HONORABLE MENTION, FALL 2017
The Ghost Story Supernatural Fiction Award
Illustration by Andy Paciorek
BY J.P. EGRY
Tuesday, after the Saturday Funeral:
I told him I refused to wear lipstick until he returned home. I didn’t know then he’d come home in a jar.
Well, not a jar, exactly. A grand-piano-shaped urn with a G clef handle on its lid. Not that I need a handle. I don’t plan to open it any time soon. It’s not a large container. Amazing how little room a person’s ashes need, how quickly we can be reduced to nothing.
I sit here at his seven-foot concert Steinway staring at that urn, then moving it. First to the left of the music desk, then to the right. Which place would he have wanted it? It doesn’t matter. He can never play again. I decide on the right—the melodic end of the keyboard. Where he would want to be most is sitting right here at this keyboard playing scales and Bach and Chopin and jazz.
That’s correct. Bernard was a jazz pianist and composer—had recorded many pieces of his own music and had other compositions ready to go for several more recordings. But now his new creations will be forever silent—heard only in our imaginations.
After the accident they told me he’d never walk again (correct about that) but that his hands were undamaged and he’d be playing beautifully again in no time. Boy, were they wrong. First, the paralysis set in. Then the pneumonia. When he told me melodies constantly ran in his mind like water from a faucet, but he couldn’t write them down, I went home and cried. Then there was the virus—one of those deadly hospital things that appear out of the atmosphere, and one for which there is no cure. No known medications touch the devilish organisms. So we waited to see who won—the patient or the virus. I can tell you now that the patient never wins that game.
So here we are. Me in a stupor, him at forty-seven reduced to ashes in a jar. That’s what he wanted—cremation. Now, he’s as close as I can get him to the greatest passion of his life, his music. I came only a distant second.
I know it’s my imagination running wild, but I swear I can feel the heat from his body on this chair cushion where he sat for so many years. I revel in the mystic warmth and pained memories radiating through every nerve and muscle of my body.
Staring at the silent black and whites in front of me, I suddenly remember how he loved black and white milkshakes. Silly how the mind works. And how in high school someone took a picture of his jazz band, and when that picture fell out of an old yearbook, I put it up with all the other photos of him at the piano. Then he laid it face down and told me not to put it there again. Why? Because in the photo he was wearing white socks with black pants and shoes. Such an embarrassment.
But he’d like this urn—an ebony Steinway replica, complete with white and black keys and a white G clef perched on top. He admired three-dimensional art pieces like this. Oh, and this urn has a battery-operated recording inside. If one were to lift that lid with the clef handle (they’d better not), it would trip a switch. There’s a second switch on the side, and either one will cause one of Bernard’s own compositions to play—the one he wrote for me way back when we’d been dating for over three years—“Waltz for Betty.”
I absentmindedly caress the G clef as if it is the top of Bernard’s head. A surge, almost electric, prickles my fingers, and I jerk my hand back. What was that? Did I imagine it? I gingerly reach out again and place my fingers on the tiny keys of the urn. Nothing. Just my mind running wild. Or maybe static electricity—the house is very dry. Which reminds me, I must get the humidifier running here by the grand piano.
I check the pendulum clock on the wall, and I’m suddenly aware of the steadiness of time ticking on, working its way to eternity and eventually leaving behind all of us who are forever rushing to try to get ahead. Time is the turtle to my hare. But even from this experience will I ever learn to be a turtle and accidentally win through perseverance? Not likely. The actual time finally registers. Betty Anne, you’ve been sitting here for two hours. Time to do something.
Do something. But what? My seat feels warmer again. Probably from the hot flashes that have been keeping me periodically entertained. I drop my head on my left forearm, which rests across the piano desk, and as I lift my right arm to settle it beside the other, the side of my hand brushes the urn. Another small jolt of electric-like heat.
O . . . kay. Not my imagination this time. What kind of batteries are in that music box anyway?
A chill hits my shoulders and escapes through my toes. I shudder. I want to leave—run to the kitchen for tea or aspirin or perhaps a stiff swig of rum or whatever liquor might be left dozing in the pantry. But I can’t. I feel glued to the cushion. In an attempt to push away, I drop my hands and hit the keyboard. A beautiful diminished chord sounds. I look at my fingers and sure enough, they are positioned exactly over a D diminished chord, sounding like one I’ve heard so many times in the midst of Bernard’s compositions.
