by Bernie Brown
Josh hated playing piano.
But he loved listening to piano music.
One song, in particular, was wonderful to listen to, but impossible to play. At least for him. “Claire de Lune” gave him shivers when someone else played it, making him think of far away cities in the rain. When he played it, he thought of city dumps and air pollution.
Tempo rubato. What did that even mean? Self expression, his teacher said. Joshua’s self wasn’t very expressive.
“Claire de Lune” made him think of his sister. Now, she had been all over tempo rubato.
His parents wanted to remake him in her image, and he wanted to make them happy. So he tried to play piano. He wanted her back, too. She used to make the best chocolate chip cookies and take him to movies.
But he hated playing piano, and he loved playing golf with his middle school pals.
His father had made a deal with him. “Play your piece at the recital without mistakes, and we’ll sell the piano and buy golf clubs.”
Josh practiced day and night, but the tempo rubato part escaped him. He fumbled his way through it, dreading the passage so much he found excuses to stop playing. He had to pee, or he needed a cookie.
He left the piano in the living room, and walked into the kitchen, spying the Oreo package on the counter. While getting a couple of cookies, he heard the passage played just the way his sister had played it. Heartfelt. Slow and soft, and then louder and more plaintive. Was he imagining it? He and the piano were in different rooms.
He went back to the hated instrument, put the cookies down on the bench beside him, and started at the top. When he got to the hard part, the keys moved by themselves. It freaked him out. His arm hairs stood on end.
Gingerly, he touched the keys that had moved. They sounded when he pressed them, and were quiet when he released them.
His mom came in the kitchen back door carrying a bag of groceries. “Hi, Josh. How’s it going?”
“Fine. It’s going fine,” he said. It’s going weird, he thought.
His mom went in the back room, and he started from the top, pushing on through the rough part and sounding as bad as ever. No help came from the piano. He put an Oreo in his mouth, munching and thinking about a hole-in-one. He’d win school tournaments. Cindy Michaels would kiss him.
Tonight Cindy was playing a piece by Bach that went all over the keyboard. She was good, too, as good as his sister had been.
“Josh, I don’t hear anything,” his mom yelled.
Again, the piano played the hard part by itself. He grabbed the second Oreo and stuffed the whole thing in his mouth.
“That part sounds better today,” his mom yelled.
Jeez, he was dreading the recital tonight. If he was nervous before, he was a jiggling bowl of Jello now. He’d never get his clubs or a kiss from Cindy Michaels.
Josh took a shower, but he couldn’t stop sweating. Sweat poured down his armpits. Shit, he’d probably have big old sweat stains on his sport coat.
His dad had to tie his tie. “Can’t you do this yet, son? How many times do I have to show you?”
Just shut up and tie it already.
He rode in the backseat practicing his fingering on his knees. He wanted to keep going right on past the recital hall. Anywhere. Hell would be nice. He was doomed. He would shame his parents and the memory of his sister. He’d probably have a nutzo attack right at the keyboard and need a shot to calm him down, like on TV.
His dad stopped the car, and Josh got out like a man on the way to the gallows.
“Remember, son, your golf clubs are at stake.” His dad shook his sweaty hand.
“I have faith in you.” His mom kissed his cheek.
Why hadn’t he died instead of his sister?
Backstage, Josh sat fidgeting while Cindy played. She didn’t flub a note or miss a beat. The parents applauded as if she were Bach himself.
“Joshua Jones,” his teacher announced. “Josh will play “Claire de Lune” for us this evening.”
Yeah, right. Josh will make you wish you’d never heard of “Claire de Lune.” Josh will make you wish you’d brought noise-cancelling headphones.
He sat down at the baby grand. Seemed so wrong to butcher a song on a grand piano. He adjusted the bench twice, placed his hands in position, and the piano began. He hadn’t pressed a key. It played the second line, the third, and right on through the tempo rubato. He moved his hands above the keys, pretending. He thought of far away cities and mountain villages. He thought of Cindy Michaels. The piano kept playing.
Every day he wanted his sister back, his family whole again. Hearing the piano play “Claire de Lune” made his heart hurt.
He was sure he smelled chocolate chip cookies.
The piano finished. It was over. They could sell the piano and buy clubs.
He rose and did the little bow thing the teacher taught them.
Were his feet touching the ground? Had his fingers touched the keys?
Cindy Michaels waited for him behind the curtain. “Good job, Josh.” And, she kissed him on the cheek.
He grinned all over. Oh, please, God, don’t let me blush.
