Photo Credit: Nikos Koutoulas
Henry’s last suicide experiment was at the end of January. His sister, Mia, discovered him slumped over the kitchen table in his apartment, cheek resting in a pool of vomit. Six weeks later, while she sat at her piano, Joplin, musing over notes and phrases, Henry reappeared. He entered her house without knocking, as was his style.
“Hey,” he said.
“Heard you and Joplin talking. Sounded nice. Manilow?”
“Very funny,” Mia said, holding back a smile. “Ravel.” She studied her brother’s face, pale cream, eyes underscored by dark seams, chin covered with rusty stubble. “You look like hell,” she said.
“Thanks. Nice to see you too, sis,” he said, chuckling.
“How was rehab?”
“It was surprisingly helpful. Got a new plan.”
“Really? Does it involve sticking your head into an oven?”
“Nobody kills themselves that way anymore, Mia.”
“Oh sorry, I’m not wise in the way of contemporary suicide methods,” she said, staring at him coolly. “I’m glad you got some help, but I’m still pretty pissed at you.”
“I’m sorry. I wish I could explain, but it would sound lame.”
“Okay.” He sighed and examined his fingernails. “I guess I’m just trying to figure a few things out.” He paused. “I wish I was more like you. That I could disappear into music the way you do—the way Dad did. I know you discover something special in the sounds, and you affect those listening and don’t even realize it. That is an amazing gift. I envy it. You’re connected to him in a way that I never will be.”
Mia shook her head. “So by trying to kill yourself, you feel more connected to him? What a load of crap. It’s been ten years since he died. At some point, we just have to move on and try to live a better life. I doubt we’ll ever know why he did it, since he didn’t bother to leave a note. Music certainly hasn’t told me why; it just makes me feel better.”
“No, there’s more to it than that. You uncover something when you play. Dad did too. Outside your playing, I never discover anything that surprises me. I never find answers.”
“You swallowed a bottle of pills and drank a fifth of bourbon, what does that have to do with finding answers? I think it has more to do with being a coward, and disregarding everyone who loves you, which is exactly what Dad did!” Mia stared at the sheet music in front of her, lips drawn, blinking back tears.
“I see something in that moment before everything fades; a glimpse of something more. It’s hard to explain…”
“Seven so-called experiments in the last ten years. You are eventually going to screw up and it will be permanent, and still you’ll have no answers. I’ll be left alone to fade away, just like Mom did.”
“You’re stronger than that, Mia.” Henry watched her with shining eyes. “You’re stronger than both of them.”
“So are you, brother.”
He nodded, wearing a slight smile. “I’m going to make a change for the better, I promise.” He grew quiet, eyes on her. Mia traced the black keys with her index finger, but did not play. Henry punched her arm playfully. “So, what have you been up to? You meet anyone interesting while I’ve been away?”
“Nice subject change. Very smooth.”
“Come on! Enough heavy stuff. I haven’t talked to you forever. I want to know what’s been going on.”
“Let’s see, there’s Sam at the rec hall. Joseph at the old folk’s home. Eric at the community theater…”
“Not pianos, Mia, men. Are you seeing anyone who is actually human?”
“Why would I want to do that?” she said. “Men aren’t nearly as interesting as pianos.”
“You’re a little disturbed.” He laughed. “If the pianos didn’t talk back so incredibly well, I’d really worry about you.”
“Oh, I’m a little disturbed?” she said, and Henry grinned. “You hear that Joplin?” She placed her fingers lightly on the keys. “We’ve got something to say about that, don’t we?” She began to play Chopin, glancing once at Henry. His eyes were closed, head tilted to one side, face smooth, listening. She ended the piece with a couple bars from “Copacabana” and he grinned.
He looks so much like Dad.
Mia returned her focus to Joplin, rolling into a Haydn Sonata, closing her eyes. When she opened them again, Henry was gone.
It was May, two months since Henry’s disappearance. Mia ran her fingers along Joplin and examined the dusty smudge on her fingertips. She had not touched him since Henry’s disappearance, not even to lift the key cover and run her finger along the keys.
There were no answers under there.
June. The evening was warm and pleasant, crickets sang as the heat made way for the cool ocean air. Mia walked to fill the waiting space, otherwise her mind would crawl to unspeakable places: Henry hanging by a rope from the stout branch of an Oak tree; Henry pale and dead in a small town motel; Henry locked in the garage with the engine running…
She paused in front of The Candlestick, a divey Italian joint trying to be hip, succeeding in being tacky. A man sat alone at a table in the window, his hair, strawberry-blonde. He looked up and caught her gaze, his eyebrows raised. He nodded to her.
I am harmless. I am lonely. Please sit with me.
Mia pushed through the front door of the restaurant, staring at the man. He was older than Henry; the nose too pointy, eyes blue instead of dark brown, but the hair was exactly the same cut and color.
She stopped short when she noticed a boxy form over the man’s shoulder. A Boston upright from the 1920s sat against the back wall, a dashing instrument with clean lines and firm shoulders. She took a step forward.
What is such an exquisite creature doing in this place, tucked away in the corner where no one speaks to it?
