WANDERER • by Russell Heidorn

Natalia’s wrinkled, spotty hands fluttered over the piano keys like a butterfly dancing on the breeze. Elegant, beautiful, serene, the sound of the aging instrument felt like a long lost friend. Her favorite was The Seasons by Tchaikovsky. Each movement a fragment of a larger journey, not unlike her life that started at this piano.

Natalia never thought of her childhood as anything but normal. The blown-out buildings, military patrols, and rationing was all she’d known. Even when her mama and sister died in a bombing and her Papa left her with Grandma so he could work for the railroad, it felt normal. The cramped apartment, Baba’s ailing health and Natalia the caretaker at nine years old, all normal.

Military curfew kept Natalia confined to the building except once a day to wait in the food line. In the evenings, when chores were done and Baba was asleep, she’d sit by the window and watch the sun escape to the horizon. It was then she could hear the piano music drifting by like a lullaby.

One day she followed the music down to a dungeon apartment in the basement. The door was open and among the cluttered remnants was an old woman playing. She had long thick gray hair, a weathered face and labored breathing, but her fingers were weightless on the keys. The woman smiled as she saw Natalia and offered to teach her to play. From that day on, they played every evening.

Baba passed when Natalia was 14. By then, Papa had saved enough to immigrate to America. As Natalia hugged the old woman goodbye, she promised she would keep playing.

They moved to a boarding house in New Jersey where Papa again was gone most of the time. The foreign language, strange customs and wary eyes kept Natalia from wandering too far.

In the parlor was an old, out of tune, upright piano. Natalia started playing every day after school. She’d play what she learned from the old woman, things she heard on the sound box and even her own melodies. People were drawn to the music and soon a crowd of tenants, workers and passersby would stop by and listen. One boy with sad eyes left her change and others followed. Soon, Natalia was earning enough to pay rent so Papa wouldn’t be gone so much.

The man with sad eyes was there often. His name was Roman and he said it was a shame to keep her music confined. He said he could arrange for her to play other places, but Natalia wasn’t interested. She was starting to help out at the boarding house and the routine felt safe.

But after Papa died of pneumonia and she was once again alone, she relented. Roman entered her into the county fair talent contest where she won first prize. Her performance was so adored, a local promoter booked her in playhouses across the state.

News of her talent spread as she played larger and more luxurious theatres. In New York, people even dressed up to watch her play. The applause, after-parties and fancy hotel rooms were nice but didn’t ease the anxiety. Roman became her manager and eventually her lover. He was kind and offered a sense of security as she was towed from town to town, playing a different piano every night.

She got pregnant just as they started their cross-country tour to California. Roman said he’d adjust the schedule so they could travel with a baby, but Natalia said no. She wanted a more stable home. Roman left after that. She knew he would. Staying put was not in his bones. So Natalia went back to the boarding house and gave birth to a beautiful daughter named Anna.

Roman sent money when he could and visited whenever he came through town. He’d ask if she was playing again. By then Natalia was running the boarding house, tending to tenants and providing the kind of home for Anna she never had.

Anna bloomed into a strong young woman. But like her father, she had nomad blood. She didn’t understand the solace Natalia tried to provide. So when she turned 17, she left to chase her own dreams. She’d call regularly from California or Texas or Mexico — sometimes with her Dad, sometimes with friends, sometimes on her own.

As Natalia sat in the evenings, she could feel her own restlessness. Her whole life, she’d been pulled around like a dinghy in a rainstorm. And now that she could finally be still, all she felt was something unfinished. She’d try to play again, but the piano music was distant. Until one night as she watched the sun flee to the West, she realized what was missing.

It was surprising how much the country had changed. Gone was the devastation and desolation and any sign of the military. Instead, vibrant life blossomed like flowers in a meadow. Even the shelter she once called home was now a renovated travel lodge for tourists. Natalia rented Baba’s room and was surprised as she entered. Instead of heavy, guilty memories, she only felt a fondness for the Baba she loved.

Natalia ventured to the basement where the apartment was now a derelict storage room, cluttered with old furniture, boxes, and long forgotten mementos. It took her a while to clean things out, but the piano was still there. Natalia caressed the wood like a long lost child and sat down to play. The music was quenching, as if her body was a dried-out sponge longing for nourishment.

And that was the story. And as she played the final note of the coda and let it ring, the evening sun pierced a ray of amber through the windows as the sound dissipated like a sunset. How long had she been playing? Minutes? Hours? Days? She didn’t know. As Natalia turned, she noticed a young girl in the doorway listening. Natalia smiled and offered to teach her to play.

Russell Heidorn lives in suburban Minneapolis and scatters his time between working and family while pursuing his dream of writing. He is currently working on a novel about a suburban man who scatters his time between work and family while pursuing his dream of writing. However, any resemblance to real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental.

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