Lucien’s Bargain

Sarah and I took the stage. I looked out into the crowd, which I knew to be modest, but I couldn’t see them for the light in my eyes. We bowed. I sat at the piano and Sarah put the base of her viola to the space between her chin and shoulder. We nodded at each other, and started to play, the first simple chords of a fairly simple piece, Fauré’s Aprés un Rêve, or “After a Dream.” My part functioned as mostly backup to Sarah’s lead, but she wasn’t much at her instrument, as Ms. Rovak had told me. So I put some of the extra power I’d received from the bargain into my playing. We made it through the piece without incident. I loved the way I was playing. I could certainly tell the difference. But the real test was to come in about fifteen minutes, after Sarah finished her solo set and I was scheduled to follow her.

Until Lucien’s bargain I knew that neither Ms. Rovak nor any of the visiting professors who heard me took me for a serious pianist. I played musically, originally, but with nothing like the fine-tuned precision classical music called for. I liked big chords, octaves, loud, bravura passages. I couldn’t play Mozart worth a damn. My lessons with Ms. Rovak were terrifying, protracted episodes of one-sided verbal abuse. She called for more than I had in me. At least that’s how it used to be. She hadn’t heard me since I’d struck the bargain.

It was my senior recital. I used to dread graduation, which would leave me with a worthless major and a mountain of debt. What on Earth was I going to do with myself? I had no idea.

I’d felt the power with Sarah on the Fauré, and, after taking her hand and taking my closing bow, I waited in the green room down the hall from the stage and I found that, while I was nervous, it was with a good kind of energy: I was excited, expectant of victory. The music department’s stagehand was recording the concert. I would knock it the fuck out of the park.

Sarah and I had practiced together maybe half a dozen times, and had gotten lunch in the quad twice. I had designs on her. I could tell she liked me, and, after tonight, I would see that she was impressed with me too.

But for the next fifteen minutes or so I was to wait and try to contain my enthusiasm. There was still the possibility that if I went out there over-charged I might forget the pieces, strike the wrong notes, or try to do more than was within me. I still didn’t know the limits of this power. Overthinking, such as I was doing now, could well prove my undoing.

***

It was a junior, Mercedes Delouza, who had gotten me into this peculiar pursuit. At a small gathering in my friend Bobbie’s room she recommended Eleanor to me. Mercedes was free-spirited and superstitious, the kind of girl who believed in horoscopes, fortunetellers, and the magic of Reiki.

Bobbie and I lived in Tulane University’s “trailer park”, a clutch of upperclassman modular housing units on the outskirts of campus, past the gym and near the baseball stadium. There were about sixty of us living there, overflow from the dorms that still hadn’t been opened after the damage inflicted by Hurricane Katrina two years earlier.

Mercedes and I were talking about finals, and she told me that she was covering all her bases, that she was worried about her grades, and, to confront that worry, she had gone to see Eleanor, who ran an under-the-table voodoo shop out of her house in New Orleans’ Central City neighborhood.

“She’s a purist,” Mercedes told me, “and she fucking works. I woke up this morning and remembered every term on my list for biology. I only studied a couple hours, I shit you not.”

I didn’t believe her, and I told her so. Mercedes took out her wallet, brought out a business card and handed it to me. It was midnight black, glossy, with yellow letters in a font that recalled Olde English: “Eleanor Rose, Voodoo High Priestess,” it said, and listed her phone number and address. I checked the back of the card: “Spells of love, fortune and fame,” it said.

“If you’re really worried about your recital you should call her. I’m telling you, she’s effective,” Mercedes said.

“How much does it cost?” I asked, just because Mercedes is pretty and we were talking to each other.

“One hundred bucks a spell,” she replied. “She’s an old lady. She made a salt circle around me in the backyard, burned a clip of my hair and did some chants in Creole. Next day I aced my midterms.”

“Can I keep the card?” I asked.

“Sure, I’ve got her number saved in my phone.”

I put the card in my pocket without intending to ever make use of it. A little while later Josh Grutkin came into Bobbie’s trailer and proceeded to dominate the room. Mercedes lost interest in me, as I couldn’t get my tongue to move.

