Middle C

“Alma could tell there was something he wanted to say. He didn’t speak it, clearly, nor did he sign it.

“He played it.”

The cameras clicked and clacked in quick succession. Lucas rubbed his eyes after the flashes of light. Unfortunately, his hand movements gave way to an even greater barrage of photos. “He’s signing! Get the camera over here!” said a presumably camera-less reporter. “He’s signing!”

“They can’t possibly think that my son was signing just now can they?” Alma asked.

Standing next to her was Martha Weisgard, the representative from the Resolute Mute Children’s Organization. “Presumably,” she began. “I think one of your husband’s aides briefed them before they came in about his stagnated acquisition.”

“Well he should have just said ‘Lucas can’t sign’ slowly and succinctly so they could understand it.”

One of the reporters, a short young boy—a recent college grad, or an intern, Alma figured—approached them. “Mam, is the mayor going to be here soon? I’ve gotten some really great solo shots of the boy, but we really want a picture of him and his son with Ms. Weisgard here.”

Alma gave him the fake laugh she had developed for public events, “Oh I just never know with him. I’m sure he’ll be here soon.”

The boy muttered a thank you and found a wall to sit against.

“Well I was hoping to thank your husband in person,” Martha said, smiling at Alma. A real smile? Could be. “I really appreciate what he is doing here,” Martha continued. “We don’t get a lot of government support, or really any at all. To have a part of the city budget—even a small one is a huge help.”

Alma smiled back. “I think he is trying to help Lucas really… I hope this isn’t to blunt, but since the therapist is getting nowhere with helping him want to learn to sign—“

“We are your next attempt.”

“Yes.”

Martha paused for a moment and tapped her pen against the clipboard in her arm. “I’m not really one of our coaches, but I can assure you that we’d be happy to have Lucas try our program. Can I ask… was there something that happened to his voice or…?”

“He was born this way. The very afternoon we took him home from the hospital I started looking up sign language on the internet. No matter how much I tried Lucas wouldn’t pick it up though. Kurt though… he hasn’t really…” Alma rubbed her forehead. She looked to Lucas who stood in the center of the room. He stood by himself. A single boy against an army of cameras. He was wearing a nice button up shirt that she had bought him that morning and a clip-on tie. Out of his pocket he pulled out a small toy soldier and set it down on the ground. Lucas considered it and adjusted it so the toy was just so.

On the other side of the room a door opened. Kurt walked in bearing his stupid fake smile. Lucas jumped up and down and looked back and forth between Kurt and Alma. Alma patted the curls of her hair and took in a deep breath.

***

From the far reaches of the house echoed the off-key melody of what sounded like a dying hippopotamus. Alma and Lucas had just returned from another session with Lucas’ therapist. Lucas looked at Alma and exhaled a hefty amount of air from his nose as they entered the front door. She let go of his hand and put her fingers to her mouth while performing a smile, signing laughter. “Like this Lucas, laughter.”

Lucas just stared at her attentively.

“Though I don’t particularly see what is so funny—Kurt! Kurt is that you?”

The rumpus came to an abrupt halt. “In the living room!”

Alma led Lucas by the hand to their living room where her husband had replaced their couch and armchair with a medium sized piano. The couch and armchair still took residence in the living room however; they had just been shoved to the center. It was a mess.

“What is this?”

“I bought a piano.”

“You bought… what why? Kurt…” She looked to Lucas. “Go play in your room—Kurt, we don’t have room for a piano. You can’t even play. What are we going to do with a piano?”

“I got a great deal on it.”

“Kurt…”

“I can play, see.” Kurt played—producing the sound of what could only be compared to a constipated monkey. “Not bad,” he said proudly.

Alma combed her hair with her hands, closing her eyes. Once her fingers reached the curls of her hair, she stopped so as not to ruin it. “Kurt,” she said looking at him, though he did not look back. “We don’t have room for this, and we both know that you are gonna play this for a week then never touch it again.”

He turned to her quickly, slamming his elbow on the lower keys. The boom of the piano matched his fury. “We don’t know that. You think that. This is something I bought for me, with my own money… I thought it would be a nice family thing to have, I play for us on Christmas Eve like my dad did.”

“Kurt it’s May…”

“Then I have tons of time to practice… Why don’t you want me to have this?”

“Why didn’t you tell me you wanted one?”

