It had been a bad day.
In math class I failed to puzzle out the mysteries of the slide rule.
In history my teacher told me to stick to the facts.
In English I was informed that, no, making up my own poems had not constituted a suitable response to the essay question on the last test.
In art, I couldn’t draw my own hand to save my life, and it wasn’t okay to fill the paper with words.
And the bulletin board in the hall (and everyone clustered in front of it) let me know that I didn’t get a part in the play. Not even a bit part.
Failure all around.
And so I made my way home, thinking that, well, at least I had the piano, at least Mr. Goetze had encouraged me by saying, “Yes, Barbara, we are sweeping the cobwebs one by one from your closet. Bach is at last becoming Bach.”
I was so deep into replaying the day that I didn’t at first notice my mother standing at the back door, leaning against it, a bag of groceries held at her side. She was waving me over with her free hand and mouthing “Ssshhhh….”
I tiptoed up the steps to her. And then there. I heard it. Faint at first but louder now—from just inside. Jazz of a sort. Tumbling from our piano in a floaty rippling of notes. Sounds moving like grasses in the wind. Like animals. Like water. Like weather.
How could it be? Who could it be?
Even at 14 I could detect, I could feel the expression of absolute joy and freedom. It flooded me. Shook me. Wrapped its arms around me and pulled me under.
My mother put her bags down. Started dancing. Right there on the back porch. Right there in front of me. Right there in front of the world.
She smiled and gave me an inscrutable look. Smiled her lopsided smile. Motioned for me to go slide up to the side window and sneak a peek.
I couldn’t fathom who it could be. I went over to the window and looked in.
There. There at the piano. My brother. My brother?
My brother who had quit piano lessons years ago.
My brother who snapped surly sarcasm whenever I tried to listen to music.
Who rolled his eyes when I sat down to practice.
Who had no use for music.
He had a secret. A big one. This. This.
And then it stopped. Just like that. He sat up, his eyes dazed as though he was returning from somewhere. He had spotted me. He glared silence at me, daring me to say one word.
He stood up and turned away and disappeared.
I sat down. Right there on the steps.
For the beauty and the shock.
For the music.
For my brother.
But most of all I wept for myself and my ridiculous playing. My failures.
My mother sat down beside me and put her arm around my shoulder.
“I quit,” I said. “No more lessons.”
“It’s no use.”
She nodded. “Sure. Art has to feed your deepest self. Like painting for me. Piano for him.”
I shrugged and got up and climbed the stairs to my room and closed the door and turned to my desk where I moved words around a page again and again, again and again
to see what they did to one another again and again and again
deep into the night.