A kiss from Cindy Michaels. That was tempo rubato. That was the kind of self expression he understood. You bet your sweet ass it was.
He went to talk golf clubs with his dad.
Only, how had the piano played itself? And why could he smell chocolate chip cookies?
He suddenly knew, he’d get his clubs some other way.
He didn’t want to sell the piano. Ever.
Bernie Brown lives in Raleigh, NC where she writes, reads, and watches birds. She is a 2016 Pushcart Nominee. Her stories have appeared in several journals, most recently Better After 50, Modern Creative Life, Indiana Voice Journal, and Watching Backyard Birds. She is a Writer in Residence at the Weymouth Center, which is the perfect spot for her to work on her novel-in-progress.
by S.C. Hickman
was dead and gone. Only lines of kindness
in her face remained…
—Richard Hugo, Making Sure It Goes On
Mrs. Noraine stood on the porch silently listening to the dogs and children and sirens in the distance. The two girls playing across the street stopped and watched her, then waved. She waved back. They were nice girls, never had a bit of trouble out of them. But times were changing now. Some of the boys in the neighborhood were mean looking, and taunted her at times when they walked by. They never used to do that.
Ever since Roland passed on she’d felt a little fearful. Her daughter had been trying to get her to move down south for a while, but she’d lived in this old home for most of her life. She wouldn’t know what to do if she left it. But more and more things were not right, she was having those dreams again. Seeing her son crashing in that car, again. His big beautiful brown eyes so full of terror. She’d wake up feeling a knot in the pit of her stomach. She’d sit there the rest of the night unable to sleep. Things rattling in that old house now. Frightened her.
Even Roland seemed to come and go now. She’d be sitting there concentrating on a sweater for Amy or Tisha and feel a hand slide along her arm. Look up and see him standing there with his big grin just gazing at her. She’d say, “What you doing here, Roland?” Surprised he’d come to visit her. “She’d reach over to get her glasses to see him better and he’d be gone. She’d get up and wander around that big old house looking for him, but wouldn’t find him anywhere and then she’d remember. That would upset her so she couldn’t even drink her night tea.
Mostly she knew she wasn’t thinking right anymore. It was a terrible thing to be missing things, especially things one used to have so well preserved in one’s mind. She’d pull out the old photo albums and try to refresh her mind, but it just confused her more. Faces she knew she ought to know no longer registered a name she could attach to her thoughts. This disturbed her the most. Losing names and faces. She told her daughter about seeing Roland. Her daughter flew up the next day. “Mama, you coming home with me, you hear?” She was a nice girl, but she didn’t want to leave her home. So much to do, so many things left undone. She just couldn’t leave, not yet. But her daughter insisted. Said it was no longer up to her. “Mama it’s for your health, you have to come. I can’t take care of you, and I can’t leave my home. Billy and I have a nice place for you all fixed up. You’ll be happy. You’ll see.”
So she’d fretted over all the little things in her house. Her daughter hired some people to pack it all up, said she needn’t worry about that at all. That they were professionals and would take extra care to insure nothing was lost or broken in process. So she’d just sat there in her big green chair and watched strangers put her life away in box after box after box. She felt lost now standing here not knowing where her life had gone. She walked slowly through that empty house feeling sad and lonely. She didn’t want to leave Roland to roam that place alone, either. What would he do? Her daughter said: “Roland’s in a good place, Mama. He’s just fine. Don’t you worry about Roland. The Good Lord taking care of him.” She wasn’t quite sure of that. Roland wasn’t much on religion like she was. So she wasn’t at all convinced about the Good Lord taking care of him. She was fearful for her Man’s soul.
She walked back into the kitchen where she’d cooked so many meals. “Good times, here,” she thought. A woman shouldn’t have to leave her kitchen to strangers. Just didn’t seem right to her. Everything gone. All my pictures gone. It’s like saying goodbye to myself; it’s like I won’t exist anymore… just then she felt his hand on her shoulder. She wanted to fall into his big strong arms, let him hold her one last time…
"Mama," her daughter said, a little afraid. "You all right, Mama, we're packed up and ready. Let me take you out to the car."
She turned around and saw Roland standing there in the doorway just a smiling. He looked twenty years younger. His thick bushy black hair had a dusting of gray, but not much; and she could see he was plump, but not overly; in fact he even had on that smart new suit she'd bought him from the Sears & Roebuck Catalogue. "My, my," she thought: "How handsome he is in that suit." He nodded at her as if to say, "Go on now, sweetpea; it'll be all right, you wait and see. I'll take care of myself just fine, don't you fret none; so you get on down south..."
