Imagine it: after school, en route to the kitchen for Oreos and milk, Rachel found a dead old man, lying face down in the living room, beneath the Baldwin upright. The man's name was Harold Ferry but Rachel didn't know that.
She was certain he was dead. A gnarled hand--white, dead-white--still clung to a brass foot pedal. And yet, the sight of a dead man did not at first scare Rachel, or even shock her. She seemed to feel nothing at all. That's why she started screaming; she didn't feel what she thought she should.
But that scream felt right as soon as she started. The sound filled her with reassuring fear. And soon her scream echoed back in her ears, filling the space her thoughts had vacated.
Until the screaming started, Rachel's father, Malcolm, was in a fine, lazy after-school mood. The piano tuner had arrived at the front door, as prearranged, at 4:30, and he was pleased to see the quiet old man set right to work. Malcolm loved hiring people to complete little tasks.
Because Malcolm's own tasks stretched on and on. He had handed back a pack of history term papers in first period; another ninety-nine would drop on his desk in less than a week. Malcolm now stretched out on his couch, under an eave, in the stuffy attic. If only, he thought, those eighth graders and their essays hadn't, for twenty years, sapped the energy right out of his fingers, he could have finished off this attic years ago. Or hired someone. He could have hired a guy, like that old piano-tuner, to cut out a sky-light. A window-tuner, he thought.
Pulling into the driveway at five, Rachel's mother, Ellyn, thought about dinner. If she asked Rachel--such a good girl, and an "easy baby" way back when--to cut up the vegetables and section the chicken, Ellyn could meanwhile catch a song or two at the freshly-tuned piano. Rachel took the lessons now but Ellyn considered herself the true musician. Work, marriage, motherhood had wrestled her away from her first true love, but still, her fingers itched by five o'clock for a song.
By five o'clock Malcolm had settled his ass deeper into the crease of the couch. Perhaps he and Ellyn should have had more children. The parade of eighth graders had discouraged him. Sure, babies are fine, he often told Ellyn, the way they tickle your heart and keep you laughing. But babies grow up. And looking out his at students, year after year, what did he see? Vats; vats with mysterious hormones bubbling up. Thankfully enough, his own daughter, Rachel, had surprised him by so far side-stepping all that. Or so he thought, until that screaming started.
This scream was unclassifiable. In Ellyn this prompted a fight or flight response that she had read about, not long before in a women's magazine. Ellyn would not have recognized her behavior as a medical condition at the time. Still, her symptoms were consistent: sharp, shallow intakes of breath, heart palpitations, a sudden, energizing rush of adrenalin. Later, Ellyn would say that she had heard the scream and frozen in place, right there on the front walk. But her account was not true. Instead, the fight or flight response spurred her to instant action.
For yes, even Rachel sometimes screamed for some slight reason, but all those screams had fallen into three categories: aggravation, fear or pain. Though Ellyn could list such examples by the dozen, none of them mattered or came to mind when Ellyn heard that singular scream as she walked toward the house with a bag of groceries and a bottle of Chianti.
After it was all over, Ellyn would complain of a headache and nausea akin to a hangover. But she had no drink at all that night. When she heard the scream she dropped the paper bag of groceries, and, strangely, threw down the bottle of Chianti. The wine bottle shattered into six neat shards, although, before cleaning up the mess, Ellyn never noticed the beauty in its broken symmetry. She would notice the stain the Chianti left on the front walk and the way the wine crept into the lawn, as if the grass were hair, the Chianti blood, and the blood was stemming from a wide skull fracture. A year later this image would still trouble her and would prompt, at no small expense, the installation of a flagstone walk to replace the concrete. And she switched her wine to white. It wasn't the death of the piano tuner, in her house, that prompted the switch. No, it was the scream, and the fact that she, Rachel's own mother, had thought at that instant that her no-bother teenage daughter had abruptly entered a psychotic state. Most people would agree that the death of a stranger, in comparison, would mean little or nothing.
