We’re thrilled to share today John Glowney’s “Play That Again,” the second place story in our 2021 Flash Fiction Contest selected by Stuart Dybek. “The brevity of “Play that Again” seems almost to be that of an anecdote, but the story is more complex and delves far deeper than an anecdote. As the title suggests, an odd set of piano lessons becomes a story that is also about music and emotion, and youth, and the recognition of beauty. The prose has a muted quality, attractive in itself, that’s critical to telling the story. Goethe called music the language of the inexpressible. There are stories in which words can paradoxically be that too, and this carefully detailed piece is one of them. The writer locates the story in an experience that some might find mundane, yet conveys emotions too nuanced for diction to name, especially given the youth of the kid taking lessons. It seems to me that the medium of short short prose—as exemplified say by a writer like Kawabata in what he called his Palm of the Hand Stories—has an affinity for expressing the inexpressible.” – Stuart Dybek
I was a middling student, I guess, keeping up but not shining. He obviously knew my skills would not take me far. But also knew that revealing this judgment to my aunt or mother would end his employment and the $20 that they scraped together every week for me to hand to him at the end of each lesson.
I started out on a grand piano. My aunt would stop by on Saturday at noon, and eat lunch with Mother, and then the two of us would take the subway to Brooklyn, and up the four flights of stairs. He smoked cigars, and the piano sat in the middle of his living room, which was, by all appearances, his kitchen, and bedroom. Newspapers and books, opened and then placed face-down on the corner of the couch, or table, or end table, any available surface, sheet-music scattered everywhere.
He was researching the source of music, he once told me. Play that again. This time with the sharps. He gave lessons to many children, he had told my mother, although I never saw any other child coming or going from his place, never met anyone on the stairs, not even any other tenants of the building. The front door was never locked, and somehow I knew people lived in the other rooms although I never saw any of them.
My aunt was oblivious to all this. She would sit on the couch with her novel and read while the lesson proceeded. This was her usual posture when waiting. She read an endless supply of paperback novels.