SNHU MFA Prose Winner from the 2010 issue
Opus No. 1
His first action upon moving back home was to fire the nurse: she was a smoker. The first time he talked to her on the phone, he knew. He could hear the garbled sound of her voice, the sound of someone speaking out of the side of their mouth, and then he heard the flick of the lighter. When he asked her about it, she said it must have been a bad connection, that she was overcoming a cold. When he met her, the smell from her clothes was so overpowering that he couldn’t pay attention to her instructions. How much did she smoke? Not a lot, she answered. The smell was from her boyfriend and his car. He smoked like a chimney. And this was the only winter coat she had.
They stood on the front porch, Teresa shivering in two sweaters and the thick winter coat. Arthur stood in his Brooks Brothers shirt, his sweater slung over his arm. “Do you smoke in the house?”
“No, sir. Never, never. There’s a dying man in there.” She extinguished the cigarette on the porch railing and threw it into the bushes.
“Mmm-hmm.” Arthur asked her to write down all the caretaking instructions for his father: changing the beds, his pill schedule, how to work the nebulizer.
The next day as he walked in, she rushed to empty an ashtray into the trash under the sink. He handed her a long, blue peacoat he had bought her the evening before as a severance package. “Thank you, Teresa.”
“I guess this means I now have to dress myself, doesn’t it?” said James.
“Yes, Dad. It does.”
James shrugged and lifted off the covers. His white t-shirt was soaked with sweat, and his spindly legs splayed out of his boxers like bows out of open timpani drums. Arthur helped lift his father to a sitting position and walked downstairs to get breakfast ready and put on some Gregorian chant, the one type of music he knew his father hated, and that Arthur could claim as his own.
The pans were still in the same place, but they were new. He found himself surprised that he missed the old ones, with their chips in the color where the sealant had worn off, the burnt patches on the bottom and the wooden handles. The new ones didn’t have wooden handles for that matter. He heard his father’s cane banging on the steps as he walked down, the shuffle of his feet. Boom-ffft-ffft. Boomffft- ffft. His father was pounding out a waltz, walking down the steps.
Arthur chopped a grapefruit in half, poured some coffee, bagels, cream cheese, pills. His father sidled into his chair just as Arthur was putting the tray onto the table.
“You aren’t going to make me pray, are you?” James asked.
His father had been a smoker his whole life. Arthur hated it, and would hear his mother telling James to quit smoking, that he was lucky he played violin because he would be screwed if he played wind or brass. Susan had gotten to the point where she told James to smoke outside. Arthur would follow his father around, hoping to catch him in the act. He stooped at the corner of the house as his dad smoked on the porch. He peeked outside the bathroom window, watching his dad light up underneath the swaying clothesline. His mother had a look of quiet resignation every time his father went outside. Arthur felt by spying that he had some power of blackmail over his dad. Early on he wanted his dad to quit, but as years went on he viewed it as just another thing his father was incapable of doing for the family. He felt guilty that he was passively rooting for his dad to keep smoking, that he had lost vigilance. He grew to hate the sound of lighters, of the burning of the paper when someone took a puff, the tapping of a pack of cigarettes against the flat of the hand. During his prayers, after his thanks and asking for assistance with his piano and clarinet lessons, he would ask that his dad stop smoking. After a certain point he asked for forgiveness for not asking that his dad stop smoking.
His first music teacher had been his father, with all the results one would expect. They would sit at the old piano, James showing Arthur where to place his fingers, how to play his scales, gently spreading Arthur’s fingers across five keys: E major. Arthur pounded the keys in unison, his fingers unbending. With his fingers close together he could move them around, and he never understood why he wasn’t allowed to play like that. He wasn’t able to reach the proper chords, but his fingers had better mobility and he played with slightly more tonality.
“That’s not the right way, though,” James would say. “Let me show you.” And he followed up with arpeggios and cascading scales. “Like that. Just like that.”
Their next lesson would be in three weeks, when James returned from the European concerts.
Arthur’s mother watched him from outside his room, her brow furrowed, her head cocked to one side, a bewildered expression on her face. They were not a church-going family. Arthur knelt in front of his bed, hands clasped, whispering furiously. A Bible sat open on his bed in front of him. He had heard the creaking of the floor stop outside his door, and he squeezed his eyes tighter. He asked for strength, he asked for the school to repeat the recorder lesson, asked that the lesson not be just a one time thing. He asked God for direction, and what instrument would God want him to play. He asked that the legs of the piano snap off so it would crash into the floor, or for all of its hammers to somehow disappear.
“It’s not hard, Artie.” James closed the newspaper while they sat on the stool. “You have the right notes. You just need to spread your hands a bit further. Let me see them.”
Arthur lifted his fingers to his father. His fingers resembled staff paper, pressed against each other, the knuckles whole notes. His father grabbed the fingers and began spreading them apart. “Tell me when it hurts.” Truth was, it didn’t hurt, and Arthur watched as his extended fingers looked like the bones inside a batwing, repulsed and intrigued by the veins in the webbing. “And that doesn’t hurt?”
He shook his head. “No.”
“Then I don’t see why you can’t hit the notes faster. Your scales are all off.”
“Maybe I could just play the slow songs.”
