Richie usually checked to see if I was awake before he practiced. He liked that I had no knowledge or interest in piano. According to him, that made me a good audience. He’d knock on my door just after the light appeared most mornings. I wouldn’t respond at first. He’d knock again, often rhythmically, as if he wanted me to guess the song. I never could. After he played—at home and at recitals—he never asked me for a response to his performances. He just liked to know that someone who didn’t understand the fundamentals, someone who could not evaluate his playing on a technical level, was listening.
Our mother knew music and conducted a local bell choir. She’d given Richie a strict practice schedule in addition to his two-hour lesson at the university each week. A professor had heard Richie play at some sort of save-the-arts benefit, and was so impressed he offered to mentor Richie for no charge. Our mother almost always listened to Richie play at home and kept time with her fingers while she did it. Her body tensed at certain moments during a piece and loosened at others, as if ribbons were tying and untying themselves around her middle. After Richie was done, she talked and talked about his technique, her long fingers moving in circles as if to stir her opinions into the air. Our mother treated music with the control and precision she lacked in everything else.
The piano was in the corner of our living room just down the hall from my bedroom. Usually, before he started in on the classical pieces he was currently working on, Richie improvised. He’d sit on the creaky piano bench and play a warm and thin melody he’d only just imagined.
Richie was seven when our mother decided that homeschooling was the way to go. I was ten. “Not you, Anne,” she’d said. “You’re an extrovert.” Before I could drive myself, our mother drove me to school in her white pickup truck that smelled like glue. We listened to recordings of Richie’s most recent recitals or the bell choir she conducted on cassettes. We never looked at each other. I focused on a specific point on the road ahead and calculated how many seconds it took for that point to disappear under the car. She focused on the rhythm of each recording—beats per measure, pacing—and her eyes seemed to glisten in the silence that separated each piece. She never turned into the circular drive where most parents dropped off their kids. She pulled over a block away to let me out.
Richie’s morning practice sessions stayed with me throughout each day. I walked in time to his music as I remembered it, but I’d never been good with rhythm.
When Richie wasn’t practicing scales, studying music theory, or keeping up with schoolwork, he cleaned. He vacuumed already dustless floors. He bleached the bathroom and kitchen surfaces multiple times each week, wearing the work gloves our father had left behind. Richie and I could not remember his face. But, when Richie wore the gloves, his expression became stiffer, sharper, and I imagined that was how our father might look.
The bell choir our mother directed played every Sunday in church. Our church’s sanctuary was bigger than most, but even with the high ceilings, there seemed to be a lack of oxygen, and being there gave me a mild headache. The acoustics produced a hum that made me yawn. When I could talk Richie into it, we played a game called M.A.S.H during the service. M.A.S.H. stood for Mansion, Attic, Shack, House. It was a game where chance decided which of these places you’d end up living in, what kind of person you’d end up marrying, how much money you’d make, how many children you’d have, and what you’d do for work. When it was Richie’s turn, he was allowed three choices for each category and I was allowed one. For jobs, Richie picked things like hunter and psychologist. Neither of us picked pianist. Our mother’s bell choir set up on the balcony that overlooked the crowd—tables lined with golden bells, small to big—and they played twice during the service. I always paid attention, marveling at how so many different people ringing bells at different pitches could work to form something larger that made sense.
One Saturday morning when Richie was practicing, I lay my head on the carpet of my bedroom to see how the melody sounded with one ear. After I realized that I couldn’t tell the difference, that it would all sound the same even if I was deaf in one ear, I heard Richie’s fist slam the high notes of the piano. There was no more melody. I stood up and went to the living room.
“I’m listening,” I said. “I always am.”
“I’m done,” Richie said. He looked at me, eyebrows running closer to his eyes than usual, head nodding slightly as if there was a loose hinge in his neck.
I listened for our mother’s movement through the house and heard only beats—the clicking metronome from the top of the piano, the thin branches tapping the windows of our living room. Richie dug his pinky into his ear as if to rid his mind of rhythm and the expectations that came with it.
“Where’s Mom?” I asked.
Richie pointed to the back window. Our mother was in the yard, reading over the sheet music for tomorrow’s church service, calculating the rhythm with her free hand—wrist snapping on one and two and three—her head shaking rapidly every so often.
“What are you doing?” Richie asked.
“It’s Saturday,” I said. “I’m not doing anything.”
Richie played the highest note on the piano, let the ring fade to nothing, and played it again.
“What do you want to do?” I asked, and immediately realized I’d never asked him anything of the sort in the past.
Richie closed the fallboard slowly. His hands were red and alive and they seemed to need a new task. I waited for him to launch into a two-hour cleaning session, thinking he’d probably go straight for the corners of every room to find and clean the filth that usually went unnoticed, scrub the baseboards until the paint stripped. It occurred to me that I’m done may mean I’m done for good. I thought of how things would be without the piano. A cloud moved to block the sun from lighting the room. The piano’s polished black finish reflected a blobby, featureless Richie. He bounced on the creaky bench. The branches now scraped the front window. Richie rubbed his hands together, as if balling up their heat would make what he needed easier to understand.
“Can I braid your hair?” he asked.
He looked at the ceiling, then at me.
“Sure,” I said. “Let me brush it first.”
Richie used to sneak into my room at night to braid my hair. We were closer then, before our mother tapped into Richie, before he and I were separated into different compartments, before I knew I had no talent, before our mother started looking at me as if I was a potato that couldn’t be peeled or saved, before our father left, before our mother stopped trimming the trees by the front windows, before she wore face masks to bed at night.
About the author:
Amy Scharmann is originally from Manhattan, Kansas and now lives in Gainesville, where she earned an MFA in Fiction from the University of Florida. Her work has appeared in the Flash Fridays series at Tin House, PANK, SmokeLong Quarterly, and Bodega. She tweets at https://twitter.com/AmyScharmann