A Short Story
“Tell me again who sent you here, honey?” Susan asked.
“Mr. Mitchell, at the library,” the girl repeated, more insistently this time. Her pale, almost colorless eyes were hungry. “He said you had put up a flyer offering piano lessons. He wrote you that note for me.”
“Oh, uh-huh,” said Susan, nodding, though she didn’t remember a Mr. Mitchell at the library at all. “I put that flyer up months ago, but then I took it down again. Unfortunately, I’m not really taking students right now.” She put her hand on her belly, as if it didn’t already draw enough attention all by itself. “My baby is due in a few weeks, so it wouldn’t really be fair to you to start now. Why don’t I take your phone number and call you in September? The baby will be about three months old by then, and I can let you know whether I feel up to teaching again.”
Something in the girl’s face hardened. She couldn’t be more than ten, but now she looked much older, and mulish to boot. She tucked her lank, dust-colored hair behind her ears and gazed out at the street for a moment. It was only 10 o’clock, but the June day was already humid and the cicadas were at their usual racket.
The girl sighed and looked at Susan again. The hungry-eyed look had returned.
“Could I just have one lesson? I have money,” she said, and pulled a wad of wrinkled bills out of the pocket of her thin, faded dress.
“What, right now?” Susan said, laughing a little.
“Do you have something else to do?”
The girl’s blunt question caught Susan off-guard. Just this morning, after Richard had taken the early train to work, she had been feeling lonely and sorry for herself. They’d moved to Kashkawan months before, but between the unpacking, painting, and yard work, then the morning sickness and the fatigue, Susan hadn’t had much time or energy for socializing. Why not take a half hour and give a piano lesson? It would be good for her, help her to get outside of herself somewhat.
“No, actually. I don’t have anything else to do. Nothing urgent, anyway.” Susan hesitated. “Sure, why not? What’s your name?”
“How did you get here, Lilah? Do you live close by?”
“I walked. Do you know those apartments behind the FoodMart?”
“Yeah,” said Susan, backing up and opening the door.
“Yeah,” repeated Lilah. Cautiously as a deer, she stepped into the tiled entryway. “Should I take my shoes off?”
Susan looked down at the girl’s torn, gray sneakers, then at her own pedicured bare feet. She felt an obscure sense of guilt at the contrast.
“Do what you like — whatever’s more comfortable for you. Come on in through here; the piano is in the living room.”
Susan walked into the living room and looked around with satisfaction. After years in a cramped Manhattan apartment, so much space still felt like a ridiculous luxury. The cherry floor shone in the late morning sun. The pale yellow walls were the perfect backdrop to the art Susan and Richard had chosen together. Susan’s piano enjoyed pride of place on a Persian rug in the corner.
“Go ahead and sit down on the piano bench, Lilah. I’ll get a chair from the dining room.”
Eating up her surroundings with her eyes, the girl nodded wordlessly and obeyed.
Susan waddled back into the living room carrying the heavy wood chair; she still hadn’t gotten used to how off-balance and foreign her body felt in these last weeks of pregnancy. She set down the chair at the side of the piano, sat down, and exhaled heavily.
“All right, let’s see,” she said. “First of all, how old are you?”
The girl searched Susan’s face for a moment before answering. “Umm, ten?” she said.
“Are you sure about that?” Susan kidded. Lilah just nodded, then held out the money she was still clutching.
“How much is a lesson?” she asked.
“I’ll tell you what,” said Susan. “This one’s a freebie — on the house. We’ll see how you like it, and if you want to continue, we can talk about schedules and payment later. I usually charge $30.00 for a half-hour lesson.”
“That’s a dollar per minute,” Lilah observed, tucking her money back in her pocket.
“Yes — yes it is,” said Susan, laughing again. She hadn’t been around children in a while; she had forgotten how outspoken they could be. It was refreshing, really, after engaging in the politesse of adult conversation for so long. She supposed she ought to get used to communicating on a more direct level once again — not that the baby would be talking anytime soon.
He kicked her in the ribs just then, as if in protest at that disloyal thought. Susan cleared her throat and leafed through some music that was sitting on the edge of the piano.
“Have you ever had lessons before? Do you know how to read music at all?”
“I taught myself a little, a while ago.”
