~This story was first published in Southern Humanities Review (2013).
~Selected by Assistant Editor Kenneth A. Fleming
Courtney parks her Prius at the top of Matt’s driveway because Brandon’s blue Mongoose bicycle is sprawled across it. The blazing yellow forsythia at the edge of the drive runs down and is starting to swallow the corner of his house. It’s pretty, just out of control, needs a little tending. A lot of tending. The smell of cut grass wafts from the neighbor’s yard, where a fat man without a shirt on is riding a slow roaring mower.
She grabs her plastic tub of bruschetta—she made it with organic onions and heirloom tomatoes from the co-op, and her own fresh basil—and her grocery bag with baguette and knife and garlic from beside her on the seat and gets out. She closes the door with her hip and picks her way through scattered toys and sidewalk chalk in the carport. The kids’ bodies are traced on the drive in chalk, like victims’ outlines in crime shows. And there is Matt’s outline. Some child has filled him in, drawn him with big round green eyes and jagged blue monster teeth. Matt’s a gentle man, a gentle father. Almost passive. It makes things easy between him and Courtney. The ex-wife, not so much.
The wooden rail at the door is half stripped of its peeling white paint. One whole side is draped in beach towels, turquoise and blue with fish on one, one black with bright pink butterflies, another with blue and yellow flowers. At the back of the carport a blue tarp is balled up like a giant sheet of discarded paper. Beside it are three nylon camping chairs, and a faded bottle of OFF! Clean Feel bug spray. Beside the kitchen door leans a gray snow shovel. The sticker is still on the wooden handle. It says Ames: Our Tools Built America.
Matt gave Courtney a key to his place only yesterday, before leaving for his conference. So she could meet the kids after school. Also yesterday he asked her to consider marrying him. When she didn’t respond with immediate glee—things between the two of them are great, it’s not that; everything is just easy—he backed off a little. “Don’t answer now,” he said. “We’ll discuss it when I get home.”
The little black cylinder thing that should pull the screen door hissing back is broken and jabs out at her leg as the white aluminum door drifts and hangs open like a broken wing. It’s ridiculous to be nervous. Courtney has been a Shreveport Wideman semifinalist. She’s concertized, performed Stravinsky Petrushka, Shoenberg. Berg Sonata. She was with management, soloed with the Honolulu Orchestra right before it folded. This is just three little kids.
She’s spent time with the kids, not alone without Matt, but still they know her, like her. Brandon is nine, Bryce is seven, and Alissa is five. Entering the dark kitchen Courtney bangs her knee on the handlebar of Alissa’s Dora the Explorer bicycle, which she sees now, standing up between its training wheels in the middle of the kitchen floor, its front wheel turned sideways like a caught child’s guilty, diverted gaze.
The boys will be easy, Courtney is counting on that. They’re boys of course, but they’re good. Alissa is good too, she’s not bad. She’s a little hyperactive—her school wants to have her tested for sensory integration disorder, but Matt is refusing. “When I was a kid,” he said, “we called girls like her tomboys and that was that.” He lets her ride her bicycle helter skelter around the house. He lets her climb the door frames; he laughs and thinks it’s cute.
Courtney’s meeting the mother for the first time too, to make the hand off. Courtney’s not staying the night with them while Matt’s gone—she’s never spent the night here, in their old marriage bed; when the kids go to their mother’s Matt stays over at Courtney’s. Otherwise they say goodnight at bedtime. The kids are spending their nights with the ex. Matt calls her, “The woman who gave them birth,” but her name is Ann and today Courtney plans to politely call her that.
Courtney flips on the lights to see that dinner dishes are scattered across the counter by the sink, not even scraped of their chicken bones—fried chicken, KFC or grocery store. She turns the oven on to three fifty. She flips open the trashcan lid to drop in her chewing gum and the reek of rancid meat fills her nostrils, makes her salivate around her molars as her throat contracts. She pushes back the jug of milk with her Tupperware of bruschetta and takes the baguette to the counter.
She slides the baguette out of the bag, then the garlic and her eight inch Henckels bread knife—which will be going back home with her, which will not be used to saw a branch in the back yard. She cuts the bread into crostini-sized slices and lines them on Matt’s half-rusty cookie sheet. She whacks out three cloves of garlic with the side of her knife and rubs down each slice of bread. While the bread slices toast up, Courtney scrapes the dishes, rinses them, loads them into the dishwasher, gets it started. She takes out the rancid garbage and drops it in the can that is also being swallowed by the forsythia. Two fat bumblebees hover around her arm and head at the can, but they leave her alone.
