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The Page Turner
For once they all agreed, it would be the concert of the season, the return of the prodigy son. The Jerusalem music scene was in heat—survivors, empty seat fillers, remnants planted on their subscriptions, but from the neck up, in brainpans that went on ticking, still the strictest standards, the highest expectations. My mother, Sonia Frankel the piano teacher, she too among them, and also my father, Hirsch the tailor, they also caught the fever. They all remembered him from his one and only appearance not just in Jerusalem but in all of Israel thirty, maybe forty years ago, a teenager with braces on his teeth and pimples on his face and those bangs, now static gray, still absurdly fringing his brow, hiding recession: Rudi Plaszcynski, a big meaty kid over six feet tall, each hand like a raw five-pound slab of chuck with the thumb on the scale, but on the keyboard, the pure, light touch of an angel and a rigor that might even have redeemed the sins of the fathers, every note absorbed internally and delivered with eyes squeezed shut, flawlessly from memory—by heart, only by heart!

     Perfection—anything less he despised as weakness, utter intolerance for the mediocre, that was Plaszcynski—for whatever he regarded as second rate, nothing but contempt. So it was a double shock to the faithful when his handlers let it be known that not only was he coming back like the ghost of a boy genius after so many decades, but also that he was demanding a page turner, “The best your fake little country can offer.” It was one thing to refuse to play for Jews all those years, this was a reality the fans could absorb thanks to their diaspora mindset, the chronic mentality of transients, aliens, guests in someone else’s house; Jews were meant to practice hard and play on demand for others, to please, like nowadays the Chinese, they were not put on this planet to be entertained, it was beneath a proud artist of Plaszcynski’s stature to lower himself by performing for them, which maybe explained even justified his long absence—but a page turner? What happened to his principles, his standards, his dignity, his heart? “Plaszcynski, Shmaszcynski, I think he must be drying up,” my father concluded. “So now he’ll hold a beauty contest to pick the next Queen Esther to turn his pages—but first he’ll have to try her out for a night.” He said this to me, my own bitter father, he didn’t hold back, even though he knew very well that in a tiny country like Israel, not to mention a provincial village like Jerusalem, with zero degrees of separation, the likelihood was that the page turner that Plaszcynski would crown would be me.

     It was something I did on a moonlighting basis, after my day job filling book orders deep in the stacks of the National Library—freelance page turning. This was all that was left of my mother’s big dreams for my concert artist career: my mother, my first and most unforgiving piano teacher, leaning over my practice, poisoned by visions of me gliding across the stage in flowing blacks. I was her personal revenge against Hitler, she would say, Nekama, she would call me, twisting my name, Nehama, vengeance, not consolation. Always she balanced on the lip of disappointment, my damaged mother, and I sprouted into a major disappointment, instead of public acclaim I sought out invisibility, which is the definition of page turning at its most exquisite. Still, despite my vanishing act, or perhaps due to its exclusivity allure, I had somehow acquired the reputation as the Holy Land’s page turner of choice for all the top visiting artists who came to town with impresarios asking for me by name. Plaszcynski included, but he insisted that two more options also be delivered for the final round so he could have his choice among the chosen people, women only, he considered anything else unnatural, perverted, all three of us runners-up skinny almost to transparency, two-dimensional like shadows, ideal in the page turning business, Polish-speaking Jewish women with dark circles under our eyes and faces like photos in expired passports found in a pile.

