Pursed lips, lungs blowing, air emitting and sound undelivered. He says, I’d do anything to be able to make sweet songs come from my lips, and she laughs, doesn’t answer at first and then says she’s going to vacuum, and that, You won’t be able to hear a thing, try whistling again, it might be there, just above or below the sound of the machine. I’ll listen for it. She vacuums the living room, pausing only to motion at the coffee table which he picks up and places off to the side so she can clean the entire floor and rug, leaving it as if newly fluffed, some newborn bird, feathers and softness propped up, toes sinking deeper into it at first, though she’s going to see her family and will be out of town for a couple of days, and by the time she gets back he’ll have walked back and forth along the carpet, waiting for her to get back, waiting for the day to be populated with activities and the passing of time, though he’s not sure how he’ll do that, but he’ll walk and mat the rug back down into flatness and age, and he or she will vacuum it again in the future and return it to what it was, which is simply the material which their feet feel, which his feet will feel while he waits around for her to come home.
He struggles to come up with actions that give him a sense of joy or purpose when she is not around. But nevertheless, he’s here, she’s now there, he’s waiting and she’s passing the time with family, friends, loved ones, he’s waiting for her to call, though she’s busy and they spoke that morning, but it’s the afternoon and she’s been gone all day, having left in the early morning. He walks on the carpet, he squishes his feet down and realizes his gravity, his pressure, then showers, changes and calls to see if she’s got a second but she doesn’t. Texts, says, I’ll call in a little bit, ok? and he answers and says, Whenever works, I can’t wait, and sends a couple of hearts with the text and leaves the apartment, locking it behind him. She calls while he’s walking, he’s talking about what he’s seeing around him, she’s updating him on her plans for the night. They hang up, he remains observing, and begins to see a way towards the passage of the day, in which he arrives at the day she comes back in a much faster fashion than normal; in this way he’ll do what he does not normally do, in that he will look for newness around him, and ponder ideas that are not directly related to his life or work or writing, the fiction he writes in his free time. He’s going to free his thoughts and mind from the labor, both menial and creative, that combine to take up the day.
Walking past a row of stores with scaffolding covering the roofs, he wonders to himself, What goes into the act of ‘dry cleaning’? He stops someone to ask, asking a woman who was walking with a determined gait and who is now looking at him with an air of impatience, What do dry cleaners do to our clothes once we hand them over? She doesn’t answer, doesn’t even show a second of consideration where she’s mulling it over, realizing she doesn’t know either and briskly continues on her way. He moves along as well, allowing that he might never know the answer to his question, and enters the train station down the steps and rotates through the revolving door once he’s paid for his ticket and now waits for the train cars to clatter and race past. Finds a seat and leans back and closes his eyes. Head bumps rhythmically against the wall, he lifts up and away from it gradually and barely, his eyes opening and drifting up to the ads above them all where a small piece of paper is tucked into one of the panels. He waits for a stop to come and then stands, grabs the piece of the paper and keeps walking, off the train and up the stairs, into the outside air where he finds a seat near a park and takes a breath, his phone remaining in his pocket, the time of day hidden as he’d like it to be for now. The card has a phone number on it and below it says Please call! You can learn scales, chords and chord progressions by ear! with nothing else, black ink on thin white paper.
Takes in the scene, shifts his feet in the dirt below, imprints sliding left and right and merging, and tries to whistle. Just wind. Calls the number, says, I’m calling about the piano lessons, learning by ear, I found your card or paper ad or whatever in the train in one of the panels, I took it but I can put it back, I didn’t really think about it…Ok I’ll keep it but either way…Downtown, near this and this and I can be at this intersection at these cross streets in about five minutes…Right, right, apartment next to a coffee shop a block east?...I’ll find it, can't be too hard… Hangs up the phone and starts walking towards the intersection, which he reaches and then continues a block east.
The man from the telephone, from the card, has a leather couch cracked and split from use which they are both now sitting on, their heads resting back, their eyes ascending to the ceiling, or closed, intermittently changing and their legs propped up on the table before them. Each has a pair of headphones on, and besides them, the couch and the table, the only other anything in the room is the piano. The over-the-ear headphones leave them both silently listening, together, on the couch, each with their own quiet concert unto themselves. He hears a piano solo play through the headphones, and then repeat again, and again, and as it begins for a fourth time, two or three notes into the piece, the teacher rips off both pairs of headphones, first his own and then, reaching over and feeling around the top of his head for the other pair too, and says, Go to the piano, find those keys, and he pushes him up, over and onto the bench in front of the piano and says, I will be in the other room when you have finished, and slowly walks away, somewhat tentatively moving through the doorway and out of sight, leaving him at the piano, hunting and pecking as if on a keyboard, typing an essay in a language he does not know, listening to the resonance and the tone and hitting the key again, a third time now, listening, his ears getting closer and closer to the piano, to the chords and he hits one key after another, waiting for recognition.
