Vlad can play Mozart’s Piano Concerto #23 and the Sonata #13 like a fiend. Chopin is docile beneath his fingers. Shostakovich, a child’s game. The audience removes concert-going gloves to slap pale, manicured hands, pounds black shoes against the floor, hoots like they’re at a football game. Despite his unprepossessing exterior, women drop their hotel keys in his lap at bars and cafes. Even children seem drawn to him. When he visits people with kids and a piano, he has a penchant for putting the nursery stories of his East European youth to music: macabre and witty tales with trolls that long for baby boys, talking animals with magic powers, princesses who don’t know they’re royalty.
He seems to like the attention. Why else submit himself to the crowds on a weekly, sometimes nightly, basis? Why not reject, occasionally (politely, of course) the cocktail and dinner invitations of royalty, celebrities, the stinking wealthy? Like anyone else, he just wants to breathe.
The question, of course, is why perform—definition implying an audience in the equation—if one doesn’t want attention?
Is it the adult version of the gold star received as a child for a job well done?
Or is he more advanced than any of us, something like an android programmed to perform, an audience’s applause the aural power which gives him life?
Is he biding his time until he can hit the north, build a house of ice, love a native, eat fish eyeballs and read by the whale blubber-burning lamp?
We won’t end on questions.
Even classical pianists have groupies. The Best at Anything is a direct route to the libido.
After an evening of wowing the sold-out LA Opera House with his newly composed song cycle, Vlad entertains himself with two blondes in his hotel room. Late the next morning, he will open the door to the knocking policemen, tuxedo shirt smeared with blood from the head he has cracked open with a very sturdy champagne bottle. The other girl lies eight floors down, half in the pool, staring at a smoggy L.A. sky, head oozing onto white pavement, legs splayed and drifting in the azure water.
There’s always an answer to the question “Why?” A man who has everything—wealth, fame, and the accompanying love from strangers—and “throws it away” for no good reason. He sabotaged himself because he wasn’t worthy. His fans demanded too much. He needed out before the conglomerates turned his work into an elevator’s soundtrack. Some say that all artistic genius, at its source, is indistinguishable from madness. So rather than one answer, perhaps there are many.
In this city of shame—nudie bars and crack cocaine, amphetamine jitters and starving starlets, racist cops and racial tensions, fault lines straining to break beneath the earth—all eyes are directed toward TV sets and newspapers, wait for the answer to their unanimous and simultaneous question: Why?
Although you might envision Vlad a Christopher Lee of the piano in his tuxedo and black cape, you’d be wrong. He is an ugly man.
Startlingly so for a performer so successful: pinkly bald, bulbous head; spider-leg fingers; gray, gelatinous eyes; teeth too big for a puckered mouth. Even if he weren’t famous, he’d be stared at on the street. And yet, people are not frightened of him. Despite every excuse for repulsion, they are strangely drawn to him. Like his namesake, Vlad the Impaler (and his modern-day vampiric counterparts), he’s a complex person who can’t be judged simply by his exterior or even, for that matter, his actions. Just because he plays the piano like an angel doesn’t mean he’s necessarily “good” and likewise, just because he’s physically hideous—or has committed certain unfortunate atrocities—doesn’t mean he’s all “bad.”
He speaks into microphones: “Women are different than us. They’re mutants, a strange beautiful type of instrument that, if the authorities will allow me to practice on, I shall one day master as fully as I have the much simpler piano.” The reporters cringe even as they scribble down his words, faithfully transcribe, describe his manner and clothing, make objective conclusions.
It comes out that the two L.A. girls were not Vlad’s first. A trail of bodies winds from his mouth like a string of expletives, seemingly random at first, and then cohering into a demented sort of children’s story:
The lesbian couple he met at a gazebo next to a pond the previous fall. The adopted child, a boy, was of less interest, and so Vlad simply drowned it.
The woman he surprised in the shower at an Iowa motel (“Bathtubs make cleanup easy. If you’re willing to dismember the corpse and carry it out in a large suitcase, it’s as if she never existed.”)
