I am bent over mother’s piano and I have never played before. When she left father, she gave me an acoustic guitar I tried to learn and never did. It broke one night, and I never told her. It is a jumble of sounds, this thing in front of me. The felted hammer strikes the strings. My feet can barely touch the pedals. The resonance breathes between the walls that separate mother from strangers. I hear her through a door. She says play it softer, Devin. I am 11. I am 12. I am not sure anymore. I know now that the key of C is the easiest to meander along, that, if you play only white keys, you can, with some awkward trying, injure a melody out into the world. But I am 11. I am 12. I know nothing about sound. The keys are too big for my fingers. They are a hand I want to hold. I hear her again. Play it softer, Devin. There are other people above us. There are others right beside. Play it softer, Devin. Everyone is trying. Everyone is trying to sleep.
The circle sharpens the knife for you. You play it long enough to feel the presence of the blade as the keys turn over each other. In the key of G, the one sharp note cuts above the rest like a crag where angels sleep. I want to glide up to it in a world without gravity. This essay is not about pianos. It is about how you learn early from the ones you love how to hurt the ones you come to love. I watch her finish a bottle of wine from across the room. When we reach my own room, the skin of her dress feels like a different animal. I don’t tell her I am scared of dying, that, some nights, on the days we travelled to see father’s mother, I would close my eyes and listen to the sound of the city dying. The architectural moan of a building sinking into soil. The low hum of static on a wire. I thought then and still do, that if I could only press my ear to a telephone wire, I could hear the last words of someone travelling to another’s ear. I was wrong, he says, or, I am sorry, or, I… In the morning, when she wakes, she wiggles her dress on, and it is beautiful. I want to be hollow, the space inside the wood of a piano that keeps the sound before the releasing. Before the play it softer, before the nod that signifies a groove, before the rhythm is even given a name. There is a space there. When we sleep, in dark, I wrap my fingers around her wrist to feel her heart. If I close my eyes and listen, I can feel my heart trying to mimic her beating, like it has just met a stranger on the street, walking in the same direction.
Father and I sit to watch The Last Waltz for an unnumbered time. When Neil Young sidles onto the stage, I don’t turn to watch father smile. I don’t know if he does. In my mind, he always does. He does when Neil turns to The Band and grins out one side of his mouth. He does when Neil snorts up the rest of his coke that loiters just below a flared nostril. He does when Neil says it’s one of the joys of my life to be on this stage with these people right now. And then Neil strums a D and begins to sing: there is a town in North Ontario… Father’s town is off the coast of Lake Ontario, over a sea of placid water from Neil’s song, but that doesn’t change much at all. Over an ocean of calm water, sound waves are amplified in that space where the water has cooled the air. I go back to before I was born, standing in Canada, facing Rochester. I see father, young enough to be my friend, standing by the shore. I shout to him. I say it will be alright. I say you will have a son who finds comfort in your beard, who lets you rub it in his face without tears. I say there are blue windows behind the stars. I say don’t die before me. I want to see you everyday from my blue window. I say father, can you hear me now? Neil finishes and father rises to move around the house he has kept for me. It is easy to feel helpless and too hard to fall helplessly in love with someone else. It takes too long with father. It takes after the fists, and my hands wrapped around his neck on a highway while he drives. It takes someone else’s too-short lifetime. He drops me off at mother’s later, so many laters, countless later times, always saying something as I leave, at the point where the city captures the sound before my ears, where, if there were only water, I could hear.
A memory you lose to age. A late night. A muffled mother’s voice. A long time. A box of your father’s old t-shirts in the corner of the attic. A dictionary opened to the word addict. A mother in a wedding dress. A good man. A long time. A confusion of the real. A woman in your life, and another, and another. A hurt you fill with another. A hurt you place your father’s t-shirt on. A long walk. A long run away. A getting older. A distance long. A-pology. A terrible charm. A false love of the word tender. A want. A need. A night spent on Google StreetView, driving through Alberta. A love of leaning trees, listening. A cabin south of Albany. A-lone. A want to be a little better. A fear of trying. A friend who sees right through you. A too-long time. A visit home. A body too big for a father’s beard. A box of empty clothes. A sentimentality. A fuck you to the anti-sentimental. A want to be a little better. A fear of trying. A want. A little better. A fear. A, hey. A?
