Listening

by Jens Birk

 

A stranger knocks on Maria’s door a few days after the funeral.

“I’m sorry to disturb you,” he says as he nervously avoids her eyes. “I happened to walk by your building the day some movers delivered a grand piano. I believe they brought it up to your apartment?”

He is probably in his fifties, but has that kind of virgin skin that never seems to age. A dated gray suit and a tie give him authority. His glasses are round and clumsy; his eyes look too large for the tiny, square face. He seems trustworthy, she believes, noticing a citrusy scent in the staircase that seems new to her building. It vaguely reminds her of something she can’t quite determine – childhood afternoons?

“I teach the piano at the Conservatory and give private lessons in my spare time. I would like to offer you a free lesson and then you can decide if you want to continue.” He speaks with a slight accent – French, maybe.

She immediately accepts his offer, although she doesn’t fully understand why she lets him into her life.

When he’s gone, Maria leans against the door with her eyes closed, and thinks about the funeral again. She is still convinced that she briefly lost her hearing during the service. At first, it felt scary, but soon she was relieved – she wouldn’t have to deal with anybody. People came up to her to offer their condolences. They seemed to say the expected: how much her father had meant to them, how they hoped to see her soon, and what a difficult time it was for her. She watched their lips and faces as they spoke, nodded and shook their hands, impatient for them to leave. She felt completely alone. She knew that her parents’ friends were present as she hesitantly walked down the aisle of the cathedral. Yet the moment she saw the coffin, it was as if they all vanished. Only the dead body, the grand piano, and the confusion remained.

Her father was there, but no longer really there.

***

Maria sits up in her bed, barely awake, and stares at the grand piano that is wedged between the wall and her bed. Once again, she has dreamed wordlessly about her father.

She’d hardly closed her eyes the nights prior to the arrival of the instrument, slightly embarrassed and in two minds about it. She couldn’t quite explain why it was the one thing of her father’s she’d insisted on keeping.

A team of sweaty movers had heaved it up the four flights of stairs. They’d expected to put the piano in her living room, but she wanted it in her bedroom. She imagined waking up at night and sitting on the piano bench, letting her fingers move over the keys, touching them but barely making any sound.

They’d also brought in a mahogany chest of sheet music. Her father polished it religiously when she was a child. It now stands in her bedroom, daunting like a small casket. No one has opened it for a long time.

Maria’s still in shock after the funeral, trying to remember details about her father in a final attempt to keep him in her life. She finds comfort in living in her father’s old apartment – she’d moved there at the age of twenty. It had remained empty since her parents married—her father insisted on keeping it for her. She sleeps in her father’s old bed, handmade by a local carpenter in the thirties. It isn’t particularly comfortable, but she would never part with it. Much of her time is spent reading in that bed, listening to his old, classical vinyl records.

She finally forces herself up and heads out for a long walk toward the steep hill. From the open space at the top, she has a perfect view to the Baltic Sea and the ferries, the containers and the cathedral tower. Looking at the endless water dotted with vessels from other continents making their way to this Danish harbor, she feels at peace. From up here, the world is her own creation – a place where she can calmly piece together her memories.

Her father had worked at the local town hall in the accounting department, ending up as director of planning. He’d had no initial training, but traveled to attend weeklong courses throughout her childhood. His absences always felt painfully eternal to her as she grew up. She was eager to hear what he did during those trips and couldn’t stand not knowing the details.

“Just numbers,” he would explain, “crunching numbers.”

She wanted to know where he stayed, if he’d made friends there. He would smile and say that it was really simply about studying. Just like her, going to school.

Maria often sensed that he was holding something back. In spite of her eagerness to be close, it felt awkward to be alone with him—she never quite got used to it after her mother died. Her mother had always been the one talking, filling in the blanks. Left alone with him, she didn’t know how to connect.

Back from her walk, Maria sits by the piano and looks at the keyboard. She doesn’t read music well, but is determined to learn to play like her father. She touches one of the keys, and a comforting sound is heard. She plays for a bit, slowly, letting the sound of each key fade before touching the next one. But there is no melody.

She longs to hear him.

***

During the first lesson, the piano teacher seems anxious which calms her immediately.

“Would you like some coffee?” she asks. He seems perplexed.

“Tea?” she tries.

He is thinking hard.

She wants to make him feel comfortable. “Well, I’ve had my tea already.”

He looks for the piano and she motions him toward the bedroom. He pauses in the doorway when he sees her bed.

“Look, I’ve never taken piano lessons. My father taught me a few things, but I think we need to start with the basics.” She smiles as she speaks.

He looks at her and then makes a move for the piano bench. He hesitates before sitting down carefully and almost caresses the piano.

“It’s a beautiful piano,” he says quietly. “Are you aware that it’s rare?”

It is a Hindsberg, an old Danish brand. She remembers hearing her father talk about it with awe.

“Not that it’s important, I guess,” the piano teacher continues. “But you may want to insure it. It’s worth several hundred thousand kroner, is my guess.”