     We were herded in front of him in his suite at the Mishkenot Sha’ananim cultural center for artists and scholars and other similar specimens, which was equipped with a Steinway grand, dressed as preordered in our concert blacks, no jewelry, no bracelets or bangles or rings, of course, but also no earrings that could jangle, no necklaces that could swing and swat while turning a page, maybe even blinding a virtuoso. He, for his part, met us in mismatched pajamas, orange polka-dotted bottoms and green-striped top, buttoned lopsided exposing patches of raw skin and tight coils of hair, a red stocking hat with a fat pompom, and fuzzy slippers. The next hour or so was passed with him inhaling every part of us; any hint of a smell would have been intolerable, from makeup and perfumes and toiletries to food and body odors, and so on to the unmentionable. Addressing us exclusively in Polish, assessing our comprehension level in the process, he ordered us to open our mouths, raise our arms, he was like a master shopping for a slave, like a dog going straight for our privates and sniffing. “There’s such a thing as a Jewish smell, nothing personal but you can’t deny it,” he allowed himself to remark. He brought his ear up to our faces to listen for breathing noises, an instant disqualifier. He lined us up for height, examined our fingernails for jagged ridges, measured the length of our arms extended for reach, checked our vision for distance. The only thing he didn’t bother with was examining us for music reading skills, in this way signaling, now that I look back, that he really didn’t need us, for us he had something else in mind. Then he sat down at the piano, flipped open some music to a random place, and started playing to sample our page turning techniques—how alertly we moved, how silently and unobtrusively, how we leaned over without drawing attention to ourselves and neatly drew back one page and one page only from the top right-hand corner with two fingers of our left hand, without spit lubricant or ruffling the airwaves, while with the right hand we held in place any loose garments or body protrusions lest they brush against his person, disgust and distract him, an operation at which one of my colleagues fumbled, and with a push of the flattened heel of his great paw on her hollowed-out chest was eliminated.

     “Three points for anyone who recognizes this,” he rang out without lifting his foot from the pedal for a minute. 

     “Aeolian Harp—Chopin, Opus 25, etude No 1 in A flat major,” I said in a voice that he must at least not have found too painful, though the page he had opened to had something else on it entirely, and though I had never heard this piece played so loud or so slow, like a funeral march, it was almost unrecognizable. 

     “The program will be all Chopin études, technically among the most challenging in the literature,” he continued—“to honor the heroic Polish people, the saviors of your Jews for centuries, when nobody else would take you in—why doesn’t anyone ever remember to say thank you?” He was notorious for putting off announcing the program until the last minute, as close as possible to concert time, a big headache for the publicity team, it was always entirely dependent on his mood, the creative spirit which required full deference, he waited for that spirit to seize him and reveal what would flow out of him through his fingers on that night. This scoop pointedly directed at me clearly was a privileged preview. I understood that I had been chosen. He handed me the dry cleaner’s receipt for his tuxedo, and ordered me to pick it up and have it ready for him with all accessories laid out in the green room of the concert hall one hour on the dot before curtain time.

     Yet there he was out on the stage in the hour before the recital’s scheduled start still in his polka-dotted and striped pajamas and elf’s cap and cozy slippers, propped at the piano, not sitting but prancing up and down alongside the keyboard, his right leg stretched precariously out and down to pin the foot to the pedal, perfecting his new variation of the étude. Audience members were filing in, finding their seats, settling down, making themselves comfortable, going through their routines, unwrapping and distributing lozenges, exchanging news about the children and grandchildren with old friends and acquaintances, many from the same shtetls and death camps as they tended to reserve their seats in blocs based on where they came from in the old country, in the same way that they reserved their plots in cemeteries.

     Some kind of clown sideshow was happening on stage, they figured, a bonus attraction, a creative twist on the business of pre-recital piano tuning, but never mind, Israel was filled with all kinds of meshuggenehs, so why not crazy piano-tuners also? Most didn’t even realize that it was the artist himself skipping around up there in that bizarre getup, but my father, from his seat alongside my mother front row center where I always planted them thanks to my perks and protectzia in the music scene, called out under his breath in Polish, “Plaszcynski, Plaszcynski, enough already with the monkey business!”—and he jutted his jaw emphatically in the direction of the open doorway stage left to focus the star’s attention on where I had stationed myself, condemned to hold up his black tails on a hanger, the sleeves stuffed with tissue paper extended like a crucifix, wordlessly signaling to him that it was time already, for God’s sake, come and get dressed. In answer, Plaszcynski puffed out his cheeks for added visual effect, blowing up and down the keyboard, gentle winds like the god Aeolus of the étude, and then, according to my mother’s account afterward, he let out fiercer winds, yes, it was unmistakable to the nose hairs, he was shamelessly passing wind nonstop like a comment on the audience as he shuffled sideways off the stage toward where I had positioned myself, doffing his absurd cap in grand sweeping gestures again and again as he made his way bowing repeatedly into the wings to the sound of scattered applause from some members of the crowd whom none of us recognized, round red faces and bad dental work, most likely cleaning or security staff from the Polish consulate who had gotten free tickets.

