The story of a young boy and how some gifts are not always welcome.
|They would be coming later to check on him. He thought about escaping, but didn't have the will to carry it out. Besides, where would an eleven-year-old kid run to without even a dime in his pocket? The ‘Bumble Boy' was back. They were probably talking about that fact right at this very moment.
The sounds of chainsaws woke Jonathan Whitiker back up to his nightmare. He opened his eyes a few minutes later. He watched as two men in jeans and t-shirts invaded the limbs of a majestic oak outside his window. He watched as, within seconds, the metal blades cut through the strong limbs, which had taken years to form.
He couldn't take his eyes off the tree as its circumference grew smaller and smaller with each 'brrrvvvvv" of the chainsaw blades. "You too, huh?" he mumbled.
Jonathan couldn't see the sun as the hospital window faced west, but the hue of the sky told him it was probably about 11 o'clock. He turned his head on the pillow and, small victory, the clock read 10:45. He twisted his face back to the window.
He vaguely remembered the nurse coming in earlier that morning to check his blood pressure, but he ignored her completely. He wasn't a rude little boy; he was always quite a gentleman, actually. At least that's what his mom always said. But now he just wanted to sleep; forever, if possible.
He closed his eyes in hopes of reaching that altered state once again. Pretend that it had never happened. He knew he wouldn't be able to. After all, he'd slept for twelve hours already. His brain knew this and in defiance forced Jonathan's eyes open again.
He didn't want to look at it; the injury. It was some complete stranger that he didn't have any desire to know any better. He knew it wasn't life threatening, of course, but a way of life threatened. A way of life he had dreamed of living, even for such a short time, was now gone. And to think otherwise would be foolish. He wasn't going to cry about it now. He already spent half the night doing that after his family left. He didn't dare cry about it in front of his father. Jonathan was eleven now, and eleven-year-old boys weren't supposed to cry anymore.
The doctor told Jonathan's parents the day before that since he had lost a lot of blood and had gone into shock, he would have to stay in the hospital a couple days for observation.
"We'll be back tomorrow afternoon, after your brother gets out of school, OK Jonny?" his mother said while sitting on the side of his bed. His father stood next to her and nodded his head to confirm their upcoming visit.
"OK," Jonathan replied. Jonathan knew if it was Bobby, his younger brother, in the hospital bed, his parents would have been there to visit him first thing in the morning. Maybe even insist on staying overnight with him.
Bobby and Jonathan were Irish Twins, born eleven months apart. Jonathan, although older, was often mistaken as being the younger of the two. He was continually reminded that his brother was better at everything, especially sports. And his father lived for sports.
On the plus side, he figured he wouldn't be expected to play football anymore. He hated the game. Football season would be back in another three months. Jonathan's father would then be fastened to his chair every Sunday afternoon, talking about when he played football in high school. Jonathan used to grow nauseous as Bobby would listen eagerly as his father regurgitated the same stories week after week during the season.
He remembered when he was younger how hard he tried to please his father when it came to football. An athlete he was not. He tried to fake it as much as possible, but soon found that athleticism wasn't something one could fake.
His brother, on the other hand, didn't even have to try. "A natural" his father always called him. However, "Why can't you be more like your brother?", "Watch him do it. It's easy" were the phrases Jonathan heard often.
As he thought back to those days before he found his own gift, he was suddenly ashamed. Ashamed of the moment when his father found out that his younger son was what he wanted his eldest to be like: the day the three of them were at the park tossing around the football.
"Go long, Jonny," his father shouted with a big grin. Jonny ran as instructed, but didn't feel any joy in it. He turned and watched the weapon spiraling towards him. It was not fun; it was something to survive. The ball hit him in the chest and they both fell on the grass.
"Come on, Jon. It was right in your hands," his father said.
"Sorry, Dad." Jonathan picked up the ball and pushed himself back up. He threw the ball back to his father where it landed four feet in front of him. His father looked at his son with a queer look on his face while he walked over and picked the ball up.
"Throw it to me, Dad," Bobby said.
"Alright, Bobby. Run out a bit." Bobby ran. The ball was a little high and his father knew it immediately. "A little high, Bobby, sorry." But as he said it, the challenge sent a burst of energy through Bobby's legs like firecrackers. Bobby watched the ball and kept perfect speed with it. He jumped up and caught the ball in the web of his fingertips.
"Wow! Great catch, Bobby," his father yelled out. Bobby smiled. He threw the ball back and executed a perfect spiral to his father's chest. Jonathan stood off to the side and noticed a sparkle in his father's eyes that he didn't often see. "Ow! Stung my hands on that one, boy." His father smiled and Bobby smiled back. Bobby then looked at Jonathan and gave him a sneer meant only for his older brother to notice.
"OK, your turn again, Jon. Concentrate now."
Jonathan trotted out slowly with his hands out ready for a pass. His father threw the ball. Jon tightened his chest as he watched the ball hurling towards him. He closed his eyes for a moment bracing for the impact. It never came.
"Interception!" Bobby yelled in true triumphant spirit. Holding his trophy high over his head, he pulled his knees up and down in a victory dance.
"Gonna have to watch out for those, Jonny. Your little brother is good."
And so it went for twenty-five minutes; passes intended for Jonny often ended up in his younger brother's hands. To Jonathan, it seemed as if his brother's hands had been dipped in glue; everything stuck. He couldn't remember his brother dropping any passes that day. Grease, however, seemed to plague Jonathan's hands. That was the first day he earned his nickname.
"Come on, Bumble Boy. Can't you catch anything?" his father said in complete exasperation after Jonny missed another one. Bobby laughed. Jonathan turned to him and threw daggers with his eyes.
"Bumble Boy" became a popular phrase that sunny afternoon as a warm breeze rustled the leaves on the surrounding trees. Jonathan couldn't understand how his father could continue saying it as each time the words escaped his lips, Jon would look at his father with a pleading expression. His father seemed to look back at him, but apparently couldn't read the pain in his son's eyes as he would say "Bumble Boy," "Bumble Boy," again and again with another missed pass or short throw on Jonathan's part.
It wasn't just that he wasn't good at football that made Jon ashamed that afternoon. But after hearing "Hey, Bumble Boy, quit throwing like a girl," from his younger brother, he had had enough.
