Will he come today? she wondered hopefully. In response, her pulse shimmied.
“He” was the mysterious man who played piano so divinely. Tall, lanky, with roguish good looks, he often occupied the room next to hers. Today, no matter how nervous she felt, she intended to speak to him. She rehearsed her speech once more:
“Hello. My name is Yoshie. You play incredibly! I don’t recognize the music. Could you tell me the name of—” Loud, insistent pounding on the door interrupted her thoughts. Startled, she peered at the small glass window in the door.
It was him!
She stood and opened the door.
“Excuse me,” he said. “I’m in a hurry. Piano next door’s gone flat.” He held a stack of music paper in one hand.
“I’m Yoshie,” she said softly, feeling her cheeks burn.
“Yoshie, hi. Look, I need to play now. Can we trade rooms?” He stepped forward, his eyes trained on the Baldwin. Then, seemingly as an afterthought, his gaze returned to her face. “Please?”
“Wait! Let me first get my coat and purse.” He was already seated on the piano bench.
“Door’s propped open,” he called over his shoulder, nodding toward Room C.
Stunned, she left. What nerve! Should she notify the library staff and demand her adequately tuned piano back? As she hesitated, the awesome music began. Her anger at being displaced faded. The music sounded like Mozart, joyful, passionate. With an intoxicating, jazzy Gershwin-y counter tempo. It was thrilling. She sank to the floor, coat and purse beside her forgotten. Turning her head toward the music, she listened.
Later, the door to Room B was flung open. He nearly tripped over her outstretched legs in his excitement. “I did it! I finished my Christmas concerto! Oh, here, let me help you up.” He gently lifted her to her feet.
“Who are you?” she asked in total bewilderment.
“Joseph Whalen. By day, starving musician. By night, starving composer. Until now!” he said with a whoop.
She retrieved her coat and purse, her emotions in turmoil. Was he nuts?
“But you’re not going!” he protested. “You are my inspiration.” She gaped at him.
“You don’t believe me. I’ll explain. Please, wait while I grab my sheet music.” He turned back, hastily gathered his things and rejoined her.
“Won’t you let me buy you a hot chocolate in the café upstairs?” he asked. Tempted to run in the opposite direction, instead she let him guide her to the escalator.
“I can’t stay long,” she warned, her heart pounding.
“You have a dazzling smile,” he replied. “I have so often wanted to tell you.” Intrigued, flattered, then flustered, she looked away. Talking to him was like listening to his music.
They were seated across from each other at a table by the windows. Outside snow was falling. High above the traffic and noise, she felt a calm come over her. He ordered the seasonal special for them both: peppermint hot chocolate with whipped cream.
“So, Yoshie, here we are at last.”
She frowned. “Joseph, what do you mean? You stole my Baldwin without even saying sorry.” It took all her courage to confront him.
He lowered his head then slowly raised it, his eyes on the snow scene, then on her. Unaccountably, she felt a shiver of pleasure.
“Six months ago,” he began, “my dear grandmother challenged me to finish a piece of music by Christmas. She plays violin. My talent, such as it is, comes from her. ‘Joseph,’ she said, ‘you never finish anything. You’re my grandson and heir. Complete that concerto you have been toiling over for the past two years or give up music. Honor your gift or let it go.’”
He explained to Yoshie how he took the challenge up one more time but decided he could not compose it on his piano at home. He needed a fresh environment, a hidden one, where no one would steal his ideas. He turned to the Harold Washington Library. But it was hard going with months of false starts and torn up music sheets. Until the day he first noticed Yoshie.
“You saved my concerto.”
“How?” she asked, perplexed.
“Because when I couldn’t work, I’d listen to you. I would hear you play the same melody over and over until it flowed. You didn’t procrastinate like me. You kept at it. I was blown away by your perseverance.”
“And I was listening to you, Joseph, wondering how anyone could play so beautifully. I didn’t recognize the music. I thought each passage was a different piece by the same, unknown composer but I was too shy to ask you.”
He took her hands and kissed them. “Come with me tomorrow when I play it for Grandmother.”
It took Yoshie less than a quarter note in time to agree.