     He took his time getting dressed, totally unmindful of the rhythmic clapping from the audience growing more and more insistent, reaching a crescendo a full twenty minutes past the scheduled starting hour of the concert. When finally he strode unrepentantly out ten minutes later, there was some hopeful applause expressing a good-hearted resolve to forgive and start fresh. I placed the music on the stand and took my seat angled slightly forward to his left, alert beside his bench, somewhat set back but still blocked by his bulk, with my hands resting ready on my knees. Without making any adjustments for height and distance, he plunked his bottom on the padded quilted bench which gave out an impolite poof, parked his right foot on the pedal from which he never lifted it for almost the entire evening, and plunged at once into the first étude of Opus 10, Waterfall, at a dirge-like tempo stridently fortissimo, stretching out what usually ran for two and a half minutes to more than five. He kept this up for the second étude into the third, running them together without a break. Each time I got up to turn a page, it was as if I were pushing slow motion through a gelatinous soup, but he never even glanced at the music. I had no idea what he wanted me for; it crossed my mind that I might have been set up as his personal straight man.

     By the time he reached No. 4, known as Torrent, there was an epidemic of coughing followed by a buzzing in the crowd as citizens began to absorb what might be their fate through all twelve etudes of Opus 10, and maybe also onward into all twelve of Opus 25, scrolling out nonstop with no promise of relief, and possibly, God forbid, even the three extra loose études not part of an official opus thrown in as an encore, whether we clamored for one or not. About a minute into No. 4, without letting up on the banging, he whipped his head around to face the audience and shouted over the torrent in English, in a thick Polish accent, “Stup tawkink!” From one of the back rows, some wise guy feeling entitled and secure in his own land under the protection of the crack Israel Defense Forces, yelled back in Polish, “You start playing, we stop talking!” “Shot op!” Plaszcynski screamed back, never for a minute resting from the pounding, as this antagonist who had dared to defy him rose from his seat and swaggered to an exit, followed by a band of others from around the hall, seasoned partisans heading to the woods.

     Ignoring them as beneath his regard, Plaszcynski crashed into No. 5, Black Keys, the whole time his head turned to the right glaring menacingly at what was left of the audience, daring them to misbehave and risk provoking him. A respectable crowd still remained in the hall, including my parents so prominently positioned, sticking it out from loyalty to me, to protect me, to rescue me from this hostile Slav if necessary, nothing Plaszcynski could do would make them budge. Every ember snatched from the fire still holding out in that audience was on best behavior like in school, sitting nicely for fear of serious consequences, dreading being singled out by this certified cultural demigod for public humiliation as an ignoramus and a philistine, reluctant to endure full-body exposure by getting up and shuffling out with their walkers and sticks and other assorted paraphernalia, loathe to throw out the good money of a ticket, even with the senior citizen or season discount. It was like what my father would always say about those who didn’t pick themselves up in time and get out while they still could during those years: Because they didn’t know what to do with their furniture, they died for their stuff.

     Unmoved by the pathetic protest of the deserters, Plaszcynski legattoed directly into No. 6, Lament, jamming down on the pedal with even greater force as if to accentuate the relevance of sorrow in this benighted place, exalted music wasted on such a crass mob, squeezing every last shred of vibration from the notes and prolonging them even more, stretching out the étude's less than three minutes to more than seven, which included a condescending glance cast in the direction from which a cell phone went off with the opening bars of the Israel national anthem, Hatikvah, and then, shamed, was immediately neutralized. When he ended that étude at last, he got up for the one and only time during this recital, lumbered to the edge of the stage, and said in English, “Smetana dat Czech drunkard, his little tune in minor key maybe okay for sentimentalist Zionist, but for true artist, he is gowno next to Polish genius Chopin. You are in concert hall, I must to remind you, ladies and gentlemen, not Israel Knesset.” He turned decisively, sat down again without ceremony and continued to dirge out his thunderous, protracted renditions of the remaining six études of Opus 10 to a muffled background of coughs and throat clearings and nose blowings and candy suckings ineffectually suppressed, hearing aids pinging off along with occasional insolent show-off attempts at applause meant to mark the end of an étude greeted by Plaszcynski each time with a hiss—Idiot! Relentlessly he went on playing, pausing only for a moment before diving into No. 12, Revolutionary, the last étude of Opus 10, to announce, “We proceed immediately to Opus 25. No intermission. Guards, lock da doors!”

