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. — Guest Judge Stuart Dybek
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.
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. A little bow, a little nod of head was his acknowledgment of appreciation. He once said to me, as he brushed cigar ash off his shirt-front, that music couldn’t stay in the soul, but that it was made of soul. This was confusing to me. Play that again. Adagio, adagio. He knew that whatever I played was not made of soul. His breath, when he bent close, was usually sour. His German accent sometimes drowned out his meaning, and I would just stumble into playing over what I just played, unsure of what he was asking. He would stare out the window as I played, as if the view of drab rooftops helped him concentrate on my technique.
My lessons continued on like this for all of the summer months after school let out, and then into the fall. I made some small progress, and actually began to enjoy my practice time each evening, pounding away on the old, untuned piano we owned, even with its six dead keys. On the Saturday just before Thanksgiving my aunt and I arrived to find the door to his apartment open, its contents gone, not a stick of furniture or book remaining.
We stood there for moment.
“Hmpth,” my aunt said, as if her surmise about a particular character in one of her novels had been proven correct. “Figures.”
I pictured the grand piano where it had sat amid all of his clutter. I thought I could smell his cigar’s ash in the air.
On the subway ride home, I tried to assure myself the music was still there, even though the professor was gone. I sat with my eyes closed and let the music rise out of the worn benches, out of all the sullen and distracted commuters, let the rattle and swaying of the subway car play itself, with all of the sharps.
“Figures,” my aunt said a couple of times, to me or just out loud to herself. “He wasn’t any good anyway.”
John is a graduate of the University of Michigan. Poems have appeared in, among others: The Baltimore Review; The Cider Press Review; New Ohio Review; The Bitter Oleander; North American Review; Shenandoah; 32 Poems; Iron Horse; Juxtaprose; Tar River Poetry; The American Journal of Poetry.