Back inside the oven is beeping and the whole kitchen smells of fresh garlic bread. She sets the cookie sheet on the range. The range is splattered with grease and oily bits of onion. A crusty clump of scrambled egg the size of Courtney’s thumbnail. Poorly scrambled, splattered white and slimy on the edge like a glob of robin shit. Beside the range is a pile of mail. A DVD collection: Dr. Who the complete first season. Under that a magazine, which she pulls out to look at: Family Fun, addressed to the mother, to Ann who still has Matt’s last name. It announces, “Soak Up Summer,” and has a picture of a boy in a blue swim shirt aiming a garden hose playfully at Courtney.
She checks her watch. It is 3:20. Four minutes till the kids are due. She makes sure she’s turned off the oven and heads out to the bus stop to greet them.
Last Mother’s Day, their mom was out of town, traveling for a NASCAR race, or some kind of car race, with the guy Matt sometimes calls “the adultery partner,” but usually just shortens to “the partner.” The kids were staying with him. “Since their biological mother is a flake,” he asked Courtney, “you want to fill in?” She said, “I don’t want to be out at some chain restaurant watching all the mothers with their children.” He said, “We can do a picnic at the Peaks of Otter. Tomorrow’s supposed to be beautiful.”
Saturday Courtney told Matt she couldn’t come over, said she would see him Sunday for the picnic. She started in the mid-afternoon. She beat and scraped and beat and scraped a glob of hand-churned butter from the co-op. She refrigerated it while she made the dough, adding half-n-half to the milk for extra creaminess. She rolled and folded the butter and dough in thirds letter-style, rolled and folded, rolled and folded, refrigerated, rolled and folded. After she gave the dough eight turns, she refrigerated it again while she baked her special pumpkin bars, with cinnamon and cloves and allspice and nutmeg, adding chocolate chips to the recipe and frosting them with cinnamon cream cheese icing. Courtney knew how to work for a goal, and how to make sacrifices; she had earned both her Certificate in College and Community Music Teaching and her Artist’s Certificate from Eastman, hadn’t had a serious boyfriend since grad school, had moved all over—one place, didn’t get tenure, Honolulu, which folded, New World Orchestra in Miami, played Carnival Cruises for a while, then the Syracuse Orchestra, which also folded—never settled down. Then her dad got sick and here she is back home, him in Runk & Pratt and her living here so she can go to see him twice a week. She’s started working, getting students, and weddings. Not a lot of return artistically, but the earning potential looks promising.
While she prepped the picnic Courtney listened all day to old favorites of hers, melodies she had always loved, but music that had been overplayed and become hackneyed, passé. Rachmaninoff Sonata 2, and his piano concerti one through four, his variations on a theme by Paganini, Liszt’s Symphonic Poems. Beethoven. She even listened to Appalachian Spring. And enjoyed it. So what? she thought. Who does she have to impress now? Through the door she could see her shitty old Yamaha grand, filling up the whole den so she had to step around it to get anywhere in the house.
In 08 Courtney was up in NYC, with a friend who was buying a piano for her school’s concert stage. They were meeting a guy who worked at the Fazioli store and they were there early. The store next door was open so she went in. They specialized in rebuilt Steinways, but they had a Bluthner. The store was empty because it was morning, and the guy let her just sit there and play. She played Bach B Flat Major Partita. This was the high performance car of pianos, so responsive, no place to hide. Courtney’s hand size sometimes presents her with challenges, but she has color in her playing, refinement in her touch.
That day she whipped up the atmosphere in that old store, created a rarified air that lifted them all and got them high. When she was finished with the partita, both her friend and the guy at the store—jaded professionals—broke into spontaneous exclamations and applause.
The man said, “You are a fine soloist.”
“It’s the piano,” she said.
“It doesn’t play itself.”
Courtney is an okay soloist. She’s a better collaborator. She pays attention, knows when a singer needs to breathe for instance. Once Courtney was in a colloquium with James Galway’s wife, who is a flutist like her husband. Not like her husband—she is a bad flutist, and on top of that a royal bitch. Courtney knows playing chamber music is a delicate balance, working together, accommodating each other, losing the self in this larger performance. She can do that, is actually good at it.
“Wow but what an instrument,” she said. “I have to have one.” She was gigging at the time, and even though she was with management, she was living paycheck to paycheck, with another friend who sometimes covered her rent. Saving money before she moved out to Utah for a one-year appointment at Brigham Young.
