Audrey lived in a house full of instruments she was forbidden to touch. There were six-string guitars of various sizes, a mammoth 12-string, electric guitars, a mandolin, a banjo, two sets of keyboards, and her great-grandmother’s piano. Her father could play them all, and play them well. Audrey was once told her father could also play the French horn, but it was markedly absent from the display room. Decades later, Audrey’s mother would say in passing that her father played “Taps” on the French horn in a string of funerals for young men who died in the Vietnam War, and the experience had “made an impression on him.” Adult Audrey, upon hearing this, would wish she’d known the information earlier, so her understanding of him could have been broader and without resentment, so she could have told him her experience with instruments had “made an impression” on her too.

As a child, Audrey’s favorite instrument was the guitar, and she relished the evenings when the soft yellow light fell over the yard, the shadows began to darken, and the comforting, tinny vibrations of the acoustic strings floated among the rooms of their small house. She would wait on the top step of the stairs leading down to their sun porch and covertly watch her father strum the instrument, his face intent and distant and slack with a rare look of relief. There was an invigoration that swept through Audrey’s body when she heard her father play the guitar. Something exciting and cellular. The strums were not just on the strings but on the instincts inside her, like the vibrations were a great conduit for a shared understanding between Audrey and her father. She longed to create those sounds for herself.

The rules, however, were particularly strict against touching the guitars. Audrey’s long fingers were connected to grubby hands, and they left oil on the neck of the guitar. Her clothes were sweaty and caked with dirt and bramble from climbing trees. The bits of bark would scratch the shiny wood of the back of the guitar. If it meant that much to her, Audrey could take a shower, put on a fresh shirt and shorts, and, after she was inspected and given the affirmative to her inquiry of permission, then and only then, would she be allowed to hold the instrument that gave her such freedom.

Sometimes, however, showering distracted Audrey. She watched all the grime of the day, mixed with grass and tree detritus, mixed with suds, flowing off her body and down the drain, and she knelt before the drain and pick out the twigs, and then poked the inside of her arm until little red dots appeared. And then, she created a family of red dots that all lived inside her arm and loved each other very much and would always look out for one another and never leave her arm for another arm. Audrey’s mother banged on the bathroom door, asking that she hurry up, it was time for dinner, and the water was cold. Audrey shivered, adding goosebumps to the red dot family in her skin.
When she arrived at the kitchen table, she looked up at her father, down at her fork, then up at her father again, gathering her nerve.

“Um, when we’re done eating,” Audrey began, the words stumbling out of her mouth as she fidgeted back and forth in her seat. “Can you show me…um, can I play the guitar? I’m clean.”

Audrey held up her hands for her father’s inspection, hoping she’d done a thorough enough job. But her father barely glanced at her, and said only, “Not tonight. I’m tired.” Audrey’s spirits all but flattened against her large dinner plate.

Even though the guitar called to her, Audrey suspected she might have a better chance of making music if she attempted the piano. Even though it had belonged to her father’s grandmother, the formidable, stately instrument seemed less precious to him. He didn’t protect it the same way he did the guitars. There weren’t hoops to jump through to gain access to it. Audrey decided she could always come back to the guitar later, once she’d developed her talent, once she’d proven herself worthy.

One day, she snuck into the sun porch, tickled a few of the ivory keys, then listened for any rumble of protest from other parts of the house. When none came, she relaxed a bit, but couldn’t help but also feel a tinge of disappointment that her father hadn’t come to investigate. She had hoped he’d be slightly curious about what she was up to.

Audrey asked her father to teach her how to play the piano, but other than a few quick instructions—sit up straight, curve your (clean) fingers, here’s middle C—after only a few minutes, her father floated away. Audrey looked up from where she’d been banging out “Chopsticks,” and her father was gone. She stared at the empty piano bench beside her, then scooted over to the middle and found his half cool, indicating he had abandoned his post quite some time ago.

“If you want to play well, you have to practice every day,” her father said, exasperated by her incessant questions of “how” and “why” one became good at piano. But Audrey couldn’t tell if she was improving. She wanted to be like her father. She wanted to sit down at the piano bench, put her fingers on the keys and play, as if by magic. Her father told her there was no magic. There was only practice. But Audrey watched her brother, who never practiced, amble his lanky teenage frame into the sun porch, sit down at the piano, and conjure a striking, melodic sound from the instrument with little to no effort. Within seconds of his playing, their father appeared next to her brother, and they were in a world of their own, and Audrey’s heart clenched with jealousy and frustration because this wasn’t the result of one bit of practice. That’s when Audrey began to think maybe when her father said there was no magic, he meant there was no magic in her.

