-By: J.J. Cheesman
I was twelve years old when my grandmother began teaching me to play piano. She was in a band when she younger, and she was extremely good. Although, I only got to hear her play once. I never even knew that she played piano for the longest time. I think it reminded her too much of when she was younger, or maybe she just didn’t like it like she used to. In truth, I don’t know. But I do wish I heard her play more often, or had a recording of her music. Whenever she played I was completely entranced. The beautiful music that woman’s fingers could produce was unlike anything I had ever heard before. I remember the feeling of hearing her music, closing my eyes, and wanting to fall back into the soothing melody that came from those old keys.
I wasn’t the happiest kid when I was younger. I wasn’t what some may call a ‘problem child’, but I had my fair share of issues. My doctor diagnosed me with ADHD, and I always felt down, sad even. Maybe I should have talked to someone about that, the depression that is. But I was already taking medication for something, and I didn’t want to add something to that list. I still don’t in fact. I, for the most part, ignore my depression and anxiety. That sounds insane, right? Can you even have anxiety if you can claim that it’s something that is able to be ignored? Well, I wouldn’t have thought so, not before that piano.
It was the summer, and my grandmother was watching over me one night while my mother was at work. I wasn’t the type to go outside and play, I was always inside, watching T.V. or reading. Nothing bothered me more than social interaction. To this day, I hate it. People expect too much out of you, you’re expected to give into social norms and act according to other people’s standards. So, I always opted to stay in, and that day was no different. I was watching some silly show, when my grandmother came in from the kitchen.
“Ronnie, you’re watching T.V. again huh?” She said. I didn’t speak or even turn to look at her, I just nodded. Through the corner of my eye, I could see her place her hands on her hips.
“Well, do you want to come help me in the garden?” Again, no eye contact, I just simply shook my head. She waited for a moment, and I could feel her eyes on me, searching me. Then she simply walked into her bedroom, and didn’t return. After about twenty minutes, I heard it. Piano keys, played in an arranged tune that was hauntingly beautiful. It was sad and somber, but it was also hopeful and innocent. It stirred emotions in me that I wasn’t aware I’d had, it was entrancing. My feet picked me up and carried me to my grandmother’s bedroom almost on their own accord. My grandmother sat there on a stool in the corner of the room. She was playing on a keyboard she must have pulled out of storage in the open closet, because I had never seen it before then. Her fingers danced and played among the keys with such speed and grace that it was just as hypnotizing to watch her play as it was to listen.
It is hard to tell how much time passed while I sat on the bed listening to my grandmother play. If I had to guess, it was only a couple of minutes, but as the music filled my eardrums and wrapped me in its embrace I became lost in it. Time didn’t have meaning then, nor did I or the room I was sitting in. The only thing that existed, was Grandma and her piano. Something was calling out to me from the arrangement of notes, a meaning, a message. A message that I almost very nearly understood. Then, all at once, it stopped. The magic spell that the music had cast over me was over, and I opened my eyes. I didn’t even realize they were closed.
My grandmother sat turned in her seat smiling at me.
“Did you like it?” She asked.
“It was beautiful!”
She nodded to the chair she kept at her writing desk and said,
“Good, I’m going to teach you how to play. You need an outlet. I think you’re a lot like me Ronnie. When I was a girl, I didn’t like to talk to friends or play outside. Your great grandmother found that frustrating. She hated that I didn’t like to talk, but you know what I figured out?” I stood up and moved the chair by the writing desk and place it beside my grandmother’s stool, and took a seat.
“What’s that?” I asked. She leaned in real close and said,
“There are many different ways of speaking.”, then began to play.
So, that’s how it started. For hours and hours my grandmother sat at that keyboard. That first day she taught me the keys, and the second day, and then the next. Two weeks went by, and I visited my grandmother every single day, eager to learn more. It took the entirety of that two weeks to know every key by heart though. The house was filled with the intermittent tones of notes as I struggled to get down the basics. “Mary Had a Little Lamb” was the first tune I ever played, then I moved on to “We Three Kings”, which at the time I was quite fond of. I learned to play progressively more difficult music, my grandmother always the willing and masterful teacher. I started slow, but under her tutelage I became increasingly more adept at the keys.
