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Michele Ruby


Michele Ruby lives and writes in Louisville, Kentucky. Her fiction appeared in Arts&Letters (Fiction Prize winner), Literal Latte (Short Shorts contest winner), The Adirondack Review (Fulton Prize finalist), Ellery Queen, Shenandoah, Inkwell, Nimrod, Louisville Review, Los Angeles Review, and others, and in Frankly Feminist, Lilith’s first print anthology. Story collections were finalists for the Flannery O’Connor, St. Lawrence, Hudson, Press 53 and Autumn House Awards. With an MFA from Spalding University. she taught fiction writing at Bellarmine University and was a fiction editor for Best New Writing.

     When my mother played the piano, people fell in love.  Men got taller.  Women became more graceful.  Couples stopped sniping at each other, and instead they danced.  My mother’s music, full of chords and crescendos, a dance along the keys, cured people.  Everyone but her and me.    

When my mother played the piano, she was another woman in another world.  She lost herself in the music, and she lost me, too.  I was invisible and insubstantial to this gleaming new creature; I was a shadow of a forgotten life.  

     My mother Libby wasn’t a great beauty, but she was striking.  Shiny black hair, pale skin, red, red lipstick.  At the piano, she had a seductive combination of energy and languor, enthusiasm and ease.  She could read music, but mostly she played by ear, making it look effortless.  She took requests and could play them all.  People couldn’t stay away, and once in the room, they gathered around her piano and sang along or danced in whatever space they could find.  She gave them Gershwin, Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald, show tunes – any song where people fell in and out of love.  

     She lost her first job, playing at a small club attached to a small casino, because the patrons stayed too long at the piano, singing along with my mother, putting twenties in her tip jar, sitting next to her on that hard bench, with their arms around her shoulders or her waist, feeling like Sinatra or Bennett or Martin.  They sang instead of gambling.  They sang instead of lingering in the restaurant.  They bought drinks, and the bar take kept her employed there for a while, but the hostess had a boyfriend with a great tenor voice, and he spent too long on the piano bench next to my mother.    


     She needed the job.  My dad’s suicide left her without insurance, ironic since that was what he sold.  But she also needed the piano.  And we couldn’t afford one.   She played for a while in the atrium of the big department store in town, at a gleaming baby grand set on a round area rug spotted like a leopard.  Two leather couches offered men a place to sit while their wives shopped.  It didn’t pay well and it didn’t end well.  

     After that, she got a job at Frankenthal’s at the mall, selling Baldwins.  She also gave piano lessons in one of the back rooms, which had been fitted out with soundproofing.  She’d bang out something stirring to lure shoppers in, and then Mr. Frankenthal would hustle them for lessons.  He was frequently successful, and sometimes men who had gathered around her at the casino or the department store also came for lessons.  I didn’t like to imagine how those lessons went. 

     Nights, she played at clubs around town.  At first she left me with a neighbor, but old Mrs. Caney nodded off with the kettle on, and the steam triggered the fire alarm.  After that my mother left me alone in our apartment with firm instructions not to open the door or turn on the stove.  She put out a sandwich and an Oreo or an apple for me, and she left the TV on, so it would seem like there was an adult at home.  Our apartment was old and creaky, and I was terrified of being there alone.  “We need the money, Annie,” my mother said.  “It’s only for a few hours.”  I couldn’t think with the TV blaring, so I collected my dinner, my blanket, my pillow, and my book – usually an art book from the school library – and brought them to the bathroom.  I locked the door, and set up a reading nook in the tub.  I’d find a scene by Renoir or Seurat and pretend I was inside the painting, in sunshine and good company.  Just before my mother was due home, I unlocked the door, crept out, and huddled in my bed under the covers, counting the creaks and the minutes until I heard my mother’s key in the latch.  When she opened my bedroom door to check on me, I finally exhaled and allowed myself to fall asleep.  Sometimes she sat at the edge of my bed for a minute, and I struggled to stay awake enough to enjoy the sweetness of knowing she was there.  

     One night I fell asleep in the tub.  When my mother got home, she couldn’t find me, and I was awakened by her keening “Annnnnnnieeeeee?”  I fumbled with the lock and ran into her arms, but she swatted at me, her fear and her guilt fueling her anger.      

