Culture | Lit supp part 5

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sarah mortimer

Piano man

His fingers were like children playing hopscotch across the keys. The envy of the playground, they hit every coordinate with magical ease, sparking notes like a match turns fire.

It was impossible not to want to be inside of him; to wish to know what it was he felt when his fingers danced over the black and white and his eyes drifted beyond the chords that held his world together. Just to be near him reminded you that nothing was simply this or that, but that in an instant, the elements could change, dissolving into something lighter, something better.

That Wednesday, he had lit up the darkness that inhabited Eddie’s restaurant with the spirit of a day that was no different from the others.

His mother had come to visit from Vermont, as she did each year, with a suitcase of stories about a town he no longer knew and that inhabited his mind only when it gave recourse to memories that sweetened the present.

He met her at the airport where she stood in front of sliding doors, smoking cigarettes from the pocket of a fur jacket.

“Mom!” He put his head out the car window. The man who sat behind Eddie’s piano sang in a voice of his own.

They exchanged a hug before she got into the car. James turned to face the lanes behind him where planes came down to touch, examining the fine distances that separated the lines from each other. He climbed into the car, and drove.

The sun had peaked early that evening, leaving just the faint traces of light that poured from the streetlights to guide their way home. His mother sat in the passenger seat, breathing smoke into the small space that they shared, polluting it with her nervousness, a light fog.

James asked his mother how things were at home. He no longer knew this home, the place where he had grown from boy to man; or he knew it, but not in the way that one knows the smell of another person.

His mother turned to face the window at her side. She painted the pane with another breath of cloud.

“The neighbours had their hedges trimmed by a professional,” she began. “Stan and I tried planting flowers but the cat likes to eat them.” All this time, she was facing the window at her side.

“She gets them in her teeth and your sister and I have to pick them out. It’s hard work. The yard is empty now. I just can’t compete with a yard that’s got a barber.”

As she spoke, she sang in dull, flat rhythms. She had a way of weighing down the lightness of the things she spoke, combing the details into unharmonious chords and playing them, long, hard.

As she spoke, the sound of unhappy discordance grated against James’s ear.

“Florin has gotten a pup,” she continued. “And the Whitmans complimented her for taking good care of it. Of course, I remind her to feed it – it’s a small pup, but not so small that you don’t need to feed it every couple hours or so to keep it quiet.”

She had a way of taking something good and making it her own. It was another one of her habits; not fatal, like smoking was, but it had a way of fixing her the way that all habits did.

James couldn’t remember if she had looked this old the last time he saw her. They say that when you no longer see someone each day, the changes in their face become more apparent. He had not seen her in a year, and the lines haunted her face like the slums of a city haunt its peripheries. Part of him suspected that they had always been there, disrupting the harmony of her skin and collecting scattered notes between their creases.

Here she had remained all these years sitting in the passenger seat talking of hedges while James drove on.

His mother looked through the front window, examining the distance ahead. Her eyelids were lowered and her lips tightly pursed. Was she looking for smudges on the window shield? (something collected between her brow). Was she waiting for a green light? (there it was).

No sooner had she set foot in his doorway did he wish to disappear from her sight. Here she was again, in his house. Here it was again, the luggage she insisted he carry and those terrible notes that she played in his ear.

“Up the stairs, Jamie! To the right! No, no, to the left!”

He carried her bags up to the guest room. When he dropped them on the bed, they bounced and fell onto the ground. Even the springs of a mattress couldn’t bear this weight that she insisted he share.

As he walked down the stairs to the room where his mother had settled, he asked if she would like some wine.

“You know my answer to that, Jamie.”

He did.

“Pour my glass, Jamie. Not a skinny one. Not like you.”

He filled the empty glass with the bloody liquid, giving the glass a sort of flesh, a life that now ran down its sides.

“Thank you, Jamie.” His mother examined the contents of the glass and decided that they were suitable.

“You’re welcome.”

She began fingering the pattern on the couch. “Did I tell you about your sister?”

“About what the Whitmans said about her?” James replied.

“Oh…yes. That.”

She drank her wine solemnly, emptying her glass with slow greedy gulps, and developing a faint crimson mustache above her feathered lip. Silent, she stared into the glass, scanning for un-caught drips.

“There’s more.” James offered.

“Fill me up,” she said, handing him the empty glass.

James began walking to the kitchen, his eyes fixed on the time above the oven. He was called back to the living room by his mother.

“Jamie!”

“Yes, mum?”

“Nothing.”

“What is it?” She wanted to be asked.

“You know it’s not quite that easy.”

“What isn’t?”

She played the keys over and over.

“You know what I mean.”

He didn’t. He knew the rhythm, but the melody didn’t make sense. It was noise.

“It doesn’t quite work for me as it does for you,” she insisted.

“You seem fine.” James lied.

“I’m old.” She sang in baritone.

“Why don’t you go to bed?” He was tired.

“I guess. But…you must know?”

“No. Go to bed, Mum.”

His mother handed James the glass, but underestimating the distance between his hand and her own, it fell to the ground, and shattered between them across the cedar floors.

“Don’t worry, I’ll clean it up.” James examined the shards between them.

But she was already asleep. Her body was tangled like a puzzle and drool was couched between a pillow and her skin.

James swept up the pieces of glass with a small broom and dumped it in a garbage can. He looked into the can, forgetting momentarily why he had come there. But he did find something. There was something musical in the way the shards rang against the tin as they collected in the bottom.

In the morning she left as she had came. She smoked through the silence of the car ride, and when they came to the airport, she waved before being swallowed with the crowd by a pair of sliding doors.

She had come and she had gone, as she did now and as she had, when he was younger and the lines on her face seemed less permanent.

Still, he only knew the parts of her, the pups, the wine, and of course, the hedges.

The audience watched him intently, as, more captivating than stuffed artichokes, he had become the spectacle of the night.

They watched him as he stroked the keys tenderly, working knots out of the spine of the instrument with a doctor’s touch. Sound rose and fell from the piano like dominoes, its rhythm difficult, but soothing.

The heat of his fingers against the keyboard contrasted the dark cold of the room. People were gathering around him like kids on a playground, huddling around the piano like it was a new toy. Huddled like campers by a warm fire.

All the while, his eyes were focused on a distant somewhere, a place no one in the room had ever been.

At the end of the song, his fingers were hot and full of blood. They were filled with the heat of some sort of knowing, burning with the heat of knowing something lighter, something better. As bodies huddled close, he shared with them something intimate – a quality of knowing, something like knowing another person’s smell.


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