A Different Water

I. (Major)

She remembered it even as a girl, in the old Lutheran church, in the sanctuary, in the summer in the heat when her legs stuck to her starched Sunday dress that stuck to the pews. They had let her sing in the adult choir once she turned twelve, relenting for her mezzo soprano, and besides she knew already the alto or the soprano parts to most every hymn: Lo, he comes with clouds descending Earth and all stars Now the silence Go to dark Gethsemane. They were beautiful, light as spring rain or dark and deep as eyes. She could sight-sing like a child who has learned to read the same small worn book, half reading, half reciting, but the notes never tired in her clear girlish voice, soft and strong as a stream. Soon she knew the notes elsewhere, too, even plucked in a blank room: C, E flat, up a third to G, the simple sadness. It was learning to read with your ears, with your eyes closed your heart open your voice both singular and drowned in the sounds of the church and its music. She remembered.

ii. (minor)

In summer, she went with her mother to both the eight o’clock and the ten-thirty services and by noon the chapel was thick with heat, even with the windows opened out and beckoning a breeze that wouldn’t come. In summer it seemed always bright and the birdsong present beneath their voices. The bees and flies hovered at the windows, humming. Surely it must have rained, some Sundays, but she couldn’t remember.

Her mother made coffee for the folks between services, setting black raspberries and shortbread wedges on folding tables in the atrium. Daddy and Gran brought her twin baby sisters for Sunday school, all dressed their tiny cardinal-red frocks. After services there was ham loaf and black coffee and potato salad with purple onions on the picnic tables outside. The kids ate a little, threw baseballs and fought for the few tired swings, or chased each other in the field full of Queen Anne’s lace and wild grass behind the small white church.

            One Sunday, late August, she chased Tin Patterson and her best friend Maxine all the way to town, to Main Street and past all the shops in their Sunday slumber. Of course they knew better but they pretended to be mothers pushing perambulators and admiring one another’s pale dresses, ruby lips, wedding bands, and shining yellow hair in the dark mirrors of the shop windows. It was 1954, they were not quite Depression-born and in love with both Grace Kelly and their own mothers.

            They pretended until they felt tired of beauty and wanted to run again, maybe just to avoid the scolding. They ran back down Main to Seventh Street, near the library, saddle shoes slapping the empty sidewalks and braids flapping. She laughed and her ribs ached from running, from joy, but when she saw the old man in the window, she paused, a song stopped short.

iii. (minor)

            She could still remember his wisp of white hair, his old shoulders hunched over a piano bench for a little table. She watched him through the picture window, up on the ledge like part of a shop display. He huddled near the old piano, eating a sandwich on a hamburger bun. He did not look at her, not at first. He held a newspaper and seemed captivated by what he read, crumbs falling onto the pages as he ate. He could not or did not see her.

Max and Tin skipped back to her, singing blue bells, cockle shells, easy ivy over . . . but still he only ate as she watched him, turning a page in the paper in a quick, practiced motion. He was a thin man, tall and uncomfortably bent over the bench. When Max and Tin reached her they watched him, too, brown eyes stretched wide, Max chewing the tail of her braid. The old man drank from a mug of coffee, stood, and brushed crumbs from his shirt before he looked to the window and saw the girls.

            Tin squealed. Maxine said, There’ll be no chocolate cream pie for us, as a kind of warning, backing away. She was startled, too, but she told them to run on, saying she’d be right behind them: Max go on, I’ll be right behind, yes, I know. The man, unperturbed, turned and stepped off the ledge. A moment later he had opened the door to the shop, the blackened bells tied to its handle a dull clink. Max and Tin ran down the empty sidewalk not singing.

            Miss? he asked. She had to look up at him, he was so tall and he stood at the top of the storefront’s few smooth steps. He touched his chin and she thought he looked tired, or puzzled, or like he’d just woken from a nap. His hair was uncombed but he didn’t wear overalls like her father; he had a plain white button shirt and tan trousers.

            She knew she ought to speak, be polite, so she said, I see you have a piano in your shop, very grownup, just like pretending. But her voice trembled at the end as if it would scatter in the slightest wind.

He waited, not speaking. His hairy, sun-spotted arms were folded and he held the door open with a bony shoulder. 

Well, she said softly, like Grace Kelly, like singing, like Mother, I’d like to buy it, sir. I mean—someday, I would like to buy it. Sir.

            She hadn’t known the words were coming or that she would speak again at all, but she held his gaze as long as she could and then began to wonder if he had heard. She felt her eyes on the piano again out of fright and wonder. It wasn’t beautiful. Its keys were yellow, soiled and chipped, its wood scuffed but solid and polished, like walnuts just hulled.

He did not laugh at her. He said: That piano’s not for sale, miss.

She looked up at him again. The old man wasn’t beautiful either. He didn’t smile, but his voice wasn’t unkind. He waited, seemingly to see if she would go now, or talk again. The bells chinked a bit and when she didn’t move, he said, That’s my working piano. I’m a repairman. 

