Sounds of Silence

September 3, 2012
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Sounds of Silence

They sing to me in the halls. Sweet, saccharine sounds that run through me like wind through the highest sycamore tree in our front lawn. I hear their voices intertwine to create a symphony of pitches that project from their mouths and ring off the walls. I never understood what was so inspiring about walking down the hallway. Maybe it’s the color of the wall near Ms. Gala’s room; dark green like the caterpillars that crawl on the sycamore tree. Examining it tastes like bitter soap in my mouth. But I’m not convinced yet. The others sing to me even when we stand nowhere near the caterpillar paint. It’s quite peculiar though, the way they sing. Their lips always tense, teeth gleaming in the fluorescent lighting, some clutch their stomachs as others look to the ground, hiding their faces from me. They look the way the way Gram looks when she finishes one of her crossword puzzles in the Sunday paper. But I’m not sure what that’s called. And the kids in the halls aren’t doing crossword puzzles so I’m still confused. Maybe they sing because they like the feel of it. They ravish in the sensation of the music rising up their throats and bursting out into the open, spreading across hall. All I know is that they sing. One Tuesday, I felt curious and asked a boy why he was singing in the halls. He only told me that they weren’t singing; they were laughing. I didn’t know what was so funny so I figured he must have been making what Gram calls a joke. Anyways, I don’t ask anymore and I don’t pause to stop. I just keep on going down the corridor and listening to the music. They sing to me in the halls.
The birds on my sycamore tree chirp soft and sweet. After school, the bus picks me up at 2:45. There are always 4 stops. No more, no less. I get off the bus and walk down Plymouth Street and then take a right onto Thornton Road where the leaves float in the air. I stroll to my house, enjoying the wind caressing my hair, laying a cool hand on my cheek and whistling a high pitched tune in my ear. The white paint on our wooden gate is crusty and peeling. It looked brand new when I was first born, or so my Gram says. She says my mom loved that white fence. Something about how it kept in the love. I never understood that because I figured the love could just hop right over the fence if it wanted to. I guess my mom was planning on repainting it the day she had her accident. Or so my Gram says. Anyways, after I open the gate, I take off my pack, throw it to the side, and sit under our tree. I perch myself against the big trunk, close my eyes and absorb the music. Each canary and mockingbird like a flute, piping their own melodies; a small, feathered choir. The birds chirp and I listen. I listen and the birds chirp. We need each other. After all, if I weren’t sitting under those lofty leaves, who would the birds sing to? The shade under that sycamore tree is my oasis in a desert of confusing people in a busy world. It is my own personal haven where birds greet me after school and chirp away the afternoon. A lot of things don’t make any sense to me. The kids in my high school say odd things and the teachers write long numbers and formulas on the board. Under the sycamore tree, there are no numbers and there are no students. There is just me and the chirping. The birds on my sycamore tree chirp soft and sweet.
My best friend is made of wood and ivory, stands on four legs, and like a marionette fueled by emotion, obeys my every whim. Dark brown oak with the sheen of a newly washed car, it stands there elegantly and patiently, awaiting the soft tickle of my fingers. Prepared for the most passionate of banging or the lightest touch, it is sturdy and resolute; completely and utterly stalwart. This is the one gift I know that my mother had ever given me, and if she was anywhere near as stunning as the gleaming wood and polished ivory of this Steinway Grand, I am positive she would have been the most beautiful woman in the entire world. My Gram said that my mom had a love for the piano, although she couldn’t play it, and that she used to sit on the couch and listen to my father play all through the night. She once blurted out, with a smile weary on her face, “When he started to play, Steinway came down the stairs personally and rubbed his name off the piano”. I thought it was pretty incredible that Steinway had once lived in our house, but I figured Gram must have had the words repainted on the piano because they have been there as long as I can remember. Other than that one reminiscent moment, Gram never talks about my father and when I mention him, her face contorts into something that looks five octaves worse than the visage Ms. Gala wore after Sally threw up chunky salami sandwich puke after lunch last Wednesday. But there is always a haven away from the twisted faces of my Gram and the disgusting image of Sally’s puke. There is invariably a place where I can be at rest. My best friend is made of wood and ivory, stands on four legs, and like a marionette fueled by emotion, obeys my every whim.
Tuesdays are the best days. A day where I wake up to the soft scent of steaming waffles made by Gram with sweet syrup poured over the caramelized crust. Tuesdays are the days Gram takes me to the local orchestra rehearsal, where I quietly sit in the back, close my eyes, and sink into the music. On Tuesday’s, Roger, our neighbor, comes over to give me piano lessons. Roger is the man with no last name and the man whose eyes have the same dark brown sparkle as mine. The door bell chimes a cheery C-sharp every Tuesday at 5 o’clock. It is at around 5 o’clock and 15 seconds that I hop off my piano stool where I await him, dash to the door, and greet my teacher. My Gram must dislike the doorbell or perhaps the note of C-sharp, or maybe even the time of two o’clock on Tuesday because whenever that doorbell rings, she walks briskly to her room, slams the door, and does not return until after our neighbor has left. Roger began teaching me for five years, four days after my eleventh birthday. When I stare at him, I feel neither frightened nor scared as I do with most strangers I meet, but rather a sense of, well, what it is I cannot identify. But whatever this feeling was, it rushed through me like those first four chords of Beethoven’s 9’th symphony; vibrant and thrilling, yet