While the pumpkin bars baked and cooled she took out the dough and cut and rolled her croissants. She baked the croissants and set them on the cooling rack. The house was warm and smelled like a bakery. She dragged one of her free range chickens out of the freezer, thawed it in the microwave—which took almost an hour, all told—baked it, pulled the meat off the bones as it cooled, chopped the meat, mixed it with onion, celery—which she peeled the strings out of and chopped into tiny pieces—mayonnaise—Hellmann’s because no other mayo compares, and also because she’s heard they are going sustainable—salt, pepper, just a tablespoon of Dijon mustard, and her special addition of white grapes and chopped pecans. She boiled eight free-range eggs and cooled them under running tap water, peeled them carefully under the water, sliced them with her ten inch Henkels chef’s knife. She mashed the yolks with mayo, Dijon, a teaspoon of cider vinegar—which always makes her jaws clench back by her molars when the tang hits her nostrils—salt, pepper, paprika, and a quarter cup of Clausen dill pickle relish. She put a bag of mixed seedless table grapes into the freezer for the hike up, because what kid doesn’t like frozen grapes? She cut up a cantaloupe and a honeydew melon into kid-friendly chunks. She ran out and grabbed a bag of Lays wavy hickory barbecue potato chips. She sat down for a minute and sipped wine, then hopped back up and cut the leftover celery into four-inch sticks which she filled with peanut butter and lined on a tray and covered with Saran wrap. She made lavender lemonade, then had second thoughts. She would take it, but just in case the kids didn’t like it, she ran back out and got three fat bottles of blue Gatorade. She mixed up some sangria in her plastic pitcher. She washed and patted dry ten big leafs of organic bib lettuce, and put them with paper towels between them in a gallon Ziploc bag. It was two in the morning when she finally got everything put away and dropped her heavy body into bed.
At ten the next morning, she had pretty much finished the Times and come to a standstill on the crossword puzzle, so she gave Matt a call.
“Oh, I’m sorry,” he said. “Their mother came back early. She stopped by this morning and picked them up for the day.”
She cast about for something to say, was silent an instant too long.
“Oh,” he said. “The picnic.” He said, “You didn’t go to any trouble did you?”
“No,” she said. “Not really. I ran out and got some chips and bottled drinks, but it’s no big deal.”
“No,” she said. “Really it’s fine.”
He said. “I mean, she is their mother.”
“No, I agree entirely. They should be with their mother on Mother’s Day.”
Matt drove the two of them out to the Peaks of Otter. They ate soggy food off the lodge’s buffet, along with the after-church crowd, all these old women with their kids and grandkids and great grandkids even, some of them, it looked like.
Courtney would be thirty nine in fourteen days. She had had a lot of professional success. But that doesn’t translate to much in classical music, and things are getting hard. She applied for a teaching position at Eastern Carolina in Greenville and she was eminently qualified, thought she had a good shot. Benjamin Hochmann got the job—fucking Benjamin Hochmann. If the Benjamin Hochmanns are taking jobs at places like Eastern Carolina, who else has a chance for fucks sake? The women at the buffet who were Courtney’s age had teenagers—tall lanky boys with floppy long hair, wearing khaki shorts and loose-tailed Oxford shirts, who towered over their mothers as they stepped together sideways at the buffet.
When the kids’ mother arrives it is seven in the evening—the woman is almost an hour late—and the kids are getting hungry again. They dove into the bruschetta earlier, slopped it all over the table, worked the crostini in their maws like dogs with crunchy bones. Courtney pulled the plate away laughing, and said, “Don’t want to ruin your dinner. Your mom would get mad at me.”
Brandon wanted to play on the computer. Courtney told him he had a thirty-minute limit and he decided just to go outside and ride his bike. Bryce wanted to walk around on his toes and relate in painful detail the plot to Children of the Corn which Matt had inexplicably let him watch. Eventually she got him outside too. He didn’t like the mosquitos, went straight for the bottle of OFF in the carport and hosed himself down. Alissa took one lap through the house on her bike, and then Courtney put her out the door, saying, “That is an outside toy.” “Can I ride on the street?” Alissa asked. “I don’t know, can you?” “May I? Dad lets me.” “I’d be more comfortable if you stayed on the driveway.” The girl accepted it without complaint. Courtney followed her out and shouted into the yard, “Who wants to learn how to make clover necklaces?”
“I’m so sorry,” the mother says before she even introduces herself. “Work was hell today.” She is heavy, bulges in her blouse and jeans; she has on fuck-me boots with four-inch heels. She has small brown eyes and a headache scowl that makes the parallel lines between her eyebrows rise up to almost meet two lines across her forehead. If Courtney filled in the lines with nail polish, it would be a fat letter T. Courtney knows it is petty, but still it makes her happy.
“I’m Courtney.” She hands the woman the pile of mail addressed to her, folded into the Family Fun magazine like a big paper taco.
