VOLUME 1 NUMBER 1
Half the Horses Rise
My son Kyle has been in Florida. He says he’s coming to see me. Ha! I don’t bother giving him directions to the apartment. Even if he could find it, I sure as hell wouldn’t want him inside. Junk’s piled up everywhere. So I tell him to meet me at work.
Sure, I’ve got work. I play the piano at Strawbridge’s. In the department store piano-playing world, I’m as solid as they come, maybe a little better. I can play the show tunes, I can play the sonatas, I can play the occasional soft jazz. I’ve got a rendition of the 1812 Overture I pull out in July that can bring the house down. Plus, a few things of my own, not songs exactly, but little melody lines I’ve worked out. Strictly faking.
Strawbridge’s likes to pretend it’s a high-end place, like Nordstrom or Bloomingdales. I wouldn’t know; I never go into those places. But when I’m sitting by the escalator at the baby grand in my used tux, with my music being piped all over the store, Strawbridge’s is as high end as it will ever get.
Don’t take my word for it. Just watch our customers as they come past the piano and give me a smile or a nod, their shopping bags filled with the shit they bought in Petites or Ladies. Those are satisfied shoppers if I’ve ever seen any. Once, a pretty woman laid a dollar bill on the piano as she walked by, a shopping bag in each hand. A few minutes later, another woman stopped with another dollar. Lucky day! I rooted around in my tux for the bottle of Dilantin I always keep with me. Anti-seizure meds. I emptied the pills into my shirt pocket and set the bottle on the piano. I stuffed the bills in the bottle like cloth napkins folded into a wine glass. But the manager came by just then, took the bills, and said if I ever tried another stunt like that, I’d be through. He ran off into the mall to return the money. He wanted descriptions of the women from me. I said, “I was concentrating. I didn’t see.”
Kyle is coming with his new wife Darcy. I’ve seen her only once. She’s a looker. I don’t know how my son got his hands on her, and I don’t know how he’ll keep his hands on her if he’s inherited anything from his old man. They got married in Vegas, or so they say. I don’t believe a word of it. I doubt they got any farther west than Indianapolis or Kansas City. You don’t need to drive halfway across the desert to prove yourself to this woman. I know my son. Let’s just say I know his type.
They come down the escalator from Housewares holding hands. Kyle has this look on his face, and I have to control my expression to match that look.
“Nice piano,” he says.
“Damn nice,” I say.
He stands behind me as if he’s going to reach over my shoulder and strike a key. “Not yours?”
I don’t look back at him. “Of course it’s not mine. You don’t get to put one of these things in your living room unless you’re Ray Charles or Chopin.” My son doesn’t know that you rearrange your schedule for a chance to play an instrument like this. You rearrange your life.
“We’ve just come back from Miami,” he says. “You ever been in Florida?”
I shake my head.
I’ve had my chances in the world. I’m not looking to go any place new, certainly not Florida. Florida can be a touchy subject when you get to be my age. I’m not ready for the pasture yet. I take my Dilantin dosage and hope that each day will be calm. One pill with every bite of Special K. You can bet those capsules have a taste. If they stay on your tongue too long, the plastic turns pasty and sour. There’s a chewable form of Dilantin and it tastes a hell of a lot better. Salty, vanilla. Whoever invented it must have had a thing for Valentine’s Day hearts, because the tablets are a similar shape and size. I’ve thought about sayings they could print on the tablets, just like they do on the hearts: “Come convulse with me.” Or, “Seizures are sexy.”
Darcy pulls a snapshot out of her leather handbag. “We saw Versace’s estate,” she says, “on South Beach.”
Kyle puts the snapshot on the piano’s music stand. “Versace was killed right there,” he says. “Right in front of his own house.”
I look up from my playing. The picture is overexposed. There’s a black iron gate in the foreground and what look like white steps twenty or thirty yards behind it.
“You can see bloodstains on the pavement.”
“Dad, do you know what we’re talking about? Versace? The Italian clothes designer? He was murdered right in front of his house. Right there.” Kyle points at the picture. “Thirty yards from his own living room. His own bed. Are you listening?”
“Sure,” I say. “We sell his stuff upstairs someplace. You want my opinion of his latest collection? It looks great on tall, slinky women. Like yourself, Darcy. You must wear Versace.”
“His stuff sucks,” she says cooly.
Before I took Dilantin, I flopped all over the place. The bad old days; the Dark Ages. I still remember the sound of carousel music from my first flop. Margaret and I were on our honeymoon. As I said, I’ve had chances: honeymoons, houses, and such. I remember going round and round on a carousel in front of one of the museums on the lawn in D.C. We rode it alone. No one else. Maybe because it was winter and cold. I don’t remember the weather, but I remember the loud, distorted music. And I remember looking down the deserted mall in either direction, seeing the dome of the Capitol at one end and the Washington Monument at the other.
