- Angela Brown
A Piano in Every Home
Updated: May 18, 2019
Eleven year old Cynthia Jones cowered between the dumpster and the wall. The smell of rotten garbage pierced her nostrils. It was pitch dark in that alley behind the old diner...her only hope that her older brother wouldn’t find her. Cynthia was able to bring her trembling hand, the old nail polish worn off now, up to cover her mouth, the only thing stifling the unbearable urge for her to cry out. She squeezed her eyes shut and imagined herself sitting at the grand piano at Mrs. Reynold’s house. If she tried really hard she could almost hear Mrs. Reynolds playing Under the Sea from The Little Mermaid.
The sound of Noah’s footsteps were getting louder and the pace much slower as he approached the dumpster. She squeezed her eyes tighter and held her breath. Nothing. Then the sound of his boots clicking against the concrete as he walked away.
She slid down the wall and let out a whimper as she cradled her bloodied and bruised finger tips.
“OK. From the top and pay close attention to the dynamics.” Mrs. Reynolds said. “Picture the lake at night, moonlight dancing upon the water. What does it sound like to you, Cynthia?”
Cynthia rested her petite fingers with nails painted in bubble gum pink, onto the keyboard. She leaned in as she began playing Moonlight Sonata and whispered. “It sounds,” she paused, “kind of like sadness.”
“Yes, it could very well be the sound of sadness.” The proud teacher closed her eyes. “OK. Now here," She continued deliberately. "Really accentuate the melody line and bring out that sadness that you just spoke of.”
Cynthia dug into the melody, sometimes holding the G sharp melody line down just long enough to let it ring as the triplets in the left hand paced the steady rhythm.
“Yes,” Mrs. Reynolds smiled sweetly, the crow’s feet dancing off of her eyelids, “just like that. That’s just beautiful, Cynthia.”
When Cynthia was done Mrs. Reynolds said, “OK. Now for next time I want you to practice Allegretto. It moves along,” she pointed out, “but it will be a nice contrast to the first movement.”
She wrote in Cynthia’s practice notepad. March 5, Allegretto, then double underlined, MEMORIZE FIRST MOVEMENT. “You must begin memorizing the first movement, Cynthia. The recital’s only five weeks away and you won’t be able to use your music, at least not for the Moonlight.” She put the notepad in Cynthia’s portfolio and handed it to her. “OK?”
“Yes, Mrs. Reynolds”, she replied dutifully.
“I’ll see you next week then. It was a very good lesson, my dear.”
Cynthia looked up. “Will you play Ariel for me before I go?”
“Well, alright but just a couple of minutes of it. I have another student waiting.” She played The Little Mermaid then said, "Now off you go.”
“How did it go, kiddo?” Cynthia's mom asked as she climbed into the passenger seat of their car.
“Mommy,” Cynthia tossed her bouncy blond locks over her shoulder, “she said that I have to have the Beethoven memorized for the recital.”
“The recital’s a whole month away”. She started the car and put it in gear. “I’m sure you can do it. We’ll work together on it. Alright?”
“You know, I think it would be good to buy you a new dress for the recital.” She smiled. “You grew like a weed over the winter and I don’t even think you have a dress that fits right now. What do you say we go try on dresses?”
Cynthia beamed. She just loved going dress shopping with her mom.
Five weeks later Cynthia and her parents arrived for the big night. Cynthia’s patent leather shoes clicked as she entered the recital hall stage from the wings. She stepped towards the front of the stage and bowed as Mrs. Reynolds had taught her. The audience, filled with proud parents, applauded. She could hear the other children giggling from behind the curtain.
She climbed onto the piano bench and smoothed her brand new pink ruffled skirt before she raised her freshly polished fingers to the keyboard.
The audience quieted as Cynthia began playing the first movement of Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata bringing out the haunting melody line with her right hand and maintaining the rhythm of the triplets with her left. When she was done playing she got off the bench and faced the audience again for her final bow. She spotted her dad in the audience. He gave her a thumbs up and a warm smile.
When the recital was over her parents met her backstage.
