he would bundle up in a scarf and hat, wrap a wool blanket around himself, and nap there for an hour or so before creating some small object out of a piece of cedar.
Now it was July, and my father was home earlier than usual, whittling away on the porch. Peeking through the living room window, I saw Mr. Curtin approaching our front door, stopping at one of the planters to have a look at some petals or bugs. He was a soft-shouldered man, with thick dark brown hair, bushy eyebrows, and a droop to his eyes. Even though it was summer he wore the same fading corduroy pants as in winter, only now with five-and-dime flip-flops. His button-down shirt was tight on his shoulders, as if it had been purchased ten or so years earlier, before his body completed puberty's cycle. He was still young! Callie and I didn't know this. Mr. Curtin's tired eyes suggested a long, difficult past. His mumbled comments implied a history of lost opportunity and poor decisions: Women gone off with other men. Jobs lost unaccountably. Sheet music lent to students and never seen again.
He bore the slouch of someone perpetually waiting for a tow truck. And despite his thick build, he looked as though he needed to be fed; his skin was pale, and there was a neediness in the way he lingered by the kitchen door as I urged him into the family room.
"Hello, Melena," he said softly to my mother. She looked up from her cooking, and a shiny loop of dark hair swung across her face. "How are you, Cole?"
"Oh, you know," he said. "Things happen. I got fired from the ballet school." Days Mr. Curtin played accompaniment for dance classes.
"Why?" This was me.
"The teacher said I made her feel uncomfortable."
"I'm sorry to hear that," my mother said.
I asked, "Why? Why did you make her feel uncomfortable?"
"Quiet, Rhea. Don't be nosy."
"She said I kept looking at her. How could I not? She's there in those pink tights." Mr. Curtin sighed. "She has such a beautiful neck."
That was when my father came in and said, "Cole," with a little nod of his head, the way he did with everyone except children. "How's Rhea's progress?"
Mr. Curtin sighed again and said, "I suppose we'd better get started." We went to the family room, where the piano sat squarely against a clean white wall. Mr. Curtin listened to my scales and my études, and then I moved on to my pride and joy—real sheet music by a real composer. Other kids were playing "Four Jazzy Fingers and a Swingin' Thumb," but Mr. Curtin had given me and Callie the real thing--simple, elegant children's pieces by Bartók.
"Oh--ugh! Stop! You're murdering it!" he yelled when my fingers hammered at the keys. "It's a sin!" Then he mumbled something about how he didn't actually believe in sin, and after that he demonstrated how to play with appropriate sensitivity. His eyes closed and his head bowed, and beautiful music wafted into the kitchen, where my mother was sliding a casserole into the oven.
"You need to work on refinement, subtlety," Mr. Curtin told me. I didn't know what either of those words meant. "Here," he said. "Here's a beautiful little one, soft and sensual. Play this for your mother in the evening, when she's tired and wants to rest her eyes."
Leaving that night, he said, "Melena, your cooking smells wonderful," in a way that made me think he wanted to stay for dinner. But the invitation he elicited was for the coming weekend.
"We're having people on Saturday," my mother said. "A sort of garden party. If you'd like to come."
"Yes," said Mr. Curtin.
"Starting five or so," my mother told him as she let him out the door. "See you then."
My father had left the porch to sit down at the dinner table. "I wish you hadn't done that," he said softly. "I wish you hadn't invited the piano teacher to our party."
"Why shouldn't I?" my mother asked, sounding truly surprised. "Rhea and Callie just love him, and I think it will be a treat for Cole, too. He doesn't have much money, Gordon. I'm not sure he eats."
"Melena, you know that Jerry Waslick is coming."
"What does your boss have to do with it?"
"I—maybe you don't think this way—" My father's voice sounded embarrassed. "You know I'm keeping my fingers crossed about the promotion. I'd like to be able to make a favorable impression on Saturday. I'm just not sure it's appropriate to invite a piano teacher who sleeps in his clothes and ogles girls in tights--"
"Not girls in tights," my mother said. "The teacher. She has a lovely neck." She laughed briefly. "He's perfectly cultured, Gordon. Why, he's more cultured than the both of us put together."
That was the last I heard of Mr. Curtin until the day of the party. "I'm wondering if we shouldn't look into a new piano teacher," my father said that morning as he frowned over a crossword. "Did you hear the language he used with Rhea the other night? 'Sensual.' Is that an appropriate word for a ten-year-old girl? No. Not for most people, if you get right down to it."
I was in the backyard tossing a ball with Russ, and so I had a fine view of both the porch and the kitchen window. "Most people don't have the intellectual side that we do—" I heard my mother say.
"Melena, please," my father said, sounding bored.
"Well, maybe you don't," said my mother coldly, "but I am the daughter of a sculptor. I know an artist when I see one, and I think that you greatly underestimate the value of a person like Cole."
"I have no doubt that he's as worthy as the next guy," my father said, squinting at the crossword. "It's that he's so . . . he's just a . . ." My father pulled a pencil from behind his ear and counted a line of crossword boxes. "Embarrassment," he declared.