His fist collided with the top of the piano, which seemed to hurt his hand more than the instrument. His nostrils fumed with fiery steam as he thought about what to say. Kurt looked to the ground and then back at Alma. “Fine! I’ll bring it back. But I don’t even think they will take it back so I’ll just have to take it to the dump where nobody can use it.” He turned to the piano. “I had some interns help me haul this in so I’ll have to move it myself since you obviously won’t—Lucas, hey bud, uh.”

Lucas was sitting on the cushioned piano bench staring at the keys. He poked one with his index finger.

“Buddy,” Kurt continued, “Mom won’t let us have this so we gotta move this out of here right now okay?”

“Nice, Kurt.”

Lucas made eye contact with his father, then looked at Alma. She couldn’t see whatever he was hiding behind those eyes. But Alma could tell there was something he wanted to say. He didn’t speak it, clearly, nor did he sign it.

He played it.

It was remarkable. Keeping his full gaze split between his parents he placed his hands on the keys and constructed a simple tune. The tune played acceptance and joy; the image of a little girl tugging at her mother’s skirts and pointing at a giant lollipop in the store window warped its way out of the keys as Lucas pressed them. Light and desire danced in the air, unnamed notes swirled around the ceiling fan.

Kurt turned to Alma and shrugged but kept a haughty smile. Alma ignored him. Any distain Alma would have held toward Kurt was overshadowed by Lucas’ development.

Alma placed a hand on Lucas’ shoulder. She smiled at him. A single tear fell from her eye as she watched the pictures being played from the piano.

***

That weekend he sat there practicing. That was pretty much all he did. Lucas slept on the couch and ate on the piano. He only left to use the bathroom.

Kurt had bought him a beginner’s piano manual. Lucas wasn’t very interested in the songs though. He was more interested in how the notes sounded with one another. Which sequences of keys played what.

In her hands Alma carried a plate with a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, a juice box, and a banana on it. She placed it on a free space atop the piano and began to head back to the kitchen when she heard a very high ding.

Lucas was looking at her, smiling. His fingers hesitated for a moment but then constructed a series of notes to create a symphonic man in a top hat. The man bounced between low octaves and high octaves; he removed his hat and bowed graciously.

“Well, you are very welcome Lucas.” Alma resisted the urge to sign her words as she spoke them. “Hey Lucas?”

The man stood back up and fitted the hat back upon his head.

“How does it work? Exactly? Could you show me?”

Alma sat down next to Lucas. He stared at the keys for a while, working something out in his head. Twice he put his fingers down to play but then removed them.

With her own hand, she tried to play a key. It was very high pitched, and she recoiled her fingers in embarrassment from the sound. Lucas grabbed her hand and placed her thumb on a key in the center of the keyboard. It was labeled “C” with a sticker. That key and the four keys to the right of it, as well as two keys to the left of it were labeled alphabetically. She pressed the key and it played a firm note. Not too high, not too low.

Alma took her hand away again. “I think I’ll leave it to you.”

Lucas put his hands to the keys once more and tried a tune. A melodic puppy running around in circles on the rug behind him. She yipped and yapped and played and grew tired. She plopped herself down on the rug and a larger dog came and picked her up by the scruff of her neck. She was taken away and placed to rest and nuzzle into the chest of the larger dog.

Then Lucas leaned his head on Alma’s shoulder.

***

“Mrs. Paulson?”

“Speaking.” Alma balanced the phone between her shoulder and ear while she poured cupcake batter into an army of muffin pans.

“Good afternoon! I tried to call your husband but he’s a hard man to get in contact with. Unless of course I’m a campaign donor.” The man on the phone gave a chuckle. “Kidding.”

“Who is this?”

“Sorry, I’m with the Delano Public School District, Pete Hugh from your son’s school. How are you doing this afternoon?”

Alma set down her bowl of batter and moved the phone away from her mouth. With her free hand she patted the curls of her hair. “Kurt!” she shouted, covering the phone with her hand.

“In a minute honey.”

“My husband is here if you want him,” she said. “I’m supposed to be helping him make cupcakes, but he seems to think me helping means that I’d just do the whole thing myself.”

“Mam, actually uh, I can talk to you instead. It’s concerning Lucas.”

“Oh good, what? Does another teacher have a plan for how to ‘help him get in touch with himself’?”

“No actually. But I do have a few ideas myself—“

“I don’t want to hear it.”

