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Excerpt of When She Was Gone by Gwendolen Gross


Gallery Books
March 2013
On Sale: March 19, 2013
Featuring: Mr. Leonard
275 pages
ISBN: 1451684746
EAN: 9781451684742
Kindle: B008J48MF4
Paperback / e-Book
Add to Wish List


Also by Gwendolen Gross:

When She Was Gone, March 2013
Paperback / e-Book
The Orphan Sister, July 2011
The Other Mother, August 2007
Getting Out, June 2002
Field Guide, April 2001

Excerpt of When She Was Gone by Gwendolen Gross

24 Sycamore Street

Mr. Leonard was the last person to see seventeen-year-old Linsey Hart before she vanished into the steamy blue of a late-summer morning. He was sitting on the black-lacquered piano bench in the bay window, practicing and singing, wordlessly, along with the Schumann Kinderscenen. The window was open only a crack, but Mr. Leonard could still detect the wormy smell of the sidewalk as the sun struck the puddles from last night's downpour. He held his fingers over the keys to listen to the silence between songs, the breath at the end of the poem lines. Mr. Leonard loved quiet as much as he loved sound.

The night before, he'd heard her whispering into the phone, stooped on the wicker rocker on the porch, her long legs awkwardly folded, so she looked like a strange sort of beetle in the sick orange light of the streetlamp.

"I can't," she'd said. "They'd worry."

Mr. Leonard wasn't a spy; he merely had insomnia. He followed all the rules: no alcohol, walking or bicycling for exercise, warm milk, reading, but not of troublesome materials— bed for sleep only, though the book on sleep said bed for sleep and sex, which wasn't something Mr. Leonard worried about as a possible pollutant these days. He kept his windows open. The cicadas rubbed a brisk rhythm; even in death they were insistent, even calling out their last hope for procreation they played presto marcato.

"I have it," said Linsey, sweet sotto voce. "I'll bring it." Then she went inside, her hair a long loose tail behind her, leaving him alone to wander his house, looking for clues that might help him dream.

Then it was morning. Mr. Leonard had fallen asleep in an armchair that smelled of linseed oil and Murphy's. He went to the piano, because it was always the first person he spoke to after sleep. He played the Chopin Barcarolle and the first movement of the Tchaikovsky no. 1 in B-flat Minor, and it was only just past five; Mr. Leonard could tell by the soft wash of the light and the hissing of dew just lit on the lawns. He started the second movement of the Tchaikovsky, then he paused.

Mr. Leonard resumed playing as Linsey stepped out onto her front porch in the hard blue light of the early morning, tucking her long hair—sandy blond, she called it, but it held mica glints, almost silver—behind her ears. She pressed against the piston slide of the screen door to prevent the usual sigh and thunk as it closed. It was five thirty in the morning. Mr. Leonard could see her without looking up. This was something people didn't know about him. There were many things, speculative and real, that people knew about Mr. Leonard. They knew he was single and aged—sixty-two, actually, though the children had simply slipped him into that category of old person, slightly scary, who gave excessive amounts of candy at Halloween and therefore was to be tolerated. They knew he lived in the house his parents had lived and died in; that his aunt had lived and died in; that a series of small dogs, shelties, usually, or West Highland whites, had lived and died in, except for the last, Moonlight. Moonlight was named after a sonata, though most neighbors thought it was just an overly romantic appellation bequeathed by a lonely old man to a runny-eyed dog who was poisoned and died in the Hopsmiths' garden. His death caused great speculation about a number of teens, but the mystery was never solved.

They knew he was a music teacher for some years at the middle school, for a single year at the high school before a combination of budget cuts and the secret of his colon cancer decided his retirement. He had the first surgery, and couldn't play for a week; never mind that eating became even less of a pleasure than it had been. But he was still alive, despite the dire suggestions of Dr. Meade, who called him personally after Mr. Leonard told the receptionist, then the nurse, then the nurse again in consecutive phone calls that he would not take radiation. He'd rather let it grow back, the way death always grew, slow consumption of the cells, whole organs, the eventual, beautiful collapse. It wasn't a fight he could win, and he didn't want the battle wounds. He rarely ever hurt unbearably, except when digesting, and that was a dull pain, a squeezing, a roughhousing of his insides. As long as he could play, as long as he had enough money and jasmine tea in the afternoons and could tote new books from the library— alternating fiction and nonfiction like an assignment—every Wednesday on his old upright bicycle with a basket. Old-lady bicycle—it had been his aunt's, his father's sister's, though she rarely rode it, so the chain had been a seizure of rust when he first wheeled it out of the shed.