“No pianist only plays the slow songs.” He folded the paper on top of the piano and walked across the room. He grabbed his violin and scratched out the opening bars of Dvorak’s String Quartet No. 12. “You would have to play allegro sometimes.” James returned the violin and bow to a resting position, dangling by his knees. Arthur imagined them as extensions of his father’s arms and wondered how someone would be able to write with violin hands.
Why did he have to come take care of dad? William ran a small independent record company in LA, and Dawn was a curator at an art museum in Chicago. Arthur, in Somerville, lived the closest and, as a high school guidance counselor, had the most disposable career. He hadn’t terribly minded leaving his job. He saw himself making some difference in some kids’ lives, but at this point he mostly felt he just occupied an office.
James had had a heart attack, the result of unchecked emphysema. A fairly obvious diagnosis Arthur had called it, given his father’s chronic smoking and increased wheezing; the deterioration of James’s health and the severity of his breathing had accelerated in the five years since his mother died. Since then his father was suspicious of all doctors and neglected all his checkups.
Before he moved in he read repeatedly Matthew’s words on forgiveness: For if ye forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly father will also forgive you; But if ye forgive not men their trespasses, neither will your father forgive your trespasses. He wasn’t moving back to take care of James Sanders. That was the man that he knew. He was moving back in to take care of his father.
The house hadn’t evolved in over forty years. The piano was gone. Pictures had changed on the wall and some basic technological advances had been made: push-button phone, microwave, a dishwasher that was never used. But the rest of the house stayed the same: the rocking chair, the ships wallpaper, faded brown afghans covering the sofa. Pictures of grandchildren sat on top of the TV, along with a rehearsed picture of Arthur, William, and Dawn. Arthur sat in between the two of them, a toothy smile and a squinted eye. He wore a bow tie. It was before they were about to leave to Italy, the only concert trip they ever took with their dad. Arthur scratched at his lower back, the same spot where William had dug in his knuckles during the picture to get Arthur to sit still.
There was a special guest musical lecturer from the Boston Symphony (not his dad) who was introducing the kids in Mrs. Taubes’ class to the four families of musical instruments: strings, woodwinds, brass, percussion. After giving a demonstration of all the instruments she had brought with her, she opened it up for the kids to try them out, and sign up for after school lessons with their chosen instrument, if they were so inclined. Arthur made a beeline for the woodwinds. He had watched her fingers as she played, closed together, tight, just like his hands on the piano. There didn’t seem to be much stretching of her fingers at all, and they stayed curved just like his were supposed to.
He picked up the recorder and looked at the instructor’s aide. He began to bring it up to his mouth and noticed a brown stain on the bottom lip, like a burn mark. He pulled it away and held it towards the aide. She grabbed the recorder from him and, after careful inspection, replaced the mouthpiece. He smiled and closed his lips around the new mouthpiece after hesitantly inspecting it. He blew a few notes, a whistle that stopped the class, and caused the clatter of a pair of drumsticks. His face flushed and he could feel all the eyes on him, the oversized kid with the tiny recorder. He waited until everyone was blaring and banging, plucking and strumming their chosen instruments, a beautiful chaos. He tried again, covering the holes of the notes the aide showed him, moving his tongue out of the way before he blew into the mouthpiece. It created a low drone like a muffled steamship.
Arthur pulled down the door to the attic. Dust and lint fell off the steps covering his shoes and formed an outline around them on the carpet. He tapped his shoes lightly on the edge of the wooden steps, and then wiped whatever marks the stairs may have made. His heart pounded harder than usual; it felt as if it had plunged in his body and was shivering in his gut. He had waited until his father was asleep; he didn’t want to be accused of being sentimental. The air was musty and dank. He ran his index finger over an old desk; his finger turning gray with dust. He wrapped the string from the light around his hand and yanked hard. Cobwebs, dead moths, a nuclear settling of dust covered everything. Arthur nudged his brother’s old skateboard and picked up a fallen music stand. A hole had been scratched open in the far wall by squirrels, flakes of insulation littering the floor. Another project to add to his list.
He pushed aside an old chest, moving end tables, meticulously eyeing everything: a photo album; Dawn’s old report cards; Saturday Evening Posts; a broken drum set, a hole kicked in to the bass drum by his brother. He moved aside clothes sealed in bags like protective armor. He unzipped one about an inch and had to zip it back up, the smell of stale mothballs overpowering his sense of vision. Those items he marked for future personal consumption he stacked in a pile at his feet. At each scurry of a mouse in the walls, or the natural creaking of steps with the settling of the house, he peeked towards the door, expecting to see his father.
Arthur’s breathing sounded unbearably loud. His throat was dehydrated from the stagnant air. He started coughing, the air so dry he continued to cough until he couldn’t cover his mouth anymore. He could feel sweat dripping through his moustache. He had been in the room for only about ten minutes and already he was unbuttoning his shirt. He moved a couple of old sofa cushions aside, and there it sat: his old clarinet case, and, next to it, his first recorder. The recorder was covered in dust and stained with age, but he could tell with a little washing and polishing it could gleam white again. He picked it up, fumbled his fingers over the holes, licked his lips and closed them around the mouthpiece. He immediately regretted that decision; the dirt and dust settling on his tongue made his whole body feel dry and infected. He imagined spores and bacteria raiding his body, microscopic insects crawling down his throat. He spat out repeatedly, wiped the mouthpiece under his armpit, and placed the recorder under his arm. Then, after verifying the strength of the case’s handle, he pulled the light off and inched his way down the steps, holding both the case and the recorder in his hand. He closed up the door, and headed into his bedroom.
