He found it four years ago when he was cleaning out closets. His sheet music: Chopin, Beethoven, Debussy, all buried inside a dusty box. He hadn't seen those songs in almost 50 years.
The pages were torn and taped; the dog-eared corners had yellowed. But Bill Lotz, now 71, could still read every note.
"Come with me," he told his wife, Suzi. "We're going to buy a piano."
Suzi looked at him, surprised. They had been married six years and she never knew he played.
When they got to the Crystal River music store, she thought Bill would plunk out Chopsticks.
Instead, Clair de Lune filled the air: graceful, gentle and dynamic. A bit halting, in spots. But after a half-century, Bill's hands still remembered.
The question was how long they could hang on.
• • •
When Bill was a boy in Wisconsin, his mother's spinet was the centerpiece of their home. He started taking lessons in first grade and continued until he went to college.
He played every day. Two or three hours, at least.
"I never wanted to play out," said Bill, an only child. "I just played for myself."
It's hard for him to explain what kept him so engrossed for so many years. "You have to fully concentrate when you're taking on the challenge of Tchaikovsky or Rachmaninoff," he said. "You have to really work at it to be worthy of the music."
He closed his eyes and smiled. "But when you get it, it's like making a masterpiece."
• • •
Bill put the new piano in the living room. He stacked the ancient sheet music in the bench. All except for one score: Malaguena, by Ernesto Lecuona.
"This one is my favorite," he told his wife, propping it above the keys. "I must have played it 2,000 times."
At first, his execution was awkward, and this pained him.
Bill could hear the music in his mind, the way it was supposed to be played. But he kept striking wrong notes. It felt disrespectful, mangling this sacred music.
• • •
He had given up piano for the same reason most people neglect their youthful passions: You start driving. And dating. You move away from your parents' home, your teachers and teams, your friends.
Life happens, and along the way you surrender things.
Bill became an insurance adjustor. He got married and moved to Florida. He had a son. His son took piano lessons, but Bill never touched the keys. He was too busy working and fishing and being a dad.
He got divorced. He married Suzi. When he retired and had time to clean out closets, he unearthed that music that made him remember his old love. "Once I got that Kawai, I started practicing like I used to, an hour or two every day," he said.
In five months, he regained almost five decades.
Bill was too old to work, his son was grown, many of his friends were gone. His knees hurt too badly to do much fishing. But on that hard wooden bench, turning the brittle pages of that sheet music, he was 18 again.
• • •
He first heard it in October, when he was playing Clair de Lune. A missed note. Then another. His fingers just weren't working.
He started over. Stumbled again. Suzi walked in from the kitchen to see what was wrong.
In the last few years, Bill has lost 85 percent of his hearing. He just had both knees replaced. Last fall, arthritis set in. He can no longer span enough keys to strike an octave. His hands ache.
What's the point of playing beautiful music, he asked his wife, if you make it ugly?
He tried again in November. No better. After Christmas he pulled out Malaguena.
He waited until Suzi was at the grocery. He didn't want her to hear. He couldn't stand to hear himself. After fumbling through the first page, he knew what he had to do.
"Piano — Kawai, 4 years old, perfect condition," says the classified ad. "Health forces sale."
Another surrender. He had proved he could still play, had showed his wife a side of him she had never seen. But the ability won't come back, he knows.
A couple of years ago, Bill recorded two songs on the digital piano: Clair de Lune and his favorite, Malaguena. He's trying to figure out how to transfer them to a CD before he sells the instrument. Suzi wants the recordings so she'll always be able to hear him play.
"I just have to accept it," Bill said. "I'm not a piano player any more." He stares at his hands, shakes his head. "But these new knees," he said, "they're getting better." Maybe by spring he'll be a fisherman again.
Lane DeGregory can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8825.