MUSIC Friday, November 1. The Denver chapter of the Colorado Music Guild presents “An Evening of Baroque Music,” 7:00pm. Featuring Gregory Stead and Amber West, violins, Lamar Burns, cello, Caterina Sol, bassoon. Iliff Branch Library, Escott Room. Donations accepted.
November arrived with commendable punctuality for the forty-ninth time in Leanne Smythe’s life. Wordless, the month could only peep when it arrived, and what it produced mimicked the protests of lame beasts: on the night notes, something like a word. Bish, it uttered until dawn. Sern.
By 7:00am on the first of November, Leanne’s clock tried to lie: just past midnight is all. Despite that effort, it took only eleven seconds of approximate consciousness for Leanne to realize that it was morning. She dropped her head to the right and confirmed that the strip of light between the curtain and the wall was back. She murmured only a low groan that lingered, the audible part a plain sound too unlovely to matter.
Leanne quit her job serving lunch in the high school cafeteria when her daughter graduated three years earlier, figuring it was best not to overstay her welcome. There was a word her kids might use if she had stayed there — clingy. Instead she tended to the house. She mowed the lawn most weeks. Once every few weeks, she met Wendy Kirkpatrick at the donut shop for breakfast. Every other month, she got her hair done at Michael Raye Fashion Salon, where a cut alone cost $45 and that didn’t count the color or the tip. Leanne paid in cash so her husband, Ken, wouldn’t discover her extravagance and tell her to get herself back to Lakewood High.
Ken was still hoping to put in at least a decade as a butcher at King Soopers. Leanne thought often of the things they might do. They could buy a used motor home and take it to the mountains. There should be grandchildren by then, and then all the same things they used to do: Little League and team picnics with buckets of fried chicken, and Ken could build another skateboard ramp.
Leanne sat up. She knew her husband was gone already, but she looked at his side of the bed. She looked at the bedroom door. Resting near it on the floor, propped against the wall, was a small picture of Jesus in a thick wooden frame. She had removed it the day before from the shed in her parents’ backyard, where it had rested for years on her father’s workbench. It was propped against the wall there too, next to two hooks from which Papa hung a wrench. When she was a girl she called it a photograph of Jesus.
“You mean a picture – a painting,” her mother told her.
“The photo of Jesus.”
“It’s a painting, a drawing. Something like that.”
It didn’t matter, it was true. Her mother was dead now. Her 78-year-old father, alone all day, had stopped fitting into his clothes. “I’m taking this,” she told him. “Okay?” she added, but by then she was not looking at her father, and the photograph of Jesus was waiting by the front door.
“That’s yours?” he finally asked. She did not explain.
Her children hadn’t taken much from the house when they moved out last year. They packed up their own things, the most obvious choices — their clothes, their shoes. Tyler took his skateboard; Shannon took her pillow with the pillowcase still on. The kids had claimed no souvenirs, no mementos, no saved rocks or painted stones, not even a pocketknife for Tyler. Leanne’s right eye twitched. So began her November.
Aaron Agee was newly forty, his birthday passing late last spring. One could observe in photographs the way he had changed with the years. A dozen years earlier, his jaw was loose, and his smiles came out with laughter and syllables. Back then, he made ludicrous expressions with his eyes open robot-wide, and the photos later would make him laugh again. A dozen years earlier, he was short for a man, just five feet five inches. He was the second from the left, or the third from the right, and often, especially with a bend to his knees, he was shorter than the women. Now he smiled without his eyes, just a closed-mouth concession to the photographer, and he was of unknown height, sitting or alone.
After that last birthday, Aaron began to neglect his garden. A single thistle grew to nineteen inches tall on the south side of his house, the fence its backdrop, and he thought: I could. Yet he remained inside his house, protected by the heavy glass of the patio door, and the weed grew.
The first hours of November arrived with Aaron unable to sleep. At midnight he sat on the floor and tried a crossword puzzle. Finally he consented to lying down but claimed only a modest edge of his bed. He fell asleep in the third hour. He decided on a plan when he woke up the first time, midway through the fifth hour. He had left the new dog outside all night. The quiet in the house – no taps of paws on the kitchen linoleum, none of the slosh of the animal’s tongue – had the unexpected effect of disturbing his sleep. He roused and then forced himself into stronger wakefulness, listening. He could hear no pitiful cries. Twice he stood up and approached the bedroom door, still listening, but he shied away. If he woke the dog or let it catch sight of him, the animal would stand with the usual frenzied expectancy Aaron had grown to regret. So he listened just enough to detect distress and returned guardedly to his bed. This was the beginning of Aaron’s November.
