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Chopsticks




The year I was eleven and Danny was ten, our parents enrolled us in piano lessons with a woman named Mrs. Jackson, who lived in the next town over. She was a plump, careless woman and was, perhaps, the only person in the area available for instruction of this kind. Even as a child, new to the instrument, I realized the limitations of her musical gifts. She laughed a great deal and seemed to clamor over the keys.

After Mrs. Jackson had exhausted our lessons before their allotted time, she showed off on the piano while we watched “I Love Lucy” or “The Three Stooges” on television in the next room. Her performances were show tunes, I think, and reminded me of kittens entangled in string.

I was learning simple melodies, one hand first, then two -- learning my notes, time values, sharps and flats. Mrs. Jackson insisted I was musically gifted, but I ignored her praise and dreamed, while I practiced, of the music my father played on his records, of its anguish and intelligence. He liked the classical. I had never seen the ocean but I felt his music was the sea, variously stormy or still. I listened without letting on, never asking for titles or composers, as if the albums were adult conversation that would stop if he knew I eavesdropped.

We took the lessons on Thursdays after school. My father, a teacher at the high school, pulled up to the elementary school-side curb in our big blue Chevrolet, and Danny and I sprang out of the clump of jostling students waiting for the bus, me with a head’s toss as if picked for a prize. Then we bounded away for our ten-mile journey south along the tracks. Neither Danny nor I enjoyed the lessons – I because of my disappointment over Mrs. Jackson, and Danny because he hated the piano – but we loved riding away with our father. I always waved goodbye to my best friend Betty until we were out of sight of the school. I pitied her, stuck with the bus.

Danny sat in the front. He was what my parents called energetic. (The word in his teens would be wild.) I was a calmer child and could be trusted to sit alone in the back and not get into trouble. I loved my brother, so I collaborated with my father in this way. I never took it as a slight. Under Dad’s watch, Danny behaved himself all the way to our lessons and home again. He chattered without stopping, it seemed, but I knew my father was soothing, correcting, and guiding him. Danny was his only son. In the back, I was thinking.

I’d become aware of myself, around this time, as a person who thought. Thinking gave my head a sense of fullness, of contentment, like my stomach after supper or my skin after a bath. I felt that my thoughts were interesting, even profound. They seemed to form a perpetual, pleasant motion that originated in me. Sitting in the back, I stared at my father’s neck and thought of ropes or columns or trees. I saw his ears, tight to his skull, with their graceful golden ridges, and thought about things shaped oddly, and his hair cut close around the back and sides and longer on the top, with its crisp blond wave, and thought of hills that were steep on one side and gradual on the other, of the rolling hills of Alberta where we lived, which we wound over and around, driving. I thought about hills in general, what they meant.

I tried to think through the fact that the man in front of me with those parts was my father. That I came from him and my mother. Not the act of sex so much as the fact of my existence – because of his, because of hers.

Danny took his piano lesson first. Mrs. Jackson prodded while he poked and both soon tired of their obligations. When it was my turn, I felt I had to mollify the keys, to comfort them, because of my stubborn, disinterested brother.

He didn’t last with the lessons beyond that year. My parents let him quit. But Danny learned “Chopsticks” – not from Mrs. Jackson but from me, and I’d learned it from Betty, who got it from her older sister. Danny and I must have played it a thousand times. His part was the repeating chords C and G in the bass and mine was the two-handed dancing sticks of sound high above them, notes that chased each other up and down, meeting and separating and reuniting again. Danny yelled “Faster!” and we increased our speed until we or the song fell apart, both of us laughing hysterically.

**

I’m hearing “Chopsticks” now, two girls who look to be the ages Danny and I were that year, pounding it out on the upright in the lounge of the seniors’ home. They get through it three times before a nurse manages, out of breath, to rush in and shush them.

“No, no, no,” she says. “It’s much too loud for the old people.” She casts a scolding look at the girls’ mother.

Most of the elderly in the room are hard of hearing or even deaf. “Chopsticks” probably hurts my ears and hers the most. Some of the elderly, in fact, raise their lax heads with interest while the girls squeal and play. My father turns to their exuberance as well.