Rosie, her daughter, worrying and fretting herself, said: "Mama?" Her daughter shook her on the shoulder a little.
She opened her eyes and Roland was gone, and her daughter was standing there with that worrisome look on her face, so she said: "Okay, hun, it's all right, everything goin' be all right; let's go south, I'm ready."
S.C. Hickman writes daily on his blog Southern Nights. Having lived in the South most of his life he writes within the Country noir and Southern lit traditions. He dovetails the Southern lit in with his own brand of Southern humor and serious themes.
For the 400th Feast of St. Shakespeare
by Daniel Fitzpatrick
If only they were swift enough
to script the air before it drifts
away in flatulent flames’ wake,
fattening into feathered cloud.
If only space could outstrip time,
shove the carrion eyes aside
in an instant’s perfect signal.
Our best endeavors dissipate;
blood’s breed ameliorates the worm.
To uniform and force-fed eyes
Lear looms like lines beyond the storm.
Today the plane’s puffed impression
goads driving eyes to deathless love
for unfamiliar initials.
Lemon sun strains the brackish drain
where crabs creep hunger from the lake
all summer in the darting shade
of Phoebes’ insectivory,
while breathless slate restores itself,
awaiting firmer hands to form
an epitaph to our mortality,
stooping to skies like children to the sea,
intuiting reflections in our graves
as we see faces in the flattered waves.
Daniel Fitzpatrick lives with his wife and daughter in Hot Springs, AR. The three enjoy micro-farming, Faulkner novels, and Dr. Seuss. Daniel's poems have appeared or are forthcoming in 2River View, PILGRIM, Eunoia Review, and Embers Igniting.
by Ed Nichols
Walking home from the mill, Boyd Johnson stopped and turned to look at the four-story brick monster. Ten years today, he’d spent in the bowels of the beast. In the weave room, fixing looms. “Keep ‘em running, BJ,” his boss would say every morning. Never called him by his real name—just BJ. Near the end of Boyd’s shift, his boss would always say, “Set ‘em up good now for the boys.” The boys being the men that followed Boyd on the night shift. The mill windows were half-open and he could hear the roar of the pulleys and gears, and shuttles moving back and forth on the looms. He caught the smell of oil and rubber and washed cotton coming from the ventilation fans on top of the mill. He shivered and rubbed his eyes. His back was hurting.
He walked up on the porch and opened the front door. He heard his wife, from the kitchen, “That you, Hon?”
He laughed softly and said, “Naw. It ain’t me.”
She met him in the hall, leaned up and kissed him. “Hard day?”
“Yea. Back’s killing me,” he said in a low voice.
She smoothed her apron, took his lunch pail, and went back to the kitchen. “Get you a hot bath. I’m frying some chicken for supper.”
“That’ll be good,” he said.
Relaxing in the bath tub, he let his mind go blank. He closed his eyes. For a while the water was still and nothing crossed his mind. The images appeared suddenly and without warning. Tom Benson, withering on the ground, staring at the two stumps where his legs used to be. Mike Caudell, half his face gone, trying to say something—his arms outstretched toward Boyd. Junior Sims, holding his guts in his hands. The smell of napalm and burning skin rushing up his nose. He suddenly spit in the tub water, before he realized what he’d done. Sometimes, the smells from the mill would remind him of odors from Vietnam.
For supper they ate fried chicken, green beans, potato salad and cornbread. He drank three glasses of iced tea. Then he helped her clean the table and wash the dishes. She kept telling him to go sit and watch television. “I know you’re tired,” she said. He wouldn’t go. Standing behind her at the sink, he put his arms around her waist. With her hands deep in the sink water, he moved his hands slowly up her body and cupped both of her breasts. He squeezed softly and kissed her on the side of her neck. She tilted her head back and they kissed. She smiled.
He released her, and said, “I think I will go to the sofa.”
“I guess it’s too cold to sit on the porch.”
“It is. I may go out later and smoke,” he said.
They sat in the living room on the sofa and watched television. He reached for her hand, and told her, “I have something important to say.”
Her eyes widened. “Okay. What is it?” she asked.
Boyd stretched his legs. He said, “You know what today is, don’t you?”
“November first. How come?” Then she put her hand over her mouth. “Oh, my gosh. It’s your anniversary date at the mill.”
“That’s right. Ten years ago today, I started.”
