Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini
Spring 1969, Chicago, Illinois
Stormy days call for Rachmaninoff. Rain thrummed the window and blended with cantata chords Sheila Franklin coaxed from piano keys. Soon she’d be done with the choir piece and could continue her Rachmaninoff affair. Or maybe she’d play jazz, wild and free…
“Jesus is love,” she sang, but the chords beat against her chest like the rain against the pane, unable to penetrate and loose memories. Her movements jerked rather than flowed; a second-year music student could do as well. She darted glances at a clock. Ten more minutes, that would do it. Ten more minutes, and she’d play what she’d heard when Papa set a needle on a scratched record in their marvelous Esplanade parlor.
Oh, New Orleans! Images of the noisy French Quarter and Maman’s heart-shaped face beamed Southern sun into her soul. She began a promenade, slow and sassy, toward the Mississippi. A tugboat sounded…or a wrong note. She glanced at her hands, again heard the musical hiccup. She hadn’t missed a key. It was that darned phone, shutting down the parade. Irritation clapped through her like the thunder outside. Though she pounded keys, pumped pedals, the wretched thing buzzed louder.
When icy resentment froze her hands over the keyboard, her diamond solitaire dazzled her eye. She’d agreed to interruptions like this when she’d married Edward Franklin…and his congregation. Life, death, or a dozen things in between waited at the other end of the line; the knowledge propelled her toward his phone. No matter what life storms raged, they’d battened down their marriage with the surety, the safety, of Christ. And it was enough, oh, Lord. Yes. It would have to be enough.
As she moved to the study, she kneaded her knuckles but could do nothing for the memories that swirled up like winds off the lake. Beautiful memories. Painful memories. The lonely Russian composer understood --- she knew from his music --- but she had no time for him, not with this phone call, and then preparation for choir practice. Rachmaninoff would have to wait.
She picked up the phone from its perch on Edward’s rolltop desk. “Hello?”
Static answered, and a whoosh like the wings of a large bird taking flight.
She leaned across the desk, reminding herself to be polite. “This is the Franklin residence. Can I help you?”
“Is this Sylvia Allen?” a refined voice finally asked.
She tried to breathe, but her diaphragm had frozen. They’d found her. Her elbows banged against solid oak. Nobody knew she’d once been Sylvia Allen except others who had been there. Was this a sick joke? Blackmail?
The room whirled, rows of Bible commentaries reduced to smears of gold and blue against a wash of brown. Only Edward’s desk kept her from crumbling to the floor. When Edward found out about Sylvia Allen, her marriage would crumble, like a mansion built on sand. She’d crumble, all her secrets exposed. Who’d dare do this? She gripped the phone, trying to squeeze out the unknown voice. She stumbled into Edward’s chair. The cord stretched taut, but the connection held. Her mouth opened. Nothing came out.
“Hello? Are you there?”
This is a man’s voice. No men lived there. Could it be? Dare I believe?
It’s not a blackmailer. It’s…him. Intuition set a wildfire ablaze with blues and reds, violets and oranges, in a heart accustomed, with his absence, to steady yellow flame. He’d found her, after all these years, and freed her from that fireproof vest.
“Y --- yes. I’m Sylvia Allen,” she whispered, but the fire sparked a chord in her soul. He’s alive! I’m talking to him! The blurs about her sharpened, as if she’d put on corrective lenses, and she took in the glorious words on Edward’s book spines, the glowing face of the portrait of Jesus. Even the rain let up to gift a window view of scarlet Japanese maples and budding tulips. Alive! Like…him.
Yes. I know, baby. An inner symphony began, the chords so dramatically chromatic, her slick hand struggled to hold the phone. “Y-yes,” she managed.
“I’d like to see you, if it’s possible,” he continued.
If it’s possible? I’d give my life for it. “Of course.” She cradled the receiver against her shoulder, wanting him to speak again and fill the tinny void with his glorious voice. Did he really want to see her? Could that mean he’d forgiven her?
“Tomorrow night? I hoped we could have dinner. Do you know a place?”
She closed her eyes to concentrate on his timbre. Oh, he had a lovely voice!
“Ma’am? A place?”
His all-business tone muffled her heart music. She’d best gather her wits. “Y-yes.” She cleared her throat to stall for time. Somewhere discreet. Out-of-the way. “Yes,” she repeated, “Etienne’s.” Her voice sounded shivery, distant. Like it belonged to someone else. And wasn’t she somebody else? Wasn’t she three somebodys?
