The strumming came from downstairs. A guitar. At first, as he opened his eyes, he was sure the melody was fading, like all dreams. But, as his sleeping thoughts awoke to the dark room, he unconsciously understood the musical notes were real. And he, Timothy Barstreet, pictured one word in the form of a question – Dad?
Timothy sat up, listening. No sound. A dream after all. Being as young as he was, just turned five, he had a queer sense of reality. He knew this about himself. He could often imagine things happening, but could not always remember which were real and which were…well…unreal.
"That never happened," his mother would say.
Timothy had to think, Oh. Then say, "But, Mama, it did."
Mom stared at him and explained, "No, you imagined it."
Timothy let her say it because he wasn't sure. Things that happened, which she told him he imagined, always formed images in his thoughts that were difficult to define either way.
So now he could not tell if the guitar he had heard was real or a part of his imagination. His practical side opened up and he figured if it were real, surely his mother and sister would hear as well and their bedroom doors would open.
But, none did.
His door was open already. His mother never let him close it like she let Jenny. He shifted aside the covers and hopped over the mattress to the floor. Still no more of the strumming issued forth.
After all, it had to be imagined. Timothy stood at his bedside fingering the waist hem of his Spiderman pajama bottoms, reliving a past.
From the cartoon birds fluttering across the I-Pad screen, he looked up to see, through the windshield, a red glowing light. Why he looked up at that moment he could not explain. What he felt was an odd sense that something was not quite right. The sight of the red light typically accompanied a tug on his seat belt. Sometimes even a jolt. But always a sensation of coming to rest, as the car slowed to a stop. He did not feel that. The car moved smoothly but still moved.
Timothy remembered glancing left at his father and seeing him asleep. Yes, asleep. He knew that was not right. As he thought the word, Dad, he simultaneously thought, Wake up. He remembered all three words clearly, melded together into a single thought. But, he never said them.
Then, his dad was gone. So was the I-Pad, he remembered. "I don't know," his mother screamed later, "Quit asking about the I-Pad." He never intended to upset her. Thinking about it later, Timothy sort of understood when a person dies, some questions should just be forgotten.
He studied the clownfish bobbing through the folds of his bedspread. The floor was cold on the bottoms of his feet. He pictured her upset by the question. He mouthed, "I'm sorry Mama."
In the darkness of the room, from the hem of his pajama bottoms, his fingers traveled up along the row of white buttons to his collar, absently making sure his pajama top was buttoned tight.
At that very moment, the strumming returned.
Timothy turned from the smiling fish and walked out into the hallway.
He listened. The melody floated over the top of the stairs and he imagined he could actually see it, like the mist that hung over the front yard on some mornings after it had rained.
He recognized the tune. His dad called it the Teary Eyed Song and winked at him when he played it. Because his mother shook her head - always just as he began to strum the notes. Because it always made her, "tear up," his father said. Timothy remembered that he thought of it as the Tiny Dancer Song, and always wondered what about it made his mom cry. His dad always whispered the song as he played, and as soon as the words Tiny Dancer left his lips his mother's eyes filled with tears. He thought it must be the melody that made her cry, not the words.
To the left, the hallway remained silent. He listened, hearing the tune begin right at the part his dad called "The Get You Chorus". A guitar played, and a voice hummed. "Na, na, na, na, mh, mmhm, mhm, mhm, mhm."
He squinted, searching the empty darkness. The melody drifted up the stairs, and the humming transformed into words, "…hold me closer tiny dancer, na, na, na, mhm, mhm, mhm, mhm, mhm…"
Then silence again.
"Mama," Timothy whispered. But, the bedroom doors down the hallway remained closed. Timothy padded in his white socks over the hall carpet to the top of the stairs and peered down over the banister into the living room below.
The house lights were off, and only fixed dark shapes of furniture met his gaze: the couch, the lamp, end table, knickknack shelf, the armrest of the far chair near the fireplace…the back of the chair and the rest of the room blocked by the ceiling topping the hallway landing.
