SHORT STORY CONTEST
SIDE BY SIDE
by Darin M. Bush
Ivie was so nervous she almost tripped walking down the carpeted stairs of the theatre. I hope these heels aren’t a bad idea, she thought. But I wanted to make a good impression. Falling down on my face would probably not work in my favor.
She wore her long brown hair up in a tight bun, to keep it out of her face when she played. She also thought it helped her look more mature and experienced. She wore a classy black dress that just covered her knees, with three-quarter length sleeves and not too much neckline. She picked this dress because it perfectly matched one of the outfits the orchestra wore during performances. Dress for the job you want.
The troublesome heels were not too high, but they were still uncomfortable. They matched the dress, and for the length of an audition, she could cope. She regretted the thought as she caught one of those heels on another carpeted stair.
If I get this job, I won’t be using these stairs. That thought helped her get back to the right headspace. She had survived the first round of auditions, playing the most technically complicated pieces she could handle with confidence. If she understood correctly, she had beaten out a hundred other candidates, and only a dozen or so were left.
Tonight, Ivie would endure the second-round audition. She had no idea what to expect. The principal conductor was known for his eccentric habits and unconventional ideas. It made the orchestra something of an outlier. Some critics thought that was good; most did not.
Instead of the usual portfolio of sheet music, repeatedly practiced and pored over like a fantasy author with a new magic system, she was empty-handed except for a clutch containing the minimal essentials. Ivie hated carrying the thing, but again it matched her outfit.
As she brushed her fingers across her shoulders and straightened her dress, the final nods to her anxiety over the oncoming deluge of life-altering criticism, she glanced up to notice a young man wandering across the plainly-lit stage.
He was dark-skinned, tall, with close-cropped hair. He wore black slacks and a plain black dress shirt. He was long and lean. As he stretched his fingers and worked his knuckles, Ivie noticed his hands. They were a pianist’s hands, like hers.
The man was relaxed as he walked up to a grand piano sitting center stage. He pulled out the bench and dusted it off without much concern. He sat and played scales casually, as if checking to see if the piano was in tune. Of course it was. Perfectly.
Ivie cleared her throat gently. “Hello there, you must be here for the audition, too,” she said, trying to sound confident. She reached the bottom of the stairs and looked slightly up at him, sitting on the bench on the stage.
“Yes I am,” he said, his pleasant baritone voice ringing out in the acoustically perfect room. “My name is Bony.”
Ivie had to bite down on a snicker. “Bony?”
His handsome face took on a mischievous smile. “It’s a nickname. I was a skinny kid. Why don’t you join me up here?”
Ivie felt herself flush. Is he serious? Bony patted the bench next to him, and motioned a hand toward the higher side of the keyboard. I guess he is.
She walked around to one of the sets of stairs leading up onto the stage. As she ascended, she noticed the young man watching her. He smiled warmly. Ivie had to come up with excuses to look away. The Steinway is very nice. Of course it’s nice, silly; it’s a Steinway.
As she came around the piano and approached the half-empty bench, Bony played a slow but sweet harmony. Ivie thought it suggested he was asking a question. Wow, he’s good.
She set her clutch on top of the piano and primly sat on the bench next to her handsome competition. She pressed her fingers together with a satisfying series of clacks, arched an eyebrow, and played a one-handed trill answering the question. Let him ponder that.
Bony smiled that mischievous smile again and chuckled. He challenged the answer with a longer piece that begged Ivie to clarify. She was holding something back. Why would she not commit both hands?
Ivie’s heart raced. She had played plenty of duets before, but her passion had always been in the precision, the complication of syncing up four hands, not two. She had never tried to improvise a conversation with another pianist. And this man she just met was seeming to ask her to expose her intimate self through the piano.
She took her demurring left hand from her lap, and placed it on the keyboard. She felt her body open to his eyes; she was unprotected from knees to neck. With a nervous flutter she proceeded to clarify her previous statement. Her hands played flawlessly, but she felt her heart trip over itself. She almost lost focus when she tried to make eye contact with Bony. His piercing brown eyes looked down into her insecurities and fantasies. He had correctly read her stammering intentions.
