Just like every Friday, he places roses on Nola’s grave. Nola who hates sentiment. Nola who hates romantic gestures. And just like every Friday, he takes the long way home, the collar of his coat pulled high against the bottom of his jaw, his knapsack slung across his left shoulder. There are those who try to stop him as he walks past. Gervain, they say, where are you going?
Don’t you play piano anymore?
Play for us Gervain.
But Gervain goes straight home, every Friday. He goes straight down Main Street, past the cafe that smells like cheese but advertises bagels, past the deli where Mohamed and his dog sit (Where’s that pretty friend of your’s Ger?), past the funeral home. He walks all the way to the edge of town, where the textile factory belches smoke into the air every hour, on the dot. He could go to the left, to the side door that takes him into the furnaces of the factory and the clacks and clicks of thousands of stitching needles. He could go left, but he goes right on Fridays, to the path that knows his feet and takes him three miles north. To the bakery, and the backroom with a cot. He walks this way in the earliest hours of the morning, and the later hours before the sun goes down. He walks midday, once.
Fridays mean he walks a little slower, in pace with Nola.
It’s been seven years, and still he sees her footprints in the snow. For the most part they walk in silence, but sometimes she speaks, usually in oaths. You look like s***, Ger. Put on a hat when you go outside for God’s sake. Sometimes he tries to talk to her. Stop talking to me. People will think you’re batty. It doesn’t matter what he says, she makes him move on. Even when they were in the orphanage, even when Nola got sick, she refused to let him mourn, or cry. I don’t need your tears Ger. She was never meant to leave the Earth, her heart was still too young, too full of feelings unexperienced.
Every day the nuns boiled the water before they served it to the children, but Gervain thinks that they must have skipped a day. They must have been busy, must have forgotten. He couldn’t control disease, neither could they, so it was no one’s fault, really. No one could have done anything to stop her illness. It must be someone’s fault. There has to be someone to blame.
Every Friday, Gervain tries to think of someone to blame, but there’s no one. There’s nothing tangible he can punch, and, even then, he’s never been the punching type. That was always Nola. But don’t think that there was something between her and Gervain. They had a love, a strong one, but it was a friendly love. They were partners in crime, friends thrown together by outside forces they couldn’t counteract.
Gervain reaches the end of the trail he follows, and approaches the cobblestoned path that leads to the bakery. The minute he touches his feet to the cobbles, Nola disappears. He’s tempted to look back, to take another sight of his childhood friend, but of course she isn’t there. She hasn’t actually been there in seven years.
Gervain strides up the path to the bakery’s back door, remembering to brush his feet off on the grass outside. The front room smells of pumpernickel bread and sourdough, blueberry muffins and sweetcakes, but the back where Gervain enters has an underlying tone of tobacco and fire. McCalver needs to be more careful about where he smokes. A customer’s going to complain someday. He takes the knapsack off his back and dumps the contents into the ebbing furnace. Today’s factory coals mix with the leftovers of yesterday’s, causing the fire to spark and fill the room with a richer glow. Gervain unwraps the scarf around his neck and throws it on the cot mere feet away from the front door. He slides the sleeves of his coat up around his elbows as the temperature in the room gets higher, and makes his way toward the swinging door at the opposite end of the room.
A voice calls out from the front, “Gervain, laddy, s’hat you?”
“Yes Mr. McCalver, and I brought s’more coal!”
“That’s good son. There’s a batch of sowadoah on the table back thuh for ya. Too burnt fuh customahs, just right for you, eh?”
“Yeah that’s right sir.”
Gervain grabs a chunk of bread off the plate and chews it with one side of his mouth, listening as McCalver goes on about the regulars that came into the store.
“Geoffrey an’ his kids came in ‘ere today,” McCalver hollers from the other room.
“Yeah Louisa just had ‘er baby. Geoff was tryin’ tuh get thuh kids out of thuh house before Lou went nuts.”
“With five kids I’d go nuts too sir.”
“Bet ya would. But I also bet ya gonna have some one day,” McCalver draws out the word but, suggesting he knew something Gervain didn’t.