“These are for you,” her dad said as he handed Cynthia a small bouquet of flowers, swooping her up into his arms.
“Thanks, daddy,” she squealed as she put her arms around his neck.
As the three of them left the auditorium they heard a loud thunder clap. They ran to the car, barely making it in before the skies opened up.
“They sure didn’t predict this storm,” her mom said.
“We could use the rain,” he replied. “It’ll wash away the salt and dirty snow from the long winter we had.”
“Everybody safely buckled?” her mom said in her usual manner.
“Yup,” Cynthia replied. She looked at her dad in the rear view mirror. He winked. He never wore his seat belt. “Too confining,” he always said.
“I wish Noah was here,” Cynthia said. Her parents glanced at each other. Though nine years younger she adored her big brother. He had the coolest stuff in his room and she was the only one he ever allowed in there. The house sure did shake when he blared his Black Sabbath CD’s but she didn’t care. She’d throw on his over sized leather jacket and twirl in front of his mirror. As sweet as he could be to her, at times he could be just as mean. If his bedroom door was locked she knew enough to stay clear. But, she tried the knob every time. When it wasn’t locked she’d sneak in and hang out in his room for hours, mainly emptying out the shoe box where he kept his collection of guitar picks. He never actually played the guitar that his parents had bought him for Christmas the year he turned fourteen, but he still kept collecting picks. She’d empty out the box and line them up making a guitar pick trail long enough to reach from one end of the room to the other. Her favorite was the one he said he found after the Black Sabbath Reunion Concert in 2013. Noah was convinced that it was Tony Iommi’s pick and that, somehow, the band’s lead guitarist had dropped it in the parking lot before heading out on their tour bus after the concert. She wasn’t sure if it was a true story.
She missed him. He used to come to her recitals even after his first two stints in rehab. Noah liked her piano playing. At least that’s what he told her. This last time he came home from rehab he seemed different. Instead of moving back home he moved in with a buddy of his and barely came around anymore. She would sometimes hear her parents whispering late at night after she went to bed. “They said he’s got to keep taking his meds,” Cynthia’s mom would whisper, “otherwise he’ll relapse again. Can’t we please just let him stay here?”
“No. I don’t want Cynthia exposed to his craziness anymore,” her dad responded. “He’s just too dangerous. You heard what the counselor said. He can’t be trusted. “
The wiper blades couldn’t go fast enough to keep up with the storm. A bright lightning strike scared Cynthia. She closed her eyes tight and counted, “one one thousand, two one thousand.”
Boom! A loud thunder clap interrupted her counting.
“Mommy,” Cynthia said, “does that mean it’s only two miles away?”
“Honey, don’t worry,” she turned around, “it’s plenty far away.” She turned to her husband, whispering, “should we pull over?”
“No, we’re alright. I’m moving pretty slowly. Don’t worry.”
Just as he said it a tree branch broke through the windshield, the impact so great it ripped his chest open and slammed her mom’s head against the headrest immediately snapping her neck.
When Cynthia opened her eyes she didn’t know where she was and she could barely move because of the tight sheets holding her down. “Where am I?” she asked the woman standing next to her. “Where’s my mommy?”
“It’s OK,” the woman said as she patted Cynthia’s hand. “I’m your nurse. My name is Marjorie and I’m here to take care of you.”
“Where’s my mommy?” Cynthia repeated then started crying.
“It’s alright honey. Everything’s going to be just fine.” She patted Cynthia’s hand again.
Cynthia tried to sit up but the sheets held her back. “My head hurts.” She pulled her arm out from under the sheets and reached for her head. She touched the bandage covering her forehead.
“Rest now,” Marjorie tried to console the scared little girl.
Cynthia’s eyes got really heavy. She couldn’t fight off the sedative seeping into the IV in her arm. She fell back to sleep.
When she opened her eyes again several hours later, Noah was sitting in the chair next to her.
“Noah,” she turned to him, “where’s mommy and daddy?”
He put the magazine down that he was reading and leaned over to press the red call button.
Marjorie came into the room.
“She just woke up,” he said to the nurse.