Ivie stopped playing. She put both hands back in her lap, looking down at her feet. She smiled, but it was a nervous expression: a graveside smile.
Bony tilted his head, as if to speak, but instead his hands played a beautiful question. He was asking her if she could come out and play. He was asking her if she really thought he was as scary as that. He wanted her to—what? Play with him? Be with him?
Ivie shrugged her shoulders. She suddenly wished she could hide behind her hair, as she sometimes did, but the tight bun betrayed her. He never stopped playing, but his head and face leaned in a little, not goading, not coaxing, simply pointing out the lonely keys in front of her.
Oh, heck, she thought. Her eyes danced around the stage and theatre, but no one was around. The room did not feel empty. She felt like Bony was a crowd all by himself. Well, if the audition hasn’t started. She tried to swallow her nervousness, but she could not tamp it down. So she did the unthinkable and played it out on the piano.
The intriguing pianist next to her seemed to understand completely. His hands joined her in playing out the questioning music. He was here, and he wanted her to feel safe and respected. The music gave her warmth and comfort, even as her fingers reached for more and more complicated statements of her new feelings not only for the music, but for him as well.
She asked him if he was single, and he was.
He asked her if she was available, and she played out her pain from the last boyfriend. He was a nice enough guy, but could not understand her passions, her dreams. She was okay alone, and the weeping was over, but some part of her wondered what she had done wrong. Did she chase him away?
* * *
Does my being white matter to you?
Not if you don’t mind me not being white.
Oh, don’t be silly, I don’t care. I know it’s an old cliché, but look at this piano keyboard. Can’t make music without both colors. It’s what’s inside that matters.
My insides like your insides so far.
Did you seriously just say that? I hardly know you, Mr. Butler.
Oh, wow, that sounded a lot better in my head. Sorry, Ms. Scarlett. I guess I was trying to be funny.
Well, try again.
No, no. No knock knock jokes.
Well then, I’ll stop trying to be funny.
Yes, that’s for the best.
Can I ask you something personal?
Yes, something personal. I’d like to know you better.
Uh, okay. Go ahead. I guess.
Are you the marrying type? Not everyone is.
Wow, that’s quite the question.
I know, I know, don’t read too much into it. I just want to know what makes you do what you do. I want to know what makes you move in the direction you chose to move.
Are you also going to ask me if I would be okay bringing you home to meet my parents?
Sure, that works, too.
You’re getting way ahead of yourself.
You brought it up.
Well, assuming all goes well and you’re not a complete creep …
Yes, creep. We’ve just met. You could be a creep.
Nope, not a creep.
Well, we’ll see, won’t we?
I hope so.
Your overconfidence notwithstanding, yes, my parents wouldn’t care. They are my parents, after all.
Well, good. Mine won’t care either, especially when they hear you play the piano. My parents are both musicians. Now, if you played the viola, that’d be different.
Not everyone can play the piano.
Not everyone can play the piano as well as you do, Ivie.
You play very well, too, Bony.
I know we’ve just met, but if we play the piano this well together, don’t you think?
We should get some dinner after the auditions?
I’ll settle for a cup of coffee and a muffin.
Okay, coffee and muffins. It’s a date, regardless of how the auditions turn out.
Oh, I forgot about that. You don’t mind going out with me not knowing the results?
Whether I get the job or you do, it would mean both of us would come back here.
You’d come to this theatre if you lost the job?
If you were here, playing, of course.
I don’t know what to say. Other than, I look forward to seeing how long I can take to eat a muffin.
You are quite the charmer.
I’m actually quite the goof, but somehow you make me feel like the smartest, coolest guy in the whole world. And you’re the most amazing woman I’ve ever met.
I don’t know what to say to that. I seem to know you. I feel you in your music. I don’t want to stop playing. I wish we could play together on this piano, you and me, forever.
* * *
Ivie jolted halfway off the bench as loud clapping from two sets of hands interrupted their playing. With trepidation she turned to the seats she thought were still empty. In the third-row center sat a plump young woman with a clipboard under her arm as she clapped excitedly. Next to her, to Ivie’s horror, sat a man with sharp blue eyes, white eyebrows, and fashionably-tousled jet-black hair. He was her boss: the principal conductor. He would have been her boss, she corrected herself, fearing the worst.
