The last of the day’s piano students had finally left, taking with them their variously mangled versions of Für Elise and Jolly Old Saint Nicholas. The part of the apartment where Jacob gave lessons was quiet and still. Jacob stood in his kitchen, shoulders slumped, cooking himself dinner. The humid air clung to him, sticky and thick, and he could feel the sweat gathering uncomfortably on his forehead and in the pits of his shirt as the bacon hissed and spat in the pan. The fluorescent bulb above buzzed and flickered weakly. Breakfast for dinner, he thought. Breakfast for dinner for one. He slid the bacon around the pan with the spatula, and sighed.
It was then that he heard the note. An A.
A above middle C.
At first, it sounded like someone was playing piano in a different apartment. They had the sustain pedal down and the note quietly hung in the air, vibrating, loud enough to hear, but not so loud as to be rude. Polite, but insistent. Then it sounded again. A single note. Not in another apartment. Close by.
Sharon must be playing,he thought, the beginnings of a smile flickering across his face. Then he remembered, and the smile changed almost into a grimace, like he’d tried to put weight on a broken leg. Ah, no, he thought. And then firmly, like tearing off a bandage – No, she’s gone.
The note played again, as if it were someone about to begin a speech. The first “um,” before asking a question, a small cough to gain someone’s attention. Jacob’s head was down, eyes closed, the middle of his chest an aching hole. Dinner smoldered, ignored, and he found that he was furious. Sharon was dead, stupidly, pointlessly dead, nothing but the endless hours of night to come, and somewhere, some asshole was playing an A over and over, the idiot prelude to…what? Jacob could almost hear the next notes, the flowing, gentle stream of the melody waiting just behind that A, just waiting, if only this jerk would play it. Please, he thought, his teeth clenched. Just play it.
And then, nothing. He peered around the corner, into the living room. The piano sat there, as always, squat and stolid and silent. No one there.
The sounds of the kitchen, the apartment, the city outside the window (car horn, shussh of traffic, ambient noise of a city winding up into night) reasserted themselves. He waited a moment more, then let out the breath he wasn’t aware he’d been holding. The skin on the back of his neck prickled, and goosebumps bunched up on his arms. He shook his head, took the now smoking frying pan with the charred remains of his dinner off the burner, set it in the sink, and sat down at the kitchen table as it cooled, staring at nothing.
That night, in his dream, there was a box. It had the instant familiarity of dreams, though he knew he’d never seen it before, and yet of course it’s always been right there, waiting for him to find it, stumble upon it in the twisting geography of his subconscious. It seemed small from far away, but as he got closer it turned out to be much larger than he’d thought.
He stood in front of the door that was in the side, had always been in its side, of course. A large lock held a hasp closed on the outside of the door in the side of the strangely large box that now looked like a giant cargo container, all corrugated metal and rusted pale orange paint.
The key was heavy and cold in his hand, overlarge and rough, but it fit into the lock easily and turned smoothly, as if from much use. And he opened the door and walked inside, into darkness.
But it wasn’t dark inside. It was their apartment, his and Sharon’s. Her papers and magazines on the table, her socks on the floor, his shoe, a dust bunny. She sat on the couch in front of the TV, and looked up as he walked in, smiling. He felt his heart swelling in his chest, wet and painful and full. She jumped to her feet and ran to him in that funny, pigeon-toed way she had, leaning way forward like always, a joke between them, demanding her forehead be kissed first thing, which he did, and then wrapping her arms around him for a longer, deeper kiss.
Afterward, she smiled up at him, and her smile stopped his swollen heart mid-beat, exactly as he remembered, before. He knew there was a before, but he couldn’t remember before what, what that “what” might be.
And then she began to speak, but no sound came out of her opening and closing mouth. All he heard was his own breathing, heavy and slow. Confusion dawned on her face, then her eyes widened in horror. She pushed him away, ran to the door, but there was no exit, just more apartment, rooms added on, of course always there, and she ran from room to room, finally collapsing, silent, sobbing, in the same room in which they’d begun. He was sorry, but not surprised. Of course she couldn’t leave.
He needed her to stay here.
He came to her, to say goodbye, but she would not meet his gaze. So he kissed the top of her head, walked out the metal door of the box, and locked the hasp behind him with the key. He stood in the empty field surrounding the box staring at the key while a hollow, dream wind blew, thinking it meant something, this key, something that he was supposed to do, or remember, until he awoke in grey half-light, feeling cold and raw inside. The dream faded in his mind as he lay, breathing hard among the tangled, body-smelling sheets, leaving only the memory of having forgotten something important, something he should fix.
Something about Sharon.
The doctor had an opening the next morning, and Jacob arrived early and sat in the beige and white-walled waiting room, watching the TV on the wall that played a loop of a health video that was trying to disguise itself as a news program. “The Rhinovirus and You!” it was called, and recommended washing with a hand sanitizer every few hours, just to be on the safe side. “Remember,” it said, “you never know who’s sick!” After Sharon had died, Jacob remembered, he had lain in their bed, inhaling the smell of her from their sheets, wondering if cancer was contagious, if he could get it, too. Hoping, maybe.
