by Liz Smith
Monday's 'Low Tide'. (A Short Story.)
We agree with critics who say writers don’t get their dues these days. Everybody offers an opinion and nobody’s byline seems to mean much.
Some authors who are selling hundreds of eBooks, say that they don’t see much money for these mysterious efforts.
Well, living by writing has always been tough. And we hear from a lot of writers who want a mention thinking it may save their livelihood. I doubt it. And the toughest sale of all is the short story. Where do you go with a short story once The New Yorker turns you down?
Today, we are printing a short story by writer Freedom Chevalier of Toronto. I thought it was very good and decided to share it with my readers. Here is “Low Tide” by a female author with an unusual name. You be the judge.
He made the journey — espresso machine, new marble countertops, scratched hardwood floor — to the white bench just beyond arms length from the Yamaha grand piano. The view of the beach from that bench still moved him. Back in Worcester there was one small window that overlooked the Sunoco lot. He had negotiated that beast of an instrument, a fourth hand baby, 180 degrees until it faced the corner. He scoured magazines, hanging photos of that stretch of pacific coastline on the walls. Until the real thing.
He made it to the bench yesterday, as well. Jacquie, his adjustment therapist, declared it a breakthrough, confident he would play again. Necessity is the mother of invention, right? But she had never played herself and therefore couldn’t guarantee there weren’t orchestral limitations to necessity. He would try, for a while at least, what else did he have to do? There was no work. Everyone was so understanding. And he wasn’t fully convinced that the jump from the ceramic tiled roof into the damp sand below would actually kill him. Even at low tide.
He thought of Ellen, his ex-wife in Worcester, but just in passing. Did she know? He hadn’t heard from Rosalyn since he came home. He hadn’t expected to. He was still amused that there were no children, but not disappointed. There’d been enough women. Even now, at sixty-four, young women still waited outside his dressing room after a performance. True, he kept himself trim and in good health. Had all his hair and his own teeth. Okay, there weren’t many nineteen year olds anymore, but the thirty-something’s in the greater Los Angeles area were little insult to his ego.
There had been two large bags of fan mail waiting for him, beside the piano bench after the accident. At first, he had little interest being included in strange peoples prayers to gods he did not have. But at four in the morning when his hand throbbed and his absent thumb, by now decaying in some medical dump, ached and itched uncontrollably, he found them an entertaining distraction. They kept coming, too. Letters. Cards. Teddy bears. Could be worse though. Could be Tom Jones. He’d take pink plushies with rainbow hearts over XXXL hot pink thongs that didn’t look entirely new.
It was a bit bizarre when you stopped to think about it. Fan mail. You write a letter to a complete stranger, professing heartfelt appreciation for the way they do their job. Forensic accountants never got fan mail. Sometime the letters were gentle and kind. He enjoyed those, keeping some to re-read. Others, though, wrote volumes of emotion and confessed true unending love for him, reassuring that his injury really didn’t matter. Although, they had never been in the same room with him, except for concert halls and arenas, they loved him. Truly. And wouldn’t he give them a call?
They would love him through his recovery. Of course. What about when he clipped his toenails on the carpet? They would support him until he was back on his feet. Of course. But would they really understand the countless days and weeks of frustrated self imposed seclusion, struggling with the same twelve notes trying to coax and cajole them into perfect alignment. They announced they would willingly accompany him to awards shows and private A-list parties. But they didn’t get that he was at heart a hopeless homebody, who didn’t go to such events unless Ralph, his manager of thirty two years, threatened death or worse. How many of them would actually look forward to Nobu takeout five nights a week the way he did? True, he had a fabulous beachfront house, but it didn’t have cable. And just one tiny television, in the basement. He hated watching himself. And in the mean time couldn’t he send them an autographed photo? He hadn’t learned to sign his name yet.
There had been sympathy cards for Clancy. Someone offered him a great deal on a new purebred at cost on account of the circumstances. He believed that losing his right thumb at the joint might have actually been endurable if she had survived the crash.
Everyone offered condolences. Siobhan, two houses further down the highway and Grant’s newest import wife, had cried fat, salty tears at the news. Hugging him tightly to her natural double-D breasts. Pushing hard against his still-bruised ribcage. Was this what they called a good pain?