Hector finally just stopped without warning. He pulled himself away from Caterina and stood up, saying nothing, avoiding her eyes. He stepped naked into the bathroom and she could hear him at the sink. He turned on the water so that it ran fiercely, the faucets squeaking in submission. Caterina reviewed his latest crime: now he is wasting water.
She had receded into discomfort in the last ten minutes of their lovemaking and begun to burn from him, he who prided himself on lasting for three quarters of an hour, through a half dozen changes in position. She moved to her side and brought her knees toward her chest, recovering. Finally the running water was unbearable and she sat up. “Hector?”
He didn’t hear her, or he didn’t respond, and she lay down again listening to the things he did with the water on – he washed, he slurped, he gargled. When she heard the merciful second squeaks of the faucets, she closed her eyes. Mother will blame me, she thought. She imagined her mother turned bitter and profane. God damn it Caterina. You always drive them away.
Mother I—. She stopped. That was not quite how it would go.
You will die alone. That was more like what her mother would say. It doesn’t get easier the older you get. Hector was peeing then. Caterina opened her eyes and could see a perfect half of him behind the bathroom door. There was no reprieve along that line, from the height of his abundant black hair to the body free of bone, the widths that grew each month.
Su familia! Caterina imagined her mother again. She knew well that her mother’s choice of language shifted as her moods changed. Hector stood watching his own urine bubble into the bowl. He will leave it there, she predicted. She turned her back toward the middle of the bed and pushed herself away from the bathroom, where the sheets chilled her. Hector was asleep within seconds of lying down beside her, positioned in his usual hypotenuse. He won’t disagree that it’s time to end this, she thought. She checked her phone. It was just past midnight. So began Caterina’s November.
Leanne rested the photograph of Jesus on the kitchen table. She reached for a second item from her parents’ home. It was a fat candle the color of a summer cloud, resting in an ugly holder that mimicked flames. In the middle of the base was the symbol of Jesus: chi, ro. To the left, she rested a purple votive candle that she’d placed on a dessert plate, and to the right, a second larger one in red. She tried taking a deep breath and began to pray. “Jesus please.”
Before she tried another word, she shook her eyes open. “Neh,” she whispered, and she stood up and turned away. She entered the kitchen. She opened the refrigerator to look for breakfast. Cottage cheese waited in a bold pink and white tub.
She opened the tub, the four missing spoonfuls dampening her desire to eat. She took the tub to the kitchen table and sat in front of the local newspaper, scanning the EVENTS section. She noted a concert that night at the library. She had always liked the library. “Mmm. Okay,” she said aloud.
Aaron watched the dog eat one last time on that first morning of November, two hours after dawn. The beast ate so determinedly, its head catching and bobbing, and the sound of its teeth made Aaron’s own teeth grind. “Okay, come on,” he said before the dog was finished, grabbing its collar. It followed him that time, tugged as it was, and Aaron felt as if he were leading away a child. He didn’t use the name he’d given it – Luke – because he found the sound childish now. “Come on boy,” he said as they approached the garage door, his voice falling.
By the time he guided the dog into the back seat of his sedan, Aaron was reduced to a mournful sound: “’Mon,” he said, and the animal sat stupidly. As Aaron backed out of the driveway, the dog changed, standing with a strike and barking. It raised its front paws to the back of the seat and alerted the glass behind it. “Ssss hey,” Aaron said, turning around. “Down,” he continued, but the dog barked again. Aaron began to rehearse. The one he’d chosen, it turned out, needs someone who understands animals better. It didn’t work out.
When he arrived at the animal shelter, Aaron said more than he’d planned. “I was hoping for a little companionship since I’m, well I live alone, and so I thought maybe since it seems like a lot of people have dogs or they, well a lot of people like dogs and so I thought it might work for me but I guess it’s not my thing exactly I’m sorry.” The attendant offered only a brisk nod and began sifting through a short stack of papers. She was ancient and thin — a volunteer, Aaron guessed. Her nametag pinned to her sweater read “JACKIE.” She offered no sympathy.
“That’s it?” Aaron said as Jackie led the dog down a corridor.
“No I need a signature,” she said. So he waited, breathing in the scent of antiseptic and urine. He held his breath. He lifted a sloppily folded newspaper from a chair in the hallway. Iliff Branch Library, Escott Room. “Huh,” he murmured.
