The sunlight played patterns on the worn wooden floors, silhouetting the ivy and flowers outside the window. Her bare feet were cold on the floor.
From the kitchen Cleo could hear the clattering of the pot, bubbling under the weight of the boiling water. The brace around her wrist was sweaty while the rest of her shivered.
She stared down at the piano. The old yellowed keys were scarred and worn away, with streaks of pen marks and gouged lines from some pianist’s long nails. The sleek dark wood, with the gilded name Tolkien Pianos, looked at her judgmentally. Cleo closed her eyes and leaned back against the warm wall.
The window above the piano showed the little country road leading away from her tiny Manitoba farmhouse. The grass was lush and green and the trees beginning to blush from the autumn. It was peaceful, far from the road, full of solitude and peace. The way she liked it.
How to start? Cleo had never played the piano before. Once as a child she had listened to my mother play, by the window that looked out on the barren brown grassy plains, and she played a Beethoven song, soft and loud simultaneously and full of aching and loving. She never understood how she played so well, and she envied my mother.
After she died I could not bear to sell the piano.
She rested my hands on the keys and pressed down. Loud! And discord. It scratched at her ears and she stopped pressing. She did know one song, from when her father tried to teach me Fur Elise. She could play the first stanza.
Cleo did so and it did not sound right.
Cleo sighed and stood up. She went outside, running her cold fingers over the black brace. She pulled her fingers through her hair and sat against the rough brick wall.
Finally she stood because she knew the water on the stove would be boiling over. When she went inside the water had overflown and was foaming out onto the stove.
She sighed again and tried as best she could to clean up.
Then she went back to the piano.
She sat at it gingerly, rubbed the bench with her fingers and brushed away her hair from her eyes a bit fearfully. She wondered at her nervousness. Was she afraid of a piano? Was she too respectful, maybe, of it?
She started slowly. She did know how to read notes; it was the one thing she remembered from when my mother gave us lessons, on that old battered piano on the prairie.
The song was called Rejazz and it was a difficult song. She had promised the lady at the Winnipeg mall that she would start playing the piano on the weekends, and she was regretting ever saying hello to that woman. Cleo didn’t even know how to play the piano!
She began at the first note, of course. It was a chord, and then a little lilting skipping stanza that went up the scale twice to give the song a starting bit of deep bass jazz. The chord, the first chord, was easy. C chord with a tiny twist with the pinkie finger, an add-on of B flat to begin that lilting scale.
Cleo had heard this song before: It was a jazzy, quirky song that had a good singer. She wanted to play it, she truly did, but it looked so hard. She looked at the gold gilt, Tolkien Pianos, again, and wished she hadn’t.
It stared her down and seemed to judge her for never having taken serious piano lessons. She thought idly that this song might sound best with a saxophone to accompany it.
Cleo sighed. Okay. She begged herself. Please do it. Please play it. Please figure it out without having to painfully memorize each and every set of fingering necessary. Please do this without having to take lessons. Please do this and play at the mall—just this once, maybe get paid—and never again. Please.
Her fingers refused.
“Oh, come on,” she said loudly. The empty house echoed with her voice. The cold air rang with it.
She rubbed her wrist brace. This might hurt. Learning to play with a broken wrist was certainly not advisable. In fact it might injure her more. But this could be fun, right?
Cleo tried again. This time the brace complied and allowed the tricky fingering of that easy chord. Done. Next note. The lilting little thing didn’t look too hard.
She kept working for the next two hours and got to the end of the page, with only a few sharp twinges to her wrist, nothing to fear. It was the hardest thing she had ever done—sweating and grimacing at each wrong note, doing it, still working, still going, just because. Cleo got to the point where she was questioning her life choices. Questioning what the real reason behind all this effort was.
She smiled and relaxed her tense leg and back muscles as soon as she had done with the first page and a stab of pain went up her back. She had no idea she was sitting so tensely.
Cleo sighed again and kept at it. The next chord was an awkward one: that nagging C chord with the hang-on of a B flat. She did it again, but as soon as she did she felt an enormous blaze of pain consume her wrist. She yelped and fell off the piano bench.
“Ahhhhh!” she gasped. She pulled herself over to the window, now displaying rich full colors of an autumn sunset, and cradled her wrist to her chest, gasping and moaning again and again.
Cleo let the fire die in her wrist and once it had, she stood, struggling, and went to the kitchen and drowned her arm in cold water from her tiny refrigerator, never minding the brace.
She let out her breath in a great gasp, in relief. And then as the cold water seeped through the brace to her skin she gasped softly and pulled it out.
Wincing, Cleo staggered to the large plush checkered armchair and sank wearily into it. The damage to her wrist was the last straw. She was going to call up that Winnipeg mall woman and tell her she couldn’t play.