Even crazy people like to talk about their passions:
“A kind old lady I met in Central Park, not far from my Upper Eastside apartment, afforded me a close look at the black secret which is a woman’s liver. A coronet-wearing French heiress had lovely knees which I felt would be simply criminal not to shatter. My breakthrough came, though, when I gently lay the heart of a teenaged virgin atop the strings of the grand piano in my Paris apartment. A Mozart concerto gave it the illusion of being alive. It danced with joy!
“Just like that untouched virgin, there was something pure about my earlier anonymity. I would read about myself in the paper, my work rendered unfamiliar by its transformation from first-person to third. Those official reactions to my art were so clinical, though, I felt as if I were reading a concert review in which the writer praised my work, yet simultaneously didn’t understand it. It didn’t seem to occur to people that the fear I generated was nearly as profound as the beauty I created on the piano.
“There was something missing. This past weekend, performing Mozart for a crowd of enthusiastic concert-goers, I realized what it was: I needed to be seen. Not by my victims who, I’ll remind you, were instruments, but by my public. If I were truly to perform, I had to take the stage, as it were. And I have. Even as I speak to you, as you stretch your microphones toward my lips, train your cameras on my face, my performance gets beamed into the world. I’m a bigger star than anyone dreamed possible. I gleam!”
Twenty-five years later, Vlad draws the cross-sectioned side-view of a human heart.
Although a self-trained draftsman, it is as exact as if he were directly channeling Henry Gray. The author of Gray’s Anatomy would probably point out that the human heart is not gendered, but Vlad would not hear him. He’s convinced this illustration is the heart of a sixteen-year-old girl, a virgin.
Outside the windows of this facility, firecrackers explode in the night sky celebrating the New Year or the 4th of July or perhaps nothing. Vlad’s imbecilic neighbors gawk in front of dirty windows, clap hands, make guttural and high-pitched animal sounds. Most stare blankly. A few weep. Perhaps this is not a celebration at all, but simply the end of the world. Perhaps time has sped up to the point where we now see stars and galaxies millions of miles away creating themselves even as they blow themselves to sparks.
Vlad does not care. He is composing his magnum opus, a book which the world has not seen the like of, ever. This drawing is simply one of a vast number, thousands perhaps, all with accompanying text. Unlike Henry Gray’s book, Vlad’s has no educational purpose, is art for art’s sake. In fact, many would read the words—if they could read the words, deciphering its cramped arthritic pencil scratch—as the textual gibbers of a lunatic.
Vlad doesn’t believe in the strict demarcations between sane and insane any more than he believes in that between good and evil, genius and fool, black and white. Despite the red, gold and blue pyrotechnics outside the windows, he is concentrating on his elaborately simple drawings. Despite the oohs and ahhs of the simpletons in their gray pajamas, slippers, straitjackets, and facemasks, Vlad sees only his work in black and white. Despite a daily dose of Thorazine and a weekly jolt of electricity to his left temple, he remains determinably, dementedly focused. When the patients, and even a few of the bored interns, applaud at a particularly gaudy display of action art on the black sky, Vlad mutters, “Thank you, thank you,” absently nodding, raising a palm and bowing, scribbling his text, drawing his drawings.
Down the hallway, one of the patients bangs his fists on the keys of an ancient out-of-tune piano. He appears to be singing along with the racket or perhaps just screaming. The firecrackers boom, whistle, and sizzle.
John Talbird’s chapbook of stories, A Modicum of Mankind, is published by Nortre Maar and his novel, The World Out There, is forthcoming from Madville Publishing in 2020. His fiction and essays have appeared in Ploughshares, Juked, Ambit, Grain, The Literary Review, Potomac Review and Amsterdam Quarterly, among many others. He is a frequent contributor to Film International and on the editorial board of Green Hills Literary Lantern. An English professor at Queensborough Community College-CUNY, he lives with his wife and their cat in New York City.