Jonathan watched his father reach his arm back and then throw it forward, snapping the ball in his direction; another opportunity to embarrass himself as far as he was concerned. He ran to meet the brown flying object with the Frankenstein-like scar stitched on the side. He pictured it falling to the ground before it even reached him, but when it arrived, he was able to make a leaping catch.
"Hey, Bumble Boy comes up with a good one," his father said. But the plan in Jonathan's mind was already being carried out. He was actually a bit pleased at catching it, but instead of celebrating, Jonathan limped in pain. He winced for effect, bent over and grabbed his right knee with his free hand.
His father and brother walked over to him. "Are you alright, Jon? What's wrong?" his father asked.
"I don't know. I think I came down on it wrong," Jonathan said still wincing. "I think I better sit out for a while." As he said it, he saw his brother roll his eyes and shake his head. Jonathan pretended not to notice. Hopefully the act was more convincing to his father.
He limped over to the side and sat against one of the trees. For another half-hour, he watched Bobby and his father tossing the ball. They had a great time playing without him. In fact, they seemed to forget he was there altogether until it was time to leave.
It wasn't until Jonathan began walking to the car that he realized his father must have known he faked his little knee injury. "All set?" was all his father asked him: never even asking to look at the afflicted limb. Jonathan knew there was no point and stopped limping the moment they arrived home.
Jonathan looked at the control unit attached to the bed. He adjusted the head of the bed to a sitting position and then pressed the ‘on' button next to the little T.V. icon. Sound instantly filled the room. He flipped through the channels. Talk shows pervaded a majority of them. He left it on Jerry Springer and laid his head back.
Jonathan often wondered how his mother could watch these talk show programs every day. After a half-hour of watching two couples yelling at each other about who was the father of a young girl's baby, he thought perhaps he finally understood; through all the passionate arguing, Jonathan actually forgot for a moment why he was in the hospital. Maybe his mother enjoyed watching the problems of others in order to forget about her own.
He heard the oak door with the thin, vertical glass window creak open. He looked over and tried to make out who was coming in.
"Don't tell me they're here already," he whispered to himself. He held his breath. He wasn't prepared to see them so soon. It would all be so awkward again, like the previous day; his parents not really knowing what to say to him. He just wanted to be left alone for a while.
He exhaled in relief when a stout young woman with long, brown hair came around the half open door with a tray of food in her hands.
"Hi. Good to see you're up now. I've got your lunch here," she said. She smiled, and Jonathan half smiled back.
She placed the orange, rectangular tray of food on a table next to the bed, wheeled it closer and pivoted the table over Jonathan's legs. "Do you need any help? You know, opening any of this stuff."
Jonathan was a bit embarrassed by her question. Jesus, I still know how to eat for Christ's sake.
"No, I'll be fine." Another half smile.
"OK. You know what button to press if you need anything, right?"
"Yes. Thank you." He looked down at his food hoping she would go away quickly. Which she did.
He watched the door close behind her and looked back at his food: ham and cheese sandwich, a container of applesauce, a granola bar and some milk.
He was actually getting hungry now. He told the same girl earlier that morning that he didn't want any breakfast when she tried to wake him. She tried to insist, but when Jonathan turned his back to her, she took the hint and left.
He grabbed the sandwich and took a large bite. After another bite he needed the milk. The container of milk did prove to be more of a challenge than he expected. Maybe he should have had her open it.
Nearly two minutes after his initial effort, he was able to rip it open with some cooperation between his left hand and his teeth. He found himself sweating a little. He took two large gulps as a reward and then worked on his sandwich again.
After he finished, he laid his head back. The news was on now. He wasn't really interested in what was going on in other people's lives at this moment, but left it on for background noise as his thoughts began to drift back...
The day his father received the call, Jonathan didn't remember any tears flowing.
"Henry, there's a woman on the phone for you," his wife said as she held her hand over the mouthpiece.
Jonathan sat on the couch watching his father, whose large body suffocated the easy chair. Once a man made of large muscles, his skin now hung from a lack of any consistent exercise in ten years.
"Who is it? I'm watching the game," he said.
"I think it's important," she whispered loudly.
He held out his hand, still watching the TV screen. His wife placed the phone in his hand and he held it to his ear. "Hello."
"Yeah, that's me."
"My name is Miriam, Mr. Whitiker. I work for St. Joseph's Hospice Care. I'm sorry to tell you this, but your mother passed away this morning."
"She did?" He glanced briefly at Jonathan, who was staring back intently. The volume on the cheap cordless phone was turned up to the max. Jon heard clearly what the woman said.
Jon tried to hide his surprise. He vaguely remembered visiting his grandmother's house when he was younger; at least six years ago. Jonathan remembered asking his father about seeing her again. To which "She has problems, Jonny" was the only reply he was given. After a couple years of asking off and on about visiting her again, he gave up mentioning her at all.
The next week, after a two-hour drive, Jonathan experienced his first wake, first funeral procession, first burial and second visit (that he could remember) to his grandmother's house. It was here that they held a small reception for the family. He saw two aunts, an uncle and several cousins that he rarely heard about, and was quite in doubt of their existence until that week.
His cousins, Larry and Samantha, were both about his age. They were related, yet strangers. But they all hit it off as though they had been close friends all their lives, as only young children seem capable of doing. They ignored the sudden exaggerated moroseness of the adults. Instead they concentrated on playing tag, hide-and-seek and other games fueled by their imaginations, occasionally being stopped by an adult and told to "slow down."
It wasn't until Samantha stopped at the baby grand piano in the corner of the living room, that Jonathan had any focused recollection of his first visit to the house. The piano looked very out of place, taking up about a third of the room.
It was when he touched the keys that it came back to him: sitting on an old woman's lap, his grandmother's he assumed, while her wrinkled, scary hands, plagued with age spots, gently took up his and placed them on these very keys. The first time, he pressed the keys one at a time with the index finger on his right hand. Then joined it with the index finger on his left hand. Then realized with delight how much more sound resonated from the wooden music box when the rest of his fingers joined in.
