Green Piano: Fragments of a Case

I have nothing to say.

No—so much piles up, there is nowhere for it to go.

Eons ago, in my sophomore year of college, I was at a party and decided I had enough of that scene. The people were stupid. The room was oppressive. The drinks weren’t even that good. So I wandered off. I did that a lot—start drinking and then walk away—usually outside somewhere. Part of it was screw you, part of it was will anyone come find me, and part of it was that I became unhinged when I drank.

This occasion found me in a dorm’s basement hallway. One of the hall doors opened to a study room—decades of mismatched furniture thrown around the space. A scuffed and splintered wooden table abutted the cinderblock wall. In the water-stained drop ceiling, a spazzing, buzzing fluorescent light attacked my already-compromised head.

I had turned to go when I noticed an upright piano against the far wall. I approached it slowly and caressed its side with my hand. Time stopped in the way it occasionally does after a few drinks.

I recognized my enemy.

Why a piano in a study room? Who’s going to knock out “Chopsticks” while people are trying to study organic chemistry or read George Eliot? No one studies music—and if they wanted to play something, wouldn’t they just go to the music department? Who would seek out this prison cell of a room with its windowless cinderblock and house-of-horrors lighting, thinking, Gershwin! This was ridiculous. Surely the administration—or at least Residence Life—was mocking the students. Ha-ha. Here’s a rare instrument with which to create beautiful music and thus elevate and transcend your myopic lives. Too bad you’ll never use it. Sucks to be you. But don’t say we never gave you anything.

As if this perceived taunting wasn’t cruel enough, the piano was painted green. This development apparently sent me over the edge. Who paints a piano? Who paints it verdant green? Its color has no bearing on its function, no influence on its musicality. So why paint it? Pointless! Did someone think it made the piano look nicer, more aesthetically pleasing? Was the paint bought specifically for the upright or left over from another project? Green accomplished nothing. That effort amounted to nothing. No one was going to use a piano in this shit-hole study room anyway. So what was the point? Why make any effort? Why create at all, if it’s only used as a weapon to taunt you?

Inspired thus by my muse, the green piano, I did the only reasonable thing.

I attacked.

I kicked and clawed the piano, trying to scratch its paint off. I left the keys alone; it was the veneer I was after. At one point I think I bit it, tried to gnaw paint off its bench. I’m not sure, though. It seems like something I would have done. I did have sore nails and fingertips the next day, but I don’t recall a sore jaw.

The only thing that stopped me from doing any real damage was a friend who had followed at a distance once I left the party. I vaguely recall him in my periphery as I laid into the piano. Hard to believe, but he seemed hesitant to approach. Once he was beside me, I snarled, “The piano is mocking me! The green piano is mocking me,” thinking, as an ally, he might aid my destructive charge.

Only when he spat, “You’re full of rage against an inanimate object,” did my actions register.

I let him lead me from the piano, and we walked up and down the hallway. I think our goal was to get water once I calmed down.

Over the next few days, I realized how disconcerting and bizarre my behavior had been. Even today, green piano is a shorthand for us—we’ve stayed friends through the years—for the insanity when I drank.

Later that year I sought out a school counselor because my drinking was starting to concern me. I had no intention of quitting. I just wanted to stop attacking inanimate objects. (I was honest with her, even confiding that I found it amusing piano strings get hammered too.) She said I could probably benefit from a creative outlet. Had I considered watercolors?

There are many things to say in response to that well-intentioned, inane suggestion. None are kind.

But who says you have to be kind?

The counselor’s glaring misdiagnosis, particularly after an open confession, calls to mind a historical case study. In 1900 Vienna, Sigmund Freud was treating a young woman for hysteria. The eighteen-year-old suffered from coughing fits that frequently left her voiceless.

Over the course of the treatment, Dora (a pseudonym) revealed that as a fourteen-year-old, she was isolated and propositioned by a close family friend, whose wife was in the midst of an overt affair with Dora’s father. The situation repeated itself two years later when the families were vacationing together. Dora told her father about the attempted seduction. Both the father and the friend insisted that Dora had imagined the whole scenario; her mind was in the gutter. Dora suspected her father was sacrificing her to gain the friend’s acquiescence in his wife’s continued affair.

Freud’s analysis? He informs Dora that she has sublimated her desire for the entire party: father, mistress, lecher. The hysterical coughing and silence are her self-induced punishments for having these illicit feelings in the first place.

Dora abruptly stops the analysis before Freud can cure her. This does not surprise me.

The insidious belief I will not be heard is coupled with my terrible need to write. It’s a gross parody of John Donne’s twin compass legs from “A Valediction Forbidding Mourning,” the lovers whose souls remain connected though they are physically apart. Even now, when the compass feet are extended and my conviction of being unheard is faint, the belief casts a long shadow. The episode with the piano is a reference point: well before I tried to write anything real, I felt jammed. I had something and could not use it; I saw but could not share the vision.

