“You’ve given me something,” she says. And she puts a hand on his mouth.
Harold Hill has been in perpetual motion for twenty-six years. He’s got it down to a system. It starts with a lie that he can sell, just the first silk thread of a spider’s web, and then he spins and pulls, spins out the metaphors and pulls out the fears and keeps building with every word and gesture until they’re all dizzy with it. Pliable.
It’s an art form, he thinks—compared himself to Shakespeare once, drunk off expensive whiskey in Kansas City after he scammed a town of five thousand with its own distinct police force. He said it’s all in the language, the rhythm, the linking of images, like Iago spinning a handkerchief into a hurricane. I am not what I am. Marcellus had stared at him for a moment, finished his drink and then punched Gregory (for he was still Gregory, then) on the shoulder, told him the book salesmen are all broke. Gregory had laughed, polished off his own drink, and quoted Henry V as he got up for the next round.
An object in motion will stay in motion. This is why he can’t stand mathematicians—the principle sounds so stiff when really it’s the most exhilarating thing in the world. Newton never danced into the eye of a hurricane, raised his arms, and directed the wind just a little to the left. Perpetual motion: the timing is always the same, only the language changes. Some towns have saloons, some have women refusing to ride sidesaddle, some have flush toilets. In one Illinois town, he sold four hundred dollars’ worth of instruments after winning over the mayor’s wife solely with the shade of red on a dress in the town store. There are two constants in middle America: they hate change, and they love Sousa. Both are easily weaponized by a man with a suitcase and a baton, who can spin bodies and language and leave on the last train out of town.
But Marian Paroo says he gave her something. Marian Paroo, she strips him down like lime or hydrogen peroxide, marches past the wind in her sensible shoes and stands with him in the eye of the hurricane. She stands, looks, takes inventory of his bones and beating heart and still finds him worth the walk to the water tower. Worth the freshly pressed wildflower dress, the shy smile, the voice soaring with the bells and birds until he is left speechless, wanting.
Twenty-six years, and he has never stood still like this. She steps closer, raises her arms to his shoulders—her fingers strong from gripping book spines and piano keys—and in the deep blue of her eyes he sees the endless Iowa sky on a summer day, sees a cottage tucked snugly in the fields below, a small library, flowers on the windowsill, a piano in the corner stacked with sheet music.
If I stayed, would you sit with me? Would the angle of your knees bend to match mine?
He is halfway to asking, but there is no good poetry for this, no rhythm. A cottage somewhere in the state of Iowa, because he is a wanted criminal in the rest of the Midwest. A piano without accompaniment, because his briefcase holds only a shiny red jacket and a hat held together by pins.
And so he steps in close, instead. Folds into the space she has opened up for him.
She tastes like coffee and her mother’s blueberry pie, but she kisses like expensive whiskey, sharp and burning. Or no, she kisses like the trumpet line in a Sousa march, or like a Shakespeare sonnet, or or or—
Or she kisses like herself. Marian Paroo. Spinster librarian and piano teacher, breadwinner for her family, River City’s cultural attaché in a long skirt and sensible shoes.
He pulls away breathless and stares. She’s smiling, wide and brilliant, the sun after a storm.
He is supposed to catch the nine-forty train out of the depot in an hour, but he can’t upon his life remember why.
“You knew all this time?” he asks.
She smiles, leans in close and hands him the slip of paper, crumpled from hiding beneath her shirt. “Since July seventh. Three days after you came.”
“I think there’s always a band, kid,” he tells Winthrop.
Oh, he does. All their faces come back in a rush as he kneels at the kid’s feet, watching him vibrate out of his skin. All of the boys pursing their lips and buzzing, all of the girls jumping and twirling imaginary batons, all of the barbershop quartets and ladies dance committees and proud parents, beaming as he tells them a strong jaw or lithe fingers could make their child a star.
Marian stands a few feet away, one hand on her hat, watching him kneel.
“It all happened, just like he said,” she says. And perhaps here, for once, he can stay in the story. Build something with his hands, instead of just his voice.
Why does Harold Hill fall for Marian Paroo? Well, her pretty face, of course, her delicate fingers across the piano, her hard to get charm.
Why does the man beneath Harold Hill—Gregory, or Asshole, or Disgraced Former Traveling Salesman, or whatever else we would like to call him—fall for Marian Paroo? This is more complicated. Her rage, long and burning, against a community that will never quite understand her, and her heart, big enough to refuse to move away. Her fingers across the piano, the way she sways in time with the music when she thinks no one is watching. He walked by her house at dusk once when most of the town was at some school board meeting and heard her playing Rachmaninoff, the span of her thumb and forefinger almost flat as she stretched to reach the long chords, her foot working the pedal like a band leader, a real one, demonstrating the correct way to hit a bass drum.