I left. I hadn’t had anything to drink, so the rest of the night was still unclaimed. I decided to get in some practice, so I gathered my music books and walked to Dixon Hall, the music building, which held the piano rooms. I tried to play my repertoire from memory, as would be required at the concert, and I failed. I couldn’t get through a single one of them. I felt less than myself. I’d felt that way all year. I didn’t fit in at Tulane University. I was from Berkeley, California, a long way from home, and my political beliefs were too liberal for many of the Bush-voting Southerners here. But that was probably just another excuse for my awkwardness: I hadn’t been popular in high school either.

With the concert only a few days away I was fast entering panic mode. I had to be prepared, but that seemed so remote a goal. Ms. Rovak would give me forty lashes if I messed up.

Cradling my head in my hands, the frozen-out feeling from Bobbie’s trailer still fresh in my memory, I started to cry. My entire college career was coming to naught romantically, socially and academically. I had no marketable skills, and I absolutely hated performing at the instrument in which I was majored. Where was I going? What could I accomplish? Just then it didn’t feel like much.

That’s when I took Eleanor’s card out of my pocket. I thought about it. At the very least it would help me get closer to Mercedes.

Sitting at the piano, staring at the baffling sheet music to Bach’s Italian Concerto, I made the call.

The phone rang twice before the high priestess herself answered with a simple “Hello?”

***

Sarah finished her solo set and there was the obligatory applause. I imagined her taking another bow, viola in hand, and then I imagined myself, taking the stage. Where Sarah underwhelmed I would overachieve.

She came down the hallway, and I was waiting at the door. She smiled at me and let out an exhalation.

“I’m going into the audience,” she said. “Good luck.”

I smiled back, then walked past her into the hallway.

I came out onto the stage and once again looked into the lights. For a moment, the briefest of moments, the music fled me: I found that I’d forgotten each and every note. I was to open my concert with a Prelude and Fugue by Shostakovich, a by turns subtle and extravagant, highly demanding piece with which I had struggled mightily for over a year.

I let the opening applause die down, and I took a seat. I adjusted the height of the piano stool. I started to play: just like that, as if a light switch had been flicked on in a previously black corner of my mind, it all came back to me. The notes played themselves. The music took me away and I forgot about the crowd, which, after that first piece was over, rewarded me with whistles and riotous applause.

***

I pulled up outside Eleanor’s home, a poorly painted shotgun shack in one of the roughest parts of the city, near the historically black Xavier University.

The street was deserted and overgrown, with waist-high grasses and over-hanging trees lining the pavement, several abandoned, dilapidated homes, and a single street lamp just in front of Eleanor’s house, which allowed me to find her address. I walked quickly to her front door and, finding no doorbell, rapped on the wood five or six times.

There was a light on in the window just to the side of the door. I was a little nervous waiting for her. New Orleans was a very rough city. The administrators at Tulane warned us about neighborhoods like this. There was no sign of life on the street except the light through Eleanor’s window.

I knocked again, and the door opened.

A short, round woman with hair eclipsed by an African headdress stood before me. Our eyes locked, and a short, strange silence descended. Eleanor looked me up and down. When our eyes met again I saw suspicion in hers.

“Hi,” I finally managed, and extended my hand. “I’m Jonathon.”

“I know who you are,” she shot back.

More silence. She did not take my hand, didn’t even appear to notice it as she studied me without offering a hint of welcome.

I grew indignant.

“Well?” I asked.

Her suspicion seemed to harden. A hostile smile turned one corner of her lips.

“Are you Eleanor, the voodoo priestess?” I inquired.

“Yes I am.”

More silence.

“Well?” I repeated.

“I’m sorry,” she said. “I can’t help you.”

I stood there, surprised.

“Why not?” I asked.

She looked at me with daggers in her eyes.

“Please leave my stoop,” she said.

“But why? You helped a friend of mine,” I said. “I have money. I’ll pay you.”

“Your money’s no good here.”

“Okay, can you at least tell me why?”

Her eyes were still hard when they broke with mine, which was a relief, because I hated how she was scrutinizing me. She reached out and took one of my hands. She turned it palm upwards in her own, and drew a finger lightly across it. She muttered something beneath her breath.

