As a child I lived with my parents in a tired apartment complex, where small families like mine would meander through life like fish, aimless shoals moving silently through different currents. I existed for twelve years there, and would have spent my time in a state of vacant, circadian depression if it hadn’t been for the man who lived next door to us.
Lucien. The reserved, romantic figure of an old Frenchman who, for a child with little outside of books or movies to garner inspiration, was an enigma, a fictional character that had leapt from the pages of one of my best books and into the room next door. I would often sit with one ear pressed to the wall of my cramped bedroom (adjacent to his living room) to listen to the goings on in his dusky little apartment. Most information regarding him was filtered through the landlady, an insinuating gossip who made it her business to know every backstory. He’d been a piano player in cabaret bars and nightclubs threaded through Paris, a vocation he had loved without cease, and would play his piano promptly from four in the afternoon to eight at night; sweet, moody chanson that filled the third floor of the complex with the ambiance of a 50’s rive gauche
coffee house. The tinny piano would play four hours a day, with the occasional interval of tinkling glasses and heavy feet, the scheduled periods of aural nostalgia that yearned for the bright, thriving lights of Paris. His piano had accompanied celebrated musicians through France, and he was praised for his lively performances and the pieces he composed himself. Despite heading for a promising career in the burgeoning 60's music scene, the young virtuoso opted out after a bitter entanglement with a lover and her jealous husband. Depressed and disillusioned he faded into obscurity, where he squandered all his youth and promise on drink and one-sided love affairs. The landlady told me this with the self-justified glee of a woman whose only excitement in life was speculating on the excitement in someone elses.
I was too young to take heed in the warnings of his story; but I felt the sadness and beauty it was weighed with, and it kept me awake for weeks on end.
Sometimes he would have guests over, and I would sit out in the beiged hallway on one of the old dining chairs that the proprietor had nailed to the floor, and watch the animal procession that marched with the garrulous, conspiratorial beat of the adult worlds; women and men weaving in between each other, dancing to the Frenchman’s door. These nights were a source of vicarious pleasure for me; nights full with chains of throaty voices unbroken in warm, mellifluous conversation and passionate song, the tinny piano further tempered the room with a close-knit intimacy that I could feel soaking through the thin walls and into my bones. His parties continued far into the night, tapering off into the smaller hours when soft steps and muffled whispers were followed by the door creaking closed.
My parents complaints of Lucien, his piano and his parties, were frequent thunder that often spilt out of our small apartment into the hall on the third floor, and undoubtedly into his room. I was ashamed of what they thought of him, their vitriol toward the beautiful, amorphous figure that I had begun to build my childish aspirations around. I felt a wall forming between myself and my defunct mother and father. Their stolid lifestyle and hackneyed opinions bored me terribly.
It was rare that I would ever see Lucien in the flesh. He would slip in and out during school hours, so I could only see him on weekends where I would sit in the hall again, reading books and drawing faint illustrations in the margins. If I was lucky he'd come, drifting up the concrete staircase in a pale shroud of cigarette smoke, haggard and indifferent to the child perched on the living room chairs with their nose pressed to the pages of Ghost Stories of an Antiquary
. I would try to consume as much of his physical detail as possible to preserve the image of him; I’ve forgotten much of it. I know he wore black glasses and had a sullen, contradictory mouth that pulled down at the corners and was always half open, with impossible long, graceful fingers that would hook his house keys effortlessly before he’d let himself inside. I know he was fairly old, maybe in his early-60s with a slight stoop to his shoulders and deep ridges in a wide forehead. His hair was my favourite; in spite of his age it was a long, lovingly dense arrangement of brown coils, peppered gently with the obligatory grey and combed away from his face.
He died when I was eleven. My mother and father told me in the rehearsed manner of two people in perfunctory bereavement. I asked my mother where his funeral would be held; she told me not to be morbid, it was none of my business as I had never spoken to him, I hadn’t known him, had I? I would haunt the hall of our third floor in a state of bridled, quiet grief; sit silently through every dinner and watch my grades falling, but my parents didn’t sense any correlation between my sudden lapse and Lucien's death. His friends and remaining family came to sort through his belongings, claim valuables and depart to the rubbish holders outside the building with anything that wasn't worth keeping, and again I returned to my corridor seat to view the procession, this time a slow, somber march back and forth. When they brought the piano out (it was upright and fit exactly through the doorway), I felt my chest contract in despair. The piano was so beautiful, a dark mahogany creature just as I had imagined, wide and elegant and in perfect harmony with its master. It was closed and the keys were hidden from me. I thought of how such a beautiful thing would never be played in the right way again, and I started to cry. I bowed my head to hide my face from those carriers, so that my lap was wet with tears for the poor piano, and the man that had played it so beautifully.
Five months later, two months before my birthday my parents and I left the complex and moved into a rented three-bedroom house on the other side of town. On moving day I stood outside his apartment, my ear pressed against the door while my parents waited in the car. I longed to hear the tinny piano notes that occupied my childhood, and I knew that I had to make him permanent, living on in some real, cognizant way and so I took out the crafting blade I had stolen from school and carved his name L-U-C-I-E-N at the bottom of the door. I watched the sunken letters, wondering if they were the only evidence that he had ever existed.
He was the first role model I had. He was the canvas on which I could paint my childhood fantasies, the lucid dream of a future outside of that dreary building. I still feel the influence, although I’m seventeen now and employed in a different life. He resides in my conscience still, the sweet piano drifting in and out. Sometimes I catch myself in the reflection of a store window, my hair combed back from my face, lighting a cigarette, or at home fingers dancing on the ivory keys late into the night until my parents are screaming against the walls to stop. It's then that I feel the straining eyes and ears of my childhood relax. They no longer have to watch and listen for the cryptic figure at the piano; I am that figure, finally filling the space that Lucien had left behind, providing my eleven year old self with a life she could look forward to. .
Word Count: 1,336.
Texte: lillian.talmadge ('Separation' property of W.S Merwin)
Tag der Veröffentlichung: 10.08.2012
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Your absence has gone through me Like thread through a needle. Everything I do is stitched with its color. -Separation, W.S Merwin