Micah Dean Hicks
The Pianist and the Octopus
"Today on Ralphie, we have a woman who can play the piano with her feet." Ralphie's hair gleamed like a sword-blade under the studio lights. The audience was packed into ten rows curling around the stage, a wall of widened eyes that Ralphie stared out into and saw only himself reflected back: perfect hair, expensive suit, a smile that shined with twenty thousand dollars of orthodontic witchcraft.
"Karen," he said, "why don't you tell everyone a little about yourself?"
Karen wore a wrinkled blue blazer and sat on a stubby green chair, her hair thick and red. She blushed at the crowd. "Not much to tell, Ralphie. I'm just a basketball coach from Wisconsin. And I started playing piano with my feet about six months ago."
"So you don't use your hands at all?" Ralphie asked.
"Oh, I use my hands and my feet. All four at once." Karen grinned. "Like an octopus."
The crowd laughed.
"Impressive. And today, viewers, you get to see it happen. We've brought a piano into the study so Karen can perform for us live." Ralphie gestured to the back of the stage.
The back wall of the studio split in half, and black-clothed security guards wheeled out two baby grand pianos. A murmur ran through the audience: who was the other piano for?
"Karen claims to have talent, but how will she stand up to a little competition?"
"Competition?" Karen asked. "No one said anything about competition."
"Joining us today, all the way from Santa Monica, California, please give it up for Mr. Octopus."
The audience howled and clapped their hands when he walked out. Karen's mouth fell open. The octopus was the size of a beach ball and levered across the tile on eight slender tentacles, body purple as an eggplant under the bright lights. He lifted himself into the seat opposite Karen. He wore designer glasses and twisted his head to regard Karen and the audience. The octopus reached out his thinnest tentacle, drizzled it around Karen's hand, and kissed her on the wrist. "Always a pleasure to meet a fellow musician," he said.
A security guard leaned forward and spritzed the octopus with a spray-gun.
"Mr. Octopus," Ralphie said, "can you tell the audience a little about yourself?"
"Not a lot, Raphael. I'm a music professor at a university in Santa Monica. A classically trained pianist. You know, it's sort of boring, but music is all I really do. Oh, and tool-use has recently been exhibited among my species, using coconut shells as body-armor in the Caribbean. Does that work?"
"Absolutely." Ralphie smiled at Karen, an unkind sharpness to his canines. "It looks like our viewers will be in for quite a show. What will you be playing?"
The octopus adjusted his glasses. "I've been working to adapt Mozart's 'Symphony 40 in G Minor' for eight-armed piano, so I think that would be appropriate." The guard spritzed him again.
"Wonderful. And you, Karen?"
"I only know one song," Karen said.
"Ah." Ralphie nodded as though he had expected this. "And what song would this be?"
She shrank in her chair, and the audience leaned forward, hoping that something humiliating was about to happen.
"Why don't you both go to your instruments? We'll have Karen play first."
Karen eased onto the cold bench. She slipped off her shoes and raised her feet, yellow-painted toenails looking gaudy over the austere piano keys. She placed her hands on either side of her feet and began to play. Karen hit some wrong notes and winced, starting over immediately. On the fourth try, she played it all the way through, a little too fast, but otherwise perfect. The audience gave small and scattered applause, whispering to each other.
"Your turn, Mr. Octopus," Ralphie said.
After the security guards had spritzed him heavily, the octopus raised his limbs into delicate loops in the air and began to strike the keys. The music was cheerful and precise, almost too complex to pick out individual notes from the whole. The tentacles writhed across the entire keyboard. Karen began to cry into her sleeve. The octopus stopped playing.
"Raphael," he said, adjusting his glasses, "I'm afraid that the tuning is badly off on these instruments. No wonder Karen had so much trouble."
Ralphie frowned, the skin around his mouth tight over the teeth he was holding back. "There is no problem with the pianos."
"Sorry. I'm afraid mine is completely unplayable. It sounds like hers is in bad shape, but I might be able to manage. Karen, may I share your bench to finish my piece?"
Karen nodded and moved over, barely on the seat anymore. The studio was silent except for the sound of the octopus's suckers pulling him across the tile: pop, pop, pop. The octopus sat next to her.
"Karen and I will play together," he announced. "That will be a show, won't it? Twelve limbs at once!"
The audience looked back and forth between the pianists and the host who they loved. Ralphie smiled at them. Everything is fine, he seemed to say. I am still in control. The audience clapped and felt relief.
"I don't know how," Karen whispered to the octopus. His eyes contracted in a smile and he began.
The audience could see nothing but the octopus's legs writhing in the air. On the bench, Karen held her long toes and fingers off the keys, shaking with embarrassment. The octopus wrapped his tentacles around her hands and feet, the suckers pinching her skin in their grip, and he began to move her like a puppet. "Relax," he said. "You're doing beautifully."
Karen went limp and let the octopus do the playing, her feet and hands moving like they never had before. The edge of his tentacles slid inside her sleeves and pant legs, taking hold of her muscles. She gasped.
"Relax," he said again.
Karen wondered what her husband would say about this when he saw the recording, but she went still again, not sure what was about to happen under these white lights, with Ralphie and the audience watching. But the octopus's eyes were closed, and all of him was directed at the keys. The music rose around them. Security spritzed him again, and Karen's blazer beaded with water.
When it was done, the audience stood and clapped for them, a wall of hands and smiles. The octopus put his arms around her, and directed her to bow with him. Then security took Karen and Mr. Octopus and moved them to the back of the stage, ushering them out of the studio.
In the parking lot, Karen saw the octopus smoking and waiting on his cab, a cap on his round head to protect him from the sun. She didn't approach him. She got in her car, the sun-screen hiding her from view, and pulled back her sleeves and pant legs.
Small round blemishes, the reddish purple of plums, dotted her skin. They looked like kisses. She remembered the grip of his suckers and began to cry again. Her family would see the show. They would see the marks. They would never believe that she was innocent. Karen got out of her car and ran to the octopus, throwing herself into his eight arms.
The shadows of their twelve entwined limbs fell on the wall of the studio, near the door. And through the door came piano music, the vibrations drifting into the parking lot, leading back inside to Ralphie and his audience.
In the studio, Ralphie sat between the two pianos, spinning back and forth between them and hammering out songs on the keys. The stage lights were dimmed, a spotlight on the host. The audience stood in their seats, waving lighters while Ralphie began to sing and the cameras rolled, recording everything. This moment, the audience knew, would be included in the DVD extras and by special download from the website. They had never loved Ralphie more. They were part of something wonderful.
Micah Dean Hicks
is an author of fables, modern fairy tales, and other kinds of magical stories. His short story collection, Electricity and Other Dreams
, is forthcoming from New American Press
in early 2013.