She looked over her shoulder.
He was thin-faced and bent a little to his left, but tall enough to spy on her over the swing doors that separated the Cosmopolitan Hotel's busy lobby from its rarely used music room.
She swiveled on the piano stool and fixed him with a bleary, red-rimmed, adolescent glare. "I'm as American as you are!"
A slow smile. Leaning on a silver-topped walking stick, he stepped inside. "Not 'Russian,' " he said, enunciating more clearly. "You're rushing."
Everything about the man seemed slightly askew. His smile, his posture, his demeanor. With an unhurried stateliness he came closer and handed her a handkerchief.
"Blow your nose, sugar."
Resentfully, she did as she was told. Annoyed to be treated like a child. Aware that wiping snot on her sleeve was not a sophisticated alternative.
Without introducing himself, he placed his hat and walking stick on a small walnut table and sat in the wingback chair beside the piano, casually crossing one knobby knee over the other. "Right hand only. And slow down."
"Are you a piano teacher?"
"Never mind what I am." He took a slim dark cigar from a flat silver case and lit it with a few short, shallow puffs. "First eight measures," he said through a cough. "Right hand. Slowly."
"It's useless! I could play this last year, but I've forgotten everything. The music just looks like dots again!"
Cigar at a jaunty angle, he leaned on his left elbow and settled into the upholstery. "Just play," he said, lifting his chin toward the piano.
She got a note wrong in the second measure and banged on the keys. "You see? I told you!"
"Start over," he said patiently. Staht ovah, it sounded like. "Give your hands a chance to remember."
Six more attempts. Finally she got through eight measures with just a single muttered "Drat," in the middle. Eyes bright, expecting praise, she turned toward him with juvenile elation.
"Better," he acknowledged neutrally. "Now the left hand. Slowly."
She applied herself to the bass clef. He let her try three times, then placed his little cigar in a heavy crystal ashtray on the inlaid table. Sliding forward on the silk upholstery to the edge of his chair, he paused before getting to his feet. Despite his care, the movement set off an ugly coughing fit and he pulled a stack of clean cotton handkerchiefs from a pocket, selecting one to hold over his mouth. The others were returned from whence they came. When the episode passed, he put the used cloth in a different pocket. Each motion was practiced and nonchalant.
"Let me show you something."
She got out of his way. He sat at the piano and played six notes, right hand only. "That's the refrain. You'll hear those six notes again and again, but Mr. Schumann has varied what follows."
He demonstrated, playing plainly. Quarter notes, without pedal or dynamics. She tried to listen, but she was distracted by his hands. They were elegant but seemed too big for the rest of him. The prominent wrist bones were circled by fraying shirt cuffs so loose, she wondered if he was wearing a slightly larger and more prosperous man's castoffs. The clothing was quietly tasteful but certainly not new.
"Y'see?" he asked. "No need to rush . . . And there are those six notes again . . ."
He played it all the way through explaining the structure and the harmonies. His voice was soft and his diction blurred, but his language was precise. The music had her attention now, becoming clearer with his comments. Then he paused and gathered himself, so self-contained she dared not speak for fear of breaking his concentration.
"And this," he said gently, "is the way my mamma taught me to play it. As though a child were sleepin' in the very next room."
Silent, face still, he cut the tempo in half. His fingers did not so much strike the keys as caress them. Releasing the sound, not demanding it. If she had taken so long between each phrase, it would have been a sign that she simply hadn't practiced. When he played, it
was as though he knew just how long each note should linger in the ear and in the heart.
She had been weepy since the argument with Johnny. The music was so beautiful, and so beautifully performed. She sank back into the chair and began to cry again, though not as noiselessly as she hoped, for the gentleman heard the shuddering sniffle that escaped her.
"Yes, it is more tender when you take your time," he said, as though it were the music alone and not her own self-pity that had brought her to tears. "Mamma loved that piece," he said softly. "My earliest memories of her are at the piano." Then, without warning, he rolled through a dazzling five-octave arpeggio. "I have read about the Chickering grand, but this is the first one I have played. There is a little banjo in the tone," he observed, "but it has a lovely touch. Now, here is something that ought to be done at full gallop!"
He ripped into a sprightly sonata, his fingers dancing, the notes crisp and slyly joyous, as though he were sharing some private joke with the composer. She blew her nose again and began to cheer up. His hair was more ash than blond, but he was not as old as she'd first thought. Maybe only forty, she decided. Not very much older than Johnny Behan.
Johnny was almost thirty-eight, but still youthful and handsome. And, God! Those Irish eyes, those thick dark lashes! Still, the pianist had a good face. It was intelligent and refined, though lined, she thought—schooled in melodrama—by tragedy or suffering.
Having been caught blubbering like a baby, she suddenly felt it imperative to make this man see her as a woman. When he finished the piece, she cleared her throat and pitched her voice low to say with as much authority as an eighteen-year-old could muster, "You're a professional, aren't you!"
He smiled, but his hands never paused. He was playing a waltz now, the melody simple but pretty. "Guilty as charged."
"I knew it! Are you in Tombstone to give a concert?"
"Cards, sugar. I play cards for a livin', not piano."
"Then you're wasting your talent, and that's a crime. Honestly! You could be a concert pianist."
Another small smile. Amused, not flattered. "I am good, but not that good."
"Well, you could play for the theater, at least. I know. I used to dance professionally, and let me tell you—you're better than just good. Of course, my judgment is suspect." She lowered her voice and her eyes. "I can be a fool for a musician."