Even though I’ve had basic music instruction, usually I cannot identify specific chords, nor could I ever begin to play by ear. I need a black spot on a music staff for every note I play on an instrument. It’s a totally mechanical process for me—no inborn intuitive talent for improvisation. Now here I am playing a D diminished chord and, in addition, recognizing what it is. How can this be?
All the sorrow in my tired mind and body vanishes and is replaced by energetic curiosity and curious energy. What if I try playing something? What will happen?
I used to play a couple of ditties from memory, so I tentatively begin my old standby, “Turkey in the Straw.” I close my eyes. My fingers feel light as air, and I suddenly hear a familiar melody—but not the one I expected. Can that be? Can it be me playing “Brahms’ Lullaby?” I certainly know the song well, but I’ve never been able to play it before, even with the music in front of me. I stop and clasp my hands to keep them from shaking.
From the music cabinet behind me, I grab the book of Brahms’ compositions and plop it on the piano desk. With frantic fingers I thumb through until I come to the lullaby. I return my fingers to the keyboard and begin once more. Five minutes later I’ve finished the piece with no mistakes, never having looked at the music score. Stunned, I sit staring at Bernard, unable to respond to what has just happened.
Ten minutes later I rise and wobble to the kitchen. Now a glass of wine is a must. I pour a snifter full and, sipping at the merlot, I pull a stool up to the island counter and sift through random possibilities of why I can suddenly play. None makes any sense at all. Did I have a growth spurt of creative brain cells? Of course not. Did I have this innate ability all along? Did I just suppress it into my subconscious until the right moment came to release it? I doubt that very much.
Could it possibly be that Bernard’s ghost was hovering over me telling me what to do? There was that warm feeling that came through me as I sat there. Now you’re really crazy, Elizabeth Anne.
The last sip of wine reminds me just how tired I am. A little afternoon nap will be welcome. I shut off the phone and flop on the too-large and too-empty king-size bed.
One after another, fleeting visions trip across my dreamscape, none sticking around for long, each one pushing the one before it into oblivion: faces from my childhood—the grandmothers I knew only from their photos; college friends; a long hotel hallway where I can’t find my room; my feet that won’t move in the dark alleyway when footsteps behind me are coming closer and getting louder. And then, clear as if he were standing in front of me, Bernard’s wonderful face—his kind, brown eyes, his salt-and-pepper beard, his smile with one large dimple to the side—all exactly as he was a year ago when he was healthy.
He attempts to speak, but I hear nothing. I step back. “I’m not dressed right,” I say. “I can’t go dressed like this.” I look down at my ripped jeans and naked torso. He stretches his arms toward me and turns his hands palms up, then down, back and forth several times.
I watch his lips and try to read what he’s saying because I cannot hear his voice. “Help me,” his lips say, his eyes plead. “My hands don’t work.”
I back up, tripping over Bongo, our long-deceased cat.
With a jolt, I wake up covered in sweat. Not just Bernard, but the cat? What the . . . ? I throw off the quilt and sit quivering on the edge of the bed. My new jeans are in perfect shape, and I’m completely dressed.
I turn on the phone and listen to the dial tone. I want to call someone to tell them, but who would listen? Most of my friends think I’m crazy enough as it is. I drop my head into my hands. The live cat, Flutie, rubs against my leg and meows, her large yellow eyes staring at me. Then she hisses and raises her back. I think I hear a whisper. “Tell no one.” I whip my head around, checking every part of the room. Nothing here. All is silent except for Flutie’s purr. The hair on her back has settled in place. I place the phone back on its cradle.
Stumbling down the hall and into the living room, I try to avoid the piano. “It’s suppertime,” I mumble, but I’m strangely not hungry even though, except for the bran muffin at breakfast, I’ve eaten nothing. From the corner of my eye I can see that the light around the piano is darker now, the southern sun on its way to the horizon having left the picture window. Yet I clearly see the urn, almost as if the sun’s rays were still upon it. Strange. But nothing about today has been normal.
I can’t control the attraction pulling at me. My feet move reluctantly toward the piano. Flutie follows me and flops on her side next to the pedals. I step around her and ease my haunches onto the cushioned chair. As I lift my hands toward the keys, they tremble, and I force them back to my lap. I can’t. I just can’t!
Tears overflow my eyes and drop to my chest as I gaze toward Bernard, caged in that container. The G clef on the ceramic piano comes into focus, looming larger in my mind than its actual size. Drying my eyes with the back of my hand, I wipe the tears on my jeans and trip the outer switch to start the music.