Even the stranger, Harold Ferry, would have agreed with that. He cared more for children, other people's children, than he did for himself. He had always cared more about things outside himself. A woodthrush's call, a gray day with late bits of sunshine, Beethoven's Piano Sonata No. 28 in A major. He liked to pretend there was no particular point where Harold Ferry ended and the world began.
He had never talked much. Long ago his mother had worried, had taken him to pediatricians, specialists; while she spoke Harold had wandered about those offices, touching things, for he had found all the instruments there interesting, too. His mother soon got tired of the offices and got used to him. Harold still liked to look around a lot; he just loved observing. And--listening; well, of course, of all things that was his favorite. In the convenience store, picking up the paper, he might stop just to listen to the pitch of voices around him. Often he tilted his head and slotted those voices into keys. Consequently he often missed the context of the conversation and even the store's owner, who saw him every morning, thought him slow-witted. Once he'd overheard the owner say to his teenage clerk, "There's no there, over there," when the there was clearly Harold.
But Harold was there; he had a strong sense of self, really. For Harold, the only thing alarming about death was the way that strong self seemed so acceptant of slipping, slipping away.
At least, until he heard that scream. For in fact, Harold Ferry was not dead, just nearly so. The scream cut a swath in the path of his dying. Funny that the only unnatural notes Harold could ever remember hearing were nearly also his last. The scream didn't scare him to death as much as scare him away from it. Such a ride, such a fine glide, until that scream cut right in.
That very sound had prompted Malcolm to run. In fact, Malcolm tripped twice running down the attic steps, his long legs buckling beneath him and snapping straight back like taut rubber bands. He cursed the crowded stairwell: books, boxes, broken toasters, extension cords, winter jackets, National Geographics and student papers. All these things crowded in on him. Malcolm, though middle-aged, still thought of himself as a perpetually young man, so he was surprised to find his path cluttered with old, useless things that presented the evidence of a nearly-done life. This thought caused him to miss the final stair, sail forward, till his hands and forehead met the floor of the upstairs hall with a bang.
Ellyn heard that bang above her head but ignored it in her rush to get to her daughter. Strangely, that daughter now stood like an aria singer: the fingers on one hand grazed the tall piano, fingers on the other clutched her throat. Rachel's eyes were closed and because of the scream she must not have heard or sensed her mother's approach. When Ellyn ran into the living room, neared her daughter, and finally sprang forward, she touched Rachel's arm is if they were just finishing the game of tag that Rachel had outgrown and walked away from on the front lawn three years before.
Rachel stopped; the scream caught and curdled there in her throat. She opened her eyes. First she saw her mother's wild face but when she lowered her gaze she saw the old man's legs sticking out from beneath the piano. She was embarrassed then. Something about the vulnerable whiteness of one shin, in that space between the top of his socks and the bottom of his trousers, made her face herself.
"I'll call an ambulance!" Ellyn cried. She ran to the kitchen phone.
Rachel looked at the man again. You mean, he might not yet be dead? She knelt down beside him. When she reached out, she found his shin was warm. How much time had she wasted with that scream?
Ellyn pulled the cord tight and leaned with the phone into the living room--tethered, as usual, because Malcolm distrusted "new" things, especially all things cordless--and she caught sight of Rachel, as if in prayer, and a dusty Malcolm, at the bottom of the stairs now, clinging to the rail, just beyond. "DO something!" she screamed to them. Rachel didn't move. What was with her? Ellyn, prideful, had always seen her daughter as a mirror to herself. Today Ellyn seemed to be looking at the same mirror but now it reflected something impossibly young but ghastly back.
Then Ellyn watched her husband collect himself and brush at his pant legs as if dust mattered. "GOD!" she yelled, though she didn't believe in one, and "AMBULANCE!" which she did. She gave the details over the phone: Old man. Heart attack? Address. Inwardly, she cursed. If only. If only she had a cordless phone. A different family? A new piano?