“What was that?” I asked.

“I said you would do well to cease this pursuit of yours. I can’t help you.”

“Why not?”

“I don’t truck with Satan. That’s what you’re asking for.”

“I’m asking for no such thing!” I cried out.

“Yes you are. You don’t know it but you are.”

“Who do you think you are?” I shouted, snatching my hand out of hers.

“I don’t want no part in no black magic, mister,” she said. “That’s what you’re bringing to my house. There’s a darkness about you, and I won’t have it on my conscience.”

“Your conscience?” I chirped. “But I didn’t do anything.”

“You’d do well to forget all of this, if you don’t want no marks on you.”

“Marks?” I said. “I need help! I have a concert coming up and I’m afraid!”

“Then you best get to practicing, cause I ain’t helping you.”

“For fuck’s sake, I don’t even believe in this shit.”

“Don’t curse at me. I’m shutting my door. Find some other way. He might just seek you out himself, but you best not allow him.”

“Who? Satan?”

“Leave my door. I’m closing it on you, and if you keep on I’m gonna call the police. That’s all I’m saying.”

With that she shut the door in my face and turned the lock. Moments later the light by her door went off too.

I stood there, in the dark, completely flabbergasted. There had been strength and a world-wise quality in her voice that I found persuasive. What did she know about me that I didn’t know about myself? What did Satan have to do with it?

I felt lost, alone with my future once again.

After perhaps a minute, in which I internally debated whether or not to try to break her door down, I decided to return to my car.

But I was unsatisfied, and, I must admit, more curious now than I’d been when Mercedes had first given me the business card. Black magic. What could it mean?

Ah well, I thought, keying the ignition. It was probably just a waste of time.

It was about ten o’clock when I got back to my room in the trailers. I shared a wall with Courtney, the girl next door, which did nothing at all to block the sound between our apartments.

I opened a textbook. A little while later I heard Courtney bring a boy home. Thankfully the beds were in the next room over, so I wasn’t subjected to the embarrassing sound of someone nearby fucking. I hadn’t gotten laid since freshman year.

My mind distracted, I closed the textbook and decided to get some sleep. I took a shower and brushed my teeth. Eleanor’s warning stayed with me, and, I’m surprised to say, I went to bed that night offering up a prayer to the energy she said haunted me, asking it for help. I closed my eyes and said “Please. Please help me. I’m afraid I’m going to be a failure. Please.” A little while later I fell asleep. I had really meant that prayer though; it had come from my insecurities, my soul, the places I feared Eleanore might have been right about. So, the next afternoon, while I was practicing on the piano in the concert hall, a part of me wasn’t even surprised when a man, handsome, with a sharp beard and dressed in a suit, came in, and took a seat in the audience.

***

I played with verve, passion and daring. My hands found the notes of the keyboard like it were an extension of myself, and the music flowed through me. It was exhilarating: a Chopin Prelude, a Schubert Impromptu, Bartók’s devilish Romanian Dance. The audience watched me; invisible, they floated away. I felt the exhilaration of raw power expressed and satisfied as I struck the final chord of Ginastera’s Suite de Danzas Criollas.

I took my bow and left the stage, and when I came out of the green room into the crowd, and saw the pride and approval on Ms. Rovak’s face, I knew that I had made the right decision with Lucien. That’s how it felt for a moment anyway, to hell with the pending cost.

“That was awesome, man,” said Bobbie, taking my hand.

“Thanks,” I answered.

“Really,” he continued. “I was fucking transported.”

“Hang on a second,” I said, spotting Sarah, who was also smiling.

“That was beautiful,” she said at my approach. “I wish I could make the viola sound like that.”

“You just picked the wrong instrument,” I joked.

“What are you doing now?” she asked.

“I want to celebrate. Do you want to come with?”

“Sure thing,” she said, and I felt a further surge of adrenaline at the seductive look in her eyes.

“Maybe you want to come to Ms. Mae’s with me and Bobbie,” I said.

“What time?” she asked.

“How about an hour? I’ll drive.”

