The RagTime Traveler Chapter One

As long as Alan’s fingers glided across piano keys, pain did not exist. He played the four-hand arrangement he’d written for his “Hybrid Slow Drag,” testing the latest changes. A tiny smile waxed and waned at the left corner of his mouth. Occasionally, a “Yes” or “Right on” slipped unheard from his mouth. A corner of his mind gloated, It went over big as a solo, but when Tom and I hit them with this arrangement at next summer’s Joplin Festival, they’ll really go wild.

Doorbell. “Nuts!”

The old man twisted tension out of his shoulders. Probably another solicitor. Ignore it. He set himself to start again, but before he sounded the first note, the doorbell rang a second time, then a third.

“Am I the only person around here who answers the door?” he griped to the empty room. With his concentration blasted, Alan stood, a bit too energetically. He winced, groaned, and grabbed his lower back, shuffled down the hallway to the front door, and yanked it open as the bell rang again.

The mail carrier smiled. “Hi, Mr. Chandler. You’ve got an insured envelope that needs a signature.”

Alan signed, mumbled “Thanks, ” and slammed the door shut.

● ● ● ● ●

Cancer’s a lousy traveling companion, never stops reminding you that your life’s been hijacked and your arrival at your final destination has been changed. Alan rubbed his lower spine as he plopped into his recliner chair, leaned back, and tossed the supermarket flyers onto the little walnut table to his right. He scanned the envelopes. Mostly bills. Water, credit card, Tom’s karate lessons, another credit card. Seattle Symphony…fall fund drive. All for Miriam. Not that he was about to complain. Without her money-managing over the past sixty-four years, he might be resting his cancer-ridden bones in a doorway somewhere. He’d known pianists who’d come to that.

The insured envelope, the only piece of mail addressed to Alan, was at the bottom of the pile. No return address, but it was postmarked Sedalia, Missouri. Could be any number of people, though Alan couldn’t think of anyone there likely to send him anything requiring extra insurance. The shaky hand, probably of an old person, maybe writing in a hurry, didn’t narrow the possibilities much. Except for the staff at the Scott Joplin Ragtime Festival, everyone he knew there was almost as old as he.

Alan tore open the end flap, and pulled out the contents. No letter, just a couple of pieces of cardboard sandwiching four pages of music paper filled with notes. The title at the top of page one: “Freddie.” Freddie? Alan narrowed his eyes. His heart began to beat harder, faster. Even at a quick glance, there was something about the music….

But no explanation? Alan spread the envelope, peered inside, spotted a small piece of white paper. He adjusted his glasses. The message, in the same shaky writing as the address, was short. “Call me. Mickey.”

Not just age affecting the handwriting, then. Only one person it could be: Mickey Potash. They’d been friends forever, played together at countless ragtime festivals throughout the United States, Europe, and Asia. If not for an unfortunately low resistance to booze, Mickey could’ve been with Alan, right at the top of the ragtime pianist heap. Even potted to the gills, he could outplay almost any tickler on the premises. But why did he send this music? Only one possibility. Money and booze made Mickey’s world go round, and Alan couldn’t see any connection to the latter.

He looked more closely at the music. The paper was yellowed, creased and crumpled at the corners. Old-looking…A diminished seventh chord in the eleventh measure, resolving to the tonic…

“Holy shit!” A breathy whisper. “So typical, but how did Mickey ever get hold of something like this?”

Alan lowered the music, looked across the room at his Steinway grand, took a deep breath. Automatically, he reached into his shirt pocket, popped open a small metal container, extracted an oblong white pill, and gulped it down. Vicodin, his savior. Give it a little time and he’d be able to put his butt back on the piano bench without the goddamn back pain locking him down. Yes, he could read the music just fine, and utter improbability notwithstanding, he was certain of what he was holding. But he had to hear it on the piano. Had to.

● ● ● ● ●

Upstairs, out of range of the doorbell, Miriam dabbed a handkerchief at her eyes. “I just can’t get him to stop doing concerts,” she said. “But he’s got to stop. Someone on chemo like he is simply can not keep up that pace.”

Tom patted her hand. “He’ll never give it up, Gramma…but suppose he did. What would he do then?”

“He could still compose.”

“Without playing for audiences? He couldn’t. If he could, he wouldn’t be Alan Chandler.”

“Thomas! He’s going to run himself into the ground. Watch him walk, would you. It’s like a slow-motion movie.”