     So after school and on Saturdays, I went to work with her, with strict instructions: no noise, no mess.  Be invisible.  At Frankenthal’s, I sat in the tiny break room and drew or read or did homework, too young to walk the mall alone.  Mr. Frankenthal liked my mom, so he acceded to the arrangement.  Sometimes I stuffed envelopes for him, and once or twice his grandchildren came by and I got to go get a Coke with them.    

     One slow day at Frankenthal’s, I was drawing a detailed picture of my mother and myself.  My father was a smaller presence in the background, wearing his burial suit.  I had just added his trademark bowtie when my mother came into the break room and picked up the unfinished picture.  “Oh,” was all she said.  Her face got still, and I felt like I wasn’t even in the room.  After a minute, she looked at me instead of the picture, and said, “Your father used to sketch.”  Then, with an energy in her speaking voice that I rarely heard, she said, “Time for your first piano lesson,” and she shepherded me into the practice cubicle.

     She showed me the fingering for “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star.”  “Do you know what other song has that same tune?” she asked.  In response to my puzzlement, she hummed the tune.  All I could think of was twinkle, twinkle.  She hummed it again.  I screwed up my face to listen harder, but that didn’t help me figure it out.  

     “It’s the ABC song, Annie.  You couldn’t tell?  Really?”  She shook her head as if to clear her dismay and played the notes twice more, once singing “Twinkle, Twinkle” and once singing the alphabet song.  “Now it’s your turn, Annie,” she said.  “Play the first two lines.”    

I sat at the piano, my fingers arched over the keys, holding my breath.  I didn’t want to start playing.  I didn’t want anything to disrupt this very moment, a moment when I had my mother’s complete attention.  

     “Go on,” she said. “Play.”  

     I don’t know why they call it playing.  It isn’t play; it’s work.  I sat, still not breathing, still feeling my mother’s gaze on me like a ray of sun; I turned toward it.  

     “Annie?  Pay attention.”  She indicated the black and white keys.  “Play it for me.”  She tapped the first key with a fingernail.  Her voice was a little more insistent now, less an invitation than a command. I finally breathed and began, stumbling across the notes with fierce intensity but no grace.    

     “Try again.  You missed that note.”

     What note did I miss?  Whatever note it was, I missed it again.  Finally, she played it for me, and by watching her hands I could see where I’d failed to play the sharp.  

     “You didn’t hear it when you hit the wrong note?”


     I didn’t answer.


     She touched the G, then the G sharp. “Hear the difference?”  


     “Yes,” I said, but I didn’t really.  They sounded almost alike, like twin bees buzzing.  

She told me to close my eyes, and then she played two notes.  “Which one is higher?”

“The first one,” I guessed. I was wrong.

     We did this several more times, but I got worse at it instead of better.  The harder I tried, the more my ears buzzed and I couldn’t hear much of anything at all.    

     “Are you just being difficult or can you really not tell?”


     I shrugged.  Disappointment shadowed my mother’s face, along with a great weariness.


     It was the last time she tried to teach me to play.    


     At the nightclubs, I stayed in the dressing room, when there was one, or a back room, or a back office.  If no one was paying attention, I could usually crack a door open and see or at least hear my mother’s smoky contralto move smooth as ivory over the lyrics of a song.  The managers either indulged me or ignored me.  The manager at the Deauville indulged me, bringing me a Coke or chatting for a minute about my mother.  Sometimes he and my mother had a drink together at the bar during her break.  

     My mother played in the parlor of the Deauville Inn, an antebellum mansion turned golf, tennis, and fishing resort.  By then, I was thirteen or so.  Instead of spending my backstage time reading, I took to sketching the scene – my mother at the piano, the crowd around her.  I imagined that I was Toulouse-Lautrec chronicling the nightlife of Nowhere, Kentucky.  Also, I’d just discovered Marc Chagall, so my dead father floated above the crowded room, his bowtie huge as wings.    

     The manager, Keith, a youngish guy with little round glasses, wore a lot of a leathery cologne, so I usually knew when he was passing through.  The one evening I had a cold, he slipped in through the back door of the manager’s office and came up behind me unnoticed.  

     “Not bad, short stuff,” he said, looking over my shoulder at my sketchpad. “Lots of energy there.  Good lines.  What does your art teacher say?” he continued before I could put my pad away.

     “Um, my school doesn’t have art classes anymore.  Cutbacks or something.”


     “You should take private lessons.”


     “We couldn’t afford that.”


     “Well,” he said, as he carefully removed the sketch I was working on and turned to a clean page. “Try shading the shapes.  It’ll create the illusion of volume.  Look at where the light is falling on that glass.  See how the far side is darker?  Same thing with the underside of that man’s arm.  Try it.”


