Summary: Don takes on a coaching assignment and keeps it a secret from his family and coworkers.
Word Count: 2,700
Charlie entered the bullpen at F.B.I. headquarters and looked around for his brother, a flier held in his hand. It did not take him long to find Colby, David, and Megan — but his original target was nowhere in sight.
“Hey, Charlie,” the trio greeted him, “What’s up?”
Handing the flier to them, he explained, “Don’s been working at the children’s center for almost a year now, but he doesn’t like to talk about it.”
David looked the flier over. “It says here that the girls’ softball team is in a playoff game tonight- you think he’s been coaching them?”
“That’s exactly what I think,” Charlie said. “I went over to his apartment last week and today’s date was circled in bright red letters on his calendar.”
“That doesn’t prove anything,” Colby told him. “He could have something else going on, like a hot date with Robyn.”
Charlie shook his head. “Can’t be that — I talked to her two days ago. She left for Washington D.C. last night — won’t be back for a week.”
Megan asked, “Any other evidence?”
“Yes, I called the center and asked them if Don Eppes would be coaching the girls tonight. The secretary didn’t answer my question right away — I bet Don told everyone there not to discuss his business — but she finally admitted that, yeah, Don was going to be at the center tonight and would be the one responsible for how well the girls played.”
“Really?’ David said. “I wonder why he doesn’t want anybody to know.”
Colby opined, “Well, it’s not baseball; maybe he’s embarrassed he’s coaching softball instead of a real sport.” He ducked quickly as Megan threw several pens at him.
“Don doesn’t think like that,” she said, throwing another pen at Colby, this one hitting its mark.
“Ow!” Colby yelped. He rubbed his neck before adding, “If you don’t want my opinion, why do you ask?”
“Thanks for the advice,” Megan replied, “I’ll remember not to.”
“Can we get back on subject?” Charlie stood with his arms crossed. “Have you seen Don? Me and Dad want to go to the game and cheer him on, but we don’t know if you need tickets or even how to get to the place.”
“Don left early,” David told him. “Now that we know he’s coaching tonight, we can assume that was why. And if you don’t mind an extra person, I know where the center is and would be glad to give you and your dad a lift — my paperwork’s caught up and I’ve got nothing better to do. A softball game sounds fun.”
Colby and Megan piped in. “Got nothing to do tonight either — mind if we join you?”
“Heck, no,” Charlie said excitedly, “We can form our own cheering section. The game starts in a few hours — what time do you think we should leave?”
“How ‘bout now?” Colby said, putting aside a stack of papers. “I’m finished, too. And you?” he asked Megan.
“Long done.” Megan grabbed her purse and joined the three men as they headed towards the elevator.
“This is going to be fun,” Charlie beamed, “I know how Don is at playing baseball. I wonder what kind of coach he is.”
David led Alan, Charlie, Megan, and Colby to the baseball field behind the center’s rec building and quickly got them seats on the crowded wooden bleachers, squeezing against several people so their entire group could fit. “This is some turnout,” he said once everyone was settled. “Can you see Don anywhere?”
They all looked for him, but couldn’t pick him out on the field or in the dugout; it was difficult to see over the heads of the fans in front of them. Through seven innings, they watched and cheered as the center’s softball team played hard, earning point after point, the crowd around them going crazy every time the ball was hit. When the teams were switching positions on the field at the bottom of the eighth inning, Charlie complained loudly, “Where’s Don? I haven’t seen him all night.”
A woman in front of him overheard and turned in her seat. “Are you looking for Don Eppes?”
“Yes,” Alan told her, “he’s my son and he’s supposed to be coaching this game tonight.”
“Oh,” she said, “I didn’t know Don knew anything about baseball.”
“He happened to play on the Stockton Rangers,” Charlie said huffily.
“Really?” The woman looked surprised. “Well, he’s not coaching the center’s softball team; he’s busy in the auditorium over at the rec building. Do you want me to take you?”
“No,” David said, “I know where it is. But can you tell us what he’s doing there?” The woman did not reply, her attention back on the field as a member of the home team suddenly hit a ball far out into left field, just making it over the fence. The crowd screamed out of control and David gave up trying to get an answer. He departed from the bleachers, the rest of the gang following behind him.
