68 / 365 – The Piano and the Mirror

ED ARMBRUST

She said her daughter isn’t showing much interest in the piano lately. She hasn’t been practicing. She’s not sure if it’s worth it if she isn’t practicing between. I felt a little bit of panic. I asked her how the cafe is doing. It was really just an offhand remark, but she seemed to understand the connection I was making and she looked a little offended. I tried to walk it back with some small talk but I kept saying one wrong thing after another.

Leah was playing a little bit from Debussy, “Suite Bergamesque,” one of my favorite pieces of music. Sarah was right, she hasn’t been practicing, you can tell lately when she gets in here. She seems completely unfamiliar with the music, as if she’s never felt it before, and fumbles through it, impatient. I always feel as though I’m in an intermission of an argument with her mother that will resume as soon as they get back into the car to go back to Jericho. But today she seemed very fluid, the music seeming to flow out of her fingers straight through the strings and wood and reverberating through the room. There was a kind of magic starting to happen, the music flowing from her and filling the room and brightening it, as if a beautiful unknown thing had appeared in her and she was illuminating the room, the house, this little far corner of the prairie with it. The piano is in what was the parlor, and I was standing in the doorway between that and the living room, where Sarah was sitting on the couch. I leaned back against the doorframe and closed my eyes just basked in that warmth, the lightness of the music. Sarah had been reading off and on but she was looking up, absorbed in the music too. I said, “This is more like it,” I said, and she nodded. “Heavenly, I’d say,” I whispered, and she smiled.

Leah came to the end of the piece and I said it was beautiful and asked her to play another, one that she’s struggled with for a month or two. I immediately realized it was the wrong thing. She must hate the piece, it comes out with no feeling, a clanking and machine-like thing. It broke the mood. I had stepped over nearer the couch, hoping to talk again. I couldn’t think of what to say. I asked her about the drive, whether the road was good. It was a stupid thing — we had rain this weekend and the snow is melting in the fields and the roads are fine. Last week, though, we were having a storm and the snow was drifting around over the road and I guess she lost sight of it and ended up sliding on the shoulder and town a bank, somewhere between here and town. She never made it for her lesson. I sat and waited the whole hour, wondering what had happened, my head spinning. She had said a week or two ago that she wasn’t sure about keeping up the lessons, that Leah wasn’t doing well, that it was a long drive when the weather was bad. I felt terrible. I guess part of me had hoped she liked coming there. While I waited I thought how she must have decided to stop the lessons, and that coming here had meant so little to her, just another activity to drag her daughter around to, and it didn’t even matter enough for her to call. It wasn’t until my next student showed up and her mother said, “Oh, it’s terrible out. Now that the light is going and the snow is blowing around, you can hardly see the road. We saw a car off the road just north of here and we would have stopped by someone was already trying to pull her out with a chain.” So I thought that must be her. I stopped by the cafe a few days later and asked about it and she said that that was indeed her and then said, as an afterthought, or it seemed like an afterthought, that she was sorry she hadn’t called. She had panicked and had been trying to call her cook, the basketball player, because he was the only one she knew who she thought would know how to pull her car out. And he had come.

It’s stupid because it made me feel bad when she said that, I guess I was jealous that she had called someone else for help instead of calling me to tell me she was stuck and late, even though she was right, I probably couldn’t have gotten her car out of the ditch. Thinking about how I wouldn’t have had an idea what to do just made me worse. And now that I had brought this up again, she got quiet and looked away and I felt a nervous heat rising in me and I didn’t know what to say. And then Leah finished the song and I had to go in and talked to her. Because she really had played it terribly.

Later when they were getting ready to leave, I pointed out that the Debussy had really had been beautiful. But she was noncomittal. “I’ll call you,” she said. And then they left.

I have been thinking about her, for too long really. I keep thinking that I will ask her if she could have dinner some night, some night when Leah isn’t with her, but it seems awkward to ask her something like that with Leah right there, having her lesson. I’ve gone to the cafe a few times before school, hoping to see her, but there are either people there, too many people, chatting with her. Once I went over there and when I was passing the front windows, before I’d even gotten to the door, I looked in and saw her standing there, leaning on the counter. The guy who cooks at the grill right there, he used to be on the basketball team years ago, and he seemed to be telling a story, waving a spatula in the air as he talked very animatedly, and a couple of guys at the counter were smiling and she was leaning on her elbow on the bar, watching him tell the story and laughing. I turned around and walked back to the car. The next time I went in there she wasn’t there. I didn’t see her but I sat down in a booth and ordered up breakfast and I kept looking for her to come out from the back but she didn’t. The woman who waited on me said she was taking the day off. She told me she never got days off. It made me feel hopeless about this, like there keeps being

After she left, I went back into the bathroom. I had sweat running down my face and I wanted to put cold water on it. The room is dark. The window is small and the walls are an old deep red striped wallpaper, where the alternating bands were once velvety, although now they’re almost worn smooth. The sink is an old pedestal sink that was probably unremarkable when my grandfather put it in sixty, seventy years ago. Now it’s fashionable, I guess. Sometimes when we have recitals, some of the aunts and uncles from out of town get all excited and ‘ooh’ and ‘ahh’ over it. One time a man offered me two hundred dollars cash for it, right on the spot, like he was going to rip it right out of the flooring and walk away with it if I said yes.

I was bending over the sink, throwing water up into my face. I stood up and looked in the mirror. I’ve never liked looking at my face in the mirror. It always looks pudgy and too round. People tell me I look young for my age, though, and maybe that’s the roundness. But not today. I looked in the mirror and noticed how old-looking I’ve grown the past few months. I’m getting bags under my eyes. There are lines running away from my eyes, creases along my forehead. I reached out to the mirror and touched them. I look worn and haggard, like an old man with a headcold.

It’s an old mirror with beveled edges and some floral patterns cut into it around its edges. My grandmother used to call it “a piece of extravagance.” One Spring, after a hard winter, my grandfather had driven into town, to the Chicago Store, the department store they had in town then with fancy things from Chicago, and had bought that for her. It was to try to make her feel less isolated from all the good things, stuck as they were way out in this corner of North Dakota. She said they didn’t really have the money to buy it, and it was that year that the wheat prices fell and the drought hit and they almost lost the farm. All over a mirror that was meant to brighten my grandmother’s spirits, worn down from the long grey winter, and make her feel as if she were somewhere else. My grandmother said it never quite worked that way, although she always did appreciate that he had bought it for her. But it couldn’t bring her what that almost-teenage girl, who I might never have in my house again, brought out through her finger on a dim afternoon on an aging piano.

 

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