“I’ll meet you in front of the gym,” she said. “See you in an hour,” and she walked away. She was wearing a red dress that cut off just above the knee. A sense of accomplishment, long since grown unfamiliar, struck me. I guess she must have been impressed. Indeed I’d impressed myself.

Bobbie and I walked back to the trailers. We went to Ms. Mae’s fairly often. It was one of our favorite hangouts. We weren’t really the best of friends because we had nothing in common, but I suspected that he also wanted Sarah, and that was reason enough to come along tonight, to offer a healthy dose of competition.

Luckily, when we met Sarah in front of the gym she had a friend with her, a girl named Kylie who, I supposed, could pair with Bobbie.

We walked to the parking garage in the dark, warm Southern night. We found my blue Volvo station wagon on the second level, and we set off for Ms. Mae’s.

While I still rode high on my recent accomplishments I also remembered vividly that Lucien had told me he wouldn’t do it for free. I probably should have been afraid. Maybe, just maybe, he would forget about me the way I hoped to forget about him.

***

Ginastera’s Suite de Danzas Criollas, the second movement, is blunt and percussive. It requires hammering the right hand down on eight white keys at a time, full octaves, while the left hand plays pairs of fifths separated by thirds. The left hand is the more technically difficult, and I wasn’t getting it. I felt the weight of this mysterious man’s gaze, and it distracted me.

So, when I stumbled to the completion of the second movement I turned to look at him. He flashed a winning smile.

Shrugging the man’s presence off, I went back to work on the third movement, another difficult piece where the left hand supported the melody in the right until the middle passage, where both hands met to emphasize the opening refrain in a middle register, while the bass and treble occurred in the background.

I didn’t play well. I despaired afresh that I would never be ready for my recital.

Then I heard applause. I looked towards the origin, and the bearded man stood up, clapping.

“Bravo!” he said, “Bravo!”

He must be patronizing me, I thought. I knew how poorly I’d played. But as he walked down the aisle toward me a part of my soul rejoiced at his attention. An aura of meaning surrounded this man. He seemed to approve of my playing, and he seemed to be someone whose approval should be desired.

Something clicked in the back of my mind: black magic.

“What are you doing?” I asked as he approached.

“Please, humor me,” he said. “I’m something of an authority on these matters.”

He came up the stairs on-stage, then stopped to hover over my right shoulder, where Ms. Rovak would normally stand.

“Excuse me?” I said, looking at him.

“Please. Get up. I’ll show you.”

“Who are you?”

“My name’s Lucien Monk. I want to help you.”

“Help me? How? I don’t need any help.”

“Of course you do. It’s what you asked for, isn’t it?”

“I… what?”

“Just, please, get up, indulge me.”

Taken aback, I stood up from the piano.

That shining grin was still on his face when he took the seat I’d vacated. He started to play the third movement. It was beautiful, the intricacies and subtleties flowing together like liquid. There was strength and delicacy in his playing. From what I could tell he didn’t strike a single false note, or a single over-played chord. It was obvious that he did in fact know much about classical piano, and even this piece in particular.

Once he was done he looked at me, still beaming.

“Wow,” I said. “That was beautiful.”

“Thank you,” he replied.

“You know this piece?” I asked.

“I know every piece,” said Lucien.

I wilted beneath his gaze, thoroughly afraid.

“Come on,” he said. “You knew who I was the moment I came in the door.”

“No I didn’t. I have no idea who you are.”

“I told you already. My name’s Lucien, and I’m here to make you a better pianist.”

“A better pianist?”

“It’s possible. Trust me.”

I didn’t know what to say.

“How?” I finally managed.

“We’ll get to that.”

Lucien stood up.

“Please, sit down,” he said. “Let’s get started.”

He motioned towards the piano stool. I stood there, staring blankly. It’s fair to say I was afraid.

“Sit,” Lucien reiterated.

“I want to know what I’m getting into,” I said. “What do you want from me?”

“Only obedience, Jonathon. Only obedience.”

“You know my name.”

“What? Does that surprise you?”

His eyes, slate gray, stayed fixed upon mine. There was something supremely hypnotizing about him.

“Just sit down and play a little,” he said. “I’ll guide you.”

