Skinny piano pop

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The porch steps have eroded from generations of flood water. Muriel listens for the susurration of crows’ wings to rise from the flattened mud of the driveway before she steps outside through a curtain of moths, wearing only a cream-colored slip and a cigarette. In bare feet, she considers the size of the day: already long, already hot.

There is time lapse furniture in the backyard: a secondhand hutch where Nama used to store her mother’s Desert Rose pattern dishes before she started mixing them in with the everyday Corningware, set outside in 1978; the kids’ dresser drawers — now utilized to grow tomatoes and basil and cucumbers — from her first marriage, before Luke’s cancer scare. There’s that old oven that the rust ate up after the heavy October rains of ’97, now cozying up to a picnic table that hasn’t been sat at for twenty-some years; the crumbling skeleton of a console radio they couldn’t afford to fix when the speakers blew in the middle of a summer storm, pre-Elvis era. And, most damning, that spinet upright piano Uncle Edwin used to play and then gave to Muriel’s mother after he got sick with AIDS. It was out-of-tune from the big move all the way from Syracuse, and they didn’t know anyone local who could make it sound right. It was Edwin’s skinny piano, Nama called it, even after she forgot who he was, and you couldn’t set a laundry basket on it, or even a good-sized bowl of radishes, it sat too conspicuously in the living room. Muriel supposed everything they abandoned ended up on the back lawn. Good thing Edwin had friends who were willing to bury him in Upstate New York and not here, in some unmarked plot no one but her would bother to tend to. They treated that piano like they treated that boy, and it became another stain on the family name.

Morning is — how did Old Happy say it? — Bodies of trees lit immortal by silver. He wrote it down on one of the outhouse walls, now sunk somewhere further along the Mississippi. The light is silver for a minute, she thought, just before everything blurs from the heat.

The weeds have not thinned out yet, the nettle and itchgrass, and the ground is still soft from the previous night’s rain. Not as wet as when Katrina paid a visit, back in ‘05. That bitch was a souse. Murial remembers the sheriff telling her that Sam might have to be dug up and buried elsewhere before that goddamn hurricane got her hands on the cemetery.

“I’m telling all the folks who have kin buried there,” he said, “so don’t take it too personal.”

“I can’t afford to relocate him,” she said. “Besides, what difference does it make? The man is still dead, ain’t he?”

“Gov’ment will take care of the cost. Eventually. A man’s shape, uh, changes after it’s been laying in the ground a few years,” he said. “It can cause all sorts of health worries if he just floats down river.”

“Dave Marlson, you’re not moving just his body, you’d be removing the entire box, ain’t that right?”

“Depends,” said the sheriff. “It’s been mighty, uh, liquid around here lately, by which I mean wet rot.”

“I know what you mean. Just get out. If he floats all the way down to the Gulf with the rest of us, so be it.”

At least Sheriff Marlson had the brains to look embarrassed. “I’ll come back here if I have to,” he said, “and if I do, I’ll try not to bother you with the details. And I may have to order everyone to leave, not just the corpses.” He paused to adjust the brim of his hat. “And for Christ’s sake, Muriel, I bowled with the man. Fished with him, too. This ain’t something I want to do.”

And before you knew it, almost twenty years have passed since that conversation, and no one has moved anywhere, no one has touched anything, and even the dead have been forgotten again.

During the day, Muriel draws pictures of Edwin’s piano at her kitchen table until a headache sets in behind her eyes. She draws the lines with a set of special pencils she ordered from a stationery store in Bay St. Louis, and she uses her old high school geometry tools to get an accurate measurement. She keeps the drawings in a binder on top of the refrigerator.

She has spoken to Julio from McHenry’s Hardware about lumber prices and cast iron plates and gauges of piano wire. “You thinking of rebuilding Edwin’s piano?” he asks her.

“Course not. Just curious.”

They both laugh, like it was a foolish question for him to ask, though they both know she’s considering it.

“Because I can order the parts,” he says, “and sell them to you for cost.”

“Let me think about it,” she says, but her mind is almost made up. “You don’t tell a soul about this, Julio,” she says. “You promise me. I’ll be laughed out of the county.”

And he promises.

At night, she listens to the rain on her bedroom window, the lightness of its engravings scratch on the screen, drawn and erased before seen, clean water, clear water, and then it follows her into sleep.

“Do you still miss her?” Uncle Edwin asks her. He was always a young man, always pale.

“I don’t think about her much.”

“You don’t think about anything else.”

“I do. I think about your piano.”

“Not mine. Your mother’s. Yours now.”

“It’s complicated.”

“It’s simple. You loved her, you couldn’t tell her, she moved on, you didn’t.”

“I was married, Uncle Edwin. And it would have been wrong.”

“You were young.”

“I was young. Yes.”

“Listen,” he said, and he became quiet.

“Rain.”

“You remember her in that boat, don’t you? That rowboat that had no business still floating. You girls were lucky it didn’t sink to the bottom.”

“Yes. But it was….”

“Invigorating.”

“It was something. When she slipped her feet over the side and into the water, the boat shifted, and I thought… well, I don’t know what I thought. I thought it might tip us over.”

“That’s not all you thought.”

“No. But what I thought had no real words attached to it. I thought she was the most beautiful thing I had ever seen. She’d been my friend for most of my life, and I only just saw her then. The goosebumps on her thigh, the flex of her leg when she fanned the water into the air with her foot, and… and the way the drops slid off her, dripping down to her calf, slithering. This is what wanting is, and I finally knew what that meant. I turned my head so fast it made me dizzy. We got the boat leveled and then we laughed about it. But the wanting was draped all over me, and I was amazed she couldn’t see it. Does it ever leave? And that makes me feel like another version of me has been misplaced. Do you know how that feels? Does it make any sense?”

“You want to rebuild a piano no one has ever wanted, from a man no one wanted to know or understand. Yes, it makes sense.”

“Does it? Because I don’t know.”

And he was gone again. And the sound from the rain has softened.

In the morning, Muriel listens for the susurration of crows’ wings to rise from the flattened mud of the driveway before she steps outside through a curtain of moths, wearing only a peach-colored slip and a cigarette. In bare feet, she considers the size of the day: already long, already hot.

She thinks, some day she’s going to have to order that maple wood and spruce from the hardware store before the days start to noticeably shorten. Today, she’ll draw it again, just to make sure of the dimensions, to assure herself that the measurements are true and correct.

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