Bernard’s rendition of his beautiful song, “If You Could,” taken from his recording, fills the room. Flutie rolls at my feet and softly mews as if attempting to sing along. I smile in spite of myself. Now Bernard is singing the words. I’d forgotten that he also sang on this particular recording. “If you could, would you be my love for all time . . .” Shivers parade up and down my spine. How I miss that voice. “. . . would you be gentle with my fumbling ways,” he croons. Feeling peaceful for the first time in months, I relax into my own reverie.
But wait. Something isn’t right. What I hear jolts my mind, and my heart thumps loudly against my ribs. These words are wrong! Yes, you can, you can be my hands for all time—
The music stops, although the batteries can’t be dead already. Then his voice repeats the words—not singing, but speech. After that, the room is silent. Except for Flutie. She rubs back and forth against my legs and mrrowws in decibels I’ve not heard from her before.
“Don’t worry, Flutie. He can’t speak to us. The voice is all in my mind.” The cat rises up on her hind feet for me to scratch the top of her head. I reach down. “Oh, but you heard it, too, didn’t you?” She puts her ears back as I rub between them. Her eyes close, and she starts to purr.
I am numb. Yet still I tremble. I’ve never believed in ghosts, but we are not alone here. “Bernard?” I whisper. “Bernard, are you here? Are you here with us?”
Something gently brushes the top of my head. Though I do not attempt to move, my shoulders are being forced toward the keyboard, and my hands, like puppet’s hands on a string, are rising over the keys.
Betty, you can. You can play. No mistaking that voice now. Bernard is here. He is in my head. Somehow he has entered my body and my brain is filled with scores of notes forcing their way toward my fingers.
The recording begins again and I am playing along with it—with all the melody, all the chords, all the exact interpretation that Bernard would have done in his elegant jazz style.
I am exhilarated with the feeling of freedom—a feeling of competence and capability that I’ve never experienced before. I try another tune, not one of Bernard’s but “You Look Good to Me,” a difficult Oscar Peterson jazz composition. I breeze right through it.
My trepidation subsides and is replaced with confidence and pure joy. I can’t wait to share this new-found talent, even if it’s not technically my own. I must call my friend, Charlotte. She is a psychologist who has delved into the supernatural and paranormal. Maybe she’ll help me understand what is happening.
Heat rushes into my face. I must be overexcited. Flutie leaps into my lap and howls, her mouth close to mine. Then I hear it again. Bernard’s voice, more stern now. Betty, tell no one. No one. Or it will be gone.
“What, Bernard? Why?” I say aloud. “I want to play now. It’s wonderful.”
Play. But play for me. Take my place. I need your hands. No one must know I’m playing.
My head feels as if it’s about to burst from the urgency in his voice. Betty, it’s all I have left. You must do this for me. Just enjoy the spotlight and other people’s surprise at your ability.
His voice rings so clear, and so complete in my head. It must be real. So I don’t call Charlotte. I don’t call anyone. The phone rings several times, but I don’t answer it. I just sit there at the Steinway with the urn turned off, and I play.
I play into the late evening, digging into the keys with as many songs as I can remember, even though, now silent, Bernard is likely doing the remembering. At eleven, Flutie paws at my leg with her right forefoot. I remember she hasn’t eaten. Still entranced, I float to the kitchen and empty a can of seafood medley into her dish.
Exhausted, I brush my teeth and flop into bed without undressing. I hope I don’t dream.
I wake up starved, my stomach telling me I’ve eaten nothing since breakfast yesterday, and I see the sun streaming though the window onto the sleeping tiger at my feet. Though I recall a vague dream of a gleaming black piano being lowered into a deep grave of bright red soil, I must have slept well, because I feel refreshed.
I shower long and hard, scrubbing off the weekend residue of physical and mental debris, and slip into new tan denims and a red shirt. After checking the answering machine, I decide not to return any of the well-meaning calls of friends and relatives who want to know how I am doing. How do they expect I’m doing after my husband’s early death?
If only they knew! But they can never know, so I won’t talk with them. Not today.
In the living room, I take a wide path around the piano to avoid looking at it. From the kitchen counter, I grab a paperback novel—the one I started while Bernard was in the hospital—and open it on the table next to my freshly made coffee. After feeding Flutie, I make myself a hearty breakfast of granola with blueberries, coffee, and orange juice. And I read. Great escape, reading. Whole new worlds apart from one’s own to wander through.