Still in a daze, I sat down and put my hands on the keyboard.

“Start here,” Lucien said, turning the pages of the music to the final movement, which I was still far from mastering.

I took a deep breath and began to play.

***

Ms. Mae’s was a pretty typical New Orleans dive, frequent host both to Tulane students and local drunkards. With a bar, tables, and a pool table there wasn’t much about it that distinguished it terribly. Like most New Orleans liquor establishments it was open late into the night.

We four went to the bar to order our drinks. I got a seven and seven. I heard Sarah order an Abita Amber. She stood near to me at the bar with a subtlety of manner that enticed me.

Bobbie and I followed the girls to a table where we took our seats. I made sure to sit next to Sarah. Bobbie got Kylie, creating a symmetric double date. Sarah was positively luminous, wearing the same V-necked red dress she’d worn for the concert. I too was wearing my concert clothes. She was smiling as she took a sip of beer. I started on my drink and waited for the conversation to commence.

Sarah said something I couldn’t hear through the pop country music emanating from the jukebox.

“What was that?” I asked, moving closer to her.

“I said you played wonderfully tonight.”

“Oh, thanks.”

“Really. With passion, feeling, you know. I was blown away.”

“Thanks,” I repeated. “Just takes practice,” I proffered, lying badly.

“But I do practice,” she said. “Every day. It’s my major, musical theater, but I didn’t bring the house down the way you did.”

Bobbie was moving on Kylie the same way I was trying to move on Sarah. I couldn’t hear what the other two were talking about. No help there.

“I thought you played really well,” I finally put in, lying again, because I actually hadn’t been paying much attention.

“You did? Really?” Sarah asked.

“It’s a tough instrument, the viola. Piano’s easy. It’s linear. If you’ve got big hands like I do it practically plays itself.”

“How big are your hands?” she asked.

“Well let’s see. Put your hands up.”

She did, palm facing me. I put my hand up to hers in a slow high five.

“My hands are much bigger,” I said.

“Sure are.”

“If I played the viola it’d be too small for me. I’d crush it.”

“You lie.”

“I can feel your callouses,” I said.

“You lie more,” she said, giggling, and put her hand in her lap.

A few patrons bumped into the back of our chairs, and I almost spilled my drink.

“What are you going to do after you graduate?” Sarah asked into my ear.

“I don’t know. I think I’ll stay in New Orleans and try to get a job playing somewhere.”

“Like as a lounge lizard?”

“Hopefully. Or in a church. Or maybe I’ll try teaching.”

“I bet you’re good enough. You really got to me.”

“I don’t know. I hope so.”

“Yeah. It’s really competitive out there.”

I glanced across the table. Bobbie was grinning at me, like he wanted to say something.

“Yeah man, you were awesome,” he said when I leaned towards him.

“You could hear me and Sarah?” I asked.

“Just a little bit. You kicked fucking ass.”

“Thanks.”

“I’m sure you could find a job playing somewhere.”

I leaned back. I didn’t feel like repeating to Bobbie what I’d just said to Sarah. Poor guy must be striking out with Kylie.

I turned back to Sarah, who flashed a smile. She was really pretty. I was glad we’d been assigned our duet. Maybe I would finally get laid.

“I don’t know what I’m going to do after graduation,” Sarah said. “They don’t hire violists off the street the way they do pianists, it’s so much less common an instrument.”

“Yeah,” I agreed.

“I’ll probably go back home.”

“Where is that again?”

“Outside Charlotte, North Carolina.”

“I might go back to California.”

“You might not have to. You’ve got a gift. I bet you have a bright, piano-filled future ahead of you.”

“It might be a curse,” I said, forgetting myself a little, as I’d already drunk too much, and had suddenly stumbled across thoughts of Lucien.

Sarah took another drink of beer and did not reply. She seemed, perhaps, a little jealous.

***

From the opening chords of the Danzas’ final movement a kinetic energy engulfed me, surprised me, and elevated my playing far beyond anything I’d ever experienced before.

“Good!” I heard Lucien say, interrupting me. “No! Keep going! Faster!”

I obliged. It was a difficult bit of music: loud and boisterous.

