The baby grand was a gift from a man she no longer knows – in any case, no longer wants to know. He bought it at an estate sale and had it delivered to her apartment, where it now sits in the middle of the room, collecting dust and her unopened mail. At the time, it seemed like a mad, improvisational gesture – something extravagant and wildly inappropriate, like a diamond tiara or a pair of antlers – a gift with no apparent use. She should have known he was going to leave her.
She made a list, after he left, of all the things she intended to do. “Get a dog,” she wrote at the top. She didn’t specify what kind of dog, but something small, obviously, to accommodate the piano. She’d call him Nipper and he’d lie at her feet while she took long naps in the afternoon.
“Spackle drywall” was next on her list. For the life of her she couldn’t imagine why she’d written this. Number three was just plain illegible, obscured where she’d spilled coffee on the page. “Spfdnk?” Spiffdunk? It’s a shame, she thought. Whatever it was I’d intended to do would never get its day in the sun. Everything deserved its day in the sun, even the most reluctant desire.
He’s a man with cultish tendencies, she thinks. She hears the phrase again in her mind and wonders what it means. He’s a real estate agent, for crying out loud. And here is another phrase that gives her pause: crying out loud, crying out loud. Someone on the verge of hysteria. But she refuses to get a job, so she probably deserves it. Alone in the apartment with her plants.
There was something he’d said to her once, sitting in her apartment, listening to a recording of Mahler: “One bar derives from the last and leads to the next.” Was he speaking of music or liquor?
Maybe this is what she meant by cultish tendencies – susceptible to coercive persuasion. One bar derives from the last. She herself had never managed this trick – the sort of charisma required by cults – though she’d once wanted him to worship at the foot of her bed – to light candles and perform obscene ablutions – to place clean hands on the top of her head.
Perhaps if she’d told him she had cancer? Maybe he would have stayed. If she’d said it was terminal – isn’t everything terminal? She could’ve learned to be fevered and brave. She’d grow frail and lose her hair. She’d wear her bones like exquisite jewelry. She’d make herself irresistible to him.
“Music lessons,” were next on the list, because she might still redeem the dark gift. Under that, she wrote “Learn to crochet.” It struck her, when she wrote it, as an appropriately serious scheme, but now, wrinkled – stained – the list seems dismal and slightly hyperbolic.
The piano, too, seems ridiculous to her – too big for her actual life. It crowds the other things in her apartment – her sofa and the brass lamp, the easy-chair she can no longer sit in, wedged as it is against the coffee table.
“The piano is becoming a bother,” she tells her friend Louise.
Louise is pregnant by a man who is married. She is not sympathetic to Marie’s complaint. She lies on Marie’s floor, pressing the small of her back into the rug. “Have you ever heard of sciatica?” she says.
When Louise learned she was pregnant, she called the married man and told him she’d changed the locks on her doors. She would no longer do it, she told Marie – waiting up for his calls after midnight – watching at the window for his car. There was not room in her body for both her child and her longing. Besides, she said, he was never really hers.
Now she has something that is hers, Marie thinks. She wants to be cruel to Louise, but she can’t. She wants to say, “You fool.” Louise would laugh if she said it now.
She regards her friend with skepticism. “Some women look like they were born to be pregnant. You look like you’re harboring a volley ball in your shirt.”
“I’m harboring heartburn,” Louise says.
Marie offers Louise the piano. “I don’t even want any money for it. Just take it off my hands.”
Louise suggests that she call Goodwill. “I bet they’d come pick it up.”
In fact, Marie isn’t ready to part with the piano, though she can’t explain this to Louise – why its presence in her living room both harasses and reassures. How its waxed surface and white keys remind her, somehow, of the pearls her mother once kept in the top drawer of her dresser. She’s holding onto the piano, she supposes, for the same reason Louise endures her sciatica, bearing in her body her love’s affliction.
“I’m not even sure how to get it out of here,” Marie says. “I know it won’t fit in the elevator.”
Louise says that if they got it in here, they can get it back out.
“Maybe they pried off the roof,” Marie says.
“Maybe they built it like a ship in a bottle.”
Marie surveys her living room. She can’t remember what it looked like before the piano. How were the chairs arranged?
“Lately, I’ve been dreaming of frogs,” Louise says.
“Are they tadpoles, or full-grown frogs?”
“Frogs,” Louise says.
Louise grunts and rolls onto her side. “What do you suppose it means?”
“It means you’re pregnant,” says Marie. “Little swimmer probably still has gills.”
“Do frogs have gills?”
“Mmmm,” Marie says. “Tadpoles do.” Marie doesn’t believe in dreams. At least, as bearers of meaning or sense. Once, as a girl, her mother had taken her to the museum to see an exhibit of Surrealist paintings: liquid clocks, desert moonscapes. “See?” her mother had said. “Dreams are real.” But Marie was skeptical of the chthonic figures casting long shadows at noon.
“I’m doing a Kegel right now,” Louise says. “That’s what the instructions tell me to do.”
“On the internet,” says Louise.
Marie is thinking of how comic the piano looks in her living room – how ill-advised, its optimism floundering against her stained upholstery and mismatched end-tables, the chipped surfaces of the shabby room. A doomed vessel, which once had raised its lid like a mast toward the future – toward children and grandchildren who gathered in the evening – recitals – fat fingers flubbing the keys.
But no, this is only wishful thinking, because what kind of man would give a gift like that? So large and strange and perfectly useless – there was never any real hope in it. Neither of them knew how to play it.
He’s a man with cultish tendencies, she thinks, and understands, now, what she means – a man who would give a gift like that – the obvious expense – the squandered pearls – the mystery and ego – required by the faithful of those whose garment they touch.
“Pull me up.” Louise extends her arms to Marie, who hauls her into a sitting position. “I’m also constipated,” she says.
No, Marie thinks, her condition is not like Louise’s at all. Louise is growing larger everyday. She is harboring something living and other. There are two heartbeats in her chest. One will take its place beside her.
Sometimes, at night, while she is sleeping, Marie thinks she hears the piano. It is playing an old, remembered tune. She can’t make out the words, but she knows that patient tempo, the tethered, steady progression of chords. It’s a sad song, Marie thinks, like waves breaking against the pier. Their constant, useless return. Their repetition which quietly consoles, so that she almost forgets their armored depths and their terrible, stoic solitude.
And then, toward morning, waking in an empty bed, the song fading with the reluctant night, Marie knows the sound for what it is. Come back, it says. Come back, come back. It’s only her heart, beating alone.
Nicole Miller’s fiction has appeared in the journals Image, Alaska Quarterly Review, and NANO Fiction. She lives and writes in Brooklyn.