Just Another Night & Day
Last month we rented that movie, The Piano, from the Pick-a-Flick video store down near the big dock. My brother liked the part where, at almost the end, the piano goes sliding off the boat into the water, the rope tied around it catching Holly Hunter by the foot and dragging her down into the deep, cold ocean. That piano sank like a rock. But I said, I still say, that a piano is made of wood, and filled with great spaces of air and lightness. It wouldn't sink, it would float.
I bring it up again, now, as we are driving north on I-75 in my father's pick-up truck which we borrowed, or stole really, in order to go to Georgia.
"That piano," I say. "It would have floated."
My brother, Tom, says that it is symbolism, a metaphor or something, and that it doesn't really matter except that it mattered to the story, to make it mean something.
"It's a metaphor," he says. "That's all. Now shut up and read the map."
"North," I say. "North to Valdosta. That's all. It's a metaphor, really."
It's almost dark now, that heavy Florida darkness which comes slowly and then sudden, the air looking grainy and filmed over. The headlights of each passing car light up the inside of the truck for a moment before it slides by us.
"Maybe we should experiment," I say. "When we get your piano. We could throw it off the big dock and see what happens."
Tom smiles a little, for the first time all night. "You talk like that, I won't ever let you touch it," he says. He fiddles with the radio dial until he picks up a classical station out of Jacksonville. He plays his fingers along the top of the wheel. The notes of the music tumble like a waterfall. Like a fish leaping out of the water to flash in the sun, water like diamond bits crashing all around it, and then down through the blue light to gather strength to do it all again.
"Damn," he says. "I can't believe I'm really doing this."
Once, when I was very young, he told me a secret. We were behind the cedar tree in the back yard, watching the fire ants crawl in columns over everything they found. We stood plastic soldiers in their path, but the ants just divided and flowed around it as water flows past a rock. Tom said he was going to tell me a secret, and I couldn't tell anybody.
Annie, he said, I'm going away from here one day.
No, I said. I laughed.
Nobody ever went away from here. Or if they did, they came back eventually. Our mother had been gone longer than most, but she'd be back too, someday.
I am, he said.
He held out his hands and told me to look at them. They looked as they always did, brown, scratched, bug-bit, the nails chewed down and torn. A mark across the palm where my father had slapped him with the belt.
My hands, he said, are a gift from God. Miss Rose said so.
Miss Rose, the music teacher up at the high school, who could play seven different kinds of musical instruments and sing highlights from operas in three foreign languages. She was engaged to Henry Dumas who owned Hank's Tavern on Dock Street and who also owned the only piano on the island. Hank let Tom play the piano on Saturday and Sunday afternoons. Sometimes, if there were men in the bar, they would yell at Tom to play a song they liked, and give him dollar bills. If he needed extra money he'd tell me to come in and sing with him, Patsy Cline or The Night They Burned Old Dixie Down. Miss Rose always smelled like peppermint lifesavers.
She says I play like an angel, Tom said. She's going to teach me how to read music too, and then she says I can write my own ticket out of here. And I will, too.
I felt, stupidly, like crying. I looked down at the ground and picked up one of the soldiers.
Hey, Tom said. It ain't anytime soon. Just someday. And besides, I'd take you with me. I wouldn't leave you here.
And that was fine. Someday, I knew, meant never.
Is that what we're doing, here, tonight?
I reach down to the floorboards and pick up an old pack of cigarettes. Tom watches me do this out of the corner of his eye. I light one, and even though it's stale I breathe it in and turn my head so I can see myself reflected in the glass of the half open window. I let the smoke trickle out of my mouth, over my chin, curling out the window where it is snatched away in the slipstream and is behind us in the blackness.
"Tom," I say. "What are we going to do when we get there?"
"Load up the piano and go."
"He wrote for us to come. He told us to come get the piano or he was going to chop it up for firewood."
"But what should we say?"
Tom shrugs. "Just say we've come for it."
"Just say, Hey there Grandpa, we've come for our Momma's piano now, so let's load it in the truck and then we'll be on our way."
There's a bottle rolling around somewhere under the truck seat. Not empty, either. I can hear it sloshing. We have twenty dollars and a half a tank of gas. I hope it's enough.