“No sir that’s not in the cards for me,” Ger leans against the frame of the door leading to the front, tracking McCalver with his eyes as the man crosses the room to get icing for his cake.
“Well,” McCalver turns to face Gervain, raising one bushy eyebrow, “ye are of that age when ya gotta start thinkin’ bout a woman.”
“Due respect sir, but I’d rather not settle down or anything. I don’t feel like pursuing anybody.”
“Not even if someone was in pursuit of ya too?”
Oh God, he thinks, McCalver’s talking about Maria.
“Was SHE here today?”
McCalver sighs, “I don’t see what ya prob’em is with ‘at girl. She comes from a good family, ‘ats good money for you. She’s willin’ tuh get married, and, even better, she’s willin’ tuh get married to you.”
“Money is all good and well sir, but there’s also the other matter. We don’t have any kind of understanding. And she’s a stranger. I can’t spend my life with someone who I don’t even know.”
“Well- you would end up knowing her if you spent ya whole life with her.”
Gervain pushed himself off of the door frame and sucks his teeth.
“Listen Iain, Maria just isn’t the one for me. I’ve no words to share with her.” He turns to walk into the back room, but pauses as McCalver speaks again.
“It’s because of that girl ya used to hang around, ain’t it? I always thought you two would end up together.”
Gervain’s shoulders tense. “No. We had nothing like that. In fact, we hated each other for years.”
McCalver hums a short note under his breath and turns around, his back to the doorway Gervain stands in. The conversation over, Gervain walks back into his own room. He lays down by the furnace, listening to the sounds he spends most of his day with. There’s one sound he doesn’t hear, a sound that comes from McCalver’s lips. “I’m not so sure about that.”
The sun hasn’t risen and already Gervain is at the factory. Dust and smoke covers the air above the building, soon to cloak the morning in a dark glow. It’s 4 a.m. but an entire world is alive inside the factory. Gervain walks through the boiler room, where Dustin and Giles, Lawton and Gene are shoveling coal into the fires, heat that will pump up through the vents and warm the executives’ offices.
“Mornin’,” echoes through the room.
“Great day for lung disease right fellas?” The men all laugh, a short ha that floats up to the above chambers, sounding to those above them like a burst of steam. Gervain walks to his post at the smaller third furnace in the back of the room. He grips his shovel, aligning the handle with the scars on his palms, and digs it into the pile of coals next to him.
He’s on his third load when the foreman taps his shoulder. “Boss says some of ya gotta go.” Giles and Dustin stop shoveling, their mouths set in a hard line.
“Sears cut their order this month. We’re letting all the single men go ‘til next month. I’m real sorry about this.”
Ger shrugs his shoulder out from the foreman’s hand and says he understands, although he really doesn’t.
He walks out of the factory, forgetting his coat, the smoky air clouding his figure. Only the occasional newsie is on the streets. It’s too early to knock on doors with help wanted signs. Besides, all the positions are filled; he’s been checking for months. So he decides to walk downtown, not ready to face McCalver, and not ready to face the fact that he might be out a bed.
Gervain walks down the middle of the street, his feet tracing the faint white line in the middle of the pavement. Just like yesterday, he passes storefronts yet to be opened. A stray dog runs across the street, yipping softly, and runs straight into the alley beside the funeral parlor.
For some reason, he crosses over to the sidewalk next to the store, and stands right underneath the hanging sign. Gervain’s Funeral Home and Crematory Services, it reads. Gervain’s: the place his mother left him 23 years ago, the place that gave him his name and nothing else. The place he promised he would never come back to. He hasn’t been here in years, seven to be precise. Not since Nola. Not since her funeral, the last time he touched the keys of a piano. The calluses from keys have disappeared on his fingertips, now the calluses rest on the bottom of his palm and the insides of his index fingers, in the perfect shape of a shovel handle. Don’t go in.
He turns to leave, but a glint in the window catches his eye. Past the skinny black letters on the windows advertising oak coffins and last rites, past the wilted flower pots on the inside of the window lies something he hasn’t seen in years. An old friend, if you could call it that. Don’t go in.
