A short story by Luke Nelson
Jack: Gisborne, New Zealand, 1977
Jack stood right at the spot where his mother had shot herself. He looked for spots of blood in the golden sunlight leaking through the windows, but could not see any. He wondered what it would have felt like to be his father, coming home one year ago today, to find his wife, Helena, dead on the floor. Jack’s father, Mac, was never the same after that day; he became distant, broken. He drifted around the house with a blank, sad look on his face and spent hours out on the farm, far longer than he used to. Jack was ten when his mother died. He remembered coming home from school and seeing his family gathered around the table. His sister, Maggie, was sobbing as Henry, Jack’s older brother, cradled her in his arms. Mac sat there motionless, staring out the window with that blank expression that would become so familiar. Jack was pulled out of his thoughts as he heard the door to the formal living room click open. His stepmother, Jemma, stood in the doorway.
“What are you doing in here?” she snapped.
“Your father and I are going out. There’s sausage in the fridge that you can cook for supper, and your siblings’ laundry needs doing.” Jemma glanced over at his mother’s grand piano, “I hate that thing.”
With that, she shut the door. Jack walked over to the old piano. It had been passed down through his family for generations, and now Jemma wanted to sell it and Mac wasn’t going to do anything to stop her. Jack’s mother had been a pianist, quite well-known across New Zealand. Every night, she used to play for them. She would close her eyes and let her fingers glide over the piano, never missing a note. She would practice for hours everyday, and the house used to be filled with music. Jack supposed that’s what he missed most: the music. Jack lowered himself into the little piano bench. There was one piece sitting on the piano, “In a Sentimental Mood” by John Coltrane and Duke Ellington. It had been his mother’s favorite. Jack thought of his mother and closed his eyes, letting his fingers drift across the keys as if they had a mind of their own. As he played, he remembered the starry nights, his mother’s soft, pink face, the quiet drowsiness blanketing him as she played the old tune, and his father and siblings curled up on the couch, watching her with wonder in their eyes.
Jack’s eyes flicked open.
Jemma stood over him, glaring, “Do you ever just shut up!?!?”
She grabbed his arm, dragged him out of the room, and slammed the door shut behind him.
“Stay out of that room,” she snapped. Jack turned and walked back to his bedroom, feeling her eyes watching him walk away.
Hailey: Gisborne, New Zealand, 2007
It was the perfect day for a funeral. Rain tumbled down from a gray sky, darkening Mac’s tombstone. The wet grass and mud clung to Hailey’s rubber boots. The old, overhanging trees managed to block most of the rain, but Hailey still had her umbrella open.
Hailey hadn’t seen her family in forever, but there they all were, gathered for her grandfather’s funeral. Hailey hadn’t seen Mac ever since he and her dad, Henry, had a falling out, so she wasn’t sure why she came. But Hailey had always liked Mac; he had a quiet thoughtfulness to him, but also a profound, unmistakable sadness. Hailey missed spending time with her family. She missed them all spending Christmas together, gathering around the fire and laughing and talking for hours.
The only person Hailey didn’t miss was Jemma, her dad’s stepmother. Jemma had moved in soon after the death of Hailey’s grandmother, Helena. From day one she refused to do anything for Henry or his siblings, Jack and Maggie, and since Mac spaced out after his wife’s passing, they practically had to raise themselves. Jemma always had a special hatred for Hailey, as Mac always told her that she looked like Helena.
Hailey looked up. and there stood her Uncle Jack. It had been years since she had seen him, and he was the family member she missed the most. He was incredibly kind and wickedly intelligent. He was always witty and liked to joke around with Hailey and her dad. He hadn’t changed much since she last saw him. He was tall and lanky, with sharp, intelligent eyes and gray hair.
“How are you?” he asked.
“Hey Uncle Jack! I’m good, how are you?”
“I’m good. It was nice of you to come,” he said, “I think Dad always liked you, although it was hard to tell with him. How’s your dad?”
“He’s alright,” Hailey responded.
They stood there in silence for several moments, gazing at Mac’s tombstone.
After a while, Jack said, “Maggie and I are gonna head to the pub for a drink. Wanna come along?”
Hailey laughed, “I’m 17! I can’t drink yet.”
Jack smiled, “Ah, hurry up and grow up, won’t you?”
“At least I’m not old and gray like you.”
Jack cackled, “Got me there! Anyways, do you need a ride home?”
“No thanks, I’ve got my car here.”
Jack gave her a hug, “Well, it was good to see you, Hailey. Hopefully I’ll see you soon.”
“Yeah, you too.”