Even after mother leaves, father still takes brother and I on the long drive toward his mother. I am young, and she knows things I can’t comprehend. She shuffles along what seems eternal sandpaper. It whittles her down until she is shorter than me, her head stuffed in my chest to say hello. We don’t talk of mother, of father’s no-longer wife. I want to say I love mother dearly. That I know nothing else but the smell of her coffee like a birdcall from a floor below. But there is stew simmering in the yellow kitchen and there is Aunt Mary’s hair whitening in the opposite direction of teeth and there is Uncle Bob and a great weight after Patti died and there is the television and the Buffalo Bills will lose for a long time before they ever win again and I am not old enough to know most things but I know these things as certain as I know that mother will not come back and father will never speak a sadness loud enough for me to hear and the city once great enough to hold him will barely be strong enough to hold the snow that falls perpetually like bombs over a city I have never been. This city and that and the next one too will all only be ruins of imagination. You see now how hard it is to talk only of pianos? Uncle Bob sips another beer. Aunt Mary walks from room to room. Brother and I learn to talk like grown-ups. Which is to say, we say nothing. Even then, no one listens.
Before the leaving, the towers fall, and that night, mother sits in a rocking chair no one has ever sat in before and watches brother and I sleep. There is a creaking I can still hear. Years later, when friends say there is no such thing as love, I think of this. Even now, when the wind breaks a leaf in two so it falls creaking against the air, or when I enter a dark room so quiet save for the creak of a floorboard beneath my bare feet, even now, I think of this. Before the play it softer. Before the everyone and the others trying to sleep. Before the who owes what and you owe me. Before the all of this, there was mother, trying to usher me into a dream. And underneath it, the creaking of the chair, like a metronome, some soft beat. The next morning, all absent from profession, she tells brother and I how even steel, under the pressure of heat, can bend and then break, can shatter itself out of the place of its steady building. Nothing made sense before this. Nothing makes sense now.
Here now, half is sharp. If you drop from F# to Dbm, its relative minor, you will hear the sound of sorrow. Play those three notes now and wait. You will hear the sound a tear makes when it scratches against your skin. You will hear the air move through a field of dead grain. You will hear the first lie you ever spoke. And you will say it is time for a change.
Delillo asks, “Why is the language of destruction so beautiful?” The piano is a thing of violence. There are hammers involved. There are unprotected strings that scream when they are struck. Music can be a kind of battering. Music is the cry you make when you are struck by a fist. Or your silence as the fist curls away. Comfort and violence are born of the same universal, how one bleeds into the other, like a marriage. I didn’t think of this when I first heard the play it softer. I was angry. I wanted to play it harder, to shatter, to lie bare in the piano and feel each hammer strike against my skin. But now I know a poem can be the space between two notes, and its indecision. How to hurt, or where to hurt, and why.
Somewhere between what you never say and what you mean to say is the thing you say. When she says I say I love you too much, I don’t say I think a word can live on nothing but air. The red that unblues blood. I don’t say I think that a word can hover between what you know and what you never will. That, one day, walking down Wisconsin Avenue, down the hill where your mother once filmed you and your brother running your respective bags of gummy bears to her basement apartment to watch Rocky for the eighth time, your brother beating you as always, but you still grinning a wide curve from chubby cheek to chubby cheek, that all of this was captured on a small tape forever lost like the small cat that came knocking on that apartment but ran away, the one that made your mother cry for days and made you see what loss can subtract from age. That then, that one day, even in the humid sweat of summer, you might stop halfway down the hill for a long time, so long that a stranger watching across the avenue wonders for you, and worries, too, while you stop still, for an almost forever, and see it then, that she said I love you, that mouth below the eye behind the camera, that she said it more than once, that she could be saying it now, far off, like a small wind out over the ocean beating a wave up from something flat to carry it back to you. And that she meant it. And means it, still.