Arthur was to have a recital at the Boston Symphony, a concert featuring young musicians, each giving a solo performance. He would be performing the adagio of Mozart’s Gran Partita. He had been practicing for weeks. He knew it from the first rusty bars, to the lilting sustain of the coda, even incorporating the squeak of the basset horn before it gave way to his clarinet. He could emulate the melancholy sound of the oboe handing off to the clarinet. He could play the long sustains, and colored the melody, slowing it down with a deliberation of notes and breaths. With one person playing the piece, the fullness of it would be lost: he couldn’t recreate all thirteen instruments. The piece he originally wanted to play was Desprez’s Missa L’homme armé super voces musicales, but his father had objected: Arthur didn’t have the breathing or lungs for such a solemn piece, and no one at the concert wanted to hear an Agnus Dei, Arthur’s second choice, unless it was being sung. They settled on the Gran Partita: slow and magisterial, but not largo or lento, so it wouldn’t bore anyone, and it wouldn’t require much reed sharpening.
Dusk was rising just beyond the trees, the sun teetering on the edge of sleep, those few minutes when families decide whether to turn on the lights or hold out for one more minute of daylight. He looked in through the windows of the homes they passed, into the living rooms where families were gathering around to watch TV, to talk, gathering around the kitchen table for dinner. He could see the moon low in the sky, punctured by the incomplete Prudential building. He imagined the building as a giant woodwind, all the open windows his keys.
“What do you want for breakfast today, Dad?” Arthur stirred cream into his coffee.
James sat on the other side of the breakfast table, poring over a crossword puzzle, his eyes saucers through his glasses. “Bacon.” It had become his customary answer.
“Too much salt, Dad. You know that. How about some eggs instead?”
“I’m really tired of grapefruit.”
“I asked if you wanted eggs, Dad. It’s only been grapefruit for a week.” In the time that Arthur had moved back in, he had thrown out most of the food his father was eating, inspecting the boxes for sodium content. He would give his father one treat per week, and today it would be bacon. He had bought some at the store the day before, figuring he might as well have some on hand for when he aimed for appeasement.
“You know what I really want?”
James put his pen down and looked up with a greasy smile. “A cigarette.”
Arthur stirred some more cream, watching the swirls dissolve away. He put the spoon in the sink, and pulled a carton of eggs out of the refrigerator.
“I haven’t had one in over five years, Artie. C’mon. Give me a break. It used to be a sign of success, a cigarette was.”
Arthur glared at him from over the lip of his coffee cup. “You. Are not. Having. A cigarette. Doctor’s. Orders.”
“Doctor me. And Doctor Anstecker.”
James fumed out of his nose, and signed deeply, biting into his bottom lip. He returned to the crossword.
Arthur went into the living room and turned up the stereo, the classical station strangely enough playing Ave Maria. He stood there listening to the words, the melody. He took a few deep breaths. This is what it felt like to be a parent, he thought. He returned to the kitchen.
His father had calmed down almost as if nothing had happened and was absorbed in the crossword, blowing waves across his tea.
“18 Down. Violin player Perlman. Six letters.” James looked up from the paper giving Arthur a conspiratorial look. “Itzhak! When are they going to have a hard one in here? Violinist James blank, for instance? Seven letters.”
Arthur held in a laugh, amused at his father’s grandiosity, wishing it were self-awareness or irony. “I don’t know Dad. I don’t think that would be a difficult one.”
His father filled in ‘Itzhak’ and returned to the puzzle. “Yeah, you’re probably right.”
Arthur pretended to rummage in the refrigerator, trying to time the announcement of bacon. He could hear his dad talking the puzzle out loud, but he couldn’t hear the exact words. “Hey, look what I found?” And he pulled out the package.
Later at breakfast his father put down the paper during Grace for the first time that week.
Arthur helped his dad to the couch. They had started a routine. After breakfast, they would sit and listen to whatever music his father chose, usually something atonal and difficult like Schoenberg, Webern, Antheil, Hindemith. Arthur wasn’t sure if his father liked these compositions or was just trying to prove to himself his appreciation for the theory. On Thursday he had requested Wagner’s Seigfried, the 1951 version that he had played on, of course. Arthur could only find it on LP in the house, and the record player wasn’t working. It was probably in the attic, he said.
“It’s so cluttered up there, anyway. Why don’t we buy a new one?” James said. They settled for Debussy’s La Mer, a version that did not feature James, but Arthur told him it did. He went out that afternoon and bought a new turntable.
After breakfast, much to Arthur’s surprise, his father asked for Bach’s St. John Passion, the first request for sacred music all week. During the evening couch recitals, they would listen to impressionism, violin quartets and light madrigals, but no sacred music yet. Arthur would usually sit with his father until he fell asleep, at which point he got up to do the dishes and other small chores and errands. Upon the first imploring in the first movement of the Passion, Arthur excused himself, his father nodding along, fingers playing imaginary fretwork.