He paused again at the keyboard. His second decaf Americano in hand. He placed his cup on the edge and allowed his hands to hover inches above the eighty-eight. If he closed his eyes, there had been no accident and Clancy slept beside the foot-pedals. His fingers danced a breath above the music, perfect. He touched the keys. Their tone comforting until the chord rang out, incomplete. He slammed the cover shut sending the coffee cup crashing to the floor; instinctively checking to ensure Clancy was not affected. She was not. Shards sparkling in the sun beneath the piano, like seashells. It would be another beautiful Malibu morning. Weren’t they all?
He glanced at his hands. With the sun just right, reflecting off the mirrored doors, it looked as if his right thumb was merely in shadow. He couldn’t look at it. It repulsed him. The gaping chasm had been pulled together with Frankenstein stitching. Plastic surgery would fix that, but not yet. Too soon. It was all too soon. People were beginning to question him. It had been long enough for that. What will you do now, they asked. He had nothing, he said. You’ll find something, they reassured. He didn’t want something.
He had played the piano before he could talk. Read music before he read words. He lived in spaces on the staff. If something lifted him, he wrote it out. If something broke him, he wrote it out. “Songs of Carolina” had come the weekend she left him for Todd Perkins. It was his second successive hit and brought him to Ralph’s attention. That had solidified his career. He left the accounting firm’s forms processing unit two weeks later. His first tour started that same Friday night.
Those first reviews were awful. The critic’s hated him. He was wooden, dull on stage. His show was focused on the music. When did that become a bad thing? So he learned how to handle a microphone, move on stage, get out from behind his piano. He memorized the ad-libbed banter between songs. He learned to fake it all, successfully. After eight months on the road he had a sold out tour, his first platinum record indicator and an ex-wife. He got stoned for the first time just a mile or so down the beach from where he lived now. He moved out here the next day. Just put a change of address in at the post office and sent back the signed divorce papers.
He had learned to fake comfortable, but always felt awkward on stage. Why couldn’t they tell? He preferred a soundstage. Conducting, while the film played silently behind him was when he felt was most alive; or just sitting at his piano, late into the warm southern California night. Balcony windows open, sipping merlot and tinkering with the notes. Reading and rereading the script, often having it memorized before completing the score.
He had signed on that Monday morning to do “Mama Told Me Not To Come”, a Vietnam war epic that would provide him the opportunity to work with the fragmented folk/rock arrangements he’d dreamed of since ‘failing’ the draft. There’d been champagne. He’d even given Clancy some, though she turned out to be a mean drunk. She attended him everywhere. Even while performing she was always just off stage. She could sleep anywhere.
Driving home from the studio’s office was one of those perfect moments – a musician with a paying gig. Turning onto the highway heading home, the sun had burned off most of the early morning chill. He adjusted the visors. Clancy stretched out on the back seat for maximum sun absorption. He would take her for a run on the beach later. She was snoring lightly. He only glanced over his shoulder for a second.
Ricky and Howard said they weren’t street racing but, what else would you call it? They had pulled onto the stretch of blacktop several miles back and opened up the throttle for each of their new fully loaded Audi TTS’. The boys had been competitive with each other since they could recall. He’d watched on CNN when Howard told the reporters Ricky was the better driver, really, that he’d only been racing because he didn’t want to seem like a wuss, y’know. Ricky’s service was private, but there was a public memorial and a roadside shrine for the lost youth. There had been no shrine for his lost thumb. He tried to keep it all in perspective. A young boy had lost his life. He was really lucky to have survived. Everyone kept telling him so.
He pulled back the curtains a little. The balcony door. Another breakthrough.Why not go all the way and sit on the verandah? Plain coffee, first, perhaps the caffeine would bump up his energy. He laid his coffee mug on the small glass table nestled between the two reclining chairs that faced the ocean. The clear glass walls running the length of the balcony hadn’t been cleaned since he’d been home, and the streaks of mud and rain stood out against the azure morning. The wind was warm, the air sweet and familiar. He dozed lightly in the sunlight somewhere between terror and complacency.
His phone was going to voicemail as he woke. He could hear his own ten-fingered voice cheerfully reminding the caller to please leave a message and he’d call them back. Nine-fingers would doubtfully call anyone today. It was Bobbi. She was sorry to bother him again, but it had been a couple of weeks, and although she understood, couldn’t he touch base with her. The timing, she admitted was dreadful, but maybe work was what he needed and wouldn’t he consider still doing “Mama”? Maybe he could work with some of his existing catalogue. It was huge. She was absolutely positive starting from scratch wouldn’t be necessary. Or maybe, he could, maybe, you know, brainstorm with some other player who could write what he heard. Well, she was sorry to bother him, but really she didn’t want to bring in someone else. She’d stall another week, but that would probably be the last time. And wouldn’t he call just to let her know how he was doing.