collected and articulate. When Roger first heard me play five years ago, he said, as one single tear rolled down his cheek, that I was the most magnificent thing he had ever heard. He always gazes at the piano with a similar look to the way I stare upon it; like he feels a connection that has spanned many years. Rogers’s usual closing comment to our most recent lessons have been that, soon, he will no longer be able to teach me because of the rate my skills have been progressing, which makes me sad and, judging from his fleeting comments and expressions, it makes him sad as well. He then leaves, shutting the door behind him, which cues Gram to amble back down the stairs, sit on the couch where my mother used to listen when my father played, close her eyes, and wait. I then sit parallel to her, meander my bottom against the cushion, and press my fingers against the ivory. The world has stopped. The music resonates. And I am at peace. Tuesdays are the best days.
Some boxes are meant to be left unopened. It was a Wednesday as far as I can remember. I faintly recall wanting to revive my old pieces that I had played years ago. There was one particular melody that seemed to be nagging me on that day. Claire De Lune by Claude Debussy, I think it was. Delving deeper into the boxes buried in Grams’ closet, I found myself uncovering more news clippings and letters than music. Claire De Lune was nowhere in sight. On any normal day, I would have closed the boxes and went to search somewhere else, but at that time, my curiosity was more potent than usual, and it seemed to overpower any rationality I possessed. I was pushed by an unknown force to satisfy my abnormal hunger for information that was not meant for me. I carefully brought one cardboard box out of the closet and placed it on the ground for examination. I uncovered it to reveal a small newspaper column lying on top of a stack of papers. At the heading of the page, it read a strange word that I had never heard before, ‘obituary’. It was a lengthy article but all I had to read was the first line. It read: “Mary James, beloved wife, husband, and mother, died last Sunday, January 26’th, 1994, while giving birth to her only child.” More articles and clippings flashed before my eyes as I threw them one by one on the ground, simply looking for the name Mary James one more time. To even read it again; to feel my tongue make the syllables, made it seem like she was still alive even if it was not on this earth. But Mary was present in my thoughts, and in the sounds the piano made when I played it, which made her timeless. Many more of the pages were simply pictures of me at the piano with articles that seemed to be littered with words like “prodigious” and “masterful”. I figure Gram must have taken those pictures at some time but I don’t remember us ever having a camera so I figured she must have borrowed one from a neighbor. It was only at the bottom of the box that I found something else worth reading. The only reason it caught my eye was because at the end, it was signed “Love, Roger”. I have no conception as to why my piano teacher would be writing me a letter, but as I gazed upward, the top right corner came into view with a single date: January 3’rd, 2005. I could certainly not discern why my piano teacher had written me a letter when I was only 10 years old; however, my confusions were abolished as I read:
“Dear Gram, I know that term of endearment is probably no longer available to me after what I have done. I am weak and selfish. When Mary died, I could no longer live. I would think about her all day, I wept for hours every night, and, for the first time in my life; I did not have the longing to play piano. But what made me leave home was not the grief, it was the baby. I do not know his name, and for that I am ashamed. All I can say is that when I gazed at that baby boy, it was like I was staring at Mary back from the grave. It killed me. I was overcome with more than I can even describe, but I knew, at that moment, that I would not be able to live with that constant reminder of grief. So I ran away from everything Mary once was and everything she left behind. I tore her from my memory like a beautiful flower in a patch of weeds. But now, almost eleven years later, I think I may be ready. I know it may have been presumptuous of me but I saw that there is a house up for sale across the street, assuming that you still live in our old home. I was thinking about buying that house and, although it may seem crazy to you, introducing myself into my boy’s life. I may not deserve to know him and I know you may hate the idea of my presence, but my mind has already been made. I, of course, am not going to dismantle his life with the words of “Hi. I’m your dad”. I may be selfish and immature but stupid I am not. I thought, if you would allow it, that I could tutor him, or come over for dinner on Sundays as the “friendly neighbor”, and perhaps, assuming you have not sold that beautiful Steinway of ours, come over once a week to teach him piano. I am not looking for forgiveness or love. I am simply trying to be a good man; a good father and reunite with my child, if only as a friend.
With my deepest regrets, apologies, and love, Roger James
This letter was more confusing than all of the others combined, for it seemed impossible that the words on it were true. My understanding, however, was disrupted by a squeak in the door. I looked up to see Gram silently crying, staring at the clippings scattered on the ground and my face that she later told me looked like “a thousand hearts breaking in the same moment”. Some boxes are meant to be left unopened.
There once was a rhythm to my life; a slow but steady beat that kept me going. That box of clippings stole my rhythm and replaced it with confusion and tears for a while. They say I will be going to a school called Julliard next year. I don’t know what that is but Gram assures me that I will like it. For now, it is summer and the days are cool. The grass is moist under my sycamore tree where the birds sing like they always have. Mary and Roger have left my world and are now just names to me. The tempo of my life is steady and reassuring. The notes are melodious. I place my bottom on the cushion and press my fingers against the ivory. The world has stopped. The music resonates. And I am at peace.

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