She is not rich, but would never contemplate selling it.

“May I?” he asks.

He slowly begins to play. At first, his jitteriness prevails. She leaves for the kitchen to give him some time on his own.

Maria has this craving for dry apricots. She discovered them as a child and still recalls the sensation of that first bite, bitter and acid yielding to sweet. Her parents told her they tasted better fresh, but she never took to fresh fruit.

She slowly eats a few of them while listening to him play. He definitely has a good technique, but his playing lacks emotion. She keeps eating as she takes in his music. Bach, she believes. The music intensifies and she starts hearing it differently, much clearer. She leans against the counter, closing her eyes. Her cat, Rudolph, rubs against her legs.

It dawns on her that this is one of the pieces her father used to practice when she was a child. She doesn’t recall hearing him play it as an adult. He almost stopped playing after her mother died.

Quietly, she returns to the bedroom. He doesn’t notice her. His fingers now move expertly down the keyboard and back, as if he has done nothing else his entire life. She loses all sense of time as she sits down on the edge of her bed and lets the music fill her.

***

The piano teacher comes by every day. They only work on the Bach piece chosen by him. She wants it to be perfect, the way her father performed it. In the end, she knows it by heart, even when she wakes up in the middle of the night. She gets up from her bed and plays without even looking at the score. But it doesn’t sound right yet. Not quite.

Maria hurries home from work one day and surprises herself by starting to dress up—applying makeup and her mother’s old Chanel No. 5. She fantasizes about the piano teacher, wonders if he is married. Maria finally stops thinking obsessively about the painter she met at a gallery opening years ago. A relationship that had seemed so real to her but never materialized.

There is now something celebratory about their meetings. A different kind of connection than she’s ever had with a man. She doesn’t know anything about him. All they do is talk about the music, yet there is an increasing familiarity about him. As if they’ve known each other for a very long time.

Maria continues to let him play while she goes to the kitchen to make tea and eat apricots. He visibly finds immense joy in playing on this particular piano, and she feels a deep bond with him when he sits there with his back to her, as if he’s forgotten her. She keeps being astonished that he has chosen the same piece of music her father used to play.

After some weeks, she starts serving him a glass of red wine when he arrives – she makes sure to choose a good, French one. He is very careful about not pushing her, teaching her short passages every evening. The piano teacher explains the score and tells her about Bach’s involvement with church life when he wrote the music. Occasionally, his hand touches hers—accidentally, she believes, but every time it happens, it stirs something inside her.

One evening, Maria stands in the doorway watching the piano teacher play and suddenly recalls an episode from her past. She’d been seven and just home from school and had heard the piano playing. Maria tried to make as little noise as possible and tiptoed into the living room. She stood secretly behind her father as he practiced that same Bach partita. He didn’t hear her, didn’t notice her, as he was carried away by the music. He kept playing as she stood there, mesmerized as she is now, letting the music settle in her soul.

She now understands that her father was an extremely talented pianist, that his rigorous approach to that particular Bach partita, part of the German Suites, had been unusual. That his technique was unlike anything she’d heard elsewhere.

It had continued like this for some months. They never talked about it. That was their private time together, and she now realizes this was how they’d really connected. It had been his way of showing her who he really was. Although to this day, she couldn’t say for sure that her father had been conscious of her presence, listening in the background.

***

The following day, the piano teacher arrives early. Maria hasn’t yet had the time to make her bed. She asks him to wait in the living room, quickly straightens out the sheets, and comes back to find him inspecting a photo on the wall.

“That’s my parents,” she says, answering his unspoken question.

“Your father… he looks kind. He must have been a good parent.” He suddenly behaves differently and avoids looking at her, although recently he has seemed more at ease, even cheerful. She senses that he is holding something back, but doesn’t dare ask him directly.

“He was, he certainly was. I miss him.” She tries to encourage him.

The piano teacher looks at her; his lips are quivering as if he is about to speak. His face reddens and pearls of sweat form on his forehead. His glasses are foggy, and he removes them.

“His family was everything to him,” she finally says.

She has already poured the red wine. He hungrily drinks it, his hands trembling slightly. Maria refills his glass. They sit down again by the piano. His fingers brush hers more than usual, and she lets it happen. He touches her hands lightly when they go through a difficult passage. She feels a bit drunk and imagines they stop playing, and talk about other things besides music. She fantasizes about him seducing her there, by her father’s piano.

When he leaves late that evening, after adjusting his clothes, he tries to regain control of himself. He hesitates by the front door, then looks at her.

“I know what you mean,” he says, and as he quickly closes the door behind him, adds, “about missing your father.”

***

The piano teacher doesn’t show up the next day. Maria is about to call him but realizes he never gave her his phone number. She bought a flowery dress on her way home from work, and some high-heeled red shoes. It is unusual for her to wear dresses—she’s always in dark suits and practical shoes. Maria paces the apartment restlessly, worried that she has offended him. She opens a bottle of wine, empties the first glass, and then sits on the piano bench. Something is missing. She needs him to be present to allow her to play at this particular hour.

