As a special Christmas gift, I’m posting a recently-published short story, “Melody and Harmony”, from my collection Before the Ripcord Broke: Stories.
Please note: this is a short-term post, which will expire at the end of January.
Until then…happy reading, and Merry Christmas.
They walked through the Great Atrium of the Katherine and Arthur Moreland Medical Center, underneath three tiers of circular balconies thriving with practices, surgeries, and outpatient centers. They passed the koi fountain, the information desk, the bistro, and crossed the floor to the glossy grand piano with its top already opened.
Patrick, the events administrator for the Moreland Center said, “And here’s our piano. Steinway, as you can see. This is where you’ll perform.”
John leaned forward and touched the C above middle C. He listened. Then the A below middle C. Adequate, he thought. Not impressive.
Patrick said, “As I said over the phone, we’re looking for holiday music, something to celebrate the season and entertain our patrons. Christmas carols, Rudolph the Red-Nose Reindeer, that sort of thing. Six hours a day with an hour break at lunch, now through Christmas Eve.”
“Yes,” John said. Patrick had explained it on the phone. More to the point, his sister Melody, whose goals in life apparently climaxed with working here, for this man, had explained it. He still didn’t know how she had persuaded him to do this. He had told her he needed to focus on his master’s thesis composition, Suite in Only E-flat. Everything else was a distraction.
Patrick waited for John to say more, but John had nothing more to say.
Patrick said, “Good. I imagine you know what to do. Melody spoke very highly of you.”
John raised his eyebrows a fraction.
Patrick said, “Well. Time to get started. I look forward to your performance.”
John sat on the padded black leather bench and brushed his fingers on the keys before resting them in his lap and remaining motionless.
“Problem?” Patrick said.
John turned just enough to look at Patrick from the corner of his eye. “No.”
John shook his head slightly.
“Then I’m going. I’ll be in the office if you need me.”
John nodded and Patrick walked away to pick up a salad at the bistro before returning to his desk.
With that distraction removed, John played something to warm up on, Wagner’s Flight of the Valkyries, his own arrangement with rolling arpeggios in the bass and stabbing octave chords in the treble.
He began to enjoy himself. Never mind his parents’ invitation to Christmas dinner, which he had refused. Never mind their very slow agreement to pay for his second year of graduate school:molto adagio with sending the money, not to mention the implied insult. Never mind their dull-witted understanding of what he did, which only thinly disguised an utter lack of interest in it. He was a composer, not a conductor, not a performer. He only played the piano because it was a useful tool for composing and because it amused him, not because it was what he did.
Pang p-pang pang, pang p-pang pang
If his parents were unable to understand – and they were; they were hopeless – his sister was even worse. Hopelessima. When he told his mother he was not coming home for Christmas, Melody called him less than an hour later. He told her he was too busy with his E-flat. He explained it to her in precise quarter notes and still she would not comprehend.
“At least do just one little thing,” she said in that mewling voice of hers. “Just one little thing.”
John’s eyelids rolled closed. “What?” he said.
“Come play the piano at the medical center. You play so nicely.”
Nicely? Who wanted to be nice when they could be excellent? Well, that was a silly question. Melody was full of niceness, like a sack of kittens, and had never been excellent a day in her life. “As I told you,” he said “I don’t have time. Master’s thesis. It’s incredibly demanding.”
“John, that can’t take all your time, can it? Just sitting alone in the library with a pen and paper? I’ve seen you. Remember when I came to visit?”
He did, barely. Their parents had dropped her off with him at the University, which was inconveniently located just on the other side of town, and she had stared at him all day: when he went to class, when he studied, and when he composed in the graduate library. He remembered her wide eyes and the library skylight striking her from above, and it made him think, “I’m supposed to feed you, aren’t I?” Which he did, with a bag of Chinese food that she claimed was what she liked.
She was still talking. “It must be very quiet in the library with all your work and your thesis and la-di-da-di-da. Wouldn’t it be fun to play some Christmas music? Maybe eat in the hospital bistro, seeing as you’re not coming home? I hear they’re serving roast turkey.”
“It would be awful,” he said.
“Oh.” That seemed to be the end of it. He had finally gotten through to her and she was about to hang up the phone. Then she said, “You know, they’re quite sophisticated at the Moreland Center. All the doctors and nurses have college degrees and I’m sure lots of the patrons do too. They might appreciate excellent piano playing.”
“I am not a pianist, and I don’t have time for Christmas,” he said, and he hung up.
