Thursday, April 28, 2011

The Five-Chord

fiction by Ryan Rickrode

Early in the morning, before the Hospice nurse lets herself in, Gladys goes to the piano. She slides her feet into the pink slippers she’ll be wearing the rest of the day, and she slowly shuffles into the sitting room. The long walk from the dining room, which is now her bedroom, leaves her pink sweater swelling with short wheezing breaths. It’s been a long time since she’s been upstairs. Sometimes she wonders about the dust up there.

Later the nurse will ask in a loud, perky voice, “What have you been up to today, Gladys?” and Gladys will matter-of-factly reply, “I was playing the piano. I’ve practiced an hour a day ever since I was a little girl.” Because Gladys grew up on a little Virginia farm, she’ll say it “pie-anna.”

The conversation will die there, it always does, and the nurse—Jenny or Janice or Janet, Gladys can’t remember—will check the oxygen tank squatting beside the floral-print sofa and then take the garbage out while Gladys watches Jeopardy! She’s stopped asking Gladys to play something for her. Gladys’s answer has always invariably been, “No, I’d rather not,” and the nurse secretly suspects that Gladys, poor soul, doesn’t play the piano at all anymore.
But the nurse will not be here for another hour, and Gladys is carefully lowering herself onto the piano bench. A single blade of light slips past the heavy red curtains and falls across the genuine-ivory keys of the upright. The instrument is crowned with pictures, framed photos of weddings and graduations and grandchildren that are scattered across the country, but the pictures don’t matter much anymore. She can hardly see them. It’s the feel of the ivory and the sound of the hammers on the strings that counts.

From the basket beside the bench, Gladys selects a yellowed book with a creased cover, and she smoothes it out before her on the piano. She takes a breath. Then she gently lowers her gnarled fingers onto the keys. Salient blue veins worm across the backs of her bony grey hands as her thumbs tenderly split middle C.

The cool touch of the ivory opens up something deep inside of Gladys, like water flowing out of rock, and the music of her memory pours out into the room. Thunderous bass notes pulse like a beating heart, resounding from a time when her slender fingers could stretch a full octave. Hours and hours of scales, major and minor, and Hannon finger exercises flutter in the air like tonal butterflies while lofty arpeggios span the ceiling, glossed together by a soft touch of the sostenuto pedal. Then comes that glaring moment of dissonance that had made her cry at her first recital when she was only nine years old. Mostly, though, the sounds are beautiful, like her mother’s voice standing stiff behind her, counting softly and steadily, “One, two, three, four, One, two, three, four.” She counts softly, steadily, until the voice become’s Gladys’s own and Peter, Christopher, Mary, and Charles all sit in turn, plunking out the melodies of the old hymns while she stands behind the piano bench. All her children had quit piano lessons, though Christopher had taught himself to play the guitar, and that was some consolation.

“Well done,” says her mother from over her shoulder, and Gladys feels a warm rush in her smooth, girlish cheeks like hot chocolate on the stove, and her children, no longer bound by frames and banished by myopia, gather around her singing “Silent Night” and “Jingle Bells” as soft late-December snow brushes against the windowpanes. Then Mary’s sitting cross-legged on the floor leaning against the upright while Gladys plays those awful Beatles because Mary had loved them so and the book had been Mary’s Christmas present to her, but then “Eight Days a Week” gives way to the sound of a song Gladys had written once. It was in the key of D, and she never played it for anyone. Then comes the sweet dissonance and the soft smack of Thomas’s lips on the back of her neck as he came home from the factory. She always played the wrong notes when he did that.

And she can hear Mozart shimmering like starlight in a pool beneath her fingertips. God, how she loved Mozart and Bach and the old-time hymns and the mornings when she would pour herself over the keys releasing into the air the balanced, lyrical phrases of Mozart’s themes and variations. They flow through her hair like the breeze. Mozart is the most perfect thing she has ever heard. To Gladys, the pure resolution of the five-chord melting into the tonic has always sounded like going home. It was almost more beautiful than she could stand. “Jesu Joy of Man’s Desiring” and “I Love to Tell the Story” and the third movement of “Sonata #6 in D” and “A Mighty Fortress is Our God” and a dozen other beautiful sounds are all welling up in the room now, cool and clear like her soul is a spring, and her ears drink them in as the sitting room fills with the glory of God. Because it had been in the sonatas and the minuets and the preludes and the hymns where she had always tasted her true God-given purpose and had drunk it deeply and had known she was alive.

Gladys returns to her senses. She’s still sitting at the piano bench, and the sitting room is still as silent as a prayer whispered into a pillow. Her hands have not moved, and for a moment Gladys reflects on how terrible her posture has become, how slowly over the past ten years her neck has sunk into a permanent shrug. Her mother would swat her fingers with the metal-edged ruler if she were alive to see how curled and claw-like her daughter’s fingers had become on the keys.

Gladys takes another quivering breath. Then she leans forward and stares hard at the blurry black notes on the page, and she begins to play stark, naked quarter notes. The tempo is grinding but stubbornly steady. Her sweater swells and empties with every beat, and her knuckles ache. Even the sunlight seems to weigh on her hands as she continues to pray in slow, agonized quarter notes, and in the living room, the Hospice nurse, early for once, listens without breathing.

Ryan Rickrode is off to the University of Montana next year where he'll be beginning working on earning his MFA.  During his time at Susquehanna, he's been a fiction genre editor for RiverCraft, a head editor of The Susquehanna Review, and the creator of Logogram.  His work has appeared in RiverCraft, Essay, Outrageous Fortune, Susquehanna Currents, and plain china.  He was recently awarded the Gary and Elizabeth Fincke Senior Portfolio Prize.

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