He doesn’t show up the following days either, but she refuses to give up on expecting him. She keeps dressing up, keeps opening bottles of wine. Keeps attempting to play. But her fingers never quite reach the keys.

She lies on the bed, slightly uncomfortable in her new outfit, holding a glass of wine. She drunkenly examines her red shoes as she twirls her feet in circles against the ceiling.

Maria doesn’t really need him anymore. She can tell him not to show up again, save the money, and continue to practice on her own. She is worried about the piano teacher, but anger is taking over. He could have called, knowing that she expects him every day at five.

The next morning, Maria calls the Conservatory. When she asks for the piano teacher, the receptionist pauses.

“Can you repeat his name?” the woman asks.

She realizes she doesn’t know his name and tries to describe him, his accent.

“I’m sorry. There’s no one here who corresponds to your description.” The woman hangs up.

He has been lying, then. He has pretended to be someone he is not. She looks through the yellow pages and calls the two local music schools. They don’t know the piano teacher either.

She is disappointed and upset at him. Maria no longer cares if she went too far during that final lesson. She isn’t sure she wants to see him again. He was simply her piano teacher. Yes, that’s what she tells herself: nothing but a piano teacher. They had become close, maybe too close.

That evening, she finally opens the chest of sheet music. It contains Bach piano scores from different publishers, all for the same partita. Some of them faded, possibly rare and valuable.

There are also books analyzing this particular score, dissecting an array of pianists’ take on the music, and surveys of performances from around the world.

At the bottom, she discovers a pile of handwritten notebooks. Meticulously written, a diary of her father’s own takes on the score, details, changes in pace. All dated, all carefully explained to an unknown reader. Only observations and comments on the music. Nothing else that looks like a personal diary.

Going through it all, she realizes this is the work of somebody who had become a highly specialized Bach scholar. There, in her parents’ living room, for years and years, as the notebooks testified. She anxiously flips through the diaries to find the year when she was seven.

And there it is, once a week, entries about his performances, with nobody but himself, and for a short period her, to listen, and witness.

An old black-and-white photo falls out of the last notebook.

Her father, and a younger man in a suit, wearing big, round glasses. The piano teacher.

Standing together by a concert hall. They look different from the way she knows them individually—happier, holding on to a moment that is obviously important to both of them.

 Maria examines the photo, slowly caresses its shiny surface. It must have been taken twenty years ago, maybe more. When her father was in his fifties. She searches for a note, a date, an explanation on the back. She closes her eyes for a moment, inhales deeply. She notices that scent again, that citrusy perfume. The one her father also used to wear – Eau Sauvage?

Calmly, Maria gets up from the floor and puts the photo and the musical diaries on the piano shelf, opened on a page from the year she would have been in the room with her father. She sits on the bench, trying to understand, trying to think. Trying to adjust.

In her mind, things are slowly beginning to make sense. Her father had communicated with her through his music. He had probably hoped that her curiosity would lead her to the diaries and the photo—and that she would understand him, eventually.

And then, those last words of goodbye from the piano teacher.

Maybe her father had gone away to study the piano. They had met on one of his trips, surely. Maybe the piano teacher was the real reason why her father kept going away for weeks. The sense of familiarity she has felt – her father had surely talked to him about her.

Looking at the photo again, Maria recalls the funeral, now finally able to see the crowd clearly—the quiet funeral service echoing in her mind. The piano teacher had been sitting by the entrance. An image of that otherwise muted day is now lodged in her mind.

She takes a sip of the red wine. A drop lands on one of the white keys. Rudolph approaches her, sensing that something is happening. He jumps into her lap. She turns around to face the piano.

Maria lets her fingers run over the keys, barely touching them, worried what will come next. She is slightly aroused.

She starts playing, slowly at first. She feels on edge, but is no longer alone. There is now, finally, a scattered knowledge, a growing understanding, accompanying her.

She wants to make him proud.

Them.

When she looks at the photo, she senses their presence in the room. Her whole being now feels calm and confident.

Ready.

At last, she is able to find the right pace for the music and stops looking at the score. She plays the music she’s been practicing over and over. The music that is almost programmed in her mind.

As if it has always been there.

 

 

Jens Birk

Jens Birk.jpgJens Birk is a Danish writer living in New York City. He has a master’s degree in French and marketing from the University of Southern Denmark, and also studied French language and culture at the Sorbonne in Paris where he lived for 17 years before moving to New York in 2004. Jens has always been passionate about writing and has taken fiction writing classes at New York University and studied in a private writing workshop with Susie Mee, a writer and NYU writing instructor. He has also taken writing classes with the Danish writers Lars Rudolf Stadil and Carsten Grolin.
Jens started writing when he published his first magazine as a ten year old, forcing his entire family to buy it every other week for over a year….
His work has appeared in The Alembic, Crate Literary Magazine, The Lindenwood Review, The Oklahoma Review, Prick Of The Spindle, and Sanskrit. jensbirk.com