Malcolm could not move him from beneath the piano. That hand clung with supernatural power to the brass foot pedal. Malcolm had noted the slightest of pulses at the man's neck but now nothing but rigor mortise could seem to explain the rigidity of the old man's grip. "Rachel, grab his fingers," he said. Rachel did as she was told. Malcolm felt glad. Maybe she still was his good little girl. He made a mental note to solicit Rachel's help, in future projects. There was still time. Perhaps he would take up carpentry; with Rachel's help he'd install that friggin' skylight.
But peeling at the old man's fingers, Rachel thought only of artichokes. Sometimes, if not sufficiently steamed, artichoke leaves will not easily peel away. Rachel knew this. Because both of her parents worked full-time and, truthfully, because both of her parents were lazy as ever upon their return, she had been trained early for adult things, like cooking. And thinking. It grew easy to work away at this man, once she accepted this job, and thought of him as a raw vegetable.
"He needs CPR!" Ellyn yelled, belatedly. "Malcolm! You're not doing this right!" Yes, she knew one should be supportive of one's spouse (how many times had she read that) but really, they would lose this man right here in her own house--try explaining the arrival of a slow ambulance to the neighbors. Ellyn got down on her knees. She slapped the old man on the back. His fingers splayed, for the briefest second, then clung right back to the foot pedal. "Rachel," she said. "Let me in there. Move aside!"
Rachel stood and backed away. From this distance the vegetable became a real old man again. And the memory of that scream came back to Rachel. Maybe she would go mad, for it echoed disturbingly between her ears. But suddenly she knew: that loud sound was nothing but her own guilty inaction, given voice.
The old man would soon be dead, Rachel now knew. Unlike her parents, Rachel believed in an afterlife, or at least, in some hazy space beyond this place. Now she wanted a gift for this man to carry--or one to carry this man. Her mother thought of herself as some quasi-concert pianist but Rachel knew that she was actually the better musician--in doodles on paper, alone in the house at the piano, and especially, in her head. At night she let her mother hear only the half-hearted, half-hour of exercises Rachel had to play and not what Rachel was fully capable of. She could show that off now and give this man a gift as well.
To reach the piano Rachel scrambled over all the legs and arms that stuck out here and there beneath the Baldwin. Her parents were so tied up with the pushing and the pulling and slapping they hardly noticed. Rachel paused only a moment, for really, the choice was obvious: the F 13th chord, containing all white notes but also every note on the scale. From bottom up it read: F, A, C, E, G, B and D. But really, anyone could hear that it spelled BEAUTY. She stood, hunched her shoulders, and struck the chord. Again. Again. Beneath her she could feel her parents squirm as they stopped what they were doing and stared up at her. Again. Again.
The chord rang out, perfect and endless, even though Harold Ferry's tuning had only just begun--right before the heart attack--really, he had only just started to soften the felt covering between the hammers with tenderizer from below. And Rachel stopped playing as soon as Harold Ferry let go of that brass pedal. But Harold Ferry didn't know that. He so loved his job and his life and sound itself that he had never imagined a moment in which he would give it all up. Harold Ferry felt nothing as Malcolm rolled him over, clapped him on the chest, pressed his lips to Harold Ferry's own. Ellyn would not read till the next week in Prevention that mouth breathing for adult CPR is out and chest compressions only are in. Did it matter? Harold's senses of sight, smell, taste and touch were not slipping away, no, they were joining that one sense that had always served him best.
F 13. He heard that valedictory chord again and again, long after Rachel had stopped playing. Indeed Harold Ferry glided out on it. It was a fine ride, a rebel prayer, the opening gesture to Harold Ferry's next movement.
BIO: Eileen Donovan Kranz teaches writing at Boston College; her work has appeared in South Dakota Review, Pikeville Review, Storyglossia, alittlepoetry.com. Eileen lived in the Happy Valley when studying for her MFA at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, but now lives (also happily) north of Boston with her husband, writer Jonathan Kranz, two writerly daughters, and one feisty puppy. She thanks her choir director, Shawn Gelzleichter, for sharing his knowledge of piano for this story.Review, Blue Print Review, Literary Mama and