A Quivering Photon

A particle of light breathes its first breath of life, and is immediately assigned a trajectory away from its mother sun. After a moment's hesitation, the photon flies a path that, by a mere stroke of luck, leads to the nearest inhabited planet. At some point in the history of its race, a collective decision was made to travel only in a straight line. Hence, the particle is bound by its direction. It is as a result of this set of unconscious happenings that one particular photonic spec came speeding toward the Earth, and ended up joining with seventeen years worth of its relatives in the retina of a teenage boy who, at this moment, was staring vaguely toward the horizon. In his left hand was a bag, haphazardly stuffed with books and crumpled papers marked "April, 2007", and in his right, an extra pair of shoes. The click of a lock and the low creak of a well-oiled front door woke him from his doze just in time for his brain to register the words "Good evening".

"Come in, come in, Charles" said an artfully painted old mouth. He had always liked that name, Charles. It had dreadful nicknames though. Chas, Chuck, Chucky… they all dampened the beauty and elegance of a regal, shining name. His reverie was rudely interrupted. "And how did your practicing go this week?" she said with a sweet, but very professional smile, as he tied the laces of his extra pair of dress shoes. Her German accent seemed stronger this week, though perhaps it was his imagination. "Very well, I think", said Charles reflecting her meaningless grin. His eyes focused suddenly and met those of his piano teacher. "I had some problems with the Bach piece, but I think I've really got the Debussy down." Charles thought he saw a few photons jump from her eyes to his. His retina would be glad to have them.

Chucky lay sprawled over his basement couch, his eyelids drooping heavily, lulled by the mindless chatter of television. It was a rerun; last week's episode, April 3rd, 2004. Chef Anton showed an enthralled audience a cheesecake he had made. Amazing how quickly he managed that! He put it in the oven and there it was, under the desk. But, that is the magic of television. Was this a dream, or was it real life? It hardly mattered. Chucky's eyes opened groggily to a dark shadow which slowly metamorphosed into his father. "Your mother isn't feeling well today," said his father indifferently, "could you please unload the dishwasher?" Not feeling well. What did that mean? Was she sick? Was she throwing up? Chucky couldn't move. A hand twitched in his mind's eye, barely connected to a frail body and dying brain. Red light spilled from a screaming siren, as a wrinkled eighty-year-old arm with carefully painted nails hung morbidly from the side of a stretcher. His mother was dragged away. Chucky's clothes were damp with sweat. Somehow, he was in the kitchen, doing what had been asked of him. His father watched men carry mother's mother into the night. The brightly lit kitchen seemed shrouded in darkness. The shadow of his father sat lazily on the chair, reading the sports section, the noise of his breathing barely masking the sound of his wife retching upstairs. How could he see the letters in the pitch black? Clanging and clinking told Chucky that his father's orders were being carried out, but it was too dark for him to know for sure. Somebody turn on the lights. Please.

Charles removed "The Theory of Music – Grade 1" from his bag and put it onto the plastic cover of Mrs. Abendroth's shining dining room table. To be completely honest, he hadn't really practiced the Bach piece. He couldn't. Meaningless, trivial tonal frequencies: that is the essence of Johann Sebastian Bach. No matter how hard he tried, it would never be music. How could something that sounded so beautiful in the recording become simple math when Charles tried to produce it? He had to practice more! That was all there was to it. Every week he forced himself to work on it. He would not let himself watch TV, eat, drink, anything. But this piece was beyond him.

The old woman then began her lecture. As explanations of obscure concepts of music theory shot rigidly past him like photons, Charles' fingers streamed through Debussy's "Premiere Arabesque" under the table. His mind floated euphorically as he trickled through the first section of triplets. The light in his retina cried in pain. Music like this should never have been written down; Mrs. Abendroth's lectures could never explain this. "Do you understand, Charles?"

Chucky didn't understand. His hands still smelled of dish soap, though he had washed them carefully before taking refuge in his bedroom. All he could see was his ceiling lamp. It was blindingly bright to his open eyes. He was shivering under his blanket. Why was he so upset? She had the flu. Or maybe, it was a reaction to one the medications she took. She had started taking them just before he had moved into his new room. He could hear her moaning from down the hall. Or was that the creaking of the walls? A thump coming from the door downstairs told him his father had left. He couldn't stand being in this house either. A sick house. Chucky wanted to follow him. But the light was too blinding. If he could only reach the power switch.

