Pepper's Penance

A Piano in the Park

Author's Note

Pepper's Penance is a slow burning romance that unfolds over the course of twenty-three chapters. This is not a wham-bam story. But, if you're into that sort of thing, I think you'll like this one.

Chapter 1: A Piano in the Park

I stood at the edge of a sea of umbrellas on that cool, misty morning, listening to beautiful notes floating up from the outdoor stage. I imagined the graceful arch of the pianist's fingers as she sent them gliding effortlessly across the keys, producing some of the most beautiful jazz improve I had ever heard. The newspaper article had it right, this unknown woman in the park was truly a hidden gem in the neighborhood, coming here every Sunday morning, rain or shine, to share her talents with those gathered around the pavilion.

My introspective fascination with her fingers continued as I began to think, the civil servant or whomever it was in the city administration that came up with the idea of installing public pianos in park pavilions should be given a medal—at the very least, one of those quirky cat posters with a 'Way to Go!' caption written across the top. Because, if it weren't for them, this piano virtuoso and I would have no knowledge of each other. And if we never had the chance to meet, she wouldn't be able to save my store from bankruptcy.

Not that she knew her part in it just yet.

I pushed my hand into the messenger bag clutched at my side and fingered the business card at the bottom. Soon we would be heading into winter, and the park pavilion would close for the season. She would need a place to play. I would would supply that place and the piano, and in turn, the crowds that gathered here in the park every Sunday morning, would be flocking to my little music store. That's how I had it in my mind anyway. And if only one in ten people in this crowd were to buy something—anything, a beginning music book or a pack of staff paper—red ink would soon turn to black and the business that had been part of my family for three generations would continue to flourish.

The only problem I could foresee was this woman's morbid fascination with the sad, minor key blues riffs that the newspaper reporter said she seemed to favor. We could work on that. What people really liked to hear—what I liked to hear—was when she would transition into the upbeat jazzy melodies the happy stuff that according to that same reporter, were the riffs she usually wrapped up her impromptu shows with.

I had gotten here late and had been spared the melancholy. But, it also meant that I had some distance to cover before I could get close enough to slip her my business card.

I began wading into the dark sea of black umbrellas, trying my best to maintain a delicate balance between politeness and urgency. It was coming up on noon, and I didn't want to lose her to the calling of lunch, but I didn't relish a retaliatory elbow in the ribs either. With an 'excuse me' here and a 'pardon me' there, I made decent progress through the crowd.

The happy, major key jazz riffs coming from the piano buoyed me, smiling as I went, thinking about how lovely they would sound filling my shop.

I was two rows away when I caught my first glimpse, not of the woman at the piano, but of her dog. My face fell, smile vanished into the mist surrounding the pavilion. Lying at the woman's feet was perhaps the mangiest mutt I had ever seen. The dog had started her life as a pure-bread boxer, that much was clear. But the poor animal lying here now was old and tired, twitching, with a gray muzzle and patches of missing fur where every so often she scratched and bit at herself.

The woman seated at the piano bench wasn't much better.

After reading the newspaper article, I had let my prejudices of what constitutes a virtuoso piano player run free and unchecked in my mind. If not a tuxedo with tails, at the very least I was expecting dress pants and a nice button-down. I got ripped jeans and a motley-looking navy blue hoodie featuring Puma Pete, our local community college mascot. My virtuoso was hunched over the keys, in a way that would make an orthopedic surgeon scream, with a smoldering cigarette perched between her lips that caused her to squint against the rising smoke. She didn't even try to arch her fingers, gracefully or otherwise.

But, if I closed my eyes, I could undo all of that. I could see her dressed to the nines and sitting up straight on the bench—the bench in front of the baby grand in the middle of my store. And the people would flock to see her there, just as they did here. They would come to my store in droves to see her, and the ink that ran red today would turn black tomorrow.

When I closed my eyes, it all worked out. So I closed my eyes and excused myself as I pressed a little closer to the front of the crowd.

"Hi, I'm Ashley," I said, lifting the flap on my messenger bag now that I was safely under cover of the pavilion's roof. The music had stopped minutes ago.

The pianist stood up from the bench and flicked the long, gray tail of ash from her smoldering cigarette. Surprisingly, she was an inch or two shorter than me. I don't know why, but I had expected someone tall and graceful sitting at the keys. She was older than I expected.

"What've you got for soda in there?" she said.


"Diet Coke would be best, but I'll take whatever as long as it's cold."

"I'm not..." I dug around until my fingers touched the business card. "I'm Ashley Zimmer. A to Z music. You might have seen the shop, it's downtown on—"

"You don't have anything else in there? Peanuts, popcorn, Cracker Jack?" she reached into the pocket of her hoodie to grab a handful of something that she held out for the dog at her feet. "Diet fucking Coke?"

"I'm Ashley Zimmer." I watched the dog snarfing up whatever it was the woman had in her hand. "A to Z music, downtown—"

"You said that already. What do you want?"

"Um. Well, uh, the park pavilion will be closing soon. I thought you might be interested in another venue. A place to play in the wintertime?"

"I have a piano at home."

Of course you do. I rubbed my thumb in circles over the card in my hand. "Yes, but... But, you can't fit this kind of crowd in your home, can you?"

"How do you know, you've never been there."

I watched the woman let the cigarette slip from between her fingers and crush it out under the heal of her shoe. The glowing orange tip flared and sparked for a moment and then scattered on the wind as gray ashes. My thoughts turned to the ink in my accounting ledger.

I straightened up and put on my best smile. "I'm Ashley Zimmer of A to Z music downtown, and I'd be delighted to offer you a place to play in the wintertime when the park pavilion closes down for the season. I've got a baby grand and the store is big enough to hold a fair crowd. Maybe not quite—"

"You mentioned that." The woman reached into the kangaroo pocket of her Puma Pete hoodie and pulled out a crumpled pack of Marlboro Lights. She shook one out, grasping it between her lips.

I thrust my business card forward. "If you need a place to play this winter," I said. "My phone number's at the bottom."

"No Diet Coke, then?"

I shook my head.

The woman jammed the card in her hoodie pocket along with the pack of smokes. I watched her pull out a lighter, strike it to the tip of the cigarette in her mouth and then pat her thigh. The dog hoisted itself up slowly. The woman collected the mangy fur covered blanket, and with a flick of her hood they walked off through the park.

As I watched her vanish into the mist, the clouds opened up, turning the gentle mist to rain.

I let out a sigh.

And that's how I met Pepper Alverez, the woman who was going to save my business from financial ruin.

That was my plan anyway.


Like some of my other multi-part stories, I'm turning off the ratings until the last chapter is released. If you make it to the end, you can give it all the stars in your heart. But, until then, comments are most welcome.