The old woman let him press the black and ivory keys at will. It took quite some effort from his little fingers. There was slight resistance from the keys at first, then a sudden collapsing into sound. He reveled in each note he produced. Of course, Jonathan's playing didn't have a particular melody or rhythm that would be found pleasurable to most adults, but somewhere back in the reaches of his hazy toddler memories, he recalled how it thrilled him nonetheless.
As he stood next to his cousin, the memory became sharper and he saw the wrinkled hands again. The notes ceased as the old hands took up his young smooth hands again and this time placed them in his lap. He looked on in wonder as the aged, seemingly decrepit hands took their place on the keys.
They paused there for a moment. Then suddenly the ancient hands came alive. They soared back and forth over the keys like a bird skimming the surface of a lake in search of food. The hands no longer seemed scary to Jonathan as they gracefully assailed the keys. The hands, his grandmother's hands, became objects of amazement to him. Why hadn't he remembered that until now?
Jonathan and Samantha pulled out the bench, sat next to each other and began to play with the keys. Jonathan felt the same buzz throughout his body as notes filled the room. They played together for about a minute and smiled at one another before they were both grabbed by the shoulders.
"Don't touch that. You'll break it," a strange woman, who Jonathan had never seen, snapped as they turned their heads around. They dropped their hands into their laps and the woman released their shoulders back into their own custody.
When the woman turned her back, Samantha watched her walk away and then stuck her tongue out.
"Who's that?" Jonathan asked.
"That's Auntie Jessica. Mom says she'll be single forever and she can't stand to see kids have any fun."
"Oh," Jonathan said, not really knowing what ‘single' meant exactly.
"Let's go see what the others are doing."
They stood up and slid out from between the bench and the piano. Jonathan ran his hand over the smooth keys one more time before they stepped away in search of something else worthy of ten-year-olds' attention.
A couple hours passed. Jonathan heard only snippets of conversation among the adults: something about a will, which would be read at some lawyer's office next Tuesday; the difficulty some had had with the guest of honor's drinking problem; discussion about what would become of the house they were now in; and other gossip which Jonathan had no interest in. Instead, he and Samantha hid behind an old leather chair and took turns on her red Gameboy that they had snuck out of her parents' car.
Soon people began to trickle out the door towards their cars.
"We should really try to get together more," Jon heard his father say to a man he had recently found out was his uncle. Promises were made about visits that would never transpire. A façade of being the close family they wished they really had.
The following Tuesday, Jonathan's father made another two hour trip; this time to meet with his siblings and their mother's lawyer, in order to "get my due" as he called it. He was full of confidence when he left early that morning, but by the time he drove the station wagon back into the driveway late that afternoon, it was apparently left somewhere back along the road.
The boys were outside digging in the yard in front of their long, blue, one-floor house when their father pulled in. Jonathan stood up and ran to greet him. He made it about two feet when Bobby stuck out his leg and Jonathan came crashing down, just barely getting his hands in front of him to break the fall. He shot his head sideways to glare at his brother, but Bobby was already up on his own feet running toward his father.
Bobby reached his father and gave him a hug. Jonathan stood up, brushed off his knees, quickly followed his brother and did the same. The gesture was half-heartedly returned.
"Go on, boys," was all he said. He slammed the door to the car and Bobby went back to digging. Jonathan stood by the station wagon as he watched his father open the screen door and step inside the house. Something had happened. And he certainly wouldn't find out what it was digging for worms.
He waited a minute before making his advance. Then he followed his father's path into the house. He was careful not to let the door slam so his presence in the house would remain undetected. He could hear his parents in the kitchen.
"I'm sorry, Henry," he heard his mother say.
"A lousy thousand bucks and a goddamn piano. I can't believe it," his father said more to himself than to his wife.
The piano! They got the piano! Jonathan turned the TV on and powered up his video game console. Eavesdropping wasn't something he wanted to be caught doing. He grabbed a joystick, turned the volume on low and his hearing on high.
"Well, the piano is really nice," his mother continued.
"What the hell are we going to do with a piano, Nancy?"
"It might look nice in the living room. Our living room is twice as big as your mother's. We could fit it easily if we arranged the furniture just right."
"And just how the hell are we going to get it here, might I ask?"
"Maybe it would fit on Joe's truck."
"Christ, you have any idea how much something like that weighs?" Her silence gave him his answer. "That thing must weigh a ton. We'd never get it here on that rusty piece of shit. I wouldn't trust that thing to carry a box full of air."
Come on, Mom. Don't let him win. Not this time. Jonathan didn't know why, but he felt the piano was already his somehow and he didn't want to lose it. He needed it. Why? To remind him of his grandmother? He wasn't sure. But he knew he needed it.
Words were replaced with the clanging of dishes being nestled away in the cupboards.
"Well, maybe we could sell it," his mother said as a cupboard door thumped to a close.
Oh, Mom. Jonathan closed his eyes and lost his last life on Mario Brothers. It was the quickest he ever lost the game since the first day he played it, but he didn't really care.
"Now you're coming to your senses," his father said. "I'll bet we could get a couple grand easy for it."
Jonathan could hear the smile in his father's voice. It seemed to Jon that anything that put a smile on his father's face was sure to put a frown on his own.
To Jonathan's delight, his father's first attempts at selling the piano were as successful as snowflakes flying in Florida in the middle of July. After a couple weeks, Henry was told he had to remove the piano. The house was being sold by his sister and the buyer wasn't interested in keeping a piano that had no business in such a small living room.
So Henry was forced to use half the money his mother left him to hire a trucking company to bring him a piano he didn't want. Now it was Jonathan's turn to smile and his father's turn to frown.
"What are you smiling about?" Henry said to Jonathan as he stood in the kitchen doorway watching the workmen kitty-corner the piano across from the couch.
"Nothing." He quickly turned his smile inwards and folded his hands across his chest in hopes of hiding the joy in his heart from his father's gaze. He couldn't wait to get his hands on the keys again. There was something about it that sent electricity through his fingers just thinking about it.
Afraid the smile might creep up his throat and back onto his lips, he turned into the kitchen where his mother was peeling potatoes for dinner.
"Can I do that?" he asked.
"Sure, but I only need two more," his mother answered in surprise at the offer. She stood up from the chair and handed her son the peeler.
She took up the two potatoes she already peeled herself, took a cutting board off the wall and started to chop them. A couple small pieces fell into the drain as she tried to herd them away from the edges of the board.