Bernard’s voice is not in my head. All is clear. Perhaps I slept all through yesterday and, in my exhaustion, dreamed the whole crazy thing. Yet I have mixed feelings about that. Part of me wants it to be real.
Since our friends insisted on a gathering here this coming weekend “to help me out,” after breakfast I decide to clean the basement family room. The downstairs is a terrible mess. For months, throughout Bernard’s rehabilitation and later his sickness, I tossed things everywhere—books on tabletops, piles of papers surrounding the computer, laundry baskets of unfolded clothes and linens, plants dying of thirst by the French doors.
Cobwebs float down from ceiling beams. Clumps of dust and cat hair chase each other around the floor whenever I move. Evidence of Flutie’s indigestion problems are scattered around the room. So I vacuum rugs, mop tile floors, wipe down walls, and vigorously dust every inch of the place including the hallway, the laundry room, and the bathroom.
I fold the clean laundry and stash the remaining clothes to be laundered in the washer. Most are Bernard’s anyway and will be given away. The top of the file cabinet behind Bernard’s electric keyboard is stacked with staff paper of his original compositions yet to be filed in the drawers beneath. Exhausted, I cannot sort them, and I sit on the bench between the keyboard and the file cabinet. I’m more tired than I thought. I’ll need a nap.
Without thinking, I switch on the piano power and run my hands over the keys. Perhaps I’ll try just a scale or two. I’m startled with the realization that my playing is just that—a scale or two. Nothing else I try works. So yesterday was in my imagination, after all. It’s not surprising, given how much I want Bernard back with all my heart and mind and soul, never mind the transferred talent. Just him. Alive. Here. Now. I flick off the switch and drape the keyboard with its cover.
After a nap and a snack of sliced apples, sweet pickles, and cheese, I try to resist but I cannot. I carry my cup of tea and set it next to Bernard’s urn on the Steinway—always a no-no in case it spills into the piano, but today I don’t much care. I sit on that blasted flowery cushion, and I’ll be damned if I don’t hear the command of his voice. Play, Betty. Play now. The voice hesitates. Please.
In response, an uncontrolled high-pitched screech leaves my throat. Flutie comes running from her bowl in the kitchen, leaps onto my lap, and yowls loudly. I run my hand along the raised ridge of fur on her back. “Sorry, little cat. Did I scare you, or did you hear that voice, too?” She settles her haunches into my thighs. As she calms, my whole body shudders.
Even though I don’t believe in ghosts and have never seen one, I admit a bit of me has always wished that if they exist, I could encounter one. At that thought, a charge of energy, almost shocking, rips through me, and my hands reach toward the ivories. I hear the beautiful jazz rendition of “Dream Dancing” in a style similar to Dave McKenna’s, so much like the way Bernard used to play it.
“So it is. It must be Bernard,” I murmur to Flutie, who is now washing her paws. “But why? What does he want from me?”
From an imperative that I have no power to resist, I sit there and play all day. I don’t eat, I don’t answer the phone, I don’t go to the bathroom. When, at seven o’clock, my fingers finally take a rest, I jerk them away from the keys and curl them into fists in my lap—a lap Flutie has left long ago. She is crying for her supper in the kitchen.
I feed Flutie, grab a can of sardines and an orange for me, and brew a large pot of tea. I plan to drink the whole thing—likely with a little (or a lot) of Bacardi rum mixed in. What the devil am I going to do? He said not to tell anyone. So, then, what?
After a few too many gulps of my hot, spiked tea, I rise unsteadily from the kitchen chair that was Bernard’s. I stumble in and stare at the stylized urn. It can’t stay there. I can’t do this, Bernard, you have to go.
I lift him, still well-contained, lock him in my arms, and tread downstairs to the family room where I set him on the back of the electric keyboard. “There, that’s better,” I tell him. “You’ll have to stay here, Bernard. I have to sleep.”
Without looking back, I start to leave, but I am drawn—no, compelled— to return to the covered keyboard sitting in partial darkness. When I drop onto the bench, the cover falls to the floor. With determination, my hands land on the plastic keys. Arpeggios and jazz riffs ram through my mind and out my fingertips. I can’t stop them. I try to pull away, but they keep coming with an anger I’ve never felt before. Now I am afraid. This seems too much like the occult. Film clips of The Exorcist and The Shining flash past my unfocused eyes.
