Music

When his father, Donald, called to say that his mother and brother had been in an accident, Simon went to the kitchen and threw together a quick sandwich. His father had sounded calm on the phone and even said the two hadn’t been badly hurt. He couldn’t help but wonder what good his presence would do for his mother and brother, but there really wasn’t any excuse not to go and see them. They would appreciate his concern, he decided. He went up to his bedroom and took the books from his desk—his textbooks for the semester—and put them back into the large plastic bag from the bookstore. He hadn’t had the books long enough to throw away the bag; maybe he’d still be able to get a full refund. He’d have to make sure to find the receipt before he tried.

The top of his desk clear, he opened his middle drawer and pulled out two stacks of staff paper. The smaller stack was still in the cellophane wrap, two hundred sheets in four packages. The other stack, some sheets wrinkled and folded in places, carried the ink of Simon’s pen in the form of notes scribbled out in a hurry and then revisited to ensure accurate transcription. Simon set the stacks next to each other on his desk and looked over the top sheet of the bigger stack, letting the music come to life in his mind.

As he meditated on his music, Simon’s thoughts wandered to his mother, Sarah, whom he would soon see in the hospital. A new melody, similar in feeling to those he usually heard when he felt comfortable and safe, drifted into his mind. There was an unusual movement to it this time, hints of more somber notes as he wondered about her condition. He began transcribing these notes on a fresh sheet of staff paper, but anticipation of his father’s arrival vied for his attention. The emergence of a dissonant tune, nervous and angry, made it difficult to capture the first. He tried to separate the two in his mind as he scribbled notes alternately on two sheets, all between frantic bites of his sandwich. If he could at least capture the essential spirit of each melody, he would be able to recreate pieces later, when his mind wasn’t so clouded.

He filled three quarters of the first sheet with parts of the peaceful, sad tune and almost half of the second with the darker, scary tune before his efforts were interrupted by the sound of a horn from outside. The sounds of the world around him regained priority and he recognized the hum of the diesel engine. He jotted down a few more notes, grabbed his sandwich, and ran down the stairs and out the front door.

***

In his childhood, Simon hummed or whistled the vibrant and energetic tunes that came to him, and his brother Benjamin would smile, laugh, and bounce around in an effort to dance. There was no time for music when their father played with them, as he insisted on tossing a football or baseball around, or coaching boxing between them after he bought child-sized boxing gloves for Christmas one year. Simon was never as enthusiastic about the sports as Ben, who wanted to impress their father. After their parents divorced, Benjamin went to live with Donald and Simon stayed at home with his mother. The boys only saw each other on the weekends, which they spent alternately at each of their parent’s homes.

***

Donald was listening to classic rock on the radio while he waited outside. Simon said hello when he climbed into the truck, trying to recall the last time he’d seen his father. It must’ve been the last time he’d gone to his house for dinner, probably two or three months back. The two remained silent and Simon tried to endure the classic rock. He rarely listened to music, but when he did, it was strictly classical. Lyrics and singing consistently interfered with his ability to understand music. And he might’ve been more able to endure if his father was not obviously in a sour mood. When his father was in better spirits, he’d vent lightheartedly to Simon about how stupid his coworkers were or how one particular sports team stood no chance against another. Simon knew that his father didn’t care much for his opinion, but he felt good smiling and nodding in agreement anyway. When his father wasn’t in a good mood, Simon tried only to avoid being a source of irritation. The ride to the hospital was tense, but as long as Simon didn’t say anything, he wouldn’t become a target for his father’s anger.

***

The last he had dinner with his father, Benjamin had been the target. Donald made snide comments about him to Simon, who knew what it felt like to be the butt of his father’s jokes. He laughed along with his father anyway, taking full advantage of the opportunity to be Donald’s ally, even though he didn’t harbor any ill-feelings toward his brother, who knew better than to be offended by his brother.

Benjamin, just like Simon, had learned long ago to side with his father whenever possible, no matter what you really felt on an issue. Simon thought back on the evening just as they pulled into the lot at the hospital and found a parking spot. Donald had spent the better part of dinner that night criticizing Ben for not getting involved with some girl. The daughter of the union’s vice president. Donald couldn’t get over the fact that his son, who wasn’t otherwise involved with anyone, wouldn’t just take the girl out a few times and make her feel special; it would’ve been good politics, and not only was she attractive, she really liked Ben. “Not good enough for my son, I guess,” Donald chided.

