Authors: David Leavitt
Copyright Â© 1998 by David Leavitt
All rights reserved
For information about permission to reproduce selections from this book, write to Permissions, Houghton Mifflin Company, 215 Park Avenue South, New York, New York 10003.
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Leavitt, David, date.
The page turner : a novel / by David Leavitt,
Book design by Anne Chalmers
Typeface: Granjon (Adobe PostScriptâ¢)
Printed in the United States of America
10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1
"Good Morning," by Nacio Herb Brown and Arthur Freed Â© 1939 (renewed) Chappell and Company. All rights reserved. Used by permission. Warner Bros. Publications U.S., Inc., Miami, FL 33014.
For Mark, Mitchell
I owe much of what I know about Romeâand especially about the old Pasquino Theaterâto Louis Inturrissi (1941â1997), into whose lap a cat once fell from the sky.
Why can't people have what they want? The things were there to content everybody; yet everybody has the wrong thing.
AN EAR WORM
âFord Madox Ford,
The Good Soldier
! Let me fix your tie!"
All at once his mother was on him, her hands at his throat.
"Mother, please, my tie's all rightâ"
"Let me just tighten the knot, honey, you don't want to have a loose knot for your debutâ"
"It's not my debut."
"When my son sits up on a stage in front of two thousand people, I consider it a debut. There, much better."
She stepped back slightly, smoothed his lapels with long fingers. Even so, her face was close enough to kiss: he could see her crow's-feet under make-up, smell the cola-like sweetness of her lipstick, the Wrigley's on her breath.
"That's good enough, Mother."
"Just one little adjustmentâ"
"I said it was good enough!"
Writhing away from her, Paul hurried across the wings, to where Mr. Mansourian, the impresario, awaited him.
"Well, well, well," said Mr. Mansourian, "if you're not the best-dressed page turner I've ever seen. Come on, I'll introduce you to Kennington."
"Good luck, sweetheart!" Pamela called almost mournfully. She waved at Paul, a tissue balled in her fist. "Break a leg! I'll see you after the concert."
He didn't answer. He was out of earshot, out of the wings, beyond which the hum of the settling audience was becoming audible.
Mr. Mansourian led him up steep stairways and along antiseptic corridors, to a dressing room at the door to which he knocked three times with sharp authority.
They went. In front of mirrors Richard Kennington, the famous pianist, sat on a plastic chair, bow tie slack around his throat. He was drinking coffee. Isidore Gerstler, the famous cellist, was eating a cinnamon-frosted doughnut out of a box. Maria Luisa Strauss, the famous violinist, was stubbing out a cigarette in an ashtray already overflowing with red-tipped butts. Her perfume, capacious and spicy, suggested harems. Yet the room had no softness, no Persian carpets. Instead it was all lightbulbs that brightened the musicians' faces to a yellowish intensity.
"Good evening, folks," Mr. Mansourian said, shutting the door firmly. "Richard, I'd like you to meet Paul Porterfield, your page turner."
Haltingly Kennington revolved in his seat. He had dark, flat hair, short sideburns, eyes the color of cherry wood. Fine ridges scored his face, which was slightly weather-beaten: not old-looking exactly, just older-looking than the pictures on his CDs suggested. As it happened, Paul owned all eight of Kennington's CDs.
Kennington smiled. "Pleased to meet you, Paul Porterfield," he said, holding out his hand.
"Thank you, sir," Paul answered, and accepted the hand with caution; after all, he'd never had the opportunity to touch anything so precious before. Yet it did not feel different from an ordinary hand, he reflected. Nor did anything in Kennington's handshake transmit to Paul the magic that happened when he sat down in front of a piano.
"This is an honor for me," Paul went on. "I've always been a great admirer of yours."
"Very kind of you to say so. And may I introduce my cohorts?"
Isidore Gerstler, still involved with his doughnut, only waved. But Maria Luisa Strauss winked at Paul, shook out her long black hair, played with the gold ankh that hung between her freckled breasts. "I've never seen such a well-dressed page turner," she said.
"So what are you working on, Paul?"
right now. My teacher's Olga Novotna, by the way. She said to send you her regards. And on my own, Webern. Miss Novotna doesn't approve of Webern, soâ"
"Old Olga Higginbotham! Isn't she dead yet?" Isidore Gerstler interrupted.
"No sir, she's not."
"Kessler wrote the Second Symphony for her," said Maria Luisa Strauss. "
"I never understood why she changed her name," Kennington said. "Isn't an American name good enough? Well, we should go over the program. Pull up a chair."
Paul did. Brown circles stained the laminated surface of the table, which was empty except for a stack of scores, an eyeglass case, and a plastic bag that appeared to contain knitting.
Kennington opened the first of the scores. "So, we start with the Tchaikovskyâ"
"A wonderful choice, sir, if I might say so."
"I'm glad you approve. Oh, and we take the standard cut in the variations."
"Then after the interval, the
No problems there. And if the audience behaves and we decide to do an encore, it'll be the andante from the Schubert B-flat. I presume you're familiar with the Schubert B-flatâ"
"I own your 1983 recording of it with DeLaria and Miss Strauss."
Miss Strauss smiled.
"Well, you've clearly done your homework," Kennington said. "It isn't often that I get such a gung-ho page turner. In Ravenna once I had an old lady calledâif you can believe itâSignora Mozzarella. Remember, Joseph? Charming but palsied."
"Signora Mozzarella is legendary in the land of Dante," Mr. Mansourian observed.
"Page turning is an art in its way, I suppose," Kennington went on. Then, taking a sip from his coffee cup, he abandonedâÂ to Paul's lasting regretâthis fascinating train of thought. "Well, I guess I'm ready. Tushi, you ready?"