Mr. Leonard had taken private piano students for some years, children whose parents evidently were not suspicious of his linty cardigans or the way he looked just sideways at almost everyone. They deposited their sleek-haired charges inside the foyer of the grand Victorian for innocuous training in culture. Then the students stopped. Mr. Leonard played his piano, sometimes early in the morning, sometimes passionately and late at night, sometimes with a languor that swept across the neighborhood like a wind-borne cloud of pollen and perfume. Once or twice, new people with money who had moved in and updated their kitchens with walk-in Sub-Zeros and ten-burner Viking stoves called the police to complain about the noise. Rachmaninoff. Brahms. Liszt was never a problem; Liszt caused children to dance on the sidewalks, or sway pleasantly in their dreams after bedtime. Generally, the police did nothing. Or they rang the doorbell and asked Mr. Leonard to please close his window, to please play pianissimo at least (a joke with Beau, the cop who lived around the corner on Pine. It was Beau's one "music word"— he'd been one of Mr. L.'s students in middle school), to keep it down. Mr. Leonard offered them French-press coffee. They often stopped by the following afternoon for more coffee, and sat on Mr. Leonard's wide brown front steps as if he needed protection.

Linsey knew something about Mr. Leonard, something she had shared with her boyfriend, Timmy, who was supposedly her former boyfriend since Abigail had convinced her daughter to break up with him before going to college—that since he was going to Berkeley, California, and she to Cornell they shouldn't torture themselves with distance. You're too young to be so serious, he'd overheard from their porch. He'd also overheard Linsey telling Timmy this: she knew that Mr. Leonard sometimes played the piano wearing inappropriate attire. Linsey, bless her, hadn't laughed. Never mind the McGuires, two doors down, who came out to get their paper in their pj's. Never mind that sometimes Mrs. Copper nursed her baby in the backyard, and if you kneeled on the arm of one of the Adirondack chairs on the back deck, you might see her lifting her blouse for the baby's mouth—Linsey had no interest in this spying, she said, she just saw her half brother Cody in this compromising position. What Linsey knew about Mr. Leonard was that sometimes he played the piano, late at night, mind you, or so late morning might have more claim on the hour than starlight, wearing a ball gown, blue satin, tight bodice, so his pale skin spilled out over the top like added lace, or even odder: a slightly yellowed wedding dress, which Linsey assumed must have belonged to his mother.

Mr. Leonard watched Linsey pull a folded slip of paper from the pocket of her jeans. He stopped humming—he only noticed the humming when everything else had stopped, but took comfort in knowing that Glenn Gould, too, hummed when he played; it was a kind of conversation with the piano—and he could hear Linsey sigh as she read the paper, then refolded it, then taped it to the pretentious iron mailbox her stepfather had installed on the front porch, complete with its own stubby post, and shut the door on the tail of the note.

Linsey wore a jeans jacket that was too large and too warm for August and for her slight frame. Mr. Leonard had always thought of her as a goldfinch, hollow boned, quick and certain in flight but heavy on the branches. She'd moved in next door with her family when she was three, when Mr. Leonard was still a teacher, when he'd imagined he might be her teacher someday, so he'd let his interest rest on her, a quiet thing. She'd always had hairdos to match her mother's then. She'd worn buns pierced with splintery chopsticks from the Golden Lee Chinese Deli restaurant her family ordered from every Saturday night. Mr. Leonard could smell their dinners through the window. They ate on the porch: moo-shu pork, orange-fried chicken, the sesame and chili oil scent floating like a casual cloud of conversation from their table to his. Mr. Leonard didn't like to sit down to eat. He liked to move, to take a bite from the carefully set plate on the kitchen counter and go get the paper. Take a bite, then empty the dishwasher, take a bite, then feed the dog, when he had one. If he didn't sit down, he didn't have to notice that he was eating, not really; he didn't have to notice that he was eating alone.