At some point, maybe here, fumbling through the rises of the sharps and back down again is like barebacking a horse through the manic rhythm of an EKG. I am afraid, here, is what I am trying to say. I am outside, in the now, sitting on a stoop. I watch the night bleed a purpled orange that burns back the light of stars. I imagine them all – father, mother, brother, lover – silhouetting the teal tints of lit windows across and beyond. They do not say anything. They say a struggle runs wild through the blood. It can drive a family apart. I imagine deathbeds and last words, my apologies for nothing I have to be sorry for, my silence for all the things I should. Sometimes I feel I have constructed a lie out of the hollowed space of my living, how father once said that a person who builds castles in the clouds won’t see them falling to the ground. They say a skilled pianist performs 380 distinct motor actions for each second of playing. Imagine the internal humming of the body required to make some melodic sense of the world, to walk a line down to earth and back up again.
It is coming back down again. The rain on the flat surface of ground. It makes a music like the pitter patter of a cat crisscrossing across a wooden floor. When we leave each other for the next time and never the last, the cat curls into the corner of the room we have emptied together. I think of mother, and the footsteps that echoed for days after with the sound of her leaving, how now, that soft sound can never be a coming. I am not mad. I am not full of hate. A surgeon uses two hands to pull a heart from a body. One is not enough, no, and never will. We once stood here, before the room was full, and you pointed toward the wall and said there, there would be a good spot to put a piano. I never got one. Mother gave hers away when she moved off a third time, further off, by the water. Sometimes I feel like love must have a different name. In another word, one that does not hold the same sound as was. Like how pain is the sound of rain is the sound change. None of that means anything to me now. In B flat, you can drop a thumb and live in a different sound. When you leave me, when I leave you, when the leaving happens, I am tracing a finger along one of yours. It is long, slender, like a tree growing through a crack between the sidewalk and the street. If mother had met you, she would have said she should be a pianist, with fingers like that. If mother had met you, she would have found me in another room to tell me, alone, how beautiful you are. In a dream, she says, play it softer, Devin, don’t let the sound leave the room. But there are footsteps now, and I walk toward the cat curled in what used to be his bed, wondering if he knows it will be alright.
Almost back or almost there. On the long drive toward father’s mother’s, we stop in Lawrenceville, where the gas station glows soft against the pale white of snow. I am little, now. Just barely awake. Father buys me Necco Wafers, and I save the yellow ones for last. Past Lawrenceville, the towns huddle by the roadside as if it is ablaze. There are people in kitchens, for small instants of time. I watch them as we pass by. I want to take the ones I will come to love along this drive and say, here is where I become who I am. Here, with brother’s feet propped up upon the dash, and father turning through the dial, and my face pressed against the glass. Here, where a stranger’s silhouette framed inside a window bends to pick up a sliver of onion lost amidst the chopping. Yes, I believe I know what love is. It is the circling from where you were to where you are. It is the picking up and the putting down. It is the tire rolling down the miles. The father’s mother there in the doorway. How she grows shorter every year, her face pressed just above your belt to say hello. The wanting someone to be there, to see it all as you see it now, before she wrinkles and shivers back down toward earth, before you have to hold father’s hand to teach him how to say goodbye, before there is nothing left to witness. Yes, I know what love is. It is a hand laboring its way through the keys. It is the play it softer, yes. It is the catch of your breath just before you fall asleep. It is me whispering through the sound you make as you parse out these words. Yes, father. I love you so much. Yes, brother, I love you so much. Yes, mother. I love you so much. Yes, lover, I love you so much.
Music can hold enormous power in memories and experiences, transporting us instantly to an age, location, or person. What sonic joys, mysteries, disbelief, and clarity have you experienced? Identify songs of influence in your life and explore them like variations on a theme, melding syntax and song structure, recalling the seriousness or levity that accompanies. Whether it’s an account of when a specific song first entered your life, the process of learning to play a song, teaching someone a song, experiencing the same song in different places as it weaves through your life, unbelievable radio timing, sharing songs with those in need, tracking the passing down of songs, creative song analysis etc, I am interested in those ineffable moments and welcoming submissions of your own variations on a theme, as drawn from your life’s soundtrack. Please email submissions to firstname.lastname@example.org and keep an eye out for others’ Variations.
**(“song” is a broad phrase: could be a pop song, a traditional tune, a symphony, commercial jingles, a hummed lullaby, 2nd grade recorder class horror stories, etc)**