And that was that, even when she called the next day and mentioned the beautiful grand piano right in the middle of the atrium. He hung up again. It wasn’t until the third call that he began to reconsider, when she hinted that maybe sometimes he could play something he wrote himself, if the administrator allowed it. It also didn’t hurt that the job paid a small stipend. If Mom and Dad weren’t going to send any extra, he would need to do something for cash.
When he told Melody over the phone that he would play for her medical center after all, she almost cried. “Thank you, John! Thank you! I’ll tell the administrator. I’m so happy! Thank you! And Merry Christmas!” She did not let him get a word in edgewise to tell her to stop sniveling.
And now here he was. It was a foolish decision, the kind he sometimes made, and now it was too late to fix it. Truth be told, he rather enjoyed playing Wagner. The piano wasn’t the worst Steinway he had ever played, only the most bourgeois. He imagined the thunder in his left hand and the spikes in his right bouncing off the high ceiling and vibrating the liquid in the I.V. bags on the upper balconies.
Suddenly Patrick reappeared with a plastic salad box in one hand and a bottle of juice in the other. He did not look happy. “This isn’t holiday music!” he said, trying to be heard over the Valkyries.
John halted. He tilted his head in a question mark.
“This isn’t holiday music,” Patrick said again.
John tilted his head the other way, trying to understand what this man was getting at.
“I brought you here to play holiday songs. Kindly do that for us, please.”
There was a brief moment when Patrick pressed his point home with his eyes and John looked impassively back. John began playing We Wish You a Merry Christmas in an upper register, almost but not quite like a music box.
Patrick nodded. “That’s more like it. Give us plenty of that kind of thing.”
John smiled back, knowing that he only had to elongate and punctuate a few notes and drop in a minor third here and there to be playing Wagner again. John watched him walk away to his office to munch and crunch his salad.
John played Christmas songs and hated it. Ding Dong Merrily on High, White Christmas, O Little Town of Bethlehem – all that dreck. He was able to pick out tunes that he didn’t even remember knowing. They were just in his ears and out his fingertips. It was effortless. It was pointless. Whoever had come up with songs like these had no reason to live. In a century or so his E-flat would wipe them out of human memory.
Nonetheless, he was a good puppet, if for no other reason than because he didn’t want to see or hear Melody cry again. He played the songs honestly for quite some time. People even seemed to be enjoying them, looking over the railings from the floors above or slowing down as they passed him. Once a middle-aged woman rolled her husband’s wheelchair to a stop so they could listen. John ignored the man when he waved, preferring to give his energies to composing in his mind while his hands played that terrible, terrible song, Deck the Halls.
Eventually, however, his fortitude for playing lifeless music began to weaken. He started by playing a wooden version of Heart and Soul. It was still popular music. By popular he meant awful. Maybe Patrick wouldn’t notice. It cheered John slightly to imagine that the song was Heart and Soul and Kidneys and Tumors and Crutches and Bandages.
Then, after a hundred rounds of The Holly and the I.V., he gave up. He needed to play some real music. He decided to play In C by Terry Riley. It was originally written for an orchestra, and the most important instrument was the piano, which poked C in a steady pulse throughout the length of the piece, generally forty-five minutes or so. He could do that with one hand and improvise the orchestra parts with the other.
He began and the tension in his body drained almost immediately. It felt good to play one note over and over again. He did not notice or care if people watched.
Patrick came back out of out his office and this time he wasn’t carrying a salad. He walked up to the piano and rapped on it with his knuckles. John treated it as an impromptu addition to In C, one which almost fit, actually. That was good because the most important thing about playing In C was not to finish until it was over, no matter how long it took. It was a demanding composition in that way.
Patrick came around behind and snapped the keyboard lid down on John’s hands. “Holiday music!” he said. “Holiday music.”
John stopped. In C was canceled due to audience hostility. “I was playing holiday music,” he said.
“Only holiday music.”
John remained silent. This kind of creative dullness could not be answered directly.
Patrick lifted the lid off John’s hands and took a step back. “I can see you are a very serious man. I am too, in my way. And what I want is someone with the professionalism to do the job he was hired to do.”
John brought his hands to his lap and discretely rubbed his knuckles.
Patrick said, “I think you need to ask yourself whether you really want to play here. Look, it’s almost time for lunch. If you’re ready to come back in an hour and play Christmas songs, good. If not, best of luck to you and no hard feelings. You decide.” Patrick walked away and did not wait for John’s answer.