     He barked out a laugh, turning to acknowledge me for the first time that evening as if to ascertain if I had appreciated his joke in all its contextual allusiveness, calling unwanted attention to me with a demonic grimace, then plunged immediately into his extended version of the first étude of Opus 25, Aeolian Harp—Our song, he seemed to be coyly suggesting. Dutifully, I had continued getting up to turn the pages throughout his performance because that’s what I had been hired to do, that is what I was by training, a page turner, a professional, it was my job, though it was obvious he didn’t need me, he wasn’t even looking at the music, he was casting his black looks at the audience, punctuating his performance with periodic Shot ops!—and truth be told, making many mistakes in his playing, some surprisingly elementary. Now, though, by publicly communicating with me, and thereby confirming my existence, I could sense his intention to out me, to puncture my invisibility and suck me in, to recycle me from bystander to collaborator.

     I had what seemed like endless sitting time up there because of the protracted tempo with which he was holding us captive, time to discreetly glance around the hall at the shrinking audience, at those miserable refugees who were still trying to escape, bent over, praying not to be noticed, Plaszcynski mumbling in Polish, Go already, imbecile, go!—without pausing a minute from attacking the keyboard. But on the faces of those of us who dutifully remained hostage in our assigned seats and stuck it out was the strain of projecting our best concert behavior, assuming a posture and look that identified us as intelligent, informed, reverent listeners, cultured members of the human race of whom the maestro would approve, my mother’s face perhaps most painfully contorted by the effort to please this expired wunderkind. That was the most pathetic thing of all—we wanted Plaszcynski to think well of us, to like us. My father, meanwhile, situated front row center beside my mother, amused himself with some air conducting at the beginning of the first étude of Opus 25, then fell asleep with his chin tucked into his chest and his mouth dropped open, began snoring during No. 2, The Bees, threatening to drown out even Plaszcynski’s top volume, his snores growing ever louder despite my mother’s pinches delivered discreetly but mercilessly below the belt so as not to interfere with her rapt look through the next three études, waking up at last with a start at No. 5, Wrong Note, and inquiring in Polish for all to hear, “Still up there banging, the Polack anti-Semit?”

     Unfazed, Plaszcynski slammed into No. 6, Thirds, and onward, sustaining from one etude to the next his slow motion, top decibel, one-size-fits-all dynamics interpretation, yet even above all that sound, managing to inform the audience in English, “So we make deal. If it kosher for you guys to tawk at concert, I tawk also—okay?”

     Carrying on nonstop with his playing but with his head now explicitly turned away from the audience, notably turned away also from the keyboard, full facing just me at his left as if it were now only the two of us in a private chamber, he spotlighted me exclusively as the sole higher life-form among the rabble, a worthy vessel in which to pour his elevated discourse. Through the stretched-out amplification of the remaining six études I sat there receiving the stream of his words, I sank all my energy into sitting there properly as I was paid to do, offering no reply, my brain spinning, feeling myself liable any minute to be unmoored by dizziness, my heart beating too loud, too loud, Plaszcynski would hear it, it would irritate him, he would be extremely annoyed, it would turn into a spectacle. 

     It wasn’t the noise or the moving around, Plaszcynski was telling me in Polish, or the program pages turning or the rummaging in purses or the cellphones or the belching or burping or scratching, and so on, that bothered him, no—how could anyone in his right mind even imagine such a thing? Everyone knew he was Plaszcynski, famous for his powers of concentration, for his focus, for his ability to tune out every distraction and disturbance—for that alone, quite apart from his music, he was legendary. There was that concert when someone jumped from the second balcony propelled by the power of the music and broke his neck, sacrificing himself to the sacredness of art, and he, Plaszcynski, did not even notice it when it happened, didn’t even blink, didn’t notice the commotion, the calls for a doctor in the house, the paramedics, the ambulance guys, nothing, didn’t stop playing for a minute, didn’t skip a beat as they say, didn’t register a thing about it until someone happened to mention it afterward in the dressing room. Another time, some guy in the front row, sitting just about where that old yid is sitting—Plaszcynski jerked the back of his head in the direction of my father—pulled out a knife and stuck it in his heart from pure devotion to art, from his love of the music he stabbed his own body in the very spot where he was feeling its beauty most intensely. Blood was gushing from him in every direction, like from a broken pipe, up onto the stage even, squirting all over my new tuxedo, but did I pay any attention? Of course not, it would never have occurred to me, my head was somewhere else, in the heavenly sphere, I didn’t notice what was happening on earth. And if I had noticed, would I have stopped playing? Never. I would have understood the priorities, I would have respected the emotion, I would have appreciated the gesture, I would have honored it by ignoring it. But here in your ridiculous little third-world country, your concert hall doesn’t even have a proper balcony for a civilized person overcome with passion to jump from, and because of your fascist security, nobody can even bring a knife into the hall to lay bare the passion in his heart much less file the mushrooms off his toenails—so what’s the point? Plaszcynski bopped his head back again toward my father, as if to sympathize with the old man so unjustly deprived of the basic tools for the expression of the most profound aesthetic feelings.

