Weekly Featured Essay
In this week’s featured essay, Cynthia Aarons reflects on her childhood piano teacher and links those memories to her own current circumstances in a heart-achingly honest meditation on loneliness and the nature of passion.
by Cynthia Aarons
To the backdrop of Regan’s echoing words Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall—I took piano lessons. When no one was looking, my favorite thing to play instead of practicing was Animal from Sesame Street (if he played piano) and Don Music, the frustrated composer. I dramatized Don Music’s cries when he couldn’t remember the next note and the screeches of elation when he played like a concert pianist. Or I played “Thunderstorm,” every novice’s best number. I started with a gentle rain tickling the upper register of the highest octaves, then as “Animal,” cascading down into a violent, formidable nightmare of the booming keys, a roar that would be the perfect soundtrack to any mansion murder. It was in these moments that I was a messenger of a distant music that I alone was privileged to hear and transmit. Eighty-eight keys produce a million variations of seven notes. I could feel the power of the keys stretched out before me, realizing that any melody could be played by any ambidextrous child. The piano teaches children that anything in the world is possible.
Turkey on the Strip
by Susan Eve Haar
There are many appeals to Las Vegas aside from my brother—my youngest, at a California college, will not come east; we all have a taste for sleaze; a few of us like to gamble; and we have a super discount suite in the best new hotel in town, courtesy of my kids’ pal Dan, a dropout from the Cornell School of Hotel Management. The suite is a triumph, glittery and luxurious, and the price is certainly right.
Everything is spanking new. The side-tables are classics designed by Eames. They look like giant chess pieces, flat-topped pawns or de-crenellated castles. The muted greens of rug and fabric suggest an oasis suspended over the strip that unspools outside the gigantic living room window. There’s a bar lined with modern Danish glassware and sparkling light fixtures, suspended circles hung with cut-crystal balls that refract and reflect the light. Bits of rainbow ready for the Cinderella’s ball. I desire them. I feel the itch to pilfer. I stand on a chair and reach up, de-looping one of the crystal drops that cluster on the fixture, attached only by a delicate wire. It’s easy, really. Like so many illicit acts, I slide right into it. Holding the crystal in my palm, I feel the weight of it. I admire its many facets and its secretive translucence that pretends to show all but refracts into abstraction. Listen, it is a beautiful object. I hop down and carry it into the next room to show my kids, who are lolling on majestic beds.
The Granny, the Grocer and the Cobbler
The phone roused me near midnight, and I pulled back the covers and stumbled toward it. I’d hardly managed a hoarse hello when my mother’s voice rushed at me from the other side of the Atlantic, wide awake and seemingly oblivious to the five-hour time difference.
I could tell from her voice everything was fine. More than fine, it seemed.
“How’s the trip?” I asked as I climbed back into bed and propped a pillow between my back and the knobby brass headboard.
“Great,” she yelled. “We’re having a grand time. We’re in a pub.”
Mom was shouting, no doubt because of the noise around her, but also because she was unaccustomed to speaking to me from so far away. Mostly, I think she was yelling because she was—uncharacteristically—a bit tipsy. I pictured her always-pink cheeks flushed a shade deeper. I imagined the comical scene in a dark, smoky pub as she and Dad had figured out how to place an international call.
My parents had been gone for more than a week. I’d been tracing their itinerary on a map on my dining-room table: Shannon to Galway, Mayo to Sligo, and now Derry, in Northern Ireland. They’d been planning this trip for months, dreaming it for years. All their parents were born in Ireland and emigrated to America. Each couple had met in Philadelphia, made their lives in that city, and never once went back to where they were from.
A Story Is Born
by Susan Lynn Solomon.
Before I speak of the odd things that happened in my house, I must explain how I first encountered the spirit.
A number of years ago I was the in-house lawyer at a small company in Niagara Falls. Charlie Ganim, my employer, also owned a bed and breakfast in Niagara-on-the-Lake, a small Canadian town across the river from where I lived. A block off Queen Street, the house stood two stories above an ancient brick foundation. Yellow clapboard with brown shutters and trim, the Blake House was one of many inns dotting that quaint historic town. That ancient brick foundation was set in place soon after the town was set afire by American forces during the War of 1812. Zackery Myerson laid the foundation on the site where a retreating British officer was killed. He built what today might be considered a small cottage on that plot of land and established a bakery in it. Over the years subsequent owners extended the cottage, and in 1859 Horace Blake purchased the building as a residence for his aging mother. Since then, the house became the residence of at least ten different families before Charlie purchased it in 2003 and turned it into an inn.
I’ve described the history of the Blake House, because its age had given a ghost ample time to take up residence there. At least, that was the legend attached to the house.
by Patrick Dobson
I hoped the day would remain overcast. A winter day with a crystalline sky set my teeth on edge and a peculiar tension gripped my insides. If the sky cleared, I’d grow frazzled. The hard-edged light of the season scraped hard against my nerves. My thoughts raced. Sometimes the stress was so great I wanted to vanish . . . zip, gone.