Particularly in college, when the piano incident happened, I felt trapped, then guilty for feeling trapped. The campus was beautiful yet I found it smothering. No one walked on the grass. If students made a natural path cutting across wide lawns, this was cemented over and turned into sidewalk. I intentionally tramped through grass and avoided sidewalks when possible. Although this behavior provided a minor mental release, it was admittedly odd. Even the “alternative” kids, who streaked their hair or pierced their tongues, stayed on the predetermined path. Piercings and tattoos were the appropriate way to signify rebellion, not jaywalking through the quad. I began to resent order and regulation and the lockstep. I wanted a mess. Yet what kind of person feels suffocated by edged flower beds?

At what point does I will not be heard mutate into I have nothing to say?

Paradoxically, I continued to write. I write circles around my life. Even when there’s no time, I usually note, “Try again tomorrow,” like a spell will break if I miss a day.

The apparent discipline is not a virtue. The practice echoes the dynamic that exists between poor Io and her gadfly. In Greek mythology Io is a woman transformed into a heifer by Zeus. Hera, Zeus’ wife, then sends a gadfly to pursue and torment the bovine Io across the known world. Writing is not a nice little hobby. Like Io’s gadfly it comes at me, buzzing, unrelenting, demanding I get something down. I swat it away. I don’t have time. That idea is stupid. Where would it go anyway? The fly goads me until I acquiesce.

Yet when it comes time to Write Something Real, the air fizzles. My old enemy, I have nothing to say, has emerged. What I do manage is just messing around.

I suspect other writers have their stories figured out. They know what they want to say. They have a message. They return to certain themes or, like a loyal dog, their themes return to them. This one always writes about family. That one is all about emigrants in exile. The other is obsessed with hands.

I dabble. I don’t know where to land. I try on voices like hats.

The British writer Stevie Smith’s best known poem, “Not Waving but Drowning,” concerns a young man whose friends mistake his drowning for splashing and “larking.” The dead man’s companions—and at first even the reader—are invited to view his death as an isolated tragedy, a freak accident. The narrator speculates that the water was too cold and “his heart gave way” as his chums misinterpret cries and thrashing for friendly waving. Later the reader learns the dead man “always” struggled and was in danger of drowning, if not literally, then from overwhelming waves of emotional pain.

My poem would be “Not Drowning but Waving.” I’m splashing about when I need to drown. I haven’t surrendered to the greedy gadfly voice demanding more. I fear I must keep something for myself. I am aware of the reticence, the primal hoarding in the face of this vicious command: Sacrifice your firstborn! I say, See, there is no firstborn—nothing here but potatoes in a swaddling blanket. I sidestep this tyrant, then regret that much of my writing is larks, playing with ideas and voices. It’s not real in a true and deep and meaningful way. Do I lack fearlessness? Humility? Something essential is weak. I don’t know that I can gain it through practice. The germ of a thought is buried somewhere, and I’m pissed I haven’t unearthed it on my own. So I keep showing up. I keep waiting for it to tumble out. It doesn’t necessarily have to be autobiographical. It just has to be mine.

These scenes and voices jostle around my head; images vie for attention, outmuscle one another for position. Nothing flourishes in the over-sown bed. Seedlings choke. It is all runty ideas, and unconnected phrases, and the disbelief of how her tiny ear can be folds of fuzzy soft skin and cartilage turning like the inner chamber of a nautilus, tucking and tapering, an uncharted crater on Jupiter.

One fragment comes to mind.

There’s a guy—we’ll call him Anthony—who can’t stop talking about a girl, Sarah. My friend Sarah Quill told me this and my friend Sarah Quill told me that. He says how he and Sarah go everywhere together—work, the movies, the laundromat. He talks about her constantly, but his buddy Scott has never met Sarah—hasn’t even seen any pictures. After a few weeks of this, Scott starts to think maybe Sarah is imaginary.

One day Scott is with a group of friends at a baseball game, and someone brings up the whole athlete-fake-girlfriend-Internet-thing, so Scott jumps in about Anthony and his possibly pretend Sarah Quill. He tells three whole stories about Anthony and Sarah before Mikey asks if he’s sure the name is really Sarah Quill.

“Yeah, I’m sure,” Scott says. “Why? You date her? Is she for real? Man, if she’s—”

“Date her? No,” interrupts Mikey. “But I’ve administered her.”

The other guys look at him like, What the hell.

“Seroquel’s a drug,” says Mikey, who’s a registered nurse. “It’s an antipsychotic. Like for schizophrenia. Some bipolar.”

“Get the hell out,” Scott says. “You’re shitting me.”

“Nope,” says Mikey, already pulling up the pharma site on his phone. He holds the screen in front of him so everyone can see the professional webpage in soothing pastel colors.

Scott now wonders if a double date with Anthony and Sarah Quill is out of the question.

Beside that fragment, other voices fight for the same airspace.

Cassandra, framed by a proscenium, intoning from a nocturnal Trojan precipice: I dare you to remain outside the fiction. Let’s pretend, you said, forefinger crooked under my chin. Which part is the lie? The pretend? The part I’m damned to remember or the part I fight to forget? Forgetting is not your absolution. It is the grace by which I survive. The smile lingers. The smile is the ancestral holdover. The smile is the lie.

