I was twelve when my childhood magic carpet ride took a turn. One day I was playing with dolls, the next I was wearing a bra. One day I was the star in the school play, the next my mother had cancer. One day we were planning our Disney vacation, the next I was holding my mother’s head as she retched into the toilet. One day I was applying to colleges, the next we were bankrupt.
My mother was told she had six months to live, and she lived sixteen years longer. We woke wondering if today was The Day. Yet what happened in the middle, while the rug hovered in the air, searching for a place to land, created the map from where I was to who I am.
There’s my mother now, wringing her fragile bird fingers. “We have no insurance,” she is saying to my father, whose lip curls up in what he wants us to believe is disdain. Instead, he shared our fear. He didn’t know where the rug was going to land either.
“Jeannette,” he sneered, “you don’t even have a second opinion. You’re just like your mother: you’ve been dying all your life.”
My mother grasped those bird hands, and her eyes looked down, not up and angry, like usual. “Better my mother than yours,” she said. I didn’t know how to react. Normally, I was scared to touch her, for she sometimes lashed out with a slap or a “get-away-from-me-I-can’t-take-that.” Today she seemed to need me, but I stood there, mute and immobile. The sun shone through the four diagonal panes in our front door and hit the family portrait over the piano.
That piano was my salvation. My grandmother had convinced my father to buy it. She’d heard me composing a simple tune on her piano when I was three, but I’d waited until I was nine to start lessons. We’d had to save to afford such a luxury. Now our piano was halfway paid off. When I was tired or worried, afraid or frustrated, I went to the piano like most girls did their friends. Unless my mother told me she couldn’t take the noise. Then I’d put the sheet music back in the bench, careful its hinges didn’t squeak. After my mother’s second round of chemo, I’d let them squeak. She’d come along and bang the lid down on my fingers. We had no insurance for an x-ray.
Father had quit his government CPA job to go into business for himself. He was a self-starter, my mother told him. He should invest in himself instead of the local government, which she viewed as corrupt and lazy. She thought of the government like a person, and she probably believed Father to be just as lazy, if not as corrupt.
Without health insurance, we ended up paying for my mother’s medicine and chemo out of pocket. My pockets were pretty shallow. I had my $32 saved up from babysitting and my leftover lunch money. I loved counting it, along with my faded blue trading stamps I got every time I bought notebook paper or a pencil case that listed the world’s capitals or erasers that smelled like tree sap. My skinny brother’s pockets were fuller: he only spent his money on bubble gum and candy. His sugar consumption made me afraid he might end up getting cancer too. People with cancer were skinny. Even my mother got thin for a while, and when her hair grew back, it was as white as the feathers in her pillows.
She liked lots of pillows, arranged just so. She also liked chicken soup with the noodles picked out and bran cereal with the raisins separated into another bowl. That took time, which I had in quantity until I started high school. That’s when things in our house became like the inside of a matchbox—all lined up in rigid formation until friction is applied.
The day I ran away was like that. I’d neglected to extract all the noodles. When I served my mother, she took one glance and sent the bowl flying. The noodles stuck there on the opposite wall, deciding whether to hang or drop. As I heard the key grind in the back door lock, I prayed Father would be in a better mood than she was. When he saw the shattered bowl, his wrinkles formed wrinkles, and I knew I was in trouble. What kind of man yells at his dying wife? I was fair game in her stead, like when the herd hears a branch snap and leaves Bambi standing dazed and still, a little twig hanging from beneath that little black velvet nose. Father’s eyes caught mine, and something wild and kindred leaped across the room between us. Then, just as suddenly, the light in his eyes went dull.