Then all is quiet—so quiet that I think I can almost hear the plants on the windowsill growing. I slump, my arms flopping at my sides. I look around the room. Nothing moves. Flutie is upstairs. Now I hear her crying at the door, wanting to come down.
A whisper. I think that’s what it is, anyway. Then again. I’m sorrry . . . It trails off.
“Bernard?” I whisper, too, not knowing why. “Bernard, is that you?”
A warm breath passes across the back of my neck. Sorrrrrrry.
I leave Bernard on the keyboard and race up the stairs to Flutie, who welcomes me by poking her nose into my leg. I grab her into my arms and hold her tight against my chest. Her warm purr calms me, and I sit in my recliner, keeping her head close to my cheek.
Still in the recliner, I wake to Flutie meowing in my face. “Good morning, kitty.” I scratch her head and then rub my eyes, gradually realizing where we are. “Wow. We slept here all night? Both of us must have been exhausted.”
Morning sun radiates through the air, a spotlight on dust particles that dance in slow dips and swirls before they ease toward the floor. I feel rested. I shower and feed us both. I am ravenous, and I am half-finished eating before I realize that I’m eating Bernard’s favorite—scrambled eggs with shredded cheese, onion, and bacon bits—something I’ve never cared for that much. I’m a granola, berries, yogurt person.
Uneasiness seeps into my bones, and I feel unnerved again. Thursday is the day when Bernard played with the trio at the Backyard Jazz Café. Someone else will be taking his place tonight. They hired random substitutes for him while he was ill, and now one of them will be permanent. I hate it! No one can take Bernard’s place.
Yet I know I have to go tonight. No one would expect me to be there now, but, except for last week, I haven’t missed a Thursday night there in two years. Even while Bernard was sick, he wanted me to go to keep track of what was happening and report back to him. A force deep inside compelling me to go tonight cannot be denied.
I do not go near the piano all day. I leave the urn downstairs. At five I start to become undone. How should I dress? I’m in mourning—does it have to be black anymore? What would people expect? Bernard would want me to wear something classy and neat—maybe bright colors. So what’s appropriate? Oh, who cares!
I select a cream-colored gauze poet’s blouse over a fitted just-below-the-knee lavender skirt, lavender beads and black flats. I don’t really care what people will think. The love of my life would have liked this.
When I open the front door to leave, a sudden impulse turns me back. I need the bag. The huge black pocketbook I used when Bernard wanted someplace to put the music sheets he carried. I scour the closet for the bag, empty the contents of my small lavender purse into it, and clatter down the stairs with it over my arm.
I grab the piano urn and set it deep at the bottom of the bag. Bernard would want to go. I think I hear a whispered yesss, as I lower it. Wait a minute. Are you crazy, Betty?
At this point, I’m not sure, but I suspect I’m hallucinating wildly. Wishing that Bernard were alive so much that I’m hearing his voice. But the playing—how could I have played like that? Could that have been a dream, too—a dream so real that it imprinted its own reality in my mind? Likely, that’s it. Perhaps. Maybe.
But what if . . . .
I don’t remember driving to the Jazz Café, nor finding a seat at the bar.
“Hi, Betty, how are you?” says Jen, the bartender. “I never expected to see you.”
“I never expected to be here, but for some reason I couldn’t stay away.” I set the black bag between my feet on the bar footrest, squeezing it tightly between my ankles to keep it in place.
“What can I get you? You look exhausted. Are you okay?”
“Hmm . . . what? Oh, yes, thanks. I’m managing . . . considering.”
“I understand. It’s just that the dark circles around your eyes . . . .” She stops. “Sorry. Would you like your usual?”
I nod. “Sure. That’s fine.”
A moment later Jen sets a ginger lemon drop martini on a napkin in front of me. I finger the corner of the blue napkin with “The Backyard” in cursive-style black lettering, and in small script underneath, “featuring jazz by Bernard and the Boys.” They haven’t changed the napkins yet—probably want to use up the old ones.
I gulp at the martini, hoping for courage to actually look at the band. Another swallow and I gaze toward the group, trying to see the piano player. The brilliant street lights shine through the window behind them. I raise my hand to shield my eyes from the glare.
No! It can’t be, can it? But yes. It sure is. They’ve hired egotistical Bruce, the rival pianist Bernard disliked the most—brash Bruce always trying to horn in wherever Bernard played—always asking club owners to hire him instead, telling them how versatile and polished he is.