Bobbi was funny, but she never meant to be. She was a self confessed fan who adored his music. She had spilled coffee and file folders all over her desk the first day he walked into the office. She’d been so mortified by her own clumsiness that she hid in the bathroom until he left. She was fired before he reached his car. They bumped into each other in the underground parking lot, her cardigan still damp with two cream and one sugar. She was from Iowa. He didn’t know people still came from Iowa. He helped her to her car with a box of personal effects, snagging his new sweater on the bracket where her side view mirror should have been. As he watched her pull out of the driveway he called Ralph to hire her back. That kind of reaction was worth coming into the office more. She returned the next morning. He made certain that a potted plant waited for her alongside a small signed photo of himself. He was fairly certain she would actually keep it, somewhere out of the sun, and dust it now and then.
Work. Too soon.
He stared out at the lolling ocean, tempting and teasing the sand it would eventually carry away. The ocean knew what it was, what it was created for. He had been created for music. He stood at the glass railing, looking skyward at a pair of seagulls a half a mile or so away, fishing. Everywhere he looked he saw life being what it was supposed to be. Those seagulls would never be tobacco farmers. You couldn’t fight nature. Music wasn’t something he did, it’s what he was. He went back inside, closing the door and left the seagulls to reel in their catch. Every thing in this room, this house, this life, was music. It was all here was because of his music. He bought this house from record sales, the awards on his wall documented his career. There wasn’t one thing that had originated elsewhere. There must be! He searched his house frantically, room by room, opening closets, emptying boxes, upturning drawers. Nothing. The clothes on his back, the food in his kitchen, the rhinoplasty on his face. Everything. He ripped a hanging stitch loose from his hand and watched it bleed. Downstairs. He left a wake of disappointment, fatigue, and blood. Back to the beginning. Back to his piano bench. The bleeding stopped. The wound winked at him, undecided.
His fingertips long before him, caressing lightly, A, C, F. Music’s possibility. A. C. It wasn’t music, it was noise. He smashed the keys, surprised at the strength in his right hand. The bones railed against his anger and threatened to break. He wanted them the break. To shatter. All of them. He would never again have to consider playing. And they would stop asking him. Again. Harder. Sweating now. Pain’s heat spreading, shocking his system.
Instinctively he withdrew his right hand and clasped it tightly to him. His chest tightened, struggling to inhale deeply. He released the air from his lungs in a slow single breath. Y-A-M-A-H-A blurring an unblinking gaze he slammed his hand again, against the keys. His voice screamed in unequal harmony to the pain ripping his muscles.
He came to in the shadow of the setting sun.
Forehead against the broken music stand. Dried blood flaked as he sat up, brick colored confetti on the whites. He hurt, unable to pinpoint the source. Everywhere seemed to be aching at once. He thought of moving to the sofa. He felt his hand before he looked down. Tapered, long, elegant fingers. Hands created to create. Now, bruised. Purple-black and swollen.
His stomach surged. Bile roiled in his throat. He threw up. He wiped his mouth with the back of his hand, the remaining stitches rough against his dry lips. His head pounding a tympanic backbeat.
A glass of water. Later.
Dawn spread hopeful orange against the gently bubbling surf. Another lovely Malibu morning.
He pushed himself slowly, painfully, away from the keys. Sitting upright, his left arm still supporting his frame. Pain. He stood but wobbled. Too soon.
The walk to the kitchen sink was slower still. His award-winning likeness smiled at him from a silver framed photo atop the range. Those famous blue eyes stared down, unknowing. Grasping at fractured memories from the night before and leaning against the countertop for balance, he raised four fingers to rub against his eyes.
Half the distance to the sofa he felt his legs rubber and buckle under him. He would just rest a moment.
The carpet was plush and he slept deep, without dreams, until early the following afternoon. When he finally did wake, he struggled to take in the destruction before him. He locked the balcony doors and pulled the curtains tight. His fingers screamed in protest.