“Dori,” he said, clenching and unclenching his massive fists, “clean up this mess.” His voice was so soft I could barely distinguish his words. I did as I was told, keeping my eyes on those fists. After mopping, I sat on the piano bench. I was worried about a stain I’d left on the Oriental rug in her bedroom. I caressed the keyboard lid, imagining the thirty-six blacks, fifty-two whites underneath, just out of reach. There was almost nothing I didn’t enjoy playing. I could sit for hours doing my scales. My best piece (what my piano teacher called my “popcorn piece,” meaning it could be played on command from memory) was Schumann’s “First Loss,” from Album for the Young, and I was beginning to peck out Rhapsody in Blue. The notes seemed strung together solely for my hands, although when I stopped, I communed with all the others who had played them. The notes transported me out of the house, like I had turned to vapor and could shape-shift through the chimney, connecting me with all those hands before me, and hands yet to come.
I became one with sound. Back before the chemo, I would finish with fingers aching, hours spinning out like golden thread from an ever-replenished spindle. How I longed to open the lid to play again. I didn’t dare. I’d need to stay under the radar for a while. I wished it were already tomorrow morning at the school bus stop, even if it was freezing outside.
When Father walked in, I could tell he wasn’t angry anymore, because his fists had turned back into hands. He had talked to Mother. He sat down beside me on my bench. I could smell the nicotine-tobacco that stained his nails. He scratched his head where the hair was beginning to disappear.
“Dori,” he said, his tone measured, “we’ve run out of money for the month. We’re going to have to let the shop repossess the piano.”
The room was still. I looked down again at the piano lid, where dust floated above the wax I’d put on yesterday. I tried to hear my heart. The dust hovered there, silent, with no answers.
“Dori?” he prodded.
I knew it was hopeless. My mother had demanded he punish me. Why else would he be getting rid of the piano today? She hated when I played it—said it made her anxious. Jealous was more like it.
“No,” I said, then louder: “No!” I ran to the closet, grabbed my coat and gloves, a hat for good measure. I ran to my room and grabbed the babysitting stash I kept in my doll’s wedding dress, making sure I put a few changes of my clothes in a plastic garbage bag, then robbed my brother’s piggy bank.
I walked out of the house with $57 and change, and what I believed to be a new lease on my life. I strode down the wooded street still covered with a spotted carpet of ice from the season’s last storm. I didn’t stop until I’d reached the bus station, although I did look over my shoulder a few times. Father hadn’t tried to stop me.
I boarded the bus that led to Grandmother’s front porch, two states south. When she saw me standing in front of her, she rubbed her eyes, as though I were a mirage. “Dori,” she said as she adjusted her cat-eyed glasses on her long nose, “where did you come from?” My grandmother, with the light behind her, looked just like a fairy.
“You said I could always call you if I was in trouble,” I said.
Her eyes grew wider. “Did they hit you?”
“No,” I said, half ashamed, and fell weeping into the soft folds of her sweater. “Worse.”
She held me, extracting reasons for my grief like they were impacted wisdom teeth. I was afraid if I told her about the piano, she would convince me I had to let it go. I could not bear those words from her.
“Go play the piano,” she finally sighed, swabbing my chapped cheeks and combing through my damp hair, “while I call your father.”
Grandmother’s piano wasn’t like mine. It was all Victorian carved wood with real ivories that resembled coffee-stained teeth, and two notes that clunked. The middle sostenuto pedal stuck. It wasn’t a practical instrument; in fact, it was more one-person art show than orchestral showpiece. Annual tunings had ceased to be effective. Still, it offered a sort of aged solace. It dominated the living room. The carver had decorated the entire piano case with blossoms and birds on the wing, like a tapestry. Instead of a bench, a rotund stool could be cranked up or down to suit the pianist’s height. Its sheet music was eclectic—fraying at the edges, like old wrinkled velvet, soft to the touch, smelling of must. I began to play “Moon River” and was humming along to the theme from Love Story when Grandmother reappeared.
“You play beautifully.” Her voice was soft and a bit sorrowful as she touched the crown of my head. “And the notes you were humming were straight and true.”
My eyes welled up again. “You’re going to tell me I have to go back, aren’t you?”