His clapping was sincere but not as enthusiastic as his assistant’s, and he sustained it a few beats longer. “Very nice, Ms.—” he said, leaning toward the clipboard.
“Victor,” the clipboard responded quickly and quietly.
“Victor. I was impressed, and I try never to be impressed.”
Ivie stared agape at someone who she had assumed moments ago would not hire her, but now her mind struggled to get back into interview mode. She glanced around to Bony, who sat calmly, serenely, useless for the moment. What the …?
“Thank you, maestro,” she said. It was a start. “I am grateful for your feedback, but I’m a bit—”
“Confused?” he asked, dragging it out as if he was Bela Lugosi.
Ivie glanced at Bony again. Still not helping. She turned back to the conductor. “Yes sir. I’m not sure if I just made a huge mistake or not.”
“Not at all, young lady. Not unlike certain melodramas, you must pass through a series of challenges.” His face lit up like a Bond villain. “I like to call them the gauntlet, but the proprietors,” he gestured vaguely to the ceiling, “make me call them ‘prerequisites for employment.’ Some union nonsense perhaps.”
“Prerequisites?” Ivie asked, confusion giving way to embarrassment. What just happened? She turned to look Bony full in the face.
“Yea, sorry, I thought you knew,” Bony answered kindly. “You asked if I was here for the audition. I said I was, and obviously I had your headshot from the file.”
Ivie looked to Bony’s pointing hand and saw a manilla folder sitting on top of the other side of the piano. She leaned in a little and saw her name on the label.
“Wait,” Ivie said, thinking out loud, “you’re the next ‘prerequisite’? This was all a test of some kind?”
“Yes,” the young man said. “The maestro has me test candidates to see how well they can emote. He wants not just performers, but communicators. Storytellers. Your technical marks were essentially perfect, but we were all concerned if you could touch someone’s heart.”
“Touch someone’s heart?” Ivie asked, on the verge of tears.
The conductor interrupted. “And I think we just heard that you can, Ms. Victor.”
Ivie only had eyes for Bony. “So,” she started, slowly, timidly, “this was just part of your job?”
Bony’s answer was casual, honest, and devastating. “Yup.” When Ivie’s hands fell back into her lap and her head drooped, he misunderstood her reaction. He tried to be supportive by adding, “You did a great job. I really liked how you let your emotions flow into our playing.” He directed his next question to the audience. “Right, sir?”
“Indeed,” the drawling voice said, “I don’t see any reason not to offer you the job, Ms. Victor.” The sound of scribbling on a clipboard followed close behind.
Bony bent his head down a little to catch Ivie’s eyes. “What do you think, Ivie? Do you want the job?”
Ivie wanted the job. She wanted it so badly she could feel her future self yelling at her to say yes, to grab it, to play piano for this eccentric old genius. Another part of her wanted to lean over and kiss Bony. Not a sweet, kindly kiss of thanks and companionship. She wanted to kiss his mouth, kiss him hard, and hold him to that mythical cup of coffee. She looked in his beautiful dark eyes and almost sobbed.
“I …” she tried.
Bony smiled, oblivious. “You know what,” he said, all that hateful kindness in his voice again, “why don’t you sleep on it. You were just under a lot of pressure. Call tomorrow morning and let us know if you want to play with us.” He looked at his phone quickly and clucked. He looked back at Ivie. “I’ve got to get moving. Dinner date. You understand.”
Bony rose from the bench, grabbed the folder, and started to walk backstage. He paused and turned back to Ivie. “Hey, if it wasn’t obvious from before, I think you played beautifully.”
“Thank you. I’ll have to think about it,” was all Ivie could muster before Bony departed behind a curtain and was gone.
Darin M. Bush is an award-winning science fiction and fantasy author specializing in short stories. He was a finalist in the 2017 Creative Loafing (Atlanta) fiction contest, and has been published in two Mad Scientist Journal anthologies. Find his short stories on his Amazon author’s page. Darin is the founder and executive producer of Tables of Content, a virtual sci-fi convention on YouTube. He speaks on panels at science fiction and fantasy conventions including Dragon Con. He lives in Atlanta with his wife.