Wyatt rang the bell and waited, then rang the bell and waited again. Faintly, he heard Ada. He opened the door. She stood at the top of the stairs holding a naked infant with a dirty bottom.
"I'm sorry," she said. "I'm in the middle of a mess. Can you watch the girls for a minute?"
Two little girls stood to his right, in the center of the living room archway, a piano in the room behind them. He knelt. "Hi. My name's Wyatt. What's your name?" he asked the older girl.
He turned to the other. "What's your name?"
"Faith." She held up three fingers. She had to use the other hand to fold the pinky and thumb down, so only three fingers were up. "I'm three," she boasted. "I'm a big girl."
"I see that," he said. He walked to the piano. "Come here." He sat. They stood at each end of the bench. "Can you play?" Terry shook her head. "Look." He opened the keyboard. "See the white keys? They have names." Faith lay on the floor, put her thumb in her mouth, and looked at the ceiling. "Sit here," Wyatt said to Terry. He helped her onto the bench and pulled it forward so she could reach the keys. "See this?" He struck middle C. "This is C. So is this." He struck the C an octave lower. "And this." An octave higher. Then he struck middle C again. "But this one's called middle C. It's the only one that has a special name." He played the octave: "A, B, C, D, E, F, G, and A again."
"Like the alphabet?"
"Yeah. It's the musical alphabet."
"Do it again."
He repeated the series. "Now you do it. Say the names."
She struck the keys and said, "A, B, C, D, E, F, G, H, I -- "
"Wait. It starts over at A." He showed her.
This time, she did it correctly. "Why does it start over?"
He played two A's, an octave apart. "Hear that?" Then he played an A and a G. "See? Doesn't match." He played the two A's again. "The A's match. They're like twins. So the letters start over again."
"Would you like to learn a song? It's called 'Hot Cross Buns'. I bet you can learn it." He showed her the A sharp, G sharp, and F sharp. "Just these black keys." He struck the three notes in sequence. "Now you."
She played the three notes and looked at him.
"Now this." He repeated the figure.
When she'd practiced the parts, they started putting it together. She learned the song in a few minutes. He'd never taught such a young child before, but this seemed quick. He glanced to the side. Faith had fallen asleep, thumb still in her mouth. "Go ahead and practice a few times. It'll help you remember." When she'd done that, he asked whether she wanted to learn another song: "It's called 'Chopsticks'."
He was helping Terry with her tempo -- it wasn't consistent -- when he sensed someone behind him. He looked over his shoulder and saw Ada, holding the baby.
"How long have you been standing there?"
"A minute or two. I finally got her cleaned up," she said. "I didn't know where everything was." She sat in an armchair.
The baby had fallen asleep in Ada's arms and was still out when Terry mastered the song. Wyatt told her to practice, and went to help Ada tuck the younger girls in. The little ones slept in one room together.
The infant went down easily. Faith stirred when Wyatt lowered her onto her bed. Ada pulled the sheet over her and kissed her on the forehead. "Good night, angel." The child's eyes flickered open for a moment, but she didn't wake.
In the living room Ada said to Terry, "Time for bed."
"Go put your nightgown on, and brush your teeth. Then you can stay up a little and maybe Wyatt will play you a song, if you ask nicely."
"What do you think?" he asked while he waited with Ada on the sofa. "What should I play?" He put his arm around her shoulder and leaned toward her.
She squirmed away. "Don't. She could see us."
"A kiss? What's wrong with a kiss? I bet she sees her parents kiss."
"Not us. It's not our house, not our children."
He knew better by now than to try to talk Ada out of her fixation on privacy. Instead he returned to the piano. He was playing "Pictures at an Exhibition" when Terry came in, dressed in a floor-length flannel nightgown with a picture of the tea party -- Alice, the March Hare, the Mad Hatter, and the Dormouse sitting at the end of a table with plates and dishes scattered around. At the bottom, underneath the tablecloth, were printed the words: "Why is a raven like a writing-desk?" Wyatt stopped playing while he pondered the question.
"Keep going," Ada said, beckoning Terry, who came and rested against her.
He finished the song and closed the lid.
"No! Play more," Terry said.
She probably only wanted to stay up. The music was an excuse. Ada reclined on the sofa, her arms wrapped around the girl on her lap. They were both looking at him. Why not? Friday night, the best night of the week for this. She'd have time to get her sleep schedule back to normal before Monday.
He played "Peter and the Wolf", and repeated it because Terry liked it so much. He played whatever he thought might entertain her: parts from the "Nutcracker Suite", and Rodgers and Hammerstein, especially the Do-Re-Mi song, which he sang along to, and which Terry asked him twice to repeat, singing along with him the last time. After a while he changed over to rock, and did "Great Balls of Fire", which he'd never sung before, because he didn't think his voice was expressive enough. But if there was ever a time to try, the risk was lowest with an audience of his girlfriend and a five-year-old child. At the end, he began to improvise in the style of Jerry Lee Lewis. The front door opened, but by then he was going too well. He kept on until he decided he'd gone on so long he risked being rude, and simply stopped in the middle of a run.