She reached over and placed her hand on his thigh. She said, “It’s hard work, isn’t it? But, what’s something important—your anniversary date?”
“No. Not the date.” He paused. “I’ve been thinking about quitting the mill.” He reached for her hand. She was silent. “I keep searching, in my mind, for something different,” he said. “Something that will give us a better life.”
She said, “You know I love you, and whatever you…I don’t know. This mill village is all I’ve ever known. But you know what the mill did to daddy. If you hadn’t married me and lived with us…I don’t know what I’d done when he was so sick.”
“Mill work was all he ever knew,” he said.
She leaned over and kissed him. “You’re a fine man, Boyd Johnson, and if you want to quit the mill, then do so. You can find another line of work.”
“Here’s what’s been going around in my mind,” he said. “What if we move, away from here?”
“Leave this house?”
“Yea. Sell the house. Move to South Georgia or Florida. Get out of these mountains. Live where it’s warmer, all year.”
“Oh, Boyd,” she said, and then she went silent.
He looked at her and knew her mind was trying to grasp the idea. This proposition he had sprung on her, out of the blue. He said, “We can get a trailer for the pickup and load everything we want to keep, and go south.”
“Oh, Boyd,” she said, “this is the house I was born in, and the house where we lived with daddy—I don’t know. Maybe…we….”
“Well,” he said. “Think about it, okay? Moving south, I mean.” She laid her head on his shoulder and they watched television, and didn’t talk about it anymore.
Later, he stood on the front porch and smoked while she took a bath and got ready for bed. He looked up and down the street at the single light bulb glowing on the front porch of each mill house. All the houses looked just like their house. He stood and smoked, and looked and listened to the mill noises. Long enough, he thought.
He went in, locked the front door and turned the lights out. Then he went into the bedroom, undressed and got in bed under the covers. The bedroom was cold. She came out of the bathroom in her nightgown and slid in the bed. She was warm. He reached over and turned off the nightstand light. They lay on their backs in silence, eyes open to the ceiling.
“Well, what do you think?” he asked her.
She didn’t answer. He didn’t press her. He turned on his side facing her and put his arm over her stomach. He said, “You know, you are always on my mind. Always. And if you want to stay here, we will.”
She turned to face him. “Boyd, I read an article in a magazine at the library. About a little town near the ocean in Georgia. A place where there’s a lot of shops and restaurants and all. A neat, clean little town. The pictures in the article were so pretty.”
“What was the name of the town?”
“I don’t remember, right off. Saint something, I believe.” She put her hand on his arm and rubbed softly. “You know, now that I remember looking at the pictures, I remember wondering how it would be to live in such a nice place. Isn’t that weird, me thinking that, and then what you’ve been talking about tonight?”
“I’ll bet I could get work in that town. Repair work on shops, restaurants. Maybe painting and such,” he said.
“I’ll bet you could, too.”
They kissed. He slept peacefully, the roar from the mill a distant dream.
Ed Nichols lives outside Clarkesville, Georgia. He is a journalism graduate from the University of Georgia, and is an award-winning writer from Southeastern Writer’s Association. He has had many short stories published, online and in print. He is currently working on a collection of stories.
by Elias Keller
Mardi Gras isn’t a thing in New Orleans: it’s everything. Thanksgiving and Christmas don’t even compare: the only holiday near Mardi Gras’s parade route is Halloween, and only because New Orleanians lust for any reason to wear costumes or almost nothing at all. You can try to abstain from the revelry, but if you’re in New Orleans, Mardi Gras is fundamentally inescapable, although it should be noted that many New Orleanians don’t care for Mardi Gras. Nonetheless, attempting anything like normal life on Mardi Gras Day (“Fat Tuesday”) is just ludicrous. Most everything (except bars, of course) is closed; travel by anything but foot is futile; and trying to transact any business except that of life-or-death at a hospital is unheard of. The only way to escape Mardi Gras is to leave the city entirely, which is exactly what I did this year.
I moved to New Orleans almost two years ago, so this was my second Mardi Gras. Last year I swallowed my distaste for noisy parades and watched some of the gaudy spectacles on St. Charles Avenue and Canal Street—which I found boring, repetitive, and wasteful with regard to the plastic beads and “throws” (small trinkets) tossed from the floats to spectators. But I did enjoy more intimate parades like Krewe du Vieux and its bawdy, satirical floats mocking current events and politicians—and adorable ’tit Rex (“teet,” as in petite), a procession of miniature floats in the Marigny. And on Fat Tuesday I woke dutifully early to costume up for St. Ann’s parade in the French Quarter: by nine a.m. I was in the midst of a wild kerfuffle of feathers and fake eyelashes with adults and children.