Aeneas with his father, Anchises, on his back, fleeing the burning city, young son in hand. See how easy it is? Past, present, future, all intact, all escaping to rise phoenix on a new shore.

Only his wife is incinerated. Or enslaved. Does it matter? Civilization burns and you have ashes in your mouth, but there go Aeneas & Co., humping toward the boats.

This piece is real, which may give it more credence. Maybe less.

This guy was thinking about how he wanted to kill himself. Technically he didn’t want to kill himself; he just wanted to die. Actually he wanted the death part but not the dying. He wanted to stop hurting. He wanted to stop hurting people he loved. He wanted it all to be over—just—over. He thinks this all the time but never has the balls to do it.

Then, one day, he decides. Today is the day. He wakes up knowing.

He’s driving his truck around Elmore, Kentucky. It’s a wooded area and the road he’s driving is narrow, barely cutting through dense forest. A muddy creek at the bottom of a ravine follows the road most of the way between Elmore and Samarra.

About halfway to Samarra the road zigzags in a sharp S-curve around a massive oak. It’s not a hairpin curve, but it’s tight enough to ride the brakes between the tree and the ravine.

He makes the nail-biter and catches the tree in his rearview. He decides that’s it. He’ll drive into the tree full speed on the return trip. He needs to finish this errand before killing himself, though. His daughter needs something. It would be safe in the trunk even if the front end collapsed. It would look like an accident, like he was going too fast and couldn’t make the wicked turn around the tree. The family would be okay that way, insurance-wise.

He gets what he needs at the store—either dog food or horse feed—and is on the return trip. He speeds up. He knows he’ll kill himself on this tree, knows the lost button on his flannel shirt doesn’t matter anymore. He might be sad, might question the method a bit, but he’s made the decision, and that’s a relief in its own way. He accelerates. The tree is coming.

He sees neon orange and yellow where the tree should be.

The truck slows. The immense oak is gone. Instead orange cones stand among an enormous stump and piles of wood chips. A yellow sign alerts drivers to Your Elmore County Tax Dollars at Work. A crew had come and gone, all in the thirty minutes it took to get to Tractor Supply for the Blue Ribbon feed.

He takes the S-curve real slow.

How could a crew—a county crew—work so fast?

He says that’s when he started believing in God. Because there’s no way Elmore County Public Works moves like sniper lightning.

Other figures remain locked in my head, pantomiming. They shuffle and wait, eerily resembling Depression-era men in bread lines.

They are where they are supposed to be.

I trudge to meet them on their own ground.

With sports you practice, run drills, and master fundamentals so you can win. You want to improve, but improve with the goal of winning, perhaps in a clutch, or perhaps with more jaw-dropping smack. What is the point with the writing? Nothing can be won, if only because there is nothing to win. The victory is in the showing up, I tell myself , while characters wait. There is a particular story I want to finish: as a plot point, a woman may or may not kill a dog. I worry it’s too violent and implausible. But that doubt is me, not her. I wait for her to decide. The story sits.

Penelope, Odysseus’ faithful wife, waiting for his return, weaving and unraveling, eternally in medias res. The one who waits.

You show up. You do the work. Penelope’s warp and weft is the story. The work is the story.

Devoted Penelope is rarely separated from her loom: a vertical grid of threads forming the backbone of her fabric. The loom gives structure to her weaving; seemingly out of thin air, the fabric emerges, one interlaced thread at a time. Ironically, I have my green piano, which also relies on a series of taut strings for its generative power. I am no musician, though. Whereas Penelope sought to create (and unravel), I never even attempted to play a note on the piano. Its existence in that study room, however, unraveled and revealed something in me.

To direct a violent rage against what was essentially a random piece of excess furniture, my frustration and resentment must have been right on the surface. Music from the piano would not have been my escape, but it was an escape. It was a way out, an acknowledgment of a world beyond the current one, yet I felt completely shut off from that possibility. The piano had potential. It contained Mozart, Chopin, and Debussy, Cole Porter and Irving Berlin—if one could only release it.

I am sure now I saw myself in this neglected piano. No wonder I thought it was mocking me, lampooning my inarticulate, choked existence. No wonder I clawed it that night. We were in the same embittered, languishing boat, but with one critical difference. With a piano, one simply plays. Play was not even in my vocabulary.

The gadfly buzzes like the fluorescent light in that cinderblock room. Pen to paper, what are you waiting for? Everything to say is too much; because there is everything, there is nothing. But nothing floats on the surface. Nothing is the veneer. Nothing is the lie.

When the voices are dug up or tumble out or surface, I will be waiting. The verbal larking, the playing around helps weave my net. And if these voices and images appear deformed, too dark or too violent: well, they are true to themselves. Not everyone will like verdant green and that cannot be helped. If an observer is displeased, though, perhaps they could consider some watercolors.  

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