“Would it be possible for you to come in and meet with his teacher? Or your husband surely.”

A shrill beep came from the oven. “Hold on.” She grabbed the oven mitt from the center island of the kitchen and retrieved cupcakes. Alma opened the oven and pulled out the first muffin pan from the top rack. “Just tell me your pitch over the phone. Okay? We are a bit… I’m a bit busy right now.”

Kurt entered the room dressed in his full suit attire. He stared at her feet, waiting for her to get off the phone. Kurt played with his red tie and brushed his tongue over his front teeth. Alma listened to the man on the phone but tried to cut up Kurt’s expensive tie using her mind. The rest of her mental effort was spent trying not to fall apart as the man told her that Lucas had gotten into a fight at school. “Really?” she said to the man on the phone. “Well… fuck.”

“Okay, okay. Thank you.” She hung up. “Your son’s a cliché,” Alma said to Kurt.

“Huh?”

“I feel like a fucking 50’s housewife over here in my damn apron, making fucking cupcakes for a damn fundraiser, and I get a call from the damn school that Lucas got in a fight.”

“Alma, what?”

“Our. Fucking. Son. Got in a fight at school. Three months since he started with that piano and he hasn’t gotten any better. And what, let me guess, you’re all dressed up in your suit because you got a call and you need to go into work, an urgent city matter… ‘the town needs their mayor’, and you’re about to tell me that you need me to finish the cupcakes by myself which is bullshit to begin with because I’m already baking the goddamn cupcakes by myself.”

“You know what, yes. I do need to go to work. That’s what happens. The town does need their mayor.”

A door slammed. Alma hadn’t even heard it open. “That’s probably our misunderstood son come home with a black eye from his fight. You gonna leave me to deal with that on my own too?”

“Yea—“ he began to say but was interrupted by a giant musically generated polar bear that charged into the kitchen from the living room. The bear was a low octave and head-butted the still-open oven door. It spat on the cupcakes and growled in Alma’s face. She could hear its rancid breath. In one swoop the bear rhythmically bit both of their arms and pulled them into the living room.

Lucas was channeling the bear with the piano.  He stared at them passionately, never letting his fingers leave the ivory keys. His skill was introductory at best, but his music was crystal clear. There was anger and frustration and a polar bear that kept bashing its head against the wall.

“Lucas, honey,” Alma began. “I’m sorry that your father upset you,”

“Hey!” said Kurt.

The polar bear took a shit on the couch.

“Both of us, then. We don’t like scaring you like this, but sometimes your father and I don’t get along too well.”

“Hey Bucko, you got a real shiner there on your cheek,” said Kurt. “Do you wanna…” Kurt looked uneasy. He took a moment, presumably to consider his words. “You wanna talk about it?”

Lucas stopped his movement along the keys for a beat, then returned to the music. The audial polar bear who had been napping on the couch split in two, transforming into a bull and a man with a red blanket. The bull took a seat, but the man kept trying to cover the bull’s eyes with his blanket as he tap-danced. The bull tried moving but the man did it again. So the song bull skewered the man with his horn.

“Well I’m sorry about that all, kids can be real jerks.” Kurt paused to think. He made that stupid face where he sucked in his bottom lip. “Moms and dads can be real jerks too; I promise after the campaign things will go back to normal. You won’t see me and your mother yelling at each other anymore, okay?”

The bull barfed up a song of half-digested cheese and pumpkin innards. Then Lucas slammed his fists against the keys and stood up with a jolt. He pushed his way past Kurt and, Alma noticed, made a point not to look Alma in the eyes as he stormed off to his bedroom.

***

The cupcakes were decorated, boxed, and ready to be handed out. Alma had worn her nicest white polka-dotted light blue dress that she wore at every one of these functions. She curled her hair the way Kurt liked, or at least the way he used to like. Kurt hadn’t made a single comment on it all day.

Which was an honest to god real insult. Alma figured she probably spent more time on her hair than on the damn cupcakes. She always took her time with her hair for these important events. She wore her hair this way on their wedding day.

He used to admire her hair and compliment her on it whenever she wore it in curls. His reasoning was that, “If I compliment you every time you wear it like that, I’m positively reinforcing that behavior, it’s all psychology. I think. Point being is I’ll get to see you looking damn nice in that hair-do more often, and you won’t even realize it!”

