Piano Lessons

Fiona Palmer sat down at her small upright piano and prepared to practice her scales. She breathed in heavily, her small frame expanding and then collapsing into itself. She whipped her head back and forth, popping her neck. She adjusted her posture, making her back straight as a board. She set her fingers in the proper positions, struck the first few notes, and then broke down in a fit of quiet, rolling sobs.

***

It had been three months since her boyfriend, Todd, had died after being struck by a negligent driver while he was riding his bike. Since the accident Fiona had been unable to play the piano without crying. She had always been an especially talented but humble pianist. She had been playing the keyboard in her college rock band The Snowdens of Yesteryear when she’d met Todd. He was in college as well, working part time as part of the tech crew at Viglione Music Hall for some traveling money and, by his own admission, to meet cute musicians. He had approached her after the show with a beer and a smile.

Two years later they had both graduated and decided to try moving in together. On moving day Todd had suggested that he carry Fiona over the threshold. Fiona had laughed and then jumped into his arms. The endeavor proved more difficult than they had first expected as the front door was locked and Todd refused to let go of Fiona as he fished the keys out of his pocket. Complications furthered as Todd realized that these being new keys he was unsure of exactly which one unlocked the front door. As Todd flipped through key after key Fiona fell into a cavalcade of laughter, only making it harder for Todd to hold onto her body, now spasming with peals of laughter. As the door finally opened Fiona’s laughter came to a sudden halt. At the far end of the empty living room, standing against wall and dominating the empty space, was a small upright piano. Fiona looked up at Todd, who shrugged his shoulders, a gesture which also brought her closer to him.

“Sort of a housewarming thing, I guess. I got it for free off of Craigslist, I just had to pay for the movers or whatever, so…”

She threw her arms around him and kissed him.

It had been like that for three years. Life around them had occasionally gotten hairy, but their relationship remained smooth and natural, almost effortlessly easy. They had talked of marriage, going so far as to have a meeting with the minister of the Methodist church they attended to discuss the prospect. Pastor Dahl, although not thrilled about the two of them already living together, was very encouraging. The two had been a frequent presence at the church, Fiona had even occasionally took over for the church’s pianist when he was indisposed.
It had been Pastor Dahl who had officiated Todd’s funeral. He had even used the church’s discretionary fund to help cover some of the costs of the burial and such, seeing as Todd had no family and the two of them were a young couple without much expendable means. The pastor had tried to comfort Fiona, making frequent visits and offering any further help he could. Try as he might, Fiona continued to draw within herself.

In the three months since Todd’s death friends and family had come out of the woodwork to try and help Fiona through her grief. Not a day went by without a phone call from someone to “just check in.” She had been given truckloads of food, so much that one night she took nearly half the contents of the fridge and drove around town handing vittles out to any homeless people she came across. Seeing as she lived in a very small community she still had a whole passenger’s seat full of food after she’d found every street person within the 10 mile radius of the town. On her way back home she passed a group of high school kids skateboarding off of picnic tables in front of town hall. She pulled over and rolled down her window, then asked the kids if they wanted any food. After a moment of processing this unusual offer one of the skaters, a tall, good looking boy who was obviously a sort of ringleader of the group, came over to investigate further. When he leaned over to look into the car and saw the attractive young woman in the driver’s seat he cocked his head and flashed a heart-melting smile.

“That’s mighty nice of you, ma’am. Might I enquire as to the exact nature of this generosity?”

Fiona set a leveled stare at the young Adonis. “It’s left over sympathy food. My fiancé is dead.” The boy’s smile faded into an arched moue of confusion as Fiona passed him five plastic grocery bags full of food and then drove away.

***

Fiona tried to collect herself. She grabbed three tissues from the box on top of the piano and began dabbing her eyes and blowing her nose. She took deep breaths and began to calm down. She would do it. This time, she would do it. She had to move on.

