--YOU GET A REPUTATION FOR ANSWERING YOUR PHONE AND ALL THEY DO IS RING
…A few months ago after my dad died, I wrote a bunch of poetry as a means of releasing some emotional angst. Most of the poems were autobiographical, or closely so. I sent them off, but no one wanted them until Eunoia Review took ten of them.
Here are two:
…And this is one of the first things I wrote when I started writing full-time five years ago (I forget who published it, but you should know it’s a tad creepy, ala The Twilight Zone):
HOW DO YOU REGARD YOURSELF?
Those words, written in capital letters on the inside cover of her social studies textbook caught twelve year old Abby Stevens unaware. What kind of question was that? What type of person would even ask such a ridiculous question, and for what purpose?
She studied the handwriting. She pondered the question once more. She closed her mouth and permitted herself a muffled, exasperated scream.
She thought it might have been Douglas messing with her again, so during dinner Abby asked him outright.
“I don’t have time for your stupid-ass school books,” her stepbrother said without hesitation. Douglas had a genius I.Q. and, at fourteen years of age, was taking college courses.
“Don’t say ‘stupid’,” Darla, Abby’s stepmother said.
“Would you rather have me lie?” Douglas asked. He was as clever as an armed jackal but ugly and as pale as an earthworm.
“Douglas has a point,” Abby’s dad said. Abby’s dad had a psychiatric practice that he ran in tandem with Darla. In addition, Abby’s dad was a hold-over communist who, in the year of our Lord 1974, believed Fidel Castro had some ideas worth considering.
“Well, someone wrote it,” Abby said, smacking the butt of her fork on the table. “The book is new and now it’s ruined.”
“It’s hardly ruined,” Darla said, jutting her chin and scraping her spoon louder than necessary against the glass serving bowl.
“You shouldn’t be such a perfectionist,” Abby’s father said, using his tongue to pry a sprig of parsley from his molars. “It’ll be your undoing.”
“It’ll worsen your acne,” Darla said.
I hate you, I hate you all, Abby said to herself, then asked aloud, “May I be excused?”
“Now, you’re not going to sulk all night, are you?” Darla asked.
Abby retrieved her textbook. She decided not to let it out of her sight. From her bedroom, she took the staircase that led into the parlor. Her father had recently purchased a Steinway piano for the impractical purpose of filling a decorative niche, since no one played. The instrument stood in the north corner of the room like the shiny shell of a black rhino halfway submerged in swamp water.
Abby sat at the bench and stared at the keys. Their veneer glinted and shimmered because of the overhead chandelier light. Abby had no idea what she was doing or why, but her hands had a mind of their own, a stubborn mind at that. When she tried to control them a centrifugal force emanating from somewhere near her joints disallowed their being controlled, like two magnets pushing off from one another.
Abby’s fingers took over from her hands, this set caressing the upraised black keys, this set fondling the squared-off ends of the white keys with a delicate pressure that could only be described as sensuous.
Her fingers plucked a few of the keys, shaping chords.
What was happening?
The textbook flapped open in her lap: HOW DO YOU REGARD YOURSELF?
This was all very ludicrous.
A wall mirror hung behind the piano. (Every room in their house contained a minimum of three mirrors.) Abby was too frightened to follow her fingers’ progress, and the textbook unnerved her as well, so she backed her willpower into a corner, demanding its support as she studied her reflection. This seemed to work.
Abby realized she didn’t really know herself very well, at least not her physicality. She saw now that she was pretty in an impish way, yet her hair had a flat, sun-scorched lawn quality.
“Ouch!” The textbook shifted on Abby’s lap and a corner jabbed her in the thigh.
HOW DO YOU REGARD YOURSELF?
At that moment, Abby decided to regard herself as a redhead, with thick lustrous locks curling up around her neck and shoulders, same as that lady with the mole from “Gunsmoke,” Miss What’s-Her-Name? Miss Kitty.
As the image started to take shape, Abby’s fingers found a rhythm on the key board and a wordless tune began playing. Abby’s poor heart could barely keep up with its militant beating or the haunting arc of the tune. She had no idea what to do, not that it mattered, since she was just coming along for the ride. Her fingers tapped and flailed as if clawing for rescue, but four minutes later her wrists slammed on the keys, pounding the songs desperate conclusion.
