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Kirk Read

Little Tina was making a massacre of poor, deaf Beethoven, starting and restarting, fidgeting, not even bothering with the pedals. Catherine took a sip of her tea and tapped on the top of her white baby grand, the cue for Tina to take a deep breath, shake out her fingers and begin anew.

It had been a full morning for Catherine, what with her granddaughter’s fiancée’s deployment to an undisclosed location in the Central Command, which her daughter said meant Kuwait. Of course, Isobel only knew the specific location because of the New York Times online. So Catherine spent the better part of an hour pondering the chains of command and the way young people think nothing of tapping out an email to dozens of people saying, essentially, get your funeral clothes pressed. Why does the Pentagon tell the New York Times but not spouses, would all the wedding invitations need to be reprinted, was someone calling around the Women’s Guild so all those names could be added to the prayer list?

Tina got halfway through the piece, turned the page, then abruptly stopped and stared at the notes, as if she’d never seen them before.

"Tina, didn’t you get this far?" Catherine asked, buzzing from her breakfast tea.

"I thought it was just those two pages," Tina replied, lost in the page as if she’d wandered into a mausoleum whose walls were bathed in Sanskrit.

"Now, Tina, that’s what you said last week about the Brahms. You see this? These two lines mean that a piece of music is over. I shouldn’t have to tell you that."

Tina asked if she could go to the bathroom and Catherine took a long sip of her tea, then set it back down on the piano lid.

"Hurry up, then. You won’t become famous by taking bathroom breaks."

Tina closed the door and Catherine went into the kitchen to fetch a cookie for her. Catherine looked at her watch. Five more minutes.

When Tina sat down, Catherine suggested she play her recital piece, the minuet, which she’d played so beautifully at the spring concert at the Episcopal church. This was Catherine’s signature method for boosting confidence when a student has obviously spent the week doing anything but practicing. Sometimes it meant hearing "Three Blind Mice" eight times a day, Catherine considered herself an ambassador of sorts, a missionary, really.

Tina sped through the minuet, eager to get her cookie and leave. Catherine ignored Tina’s utter disregard for tempo and began making slow, cursive notes in Tina’s assignment book.

Her pencil had just finished writing "3. chromatic scales, separate and together" when Tina’s mother pulled up outside and honked her horn. This always irritated Catherine. There was plenty of parking out front. Her porch was full of wicker furniture. How much trouble would it be for Mrs. Lacy to get out of her car and wait patiently for Tina to finish whatever she was playing, not to mention the irritation that such disturbances --

Catherine made one more note: "Please tell your mother not to honk her horn, neighbors have expressed concern." Piano instruction, Catherine reasoned, was a sort of cultural training for the entire family.

No sooner than Tina slammed the front door, the phone rang. Catherine peered out the sheer drapes of her living room to see little Tina bounding over her boxwood hedge, no doubt decapitating several daffodils in the process. Dutch bulbs, not just yellow, but also white and orange. Catherine answered on the third ring.

"Catherine, it’s LuAnn, are you decent?"

"Why do you ask?"

"I need to come over and return your coffee service."

"Yes, that would be fine."

"These young officers’ wives," Catherine said aloud after the phone went to dial tone without even a closing.

Moments later, LuAnn knocked on the back door. Any of Catherine’s friends would have let themselves in through the front door, but LuAnn came through the back yard and always looked reluctant, as if she were handing in a poorly researched term paper. Catherine liked it this way, especially since LuAnn had taken to borrowing patio furniture for parties, then failing to issue Catherine a proper invitation. Sure, sometimes, LuAnn would get halfway down the back steps on the day of a party, hors d’oeuvres platter in hand, then turn around to say "We’re starting at 7, please come by." Which just wasn’t the way Catherine operated.

"How was your party?" Catherine asked.

"It was fun, I mean, lovely. We ran out of liquor halfway through and had to go out for beer because the ABC store’s closed. This isn’t California where they sell liquor in grocery stores, right next to the 7-Up."

"No, it isn’t," Catherine said. "Sometimes you just have to make do."

LuAnn set the coffee service down on the kitchen table. "I polished it with that stuff you recommended. It worked real good. I used it on my grandmother’s silver, which I don’t think had been cleaned in I don’t know how many years."

"Would you care for some tea?" Catherine asked, mid-pour.

"No, I really can’t, I’ve got exercise class," LuAnn said, taking a step backward toward the door. This served as an explanation, but not an excuse, for LuAnn showing up on her doorstep in a pink sweat suit. A sweat suit!

"I see," Catherine said, turning the cup’s contents into the sink. She marveled at the manners of the young, who seemed to regard their neighbors as a lending library for upscale party supplies.

LuAnn felt behind her for the doorknob, as if she were a heroine in a horror movie, never turning and running, but maintaining eye contact with her pursuer, retreating too slowly to save her own life.

When she found it, she leaned back against the solid door, pulled the hood of her sweatshirt over her head, down to her nose and stomped violently on the floor.

"Oh, dear," Catherine intoned, stepping back in case the girl’s outburst spread further into the house.