In the examination room, after the nurse had taken his blood pressure and chided him for gaining eight pounds since his last visit, Jacob sat on the crinkly paper that covered a narrow strip of the faux leather exam table and tried to sit up straight until the doctor arrived. The room smelled of disinfectant and cold metal.
The doctor bustled in and sat down, smiling a vague but pleasant, bearded smile. He was a small, tidy man in a white jacket and a pale blue button-down shirt. “So what seems to be the problem?” he said cheerfully, like a plumber, or a mechanic, nothing personal, just something that’s happened, we’ll get you fixed right up. They chatted for a while about Jacob’s body, and then Jacob, almost off-handedly, mentioned the note.
“What do you mean?” said the doctor, seeming to actually see Jacob for the first time.
“Well, it was this sound, you know?”
“What kind of sound? Like a buzzing sound? Or like a mosquito? Like a keeeeeeeeeeee kind of sound?” The doctor was interested now.
“No, not like that. More a note. It was a note.”
“A note?” The doctor studied him intently.
“It was an A. Do you play music?”
“I played the clarinet in high school.”
“Okay, so it was an A.”
“Ah.” The doctor marked down something on Jacob’s chart. “Can you hear it now?”
Jacob listened. “No, not right now.”
“Hmmm.” He wrote something else, relaxing now. “Are you sure it’s not a high pitched kind of keeeeee sound? Because that could be tinnitus. Musicians often get that. Too many loud concerts. High risk for tinnitus among musicians.” He was smiling again, sure of himself.
Jacob shook his head. “I don’t think it’s tinnitus.”
Dylan was playing badly, as usual. Almost as if he didn’t even practice (which was almost certainly the case). Jacob didn’t like to take their parents’ money when it was obvious the kids didn’t care. He still took the money, of course, but he did feel an obligation to be at least mildly admonishing. Let them know that they really should practice, that he wasn’t just doing this for his health. Straddle the line between taskmaster and babysitter.
“Dylan, stop.” The music clanked along a few more measures before finally stumbling to a close. “What key are we in?”
Dylan squinted at the workbook, his fingers still resting on the keys.
Jacob sighed. “What do we do? First thing?”
“Look at the beginning?”
“Right. And what do we see?” Dylan squinted at the page again. Kid might need glasses. Sometimes it was tough to tell if they had problems, maybe ADHD or some kind of allergy, or if they were just messing with him. Jacob tried to give him a hint. “We…count….”
Dylan’s face lit up. “We count the sharps and flats!”
“Good! And how many are there?”
He studied the page. “Four.”
“Good. Nice job. So what does that mean?”
The boy looked puzzled.
“Dylan, what key are we in?”
After a moment, he said, “E-flat?”
“Right! So, tell me this, my man. Why were you playing A natural?”
Now Dylan looked hurt, offended even.
Jacob reached over and touched the black key. A small chip on one corner of it showed the pale wood beneath the shiny black lacquer. “A-flat, remember? Why did you play A-natural?” He touched the white key just next to it.
“Sure you did.” Jacob had heard the note every measure, every downbeat.
“Mr. Heller, I know a black key from a white key.” Dylan put his hands back own on the keyboard and played a respectable A-flat major scale. “I know.”
Jacob looked at him.
“Mr. Heller. I know. Listen.” The boy then proceeded to play the song, haltingly, but in key.
He sat back, watching Jacob’s face expectantly. Jacob looked at the keyboard with his head tilted slightly to one side, as if it were about to say something, and blinked, once, twice.
“Okay.” He looked at the boy. “Okay.” He looked back at the keyboard. “That was good. Um, do you want to finish up early today? I won’t tell your mom if you don’t, and you can just listen to CD’s if you want.”
Dylan smiled. “Okay!”
The fan was on the floor next to his bed stirring up the hot night air, white noise whirring away. It was that moment, right before falling asleep, that he missed her most. Her arm thrown over his side as they curled up in bed together. Fit together. Spoons. Her kiss on his shoulder. He could almost feel her breathing, her long dark hair that she always wore loose to bed tickling his back, but she was not there.
He listened, holding his breath, afraid if he moved suddenly, or wanted it too much, he would lose it. And then, there it was (was it?), in the noise of the fan, barely discernible. The note, hidden in the fan motor whine and the beating blades. A above middle C.
He whispered into the dark. “Sharon?” And like that, it was gone.
It stayed dark. The quiet crept back and resumed its place, like a faithful dog. The fan whirred.
The next day, he took the rest of the insurance settlement to the electronics store and bought microphones. All the microphones, and cables, and software, and a frequency analyzer, and something that measured decibels, and this other thing that did something else he wasn’t sure about. He came home with his arms full of bags and boxes, and the delivery man made three trips up the stairs with the remainder that came later that morning.