He asks her to play it, the evening of the day after the ice cream social turned trial turned concert. The evening of the day after the parents pooled their money to buy Charlie’s whole stock of anvils, burned all the letters and warrants, and voted to keep him as a music man, for as long as he would stay.
Mrs. Paroo took Winthrop to visit some cousins in the next county, winking at him as she went and mouthing something about Irish women that he couldn’t quite catch. Leaving him here—across the kitchen table from Marian, her hair down in braids and her sensible sweater hung over a chair.
“Which piece?” she asks.
“I think it was Rachmaninoff,” he says. He reaches across the table and takes her right hand in his, because he wants to and he can, and doesn’t that just beat all. “You were playing it two weeks ago, the night of the school board meeting when they were going to argue about timing for the midday recess, and I heard you while I was walking to the hotel.”
“'Prelude in C-sharp minor,'” she replies. Then—“Wait, you heard that? I can’t play it that well, my hands are too small to reach all the chords.”
“Your hands are perfect.” He turns the right one over, dips his head and presses a kiss into the palm. When he looks up, she is blushing—her face almost the color of her hair.
“I like watching you play,” he says, quiet and honest. It’s funny—the first time he was honest it stung, like ripping off a bandage, but now he can hardly hold it back. He wants to go into the town square and shout, my real name isn’t Harold Hill and I didn’t even graduate high school and I’m in love with Marian Paroo and I don’t care who knows.
He still has some self-preservation instincts left, though, so for now he settles for this: press a kiss to her palm, watch her blush. Memorize the lines of her face as she wipes a hand, the one he’s not holding, across it, as she takes a deep breath in and lets it out.
“I will play the piece for you,” she says. “After you learn to play the cornet.”
“After I what?”
She stands, pushing her chair back with a squeak and pulling him up with her. “Come on.”
And she leads him into the parlor, still holding his hand. His hand is sweaty, it must be, he’s surprised she doesn’t want to let go, and suddenly he’s ten years old again, stammering when Chelsea turned around in her seat to yell at him for pulling her pigtails. This quiet handholding, like the water tower, is all new. Harold Hill has twenty-six years of flirting under his belt but this man, the stripped-down soul beneath Harold Hill, crumples at a touch.
If Marian notices how his pulse spikes, she doesn’t mention it—just sits him down on the sofa and hands him Winthrop’s cornet, then goes to the piano and rifles through some sheet music.
“Here,” she says after a minute, handing him one of the instruction books he made them all order, still wrapped in plastic. “If you’re going to stay here, you need to keep leading the band. The think system may be revolutionary, but it can only go so far. And I want those kids playing 'The Thunderer' by Thanksgiving.”
He stares at her. “So I have to—”
“Learn the cornet, yes. And the trombone. And the clarinet, and the piccolo, and everything else. Look,” she goes on, before he can protest or tell her she’s a genius, he’s not sure which. “You have a good ear. You coached them all in singing for a month, and you made a quartet out of the school board. John Phillip Sousa said that singing a song is halfway to playing it, right? So—”
“Sousa didn’t say that,” he says, laughing. He’s decided: she’s a genius.
“Yeah, but he could’ve.” She crosses her arms, but she’s grinning at him like something out of a Shakespeare play, one of the comedies, at that moment when everything is miraculously pulled together just in time for a wedding. He wants to write her sonnets, buy up whole fields of wildflowers just to carry her through them, just to feel her laughter harmonize with his.
“Okay,” he says. “I’ll learn to play the cornet. But I need to do something important first.”
He holds out his hand. She takes it, and he pulls her to him—kisses her and kisses her, holds her waist to steady her as she leans into him, going up on her knees on the couch, her skirt rucking up and her mouth opening beneath his. By all rights, he should be in jail right now. He should be in jail on something like three thousand individual counts of robbery, or he should be on a train with a briefcase and a bottle of whiskey, but instead he is here, kissing Marian on her family’s sofa, lit up in red and gold by the setting sun.
He can learn to play the cornet for this. He can buzz and blow until he can’t feel his lips, he can turn around after that and figure out the trombone, the clarinet, the piccolo. He can spin this band and he can build it, he can teach them 'The Thunderer' by Thanksgiving.
“Okay,” he says, resting his head on the back of the sofa, resting his thumb on the curve of her cheek. “Now I’m ready.”