General Fiction posted February 17, 2019

This work has reached the exceptional level
A piano teacher is re-infused with love for her profession

Love Notes For All

by Rachelle Allen

Story of the Month Contest Winner 

Annie remained nestled beneath her flannel sheets and down comforter, despite the fact that seventeen minutes had already elapsed since she'd shut off her alarm. She tried to pretend that the slash of cold air she would feel when she ventured out from this luscious nest was zapping her of the momentum she needed to begin her morning routine, but she knew that was a lie.

These days, heading out at 6:45 a.m. to teach piano lessons seemed to serve such little purpose. Her love of teaching was slipping away, and the joy of being a committed teacher was losing its luster. Or maybe she, herself, was.

She tried to shrug it off as The Mid-March Doldrums or even just the need for a vacation but couldn't quite shake the feeling that she was beginning to drift, like so many other educators she knew, bobbing along on a sea of complacency.

The jangling phone snapped her from her thoughts, and she sprinted over to where it was charging on her writing table. This had to be her 7 a.m. student's parent, calling to cancel. What a welcome reprieve that would be! And possibly even a harbinger of an easier day overall.

"Annie Darby?" asked the craggy-voiced woman.

"Yes," Annie answered, startled by a stranger's voice.

"I'm sorry to call so early, but I understand you're out teaching kids every day even before they go to school, so it didn't seem like I'd be waking you."

"Oh, no, you're not waking me," Annie responded with a warm smile in her voice. She hadn't lost her ability to be enthusiastic on the phone still, at least.

"I used to play piano," the woman said, "and I want to take it up again. I hope you have room for me in your schedule because word is that you're the best teacher in the town."

"You're so nice," Annie said. "I do love my job and always try to do my best," she added, then caught a glimpse of herself in the mirror, offering up this lie so effortlessly. No emotion in those eyes, Annie. You've become a sham. The once-vivacious teacher with the never-ending love and energy for her craft and her students has left the building. She's been replaced by a disingenuous shell who says words but no longer seems able to feel them.

Annie turned her back on her reflection. "May I ask what's motivating you to do this? I'm always intrigued when adults want to resume lessons."

"My son has been having some problems," the elderly voice replied. "I hope this won't sound crazy to you, but when he was little, no matter how bad things got, I could always reel him back in if I'd play the piano. Some nights, I swear I'd play him songs for hours. But it always helped."

Annie felt tears prickle the inside of her eyelids but took care not to let her voice crack. So grateful was she for the unexpected spark of life that the pain of this story was evoking that she didn't even check her calendar before asking, "May I come by your house tomorrow at 11:00?"

"Yes," said her prospective student and offered up the address.

As Annie's car rumbled up the expansive driveway toward the stark white opulence of The Best House in Town, she reminded herself that she'd always wanted to teach here. Both the antique grand piano and picture window that showcased it were so large that she had a delicious eyeful on her walks every day through the park below.

She wrestled with the knocker, an arthritic block of patinated brass that had no intention of complying with the demands being foisted upon it. Sighing, she resorted to a brisk double-rap with her knuckles and noticed, as the delicate footfalls inside made their unhurried way toward the door, that up this close, the house lost some of its magnificence.

The sills and window panes were mottled with bird droppings, and two corners even housed substantial nests. The steps, although spectacular in their swirls of black and white marble, were being overtaken by ivy that looked like seaweed trying to strangle a Great White into the undertow of the ocean. There were dozens of spindles beneath the majestic oak banister, but each was macrame'd to its closest neighbor with spider webs.

Annie counted the release of four grinding locks before the immense door moaned open.She looked at her student, easily seventy-five, with a diminutive frame beneath a snow cone of hair, and said, "It's so nice to meet you. I'm Annie Darby."

"I'm Rose. Please come in," the woman said and stepped back.

As the door closed behind her, Annie felt tethered to the spot by ribbons of vintage honeysuckle cologne that co-mingled with mothballs. She watched Rose shuffle across the granite foyer and teeter near a teakwood banister. Down three steps was an enormous room, walled in half with a shroud of navy blue draperies. Dollops of hand-crocheted filigree lay atop the head and armrests of two small, blue velour chairs and attempted to give them majesty. But a minuscule tv, perched precariously on a floral-patterned metal tray with crossed legs, sat less than twelve inches from the tiny thrones and gave away the bleak secret: The kingdom had fallen.