“Okay, great. I’m going to show you a piece, and you see whether you can play it. Don’t worry about playing it fast or well; I just want to see what you know. If it looks way too hard, don’t worry. I’ll just get something else out.” Susan opened a book to Clementi’s first sonatina and set it on the piano’s music rack.
Lilah stared at the music for a minute, looked at Susan apprehensively, and set her fingers on the keys. She played the piece haltingly at first, then seemed to gain confidence and finished it smoothly.
Susan was impressed; the girl’s fingering had been intuitive, and she had decent phrasing and expression. “Wow,” she said. “Not bad. You taught yourself how to do that?”
Lilah nodded. “I watch what other people do,” she explained, as if it were that easy for everyone. “Will you play something for me now?” She lifted a hand and traced over the notes on the page with one finger, following the arcs of the slurs across each musical line.
“Oh. Well, I don’t usually play for my students. Lesson time is your time to play.”
“But I want to see what you know.” The girl’s hang-nailed finger caressed the music with loving grace.
“I see,” said Susan, trying to tease this strange, solemn girl a little. “You want to find out whether I have anything to offer?”
Lilah froze and looked at Susan, her eyes sharp and suspicious. “Why would you say that?”
“I…was trying to make a joke. I’m sorry.”
“Oh.” The girl folded her hands in her lap and looked down. “So, could you play something for me?”
Susan frowned. She was anxious to placate the girl, but didn’t know why, exactly. Was she going to let a ten-year-old stranger guilt her into playing the piano? She usually stuck to her boundaries better than that. She leafed through the music again, considering. She glanced at Lilah, who still had her head down, but was now looking at Susan out of the corner of her eye. Feeling challenged, Susan decided to put on a show. She pulled out Beethoven’s “Pathétique” Sonata with a flourish.
“You’ll have to trade me places,” she said, smiling, and Lilah jumped up from the piano bench at once.
Susan pushed the bench back to accommodate her girth, placed the music on the rack, and began.
Richard Marsh pulled his car into the driveway, turned it off, and frowned. It was 9 o’clock, almost fully dark, and Susan’s car was in the garage. Why weren’t there any lights on? “Poor thing,” he muttered. She had probably fallen asleep reading again; the pregnancy seemed to be wearing her out lately. Sleeping for two, he thought, and got out of the car.
Going up the porch steps, he realized that the front door was ajar. The ghost of his mother’s voice spoke in his mind. Are you trying to cool the whole neighborhood? He swept annoyance aside; what if Susan had gotten hurt somehow?
“Susan?” he called, stepping into the house. He felt his way down the dark hallway to their room and flipped on the light. No one. Nor in the bathroom. He turned and ran upstairs to the room they had been preparing for the new baby. Empty — as was the rest of the second floor. He scrambled back down the stairs. Frantic now, he charged through the living room to the kitchen, then stopped and whirled around. He had run right by her; she was sitting on the piano bench in the dark.
“Oh, Susan,” he said with relief. She did not turn. He went to her side and put his hand on her shoulder. “Honey, answer me. Are you all right?”
His wife slowly lifted her head and looked up. “Richard?” she whispered.
“What’s going on, honey?” Richard flipped the switch on the little brass piano lamp. Susan reared back and turned her head away from the light. Her dark hair fell over her face like a veil.
“I had a lesson,” she said vaguely.
“You did? When did you take on a student? Why didn’t you tell me?”
“She came this morning…Why is it dark?”
Richard knelt down and took her shoulders in his hands. “Look at me, Susan. How long have you been sitting here?” Her eyes were adjusting; she pushed her hair aside and looked at him, squinting a little. Even in the soft lamplight, Richard could see how pale and lined her face was, how deep the smudges under her lovely green eyes were. She looked ten years older than usual, at the very least.
“I — I don’t know. Why is it night? I’m so tired,” she said, leaning in and putting her forehead on his shoulder.
“Let’s get you to bed,” Richard said, standing and pulling Susan up with him. “You can lie down, and I’ll call the doctor.” Slowly they walked to the bedroom.
Susan puffed up the porch steps with the bags of groceries, hating how out of breath she was after such a simple thing. Sweat trickled down her back and between her breasts. The shot elastic of her maternity pants sagged under her heavy belly, but she refused to buy new clothes now that her due date was so close. That would be a total waste.