Jonathan peeled his potatoes carefully. He still wasn't too good at it and tried his best not to peel off the tops of his fingertips.
When he finished, he brought them over to his mother. She looked down at him and smiled. "Thanks for the help, sweetheart." Jonathan didn't answer, but gave her a little smile back and sat back down in the chair.
His mother chopped Jonathan's potatoes and swept them off the cutting board with her knife into a pot of boiling water.
"You're pretty quiet," she said rinsing off the board.
Jonathan shrugged his shoulders.
"Got something on your mind?" she said while opening the cabinet door underneath the sink. She flipped the switch that was set in the top right corner inside. She flipped the switch up with one finger and the jarring noise of the blades grinding the lost potato pieces, startled Jonathan for a moment. When the blades whirled freely, she flipped the switch back down making the room silent. She closed the cabinet door and turned to her son. "Well?"
"Come on, now. I can smell the smoke coming from your ears." She took up the cutting board, dried it with a dishtowel, and then hung it back on the wall.
"I don't know. I was just wondering..." he paused.
"Well, I know we're not keeping the piano, but I was wondering if I could get a couple of piano books at that music store we always pass by. Maybe I could learn to play it a little bit before Dad sells it."
"You want to learn how to play the piano?" A little laugh escaped as she said it.
"Never mind." Jonathan stood up with a disgusted look on his face and started to leave the kitchen.
"Hold on, mister. Where are you going?"
Jonathan turned and stood silent.
"I don't mind if you do that, Jon. I'm just kind of surprised. You've never asked to try anything like that before."
"No one ever asks me."
His mother's brows furrowed. "What do you mean? Your father always asks to do things with you."
"No, he doesn't. It's always things that he wants to do. And it's always sports. I hate sports. He knows I'm not good at them, but he keeps making me try new ones and I can't stand it."
His mother looked at him intently. "Honey, I think he's just trying to have fun with you. I don't think he would make you do something if you truly hated doing it."
Oh yes he would, Jon thought, but decided against saying it. He was switching off track. Now wasn't the time to talk about issues he had with his father. There was something driving him to find out more about the instrument that just arrived in his living room, and now was not the time to enlighten his mother to the fact that every time he got his hands on a ball, or more often than not, not get his hands on a ball, his father's eyes possessed a disappointment that ate away at his insides.
"Bumble Boy." His father and brother were careful never to say it in his mother's presence. Sure he hated the nickname; especially when uttered by his own father. But even more so, he hated the fact that it was probably an appropriate nickname.
Now was the time to leave that track; a track that ran in a redundant circle of pain and disappointment. Somehow he knew this new track would lead him to freedom, a track that would lead him out to the rest of the world. "I'll use the money from my allowance to get the books. You wouldn't have to pay anything," he said standing in the doorway that led back into the living room.
His mother leaned back against the sink and folded her arms across her chest. She was quiet, which meant she was brooding over what Jonathan had said about his father, rather than about his wanting to obtain some simple piano books. For a moment, her silence made him ashamed of what he said about his father, and his eyes fell from her face to the floor.
"Well, go on," she said suddenly. Jonathan looked up in confusion. Go on? Go on about what? Did she want him to fess up that he couldn't stand his father or his little brother for that matter. A little brother whose job it was to worship the ground his older brother walked on, but instead strove to be a pain in his ass twenty-four hours a day.
"Well, go on," she said again. She looked up at the clock hanging above the kitchen table. "It's four o'clock. That music store probably closes at five on a Friday. Better get going."
Jonathan looked at his mother. A contagious smile crossed her lips and spread to her son's.
"Thanks, Mom," he said. He couldn't believe it was that easy. He turned on his heels and ran to his room.
He looked out the window. Bobby was riding his bike on the sidewalk. He walked over to his desk and opened the side drawer. Piled inside were several notebooks. He reached for the third one down and pulled it out. He opened the notebook to the second page where a dollar bill lay neatly in the middle. He grabbed it then turned another two pages where another bill lay. He grabbed that one and went through the same procedure until he had twelve dollars.
He put the bills together neatly, folded them in half and stuffed it in the back pocket of his jeans. He closed the notebook and then carefully placed it back in the drawer so it was again the third notebook from the top.
"So that's where you've been hiding it," came his brother's voice from the doorway. Jonathan reeled around. "I was wondering where you moved it to," Bobby continued in a teasing tone.
"Better keep your hands off it this time, Bobby." Jonathan started to close the drawer, but changed his mind. He was forced to hide his allowance money for the last year because each week his mother gave him his three- dollar allowance, somehow two dollars of it would go missing by the following week. And coincidently, his brother was able to afford an extra pack of baseball cards every week.
"What are you gonna do if I don't? Go cry to mommy?"
"Shut up," Jonathan said fingering the notebooks until he came to the third one once again and took it out.
"You don't have to take it. I won't touch it," Bobby said with a menacing smile.
"Thanks, but I don't think I'll take any chances." Jonathan closed the drawer and stood up from his desk with the notebook under his arm. He walked over to his brother who proceeded to block the doorway. "Excuse me," Jonathan said irritated.
"Where are you going?" Bobby didn't move.
"None of your business." Jonathan moved within inches of his younger brother. He hated that Bobby was taller and so much wider than himself. Bobby's build was much like that of his father's. Jonathan was so slight next to his brother that he often entertained the possibility that he had been mixed up with another baby in the hospital who was the true miniature ape's brother. "Now move out of the way."
"I don't feel like it." Bobby stood frozen with his arms crossed and spread his legs to fill out the doorway.
"Move! I'm in a hurry," he said. His chest started to burn with anger. He needed to get to the store.
His brother didn't move. He offered only another sinister smile. Jonathan thought of pushing by him, but he knew Bobby would be bracing for that. He would get in trouble, of course, but he had no choice if he wanted to make it to the store before it closed.
He would have to be quick. He could feel his face turning red. The heat burned into his ears and finally to his legs. As fast as he could, with all his might, he swung his right leg behind him and armed with that momentum, his foot swung forward in a perfect crushing blow to Bobby's groin. By the time Bobby noticed it coming, it was too late.
The result was better than Jonathan imagined. His brother actually fell to the floor with a barely audible "Christ" through his gritted teeth.