In the morning, Caterina’s phone rang.
“Take Paco with you tonight,” her mother said. Caterina pictured her older brother. “You know how much he loves you, the music.”
Caterina considered her day. She would be teaching two private lessons in the morning. Then there was the group theory class on the junior college campus that didn’t start until 4:00. Finally, she would need to arrive early to rehearse with the other musicians before the concert at the library that evening. She decided to oblige her mother’s request. Better to—she couldn’t think of the phrase she wanted. Choose her battles.
“Okay,” she said. That afternoon, the group theory class ran long, and Caterina realized as she exited the classroom that she would have to hurry.
“No quiere ir,” her mother huffed when Caterina arrived to pick up Paco. Caterina monitored her breath for several exhales, a habit whenever her mother’s choice was Spanish.
“Oh, he’ll come,” Caterina told her. “He always starts with a no.” She found Paco in his bedroom, sitting on his bed with his shirtless back against the wall. He grinned when he saw her and pushed his forehead toward her, a gesture she knew well. “Paco. Hi. Get dressed. I’m playing tonight. I need help with the pieces.”
The family believed that Paco had loved the bassoon since Caterina began playing twelve years earlier at age 14, when Paco was himself 16. He hummed at the first sight of the bassoon, grabbing an ear and clapping occasionally. He asked to touch it by forming his fingers into the shape of a C, pausing above the instrument and waiting.
“Come on,” Caterina said. She added something she knew would not be helpful: “I’m in a hurry.” Paco murmured a response that she did not understand. She often failed to decode his sounds, clipped and quick, a blend of two languages. She handed him his shirt. “Over your head,” she explained, and pushed it over his ears. He flinched but obeyed. She had long since stopped worrying about his attire, a concession even her mother now shared, so she stooped to grab his flip-flops and patted her thigh. “We have to go now, Paco. I can’t be late.”
When they arrived in the Escott Room, she led him to a chair in the front row, on the side where she too would sit. “I will sit here,” she said, patting one of the four chairs positioned around the quartet’s music stands. Then she slid onto the chair next to him. “Now you can help me get ready.”
Leanne entered the Escott Room nine minutes early. She was the first audience member to arrive. After three minutes passed, a second guest arrived. Aaron chose the second row, three seats from the window. Caterina had a habit of peering at the audience during the spans in which the bassoon was silent. She scanned the tops of heads, most of them belonging to women, most of them gray. When the concert ended, Caterina counted the heads in the moments the quartet stood to acknowledge the room’s applause. Her tongue moved inside her mouth as she counted, always by twos. Two, four, six, eight, ten, twelve. Only fifteen, she decided. Then, after the musicians sat to put away their instruments, the room emptied quickly. A short elderly woman eyed her and lumbered finally forward.
“How old are you, honey?”
So that was all. Caterina chose her own praise. A breathtaking performance. Sol is a master. Sol has no peer. The young virtuoso is a triumph. “I’m 26,” she said, and looked away.
When she glanced up again she realized that Paco needed something in his hands. He rubbed his fingers together as usual, the two hands apart, and his pace was quickening. When he saw her eye him, he began his characteristic urgent humming, a series of slow crescendos.
“Here. Paco,” she told him, but he surprised her and stepped away. Caterina noticed that one more audience member remained. Leanne walked toward Caterina. “I enjoyed–” Leanne began, but she stopped when Paco shook his head abruptly.
Caterina frowned. Then she lifted her bassoon and raised the entire instrument toward her brother. “Here,” she told him. “Here.” Paco froze. Caterina took his hand in hers and moved it toward the bassoon. “Hold it. You can hold it.” She looked back at Leanne.
Leanne slowly returned her gaze to Caterina. Paco stood motionless, holding the bassoon with one hand. Caterina cleared her throat. “He likes the instrument.”
“Yeah,” Caterina said.
“Well thank you for a nice concert. It was nice of you all,” Leanne finally said.
“Okay — oh, yes, of course,” Caterina responded. She waited. “Suh fun,” she mumbled. Leanne said nothing further. Finally Caterina turned away and removed the bassoon from Paco’s hand, then began to disassemble it. Marvelous performance. A stunning newcomer. Astonishing. She sighed. “Well,” she told Paco. She smiled weakly at Leanne, who still stood near them, staring at Paco. Absolutely stunning. I wish I could play as you play. She tugged Paco’s arm toward her. “Here, put this away,” she said, handing him the mouthpiece. He responded with a grateful hum.
