Kira Archibald's short fiction "The Piano Student" appears in Issue No. 49: Mattering.
THE PIANO STUDENT
by KIRA ARCHIBALD
MARK ARRIVES EARLY so Sheila can show him where to set up the television in the dining room. He will be painting the living room a brittle green, like the stems of a certain dried flower Sheila tucks into crystal vases scattered throughout the house. For Sheila this project requires intense delicacy; when Lawrence wakes from his afternoon nap, the television and twelve-cup capacity coffee maker and leather recliner must be positioned exactly as they were in the living room. With blue masking tape she has marked the desired positions for each. Her marriage to Lawrence is defined by a man’s belief in his inherent superiority and a woman’s deep faith that small kindnesses are their own reproach.
“Job’s past Pilot Rock, way the fuck out there. Don’t have the time, but the money’s good, cash. And they’ve already bought the paint,” is how Kirby pitched the job.
He leaned over the coffee table Mark super glued back together in a moment of aching sobriety, testing the cracks with his thumb.
“Real pretty,” Kirby said, eyeing a hole in the wall as he pushed empty beer bottles and junk food wrappers off the coffee table with his cowboy boots. “They don’t care when you come by as long as the job’s finished by September. Just show up.”
MARK LEANS AGAINST THE DOORFRAME. On the television a B-32 bomber opens fire on a German plane.
“Sheila’s gone to get the post,” Lawrence says.
The phone rings and he answers without turning the volume down.
“Patrick!” Lawrence says.
The burning aircraft twists in the sky, and tears apart as it falls.
Mark nods at the back of Lawrence’s head and walks into the kitchen. A chest freezer in the second pantry is full of pig, each cut wrapped in butcher paper and stamped with blue ink: ham, country sausage, bacon. Sunlight ricochets off a knife sunk into half a cantaloupe. A note in Sheila’s cramped cursive pokes out from beneath the cantaloupe. Running errands. I could be an hour or more. I’m sorry, please have some cantaloupe. He cuts too big a slice and eats it down to the rind, then splashes his face and dries his mouth with the sleeve of his shirt, which smells like the apple cider vinegar he used to mask the smell of mildew.
The second floor’s shadows are precise, each maple leaf sharp on the hardwood floor, branches curving like supple dancers. Three bedrooms with brass bedsteads and patchwork quilts folded into accordions. He buries his hands between their layers, feeling the weight of a thousand hand-stitched hexagons. So much light he squints and covers his eyes. Even the floors shine. Bedrooms on the third floor, a library, a parlor. In the smallest bedroom he found photographs of a young man, their edges bent as if hastily pulled from a photo album, in the bottom drawer of a bureau. He eats lunch with the young man, and a shell that whispers its longing for the sea. He’s painted the bedrooms already, comforting yellows, blues, and pinks. It is his job to throw plastic over the furniture and run tape along the baseboards, but the house seems not to want to be touched.
The fourth floor is dark and cool. He peers over the bannister.
“What the fucks are you talking about?” Lawrence says.
Mark walks to the door and traces the raised image of a sunflower on the oval doorknob, traces it once more, unconsciously holding his breath. Once he put his ear to the door as if the room might invite him to enter. He squats, peers through the keyhole but is rewarded with grey light. Again he walks to the bannister.
“Don’t be naïve Patrick, war isn’t a bloody picnic,” Lawrence says. Mark turns the doorknob, but it sticks. He puts his weight into it and the door flings open, bounces off the wall. He stands in the doorway giving his heart a moment to resettle. Figures emerge from the gloom, angels: fat, suffering, emaciated, gleeful, cheeky porcelain cherubs on the lintel, ghostly in the gloom. Denuded wooden angels hang on the walls, beneath them flakes of paint: carmine, yellow, blue. Angels march across a side table. Voluptuous angels on the face of the grandfather clock. Lace curtains restrict the sunlight so that only a pale wash falls on the baby grand piano, outrageous and diminutive in the midst of so many lifted hands and bent heads. His fingers skate across the blond wood, the single page of sheet music torn at one corner. Junior is written in uncertain block letters. A single rose in a slender vase droops.
Mark woke one day, summer a dim memory, having slept through fall and the better part of winter. The world was stripped to the bare essentials: cold, water, and light. He squatted in the cemetery gathering the frostbitten roses that fell from the bush he planted on his wife’s grave. Fumbling, shivering, cursing until he opened a bottle of something, he sat propped against a stranger’s tombstone and dreamt that his son’s bones had migrated from his wife’s belly and nestled inside her ribcage. And he woke on his back with his arms and legs curved away from his body as if he’d passed out in the middle of making a snow angel, knowing his world, every pulsing, grasping wonderful thing, was reduced to alcoholic dreams.
