Grandpa would sit me next to him in the parlour and play songs on an upright piano, singing into a microphone he’d hooked up to an old reel-to-reel recorder. He’d learned to play songs by ear; Honky Tonk and The Blues, Country and Western. Sometimes, he’d take requests and I’d always choose “Frankie and Johnnie” because it had a dramatic story to it. His voice was hollow like a big empty room and I’d watch his Adam’s apple travel up and down his long throat while he stretched himself skyward, his eyes closed, his hands spread over the keyboard, his fingers fanned out, wavering on the worn ivories.
After Grandpa died, his piano, his recorder, his tapes all vanished in the cleanup, gone to Goodwill by someone who had never sat on the bench or been the audience to his private concerts. But I know those sounds and I am the recording. I have a room inside me for an old upright, and a reel to reel.
I tap my foot on my hardwood floor, head back, eyes closed. I hear his foot on the pedals, the pop of the microphone. The hum that is me.
Oh, Lordy, how they did love.
We hadn’t had sex in months. Instead, we’d spoon. I was always the little spoon even though I was the bigger of the two. He’d form himself to my back pressed into me like another skin and I could feel his breath on me – irritating, rhythmic exhalations – until I couldn’t stand it any longer and I’d curl up into a tighter ball, pushing him away with my hip. He’d make a tentative play for something more, a light caress up the side of my arm, a hand inching around my waist. My body would will him away, stiffening against his stiffness until he’d get the idea and turn back, forming his own ball, our bums touching.
The radio counted down all of the hits from 1979. Another One Bites the Dust – one of my favourites – and I picked up a stone, flat and smooth and perfectly oval, and skipped it into the middle of the lake. I was dancing now, singing along (machine guns ready to go), firing off pebbles in rapid succession. I glanced up the dirt road to the top of the hill and saw a dust cloud travelling down the switchbacks. Another minute or two and he’d be here.
I don’t remember how I got the scar on my right thigh. It’s shaped like a smile but not a happy one. More of a forced smile – the kind you give a distant relative who’s come to visit and is motioning you to come in for a hug.
I had relatives like that, all the way from Hungary. They couldn’t speak a word of English and they smelled like basements. Would I smell like that too, one day?
My Grandmother did although my Grandfather didn’t. But they both smelled the same at the end – like honey and sweat and wilted flowers, sympathy cards and nightgowns.