When I was a child in Jamaica, I used to dream that a famous pianist from Europe would walk by our house while I was playing, and stop to listen. And then he would knock on the door and my mother would answer and he would say to her, “This is no ordinary child. She understands.”
Photograph courtesy of Shelby Marie Skumanich
A Song of Longing
We Jamaicans are dreamers. We always want more than we have. When I was a little girl, I would sneak into the room where my parents kept the piano and run my fingers over the keys, touching every one in turn, white keys and black. Then I would play. I wanted to take lessons so badly, but I didn’t ask. I knew there was no way.
Once I saw a film about Clara Schumann. She was married to Robert Schumann, the composer, you know. The film was called The Song of . . . Something or Other. The Song of Longing, I think, or maybe it was The Song of Love. When I heard the piano playing on the soundtrack, I thought, that is something special. That is not just anyone. My friend said, no. They just hire someone to play the music. Years later, I heard Arthur Rubinstein interviewed on the radio, and he said he was the one who played the piano in that movie. I knew it. I called my friend up and told her. That wasn’t just anyone. I knew that right away.
She’d want to see the receipt before she paid me back, like maybe I was picking up some extra money fencing diapers on the side.
Last week, my friend called to say that the family she works for was having a party, and did I want a job washing dishes. I needed the money, so I said sure. The party was last night. They were nice people, you could tell that right away. Not like the usual. I worked for one lady for over a year, taking care of her husband, and she could never remember my name. She’d call me Cathy one day, then all of a sudden I’d be Janet. It’s Pat, I would say. Rhymes with mat. She didn’t like that; she thought I meant something by it, which I did. I was Cathy or Janet or Pat, and she was always Mrs. Weinstein. I didn’t care, she could call me anything she wanted. What I couldn’t stand was being treated like a thief. She’d ask me to stop by the drugstore to get some diapers for her husband, and then she’d want to see the receipt before she paid me back, like maybe I was picking up some extra money fencing diapers on the side. Before she went out, she always made sure the whiskey and jewelry were locked up. She didn’t think I saw her checking, but I did. She never worried about leaving her husband alone with me, though. He was all mine. He had Alzheimer’s. He sat in a chair in the living room all day, staring at nothing. I would have quit after the first week, but I couldn’t bear the thought of leaving him alone with her.
One time, when she was out, I noticed an old record player sitting on a table in the living room. “Do you like music?” I asked Mr. Weinstein. He didn’t move. “Me too,” I said. There was a cabinet next to the table—the one with the whiskey, locked away in the top compartment. I opened the bottom compartment, and inside were hundreds of records, all in alphabetical order. It looked like nobody had touched them in years. I pulled out a record by Bach—the violin sonatas. I put it on the turntable, sat down and shut my eyes. To me, Bach takes all your concentration. If you can’t give it, there’s no point in listening. When the first piece was over, I looked up, and there was Mr. Weinstein on the other side of the room, crying like a baby. I didn’t know if he was crying because he was happy or because he was sad, but I decided to leave the music on anyway. I think it’s better to feel sad than to feel nothing at all.
After that, whenever Mrs. Weinstein went out, I’d put on music. One day she came home early. We were in the living room, listening to Brahms, me in my chair and Mr. Weinstein in his, sobbing away. She looked shocked, like she’d found us in bed together or something. I can change his diapers three times a day, she doesn’t mind that one bit, but this was too personal. Maybe she’s right.
Anyway, about the party last night. It was the grandfather’s ninetieth birthday, and the family had come in from all over. People were flying in and out of that tiny kitchen, bringing me dirty dishes and picking up the clean ones as fast as I could wash and dry them. I made a game of it, trying to see if I could stay ahead of them all. I was up to my elbows in soapy water, doing pretty well, when I heard someone playing the piano in the living room. I knew right away it was Beethoven.
Just then, a woman walked into the kitchen with a load of dirty dishes.
“That’s Beethoven,” I said to her. She looked at me, surprised.
“Yes,” she said, “it’s the Appassionata sonata.”
“I thought so,” I said. “It is very beautiful.”
“Yes, it is,” she said.
I turned off the water. We both stood there, listening, until the music stopped.
“Who’s playing?” I asked.
“My son,” she says.
“He’s really good,” I tell her.
“He could be,” she says, “but he doesn’t practice.”
“No, don’t say that,” I tell her. “He loves it. You can hear it in his fingers. There are many ways to love it.”
When I was a child in Jamaica, I used to dream that a famous pianist from Europe would walk by our house while I was playing, and stop to listen. And then he would knock on the door and my mother would answer and he would say to her, “This is no ordinary child. She understands.” And he would ask if he could take me back to Europe to study with him so I could become a great concert pianist. And my mother would look at me hard, as if she had never seen me before, and say yes.