Alan asked the agent, “You seem to know this center pretty well. What would they be playing in the auditorium?”
“Beats me,” David shrugged his shoulders, “As far as I know, sporting events take place outside on a playing field or inside the gym. I never heard of one taking place in the auditorium.”
Once inside the rec center, David walked confidently and speedily through the labyrinth of halls until he stopped in front of a set of old doors, their panels carved with garish designs darkened with age and grime, the agent waiting for Alan, Charlie, Colby and Megan to catch up with him.
Once together, they quietly pushed through the double wooden doors, each of them reacting to the hushed atmosphere of the old auditorium in the same way — by softly walking down the center aisle several feet, finding an empty row and, one by one, slipping down it and dropping into threadbare seats, so unobtrusive in their actions they did not draw the attention of anyone else in the room. Alan and Charlie were the last to enter, immediately joining their friends in the chosen row. But in the middle of lowering themselves to sit, both men stopped, their ears picking up the piano music that was flitting through the air from directly below them, Alan gripping his youngest son’s upper arm to steady himself when he recognized the composition. “Charlie…” he whispered.
“I know, Dad,” Charlie quietly replied.
They slowly sank into their seats, Charlie wrapping his fingers over his father’s hand and leaning against his shoulder. They watched as a girl in her late teens, dolled up in a pretty black dress and perfectly-curled long brown hair ran her fingers up and down the worn-down upright piano in front of her on the auditorium stage, her nimble fingers rising and falling across the dull white and black keys as her head rocked in time to the music, a motion so gentle it was almost imperceptive to the eyes of the audience that was watching her in awe. As they listened, Charlie and Alan could almost see Margaret Eppes take the place of the young girl at the piano, smiling at her son and husband as she played the music that currently filled the open space of the antique room and wrapped itself into the hearts of the parents, family members, and friends that had so freely given up their Friday night routines, all in order to support the young musicians gathered together for their annual piano recital.
Megan sat back in her seat, carefully watching Charlie from the corner of her eye as he sat spellbound in the seat beside her. When the girl on stage finished playing with a slight flourish of her hands, a tear ran down Charlie’s cheek as he clapped thunderously in approval — the tear matching one that wetted his father’s face. While the audience continued to applaud the bowing pianist, Megan shielded her mouth and raised her voice, privately asking Charlie, “Is there something wrong?”
Charlie stilled his hands and bowed his head to Megan, putting his lips to her ear so he could assure her, “No, nothing’s wrong. It’s just — that’s my mother’s music; she wrote it.”
Megan nodded, biting her lower lip to prevent herself from crying. Only one person could have taught the girl to play that piece of music and the thought that such a strong person could have such a soft heart was beyond touching.
Though Colby enjoyed the music as much as everybody else, when the din faded and no other child appeared on the stage, he took the opportunity to talk to David. “This is nice, but I don’t get it? Why would that lady send us to a piano recital when we’re looking for Don?”
His question was indirectly answered when the man himself appeared at the edge of the stage and began to walk steadily towards the middle. Don was dressed in a black tuxedo complete with bowtie and tails, his hair expertly styled and shoes shining so black they did indeed reflect up. When he reached the dead front-and-center of the stage, he loudly addressed the people in the audience, unaware of his own friends and family sitting in the back.
“We have one last pianist to hear tonight before we break for cookies and punch in the outer lounge — everybody is invited to attend.” People clapped politely in acknowledgement. Don waited for the room to be silent again before continuing in a serious tone, his posture stiff and professional. “Now, I am proud to announce the first performance of an exceptional pianist, one who has worked very hard in order to be here tonight. According to her mother, she has been practicing tirelessly between six and six-thirty every night for the last eight months, refusing to give up her schedule even though Sponge Bob was switched to that exact time frame just four weeks ago.”
Everyone chuckled in understanding, including Alan. He remembered having to argue with his wife that, yes, Scooby-Doo was more important to Don and Charlie on Saturday mornings than playing the piano with their mother. With a quick glance at Charlie, Alan wistfully thought it might have been better for his sons if he had argued less and agreed more with his late wife.