Arthur went into the kitchen, wiped down the counter for a third time, but left the dishes in the sink. He went upstairs to his bedroom, where he had been practicing recorder for the past three nights since rescuing it from the attic.
Arthur wished that he passed out before he got on stage, saving him the embarrassment of having to perform, of having to be compared to his father. He peeked around the corner and could see the audience members smiling, looking over at the side of the curtain where he stood. Two older women wearing white hats and black veils petted tiny dogs in their laps. How did dogs get in here? From this distance, Arthur could see the ladies’ flappy smiles, and lipstick smeared around their lips. The announcer continued. “I have had the pleasure of knowing this young man since he was this tall.” Our Father, who art in heaven . . . The conductor held his hand to his knee. Arthur wanted to escape, to swing his clarinet at the announcer, Mr. Groteman, to run away. Hallowed by thy name. “His father is our very own James Sanders who, along with some of my esteemed colleagues, is playing in Washington tonight.” Thy kingdom come. “And can you believe they didn’t take me with them?” The audience chuckled obediently. Thy will be — Shut up! Stop laughing. “And in my early days as conductor of the Boston Symphony, I remember our next performer at one of our rehearsals, sitting in the first clarinetist’s chair and refusing to get up.” Where’d I leave off? Our Father who art . . . Just SHUT UP! “She played the rest of that rehearsal standing up and Arthur watched her the entire time.” Oh God Oh God Oh God. “So it is no surprise to me that he is standing here today, and will one day be performing along side his father. And it is an honor to introduce and conduct the next Sanders legacy, Arthur Sanders.”
His tie was choking him, his face overheating. He could feel tears welling up in his eyes. How embarrassing. The Great James Sanders’ son crying before his performance. It was the tie, he could say, it was cutting off his circulation. The audience’s clapping was slowing down. He wiped his eyes with his sleeves then took off his tie. Afterwards, he couldn’t remember the questions and answers with the conductor, only that his voice was barely audible, even into a microphone. He blinked at the audience repeatedly, clarinet still hanging at his side. He bowed to the audience. He raised the clarinet, licked his lips, and couldn’t blow. His fingers slipped a couple of times off the keys, they were sweating so badly. He had the song in his head, but he couldn’t play. He heard murmurs in the audience, worried sounds. He stared at his fingers, looked up to the ceiling, and licked his lips again, trying to swallow. A photographer’s camera bulb flashed and the mechanical whirring of the after shot buzzed in his head. A monster in his stomach, in his chest, was thumping to jump out. The audience must be able to see his heart beating out of his chest like a cartoon. The cacophony of sounds from the audience grew worse. He wanted to run off, but all the weight from his body had leaped down to his feet. He stared at the audience. He tasted the salt from his tears trickling into the corners of his closed mouth.
Mr. Groteman walked over to him and put a hand on his shoulder. Arthur looked up, thinking that his moustache had never looked faker. “Arthur?” he said in a quiet voice. “Are you okay?”
Arthur nodded and squeaked.
“You don’t have to perform if you don’t want to. Are you okay?”
He nodded again. The clarinet slipped from his grasp and clattered on the stage. A halting gasp emanated from the crowd.
Mr. Groteman put his arm around Arthur’s shoulders and nudged him towards the side of the stage. All the kids backstage looked at Arthur like he was contagious. A smattering of applause came from the audience. Arthur peeked through the side view looking for his mother, partially to see her reaction and partially hoping she had left. She was crying and clapping. He saw his brother clapping and Dawn trying to clap while pulling at their mother’s dress, but still smiling at the stage. And he swore he could see them clapping louder, and when the clapping died out, they continued to clap and to stand, until the eyes of everyone else forced them to stop applauding and sit down.
Months before he returned to take care of his father, he had been attending a Middlesex County guidance counselor’s conference at City Hall. It was raining outside and the traffic report had been atrocious. He decided to park at Alewife station and would ride the T to the conference. It would give him time to look over some notes. Changing over to the Green Line at Park Street, he saw a street musician, an elderly man with a neatly trimmed beard and a blue cardigan sweater, playing the recorder, and struck up a conversation with him. Arthur asked him if he played madrigals, and the man said, “At home I do. Down here I play Benny Goodman.” And he launched into a jazzy riff.
“I used to play the recorder,” Arthur said. As the train to Government Center rolled in, he ignored it, waiting for the man to engage. “Used to play the clarinet, too.”
“Really?” The man had stopped playing, waiting for the hustle and bustle to die down. “What made you stop?”
Arthur had no answer. This was an innocuous conversation he was having, and he didn’t want to ruin it. “I’m not sure,” he said. “I probably should.”
“You should. It’s fun.”
Arthur picked up a CD from the man, Jimmy Smith, reached into his wallet and threw a ten dollar bill into Jimmy’s hat. “Thanks.”
“Thank you. Hopefully, we’ll see you down here again.” Jimmy lifted his recorder towards Arthur and played a snake-charmer’s tune.