Lucien put his hand on my shoulder, stopping me again.

“Imagine you’re in a Buenos Aires tavern, surrounded by cowboys embracing and outmuscling each other.”

I kept on, allowing his descriptions to inspire me.

“Now you’re in a fight, a brawl, carrying the crowd out into the streets, where the music overwhelms you.”

I knew just what he meant. The loud octaves and the atonal left hand leapt off the pages. Bang! Bang! Bang!

I was coming up to the best part of the whole piece, the coda, presto e energico, a cacophonous string of parallel octaves in both hands hammering the keys molto forte, a rousing climax that stretched over several pages.

“It’s ecstasy! You are at the center of the world, proving yourself strong.”

That’s right! I felt it! Ecstasy! I was master of myself and the music. Playing well had carried me away before, but never before like this, the energy so pure. It was coming from Lucien. He was a being of vitality, and the touch of his hand on my shoulder was electric, charging every note to the divine, providing the spark of confidence my playing had always lacked.

The double octaves came back for the scherzando finale, climbing the keyboard at quadruple forte, requiring all the strength I could muster before ending on a high D major chord.

I looked at Lucien with wonder in my eyes.

“How did you…?” I trailed off.

“Don’t worry about how, worry about ‘if’.”

“If?”

“If you’re willing to do what’s necessary to make it permanent.”

He folded his arms across his chest, a motion of withdrawal. I noticed that, with the disappearance of his hands, the power in my own evaporated. It was palpable, a sudden draining sensation, instantly disabusing me of an ability that had astonished me.

“I know you can feel it,” he said, “and how easily it can be taken away.”

“Please,” I said. “I’ll do anything.”

“Anything?” he echoed with a disturbing grin.

***

We had been at Ms. Mae’s for maybe an hour and a half. I was on Sarah full bore, and she was reciprocating. I had one hand on her knee and one arm draped over the back of her chair. I was kissing her lightly on the cheek.

She brushed me away, pushed me back, and then turned towards me.

I went in for the kill: mouth to mouth. She met me with parted lips and then her tongue. Despite the drinks I’d had I found myself getting a hard-on, precious excitement. Nothing could stop me. It was like I’d felt with Lucien: Bliss! Oh, wait. Lucien. I stopped, distracted again, and removed myself from Sarah to go to the bathroom.

I was the only one in there. I went to the closest urinal, unzipped and started pissing. Something strange happened while I was doing it: the chatter of the other patrons and the music from the jukebox stopped. It became dead silent. Dread engulfed me. I turned around to find Lucien staring at me.

“I suppose you forgot our arrangement,” he said.

I looked into his flinty eyes. Seconds passed. Here it was, the price to pay.

“Put out your hand,” he said at last.

I followed his command, palm up.

He touched the center of my hand with his index finger and drew it across my palm, leaving a gray streak of what looked like ash behind.

“What is this?” I demanded.

“It’s the sacrifice you must make.”

“I don’t understand.”

“What? Can’t you remember our conversation?”

And, strangely enough, at first I couldn’t. I closed my eyes, and it all came back to me.

***

“I’m here to offer you supremacy over your own destiny,” Lucien said. “With the skills I can give you the whole world will lie at your feet. There will be nothing you can’t achieve.”

“At the piano?”

“Yes, or however else you wish to apply it. You’ll earn a place for yourself in popular culture, maybe even in history.”

“How do you know?”

“What? You didn’t feel it? The power I gave you? It can be yours for good. And you want it, don’t you?”

Of course I did. In fact I needed it. With his magic he had given me something I’d always wanted but had been unable to achieve: total mastery of creative expression.

Lucien unfolded his arms and put his hands in his pockets.

“The thing about power,” he said, “is that it’s a zero sum game. Every bit you receive comes at the expense of somebody else’s. What I give you must be taken from another.”

“At the piano? At music?”

“That’s the deal. Take it or leave it.”

***

I came out of the bathroom.

The bar had filled up. I navigated through the crowd back to our table. I found Kylie and Bobbie sitting sedately, and Sarah sipping at her beer. She was on her second, I thought, exercising self-control. It wasn’t inebriation that brought about our chemistry.

