[img_assist|nid=4295|title=”Dravidian’s Cure” by Antonio Puri © 2005|desc=|link=node|align=right|width=150|height=73]I’m sitting at a small rickety table by the window of this nondescript cafe, its only sign a half-shattered plastic square that reads “Breakfast.” No name, just what it serves. What I serve. Remarkably, Angel manages to keep this place open. I don’t know why he picked this location, this dingy block of downtown Long Beach , so empty of hope the only life on the sidewalks are the alcoholics ditching into the Algiers Bar across the street. I’m on my break, trying to read a moldy paperback copy of The Stranger, drinking coffee I’ve laced with whiskey from the flask I keep in my apron pocket. The awning of the bar reflects the sun in glaring hot swaths across the asphalt. I lift my cup to drink and in she walks, predictable as the heat of the California sun.
I wonder where she’s been today. She looks more alert than usual, though wearing the exact same outfit as she has all month: leopard skin coat, fake-fur collar gray with cigarette ash and dandruff, grimy pink mules. The exposed rough skin of her unshaven ankles makes me sad.
“Hi, Mom,” I say.
She ignores me and slowly pushes a stiff lock of yellow-streaked white hair from her broad forehead. She makes no eye contact, although I note a distinct lift of her chin. My mother is too good to be seen talking with the hired help. She glides like a queen toward the counter where Angel is wiping down the plastic wood-grain paneling. Her hands hang limp. A black patent leather purse dangles off the tips of her long-fingered left hand.
She clears her throat, a rheumy thirty years of tobacco smoke clogging the pipes. Angel ignores her, and my heart hurts. She’s beautiful. How can he ignore her? But Angel has a business to run, as he explained to me last week, when he dialed 911 to report a vagrant: my mother.
I am worried at how best to proceed because she’s earlier than usual and I am not prepared. Yesterday had been a good day, because I had remembered to lay out two quarters on each table before she got here, so that she could come right in, do her work—which is to steal my tips—then get out before Angel calls the cops. But today everything—the sun, the heat of the whiskey—pushes me to forget just where I am.
I watch her and feel the familiar urge to have a normal conversation, the urge like a gnawing hunger. It must be normal to want that, especially now. I’m getting married this week. It’s normal for a girl to turn to her mom at a time like this. It must be. I think: I’m so glad you came in. I wanted to tell you something. Mike and I are getting married on Wednesday. Do you remember Mike?
Angel is now glaring at my mother although he still hasn’t spoken to her. He hates it when she comes in. Says it ruins business to have crazies wandering around. I tell him it isn’t her fault; she is my mother, what am I supposed to do? We don’t argue about it anymore, though. Angel is only threatening to call the police. He’s the last person to want the cops to come in, check things out, study the fake green cards and expired licenses. Besides, he doesn’t want me to quit, really, because who else would work in this dull, nameless place?
My mother turns on her heel and heads toward the table in the far right corner. I wince. I have not cleared the table, and the last customers had had a three-year-old who, with both hands, smeared pancake syrup all over everything. I’d noticed the hacking cough of the father, the balled up napkins containing God knows what.
I want my mother to sit with me, have a cup of coffee, watch the people slip into the darkness of the Algiers Bar.
Remember Mike? We came to see you at the hospital? Mike paid for the taxi fare. He gave you a carton of Lucky Strikes. You told him you were trying to quit so you were going to flush them down the toilet. He thought that was funny. I was relieved, because he’d paid for them out of his tip money and I thought he’d be mad. And he’s so mean when he’s mad. But instead he said, “Well, hon, do me a favor and flush them one at a time so they last.” You thought that was funny.
Angel jerks his head over at my mom, then looks pointedly up at the clock. My break is over. I get up and dig through my pockets for some tips. I have about three dollars in change. I approach my mother, who has seated herself at the filthy table.