Later that afternoon, on his way back from the conference, Arthur sat on a crowded Red Line back to Alewife. He was thumbing the wrapper of Jimmy Smith’s CD, debating about opening it, but not wanting to put the plastic in his pockets given the absence of a trash barrel on the train. A crowd crammed into the cabin. Standing in front of him was a skinny young man wearing green pants and a T-shirt that said “God Fodder” amidst a curved swirl, shaped like a galaxy. Arthur stared at the shirt, unsure of what the saying meant. After a while he became aware that he was staring, and also aware that he was making the kid uncomfortable, some strange man staring at him.
Embarrassed, Arthur said, “I’m sorry. I was just looking at your shirt. What does it mean?”
The young man looked at Arthur, looked at the logo on his shirt, where a pocket should have been, then back at Arthur. “I don’t know. It’s just a band shirt. That’s the name of the album.”
The kid turned sideways, and Arthur looked back down to the CD. The kid got off at Central Square, and Arthur hoped that he hadn’t scared him off.
Later that night he was still thinking about the shirt and what the saying could have meant. He was still thinking about it up until he received a phone call about his father being rushed to the hospital with a heart attack.
When his father was asleep, during the day or at night, Arthur took up shop in the attic, hoping for inspiration, taking congress in the one room he didn’t spend much time in growing up. He closed the door so as not to wake his father, and brought the “father monitor” upstairs with him. He had installed a monitor system and programmed it to one-sided projection: he could hear his father, but James couldn’t hear him. His father still tended to yell through the house.
He had been slowly organizing the attic over the past few weeks with the intention of creating a place to escape. Boxes had been stacked against the wall, filled with the flotsam of his expired youth. He vacuumed and swept the floor, placed wire and pressure treated wood into the gaping window to keep the squirrels out, and nailed up more sheetrock into the wall where they had chewed through. His stamina had increased over the past few weeks: he could now stay in the stuffiness of the attic for an hour. The air quality had improved, since he had been opening the attic door on an almost nightly basis. He fixed an old wooden rocking chair, the joints of which had fallen out and the wood glue had flaked off. He placed a small end table next to the rocking chair, a makeshift country desk set.
He propped the music stand in front of him, even though he had no sheet music. The sheet music books that had littered the room had grown moldy and mildewed so he had thrown them out. He unlatched the clarinet case, lifting each latch separately and hesitating for a moment, relishing in each pop and snap. He flipped the lid open, and looked at the pieces; they gleamed despite their aged dullness. The upper and lower sections had to be pried out of their compartments; they hadn’t been removed in almost forty-five years. He had opened the case a couple of times since retrieving it from its resting place, but he hadn’t dared to pry them out.
The body and the bell had to be forced together as the cork had dried out over the years. Once affixed, he pulled the reeds off the desk, ran them between his lips, and slid them into the reed cork, and popped the cork in. He lifted the clarinet up to his mouth, a nervous, jittery feeling overcoming him. He felt like a schoolboy having sex for the first time, excited, nervous, unsure of what would happen next. He hadn’t touched a clarinet or a recorder since that night at the BSO recital; he wasn’t able to listen to woodwind music for years as a result, and had immersed himself in Bible study and chant, a land where no woodwinds existed. He licked his lips, and placed them around the reed. It sounded like a team of ducks being squeezed at once. He blew again and pictured a bleating goat. He laughed and straightened himself into performance posture. He tapped the music stand and pretended to flip the pages of imaginary sheet music, continuing until he found the song he wanted to play. And for the next hour he played the most abysmal squawking, the loudest bleating goat: the most beautiful, most natural sounds he had ever heard.
After a few weeks Arthur was beginning to develop an embouchure again. He had lost it over the years with the changing shape of his mouth and teeth. He hadn’t counted on how awkward his moustache would feel rubbing against the reeds. He had retrained himself on cutting and soaking reeds. Wood shavings were added to the spices of dust and nostalgia on the attic floor.
He built his confidence up slowly, starting on the recorder with “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star,” “Mary Had a Little Lamb,” and within a couple of weeks he was playing Doctor Gradus ad Parnassum and chromatic scales on clarinet. He would leave the room at night in a full sweat, and could feel phantom pressure on the tips of his fingers during the day, and later could see actual indentations on his fingertips, like the calluses of string players.
Within a month he had worked his way up to a particularly rousing rendition of “There Was an Old Lady Who Swallowed a Fly.” “It’s for my nephew,” he had told the librarian in Lexington, too embarrassed to admit that the instructional book was for him. But there were a lot of eighth-notes and glissando in there that people didn’t realize when playing it on woodwind.
He heard a sound of stirring from the monitor, and moments later heard his father’s cane rhythmically hitting the floor, the sounds of his father walking about. He began playing along with the rhythm of each pound, searching for the beat. Moments later he heard a thump and a clatter coming from the bottom of the steps.
“Artie!” his father yelled. “Artie!” followed by a hacking sound. Arthur abruptly rested the recorder on the stand and closed his eyes in frustration. He pushed himself up from the chair, and raced down the steps. “Dad? Are you all right?”
James’ coughs grew louder and more violent the closer Arthur came. At the bottom of the steps lay his father, headfirst, leaning against the wall, his right leg bent under him at a strange angle, his arm reaching up at full extension, clutching the railing. The cane lay in front of the door, at a crooked position that really bothered Arthur.