He motioned to faded gold letters on the windowpane, trailing above, a tired ribbon:


Sheet Music – Instruments – Tuning – Repairs

McDreher & Sons, Since 1923


She remembered reading the words slowly, tracing their lines and curves into words. Somehow she understood that the old man was kind in heart, but weary and maybe alone. She wondered about his sons called McDreher. She couldn’t think what to say, her eyes back on the piano, Max and Tin calling her name in a chorus dull and faraway as old church bells. The man watched her without speaking but she could not run, not just yet not just yet. In the space of a beat, a moment, maybe a measure at most, she had glimpsed the only piano she had ever seen outside of the old sanctuary, and she felt something nagging at her rather like hope or the memory of a dream, escaping her grasp.

With an almost imperceptible sigh, he tried, Might be something to see at the big auction, miss, over in Newcomerstown next month.

She looked at him, directly this time, without blinking. It’s Ruthie, sir. And thank you, but I rather like that one.

            She thought he smiled—a sliver of a smile, a moon in the late afternoon sky, still blue. She couldn’t remember, now, if that were true. Tin and Max called for her again. She did remember thinking that their girlish voices were no more than wind chimes. She looked at him bravely before she ran, and he nodded to her, a silent understanding. She wouldn’t see him again until the snow feathered the fields of Coshocton County.

IV. (Major)

Midwinter: the creek etched by skates, the quiet heavy on the town like a sleep.

She walked home from the grocer in town with a sack of oranges for Mama for the ladies’ tea. She walked down Seventh Street, but before she saw the old man she heard him playing his piano. In the quiet, in the chill, in her little navy coat, she kept walking, grateful for the snow muffling her footsteps and all other sound. His shop glowed in the early winter night. His song sounded nothing like the old hymns.

She didn’t know the word nocturne. She only knew that under the bright silent white winter sky the music was warm water, pealing thunder, then soft as dew and brimming. She thought The golden sun lights up the sky and that this, this new music, was like a whole story without words. It was grace without the asking. A softer, different water from what she knew.

Her hands were pink with cold; she had forgotten her wool mittens. She listened, standing perfectly still. There were so many notes and they moved together mildly: gentle tones below, like waves, and a high melody of beautiful sunlit rain, then gathering together all brilliant and sad. No, not much like Miss Jolene’s hymn chords at all, landing on your ears like bullfrogs, heavy and fat. Sometimes the hymns were their own beautiful, in black and white. His songs were colors in a painting.

She listened while the winter sun faded to grey, until she knew Mother would be ready to scold if she didn’t hurry. So she ran, again, down that same stretch of sidewalk, this time in her coat in the snow and all the way down the hill to her home. Their house was a sturdy block, white and brown and solid. She seemed to see it for the first time, to look at it as something outside of herself. She opened the door, pressing her thumb on the old iron handle, wondering about the sort of hands that could make music of every weather, all at once.

V. (Major)

            Every Saturday that winter, she walked to the library before dusk when her chores were finished, listening for the colors. He didn’t always play and she never disturbed him if he sat at the window drinking coffee or reading with the newspaper pulled close to his face, sort of scowling at the words. But she always hoped for his music and once she even forgot to exchange Treasure Island before the library closed and had to tell Mother she wanted to read it again, though she hadn’t liked it the first time.

Because for some unnamable reason she couldn’t tell the truth: the colors in the white winter, the swirling sounds in the Ohio quiet, the beauty within the forgotten shop, the lonesome town, the tired old man—they were hers. Different from what she knew and sad and beautiful.

            When she remembered it, now, she sometimes wondered if he had seen her that winter, if he knew that she listened in the cold in the snow on the sidewalk in her coat, awake and waiting on notes and color.

vi. (minor)

In the spring, when the frost broke for good and the church picnics started up again, and her baby sisters learned to walk all unsteady as fresh lambs, he stopped playing. She would wait, standing quiet outside the store, in the absence of sound and color. She waited every Saturday by the library and on Sundays after church too, if she could run to town with Max and Tin trailing her, or not. She came, but he did not play, and once she tapped on the door and jangled the bells a bit, her heart beating like bound wings, out of fear, out of hope, but he did not answer. Summer came again, instead: yellow-green fields and morning rains of ripe melon, dazzlingly dark warm nights. That summer she and Max and Tin climbed out her bedroom window to tan on the farmhouse roof in the long afternoons. If they dozed or got quiet in the buzzing heat, she would listen, listen, listen and hear nothing but flies and mowers.

            For a time, when she stood in the small white church with the hymnal in her hands, she would close her eyes and think of him and the colors swirling among the black and white sounds like a secret only she could see: her own weather, a different water. Thou flowing water pure and clear, Make music for thy Lord to hear. She remembered.

A year or so later, she walked slowly down Seventh, her hair pin-curled and her same Sunday dress a bit higher on her knees, and it was then that she saw the old piano, gone; the faded marquee half scraped away with a blade in some unknown hand.