“And a seven and a three,” Jerry sang.
“No,” said Madge. “One and two.”
Jerry pounded his fingers across the table, piano keys only he could see. “And a seven and a three.”
“And a seven and a three,” Otto sang back.
Madge shuffled past a table in the small dining hall. She peered around the corner. “Singin’ in the Rain,” her whisper shook.
“And a seven and a three,” Jerry sang again, playing piano in the air now.
“Shh,” Madge tiptoed like a cartoon, stopping at the metal door. “One and a two?”
Jerry shook his head. “And a seven.”
Madge stretched a bony finger toward the number seven, glowing green on the keypad.
Otto twisted his owlish head. “Singin’ in the rain,” he sang.
“And a three,” sang Jerry.
“And a three,” repeated Otto.
Madge pressed the number three. “And a one?”
“And a five and a four,” Jerry sang.
Madge pressed the five, then the four. The lock clicked. She leaned against the door. It heaved open.
“And a seven and a three!” Jerry sang, delighted. His piano hands danced through the air. He nearly knocked Madge over, shambling through the door behind her.
“When Johnny comes marching home,” sang Otto. Someone was coming.
Madge and Jerry froze.
Otto rushed through the door and slammed it behind them, and they were off, stumbling, skipping, a tangle of brittle bones and wrinkled skin giggling like schoolchildren, bumping down the hall into the Assisted Living side’s common room.
“There!” Jerry pointed at the sleek, black Steinway. They hobble-ran toward it, legs creaking, chests heaving. Jerry’s hands flew across imaginary keys in the air.
Nurse Janine threw open the lockdown door and huffed out of the Memory Care unit.
“Johnny marching,” Otto sang again.
They gave the piano a great heave. It resisted, then rolled smoothly, its own weight adding to the momentum. They ran haphazardly, a three-pronged rudder guiding the upright as it fishtailed down the hall.
Nurse Janine was younger but heavier. And she didn’t know the glory of her own freedom. Jerry, Madge, and Otto steered their awkward frontload toward the Assisted Living cafeteria.
“And a seven and a three,” Jerry sang. They slammed the Steinway through the cafeteria doors.
A handful of residents looked up from dinners and card games as the piano thieves parked their prize. Breathless, Madge rested a bony hand over her heart. She gazed around vacantly at unfamiliar faces.
Heavy footsteps echoed in the hall. Otto swiveled toward the swinging doors. He pushed chairs and tables into a makeshift barricade. The residents stared. Some held spoonfuls of soup. Others snuck glances at their opponents’ poker hands.
Jerry pulled a chair to the Steinway.
Nurse Janine reached the cafeteria doors. Her red face huffed in the window. She shoved against Otto’s barricade.
Jerry’s fingers tickled the keys, the sound of a child plucking and pecking, delighted with the discovery of notes.
The residents’ heads swiveled back and forth from the piano to the commotion at the door, where Otto braced his frail body against the chairs and tables to hold off a growing horde of nursing staff. Some of the men stood up from their meals, but seemed unsure who to assist.
“Madge?” said Jerry.
Jerry nodded. The plucky notes resolved into a melody.
Madge straightened. Her birdlike body filled with power it hadn’t held in decades. On the third measure, she began to sing, her voice silk and gravel. “Oh, it ain’t gonna rain no more, no more.”
The residents’ faces transformed to awe, then joy.
The piano trilled.
“But how in the world can the old folks tell…”
A few got up to dance.
Madge laughed as she sang, “…it ain’t gonna rain no more?”
Otto forgot himself and let off securing the rampart.
It was all the nurses needed. The doors swung open, knocking over chairs in their wake.
“Johnny…marching,” crowed Otto. But it was too late. Nurse Janine and her crew stomped in, weaving around overturned furniture.
Jerry sat straighter at the Steinway. The notes transformed from folksy bluegrass to a deep, dramatic melody.
Madge squared her shoulders, cut a blazing glare at Nurse Janine, and belted out the first few lines of You Don’t Own Me.
The piano roared under Jerry’s skilled hands.
The residents sprang to action. They pushed tables into Janine’s path, slow-danced an obstacle course between the nurses and the piano thieves.
Jerry played louder, faster, matching the energy of the growing crowd as more residents joined the revelry, lured by the music of their youth.
Madge shifted with him. “Who’s that coming down the street?” She toyed with the lyrics like a cat with string. “Who’s that? You know who I mean. Sweetest who you’ve ever seen.”
Her voice put on notes like a dress she’d dusted off and wore with a wink: What, this old thing?
The whirling dancers formed a small, joyous ocean between the nurses and the performers. Their voices rose with Madge’s for the chorus: “Yes, sir, that’s my baby!”
Even Nurse Janine was tapping her foot.
Otto slapped his thigh in rhythm. He shook and teetered, swayed and smiled, eyes closed, till his whole body vibrated with the music.
A crash of metal clattered above the celebration. Jerry turned his head. The piano tripped and halted.
Otto sprawled on the floor, chairs scattered about him.
The crowd stilled.
“No, sir, I don’t mean…” Madge sang, then sputtered, then stopped. She clutched her bony fingers, once again a fragile, vacant bird.
“Singin’,” quivered Jerry’s voice, “in the rain?”
“Glorious feeling,” croaked Otto.
The CNAs gentled Otto to his feet.
The residents pushed away the tables and chairs.
Madge stared at her shoes. She and Jerry shuffled in procession behind Otto.
At the Memory Care door, barely audible, Jerry sang, “And a seven? And a three?”
“And a five. And a four.” Janine winked. She held the door open.
Four residents wheeled the Steinway in behind him.