By noon, the apartment was transformed. Microphones hung from every corner of the room, pointed toward the piano. Another swung from the center of the ceiling on a wire, but Jacob had guessed the height wrong as he was hanging it, and had to duck every time he hurried across the room to avoid smacking his head. Other microphones sat on tables or dangled off chairs, and the prize, the large diaphragm microphone with three polar patterns, a unique frequency and transient response characteristic, pressure-gradient transducer, double membrane capsule and a price tag only slightly higher than he’d paid for his first car, loomed over the piano, facing down towards the keyboard. The cables from all these devices snaked and roiled across the floor and around the edges of the room, lumping underneath area rugs where he’d thought to cover them, and lurking to trip him up where they lay exposed.
It all converged at the mixing board that he only vaguely understood, which was, in turn, hooked up to the laptop that busily converted the sounds into cheerfully colored graphs and charts that he also only vaguely understood.
He sat with giant headphones over his ears and intently watched the graphs scroll by, the microphones registering car noise, laughing outside, he was even pretty sure he’d heard someone drop a glass in the building across the street. But he didn’t hear, or see, the note.
Hours passed. He sat, perfectly still, waiting, watching, listening. A little after three he noticed an artifact in the frequencies, a low-level humming in the background, but after an hour of stalking menacingly around the apartment carrying a shotgun microphone with a pistol grip, it turned out to be the refrigerator. He wrapped it in pillows and duct-tape, and, satisfied, settled back to watch the graphs dance their gentle, meaningless dance.
He sat at the keyboard, playing the note. It was him playing the note. It was not her. Sharon was not playing the note. She was not here. Maybe had never been here.
He played the note, held it until it faded, played it again. Sustain pedal pressed down, the note ringing in the room, the other strings, left unmuted, vibrating in sympathy, his whole body, worn from listening all day, a single raw nerve like an unmuted string, vibrating.
And there it was. It sounded, perfectly clearly, inside his chest as if he were a gong that had been struck. He shot a look at the computer screen on the kitchen table, but the graphs registered nothing unusual, as they had all day, smoothing scrolling the note’s absence across the graph.
Ah. He was crazy. Well, there’s that, at least. Mad from grief and loneliness. It was good to know.
It sounded exactly as he remembered it. Polite, gentle, but now clearly there, insistent. He could touch his chest and feel the exact spot where it resonated.
Jacob jumped to his feet, knocking the piano stool back where it thudded onto the floor. “What do you want?” he yelled at the empty room, at the microphones. at the cables and stands, the empty house. “It’s all gone! I don’t have anything else, you’re gone and I’m here and I’m alone and I don’t know why!” He sat down hard on the floor among the cables, tears streaming down his face. “Please,” he said. “Please. Just tell me what you want.”
The note still hung, like a raindrop caught on a spider’s web in the darkness of his chest, trembling. But there, just behind it (where? behind what?) just there, there were other notes, a whole melody waiting to spill out, spinning back all the way to something bright and unknowable. He could almost hear it.
He slowly picked the stool off the ground, and sat at the piano, listening for a long time to something that only he could hear. The keys were smooth and cool and comforting under his hands.
And then, finally, he played the note. It rang the silent room like a bell, and faded away. Then he played the next note, and the next. Tentatively, and then with more confidence, he began to pick out the music he found inside him, like finding his way through a field at night with a flashlight, the way forward suddenly appearing only after he found the next spot to stand. Chords began to present themselves, orderly and sturdy and dutiful, and a plangent counter melody.
And over all of it, hovering, and then soaring, this song, this melody, not a requiem or an elegy, not a cry of grief, or a reminder of loss, it was not something she played for him, or that he played for her. Something unlocked within him. He felt the tumblers fall and revolve and then a door opened. He could feel her, see her racing toward the open door, out from her cage, grateful and happy and fast before he could change his mind, and the music modulated into triumph, into joy. She was the song, that melody, soaring through his chest and out, out from the dark and back into some light that Jacob could not look directly into, eyes closed, fingers dancing across the keys.
It spun and shone, the way she spun and shone, and the melody was her smile, and the way she loved pancakes, and dogs, the warmth of her hand in his, the way she had grabbed his arm to drag him along with her through the park, her flashing anger and her burning love and she did love him so much, he knew even as she left him, as she spooled out of his chest on a thread of gold. He felt her leaving as he played, and it tore a little piece of him away, and the pain was joy as he let her go. She left the world, spinning out beyond where he could follow, freed from where she had been caught by his pain and his grief, freed to move on.
Until at last the song lay down into silence. The last notes hung in the air. He felt the final vestige of her, a whisper of sound, or a touch on his cheek in gratitude, rest and then depart. His hands rested likewise on the keys, he could feel his pulse beating in his temples and his fingertips, but his heart, his heart, his heart was quiet, and still.
Scott Lee Williams is a writer and musician working in Brooklyn. As a writer, he has published work on poetz.com, and in Miranda Station Review. As a musician, Scott worked with synonymUS, the musical collaborative branch of the louderARTS Project, and his own band bangsway (http://bangsway.bandcamp.com/). He also writes the blog Learning Silence to Better Speak (http://scottleewilliams.blogspot.com). You can find him on Twitter (@scottlwilliams) if you’re so inclined, and most weekends at the Brooklyn Public Library, where he’ll be haunting the science fiction and fantasy stacks, and researching his novel.