The man at the table rose, smiling. He extended a hand, but she brushed past him.
She discovered his name was George—the piano, not the man—and they bonded immediately. She and George discussed Vivaldi for thirty minutes and when they finished their conversation, the restaurant had become true to its intentions.
Stay close with old friends. Don’t let them gather dust, George whispered between the notes. Mia left the restaurant perplexed, while the cheeks of the other patrons were rosy, even the man remained, alone at his table, smiling faintly. She barely heard their applause as she slid out the front entrance.
Henry was wrong about finding answers in music. George, though spirited and bright, had not revealed any helpful information, only more questions.
July. The days drifted by since Henry’s disappearance, Joplin, silent, solemn, and ignored. Then Mia made a hopeful discovery: she found Henry’s shotgun in his apartment, wrapped in a quilt and tucked in his bedroom closet. This discovery erased one of several horrible scenarios from her imagination.
The discovery of the shotgun put Mia in a daring mood, and during her evening walk, she ventured into the mansion district, passing one Victorian after another. At the end of the block, she heard laughter and happy banter as she approached a sprawling, three-story structure, painted dark green with blue-and-gold trim. People milled about the wraparound porch dressed in long gowns and black jackets. Mia wandered up the front steps, drawn by the warmly lit interior. A thin woman with the bulging wide-set eyes and long face of a Nubian goat, nodded to her, eyeing her sweatpants and hoodie with a thin smile. She slid past the woman toward a large oval mirror with a gilded frame, and for a moment, her mother stood there, looking back at her, tired and drawn. Then, something else in the mirror caught her attention.
An old mahogany upright sat against the far wall of the parlor, with a lovely carved front and ivory keys. He had to be at least seventy-five years old! She exhaled and wormed her way through the crowd over to him.
A small placard rested on the piano—antique, please do not play! She tossed the placard to the floor and lifted the key cover, the action a secret thing. What came next, even though it was between her and Victor, the name he whispered to her when the key cover rose, could not remain a secret.
She sat on the worn leather cushion and rested her fingers on the keys. She struck the first chord, and the conversation flowed—he was a dashing old boy, and a bit of a devil!
He told her about his life at the mansion. The owners traveled often, but when they were home, the house brimmed with activity. He enjoyed conversing with the owner’s young children, their rhythmic banging—his laughter.
Some say this place is haunted.
People often heard music coming from the mansion when no one was home, but it was only Victor. He spoke to the dusty drapes, the overstuffed chairs, the grandfather clock that chimed every hour, and the mice that scurried inside the walls. They were all his friends.
I would gladly welcome a ghost too, as long as he or she played.
They ended their discussion with Chopin, perfect conversation for this particular crowd, whose own discussions ceased as they eavesdropped on Mia and Victor’s intimate musings.
Mia, don’t let the things right in front of you disappear into the familiar, you may miss something important.
“What?” Mia said, as the conversation ended. She stood, frowning slightly. The sound of applause filled the room. She turned and smiled shyly at the partygoers jammed into the room behind her. A hand fell upon her upper arm, squeezing, and the Nubian-goat-woman guided her from the room, smiling brightly at the other guests. She guided Mia out the front door, her narrow face no longer friendly.
“I don’t know who you are, but you were not invited to this function. How dare you barge in here,” she chuffed. “That piano is an antique. You could have damaged it. I really should call the police.”
“Every piano longs to be played, not tucked away in some back room to collect dust. Victor is no different!”
“Victor? What on earth are you talking about?”
Mia shook her head and jogged down the steps, leaving the woman in her wake. Victor would be okay. Their conversation echoed in her head as she walked. When she arrived home an hour later, she ran her fingers over Joplin’s key cover, but did not raise it. Instead, she took Henry’s shotgun and sat on the couch, pressing the cool steel against her cheek, closing her eyes.
“Where are you, Henry?” she whispered.
August. It was early morning, but warm already. The air was heavy as she walked through the sleepy streets.
Still no word from Henry.
Still no words with Joplin.
Mia, tetchy from a lack of sleep, longed to talk with Paul, one of her oldest friends.
She pushed open the heavy side door of the cathedral. The early morning light seeped through the stained-glass windows, creating pastel smudges on the gray tile. She rushed to the altar, past the pulpit, and found Paul there, in his proper place, beneath the rose window. He was a humble spinet, overshadowed by the clunky pipe organ. Mia frowned at the organ—whiny, impudent, attention-craver!
She pulled up to Paul and ran her fingers over his keys. She caressed Middle C, applying gentle pressure, smiling at the most familiar of sounds. Her other fingers made their selections, and she and Paul discussed Bach, Handel, a little Scarlatti, but not Debussy, not here, never here. After a while, they progressed to a comfortable silence. She leaned her head on the arch of his music stand and let out a shaky sigh.
“I love you, Paul,” she whispered. Her eyes drifted to the main room of the church, where the pews should have been empty, but were not. The congregation murmured. One hundred faces looked back at her. Over her shoulder, Father O’Brien stood smiling, his hands clasped together. Mia’s cheeks grew warm.