In the morning Abby was not altogether shocked to discover her new mane.
At breakfast Douglas was the first to comment. “Nice dye job, Strawberry Fields. What’d you do, soak your head in jam?”
“Great God in Heaven, Abby, what have you done?” Darla asked, horrified, however the hitch in her voice, along with the exaggerated way she pressed a palm to her surgically-altered breasts, told Abby her stepmother was simply jealous as all get-out.
“I like it,” Abby’s father said. “It gives you a sort of regal Irish appeal.”
“But we’re Norwegian,” Darla said.
“Speak for yourself.” Abby said.
The next day Abby stepped into the parlor with her knees shaking and her insides gurgling. Like a stalker at last coming face-to-face with its obsession, Abby was perplexed, with no next step in hand.
So she sat at the bench. She clucked her tongue and rocked her feet. She fingered the textbook and then yipped, snapping her hand in the air, the victim of a searing paper cut. The slice looked innocent enough but it burned, soon bubbling up with crimson driblets. The more Abby sucked, the more it bled.
“Come on, Hombre, toughen up,” she told herself.
Her hands took over from there. The tune was combustible, chaotic, a car accident involving band equipment. Her finger stung each time it tamped down, yet Abby was incapable of withdrawing it, of detaching herself from the bizarre cacophony taking place. She could hear cymbals smashing against the sides of a sea cliff and then plunging into water, a song—if it could even be labeled that—of bedlam and madness.
Breathless and sweating, as if she’d just given birth, Abby relaxed on the bench. Her hands robotically retracted into her lap when it was over. She blinked several times. Every one of the piano keys was blood-smeared.
The next day Abby stood at the bus stop for long two hours before calling it quits.
When the phone rang, she was eating Jif peanut butter straight out of the jar, with a spatula, in the middle of a “Partridge Family” music marathon, scream/singing the line, “Doesn’t somebody want to be wanted like me, just like me?”
Douglas asked, “Has the school called yet?”
“What the hell are you talking about?”
“Watch your fat lip.”
“Go to hell.”
“I’ve tried to get in, but it’s you they want.”
“Once Satan sees it’s you, you’re in all right. Trust me.”
“Listen up, bitch lips, school’s cancelled.”
“Dad and Mom have their hands full with the victims’ parents and they told me to call you.”
“If you’d shut your pie hole for a minute I might be able to explain.”
It seemed preposterous that Abby could detest her stepbrother more, yet new ways and degrees presented themselves daily.
“Well? Go ahead,” she said, affecting his tone, “babble on, Babylon.”
There had been an accident last night with Abby’s bus, bus 106. After the ‘Battle of the Bands’ competition, the vehicle got swallowed up in a cloud of fog, swerved and flew down a cliff, crashing into a lake. Twelve students were dead, the rest in critical condition, including the driver.
“Is this another one of your sick jokes?” Abby asked.
“You want a sick joke, pull out a hand mirror and have yourself a look.”
Abby hung up the phone, slid back-to-the-wall until her butt hit the floor, and began a frantic discourse with herself: It didn’t make sense. Was she some kind of monster? Had she caused the accident? Or was it a coincidence? Of course it was a coincidence. But how had her hair turned red? Could she have dyed it without remembering, and if she had, then didn’t that mean she really was a nut job?
As a calming technique, Abby took several deep breaths but only got dizzy. She fought off a drunken stagger once she was on her feet, moving down the hall toward the parlor.
Again, she had the text book with her. She sat, her posture erect. She opened the flap. She read the inscription. HOW DO YOU REGARD YOURSELF? Instead of looking into the mirror, Abby closed her eyes. She squeezed her lids so hard that her eyes began to burn. Before she was aware of it, her fingers were on the piano keys, softly composing a catchy, arm-swinging riff.
When it was finished, Abby opened her eyes and brushed the tears away.
She knew what she’d just done, that she’d written a death-march to her brother. If the pattern played itself out, she had killed him as certainly as if she’d lopped all his limbs off with a machete.
“Douglas told us what happened?”
“Yes, we’re very proud of you.”
Even Darla was nodding and smiling, if perhaps somewhat begrudgingly.
They were at the dinner table, just the three of them. Meals were the only time the family ever gathered together. Tonight Doug was missing.