John looked at his watch. Five minutes to noon. He sat on the piano bench, not playing any notes on the piano. In his mind he was playing 4’33” by John Cage, consisting of only silence and the sounds of the fountain and the opening and closing of elevator doors.
At noon he stood up to go to the bistro, now in the middle of performing his new composition, 1:04:33.
The food in the bistro was horrible. Sandwiches. Fruit cups. Chips. Bottled water. If he hadn’t been hungry, he would never have bought them. He decided to eat and leave, taking this as a lesson on what happens when you neglect your own creative vision to serve someone else’s.
He spread open the crinkly plastic around his sandwich to get to the soft, rotting insides. This was what it must be like to be a gangrene surgeon.
“There you are!” The chair in front of him scraped back and Melody plopped herself down.
John looked at her with one eye. He kept the other eye on the sandwich, so it wouldn’t infect him.
“You sounded great. Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas – wow, it was great. Are you eating lunch now?”
John’s other eye drifted down to his tray. “Obviously,” he said.
She looked at the chips. “Can I have a chip? Just one? I’ll break one in half. I really shouldn’t eat chips.”
John slid the bag to her and Melody opened it with both hands.
“What songs are you going to play next? Please say you’re going to play Holly Jolly Christmas. I love that one.”
“I’m not playing anymore,” John said. “I’m going home.”
John bit into his sandwich. It tasted dreadful. There wasn’t enough ketchup in the world to fix it. “Because Christmas music is a compact with death and I refuse to dig my own grave.”
Melody hacked a laugh that made the chip fly out of her mouth. She wiped her lips with her fingers. “John, you’re so funny. I always wished I could be funny like you.”
“I’m not joking,” John said.
“Stop it! I’m trying to eat this chip.”
He withdrew to his comfortable silence.
Of course Melody wouldn’t let him stay there. “Why, John? You were playing so beautifully.”
“I told you. I have to get back to my real work.”
“But there won’t be any Christmas music.”
“Patrick doesn’t have anyone else. Just you.”
John didn’t answer.
“John, oh please. I told Patrick you were a wonderful piano player. And you are. I heard O Holy Night. It was so pretty.”
John grimaced. Pretty.
“I told Patrick you could do it. If you just quit, I don’t know what would happen. I mean, to me.”
“Nothing would happen. I go, you stay.” You stay and marinate in sickness and money.
“No, John! Patrick might fire me.”
“Not possible. You didn’t quit, I did.”
“That makes me unreliable in choosing the entertainment. There’s nothing worse than that.”
And there it was. Melody was getting ready to cry again. “Please, John. Do this for me. Please. I don’t want to leave here. I don’t have anything else.”
The threat to cry was too much. Insufferable. Pointless. “I never wanted to do this,” he said.
And then the crying did stop. She looked at him, not with her usual dirty-snowball-in-the-rain eyes, but with ice eyes like his own. “You never do anything you don’t want to do.”
She got up and left the rest of the chips to him. Which was good because he had bought those chips and expected to eat at least some of them. John reached and munched. Boring chips. Why hadn’t he gotten the ranch-flavored ones?
It was not his fault he was an artist and all she had in the world was a death ward swaddled in gift wrap. Did he tell her not to go to college? Did he tell her not to respect herself or improve herself? Did he tell her to live with their parents when she was twenty-one years old? He did no such thing.
He opened the fruit cup. The watermelon chunks were hard and juiceless. No wonder people died here.
If they ever heard his E-flat when it was finished, they would understand. Once they heard it, it would embarrass them, it would shame them, to think they had asked him to play Jingle Bells. When they heard it they would ask why he had spent even one minute working on anything else.
Of course this wouldn’t actually happen. Once he wrote it, he might never get it performed. Orchestras could be unbelievably unimaginative. And if it was performed, and if his family came to see it, they wouldn’t like it. It was too advanced for them. They were the kind of people who liked the theme music to television shows. He knew they would nod and try to smile, and he would have to stand there and accept it like it meant anything at all.
Melody should not say he never did anything he didn’t want to do. It was false and uncharitable. Like this lunch.
John returned to the piano. He played The Christmas Song. It disgusted him. Patrick walked by and gave him a thumbs up. John resisted the temptation to start playing chopsticks.
Later Melody hugged him from behind while he was playing. He assumed it was her and not an old woman trying to stay upright after a hip replacement. He found it irritating and distracting.
He played for three hours, trying not to let his mind be incriminated in what his hands were doing. Here Comes Santa Claus? No, officer, I don’t know anything about it. My brain was never there.