She began running through her scales. She did it automatically. As her fingers moved thoughtlessly across the keys Fiona’s mind wandered. She imagined Todd sitting in the trashy overstuffed chair next to the piano. He had loved that chair, and spent many nights lounging in it, doing the crossword while Fiona played the piano, making occasional requests both for songs and for assistance on particularly difficult clues. She could almost see him looking up at her through his shaggy hair, asking to hear You Can Leave Your Hat On or for a six letter word for “want.”

Her mind having wandered so far that her fingers struggled to keep up Fiona instinctively began playing the opening riff to You Can Leave Your Hat On. After a moment she realized what she was doing and grew a sad, sideways smile. She had been playing the Randy Newman version. Todd, against his own better judgment he would frequently say, preferred the more raucous Joe Cocker version. Fiona raised her hands off the keys for a moment, quickly balled and unballed her fists to stretch out her fingers, and decided to play the Joe Cocker version. For Todd. What was it he’d say? “Rub a little funk on it,” Fiona reminded herself aloud, and then laughed. She put her hands back down onto the keys. She went back into the opening riff.

Something was wrong. Although she had certainly set out to play the Cocker rocker version this was still certainly the Newman opening. Slower, with more sadness and pathos. She shook out her hands and tried again, but the sound still wasn’t right. She decided to go with another Cocker song, You Are So Beautiful. Once again she took a breath, rolled her shoulders and started to play.

Once again, something was wrong. She played the song slowly, listening carefully to each note and chord. She couldn’t quite place it. There was something off. Perhaps the piano was starting to go a little flat? It was certainly old enough to need a tune up. It had been third or fourth generation when they’d gotten it three years ago, who knows how long it had been since it had been tuned. Fiona stopped playing and closed the key cover. She’d have to call a tuner, it would be another ordeal she didn’t want to deal with, but felt that she should. This piano was a piece of Todd. She needed to keep it around. She sighed. “Things fall apart,” she said to no one, and went into the kitchen to make herself some food.

Three days later the piano tuner showed up. He looked less like a piano tuner than a mechanic, dressed in overalls and flannel with hair like a Brillo pad and a posture so short and squat that he had a definite waddle to his walk. Despite his harsh appearance he seemed nice enough, making pleasantries with Fiona as he went to work on the piano.

After about fifteen minutes of tinkering and pounding the tuner began to pack up his tools.

“That’s it?” asked Fiona.

“Ayep. She’s not in bad shape for her age and mileage. Had to make a few little adjustments, but she’s a good old gal, she’ll last you a while,” replied the tuner, who then sat on the bench and banged out a jaunty rendition of The Cheese Stands Alone.

“Huh,” muttered Fiona. The tuner made a grand gesture of moving off of the chair and giving it over to Fiona. She sat down and repeated note for note the tuner’s The Cheese Stands Alone.

“Huh,” muttered the tuner. He had watched her play the same song, but undoubtedly it had sounded different. Wrong, somehow. Dismal. The tuner leaned in to the keys, Fiona skootched over to make room. He went through the song again. It sounded fine. He nodded to Fiona, who then went through the song herself. It sounded dismal.

“How’re you doing that?” asked the tuner.

“I’m not! That’s why I called you over here, there’s something wrong with the piano!”

“I’m sorry ma’am,” said the tuner. “I’ve checked her thoroughly. The piano’s fine. If anything it’s a bit tinny, not…” He searched for the right word. “Depressed.”

“What are you implying?” challenged Fiona.

“All I’m saying is we’re playing the same notes,” retorted the tuner, “But my cheese is merely standing alone. YOUR cheese is standing alone at a funeral procession, and it’s got nothing to do with the piano, I checked it…”

“Get out,” interjected Fiona. “Get out right now.”

“Ma’am?” inquired the tuner.

“LEAVE,” yelled Fiona, physically pushing the man out the door.

“I’m sorry, ma’am, but… my payment?” pled the tuner.

“I’LL MAIL IT,” finished Fiona, shoving the tuner out of the apartment and slamming the door shut.

All that week Fiona hammered away at the piano. She drug out every songbook she had. She even went to the local music shop and bought some Disney songbooks. Everything she played turned out dark and morose. Chopin’s Waltz No. 4 in F Major sounded like a dirge, Nina Simone’s Feeling Good felt anything but, even Hakuna Matata came across as a nasty piece of business.