"He must be old," I say.
Tom turns the dial on the radio again. Willie Nelson is singing with Ray Charles. They are singing that there were seven Spanish angels at the altar of the sun, they were praying for the lovers in the valley of the gun.
"He must be lonely," I say. "Since our grandma died."
And when the battle stopped and the smoke cleared, there was thunder from the throne . . . .
"That Ray," he says. "He can play the piano like time standing still."
And seven Spanish angels took another angel home.
"I wonder is Momma there," I say.
Tom's hands clench on the wheel. The skin turns white over his knuckles.
"Toss that thing out the window," he says. "Ain't right, a girl of twelve, smoking. And take your legs down off the dash. Any passing trucker could see right up to your panties."
"No he couldn't," I say. "I'm not wearing any." But I throw the cigarette out and Tom relaxes his hands a little.
Tom has said that he will pick only watermelons this summer and will not go out on the boat at all. He says watermelons pay better than oystering. This, of course, is the right tack to take, since Daddy has to give in on all matters financial. But the real reason, I think, is that he doesn't want to mess up his hands. Oyster shells are sharp as a knife edge, and wicked too. You can't wear gloves. You have to pry them loose with your hands sometimes. The oysters turn slick and slippery in your hands, and slice deep into water-softened skin. They can tear you to ribbons. And then, also, there is the time when you look up from the bottom of your boat, from the empty nets and croker sacks, and the water stretches away from you like it always has, swelling and rocking, the color of gun-metal, of slate, flat uncaring, and after a while it starts to look like desperation made liquid. Tom has seen it. I have too.
Twenty dollars is a lot to save from watermelons, when your father turns to you when you walk in the door and holds out his hand. Fifteen is too old to be slapped across the arms and legs with the flat knife-edge of a belt. Twelve is not. Fifteen is too young to buy whiskey. Twelve is not, not when the liquor-store clerk knows who it's really for. Fifteen is too young to drive and is the sum of all the years spent standing still. Twelve is a fraction of the time spent running. Time spent in a stolen truck heading north on I-75 is no time at all until it is divided by the Georgia state line and you see a patrol car over on the side of the road, lights flashing blue and red, but not for you.
"Maybe we could stay, when we get there," I say. "Maybe he'll ask us to stay."
"Cigarette," says Tom, and I fish him one out of the pack and light it, hand it to him. His hand is not shaking, now, at all. He is calm and steady now. He has his purpose.
"You can stay if you want," he says. "I ain't staying with no old man I only met twice before in my life. Even if he is my grandpa."
"But what if Momma's there?"
"You don't know . . ."
"I do. She's not."
Maybe he does know something I don't. Maybe he's been hiding things from me. Letters, perhaps. A postcard sent from some exotic place from time to time. A line scrawled on the back in a feminine slant: I'm fine don't worry I miss you I'll be back sometime. Maybe he has a shoe box filled with such things hidden in the back of his closet under his baseball mitt. But then I know that can't be true because he wouldn't have left them behind, he would have taken them, knowing that he was leaving forever he would have taken along these things that matter. He's taking me along.
But would she write to me?
"Are you doing okay?" I say.
"I'll be fine," he says.
I remember our father in his policeman's uniform, with the buttons shined so that the sunlight glanced off them and hurt my eyes. I remember his hat tilted back on his head. He stretched above my head like a tornado reaching up into the clouds. I'd seen people shot on television and I cried that my father would be killed too. He smiled and patted the gun in his holster and said: I'll be fine.
Tom throws his cigarette out the window, half-smoked. He starts to talk angrily now, fast. His face is splotched with green light reflected from the dash. His eyes are shadowed.
"I had to do it, Annie. You know that. I had to get away. If it wasn't his it would have been something else soon. You can go back if you want he won't blame you. It was me he knows that. Annie, it was like pushing your way through mud up to your chest. I couldn't breathe I couldn't think clearly there, not anymore. It was everything. Everything I've ever wanted and not got, everything I've dreamed about slipping away from me forever. It was like being out on the boat with a catch, a big load of fish, and then the wind turns, or the boat rocks and they're slithering towards the edges of the boat and back into the water and you know if you don't do something it will all be gone but there isn't anything you can do."