The weather that evening was warm and breezy, and Callie and I had a good time running from the front lawn to the back in our matching jumpers, waiting for the first guest to arrive. But the first guests were Callie's parents, Tom and Helen. I was allowed to call them Tom and Helen because that was what Callie called them. Helen was blonde like Callie and winked whenever she was about to say something funny. She seemed always to be buying Callie Shetland sweaters and pink corduroy skirts and tiny pearl studs that I coveted almost painfully.
Tom, who was fifteen years older than Helen, often gave me and Callie Bazooka bubble gum. This had prompted me to say to my mother one day, "Tom is so, so, so nice." My mother gave a reply that for years mystified me.
nice," she said in a grave tone, with a chastising shake of her head. "Tom is too, too, too nice."
He and Helen showed up with spare martini shakers and a big punch bowl that Helen claimed had been in a box since 1966. "It was one of those impractical wedding gifts," she said. "As if now that you're married you're going to drink punch
"We probably thought it was terrific at the time," Tom said.
Helen said, "Dear, I doubt that whoever gave it to us is in hearing range. Admit it, you hate punch." And then she tossed back her head and yelled, "TOM HATES PUNCH!"
My mother giggled, and my father said, "In that case, how about some other drink. What can I get you?" Russ and Brian had already gone off dueling with their light sabers. Callie and I ran to the front yard to chant, "Tom hates punch!" as the guests began to arrive.
"Nice place you have here, Gordon," Jerry Waslick told my father. Both of them were wearing short-sleeved button-down shirts and leather boat shoes.
"Yeah, well, we've been thinking about building a pool," my father replied, though in fact this discussion had been dropped the previous summer. Too much maintenance, my father had insisted. But now he said, "We're still looking for the right people to do it."
Jerry Waslick began to tell my father all he knew about pools, while the two of them paced the backyard with their hands in their chinos. Remembering this now, it seems perfect that at just that moment, with my father listening to advice he never meant to implement, Mr. Curtin emerged from the quince bushes beside him. There was a trace of pollen on his pant cuffs, and he carried the same wrinkled paper bag he always used to transport sheet music. "I went to Callie's house by mistake," he explained as I ran up to him.
"Cole," my father said to him, with a nod and a frown.
Mr. Curtin, flustered, mumbled, "I came through the backyard." He looked around at the people on the lawn, and his gaze ended next to him, on Jerry Waslick, who whipped his right hand out of his pant pocket, offered it to Mr. Curtin, and said, "Jerry Waslick," in a way that indicated at once where my father had learned to nod his head.
"Pleased to meet you," said Jerry Waslick.
Jerry Waslick seemed to think that this was the wittiest thing he had heard in a long time. While he laughed, my father said, "Here, why don't I get both of you a drink."
Helen had seen Mr. Curtin now and came over, saying, "Cole, how are you?"
"Fine. Well, no. Not really. Theo ran away." Theo was Mr. Curtin's Dalmatian, who seemed to always be in some sort of trouble. He had swallowed Mr. Curtin's one good pen, and broken the screen door. The last I'd heard, Theo had developed a fear of dust.
"I'm so sorry," Helen said. "When did it happen?"
"Two nights ago. I came home and he was all riled up, and when I went through the front door he ran out, completely upset." Mr. Curtin hung his head for a moment. "I hadn't cleaned in a while, and I can't help but wonder . . ."
Jerry Waslick, who could not be blamed for thinking that Theo was human, appeared fascinated by the conversation. But my father led him away, saying, "Let me show you that sander I was telling you about."
Mr. Curtin shrugged his shoulders.
"I'd say you could use a drink," said Helen, who had already had a number of them herself. "Let me fix you something. Callie, I told you to stop eating all the pimentos."
"It's not pimento. It's red pepper." Not that it would have mattered. Callie had no qualms when it came to breaking rules, which was why it was always more fun to play at her house than at mine.
At this point old Millie Day, who had been invited only because she lived right across the street, saw us and said, "Todd? Are you Robert Fenwick's son? My, how you've grown!" But before Mr. Curtin could correct her, she shuffled off, saying, "I must tell Edna."
I remember the waning sun that evening, because it seemed to take forever to set. It gently stretched our guests' shadows across the lawn and turned orange in a showy way. With their hair lit from behind, everyone looked quite pleased with themselves. Callie and I ran around stealing cocktail cherries and olives and every once in a while listening in on a conversation.
"I don't know how I ended up here," I heard my mother saying to someone on the patio. She must have been drunk, because she had taken off her shoes; my mother usually complained of having to hide her long, callused toes. "I should be in a city," she said now, barefoot on a wooden bench, her hair curling in the humidity. "Or the country or something. I miss the company of artists." She took a sip of white wine and said, "You know, I was a sculptor's daughter."
I sat down on a stool nearby and nibbled celery. The woman to whom my mother was speaking was, it turned out, Edna LeBlanc, Millie Day's widowed elder sister. She lived with Millie and now appeared to be dozing. This did not faze my mother, who added, "But the school system's good. It's for the children, really. I want all the best for them. Cole! Well, now, when did you get here?"
"Oh, I don't know." Reaching into the wrinkled bag he still carried, Mr. Curtin took out two record albums. "I thought I'd bring some party music," he said, handing the records to my mother.From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from Calamity and Other Stories by Daphne Kalotay. Copyright © 2005 by Daphne Kalotay. Excerpted by permission of Anchor, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.