The keyboard looks short from here—maybe sixty-six keys rather than eighty-eight. Apparently he doesn’t play any long runs. But I listen. Doesn’t sound too bad—not as good as Bernard, but with Joe on bass and Mike on drums, the solid rhythm section hasn’t changed.
I chug down half of my drink and feel my adrenaline pumping up. I’m angry, really pissed. How could they do this?
Bully Bruce is in the middle of a solo chorus of “Here’s That Rainy Day,” pounding the devil out of the keys, showing off his prowess. Hah! That’s a wrong chord. Even I can tell that. There’s another. I cringe. Mr. Great isn’t so perfect.
The bag between my feet seems to vibrate—probably I’m shaking in annoyance. I finish my drink without taking a breath and ask Jen for another.
She leans her elbows on the bar in front of me. “Are you sure?”
“Yeah.” I hesitate. “I’m sure.”
The voice in my head is back. Betty. Betty.
I cover my ears and rub the sides of my head. “Go away. You’re not here.”
But it continues. Betty, play. You have to play.
Even if it really could be Bernard, this is crazy. Why would I play? Here? With the guys? They’d think I was nuts. Maybe I am. “Stop it! Just stop it,” I whisper through my teeth.
Jen sets the second lemon drop on a clean napkin and slides the dish of bar nuts toward me. “Here. At least nibble on something. Sure I can’t get you a sandwich or some soup?”
I gag at the thought of food. “No, thanks, really. I wouldn’t be able to eat it.”
Bruce is attempting a jazz riff on Bill Evans’ “Israel.” He’s murdering it. I can’t stand it. Why did I come? That’s a question I can’t answer. I was compelled. Bernard made me do it. That’s silly. I sip my drink, grab a handful of nuts.
I want to be home, but there’s no way I can leave. I stay here on this bar stool through the first set, the second set. During their break before the last set, Mike and Joe approach, ask Jen for a beer and a soda.
“How ya doin’, Betty?” Joe says. “Surprised to see you here.”
“I’m fine,” I lie. “I’m doing okay. Hard to stay home on a Thursday after all the years of being here.”
Mike sips his soda and nods. “I guess it’d be hard for me, too.”
I look away and see Bruce chatting up a solitary young girl at the end of the bar. I force the tears back that are nearly brimming over my lower eyelids. “But it’s hard to be here, also.”
Bernard’s voice is clear now. Play, Betty, play for me. I need your hands.
I suddenly blurt out, “Joe, could I sit in—I mean—try to play a couple tunes?”
Joe’s eyes widen. He stammers. “I . . . I didn’t know you played piano.”
I hesitated. “You’re right. I never could play anything worth a damn. Well, I never did much. But Bernard taught me a few things. I’d just like to try something, in his memory.”
“Ah . . . sure.” He looks perplexed—doesn’t know what else to say. “I’ll have you come up when we go back to start this last set. Looks like Bruce is occupied anyway.”
Bruce has his forehead practically touching the long curls around the girl’s ear—probably he’s feeding her a bunch of bull about how he could be the best thing that ever happened to her.
“Good,” I say to Joe. “I’ll try not to sound too bad.”
When the guys finish their drinks, I grab my bag and follow them to the bandstand. Bruce doesn’t even notice. He has his arm around the girl, his fingers kneading her bare upper arm beside her ample bosom. I place Bernard on the floor right next to the keyboard. Just like yesterday at home, I feel trance-like, and my hands lift to the keys on their own as a warm electric charge runs through them. I am no longer Betty. I am Bernard. I feel his mind in mine, his blood in my blood, his heart beating in my heart. I hear the notes, but they’re not from me.
As if in retort to Bruce’s earlier renditions, I hear “Rainy Day” and then “Israel” exactly as Bernard had performed them here the final time before he died. Bruce stops nibbling the girl’s shoulder and stares at me. I hope I’ve unnerved him. I can feel delight from Bernard envelop my whole being. Having finished the two tunes without a hitch, without a missed note, with all of Bernard’s emotion, I stand, ready to return to the bar.
“No, wait,” Joe says. “How did you do that? I can’t imagine . . . sit down. Do a few more.”
“But I don’t—” I begin. Something pushes my shoulder, forcing me onto the seat.
Bernard’s voice is in my head again. Sit, Betty. Sit. Keep playing! He’s more demanding this time. His agitation ripples through my bones. So I sit. I play. One tune after another—Mike and Joe encouraging me on after each tune.