SHEILA FLUTTERS ABOUT as he moves the furniture, giving herself motion sickness. She sits on the edge of Lawrence’s leather recliner and rubs the lobes of her ears until the spinning world retreats.
“Water?” he says. “Crackers?”
“No,” she says. “I like to sit here when the telly is off.”
She pulls the lever and sinks slowly into the chair. Mark adjusts the TV, pulls up the masking tape and balls it in his fist. It is a woman’s room, the room of angels, with that particular grace that has nothing to do with furniture: so comforting in its loneliness.
EVERY AFTERNOON WITHOUT FAIL, Sheila offers Mark a cup of tea. No matter that he always declines—throws his hands into the air and gestures limply at half a dozen gallons of paint stacked against the wall as if to say that idleness would be unprofessional—at 3:15 her heavy-soled house slippers slap against the pine boards. Minutes later she stands in the doorway, a tall woman with fine shoulders that slope diffidently in apology for taking up space. He is squatting when she knocks, brush plunged into a can of Gypsy Moth; indeed, like a moth flipped on its back its surface trembles in the sunlight. Hen’s Egg, Raw Sugar, Georgia Clay, she indulgently choses paints for their names. He cranes his neck to meet her gaze, pulls the paper mask away from his mouth. After living on a dozen Midwestern army bases her English accent is faded. There is dirt beneath her nails and she smells faintly of tomato stems.
During the long drives home through the mountain pass, tall pines flickering as the truck ruptures their shadows, the piano, and sometimes the angels, haunt Mark. At first he only stood in the doorway breathing in the room. He’d gone too far touching the yellowed sheet music. He would leave his brush balanced on a can of paint and climb the stairs two at a time, one day settling on the piano bench with the ivory keys cool against his fingertips. Those fading afternoons he rolls down the windows and turns the radio up, hoping his desire will be sucked out the window, but the trouble isn’t the piano, or the angels. When he leaves the room, it is as if he has surprised a crying woman who hides her face, turns away, tucks her bones until she is unimaginably small—a woman’s grief exiled to a room.
Two floors below Lawrence is plastered to the television. There is a long dirt road running through the valley, and just once, speeding through those empty miles, has he encountered another car.
“That would be nice,” he says.
“I’ll put the kettle on then,” Sheila says and frowns at her dirt streaked hands.
He washes his hands and face with too much soap, not wanting to bring paint fumes into the kitchen. She stands in front of the sink, palms planted on the blue tile.
“There are lightning fires all around us,” she says.
“You should cut the grass,” he says. “That barn is nothing but tinder.”
“Yes, I should,” she says. “What would you like?”
“I don’t drink much tea,” he says.
“I’ll choose something then?” she says.
“Please,” he says.
“Sugar? I think we could both use a touch of sweetness,” she says.
They sit on the porch, rocking, watching the mountains. She offers him a plate of sweets, raspberry jam sandwiched between two scalloped sugar cookies. Sheila pulls a pair of needles thrust through a ball of pink yarn from a basket under her chair and shows him the pattern she is working on, a dressing gown for her youngest granddaughter’s Barbie.
“I’m almost finished with step 8, could you tell me what comes next?” she says.
“(k5, k2tog, k5) color 1, (k5, k2tog, k5) color 2,” he says.“Should I read it again?”
“No, I’m a pro,” she says. “I’ve been knitting since my oldest, Terry, was dancing on my bladder.
A bird hops forward then retreats, eyeing the plate of cookies. Mark takes a gulp of tea, closes his eyes and listens to Sheila’s knitting needles click. He hopes she won’t say anything more about Terry. He is nearly convinced he can hear the wisteria unrolling, whispering against the porch and sucking color from the sun. The bitter tea and the barn, standing stiffly against the backdrop of mountains as if expecting to be photographed, are just a cup of tea and a barn. The past has no claim on them. There is a small easing; one knot in a thousand loosens.
MARK IS EARLY. He likes the emptiness, the blue mountains that blur as they recede. Lawrence is parked in front of the television sipping scalding coffee, and Mark pauses in the doorway, but Lawrence doesn’t acknowledge him. He is leaning forward, attention absorbed by a woman with a puff of blond hair. Words float across the screen, a lengthy title; she is the foremost expert on General William Tecumseh Sherman. The woman talks in great detail about the General’s brutalities, lingering on the most horrific, and her shoulders perk up underneath the shoulder pads of her formless jacket, betray her solemn mouth. Here again is that particular sadness, which adorns the faces of women who deny their bristling hearts, their indecent eyes and impolite hands.