The woman takes it. “I had this client call right before I left the office,” she says, looking around for the kids. She smells like cigarette smoke. “I knew I shouldn’t have taken the call.”
“What is it you do?”
“I had to park over at Mrs. Stavers because the driveway is blocked.”
“The kids are out back playing.”
“In the yard?” the mother says. “Together?”
“They’ve been out there since snack.”
“You have better luck than I do getting them outside.”
“It was easy,” she says. “I set a thirty-minute limit on technology, but none of them used any.”
“You got Brandon off Runescape? That’s impressive.” The woman sets her mail down on the kitchen table.
“I taught them how to make necklaces out of clover. I can’t believe I still remember how.”
The woman steps to the kitchen door and yells out into the yard, “Come on, kids. Time to go home.”
“I gave them bruschetta for snack,” Courtney says.
“They ate bruschetta?”
“I had to make them stop so they wouldn’t ruin their dinner.”
“I love bruschetta,” the woman says. “Isabella’s Trattoria has hands down the best bruschetta ever made. You ever eat there?”
“Heirloom tomatoes and my own fresh basil. Even the garlic is local and organic. Would you like some?”
The woman says, “You teach piano I hear.”
“I could some in a container for you all to have later. It’s just me and I won’t eat it all.”
“Do you do anything else? I mean… do you compose?”
“I’m not a composer.” Courtney’s been making more money gigging lately than teaching, and weddings pay a whole lot better than recital gigs, and they’re a hell of a lot easier to prepare for. Don’t have to practice at all. It’s not steady and dependable work though.
The woman yells out the door, “Brandon Bryce Alissa. This minute.” She turns to Courtney and has some money in her hand, the outer bill is a five. She says, “To help with the food.”
“Nonsense,” Courtney says. “I had fun.”
“That organic stuff’s too expensive the way these three eat.”
“Not in the long run, if it keeps them out of the medical system.”
“True that,” the woman says. She asks, “Do you have kids of your own?”
The three kids rumble into the kitchen, sweaty ears, smelling like grass and worms.
Bryce says, “Can we go to Micky-D’s for dinner?”
Alissa says, “I want Subway.”
“We did Subway yesterday.”
“So,” Alissa says. “Courtney, tell them Subway is healthier.”
The woman says, “Miss Courtney, Alissa. Use your manners.”
Courtney says, “Oh it’s okay. Just Courtney is fine.”
The woman says, “They get excited and forget their manners with people they don’t know.”
Courtney’s gaze is drawn to the wrinkled T on the woman’s forehead, to the gray skunk streak. There is a kinked white hair in the part right at the hairline, snapped back from a tweezer tug, looks like. Courtney can’t help herself and she smiles.
“Mom,” Bryce says, “tell Alissa we’re not going to Subway again.”
Brandon says, “I need my trumpet for band tomorrow.”
“Where is it?” the mother asks.
“Have you even practiced at all this week?” The mother walks to the door that leads into the dining room, which has been for all the nine months Courtney has known Matt a storage room for things of questionable ownership after his split with this woman. Sure enough the trumpet is there among the boxes and chairs and lamps in its black plastic case.
And an upright piano.
They all somehow end up in the dining room with the piano. The wood is painted blond. Courtney opens the plank of wood and looked inside at the plate: Lester Piano Company, Lester, PA, est. 1888. Endorsed by the Philadelphia Orchestra. The hammers are red and yellow, old, soft, and the odor of mildew and dust rises out of it, the smell of abandoned old church basements.
Behind it the window blinds hang tattered—evidence of a dog they once had that ran away for days at a time, then weeks, then just never came back. The windowsill is chewed and clawed, the white paint gone, the wood beneath gouged and scratched. The blinds are destroyed, and hang splayed like an ax murderer entered through them. In their hanging gaps Courtney can see through the carport into the fat, shirtless neighbor’s garage that stands perpetually open, filled with so much junk no car could fit inside.
“That’s the piano your mom took lessons on,” the woman says to the kids.
“Courtney can play the piano,” Bryce says.
Alissa says, “Play the piano, Courtney.”
“Maybe some other time. Your mom is tired. She wants to get you guys on home and fed.”
The woman runs her fingers along the keyboard. “I took lessons on this thing for seven years.”
“You still play?” Courtney asks.
“Play it,” Bryce yells, and Brandon joins him in begging—please mommy, play us something, play it for us, please—while Alissa bangs away on the keys, as if the thing hadn’t been in this house her whole life, as if she’s just discovered it. It’s badly out of key. It’s against an outside wall, under a drafty window.
