Nonfiction by Sally K Lehman
The sounds of the piano met me at the corner where Kelly Avenue meets East Fourteenth Street, that spot on Kelly where you can still see the river in the distance. Over the tops of the hills that lead up from downtown, up into our cheaper area of town. The river from there always this slice of gray-blue water with lots of white foam from all the rock formations in the river by The Dalles. We always knew north when I was a kid because in Oregon, north is always the Columbia. During my ten years living, it was one of the very few things that was always the same.
I wanted to keep walking, downhill, downtown, down to the river, away from the corner where my part of Fourteenth Street began. My want sat on my shoulders, pushed me down under the straps of my back pack. And I turned left toward our house.
The piano music made my stomach hurt, that sharp pain below my heart behind my lungs. And that secret part of my head could already see the Mom who was waiting for me. Her short dark hair curled like it got when she’d been cleaning the house or working in the yard. Wearing whatever pair of jeans were fitting her right then or maybe a pair of those seersucker shorts that she made herself. And one of her t-shirts, the ones with no embellishments, just plain cotton in white or yellow or some other soft pale color.
And I could see the house waiting for me. Front door open. Mom at her piano, eyes closed, fingers like they knew what to do without her thinking about it, playing a piece by Chopin. Playing because something must’ve happened, something gone wrong, and she was sad. At the piano because that was how my Mom did sad. That song how Mom played sad.
I always knew my sisters and I were a part of Mom’s sad. Five daughters who needed feeding and housing and clothing. We were always a cause, a culprit, a one more straw and, boom, camel back broken.
I kept walking toward our house, chin out like my sisters and I always did, like Mom always did. Past the yellow house and the willow tree that grew in the empty lot across from it, past the Anderson place with their brick double chimney and their three kids we weren’t supposed to play with.
My red sneakers stepping me closer to our front shrubbery and our front porch and our front door. The house faced the Columbia, faced Oregon’s north. I ducked down passing our bay window, slid onto the wall of the front of our house, where I could lean against the house and wait.
Mom’s music louder, clearer. And I couldn’t go into our house with all that music and sad inside. So I found my place on the third painted-white wood step, my jeans knee-bent, sneakers pulled toward me.
* * *
Driving to Mom’s house, at the corner where Division Street meets Hogan Road, I turn left toward the Columbia River, toward my north. I can’t see the river from here, but it’s always there, past the apartments and the businesses and the roads. Past where Mom is, Mom busy dying in her condo.
A song by Nine Inch Nails pounds into my ears, bass into my chest through the metal of my Honda Civic. The music doesn’t hurt. It hides my heart which has split into three different parts from Mom’s sick to Mom’s in chemo to Mom’s in Hospice. If I listen to the hard pound of “I wanna fuck you like an animal” loud enough, it can seem like nothing has really happened. That’s how I play sad.
I pass the 7-11 on the corner. Pass the sound-proofing wall the condo association put up in ’98. Turn right into the parking lot of Mom’s white home connected on either side to other people’s little white homes. Pull into one of the three open parking spots and sit while the song finishes.
I want to stay outside of Mom’s house and listen to the next song on the cd. My little car is warm and comfortable, the mirrors adjusted just for me. It’s safe here. No one is going to die here. No one even knows where I am and I could run away, drive away, never heard from again and nothing will ever touch me if I do.
And I open my door, and I stand, and I begin the walk toward Mom.
The urge to turn back to the car goes away as I walk to Mom’s red front door.
* * *
As I sat on my step, I thought of the ways of a porch and a family. We would stand on our porch, the six of us, when the lightning storms came into the Columbia River Gorge, the yellow flashes cutting up the black cloudlessness, the static on hot high desert air of summer raising strands of my sisters’ long hair. At Halloween we would put our jack-o-lanterns on the surrounding wall, the wall just high enough to hide behind and scare the smaller kids as they came up to trick-or-treat. When the spring brought warm weather I spent hours there reading, my back against the house. Away from the noise of a house full with loud voices and louder personalities.
And when I wanted to hide from Mom and the piano music, I could always wait it out on the porch.
Mom had memorized that piece of music, never played it with the sheet music. The wood rail on the top of the piano, for holding music books, sat empty and Mom’s eyes would be closed as her fingers traced and hopped the notes out of her painted-green upright piano. Her bare feet, heels pulled up and toes down like she wore invisible high heeled shoes, pumped and banged the foot pedals.