On Saturday Fiona called Nancy, one of her former bandmates.

“Hey girl!” Nancy’s voice came in chipper and encouraging over the telephone. “It’s so good to hear from you. We’ve all been thinking about you. I was absolutely devastated to hear the news. How are you holding up?”
Fiona hugged the earpiece to the phone close to her as she gave a quick look around her. She was in her pajamas, curled up in a fetal position around the telephone on the living room floor. Emanating out of her like a fractal were piles of sheet music and songbooks.

“Not so good, actually, Nancy.”

“Hey babe, anything you need, you let me know,” said Nancy.

“Actually, Nance, you couldn’t, maybe, come over could you? For a bit?” asked Fiona.

“Sure thing. I’ll be over as soon as I can.”

When Nancy arrived Fiona greeted her at the door with her hair done up in a sloppy bun on the top of her head and a forced, uncomfortable smile on her face.

“Hey there!” Fiona said, obviously pushing it a bit. “It’s so good to see you! Come on in!”

As Nancy entered the apartment she took a quick look around. She was a bit on edge after the phone call and had come over expecting some sort of disaster. As far as she could tell everything looked all right. Fiona was clearly a bit of a mess, but that was to be expected, after all. The only thing that looked slightly off was the massive pile of music that had obviously been hurriedly shoved into a corner of the living room between a rather ratty looking overstuffed chair and the piano.

“So,” Nancy said, staring at the music pile. “Been playing the piano a bit, huh?”

Fiona let out a short, shrill laugh that took Nancy completely off guard. Fiona had obviously noticed this as well and placed her hands over her mouth, as though trying to hold something in. She looked at Nancy with wild, uncertain eyes. Nancy tried to shake it off.

“That’s good, right? Playing again? You were always so good. It’s a shame the band thing didn’t work out. Well, maybe not a shame, I mean we weren’t very good. But you were.”

Fiona was still just staring at Nancy. Nancy opened her mouth, but then stopped, not having actually thought of anything to say. She stared back at Fiona. Silence.

“Hey!” Fiona said, finally breaking out of her staring stupor. “Why don’t you give it a whirl!” Fiona skittered over to the piano and threw back the key cover. “Fun! Right?”

Nancy didn’t seem so sure.

“I played drums. I don’t really play the piano. I mean I do, but there’s a reason I played the drums and not the keyboard. And I didn’t even play the drums that well.”

“Oh pish!” said Fiona. “Have a seat! Play something sweet! Play me a ditty!”

Nancy shrugged and sat down at the piano. She collected herself and tried to remember something nice to play. She placed her hands on the keys and ran through a quick selection of notes and keys to get herself placed on the piano. Then she began to play a bit of Rhapsody in Blue. It was a simple rendition of the piece, but pretty and sweet in its simplicity. Nancy surprised herself with how well she’d been able to pull it off. She ended with a bit of a campy flourish and turned around to see Fiona curled up in the armchair with her head in her hands, crying.

“Sweety, what’s the matter?” asked Nancy.

Fiona looked up from her hands, her eyes huge and red, her nose running and spittle collecting at the edges of her mouth. “WHAT’S WRONG WITH ME?”

Nancy began to attempt a response, but Fiona leapt up and pushed her off the piano bench. Nancy could only watch as Fiona pulled a large clump of tissues out of the front pockets of the sweatshirt she was wearing, gave her nose a hard blow, and then replaced the clump of tissue into the sweatshirt pockets. She then wiped her eyes off with the sleeve of the sweatshirt and turned to look up at Nancy.

“Listen,” she said.

Then Fiona began to play Rhapsody in Blue. Only once again, it was wrong. It was sad. It was more than sad. The song, Nancy felt, seemed to ache.

“Fiona, why don’t you just stop, huh?” said Nancy. She tried to put a hand on Fiona’s shoulder, but Fiona threw up her arm to knock the hand away.

“There’s more,” she said.

