Monday, July 26, 2010

Death of a Duet by Barbara Holm

The sound of fleshy human fingers dropping on ivory keys echoed through my apartment. I put my book down and half sat up on my couch, glancing down at my watch. The piano player was early today. I hoisted myself out of my nest of slothfulness and into my wheelchair, rolled over to my guitar and set it in my lap. I listened through the walls to the sounds of heartbreak echoing from my neighbor’s apartment. With closed eyes, I let the song wash over me, my fingers sensuously stroking my guitar. It was the same song as the piano player had played last week. I picked out what key it was in my head, nodding my head to the rhythm, and began to play along. The piano player next door didn’t falter, continuing even stronger with the song, leading me through the melody like we were dancing, doing the robot with our souls, if our souls were programmed for ineptitude.

The next day I was watching tv when out of the corner of my eye I saw the piano player man outside the apartment building. His eyes were down on the ground and his steps were measured. I wondered if he knew he was being watched as I shied away from the window. I was surprised as a poop to see him since he usually came once a week. He entered the apartment and I listened as he climbed the stairs to my neighbor’s apartment. I looked at my guitar thoughtfully. The music started again and I rolled to the wall, pressing my palm against the peeling painted wall that felt like decaying, bumpy, dead, chewed up half digested and spit out skin for a house. Something inside me radiated through my hand and through the wall. The piano music seemed tentative and questioning to start out.

“He’s waiting for me to join in,” I whispered to my guitar. “That’s why he came back so quickly… the duet.” You know you’re a lonely cripple physically and emotionally when you can have deep, epiphany-driven conversations with inanimate objects. I began to play along, closing my eyes again and I could feel myself floating out of my chair and him holding me as we swayed along to the music floating in the stars at night.

Every day that week the piano player arrived increasingly earlier. I knew that he was there to serenade my sick old neighbor, but it felt like his notes were addressed directly to me. We continued our duets and I felt like every day his music seemed a little bit louder and closer to me. We had a constricted courtship, as though our interpersonal interactions were masked with a heavy straightjacket of a condom. After five days of vigorously strumming my guitar (that’s not a euphemism) I decided I was going to be brave enough to talk to the man. I put on one of my nicest dresses that I felt highlighted my bosoms and drew attention away from the fact that I’m in a wheelchair. I figured he would notice eventually though, either that or assume that I was less than four feet tall and had a very awkward lower body. I curled my hair, labored over my makeup and then I waited on the landing outside my apartment in my wheelchair for him to come.

Mr. Stephenson from apartment 42B saw me sitting there and came up to me with his annoying little dog. “Hello there little Jessie,” he said.
“Jenny,” I corrected listlessly.
“I see you still got yourself in that wheelchair, eh?” He leaned down on his cane to get closer to my face. He smelled of a rat completely saturated in cologne and bathroom oils and then left to dry out.
“Yes.” I saw the piano man enter the building and my heart jumped. I balanced on my wheels and tried to peer over Mr. Stephenson’s hunching shoulders to talk to the piano man.
“Seems like it’s been, what, a few weeks?”
“As long as I’ve lived here, sir.” He was creeping up the steps, a gloomy look on his face as he stared dejectedly at the ground. He walked up to the steps til he was at my landing. With all the burning force in my body I willed Mr. Stephenson to go away.
“When you gonna get them stems healed? Gotta get yerself to the doctor, that’s what I say.”
“Hi,” I whispered almost inaudibly to the piano man as he hit my landing and then walked over to my neighbor’s front door. He looked at me, not sure if he’d heard me or imagined it. He smiled with a cottony sadness and I knew he was wondering if I was his mystery guitarist. He shook his head to himself and knocked on the door. I didn’t see my neighbor come to the door, but it swung open silently and the piano man entered in. I sighed, my shoulders heavily falling forward down into my chest and I looked back at Mr. Stephenson who was still rattling about.
“You know if you’re still in that chair in a few days, I say just take some good old chicken soup with a little pepper in it and I’ll give you my recipe, all you need is Campbells chicken noodle soup and water and pepper. You got water?”
“Soup isn’t going to fix paralysis, Mr. Stephenson.” I sadly slid back inside my apartment, angry at myself for missing my chance. No music played that evening.

The next day the only music that played was that of the ambulance coming to the apartment complex. The only drum beats were the clambering of the paramedics’ footsteps rushing up the stairs to my neighbor’s door. The only song was the muttering as they carried my neighbor’s lifeless corpse down the stairs in a stretcher. The only thing close to a standing ovation was me sitting in my wheelchair silently wiping a tear away from my jaw as I realized no one would come to play piano for him anymore.

I didn’t know when the funeral was; I didn’t know any of his family or even his name. I watched from my window the parade of dark clothed family members stream through the apartment complex taking boxes and furniture from his apartment like an army of goth movers. I never saw anyone carry a piano out. I wondered if the piano man would come for it. I stayed near the window most afternoons hoping to see him, always in one of my dresses, always ready to tell him how I felt. I imagined him being touched by my guitar music (figuratively) and carrying me away to play music with him in his home. I was dosing off near the window when I finally saw him. My heart leapt into my mouth and sweat began to pour out of my armpits seeping onto my bra like someone had dumped two coffee-pots of perspiration out of my skin. I fanned my face as I made my way to the door.

I looked at my reflection in the mirror, whispering to myself, “I enjoyed our duets. You play beautifully…” practicing my opening lines. I opened the front door to my apartment and wheeled myself out to the landing. I waited patiently for a few minutes and then gasped as he opened the door. My jaw dropped and tears began to percolate in my eyes. I covered my mouth with trembling hands and watched him walk down the stairs quietly holding a small boom box in one hand and a piano music cassette tape in the other.

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