“I guess not,” Simon had agreed with him. “Must be waiting for a real princess.”

***

The two walked into the waiting room and Donald asked the girl at the desk about Sarah and Benjamin. After a few words, he turned and walked toward Simon, who stood back, casually glancing around the waiting room.

“It’ll be a bit before we can go in and see them,” Donald said to Simon, walking past him to the seating area. “The doctors are just reviewing test results to make sure everything’s okay. They seem to be mostly okay.” Simon followed his father and sat down after him, leaving an empty seat between, for comfort. He wondered if his father would visit his mother, too, or if he’d only come to see Ben.

***

His parents had arrived at the decision to divorce calmly and mutually, except for the fact that Donald insisted that Benjamin should live with him. Simon, firmly in place in front of the television with his brother, overheard an argument between the two coming from the dining room shortly before the divorce took place. His mother said that the boys should live together, but told Donald that he wasn’t sensitive enough to handle Simon. Donald explained, calmly at first, that he wasn’t worried about Simon. “He can live with you; I don’t care,” he said, voice rising. “I’m just letting you know that Ben will live with me. If this ends up in a custody suit, I’ll take them both, if that’s the only way you’ll let me keep Ben. So keep Simon. The boys will get along fine visiting each other on weekends.” For the first few years, the kids spent their weekends alternately at each parent’s house. Simon’s visits to his father’s house trailed off after that, falling to one weekend a month, at best.

***

He looked over at his father, who was reading articles from a Popular Mechanics magazine. His father glanced up at him after a moment, as if to ask, “What are you looking at?” Simon looked away before their eyes met. This trip to the ER must’ve been the closest to intimacy he had shared with his father since his early adolescence. Since then, he only visited his father when he was able to visit with his brother too.

***

Not long after the divorce, Benjamin had begun making fun of Simon when he whistled, calling him a sissy. Donald gave Simon a hard time about not playing for Benjamin’s little league team and criticized Sarah for indulging Simon in music. She enrolled him in lessons for three different instruments in one year, each time spending a substantial amount of money to buy the instrument. The instructors were inevitably frustrated by Simon’s refusal to practice the music they gave him; they didn’t realize that he spent all his time teaching himself to mimic his imagined melodies with the instruments. Aside from teaching him to read sheet music, Simon’s instructors were at a loss to direct his learning. When the third instructor—violin—told Sarah that he could not teach Simon, she simply let him spend his evenings playing with his instruments. Benjamin complained about the music on his visits with his mother, as Simon would spend hours experimenting as Sarah and Benjamin prepared dinner or watched movies together. Then Benjamin would bring up the topic of music during Simon’s visits with his father, so Donald would go on about how Simon should get a paper route or mow yards to learn a sense of responsibility. Simon wouldn’t say a word to these suggestions, but instead glared at Benjamin, who had been so much nicer before the divorce.

***

Simon couldn’t think of a reason that his brother Benjamin would’ve been with his mother, and didn’t think that asking his father for more details would be worth the hassle. He got up and wandered over to the vending machines, reaching into his pocket to grab his change. It was all he had left of the twenty-dollar bill his mother had given him a few days before. Four packs of staff paper and a couple of cheeseburgers. Now a Dr Pepper; twenty dollars gone. He walked from the vending machine to the reception desk and asked the young lady how his brother and mother were doing. He refrained from turning to look at his father.

“I’ll check with the doctors and see if someone can come out to update you,” the young woman told Simon. “You can have a seat and someone will be with you soon.” Simon turned around and walked back to his seat, trying not to look at his father, though he could feel his eyes burning on him.