Why were they staring at him? They had been since he had moved here, giving him the same disapproving look that they gave the room's former inhabitant. But he could never manage to build up the courage to take down their photograph. They were his grandmother's parents, and this was her room. He slept on her deathbed every night. His mother retched down the hall.

Chucky's father had insisted that he take the room. He said the pink walls would be painted and that it would be unrecognizable from what had been Grandmother's sanctuary of light. Months had passed and the walls were still pink.

Finally, Charles was in his element. His dress shoes clunked softly against a hardwood floor. On one wall hung a copy of Renoir's The Theatre Box, and on another, a portrait of a famous symphony orchestra's concertmaster. The room was an oasis of light, created by tall windows and centered around a grand piano. Charles sighed with pleasure. Each ivory key shimmered brilliantly, beckoning even the musically ignorant to run their fingers along it. After giving Mrs. Abendroth a quick bow he sat down on the bench and began to play. The piano was slightly out of tune and tinny-sounding. Ironic, isn't it, that his little upright at home could put this work of art to shame! Charles played a scale. The teacher approved. The keyboard glimmered with reflected light from the evening sky. An arpeggio. "Play that once more please." He obliged. The teacher had run out of exercises to test him with. She looked determinately through her books. The light was beginning to fade as night fell. Chucky looked through the window, and a few light particles escaped from his eye. Did he really need them anyway? He began to play. It no longer mattered what he was playing. Whether it was Bach, Debussy, Mozart, or Liszt he would never know, but he played anyway. Pitch blackness overcame the room. The freedom of his music had vanquished even the stars. The violinist on the wall woke from her slumber. It had been an eternity since she had last played music as dark as this. She readied her bow and the high screech of her instrument joined the clamber of a gloriously horrible piano. The inhabitants of the Renoir painting sang without inhibition from their perch in the theatre box. Notes, frequencies, and music ceased to exist as all light was forced out of the room. His hands streamed across the keyboard without a key, time, or rhythm. There had been no music in this house for many years. "ENOUGH!" There was silence. Mrs. Abendroth panted. It had taken all of her energy to restore order. The stars reignited, and key and rhythm were restored. The Theatre Box emptied and the violin slipped out of tune. Mrs. Abendroth's elderly husband had entered the room at some point during the music. He sat there in his wheelchair, watching Chucky with a dazed expression on his frail face. He looked disoriented, as if having woken from a very long sleep. Mrs. Abendroth looked desperately at her husband. Suddenly he was the one on the stretcher, her strong piano-playing hand around his lifeless one. Her eyes shimmered brightly with tears. Photons were leaking everywhere.

Charles went blankly through the motions of playing the Bach piece. A photonic cheer could be heard from within his closed eyelids. His teacher's husband was convulsing in his wheelchair, but Mrs. Abendroth didn't appear to notice. Her eyes were fixed on the piano, the photons locked in. "You haven't practiced this like you should have," she criticized, "It is the composer who matters. No one wants to hear what you think it should sound like. If you play Bach, you must play it like Bach." Charles sighed. This was why he had chosen her for his teacher: to lock the light particles in. If he practiced like he should, his great-grandparents would be appeased. They hated Debussy. His grandmother had loved Debussy, but had only ever played Bach under their watchful eyes. Yes, that was the solution: practice.

A bang from below told Chucky that his father had returned. He had been contemplating asking his parents for music lessons. Certainly his father wouldn't care. But his great grandparents would definitely approve. The photograph he could never take down cheered in agreement of his idea. He would get the old upright in the living room in tune, and then he could take piano lessons. Yes, that would force his parents to paint his room. And once the room was painted, he would finally get rid of the picture. He listened. His mother's retching had come to an end. The moans of his walls had been reduced to a gentle creak.

"Thank you very much, Mrs. Abendroth, I'll see you next week" said Charles. Her husband had returned to his bedroom. She had brought him there herself. He would stay put until next week. "Goodbye, Charles." she said with that same professional smile. Her wrinkled, piano hands shook uncontrollably. "It's nothing," she mumbled after having traced the direction of his eyes, "that sometimes happens at night." She promptly put her hands in her pockets and bade him a goodbye that made it clear that he should leave. Charles got into his mother's car, messy bag and dress shoes in hand. He would be back again next week.