I half close my eyes and let this voice wash over me. I wait to hear myself, to open my mouth and say: Yes, me too, I've felt that.
He reaches for the cigarette pack and I see that his hands are shaking again. He drops the pack and the cigarettes spill out over the floor beneath his feet. I bend down and pick them up.
"You don't need to explain," I say.
He lights the cigarette himself.
"Well," he says. He breathes the smoke out slowly. "So that was why. But you can go back, if you want."
A green sign flashes past us on the right. Valdosta, it says. Three miles.
"What will you do?" I ask.
He shrugs. "Pick watermelons. Work in a gas station. Eventually I'll find a band."
"And the piano?"
"Take it with me."
I laugh. "By yourself?"
And I wait to hear him, to open his mouth and say: Come with me, come with me, come on.
He takes another deep drag on his cigarette.
"Valdosta," I say. "Next exit."
There are the things you say when there is nothing else to say. There are words that shape themselves naturally into your mouth, filling up the spaces between your teeth and tongue. You can speak and not say anything at all.
Hello, you say.
You're welcome, you say.
I'll be fine, you say.
And the whole time your mind is spinning off somewhere on its own, twisting on its own trail, dreaming of angels or dragons or death. The trick is to let your face mirror your mouth and not your mind, to let your words form the shape of your lips and not the other way around.
I think about what I will say to my grandpa. I wonder is my Momma there.
In Valdosta, we stop at a Swifty store to ask directions. Tom takes the letter inside with him, and I can see him through the window showing it to the man behind the counter. The man gestures and points for Tom, and hands him the letter back. Tom is almost as tall as him. He is broad across the shoulders. I hadn't noticed that before. The man looks him in the eye and smiles as he talks. He is not thinking: this is a boy who stole his daddy's truck. He sees a man. There is a group of girls sitting on the corner step of the store. Maybe they are a little older than me. The one with the dark hair has a pink ribbon tying it back. She looks at me and licks her ice-cream cone. Another girl leans toward her and points at me. Whispers. When we drive away I twist my head around and stick my tongue out at them, but the girl with the pink ribbon just stares at me, licking.
If I was more pretty, if I had dark hair tied back with a ribbon, or knees that were not scabbed over. If I stood up straighter and wore a white dress. But even then, would it have made a difference?
"You can go back," says Tom. "It'll be okay."
"Oh, just shut up about it," I say.
We are sitting in the car in front of our grandpa's house. The house is dark except for a light burning in the front room. It is the only house on this long road. The road is dirt and there are long grasses growing up the middle of it. There is the big square shape of a barn off to the right of us. Tom opens his door and gets out.
"I'll go knock," he says, and I get out to follow him.
Before we are halfway across the wet grass in front of the house, the door opens. A man is standing there with the light behind him. Tom and I stop dead still. I stare at the doorway, trying to make out the features on his face. A long oblong on light spills out from the doorway onto the grass in front of his, but stops before it reaches our feet.
"Your father called me," our grandpa says. "Haven't had that pleasure in years."
"Sir," says Tom. He looks down at the ground and even though I can't see him trembling I know he must be.
"Did you bring his gun with you?" He steps out onto the porch.
Tom shakes his head, but then realizes he can't see him in the darkness and says: "No Sir. I left it."
"Well, he can't find it," he says. "I figure he's too drunk to see straight."
"It's on the stove-top," says Tom. "I left it there, after."
I can hear the tree frogs singing in the silence that follows. The scratch of Tom's foot against the dirt where he scuffs it back and forth. A gust of wind which shakes the leaves free from the treetops and sends them rustling down to the ground.
"Well," says our grandpa. "I won't turn you in, but that's all. He tried to get them to come up here after you, but I guess they figure you ain't done anything that bad." He pauses. "You got your sister with you?"
I turn to Tom. I make a small noise, a choking in my throat. I draw my finger across my throat to tell him to be quiet, not to tell. Say you don't know, say you're alone, say I no doubt am hiding under the big dock where I always do. But he can't see me, anyway.
"She's here," says Tom. "She's fine."