He came back the next morning against his better judgment. Melody was already waiting for him with her hands behind her back. “I have something for you,” she said.
He counted out a slow measure, repeat, second ending. “What?”
She held up two knitted scarves, scarlet fringed with white trim and white puff balls dangling down. “When I knew you were coming, I knitted them. Well, actually, I was already knitting them. I just knitted them a little faster and finished them last night. See – we match.” Her face was open, like a chorus girl’s hands.
John looked at the scarf meant for him. So, this is how Jesus felt.
“Come on, big brother. Let’s put it on.” She tiptoed up to him and wrapped the scarf around his neck, making sure it hung down straight in front. She patted his chest.
He looked down and closed his eyes. It didn’t help. In his mind’s eye he could still see the puff balls fluttering.
When he opened his eyes again she was wearing her scarf too. “You look lovely,” she said. “Ready to play?”
John took his seat and began The Twelve Days of Christmas, otherwise known as Santa’s Ninety-Nine Bottles of Beer, and a strange thing happened. Melody didn’t go away. She stood next to the piano with her hand resting on it, and hummed. She was humming along with his playing, just loudly enough for him to find it annoying, and she did it for the whole song, all the way from Twelve Drummers Drumming to A Partridge in a Pear Tree.
Well, that was fine for one song, even if it did test the patience. He was sure she would go away once he started the next song. She didn’t. She hummed all the way through Greensleeves, even louder this time.
Well. Next he played a prestissimo version of Carol of the Bells. That ought to shake her off. Try humming those runs, little sister. It didn’t shake her. He played a fifteen minute version of the song and she hung on. She could hum that fast, and towards the end she even opened her mouth and sang a few notes. John had to give her grudging credit for being even clingier than he realized.
He ended the song and considered what to do next. Maybe it was time for his break. Maybe he was sick. Maybe he should get on the elevator with his eyes closed and take his chances with the first doctor he met.
“You know, I was just thinking,” Melody said. “Maybe I could sing along with your playing. You know, kind of a, of a –”
John stiffened. Don’t say it. Don’t.
“Of a duet,” she said. “Wouldn’t that be nice: brother and sister making music together?”
“I don’t think so,” John said.
“Why not? I know all the words. I can sing.”
“I really don’t think so.”
“Yes I can. You know, you are not the only one in the family who likes music.”
John felt his face turn the color of his ridiculous scarf. “Likes? Melody, music is my life. I don’t like it. It’s everything to me! The only musical thing you’ve got is your name!”
It was Melody’s turn for her face to turn color, white this time, not red. This was the part where she normally started crying. She didn’t cry: she burned. “I have been living with that awful joke forever! Now you listen. Either you let me sing Christmas songs with you, or you will not play another note on that piano. Do you hear me?”
They stared at each other. Neither noticed the white coats or wheelchairs that stopped moving, nor the silence in the upper tiers of the atrium.
John said, “That’s perfectly fine with me. Bellissimo, in fact.” He put the keyboard lid down.
“You think I don’t know what bellissimo means, but I do!”
He walked away, leaving the center of the lobby floor and crossing to the outer edge on his way to the automatic doors. Before he got there he heard the piano again: tink…tink tink tink tink ti-tink ti-tink. It was clumsy sounding, a hopeless amateur picking out a song with one finger. Melody was trying to play Sleigh Ride. She played the opening phrase again, this time trying to sing along with it.
He turned around. Her piano playing was a nightmare. She couldn’t play the melody, much less the chords underneath. Her singing, though – it was tentative, yes, but by the time she got to the bridge she sounded stronger. She gave up playing and stood up to sing. There was more bass in it than he ever would have guessed from the squeaking way she talked.
He listened to her sing the entire song. It was in a good range for her. Her voice was pleasant, even pretty, if you liked that kind of thing. Of course it was deeply and profoundly untrained. Still, she might actually sing acceptably well after a few years of study under a proper coach, preferably a Russian. As it was, she was trying too hard and she wouldn’t make it past the third song. He stamped his foot on the tile floor and headed back to the piano.
He sat down on the bench and waited for her to finish. He could tell she was singing somewhere between A and A-flat, and if he tried to accompany her now it would show incontrovertibly how little she knew about pitch.
When she stopped he said, “You need a microphone.”
Melody brightened. “I have one, in Patrick’s office. I’ll go get it.”
He looked down at the keys. This was an atrocious idea.
“Thank you,” she said. “Thank you so much.”
She hurried away. He played an A-flat and A together.
