Death and music hall memories

The organ has resided in the old music hall since the 1920s, when the speakeasy was a way of life, when my grandmother dreamt burlesque, satin dreams that were never realized. I don't know how many pairs of hands have been laid on the old peeling wood, or how many different stiff drinks have been spilled in between the keys. It must have taken many lovers: on summer nights when sweaty thighs were pressed flush against its cool veneer, or in the winter, when warm mugs of cider warmed fingers that tentatively picked out love songs transcribed from phonographs. The players came and went, each leaving their distinct marks on it.

Gran never fell out of love with the organ, so she bought the music hall and kept it open on the weekends so visitors could reminisce about times they never knew in the first place. I grew up with the organ as a steady presence in my life, being coaxed into sleep by the awkward lullabies of curious players from all levels of talent and all walks of life.

There were the young: they were the ones just intoxicated enough to be reckless, the ones who added layers of amber stains with each spilled drink, their sepia-toned shrieks of laughter matching the photographs hanging in the main hall. They came with fur coats and unrealized dreams, wearing their ideals on their sleeves and unaware that their limbs filled up every inch of the ballroom so that there was no room to breathe.

Then there were the old, and I suspected they were the only ones to truly love the organ. Their hands are arthritic, seismic, like feathers disturbed by autumn's insistent winds. They come in and stop short when they see the organ slumped against its corner. They look at it helplessly, as if to say, we do not know whom is older. They always play with their eyes closed, as if the failure to see in reality was nothing compared to late night joy replayed over and over in their memories.

Despite my constant guard over the organ and its lovers, I never played it myself. In truth, I was afraid of it - its history lodged between individual layers of dust, its secrets told only through the music it has produced, and most of all, its uncertain future.

+

I tiptoed in through the front door of Gran's music hall one afternoon. This place was more home than my parents' house a mile away, and the air of familiarity emboldened me to face the organ. It was more human than its lovers, winking, taunting, accusing, yielding.

"Gran?" I called, listening to the void of activity in the room drown my voice.

There was no answer at first, and I was emboldened by this vacancy to approach the organ and sit down on its ancient bench. I ran my fingers, and it engulfed my touch with a perpetual hunger that surprised me. Were my fingers too small? Was I too hesitant?

Then I heard a feeble coughing coming from Gran's office. "Gran? Is that you?" More coughing; no answer.

I ran to her office. She was hunched over in her armchair, greying hair untamed and spindly limbs bending in over her torso. "Gran! What's the matter?" I rushed over and knelt at her feet, trying to gauge the severity of the situation.

"I - want you to - to have - "

"Shh, Gran, it's all right. Don't speak." I was terrified of what she might say. The music hall? Unspeakable. The organ? Unbearable.

"No - no, it is time - "

Tears invaded the corners of my eyes, and I turned away. "Please...Gran, don't make me."

Her brittle fingers jerked against my jaw, and her bones scraped against my chin. I was taken aback at the strength she suddenly possessed. She looked me in the eye, took into account the tears that were now running rivulets down my cheeks, and smiled sadly.

"I want you to learn how to play the organ. I want you - yes, dear, you - to make music for me. Before I - depart."

I could not respond to this request, so I fled from her touch and from the damned instrument, with its afterimage still burning against every inch of my skin.

+

No one knew of her request; it remained private, shadowed by my fear and her looming end. I visited the music hall daily now, determined not to fall victim to the organ's howls and declarations of love. Still, after a week, I had not played a single note. Gran knew of my comings and goings; she could feel each frustrated sigh and each step of my constant pacing. I would run my hands over every inch of the instrument, expecting the wood to scream out in agony, or metal to burn under my touch.

Gran's coughing got louder, more insistent, with each day that I stalled. Each evening, before I left, I would feed her soup and help her to the bathroom. We never spoke, but her gaze was intense, outshined only by my refusal to meet her eyes.

At the beginning of the third week, I arrived, desperate to make some headway. A sign was posted on the front door:

FOR SALE; INQUIRE WITHIN

I was furious and terrified all at once, with each emotion battling to be the more dominant of the two. And I knew, it was now. It had to be now.

Gran had managed to drag herself into the ballroom, and she had taken an array of throws, pillows and blankets with her. She was spread across the floor, swathed in chaos, dressed like death, and smelling of decay, but her breathing wasn't shallow. She spoke first, crying invisible tears into the yellowing fringe of her nightgown. "Now, now, now, now, now..."

I thought, so this is what it's like to be haunted by a ghost. I could see now that I was the one preventing her passage. I sat down, shaking like a reed in the hurricane of her mantra, and regarded the organ.

Tentatively, I reached out and pressed a finger into middle C. I sustained it, letting the faint whine seep into my memory: this; this moment; Gran withering away under the spell of noise; my own fingers melding to the keys like a mating ritual; my head, thrown back in victory and shame and a deep, penetrating sadness that burrowed into my flesh like leeches.

Abruptly, I let go of the note. On my way out the door, I ripped the sign from its taped corners. The remaining four shreds of colored paper created a frame through which a visitor could peer through to Gran's corpse, lying in a bed of sequined decadence that would have rivaled that of the flappers themselves.

FIN