Arthur ran down the steps, lifting his dad’s head up, trying to get him on one step. His father screamed out in pain as Arthur touched his hips. “Hold on, Dad. Hold on.” He picked his father up, ignoring the moans and screams and put him on one step, then ran into the kitchen.
“Artie . . . ” His father trailed off.
He came back with ice and a couple of compresses from the kitchen where they were being kept in case of emergency. After applying the ice, he called the hospital, then sat waiting with his father.
James had dislocated his hip and was to stay in the hospital for two weeks. After much cajoling, the doctors released him after two days, with the strict stipulation that he was to stay in bed under constant supervision and personal assistance if he needed to navigate the stairs. Arthur was personally to see to the rehabilitation, or make sure someone was there who could.
Arthur carried his father up the stairs and sat him down on the bed. James would still do basic chores—dressing his upper body, shaving, brushing his teeth. Anything that put pressure on his lower body, including changing of pants or wiping, Arthur would help out if he had to.
His father went to sleep the night they returned, and Arthur went back up to the attic with a determination. No more nursery rhymes or children’s songs. It was time to get serious.
The Gran Partita was coming along. He had mastered it again. Now he only wondered the best time to unveil it. How would he show his father that he could play it? Would he walk into his bedroom like a child showing off his report card? Would he plan it as a surprise? He put the clarinet down, having finished another rehearsal of the Adagio, of the last trailing notes. It had been weeks since he swept. He collapsed the music stand and cleared the floor of everything in the way, moving the end table he had set up to the edge of the wall. He heard a rattling inside the table and pulled out the drawer. It was Jimmy Smith’s CD.
After sweeping, he went downstairs. He heard muttering sounds coming from his father’s room and pushed the door open slowly to see what was happening. His father was sitting up in bed, head bent forward, leaning against the headboard, hands clasped underneath his chin as if in prayer, eyes closed tightly. Arthur tip-toed down to the kitchen and pulled out the phonebook and stuck a Post-It onto the phone as a reminder to call in the morning.
On Tuesday, the agency sent Helga, a large German woman who it turned out had been classically trained as a singer. She stopped singing after Germany reunified, and moved to the States to do what she wanted: taking care of other people. Helga would only be needed for today, and possibly a couple of days after. Arthur’s plan would dictate that.
He drove to Alewife and got on the Red Line. He didn’t know if this would work, he didn’t even know if Jimmy would be there, but it was worth a shot, and the excitement made Arthur’s feet sweat. His feet slipped in his socks. He could feel the breath from his nose through his moustache. He stuck his tongue out to see if he could feel his breath on it, or if his moustache absorbed the air. A little kid sat across from him and smiled, and started doing the same thing, the kid’s mother smiling back when she saw Arthur. They repeated and mimicked each other until the mother and child disembarked at Harvard Square.
When he got to Park Street, Jimmy wasn’t there. He walked up the steps to the Green Line, and searched the outbound section, then the inbound section. He walked down the steps again to the Red Line, walking down the center island, and checking both sides of the tracks, listening for the spirited, hollow sound of Jimmy’s playing. The only musician at either side was a young bearded man with a keyboard, making alternating sounds of someone tuning a xylophone, or skinning a robot. Arthur felt Jimmy’s CD in his pocket poking into his leg. He walked gingerly, with a slight limp, trying not to rip his pants or break the CD. He wasn’t sure why he thought Jimmy would be here. What had he been thinking? He thought everyone was watching him. Who was this large middle-aged guy walking aimlessly on the T platforms? He waited until a few trains went by so any of the people who may have seen him get off wouldn’t see him get back on in the opposite direction.
Heading back to Alewife, he pulled the CD out of his pocket. It was still in its plastic packaging. He scratched the wrapping off, and pulled out the liner notes, being careful not to get thumbprints on the cover, or the disc, or to bend the liner notes. He scoured the listings, the acknowledgements, looking at the pictures of Jimmy wielding his clarinet. On the last page he saw the contact information.
“Artie? Is that you?” His father screamed when he walked through the door. Helga stood at the bottom of the stairs, staring at him with folded arms.
“He does not cooperate,” she said. “I try to get him to cooperate, but he does not cooperate. I do not work with him. I can’t do this, Mr. Sanders. You are a nice man, but your father,” she took a deep breath and exhaled, as if exhaling her past. “Your father . . . Von Karajan was not a nice man,” she said with finality.
Arthur nodded, hiding his confusion, and thanked Helga. After signing her papers for the agency, he went upstairs to check on his bellowing father.
“Are you okay, Dad?” The room smelled like shaving cream and coffee. Arthur had given him a treat of decaf that morning. James was flailing his arms trying to reach the pills on the bedside table. Arthur grabbed the pills and water and helped James into a sitting position, lifting the water up to his mouth. Another coughing fit ensued and water was spilled on Arthur’s shirt and shoes.
“What happened with Helga, Dad?”
“She’s not German,” he said.
“All Germans loved Herbert. She doesn’t. She can’t be German.”
Arthur shook his head in resignation. “Do I have to worry about this every time I need to get a temporary nurse?” His father’s eyes were focusing on Arthur’s left hand. He was still holding Jimmy’s CD.
“This? A friend gave it to me.”