Annie sat in the nearer chair and asked, "So you're doing these lessons to help your son?"

Rose nodded. "He lives at the VA hospital. He was a bomb squad technician in Vietnam, and I'm afraid it affected him pretty badly."

"I see," said Annie. "You said he's been having some problems lately?"

"Yes, his father--my husband--died two months ago, and poor Scotty just keeps asking for him. He's not sleeping, he's not eating too well, and he just keeps asking for his daddy."

Annie blinked back tears.

Rose got up and shuffled toward the piano then motioned for Annie to follow, which she did, at once. With her back to the enormous picture window, Rose lowered herself to the bench with the practiced restraint of pain management. She looked up. "Shall we start?"

"Absolutely," said Annie. "What songs does Scotty love most?"

"He has two favorites," Rose replied, her eyes full of her son as a child. "He was pretty rambunctious, so about a half-hour before my husband would come home, I'd settle him down with You Are My Sunshine. No matter where he was in the house or how naughty he was being at the time, if he heard me playing that, he'd run right over and sit next to me, just like you are, and be all full of smiles." Rose gave a distracted, silent swipe the length of the keyboard. "He loved piano music," she said with a wan smile. "It seemed to touch him in a way nothing else could."

"Did you teach him how to play?"

"No, his father did that. The only song Scotty ever wanted to learn was Heart and Soul because that was the only one his father knew how to play. Every night, my husband would take over my spot on the bench and say, "Well, Scott, are you ready to give me some love notes?" and Scotty would scoot up as close to him as he could and they'd play as many verses of Heart and Soul as it took for me to get dinner on the table."

Annie struggled to swallow down the baseball that had formed in her throat.

"So you want me to teach you your husband's side of the Heart and Soul duet to play with Scott?" Annie asked. "That seems too easy for someone with your repertoire, Rose."

Rose paused before responding. "It's more than that," she said, her eyes on the keyboard. "When I asked around town for the teacher who loved her job the most, person after person after person said, 'Annie Darby.' I need your special brand of piano lessons."

"I don't understand," said Annie.

"Well, in his teens, Scotty became out-and-out wild--a bad group of friends, smoking, drinking, even shoplifting. Finally, my husband gave Scotty an ultimatum: Either go into the Army or leave our house. He felt Scotty needed the kind of discipline military life would offer."

The Teacher in Annie understood at once. "It had the opposite effect, didn't it?" she said softly, her expression pinched with empathy.

Rose nodded. "My husband never got over the guilt. He went every day to the VA hospital to play piano with Scotty, but it was too late."

The next morning at the hospital, they made their way down the dim, constricted corridors, past dozens of toothless, glassy-eyed veterans on gurneys, some moaning, others oblivious, most reeking of urine or decay.

At last they came to a tiny room with a matted and musty green shag carpet and an ancient upright piano, its keys like a derelict's smile, wedged into a corner. A frail, balding man in his fifties sat at the bench, rocking back and forth and whimpering. As they neared him, the sound crystalized into a repetitious undulation of "Daddy." Rose sat next to him and began a soft entreaty of You Are My Sunshine. Scotty stopped rocking at once and looked up at her.

She cradled him in her arms. "Scott, I want you to meet my piano teacher, Annie."

"Hi," said Annie and gave him a love-filled smile.

"Now we can play Heart and Soul together again, Honey," Rose said, "like when Daddy was here, okay? Annie's going to do a piano lesson with us every day from now on."

"Love notes for Daddy!" Scott burbled, rocking so hard that the bench rumbled and shook.

Annie stood behind him now and bent down, and Scott lifted his forearms up just enough so that Annie could slide hers underneath. Gently, with care, he clamped the tips of his metallic pincers onto the cuffs of his new teacher's blouse.

Story of the Month
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As the saying goes: Music is the sound our feelings make.
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