She walked to the fireplace, picked two peppermints out of the candy dish on the mantle, popped one in her mouth and the other in mine. “Each piano has its own distinct voice, just like we do,” she said. “They’re individuals. Time wears them down. My old piano sounds dull and lifeless now compared to when I used to play every Sunday at church.”
I felt my brow wrinkle. I loved her old piano almost as much as I loved my own.
“Remember your voice, Eudora,” she said, and then: “We always have to go back, child. One way or the other, we must always deal with what life gives us. Just try not to let it wear you down too soon.”
My sobs came quick now, like birthing spasms. “Won’t—you—come—back—with—me?”
“She doesn’t want me there, sweetheart,” she said. She took my hands in hers. “Stay the course. My old piano will always be here for you. You can stay here until tomorrow, until you get your bearings.”
She led me into the room I called mine, though it once belonged to my father. Painted Wedgewood blue, it had a Dutch-blue quilt, ragged at the edges, which had always covered the maple bed. I smiled at the squares, which I knew by heart. That one there was my father’s first shirt. That one, over there, was from the dress my grandmother wore to his college graduation. There was one with dogwood petals, and one with plaid, and even one with treble and bass clefs. I threw off my Keds and lay down. Sometime that afternoon Grandmother left a PB&J on the nightstand, built by my long-dead carpenter grandfather. Travel weary, I never woke to eat it.
The next morning dawned sharp and shrill, the twittering cadence of early-morning birdcall almost drowned by the syncopated staccato of a woodpecker. Yet over it all, a distant partridge cooed his resonant “bobwhite,” calming me for my return trip. I boarded the bus with extra pocket money from Grandmother, along with a pail of fried chicken and biscuits and a thermos of cold lemonade. Best of all, wrapped in burlap and tied with an old rope from the shed, was the quilt. The bus ride was just as long going as coming, but I wanted it to last forever. I put my hand inside the rough burlap and felt the quilt’s warm bumps with each mile closer to my destiny, whistling “Moon River.”
My piano was gone when I got back; Grandmother’s piano remained there for me. I played it on rare visits, and I grew to cope with—if not understand—my mother’s wrath and my father’s feigned stolid passivity. Then came the day that my grandmother passed and my father left to sell what she owned, just as he had done with our belongings.
We lived in a small apartment now, and I was doing secretarial work for a medical office, putting stamps on pieces of paper to make them official. Those stamps and my father’s three jobs paid the rent. What time I had left, I spent on music. Music gave me what people did not. Instead of movie dates or tense setups from well-meaning friends, I listened to my stereo, then my Walkman, then my iPod at night. Madonna turned into Hootie & the Blowfish turned into the Black Eyed Peas. A woman I worked with, a former opera singer past her prime, was teaching me bel canto, and I had fallen in love with opera—Carmen and Mimì, especially. My parents couldn’t censor them as they could potential friends. I sang every chance I got, which was every time I was able to leave the house, and now I had earphones, so I could listen without reprisal. I was saving for my own place—and my own piano.
When Father knocked on my door with the bad news, I jerked my earbuds out, thinking Mother needed me again. I’d bathed her and wiped her face twice already. I’d readjusted her pillows and pulled her up to meet them. Perhaps she wanted some warm milk. On top of the cancer that would not leave, she now had a rare arthritis. The doctor told us she would not live more than a year without better nutrition. He’d given us some calcium shakes, but she would have none of it. She wanted real milk shakes, so I went to the ice cream parlor and asked a boy there to show me how to make them. He had gone to my high school, and now was working his way through graduate school. He flirted with me, his eyes lighting on the top of my sundress, but I told him I was engaged. I was, in a way, to my mother’s needs. He left me alone after that, but I went home with a cream soda as well as a real shake, helping my mother and me live another day.