“What did he tell you exactly?” Abby asked.
“He said you exposed him, called him out, so to speak.”
“Douglas is gay?”
“Funny!” Abby’s father said, working over a tough chunk of Salisbury steak. “Your use of euphemisms worked, ‘Hell’ being an especially effective one. The doctor said your brother’s been living in hell for the last three years.”
“So Doug’s not dead?”
“Doug said you convinced him to check himself into rehab, that it was your idea.”
“Evidentially he can’t receive visitors for the first six weeks. He’ll be detoxing during that time. Some people say kicking heroin is akin to death, perhaps worse.”
A surge of ambivalence snaked through Abby’s innards, up her lungs and into her throat. She sprang to her feet and was already sprinting before she could ask to be excused. In the bathroom Abby vomited a tightly-spooled splatter, rinsed her mouth out several times, and dabbed her lips with a towel.
Gasping, she stared at her pale, sweat-soaked complexion in the glass. She remembered Douglas’s comment about how she should look at herself in a mirror if she wanted a sick joke.
She threw up once more.
She hadn’t killed her stepbrother after all, she’d saved him. Now how could that be?
In the days that followed a bewildering war of confliction raged within Abby. She had no intention of ever visiting the parlor again, yet the decision became something beyond her, an unsupported and untouchable choice that was not hers alone to make.
No longer was it just Abby’s fingers that had become independent articles, but now the rest of Abby’s body was beginning to follow suit, betraying her in subtle ways. For instance, she’d decide to get herself a drink of orange juice, but instead of turning toward the kitchen, an invisible force would bum-rush her, stiff-arm her like a gust of wind out of nowhere, and then, off-balance, she’d open her eyes to discover herself repositioned a few feet from the parlor.
Just as a dying person recognizes when death is at the door, Abby understood that her internal biology had been invaded by an insurgency that had set up camp for good. Soon her mental state would be attacked as well.
“Give it to me straight, Doc,” she said out loud as a joke, “how much time do I have?”
No doctor could help her, witchdoctor or otherwise, and as such, Abby decided to extricate herself.
Abby planned to run away from home, to get as far from the parlor and the piano as possible. Before that, though, she wanted to shred the textbook, or at least the disturbing passage which had seemed to set all this in motion. However, when she tried to tear the cover from its binding, the book kept snapping free, as if it contained a coiled spring, as if it was booby-trapped or—worse-- alive.
“I’ll burn the damn thing,” Abby thought, “that’s what I’ll do.” So she set the text atop the faux stone logs and flipped the wall switch and waited for the abrupt, convulsive “Poof!” sound that always followed three seconds after the fireplace was turned on.
Nothing happened. The fireplace was “Poof!-less.”
Abby went through the same ritual with the upstairs fireplace. When that one failed as well, she tried the other five fireplaces, all without success.
In the kitchen she turned the stove dial to HIGH but got no response, not even a propane odor.
“Fine!” she screamed, flinging the textbook in the air. When it hit a porcelain pedestal, shattering a bust of some eyeless Grecian, Abby pounded up the stairs, taking them two at a time.
She stuffed her backpack with two changes of clothing, extra underwear, a couple of ladybug barrettes, as well as essential sundries. When she picked up the bag the textbook was there on the mattress, so she picked it up and threw it against the wall, ran out and left her house for good.
Or so she thought.
At the edge of the yard, Abby collapsed.
When she came to, Abby lay in her bedroom, head propped up with several pillows, surrounded by her father, Darla and another woman Abby didn’t recognize. The final scene in “The Wizard of Oz” immediately came to mind. Abby didn’t know if she was hallucinating or dreaming. It also occurred to her that she could be dead, just moments from having an out-of-body experience.
“You have a strange strain of flu.”
“Yes, unfortunately your mother and I are on our way to the airport. We’re hosting a conference in Phoenix all week. In any event, this is Mrs. Hagen.”
“Hello, dear,” Mrs. Hagen said. She had thin hair the color of cobwebs, with dark coffee bean eyes and a powered mass of jagged wrinkles for a face.
“Mrs. Hagen is your new nanny.”
“But I don’t want a nanny.”
“Of course you don’t, but Mrs. Hagen also plays piano.”