He looked at his brother on the floor and for a moment was nervous that he had really injured him. But then remembered why he had done it.
"Should've moved, Bobby," he said as he stepped around him and ran for the front door. "I'll be back, Mom!" he yelled as he ran through the front door before his crime could be detected. He jumped over the three concrete steps onto the walkway, ran across the yard and down the street, making his first move towards a hidden treasure he didn't even know existed. It had been there all along. Finally, it was to be unburied.
Every day for the next two months he pored over the elementary piano books, grasping any bit of knowledge he could about the instrument: correct posture, finger placement, exercises and all the basics of music: rhythm, whole notes, half notes, key signatures, scales and chords.
The moment his father left for work, Jonathan parked himself in front of the mahogany Steinway until his mother had to drag him away in time for school. His mother polished it until its beautifully carved legs and body gleamed.
After school, he ran to his room, threw his backpack on his bed and went back to work. The hammers hit the strings as he went up and down through each scale carefully until it was perfect. Soft at first, then louder and louder until the vibrations rang through his bones. His fingers would ache, but they refused to stop. It didn't take long until they were creating something: something simple at first, but creating nonetheless.
Never had he felt such devotion to anything. Never would he have believed that it would bring him such a sense of elation as when he played a simple song in its entirety for the first time. Nor would he have anticipated the tender smile and gleam of his mother's eyes when he finished it. Never had a look from his mother made him feel so proud. He became transfixed. This was his purpose. And somehow his grandmother must have known this all those years ago. That was why they got the piano; so he could discover it for himself.
Jonathan lay on his stomach on his bed. His elbows were bent and his small hands supported his smooth boyish chin as he pored over his music books while his father and brother continued to spend each Sunday afternoon glued to the TV screen: cheering, cursing, berating players and shouting out plays to coaches and players that heard not a word they said.
What was the point really? Didn't they know they had absolutely no control over the outcome of any game whatsoever? Where was the joy in that? To Jonathan it was a waste of time. He realized that now more than he ever did before. No longer would he pretend to enjoy football games just because his father lived for them.
However, Jonathan's Sunday afternoon absences did not go unnoticed.
"What are you doing?" Jonathan's father said as he walked into his son's room at halftime during the second week of his boycott.
Jonathan lifted his head, twisted his body and propped himself upon one elbow. "Just reading."
"The game's on, you know?"
"Yeah, I know."
"Well, how come you're hiding in here?" He said with his arms crossed on his chest.
"I'm not hiding. I said I'm reading." He nodded his head towards the proof on his pillow.
"What's so damn important that you've been missing the games these last two weeks?" He walked across the navy blue rug and picked the book off the pillow. He closed the book and looked at the cover. " The Beginning Pianist?" His face scrunched up in a look of complete lack of understanding. He rifled through the pages. "You'd rather read this than watch the game?" It was more of an accusation than an actual question.
"Yeah," Jonathan said.
"You've been fooling around with that piano every day since we got it."
"I know." Jonathan smiled at his father thinking he was giving him some sort of a compliment. After all, his father was always preaching about hard work.
"Where's playing a piano ever going to get you?" his father demanded.
Jonathan's smile vanished just as quickly as it appeared. Where did playing football ever get you, he thought, but dared not say it. Instead he just shrugged his shoulders.
"Seems like a waste of time to me. You're always spending too much time alone. You can't hide from people all your life, Jon. You need to do things that get you involved with people. Someday you'll be a grown-up and you'll have to work alongside others, you know?"
"Well, why don't you come out and spend some time with me and your brother."
"I really don't feel like it, Dad."
His father was trying to appear calm, in control even. But his eyes betrayed him. He fanned through the book one more time and then with a quick snap of his wrist he flung the book into his son's chest. The pages flapped and bent when the book fell onto the bed, as Jonathan was a bit late in deflecting it. His face twisted in pain and he rubbed his chest, but found it was more his heart he was massaging, which seemed to be growing tighter and tighter. He looked back up to see his father's face, but he was already on his way toward the door.
"Suit yourself, Bumble Boy," he said. "But don't forget, we're not keeping that piano too long." And without another look at his son, he was out the door.
Jonathan continued to rub his chest for another minute. His eyes became streaked with red. He sat up and carefully fixed the creased pages of his book. He smoothed them out with his palm, stood up, and carefully straightened the book back on the other two books he bought.
He stood there for a moment looking at them. He tried but could no longer hold back the tears. But he wouldn't blubber like a toddler looking for attention. They came intimately; slow and quiet.
Two minutes passed and he wiped the tears on his shirtsleeve. He slowly walked over to the door. He stuck his head out over the threshold and looked left down the hall where he could see the large TV screen emanating oversized men getting in formation on the green football field. He could hear the buzz of the crowd vibrating through the speakers. To the right of the screen he could make out the back edge of the piano bench, which he envisioned in its entirety nestled halfway under the piano.
He stepped back across the doorway, took the doorknob up in his hand and quietly closed the door.
Every chance he got, Jonathan sat on the bench with his fingers gracing the ivory keys. The width of his fingers was little more than half the width of the white keys, but he stretched and bent them until they were able to do as he commanded. These practice sessions usually guaranteed a visit from his younger brother.
Jonathan usually braced for attack when Bobby entered the room. But Bobby was being extra careful that day as Jonathan stared intently at a piece of sheet music. His fingers moved back and forth over the keys and overtook any other noises in the room. Bobby was two feet away. He smiled at his prowess, tightened his body, then ran by, striking Jonathan in the back so hard with his shoulder that Jonathan's head struck the front of the piano.
"Whoops. Sorry, Bumble Boy." Bobby stood in front of the TV and smiled at his achievement.
Jonathan knew Bobby was actually starting to get jealous of him. The attacks were becoming more frequent. Jonathan played songs for his mother and Bobby's face would writhe in anger when she went on and on about how wonderful his playing had become.
Jonathan wanted to yell for his mother, but he was waiting for the dancing fireflies to leave his vision. He waited for some breath to come back to his lungs first. His back throbbed, but his head was more accessible, so he rubbed it feverishly.