His next-door neighbors' first few years were peaceful, as the last few had been. In between, after they lost the boy, Linsey's family was loud and angry. Linsey had wept her face into angry blotches, flinging herself onto the window seat on the stairwell, which faced Mr. Leonard's house. Linsey's bedroom wasn't on that side of the house, so for him, it was as if she never slept. Mr. Leonard heard the yowling, almost catlike, territorial, of Mr. and Mrs.; he didn't see the slamming of the front door, but he saw Mr. Hart's back, huge and hunched like a bear's in a quilted winter coat, as he stalked away from the house. The ancient glass in the door, an intricate flower pattern of panes divided by wires and thin strips of wood, waited while Mr. Hart started his Volvo. But before he'd backed out, spinning tires and crushed ice over the unshoveled driveway, the glass began to fall, tuneful shards, on the wide floorboards of the porch. He saw Linsey later, picking at the bits of glass as if they held clues. He'd wanted to push open his window, call out, careful, but of course he didn't. She was eight, the same age Mr. Leonard had been when his family folded like a finished fan. Then her father had moved out, then the new man had moved in.

He watched the family; it was like a field gone fallow, tilled and hand hewn to remove the rocks, ready for replanting. The stepfather put in a new door, hauling the cardboardpatched broken one—thick oak and heavy—to the curb by himself on Big Trash Day. One August the twins were born, Toby and Cody, a dark boy and a light boy, the latter bald at first, then bright blond, the kind of blond that causes casual touching; people passing in the supermarket reached toward his mother's cart, took strands between their fingertips before they knew what they were doing. Then Linsey was a teen, and she had a boyfriend. Mr. Leonard had liked him at first; he'd been one of his own students, Timmy, heavy of chest and quick to smile, chocolate brown eyes, a good laugh. He laughed a lot at lessons. He didn't practice. He had a strong ear and could plunk out melodies, finger by finger, but had no interest in picking at the tight weave of himself in search of loops of talent. That was how it worked for most people: they could find enough talent to wind together, to braid with rote skill, they could find pleasure in the music that way, even if they would never give much in performance. Pleasure in the music was something. It was like a child athlete growing into adulthood, perhaps running a little faster to catch the commuter train. The real talents—bundles and ropes of it, the kind of talent that made playing not a choice, once they found their fingers, but a requirement, even if they played passionately until college and then gave it up, always feeling the music in their fingers, in their arms, music like ghost limbs—they were rare.

He'd seen the breakup through the glass. Linsey leaning in toward Timmy, touching his face, then removing herself, fingers first, then arms, then she got up from the wicker love seat and sat on a chair by herself, wrapped only in its arms. He saw them kissing good-bye, like they always did, mouths fit together like wheel and cog, only their bodies told the rest, space between them, chests breathing independently.

Early that spring, Mr. Leonard had watched Linsey and Timmy holding hands on the porch swing like a fifties couple, courting. He'd seen the way they made their arms and legs fit together, a single body for so many limbs. He'd seen the way the love flared off them, dazzling light. Now he saw Linsey's sadness. Again. The window seat, like a crumpled child.

Mr. Leonard was a half-breed, his father a famous Jewish conductor and an agnostic, his mother a lapsed Catholic who'd died of anaphylactic shock in the picnic-blanketed audience while her husband wound his arms passionately around Mahler's no. 8 with the Tanglewood Festival orchestra. Molly Leonard had never been stung by a bee before that day, at the renowned summer festival of outdoor concerts. Perhaps it was a paper wasp, perhaps an ordinary honeybee, perhaps she had squashed it absently with her thigh or perhaps it was aggressive, rising from the earth with a mindless malice—either way, Mr. Leonard was with a nanny at the pine-beamed rental cottage. He was eight. He would swim in Long Pond, he would drink pink lemonade, hand-squeezed by the nanny, lemons and pink grapefruit, quite a lot of sugar slushing at the bottom of the striped glass; he would change into his pale blue cotton pajamas—my little maestro, his mother called him—and eat nine squares more Lindt milk chocolate than was allowed, reading The Adventures of Tintin, while his babysitter talked with her boyfriend on the phone, winding the cord around and around. He would sleep once more before he knew his mother was dead.