     I moved my pencil quickly to sketch the man’s arm protruding from the half-rolled cuff.  I was rather proud of the wrinkles I put in the man’s shirt sleeve.   

     Keith put his hand over mine and moved it to rub the pencil along the undercurve of the arm and sleeve.  I was so entranced by the feel of Keith’s arm around my shoulder and along my own arm, by the warmth of his hand over my hand, by his breath in my hair as he leaned toward the sketchpad, that I didn’t even pay attention to the pencil, the technique.  The boys in my junior high school class were so clammy and clumsy.  This was utterly different.  As I tried to refocus on achieving the effect of volume, I became aware that we formed a sort of living tableau of the sketch.  Instead of my mother seated at a piano, playing, the tableau was centered on me seated at the manager’s desk, drawing.  Keith took the place of the man leaning over my mother, his hand on her shoulder.  The overseer role of my father in the sketch was filled as well.  

     “Annie!” my mother said from the doorway.  “What the hell is going on here?”


     Keith laughed.  “Art lesson, Libby.  The kid might have some ability.”


     “Yes.  The kid,” my mother said, her eyes flashing a warning.  “My kid.” 


     She whisked me out into the car so fast I didn’t even have time to collect my drawing.  She put the key in the ignition but she didn’t turn on the car.  Instead, she turned and stared at me, taking in my heather skirt, its matching sweater, the barely perceptible bumps where my breasts were surely going to appear sometime soon, the pale lipstick I had begun wearing, the teased hair that wouldn’t flip no matter how many curlers I put in it.  I had her complete focus.  We were both present in that same moment.   I dreaded the word that would shatter the silence and the connection. 


     “Men,” she said, “are dangerous.”


     “Even Daddy?” I said.  


     “Especially him.” She turned toward the front windshield, her hair drifting forward to curtain her face.  “Kind and cruel.  Fascinating and fun.  And so dangerous.”  And a minute later, in a much smaller, colder voice, “They always manage to leave.”  


     The ride home was filled with our silences – my unasked questions and her unspoken answers.  As she parked the car in front of our building, I tried to make it right.  “Keith likes you,” I said, an offering.  I knew it was true, and I was both jealous and glad that we shared at least this.  


     “Once you have children, your life is not your own,” she responded.   


     It took me a while to realize what that meant.  I’d stolen her life. 


     After the Keith incident, she didn’t take me to any more clubs, and I was glad of it.  I had spent so many years longing for her attention and approval that coming out from under her shadow was a shock to me.  The air was filled with shapes instead of sound.  Now I wanted neither her presence nor her attention.  I wanted to be free of it all.  By then I was old enough not to be afraid of the dark inside or outside of our flat.  I hung out at a coffee shop with some older kids who were in art school at the university; they took me in as a kind of mascot.  I roamed the streets with my sketchpad.  I went out with boys who had outgrown their clamminess and clumsiness.    


     But my mother was right about men.  At night, without me in the way, she sometimes went out with one man or another after her gig was over.  One rainy night when I was sixteen, one of these barflies who lit on my mother, a man drunk on bourbon and piano music and mother’s smoky voice, took a curve too fast and drove his car and my mother off the road and into the embrace of a tree.  

The man’s life drained away, but the police called an ambulance for my mother and sent a unit to our apartment to bring me to the hospital.  

     “Doctor, will I still be able to play the piano after the surgery?” she managed to ask, desperation in every husky syllable.  

     “It’s not the old joke,” I said.  “It’s deeply important to her.  It’s the only thing.”


     The surgeon told her that we’d have to wait and see, and then the nurse put her under and wheeled her away from me into the operatory.


     I had stolen her life, and now she was claiming mine.  She was wheel-chair bound, and I was her chauffeur, her maid, her valet.  I took her to the bathroom before each show, helped her to the toilet, touched up her hair for her when the mirror wasn’t low enough, and then wheeled her out to the piano.  Her fingers, hands, and arms worked just fine, and once she started playing, the grimy world fell away.  Feuding couples made up, first dates fell in love, busboys decided to go to college, lushes drank less, men remembered their anniversaries, bosses felt inclined to give raises or promotions, fathers and sons put their arms around each other’s shoulders, daughters tried to let go of their resentment, and my mother had wings if not feet.


     That’s what I said at her funeral.  Not all of it.  Just the last of it. 

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