"Robert Thomas Whitiker!" Jonathan heard his mother's voice growl. Jonathan's pain was still there, but he managed to smile anyway because Bobby had been caught this time. He turned his head to look at his brother, who stood frozen and stared wide-eyed at his mother like an animal caught rummaging through a garbage can.
"What the hell was that?" his mother continued.
"What?" Bobby said, not knowing exactly just what she had seen yet.
"Don't you play games with me, mister. I saw the whole thing. Get over here."
Bobby looked at Jonathan, and then walked slowly by the couch to his mother. He tightened his body again when she grabbed his arm and then gave him a rap on his backside, harder than Jonathan had ever seen her do, that sent Bobby's pelvis shooting forward.
"And what was that you called your brother?" she asked still holding his arm.
"What?" he asked feigning ignorance once again.
And once again his mother lifted her hand threateningly.
Bobby closed his eyes and spewed the words as fast as he could, "Bumble Boy. I called him Bumble Boy."
She let her arm fall. "Bumble Boy? What are you doing saying something like that to your brother?"
"Dad says that to him too," he protested.
Still holding Bobby tightly, she looked at Jonathan for confirmation. "He does?"
Jonathan was turned sideways on the bench with his hand on his forehead. He nodded.
"Jesus," she mumbled to herself. "You get to your room," she barked at Bobby as she heaved his arm from her hand. "I'll let your father deal with you when he gets home."
Bobby quickly escaped before any more spankings could be issued.
She walked over to Jonathan and bent down. "Let me see." He removed his hand from his forehead where a bright red dome was forming. "Come on," she said placing her hand on his back. "Let's get some ice on that."
Jonathan stood up and walked ahead of his mother into the kitchen when the phone rang. She picked up the receiver while Jonathan opened the freezer.
"This is Mrs. Benson, your sons' music teacher."
"Oh, yes. How are you, Mrs. Benson?"
Mrs. Benson? Jonathan closed the freezer door. What was she calling for?
"Fine, thank you," Mrs. Benson answered.
Jonathan turned and watched as his mother put her hand to the side of her head, closed her eyes and rubbed her temple firmly. "What has Bobby gotten into now, Mrs. Benson?"
"Actually, I'm calling about Jonathan."
"Jonathan? Oh," she said. She looked at Jonathan sitting at the table with an ice pack on his forehead and he stared back at her with curiosity. "What's wrong?" Her brows wrinkled.
"Oh, there's nothing wrong, Mrs. Whitiker. Just the opposite, actually. I wasn't aware that Jonathan was a piano player," she announced.
"Oh, yes," she said in relief.
"I just found out today that he played. He's good, Mrs. Whitiker, very good. How many years has he been taking lessons?"
"Well, he doesn't actually take lessons. We can't really afford it. He's been learning on his own. He's been doing it for about eight months now I guess."
"Eight months? On his own?" Mrs. Benson asked. "Are you sure?"
"Yes," she answered, but not without a slight hint of annoyance at the inference that she wasn't aware of her own son's activities. " We just inherited his grandmother's piano this past fall. Why?"
Jonathan couldn't believe it. They were talking about him. He just didn't know what it all meant. Why would Mrs. Benson be calling?
Picking up the irritation in his mother's tone, Mrs. Benson quickly said, "I apologize, Mrs. Whitiker. I didn't mean to say you wouldn't know how long your son has been playing, it's just that Jonathan plays as if he's had a few years of training already."
"What do you mean?" She asked while she walked over to Jonathan and lifted the ice pack off his forehead for inspection. The swelling was successfully being repressed. She placed the ice pack back on his head for good measure and winked at her son to let him know it looked like he would live after all.
Mrs. Benson continued, "Well, Mrs. Whitiker, we're studying some major composers right now. And this morning I played a piece by Chopin for the students..." she paused and then continued in a tone that bordered on giddy, "and this afternoon when I was returning from my lunch, I found Jonathan in the music room during his recess period. I heard him play through the closed door, but there was no mistaking it: he played the same piece nearly note for note, Mrs. Whitiker, as if he had been practicing it for months. Do you know if he has been practicing music by Chopin?"
"Oh, I have no idea. I don't know anything about classical music, Mrs. Benson. He uses all his allowance money to buy all kinds of new books about playing the piano. Have you ever heard of such a thing?" she said, then chuckled. " I think he sounds very good, Mrs. Benson, but if you saw how much he studies and practices, you would know why. He's quite religious about it." She smiled at Jonathan.
"I was wondering, Mrs. Whitiker, if you wouldn't mind if I took Jonathan to meet someone?"
Suddenly his mother's smile left and she seemed to lose her enthusiasm. She pressed the phone close to her ear, as she could tell Jonathan was trying to hear every word. "Who is it?" she asked.
"He's a professor at the Bateman College of Music. He runs a program at the school where talented young musicians like your son can progress with their studies at no charge. It usually leads to a full scholarship at the college. The program has been in place for about 20 years and has turned out some very successful musicians. I was wondering if Jonathan would be interested in seeing if he qualified for this program?"
She paused and looked at her son who stared back at her wide-eyed. Of course he would be interested! He nodded his head and whispered loudly, "Yes! Tell her yes!"
His mother stood silently with her free hand wedged under the arm that held the phone. Why was she waiting? Tell her. Tell her I want to do it! He pleaded with his eyes.
"Well, I'm not sure about that. I'll have to discuss it with my husband."
What! What was there to discuss? His hand holding the ice pack fell to his lap. He forgot the pain on his forehead as a sharp ache began to develop from deep inside his head.
"I assure you this would be a tremendous opportunity for Jonathan, Mrs. Whitiker."
Again his mother fell silent. Didn't she hear his teacher? A tremendous opportunity. Just say ‘yes, he'd love to do it' for crying out loud.
"Like I said, Mrs. Benson, I have to discuss it with my husband first."
"Of course. Can I call back later in the week maybe?"
"Sure. That would be fine."
"Ok, then. I'll talk to you then. Goodbye Mrs. Whitiker."
"Bye." His mother pressed the power button again and slowly hung the phone back on the wall unit. She stood there for a moment and didn't turn around.
"I want to see about that program, Mom." Jonathan said still sitting in the chair looking at her back. She turned slowly to him. Her expression was one he didn't ever remember seeing. Shouldn't she be happy about what Mrs. Benson said?