His hands came off the keyboard, mid-measure, and he turned to look at her, his arched brows lifted high. "Why, Mrs. Behan. Are you flirtin' with me?"
He knew who she was. And from the way he said "Mrs. Behan," he knew what she was as well. Refusing to be ashamed, she manufactured a saucy grin, but the cut in her lip abbreviated the performance. She made her eyes sparkle instead, tilting her head in a way she knew to be provocative and alluring. She had seen it used to good effect by several actresses.
"And what if I am?" she asked, bold as brass.
Several hotel guests had tarried near the door to the lobby, listening to the music. Now that the gentleman had stopped playing, they went on about their business. A few blocks away, a steam whistle shrieked the shift change in Tombstone's silver mines. For a moment, she was freshly aware of the ceaseless industrial noise out beyond Toughnut
With slow care, the pianist rose and moved toward her, his slate-blue eyes resting steadily on her own. She blinked, uncertain about what she had just set in motion, for he was close now. Reaching toward her chin. Lifting it, studying her face with an unnerving, unwavering gaze. He smelled of soap and of tobacco. There was liquor on his breath, and the faint, sweet odor of decay. She thought that he might bend to kiss her on the lips. She decided that she would let him. Why not? she thought, lowering her lids, letting him come to her. It would serve Johnny right.
Her eyes snapped open and she pulled away when she realized that he was tracing with one finger—lightly, lightly—the bruise developing on her cheek. "I— It was my fault," she stammered. "I shouldn't have— Johnny doesn't usually . . ."
The man stared, his face unmoving.
"Honestly! It was my fault!" she insisted. And she meant it. She knew that she'd embarrassed Johnny. She just wanted the house clean when Wyatt Earp came for lunch, but then somehow it turned into another fight about Albert, and she'd made a mess of everything. "I'm unreasonable. I argue, and I always want my own way, and . . ." She fell silent under the wordless scrutiny, the heat of shame rising in her face.
"You have terrible taste in men," he told her. "I am no prize, and I have friends who treat their livestock better than Mr. Behan treats you." He retrieved his hat and cane from the table. "Raise your sights, sugar," he advised as he walked toward the door. "Aim low? All you'll hit are rats, snakes, and rock bottom."
She stood, furious, and considered throwing that crystal ashtray at his bony old spine, but he stopped, leaning on his cane, head down.
"If you had the money," he asked, "could you go home?"
There was something about his voice. An unexpected kindness.
"They think— I told them Johnny and I were married."
He snorted softly. "My people think I am still a dentist." He straightened then, as much as he could. "There will be fifty dollars deposited in your name at the front desk of this hotel. If you ever decide to leave that presumptuous, third-rate, overdressed Irish bigot, ask for the envelope, y'hear?"
Mouth open, she watched him leave the music room. The swing doors creaked on their hinges. He stopped at the front desk for a brief conversation with Mr. Bilicke, the hotel owner, who glanced at her and nodded.
When the man was gone, Mr. Bilicke left the desk and pushed the swing doors to the music room aside. "Do you know who that was?" he asked.
She shook her head.
"Doc Holliday," he told her.
She looked sharply toward the street, hoping to catch another glimpse of the notorious gambler Johnny had argued with yesterday, during the stagecoach journey the two men had shared. Johnny was fetching his eight-year-old son back to Tombstone to live. Holliday was, presumably, coming in from Tucson to play cards. He had a fearsome reputation, but Johnny Behan was convinced he could make friends with anyone. Things seemed to be going well until a short, sharp dispute erupted over the Non-Partisan Anti-Chinese League. "All I did was invite him to join when he got to town," Johnny cried. "I never heard a white man take on so about Chinks. He just tore into me, and with a little kid sitting right there! No consideration at all for Albert."
Johnny had been tedious on the subject, and he turned the conversation toward it whenever she tried to find out why on earth he expected her to raise his ex‑wife's child, just because Victoria was getting married again.
Mr. Bilicke spoke again: "Word is, Holliday hates your . . . husband."
Always. That little hesitation. That tiny pause. Angry again, she was tempted to snap, "Well, that makes two of us!" but it would have sounded childish. "Kwand meem!" she said breezily in what she believed to be French. "It's all the same to me!"
Mr. Bilicke shrugged and went back to the front desk. Soon he was busy with a guest's query about telephone service to the silver mines. "Just between the pits and the stamping mills, sir, but more wires are going up, and the Cosmopolitan is on the schedule for early '81. Shall
I arrange for a messenger in the meantime?"
Their voices faded. Alone, homesick, overwhelmed by the shambles she'd made of her life, she began to cry again.
"Oh, thank God!" she heard Johnny cry. "There you are!"
He was standing in the doorway, his beautiful brown eyes moist with freshly relieved anxiety, that handsome open face a complex mixture of concern, dismay, and irritation. Coming close, he gripped her by the shoulders, lifting her to her feet, taking her in his arms.
"Josie, honey, you can't just wander around a town like this on your own. I've been worried sick."
"I'm s‑sorry," she wept, her head against his chest. "Really, I am. It was all my fault—"
"Come home," he murmured into her hair. "I'm sorry, too, Josie. Come home."
From Epitaph by Mary Doria Russell. Copyright 2015 by Mary Doria Russell. Excerpted by permission of Ecco, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers.