Phantom Melodies

141116_224528There was a piano in the unused upstairs bedroom. The room had belonged to his daughter Kate until the day she left for college. Jake had then turned it into a guest room, and it had sat unused in the quiet house. Kate had come home on occasion at first, splitting holidays between spending them with Jake and spending them at her mother’s home with her siblings and cousins. He didn’t blame her for favoring visits to her mother. His was a cold, mostly empty house, haunted by a solitary old man with no friends. Her mother’s place of dwelling was a home filled with family, love, and always bustled with some activity or other.

That’s not to say that Kate hadn’t done her duty as a daughter, she came and she visited before the accident, but he could always tell that she would rather be with her mom. Then, in her third year in college, she was in a car accident. Because of a drunk driver, she was crushed to death in a hunk of twisted metal. Then the only visitor that he ever had stopped coming, at a time when he would have liked some company the most.

When she was still alive Jake would change the sheets on the bed in the guest room periodically, pretending that there was a chance she might surprise him with a visit, but now five years later, he didn’t do that anymore. He kept the rest of the house tidy, but didn’t see the point of cleaning that bedroom.

The only two spots in the room that lacked a thick covering of dust were the bench that sat in front of the piano and the fallboard which covered its keys. He bought it for Kate when she was young, just after she had decided that she wanted to learn. The piano had made her so happy at first. The lessons only lasted a year though, then she had given it up for softball, and the piano sat unused and out of tune for many years.

After the accident, sometimes on weekends, when he had no excuse to spend all day at the office, and when television, movies, and books failed to satisfy him, Jake would go into that room and sit in front of the piano. He had never had a music lesson in his life and the piano was so far out of tune that it probably wouldn’t have mattered anyway, but he would push keys and fill the air with discordant plinks. Sometimes it made him happy as the piano and Jake remembered together the year that she had played it, filling the house with music. Other times it made him sad, and he would spend more time on the lower end of the keyboard, but it always made him feel something.

It wasn’t music, just sporadic plinks and plunks, most of which weren’t even recognized notes (those that were, were only so because the piano was so far out of tune that they appeared on the wrong keys). Every once in a while though, amongst the noise, a melody would solidify briefly. They were always fleeting and spectral things, like shapes in the fog: there for an instant to be recognized, then gone. They were beautiful, though, while they lasted and gave him a feeling that welled up in his chest, both happy and sad at the same time. By the time he caught a melody, he never remembered exactly what he had done to make it. So, had he come up with or learned a notation, he wouldn’t have known what to write down anyway.

It was late one evening, the wind of autumn pushed the leaves around outside and made Jake forlorn, so he sat at the piano and pushed keys. He cleared his mind and listened to the sounds as they floated through the air. He closed his eyes and felt the vibrations through the keys. He spread his fingers and pushed down eight keys at once, it wasn’t an unpleasant chord. He pushed it again hard, leaving it ringing in the air as his fingers began to crawl over other keys. What he heard was pure, heart-wrenching beauty. Often the melodies that surfaced were beautiful, but not like this. What he heard made him begin to shake and, for a moment, he couldn’t breath, a great pressure on his chest. His arms faltered and fell to his sides. Then the world was moving.

He opened his eyes, damp now, to find that to his right, along the wall, there was a large, white square of light so bright that he couldn’t tell if it had depth or not. Without thinking Jake lifted his hand, leaned toward the wall and touch it. His hand went straight through the square, through the wall that should have been there. He leaned forward further and stuck his head in. He was immediately in a bright room with a tall man in a gray coat and a pile of bushy brown hair atop his head. Jake immediately began to feel a bliss and happiness fill his chest. Similar to what he had felt when that beautiful sound had hung in the air only moments before. He wanted to weep in the fetal position and cry out in exclamations of joy at the same time.

“Hello there,” said the man.

Jake turned around and saw where he had come from, it was a small dark rectangle.

“Hi,” Jake said, not sure what else to do, “what are you doing here?”

“Same as you, I suppose.” The man looked at him with pale blue eyes that seemed to absorb the light rather than see it.

“You don’t LOOK confused and lost…” Jake said slowly.

Their surroundings were nothing but white, so bright that Jake figured it ought to hurt his eyes, but it didn’t. It felt nice.

“You mean, you came here by accident?” the man asked, a wry smile creeping across his face.

“Where IS here?”

“Oh my,” the man said, scratching his chin.

“Jake,” Jake said, extending his hand.

“Nice to meet you Jake, how did you get here?” the man asked, taking his hand and shaking it.

Jake pointed back at the dark rectangle, “hole in the wall.”

The man laughed, “No, I mean, what were you doing when it opened?”

“Oh,” Jake said, “piano.”

There seemed to be a flash in the man’s eyes as he heard this, never losing his roguish grin he asked “You play the piano, then?”

“Not really, no.”

For the first time, since meeting the man, Jake saw his eyebrows began to droop. “I don’t understand.”

“I just poke around at the keys sometimes, what’s going on?”

The man walked over to the little dark rectangle, looked through it for a moment, then sighed.

“Mister, I don’t-”

“You aren’t supposed to be here,” the man cut him off.

“Where is here?” Jake asked, had he not been so filled with that feeling he didn’t understand, he would have been losing his patience at this point.

“You know that feeling?” the man asked pointing at Jake’s chest. “The one that accompanies appreciation of beauty? Rapture and weakness, feeling small and important at the same time? The one that you’ve been feeling since you got here?”

“Yes?” Jake responded, worried that this man knew how he was feeling.

“That feeling comes from here,” He threw his arms around him in a gesture to his surroundings. “It leaks out through little cracks. Cracks created when something beautiful happens.”

“But-” Jake started pointing over his shoulder at the hole, much bigger than a crack.

“It’s also the feeling of inspiration, the greats can open a much larger opening and crawl through; escape for a while. Motzart used to spend weeks at a time here, Monet too.” He put his hand on Jake’s shoulder, trying to guide him back to the hole, “You shouldn’t be here, it’s time to leave.”

“but, I like it here.” Jake resisted a bit, but the man’s gentle nudge became more forceful, so he turned and was led back to the hole. “If I’m not supposed to be here, how did I open it?”

“Must be a fluke, you are talentless.” The man pushed down on Jake’s shoulder, making him lean forward, his head almost in the hole. Then the man repeated, “you don’t belong here,” and shoved him through.

Jake found himself laying on the dusty floor behind the bench. The feeling gone from his chest. The white light was gone, leaving only the cold gray of his dead daughter’s bedroom.

He tried to play the piano again a few times, but he never recaptured any joy from it. Instead of the small melodies floating up out of the discord, he only heard the words “you are talentless” and “you don’t belong here.”


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