“Your skill will grow with your soul.” My grandmother would say.
“Music is written into the very essence of our being. It is every bit alive as you and I are.”
After six months, Beethoven’s “Moonlight Sonata” was child’s play to me. My skills at the keyboard were rapidly improving, and soon I felt as if there was nothing I couldn’t play. I don’t mean to sound full of myself, on the contrary. I would be nothing without the lessons I received. All of my talent, great or miniscule, is owed to that wonderful woman. However, as much time as I spent with my grandmother in those days, I never again heard her play that haunting melody. Sure, she played all the famous pieces for the sake of teaching me, but never again did she play her own music. Then one day, I realized I would never hear that song again.
My grandmother passed away in her sleep at seventy-two years old. She had a brain tumor, something she knew about but never mentioned anything to any of her family members. My mother said that she was surprised it hadn’t affected her memory or brain function near the end of her life. It all of a sudden made sense to me why my grandmother never playing that song again. The tumor had affected her memory. I was heart-broken and devastated. My teacher, my best friend, and my grandmother were all taken from me in the night. What was I going to do? The only person who understood me, and really knew how I felt, was gone.
“There is more than one way of speaking”, my grandmother told me, and the service held for her spoke volumes. All sorts of people I had never seen before, or haven’t since, for that matter, showed up for her funeral. Distant family members from out of state, old friends that grandma had when she was younger, and believe it or not, even her mailman was there. It still amazes me that my grandmother touched so many people’s lives. Everyone I over-heard speaking talked about how wonderful of a woman she was and that she seemed to give life to any room she was in. I couldn’t agree more.
In my grandmother’s will, she left me her piano. I was both not surprised, and a little offended when the will was read. Of course, the piano was going to me, I was the one who spent hours and hours speaking through it with melodies. In my mind, it belonged rightfully to me. When I arrived at home the night of the funeral, the first thing I did was set it up in my room and begin to play. I started with some Beethoven, and I moved on to Bach, and then I freestyled a bit. Music poured out from my finger tips and out from the keys. There was an ache in my heart, and a burning in my soul. A melody had escaped me, grandma’s melody, but I was determined to catch it. I thought by learning how to play the song, I would understand it’s meaning, the message within the melody that I nearly had a grasp on.
The first bit of music I ever wrote myself came out that night. I got a piece of paper and a pen and began jotting down the music as I played. It was the early hours of the morning before my mother came into my room and asked me to stop playing. I did, but as soon as I awoke I was right back to that keyboard. Something pushed me forward, egged me on. I was writing and playing like a man possessed. There wouldn’t be rest for me until I found that tune that my grandmother played all that time ago. Musical score after musical score was written, but what I was searching for still eluded me. Every time I tried to recall exactly how it went, I drew a blank. There came a time when my pursuit of that tune had to be put on hold. We all have to grow up sometime, and I couldn’t expect my mother to keep me housed forever.
I didn’t go to college, we couldn’t afford it. When I was seventeen I got a job as a bank teller, and soon after I moved into the second floor of an apartment complex outside of town. The money at the bank wasn’t spectacular, but it paid the bills and kept food on the table. But I never stopped working on my music. Being in an apartment meant that I had to do it in the middle of the day if I wanted to play my music loudly, so as not to wake anyone or make them angry, which made it difficult, because my job was a 9-5. The weekends were unfortunately the only time I ever got to play at full volume. It was a hindrance, but I made do by keeping the music low.
The apartment life suited me well. My place was small, but cozy. The best part that it was extraordinarily cheap, even for the state of the neighborhood it was in. The only annoyance was my neighbor across the hall. He was a middle-aged balding man with a green sweater that always had grease stains on it, and a ratty brown beanie that he always wore on top of his head. He always seemed to catch me while I was coming home from work too.
“I noticed you play piano.” The voice came from just behind me as I was putting my key into my door late one evening. I turned, a bit startled to see my neighbor, standing outside his door and wringing his hands together slowly. He was hunched over, and he seemed to be having trouble breathing. With his ratty clothing and pathetic demeanor, I couldn’t help but think he looked like some sort of crony for a comic book villain.
