short story

The Piano Room

The day before reading week I went to a party. I dug around my closet but ended up going in the clothes I was already wearing. The Facebook e-vite had read: casual.

It was still early when I arrived and everyone was friendly in a closed-off way, even my own friends. I padded off to the washroom and tried to guess the wifi password. A girl walked in on me washing my hands. We laughed about the situation and she asked me if I would guard the door for her and I said yes but a second later I heard her say, “oh, I found the lock.” I made no effort to start conversations and was no one’s pit-stop. I walked from room to room until it was all one room, where every door was an exit and there was no way out.

In the center was a dark spot, a drain, pulling everyone in its vicinity towards it. It was a grand piano, a YAMAHA. Expensive. I found beer and drank it, standing off to the side.

Eventually someone did go up to the piano. They played random chords until an actual pianist took over. I knew the pianist had been asked to do it, because people used to ask me.

A small crowd gathered around the pianist and I pushed my way out onto the balcony. The glass door slid open and the girl from the washroom asked if she could join me. I lay down on my back and she did too. The night sky was obstructed by the balcony above ours so we stared up at concrete. Soon the balcony was filled with people lying on their backs.

On my way to the station I thought about the girl from the party and was glad I didn’t have wifi. Social media was a gravesite for temporary friendships. It was only eleven when I reached St. George so I put my bag down on the bench, then I gathered my stuff and joined a homeless guy on the ground. He didn’t say anything, just looked at me and lay his damp face on my shoulder. I didn’t see him that next week, or the week after that, but maybe I did and just couldn’t recognize him – maybe he was everywhere.

*

My mother had spent summer bent over her miniature vegetable garden. She planted tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers, and beans. There was always a bowl of tomatoes on the dining room table; the rabbits ate everything else.

My parents often talked of setting traps. They made plans while crumbling bread on the deck. I watched them from the kitchen, my heart thumping in my chest.

A movement caught my eye while I was storing the lawnmower. Somehow a bunny had trapped itself beneath the cinderblocks leaning against our shed. He was so small I had to kneel to pick him up. I held my breath, I wanted to be soft for him.

I cradled him in my hands and his wild heart beat so fast; my own heart, too. I kept my hands steady until the beating slowed to a gentle insistence. I knew I would eventually have to let him go.

When I finally placed him in the grass he didn’t run. Silly rabbit. He watched me for half a minute before slowly hopping off. My hands stayed like that, cradling air.

*

I came home one night to a rabbit splayed on the lawn, it had a broken neck.

I asked my mother how big rabbits could get in two months and she wasn’t sure.

She brought in four large cucumbers that week.

*

Halloween I stayed in and gave out candy.

Some kid asked me if I was a parent. I said yes dear, when will you be coming home, dinner’s ready.

She had to go and she forgot to take candy so I followed her out onto the street with my bag. She started running, that silly rabbit, and everyone was mad at me and I tried to tell them about my baby boy but they said go home so I did.

My bag was gone. Somewhere on the street there’s my unwanted M&Ms and Snickers.

*

No one’s invited me to anything since that party. Go home they said. Someone forgot to close the windows and I am the wind and I am here, now.

I saw another rabbit. My baby’s still here because I still think of him. Everyone’s here. We’re all lying on our backs, slightly buzzed and smiling at concrete.

We are all together in the room with the piano and I am getting up to play it. There aren’t any sheets so I have to play from memory but all I can remember now are scales. My fingers are stiff and foreign to the keys but I insist. I hammer out C Major and A Major and my left hand can’t keep up with my right hand but I insist. I hit the keys so hard my nail chips and I am sorry. I am sorry I haven’t practiced since you died I’m just so angry I never got a chance to say goodbye. Then the light falls on my back and there are two shadows on the piano and music fills the room.

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Yesterday’s Exit

It occurred to me to get off. Danforth was the next stop—the platform there was level with the strip of growth that ran along the tracks. It would lead me straight to him, who I imagined unmoved in all the time it would take me to get there. I grabbed my books.

The sun ate through my eyes and I curved my back, sucking my belly in, like the old trees on either side of me. I let a mosquito hide in my ear.

And that was how all friends were made, crouched in the sandbox, whispering in ears, until one said get up and one said tomorrow and one got left behind.

And of course he was still there, because why would anyone want to leave?

I wanted to tell him I was sorry and the mosquito bit me. She was right, of course. The three of us crossed together. We were not worried about trains, or the law, or why there were four tracks when I knew there should be two. Our hearts doubled in each other’s company, and everything with it.

My books seemed to want to go in a different direction. They dragged me (and I could feel in the slug of the heat, air rolling, like I was being pulled backwards through oil) back, dragged me down.

