She walked out on stage at the same time as the great Mr. Simon, smoothing the sides of her pants. They told her it didn’t matter what she wore as long as it was black, but she took pride in it. The pants were always creased. The shirt sparkled. She wore a silver chain on her neck and silver hoops on her ears, and she put hairspray in her thinning tawny hair to make sure it stayed exactly like it was when she left the house; she didn’t get a dressing room like they did. After all, she walked out on stage at the same time as them.
Mr. Simon was in his thirties. He was tall and broad-shouldered and took up more space than just his physical body. He sat on the piano bench and shifted his weight around the way all the greats did. They wanted to make sure their orders had been followed, that they had the right bench adjusted to exactly the right height and firmness. The orders always had been followed, because people always listened to the greats. She sat down on the black plastic chair on his left, the kind one might find in a schoolroom.
She put the binder of music up on the stand and opened it up. It was a very nice piano, a Steinway grand, rather old at this point. The ivory had chipped on a few of the keys, but it was perfectly polished and, of course, perfectly tuned. Mr. Simon put his fingertips on the keys and bent his head over as though communing with the instrument. She had seen this before, too, and knew that it didn’t make any difference. They should be able to tell a good piano just through the fingertips; the head didn’t play any part in it. She always felt a little smug that she had sat at this piano so many more times than they had. She had that on them, at least.
Mr. Simon unbent his head to look at the first notes of Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 3. There haven’t been any piano concertos like that since, people liked to say. People like Simon liked to play it, she thought, because the piano part started just two measures in instead of making them wait for the strings like so many other concertos did. She had liked it too, when she was studying, although it wasn’t her favorite. It wasn’t that she didn’t think it was good. It would be smug indeed to say it wasn’t good. It was just too precocious for her—or she wasn’t precocious enough for it. She didn’t have the nebulous black hair all the greats seemed to have that roiled over the keys during the most spasmodic chords. Mr. Simon had it. By the time she made the first page turn for him onto the Allegro on page three, it was already in his face. Where veloce was marked shortly thereafter, his hair was veritably roiling, and by the Allegro molto on page eight he was sweating onto his hands.
The rest of the evening progressed easily from there, at least for her. She was a good page turner. She knew how to turn pages and make it seem like they were turning themselves. As if she wasn’t there at all. She wondered often if she was a better page turner than she had been a pianist, but really the two things weren’t comparable. Her temperament was better suited to page turning, that was certain. It was funny that music really came down to acting. Or at least at the beginning and the end of the journey it did. Little children would only be listened to if they were cute enough. Students playing technical exercises were granted some clemency, and young musicians playing their first concert hall were applauded for being good. It was only after that when words like grace and passion and fire started getting tossed around. Well, it was funny now. Time had a way of dulling one’s sense of injustice. Maybe all careers were that way. Maybe people were all just acting all the time. Wasn’t she acting, turning over pieces of paper with the gravity of a temple priestess?
She had never worked a concert without following every note with her eyes. It wasn’t that she was afraid of making a mistake. The brain’s capacity to go on automatic pilot were formidable. Rather, it kept her sharp, and she liked to notice the soloists’ mistakes. Simon, for instance, played a sixteenth note as an eighth note in the second movement and during the finale he left out a few notes to make the fingering easier. Well, he couldn’t be blamed for that.
When the final chord was struck, shooting bullet-like into the room, he did what they all did: turned his head just a little to the side to hear the bated silence of the audience crest into applause. The audience did what all audiences did, which was stand up and smash their hands together euphorically. A standing ovation had been a lot harder to get when she was Simon’s age. Now people gave them almost out of a sense of duty. And when he had finished bowing and she walked with him back across the stage, she did what she always did: pretended they were applauding for her.