Max showered when he woke near noon, inhaled two quick bowls of cereal, and dragged his bicycle out of the back shed. It had been a while since he had used the thing—since back when his dad was still around—and he was annoyed to have to sort through piles of junk to locate the air pump. When he’d finally found it and reanimated the bike’s slack tires, he brushed the dust off the seat and took off. Satisfyingly, he was on his own.
It was a hot day, and he was sweating briskly after twenty minutes of pedaling when he reached Mrs. Davenport’s house. She opened the door with her customary smile—there was something sly in it, as though she and Max were in on some joke together—and welcomed him in with a wave of the hand, “To the kitchen, Max, as fast as you can. To the kitchen.”
While Max sat at the table drinking lemonade and letting the ceiling fan cool him down, Mrs. Davenport stood by the sink and watched him. “So, to what do I owe the pleasure?”
Max hadn’t thought through this trip. He had just known when he woke that this is where he wanted to be. He wanted to see Mrs. Davenport, settle in at the piano and spend time with Franz Liszt.
“You think I could practice here a bit?” he said, watching his glass sweat rather than meet Mrs. Davenport’s eyes. “I don’t need a lesson or anything. It’d just be fun to play for a bit.”
“Of course,” she said. She joined him at the table. “It’s got you good, doesn’t it?”
“I guess.” Max looked up. He felt embarrassed but pleased that she seemed to understand his state of mind. No one else seemed to get it. “I’ve been thinking about it a lot.”
“You’re lucky,” she said. “That’s when it’s the most fun.”
While Max played, Mrs. Davenport sat on the sofa in the living room with a book. With his back to her, Max couldn’t tell how closely she was paying attention, but he liked knowing she was there, a witness to his work. From the outset, it was the best he had ever played the Liebestraum, or anything else, and it was not just a single performance but a series of them. One time after another he played the piece straight through, pausing only as long as it took the final note to die and then diving back into it with no more than a slight shift on the bench, eager to tour through it again. It was as though all of the imagining of the piece, all of the envisioning of it played just right, had seeped into the moment. The playing of it required his two hands to behave independently and precisely, at times to play as though he was playing two different works, and it demanded that he understood not just the proper rhythm and technique but the right pace of the quiet, of the pauses. There was so much patience involved, so much restraint, even as the striking of the keys could spill into almost furiously fast movements. He knew, of course, that it wasn’t perfect—that any decent concert pianist would feel humiliated at such a performance—but to him it rang as cleanly as a piece of music could. Still, no matter how many times he played it just right, it never felt quite real. He was playing it well, but there was an unbridgeable space between him and the notes. He felt as though he was chasing something that could not be caught.
Finally, at last, he understood that it was time to stop, and he did, slumping on the bench and letting his hands rest on his lap. He waited to hear from Mrs. Davenport. When she said nothing, he turned on the bench. Her book was closed on the sofa beside her. She had been crying and had a crumpled tissue in her hands.
“I cannot wait for you to play that for your mother,” she said. “What a recital you will give.”
Max smiled. “Anything I should work on?”
“Don’t change a thing,” she said. “I doubt Liszt could have played it better.”
Max felt a flash of disappointment. There it was again. He loved working with Mrs. Davenport, loved coming to her house and learning not just about the music but about the composers and their lives. She had a way of making it all so interesting, like a good book or something. He had been seeing her once a week since he was six and her patience and attention was a constant. He revered her. And yet her tendency to overpraise him sapped the strength of her words. He recognized when she said more than she could truly believe. All it did was make him doubt the whole enterprise—everything she said about his talent and ability became suspect and likely overblown—and that undermined the satisfaction playing the piano provided him. Maybe he was actually awful. He knew she meant well, but she filled him with the kind of uncertainty that seemed to march with him every other step he took. When adults spoke, he had recently wondered, how did you know when to believe them?
Max became absorbed by his fingernails. “I’m guessing Liszt could have played it better when he was, what, nine? I can’t imagine how good he was when he was fourteen.”
Mrs. Davenport rose from the sofa and walked to the piano. Max turned and slid over, and she sat beside him on the bench, facing the keys. “Do you think you must play as well as Franz Liszt or the piece is not a success?” she said. Her tone was different. There was an air of concern in her manner.