Still, his feet move without accordance to his body and he walks in the front of the door. It’s not locked, but this doesn’t surprise Gervain. The man that ran this place never could find his keys. The inside smells like sandalwood and rosemary rather than astringent, but it’s stale. Gervain blinks a couple times, shutting his eyelids for 3 or 4 seconds as if trying to awake from a dream. Just lost my job...it probably couldn’t hurt….
There. In the far corner of the room lies the most important part of his childhood, la piece de resistance, the baby grand piano, its lid propped open as it was 23 years ago, though now missing a baby boy nestled inside the taut strings and ivory. Missing a quiet baby. A baby that somehow knew that everything and anything could happen to him, all in one moment, all in one moment that he now can’t remember.
He approaches the bench nestled at the end of the piano, caught in a moment just like the one all those years ago, a moment that he won’t remember many years from now. He sits. Cracks his neck. Fingers poised as the bottoms of ducks skimming the pond, barely teasing the water. He’s not sure of what to play, so he starts soft, barely pressing down a chord. A ping of sound echoes through the room, and now he knows what to play.
Mohamed takes his dog outside six doors down for his morning constitutional, and later swears he heard crying from somewhere close by. And the crying isn’t sad, it sounds like raindrops hitting the ground, or the barefeet of a child sneaking downstairs, or rather not like any sound he’s ever heard before. It drives the dog mad.
McCalver stops kneading dough three miles away. There’s an ache behind his eyes he hasn’t felt in a long time. For the first time in thirty years, he thinks of his mother, Siobhan. For a week the bakery will only sell blueberry scones, the first dessert she taught him to make.
The foreman knocks on his boss’ door in the factory, but pauses as he hears laughter from the room of men he just laid off. He runs back, ready to write them up, but no one is there.
Back at the funeral home, Gervain closes his eyes, and as he plays he swears he can smell the perfume Nola stole from Mother Superior when they were five. A space fills in a gap he doesn’t realize is there. Nola?
He opens his eyes. She’s there. A ghost of a smile, her body lounging on the top of the piano, her feet hanging over the edge. No.
Gervain shoves back from the piano, knocking over the bench in his haste to get away, to get as far away as possible from this trick of the light. He throws open the door and is five paces out when he stops. Heavy breathing. Gervain turns his head just the slightest bit around.
“Nola?” He barely whispers. He speaks again in a quick exhale, this time with a little more urgency, “Nola? Nola?” He digs his heel into the ground and turns around as fast as he can. The jingle of the door slamming again echoes across the street. There’s no one at the piano. I swear she was there. No. No this is ridiculous. But it was her, even if just for a second. Gervain knows that face, he spent years trading insults with that face. But I don’t want to chance it. No I’m finally moving on. It’s a lie and he knows it. He’ll never forgive himself if he walks away, he knows she wouldn’t want him to. So he sits back down to face a friend, a brief foe, the girl he looked up to but who never looked down at him. He puts his fingers to the keys and plays a song just for her. Claire de Lune, her favorite.
In the back room of the funeral parlor the mortician awakes from his alcoholic sleep. He stumbles into the hallway, about to yell at whoever has entered his shop because it’s 6:00 a.m. on a Saturday for chrissakes. Instead he opens the door to a young man sitting at his piano, black powder smudged on his clothes and the back of his neck, little beads of sweat and dust spread across his skin. His shoulders are shaking but whether from tears or laughter Leo can’t tell. He tiptoes into the room, the door clicking shut behind him. The sound is loud, but it’s clear to Leo that whatever the boy hears is louder.
All of a sudden he hears a young girl’s laughter coming from the sofa. Leo turns and sees a child with a paper crown on her head leaping from chair to chair. He almost calls out don’t fall but then she turns toward him and it’s her. It’s his baby girl and suddenly Leo is on his knees, Adrienne, my little Adrienne, is that you? The child beams and begins to run toward her father, her lips forming the words Papa-Papa I’ve missed you. He reaches his hands out to embrace, and she’s gone. Sharp inhale. No. The music has stopped and both the man and the boy at the piano look into the eyes of someone who is not there. They sit, and it looks like praying.
Leo is first to lift his head. His voice is strong but his eyes are weak. “Can you do that again?”