Leanne had not walked away. “Is he in the Bridges program?” she asked.
“Is that what’s, that called — you know what I mean? The job training program for people, disabled people?”
“I don’t know. No, he’s my brother.”
“Oh,” Leanne said, nodding slowly. Finally she turned and exited the Escott Room.
In the car, Paco spoke again, and as usual Caterina was uncertain what he said. “What?” she asked. “My house?” She looked at her brother. He did not shake his head so she continued. “No. Not my house today. Maybe tomorrow. One more day.” Paco looked forward; this answer seemed to satisfy him. Caterina sighed. Sol is a master, she told herself. An extraordinary work.
By the 20th of November, Aaron’s bedroom had become the least tidy space in his house. Clothes to be ironed were draped over the dresser. A laundry basket sat half-full near the closet door. A flyer from the front door, curled into a trench, rested near the door to the bathroom. Quality Landscaping Services, it promised.
The bedroom doorway was partially blocked by a large open shipping box, as it had been for six days. Inside, there was a heavy black case, silver around its seal. Slipped along its side was a pink piece of paper. It was an invoice from Kipling, Inc., Double Reed Specialist, in the amount of $2,495.00 for Model 160: Student Bassoon. There were no instructions in prim fine print regarding a return policy.
So the box remained, cluttering Aaron’s bedroom, creating a blacker patch in the darkness at night, and he passed it over and over. Finally, days later, Aaron pushed the box into his bedroom closet, edging it carefully into the corner with the poorest light, and gave it a clear perimeter that touched nothing — not his suitcase, not his three pairs of shoes, not the lone sock he’d tossed there months ago. The box corner would remain a region undisturbed, away from everything, where miraculous dust would form from the air. Then the dust would drop, protecting the box from intrusion with the threat of generating a minor mess.
On the last afternoon of November, Leanne looked at her photograph of Jesus. The image had never made sense. Jesus appeared to be holding an apple. Leanne knew she should try another guess. Perhaps it was a candle. Perhaps it was a symbol she never learned. For the heart. For a promise. For the eye of God. Jesus’ eyes were upturned and gray. She sat on the sofa.
A bird near the glass door to the backyard whistled a solo especially urgent. Leanne looked away from the photograph and thought of bird names. Wren. Magpie. Finch. Jay. Does a robin sing like that? Weaver. Warbler. Chickadee. The bird continued its mad composition, and as Leanne sat she believed that she could understand the bird’s song. Just like the bassoon, she remembered proudly. Maybe it’s building toward something, she guessed. Those trills are like music practice.
She closed her eyes. Now it was easy to ignore the photograph of Jesus. The starling. The mockingbird. The sparrow. The bird was closer. Maybe it was perched in the twin ash trees Ken planted when the babies were small, measuring a twelve-foot square from house to tree to tree and back. One year, the trees finally formed a single shadow. The singing bird can’t be further away, in the little-leaf linden? It sounded so near. The bunting. The tanager. The swallow.
Leanne opened her eyes then and looked straight at Jesus. His eyes were unchanged. She stood up silently, unlocked the back door with a careful click, and slid it open less than an inch. The bold bird continued. Let’s see, she thought, and continued the slide. As she did, the bird was finally startled from the tree, and she realized that there was not a single bird but several – four? Five or six. They did not flee to a single place. She could spot only one that had drawn nearer on an outer vein of the ash tree.
“Ah,” Leanne said. The bird didn’t sing. “Go on,” she whispered, but the bird only sat. She waited, and the little creature remained on its outpost, the faint breeze suggesting a tug at the weightless branch it had chosen. Leanne studied the bird’s beak for signs. Do, she told it. The bird only sat. Finally there was no longer any purpose in the open door, so she slid it closed. She re-engaged the lock. She returned to the sofa near Jesus.
Finally, she could pray. “Those birds,” she began. And then, again, the lone prayer of November: “Jesus please.” She stopped, and when she looked through the patio door again she could no longer see the bird. There were dishes in the sink, she knew, still remaining there from breakfast, and she had neglected everything she was supposed to do — they were unrinsed, not soaking, probably attracting the persistent fruit flies that had been a problem throughout the fall. She stared at them and a thought came to her mind, the same as Caterina’s. A marvelous mother, the best of wives, she told herself. A stunning home. So grand. Leanne Smythe is a favorite of Jesus himself. The night would bring her forty-ninth December.