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.
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.
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Passionately Ran, Compassionately Fed.