“She’s agreed to give you lessons as an added bonus.”
Abby shook her head side to side so hard it pinched her neck. “No way. I don’t ever want to touch that thing again, it’s cursed.”
“See, her fever really has taken root,” Darla said, pleased as punch.
“I’m not delusional!” Abby shouted. “Well, maybe I am, but if I am, then that means I’m physically healthy.”
“She’s not making sense,” Darla said.
“I don’t have the stupid fucking flu.”
“See, that type of language. It’s not like our Abby at all,” Darla said, and with Mrs. Hagen’s toothless grin looming like a dried out lake bed, and Abby digesting Darla’s invocation of the couplet, “our Abby”, Abby passed out.
At the breakfast table Mrs. Hagen didn’t bother hiding the fact that she was gawking at Abby. “Eat some breakfast. You need to your strength.”
“I want to go to school,” Abby said. “I feel pretty good.”
“Nonsense,” Mrs. Hagen said. Her black bean eyes stared over the rim of her huge coffee mug. Abby noticed the woman’s fingernails were charcoal, not painted, but rather rotting from the inside. “Your public education days are done. In addition to being your nanny, your parents have asked that I home-school you.”
“What a crock!”
“Is it? Is it now? Well I don’t think so. And I don’t think you will either. My specialty is music, piano.”
“Goodie for you.”
Mrs. Hagen shifted in her chair, swiveling her head. She looked one hundred and twenty years old, powdery and pasty-faced, a mummy with white chin hair. Abby leaned back in her chair, almost tipping over, frightened of being bit or attacked.
“Don’t you understand, Abby, you’re the reason I’m here?”
“I’m young but I’m independent. I don’t need any—“
Mrs. Hagen wasn’t listening. “I heard your playing and I came as quickly as I could.”
“You heard my playing?”
Nodding, Mrs. Hagen’s licked her chapped lips and tweaked several stiff chin whiskers between her forefinger and thumb. “Yesss,” Mrs. Hagen said.
“You heard me through the walls, from another state or another country, from wherever you live?”
“You have a gift and you must learn to use it in… the correct manner.”
They were in the parlor. The textbook sat on the music stand, the flap open.
HOW DO YOU REGARD YOURSELF? stared at her.
Abby wanted to puke but her stomach was empty. She looked at the inscription, then at Mrs. Hagen and said, “Hey, did you write that?”
Mrs. Hagen smiled a mildewed jack-o’-lantern smile. “Now what do you think?”
Their lessons weren’t really lessons at all, rather Mrs. Hagen presented Abby with a list of names and landmarks, some Abby knew—The Space Needle, Burt Reynolds, Jane Fonda—and others she didn’t—Helmut Schmidt, Nelson Rockefeller, the Brandenburg Gate.
“One at a time, dear. Focus on one at a time, a song for each.”
“You want me to kill these people, destroy these buildings, these places?”
“That’s a harsh way of putting it.”
“Well, how would you put it?”
“Your task is… simply to play, to exercise your gift.”
“That sounds like a bunch of bull.”
“You have a gift, Abby. It’s your destiny. This list is a fulfillment of your destiny. You’ll see.”
“What if I refuse?”
“That’s impossible. Haven’t you already tried?”
So the ancient hag knew about the faulty fireplaces, about the failed runaway attempt. Of course she knew.
Abby closed her eyes. Her fingers sprang forth, pressing down on the ivories.
“There, very good,” Mrs. Hagen said, her inflection now shrill, her fingertips trembling with excitement. “Now picture—“
Mrs. Hagen’s voice disappeared. Abby locked out sound. This must be how it is for deaf people, Abby thought.
Mrs. Hagen’s mouth was moving and the old hag was flapping her hands as if she were conducting an orchestra or trying to fly.
Abby closed her eyes to concentration. She had learned a thing or two about willpower and what it could do once music—and this piano--partnered.
HOW DO YOUR REGARD YOURSELF?
This is how Abby regarded herself.
She struck the keys and pictured Mrs. Hagen’s hands clamping around her neck, squeezing hard, cutting off Abby’s air supply, Abby’s face going beet-colored, then purple, then bone-white. She pictured squad cars and Mrs. Hagen in handcuffs. She pictured it all and set it to music, then began to play.