“I’m not saying that.”
“Because that is not a reasonable expectation to place on yourself, you understand? It must be you and the music. That’s what you can control. That’s enough. You cannot decide you are competing against everyone else in the world, too. OK? You can’t do that to yourself.”
Max understood what she meant, but he couldn’t imagine how someone would go about managing to think in such a way. His father had once told him, “Figuring out if you’re doing well is easy enough. Look up ahead. If someone’s there, you’re not doing so hot.”
Max cracked his knuckles idly. “I’m just saying when Liszt was my age, he was a big star already,” he said. “He knew he was great and that he would be great his whole life. That’s got to be a pretty good feeling.” He struck a few keys. “He knew, since he was a little kid, without any doubts, I’m amazing at this.”
Mrs. Davenport sighed. “Just because he was a prodigy doesn’t mean it was as easy as all of that,” she said. “It doesn’t mean he didn’t have the same doubts, the same questions the rest of us have.”
“In fact, he did,” she said sternly, her hands clenching each other in her lap. “Yes, he was famous at a very young age, but you should read something about him beside that—beside what we talked about. That’s a small slice of his life. We haven’t talked about when he was a teenager, for instance. When he was your age. Sometime around fourteen or fifteen, his father died. He lost him. And his father had been his greatest teacher, his greatest advocate. He had pushed him hard, for sure. He had been one of those parents who does not let their child rest on their laurels, but he was not just a hard man. He also loved his son and wanted him to succeed for the boy’s sake and not for his own. You understand what I mean?”
“Yeah,” Max said, with the sullen tone he liked to use with his mother these days. Then he caught himself, “Yes, ma’am.”
Mrs. Davenport smiled and patted Max on the shoulder. “When his dad died, Liszt was devastated. He stopped touring, stopped composing, and started earning money giving lessons to kids like some silly old lady” —she paused and smiled at her joke, but Max didn’t respond. She nodded, apparently understanding he was in no mood for it. “His forward momentum, you see, that had made everything seem so inevitable just halted completely. That doubt you think he never had suddenly ruled him. It was everything. He had seen his work and his art as being all wrapped up with his father, as though they were linked and necessary to each other—without one, the other would crumble on its own. So he stopped because he did not believe he was a great pianist and composer without his father, and also because he did not want to be a great pianist and composer without him. The one had driven the other. Does that make sense?” Max just stared at the keys. “Life had been one way for him, and it took him several years to understand life could be other ways, too. Some people never understand, of course. Something bad and inconvenient happens and that’s it for them. They never recover. But he did, eventually. In his twenties, he was inspired to push himself without someone else’s hand on his back. And then, when determination came, it was all from within and so it was very powerful. Much more powerful than before.”
Max jerked his hands toward the keys and then removed them in embarrassment. He was surprised to feel a fresh jolt of adrenaline.
Mrs. Davenport carefully folded the tissue in her hands. “That’s why you can sit here and play the Liebestraum, which was written many years later, when he was an adult and very much his own man. You think the tremendous sadness in that piece, the terrific and beautiful melancholy, is a product of an easy life? Just think if he’d never picked things up again and instead had folded shop forever when his dad died. Think what we’d be missing.”
She patted Max on the knee and they sat in silence. Then she stood and returned to the sofa. Max felt a mysterious swelling in his chest. Behind him, Mrs. Davenport broke into applause. He turned and stared at her in confusion. She sat upright—rod-straight and profoundly attentive. She lifted her eyebrows and nodded. He got it. He stood and bowed to her extravagantly, then turned and sat on the bench. It seemed to him that Liszt was right there in the room with them, waiting and watching, an expression of rapt curiosity on his teenage face. Max felt almost too revved up to play. He remembered his father’s once tossed-off advice and took three slow, full breaths that were as delicious as a great meal. He was filled with an exquisite sense of calm. He flipped back the tails on a pretend coat and examined the piano. The keys vibrated with possibility. The world was quiet and still—and, best of all, simple. It was just him and the Liebestraum, at last. He placed his fingers on the keys and began to play.