Still determined, Audrey doubled down on her practicing, which initially meant doubling down on the repetitive refrain of “Chopsticks.” A few days in, she heard something that made her heart flutter: the sound of her father’s footsteps coming across the kitchen toward the sun porch. She reinvigorated her pounding of the keys, livelier and more jubilant than ever, and the footsteps grew closer and closer. Audrey heard a creak and gleefully took her eyes off the piano to welcome her father’s presence, attention, maybe even encouragement, but as she turned, her face fell when she realized the creak she’d heard was not that of her father coming to join her but of him closing the door.

Audrey, again deflated, decided it was time to move on from “Chopsticks.” In the song book inside the piano bench, she found “Fur Elise.” Maybe something softer, easier to digest, would call her father back to her. But no matter how many hours and how many days she practiced, her father only came near enough to her musical attempts to close the door, to siphon her off so the other occupants of the house were better able to ignore her.

Because of all the practicing, Audrey’s hands were sore. She stretched her aching fingers out for her father to see. Sometimes they shook with exhaustion, and her father gave them a cursory glance and said, “That happens. Keep practicing.”

Audrey began sitting on her hands and fingers in the bath to soothe them, massaging them with the bone at the end of her spine. Sometimes she’d sneak into her mother’s bathroom and rub a pungent ointment into her hands (she’d seen her mother rub this same ointment into her neck to help with her “aches and pains”). But the next day, as she practiced, she heard her father’s footsteps approaching the open door. Audrey had learned to barely register the footsteps so she would not be disappointed when her father didn’t come into the room. So she was startled when she realized her father had come down the stairs and stood right beside her. She turned and smiled up at him with her whole being alive and brimming.

Through her excitement, it took a moment for Audrey to register the displeasure in her father’s face. He took her hand, rubbed the grease he found leftover from the ointment, and brought it to his nose. He crinkled it from the smell and let go of her hand, diving into an admonishment of how the grease could harm the piano, and she must have respect for the instrument. This was his grandmother’s piano. The piano he had learned on. Didn’t she want the piano to last for future generations? Did she prefer the legacy of the piano ended with her? To breakdown because she couldn’t wash her hands before she practiced? Audrey shook her head, contrite, willing with all her being not to cry, wanting to somehow erase the fact that she ever used the ointment in the first place.

Audrey excused herself to the bathroom. This was her failsafe for getting out of a situation that made her uncomfortable. When she returned from the bathroom, her father was seated at the piano bench, his fingertips poised perfectly flat above the keys. He was so still, frozen mid-play, as if halfway through his playing he’d turned to stone. But Audrey knew he hadn’t played a note. She would have heard him from the bathroom. He was just sitting there waiting to begin. After a moment, she knew that he’d felt her presence. She watched him turn and stand up, his face implacable. He patted Audrey on the shoulder, then walked up the stairs, and shut the door behind him.

The following week, Audrey discovered a friend from school had an aunt who gave piano lessons. She got all the details of when, where, how much, and presented the information to her mother, who handled financial requests in the household. Her mother rubbed her forehead and resigned that lessons were probably a good idea.

“You go to her house?” her mother asked. “You won’t have the lesson here?” When Audrey replied in the affirmative, her mother nodded with relief and wrote the check.

Audrey wasn’t sure what to expect from the lesson. She went over to the friend’s aunt’s house with her book of “Chopsticks” and “Fur Elise,” and the aunt barely glanced at them before she said, “Okey dokie, let’s see what you can do.”

Audrey waited for the aunt to leave, but she took a seat in a chair next to the piano and waited expectantly for Audrey to begin. Audrey wasn’t used to playing for an audience, so she immediately froze under the realization the aunt was staying. The prospect of this sort of attention made her very nervous. The aunt was going to listen and observe her. The pressure was too much, and Audrey began to cry. Big, hot tears splattered the white and black keys. Now adding embarrassment to the pressure, Audrey cried even more, feeling as though a meteorological mass had risen from her chest, moved up into her throat, across her face, and rained down out of her eyes.

