Over a number of years Helen had accumulated almost two dozen students, who cycled through her front door and then clumsily filled the house with music as she sat in a chair beside the lacquered piano bench. When a student didn't get it right after two or three tries, she moved to the edge of her seat and demonstrated the phrase on a higher octave. Sometimes the student hadn't practiced that week; those were usually the ones who were forced into the lessons (and whose mothers chose to listen in during the hour, and who tried to bargain with Helen over her weekly rate). Then there were the kids who truly wanted to be there, who practiced and thanked her and showed up on time when she arranged a recital at a retirement center in town. And then there was Karl, her only adult student, who she was in love with.
But Karl always forgot to play the E's flat, and he had an unapologetic weight to his fingers which made everything he played sound serious and sad. And there was the difficult detail, too, that he was married. Once when he opened his wallet after the lesson to write a check, a snapshot of a woman's face peeked out through a smudged plastic sleeve, staring directly at Helen. "Is that your wife?" she had asked Karl, feeling embarrassed when he said yes because her mind was already imagining what her own photograph would look like in its place.
"I'll see you next week, then?" he asked. He was heading toward the door.
"Yes," she said. "See you then."
This was a scenario she had considered: refer the students to someone else, sell the piano, throw away the sign that was out in the front yard, maybe cut her hair, or just dye it, and then go away. She would be someone else entirely, meet a man, wear a dress that clung to her hips, never again hear another beautiful sonata spoiled. She thought, vaguely, of Wyoming. Or Alaska; she had been there once, as a child. She wondered if she had a good enough winter coat. But then the next week Karl said, as he sat down on the bench, "You know, this is the highlight of my week, Helen," and that was that. She could not leave. Once he had said that, she could not do it.
At night, after hours of the house being quiet, she took a seat on the bench. She let her fingers lay on the keys for a long time before playing. Sometimes, even, for a full hour, periodically checking the clock over her shoulder. How long it felt when she was alone; how quickly it passed when Karl sat beside her. Finally, when the hour was up, she played.
Fiction Friday is an outlet for experimentation while I slowly work on becoming a novelist. Read the rest of the stories here...