     “That old yid sitting there right up in the front row who just now called me anti-Semite?” Plaszcynski, with his fingers digging even harder into the keys and his foot nailed to the pedal, slowing down even more as if he were having trouble talking and playing at the same time, was warming to the rant for my sake alone. “I bet you a million shekels that if we gave that old yid a chance, the next thing that would come out of his old mouth would be that the Poles were even worse than the Germans. Right?”

     Yes, right, he was correct, Plaszcynski, that would have been the next sentence, I could have attested to that fact had I been able to speak, but something was blocking my throat, if I had tried to scream, nothing would have come out, though it was even in my power to ease his pain to some degree by offering the consolation, for whatever it was worth, that the old yid—did Plaszcynski know he was my father?—that elderly Jewish gentleman, in making his rankings, would invariably also have added that the Croats were the worst of all, worse even than the Poles, not to mention the Ukrainians, even Hitler had to tell them to take it easy. “Even Chopin they call an anti-Semite—can you believe it?” Plaszcynski pushed on. “So how come Horowitz and Rubinstein loved him so much, tell me that? And what about that old Jewish lady who finally dropped dead at age one hundred and ten who was always being dusted off and propped up by Holocaust central public relations to reminisce how Chopin’s music saved her life when she was in Terezin, she was talking about these very études no less—what about her? The Germans dump their shit on our soil and the whole world calls them Polish death camps, as if we did it, as if the camps were our brilliant idea, as if without our full and enthusiastic cooperation they could never have gotten the job done. Is that right, is that fair?”

     Plaszcynski stopped speaking, though not pounding, for an instant, awaiting my response, but in vain, I had migrated elsewhere. From the distance, I could hear him now asking me almost plaintively, “What am I doing here in this place playing for these rotting leftovers?”—and without expecting an answer this time, launching immediately into a recitation of the reasons the whole world hates the Jews, why every country tries to get rid of them sooner or later, why the Jews are to blame for all the afflictions that have ever beset humankind, the stale litany growing more and more faint and distant as he was rolling it out and I was floating farther away, carried off so gently into a long dark tunnel, a passageway narrowing like a cone, sloping downward, ending in a black dot, and I so tiny curled up in that black dot, I was nothing but a tiny black dot, I was washed in a feeling of pure serenity, Let me remain here forever, I was thinking, when a great and terrible bang hurled me back, Plaszcynski had finished the last étude of Opus 25—No. 12 in C minor, Ocean, the waves rising, rising—crashing! He had slammed down the cover over the keyboard, scraped back the bench, and without deigning to turn toward the audience for even a perfunctory bow, marched off the stage to limp applause, mainly from the Polish delegation. I was lying on my back on the floor of the stage, how I had landed there I never knew, my mother at my feet tugging down the hem of my black skirt, calling even more attention to how exposed I was. Looking up, I recognized swarming in all around the mass of familiar old tribal faces from my audience, looming over me, staring down at me freely and unobstructed, all of them screaming at once—their advice, their opinions, their arguments, their commentary, their complaints, their clamoring memories, their eternal discord and noise.

Tova Reich is the author of One Hundred Philistine Foreskins (Counterpoint), My Holocaust (Harper), The Jewish War (Pantheon), and other novels. Her most recent novel, Mother India (Syracuse University Press), has been named a finalist in fiction for the 2018 National Jewish Book Award and has also been published in India.