“It’s too much glitter,” a little girl with a face full of it whined to our truly fabulous costume master.
“Honey, there’s no such thing.”
This year I decided to skip all that jazz and spend parade season in my native Philadelphia. Which is why my Fat Tuesday was just a cold, damp Tuesday in February. But as my day plodded on, I kept thinking about Mardi Gras in New Orleans. Not that I really missed plastic go-cups of alcohol, or King Cake, or bared boobs for beads on Bourbon Street. And I was happy to have evaded the overlong run-up to Fat Tuesday. Carnival season lasts about a month in New Orleans and during that time a total of seventy parades rolled. But now the big day had arrived and I was a thousand miles away, where Mardi Gras means nothing, as it does everywhere in this country except New Orleans. Which is what I’d wanted. Except suddenly there wasn’t much joy in escaping the inescapable.
Life in New Orleans certainly takes some getting used to, and the city smashingly confounded my monocultured expectations that it would mostly be like Philadelphia. But I say this, by and large, as a good thing. And take it from a Northern curmudgeon: Southern hospitality is very real and very lovely. New Orleans especially is an exceptionally welcoming city: few places so warmly blur the boundary between natives and transplants. As such, everyone who lives in New Orleans is as entitled to Mardi Gras as anyone else—and certainly more so than the tourists. I’m deliberately using the word “entitled”: tourists skim the cream of the city, but residents have to deal with the persistent, ahem, challenges of actually living in New Orleans. The pace is swampy when it comes to getting things done. Public utilities and transportation are laughable. Corruption, ineptitude and waste in governance are the only things that are actually reliable. Police rarely come when called, which sounds like an exaggeration until you experience it yourself. And the crumbling streets themselves would make the Oregon Trail feel like a sleek superhighway. It’s not really anarchy, but sometimes it sure feels like it.
Then again, another way of looking at these challenges is that they arise from the relaxed vibe of New Orleans that makes it, truly, “The Big Easy.” Despite its oft-hellish weather, high crime rate, and sweeping blight and poverty (largely kept out of view of free-spending tourists)—New Orleans is a jubilant city. It might get washed away any day, right?—so residents live in the moment, enjoying life rather than grinding away to see how much they can accomplish and how fast. I’m reminded of something the poet May Sarton wrote about New Orleans’s high ambassador, Louis Armstrong: “Something shone from that man, a rare thing, a real joy. It is becoming exceedingly rare among artists of any kind. And I have an idea that those who can and do communicate it are always people who have had a hard time.”
This feeling is always present in New Orleans, and Mardi Gras is its most public and concentrated expression. The vibe on Fat Tuesday is equal parts indulgently selfish—“Do whatcha wanna” is the day’s mission statement—but also joyfully communal. Holidays like Christmas and Thanksgiving are celebrated with our family and friends, but Mardi Gras in New Orleans is celebrated with everyone. There are private gatherings, of course, but Fat Tuesday really takes place outside, on the bumpy streets that host one unified, citywide party that’s pageant, parade and pow-wow all rolled into one and dusted with glitter.
Maybe that’s why my Fat Tuesday, cold and damp with a dusting of only plain white snow flurries, felt sad and empty. I didn’t feel relief at avoiding the madness back “home”: actually I did everything to remind myself of it, even watching one of Treme’s accurate Fat Tuesday episodes. But Mardi Gras isn’t something to be celebrated in abstentia—you’re either in or you’re out. More to the point: tourists may have paid to enjoy Fat Tuesday, but I had earned it as a resident of New Orleans. It was mine for the taking, gussied up in feathers and fake eyelashes and too much glitter and way too many beads, but I hadn’t claimed it. Instead, there I was, a thousand miles away, finally knowing—how does that song go?—what it means to miss New Orleans.
Elias Keller has published short fiction in the 3288 Review, Atlas + Alice, Oblong, Literary Orphans, Crack the Spine, Wordhaus, Every Day Fiction, APIARY, and elsewhere. He is a Philadelphia native and currently lives in New Orleans. www.eliaskeller.com.
Belle Rêve Literary Journal is a southern literary experience. Our mission is to capture everything that makes the South and its residents unique through the best contemporary literature we can find. We publish new works weekly.
Passionately Ran, Compassionately Fed.