“Let me in, Alissa,” the woman says. Alissa scoots to the edge of the bench and the woman sits down to play. Her flesh bulges inside her work clothes. She starts playing that Vanessa Carlton song “1000 Miles,” and her kids all perk up and watch her—but the song is written in B flat major and the woman is playing it in B Dorian. She can only play the right hand. Kind of.
“Wow,” Brandon says.
Bryce says, “Mom’s a good piano player.” He looks at Courtney, proud of his mother.
Alissa cranes her head back and says to Courtney, “She’s a good piano player, isn’t she, Courtney.”
“Miss,” Brandon says.
Courtney lies and says yes, she’s not bad.
“I haven’t played in so long,” the mother says, obviously pleased with herself. “I used to be even better.” She says to Brandon, “Get your trumpet.” She says to Courtney, “In school I played a Steinway.”
“Those are the best pianos, aren’t they mom?” Brandon says.”
“They are, honey.”
Courtney says, “I like the Steinway growl, how deep and resonant it is. But it can sometimes be muddy.”
“True,” the woman says. Like she knows.
Courtney has to step out of the way as the woman scoots the bench back to stand, saying, “Get your book bag too. You two go get your book bags. It’s time to go home.”
“Can we go to Micky D’s?” Bryce asks.
“Subway,” Alissa says.
“Micky D’s,” Bryce says. Brandon says, “Micky D’s.”
The woman says, “We had Subway yesterday.”
The boys cheer. To Courtney’s surprise Alissa accepts without argument, goes for her book bag.
To Courtney the woman says, “I work a regular job. Sometimes I work pretty late, and I’m just too tired for some big production at dinner.”
“I get it,” Courtney says.
The woman meets the kids in the kitchen, says to them, “Say thank you to Miss Courtney for babysitting you.” They all say thank you Miss Courtney. Courtney says no problem, she had fun.
Courtney sits at the piano and stares through the broken blinds at the messy world of the neighbor’s garage. She sees Alissa flash past the window, hears the kids and the woman all out in the carport talking. She puts her hands on the keys and starts playing the Bach B Flat Major Partita. She chips a note, then chips another, but then finds her groove. The old piano is a piece of shit, but she makes it ring out.
Does she compose—what kind of question was that? Courtney bears down and plays harder. She thinks of all the people known for interpreting the work of others: Glenn Gould playing Bach; Mitsuko Uchida with Mozart, Hayden; Richard Goode playing Beethoven. So what if she doesn’t compose? She can play. And she is young. She is Yuja Wong stepping out to play with the Oregon Symphony in a little orange mini dress.
The boys pass by the window. Then the woman. Courtney plays even harder. Forget color, nuance; she’s banging the hell out of it now. The woman pauses and almost looks through the destroyed blinds at Courtney, but then doesn’t. She walks on, disappears from the window.
Courtney plays her heart out, so that they have to be able to hear her from in front of the fat man’s house. She cannot hear the kids talking, or the mother. She cannot hear their laughter. She cannot hear the car doors close with a clop, and a clop, clop. She cannot hear that woman start the car engine start, or her drive away with the kids. All she hears is music, music that fills this empty house to bursting, and she is the one playing it. And damn, can she play.
THE STORY BEHIND THE STORY
The skeleton of “Chamber Music” is an actual experience. I was traveling a number of years ago, and my girlfriend—now my wife—graciously offered to take the kids, whom she did not yet know well, and do a trade-off with their mother. This was the first time the two had met, and it was, as these things usually are, awkward and tense. The flesh and blood of the story is pure invention.
I researched the life of a professional classical musician by grilling two friends over lunch one day. They are partners; one is a pianist and the other a percussionist. I conflated their experiences which resulted in some skewing in my depiction of a professional musician’s life—a classical pianist’s life is nothing like a classical percussionist’s. Non-musicians will not notice the places where I go wrong, and I’m certainly not pointing them out.
ABOUT VIC SIZEMORE
Vic Sizemore’s short fiction and nonfiction are published or forthcoming in StoryQuarterly, Southern Humanities Review, storySouth, Connecticut Review, Blue Mesa Review, Sou’wester, PANK Magazine, Silk Road Review, Atticus Review, Reed Magazine, Superstition Review, Entropy, Eclectica, Ghost Town, and elsewhere. Excerpts from his novel Eternity Rowboat are published or forthcoming in Connecticut Review, Portland Review, Drunken Boat, Prick of the Spindle, Burrow Press Review, Pithead Chapel, Letters and elsewhere. His fiction has won the New Millennium Writings Award, and been nominated for Best American Nonrequired Reading and two Pushcart Prizes. You can find Vic at https://vicsizemore.wordpress.com/.