The El Paso airport was pretty quiet at midnight. I dragged my wheelaboard past the baggage claim, out the door where the cool desert night lives side-by-side with the heat radiating up from the sidewalks. It’s an amazingly weird airport, on a busy street filled with every fast food joint you’ve heard of and many you never want to, but as you fly in you see only wasteland, endless sand and creosotes. There is nothing, nothing, nothing, and suddenly there you are on the ground in the middle of town, as though town were a façade, barely separated from drought, a place with a soul of dust.
It was an hour’s drive to New Mexico, to my parents’ place, and so I slept the night in the Radisson, oasis astride the parking lot. It had an Italian motif, a Venetian Room (!), a sleep center. I always forget how the dryness envelops everything, changes the feeling of even your eyeballs. The water from the sink gave the hotel coffee packet a wonderfully toxic flavor.
My parents had decided at long last to leave the house I grew up in, and move somewhere with a bit less responsibility, fewer things to take care of. I was faintly jealous. They have a lovely new apartment, but additionally there is a communal dining room, with super comfy wheelie chairs, and rows of high windows–squares of blue sky. I stared at these cloudless squares. Meanwhile, I was getting déjà vu, something about this room and the sense of time unfolding and the little buffet of beverages, the coffee dispensers, the dessert cart with its pie and Jello possibilities.
I’d brought a trusty bottle of habañero hot sauce, and was therefore able to transform the presented cheeseburger pie into something nearly inedible. By the laws of my own idiocy, then, I was forced to guzzle a bladder-busting amount of water. A guy in a scooter tried to beat me to the handicapped restroom, but I showed him.
As I came back from the restroom, the déjà vu vanished into a certainty of recurrence. It was quieter, less frenetic, but I knew where I was-and-wasn’t; the last time I had been here, the here was the dining hall in Dascomb, at Oberlin. A group of regulars at tables, a bit of a buffet, some cliquishness, people coming and going to their rooms. It was like Dorm 2: The Sequel, and if the first one was a manic preparation for an onslaught of life events the sequel is about digesting them.
A piano lurked in the corner of this large dining room, far enough away that I could ignore it mostly. My mother, however, may have let slip at some meal or other that I was a pianist, and after three or so free meals at the dining room, the head honcho of the place came over. “I hear you’re a pianist,” the honcho said. “I guess,” I replied. She looked me over, said the obvious-for-her: “What do you do?” I was mystified. “Well, you’re not a professional pianist any more are you?” and I realized in a flash that at my age she considered music not something to be done any more; music was an indulgence of youth.
As a side note, let me just say that I arrived in town somewhat unexpectedly, and had not packed for a long journey, and so my only pair of shorts on arrival were a pair of gym shorts, which my mom immediately referred to as “Fancy Shorts” which they decidedly were not and which could only mean “really terrible shorts” and so I quickly headed out to Old Navy to pick up some cheap shorts to wear in the New Mexico sunshine, which I wore all week, with the result that I looked like the sort of person who waited until mid-October to buy the cheapest possible on sale shorts at Old Navy and never laundered them.
“Yes, actually,” I said, slightly gritting my teeth, “I am a professional pianist, believe it or not.” She went away.
Later she sent another representative, and really only a person with a coal-black heart could refuse to play. They wanted me to check the piano to see if it was good enough; it was an electric Baldwin masquerading as a baby grand.
For the rest of that week I did not think very much, I’ll confess, of my debut at the Golden Mesa. In fact, I was a bit blasé about the whole thing, I even was practicing and lost track of time, and therefore arrived a bit late for the starting time, which itself had been miscommunicated, so I was nearly a half hour late to begin; there was a silent and large group of waiting people there, arranged in a rough semicircle, possibly disgruntled, and I was still wearing the same shorts believe it or not because in that glorious New Mexico sunshine I could not bear to put on pants.
The first problem is that the piano was not set to be a piano. It emitted trumpet-ish bleats. I tried to explain to the crowd, sweating a bit, that the pianos I usually play on are actually pianos. They did not seem impressed. A blind man named Everett in the front row was the only one who seemed to understand, “You’re a brave man,” he said. The first button I pressed set off a deafening bossa nova. The staff of the facility rushed in to try to help, but I think at last after five minutes of struggling, I was the one who “fixed” it, randomly hitting at buttons that seemed important. Out of the instrument came something sampled from an actual piano somewhere.
