Richard Krause

Posted on March 26, 2018

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A Piano Story

She didn’t see the outline of his face.  It was so big, a solid imposing mass just like the rest of his body.  It appeared gray like all the others with almost no identifiable features except the ears and the long nose.  Those comparatively beady eyes she never even noticed as looking at her.  His tread was so light, but powerful enough not to be disregarded.  What matter to her his movements, his sense of smell, his looks?  He was like all those that she had to be indifferent to, or they’d interfere with her music.  Her beauty was a magnet that drew them all.  And when she played some thought they were in heaven listening for the first time in their lives to the music of the spheres.

            So she had to ignore them, keep them off her back, where she couldn’t imagine them anyway. She’d be crushed by their weight alone.  The size differential always amazed her.  How could they be so big?

            It was simple, being ignored their size enlarged while their mincing steps pretended so much bulk was not there.  It can sneak up on beauty and surprise it with birthday gifts so pink that they are almost compatible with the grayness of the world that they represent.  And if their tongue is noticed, its pinkness too resembles the gift, but out of modesty they’ll quickly retract it.

            Beautiful Maria never distinguished her admirers, the larger ones that formed a frightening contrast with her petiteness.

            It is amazing how creation can accommodate both the large and the small, though the vivid contrast at times seems laughable.  Maria didn’t even want to get into that, and so avoided the bulk of her suitors.  Maybe they should have harbored some anger towards her.  Perhaps they had visions of lifting her up so easily that their own size became a supportive asset, like an overcast cloud suddenly brightening.  Maybe it was the pink dresses they wore at masquerades trying for the duration of the ball to pass as petite themselves.

            You’d imagine them forgetting themselves, crushing little agates like Maria. But that was the furthest thing from their mind.  They dreamed of a lightness of foot that buoyed their whole body as if it were airborne like the divine notes that came from Maria’s piano.  She was reflected in the polished black wood transforming her deeper into the souls of her admirers that she could never be extricated, not even with the sternest rejections.

            And there were so many of them that Maria couldn’t hope to pick anyone after all.  She was just one woman who could satisfy the dreams of multitudes with her performances. That alone was enough.  In fact her personality developed enough coldness and indifference to ward off all the suitors who with gifts in hand knocked on her recital door.  The shimmering pink ribbons and every pastel color under the rainbow, the silver entreaties, especially the gold of the iris that took on the stock color of bright ribbon, all eliminated the frightening eyeball and the threatening lashes.

            “Lashes!” the word was alien to Maria, born with a silver spoon in her mouth.  The closest she got were scoldings from her piano teacher when she missed a note, but administered with a velvet glove to insure that the teacher would not lose his commission.  In fact all were careful not to upset Maria and tiptoed around her.  Their abjectness indeed brought out a mean streak in her.

            Maria controlled every aspect of her environment that she finally became destructive.  She couldn’t take a compliment; in fact they no longer inspired her playing.  She lost all appreciation for those who constructed her instrument.  Even for the weavers who had produced the red felt that covered the keys.  In the polish of the wood she dismissed the elbow grease that brought it so exquisitely out.  Maybe she imagined the carpentry that fashioned the piano’s beautiful shape competed in some odd way with her so she ignored it.  It is strange how objects can so displace us, diminish us, that we have to take them for granted.  In fact her face grew so distorted when she played that her body in her white dress emerged like a flower struggling from the depths of the underworld where some tragedy had taken place.  This effort sustained her with a kind of companionship that she never had in real life.

            She was drawn to the piano just to observe her own reflection everyday in the polished wood, her movements, then forgetting herself at the crescendo, but catching herself on free fall as the music trailed off to a pianissimo as she was left on the black surge of polished wood that threatened to box her up like the keys every evening.