Marjorie approached the bed. “Cynthia, everything’s going to be alright. Can we get you to sit up now?”
Marjorie picked up the hand control and pressed the button to adjust the headboard. “Is that OK?”
Cynthia nodded again. “Where’s my mommy?”
“Honey,” the nurse pulled up a chair to be eye level to her. “Your mommy and daddy got hurt really badly in the car accident.”
Cynthia looked at her, bewildered.
“The night of the storm,” she continued. “They were both hurt very badly. The doctors tried to help them but they couldn’t.” She paused. “Your mommy and daddy are both in heaven now, Cynthia,” She turned to Noah. “But, your brother is right here and he’s going to take care of you. “ She motioned for Noah to step closer.
“Cynthia, I’m right here and I’m not going anywhere.” He sat on the bed and pulled her in close as they both wept.
“I’m going to leave the two of you alone for a few minutes,” Marjorie explained. “But I’ll be right down the hall. If you need me you press this button,” she held out the remote, “right here.”
She stepped out of the room.
A short while later the hospital social worker sat with Cynthia and Noah. She left her card on the tray table and said that she would check on them later.
Marjorie returned to the room. “Are you hungry, sweetie?” Cynthia shook her head no. “You really need to eat to get your strength back. Let’s see if we can get something in you," she said as she pulled the tray table close. “We have some nice chicken noodle soup here.” She handed Cynthia a spoon.
“I’m not really hungry.”
“Just a couple of spoonfuls, OK?” Marjorie handed Cynthia the spoon.
Cynthia put the spoon up to her mouth and sipped the broth.
“That’s good,” she encouraged. “How about one more spoonful then you can rest for a while?”
“OK.” Cynthia took one more spoonful. “I’m kind of dizzy.” She leaned back.
“Let’s put you back down.” She adjusted the headboard back down again. “I’ll be back in a little bit and we’ll try to eat something later. Rest now, sweetie.”
“She needs to rest a little while longer,” she said to Noah. "In the meantime,” she checked the vitals on the machine, “you should go home and get some rest yourself.”
He interrupted, “I’ll go home when she does. Until then, I’m staying right here.”
Two days later they rode home from the hospital in silence. Noah pulled into the driveway and came around the passenger side of his pick-up. As he opened the door Cynthia grabbed for the grab handle but it broke away and she almost fell out of the truck. Noah stopped her from falling and helped her out of the vehicle. They walked up the steps to the house.
Once in she said, “I’m going to go lay down for a while.” She slowly ascended the steps to the second floor and crawled into bed.
She woke several hours later to the ear piercing sounds of Metallica. Her mom hated when Noah played it so loud. She would give anything for a hug from her mom right now but Marjorie said that both of them were gone.
The hospital social worker had handed her a business card that had her phone number on it. “Call me anytime you want to talk,” she had said. Her next counseling appointment was scheduled for tomorrow. She didn’t want to talk to a social worker. She wanted her mommy. She pulled the blanket over her head and sobbed uncontrollably. Even with the loud music playing she was so exhausted that she fell asleep.
When she next opened her eyes she looked at the clock in her room. It was nearly five thirty. She’d slept for more than three hours. Cynthia climbed out of bed and went down the hall to the bathroom. It was the first time she’d looked in the mirror since the accident. The bandage on her forehead was soaked in blood. “Now be sure to change the bandage two times a day,” she remembered hearing Marjorie tell her brother before they had left the hospital. The extra bandages from the hospital were in a bag on the vanity. She reached up and slowly pulled the soaked bandage from her forehead. Underneath the scabbed over dried blood was a neatly sewn row of black stitches holding her forehead together. She grabbed the sink to steady herself and took a deep breath. Once she pulled the bandage off she threw it in the garbage can.
“OK,” she whispered, “I can do this.” She padded the wound with the disinfectant soaked cotton ball that was in the pouch of hospital supplies. It stung so bad her eyes watered. Taking another deep breath she soaked the wound again and again until the dried blood was gone. After she put a clean bandage on, she washed her hands and headed downstairs.