My eyes closed, head down chin to chest, I let Mom’s music wash me into a sad of my own.
* * *
Mom doesn’t have a front porch anymore. This place is newer and streamlined, paved pathway to one, two, three, four red doors. There’s one door past Mom’s but I don’t ever go past her door.
The lantern door light comes on when I pass the motion sensor. Each condo comes with a bricked-in square that comes up to my hip, a place for flowers right outside the front door. Mom has planted petunias – the flowers with the soft purple and pink petals that make me want to touch them. But I only know the type of flower because she told me and because I looked them up again on Google. Flowers are important to Mom. She plants and waters and tends them, even through the cancer and the hospice. No dead petals, no dead leaves.
Mom’s welcome mat. Not the one we had when I was a kid that half-jokingly read, “Wipe Your Feet Stupid.” This mat is wordless rough fibers that take dirt off shoes. Maybe Mom’s whimsy is gone with my childhood.
Mom’s piano is long ago gone too. Through the door I hear the rumbling bass of some TV show. The canned laughter and commercialized music that keeps us entertained as we wait for Mom to finish dying.
Eyes closed head down, I pause in the sound.
* * *
The house behind my back rumbled the music into me. My butt on the wood step tingled from sitting hard so long. Going into the house, past Mom and her piano was still too much for me to ask of me. So I waited.
My head bent down, denim knee pressed into forehead skin. The neck bones connected to the shoulder bones had gone stiff, and I head-tilted to the right, the left, and leaned the back of my head against the painted white side of our house. My eyes opened and caught the path of a plane coming over the Columbia, over my north, on its way west to Portland.
My older sisters wouldn’t be home for a while since they went to the junior high and high school, and they got to stay in class longer than I did. My one younger sister, too small for school, was stuck inside somewhere with the music and the sad and Mom.
Other kids walked by. Kids I knew from the neighborhood on their own ways to their own homes. I wanted to call out, tag along, leave my house behind. Maybe their houses would have cookies-and-milk kinds of mothers who would stroke a hand over my head and compliment my soft brown hair, my big brown eyes. I never understood why, but adults always did that and I could maybe talk my way into a dinner invitation, not have to go home until late when things might be normal again.
I wanted to call out, but how do you ask for entry into someone else’s family?
I watched them pass by me.
The music still flew through our opened front door, and when would someone else get home? When would the playing be done because it seemed to repeat the same strains of song over and over?
* * *
My sisters are behind that red door, inside the condo. Two of the four of them at least, with Mom.
We watch every day all day. Waiting. My turn on duty is the nighttime.
Mom sleeps on the couch now because she can’t go upstairs to her bedroom without someone below, just in case to catch her. She’s always preferred sleeping on couches anyway. Could fall asleep on one through any amount of noise my whole life.
At night, we make her striped couch into a bed, her oxygen machine humming over her snore. I sit on her reclining chair with a pillow, unable to sleep because I have to hear if she’s in pain, I have to hear if she gets up.
I have to hear if the snoring stops.
* * *
The back of Mom’s piano thudded the wall where I leaned. Her fingers and feet slammed into the green wood, white keys, black pedals. Moving that piano into the wall, into the strings and hammers. Into Chopin. Pushing Mom’s silence, her quiet that was disappointment and overwork and tired, silence that was worse than yelling because anyone could yell. Pushing Mom into me through our house wall, through my spine, into my sharp-pained stomach, into the back of my head.
Then the piano music lifted out of our painted white house and into the air, down the street, off to other places. Until it settled from real music into the tinkle of resting fingers on no particular keys.
But I still waited on that step for my sisters.
* * *
The little girl in my head tells me that there are other places I could be. I could drive to the mall and buy things I don’t need. I could slide down beside the brick planter and hide behind Mom’s petunias.
I don’t have a piano to pound into and shake away my sad. If I had one, the few small pieces I know couldn’t take away what I face at Mom’s door, couldn’t take away the fact that Mom is dying here and I’m so fucking scared that my stomach wants to wind around my lungs and stop me from breathing.
My car ticks as it cools, close enough that I can still hear it like an alarm clock, like a bomb.
The red door gets quiet, a pause in the programming blaring out of the television on the other side. My hand reaches toward the brass doorknob, too shiny against that red door paint.
So many other places I could be.
And I walk in.