*

            When Ray Rice first came into Maria’s life she never imagined all the implications.  She was caught off guard.  He was such a big man, too big really to look at.  One of the gray mass of admirers that followed her around.  His every movement seemed sprawling. But oddly enough her petiteness quickly formed a counterpart to his size.  It staved off the bigness with that self-sufficiency miniatures always possess.  And to have a grand piano at her disposal and to be able to play it so skillfully showed that she didn’t need a man in her life, certainly not the likes of Ray Rice.

            He played for some band or other, had a cousin that knew Maria and so was introduced.  His sprawling amorphousness suggested some dim memory, or vague outline that Maria couldn’t place, whose face hardly came into focus.  It was a doughy face with beady eyes, and multiple corrugations at the shaft of the nose that grew more pronounced with every joke he snorted.

            Ray Rice was given to practical jokes and unexpected outbursts of laughter.  Maria overlooked the joking; perhaps she saw Ray Rice as her sounding board, a vibration oddly enough felt through the fingers.  Perhaps she saw in comparison with his grayness, herself already in the smooth polished wood of the piano in her white dress even before she sat down.  How could Ray Rice compete with that, with his honey-colored trumpet he played in a band she knew nothing about?  Or his short hair, could that be something to harvest, like a shock of rice falling on her at a wedding?  If Maria had had such thoughts she’d have cringed and locked her doors, not have met him like her cousin suggested, certainly not have gone on a date with him.

            It surprised people that she did.  Maybe there was something she was making up for, all the suitors that she had rejected. Maybe a woman rejects so often that she privately begins to think that something is wrong with her, that her counterpart will never emerge even from the piano she sits at.  It is physically impossible she concludes, and so exasperated she finally gives someone a chance.  Out of the blur of all the prior suitors Ray Rice emerges.  He had their emblematic light-footedness, their combined nosiness, their beady eyes.  Like the rest he wants to know everything about her.   He minces in his walk to affect an elegance he doesn’t have, but he is ultimately an entertainer.  He could be in a circus, Maria thinks, or in vaudeville, just at the moment the gold buttons on his blazer seem about to pop from another belly laugh.

            He wears little party hats too, and blows paper whistles when he gives her those pink ribboned presents.

            “Ray Rice!” Maria repeats laughing to herself, forgetting her fears in the novelty of the name, at going on a date with this band man!  What does it mean? she asks herself, mulling over the obscene sounds of wind instruments.

            Ray is there puncturing the ether like the first morning light struggling through the mist to assert itself.  Maria retreats to a silence at Ray’s antics, even sometimes forgets her playing.  He amuses everyone but Maria, and that redoubles his efforts.  Still she sees him as a buffoon.

            He accompanies her home, insists she should play the piano for him, that he’s heard so much about her.

            Maria is flattered, but repulsed by Ray Rice, sensing something short of disgust in herself. Maybe that alone has its attraction.

            But he is so focused on hearing her play, as if he has found the path to her.  The notes in air he quickly grasps as a kind of pledge between them.

            Maria looks at him, at his bulkiness, his insistence like all men pushing themselves on her.

            The disparity of size again stupefies her.  How could she ever accept such a big man?  What in the world could be the connection?  Her mind reels, flounders.  She reaches out as if she is already playing but finds only harsh notes, discordance, disgust with Ray Rice.

            Still she offers him tea in her best china.  So odd she thinks to herself sitting beside him.  His chubby fingers are too big for the ring of porcelain on the teacup.  He holds it by the lip.  She warms the teapot, puts it in the cozy and sets it down.

            She has tiny biscuits that are too laughably small for the appetite of Ray Rice.  She knows that he could shovel in everything on the plate if she turned her back.  She fears he is only getting started.

            The wedding rice occurs to her and she shudders.

            Such an oddity as she catches a glimpse of them both in the piano, then looks at the claw feet holding it up.

            What is there about the piano, what secret connection between her and this behemoth of a man?

            “I’d like you to play, Maria,” Ray Rice says as the tea warms both their bodies.

            Ray Rice now is no longer the buffoon, behemoth, band man, flatterer, but he’s  shrunk to the size of Maria’s enlarged vanity that takes all of Ray in, contains him in her smile, in her nimble fingertips.