"I kind of got involved," he said. "Hope you don't mind me playing your piano."
"Not at all. That was great. I'm Bob DiMeola." He held out a hand.
"Wyatt Packard." He extended his own hand, and they shook.
"This is my wife Jane. She's the musician of the family."
"Oh, the time!" Ada said. "Off to bed, angel." She lowered Terry to the floor.
The girl ran to the piano bench. "Mommy, Daddy, look!" She played "Chopsticks".
Wyatt noticed a mistake in the middle. "Scoot over," he said. He played the part she'd missed. "Let's do it together. Go ahead."
She kept her hands in her lap.
"Go on. You start."
She started, and he followed her lead.
"Again," he said, and they played it a second time, in closer unison.
Her mother and father applauded. "Wonderful!" "Bravo!"
"Play 'Hot Cross Buns'," Wyatt suggested.
She made it through without any mistakes. Her mother applauded again. "Time for bed, Tee." She turned to Wyatt and said, "Thank you. She's never shown any interest before," and led her daughter up the stairs.
Dr. DiMeola handed Ada a twenty. "This isn't enough," he said. "Let me double it." He pulled another from his wallet.
Ada looked hard at the bill, but shook her head. "Thank you, but it wouldn't be honest. We set a price."
"At least have a glass of wine."
"We'd better go. It's late. I love your children. Thank you for letting me tend them."
On the street, in the dark and cold, Ada grasped Wyatt's elbow. "Thank you for coming. They're sweet children, but three was more than I could manage."
"So that was your botany prof."
"Yes. He's going to be my adviser. I went to talk to him and afterward he asked me whether I could change a diaper. I was terribly shocked. He doesn't wear a ring, so I thought, you know... "
Wyatt chuckled. Sometimes her interpretations amused him.
"And then he said he'd been watching me, and I got even more nervous. But he and his wife just wanted an evening together, dinner and the symphony. He said, 'Would twenty dollars be enough?' and I said, 'Whatever you think is fair'. I don't know. Is it too much?"
"For six hours? Three little children? No. You should have asked for forty. He wanted to give it to you."
"It's so much," she said. "I hope they ask me back." She stopped. "I know! I'll buy you some sheet music, or a phonograph album." She threw her arms around his neck and kissed him. It was the first time she'd kissed him in public. "I hope I can get to sleep tonight. I'm so excited."
They turned the corner and were approaching the Catholic church. "Don't spend your money on me," he said. "I don't need anything. You're always so broke it hurts."
"I want to. I want you to have something to remember me by, when you're in Los Angeles."
"All right, then."
"Wyatt? What was that last song you played?"
" 'Great Balls of Fire'."
"I meant the instrumental part. The end. It sounded different from the song."
"Nothing. I was improvising." He walked a few more steps. She was no longer beside him. He turned and looked back. "Something wrong?"
"You were making it up?"
"Yes. Didn't you notice the repetitions? When my inspiration lagged?"
She shook her head. "Now I see."
"What music means to you. It's a way you have of thinking."
"If you say so."
"That's why I need you. I learn so much from you. You give me -- you know so much." She grasped his jacket and shook it.
They wandered up Massachusetts, seeking food, but everything was closed, so they headed back to campus, Ada chanting the names of birds: "resplendent quetzal, immaculate antbird, shining honeycreeper, snowy cotinga, anhinga, tinamou, merlin, potoo, bobolink, dickcissel, volcano junco". The list seemed endless. To stop her, Wyatt asked for a good translation of Don Quixote.
"I don't know," she replied. "I've only read it in Spanish."
At least she'd stopped chanting those strange bird names.
They were halfway up the hill, crossing a driveway, when a car hurtled toward them, backing out. Wyatt pulled Ada out of the way and yelled a warning, but the car kept coming, at such speed that even after the brakes squealed, its back bumper dented a car parked on the other side of the street. The driver, a black man, shifted out of reverse and floored it and almost overran the curb before he regained control.
"I wonder why he's in such a hurry." He watched the car run a stop sign at the bottom of the block. "Stay here," he said, and walked up the driveway.
Ada waited. He reappeared within the minute. "Knock on doors until someone answers. Tell them to call an ambulance. And the police. Someone's hurt." He ran back up the driveway.
A black woman and a white man, both naked, lay between some bushes and a small house, its front door open, its interior dark. Wyatt watched the rooms. Either no one was hiding inside, or if they were, they didn't want their presence known, so he returned his attention to the couple. The woman's legs were across the man's. She was face down, he was face up. Without i.d. he couldn't speak to them by name.
There was no spurting blood. Both were breathing, but the man's was uneven. He was the more badly hurt. The woman had no obvious injuries and was beginning to stir.
Wyatt felt the man's stomach and chest. Definitely broken ribs and a broken nose and maybe a broken jaw. He thumbed the eyelids open and looked; at least the pupils were the same size. Wyatt felt the sides and back of the head gently but found no obvious damage. His hands and the cuffs of his shirt were stained with the man's blood now.
The woman was stirring, and he pushed her shoulders and said, "Don't move," but she wouldn't stay down. He helped her up and wrapped his shirt around her and settled her against the wall.