Richard had been hovering over her all week, not letting her cook or clean. She was more tired than ever, but she felt horrible just lying on the couch when he’d get home so late from work and stay up until all hours scrubbing the toilet and making meals. She wanted to pull her own weight again; she knew she could get through this bad patch if she just gritted her teeth and tried hard enough. She was excited about the baby, but why did pregnancy have to last so long? Can’t wait to get my body back, she thought, setting down the bags and fishing out her house key.
But the door was unlocked. Susan furrowed her brow. She had locked the door when she left. Hadn’t she? She couldn’t imagine that years of ingrained city habit would have suddenly deserted her this morning, even though everyone said that Kashkawan was a throwback to a safer, more carefree time. Can’t wait to get my brain back, she amended. Picking up the groceries, she pushed the door open with her hip and went inside.
A tall teenager was standing in the hallway, calm and cool, her dark hair pulled into a smooth braid. Susan jumped, then laughed in relief as she recognized the girl. “Lilah! You scared me!” she accused, smiling to soften her words. “And I know I haven’t lived here that long, but where I come from, people don’t just walk into other people’s houses.”
The girl came forward and took some of the bags out of Susan’s hands. “I’m sorry, Mrs. Marsh,” she said. “I’ll take these in for you.” She turned and walked through the living room.
Susan followed her into the kitchen, noticing Lilah’s pink polo shirt, pressed khaki capris, and pristine white tennis shoes. “Do you know, I have that exact same outfit?” she asked. I guess that’s what I get for shopping at The Gap. “Not that I’ve worn it lately,” she said aloud.
She set the groceries down and let her belly rest against the edge of the counter. She pressed her clammy hands to her forehead; she was flushed and disoriented. She felt the weight of Lilah’s gaze on her back. Susan turned and summoned a smile.
“I’m sorry; I can’t remember. What did we say we were doing about your piano lessons?”
Lilah grinned, her light green eyes crinkling at the corners. Susan was struck by how much the girl looked like Susan’s younger sister, Anne. Taller, though. Anne was only five feet tall, while Lilah looked like she was exactly Susan’s height. Funny how she hadn’t noticed that before.
“You said today would be good.” Lilah glanced at the clock above the kitchen sink. “Right about now, you said. I knocked, but when you didn’t answer, I just let myself in. You said that would be okay.”
“Oh, of course,” said Susan, wishing any of this sounded familiar to her. “I’ll tell you what. You go in the living room and play me what you practiced this week…”
(Had it been a week?)
“…I’ll just get these things into the fridge, and I’ll be right there,” Susan finished.
“Okay, Mrs. Marsh,” the girl answered.
“Lilah, you’re what — eighteen?”
The girl nodded.
“Please don’t call me ‘Mrs. Marsh.’ It makes me feel ancient. I’m only a few years older than you are; call me ‘Susan.’”
“Okay, Susan,” said Lilah, grinning. Really, her resemblance to Anne was extraordinary; it was almost like looking into a mirror. Lilah tossed her braid over her shoulder and went into the living room.
Susan opened the refrigerator and fished through the grocery bags for the perishables, listening as Lilah settled herself and smoothed a music book open. But as the girl played the first few measures of the Pathétique Sonata, Susan shuddered. Lilah’s playing was flawless; it sounded as if Murray Perahia were at the piano. But the music itself — Susan couldn’t stand to hear it. It felt like hot, red ants were crawling all over her skin. Worse, she had the most agonizing itch deep within her brain, maddeningly unreachable. She slammed the refrigerator door and ran into the living room.
“Lilah, please,” she cried, her chest heaving and tears streaming down her face. The girl flinched and lifted her hands away from the keys. Susan took a deep breath and let it out again. “I don’t mean to be rude, but please don’t play that piece.”
Lilah swiveled on the bench and looked at Susan with unearthly calm. “I’m sorry, Mrs. …Susan,” she said.
Susan moved to the piano and looked down at the music. Somehow she couldn’t settle her gaze on any one note, let alone follow the melodic line; the page seemed to jump and swim before her eyes. She stared harder, but the shifting only got worse.
Susan sank down on the couch and buried her hands in her face. A moment later, she felt a slim hand on her shoulder. “Is there something I can get for you?” Lilah asked.
Susan shook her head. Lilah sat down next to her and put her arms around her. “You’re so tired, Susan,” the girl whispered into her ear. “Why don’t you lie back and rest?”