A time was arranged. The dial tone sounded, yet she continued to clutch the phone as a frenetic conductor pulled beats and tremolos from her burning heart. Samuel was alive and wanted to see her. Nothing would stop her this time. She fell to her knees, shag carpet cushioning the phone receiver as it plunked next to her. “Oh, God,” she prayed, “thank You.” Whispery words fought their way past a parched throat. “Make him understand. Make him love me.” Her heart thumped the pleas until her chest ached.
The chiming clock reminded her of choir practice and prayer service, and the last bit of packing for Edward’s two-day meeting in Dallas. An amazing coincidence, that meeting. A coincidence allowing her to arrange this other meeting with her Samuel.
She rose from the floor, hung up the phone, wobbled to the kitchen. The chair arm, the counter edge, kept her from collapsing. She moved as if blind, yet she saw as she hadn’t for, what was it? Twenty years, three months, five days. Seeing hope, seeing joy, and something else. Something looming, now that she’d had time to stare into the future, as she had always done. As she’d had to do, if she’d wanted to survive. In the span of a five-minute call, God had sent a precious, dangerous gift her way. Something akin to the enormous power tucked into a tiny atom. As she gathered her things, she prayed that she could harness that power, which had been stored up all these years, and keep it from destroying them all. Her Edward. His church. Most of all, her Samuel.
“Good morning, Darling.” Edward stepped into the breakfast room, his face cleanly shaven, a robe belt cinching a trim waist. Bright eyes evidenced yet another sound night’s sleep. With sure, solid movements, he pulled her into the smell of old-fashioned shaving powder and deodorant soap. He pecked a kiss on her cheek and then sat before his cereal bowl and favorite insulated mug. “Come pray with me,” he ordered.
Nodding, she sat across from him, clasped his solid, sure hand, and listened. A man who preached twice on Sunday, Wednesday nights, had slots on radio and television, and had been invited to keynote in Dallas could pray good. Even with a traitor as a wife.
“What would I do without you?” He spooned yogurt onto his cereal, took a helping of berries, and smoothed a napkin into his lap. “I’ll miss you this weekend.”
Though she smiled a dewy morning smile, deception weighted the corners of her mouth. She’d laid out his suit, his garment bag, on the spare bed, like always. But today she couldn’t wait for him to leave, couldn’t wait to implement her plan.
“Would you mind if Thelma dropped off the bulletin tomorrow? That way I can look over it when I get back.”
Sheila nodded past a cringe. Though she routinely cut through the new wing to avoid his busybody secretary, it felt good to lighten the concrete slab lodged in her gut. She’d do anything for this husband she was about to betray. Except stop the betrayal.
“Do you really the blue’s okay?” He rambled on about his suit, the weather, uncharacteristic for the confidant to senators, a general, ambassadors, even one president.
She reached out, patted his arm in the way he liked, though icy chills ran up her arms. Edward hadn’t been worried in years. “Our foundation’s getting big, isn’t it?”
He nodded. “We’ve sat back and let the nation march to the beat of ‘Make love, not war.’” Gray eyes settled on her. “High time we’re heard here at home. Thank heaven the president and his top brass aren’t wearing tie-dye and smoking weed. With the president’s support, we’ll return to the fundamentals that put America on top. God in government. On campuses.” Edward took her hand. “We’re going to the top, Sheila.”
Butterflies fluttered in her stomach. “Wh --- what do you mean?” she eked out. That lawyer and their Washington friends had wanted a “feminine touch” on the foundation board. Of course she’d agreed. She’d given input when the men shut up long enough so she could be heard, the soprano in an alto section bent on relegating “different drummers” to the practice room. Sure she’d formed alliances, in her quiet way. Quiet or not, every paper bore her name. What they thought was her name. With her past, she should’ve never sung out. Fists knotted. Why hadn’t she’d signed in disappearing ink?
“Draft dodging under the auspices of love and peace.” He shrugged toward a rolled-up copy of the Tribune. “I don’t have to tell you what’s in there.”
“That’s what this Dallas thing’s about?” She toyed with a piece of toast, hoping a bite would settle nausea. She’d kept mum on Vietnam even though TV images of lumpy body bags made her question the entire mess. But if Edward made his bed with this so-called Christian Right, her past just might slide out from between the sheets.
“It’s time for politics and religion to mix. At least on big things.” Edward set down his spoon, reached over to brush a curl off her brow. “Don’t worry your pretty little head about it. Things will work out fine.”
As he set his dishes in the sink and left the room, she prayed that he was right.
Excerpted from THE RHYTHM OF SECRETS © Copyright 2011 by Patti Lacy. Reprinted with permission by Kregel Publications. All rights reserved.