***

After high school, Benjamin became an apprentice in his father’s carpenter’s union and Simon enrolled in classes at the community college. His father criticized the fact that he hadn’t stayed in the high school band after all of the time that he spent horsing around with instruments. His father was the sort of man who not only lived by the John Wayne Handbook for Being a Man, but he also believed strongly in seeing what you wanted in the world and taking it. Where Benjamin earned his father’s accolades for engaging himself in a career path, Simon was ridiculed for his aimless efforts at educating himself. It didn’t bother Simon that he didn’t know what he wanted to do with himself; he knew that he loved nothing more than to capture the music that came to him. He knew his father and brother wouldn’t understand that, even if he ever did get the courage to try to explain. He wondered, briefly, if his brother Benjamin loved the work he did in carpentry. He’d never bothered to ask.

***

“Why were they riding in a car together on a Tuesday afternoon?” Simon turned to ask his father, who looked up from his magazine slowly. “I mean, shouldn’t Ben have been at work or something?”

“What the fuck am I, your brother’s secretary?” Donald eyeballed him questioningly with an air of irritated superiority. Simon slumped down in his seat and crossed his arms as he looked up at the reception desk; Donald rolled his eyes at Simon before going back to his article. Simon made an effort to put his father’s cruelty out of his mind and let his mind wander to the young lady in front of him. She was quite attractive—dark hair in a pony tail, fair complexion, and soft brown eyes with a trace of naiveté—and probably just a few years older than Simon, maybe Benjamin’s age. Simon imagined that his father had already calculated the amount of time and number of drinks it would take to get her back to his place.

***

Since the divorce, Donald consistently dated women much younger than he was. Sarah had only dated two men, each of them very close in age to her. When Simon was seventeen or eighteen, he overheard his mother telling someone on the phone about her last date. She was talking and laughing with her date when Donald walked into the restaurant with some young girl. He spotted Sarah as they waited for a table and told his date to wait at the front. He went to Sarah’s table and said hello to her, not looking away from her companion. She introduced the companion, who extended his hand to shake. Donald slapped his hand away, telling the man that he could buy Sarah dinner all he wanted, but that he’d better not find him hanging around in the house he built. “You’ll be sorry,” Donald told him. Sarah hadn’t been on a date since.

***

Donald shifted in his seat, crossing his right leg over his left knee and resting his left arm on the top of the seat next to him. His knuckles had little cuts and bruises, some from occupational hazards, others perhaps from bar-room scrapping. His quick temper with other men had led to countless bar-fights over the years.

***

Simon could remember the last time he’d been afraid of his father. He was sixteen and trying to complete his hours of supervised driving to pass driver’s Ed. It had been three months since he’d spent a weekend at his father’s.

“Come on, Dad!” he yelled up the stairs. It was nine a.m. on Saturday morning. “I gotta practice driving if I’m gonna get my goddamned license!” He tried to reach out and grab the words as they bounced their way up the stairs to Donald’s bedroom. He didn’t care if the boys used foul language, unless it was directed at him. Simon began taking steps backward instinctively, even before he heard the footsteps, first from his father’s bedroom, very shortly after from the hallway. They were moving closer quickly. It was amazing how his father, small man as he was, could make such heavy footsteps when he was angry. Donald came down the stairs two at a time in his boxer-shorts; Simon continued backing up, not paying attention to what was behind him. Just as Donald reached him, fist loosed and on a collision-course with his cheek, Simon bumped into an ottoman, falling backwards and out of his father’s reach. He found himself on his back, his legs draped over the ottoman, his heart pounding. His father stood on the other side of the ottoman, his fists clenched tightly and his face red.

“Serves you right you ungrateful punk. I’ve got company up there, and it’s not enough that I buy instruments you don’t fucking use, you think I’m here to be your goddamned driver’s Ed instructor.” He kicked the ottoman and Simon felt the impact run up through his back. “I’m going back to bed, so try not to be down here sulking around when we come down for breakfast.” Donald turned to walk back toward the stairs and Simon rolled over slowly and got up off the floor. An energetic tune surged through his head as he watched his father lumber up the stairs, and he was soon overcome by the music. He began whistling the loud, shrill, vibrant tune. His father stopped and looked back at Simon, his mouth partly open in awe. Simon continued whistling, staring directly into his father’s horrified eyes. The tune made the hair on Donald’s neck stand up. His hands went slack and he headed back up the stairs, not taking his eyes off his son until he rounded the corner at the top of the stairs. Simon stood proud, his whistle trailing off. He’d inherited his father’s small build, just like his brother. Unlike them, he was neither strong nor quick. He was clumsy and awkward, but he learned then that he could be more frightening than his father.