"Izzy, you ready?"
"Has everybody gone?" Mr. Mansourian asked.
"Oops. Thanks for reminding me." Wiping cinnamon from his fingers, Izzy hurried into the bathroom. He didn't close the door.
An unzipping presently sounded, followed by the virile sound of flowing urine.
"Oh, please!" Mr. Mansourian clapped a hand against his forehead. "Folks, need I remind you there's a lady present?"
"Hey, Izzy, save some for me!" Kennington shouted. "I'm thirsty!"
Tushi rolled her eyes and blew a little kiss at Paul, who blushed.
"You've got to excuse us," Izzy said, zipping up. "After a few weeks on the road, we get punchy."
"Don't worry," Paul said. "I'm sure when I start my performing career, I'll get punchy too."
"Well, let's get a move on, then," Mr. Mansourian said, and opened the door.
"Good-bye," Paul said.
"Good-bye," Kennington said.
Paul followed Mr. Mansourian into the corridor.
Paul, who was just eighteen, had never turned pages before. Oh, certainly, he'd wanted to; indeed, had hinted both to Miss Novotna and Mr. Wang, his high school music teacher, how grateful he'd be for the opportunity. Nothing had happened, however, until Judith Schmidt, the musicology Ph.D. candidate at Stanford who usually took the job, decided at the last minute to attend a Shostakovich conference in Arizona. A gap opened up, one that Paul, to his delight, was asked to fill: thus houselights, backstage, the opening in the curtain through which he now glimpsed the immense Steinway, throbbing before a slice of unsettled audience.
Beside him, Mr. Mansourian was giving advice. "Just have a good time out there," he was saying. "Only be sure not to turn two pages by mistake. Richard slapped a page turner for that once."
"Don't worry. I've been practicing with my mother."
"Ah, your mother. I imagine she's taken her seat."
"I hope so."
Mr. Mansourian placed his hand on Paul's shoulder in what might have been a paternalistic gesture.
"So what are your plans, son? Hoping to make a career of it?"
"Not hoping. Intending."
"You must be very good indeed."
"Miss Novotna says I'm the most promising pupil she's had in years."
Mr. Mansourian, who had heard this kind of thing before, suppressed a smile. "Then I guess it'll be the C track," he said. "Conservatory, competitions, concerts. Yes, I can see it all. From the Cliburn to Carnegie Hall, from Carnegie Hall to an exclusive contractâ"
"That's jumping ahead of things a bit," Paul interrupted. "But I do intend to go to Juilliard, if I'm accepted."
Mr. Mansourian slipped a business card into Paul's breast pocket. "Keep this," he said. "Come play for me if you like. I've got a piano in my suite at the Clift."
"Yes, sir. Thank you, sir."
"Or we could have a drink." His stare suddenly grew cautious. "That is, if you're old enough to drink."
"A Coke then," Mr. Mansourian threw out, and swallowed so hard Paul could see his Adam's apple bob.
Out in the auditorium, Paul's mother had indeed taken her place, in row twenty-two of the orchestra. Left of the aisle: Paul had told her that real music people always sit left of the aisle, so they can see the pianist's hands. Having draped her coat over the seat in front of hers, she was now scanning her program with a red-lacquered fingernail.
"No, it doesn't mention him anywhere," she said to Clayton Moss, who, along with his wife, Diane, had escorted her to the concert.
"I don't think it's customary," Clayton said. "I mean, I've never
a page turner listed in the program. Diane, have you ever seen a page turner listed in the program?"
"Not that I recall." Diane was rummaging in her purse. "Anyone care for gum?"
"Did you realize that Kennington made his debut when he was fourteen? Fourteen! And put out his first record when he was sixteen!" said Clayton.
"But it's ridiculous! No thanks. I mean, they list all sorts of peopleâhall manager, stage manager. Why, the page turner's much more important than any of them. The pianist
the page turner."
"Personally, I couldn't agree with you more," Diane said. "Personally, if it were Teddy up there, I'd be livid."
"Fourteen years old, and on a concert stage," Clayton said. "I wonder if that's right, in the end. If it damages a kid."
Pamela was thinking she might write a letter. She had written a letter the year before, when Paul had been disqualified from the youth concerto competition ... not that it had done any good. No one cared what a mother had to say.
Pushing a fringe of hair from her eyes, she snapped open the black purse that rested on her lap. An odor of L'Air du Temps wafted from the aperture. Extracting a tissue, she dabbed at her lips.
"Sure you don't want some gum?" Diane asked. "A caramel? Cough drop?"
"Probably you think I'm just being silly. No thanks. But what can I do? I'm so proud of him. I mean, he's good,
good. I know you haven't heard him, Clayton. Stillâ"
"I've always said, if there's one thing I admire about Paul Porterfield, it's his stick-to-itiveness," Clayton said. "Especially when you consider most of these kids, with their Internet and who knows what. But Paul! Now there's a horse of a different color. I always tell Diane, that boy knows what he wants. He's disciplined, ambitious. He could be the next Van Cliburn."
"By the way, is Paul going to the Optimists' Club awards dinner this year?" Diane asked. "Teddy went last year and loved it."
"No, he's not," Pamela said frostily, and fixed her gaze on the empty stage. Optimists' Club indeed. It sorrowed her to have to keep company with people like the Mosses, who showed such little insight into the creative mind. Whereas Pamela, though possessing no creative talents of her own, at least recognized genius when she saw it; indeed, had recognized it the first time she'd heard Paul tap out a tune on the piano, the week before his fifth birthday. Even then, he'd been grasping for euphony.