I press my hand over his. “Hey, Dad, remember that? Chopsticks? Danny and me?”

My father swivels his head to my voice and gazes at me with an expression of cool assessment that would be powerful on the face of a younger man but is the sign of memory loss, of dementia, on his. It’s impossible to know by now what he perceives, what he knows. Does he wonder who’s sitting next to him? Why she uses words like Dad, and chopsticks, and Danny?

The girls flounce onto empty chairs beside their mother. She’s visiting her aunt, talking a stream of homey news and gossip while the other woman nods. The aunt’s hair looks tissue-soft and freshly curled; it must have been her day at the home’s hairdresser. She radiates sweetness, but there is no more recognition in her face than in my father’s. She nods, nod after nod, like a music box unwinding its single melody.

My father’s head slinks back to its half-lowered position, where he has a view of his brown polyester pants and the flaccid blue-veined hands on his lap.

**

In May, the week of Danny’s eleventh birthday, my father came into my room where I was reading Little Women and sat down on the edge of the bed. He asked me how I liked the book. I said I liked it very much.

He asked who my favorite character was and I said, “Jo.”

“That’s what I hear,” he said. “All the girls like Jo.”

Then he said, “Well, my Jo-Jo Patty, it’s Danny’s birthday tomorrow and I’ve planned a surprise for him. I’ve arranged for the two of you to ride home on the train.”

“Danny’s crazy for trains,” he continued. “As you know.”

“I know he is, Daddy,” I said. Whenever we spotted the train on our way home from piano lessons, Danny would launch into pleading: To catch up and then pass. To go faster. If our father obliged, the car filled with a torrent of noise – our own accelerating engine, the train’s roar and clatter beside us, my brother’s yipping glee directed to the trainmen who waved. Did he think they could hear him over the tremor of metal on metal?

My father asked me to keep the train ride a secret, and to keep an eye on Danny during our little adventure. He said, “I know it’s not your birthday, Patty, but I think you’ll find it special, too.”

I leapt forward and flung my arms about his neck. In cadences aroused by Little Women, I declared it would be wonderful. I said, “Thank you, Daddy, thank you very much.”

My father squeezed back and he bubbled, “You’re welcome,” in my ear.

The train Danny and I boarded the next day travelled up the spur line twice a week, carrying freight. Most people got around by car by then, but half a wagon of the train was outfitted with seats, just in case. The seats gave off a prim air of humiliation, on account of people not using them, I supposed. They were brown, stiff and new-looking, but dusty. Not luxurious as I’d hoped. But Danny was thrilled, and for the train itself, I thought, our presence must have been a consolation.

I was disappointed to see that we were not alone. A young man slouched in a seat in the back corner, four rows back. He was wearing glasses and a flat cap, and his face and demeanor seemed flat as well, but I may have imagined this later, as the look of immaturity, or cunning, perhaps.

We perched in the front, Danny by the window. The train pulled out of town and there, driving on the road beside us, was our father in our Chevrolet. Danny waved and shouted. Now it was Dad who couldn’t hear him yell and we who felt the whirring clank of the train wheels, the click of the rails, under our feet. Our father seemed small and rigid at a distance, like a different person, as if he’d changed with the strain of keeping up with us.

The train whistle sounded at a crossing. Something was pressing against my chest. My eyes darted downwards.

A pinkish hand with fat spread fingers straddled my blouse. The middle finger was curved and its tip rested on one of my buttons. The hand was grotesque, like an insect. What did it want? It pushed me against the seatback, pushed against my heart, now drumming madly in panic and confusion. It paralyzed me.

Danny must have noticed something and he reeled round.

He said, “Whaddya think you’re doing?” But it came out high-pitched, more excited than annoyed, as if he and a buddy were scrapping over a pencil or marble, over some minor possession.

Danny twisted further, half rose, and his voice gained solid edge: “You! You leave my sister alone!”

The hand lifted, the arm withdrew. Its withdrawal was graceful, almost elegant, as if, in fact, there had been no pressure within it at all. Feet I’d not heard coming now stepped briskly away and Danny and I turned back to the window. My brother resumed his noisy commentary but I couldn’t speak. The sensation of the hand still echoed on my chest. Nothing showed on my blouse, but I felt a residue covering it like a smudge and I only wanted the ride to end.