***

Donald made it to the back cover of his magazine and they still hadn’t heard anything from the receptionist or any doctors.

“Did they tell you anything new when you went up there?” he asked Simon, frustration clear in his voice.

“No, just that someone will come out and talk to us soon.”

Simon couldn’t help but wonder why his father didn’t know more about what was going on. Simon knew that Benjamin didn’t necessarily work on the same crew with his father, even though they worked in the same union. Still, he thought that if Benjamin had needed to leave work to do something with his mother, his father would’ve caught wind of it somehow.

***

The last time Simon spent time with Benjamin had been one day in March when he called, seemingly out of the blue, to say he’d like to come over for dinner that night. Before that, the two boys and their mother hadn’t been in one place together since Christmas. Sarah made a big deal of Benjamin’s visit, leaving work early to clean up the house and prepare a nice meal. Baked chicken, dressing, and au gratin potatoes; Benjamin’s favorite. Benjamin arrived half an hour late, still dressed in his work clothes and old tattered baseball cap. He seemed to be in a great mood and had a very lively conversation with his mother over dinner. Simon occasionally spoke up, feeling more comfortable than he usually did around his brother. When they’d finished eating, Simon told his brother it’d been nice to see him, and he meant it.

“You got homework to do or something,” Ben asked, turning his full attention to Simon. “How’s school been going, anyway? Are you still doing your music stuff?” He seemed genuinely interested.

“Well, I’m not really doing music at school,” Simon told him, mildly uncomfortable talking about himself. “I don’t really like the way they try to teach music. As far as school goes, I’m just trying to take the basic classes and figure out what I should be doing.”

“That’s cool,” Ben nodded, “you’re bound to find something you like. Do you still work on music in your free time, though? You were really into that, weren’t you?” It seemed like a strange question at first, but Simon realized that he probably hadn’t actually talked about his interests with his brother in years.

“Yeah, I still like to try to write music and play around with my instruments. It’s just for fun though.”

“Well, if it’s what you like, you should try to do something with it,” Ben said earnestly. “Worst case, you’d find out that you can’t or don’t want to do it. It wouldn’t be like you’d lost anything.” Simon felt like his brother was making things sound much simpler than they actually were, but he appreciated the unexpected encouragement, and didn’t know what to make of it. It seemed uncharacteristic of the brother who’d always been so much like his dad.

Simon declined his mother’s offer of homemade cheesecake, knowing he could get some from the kitchen later if he wanted to. He said good-night to his brother, who got up to hug him. Simon patted his brother’s back uncomfortably while Ben held him close with open hands. Ben held on longer than Simon expected, and when he finally let go, Simon stepped, or stumbled, back. He gave Benjamin a nervous, questioning smile and said good-night again before going up to his room.

He didn’t hear his brother drive away until two hours later, and he waited another half hour before going downstairs to get a slice of cheesecake. His mother was still sitting at the dining-room table, her eyes looking a bit red and her arms folded over each other on the table.

“Is everything okay, Mom?” Simon returned to his seat at the table, but looked to the kitchen, regretting that he hadn’t gone to get a piece of cheesecake first.

“It’s your brother,” she said after sighing deeply. She sat up straight and crossed her arms over her chest. She took a slow breath and held it, then looked at Simon and exhaled, “He says he’s gay.” Tears formed in her eyes, which she wiped with the back of an index finger.

Simon couldn’t help but grin, his typical reaction to tense situations.

“What?” It was all he could say. He did his best to suppress his nervous smile.

“I knew something was going on with him, but I never expected this. Not with the way your father is. I thought maybe he’d gotten some poor girl pregnant,” she tried to laugh, but it sounded like a sob to Simon. Her tears were flowing freely. How would his father take something like this? “I think he might just be confused,” she said hopefully. “He never really did date any girls in school or anything, right? He just hasn’t met any girls that he really liked! If he met a nice girl…” she trailed off, her wishful thoughts falling apart as soon as she gave them breath.