Audrey wasn’t sure how long her outburst lasted. She wasn’t used to crying uninterrupted. Usually when she felt overwhelmed to the point of tears, her mother responded with a, There, there, don’t cry. Everything is okay. Even when Audrey stuffed down her feelings enough to control her tears, and calm her mother, she knew such an outburst was the very epitome of things not being okay. But she wanted to please her mother. She wanted to unfurrow her brow and lift the corner of her mouth. She wanted to put her adult at ease. So, she did as she was told and interrupted the emotional outpouring and swallowed whatever remaining feelings that wished to break the surface.

But with the piano teacher, Audrey came to a natural calmness. She wiped her eyes with the sleeve of her T-shirt and sheepishly glanced at the aunt.

“All better now?” the aunt asked, smiling.

Audrey returned her smile and nodded, relief flooding over her.

“Okey dokey,” the aunt said again, solidifying the good-natured levity in the room. “Why don’t you start with some basics?”

Over the next hour, Audrey felt she was in heaven.

The aunt’s name was Sandrine, not Miss Sandrine, not Sandy, not Miss Sandy, but “You must call me Sandrine.” Audrey nodded sagely at the declaration, and even though it felt strange, almost naughty, to call an adult by her first name without the differential “Miss” or “Mrs.,” Audrey sat a little higher on the piano bench, feeling mature and equal.

They went over chord progression and pitch and tempo, and at the end of the hour, Sandrine told Audrey to close her eyes while she depressed a key, and Audrey gleefully called out the correct name of the note.

Audrey floated on air as she left Sandrine’s house, fell into the back seat of her father’s car, and buckled herself into the booster.

A play by play of the lesson burst forth from Audrey with such furry she was barely able to catch her breath. Her little body quivered with such jubilance she had to kick her legs and widely gesture her arms and twist against the seat belt. Otherwise, she would have spontaneously combusted from the excitement of it all. Her father waited until she had quieted and asked her if the teacher had given her any new songs to play.

“No,” Audrey responded. “But, Sandrine—”

“Mrs. Sandrine,” her father corrected her.

“She doesn’t want to be called Mrs.,” Audrey said.

“Well, Miss Sandrine then,” he said.

“No, she told me to call her just Sandrine,” Audrey insisted.

“Well,” her father said, “just don’t be disrespectful.”

Her father then turned on the radio to classical music, effectively silencing any further conversation.

As Audrey listened to the music, she thought she heard familiar notes: there goes a G! C! D! E! They jumped out of the air between the speakers and Audrey’s ears like thought bubbles.

“What’s that note there?” Audrey asked her father as something unfamiliar hit her ears.

“What?” he asked.

“The note. Which note is that?”

“Which note is what?” he asked.

“That note!” Audrey squealed, pointing to the radio. “That one!”

But the music had already moved on. Audrey’s dad couldn’t tell which note she was regarding.

“What about that one?” she squealed again, working herself further into a frenzy of curiosity. “I like that one. The one between the G and the C!”

“I don’t—” her father began, himself becoming anxious.

“Oh that one! What’s that one?”

Audrey and the movement plowed quickly toward a crescendo.

“Dad! Dad! What’s that?”

“Audrey!” her father shouted, shutting her down. “I can’t tell you what every single note is. I just want to listen.” He reached over and turned the music up even louder, until the strings and the horns and the keys reverberated in her ears as a definitive reprimand. Audrey instantly shut her mouth, her fervor truncated, and she made a note to temper herself the next time she felt like getting so excited about music on the radio.

At the next lesson, Sandrine asked Audrey if there was a specific song she would like to learn to play. After careful consideration, Audrey said she would like to play “Foolish Games” by Jewel. She’d recently heard it on her older sister’s Spotify mix. Sandrine’s pleasant, soft face broke out into a smile of delight.

“Oh? We’re a Jewel fan, are we?”

Audrey nodded her head vigorously.

“I like that song,” replied Audrey, breathless.

“What do you like about it?” Sandrine asked.

Audrey was once again awash with the feeling of equality and engagement. Sandrine looked at her with such earnest interest. It was absolutely thrilling. For a quick moment, Audrey felt the overwhelming feeling she felt sometimes when asked her for her opinion, but she stopped herself from getting too caught up in it. She remembered what happened the last time she felt overwhelmed and how her reaction hadn’t bothered Sandrine one bit. Audrey took a breath and let it pass.

“I like it when she goes ‘Theeese fooooolish gaaaaames,” Audrey said, drawing out the vowel sounds for emphasis in imitation of Jewel’s carefully controlled voice in the chorus. Sandrine’s respectful acceptance of this answer was not lost on Audrey, so she continued. This time adding a dramatic fist to the heart in the universal sign of tormented love as she continued.