You’re invited. Will you come? Adrian ’s Wedding Chapel. Adrian said we could invite a witness, but if we couldn’t find one, he’d ask his assistant, Hilda. I thought since maybe you were around here, you know, you might stop by. Just a thought. Two o’clock on Wednesday. That’s the day after tomorrow.
My mother lights a Lucky Strike and gazes out over the cafe while I gather the sticky plates and place them on the table next to us. I pull a clean ashtray from my pocket and sit down across from her. Angel slams something and stomps into the kitchen. I can hear him making a ruckus, something that sounds like forks being thrown into a fan.
Her body smells unwashed. Her black shiny purse sits in front of her. I want to open it up, dig through to the bottom for pennies and sen-sen and flecks of tobacco.
“How are you doing, Mom?” I push the quarters in her direction. “I have something to tell you.”
She sighs, plumes of white smoke pouring from her nostrils. She looks down at her hands, the backs of her long beautiful fingers tanned from Thorazine and her wanderings beneath the hot sun. Then she frowns. She picks up the quarters. Her brow twists in confusion, her hand resting on the table, palm up, full of quarters. She looks up at me, perplexed.
“Who the hell are you?”
I fold my hands around hers, curling her fingers around the quarters. Her hands are cool and soft.
Will you come? Maybe you could play for us. There’s an old piano at Adrian ’s. Nothing much. But all the keys work. I checked. You could play anything you wanted. Chopin. You always loved Chopin.
She is still frowning at me and I can’t find any words to speak. I get up and hug her shoulders. Suddenly she pulls me down and we kiss. It is an awkward quick collision of soft smoky lips. We have never done this before, kissed on the mouth, and for a moment I hold my breath, not knowing what to think. Then my mother turns fierce, her eyes blazing blue and sharp. She grabs my collar and whispers loudly, “I’ve got a tip for you. Never fall in love with a woman.” Her eyes fill with tears. “They’ll break your heart.”
I stand up , blushing , and my mother’s face snaps back to its calm disdainful beauty. She stands abruptly, drops the quarters into her purse and marches across the cafe to the front door. She stands there until Angel sighs and opens it for her. I run to the window and watch as long as I can the leopard skin back prowling down the street.
It’s okay. Never mind. It’s no big deal. We don’t love each other very much anyway.
Angel whistles and calls out that it is time for me to get back to work, though there are no customers. The breakfast rush is over. I put my hands into the pockets of my apron, feeling nothing, feeling nothing because I don’t know that I will never see her again.
This piano is old.
“Strange that a piano this old and so, umm, untaken care of, sorry—”
“No, that’s okay.”
“Well,” he crawls out from beneath the legs as if from under a car. His clean blue jeans are worn at the knees, his waist is slender. The piano tuner, Timmy, sits on my carpet, legs crossed Indian style. He rests his hands and polishing cloth in his lap. His hair is black and curly. His long lashes wave up at me. “It’s one of the sweetest pianos I’ve ever heard.” He grins.
I am grateful for this young man, who has come into my home with shiny , elegant tools. I always thought it was just my opinion, just my love for this piano, my mother’s piano, loving it the way we love the first voice we ever hear, how we come to understand that all other voices are mere echoes of that first sweet voice, a voice I have not heard for 15 years.
It is a Winter 1937 cottage grand. A cottage grand looks like a regular spinet, but there’s something different about its internal workings that I never understood. The chain of events that flows through its intricate systems of levers, springs and hammers, through felt and wool and wood, makes it different.
We lift the upper lid , swing the tapered arm down to keep it propped open. I gently pull the hinged lid that covers the keyboard all the way out, exposing its insides. Timmy gets to work. He raps a silver tuning fork against his knee, then sticks it between his teeth. He reaches in and secures a tiny wrench, making minuscule adjustments, seeking 440 vibrations per second.
I ask Timmy what happens to a piano as it ages. He explains that first the leather and felt compact so that the action becomes uneven and less responsive. Rattles and squeaks develop.