“Mmm.” He coughed again. Arthur supported his back and gave him some more water when the coughing fit finished. “What is it?”
“Benny Goodman covers.”
James made a dismissive puffing sound with his lips then lolled his head back and forth from shoulder to shoulder like the settling of scales, before finally shrugging. “Meh.”
After a little bit of prodding, Arthur was able to get Jimmy to remember him. He had called the agency that produced the disc, and they were able to get Jimmy to call him back. He thought Arthur’s idea was good, but he wasn’t so sure of the timing. This Sunday morning would be the only time that would work for him anytime soon.
Sunday morning was church. Arthur breathed heavier, holding the receiver away from his ear. He hadn’t missed a Sunday mass in fortyfive years.
“Is Sunday the only day?”
His father’s room was above the kitchen, above where he stood. A giant crucifix hung on the wall above the phone, Arthur’s contribution to redecoration. He looked to the ceiling, hoping it had answers.
Thursday night he went up to the attic. He had run out of things to clean in the house, and figured the attic could use a good dusting, and he would hate for his clarinet case to incur any stains before he met with Jimmy. He swept the floors and washed them by hand, using a damp towel which he later threw out. Exhausted, but not wanting to walk over his still drying floor, he sat in his chair. He took note of his chest heaving, of his ragged breath. His arms ached from scouring the floor, dust and scrapes besotted the knees of his suit pants. His eyelids succumbed to their downward spiral. He unsuccessfully tried to will the clarinet case across the floor to him. He tipped back in the chair, on its hind legs, something he could not have done months earlier for fear it might strain, and put his hands behind his head.
After a few minutes, he stood up and resumed his planning, the front legs of the chair thudding against the floor. He pulled the clarinet out of its case, inspecting each section, wiping away the insides of the body and the mouthpiece with pipe cleaners. He left the reeds in their case, not wanting to make any noise, not wanting to interrupt the momentary repose of his cluttered mind. Even though his performance with Jimmy would not be live, it was the first performance he would be making in almost fifty years. He looked around the attic and could see the ropes on the curtains again, this time extending down through the attic door from the ceiling. He could see the audience, the hats of the ladies and veined hands of the men resting on their cheeks, their arms folded across their chests. And he pictured his father walking in, partway through his performance, violin under his arm, standing in the back, looking for his family and looking at his son on the stage, an air of honest reflection and resignation on his face that seemed to say: his son was not the legacy of the Sanders name, but rather a legacy of the Sanders family.
Arthur opened his eyes at the end of keying the adagio, wishing that the applause he imagined was real. Books stacked against the wall clapped their pages at him, the dusty furniture chanted his name, the antique lamps sang, even the scratching of the mice behind the walls sounded like cheering and eruptions for an encore.
Telling his dad he was going on a couple of errands—grocery shopping, post office, oil change—Arthur instead went to the Saturday afternoon mass. If he told his father the truth, James would be suspicious: Arthur never went to mass on Saturday. He thought many of his fellow worshipers were giving him double-takes as if he was an impostor. Those he did recognize seemed to give him a surprised smile. The pastor gave him a long nod. Arthur sat in the back next to an elderly couple who looked up at his size with a combination of intimidation and security. Arthur couldn’t remember the last time someone viewed his imposing weight in a positive light. He felt an almost imperceptible widening of his chest, an opening of himself.
During the sermon his mind drifted. What if he fouled up his playing? What if his dad figured everything out? His thoughts bounced to those of his father and his own guilt in leaving him alone with a new person. What if something happened while he was gone? Would Arthur be able to overcome that? Would his father forgive him? Could he forgive himself? They had made such progress over the past few months. He enjoyed the routine he had created: making his father breakfast, chopping grapefruit, the crotchety repartee over the crossword puzzle, in choosing the music for the day. He took comfort in the dependability of the schedule, of teaching his father how to dress, how to walk again after his hip surgery, these tiny shards of vulnerability that even his mother probably never saw. Arthur had taken to waking up before his father, and one morning, when going downstairs to make coffee, he found James sitting up in bed, handsclasped, a gilt-edge bible on his lap. Arthur didn’t know if his dad had started reading it because of a stereotypical old-age fear, or if his dad was reading it in the hope that Arthur would notice.
The pastor waxed during his sermon about journeys and boats and Jonah and the Whale. Arthur couldn’t pay attention, latching on to words he recognized like picking out faces in a crowd. Arthur’s mind sifted into the image of a boat, floating on the dulcet waves of melody. He left before communion was offered.
James was lying on the couch where Arthur had left him, the sounds of chant voluntary coming out of the speakers. Arthur picked up the newspaper that was sprawled on the floor next to the outstretched arm of his father, the pencil digging into the carpet, dangling from his fingertips. Folding it up, Arthur saw a section was circled in red ink, an arrow pointing to “17 Down: Local Musical Great,” The name “Sanders” filled out in letters so large they were barely contained by the square borders.