“Hello, Father,” she said hoarsely.
“Sorry, Father, I forgot it was Sunday.”
“That’s okay,” he said. “Please stay. We’re going to sing.”
“Thank you, but I really should go,” she whispered, getting up.
“Please come back again. I so enjoy hearing you play, even when you interrupt my sermon. Your notes are always lovely.”
Head lowered, she shuffled to the side door, bursting into the sunshine, a smattering of applause following her out the door. Moments later, singing floated from the interior of the cathedral, led by Father Obrien’s rich baritone. Mia leaned against a statue of the Virgin Mary and started to cry. Henry was gone. The pianos did not know where he was, they responded in frivolous tones. Life is perfect, Mia. Life is beautiful. Listen to us, we know the truth. Everything is going to be okay.
But Mia did not believe them. She believed her brother was dead.
September. The air smelled like snow. Henry had been gone for over six months. Mia walked downtown, catching her reflection in the broad window of a corner pub called the Moosehead Bar. Her hair sprouted from her knit hat in frizzy waves, and her puffy winter jacket made her appear about thirty pounds heavier than she actually was. She looked a little like her stout neighbor, Mrs. Tubac, who Henry always called “Mrs. Tuba.” She laughed, but the sound caught when she spotted a familiar bulk inside the bar. She pressed her face to the glass, the tip of her nose pushing up into the snout of a pig. Her breath fogged the glass and she swiped at it impatiently.
The bar was crowded with Happy Hour customers. Several glanced at her—the strange tuba-pig-woman. The object that had caught her attention was against the far wall, but there were people in the way. She needed to get a better look.
The bartender, an attractive man with straw-colored hair and hazel eyes, nodded to her as she approached. She blinked, her cheeks growing hot. Over his shoulder, the head of a moose hung on the wall, a cigarette dangled from its mouth.
A real man, Mia. You should talk to him. Henry’s voice said from inside her head.
“Shut up!” she said.
“Pardon?” the bartender said.
“Oh… um… I’ll have a glass of milk,” she said. In the mirror behind the bar, her cheeks were the color of a beet.
“You got it,” he said. She stared at the moose until the bartender slid a frosted glass of milk toward her. She tried to smile, but her mouth crimped into a crooked line. She placed a ten on the bar. Placing the milk on a stool, she slid onto the piano’s bench, sweeping her fingers lightly over the chipped keys.
He was a charming old fellow. His name was Louis. Lou for short.
The conversation was easy. They bantered like old friends, discussing ragtime and the blues, and musing about Scott Joplin. They argued about Rachmaninoff, and disagreed very loudly over Beethoven—a discussion close to perfection. A cheer erupted when she struck the final notes, and she smiled at the eavesdroppers. She grinned at Lou; their lively conversation had lifted her spirits.
“Thank you, Lou,” she whispered.
She glanced at the bartender on the way to the door. He looked back with sparkling eyes.
“That was amazing,” he said. “I hope you come back and play for us again.”
“I will,” she said softly. “My brother would like this place.”
“I’ll have a glass of milk waiting for you.”
October. Mia retrieved the paper from the front step. Her skin prickled and she turned. The empty porch swing swayed in the autumn breeze. It felt like someone had been standing there just seconds ago. She shivered.
“Henry?” she said, eyes drifting to the garage. She had checked there right after Henry disappeared, but hadn’t been in there since. Suddenly she had a sick feeling.
She descended the porch steps, her breath creating frothy plumes in the crisp air. She pushed the side door of the garage open and the thick odor of exhaust assaulted her. The family station wagon was parked inside; her father slumped over the steering wheel.
Except it was not her father, but her brother.
“No!” she yelled, the sound snapping her back to the present. The garage was empty and clean, the walls void of any rakes, shovels, gardening tools. There was no vehicle parked inside. It was just as they had left it, years ago. She walked back to the house on quaking legs and went directly to Joplin. She swiped at the dust on his surface and spread a piece of sheet music above the keys, the paper whispering excitedly.
“I’m so sorry,” she whispered, lifting the key cover. She looked down and gasped. A folded slip of paper sat squarely on Middle C, Mia written on it in Henry’s handwriting. She ran her thumb across the writing, staring in disbelief.
Her hands shook as she unfolded the note. She read each precious sentence, eyes lingering on the last line.
Keep playing. I’ll be back soon.
“You knew where he was all this time,” she whispered to Joplin.
She pressed the letter to her chest, before refolding it and placing it on top of Joplin. Her fingers fell to the keys. Together, they discovered new notes and released them into the air.
There was a soft jingling behind her, and she spun around on the bench. A figure filled the doorway. The falling sun cast an orange glow around his head, making his hair appear on fire, but that was the true color, strawberry-blonde. Her father. Her father’s ghost.
Hall Jameson is a writer and fine art photographer who lives in Helena, Montana. Her writing and artwork has recently appeared, or is forthcoming in, Crossed Out Magazine, 42 Magazine, Redivider, and Eric’s Hysterics. When she’s not writing or taking photographs, Hall enjoys hiking, playing the piano, and cat wrangling. Email: halljameson[at]hotmail.com