On the bench now, piano still frosted with blood and vomit. Swollen, stiff and throbbing he touched middle-C lightly, in apology. A fearful tone petitioned at the air. The promise of a note pealed in his head and for just a moment he began to plan couplings.
He feared his own reflection, averting his gaze from the mirror as he stepped into the shower. Supporting himself against the wall, watching last night swirl clockwise from his view.
Bobbi’s call went to machine on the fourth ring. She mentioned something about Ralph being impatient. When wasn’t he? And why hadn’t he called back to let her know he was, you know, okay? He wasn’t.
He forced a tentative look in the mirror. His handsome, well maintained face, trademarked and imaged on a thousand different t-shirts, albums, websites, posters, promotional materials, photos and the occasional tattoo, was absent. He sought out the few familiar wrinkles that remained from last years ‘facial rejuvenation procedure’. The alabaster scar along his hairline now stretched bold white against a foul bruise. His eyes were dark and tumid, and he had a fat lip. His stomach churned, compelling him to look away. He stared at his hands. Both showing signs of abuse. The knuckles on his left hand scraped raw. His right hand almost double in size, as if trying to compensate for the missing digit.
Something to dull the pain.
His medicine cabinet was fully stocked. Pills to make you sleep. Pills to wake you up. Pills to alleviate anxiety. Pills to stop pain. Pills to stop grief. Well, they didn’t really stop the grief, they just helped you to not care anymore. He hadn’t taken much of anything in the six weeks since coming home from the hospital. He found the pain tolerable for the most part and much preferred a glass of scotch to Oxycontin, which left his mouth dry and made him shit black bricks. He fingered the bottles with his good hand. Most remained unopened; childproof caps. He could kill himself several times over with the contents of just one shelf. He had four to choose from.
Thunder broke somewhere beyond the horizon. Warm breezes, sharpened against thick inky clouds, pulled the ocean up into white foaming crests. He watched the water darken and listened the music of the storm. It was everywhere. Symphonies played out around him continuously. Demanding to be transcribed. Deafening.
Frantically searching his medicine cabinet for something, anything to make the music stop. He grabbed a bottle, knocking several others to the floor, their tops popping off as they fell against the toilet. He watched them spin and roll to their chosen destination, some out of reach, some at his feet. Sitting on the edge of the tub, he counted pills; eighteen. Enough.
He laid them out on a clean paper towel next to the coffee maker. Blue stars, green diamonds, yellow squares. The rain was stronger now. Unconsciously he began tapping out a rhythm to the growing storm on the cool marble. Thunder and lightening in surprising agreement of time signature. The ocean adding its own perfect timbre.
Lifting the bench seat to get a few sheets of staff paper was the first challenge.
Scratching out sixteenth notes proved an impossibility. The music came so fast inside his head. He couldn’t keep up. He spent long dark hours scribbling the downpour. His right hand submerged in the ice-bucket perched on the bench during breaks. By the time the storm had drifted off to the mountains, revealing freshly washed stars, he had four almost indecipherable pages of orchestrations that would fit quite nicely over the end credits for “Mama”.
He realized he was very hungry. Very. He wanted Nobu but couldn’t face Saeko delivering the tray. Not much food in the house. Coffee. ½ jar peanut butter. Clancy was crazy for it. Several bottles of 21 year old Balvenie Scotch. Scotch and coffee with a peanut butter chaser. The lifestyles of the rich and famous.
The alcohol took fast hold of his empty stomach. He could feel the welcome heat spreading, starting at the center of his chest. A warm embrace from a familiar friend. Walking to the balcony doors he swayed with the music in his head, nearly falling twice. He wanted to walk with Clancy, rediscover the beach after the storm. Watch her bound ahead to visit her beach buddies. Grief overtook him. He heard a scream that frightened a flock of dark colored birds into flight. He barely recognized his own voice. His throat tightened as he threw her name into the wind and waves. It hung on the breeze an instant before falling to the shore. He couldn’t hurt enough.
He poured another half coffee, half scotch and slumped at the piano. The few remaining sheets of staff paper ached unwritten. A little easier this time to scratch out the lead notes and dark minor chords that scored his rage. The next scotch and coffee tipped the balance. He couldn’t make another mark. But there was enough down to capture the tune. He would finish it tomorrow.
He scrawled a short semi-legible reminder for himself to call Bobbi —
║: snd intern 2 help w/notes, clening, by food :║
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