Fiction · 07/09/2014

Take The Piano

Sometimes in the middle of the night I’d catch my father sitting at the bottom of the stairs, one shoe on and the other shoe beside him with its laces untied and flailed out like arms without bones. He’d be still, staring someplace, his coat beside his legs. I’d pass the stairway to the bathroom, fresh from a dream, and see this silent lump in the darkness of our foyer. He was a shadow near our piano, breathing loudly, as if he was unable to decide where he was going or if he was actually going to leave.

The first time I passed him I felt like I was witnessing some sort of sin, but then it became something I blinked at and could forget about until morning. I thought of the time he and Mom sat at the dining room table, a chair in between them, her spine stick straight and his, I saw silhouetted, was slumped like half of a parabola. I remember her lips moving and words like silverware and family and trying harder coming out faintly, and her hand was placed calmly over a red folded napkin on the table. But my father — his hands were in his lap and he just stared at her.

It was because of September. September was when he went to work that Tuesday morning, and Mom and I came home first and stood in front of the television. When she heard the door unlock she put it on mute and I think she might have been praying. And she hugged him before he hugged her and they cried but she was crying for a different reason. The schools were out; that’s why I was home, and as I watched them from the doorframe of the kitchen, I felt like I shouldn’t have been.

My father had seen his colleague — a best friend or something like that — go past his window at terminal velocity and land on the sidewalk below. This was before my father knew what was coming: the flames, the fuselage.

If I was ten years younger — if I wasn’t sixteen — I would’ve asked him on those days he sat at the bottom of the stairs not to go. I wouldn’t have been afraid of stumbling on my words like I usually did. From the top stair I’d say the word, Dad. He would have turned around, said my name how he always said it, the way snow comes down, quietly: “Madeline, go back to bed, okay,” just a seamless phrase. And I would’ve asked him, no matter how broken my words sounded right next to his.

I looked for it in the faces at school, as if I could tell who lost someone like my father did. I wanted someone to have known the man my father did. I wanted to know what his laugh was like, if he had fears of crowds or needles or butterflies. I wanted to have some substantial evidence that this man was worth my father’s grief. His name, Nolan, I found out from a newspaper left on the table one afternoon, showing this man’s obituary, the edges of the paper slightly dog-eared and curled. Then, at school, I wanted to ask people about a person named Nolan but it was so hard for me to say Nolan, or he jumped, or even, if they had known him, I’m sorry.

+

When I was thirteen, we hosted a barbeque and all my father’s colleagues came. Because the business sold musical equipment, instruments, and accessories, many of them played — some ventured to the piano that night to check, they joked, if it was tuned. I stayed by the stove with my mother and drank orange juice in a wine glass because that’s what everyone else was drinking from.

That day my father wore the Charlie Brown-themed tie I’d given him last Christmas. He was at the screen door, checking the fillets every so often, sometimes looking across the room at someone I couldn’t see. I caught him doing this only twice, in a distant stare. He made short conversations with other co-workers (Hey ol’ chap, see you’ve brought the extended family, too; or I’ll make one especially well-done for you, Pammy, I know you don’t favor this way; or Life’s good, just taking charge of the steak) but the person he talked to longest was a man in a red jacket and khakis. This man had a little scuffling creature the height of the top of the sofa, clinging and floating near him wherever he went, and he came out behind his father’s pant leg when talking with my dad.

The son watched as the two men conversed. The man smiled, and my father looked him directly in his eyes, kind of played with his Charlie Brown tie. I knew nothing of this, thought nothing of this. Once, my father crouched down to this man’s short soft-footed barnacle and ruffled his blond hair. I heard him say, “You’d like me to grill the zucchini on top of the steak, like a sandwich, huh?” and the boy smiled and laughed.

“Go play,” my mother said softly, who had followed my eyes. She hadn’t talked to my father once so far. She turned back to the quiche in the oven. I thought of just standing there with the three of them and not saying anything, but my father didn’t look up or wave me over or call my name, so I didn’t go.

+

After September came October, and I turned sixteen. For my birthday, my mother made lunch reservations at our favorite rotating restaurant. She wore heels and held my arm from the car to the elevator and I noticed the way she put her concealer on heavily over the freckles on her nose. Dad walked behind us, reading his calendar. I could tell where he was by the jingling of the keys in his pocket. In the restaurant I sat across from Mom and Dad and realized we were by the window.

