In front of me is Grandmama's piano, a dark wood Baldwin Acrosonic. For most of my life, it lived in Grandmama's parlor, a room we rarely were allowed into, with its uncomfortable furniture and cream-colored shag carpet. Some afternoons, I would go into Grandmama's house, and instead of her resting comfortably with her feet up on her reclining rocker in the den, she would be down the long hall in the parlor, playing hymns from her battered Baptist hymnal. I would rest quietly outside the room, listening to her play, until the song was finished, and then I'd quietly enter and give her a hug.
On Sunday afternoons, after church was over and lunch eaten and dishes washed and comics read, I would sometimes go into the room and pick through the stacks of yellowed piano music, leftover from when Mama and her sisters took piano lessons. Greatest hits of the 60s and 70s, and I would play, losing myself in the quiet, clean room where no one would enter, from the Lennon & McCartney songbook or something from Simon & Garfunkle or, on rarer occasions, some piece I'd memorized for my piano recitals. Occasionally, I'd open Grandmama's hymnal and try to pick out one of her favorites, but the chords and accidentals always tripped me up, and I'd go back to playing decades-past top 40.
When I lift the top of the bench or look inside the piano itself, I still smell Grandmama's house, a melange of dust and air freshener and Pledge and her. On those Sunday afternoons when I played her piano, I felt no self-consciousness, no worry about how I sounded or what my family thought of what I was doing. I just escaped from sports and family and Daddy's cigarette smoke and the petty rivalries with my brothers.
"You're sounding really good, darilin'," Grandmama would say as I wandered back into the den, and I believed her.
Writing Exercise #2: Writing about a time you slept outside (10 minutes)
"The Perseids are tonight," Lee said, in his offhanded way, that meant he wanted us to do something with him. "I was thinking of driving out to the beach to watch."
"Sounds great," I said, and Chris and Amy agreed. We went by the store and picked up a couple of bottles of Cold Duck, a bottle of tequila, and some margarita mixer, and headed out in his ancient 4-wheel-drive Ford. When we got to the beach, he got out to lock the wheels and let some of the air out of the tires, and we drove onto a nearly empty shoreline.
It was already dark by the time we got there, and Lee attached a mini-glow-stick fishing lure to the Cold Duck cork and shot it into the air before passing the bottle around. I took the first swig of the sickly sweet foam and passed it on to Chris. It was a warm late-summer evening, and Chris and I stripped down to our underwear to swim in the soft water. Our movements churned up phosphorescent algae, and we watched out hands with fascination, swirly the starry water below us. Above us, the Milky Way swirled and swam in the blue-black sky.
We spread out towels and blankets next to the truck and lay on our backs, staring into the sky. Amy and Chris fell asleep, but Lee and I remained awake talking quietly about nothing, when the meteors began to streak across the sky. First one, just seen out of the corner of my eye, then more and more, until the sky seemed to be filled. I drank another plastic cup of tequila and lime-flavored sugar-water, and watched the sky until, finally sleep washed over me.
Writing Exercise #3: Tell about how a relationship ended (10 minutes)
I was 18 years old the last time I spoke I to my father. I was home on a weekend when he made his increasingly rare phone call, and even though I rolled my eyes and said I didn't want to talk to him, Mama handed me the phone and hissed, "Just say hello."
I don't remember what we talked about. Probably school. I just remember the squirming discomfort of holding the phone against my ear and hearing his breath.
That was the last time I spoke to him. The last time I saw him was probably at my high school graduation. I avoided his very occasional visits to see my brothers.
When I was in graduate school, living alone in Durham, the landline rang, and I got up to answer it. "A.L. Gantt," the caller ID reported, and I backed away from the phone as if it could reach for me. I stared at it, horrified. The answering machine clicked on, and I heard him clear his throat before he spoke. "It's your daddy. I was just calling to say hello."
He tried calling a couple of more times, and each time I would wait until the phone had finished ringing before I'd call my mom, and tell her that it freaked me out.
"Yeah," she said, blowing out a stream of cigarette smoke. I could feel her fear and anger even over the phone. "He's been tryin' to call all ya'll. Kevin said he's glad he doesn't have a landline phone anymore. No way he can get his number."
I imagined what I would say, I tried to think of the most hurtful thing I could do, but I knew it would never happen. I could not confront him. He had ended the relationship with his daughter a half a lifetime before the phone rang, and I refused to go back.
A couple of years after that, Patrick started to get curious about the half of our DNA we know very little about. Patrick was only 10 years old when Daddy packed his car and moved half-way across the state. He had been a child, but as an adult, he wondered if there was any relationship that could be rebuilt, or even built from the ground up.
"There's something I should tell you," Mama told him when he went to ask her opinion.
She called me to say that she'd talked to all of my brothers. I breathed a sigh of relief, knowing that the door to him was closed for good.
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