“Except now you told me, so I know.”

“Yeah I guess so.”

Today he made no mention of it. Not that he was even bothering to talk to her. She expected it, him spending most of his time kissing up to all the old white businessmen who were in attendance. They all said the same thing to her: “Oh a free cupcake, huh? I don’t mind if I do.” They would do the little tickling motion with their fingers as they would pick up a cupcake. Before they would leave, they’d assure her that he’d win reelection. There would be no city without her husband. How great of a mayor he’d been, there is no doubt that the voters would see that. Blah blah blah blah blah.

Still she smiled and thanked them. Lucas would have smiled at them too, but he was spending most of his time hiding underneath the table.

Out of the ocean of fat suits emerged Kurt, covered in handshakes and dollar bills. He waved to her and smiled but she could tell it was that fake smile he’d sell to these donors. He approached her cupcake kiosk and said, “Hey there honey. Where’s our guy?”

“Under the table.”

“Oh.” He wrapped his fingers around his belt loops and knelt down to look underneath the cheap tablecloth. “Hey there champ, you ready?”

“Kurt, he doesn’t have to if he doesn’t want to.”

“Nonsense! He loves to play; he just has the jitters is all I’m sure. Come on Luey.”

Kurt held Lucas in his arms.

“Lucas you don’t have to do anything you don’t want to.”

“Hey and don’t worry either,” Kurt said. “All they will see is a cute kid playing the piano, there is no pressure.”

Kurt hauled him up to the stage of the gym/auditorium. On the stage was a piano that belonged to the school. He sat Lucas down on the stool and then took hold of a microphone that was set up for him. “If I could just get everybody’s attention!” Kurt said. The pitch of the microphone chimed slightly. “How are we all doing today?”

The businessmen slowed down their useless blabber and turned their heads toward the stage.

“I’d like to thank you all for coming here tonight, it means a lot to me and my family to see your support. Speaking of family, it gives me great pleasure to introduce to you my son Lucas. Give them a wave Lucas!” Lucas didn’t give them a wave. “He’s gonna play a little song he’s been working on as a thank you for your continued support, from my family to yours.” Kurt moved the microphone to the side. “Knock em’ dead Luey.”

Lucas scanned the crowd, only stopping when he found Alma’s face, she noticed. Still right where he left her at the cupcake kiosk. Then he looked to Kurt who was giving him two enthusiastic thumbs up.

When his fingers merged with the keys it became apparent to Alma just how much Lucas was practicing. Though still quite rudimentary, his skill had improved by a significant margin. His music conjured a giant stone which was struck with a clang by a giant mallet. The crowd gasped and erupted into a flood “oohs.” The stone on the stage then became two rocks and those rocks each became a high note ballerina with beautiful curly hair and a low octave soldier respectively. The harmonic soldier pretended to shoot at the sky and cower beneath his arms, while the ballerina danced, balancing all her weight on one foot.

As the ballerina twirled, she swung her leg through the air. Her leg swooped over the soldier, who only then took the time to notice her. When the soldier stood up, he got whapped in the gut by the ballerina’s leg, an accident for which the ballerina sang a beautiful apology. As a reparation she taught the soldier to dance, and they danced together. Their dance was sweet, and it was filled with love. But it was also filled with sadness. The soldier kept thinking that they were about to be shot at and would try to cover the ballerina from an onslaught of rhythmic enemy fire. But nothing would be there.

They would continue to dance but no longer would they gaze into each other’s eyes.

Alma looked at Kurt, who watched Lucas play with great pride. She considered how he looked at Lucas, and how she looked at Lucas. And all Lucas was looking at was the dance on the stage.

The soldier got dizzy from all the twirling and sat down so he could watch the ballerina dance. But when the ballerina danced, all the soldier did was fall asleep. And so… she stopped her dance.

Alma brushed her hands through her hair. She began to straighten it from the perfect curls that she had worked for hours that morning to create. She grabbed one of her cupcakes and took a huge bite out of it. She ate it while she listened as the ballerina tried desperately to wake the soldier up. The song was frantic and mad—there was energy to be felt and fires to fuel. But it was slow and tragic. A weeping note would drop out of each key as Lucas’ fingers danced. Her hands tugged and pulled at her curls until they had come completely undone—all the while she was thinking to herself that she had heard this song before.  

Written by Adam McDonald


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