“You were supposed to be helpful,” I said.

They were ahead of me and I was starting to get worried. I put my books down to catch up to them but when I tried to leave I realized I had put my books on my feet and I could no longer move. There were books on my hands too, my chest. I knew I shouldn’t have bought so many books, but there in the bookstore I had needed them all.

One book told me I could be a good writer, and I wanted that so badly. I wanted that more than anything in the world. So I took thirty copies to cash.

The cashier, a girl my age, said, “That will be $32.84 – cash or credit?”

I took everything out of my backpack but could only find $30. It was the money my dad gave me for my birthday. I didn’t want to use it unless I had found something really special.

“You’re short three dollars.”

“This is all I have.”

“Come back later, they’ll still be here.”

A line had grown behind me. My palms began to itch so I hid them in my pockets. I opened my mouth and my breath was sour. I wanted to cry. I told her I would put them back on the shelf. She had to lean over the counter to pass the books to me. I was so small.

Then my friend, who was behind me the whole time, gave the cashier the rest of the money, and that was when I really started to cry. I was crying so hard my empty backpack bounced on my shoulders. I wished my dad were there.

My dad would say, why do you need thirty copies of the same book and I would say because it is my favourite book. But you haven’t read it. Which is why I need them. You want them. I love them. Then he would put another thirty dollars on the counter (even though that was all he had) and say we will take every copy you have and the cashier would say sir that is still not enough and I would say keep them, because who needs books, because I would take my dad’s hand and there would be nothing I wanted more in the world.

But then I just wanted to get those books off me. My mind was so heavy.

The more you tug at your earpods the more they tangle and your breath, caught in its knots, sweaty and gaspy, while the song escapes.

When I woke up the books were gone. The sun had melted them into me. I found that I could not speak: when I opened my mouth something large tried to crawl out. It was – so colorful it was – brown – and lumpy. There was no one there to see it, but I swallowed anyway. My eyes followed the vertical light of the trees to a purple bike. I ran to her.

Her chains needed some oil but she worked fine (and I only had to give the trees the rest of my water in exchange). I rode her through the little forest and we were faster than any train. She sparkled whenever we passed under patches of light, and all the while her rusty chains squeaked a strange and wonderful sound. We were going so fast and I was shouting and laughing and there was something wet flying from my eyes.

I stopped at a little creek and put her against a tree. My friends were there. They had their backs to me, hands cupping water. I asked them if they’ve seen any frogs and they said they’ve got one now and I got excited but then I remembered him and I asked if they’d seen him too, a little coyote, with red-brown fur and they said yeah he’s right over there but their faces were a little curious, a little pointier. I ignored them and ran to him (I was always running back then). My shoes were wet and muddy but I barely noticed, I hopped from rock to rock like an acrobat.

He was there, of course, why would anyone want to leave?

I pointed at my bike, to show him, but it was too far away. I told him a story, I was getting good at it, having consumed all those books, but he didn’t seem to understand. He was so still. I walked closer to him and saw that the mud had eaten his legs, his tail.

I tried to tell him I would get him out, but instead I started telling another story, then another. I was speaking Old English then Latin then German. I thought maybe I had another book in my backpack, a science book, about mud, but I was in such a rush I broke the zipper.

I looked to my friends for help then saw that they were in the mud too.

They looked so curious, with their pointy faces. Sinking in mud that was – so colorful it was – brown. The itch spread from my palms up my arms, to my neck, until I was choking.

“W-why,” I said, coughing up mud, “why would a-anyone want to leave?”

And they were happy! They must be. If only my dad was there too. Then it would be perfect. Then we would all be together. And our hearts would double until everything lay in it. Up to their knees in its thickness.

Something pinched my ear and I yelled. I slapped my hand to my face and drew blood. It was my own blood, and in it, sticky and sweet with it, was the mosquito. I had forgotten about the mosquito.

I put her gently on the handle of my bike and rode out into the open. I could not go fast, because of the mud, which had hardened on my clothes. Clumps fell with every turn—soon I was able to see the iridescent colours that mixed into the brown—my legs were as light as wings, again. I stopped at the tracks – the ground was rumbling. I took her in my hand and lifted my arm. The train passed—

—and she was up in the air. Twisting at first, then dancing, higher and higher. She waved goodbye, or buzzed, I can’t remember now. She told me not to be sad but, oh, how could I not be? Why would anyone want to come back?

I returned my bike to the forest. One of her tires were punctured. I wiped the mud off her so her purple paint could sparkle.

The creek was quiet without my friends.

Because Every Exit Is an Entrance and what happened is I can’t actually fly. Not today.