Elegy for Daniel
My brother Daniel spent the last decade of his life in and out of mental hospitals, rushed there for safekeeping at the first signs of a break and set free with the passing of the last. When the end finally came, it came without warning. He just silently checked out, like a traveler in some nameless airport hotel, up before the desk clerk, with an early morning plane to catch. My beautiful brother, frick to my frack, Sir Galahad of the playground, Monopoly player extraordinaire, his mind undone at eighteen by some rogue gene.
In the last few months of Daniel’s life, we spent every Saturday together, walking for hours, through downtown, along the riverbank. We didn’t talk very much on our walks. I’m not good at small talk, and after Daniel got sick, it was treacherous to bring up anything real. One time, I remember, I asked him where his doctor had trained—an idle question just meant to fill the silence. He started to cry. Maybe it was the your doctor—a reminder of the retinue of caretakers he had involuntarily acquired in his new life as a professional crazy person. Maybe it was just the sound of my voice intruding on his reverie. In time, I learned not to be scared by silence, and to wait for Daniel to speak.
The present and the future weren’t happy topics for Daniel, but from time to time, he would bring up some story from our childhood. Once, he told me about the time when he was four and he’d lost a button from his shirt. Thinking maybe he could replace it before anyone discovered it was missing, he asked mom where buttons came from. “They grow on button trees,” she told him—one of those silly things parents love to say to kids. The next morning, he pulled another button off his shirt—double or nothing, Daniel said to me, with a rare smile—dragged his dump truck, pail and shovel out to the backyard, dug a hole and planted the button beneath the large oak tree.
By dinnertime, no button tree in sight, he went to mom for another horticultural consult. “What makes trees grow?” he asked.
“Water, sunlight, a place to put down roots,” she told him. “Pretty much the same as people, I guess.”
The next morning, Daniel dug up the button and replanted it in the sun. This time he dug a deeper hole and watered it twice a day, ferrying water from the kitchen sink in his little bucket, perched on top of his dump truck. At the end of the week, still no sign of a button tree. “That was the end of my gardening career,” Daniel said. “I was in grade school before I realized that the problem was with the button, not me.”
After Daniel died, my parents couldn’t bear to deal with his apartment, so I offered to take care of it. A couple of weeks after the funeral, I went over there. My parents had rented the apartment for Daniel when he got out of the hospital for the last time. I had never been inside. Daniel didn’t want me to see the apartment, so I always waited for him in the building lobby when we took our Saturday walks. I’m not sure whose memories he was protecting—mine of him or his of me. Maybe both.
I opened the door, bracing myself for whatever I might find there, and looked around. It was a small, one-bedroom apartment, sparsely furnished, but with lots of sunlight—mom would have made sure of that. The bed was made and there were no clothes or books in sight. From the doorway, the only visible sign of Daniel’s brief tenancy was a photo on the desk. I walked over to look at it more closely.
After three hours of standing in the ice-cold water of the Frying Pan River twitching a plastic mosquito to lure some half-blind fish to its early death, Daniel, Mom and I concluded we were not fly-fishing folk.
It was taken the summer that Daniel was fourteen and I was twelve. My thoroughly citified father had gotten it in his head that we should all learn to fly-fish—another Norman MacLean casualty, no doubt. So when school got out in mid-June, off we hauled to Colorado for a week of fly-fishing lessons. After three hours of standing in the ice-cold water of the Frying Pan River twitching a plastic mosquito to lure some half-blind fish to its early death, Daniel, Mom and I concluded we were not fly-fishing folk. We retreated to a picnic table up on the riverbank, and spent the afternoon in a Rummy 500 tournament. I whupped Daniel’s butt, I remember—a banner day for me. Dad meanwhile soldiered on in the freezing water, popping out of the river now and again to try to lure us back in with tales of nature’s grandeur, each time lingering longer than seemed absolutely necessary, wistfully eyeing our Rummy game (or so we told ourselves).
When dinnertime came, Dad paid the guide for the rest of the week and sent him home. We all piled in the car and drove through the night to Las Vegas, each trying to outdo the other as we lovingly recounted, for the first of many times, the story of the Great Fly-Fishing Folly.
Before the guide took off, my dad had him take a picture of the four of us, tricked out in waders and knee-deep in the Frying Pan River. My mom was laughing and pointing at my dad, who had his hands up in the air with a so sue me expression on his face. I was making rabbits’ ears over Daniel’s head; Daniel was grinning, his arm draped over my shoulder.
When we came to take Daniel home from the hospital for the last time, his doctor took me aside and said, “Elizabeth, sometimes the only thing you can do is to love someone for as long as you have him.” I think about that a lot. I don’t know if it’s true. But it is the kindest thing anyone ever said to me.
Barbara Fried is the Saunders Professor of Law at Stanford University. In her day job, she has written extensively on distributive justice and other ethical issues in law and political theory. She has been writing fiction and poetry for several years in her spare time, and is honored to have her first stories appear in this magazine.