Noah was passed out on the living room couch, a handful of empty beer bottles on the coffee table. Cynthia turned down the music and shook him.
“Noah,” she said, “wake up.”
She shook him again. “I’m hungry.”
“There’s soup in the fridge from the old lady next door,” he said as he waved her away. Cynthia went to the kitchen and opened the fridge. There were several filled Tupperware containers in the fridge pushed way in the back behind a half case of beer. She moved the beer out of the way and reached back to grab the container that was marked 'chicken noodle soup'. She pulled the lid off like her mom had shown her many times before and warmed the contents in the microwave. She didn’t even bother to pour it into a bowl, just standing at the counter, eating a couple of spoonfuls of the warm soup right from the container.
It was all she could stomach. She poured the rest down the sink. She looked out the kitchen window. The window box that her dad had made and she had painted last Mother’s Day was practically empty now, only dried up neglected marigolds that her mother had planted there in the spring. Without water and mom’s loving touch they had all died. She wiped the tears from her eyes and went back upstairs to lie down.
It was about a week later when the doorbell rang. Cynthia could hear muffled voices through her closed bedroom door. She got out of bed and went downstairs. Mrs. Reynolds was on the front porch talking with Noah.
“I’m her only family now,” he stopped out onto the porch as he pulled the front door shut behind him.
“But, I just want to see how she’s doing,” Mrs. Reynolds said. “Her fifth grade teacher said she never came back to school after the accident.” She pleaded, “she has got to go to school, Noah.”
“She’s not ready yet. I’ll decide when she is.” He left Mrs. Reynolds on the porch.
“Who was that?” Cynthia asked when he came back in.
“No one. It’s not important.” He brushed past her. “I’m going out. There’s canned soup in the cupboard.”
“When will you be back?”
“I don’t know,” he said as he slammed the door behind him.
Cynthia sat down on the couch and grabbed the remote, a sad routine that had become their norm the last several days. The only visitor that Noah would allow in the house those first few days were the social worker and nurse that the hospital had assigned. On her twice weekly visits the social worker had asked Cynthia how she was doing and brought a bag of groceries. The nurse would change her bandage and fill her pill boxes. After they filled out the papers they would sit with her and talk about how she was feeling. They tried to encourage Cynthia to go back to school but, every time, Noah interjected and said that she wasn’t strong enough yet.
After that Noah would drop Cynthia off at the clinic entrance of the hospital for her counseling appointment with the same social worker that had visited the house. On this particular visit Cynthia was asked to bring pictures of her parents. They then made a collage together.
“Your mom looks so pretty in this picture,” she pointed. “Why was she all dressed up that day?”
“It was her birthday.” Cynthia smiled at the fond memory.
“She looks so happy in this picture. This is a wonderful way for you to remember your mommy. When you’re feeling sad take the collage out and look at all of the pictures. Do you think you can do that?”
Cynthia nodded and smiled.
“That’s very good. Always keep them close to your heart. They’re with you in your heart and always will be.”
During the following appointment they worked on a memory poem together. Cynthia decided that she would share this poem with Noah when he picked her up. “Noah, do you want to hear the poem I wrote about mommy and daddy?”
She read the poem to him.
Later that evening as she turned on the TV she heard, “the heat index is a hundred again so stay indoors,” the meteorologist said. “It’s breaking records for the hottest August in a century.”
Cynthia put the remote down. She looked over at the piano in the corner. She hadn’t played it since the accident.
She began to cry.
“Up next, music training sharpens brain pathways,” the news announcer said. “After the break hear about research that shows that students who play instruments perform better in school.” Cynthia turned the TV volume button up then went into the kitchen to grab a snack. When she returned the commercial was over. The news came on. The caption on the screen read, Harvard piano study. Cynthia sat down as the story began.
“New research at Harvard’s brain imaging lab found that the complexity involved in practicing and performing the piano may help students’ cognitive development,” the news anchor said. “Student pianists scored an average of sixty two points higher on scholastic tests than their non musical peers. The study also showed that music can improve your study skills and ability to memorize and repeat important facts.”