Don raised his voice when introducing the name of the final child. “For your listening pleasure, I would like to introduce Abbey Jackson.” With that, he stood sideways and held an arm out towards the left side of the stage.
No one appeared.
Questioning murmurs ran through the crowd. With a puzzled look on his face, Don headed offstage, raising his index finger to indicate that the audience should wait one minute while he saw what was wrong. Alan, Charlie and Don’s team bent forward, trying to see what the holdup was. Looking towards the left edge of the stage, they could just see Don as he kneeled on one knee in front of a little girl, no more than five years in age, long, stringy blond hair streaming down the back of her white taffeta dress as she sadly shook her head at Don. Rising, Don walked to the front of the stage and motioned the girl’s mother over. Ms. Jackson ran down to the stage, exchanged a few words with Don and held up her right hand, which was bandaged. A little more conversation with Don, then she took her purse off her shoulder, dug inside it with her left hand several minutes, finally handing over a hair brush and barrettes to Don. He took them and went back to Abbey, kneeled down completely and waited while the child turned her back to him.
Don’s friends and families sat on the edge of their seats, fascinated. Don gently but thoroughly brushed Abbey’s hair; when finished, he divided it in half, clipped one side out of the way with a barrette before he manipulated his strong, long fingers to deftly twist one side and then the other into two parallel French braids, clipping each end with a barrette. When he finished, not for the first time that night Don reached into a box that was set on the stage behind the curtain and pulled out two large bows from amidst a small collection he had thoughtfully brought — just in case any of the children had not been able to afford to dress up, at least they could make their hair look pretty. Don’s mother had not only taught him how to play the piano; she had taught him how important the appearance of their hair was to all females, young girls included. Don placed two bows on top of the plain barrettes and laid the ends of the pigtails over the front of Abbey’s shoulders so she could see the finished product. She ran a finger over them and turned to Don, putting her arms around him and giving him a quick kiss on the cheek.
When Abbey released him, Don slipped the brush into his right pocket, stood up and returned to the front of the stage. Since it was not the first delay they’d had that night, nobody complained, sitting attentively and allowing Don to introduce Abbey once again.
No one appeared.
In silent gratitude for their patience, Don smiled at the audience as he headed towards Abbey a third time. He leaned over, said a few words to her, and listened to her response. After saying a few comforting words, Don picked her up in his arms. The audience clapped as they both appeared on stage, Abbey’s face hidden in the front of Don’s jacket and her arms in a stranglehold around his neck. When they reached the piano, the audience quieted. Don sat down on the far side of the bench with the child still in his arms; once settled, he managed to disengage Abbey, placing her tenderly beside him on the side of the bench nearest the audience. Abbey faced the piano, both hands in her lap, her head resting against Don’s arm, immobile.
Everyone relaxed into their seats as Don played a short piece of music, all the while trying to coax Abbey into putting her own hands on the piano, offering her soft words of encouragement. Don played two more pieces before Abbey finally sat up straight and lifted her hands, positioning her fingers the best she could on the keys. Don played a few notes, Abbey imitating him, her small tongue sticking out of the side of her mouth as she concentrated on following along, Don coaching her as to what keys she should play. It took almost fifteen minutes, but by the end of that time, Abbey managed to play “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star” completely on her own.
The auditorium filled with the loud vibrations of people jumping to their feet in a uniform standing ovation, the applause harder and louder for the little girl than it had been for any of the older children all night — punctuated by the loud cheering of Don’s friends and family in the back, their rumbling approval not just for the little girl but for Don.
Abbey stared at the large crowd, unable to move. But then Don was off the bench and holding out his hand. Abbey took it, shyly walking beside him to the front of the stage, a large smile appearing on her face when she saw her mother jumping up and down, hooting, the woman’s exuberance giving the child a short burst of courage. Abbey released Don’s hand and curtsied, moved to another section of the stage and curtsied again, over and over, this second performance pushing the crowd into an uproar, sending Abbey scurrying back to Don. She stood beside him, wrapping her arm around his left leg and looking up at his grinning face, their eyes meeting…
A bond of trust deepened between them –between shy little Abbey –and Don Eppes, her piano teacher and coach.