Yet my grandmother was dead. Father told me Grandmother had passed alone in her sleep the night before. I felt a hard sadness in my chest, the kind that won’t let you cry. The next morning, as he was leaving for the funeral, giving me instructions how to reach him should my mother have an emergency, I asked about her piano.
“I figured it was my inheritance,” I said.
“That old thing?” he guffawed. “What would you do with it? It hasn’t been tuned in a decade. Where would you put it?” He put his hands behind his back and turned to leave.
I knew better than protest. I wasn’t helping him enough. He needed me more each year, and his mother had just died. I let it be.
“Will you just take a photograph of it?” I called after him, and when he turned and nodded, I could tell he would humor me. He did bring a photo back, a yellow-toned Instamatic shot, which eventually faded and peeled. I kept the photo close—in my wallet, suitcase, or jewelry box—sometimes under the quilt, which frayed more each day. I looked at the photo the day my brother left for the war in Iraq. I was looking at the photo as they put me under for surgical removal of a fibroid. I reached for the photo the day I got the call my mother had died.
It’s funny how the memory of my mother walking in and telling us she had cancer is so piercing, while the months after her death are frayed like that quilt and fuzzy like my favorite photo. I worked, practiced singing, and worked some more. I slept more than I wanted to.
When I ran into Danny, I didn’t even know he was there at first. He’d been working the next block down and had noticed me long before, remembered me from the soda shop, but I’d never known. I was exiting the restroom after washing red ink off my hands—an everyday occupational nuisance. I was looking down, examining them, my earbuds on full blast. “Hey, watch it!” he yelled. I swerved. Our bodies didn’t collide, but my heart leaped.
You don’t get over all that spilled chicken soup as quickly as all that. Your heart might not open at all, or it might unfold like time-lapsed film, one petal at a time. Yet it’s not all about opening your heart. It’s about letting someone in. Then, after all that’s done, it’s about believing they want to be there. He was trying to make my life easier, but I was still trying to make it the hard way. It took time.
It’s the same with singing. You let out a note, and someone says you hit it right. Then you sing a measure, and someone pats you on the back. Then someone asks you to sing in front of a group, then a wider audience. They all clap. At first, you think they’re just being nice. Then you think, this is all too easy. Sometimes you think, I can’t do this…I don’t have any formal training; I don’t read music well. Mostly, you think, I don’t have a piano. I mean, isn’t life supposed to be like that chicken soup on the wall, with the noodles deciding whether to fall or stay put? Isn’t life supposed to be about losing pianos, and hopes, and people—mopping up the mess?
Then, in one exact instant, someone you barely noticed before bumps into you, and you begin to reexamine things. You finally realize that it doesn’t have to be that way. It took Danny half a decade to convince me that life may not be a magic carpet ride but it can be magic. People can love you. People can stay. You will die one day, but until then, you can sing. People will listen. You don’t need a piano. You had your instrument within. All this time, it wasn’t about the piano, the quilt, or old photographs. It was about you, but you had the rug pulled out from under you, so you couldn’t see what was right in front of you. You were the instrument all along.
That’s Danny, down there in the third row, second seat in, next to his sister. They have the same curly hair, give me the same sideways smile as they await my first note. I’m still pinching myself that I’m part of their world. Yet Danny’s incisive eyes send me his secret “I know what you got in there” glint, which travels through the air, dispelling the dust that the spotlight has found. I watch the dust particles—human skin cells, animal dander, plant pollen, all the molecules, dead and alive, that make up our world—float down, down, down, coming to rest on the stage in front of me.
You may think I got to this point because my grandmother believed in me, or because I almost collided with a man in a hallway who coached me into believing in myself. Maybe even because people applaud my efforts. But you’d be wrong. Danny, and several others, hoisted me back up, but I had to find my way myself. We all do. Through the dusty, musty, soiled corners of our lives.
That’s all I can say for now. They’re waiting for me to begin. I take a deep breath. There’s not that much to prepare, no backup band that needs to tune its instruments, just me, a capella. I open my mouth and sing.