After the news was over Cynthia approached the piano again. She opened the cover caked with dust. It was so dark back in that corner. Noah wouldn’t let her open the curtains anymore. But she could still see the music - ‘Beethoven’s Manuscripts’ was still opened to page six on the music rack. Right where she’d left it the night of the accident.
She slowly sat down and closed her eyes. The keys felt so cool and smooth against her tiny fingers. Slowly the beautiful sounds of Beethoven’s Sonata flooded the room. The deep sadness of the first measure of the haunting C sharp minor chords moved her to continue on. As she played the agitating melody line contrasting the rhythmic triplets she could feel the keys under her fingers even more intently leaving her melancholy behind, if only for a moment.
The front door flew open. As Noah approached he wreaked of cigarettes and alcohol. He slammed the piano cover down hard on her fingers. Not quick enough they caught the tips of her fingers on both hands.
“It’s all your fault! They would be here today if they didn’t have to drive in that storm that night.” He screamed as he stormed into the kitchen. “Never play that thing again. Do you hear me?”
She held her fingers close hoping to stop the throbbing. She bit her lower lip so hard it bled.
“Where is it?” he yelled. “Where’s my god damn bottle?” He could be heard slamming the cupboard doors.
“I don’t know,” she cried. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.” She stood up and tried to back away.
He grabbed her by the shoulders and shook her.
“Forget it, you’re not worth it.” He shoved her into the couch and took off.
A few minutes later she heard the heavy metal music from his vehicle. She’d never seen him this angry. She had to get away, just long enough for him to drink himself into a stupor, then she knew she’d be OK for a couple of more days. She ran out the back door and down the block.
If she could make it to the corner diner he wouldn’t follow her in there. He never did before, anyways.
But, it was too late. The broken tail pipe on his pickup could be heard two blocks away. She ducked into the alleyway and hid behind the dumpster, hoping he wouldn’t find her.
The nights were finally cooling down again. Noah had agreed to let Cynthia go to middle school in September on the condition that she clean out the garage before Labor Day. No one had been in there since the accident.
She’d slept well that night. She was going to go back to school. That’s all that mattered right now.
Behind the five gallon can of pink paint that her father had used to paint her bedroom was a bottle of clear liquid. Her mom had always told her to be cautious about clear liquids. The bottle didn’t have a label on it but she remembered when her dad painted the room. “What’s that, daddy?” she had asked as he poured a small amount of the liquid into the pink paint.
“It’s wood alcohol, honey,” he had said as he stirred it in.
“What’s it for?”
“It’s for thinning the paint,” he had replied as he continued to stir. “It’s a little too thick. This will make it go on smoother. Wood alcohol is not the drinking kind. It'll kill you so stay clear.”
When she was done cleaning out the garage she put the bag of garbage at the curb including the bottle of wood alcohol. That night a raccoon got into the garbage and tore the bag open, spilling all of the contents onto the front lawn.
“Fucking bitch,” Noah screamed as he pulled into the driveway that night. “She can’t do fucking anything right.” He pulled his truck into the driveway and staggered over to clean up the mess. Earlier when the raccoon had rummaged through the garbage part of the label on the bottle of wood alcohol had torn off. The part of the label that had the word ‘alcohol’ was still intact. “Fuck.” He picked it up and, not bothering to smell it, shoved it into his jacket pocket. That night, already in a drunken stuper he polished it off.
When Cynthia opened her bedroom door the next morning she was hit with the smell of vomit. She ran downstairs to find Noah face down, the putrid smell surrounding him. Her piercing scream woke the old lady next door who then came running.
After the police left and Noah's body was taken out in a body bag the house was locked up and Cynthia spent the night in a foster home.
The sixth grade showcase concert took place in December of that year. Though the Bach Invention in F Major was tough for even some of Mrs. Reynold’s high school students Cynthia played it flawlessly, and even had it memorized by the time the event took place. After the performance Cynthia and Mrs. Reynolds drove home.
As they pulled into the driveway Cynthia said quietly, “I miss them.”
“I know, honey.” She leaned over and caressed her cheek. “They would have been so proud.”