“…are tearing me! Tearing me! Tearing me apaaaaart!” Sandrine gasped gamely at the theatrics. Audrey’s bravado was succumbed by embarrassment at Sandrine’s enthusiasm, but she grinned just the same, twitching with the joy of this strange adult’s praise.

“So, I’ll see what I can do about Jewel,” said Sandrine. “But in the meantime, how about we start with some ‘Amazing Grace’?” Audrey nodded vehemently in agreement.

The week following Audrey’s assignment to practice “Amazing Grace,” her father was out of town, due to return the day of her following lesson. Audrey practiced as she had never practiced before, or rehearsed as Sandrine put it. She said that Audrey was now a musician, and musicians must rehearse. They must always be working toward the performance because engaging with others was the true purpose of being a musician in the first place.

Audrey rehearsed so long and often the door to the sun deck stayed perpetually closed. The other members of the family kept close to their headphones or found other places to be. They welcomed the respite of work or a date, accepting any invitation to leave the house and escape Audrey’s persistence rehearsing.

She was proud of her diligence. She’d struggled with rehearsals in the beginning, but she knew the more she worked on her music, the more Sandrine would be excited, so proud of her, so proud for her, that the anticipation of her performance drove her to keep rehearing even when her fingers ached. Even when the signals between her brain and appendages slowed and she fumbled and discordant notes filled the sun deck, even when her fingers felt dry and cracked and she asked her mother for a Band-Aid, Audrey immediately returned to the piano, fueled by the promise of Sandrine’s engaged stare, her applause, her authentic and earnest, Brava!

The day her father returned from his business trip, Audrey gathered her papers and readied herself for her lesson. But right before she was to leave, the phone rang, and Audrey’s father informed her Sandrine had fallen ill and would not be able to hold a lesson that afternoon. Audrey was crushed. Her eyes welled up. She tried to take a breath, to let the feeling wash over and away from her, but the feeling was too intense. Before she could stop them, the tears flowed down her cheeks, openly, as she stood in front of her father.

“There, there,” he said. “Don’t be upset.”

Audrey hiccuped and sniffed.

“Your mom tells me you’ve been practicing so hard, you’ve been driving everyone crazy.”

“Rehearsing.” Audrey gulped through her sobs.

“What was that?” Her father asked.

“I’ve been rehearsing,” Audrey said, with slightly more coherence this time.

“Oh,” her father said. “Were you having a recital today?”

Audrey nodded, gathering from context that a recital and performance were the same thing.

“Well,” her father continued. “How about you play for me?”

In an instant, Audrey’s woe vanished and her heart soared. It kept soaring until it was in the outer realms of the solar system and could no longer look down and see from where it had come. Audrey gasped with delight and nodded.

“Okay great,” said her father.

Audrey pulled her father to the sun deck and placed him in a chair next to the piano, in a configuration as best to duplicate the set up at Sandrine’s. She then placed her sheet music for “Amazing Grace” upon the rack and began to play. Maybe it was her father’s presence that buoyed her. Or maybe it was all her rehearsing. Or maybe it was the combination of the two. But Audrey was levitating. Her scabby, sore fingers were light and strong and brimmed with the energy needed to be the most amazing pianist in the entire galaxy, and—for a moment—she rose above her training of the Cs and Gs and finger placement, half note, whole note, and simply played. She was delighted to recognize the feeling of that moment. The connection, vibration, and oneness were the same as when she’d first picked up her father’s guitar. Before she even thought of the piano, the guitar had given her a taste of how music could feed her, and the piano had brought the promise of that nourishment to fruition.

With the last chord depressed into the keys and the notes faded away, Audrey turned to her father with an electric smile. But the wattage dimmed immediately upon taking in her father’s face.

Her father looked beyond her. His eyes were glazed. His demeanor was weighted and confused. Then he suddenly stood up, and kissed her on the head.

“That was great,” he croaked. “That was great.”
He quickly crossed the room, went up the stairs, and closed the door behind him.

In his wake, Audrey sat on the piano bench dumbfounded. How was it that such a profound and exhilarating experience had made her father so sad? Did he not think she was good? Was she not good? Even though she thought she had played beautifully, perhaps she was wrong in her own assessment of her performance. Maybe she didn’t know how to gauge herself. Maybe she thought too highly of her skills. Maybe Sandrine had been lying to her because her parents were paying her. Maybe she shouldn’t even waste her time with music. At first while she was playing, he had seemed enraptured, engrossed, his face light and emotional in a way she could not ever remember seeing her father. Was that what her father looked like happy? Yes, he had been happy while she was playing. It was only once she stopped playing that he’d become sad.