“All the action parts become worn out,” he says, tapping middle C. He frowns. “Hmmm. The keys are getting wobbly.” I want to stop his hand from tapping the key, from using up its strength.
“It gets worse,” he continues. “Hard to believe, but the strings may actually break.” He plucks a rusty B-flat string and its dull thud silences us for a moment.
“Some pianos just die.” Timmy leans toward the hammers and sighs. “The big failure is hidden—look, just below the surface of the cap.” He points to the cap, fingers it, and in the rising dust I smell decades of cigarette smoke and my mother’s breath.
When he’s finished tuning, we examine the ornate cabinet. Its color shifts from one side to the other. The side closest to the fireplace is paler than the rest. He rubs his finger into a round cigarette scar; around the water-stains of the alcoholic years I spent trying to rid myself of Mike.
To distract Timmy from the damage I tell him, “I clean the keys with curdled milk.”
He shoots me a glance. “Oh, I think I heard about that. Something about lactic acid?”
He encourages me to reconsider restoration. “I know it’s expensive, but it’s such a lovely instrument. Still. She’s worth it.”
When the piano tuner leaves, I pull out the bench. I’ve draped it with a homely pink rug to cover up how it is cobbled together with too many thin nails since that day ten years ago , when Mike broke it into pieces against the wall then came after me, w hen one post-blackout morning the damage he did to the piano, to me, finally entered my consciousness and I made calls. The police came. I met Margaret, a therapist, in a hospital rehab hallway.
I rub the dampness of last night’s bottle of whiskey off the coffee table. I only had one, just one when I got the letter; when I heard the news, then called Margaret; what should I do?
Thirty or more books of music line the shelf above the piano. I choose Chopin preludes. The prelude is not a piece I’m familiar with, so I proceed slowly, addolorato. But even in this dirge I can hear the water, the life force. The piano tuner told me this piano is now only in tune with itself, accurate pitch no longer possible for its aging body.
My mother had schizophrenia and perfect pitch. She’d call out “G” when the phone rang, “F” at the doorbell. As I clumsily, slowly, begin the prelude’s arpeggio down the keyboard, like so many drops of rain on a lonely night, I try to remember if this piano—her piano—was always weak in its pitch, and if so, was this what drove her mad, knowing the way she did what constituted a perfect sound? I do not know what drove her from me that last day near the Algiers Bar. I do not know what killed her. Tomorrow, because Margaret says I must, I will find out.
When I enter the Medical Records office of Metropolitan State Hospital , a man rises from a desk. The nameplate on the desk reads, Miguel Torres. He is the records clerk who answered the phone when I called weeks before, when Margaret and I decided it was time to know. He waves his hand at a long table. On it is a stack of folders twelve inches high. I stand in the middle of the room, rubbing the backs of my hands. They burn when I am afraid. The smell of dust and mold is familiar and sad.
A woman wearing a white muumuu with pink hibiscus comes into the room. I think she is a patient. She says hello. She stands close to me and then I think she isn’t a patient, because she smells fresh and wears socks and white tennis shoes with her laces tied. She smiles at me and motions to the tower of my mother’s records.
“Go ahead, honey. Tell us which ones you want. We’ll copy them for you.”
Miguel comes back in and hands me a box of paper clips. “Sixteen admissions,” he says. “What do you want?”
Everything, I want to tell him. How can he ask me that? Why can’t I just pick up this stack and walk back to my car and drive away? Miguel leaves the room again and the woman touches my shoulder. “Five cents a sheet.” She shakes her head and sits down at a typewriter table and begins to poke fingers at the keys.
I open the first manila folder. There is a small black and white Polaroid of my mother’s face, an intake photo of a woman in the throes of a nervous breakdown. Her hair hangs longer than I remember it. Her eyes seem sleepy and she is almost smiling, as if she has just had good sex or heard the voice of God.
I did not expect to find my mother, not like this; I have been without her for so long I assumed all traces of her life had disintegrated into dust. I had thought, wrongly, that this hospital had closed, that the tools that shocked my mother, burned her memory down to ash, the so-called machinery of cure, had been bulldozed.