"Send her in," he says. "That's the stupidest thing of all, taking her with you."
"I don't want to go back," I say. Even to myself my voice sounds childish, small, confused.
"Send her in and then you can just go on your way. I won't stop you." He slaps his hand against his thigh. "Come on, Annie," he says. Like I was a dog.
"No," I say.
Tom takes a step forward, and another. His feet are in the light now, and his legs, and I can see his fists clenched against his sides. I think he is going to fight for me, to stop the world from taking me away. He would protect me against anything, he has said, many times.
"Sir," he says. "But the piano?"
"The piano?" Our grandpa takes another step forward, so he is standing at the edge of the porch. "Good lord, is that all you care about? You could be in some serious trouble here, son. Let your little sister go. Forget the piano. Just go."
Tom opens up his hands, rubs his palms against his jeans. "It's what I came for," he says. "It's my piano."
The silence stretches out between the two of them again, and I can feel my breath catching in my chest. If he doesn't want me to go then he just doesn't , that's all. But I am not just a shadow in this night, I am not a thing to be left behind on a rain-damp patch of grass in Valdosta. I am not the wind, voiceless, or the tree frogs chirping randomly. I will speak my mind and tell them what I will do.
"Stop it," I say. "Please, just let him take it. I'll come in, I'll go home, but please, just let him take it."
But that is not what I meant to say, at all.
"Please," I say.
Our grandpa turns to go back inside. "You got half an hour," he says. "Then send her in and be on your way. Piano's in the barn."
"Grandpa," says Tom.
He turns back to look at us again.
"Sir," says Tom. "That is . . . ain't you going to help me load it?"
Our grandpa holds his skinny arms out in front of him. Gestures to his stick-frail legs. "Son," he says. "Does it look like I could load anything? Do it yourself, if you can." He goes inside the house and shuts the door behind him.
There are the things you do when there is nothing else to do. You can stop pretending that everything will be all right, accept that the world is a cruel place and torturous, unfair. A life spent looking up from the bottom of an empty boat. Torn nails on your hands, torn holes in the bottom of your only net. Crabs scuttling along the roots of drowned trees. A whiskey bottle, a cigarette perhaps to ease the sharp edges. A piano, for some, would be enough. Or, and this is the part that happened next, you can throw all that away. Rip the pages from the top of the notebook. Crumple them up, one by one, the pages where you messed up, lines drawn through the screwed-up arithmetic of your life. Rip them off and throw them away until you are left with only the clean white pages, freshly lined and ready for the mark of your next pen. You can decide not to fight by the new rules. Take arms against a sea of troubles, and by opposing, end.
Tom has crossed that line. When he heard my father say no. There, in the kitchen of our old house when he said No.
What? said Tom. He was already arranging the furniture of the living room, in his mind.
I said no, he said. We ain't going to Georgia to get that piano.
But Daddy, I said. Why?
Because I just said, that's why.
He picked up one of the sandwiches I had made for supper and took a bite.
Daddy, said Tom. I could go. You could let me go borrow the truck and I could go tonight. Be back by tomorrow morning. You wouldn't even know I was gone. It wouldn't be no bother. Anyways, you'll be . . . .
I'll be what? said Daddy.
Tom's face turned red.
I'll be what?
Drunk, said Tom. He pushed a flap of hair off his face with the back of his hand. Drunk, that's what you'll be. Drunk, just like always.
Oh, son, he said, softly. You most definitely ain't going now. You most definitely ain't going anywhere, not for some long time, now.
He started to walk over to the door to get the wide belt which he kept hanging there, and that's when Tom did it. It was just so natural, I suppose. It was just laying there on the table and Tom picked it up and pointed at him and said: Yes I am. Daddy, I'm going now.
When you see your brother pointing a loaded gun at your father, and you see in the set of his face that he will use it. When you see in your father's face the understanding dawning. When your father looks at your brother's face and sees that he will use it. The air around you moves slower, the sun seems brighter where it splashes across the carpet. The sounds of the walls seeming to settle themselves into new spaces. The person you love best, who is suddenly someone you've never seen before. Or once, when you were children, and he found an old picture stuffed under the cushions of a couch, and his face turned blotched with red, his lips white, and he tore it into small pieces before you could look at it. Maybe then.