Arthur had dressed in a tan business suit and bright blue tie. The night before he had packed the tie in his bag, and had taken the suit, his clarinet and recorder into his car. He walked into his father’s office, the one room in the house he had mostly ignored since he had been home. Sitting on the desk was a walnut pipe rack from William, four pipes in the stand, the stems of a few more sticking out of the tobacco jar. He picked up a curved pipe he had bought as a Christmas gift as a kid: The Sherlock Holmes. The bell smelled of musty tobacco and mold. The others smelled empty. He put the pipe in his pocket and went upstairs to rehearse some more. The clarinet and recorder in the car, he stood in the middle of the attic, unsure of what to do for the evening. Downstairs he turned on the radio, the Saturday Evening Classical show, an unknown rendition of “Popule Meus Quid Feci Tibi?” coming from the speakers. He immersed himself into the sofa, listening to the strain of the strings, and conducted the children’s choir, waving his hands in the air.
He had secured a nurse, non-German. That morning he introduced James to Mimi, a young piano student who was working as an elderly care aide to help pay for school. He showed her around the house, showing her his father’s schedule. James called out, “Artie. Artie.” Arthur thought it sounded like a question, like a dog’s abandoned bark after its owners have left for the evening. As Arthur was about to leave, he sat with his father telling him he would be back later in the afternoon. James’ eyes looked past him and up the stairwell, towards the ceiling.
No one else had reserved the studio for Sunday, Jimmy assured Arthur: they could take as long as they wanted. Did he want to record the entire version or just the adagio? Jimmy had learned the whole thing just in case, and if his sections didn’t work it could easily be fixed with a couple of buttons: the marvels of technology. Could a copy be taken home that day? If not, how soon could Arthur have a copy? That all depended, Jimmy said. Let’s go.
They were to play just the adagio, Arthur decided. The headphones felt like bell horns over his ears and Arthur swore he could hear an echo. He blurted out the first few notes, a squawking that sounded more like a siren than the subdued four-note introduction.
“Let’s try that again,” Arthur said. They went through five takes before he took the headphones off.
“We don’t have to do this,” said Jimmy. “We can reschedule.”
Arthur took a few deep breaths, looking around the studio, staring at all the buttons and blinking lights. The faces of the audience grew out of the foam walls, howling at him. Jimmy leaned back in the chair, holding a banjo in his lap. He had the bearded smile of someone who thought a piece of candy solved the world’s problems. He plucked a couple of bars on his banjo and Arthur stood up and decided to go back in.
“Where have you been, Mr. Big Shot?” Arthur was still wearing his suit. Mimi sat with a laptop with James. As she hit the keyboard a piano sonata played in time out of the speakers. “She’s good,” James pointed at her.
Arthur loosened his tie and walked upstairs. Stripped down to his underwear, he lay back on the bed, pumped both arms into the air, and began laughing as tears creased down his face.
Dinner that night consisted of two big filets mignons, purple cauliflower, and garlic mashed potatoes, with a wild mushroom gravy, all his father’s favorites. Arthur had marinated the steaks for four hours in a mushroom bourbon sauce. He paid Mimi extra to stay longer and help him peel and mash the potatoes. He sent her to the store to buy fresh rosemary, garlic, the cauliflower, a gallon of chocolate peanut butter ice cream, and to pick up a tuxedo he had rented earlier in the week. He retrieved an 18-year-aged bottle of scotch from the basement that his father had been keeping; he wore gloves and brought a roll of paper towels with him. He had heard his father on the phone with William a few weeks earlier telling him he hadn’t had a chance to open the bottle yet, no.
After dinner they resumed their nightly positions, James on the couch, Arthur washing the dishes in the kitchen. He had put too much dish soap in the rinse and it flowed over the top. His heart fluttered as he did the dishes, water lapped over the edge of the sink and splattered on his feet. The soap spilled onto the counter.
“What’s so funny in there?” James yelled.
If his father had walked in right then, Arthur would have gathered the suds in his hands and hurled them at his father. He thought about walking out to the living room with a fistful of suds.
Arthur drained the sink and spooned out two bowls of ice cream, leaving them on the counter. He went upstairs and changed into the tuxedo. He changed slowly, pulling the pants over his knees, yanking them up to his waist. He thought of his mother and the smell of ham. He thought of his brother and how he had been the one to go into the music industry. He had been on the verge of calling William after the disc was burned that afternoon. Every Christmas, Arthur had received from William a gift certificate for the symphony or for some concert venue, and every year he had given it away at the school gift swap. For years he couldn’t talk to members of his family, believing they had rejoiced in his misery of musical abandonment. They had only been trying to help. Dawn sent pictures of her daughters at ballet practice. Arthur sent cards with stock photos of nature scenes. He pulled on the tuxedo jacket, and looped the tie around his collar, leaving it dangling over his shirt like at a late-night wedding reception. What did redemption look like? What did redemption taste like? He closed his bedroom door and listed his itinerary. He would walk downstairs and take the hard right at the base of the stairs to the kitchen. He would pour two glasses of scotch and ice for them. He would hand his father the drink, the bowl of ice cream, and give him the pipe, then pretend to light it, clicking out loud the sound of the lighter. He would do all of this with a giant smile. And, upon telling his father what the music was, he would turn up the stereo and stand next to it, too nervous to sit, waiting for the audience’s applause as he finished. He imagined them making a tuxedoed bow in front of an auditorium, Sanders and Son, Sanders and Sanders Symphony No. 1. He looked in the mirror and crossed himself. This was all for him.