By H. A. Eugene
One by one, they left.
My daughter took Lizzy to run errands. And Alan—he had some business in town, so his teenage son, David, went with him to help carry bags of feed.
Both my daughter and Alan stood in the doorway, each at different times, asking if I needed anything from out there. But I didn’t. I never do. The screen door hit them both on the ass as they left, each at different times.
And just like that, our narrow, shoebox house, with its papered walls and sun-bleached sills, fell quiet.
I was alone.
Solitude was rare, and I didn’t want to squander it, so I sat at our upright piano. My goal was to learn Buffalo Ballet by John Cale, a song I’ve always loved for its beautiful refrain, by the time they got back. I was on the last verse when I stopped and turned. Something had shifted behind me, though nothing was there, just a window in a middle room and the air swirling with dust motes and evaporated shadows.
Nevertheless, I was certain someone—or some thing—was now standing over my shoulder, and though I couldn’t see it, I knew it was there. Because whatever it was fluttered away once my fingers left the piano keys.
It seemed I was alone with a ghost.
This was a rare occasion, indeed, as this ghost was known to be very shy. Given that, I felt it behooved me to switch to something we could do together. So, I plinked out a few improvised figures in C major, leading into a hummed melody. Something easy and predictable; something warm, but not too bland. All to encourage the ghost to follow along.
And it did.
The ghost sang quite capably, which was surprising, given that the person this ghost probably used to be, to my memory, never sang. Maybe it spent the last decades studiously listening as we sang pop songs and Christmas carols, humming quietly in the background while her remains lay interred under an oak tree out back—sleeping in the midday sun.
After a few loops, it became apparent that we’d written a song. It was a simple song, mind you, a four-chord call-and-response piece that used both of our voices equally. I sang the low baritone part: the call. The ghost, who naturally occupied those chilly upper registers, sang the higher part. The response was a repeating phrase that was the same each time but took on different meanings, depending on what I sang in the call. We were quite clever, especially since the response was the ghost’s idea. The song was a true collaboration.
We added more over the next hour of practice. Nothing special—just shoe polish to old leather: grammatical adjustments to lyrics and rests that regulated how things flowed in the last verse with its witty reversal. I also added a bridge, and I admit to hijacking the shimmery major seventh chords from the bridge in Cale’s Buffalo Ballet. I liked how daring, yet fragile, those major seventh chords sounded. Also, they were already in my head.
The end result felt new, but as lived-in as a broken-in boot. No single part sounded invented, and there was no evidence of emotional manipulation or stylistic fancy-dancing—no key changes, no puzzling genre pastiche—just a straightforward tune. Its elements hung together in a way that allowed one to forget its form, entirely, as it triumphantly reverberated through the wallpaper, out the windows and up to the sky.
At this high point I realized if I wanted to show off this song, or even explain exactly how that response part worked—not just to my daughter, or Alan, but to anyone—I would need an artifact to refer to. My unreadable chicken-scratch notation would not suffice in this case (this is to say nothing of my physical inability to cover the ghost’s part, which was much too high for even my falsetto).
Thinking quickly, I pressed RECORD on a tape machine I produced from inside the piano bench and began counting off to start the piece again. Before I even touched the piano keys, I felt a sudden, sharp pain on my right cheek—
At first, I was offended. I wasn’t sure why a recording elicited such violence; after all, what could be more normal than preserving what we’d written?
Then I remembered: under an oak tree, sleeping in the midday sun—only one of us was alive.
Could it be that in my rush to render our work for posterity, I took our biggest difference for granted?
Perhaps merely being alive predisposes one to believe all their creations necessarily deserve to last forever when they don’t.
Maybe some music, like some things, should only exist for certain moments. Once fingers leave the piano keys, one should expect this music to just flit away, leak out the windows, and dissolve into the air.
Maybe that’s the way it is.
None of this made much sense. Where I came from you always recorded what you wrote. I had boxes upon boxes of audiotape that attested to it.
Old, decaying audiotape.
In moldy boxes.
I thought I understood.
Maybe where I’m going, none of that mattered because one day, I’d be under that oak tree too.
I stopped the tape machine and returned it to the storage area inside the piano bench.
I then asked the ghost in a clear, certain voice if it was ready to begin again and got no reply.
Undeterred, I counted off, beginning with a few notes in C, leading in like we’d practiced.