These are the things you think. When there is nothing else to think.
Tom can't move the piano. He can move it forward a foot or two, screeching its way across the barn floor. His face turning purple with the effort and the cords of his muscles standing out across his back. But then it is stuck. He can't do it. I tried to help, but didn't. He sits down with his back up against the piano and puts his head between his knees. His breathing fills up the spaces in the barn, echoes in the big wood beams above us. He has turned the truck so that its headlights shine into the barn. The dust we have raised up dances in the headlight beams.
"Annie," he says. "I can't do it."
He stands up and walks over to the truck. Opens the door, reaches under the seat and pulls out the half-empty bottle of whiskey that had been rolling around under there. He reads the label, holding the bottle down close to the headlights. He comes back over to the piano. Puts the flat of his hand on the smooth wooden top. Rubs his hand back and forth across it. He upends the whiskey and drinks.
"Tom," I say. "What are you doing?"
He looks at the label again.
"It's not strong enough," he says. "So I may as well drink it."
"Not strong enough?" I say. I think he means himself. I can't think what he is saying to me.
"To burn," he says. "It would have to be at least one-fifty proof. And it's not."
He takes another drink and laughs. "It's just old cheap stuff," he says. "So I may as well drink it, and find another way."
He looks around the barn. There is a coil of rope lying in a corner. An old oil lamp rusted red. An axe propped against the wall. An empty five gallon bucket lying on its side. Otherwise it is empty, with only the straw and the dust, the piano, and the faint old smell of cows. Tom walks over to the bucket and picks it up, then sets it down in front of the piano as a seat. He sits down, lifts up the cover of the piano. Moves his fingers up and down the keyboard, though an inch above the keys. Slowly, so slowly, he takes one finger and plays one note. The sound comes out sweet and clear. How can you tell if it is good or bad? Flat or sharp? In tune or out? It is just a note.
"Annie," he says. "Come here and sing with me."
I move towards him as he begins to play. I know the notes. The song. The floor of the barn is smoothed beneath my bare feet. The hay scratches between my toes. I raise my hands up and it is as if I am conducting this all, I am conjuring this song up from the night air, this music from the old piano that my mother played.
I sing: "Just another night and day, and then I'll see Kingston Bay, and when I see Kingston Bay . . ." I sing. I forget the words but it doesn't matter. Just another night and day, just another night and day, and I wonder if it is true, after all, that my parents met while she was playing the piano. That he was struck silent by the music and the way that her hair fell across her forehead, curling around her ears. That he knew, then, that he would take her back with him. Show her the water purple at sunset, the crabs amongst the tree roots, the music of the currents when they run swift, not deep, and carry you miles out to sea.
And is that why, after all?
This is another night. The day will come.
Tom stops playing, and the last notes hang around us in the air. He stands up. Takes another drink from the almost empty bottle. He walks over and picks up the axe where it is propped against the wall. He walks back over to the piano.
I see what he is about to do, and I open my mouth to say something, to stop him.
But he is swinging the axe, now, bringing it down swiftly on the top of the piano. It bites deep into the wood on the first swing, and there is a whisper, a stirring of the strings beneath the lid, low and uneasy. The second stroke cracks the wood in two. Then the third. There is a crash like all the wrong notes in the world playing together, like a burst of thunder just above the head, discordant, loud, jangling. A sound like cats screaming in heat in an alleyway and elephants trumpeting their anger. A sound like a wave when it has trapped you on the ocean floor and you can hear the sands themselves heaving around you. It is the strings parting and zinging, the wood splintering, the ivory-covered keys crashing to the floor. I can feel it thrumming through by bones. I put my hands up to cover my ears.
It dies away, slowly, the thunder drawing further away, the lowest notes lasting longest and holding themselves, repeating, echoing in the space above us.
Tom drops the axe. The dull thud of it falling against the old wood floor. He raises his arm up and wipes it across his face. I see that he is crying. I see his throat working, his shoulders hitching up like when he was a boy, when he was sobbing.
"Oh," he says. "Oh."
This, I think is all. The sound you make when there is nothing else to make.