“When you were little, you used to put your face right up here and make fingerprints on the glass, remember that?” my mother asked, sliding her arms out of her coat. My father was tilting his chin up, trying not to look out the window.

The waiter came with a wine list.

My father asked, “How early is it socially acceptable to order liquor?” and we laughed. I listened, and my father’s chuckles quitted out earliest. I was grateful for the laughter though, because I didn’t want him to think how far it was to the ground.

“Whenever you’d like, sir.”

My father said, “I’ll take a caipirinha on the rocks, please.”

When the waiter turned to ask me what I wanted to drink, I made the “w” sound, but the rest of it was in the back of my throat where I swallow, like it always happens. I was distracted and I knew it so I tapped my empty glass and my mother finished for me. “Thank you,” I said, because in therapy I had practiced that one over and over again until my tongue got it right.

The waiter left. My father drummed his fingers on the table like he was playing a one-handed piano piece. “Did you remember your medicine?” my mother asked me quietly.

My mother had been this way ever since I was seven and they found out the reason why I couldn’t read storybooks aloud in class — she was too cautious, always observing. I didn’t have my purse and my pockets were too small to fit the bottle, and she had taken notice.

“I-I did.”

“It’s in the pocket of my jacket,” my father said.

I could hear the fissures in his voice that sometimes erupted when he spoke his vowels, the only imperfection in his speech I could ever find. He stared at the wine glasses all aligned and hung upside down at the center bar.

She sighed. “I’m just glad we are here together,” she said. She sat erect in her chair and my father’s shoulder was so far away. I could see the lines in between them, like sound waves my father used to draw for me, the ones so close in frequency they quiver in your ear, pushing back against one another. My father had taught me about dissonance; he went to college for music performance, but instead he settled for a company that sold things and used words instead of notes.

When I looked up, my father’s eyes were down on the menu. I could tell he wasn’t really seeing it. I wanted to know if he saw the body after Nolan fell, on the sidewalk, if he could even tell who it was among all the others.

“M-mom — ”

“They changed the lighting here since — ”

“Excuse me,” my father said. He stood up and paced to the center and held his lips with his fingers, and when someone pointed him to the bathroom, I saw only my mother’s eyes, wet and blinking down at the tablecloth.

+

The next week, some friends invited me out to lunch for my birthday, but I politely told them no thank you. It was raining in a faint manner, like the sky just wanted to stretch and shake the water droplets off its hands, and instead I walked to a nearby sandwich place for lunch. I did not like the cafeteria’s buzz, the conversations I had no desire to chime in on, and prefered instead the silence of going to the deli alone. As I walked down the sidewalk that went past the elementary school, I saw my father’s car parked in a space on the far side and I zipped my raincoat, slowed my pace.

My father was standing with a boy, maybe fifth grade, whose hair I recognized vaguely, talking with a teacher. The three of them stood at the back entrance and I heard my father say distantly, “Well, we better get going.”

I wanted to suddenly be invisible, I wanted to be back in the lunchroom, I didn’t want to be here. “Ice cream!” the boy shouted.

My father’s voice bounced off the brick walls intermittently, and I put my hood up and walked faster. “…ice cream… every Thursday… hate it, right?”

There was a little scream. I heard my father yell, “Avery,” in the most stern voice, using the tone he’d use on me when I’d hang his work shirts on hangers inside-out on purpose, or draw pictures of jellyfish with crayons on the stairs during time-outs. As if he knew Avery like another father or something. I walked on and heard no more, kept my hood up even in the deli. “Ham on sourdough,” I said because it was easiest to pronounce, and sat in the corner wondering what it means to love someone you’re not supposed to.

+

That winter the snow started late in November. It muted everything in the air: people walking, the cars on the road, the hum of the streetlamps. Late in those afternoons, after school, I could hear my father playing piano as I walked up our front steps.

One day I came in and sat down on the piano bench to take off my shoes. My father was in the kitchen. “How was your day, Madeline?” he asked. The night before he and my mother sat on the porch and yelled like they thought I couldn’t hear.

There was some clanging in the kitchen and he brought out a bowl of ice cream with a banana cut into pennies over it. I immediately thought of Avery, even though my father made me this ice cream dish after school while I worked on homework every so often, because he knew it helped my throat.

I took the bowl, and hesitated. “Who… is A-Avery?” I asked. I hated how my disorder made me sound dense, even though my father had listened to me speak like this since I was three.

He sat on the piano bench with me. He was in jeans, a wool shirt, a watch. “He’s five years younger than you are, Madeline. He’s a — a good kid.”