When I received the notice from the hospital that her records were to be purged I called Margaret, whom I had only seen a few times, back when I was disintegrating into alcoholism, before these blank years of sheer coping. Margaret asked, how did she die? I told her I did not know, that she had disappeared one hot day while I was at work.
But here is my mother, stapled to a form. I quietly yank the photo from the page and slip her into my purse. For an hour I turn the pages slowly, finding more photos, delaying the inevitable final pages. Miguel comes back into the room and taps his watch.
“We have to get started copying or we won’t be able to give you anything,” he threatens.
I relinquish my stack to him and he carries it back into the bowels of the archives.
When I rise to leave, my hands not full enough of what I came for, of what I crave, the woman in the muumuu says, “Wait, honey. I’ve got something for you.” She opens a drawer and hands me a piece of paper. On it is a recipe for shrimp mousse. And a recipe for Harvey Wallbangers.
“It’s different now,” she says. “It’s not shameful anymore.” I’m not sure what she’s referring to. I thank her for the recipes and touch her shoulder lightly as she turns back to the typewriter. She bats my fingers away and bends toward her work. I notice, then, the key dangling from her wrist. She’s not a patient. At least, not anymore.
On my way home I stop only once, for bourbon. The red blinking light of a message greets me as I unlock the door to my house. It’s Margaret, asking me to call her. I do.
“Did you get the records?”
“Yes.” I move to the refrigerator and try not to make any noise as I drop ice cubes into a glass. My hand is shaking. “Not all, though.”
“Call me if you want to later, will you?”
I hang up, and my hand stays on the phone for a long time. Chopin is playing in my head and I am riveted to the spot, one hand around a glass of booze, one on the phone. It is my mother’s crazed rendition of the minute waltz, which she played in thirty seconds flat, and I see before me the frenetic dance I would dance behind her as she sat at our piano, the sweet oceanic dread of the waltz making me weep with her.
When the music fades I bring the hospital records to the couch. I hold tight to the glass. Finally, I begin to turn the pages.
There she is again, more photos. They are askew, as if she could not stop moving. In one she looks like a mean parrot; in another her hands blur as she makes the sign of the cross across her polka dot blouse. The blouse is on backwards. In another her eyebrows are lifted into a dramatic “v” as if to plead, “what am I doing here?”
I begin to disbelieve. It is all so unreliable. I remember my mother as young and beautiful, not sick and dying. I thought she was not mad, just agitato and rhapsodic. As I read these records, I see that even the orderlies have written down the wrong year in places , that the nurse mistook her sleeping form for another patient , that a doctor noticed she had some musical ability.
Then I am stopped by one last photo. It is the leopard skin coat. It is the stiff white hair.
The phone rings and its Margaret again.
“Are you all right?”
“Do you want to talk?”
I shake my head, but she can’t hear that. I want to tell her I am grateful she called but that I have to go now, the news has arrived and my mother is dying. I must attend to her funeral. I hang up, hoping she understands.
I turn to the final page. The handwriting is elegant for a doctor. I wonder briefly if he was an artist, then I read this, how it was lung cancer that killed her. She drowned in ash, and the physician wrote: “all I could do for this patient was give her a cigarette, for which she was obviously grateful.”
Yes, she would have been. What a kind gesture. I wonder if there had been any others since I saw her last.
The phone rings. I set the glass down, push it to the edge of the table. The liquid makes a tinkling sound, and the smell hovers, like smoke.
Robin Parks’s fiction has appeared in Bellingham Review, Prism International, The Raven Chronicles and other journals, and has won the Raymond Carver Short Story Award. Parks has an MFA from Fairleigh Dickinson University, where she was the Presidential Fellow in Creative Writing. Originally from Southern California, she lived for many years on a tiny island in the Pacific Northwest, and now calls Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania, her home.