Lie #1

I can’t walk bare feet in the junkyard because all the metal will cut me and then I’ll have to worry about infections – it’s never the initial cause that kills you always the infection – at least from what my mom tells me, she’s a doctor.  All I do in the junkyard is kick around so I definitely would get cut if I was bare foot. I stepped on glass once. Or it was my cousin who stepped on glass and I watched as she stood there with her heel lifted, her blood already pooling on the gravel. Stepping on different textures is supposed to stimulate your brain. There is this park with a special path made out of smooth stones just for stepping. I never finished the path because my feet always hurt after a few steps. My mom says my skin is still too soft. Freud says the skin is the bodily ego. They are both doctors. And I think that’s really funny the thing with doctors and skin because I’m in a hospital bed right now surrounded by doctors and none of them are telling me to put on my shoes and I’m beginning to wish they would because my feet are getting cold. My feet are getting so cold.

My Wife Marries a Parrot

The love of your life has returned. There is a parrot on her shoulder.

She circles you twice. Her eyes are closed.

It seems futile to ask the parrot questions.

“That’s my scarf,” you tell your wife. “You’re my wife.”

The parrot sits on your wife’s face.

“Can I have my scarf back,” you say.

The woman looks at you now. There are bars in front of her face.

“That’s a fine parrot,” she says. “I’ll take him.”

Potluck

Chris was the only one who brought something to share at the potluck. Caesar salad, enough to go ‘round twice. I looked to see how the others would react.

There was silence, then Katie laughed and walked to the sink, where she started washing a handful of berries. Lori smiled softly at Chris, but lowered her head and walked past him. She had an apple.

I was angry, but I didn’t want to be first—I liked Chris, but I had only been there a month.

Denise was the one who went in the end. She was manager after all. I wondered how many times this had happened before. Poor Chris—he must have thought it was a clever plan.

Denise tasted one leaf and said, “Quite fresh.”

Chris should have taken the compliment. He should have smiled. Instead he took his salad and left the room.

“He has no manners,” a woman who I recognized as a fourth-floorer said.

Katie looked at the woman, then at the bagel she held in her hands. The woman noticed Katie staring and two red blotches appeared on her cheeks.

“We had—I went to buy—but—”

“Here,” said Katie, offering the woman a single berry.

The woman froze, horrified. Katie pulled her hand back and popped the berry into her mouth.

“You couldn’t have thought I was serious.”

The woman laughed. It was a harsh sound, much too loud for the room.

“A bagel is still better than salad,” someone said—I did not see who.

“And it’s not like you brought it to share.”

Everyone laughed. I excused myself.

***

Lori stood in the hall. She smiled when she saw me.

“Banana. Good choice.”

“Only fruit I could afford.”

I liked Lori. I could be honest with her.

“If only Chris was as smart as you,” she said. “Quantity? I’m disappointed, really.”

“I’ve never heard of sharing at a potluck,” I added.

“Oh that’s more common than you’d think. They do it all the time on ground floors. That way they get to try a little bit of everything.”

“We’re sixth-floorers.”

“Bananas and berries. I’m scared to see what they’ve got on the tenth floor.”

We both smiled at that.

***

The door to the room opened, but we did not hear laughter. We did not hear conversation. There was only the faint sound of water, as each person washed their fruits, to be displayed and envied, then finally eaten, with great dread.

Billboard

A seagull appeared in a field. Its head bobbed through the green as it walked. It stared for a moment at the people, then became uninterested.

When it finally flew it was majestic, wings sweeping the air in broad strokes.

The people smiled their radiant smiles. One man’s cheek was peeling. There were lumps on another’s neck. Something black rested on a woman’s unblinking eye.

They would continue to stare at the highway, which had long been overgrown by weeds.

The seagull would not return.

Rainy Companion

There were no cars in the parking lot.

A man stood in the bus shelter, out of the rain, which had begun to pour. He faced the highway with his phone in his hand. His hat was damp on his head.

Something landed on the back of a truck. The truck drove onward, indifferent to the added weight. The man watched the truck leave, but the creature was still there.

It was thin and black. A set of translucent wings folded against its back. The man blinked. The bug was on the glass.

It was hiding from the rain just as he was. The man smiled and reached for the bug with a finger. The bug climbed higher. It did not seem to be able to use its wings.

The man was not smiling now. He reached again and picked up the bug. He pinched its wings between his thumb and index finger, paused for a moment to watch its legs kick, then bent down to a puddle.

The tips of his fingers that had touched the water in the puddle were red and sore. The man took off his hat. He did not have any hair. There were red marks around his skull where the rim of his hat touched skin.

He stepped over the puddle and exited the shelter.

The rain had stopped.