*

            Maria goes over to the piano, opens the fallboard, takes off the red velvet and sits down.  She catches a brief glimpse of herself in the dark wood and imagines except for her white dress a whole continent of mixed emotions purified by her playing where wildlife roams freely and poachers are unheard of, where the musical notes tame the breasts of the most savage animals.

            But just as she is going to hit the keys the realization strikes her.  The horror of what she has been doing all along keeping the Ray Rices of the world at bay.

            The wear of countless hours of playing has never occurred to her, the yellowing over time, an unfathomable passage of her fingers on the keys that has led back to him.

It floors her just sitting there looking at Ray Rice; she is a continent away realizing for the first time, hearing the eerie screams of separation, the thundering herds, feeling the vibrations of the earth beneath her, the deafening sounds of the giant guns, the penetration through the bodies, the bleeding, the gaping wounds, the sores that will never heal, broken collar bones that deprive the head of movement, the unearthly extension of that struggling pink tongue.

            The gray mass of Ray Rice sitting there, the aggrieved herds of suitors rebuffed by her petiteness, all gather in her mind as if in reprimand for what was so intimately taken.  He seemed so indulgent even as she had repulsed him.  How otherwise could she live with herself?  She couldn’t admit it.  Who could do otherwise for such divine music?  She had created her own world, had become ironically so thin-skinned.  What a luxury so as not to be identified, tracked down, traced back.

            There he stood, leaning over the piano, the accusatorial leer of Ray Rice not knowing himself what he was emblematic of, the unspeakable slaughter of all those who never forget, waiting for her surrender.  Forget the prominent nose, the ears almost fanning his body to overcome the effects of the hot tea, her fingers are frozen in horror.  She is too ashamed to sweep them over the keys.  The unspeakable theft must have been simultaneously realized by him.  Just what was done to bring that huge instrument to her, those keys surrounded by the polished black wood mirroring her, such a violent theft hidden by the sweeping grace of the nimblest fingers burying all thought of what had been stolen. Ray Rice must have felt it in his loins.  It was as if his very size overcame him concentrating on what he was missing.

            The repeated blasts from the gun, the animal wobbling, dropping to its front knees, the river of dark blood streaming out of such a huge body, the tilting gray trunk arching up in the air, the concussion of the mighty head, the thud heard in the next village.  The death throes as the herd screams back.  This goes on for hours until it finally subsides.  Already large humpbacked birds are gathering, waiting, landing on the thick skin, the hyenas are massing, and thousands of flies are already at the sticky blood.  When the last spasms are over, the saws are produced and the grating sounds that should disturb sleep and interrupt playing.  The only consolation is that they are destined to be replaced by Beethoven, Mozart, and Chopin.

            It should take anyone’s breath away, and it did Maria’s, but Ray just stood there as if frozen himself by her realization, sensing now her vulnerability, how something from him had been taken.  His bulk was so emblematic of the theft, yet he was there to advance the plunder, stalking this little slip of a woman as if to demonstrate how things come full circle.

            All the certainty of those modest little keys, all the virtuoso performances,

brought out the grating sounds of serrated edges, for what has since been banned internationally, so little women sitting before pianos all around the world could play their hearts out free of the dangerous interruption of behemoths who could easily trample them to death had not their herds been so dismally depleted.  Over and over the elephant guns had been thoughtlessly shouldered after the deed was done and the booty collected.  All big men must sense the menacing tragedy of that.  For as Felisberto Hernandez has said, “The piano keys had been tusks,” as Ray Rice’s unwitting stare now bore into the terrified eyes of little Maria Pendergast.

****

Richard Krause’s collection of fiction, Studies in Insignificance, was published by Livingston Press, and his epigram collection, Optical Biases, was published by EyeCorner Press in Denmark. In 2017 his fiction appeared in Hackwriters Magazine, ink&coda, Cold Creek Review, and EXPOUND, a Nigerian magazine. He teaches at Somerset Community College in Kentucky.

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