It wasn’t as miserable as John had expected. Melody’s singing, while not excellent, grew more confident with practice. She knew all the words to the songs, something he had learned not to take for granted from working with would-be opera singers in his undergraduate opera composition class. He could tell she enjoyed singing from the way she started smiling after the second song, which was annoying, and labored to make her voice heard all the way up to the specialists’ offices on the third floor, which was incredibly tiresome. By his own estimation, her voice was not accomplished enough to be heard clearly three floors up, more likely two-and-a-half. He did not have the heart to tell her that she was singing for the benefit of buffed brick walls and Christmas tinsel.
Her singing approach was entirely conventional: common singing for common songs, carols delivered in a red box with a green bow on top. John found this simplistic and uninteresting. Which, John eventually realized, provided him an opportunity. Now that Melody was doing the pedestrian work of delivering the songs, per se, he could direct his attention to playing something more worthwhile on the piano. He was able to stretch out both harmonically and rhythmically, and play with a little flair.
Well, actually, this stretching out didn’t happen immediately. As soon as he substituted a chord in Joy to the World that Melody didn’t expect, but which was infinitely better, she gagged and stopped singing.
“What was that?” Melody said.
“What?” John said.
“Don’t do that! Just play normally.”
He didn’t just play normally. He continued to change the chords, although he picked better moments to do it, ones that wouldn’t make his sister sneeze. With a little practice she learned to live with it. All she had to do was continue singing her boring notes and her brother would give the gurneys and neck braces something to marvel at.
Later on, once he realized that Melody could pedal her bicycle without falling over, he tried something even more interesting. He inserted bits of his Suite in Only E-flat. It sounded quite good, actually, although it would have sounded even better if it weren’t covered in Christmas goo.
They played for the rest of the afternoon and she hugged him when they parted. She promised she would be there the next morning, ready to go. John accepted the hug with his arms at his sides and made no such promise in return.
Nevertheless, against his better judgment and because he wanted his stipend, he did return. She was waiting for him, wearing her red scarf over a black turtleneck, black skirt, black stockings, and low heel black dress shoes. She looked like Death come back as a real estate agent.
“Why aren’t you wearing your scarf?” she said.
“I left it at home.”
“No you didn’t. I saw you hide it in the piano bench last night.” She pinched his arm and waited smilingly until he opened the bench and put the scarf back on.
“And I brought something else,” she said. She held up two Santa hats.
John closed his eyes and Melody placed the hat on his head. This was how John knew that God hated composers.
They played the songs all morning and well into the afternoon, John subverting Melody’s unbearably conventional views on Christmas music, and Melody singing out as if her voice could cure cancer. It might be said that they both enjoyed themselves, at least if John were not present to deny it.
Things didn’t start to go horribly wrong until a middle-aged man and woman walked arm-in-arm through the sliding doors and Melody waved to them. “Mom! Dad!”
The shock almost made John play a C major chord. He recovered himself and played the more interesting G-flat.
John tried to stretch the song for an extra chorus or two, but Melody stopped singing and he decided, awhile later, to halt as well.
“You came!” Melody said. “You came to hear us.”
“Yep,” Dad said. “Your Mom and I were out shopping. Then we came here.”
“We came to hear some Christmas songs,” Mom said.
“Well good, good! I wasn’t sure you could come. I’m so glad.”
“Of course. We wanted to hear John playing the piano.”
Melody’s face darkened a shade. She turned to John. “Shall we do something?”
“Which one?” John said. If you could pick any pointless Christmas song to play in front of your parents, which one would it be?
Melody stared at him. “Any one,” she said.
“This one?” he said, and played a note on the piano.
“Yes,” she said. “That one will be perfect.”
John decided the note was the beginning of Jingle Bell Rock, and began to play.
John resolved that he was not going to let the gray haze of his parents’ presence dampen his performance, and played even more expansively than usual. He secretly knew that while this was the most sophisticated playing they could handle, it was far from the most sophisticated playing he was capable of.
Melody also decided to express herself fully. Her voice reached the ceiling, and John thought if she tried a just little harder she could become a fourth-rate Broadway belter. He meant this with all due respect and pity.
This was bad enough. What was worse was that their father began tapping his feet, and then he took Mom around the waist and they began dancing. Not the polite, careful dancing of parents visiting a place of medical care. It was the hip-twisting, rug-cutting, western swing dancing of people without shame. They swished and wiggled like palsy patients getting off a bus. John looked away. There were not enough E-flats on the piano to wipe the vision from his mind.