He smiled at her and said " I'll bet I could learn how to play really great for you if I joined something like that."
"Your father sold the piano."
Confusion quickly blanketed his face. "What?" he whispered.
"He sold it. It's supposed to be picked up this weekend. I was afraid to tell you."
Now he knew what her expression meant. There was a hint of a smile. She was happy. Proud of him even. But it was veiled in shame so that he hardly noticed it.
He felt his ears redden and boil with anger. He knew it wasn't her doing, but she had let it happen just the same.
"How could you let him sell it, Mom? How could you?" He made an effort to be calm, but the anger overwhelmed him. It quickly filled his lungs and soon overflowed so that he could no longer contain his emotions. "You know how much it means to me! And you let him sell it?"
Her mouth opened slightly as if to say something, but then closed again thinking better of it. His eyes clouded over as the tears fought their way to the surface. He slammed his fist on the table to stop them from coming. He was angry, but he refused to be a baby about it.
He looked at his mother again. She was looking across her shoulder out the window when she too began to cry.
Jonathan watched her. His anger morphed into shame. She's not the one he should be yelling at. The anger in him wanted him to remain glued to the chair in defiance, but the shame in him made him rise to his feet. He put the ice pack on the table, walked over to his mother and wrapped his arms just above her waist. In turn, she enclosed him around his shoulders. He felt her trembling against his head as he tightened his grip. He closed his eyes.
"I'm sorry, Mom. I'm sorry I yelled at you." He said it, although he knew that she was crying about something much deeper than the fact that he yelled at her.
He opened his eyes again. An icy feeling of dread replaced the hot flow of anger in his veins; his father stood in the doorway staring at them. Jonathan broke the embrace with his mother.
"What the hell is going on in here?" Jonathan's father said looking at his wife, then down at his son. "Christ, I can hear you yelling all the way outside."
"I told him about the piano."
"And you're yelling at your mother about it?" he said not taking his eyes off Jonathan. "I'm home now. Why don't you yell at me?" his father challenged.
Of course Jonathan wanted to. If he could, he'd like to take a brick to his father's head. Instead, he just looked at the floor.
His father took two large steps towards him and grabbed his shoulder. He bent down eye level and said, "Come on. Yell at me. Yell at me!" He shook his son's arm. "Don't you have any guts in you at all?"
"Henry, don't," his mother protested.
If only he had a brick. He'd use it. He would. Smash it right against his father's skull. He pictured his father lying on the floor with blood oozing from the side of his head. Yes, if only he had a brick. He'd show him who had the guts.
"Come on," his father began to pull him. "Into your room. I'll teach you to yell at your mother."
"Henry, don't. Leave him alone."
"Don't tell me what to do, Nancy," He said. His voice rose as if speaking to a child.
"He's right. He should be yelling at me. At the both of us."
"What are you talking about?" he said exasperated.
"You shouldn't have sold the piano, Henry. You shouldn't have. You can see how much it means to him. I told you how much it means to him."
"Oh, Christ. Didn't we already go over this? We need the money."
"We don't need it that bad, Henry. You know we don't."
Henry looked at his wife. His eyes warned her to keep her mouth shut.
She ignored his silent warning and continued, "The school called today, Henry. They say Jonathan is really talented on that piano. They want him to try out for some special program over at that music college. And Jonathan really wants to do it. He won't be able to practice if we sell the piano."
Jonathan felt his father's hand tighten on his arm again. "You go to your room. I'll deal with you later," he warned as he thrust Jonathan's arm from his hand.
Jonathan walked into the living room, massaging his arm. He had completely forgotten about the bump on his forehead until he saw Bobby's head sticking out his bedroom door trying to hear what was going on.
"Hey, what were you barking about in the kitchen?" he whispered loudly.
"Nothing. Mind your own business."
"Sounds like Dad's really gonna let you have it," he said with a smile.
Jonathan turned around in no particular hurry. "Don't count on it," he said. He returned the smile as he closed the door on his brother.
His mother came through. It was a long and heated battle, but the next day Jonathan sat on the couch and listened in as his father made the call. He listened eagerly as his father apologized repeatedly to the mysterious person on the other end of the phone that the piano was no longer for sale. Jonathan couldn't recall his father ever apologizing to anyone. It was an event not to be missed.
Jonathan was well aware that his father's heart wasn't in it, but it became even more evident when his father slammed the phone back on the wall. Jonathan had one foot on the floor about to make his escape from the living room, but his father turned into the room too quickly. Jon pretended he had just sat down. It was safer.
"Hi, Dad," he said feigning happiness at his father's presence.
Henry was glaring at nothing in particular when he laid his eyes on the reason he was losing out on two thousand dollars. "I hope you're happy," he said. He walked by Jonathan and out into the yard without another word.
The smile left and Jonathan looked down at his hands in his lap. Of course his father wasn't really hoping he was happy. And realizing this truth, pain of forever being a disappointment to his father poured slow and syrupy inside his chest. The pain continued until at last it bore needles in his heart and threatened the boy with impending tears. But then his eyes traveled from his hands, down his jeans, across the beige rug and up to the bench where he now spent most of his waking hours whenever his father wasn't around.
He looked at the piano. His companion was here to stay. The smile returned to his face. But this smile he did not fake. He didn't have to think about it. It came on strong and without any effort. A smile that radiated from somewhere deep within him. The piano was here to stay. And the power that brought him that smile would be stronger than any needles his father could ever inflict upon him.
Jonathan and Bobby enjoyed some rare playtime together in the kitchen. Their parents were outside doing their annual springtime cleanup, while the boys opened the cabinets looking for objects they could use in their obstacle course; pots and pans for mountains; large spoons for catapults; mixing bowls filled with water to train the diving team. Several dozen little, green, plastic army men were strewn about the floor ready for the challenge.
The previous three weeks had passed quickly and Jonathan's appointment with the music school was nearly upon him. Mrs. Benson told him it was not an easy program to get into, but she felt that when they took into account what a short time he had been playing, he had a very good chance.
"Work on your posture and the way you hold your hands over the keys. A sense of professionalism is incredibly important to these people," she told him.
Together, Jonathan skipped recess and Mrs. Benson ate her lunch each day in the music room in hopes of increasing his chances, although she seemed to think he would be welcomed with open arms once they heard him play. She reveled in what she called Jonathan's "natural born talent."