Fiona began to play more songs. She went through a whole rundown of music, classic, country, pop, showtunes, folk music, bluegrass. The sounds coming out of the piano made Nancy uncomfortable. They seemed to be wrenching raw, painful emotions out of her. It wasn’t just emotional, it was physical. There was a weight that grew in the pit of her stomach that became so heavy Nancy had to lean against the living room wall. She began to sweat. Her breathing became labored. Her head started to swim.

“Fiona, please,” she begged.

Fiona stopped playing and turned, staring at Nancy. Fiona’s eyes seemed to be burning holes into Nancy’s. “You think that’s bad?” challenged Fiona. “You ain’t heard nothing yet.”

Fiona turned back to the piano and began to play, with great intensity, Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov’s The Flight of the Bumblebee. However, long gone was the fun, fleeting melody of the piece. Instead there seemed to be a creeping, consuming dread. The song didn’t come to the listener through the ear so much as straight through the stomach, climbing through the lungs and heart and lodging itself somewhere in the throat, making it difficult to breathe.

The force of the song pushed Nancy back onto a couch. She looked up to see Fiona not even looking at the keys, but instead keeping a steady eye on her. Nancy had never felt such a tight grip of fear in her life. She jumped off the couch and ran out of the house, slamming the front door behind her. She collapsed against the door and began sobbing. She heard the music still coming from inside the house. She had no idea what was wrong with her friend, but Nancy knew one thing. She was never going back into that house again.

***

It became clear to Fiona that at some point, and at some point fairly soon, she was going to have to leave the house. The sympathy food was rapidly depleting, as were the finances. Every time Fiona attempted to leave the house, however, she could not help but start worrying about the piano and the music that she made on it. She wondered if other people could see it on her, this ugly despair that turned the most beautiful of music into harrowing aural nightmares. At first she had hoped that the problem was with the piano, but more and more she was feeling that the problem was with her. The piano could obviously work fine in the hands of others. Why did it sour and curdle under her fingers? She had a plan that would both get her out of the house and, she hoped, shed some light on this piano problem.

When Fiona arrived at the Woodlawn Mall she paused a moment to examine herself in the mirror. Although she'd cleaned herself up a bit before she left the house the last few months hung heavy on her. There was only so much a long shower and change of clothes could do. This was all right, she told herself. She wasn't coming in here to win any beauty contests. She had come here to prove to herself that this was all in her head.
Fiona made her way through the mall with a firm sense of determination. She knew precisely where she was going. She breezed through Dillard's, passed the food court, the Electronics Etc., Kay's Jewelers, Hot Topic and Waldenbooks. Finally she arrived at her destination.

The store was large for a mall store. The sign above the door read in big letters designed like piano keys "The Piano Man." The storefront was all big glass windows that displayed the store's wares in a fashion that had always reminded Fiona of grazing cattle. In a twist on typical gender roles Todd had loved shopping and Fiona was the one who frequently finished early and ended up needing to kill time while Todd scoured the new Brookstone gadgets or comic books. Fiona always ended up here, sitting down and playing away on the display pianos until Todd came to collect her. She came in with enough frequency that the store manager always recognized her, but she was fairly certain never remembered her name.

"Hey there, pretty lady!" said the store manager, a large, gregarious man of about 50, as he came over to give Fiona a squeeze on the shoulder. "Seems like I haven't seen you in quite a while. Waiting on that slowpoke boyfriend of yours again, huh?"

"Not really," replied Fiona.

"Well, pull up any bench you like," said the manager. "It's always so nice to hear you play. We got a whole lot of songbooks in since you were here last. There's a new one from that Avril Lavigne, you like her?"

"Not really," replied Fiona.

"What? She's so fun!" implored the store manager. When he saw he was getting no response from Fiona he shrugged. "Well, to each their own, I guess. You want anything you let me know, ok?"

She nodded and the manager walked away. As she sat down she became overcome with uncertainty. What should she play? Something light and poppy, better not to tempt fate with anything that could even remotely be considered sad or bittersweet. She decided to go with The Beatles, Good Day Sunshine.