Lilah was right; Susan was absolutely exhausted. She’d never felt so tired in all her life; she wondered briefly whether this was what it felt like to get old, really old, like her Aunt Emma. She let Lilah push her back until she was semi-reclining, then let her lift her legs and place them on the ottoman.
Lilah took off Susan’s shoes, sat on the floor, and started rubbing her swollen feet. Pure heaven; the girl was as good as a trained reflexologist. Susan sighed.
“How do you know just how I like it?” she murmured.
Lilah looked up, her smile more luminous than before. Susan closed her eyes, more tears trickling from beneath her lids.
As he did any time Susan was at rest, the baby started kicking like a soccer star. Susan put her hands on her belly like she always did when he got active, trying to soothe his frenetic movements.
“The baby’s moving?” Lilah asked. Susan nodded. Lilah’s hands encircled Susan’s left foot and kneaded their way up her calf; Susan felt like she was going to melt into the cushions. The baby gave an enormous leap; Susan flinched.
“Wow. I saw that, right through your shirt,” Lilah said. She came towards the couch on her knees. “May I? I’d love to know what that feels like, if only from the outside,” she said.
Susan opened her eyes. Lilah’s hands were poised a few inches above Susan’s. Susan usually hated it when people patted or caressed her pregnant abdomen as if it were some kind of public-access totem. But somehow, she didn’t mind the thought of Lilah touching her.
“Only since you asked,” she mumbled, and closed her eyes again. She let her arms fall to her sides; she felt the slight weight of careful hands settle. Then, one by one, Lilah slipped them under Susan’s shirt and made cool, gentle circles on her belly’s bare, tight skin. This felt even better than the foot rub; Susan drowsed under the girl’s exquisite touch.
Richard opened the front door and couldn’t help but grin as he inhaled one of his favorite smells. Susan came around the entryway door and flashed him a brilliant smile of her own. She had put her hair up in a loose bun, a style he found irresistibly sexy. She had on a little makeup and was wearing a low-cut peasant blouse that made her look like a pre-Raphaelite madonna.
“Hey, gorgeous,” he said. He dropped his briefcase, came up the steps, and caught her in his arms. “Feeling better, I guess?”
“I feel great,” she answered, smiling up at him.
“Am I hallucinating, or do I smell chicken enchiladas?”
“Bingo; you win a prize. They’ll be ready in about fifteen minutes. Come on in; I’ll fix you a drink.” She put her arm around his waist and headed down the hall at his side. “Oh, but before that — can you do me a quick favor?”
“Anything. What do you need?” He stopped short when they got to the living room. A shriveled old woman sat on their couch. She was reasonably clean, but other than that, she looked like every homeless woman he’d ever seen in the city. Her lank, dust-colored hair hung about her face like string. Her vague, colorless eyes fixed on him hungrily, her mouth working without making a sound. She rubbed her hands up and down the lap of her thin, faded dress. Her scrawny feet were encased in torn, gray sneakers, which she tapped arrhythmically on the cherry floor.
“I found her sitting on the porch steps when I got home from the grocery store this afternoon,” said Susan. “She can’t seem to talk much at all; I think her name might be Mrs. Mitchell, from what little I could gather. I called that women’s shelter in Cooper; they can take her tonight. I packed her a little bag with a nightgown and a toothbrush, the poor thing. Could you run her over there?”
“You packed her a bag? That was generous of you.” Richard sat down on the couch next to the old woman and took her hand. “Mrs. Mitchell?” he asked gently.
“Lilah,” she croaked, dense white spittle forming at the corners of her wrinkled lips.
“That’s your name — Lilah?” Richard asked.
The woman looked at Susan, then reached a claw-like hand out to her. “Lilah,” she repeated.
“That must be her name,” Susan said, frowning. “Anyway, Richard, can you take her to Cooper? Then I can make a salad and let the enchiladas rest. The timing should work out just right.”
Richard looked up at his radiant wife. She looked happier than she had in months. He felt like a boulder had just rolled off his back; he hadn’t realized until now just how stressful her moods and fatigue had been for him.
“Of course. I’ll be back in a few minutes.” He detached his hand from the woman’s desperate grip and took her gently under the elbow. “Here, Lilah,” he said, “I’ll help you out to the car.”