In the shadows beyond, hidden from view, again came guitar strumming. Louder now. Clearer. He took a step down but paused. Maybe he should wake his mother first. The thought left him as another entered; actually, a series of thoughts wound together like a ball of rubber bands. His dad was gone. In heaven, he was told. But, the strumming was from his dad's guitar. Who was playing it? Logic came to the forefront. There was a stranger in his house, and yes he must tell his mom.
Then, from below, humming resumed. He crouched at the top step, trying to get a better view into the back shadows of the living room. Humming the way his dad hummed. Humming and two spoken words, "…tiny dancer," unfaltering in a soft melody. His dad's voice. He was sure of it.
Leaving the top step behind, Timothy went down, a little at a time, stepping lightly, sock against carpet, to the bottom. He peered into the darkness surrounding the living room furniture. Even the windows, except for a thin perimeter glow, were black, the night beyond moonless and eerily silent.
He hazarded a break in the quiet, "Daddy," he said. His voice issued forth just above a whisper. He could see nothing inside the darkness, but the music of the guitar continued, quiet and muffled as if emanating from behind a wall, and every now and then the accompaniment of a voice in song, "…and now she's in me. Always with me..."
Slow, drawn out, lyrical murmurs of sound escaped the gloom.
Then logic hit him again. This was a dream. He would begin to cry, odd sleep tears welling in his head, lingering words, He is in heaven now, strangely unspoken by any voice, yet somehow also uttered by many, then he would wake with real tears wetting his cheeks, realizing he was back in bed.
In this curious moment, a shadow moved. A coal black darkness emerged from the stillness that had until now engulfed the room. A shadow with form and contour and motion. But, this new dark form was alive.
The movement he recognized. It was a slight head bob in tune with the slow beat of the melody. The shadow was seated, a silhouette outlined in front of the dark window panes. It had shape and took up space, and melded with a second oddly shaped form hovering over a knee, held there with a hand up high, and a hand down low. Guitar, Timothy thought. The silhouette was his father.
Timothy imagined himself walking slowly over to the chair to see, but in reality, his sock-clad feet carried him quickly. He halted at the spot where the wood floor stopped at the carpet. The silhouette hardly noticed him but did glance up, like his father used to, and the notes softly continued, mouthed in quiet, whispering song. Timothy said nothing, not wanting to interrupt, and instead took a seat at the edge of the carpet, cross-legged. The silhouette smiled and sang on.
"When I say softly. Slowly. Hold me closer tiny dancer…" and again began to hum Naa, na, na, na – Naa, na, na, na. Mhm, mhm, mhm, mmhm, mhm, mmhm."
"Timothy?" a voice spoke. The silhouette was watching him. But, the voice came from behind. He turned his head. His mother was standing in front of the fireplace, her nightgown wrapped around her tucked within folded arms. She had an odd tilt of her head.
Timothy heard another voice, "Mom?"
He glanced toward the stairs seeing his sister, Jenny, standing midway down the staircase.
"You heard it too?" he said to his mother.
"Heard what Timothy?"
He turned back to the chair. The silhouette was gone.
"Daddy," he said, turning back. "He had his guitar and was singing your favorite song. Didn't you hear?"
From the stairs, he heard a high pitched, but very quiet squeal. Glancing, he watched his sister turn and run up the stairs. She did that when she was mad at him. Looking back at his mother, an unfolded hand now covering her mouth, her eyes glinting in the darkness, he said, "Guess he couldn't stay."
His mother knelt down to him, holding out her arms. Timothy rose to his feet. Tears were in his mother's eyes and he went to her to comfort her with a hug. "It's all right Mama. Daddy is okay."
His mother lifted him up in her arms, and turned toward the stairs, "Of course he's okay." She paused and let him slip to the floor. "I'm sorry I gave his guitar away honey." For a moment her face seemed without expression. "I'm sorry."
"But Mama," Timothy said, and pointed to the fireplace. "It's right there."
Where he motioned, a thin wire stand held a slightly tilted, pale blonde, wood-faced guitar.
His mother backed a step.
"It's right there," Timothy repeated.