Mr. Leonard would've like to have talked to Linsey's mother— no longer Mrs. Hart; now she was Mrs. Stein, and she had taken a course at the reform synagogue for non-Jews who had married in and didn't want to convert, but wanted to give their homes some Jewishness (Mr. Leonard thought about this: some Jewishness, like a twig from an olive tree: like a spray can of something, eau de prewar Eastern Europe: or better yet: German Jew, crystals hung in the windows, Viennese cakes with fig fillings), so she made Shabbat dinner on Fridays. Linsey loved eating the challah; Mr. Leonard knew this because she often took hunks out to the wicker landings of the porch, fed them to Timmy, before Timmy was banished—Mr. Leonard would've like to have told Mrs. Stein not to push her daughter so hard. To let her stay with Timmy: if they were going to split up, it would happen. Linsey was young, but she wasn't stupid. Abortion was legal—for now, anyway. Children lived together now, they decided whether they fit together like puzzle pieces or whether they ought to share only meals and conversations and maybe sex but not the rest of life. The rest of life—Mr. Leonard thought—should belong to Linsey. Her mother was making the worst mistake, trying to conduct a soloist, trying to instruct her daughter's life in a way it could not be forced to go. He had always been cordial with the Harts/Steins. He brought their papers up to the porch—stacked them neatly under the rocker, bundled the mail just inside the screen door, feeling presumptuous but helpful—when they went away on vacation. They didn't ask him to do this, but he knew they appreciated it. Once, a hundred years ago when she was still a girl and he was still a teacher, Linsey had been sent over with a plate of brownies as a thank-you. She'd been eating one she had slipped out from under the cellophane as he came to the door. He heard her coming, but let her ring the bell anyway.

"For you," she'd said. "Um, for the mail."

He'd wanted to swipe the crumb from the corner of her mouth. He'd wanted to tie the lace of her pink sneaker, unlooped and dangerous.

"Thank you," he said, taking a single brownie, not the whole plate.

"No," said Linsey. "All of them."

"Okay," he said. "Except this one's for you." He removed another, just three left. The brownie tasted of cocoa, and vaguely metallic, like mix. Not unpleasing.

"Did you make them?"

Linsey was eating again. "Mmm," she said.

"Do you want milk?"

"I have to go back," she said.

"I could give you a lesson," he said, and Linsey looked puzzled, though she'd been eyeing the piano through the curved glass of the turret.

"No," she said. "I play flute. Bye." She turned and ran, and Mr. Leonard watched with trepidation, but she didn't trip. The brownies had come on a paper plate, so there was nothing to return.

Now Mr. Leonard watched Linsey leave her porch. She'd slung her little black backpack over one shoulder and she looked small under the weight of the morning light. The zipper wasn't closed all the way; he imagined the contents spilling out like food from an interrupted mouthful. She stepped out to the street as if waiting for something. Then she started down Sycamore, sneakers almost silent on the sidewalk. She walked past Mr. Leonard's house, and then she was gone.

The houses were quiet, his and hers. He fingered the keys without pressing for a while, then allowed himself a Lully minuet, softer than it should be, but innocent. It was almost nine by the time the twins slammed open the door, running for the camp bus. Mr. Leonard was playing a requiem now; he felt like something was ending. Cody and Toby kicked the screen door on the porch and let in the quick, hot breeze. A single yellow leaf fell from the dogwood in front of their house. As the boys shoved each other along toward the bus, legs long and brown, one face pinched, the other open, the note in the mailbox stirred. The breeze broke the tape's kiss with the iron, tugged the corner free from the lid. Mr. Leonard didn't see the paper as it floated free, then landed with fateful precision, the edge slipping between the floorboards

of the porch. The door opened again, Mrs. Stein calling after her boys, "I love you! Have fun!" and the note fell into the lightless land between the porch's latticed-in legs and the concrete foundation of the house.

Later, when they came to question him, Mr. Leonard would try to be faithful to the morning. He remembered the note, but assumed they already knew. He remembered a lot of things, but only answered their questions. By then, the word "vanished" had wafted into his windows like the stray spittle that worked its way from rain through the screens. But vanished, Mr. Leonard thought, was a relative term. Linsey knew where she was, he thought, Linsey knew what she was seeing and hearing, what tastes touched her tongue.

He'd seen her seeing him. It wasn't as if he could help himself—it wasn't as if he was really living in his body— sometimes at the piano, sometimes inside the music. Mr. Leonard knew something about Linsey, something secret. But then, he had secrets of his own; he understood, and he wasn't telling.

Excerpt from When She Was Gone by Gwendolen Gross
All rights reserved by publisher and author

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