When the song ended, Mom and Dad took deep breaths and looked at each other like neither was sure what happened. Dad called out to Melody, “You sing? Well I’ll be damned.”
“Yes! I’ve always sung.”
“Well I’ll be damned.” He turned to Mom. “Did you know that?”
“No I didn’t,” Mom said.
“I’ve always sung,” Melody said.
“And you,” Dad said to John, “that was some weird piano.”
John looked down. “Thanks.”
“None of the notes sounded right and it still worked. How did you do that?”
“It’s complicated,” John said.
“What do I care? Show me.”
If Dad had had any idea how much music theory went into his version of Jingle Bell Rock, he would not have dared to ask. But since he was ignorant and pushy, John felt obliged to answer. “Simple chord substitution,” John said, “from this…to this. And this…to this. See?”
“Nope, not really,” Dad said. “It sounded good, though, if you like it weird.”
“Spicy,” Mom said.
“Give us another one,” Dad said. “Play Let It Snow. Bet you can’t weird-up that one.”
When he said it, Dad did one of those blinking things with his left eye that made no sense. Dad was mistaken if he thought John couldn’t harmonically enrich any composition he chose.
John began Let it Snow and Mom and Dad started dancing again. John closed his eyes. It was unbearable to watch. He was about to introduce them to Arnold Schoenberg’s twelve tone rows when Melody started…scat singing. Was she really trying to sing jazz? All he knew for sure was that she was singing notes all over the place and reaching hard for the high ones and the low ones. She sounded like a prop plane running out of fuel and trying to stay in the air.
Of course this ruined John’s plans. If she was going to improvise, he had to stay close to the basic song to prevent catastrophe. Melody had put him in the position of playing this boring song boringly in front of his parents. He promised himself he would not forgive her.
When the song was over, John stopped. Melody did not. She kept going diddy-wop-pow on her own for another chorus, at the end of which John played a two big The End chords to tell her it was the end. And it was the end, thank God. It was late in the afternoon and he was tired of playing Christmas music for his talent show sister and their honky-tonk parents.
“That was fun!” Dad said. “Mom and I haven’t danced like that in ages.”
“I’m glad you liked it,” Melody said. “We’ve been practicing.”
“It’s a lot of fun. That’s all I’ve got to say.”
John nodded. He hadn’t been practicing. He didn’t need to practice marching into Hell.
“So tell me,” Dad said, “when do you finish up? We want to take you out for dinner. I’m thinking Bruno’s Tin Shack for a chicken fried steak and some chili fries. How does that sound?”
“Ted,” Mom said.
“I don’t like chili fries,” John said.
“Sure you do,” Dad said.
“No I don’t,” John said.
“For the love of Mike, son, could you either pull that stick out or saw it off? I’m trying to take you and your sister out, our treat.”
Mom said, “Ted, don’t be so rude.”
“Me, rude? What kind of kid doesn’t like chili fries? That’s all I’m saying.”
“What?” Dad said.
“Ted, can I talk to you?”
“I’m right here, Mary.”
Mom gestured Dad to come closer.
“Talk to me right here,” he said.
She clenched her jaw and moved closer to Dad, right up to his face to prevent the kids from listening. They did listen and John distinctly head Mom say, “Do you know how much Bruno’s for four people would cost? And I already bought Christmas dinner at the store.”
Dad’s features slackened and there was a moment of looks: Mom and Dad’s imploring looks to each other, and Melody’s look right at John.
What was she looking at him for? Down at her waist she rubbed her fingers together in the gesture for money and pointed at him.
He looked a question at her, pretending not to understand. She knew he did understand and stared at him even harder. Her eyes were a demand and a plea at the same time.
John played a brief twelve tone row in his head, and another. Melody’s stare did not go away.
Okay, fine. Fine. “Okay,” John said. “Let’s go out to Bruno’s. I’m buying, and I’m going to have a salad.”
Dad barked, “Salad? You eat salad? Don’t they serve real food in college?”
“No,” John said. Just swill, like chili fries and chicken fried steaks.
“That’s why you like weird music.”
Yes, of course Dad was right: eating salad had turned him into a composer. He would not admit this out loud, just like John knew that Dad knew Bruno’s didn’t serve salad and was keeping his mouth shut about it.
Melody looked at John with one of her weak-chinned, big-eyed smiles that he couldn’t stand. She owed him for this.
And, since he was spending his piano-playing money to feed chili fries to his family, he was probably going to have to come home for Christmas dinner. He had to get his meals from somewhere.
Excerpted from Before the Ripcord Broke: Stories