It is three in the morning and the night is foggy on East Twelfth Street. Mid-block, in the brick four story completely covered with ivy, all the inhabitants are awake. In certain seasons, pedestrians remark on the lush beauty of the ivy but in this season it looks dead and seems to pull down the house to its foundation. If you were to look beyond the ivy, you might be able to see three lights, in three different rooms enclosing the house’s dwellers in their separate tasks and thoughts.
Enter the living room. A boy, light haired and around sixteen, stoops over an imposing, shiny, black Steinway grand playing Debussy. He plays quietly, delicately, as the piece requires. He could care less about disturbing his parents. The piano is right next to the huge window facing onto the street but the boy does not look up from his playing. The yellow room is dimly lit by a single lamp on the piano. The boy’s shadow spills across the varnished wood floor and one can almost make out the shape of his cheek turned down into a frown of concentration or sadness.
On the top floor of the house, the mother hides in a bedroom that looks out on the little garden four stories below. Propped up in the vast, brass bed that is the main focus of the cream colored room with its red furniture, she hums a Dylan song to herself. Amidst the sheets and throw pillows, she balances a computer on her knees. Her golden hair, beginning to turn grey, is down, flowing past her shoulders, and her eyes are tired. She’s on a Steinway piano show room website, trying to figure out when it’s open. To her dismay, its hours of operation are Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday. She can’t make it that far uptown on Wednesday or Friday, and on Saturday she was planning to go up to the little house they own in the Catskills. There are things to do up there that she has been putting off. She glances at the prices of the pianos listed on the website and cringes, her eyes turning themselves into little half-moons of dismay. She holds this facial expression for a good five seconds, then remembers to check the hall for signs of her husband or son before continuing her research.
On the first floor, past the laundry room and the guest bedroom, is the little red study where the father lies on an old couch, his eyes closed. He listens to Bach on the stereo, barely hearing the strains of his son’s playing above his head. His suit jacket and tie are flung across the chair of his desk, his leather brief case occupying the entire glass top. Black and white photos on his desk show the son at varying stages of his development, grinning toothless next to the Eiffel Tower, chubby and tiny on the swings at the park in Union Square, blowing out eight candles on a layer cake in the dining room of the house, and, in another, his head bent and eyes wide, completely focused on the piano keys in front of him. The more recent shots are less whimsical. One features the son standing frowning in jacket and tie and another frame shows father and son standing stiffly on the deck of a sailboat, clearly not in their element. That day, when they were eating dinner, the father explained to his brother, the owner of the sailboat, that he and his son were “city people’ and thus not used to being out on the water. It was the last time the father can remember his son grinning at him, thrilled at being in on a joke with his father.
But he is not looking at these photos now, he is trying to sleep, fully dressed with no dinner. He got home too late to enjoy the stony silence of an evening meal with his wife and son and he hopes that perhaps his presence in the house will go unnoticed, good practice for a few months from now.
“ Dad, I’m trying to practice, can you at least turn the music down?” his son asks, appearing suddenly in the doorway. This is his way of telling the father to turn the stereo off, and he can tell that the son wants him to think that he is annoyed that the father is home, and that at the same time he’s upset that the father wasn’t home earlier.
The father rises, rubs his head, and looks at the son. “ Sorry, Ollie, of course,” he says, moving toward the stereo. “I was just trying to sleep.” He laughs awkwardly, running another hand through his graying hair and looks at the son. “ How was your day?” he asks, trying to think of a way to prolong this conversation, to put off the abrupt departure that is sure to follow.
“ Oliver. And it was fine.”
“ It’s Oliver, call me Oliver.”
“ Oh right, sorry. So what happened, did you play the Debussy for Mr. Greer?”
“ And?” The father shifts his weight, sighing at the amount of probing required for more than a one-word response.
“ He liked it. He told me that with a lot of practice, it will be ready for the recording.”
“ That’s great.” The father brightens at this good news. He searches for it every day.
“ He also said that the new piano was making a huge difference in my playing so I suppose that’s good too,” the son says stiffly, looking at the floor.
The father grins. “ That’s superb!” He pushes aside the inconvenient truth surrounding this last piece of news.
“ Mom said I should talk to you about at least getting an electric key board for the house upstate. She’s says she wants to go there a lot in the spring and wants me to come too.”
“ Son, I’ll have to see. It’s going to be a hard spring as it is with the new apartment,” The father sits back down on the couch, closing his eyes and rubbing them. “We’re just going to have to see.”
The son sighs. “ I know that it doesn’t really concern you but try to remember that Mom and I will still go there a lot.” The son’s voice has turned acidic now while his face, framed by that perfect sun-kissed hair, portrays nothing.
“ I know, Ollie-Oliver,” the father corrects himself. “ We’ll talk about it tomorrow. Try to get some sleep now, it’s very late.”
“ I’m not tired. I need to keep practicing.” He turns, and exits and his father hears the music start up again.
Waiting a moment, he rises, then slowly making his ascent to the top of the house. Dragging his feet quietly on the carpet, his shoulders sag. He regrets painting the walls the flax color that he remembers from Paris; in this bleak light it looks tacky. Reaching the top floor, he turns for the little bedroom that looks out on the garden. He is surprised to find his wife still up. He startles her and she put down the computer.
“ I didn’t know you had come in,” she says, pulling her hair into a knot, and smoothing the bedclothes. “I would have left food out.”
“It’s fine, it’s been a long night,” he says, fumbling to the dresser and rooting around for pajamas. “I guess for all of us.”
“ I’m looking at pianos. I’m going to the showroom next week. I guess I’ll need to take measurements in the apartment, see what I’m going to be able to fit through the doors. You should do the same. I suspect your door is very small so you’re really going to need to look.”
“ You’re right. I’ll go next week.” He moves towards the bathroom.
“ Daniel. We’re going to have to tell him.”
He looks at her blankly.
“ About selling the piano.” The annoyance in her voice is clear. She suddenly looks tired, old even. “ I can’t believe you would forget. He’s going to be devastated.”
“ I know. We’ll talk to him tomorrow.” The father stoops, looking down at the worn gold color of the carpet and wonders if his back will ever stop hurting.
“ You’ll talk to him,” she says, correcting him. “You bought the piano.” She starts to shut of the computer, then stops. “ One more thing, the realtor said that we should get the ivy removed before we start showing.”
He nods and starts for the stairs. He feels glad that the ivy hasn’t already been pried from the façade; it will hold the house together, at least for one more night.
Emma Mandel, Age 15, Grade 10, Saint Ann’s School, Silver Key