“Err… Yeah. Does it disturb you when I play?” I asked. He stood, staring at me with large brown eyes.
“I like piano.” He said, smiling. His voice sounded as greasy as his sweater.
“Uh, great. Listen if it ever bothers you, just let me know, okay?” I said, turning around to finish unlocking my door. The guy didn’t say another word, and as I slipped into my apartment and closed the door, I looked through the peep hole. For a long while, the man simply stood watching my door. After several moments, he opened his own door and went inside. I’ve made sure that I deadbolt my door every time I come home since then.
That was also around the time I started having a vivid and recurring dream. I was back in my grandmother’s house, sitting on her bed while she played that melody that I’ve been craving so badly to hear again. In the dream, I was an outside observer, watching myself and my grandmother. The other-me sat on the bed, swaying slightly with his eyes close. My grandmother’s fingers danced on the keys as effortlessly and with as much expert precision as that day when I first witnessed her work at the keyboard. My heart ached as I watched the memory play before my eyes. It was torture seeing it all unfold in front of me, not being able to talk to her, or feel her touch once more. I was stuck in the dream state of unmoving. My lips tried to move and call out, but I had no lips in the first place. Only eyes to watch it all. But the damning hell of it, the absolute worst part of that terrible dream, is I could not hear what she was playing. Night after night I endured this awful torment, and night after night, I awoke with tears in my eyes.
The days would come and go, I would play and play. I built up quite the collection of personal written works, but none of them sounded like the song my grandmother wrote. Call me a quitter, but I had finally given up on hearing that melody ever again. That dream could haunt me until the day I died, but I had come to terms with never finding out what that beautiful arrangement of notes was. I had decided that I had to stop chasing that childish dream, and focus on my own work. I didn’t plan on being a bank teller forever after all. For all the things making music has brought me, the thing I’m most grateful for is what it has done to my peace of mind. My depression, my anxiety, none of that seemed to matter as long as I could still play.
One Friday evening, while I was arriving home from work late, I came through my front door, deadbolted it to keep out the strange man across the hall, and went straight to work on my music. Around nine o’ clock there was a knock on my door. I got up from my seat and looked through the peephole. There was no one there. I unlatched the deadbolt and opened the door, and looked right out into the hall. There was no one there either, but when I turned to go back inside I noticed a small, white piece of paper on the ground just in front of the doorway. I bent down, and turned it over.
Got you, it read. I heard the door across the hallway creak and I looked up just long enough to see the baseball bat come down on my head.
“Wake up, it’s no fun if you aren’t awake you piece of shit.” I stirred, and the words echoed around in my head, causing pain. My eyes flicked open to the bright kitchen light. I was in my own apartment, lying on my back on my kitchen floor. I couldn’t move my hands, they were bound behind me with some rope, and my legs were tied together as well. Duct tape wrapped tightly around my mouth prevented me from calling for help. Struggling as hard as I could against my binds, I found it was no use, they were so tight that they were cutting into my skin.
“That ain’t gonna help kid. I’ve been doing this a long time, I know how to tie a fuckin’ knot.”
My assailant walked into view. It was certainly my neighbor from across the hall, but his voice was no longer greasy, it was cold, and cruel. Gone was his slouched posture and pathetic demeanor. He stood before me now a completely different person than when I first saw him. He stood straight, caressing a large hunting knife with a gutting hook at the end. His eyes, once large and brown, were now small and black, and as cold as ice. His breath was steady, and calm. He smiled a cruel smile at me, and I tried to move and shake, to somehow break free. In my movement, I heard the sound of plastic, and my hands rubbed against a thin layer of the material underneath me, and I gave up fighting. I turned my head and glanced around only to confirm what I already knew.
I didn’t know who this man was, or how long he had been staying at this apartment complex, but the plastic that covered my floor and walls told me he wasn’t lying when he said he’d been doing this a long time. I knew my time was up.
“Oh, come on now. Don’t be like that.” The cruel voice spoke.