LuAnn flailed about, suddenly roaring. Both of Catherine’s cats dropped heavy footsteps on their way upstairs.

LuAnn carried on, a vertical cousin of epilepsy. Catherine focused on LuAnn’s feet. Out of the heels of her tennis shoes, there were two powder blue puffs attached to her mini socks. Catherine fixed her eyes on those most feminine accessories as they bobbed up and down with each footfall. A tempest passed through LuAnn’s body, her French manicured nails pulling the hood further over her face, down to her chin now, muffling throaty sobs.

LuAnn’s cries became piercing, then she bent over and put both hands flat on the floor, as if she were doing some sort of exorcism ritual right there in the middle of the kitchen. When she brought herself upright, she fell backward into one of Catherine’s spoon collections, causing exactly one dozen spoons to fall from their perch, their impact with the wooden floor providing a three second impromptu recital.

LuAnn, still hooded, dropped to a crawl and began grabbing for the spoons, which she gathered in the makeshift pouch of her sweatshirt’s lower hem, holding it with a shaking hand until every spoon had been retrieved.

"I’ll polish them, Mrs. Wyatt. I’ll polish them right here at the table," LuAnn said, staggering over to the kitchen table where Catherine was seated and dropping all twelve spoons on the green formica tabletop, giving way to another, if duller, utensil symphony.

Catherine took another sip of her tea, then extended both of her hands across the table. When LuAnn kept shaking and jostling the spoons, Catherine brought both palms down onto the table with a thud hard enough to elicit a tiny plink from the spoons. She didn’t wear her rings during piano lessons anymore because once, to startle a particularly lazy student, she smacked her palm on the piano lid. Her wedding band had left quite a mark.

LuAnn took both hands from her face, the left lowering her hood, the right pulling the tie from her ponytail. Catherine went to the sink and filled a plastic cup with water, then put it in front of LuAnn, half-expecting it to go soaring should another fit commence.

"Tap," LuAnn said, clearing her nasal passages in a series of snorts, "We don’t drink tap."

Catherine sat back down. There seemed to be absolutely nothing left for her to do.

"Dan’s unit got called in," LuAnn said.

"Where to?" Catherine asked.

"They won’t say," LuAnn said. "Somewhere in the middle east, that’s all we know."

"Did you check the New York Times, on the internet?"

"No, why?"

"My granddaughter is in the same situation."


"Yes, I received an email this morning to that effect."

"He’s leaving this afternoon, I’m driving him to Petersburg."

"I’ll put you all on the prayer list," Catherine said.

"Could you watch Frances until I get back? I should be back later tonight. I just don’t know what’s going on."


"Frances is my four year-old."

"She’s the gardener."

Frances had dug up six of Catherine’s tulips and replanted them, unsuccessfully, in her sandbox. Catherine watched in horror as little Frances pulled her wheelbarrow full of tulips across the yard to the sandbox in the corner, which wasn’t yet a sandbox proper, just an emptied flatbed of sandbags, since her father hadn’t gotten around to lining the sides with plywood. The little girl was methodical about using her plastic shovel to dig six evenly spaced holes across the front of her sand patch, as if to delineate the edges her parents had been remiss in providing. Catherine watched from the upstairs guest room window, somehow resisting the urge to run downstairs and cut the transplant short. After patting down the sand around the base of each tulip, Frances sat down in front of the sand’s border and looked back toward Catherine’s flowerbeds, as if to curate the rest of her new garden. Just then, LuAnn came screaming out of the house, frantically prying the tulips from their fresh houses, breaking their stems and scattering petals in the process. Tulips are delicate and mid-bloom transplants are ill-advised. Catherine was amazed by the little girl’s grace so far. When all was said and done, it was her mother who’d killed those tulips. The child had simply moved them.

"I’ll be happy to watch Frances," Catherine said.

"I can’t get a sitter at this point," LuAnn said.

"It seems you just did," Catherine said, sensing that she was but a last resort.

"I’m just telling her that Daddy’s going on a business trip," LuAnn said.

It was not the right moment for a class on disclosure for the very young, or even etiquette for the twenty-something set, so Catherine said as little as she could, letting LuAnn roll out her plans for the rest of the afternoon.

"I’ll bring her over in an hour or so, would that be all right? If I end up staying in Petersburg I’ll call, could she stay here? I’m so sorry to impose, I just don’t know who to call, it’s all happening so fast, I don’t know what to do but drive and pack." LuAnn reached for the spoons, presumably to load them into the pocket of her sweatshirt. "I’ll polish these and bring them back, I swear."

Catherine put one hand out so it hovered above the pile of spoons.

"These don’t get polished," she said.

LuAnn gently released a fistful of spoons and brought her hand to the table. Catherine patted her hand twice, then let her fingers rest near LuAnn’s hand.

"Does Frances like ham?"

"I don’t know, we’ve never had that."

"I’ll fix ham, then."

LuAnn wiped her eyes with the sleeves of her sweatshirt and stood up. She said "okay" and closed the door behind her in slow motion, not even all the way shut, wary of making any more sounds.




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