I sat down next to her and put my ash-streaked right hand around my drink.

I looked at Sarah, a person, a woman, sitting beside me, interested in me. I still wanted to get laid that night, but now the nervousness I’d been feeling had been justified. What would happen if I refused Lucien’s directive, and didn’t touch the ash to anybody? Would he come for me instead? Was I without recourse? How much did I really want it?

I finished my drink and told Sarah and the table I was getting another, and asked if anybody else wanted one.

“I could use a Jack and Coke,” said Bobbie.

I left the table. I thought about Bobbie as I approached the bar. He was a smart, interesting guy, though a little too far a slave to Tulane’s dynamic social scene. What if I touched him with the ash when I was bringing him the drink? Would I be able to live with myself?

I shouldered through the patrons and held out a twenty-dollar bill for the bartenders to notice. Eventually one of them came to me and I ordered the drinks.

***

“I’m going to see you again,” Lucien said, standing by the piano. “I’m going to give you something and you’re going to give it to somebody else.”

“What if I don’t want to?”

“You don’t have a choice. Either it will happen to the person of your choice or it will happen to you.”

I didn’t respond. I didn’t know what to say. The power to conquer the world. What an intoxicating concept.

“Give it to someone else,” Lucien said, “or you’ll never play the piano again.”

I turned back to the sheet music. I turned the pages back to the beginning and started to play the slow, lush opening movement, where the left hand, heavy with chords, ascended the keyboard in waves, and the right hand executed a stark, single-lined melody.

I lost myself in the music. When I looked up from it Lucien was gone.

***

The drinks arrived. I could have put the ash mark on the bartender, or smeared it onto Bobbie’s glass, but I didn’t. I was too scared. I couldn’t.

Shaking a little I brought the drinks back to our table and gave Bobbie his.

“Thanks man,” he said, a little loud and awkward.

Sarah didn’t look at me as I took my seat. After this drink I would probably be drunk, as I didn’t have much of a tolerance. Perhaps with loosened inhibitions I would feel differently about the ash streak. I quickly disabused myself of this notion. No. I wouldn’t do it.

“Aren’t you gonna finish your drink?” I asked Sarah, finally breaking the silence, my voice shrill.

“I like to take my time,” she replied.

I had almost finished mine already, trying to mush the ash streak into the plastic cup I was holding. All the colors of the bar appeared brighter to me, the sounds louder and more distracting.

I had to do it. I had to pick someone. But who? How? I couldn’t do it to Sarah, could I?

Kylie said something to me that I didn’t catch.

“What was that?” I called out, leaning across the table towards her.

“I said how did you practice all those pieces? I was really impressed.”

“Oh, I have a secret,” I blurted out.

“Yeah? What is it?”

“Trust me, you don’t want to know.”

“Well now we’re really curious,” said Bobbie with contrived laughter in his voice.

“You want the truth?” I asked, feeling heated. “I sold my soul to someone who might have been the devil.”

“Well,” said Kylie, “it was certainly worth it.”

“I’m not so sure of that,” I said. “According to him we’re not done with each other yet.”

Kylie squinted her eyes a little then sat back in her seat, terminating the conversation. I was relieved.

“I knew you had a secret,” said Sarah. She must really like me.

“How did you know?” I asked.

“I don’t know, you just strike me as the secretive type. And you’re acting sort of odd.”

“You’re wrong. I can’t keep a secret. Otherwise I wouldn’t have told all of you.”

Now I didn’t know what I was doing, or what I wanted any more. I still had this awful streak on my hand. It wasn’t rubbing off onto my drink. I wanted to cut my hand off.

I took a big gulp from the seven and seven.

Sarah leaned towards Kylie and the two of them held a palavar I couldn’t hear.

Bobbie was staring dejectedly into his Jack and Coke. He looked kind of funny, depleted. Apparently my conversation hadn’t done much for him.

But oh boy how powerful I had felt, how powerful I would always feel, if only I did this little thing.

I drank some more. Now I was beginning to wonder whether I would be safe to drive.

I went to the bar to order another, as it seemed a passable solution to my current predicament.

It took a while to flag down a bartender and acquire what I’d come for. I returned to the table.