"What's your name?" he asked, but she only moaned. "What happened?"
She didn't answer, looked at him blankly and began to get up. He pushed her down.
"Don't move. You're hurt. What happened?"
"What's your name? Do you know what day it is?"
"Can you sit still?" he asked.
He went back to the man, whose breathing had steadied. The blood bubbled in his nostrils as he exhaled. Wyatt felt for a pulse; it was stronger and steadier than he'd expected.
"I told a neighbor. What -- "
Wyatt looked up and saw Ada's shocked, pale face. He moved between her and the man, partly concealing him. "Go back to the sidewalk," he said. "Wait for the ambulance and show them where to come. Do it now." She turned, head hanging, and walked away.
Wyatt looked at the man again and decided it would be best to do nothing, sat on his heels and watched the man breathe while he planned what to tell the paramedics.
The ambulance made itself known with its siren; Wyatt waited for it at the end of the driveway. "Bring blankets," he said. He described the couple and their injuries, but the paramedics appeared uninterested.
One paramedic examined the man. The other took the shirt from the woman and handed it to Wyatt, who put it back on. It was sticky with blood. The paramedic wrapped a blanket around the woman. "What's your name?"
"Cheryl." She reached in her mouth and pulled out a tooth.
"What's his name?"
"My boyfriend." She gestured vaguely. "Not him." She nodded at the unconscious man. "Owen's not my boyfriend caught me in bed with Owen. Baseball bat. I can't talk. My head hurts." She dropped the tooth on the ground.
"Where are you hurt?"
"Can you walk?" She nodded. "Bring her along," he said to Wyatt.
On the count of three the paramedics lifted the man onto a gurney and rolled it down the driveway. Cheryl leaned on Wyatt and limped to the ambulance and took a seat on the bench inside. She closed her eyes. An oxygen mask was strapped to the man's face.
Wyatt turned. Ada was standing behind him, staring into the ambulance. He touched her on the shoulder. "Go over there," he said, pointing to a spot where she wouldn't be able to see the hurt man. "They'll need to back out."
The police arrived, blocking the street. The ambulance driver gestured the patrol cars out of the way, closed the doors, backed out and turned on the siren.
One of the cops said, "I'll need a statement. We'll take it at the station." He wore a nonregulation belt, wide, of pale leather, with the name "Bowman" tooled on it.
Wyatt hated these places, but he had to spend two hours there, waiting, and then answering questions. Bowman finished his questions and started asking them again, until he got a phone call. "The Negro girl says it was her boyfriend," he told Wyatt. "Same thing you're telling me." He leaned closer, though a desk was between them. "I didn't want to do this. I know you and her weren't the ones. But I had to go through the procedures."
Bowman looked over at Ada, sitting by the wall. After she had given her name and residence, she had taken a chair and stared at the floor, her hands holding her knees. She hadn't moved since. "What can I do?"
"Give us a ride home."
"Sure thing." Bowman spoke to the desk sergeant on their way out: "I'll finish the paperwork later."
Wyatt and Ada sat in the back seat. The ride was either too long or too short, Wyatt couldn't decide which: he wanted to get Ada home, but when he did, he'd be facing the hard part. Her took her inside and seated her on the sofa.
"Ada. I know how much that, how much... Ada, you have to talk to me... Say something." He waited a minute. It seemed longer. "You have to let me help. Talk to me... Ada. You're worrying me. Say something."
"I never knew what it was like. The photographs, the stories, it's not the same. Oh, that poor man." She hid her face in her hands and rocked. "That poor man. Why would anyone do that to him?"
"I don't know."
"I don't understand," she wailed. "I don't understand."
"Ada. Maybe you should go to bed now. Sleep."
"How can I sleep? That poor man. That poor woman. Oh, Wyatt, what is wrong with us? How can human beings do such things?"
Sitting beside her he drew her against him, her head on his shoulder, and waited a very long time, until she stopped moving and her breathing slowed and became regular. He picked her up, surprised again at how little she weighed, and carried her to his room and undressed her, lifting her to get her jeans off. She smiled as if drugged, rolled over and sighed, and fell back to sleep.
He went in the bathroom and opened the window and turned on the shower. He scrubbed until he felt clean again. His clothes he left on the bathroom floor. In fresh jeans and shirt and a jacket he sat barefoot on the balcony in the cool dawn air, thinking of nothing, and everything at once, his head as jumbled as a grandmother's attic.
There was something to be learned here, but he wasn't sure what, except that Ada was the one to teach it to him. She, who never raised her voice, who was always polite, she had -- what had she done? She had left him with a blank slate, to begin again. She could free him from his memories, from the violence in his personal history, and show him a different path. But without her he would forget, and he was moving a thousand miles away.
Hours later she came to him and spoke, startling him out of his trance. "Have you been awake all this time?"
"I wish you hadn't seen that, what happened to those two."
She knelt next to him, and kissed his hand. "I know. I love you for it. Until I came to this place, I never heard a voice raised in anger. These things are hard, but you can't protect me. I'll learn somehow."
She took him by the hand and led him to bed and covered him. He slept.