Hailey turned and hurried back to her car, trying to escape the rain. As she reached her car, she turned and looked back at Jack. He stood there, gazing sadly at his father’s grave. Hailey hopped in her car and pulled onto the street. The rain became heavier, pattering down on the car. Its sound was soft and hypnotic, and Hailey became drowsy, so she pulled over to the side of the road. The rain clouded the window and blurred the city lights, so that they were merely little bright specks that danced across her windshield. She loved the rain, as long as she was shrouded in the warmth of the car heater. Hailey reached over and turned the volume up on the radio. Some old song was playing. It was beautiful: a soft lulling piano that had a sad, reminiscent touch to it. Hailey recognized the song from somewhere and she was pretty sure that it was by John Coltrane, but she couldn’t put her finger on the name. Hailey put her seat back and closed her eyes, letting the music and the pattering rain blanket her. She drifted off.
Sam: New York City, New York, 2020
Sam lay on his bed, staring up at the ceiling, bored. He had been lying there for a good half an hour, with nothing to do and nowhere to go. He had met with his professors and was ahead on all his papers and assignments, and his few friends were busy. So Sam lay there, listening to the typical New York sounds: honking cars, people yelling, construction – the usual noises. New Zealand was always so quiet.
Sam sighed and rose from his bed. His dad, Jack, would be here in 10 minutes, and Sam thought he’d clean himself up a bit. Jack was coming over to see his mother’s grand piano arrive. About a year or so after Jack’s mother had died, Jack’s stepmother, who wanted no reminder of the woman before her, had chucked in a storage unit, where it lay forgotten for decades. Jack wanted Sam to have it; he had said something about passing it on through the generations. It was arriving today, and Jack happened to be in the States, so he was flying over to see it for the first time in 43 years.
Sam walked into the bathroom and stared at an unrecognizable twin, splashing cold water over his face. He looked tired, as he had not been getting much sleep. No matter how tightly he shut the windows, the city sounds always kept him awake. He looked stressed and high-strung, nothing like the happy, relaxed kid from a few months ago. New York was a tiring city.
Sam gazed around the dorm room. It was a mess; clothes strewn across the floor, old wrappers and food containers lying around, and Sam had made no effort to put his schoolwork back in his bag. The dorm was one of those modern structures; rugged brick walls mixed with a light, wood floor. Sam was supposed to have roommates, but Columbia had switched their dorms at the last minute, leaving Sam alone in a four person unit. Sam sighed and began tidying, but before he could make any real progress, the knock came at the door. If it had been anybody else, Sam would have been embarrassed by the mess, but tidiness was something his dad did not care about. Sam opened the door.
“Hey Sammy!” Jack said, smiling. He looked around the room, “Hey, look at you, cleaning up after yourself. Looks like your mum’s hard work finally paid off.”
Sam chuckled, “Dad, the place is a mess.”
Jack smiled, “Yeah, I know. But a man can dream, can’t he?”
“Coffee?” Sam asked.
“Nah, I’m alright.” Jack flopped onto the couch, “So, everything here going okay?”
“Yeah, yeah it’s alright,” Sam lied, “How’re things with you?”
“It’s good. The sculpting is going well.”
Jack had been a surgeon at USC for almost 15 years. He was at the top of his field and had been making good money off it too, but one day he walked into work, announced he was quitting, and moved back to New Zealand to become a sculptor.
Sam heard the U-Haul truck pull up to the curb. Sam and Jack helped the drivers carry the piano in. It fit easier than Sam expected; the dorm was even larger than he realized. They placed the piano right under one of the windows, so the bright New York sun illuminated the ancient wood. When the men left, Jack sat down on the little piano bench, slowly tracing his fingers over the keys.
“Been a while since I’ve seen this old thing,” Jack said, smiling. Jack paused, as if suddenly remembering something, and then stood up and opened the top of the bench. He laughed, “It’s still here! Good thing we asked them to ship the bench over, too.” Jack pulled out a piece of music, “This song was your grandmother’s favorite. Let’s see how much of it I can still play.”
Sam had never heard his dad play the piano before, he did not even know he could play. Jack squinted at the piece, as if trying to decipher the notes. He attempted the first few lines multiple times, but he kept hitting the wrong notes. After each try, the song would become more coherent, like putting together the pieces of a puzzle. Finally, it began to flow, with Jack flicking his hands across the keys. He started over, just to make sure that the piece was perfect from start to finish. Jack closed his eyes, his hands rolling up and down the piano. Sam understood why his grandmother had loved the song so much: it was a gorgeous, bittersweet piece, and it made him dream of simpler days. The days of golden fields and morning cartoons, the days of running up the farm hills and gazing out across the brilliant New Zealand landscape, and the days of dark blue nights, the moon hanging over Sam’s little hometown.
Jack finished playing and lowered his hands. Neither of them said anything for several moments.
Finally, Jack said, “I better get going, I have an art convention in half an hour. I’ll see you tomorrow?”
Sam replied, “Yeah, see ya tomorrow.”
After Jack left, Sam doused himself in cold water again. He wondered where those days had gone, where that happy little kid had gone. He wondered if those days would ever come again. Maybe they never would, but either way, he was just happy that they had happened. It was good while it lasted.