“I know I said it’s no use but your breaking my god damn heart with that look of yours. A little fight is always appreciated, I just can’t go and leave any mess behind, ya know? That’s how you get caught. I’ve spent a long time learning how not to get caught. This neighborhood is perfect see, because seedy characters are just the norm, right? So, when someone like me comes along and says hi to someone like you, you don’t even think twice do you? You’ll just keep your door locked, watch your peephole, do whatever it takes to avoid the creepy guy. But you know what people never expect from seedy characters? Smarts.”
I didn’t look at him while he spoke, I stared straight up at the ceiling, trying to come to terms with my own death. It’s strange, isn’t it? Not bothering to try and fight for your life. I knew it was strange even then. I just knew I didn’t want to die crying. I didn’t want to give him the satisfaction.
“They just assume it’s some weirdo. Serial killers are everyday people, they say. Your friend from work, or the delivery guy, or the repair man. They never say ‘look out for the creepy guy’, because that should be common goddamned sense. But you were just grateful you never saw me after that first night. Thankful that I never pestered you again.”
He was right. When I saw him I never would have suspected. He was just the creepy guy across the hall. I was grateful he didn’t bother me again.
“So, you let your guard down for a moment, but a moment is all it takes.”
He knelt down beside me, and put a hand on my stomach. I winced, trying as hard as I could to keep calm.
“But victims are few and far between in this neck of the woods. Killing the unfortunate gets rid of the blood lust for a minute, sure. But that’s easy, and hardly entertaining. No, I wait for your kind. The poor young souls who need a cheap place to stay, and have so much left to live for.”
He lifted up my shirt, placing the tip of the cold steel on my bare skin. I shivered, and not because of the cold. I was scared, and he knew it. He laughed.
“The great thing about it, is when I take all of your crap out of this dump, they’re just gonna think you skipped town, and I…”
There was a sizzle and a crack, as the bulb above us shone brightly, and then went out. The pressure of the blade on my stomach released, and I heard the man stand up.
“God dammit, my luck eh? Why don’t you hold tight for a second kid.”
I heard his weight shift on the floor as he turned and walked into the living room, and then he stopped.
“Who’s there!?” He called out. There was no answer. In the silent dark I laid there listening intently, wondering what the hell he was talking about. I stilled my breathing, and waited. Then I thought I heard something. I could hear the breathing of my attacker, somewhere in the dark, but I could also hear something else. Someone else’s breath could be heard, low and raspy. Another sound came from the dark, one that I recognized as music. It was quiet, but it was there. A song that I hadn’t heard in a very long time. The moment I realized what it was, there was sudden movement. Heavy footsteps ran through the darkness, toward my assailant. There was a loud *crack* and the man screamed. His cry was followed by the sound of glass shattering, and I could hear him yell as he fell all the way to the pavement outside. I heard someone hollering out beyond the window, and it wasn’t long before I could hear police sirens. In the dark of my apartment I lay on the floor laughing with tears streaming down my face. Not because I finally heard grandmother’s melody after all this time, but because I finally knew the message within the notes. It was simple, but it was as powerful as the force that protected me that night.
‘I will protect you.’
The night I was attacked was about three years ago now. When the police arrived, they found me lying on the floor in the kitchen, of course. In the living room, however, they found my keyboard, broke in two pieces in front of the window the killer was thrown out of. After examining the body, it was concluded that blunt force trauma to the back of his head caused him to go careening out of the building and onto the ground below where he broke his neck. I was asked over and over again about who was in my apartment that night, because someone had to have attacked him with the keyboard. I simply told them the truth about what I heard that night, because I really had nothing else to say.
I’m doing well composing sound design for various podcasts and audio dramas. It’s actually really neat. I’m glad I finally get to make a living doing what I love. I had to buy a new keyboard of course, but I kept Grandma’s. Both of its pieces are in a shadowbox above my bed now. I’ve never played her melody though, I don’t want to. It was my grandmother’s song, it’s her message, and hers alone. Besides, I still have that dream. Except now, I can hear that melody, plain as day in my dreams. Sometimes even as I’m waking up I swear I can hear the low notes of it off in the distance.
No, I’ve been working on a new piece of music. It isn’t perfected yet but I hope to finish it one day. It’s a score that I have simply titled,