He skimmed his fingers across the keys of the piano, accidentally pressing an Ab on his way down the notes. He went along with it and played a ten second Bob Dylan refrain I remembered from when he used to give me lessons. The sounds came and went, but the melody stuck in my ears for a long time afterward.

“But-but who is — he?”

“Nolan’s son,” he said with finality.

I wished my hands fit atop the keys like his did. We used to sit down for half an hour every Saturday, back when I was ten. I’d get frustrated, too, using my palms on the keys or taking my fuzzy socks off and putting them against the strings where it vibrated. I’d say things back then, long strands of mangled words that didn’t mean anything, like “wh-why do I have to do-to do this it’s bor-ring Dad I c-can’t — I’m hungry.” And after a pause and a sigh, he’d blink a couple times and close the lid, say, “I guess let’s get you something to munch on.” The thought never occurred to me then about how things earlier in life are unimportant, that they’re all just a waste of time, and then suddenly one day you realize they really weren’t.

I wanted to ask what Nolan was doing up so many floors where the plane came in, when their office was only on the fifth floor. Was he getting coffee creamer, delivering a message, taking a break to be closer to the sky?

I knew I’d never have the courage to ask my father this, so I sat there holding the bowl of ice cream in my lap, my palms becoming cold. I thought about words and how easy it is for people to pick them, to say them and not even think about it. I thought how words are like music notes — you can pick one or two or a chord or a phrase or an entire melody and have it mean nothing or something just the same. How my father chose both his notes and words carefully, how because that I had nothing close to his prowess in either music or speech, they often struck me so strongly.

+

Before Nolan passed away, I came home one spring afternoon, pulled out my homework, and sat across from my father who worked on his computer on the grey loveseat. His phone, sitting on the corner of the coffee table, buzzed briefly and I glanced up. All I remember was a man’s name on his screen. A new message from … . And maybe because I wasn’t expecting it or I was and I didn’t want to believe it, but my memory fails me then. My father inhaled through his nose like he just woke from a deep sleep and took the phone away, slipped it into his pocket. Did you ever really love my mother, did you, did you? I asked him in a different world, where I could speak normally, talk like I knew what I was saying: any world besides this one. Instead we stayed silent. I knew he was hiding it and I wanted to scream at him, just a single tone, like I could hide all the words I never could say to him in one long, loud, needle — like frequency. But I never made a sound. It stayed inside of me.

+

My father didn’t leave in the night in his sneakers and his shadow. No, not like that.

It happened like this: the day before Christmas break, my mother loaded up the car to go to my aunt’s: her older sister. My father was out filling out forms in search for another job, and we of course knew he’d be late. I wondered if he’d considered going back to performing, even if the thought crossed merely his mind. But I knew a job wasn’t the only reason he wasn’t here.

“Got everything?” my mother asked. She stomped her winter boots on the mat. It was snowing outside, just barely, and it reminded me of dust, of falling things, things without sound.

“Homework,” I said.

I went upstairs and came back down, got my coat, but by then her keys were in the door. I wasn’t going to ask about my father’s suitcase.

I went outside and got in the front seat, which was weird. Snow got in my hair and on the inside of the car door. I imagined my father running down five flights of stairs in a moment of blank panic, then coming to the sidewalk, where Nolan already was, screams in different frequencies reverberating, clashing around him and in his ears as he thought about love and death and things like that.

“Your father said he might drive up later in the Honda,” my mother said.

In the headlights, the snow came at us.

“Madeline,” my mother started, like she wanted me to talk or to turn on the radio or smile or something. I looked at her while she drove.

Sunday, when we arrived home, all my father’s shoes were gone from the foyer. My mother held me for a while, until I didn’t feel her arms around me anymore and said I wanted to go my room. That night, my father called. I sat on my bed and wasn’t able to hear his words — I could only focus on the pure sound of his voice. I wanted to tell him he could, if it’d fit in his new apartment, take the piano — I wanted to tell him so bad but I couldn’t, so I pressed the phone to my ear and listened to the cracks in his vowel sounds run together like some kind of beautiful, broken music.

+++

Ella Bartlett is currently a student at Ames High School in Iowa and has been an aspiring writer since the age of nine. She has been published in a British magazine called The Cadaverine, Crashtest magazine, and her school’s lit journal, and she also won an American Voices Medal in the 2014 Scholastic Art and Writing Awards. She spends much her time listening to and creating music, and carries a small journal around everywhere with her, just in case.