“I’m not sure that’s a good idea,” Sarah said.

“Oh yeah? What makes you so sure?”

“You’re getting drunk. I’m not driving back with you if you’re too far gone.”

“I’m not drunk,” I shot back. “I’m only lightly sloshed.”

“You can’t drive like that,” she insisted. “Jesus Christ, are you okay?”

“I told you already, I’ve got a lot on my mind.”

We had been kissing not too long ago. How quickly things can change.

I brought the fresh seven and seven to my lips and took a long draught through the ice cubes.

“Seriously, I’m not gonna go home with you if you finish that,” Sarah emphasized. She sounded angry.

“It’s a free country.”

“Wow.”

“Are you okay, man?” asked Bobbie, eyes quizzical.

“Oh my God!” I exclaimed. “Didn’t you all hear what I said? I made a deal with the fucking devil!”

They looked at each other incredulously, and silence descended amongst us.

Sarah and Kylie started talking to each other again. Bobbie, through a whitening of his lips, looked pissed off.

“What’s wrong with you?” he asked.

“I told you already,” I shot back. “Just stay away from me if you know what’s good for you.”

“You’re so fucking weird,” he said.

I didn’t respond to that. There wasn’t much to add, after all. And I had been doing so well.

Bobbie, Kylie and Sarah took a cab home. I stayed in Ms. Mae’s and had another, bringing the tally to six. I felt terrible. The streak of ash on my hand remained like a throbbing brand. I stayed in the bar for a while. My memory is a little fuzzy but I know that after I left I got into my car almost completely incapacitated.

I turned the key in the ignition and pulled the Volvo out onto Napoleon Avenue. I took a U-turn when the light turned green and drove North towards Freret Street, where I took a left.

I pressed on the gas with a lead foot. I didn’t have a single thought towards self-preservation. I was positively terrified that the thing on my hand was there to stay, now that I’d proven myself unable to stick it on somebody else.

“I’m not fucking doing it!” I yelled out. “You hear me, Lucien? I’m not fucking doing it!”

I crossed Jefferson Ave, drawing near to Tulane.

“Oh no?”

I pressed harder on the gas pedal as I turned to crane my neck and look behind me into the rest of the car. And there was Lucien, smiling at me.

“You’d do well to keep your eyes on the road, you foolish little boy,” he said.

I turned around, but it was too late, I was already running the red light on Nashville Avenue, and another car was plowing headlong into me.

Despite my inebriation I remember every moment.

There was a terrible sound: an explosion of metal, a thick crunching, and I closed my eyes. The side of my notoriously sturdy Swedish vehicle crumpled like wet papier maché, and my left arm was caught against the steering wheel. There was pain like I’d never felt before, and my foot came off the gas pedal as the car was driven across the intersection.

I went unconscious from the pain, and woke up in the back of an ambulance. When I looked at the hand where the ash mark had been, I saw only a mangled twist of blood, bone and sinew.

“What happened?” I asked the paramedic, who leaned towards my mouth so he could hear me.

“You were in an accident,” he said, stating the obvious.

The longer I looked at the carnage of injury to my hand, the more the pain there came to light upon me. I started to cry, because it was all I could do.

This was the payment I’d been unable to execute, the cost of that perfect recital, and the feelings of accomplishment I’d felt with Sarah at the bar for so fleeting a moment.

No power comes for free, Lucien had told me. That truth was now more evident than it had ever been.

As time passed I sometimes wondered how much what I thought had happened actually had. Had there ever even been a Lucien? I supposed I had the recording of my recital as evidence. I’d never played like that before. Maybe I’d done it all to myself, imagined the whole thing because of Eleanor’s suggestion. But no, that wasn’t the case. Something terrible had happened to me, and, if Lucien had had his way, it would have happened to someone else. I managed to feel a kind of nobility at this thought: in the end I wasn’t a bad person. No one had suffered because of me. Even though I’d lost my hand, I hadn’t lost my soul.

Unfortunately, for Ms. Rovak this was little consolation. My future had been ruined once and for all. I had no choice now but to find another way to enter adulthood, as it was obvious I would never play the piano again.

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