She began to play. At first the playing was simply technically sloppy. Fiona's fear and hesitation made the notes warble and stumble over each other. Soon the song began to smooth out. The notes began to resonate throughout the store. The song began to become terrifying. The store manager, who had been on his hands and knees restocking the Beginners playbook section, slowly rose to his feet to see exactly what could be producing such a horrifying, apocalyptic rendition of such a pretty song. He saw Fiona, the only one in the store, hunched over her usual sleek black baby grand. "Jesus," he said under his breath.

As the song ended Fiona simply stared at the piano keys. "Even here," she thought. "This is it. I will forever be the girl with the cloud over her head who can whither the rose of any song. This is the end of me." She began to close the key cover when something occurred to her. In all this time she had been struggling with songs that didn't fit her temperament. She wondered what would happen if she played a song befitting her current state. "Couldn't be any worse," she said aloud to no one. Somewhere though, in the back of her mind, she knew this probably wasn't entirely true. However, she had nothing left to lose, and turned back to playing.

Deciding to run with the general Beatles theme, she broke into the opening of Maybe I'm Amazed. It was a song she'd always loved, and always found sad in its way. Quite sad, actually. She'd never truly been able to express how it had made her feel, how perfectly she believed it displayed the fear, confusion and strange solitude that she felt always seemed to come with being truly in love with someone. She couldn't express it before, but she could certainly express it now. The music still felt formidable and unnerving, but the maliciousness, the wrongness off before seemed to be gone. Now the harsh, perverted melodies became focused. They were destructive and productive at the same time, beautiful in their awfulness, like a regenerative forrest fire or a controlled demolition. Never before had McCartney's howling "Maybe I'm a lonely man who's in the middle of something that he doesn't really understand" felt so personal, so tremendous and harrowing. She began to play with such force and passion that the piano bench had started rocking back and forth as thought it were now hosting a small, feminine Jerry Lee Lewis.

Now it wasn't just the store manager who was staring. Everyone within hearing distance of the store was now gathered at the store windows, watching Fiona as though she were some awe-inspiring animal at a zoo, some new creature brought out of the deepest jungles of sorrow. Desparius Gargantuous. Fiona finished the song and realized she was almost out of breath. As she collected herself she became aware of the host of eyes staring at her. She turned slowly to look at them. She saw people of all types looking back at her. A father had his daughter clutched tightly in his arms. A teenage girl had dropped her American Apparel bag sloppily on the floor and had her hands and forehead pressed against the glass. Fiona locked eyes with an older woman who was standing stoically in the center of the window. The woman looked almost regal, with rigid posture, a stern countenance and her resplendent grey hair coifed perfectly atop her head. Fiona saw tears, still and silent, running down her cheeks. She noticed the woman absently, mechanically twisting a wedding ring around her right ring finger.

"I'm sorry," said Fiona, so quietly she was basically mouthing the words.

The woman looked at her and smiled. "Keep playing," she mouthed back.

Fiona turned back to the piano. As her mind raced through what to play next she smiled at the thought of being barely able to constrain the sudden, overwhelming desire to play. She was filled with a need to play every single sad bastard song she could think of. And so she began. She started with Lullaby by Billy Joel. From there she played The Sound of Silence, Me and Bobby McGee, Silent All These Years, Old Man by Randy Newman, Wish You Were Here, Time in a Bottle, and Tom Traubert's Blues. As Fiona played the crowd grew larger. People from other stores began bleeding out of their various shops and gathered around The Piano Man. When Fiona had begun playing in earnest a young man who had been listening from the beginning had run out of the mall. He returned now, dragging his girlfriend behind him. As they approached the girlfriend was heard grousing that she didn't understand why she was being pulled out to the mall just to hear some girl play piano, but as soon as she was close enough to hear she stopped. The girl listened with great intent as the boy watched her expectantly. after a moment she turned to look at the boy.

"Oh my god," she said.

"I know," he replied.