Arriving at the depot in our town, we saw Dad waiting on the platform. Mom and our younger sisters were there as well and my throat clenched with joy and relief. It seemed as if we’d all been apart a long time.

“Hey, son!” my father shouted as we stepped off the train. “How was that?”

“Great ride!” Danny said. He swaggered. “And I took care of Patty too!”

My parents chuckled and my father winked at me, as if to say that both of us knew who had taken care of whom.

**

The girls and their mother are saying goodbye to the sweet, nodding aunt. The girls tussle and giggle and then they rush to the piano. They pound out “Chopsticks” again, like a race against the return of the disapproving nurse. Once, twice, and they dash after their mother. The room seems empty without them.

Sometimes I wonder why I come.

We know who they are. That’s the point, my peers and I tell one another about our aging parents. We offer axioms of encouragement about their decline, their diminishment, their depression.

You have to die of something, we say.Not lies exactly, but our sentences are a litany of insufficiencies. How sad that they leave! How sad that, in leaving, they leave so little behind, not even crumbs like Hansel and Gretel to guide our way back to them. As if their departure concerns us more than it concerns them.

But I have no idea what we might say to one another that would get at the truth of our losses. And expressions of failure seem as idle.

I wish, though, I’d told my father, who taught social studies and literature all his working life, that I was the one who understood trains the way he did. Not as iron, wind, and noise but as technology gathering myth, weaving through history like the mane of smoke a steam engine tosses behind its back, running beside us and then away across the vast fields of the world. That mournful horn-song in its wake. All those station farewells and arrivals. All that dreaming in a dark cocoon while the landscape disappears. How you might read a book and discover years later you remembered nothing of its contents but could still recall with astonishing vividness the experience of reading it on a train, from city A to city B.

The writer Elizabeth Hardwick once said, “The train seems to be always going straight ahead in the lucky, large, empty country.”

Dad and I knew what she meant.

And he and I knew the dangers.

I never told him what I knew, what we two had had in common. It’s because everything about trains belonged to him and Danny, and that connection broke when Danny tried to beat the evening transport sweeping down the tracks just east of Regina, he and his orange Thunderbird crushed and tossed aside as if they had nothing to do with the business of getting over the prairies.

My parents and sisters and I liked to tell ourselves he missed us so much he forgot to be careful at the crossing.

But Danny only knew speed. “Faster! Faster!” was his cry.

(And I would never say it wasn’t a calling equal to mine.)

He dreamed of becoming a pilot. Maybe an astronaut, he said. “You’ll have to put your nose to the grindstone then,” our father would tell him. “Pilots need to know a thing or two.”

So Danny studied. My parents said he smartened up. They were jubilant when he enrolled in university.

**

Once a week, I sit beside my father. Sometimes I talk, just in case. Sometimes I’m tempted to play one of the pieces he loved, pieces I now teach and perform.

But the piano in the lounge is out of tune and I just can’t bring myself to do it.

It’s sunny in the corner where I wheel him in his chair. I like the gentle fall of light over his now-bent neck, over his transparent scalp and the clotted strands of hair. Perhaps we collaborate again. He’s here and so I remember – him and Danny, music that stirs and aches, how awareness grows. How I believed I’d been summoned to think.

My thoughts swell, and they seem profound.

About the Author

Dora Dueck

In 2009 Dora Dueck of Winnipeg completed a year as interim editor of the Mennonite Brethren Herald, after serving as associate editor for four years. Her novel, Under the Still Standing Sun, was published by Kindred Productions in 1989, and a new novel will be released by Canadian Mennonite University Press in Spring 2010. With Byron Rempel-Burkholder, she was co-editor of Northern Lights: Contemporary Christian Writing in Canada (2008). Her short stories have been published in Prairie Fire, Journal of Mennonite Studies, Festival Quarterly and other magazines. For the past several years, her story “An Arrow from the Heart” has been broadcast by the CBC. She holds a joint M.A. in History from the Universities of Manitoba and Winnipeg. Her blog is www.doradueck.wordpress.com.