I was trying to take a picture of Margaret, who was on the horse behind me. I looked through the lens of the camera, and she smiled like it was the happiest moment of her life. I was gripping my horse’s tail as I looked back at her. Our horses didn’t move in synch. Hers was rising while mine was falling, and then hers fell while mine rose. I’ve watched a lot of merry-go-rounds since, and it’s always the same. Half the horses rise while half fall. This is gospel. You can check it.
Anyway, we were not in synch. And then she was saying something to me, still doing that happiest-moment-of-my-life smile, and I was looking through the lens, aiming it, trying to get it just right, and thinking that this would be a picture we would look at forever. The flop came quickly. The carousel music seemed to get louder and slower, like music in a dream.
Then it became sound with no melody. Margaret’s expression changed, and she reached for the camera as I lost my grip on the tail and fell off the horse.
After that, I had lots of them. I flopped everywhere. I needed constant watching. I couldn’t drive a car. When Kyle was born, I couldn’t be left alone with him. I was dangerous. I could have dropped him on the floor, or let him slip underwater in the bathtub. These were the kinds of things we worried about. It was all we thought about.
Darcy looks at Kyle, her husband, my son. “Are you going to tell him the rest?” she says to him.
Tell him what?” says Kyle.
“What did we come all the way up here for? For you to chicken out?”
“Tell me what?” I say.
Darcy looks at Kyle and then at me. “Seizures,” she says.
I stop playing. I put my hands in my lap and straighten up on the bench. I nod toward the snapshot on the stand. “There?”
Kyle nods. “I was lining up this picture. It came out of nowhere.”
I try to think of what I meant to play next. What song next? I try to take my hands out of my lap and put my fingers on the keys, but I can’t. People fall down for all kinds of reasons. “Are you sure that’s what it was?” I say.
“I saw a doctor. He ran some tests and wants to run more. But that’s what he thinks it was.”
“I saw it,” says Darcy. “You had a seizure. I know what I saw.”
“The doctor wants to know if epilepsy runs in the family,” says Kyle.
“They also want to know…, ” says Darcy.
“I’ll say it,” Kyle breaks in. “Damnit. He also wants to know if I might have had some kind of head trauma when I was little. I don’t remember anything, but it could go back before then.”
“A fall. Or getting hit on the head. I don’t know, something like that.”
“I’m supposed to remember all of your little-boy accidents?” I say. “Who do you think I am?”
“Do you remember anything like that?”
“Did you ask your mother?”
Kyle hesitates. “Yes.”
I run my hands over my scalp. There is still no music going through the department store. I had an idea when I sat down at the piano what I would play tonight. A program, so to speak, but I can’t remember any of it.
“It’s time for my break,” I say.
I’ve often wondered what my playing sounds like in other parts of the store. What do I sound like in Infants? In Men’s? I can never hear that. When I go through the store I hear only Muzak or silence. My music comforts shoppers, but it never comforts me.
Epilepsy can be inherited, but it’s never certain. You’re more likely to inherit your father’s green eyes or his hatred of the National League than his epilepsy, if he has it. And you can only inherit it if he inherited from someplace else. If his is one of those that came on because of a bad case of chicken pox or because he was hit in the head with a canoe paddle, then you’re safe. It’s not in his gene pool. That pool may be full of shit you never wanted, but not epilepsy.
Kyle and I walk to the employee lounge, where we can sit. Darcy strolls off. She knows her way around a store like this. Kyle doesn’t. I can tell he follows that woman around to a lot of places. That woman probably has him on a string. I know about that string.
My son pulls out a cigarette pack, and this completes the picture for me. I can see Darcy and him in the car driving into the desert, lighting each other’s cigarettes. Maybe my son is driving; maybe Darcy is driving.
“You can’t smoke here,” I say.
“I don’t smoke anymore. Does your mother know that? Does she know I quit? That would be news to her. Even second hand smoke. Nothing.”
He puts the pack away.
“You know how old you were when your mother and I stopped living together?”
“Three? Three and a half?”
“You weren’t even two,” I say. “I didn’t see you much. And I never saw you out of your other’s sight. Did she tell you that?”
Kyle shakes his head. “She said lots of things.”
“I’m sure,” I say. Then I tell him I have the disease. “But you figured that, didn’t you? You figured that long before you were on South Beach.”
“I wasn’t absolutely sure.”
He sits across from me, hunched over. I want to think of him as helpless, but his arms are thick and long and his voice is deep.
“At first it felt like a head rush,” he says. “I felt giggly. I’m thinking, like, this is why you go to the beach. This is why you go on vacation. To feel like this. Then the feeling sort of changes.”