Quickly, Audrey turned back to the piano and began playing the song again, determined to go through all the verses. The 2nd and 3rd she herself preferred to the 1st and original. Her anxiety in the initial moment caused her to stumble at the beginning, but she quickly corrected, found her flow, felt the energy again, felt her confusion release. She’d only been playing a few minutes when she heard the soft click of the door to the sun porch open again, and the weight of her father’s footsteps down the stairs coming back to her. She turned and looked into his soft face, his smile returning.

Even with all her rehearsing, Audrey was still a novice, and removing her eyes from her hands caused her to stumble after a few bars. She tried to recover, but her father’s face had already fallen again. The light vanquished from his eyes, and he turned away, taking laborious steps back to the stairs. Audrey, in a panic, hurriedly played again from the beginning and, to her relief, her father stopped at the bottom of the stairs and turned back to the music as though entranced, his face once again serene.

Audrey’s sprits soared as she realized her music was indeed the thing making her father smile. It was bringing him joy. If she just kept playing, he’d stay happy forever. Audrey played on and on, willing herself to not stumble. When she felt she was losing her nerve, she would remember that first day at Sandrine’s when she’d just let it pass. Just let it pass, Audrey told herself. Just let it flow.

Her father was so engrossed in her playing he sat down in the chair beside her and closed his eyes. Audrey went through all five verses of “Amazing Grace” without stopping, then started over again. Even though she’d built up hand stamina, her fingers tired. But every time she took a break and let the notes fall into silence, her father’s eye popped open and his frown increased, and he stood up to walk out of the room. So, Audrey kept playing and playing.

She didn’t stop, even long after the flow had dried up and she stumbled over every chord. Even after her callouses broke and bled through the Band-Aid, leaving brownish-red smears on the ivory keys, she played. Even after the sun set and exhaustion set in and her back and neck and arms past through the fire of pain and settled into the pinprick tingling of numbness, she played.

Her father was the most at peace she had ever seen him. His eyes, closed, fluttered in the sleep of babies. What dreams did he dream, Audrey wondered as she struggled to make each chord. Lifting her hands was like trying to lift the big chairs in the living room or her brother’s legs when he flung them on top of her while they watched TV. Her fingers burned; they were all bleeding now, bright red dripping off the keys onto the floor, onto her sneakers. Some of the blood slipped between the keys and congealed, making it even harder to depress them. She had to bang harder now, which made the nerves in her fingers radiate with agony all the way up to her elbows, up her neck and face and into her brain. But still she kept playing and her father slumbered beside her.

By the time the sun came up again, Audrey, her nails were bloody nubs, with bits of white bone shard poking through the worn tips of her fingers. She played ever so slowly, ever so softly. The pain seeped deep into her psyche, into her marrow, where it quickly replicated and would continue to replicate for the rest of her life, ever pumping itself through her with each beat of her heart.

Eventually Audrey’s playing stopped. She swayed on the piano bench, then fell over onto the floor at her father’s feet. In the absence of the music, her father awoke from his peaceful slumber, scratched the stubble on his chin, and yawned. His face, although now more rested, still folded down into a frown, heavy with sadness and irritation. Looking to the floor, he saw Audrey in a heap and gasped.

“Audrey!” he said. “Audrey!” He sank beside her, gathering her into his arms. She moaned and didn’t dare open her eyes. Her father’s heartbeat steadily thumped against her cheek. Its rhythm was hot and unwavering, and it lulled her away from her hurt.

“Dad,” she whispered. “Dad.”

“Audrey, what happened? What’s wrong?”

She wanted to tell him, Nothing. Nothing is wrong. Everything is right. Everything is what she always wanted, but she dared not make another sound for fear he would retreat.

He hugged her close, paralyzed by the question of what to do to help his daughter. Then he noticed her bloody fingers. Snapping to action, he carefully lay Audrey down on the cold tile.

“I’ll go get your mother,” he said as he unwrapped her from his embrace, from his attention. “I’ll go get your mother.”

From her supine position, Audrey watched his shoes scurry away from her then stomp up the stairs. His wake reverberated as though she’d been holding down the pedals of the piano, creating a dissonance inside her that would never truly recede.



Megan Morrison