The smell of freshly cut grass blows down the hall. White curtains flare, and then the wind sucks them out the window. With the toe of his boot Mark nudges the door and slips inside. He presses keys at random. Each sound brings a momentary weightlessness. He is beginning to understand what his wife meant when she said it is better to be useful than happy.
At the funeral, in the shimmering rain and half-light, her brothers bowed their bald heads, afterward raising glasses to her apple cake, and to her dahlias (big as saucers and yellow, and small and pink as children’s mouths). They didn’t welcome Mark into her childhood home, but they didn’t tell him to fuck off either.
Mark presses his forehead into the piano, the sheet music dry against his cheek, and cannot differentiate the sadness nesting in his bones from the room’s heartbreak.
This is the room’s allure; that it receives without being asked. Not since he was a child has he prayed, but his body seeks the ground, undeniable, as if it knows a secret. His fingers remember the mysteries of wood and he lifts the piano bench’s lid expecting sheet music to crumble between his fingers. Instead his fingers fumble among thick envelopes. In Sheila’s cursive: My Terry, you have been gone for ten years.
The front door slams and he shoves the letter into its once pristine envelope and buries it at the bottom of the pile.
Sheila is standing in the living room watching Lawrence open the mail. He reads everything, even the mail addressed to her, then hands Sheila the disordered papers and torn envelopes.
“There you are,” Sheila says.
He stands with his hands behind his back, eyes downcast.
“I forgot which room is the sun parlor,” he says.
“The hot room with the plants,” she says, and he remembers silver splotched leaves falling from a ceiling beam.
MARK LEAVES HIS FRONT DOOR UNLOCKED. Why bother? College students already stole the television.
Sheila’s hair was in curlers and she seemed off center when he pulled into the driveway that morning.
“Oh,” she said, mouth partially covered by her hand. “I forgot to tell you not to come today.”
“It’s okay,” he said.
“I’m so sorry, we’ll pay you for the day,” she said.
“No,” he said. “It’s fine.”
He collapses on the couch and stares at missing ceiling tiles, a pillow held to his face, but no matter how hard he presses he can still breathe. An ancient burrito is the only thing in the freezer. He microwaves it and walks through his wife’s garden. Everything is dead except for a kale that overwintered. He pulls the weeds around it. The leaves curl at the edges. He snaps off two and eats them, even the stems. He hasn’t been upstairs since the college kids cleaned him out while he was at her funeral—backed a U-Haul in and loaded her up with most of the furniture. They left the bedframe and he found the sonogram where it had fallen underneath the mattress.
“Do you want to feel like shit forever?” Kirby said. “Decide what you want and I’ll box the rest.”
He heaves himself into the tub and fills it with hot water. When he was a child he would float for hours, listening to the whoosh of his breath and echo of his heartbeat.
MARK IS PAINTING the smallest bedroom on the second floor Nocturne Shade, (the wet walls, the room looking out on the blueberry patch, are precious) because Sheila is going to be a grandmother again. Now, having watched her lopsided hips, worn from their second replacement, as she climbs the stairs, he makes a habit of appearing in the kitchen shortly before three. It surprises him that he can feel accountable to another person. She feeds him beans on toast with kippers, or with a heap of mashed potatoes hiding pert green peas and while he eats she talks about Patrick and her other son, the smart one, the one who became his father.
“Is he watching the telly?” she says.
He walks to the door, nods.
“Close the doors,” she says.
She pulls a photo album out of the cookie cutter drawer. A baby with big ears crawls, sleeps, and sits in her arms with a fistful of her hair in his mouth. She flips pages. Now he is a little boy in tall socks. Now a boy with slicked back hair and a serious face. She traces her son’s face then closes the album and covers it with cookie cutters. When he gets too comfortable he reminds himself that eventually there will be nothing left to paint and no garden beds to dig or rose bushes to prune.
MARK WIPES SWEAT from the corner of his eye and leaves a blurred periwinkle fingerprint. It is a parched July day after the holiday and the house smells like gunpowder and charred pork. Bees are busy in the garden. His wife, such tiny feet, such tiny hands, even when she was still, curled around a book in the pink armchair rubbing her belly, her body vibrated with everything she planned to do.
“Mark,” Lawrence shouts.
Sweaty men hack a path through a black and white jungle with machetes; one man’s lips curl around an unlit cigarette, another, smooth faced with lady lips, looks to the left of the camera. A bearded man in a tweed jacket appears on the screen.
“Make another batch of coffee,” Lawrence says.
“How much?” Mark says.
“Just pour it in and hit the blue button,” Lawrence says. “Did you serve?”
“No,” Mark says.