People began pulling out their cell phones. Some called to tell people that they had to get to the mall, NOW. Others used their phones to record the music. Some dialed and then once the other party picked up simply held the phone into the air. The clerks at Suncoast Music closed the store early and went to listen. Soon Brookstone, The Gem Shop and Hot Topic followed suit. The crowd began to fill the entire area in and around The Piano Man. Soon even Dillard's closed up shop and gave in to the draw of the small, bereft girl in the piano store who was releasing an unstoppable tornado of music from a sleek black baby grand. There was a definite stir in the air. Something was happening here. Some enterprising young men from the electronic store grabbed some sound equipment and set up a crude but functional hook up into the mall's PA system, and soon the entire mall was filled with the sound of Fiona playing her music. Soon the only stores left open in the whole mall were a handful of shops in the food court who were passing out lattes, giant cookies and cinnabons to the crowd of gatherers. The main entrance to the mall was left open and people continuously trickled in. People began arriving with lawn chairs and blankets. Someone brought a grill and begin cooking hamburgers just outside.

The whole time Fiona kept playing. Song after song, one after another, hour after hour. About four hours in she took a pause and someone handed her a cappuccino and a giant cookie with musical notes drawn on it. As Fiona munched on the cookie she felt someone approach her. She looked up and saw Pastor Dahl standing above her. One of the parishioners had been in the mall that day looking for a birthday present for her grandfather and had called the pastor as soon as she heard Fiona playing.

The pastor was shifting from one foot to the other, cradling something in his arms. "I was wondering," Pastor Dahl began, unsure exactly how to proceed. "I was wondering if perhaps I could make a request?" Fiona stared at him blankly, crumbs stuck on the sides of her mouth. "A hymn," clarified the pastor. "The Old Rugged Cross. It's my favorite." Pastor Dahl put out an earmarked hymnal to Fiona, who smiled, took the book, licked her lips and began to play. The pastor sang along, and some people in the crowd who knew they hymn sang along with him. When it was done the pastor leaned over and kissed Fiona on the forehead, patted her on the back and walked away to join some of the other church members who had been drawn to the mall.

As soon as the pastor had stepped away people started to approach the piano, making requests. Fiona played the ones she knew. People began grabbing song books off the shelf and bringing them to the piano. Fiona, who had always been a rather exceptional site-reader, continued playing. There was an understanding throughout the crowd of what was appropriate, and all the songs were of a piece. A girl in a tattered dress and army boots requested Me and the Minibar by The Dresden Dolls. A man in dark denim and flannel asked for Johnny Cash. The woman who had called Pastor Dahl requested Sinatra's One for My Baby (and One More for the Road) and sang it into her phone to her grandfather.

Fiona noticed the regal looking woman from earlier, still off to the side, still standing strict and stern.

"Any requests?" yelled Fiona, the first words she'd said in hours.

The old woman thought for a moment.

"You wouldn't happen to know Tea and Sympathy, would you?"

Fiona took a sip of her cappuccino. "My mother loved Janis Ian," she said, and began to play. The old woman sang along in a voice both smooth and weathered.

The night progressed in a similar fashion. Fiona played, people sang, and though people came and went. Hours passed by and hardly anyone seemed to notice. The only tell tale sign of the hour was the occasional child asleep on their parent's lap.

After hours of playing, Fiona stopped. She had just finished CCR's Someday Never Comes, and suddenly the weight of it all came crashing into her mind. She felt a fluttering in her chest, and for a moment she thought she might cry. She didn't, however, and instead glanced at her watch. It was nearly 6 AM. Fiona stood up from the bench and let out a long, painful, satisfying stretch. She moved slowly to the back of the store. She could feel people watching her go, but no one moved, no one said a word. She reached the back exit and stepped outside. The sun was beginning to rise, and the parking lot was filled with a warm, orange promise of morning.
Fiona returned and once again sat down at the piano. She ran through a list of songs in her head. She chose with great care, and began to play. Throughout the mall the bright, lilting music of Here Comes the Sun rang out over the PA. In a tiny, tired voice, mostly to herself, Fiona sang along.

When the song was over Fiona stood up, gave a small wave to everyone around her, and went home.