“Yeah, but when he’s at a piano, you’d never know there was a thing wrong with him. It’s the music and the applause that keep him going.”

One edge of Miriam’s thin lips curled upward. “You’re a pair, you and your grandfather. I’ll bet you and he have been plotting.”

Tom grinned, shrugged. “’Course we have. You’re formidable, Gramma. You’d run right over us if we didn’t double-team you.”

Miriam sighed, wiped at her eyes again. She pulled herself out of the chair, leaned forward, and kissed Tom’s cheek.

“We’ve gotta do the best we can for him.” Tom’s voice cracked on the last word.

Miriam gazed at her grandson. Wide-eyed, cheeks glowing, dark hair tumbling over his forehead to nearly cover his eyes. Spitting image of his grandfather the day, sixty-odd years ago, when she’d trailed him into the high school music room, listened to him play “Maple Leaf Rag,” and knew she’d found someone she’d never part from. “You’re only sixteen years old,” she murmured. “There’s been too much death in your life.”

Tom shook his head. “There’s been a zillion times more life than death. Since you and Alan stepped in after Mom and Dad… you know. I’ve been awful lucky.”

Miriam opened her mouth, but the sound of piano music from downstairs cut off whatever she was going to say.

Tom listened, then squinted in concentration. “Gorgeous! That heartbreaking thread sneaking behind the happy foreground…wow! What is it? Not one of his pieces—we woulda heard him working on it before now. But we haven’t heard anybody else play it at a festival, either.”

Miriam sighed. “Yes, it is beautiful. But beyond that, all I can say is it’s a rag. That’s it.”

Tom laughed. “But you know plenty of stuff that leaves us tunesters in the dark, Gramma. The way you can turn a buck into a million? Alan and I would be SOL without you. Come on. Let’s go down and see what gives.”

They tiptoed downstairs as the piece ended and began again. They stood outside the living room, watching Alan at the keyboard.

“My God, look at his face,” Miriam whispered. “He’s not the same man who couldn’t eat his lunch a few hours ago. Now he could light a room.”

“He’s talking to himself. Can you hear what he’s saying?”

Miriam shook her head. “He’s sitting so straight, his back must not be bothering him at all. Why couldn’t he just play piano here at home and take proper care of himself?”

“He will play here. It’s called practicing. But he’s got to practice for something. I feel the same thing he does, Gramma. Prepping for a concert gets your blood flowing, but only because it’s for the show. Stepping out on stage and nailing it? That’s what it’s really about.”

“Like a drug.”

At Miriam’s sharp remark, Alan stopped playing, mid-tune, turned, then smiled at his audience. They applauded ostentatiously. “What is that?” Tom asked. “Nothing I’ve ever heard before, I’m sure.”

“No, you haven’t. Neither have I. It’s a Scott Joplin piece, a new one, can you believe!” He waved a hand, tried to control his excitement. “Of course I’ll have to do the academic things to really nail it down, but any halfway decent ragtimer would know immediately only Joplin could’ve written this.” He jabbed a finger at the music on the rack. “And the title, that’s the clincher. ‘Freddie’.” He raised an eyebrow at Tom.

Tom got it. “Joplin’s wife…his second wife. The one who died of pneumonia right after they got married. Holy shit! Where did you get it?”

Alan held up the little white scrap of paper. Miriam and Tom stared at it, then at each other.

“‘Call me. Mickey’?” Tom read.

“From Sedalia—it must be Mickey Potash.” “So what’re you gonna do?”

Alan smiled at his grandson, then rose from the piano bench like a young athlete. “Call him—what else?” He walked across the room to the phone, flipped through the pocket notebook Tom jokingly called Alan’s backup brain, and dialed.

Miriam and Tom settled on the edge of a sofa. They leaned forward, as if that might allow them to hear through the receiver.

“Yes,” Alan said. “Yep, good old caller ID, it’s me. I just got your envelope.” Brief pause, then, “Mickey, what the hell have you got going there?”

Another, longer pause. Alan looked ready to dive through the phone. “You’re kid—no, you’re not kidding, you’re serious. Where did this duffel bag come from?”

“Hey, hold on, Mickey. You send me a manuscript that’s clearly an unknown Scott Joplin piece, you tell me there’s a whole bunch more in a duffel bag, and that’s it? Where’d you get them? And what do you want from me?”

“Oh, for Christ’s sake! Mickey…all right, listen. Give me a few more titles…Okay? Anything we know of as lost…? All right, good. What else?”