The inconsistent sounds of pushing and prodding, dull tones and notes emanating around and clanking and resounding off of walls and furniture, off his body and his cringing face and recoiling hands, the uncharacteristic sounds, strung together as such, leave him wanting and waiting for silence, and instead the man returns, making his way as he did before, cautiously through the doorway, feeling his way towards the bench, whistling all the while, saying, You’re not going to learn, or ever figure this out, I can sense that, and he begins to play himself. A song unrecognizable to the one without talent in this regard, but a song constructed with notes in order so as to make his previous attempts all the more humiliating, all the more clear in their failure, which the man says, as he takes a break and stretches his fingers, I’ve failed time and again with this, don’t you worry, you’re probably the fifth or sixth person to answer the ad. I can’t find where I’m going wrong, but it’s not how I would do it anyway, just now it’s the only way I can do it, to teach.
Waits for him to speak again, them two sitting near to one another on the bench, but the one slowly giving up what he’s been holding dear and close, and the other looking for ways to see out the day, this one and the next and the other until she gets home, and he appreciates this man’s searching and pondering in his head for words, as the clock ticks rapidly by, he hopes. The story told takes hours or minutes or not long at all, he doesn’t know. But the story he’s told says that he was once a piano teacher and is still now a piano teacher, only yet he can see very few and far between things, dark grays and shapes blotched and blotted, and he can see what he can remember, he says that too while they sit there on the bench. He’s failing, failed, at teaching this new way, by ear, by rote memorization of sound, of hunting around and waiting to be right. He says, I can’t point to anything individual. I can only speak and imagine and try to gesture at the broader implications of the song or movement, I can perform it, but I can no longer point to it, be sure I’m indicating exactly what I see so obviously in my mind. I can’t instruct as I once did, he says. He says he’s had to learn each new song since he slipped into seeing this way, by ear, just as he’s teaching now, and so he can now only teach the ways in which he himself knows how to learn, and so far the ends have not met, and he does not foresee them ever doing so.
The headphones do not join again to their skulls and ears, and instead are still on the couch, behind them, as they remain on the bench. He wants to distract the man. He wants to help him pass the day. He says, Do you know what dry cleaning entails? What’s involved in that process? and the man says, I have no idea, I hadn’t ever thought about it, and he says back, Same, and adds, I wonder if we could learn it by ear, over the phone, listening to the room, and the man doesn’t respond, except to play the piano a little bit more, and he says, I didn’t mean any offense by that, and the man says, I know that, it had me thinking, is all. The sounds the workers might make, hanging clothes up, sound of metal hangers on the hooks they hang on, the machines whirring the plastic, which is what you’d hear more than anything, the sound of plastic rubbing against itself, and the wind and air caused by all of that. How the clothes are moving along the ride, and then the employees removing clothes, and hanging them up again but without motion this time while they ring up the customer. The sound of the cash register, and maybe even the pen signing the receipt, underneath everything else; we’d be able to hear it just barely. That’d be something.
He says to the man, Let’s try again, and back on the couch, they don their headphones and listen to the first couple seconds of the performance. Both remove their headphones and walk to the bench, one beside the other, and he hunts and pecks and listens, and taps one key, then another, then the first key again with a different key following, and yes, and now a third key and he plays them in a row, and waits, and the man shakes his head, and says, Not even close, and he whistles a tune and shakes his head and laughs and says, I can’t teach, and goes into the kitchen and without much searching and feeling around, grabs two glasses and a bottle of whiskey and pours them both a small amount and comes back, hands him the glass and they both take sips, and he says to the man, Can you teach me to whistle then, at least?
Creature of habit, he is, but he sees the days pass as he continues on his ways to parts of town that do not see him very often, and he finds in this a meaningful, and reasonable, means by which to pass the days, the couple of them that she is gone, and he goes and visits the man and the piano again, and they both sit at the bench and then on the couch, still listening, now enjoying, the man going on about what’s hidden in the pauses and flutterings and movements of the music, and he listens to the man, who speaks on and on, eloquently and passionately, listening to it all and grasping at much of it, listening to the music and watching the clock spin, appreciating the man for his efforts, for the noises that surround him during these days. And so he’s back home, on their couch in their home, when she gets back, and as she comes in the door he doesn’t hear her right away, a new pair of headphones on his head and ears, wrapped around and concealing, and his whistling carrying out through the doorway and into the kitchen, towards the front hall and the door there, and her coming in with her luggage rolling and stopping. She comes and finds him in the living room, he springs up and hugs her and kisses her, and she takes a step back, says, You learned to whistle? and he says, Yeah, I’ll tell you all about it, but thank god you’re back, and the days somehow flew by, I don’t know how, but you’re back now so it doesn’t matter much anyway.