“Honey, what on earth’s the matter?” blurted Moira with a look of deep concern when Eny stumbled into the dining hall on the upper terrace of the church’s Christian Education complex. “And why are you so late? I’ve been worried sick!”
“It’s okay, Mom. I’m fine. Really.”
Moira, in a white apron and with her auburn curls restrained beneath a black hair net, stood behind a row of tables just outside the kitchen door. She and a couple of other women in similar attire were ladling vegetable soup from a stainless steel tureen into Styrofoam bowls. On the other side of the tables were ranged the patrons of the afternoon meal program: a long line of unkempt, unshaven men in soiled denim and worn corduroy, some with red or blue bandannas around their heads, some barefoot, all of them dragging canvas duffle bags or carrying big packs on their backs. Scattered among the predominantly male crowd were a handful of dowdy old ladies in baggy dresses and tough-looking young women in jeans and faded tank shirts.
“How often have I warned you about the kind of people who walk the streets of Hollywood?” scolded Moira as a tattered old man flashed a toothless grin and mumbled a few words of thanks for the soup. “You can’t dawdle out there the way you used to. We’re not in Santa Piedra anymore!”
“I told you, I’m okay,” protested Eny, joining her mother behind the table and taking down an apron from a hook on the wall. “Something happened on the bus, that’s all. Something weird.”
“Weird? In what way?” Moira looked intently at Eny over the tops of her wire-rimmed spectacles. She reached over and laid a hand on her forehead. “Are you running a fever?”
“No, Mom. But there was this man on my bus …”
“What kind of a man?”
“He stopped a couple of bullies from picking on me. I’m not sure why. But the more I think about it, the more I’m convinced that he looked a lot like Simon Brach.”
Moira bent down and took her daughter gently by the shoulders. “If I’ve told you once, I’ve told you a hundred times. Simon’s gone! This is an unhealthy obsession. You’ve got to forget about Simon. That’s why we came down here in the first place—to get away from all that.”
Eny pulled away from her mother and slipped the apron over her head. “That’s not exactly true,” she said. “The real reason we came here was to—”
She stopped short. There was music in the air. Stunning music. Glorious music. Music of a kind she had never expected to hear in this dim auditorium, with its dingy green tile floor and pale yellow walls. Someone was at the baby grand piano at the front of the hall, reeling off the most amazing sounds she’d ever heard, sounds she didn’t think any instrument capable of producing, sounds like rivers of liquid gold rippling over stones of polished silver.
Standing on tiptoe, she strained her eyes to see who it was. Hunched on the piano bench sat a small, thin figure, his bony fingers leaping and racing over the keyboard, his arms and hands flailing to keep pace with the furious rise and fall of the notes that were flying up from the hammers and strings like streams of sparks from a tongue of flame. Most of his face was hidden beneath the shadow of a broad-brimmed hat.
“That’s Chopin,” commented Moira, noticing her daughter’s interest. “The Fantasie Impromptu. It was a favorite of my dad’s. Second only to ‘Paddy Fahy’s #14.’”
But Eny wasn’t listening to her mother. Her attention was focused entirely on the diminutive person at the piano. Without realizing what she was doing, she leaned across the table to get a better look at him, upsetting the soup tureen and sending bowls and spoons clattering to the floor. She did not hear Moira’s cry of protest, for she was possessed by a burning, unreasoning desire to gain a clearer view of the pointed chin and crooked nose that peeked out from under the broad-brimmed hat as the player swung his head from side to side.
At last the music rose to a climax. It fell like a wave on the shore and gently ebbed away like the flowing tide. With the final notes still ringing in the air, the wiry little pianist jumped to his feet and bowed deeply. As he did, something flashed upon Eny’s eye—an odd something dangling from his waist—something like a drawstring purse or a lumpy old leather satchel.
She blinked and stared. Then she looked again. Was it possible? Could a bag man from the Boulevard actually turn out to be one of the Fir Bolg of the Sidhe? It sounded crazy. Then again, after her experience on the bus she felt ready to believe anything. Either way, she had to know for sure.
In an instant she was out from behind the table, leaping over bags and backpacks, ducking under arms and between legs. Politely but persistently she elbowed her way through the crowd until she came to the rows of tables in the middle of the hall where some of the patrons were already eating together in groups of twos and threes.
Picking out a pathway between the tables, Eny followed it straight to the front of the auditorium. She began to run, stumbling over chairs, bounding against unwary patrons, excusing herself and apologizing profusely every step of the way. As she neared her goal she became aware of two bearded men standing in her path, directly in front of the piano, their heads bent together in earnest conversation.
“Excuse me!” she cried, bearing down on them like a runaway train. “Can I get through, please?”
Eyes wide, mouths gaping, they parted like the Red Sea before her and she plunged ahead without hitch or pause. But as she passed between them, her foot caught the toe of a boot and she pitched forward violently, her hands slapping the floor with a loud smack that could be heard all the way across the room. Stunned, she got up on her knees and wiped her stinging palms against the front of her apron.
“What’s the hurry, girl?” said one of the men, taking her by the arm and helping her to stand. “Are you hurt?”
But Eny didn’t answer. Her eyes were fixed on the empty piano bench.
The flashy little pianist was gone.