“Thought as much. My older boy did,” Lawrence says. “Not Patrick, he’s got a bad heart. He went to Vietnam but couldn’t handle it. They’ve got a fancy name for that now. I bombed the Germans. Leg burned to hell. He was a man though, tried to hide it.”
“I’m sorry,” Mark says.
“Soldiers die,” Lawrence says.
He’d never thought Lawrence capable of strong feelings. So the world can bruise even him. He longs for something familiar and solid, the wooden shaft of the paint roller in his hands, longs to be in motion, pushing the paint soaked foam up and down the wall in long clean lines because he feels tremendously transparent, both to Lawrence and to himself.
“I should finish the room,” Mark says.
But he doesn’t paint. Sheila’s letters are piled at his feet. They describe the mundane stuff of life, daughters becoming women, that his wife’s boyfriend is not a good man. Sheila doesn’t sugarcoat. He finds the first letter she wrote to Terry. Her handwriting is shaky and she’s crossed out whole sentences. As you know you pulled up parallel to the railroad tracks and shot yourself. Your father found you and we put up a cross, but someone took it down. It was awful when I found it gone, the flowers too. I will never forgive you for what you did and that you did it on Louise’s birthday. You know how much I hate guns? I will never forgive you but I will love you, we all will. We just might forget that we do for a while.
He lays on his back and stares at the ceiling, which presses down, and he raises his arms to protect his face, finding it difficult to breathe. The architecture of his skull, its finely curved bones and industrious veins, feels about to implode, the way burning houses melt suddenly into the ground.
THE LAST DAY OF JULY is mercilessly hot, and dry leaves rub against the window. Mark painted the last room this morning. Paint fumes burn his nostrils, but he doesn’t open the windows. He sits next to Terry, such an English boy, decent and bursting with feelings he must suspect are forbidden. Their shoulders touch. The boy’s feet scuff the floor and his hair, thick with pomade, slides across his forehead. He stares at the sheet music. Structure, harmony, melody, sequences, scales: all are torture. He depresses a key with one finger and jarring, rippling, cracked sounds banish the angels. They rise through the roof like a flock of birds. No notes. Only sound. The lace curtains dissolve into snowflakes and melt.
The walls glow, backlit by the midday sun and Terry is swallowed by the light. Mark’s son, a stubborn crease between his eyebrows, spreads his hands, destined to be large with prominent knuckles, until the tendons rise. Every few seconds he blows a flop of blond hair out of his eyes. He turns to Mark, his brown eyes lovelier than his mother’s, but at this, the use of the word lovely, he scowls and returns to working through the exercises. He is trying, very slowly, to play the piece of sheet music. It is jaunty and guileless, all crisp, clear notes. Mark lays his hands over his son’s. They are the first to disappear, fingers then palms melting into sunbeams, and Mark does not reach for him.
He closes the piano and walks through the rooms he’s painted. Cupid’s Bow. Lady Grey. Sailing Trip.
“Do you think we need to repaint the outside?” Sheila says.
Her hair glows against the Lemon Twist walls.
“It’s old,” he says. “Might have lead.”
“It’s too hot and there’s so much smoke,” Sheila says. “You can paint it when it’s cooler?”
“Okay,” he says.
He pulls off the road into the glowing grass and parks parallel to the railroad tracks. Lying on his back in the bed of his truck with the pale sheet of sky above him, tears gather in his ears. He has been trying to go. Almost succeeded. Kirby picked him up from the police station and he grabbed Kirby’s gun from the glove compartment. Kirby punched him in the face and then the stomach when he didn’t react.
“Fuck you,” Kirby said.
“I forgot to change the batteries in the carbon monoxide detector,” Mark said.
Even if, the paramedics said, a baby that small would not have survived, and zipped the body bag over her face.
Kirby put the truck in first and drove to Immigrant Lake.
“C’mon,” he said and walked through shining dead grass.
For some time they stared at the Canada Geese resting among the reeds, then Kirby shoved him. Mark belly flopped on the crust of ice and sank headfirst. He’d never been a sure swimmer, could not orient himself or open his eyes. The air bubbles tickled his lips as they escaped.
“Did that make it better? You feel like less of a piece of shit?” Kirby said. “Get out, I’m hungry.”
He dips his fingers in the sky, glorious as it approaches the blue hour, and clouds pass through them. A can of paint, Brahms, a little on the nose, is gathered in his arm. He shrouded the angels and piano in sheets he found in a hope chest and painted over the yellowed walls.
KIRA ARCHIBALD grew up on a haphazard farm in Oregon. She loves her dog, growing watermelons, and tea. And she dreams of living in a castle with secret passages and hidden rooms.
Visual art by Scott Laumann for Ruminate.
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