I don’t easily deal with this peculiar malady sitting still. The return of night or of clouds and freezing rain and snow would settle me again. Something about the nuances of darkness was calming, reassuring. In the meantime, work always helped. The adrenaline and repetitive nature of hard labor soothed my agitated soul and quieted my fitful mind. Once my head cleared and my heart steadied, labor’s balms got right to the spiritual mark. I could ignore the noise of a clear winter day and put my head down and do my job, get home, and hide from the light.
The Last Olympian
by Karen O’Neil
On the evening that my mother died alone in her Chicago apartment just short of her 100th birthday, I was 1000 miles away in Austin, Texas, standing in line with my husband and our eight-year-old grandson, Peter, waiting for Rick Riordan to autograph the very latest in his Percy Jackson and the Olympians series. This was a moment
Peter had been anticipating for months. He had carefully instructed me the night before to get to Book People as early as I could to secure a prime place in line for the evening event. “Believe me, Grandma,” he had said earnestly. “You’ve got to go early. You don’t know how many people will be there. Go at 8:00. Go as soon as you wake up. You’ll get a much better spot.”
But on a sunny May morning, I had not fully heeded Peter’s instructions. First, I stopped along the way to have coffee at an outdoor café. I did the Times crossword (an easy Tuesday), and then I put in a quick call to my mother, basking in a pace of life that made such leisure possible. Dawdling in the morning was a heretofore forbidden treat, the first course in what felt to my husband and me like a feast of retirement—beautiful weather, beautiful grandchildren, enough work to be interesting, but not enough to be stressful. We were there for the semester while Bob taught a course at the University of Texas Law School, a long-awaited and highly prized shared adventure.
The Next Fifty Years
by Stephanie Lennon
Once Grandpa’s heart gave out, there was no point in Nana continuing her treatments.
“Stop the dialysis and she’ll be gone within a week,” the doctors had said.
Five years prior, at their fiftieth wedding anniversary, Grandpa had joked that the next fifty would be much easier. We were all hesitant to laugh, knowing even then that neither of them were in great shape.
A family meeting was called. Nana wasn’t “fully there” anymore, so she didn’t have much of a say in her own damn demise.
She just knew that she wanted to be with Grandpa.
by Clifford Royal Johns
When I inherited my paternal grandfather’s railroad pocket watch, I worried about actually using it. It meant a great deal to me, so I didn’t want to lose or break it. The watch is one of those things I have where touching it, or even just seeing it, reminds me of the person who owned it. For instance, when I bake in my friend Alvina’s pan it reminds me of her. My grandfather wound that watch every morning and wore it every day from the time he began working for the P&LE railroad in the early 1930s. It was just part of his way, a way that affected my whole outlook.
When I was a boy in the 1960s, my grandfather would often drive down from Pittsburgh to our dairy farm in southwestern Pennsylvania to spend the weekend, sometimes to hunt, sometimes to fish, and other times just to help with repairs around the farm. I liked his visits because he paid attention to me, even though I was the youngest of four kids, and he seemed to genuinely like teaching me things. In retrospect, it’s clear he taught me lessons that were often unrelated to the actual subject at hand, for instance, instructing me about fishing might have really been about the potential payoff of patience, or taking apart an engine and putting it back together might have been about organization and the proper sequence of things—“So you don’t have any parts left over when you’re done,” as he would say.
The Color Blue
by Katie Milligan
My memories are all tinted with blue.
I remember four blue-raspberry mouths stained with the sticky sugar of popsicles. I see my grandfather’s jeans, stiff yet worn, bouncing up and down as he gives me a ride on his knee. There is the teal woolly yarn of my baby blanket against a flushed cheek, clutched in my tiny hand. Blue is nostalgia. Blue is childhood.
I can remember the cornflower blue, fuzz-worn fabric of the snack-stained matching armchairs my parents sit in—big for him, small for her. I finally settled on sky blue for my bedroom walls after surviving my angsty neon-green teen years. My mother made a sinfully delicious dessert for my 11th, 14th, 16th, and 18th birthdays, full of rich blueberries and graham crackers and whipped cream. Blue is familiar. Blue is home.
MORE RECENT WORK: Like what you’ve been reading? All the fine essays published throughout the history of the magazine can be accessed via the contributors/archives page.
Winter/Spring: Volume 7, Issue 1 New Issue Released!
Twenty-two essays from Volume 7, Issue 1.
New Anthology Released
We are pleased to announce publication of our new anthology Encounters, which features fifteen eclectic essays originally appearing in bioStories magazine, all focused on some of those chance encounters that can transform our lives.
Issue Reviewed at NewPages
Appreciation goes out to Katy Haas at NewPages for taking time to review the Winter/Spring 2016 Issue.