I just finished Oscar Hijuelos’s Twain and Stanley Enter Paradise this weekend. In the book, Hijuelos has Twain sitting for Dorothy Tennant (Lady Stanley), who is a portrait painter. In an imagined soliloquy of Twain’s, he says “Once a single hour seemed an endless thing, passing as slowly as a shadow shifting in the sunlight in mid-July. . . . As an experiment I have mentally listed the things I can remember from a single hour during an afternoon on my uncle John Quarles’s farm.”
It struck me as such an interesting idea—how would I even know if I were marking an hour, I wondered? And this came to mind. Strangely, even though the details that came filtering into my brain in the middle of the night focused on the second half hour, most of this is about the first.
I climb the stairs to the brick bungalow. It’s dark out already, or feels like it. It’s cold and my knees are blotchy maroon between the brown of my pulled-up socks and the plaid hem of my school jumper. My coat is purple and puffy. I got to pick it out, and it has big toggle buttons that I love.
I reach up to ring the bell and wait. 5805 South Fairfield. I hold my breath and race through the address, end to end, inside my head. I do this every time. I think I started when my mom dropped me off once. I think I was afraid she’d forget to come back, though I can’t fathom what good I thought knowing the address I was at would do. My sister is with me today, anyway, but I do this every time.
It’s six and a half times before Mrs. Dilamo opens the door. She is portly. I know that’s the absolutely right word for a person who is wide all the way around and not much taller than me. I also know that this is not something I can say, except inside my head, and I do. Every time.
“Boots in the hallway,” Mrs. Dilamo says.
I look down at mine. They’re gray and ugly and caked with salt, but the rug in her front room is even uglier. It’s green and short and it seems like it should smell bad. It has a pattern kind of carved into it. Something almost like the green, puffy-cloud tops I put on trees when I have to draw.
My boots are hand-me-downs from someone. The zippers hurt my fingers when I try to pull them down. My coat is suddenly too hot, and I’m bent over, struggling, but I don’t want to sit on the ugly rug. I grit my teeth and tug hard. The second boot slips off just as the grandfather clock in the hall chimes the hour.
My sister has my school shoes. She has the canvas bag with my music in it. Hers, too, but my lesson is first. I slip my feet into my school shoes and the two of them disappear into the back of the house.
The black grand piano barely fits in the bay window of the front room. Mrs. Dilamo isn’t back yet, so I inch my way around to the bench with my eyes mostly closed. I sit exactly in the middle of the bench and slide my music from the canvas bag. I try not to look toward the chair where she’ll sit. I try, but I can’t help it, and it’s still there: A clear plastic hospital jar with a screw top lid.
There are three lumps inside, each one about the size of a superball. They’re gray and brown, mostly, but I think of them as a swirling green. I think of them as almost the same color as the carpet, because I know the word bile. They’re Mrs. Dilamo’s gallstones and they’ve been sitting there for weeks. I know way too much about them.
She comes down the hall, then, and everything shakes. The teacups behind glass in a cabinet and the picture frames on the upright piano across from the couch shake. Her cat-lady glasses are on a chain around her neck. They sit, folded up, at the very edge of her chest and the chain seems silly.
I think about her glasses while I play through my Dozen a Day exercises. I think about the twinkling stones high up in each corner and the fact that I’m almost done with the orange book. I watch my fingers, which I’m not supposed to do. I see Mrs. Dilamo’s hand move out of the corner of my eye, but I lift my chin before she can smack it sharply from underneath.
I remember to look at the music through Bastien. I’m not reading it. I can, slowly. Slowly, and it’s easier to memorize. It’s easier to remember how the sounds go in my mind. To picture my hands making them. But I have to keep my eyes on the music. Arabesque. I say the name in my head until the sounds of it don’t mean anything.
“Matthews is missing,” she says sharply as I finish the piece.
I freeze. The words don’t make any sense at all, and I’m terrified of her. I think for a second that it’s something wrong inside my head. That I’ve said the address and the name of the piece and all these other things end to end and now nothing means anything.
But she says it again, and an image of the book with its red cover comes into my mind. It’s on the floor at home by the TV. I forgot it. I forgot to put it in the canvas bag with everything else, but I don’t want her to yell at me.
“I think it’s in the car,” I tell her, and I know in the moment it’s a stupid lie. She could send me out to get it. She could send my sister out, and my heart pounds with the fear of getting caught.
She shakes her head and grabs a pad of paper from underneath the gallstones. She snatches the sharp pencil from the music rack and writes something. A note to my mother that my mother will never see. That Mrs. Dilamo will forget about by next week. She grumbles and rattles the thin sheet music for my last piece.
“Brahms,” she snaps, but then she chuckles to herself. It’s a scary, chesty sound, and I know what comes next. A thick, rolling accent that she thinks is funny. “Hungarian Dance, Number 5.”
I don’t think the accent is funny. I don’t think a lot of the things she says are funny, but it’s like the address. It’s like the word portly being absolutely right. It’s not something I say anywhere other than inside my head.
I lift my hands to the keys. I play too fast. I always do, but I can see the dancers in my head. I can see the stone fireplace and wide wooden tables pushed up against the walls. I can see the candles flickering and my left hand rocks faster and faster between the low notes, and my right flickers through the melody.
“That’s enough.” Mrs. Dilamo stops me before I’m finished with the coda. The grandfather clock down the hall chimes the half hour a few seconds later. “We’re done for the day.”
I gather up my music. I follow her to the kitchen at back of the house. My sister follows her back to the front room.
There’s a lady in a pink dress that sits on the counter. She splits in half at the waist and there are pretzel rods standing up inside like pencils in a cup. There’s a fancy pedestal dish with a clear glass top that always has Little Debbies on it. They’re white waxy cakes today, not the good kind, but I take one anyway. I take a pretzel rod in my other hand and dash into the tiny room at the side.
The TV is on already. It’s black and white like the small one in our kitchen, and it’s on a flowery tin tray that wobbles if you step on the floor wrong. Big Valley is on. I missed Bonanza, but I eat my waxy cake and scrape every bit off salt off the pretzel rod with my front teeth. I scrape the hard brown outer layer off. I’m just starting on the rest, end to end, when my sister calls my name from the front room.
The grandfather clock in the hall chimes the hour.