Jonathan was taking no chances. At night, after his parents fell asleep, he snuck into the living room for more benchtime, as he called it. He slid aside the curtains until enough moonlight filtered into the room for him to see. He pulled the bench from under the piano and slid in between them.
He couldn't play at that hour, of course, but he sat there, stretched his arms and fingers and positioned them on the keys. His hands would glide across the keys, his fingers barely grazing them and imagined playing to a filled concert hall, which vibrated with the sounds he had created.
He would be a famous concert pianist. His father would have to be proud of him then. He imagined his parents and his brother sitting in the front row. His father was smiling at him; proud that people filled the hall to hear his son. He would be a famous concert pianist. He would make sure of it.
"Jon," Bobby said placing one of the army men on the spoon. "Hold up one of the mixing bowls and try to catch him." He placed the spoon with the end of it hanging over the edge of the kitchen table ready for launch.
"Ok," Jonathan said. He picked up one of the bowls, dumped the water in the sink and turned around. "OK, shoot."
Bobby held his hand over the spoon's end. "OK, soldier. This is your final test. Fly into the pit over there and you can call yourself a Marine. Ready? 10, 9, 8, 7,..."
Jonathan held out the bowl as his brother counted.
"...2, 1," Bobby said in a high voice as his hand came down on the spoon handle. Bobby overshot it a bit and the toy went sailing in the air just over his brother into the sink.
"Oh, man," Bobby said walking over while Jonathan turned around to retrieve it. "You failed soldier," Bobby continued in drill sergeant style.
"It fell down the drain," Jonathan announced.
"Well, get it."
"Mom, doesn't like us putting our hands in there, remember?"
"Just get it. If we call her in here now, she'll make us clean all this up."
Jonathan knew he was right. But sticking your hands in a garbage disposable was like wiping them with a dirty diaper.
"Why don't you get it?"
"Oh, now you admit it."
Jonathan rolled his eyes. "Alright. I'll get it."
He reached over into the drain, but wasn't quite tall enough to reach all the way inside. He opened the cabinet doors under the sink and stood on the shelf, which gave him three to four more inches of reach. His lips and nose wrinkled involuntarily in disgust as his hands contacted the soft, mushy grime of old food and grease caked along the inside of the disposal.
The back of his hand just brushed along the jagged plastic toy as his brother went in for a closer look. "Just get it, for crying out loud."
"I am," Jonathan replied in exasperation.
As Bobby went to look in the drain, his leg caught the bottom of the disposal switch. Just as Jonathan wrapped his hand around the toy, the undiscerning blades roared to life.
A horrible grinding noise accompanied the violent vibration of Jonathan's fingers and the little green army man. Jonathan's arm shook as his hand was caught up in the blades momentum. Jonathan didn't seem to realize what was going on. His face went blank while Bobby's eyes went wide with terror.
"Oh my God!" Bobby yelled the moment he realized he must have hit the switch somehow. He sprang back, snapped his head down to the switch and slapped it back down. The teeth of the mechanical monster slowed to a stop.
"Oh my God. I'm sorry, Jonny, I'm sorry," Bobby rambled. It sounded to Jonathan as if his brother was speaking through a pillow.
Tears filled Bobby's eyes when Jonathan lifted his hand now free from the disposal's grip. The blood rapidly blotted the stainless steel sink. He lifted it closer to his face, dazed with glassy eyes. His thumb was nearly severed, held only by several bloody fibrous tissues. The top halves of three fingers were completely gone leaving bleeding stumps with his bright white finger bones exposed. Only his pinky remained untouched.
"Mom! Mom!" Bobby screamed through his tears as he hoisted himself up on the counter to reach the paper towels.
The blood ran dark red down Jonathan's hands as he seemed hypnotized, unable to take the hand away from his face. The blood streamed onto the floor.
Bobby grabbed hold of the paper towels and yanked the roll until about eight towels unraveled. He ripped them off, jumped off the counter and folded them in a wad. He wrapped the towels around his brother's hand.
"Here, Jonny. Hold onto to this."
But Jonathan did not move. It seemed like a dream. His brother's voice was completely muffled. He continued to stare at his hand, which was now obscured by the paper towels. As Jonathan didn't seem to comprehend what he instructed, Bobby pressed the wadded paper down to stem the blood flow.
"It's OK, Jonny. Everything's OK," Bobby blubbered through heavy tears. "Mom! Mom!"
Jonathan watched his brother holding his hand. The blood began to seep through the towels as little red circles grew in circumference with each passing second.
Bobby let go of his brother's hand and started for the door when he ran into father's chest.
"What's all the yelling about in here?" He asked angrily.
Bobby was now overcome with tears and couldn't answer. He could only point.
"Jesus," Henry said when he spotted Jonathan and all the blood on the floor. He ran over. "Let me see it, son. It's OK," he said peeling the sticky soaked towels off the injury. "Jesus."
The sight of his fingers confirmed the severity of the injury. Jonathan felt his head grow heavy. His head fell back until he was looking up at the white ceiling, which then faded into blackness.
The sounds of chainsaws ceased. Jonathan turned the volume down on the television and noticed it was three-o'clock. Bobby was done with school twenty minutes before. They would now be on the way to see him.
He looked at his right hand as it lay next to his hip. He brought the hand up close to his face and looked at the layers of faintly bloodstained gauze bandages wrapped up and down in different angles around the top half of his hand.
For a while, he entertained the thought of trying to play the piano again. He knew it would be strange at first, like how one's tongue probes back for familiarity once a tooth has been chipped or lost. But the thought soon faded. It would be far more difficult to reach the keys properly now. Even if he was able to play again, which he doubted, he would never be the pianist he knew he could have become. The most he could ever hope to achieve was being a pianist who was good "for a cripple." That was not an acceptable stature. He would not be a carnival sideshow attraction. He had dreamed of so much more for himself already.
Tomorrow he was going back home. Tomorrow he would look at the piano and wish he never saw it. Tomorrow he would tell his father to sell it. His parents would pity him and insist he still try it; he would refuse.
He dropped his hand back to his side in disgust and looked back out at the broken tree. Bumble Boy was back; and this time he was here to stay.