Bruce has moved closer to our end of the bar, with a glare that could cut through me. Too bad. Now I’m having fun. I’ve never had a taste of talent like this before. When we finish the last tune, Mike says, “Play a few more,” but Bruce rushes over to shut down his amplifier. He pulls all the plugs and yanks the piano away, zipping it into its carrying case.
When I turn to thank Joe and Mike, Bruce whisks the bench from under me almost before I’m fully standing.
“Our pleasure,” Joe says. “You were amazing. I don’t understand how you play exactly like Bernard.”
Pulling at the hem of my poet’s blouse, I mumble, “I didn’t think I could, either.” I look directly at Joe. “But I wanted to try—to give him a little tribute—a remembrance.” Now I’m sweating, an anxiety attack imminent. “I guess it’s because I’ve heard him practice so many hours every day.” I pick up the bag and cradle it against my chest. “Got to go. Thanks so much, guys.”
Mike slides his drumsticks into their case. “Come on down again, Betty. You’re always welcome, if it isn’t too much for you.”
I down the last of my now-warm ginger lemon drop, slap a twenty on the bar for Jen, and hurry out.
For the next few weeks, at Bernard’s constant and persistent command, I practice at home on the Steinway or the electric in the basement, always remembering to carry the urn with me. Once, after I’d left it in the basement the night before, I sat at the Steinway in the early morning sun. Forgetting that I was alone, I raised my hands to the keys. The A-flat scale I attempted was ragged and uneven, my fingers occasionally hitting the wrong notes and feeling like wooden dowels.
So now I know. I am possessed. Bedeviled. I cannot play on my own. Meanwhile, Bernard is unrelenting. I’ve not missed a Thursday night at the Backyard in three months. But his voice keeps warning me not to tell anyone. I need to tell Joe and Mike. This isn’t right.
Last week, they pulled me aside—away from Bruce—to beg me to take the job full time. They’re fed up with his ego, his less than acceptable performance, and his antics with the customers. But how can I? What if I forget to bring the urn? What if it breaks, or I lose it? Then where will I be? Where will the guys be—left without a piano player. Worst of all, I’ll have to confess that I can’t play a note by myself. No one will believe me. They’ll put me in the loony bin!
Bernard gets more obnoxious every day—demanding, insistent, and angry if I don’t spend the time he requires. I can hardly eat or sleep. He’s gaining kinetic powers, too. Pencils and saucers have flown across the room in his tantrums, a vase almost hitting Flutie in the head yesterday.
He was never like that in real life—no raging—always considerate in spite of his obsession with music. I’ve become afraid. The more I play, the more his negative powers seem to grow. I want to stop, but he won’t let me. Even Flutie is racing around the house in a frenzy, often hiding where I can’t find her. Continuing this way will kill me, or at least drive me insane.
I sit for days in the porch rocker far away from that urn, hoping for the sun to purify me, to put up a screen around me preventing the demons from entering. Finally, early one Thursday morning, I know what I must do. Bernard has to go. But I can’t let him know, or even let him sense my plan ahead of time. I must bury the urn somewhere—somewhere far away. Where and how is the question. What if people ask about it, ask where it is? By now, they know that I keep it on the piano.
So what then? If not bury it, then empty it. That’s it. No one would ever know it was empty. I could scatter his ashes someplace that he’s always loved—into the ocean from a cruise ship; on his favorite beach, perhaps Myrtle, or better yet Assateague Beach at Chincoteague not far from his family’s summer house. What would happen music-wise then? Would the crabs start fiddling, the seagulls squawk Bernard’s tunes? Stop it, Elizabeth Anne! Now you’re just being ridiculous. Yet I do know now that some seemingly impossible things are very possible.
What if I sprinkled him in the fields of his grandfather’s old farm in the country? That could be troublesome—other people own that property now. Then it comes to me—the perfect place—the grounds of Tanglewood Music Center in the Berkshires where there is constant music all summer long.
Eagerly, I search the storage shed for the old metal lock box where Bernard kept his grandfather’s eclectic collection of items from the World War II era. There I find a pocket watch, a ring made of scrap tank material with Bernard’s initials engraved on it, an 8×10 painting of a St. Bernard dog that Bernard’s great-grandmother painted (I wonder if he was named after that dog), and various cuff links, tie clasps, political lapel pins, and newspaper obituary clippings of deceased family members.
