Sunday, January 07, 2007

something special*

*this is a sample from a chapter of the book I've been working on.

My sister was the dancer. I was the musician.

When she tried on her recital costumes -- lime green satin numbers with silver spangles, purple unitards with fringes sewn in -- I watched on propped elbows, admiring. Her delicate feet knew instinctive rhythms I could never imitate.

After her recitals we ate at a restaurant to celebrate, a treat. Her father smoked and smiled, all teeth and congeniality, tapping the cigarette into a small black plastic ashtray to punctuate the ends of his sentences.

After her recitals she let me hold the costumes she'd worn. I'd lay them across my lap, stroking them lovingly -- as if they were something alive.

I'd crawl into her bed at night when I had bad dreams and lie awake, still watching her. How did she go to sleep so easily? How did she go through life so...unruffled? How could I learn to be more like her and less

When I could get away with it, I'd push toilet paper into the toes of her ballerina flats and arch my feet pointedly, feeling my way however blunted into her world of grace and glitter.

Sometimes it seems other people get to live in a world that's full of something special. The rest of us have to go look for it. If it meant wearing her shoes stuffed with Charmin, I'd do it.

I had no recitals, having no private lessons in anything at all. I would instead play the boxy blue electric chord organ on my knees on the floor of my bedroom. It bellowed and pumped wheezily, a reedy facsimile of much greater instruments.

There came a day when someone kicked in one side of the plastic organ in a rage; though the culprit taped the hole shut again, the music was, after that, forever weaker -- asthmatic, failing.

We had no money for a piano. We made do with the octave and a half, or whatever it was. My mother wrote the names of each note on the white plastic keys with Magic Marker so she couldn't forget them.

Somewhere she'd found Easy-Play sheet music with the notes interpreted. Hymns, mostly -- Bringing in the Sheaves, Whispering Hope.

She'd play them, and then I would, and she'd listen, humming along under her breath. I knew I'd played well when I made her sing. It lifted my heart to make her sing.

She'd once been a beautiful singer until a terrible car wreck destroyed her one of her vocal cords. She always apologized her voice away when she spoke to someone for the first time, assuring them she hadn't always sounded this way.

I loved her voice (husky, throaty). I wanted to make her forget it, so she would let me hear it more often.

"You're so much better than me," she'd assure me every time I played for her. "It's so much easier for you." And I'd almost believe it.

When the music teacher asked us one day to play an instrument for the class, I carried the organ to school, desperate to show everyone my own specialness. I couldn't tap dance, I couldn't sing. But I could play a chord organ -- see?

It made an awkward bundle in my arms, on the bus. The fat black electric cord kept uncoiling and falling to the side in an ungainly sprawl, and that was tiring. Setup in the classroom proved problematic; the cord wasn't long enough to reach and I had to perch the organ carefully on the teacher's desk, as if it were a bird.

My fingers shook with self-consciousness as I pushed the frail accordion-like keys into some semblance of "The Battle Hymn of the Republic".

I knew, when I finished, that I'd misstepped. The music sounded so elderly in the classroom, for one. This was not dancing. People do not come in droves to listen to a girl play hymns on a chord organ. Especially an ancient plastic chord organ with the notes scrawled on the keys and one side of the box busted out. It may have been special, but it was only special to me. I hadn't a hope in this world of expecting anyone else to get it.

"That's kind of dorky, you know," someone said as I took my seat. I just nodded. I couldn't argue it.

I took so long managing the chord organ and my books, at the end of the day, that I missed my bus. I left the books and carried the organ with me to the home of a woman I'd known my mother to visit, now and then. I knocked on her door, shaking with exhaustion and fear. (This was something unexpected. I didn't know where else to go.)

She was kind, the lady. She fed me baked beans while she called my mother. Though I was hungry, the baked beans tasted terrible. They weren't cooked with mustard and ketchup and a little bit of brown sugar, the way my mother made them.

Later, when I mentioned this to my mother, she laughed and explained that her friend must have cooked them straight out of the can. I couldn't for the life of me imagine anyone voluntarily eating baked beans that way.

My father had to pick me up after he got home from work. He picked me up after he ate his dinner, and I rode home in his great jostling truck holding on to the chord organ wearily. All this seemed like far too much work.

"How'd it go?" he asked me in his big, jovial voice. "Did you make a big hit?"

I told him yes as I looked away, out the window, at mud-caked roads and a trembly, meandering creek snaking persistently alongside.

I didn't want to explain; I didn't want to tell the truth. I just wanted to believe, for one day, that I too knew how to do something special.