Alan flipped to a blank page in his notebook, and after a moment, began to scribble on it, now and again murmuring, “No. No.” Finally, after a long silence, he said, “Well, Mickey, I guess you’re calling the shots. Count on it.” He hung up the receiver.

“So what’s up?” Tom nearly danced on the edge of the sofa.

Alan shook his head. “I can’t believe it. He says he’s got a duffel bag full of music. Printed, handwritten. Drafts and fragments, too, not just completed tunes. He’s sure they’re Joplin, but he needs me to give an independent opinion and help him decide what to do with them.”

Miriam raised a finger. “And just how did Mickey get his hands on these pieces? Mickey Potash is not exactly a model of honesty or propriety.”

Alan shook his head. “He’s keeping it close to his vest. You heard me ask, but he wouldn’t say. Just said if I come to Sedalia and check out the music, he’ll tell me the whole story.”

She was on her feet instantly. “‘Come to Sedalia’…Oh, no, Alan. That is not going to happen.”

Alan raised his eyes. “For a duffel bag full of unknown Scott Joplin compositions? Oh yes, that is going to happen. Tomorrow, in fact. It can’t not happen.”

“Alan, you’re a sick man. You can’t—”

“Please, Miriam, don’t tell me I’m sick. I know better than anyone that I’m sick, and just how sick. But I’d have to be dead to not follow this up. No, not even being dead would stop me.”

Miriam’s eyelids descended into a severe squint, a sure sign of impending battle. “He could send you the music. And you could sit here in your own house, at your own piano. Where your doctor—”

“Stop right there. I’m sorry, Miriam, but that’s ridiculous. Mail a package of just-discovered Scott Joplin tunes? I can’t believe he mailed one! That’s like…like mailing the original Declaration of Independence!” He took a deep breath. “This is the greatest find of music in the history of the world, and frankly, I’m at least as qualified as anyone to verify it as Joplin’s. Or to be fair, to verify it as not Joplin’s. This is the most exciting thing that’s ever happened in my life, and if I were on my deathbed, I’d figure a way to get up and go to Sedalia. Now, that’s the end of it.” He reached for the phone. “I’m going to make my plane and hotel reservations. For tomorrow.”

Miriam’s outflung arm stopped him like a tollgate. “Alan, when you get like this, I know better than to keep fighting. But you are not going halfway across the country alone. If you’re going to Sedalia, I’m going with you. But I can’t go tomorrow or the next day. There’s a little matter of my annual meeting of investment advisers, where I’ll be sorting out our strategy for months to come. The music can wait a few days or even a week. Make those reservations accordingly.”

Tom thought the air in the room felt the way it had the year a tornado blew past the Sedalia ragtime festival one June. Didn’t happen often between his grandparents, but when it did…He reached to rest a hand on Miriam’s shoulder.

“I’ll go with him,” the boy said quietly.

The combatants stared at him.

“I’ll look after him.” A pleading note came into Tom’s voice. “Won’t let anything happen to him. And if he needs help with the music, I can do that, too.”

Miriam’s glare had built serious strength through decades of practice against Alan. The modern form, the Gramma Glare of family legend, worked on Tom, even at low levels of intensity. The full-strength version she focused on the boy could have scorched ivory. “Ganging up on me again? Aside from anything else, you’re just happening to forget a little thing like missing how many school days? And right near the beginning of the term.”

“Miriam!” Alan, red-faced, was clearly on the edge. “The boy’s right. This is a one-time opportunity for him too. Look what’s happened for us in our sixty-five years because I took off for Sedalia when I was just his age. How many school days did I miss? And how much has it mattered?”

The tornado spun in place for a long moment, then veered south, sparing the combatants, the way the Sedalia twister had veered off into Arkansas. Miriam sighed, raised her hands in surrender, and plopped back onto the sofa. Alan walked over to pat her hand.

“I’d be glad to have you along. As always. But yes, somebody’s got to bring in a buck here and there. You keep the home fires burning, and I’ll call every day and tell you what’s going on. Having Tom come makes so much sense in so many ways. We’ve never passed up a good opportunity, never. And we’ve never regretted it.”

“There’s a first time for everything, my dear.” She fixed him with a mocking glare, only ten percent. “‘Most exciting thing,’ is it? Do you want to reconsider that claim?”

Alan chuckled. “Maybe that was a slight exaggeration… maybe.” He picked up the receiver and started to push buttons.