I pull all the items out and toss them in the largest plastic zipper bag I can find. My hands are shaking as I realize I must handle that urn again and lower it into the metal box. It’s essential that Bernard think that I’m taking him to the Backyard Café. The black bag I take on Thursday nights still sits under the Steinway below the urn.
As I approach, I feel tingling in my hands, my feet, and at the back of my neck, so I grab the piano urn, drop it into the metal box, flop the lid closed, latching it as fast as possible, and zip the box into the black bag. The tingling diminishes. I doubt Bernard can overpower me now.
Lifting the ring of keys from its hook by the door, I lock the house and race to my Honda Civic, shove the bag into the trunk, and slam the hatch closed. It’s an hour and a half drive to Tanglewood. I tune the radio to NPR, turn up the volume, and listen to Otto Klemperer conducting Beethoven’s Fifth. It seems appropriate for what I am about to do—a great send-off for Bernard.
I drive up Route 183 and park in the huge lot in front of the main gate. I look at my watch. Two hours before they open. I pace up and down the side path underneath the towering pines, then I go back to the car and try to doze, but I cannot. I really don’t want to be near that car trunk for too long.
So I pace again, sit on a flat boulder, pace some more. As soon as the ticket booth opens, I buy a lawn ticket. I don’t even check who’s performing or what building they’ll be in. I don’t care because I’m not staying.
I look back at the Honda. Well, this is it. I have to do it. The button on the key fob seems to push itself and lift the automatic trunk lid. Without looking at it, and without saying a word, I haul the black bag out. It seems heavier than usual when I carry it back to stand in the line forming at the gate. No wonder. The metal box has added considerable weight.
At last the gate opens. We file in. I show the attendant my ticket, and I’m finally on the grounds. People spread out, checking out the kiosks with T-shirts and CDs. Some head for the cafeteria or the bathroom, others to the gift shop full of music books, recordings, clothing, beach towels—a myriad of music memorabilia. I sigh with sadness. Bernard and I loved to browse there during intermission and after the concerts had ended. No more.
Definitely not now.
With Bernard in the metal box in the black bag, I head for the smaller performance area where students give recitals. Surrounded by a large expanse of ancient evergreens and backed against an intricate shrubbery maze, it is deserted. Everyone is at the opposite end of the lawn. Nearly two feet in diameter, the outstretched arm of a nearby pine grows parallel to the ground—a perfect spot to sit. I rest there and glance in all directions. No one in sight.
Moving fast, I unzip the bag, pull out the box, unlatch it, and lift the blasted piano urn up and out.
Okay, Bernard, here is your final resting place. Perhaps you can aggravate, or should I say, inspire, the students here as you have me the past few weeks. I have loved you as I have no one before or since, but now we must say goodbye.
My heart begins to pound, tears well in my eyes and spill onto my cheeks. I can barely swallow.
Nevertheless, I lift the G-clef cover and begin to pour the gray, powdery remains of Bernard along the pathway that circles the old theater. The ceramic piano warms in my hands until it is almost too hot to handle.
“Bernard, I’m sorry,” I whimper. “You must rest, and I must go on—until the day I can join you. Thank you for all you’ve given me.”
With the ashes nearly gone and the breeze gently wafting the remaining particles into the grass, I turn the urn completely upside down and give it a final shake. I should have brought some kind of brush. A tiny gray spot remains in each of the two front corners of the little piano. No matter. Bernard is at home in music land where he ought to be. Be at peace, my love.
Replacing the lid, I stuff the urn into the box and into the black bag. With hurried steps, I head for the less busy exit by the bathrooms, and for the security of my car. Barely breathing, I sit for a long time before heading home.
It has now been several months since I left Bernard at Tanglewood. I have not returned to the Backyard Café. I sold the electric piano to a young man in a rock band. I have not touched the concert grand where the empty urn now sits. But today the sun is pouring through the window onto the closed mahogany lid. The rich wood gleams in the light, and for the first time, I’m drawn to raise the cover over the keys.
I sit on the flowered chair pad. Flutie hops into my lap and brushes my newly-glossed lips with her nose. The empty urn is in its place to my right. I have had it permanently sealed. Both sadness and relief envelop me as I realize Bernard is gone forever. Without thinking, I fondle the G-clef top as if petting the cat. Tentatively I touch a couple of keys, then a few more. Hmm. Not so bad.
How about a scale? I try a B-flat major scale, four octaves—smooth, very smooth.
Rapid and perfect.
Too perfect for my ability. I shudder.
Then it begins—the first eight bars of the “Brahms’ Lullaby.”