I don’t look up.
“I was clearing my throat,” he says. “Or a voice inside my head was clearing its throat. A familiar voice. Clearing the air as if about to say something or tell a joke. Then I was convinced I could hear conversations of everyone on the beach. An old man down the beach turned to his wife, and I was convinced I could hear him clearing his throat, about to tell her a joke.” Kyle stops.
I think of what it would be like to flop on the beach, choking on the sand in your nose and mouth, Versace’s neighbors and fans all watching. I’ve had them like that. I’ve had them in parlors while I tried to give piano lessons. I’ve had them jogging down the street. I’ve had them in movie theaters.
Kyle is rubbing his forehead. He reaches for cigarettes. I put my hand on his arm and shake my head.
“I forgot,” he says.
This is a moment I should have been rehearsing. I don’t have much practice giving fatherly advice. What does he expect me to do? I remember once coming into the house where he was living with his mother, armed with two packs of cigarettes, determined to smoke until I seized, until I was down on the living room carpet. I was falling into the lap of my family. Trying to scare the shit out of them.
I say, “Your mother shared you with me only as she saw fit. She was afraid I’d flop and land on you, or I’d flop while I was holding you. When you were older, she thought it was important that I hide it from you. She thought you’d be scared. She said, ‘You better have yourself under control if you’re going to come in here.’”
I look at Kyle. I try to read something in him, but I don’t have much practice doing this either. “Do you see what I mean?”
He blinks and turns to me.
I realize what I hope for most. I hope I will not see my son have a seizure. There’s nothing I can give him. If we understood each other, we’d have to help each other. Goddammit I’d have to help him.
I hope Darcy is close by. I hope she’s been hovering around outside the door, eavesdropping. She needs to step in here and take care of this.
I stand up. “I’ve got to get back to the piano.”
“Right,” says Kyle.
Later, during my dinner break, I buy cigarettes at the pharmacy in the mall, the first pack in years. I don’t take my Dilantin. That evening, I’m playing a little Schubert number. I’m improvising over the chords of a sonata. Improvising, ha! Old Schubert must be spinning in his grave. But two little kids have wandered over, and they don’t know the difference. They want to know how the piano works. The boy stands on tiptoe and looks into the piano case.
Then he looks at my fingers. His big sister stands back and watches, as if she expects trouble. The boy puts his lips on the wood and leaves a stain of breath on the piano’s polished side.
“Jimmy!” the girl hisses at her brother. “You’re not supposed to do that.” But I wink at her, and she works her mouth into a frown.
Jimmy rolls off his toes and steps away from his stain mark. The sleeves of his jacket are pulled over his hands, and he wipes the moist spot with his left cuff. When he pushes his hands out of the end of his sleeves, I see his left hand is a nub with no fingers.
For a minute I want to stop and explain things to the boy. I’d tell him about cause and effect, how you plunk a key and a wooden hammer strikes a string that makes a sound. Just like the doctors explain to me the cause and effect of taking Dilantin, or not taking it. Instead, I start to play carousel music.
I mouth to the boy, “Go away.”
He’s holding the edge of the piano case and looking at me. I feel for the cigarettes. I put my fist in my pocket, as if my hand were a nub.
Jimmy is making a face at me.
“Go away, Jimmy,” I say softly.
Hearing his name, his eyes go wide.
“I’m Jeemie,” he says. He waves his nub at me.
I take my fist out of my pocket. I want to unclench it, but I can’t. I’m playing familiar chords with my free hand. C, B-flat, D. The sound comes not from the piano, but from way off in the store as if I am hearing the speakers. My head pounds.
I slam my fist against the top of the piano, and the boy steps back. I stop playing and light a cigarette. This will be the end of me. This will be worse than the bottle stuffed with dollar bills, you can bet.
Jeemie’s sister is tugging at her brother’s jacket. “Come on, Jimmy,” she says and pulls him away from the piano. Then she turns him by shoulders and escorts him away. She gives a frightened glance over her shoulder at me.
I inhale smoke from the first drag and watch Jeemie walk in front of his sister. On the second drag I realize Jeemie is humming the carousel music. The room starts to spin. Why this happens to me, I don’t know. A doctor once suggested that maybe I was dropped on my head as a kid. He didn’t put it this way. He said, “Neural trauma,” but I know what he meant. And maybe it’s true my father bounced me around like a rubber ball when I was tiny. Maybe that’s it. Or maybe I inherited directly from the old man. Maybe he convulsed, so I do too. These are deep and mysterious questions, and I hardly spend any time thinking about them anymore. They are of no consequence. What’s important now is that I break my fall from the piano stool, that I get the cigarette away from my body. Don’t singe the tux. Don’t burn yourself, for Chrissakes.