As I sat at the bench, a cold terror crept over me. I realized I really had nothing to play for this situation. My mother had strictly forbidden me to play anything too 20th century in exactly the same voice as she would forbid me to stay out past 9 pm when I was fifteen. So, with a song in my heart, I just launched into the Goldberg Variations, planning to stop when someone screamed or … The action of the instrument had an interesting unpredictability, that is, it made a nice soft sound up to a certain degree of pressure, and then suddenly became incredibly loud, with a bit of distortion for good measure. It whispered or grunted. I stayed in the loud dimension, kept adjusting the volume tab on the left, realized I should certainly have done a sound check … I distinctly heard someone say “that piano sounds terrible.” Yes, there was something collegiate about their frankness as well.
After the tenth variation I just stopped. Middling acclaim. I decided the next thing in my repertoire I could try was “The Alcotts” from the “Concord” Sonata. I saw my parents slap their foreheads in the back of the room. It was a disastrous choice, but brief. The imitation piano had no discernible color palette, and the piece therefore made absolutely no sense. It was 5:10ish, dinner wasn’t until 5:30. Twenty empty minutes to fill. What would I do next? The piece I had recorded most recently was Op. 111 of Beethoven, but to play that piece on this piano would be a sin against humanity. I realized whatever I finished with had to be propulsive, impressive, I didn’t want my parents to have to hang their heads in shame in the corridors of their new home.
I launched into the first movement of the “Waldstein.” This was better. The rhythm was a crutch against the piano’s failings. I ripped a page out of my score in the excitement, it drifted off towards the door, hoping to escape I suppose. I heard someone say “he’s so angry.” If I could have drifted out of my own body! Me madly being expressive at this inexpressive electric thing was something of a spectacle, something unusual, a kind of tragicomic masterpiece. But the best humiliation was yet to come. I had deftly timed the work to end promptly in deference to dinner, but the staff did not know this. I was just rounding the corner of the coda, I’d gotten to the moment where Beethoven is tiptoeing on the dominant:
And in perfect balletic correspondence, as if having analyzed the score and understood its most exposed moments, one of the staff tiptoed up to me, whispered in my ear, “Dinner’s in five minutes.” I say whisper, but it was audible in the next county, perhaps even in Albuquerque. There was a murmur of approval in the crowd, “that’s right,” someone said. They didn’t know the piece was just about to end; when I thundered out the final cadence
… it must have seemed as though I tacked it on. I stood up, received a relieved ovation. Another honcho came up, submitted me to the crowd. “We would love to have him again?” he asked with a mixture of hearty enthusiasm and hesitance. The crowd applauded somewhat, there were no audible dissents. But I must have looked at him strangely. He said to me, confidentially, ”We’ll pay you.” I wasn’t offended that they gave me the dinner hook, but the idea that I was holding out for a paycheck … well it hit me the wrong way. Samuel Beckett says “against the charitable gesture there is no defense,” but there is, there is. I had to put extra consolatory hot sauce on my quesadilla. My father’s assessment was on the mark: “I don’t think they’ll lower our rent,” he said, “let’s hope they don’t raise it.” We all laughed.
In this account of an ignominious debut I have failed to express the sun-swept week that surrounded it. Friend E was there, she will tell you, there was never one cloud, only light light light, and every morning we stopped at this place BurgerTime where they serve the most perfect breakfast burritos although they unerringly screw up your order, and every morning there were no customers, just us in the car blinking at the sun and the sound of sizzling chorizo behind a screen. Then we would drive around town doing simple errands, raiding grocery stores, evaluating shower curtains, refilling coffee pods, then returning to my parents to play cards or eat or discuss the man in the dining room who loves to rearrange the chairs. For lunch there’s a different burrito place with the magic green chile melting together with shredded beef, and the girl at the counter with that soothing New Mexico accent, both somehow linkable to the way each evening the sunset makes everything purple. We walked around the house I grew up in, surveyed the Christmas trees from my youth, now grown into mammoths; who knows what the new owners will make of these improbable pine trees towering over the cacti? And one day a real treat, driving over the pass to White Sands, lying in the vast whiteness in the vast valley, a story of a lake that used to be but evaporates continuously feeding a vast lake of gypsum; a story made real, of sand that moves and swallows; of the mice with white eyes who live there; we lay on the dunes, light light light, I thought of all our helplessness in the face of the sun and the sand. In the thick of time’s erosion, in the center of its sandblasting workshop, the incredible beauty of things wrapped change in gentleness. The next day, one last visit to BurgerTime. Amazingly, suddenly, there were customers coming out of the woodwork, five cars in the drive-thru alone; E and I looked at each other meaningfully, hopefully, and then laughed; if you take omens from your burritos you have been in New Mexico too long.