Simon folded his arms over his chest and stared blankly at the floor. He looked up at his mother. “He’s not going to tell Dad, is he?” He blinked back tears as he hugged his mother. He went to his room after the conversation and wrote a long, slow piece as he tried to imagine how long Benjamin had known or suspected what he admitted to his mother that night. He stopped to cry several times before finally finishing the piece.

***

Simon had to wonder now, here in the waiting room, if this recent revelation had anything to do with Benjamin’s reason for being with his mother. Maybe they’d had lunch together? She hadn’t mentioned spending more time with him.

A doctor came to the reception desk and began talking to the receptionist. He leaned over the desk and spoke too quietly for Simon to hear. He looked up at Simon and Donald after a moment, a look of concern on his face. Simon looked over at his father, who was intently reading from another magazine. The doctor walked around the desk and through the door to the waiting room. Simon stood and his father looked up.

“Simon?”

“Yes, that’s me.”

“Your mother and Benjamin are fine,” he said calmly, “and your mother is asking to see you.” Simon felt a wave of relief.

“I can go see Benjamin now?” Donald asked, firmly gripping his magazine.

“Sir, your son has specifically requested that you not be allowed in to see him,” the doctor said apologetically, holding his open hands up to demonstrate his inability to do anything for Donald. “We can’t allow you in,” he went on, taking a half-step back and resting his weight on one leg.

“What the fuck is this?” Donald said, raising his voice. He tossed the magazine on the seat beside him and stood up, raising one finger to point at the doctor. “That’s my son in there, and I have a right to go talk to him!”

“I’m sorry, sir,” the doctor said, taking another step back, “but if you don’t lower your voice you’ll be asked to leave the hospital altogether,” he went on, his voice cracking a little. “Your son doesn’t want to see you, but your ex-wife said that you could talk to her, after Simon does, if you want.”

“What a bunch of happy horseshit this is!” He threw his magazine down on the chair he’d been sitting in. “Have fun with the fucking winner’s circle in there,” he said to Simon. “You fit right in.”

When his father was gone, Simon made his way to his mother’s room and peeked cautiously through the door, partly to make sure it was her room and partly because he felt anxious about how she might look. He continued on into her room; she was in bed, looking out the window. Aside from a bandage on one side of her forehead, he could see no signs of major injury. He took a seat next to her bed.

“Hi, Mom,” he said quietly. She muttered hello without looking at him.

“You know,” she said after a few minutes, turning to look at him, “I just can’t figure out whether I should be mad at myself or your father.” Simon cocked his head, unsure of what she meant. “I didn’t think your father would make good father when I first met him. I bought into his bad-boy image the same way all those other young girls do. I thought he would change. You hear that so much, but I really believed it.” She looked into Simon’s eyes and said firmly, “He might be a violent man, but I knew he’d never hurt me.” She rested her head on the pillow and looked at the ceiling. “But I guess I knew that I’d never do anything to make him that angry. Your brother, on the other hand…”

“You mean Dad hurt Ben?” Simon interrupted, seeing a new piece of the puzzle. She turned to look at him.

“Your father didn’t tell you? Ben told him that he was gay. Your father went berserk. Mike was working with them, but he was in the other room. When he heard the commotion he had to come in and pull your father off of Benjamin. Mike called me to pick up Ben, and I was taking him home when we got into the accident. We were both so emotional; I was in no condition to be driving,” she said, beginning. The sad melody that Simon had written for his brother returned, drowning out his mother’s voice. He should go see his brother. The room was down the hall.

Simon found the room walked in without hesitation. Ben lay there with his eyes closed, and Simon resisted the urge to wake him abruptly and talk about what had happened. Ben’s left eye was swollen shut and he had stitches down his right cheek. It was impossible to tell what his father had done and what had happened in the accident. Simon wiped his eyes and sat in the chair next to his brother’s bed. He tried to picture his brother, how he’d been as a little kid. As images of their childhood play came to mind, he hummed along with the happy music that accompanied. Benjamin turned his head toward the music, tension leaving his face to make way for a pained smile.

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