By Kristin Carlson
The names are gone. The Young One, who used to pound on the piano with such fervor, has grown up. Fervor. Now there’s a word. Why does fervor remain when he has lost so many names? All the important ones. Gone. Gone with one stroke. Stroke. That’s the word he’d wanted at the pharmacy. Not a strike like in baseball, but a stroke. A stroke took the names, plucked them out of his brain like feathers. And now, they’ve all flown away.
The piano stays. A stolid upright. Worn out before it ever came home from the Shabbonah School, where he was boss. Not the right word, boss. But, he used to be important — at least in one, small, Norwegian-farmer town. The Young One’s name is something Norwegian. Good God, where has it gone? He has to remember before she comes home. He’ll look again in the Bible upstairs. It’s a hard one. Even the speech therapist says so.
He opens the front of the piano, hoping the strings will remind him of something. They’re frayed. Like the skinny braids of The Young One in the old days. Frizzy bits sticking out at the ends, swinging as her fingers flew. She was never very good, didn’t practice the right things enough. Always faked the left hand. A bit of a faker, that one, all around.
The piano teacher, Mrs. Bean, had seen right through her. Mrs. Bean. Who taught English at the Junior High. Played organ at the Congregational Church too. Why is her name right there in the piano strings when the ones he really needs have slipped away, along with the words to all his favorite tunes?
Be, am, is, are, was, were. Mrs. Bean could sing them like a song. All those special words. What were they called? Helping verbs. Cruel. To know all the helping verbs and so few of the nouns.
Surely, The Beloved She had begun to notice. Even in her state, she must notice. How he never uses her name. Too many rolling sounds in the middle. It won’t slide off his tongue without making him sound stupid. Something he can’t be in front of her.
He slams the upright shut, thinking of the cigarettes he used to smoke. The cartons The Young One used to hide in the cavernous front. How many packs had she stolen from his maple dresser in an effort to protect him from himself? Dear Daddy, Smoking kills. They said so at school. He’d find the notes under his pillow, written in The Young One’s childish scrawl. What had they been signed?
The piano used to sit in the living room of the old brick house in town. The day the movers had come to heft it from its spot, a full carton of Marlboro’s had fallen out— tumbling like red and white Christmas packages onto the olive-green wool carpet.
He plays a single note. Plunk. The note has a letter name, but he can’t remember it. The white keys are chipped, the black ones rubbed soft. Worn out. The whole instrument is worn out. The last time the tuner had come, he’d said the soundboard was cracked beyond repair. Maybe from having all those cigarettes stuffed into it over all those years.
They used to sing carols around the piano, The Beloved She and The Young One. He had a tin ear, on account of an ear infection that had gone bad. Rock River Rat. That’s what the other kids had called him in school. Because there’d been no running water at his house. No money for doctors.
Once, the piano had rolled out notes that sounded rich and pure. At least to him, listening with his one good ear. What The Young One had lacked in precision, she had made up in fervor. That word again. He could almost hear her now. Pounding the keys. What’s the piano word for loud? He knows it starts with an f, but all he can think of is Fuck.
What will The Young One say when she sees her mother, hooked to that tank upstairs? Breathing because a pump shoves little puffs of air into the empty sacks of her lungs.
The vein in his neck pulses. He cannot welcome The Young One back to this. Can’t face calling her Sis or Toots or any other fill-in name to her face. It might work over the phone. But she’ll take one look at him and know. Just like she knows how bad off her mother is. Like she knows to come. It takes a faker to know one.
He fumbles with the keyboard lid. Covers the keys. Uncovers them. So many notes. So many letters and words. If only they didn’t swim around his head like minnows. He used to be a principal for God’s sake. That was the word he’d been looking for. Not boss. Principal.
Any minute, The Young One will walk through the door. Her eyes will look at him like he can fix everything. But he can’t. It’s too late. The wires in his brain are snapping, and the lungs of The Beloved She are popping. Bursting like overfilled balloons. She, who never smoked a cigarette in her life. She, who used to host the school district parties in their smoke-filled living room.
His feet are too warm. He steps into the attached garage, where he used to go to sneak a smoke after he’d sworn he’d quit. The air is fresh, and it clears his mind enough to act. To do. A verb. He takes the axe from its rack. Hack. He says it out loud. A verb. Hack. Like a cough or a spasm. The living room is quiet when he returns. Just the hum of the pump upstairs. Then hack! Silence shattered by his axe, splitting the soundboard of the piano. Axe into wood. Hack!
He wants to believe it was the farm chemicals that got her. But he knows different. Knows he has broken her with his damned cigarettes. The Beloved She. He brings the axe down again, this time on the keys. White and black notes splinter, metal screeching through wood like a car crashing through a fence. Loud. What is that word? The piano word for loud?
He brings the axe down, again and again. He is sweating, heaving, popping nitroglycerin. He will build a … blank. Shit! What is the word? Something to honor the dead. A funeral blank. Dammit! What is the word? Fuck it. Whatever it is, he’ll build it.
No, he’ll light it. Like all those cigarettes, over all those years. Only this time, he’ll get it right. He’ll apologize. Send a signal to the neighbors, to The Young One, to The Beloved She. A signal they can see, because the words are gone.
He stacks the legs of the piano bench like kindling, then stuffs the sound board, stick by splintered stick, into the hearth’s cavernous mouth — feeding it like the old coal furnace at the schoolhouse. As sparks spit on the carpet, it comes to him. Pyre. That’s the word. Pyre. Funeral pyre. Rhymes with fire.
The room is sweltering. At least it’s warm. She’s always cold these days. Keys pop and the bench legs crackle, as the upright goes up, up, up. As he prays to God that heaven is warmer than he was taught. Warmer than clouds and atmosphere and tinny harps. He prays it’s like this. All light and glow and fervor. Loud.
The cell phone rings in The Young One’s purse. She fumbles to answer it as she makes a right turn onto Rural Route 6. Yes, she can see the smoke from here. She’ll be right there. Driving past the snow fence she helped her daddy put up, she sees the ink-black smoke, shooting from the chimney like an exclamation point. Thank God for good neighbors. Mr. Ferguson will head next door to help put out the fire, as he has so many times.
Her car eases up the familiar blacktop as she wonders what will be gone this time. The dining room table? The china cabinet? The maple dresser? Pulling into the gravel drive, she hears the familiar crunch, sees her father’s face light up as he steps onto the porch. She knows she must call the Good Samaritan Home. Must get her father to sign the papers this time.
“Hi Toots,” he says, as he tucks her under his arm and into the house. The glass-paneled storm door slams behind them, flashing its red-sticker warning: No Open Flames. Oxygen in Use.
Copyright Kristin Carlson 2011