If there was anything in the world that Horatio Plummer loved, he would tell you, it was playing the piano. The twenty-seven-year old, tall, olive-skinned, thin man spent more time during the day practicing his craft, than most people spent awake. There were times he would tinkle on the keys of his baby grand piano, until Mrs. Fletching would find her broom and knock on the ceiling to make him stop.
Sometimes, the chubby woman would run her fingers through her sparse white hair as if she were going mad. Why just today, she was subjected to nearly nine hours of Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata. She turned up the volume on her television set, and tried to drown him out with, "The Wheel of Fortune," her favorite show. She hadn’t been able to enjoy the program since she decided to rent the entire upstairs of her small house to Horatio.
She cupped her hands over her ears, and closed her eyes so tight that she saw dancing black spots behind her eyelids. Grabbing the edges of her long, wrinkled house dress, her old hands squeezed the life out of the pink fabric, and she wished it was his throat. Groaning, she lifted her heavy body up from the couch, and waddled to the kitchen. Grabbing the broom, she held it with both hands and poked the kitchen ceiling above Horatio’s piano room until her silvery, horn-rimmed glasses hung crooked. He was driving her nuts. So stark-raving mad, that her last poke made a ragged hole in the drywall above her head, and white powder sifted down on her wrinkled, old long face. She coughed and sputtered when the drifting powder of gypsum landed on her tongue and found its way to the back of her already dry throat. She tossed the broom on the kitchen floor, and rushed to the sink. In her attempt to fill the glass her dimpled elbow knocked a tray of ground meat to the floor.
“Dammit, Horatio,” she coughed.
He didn’t hear her. He was lost in the ivory keys. His eyes were closed, and he wore a long, black tailed tux. The tail hung over the bench-like wooden piano seat and he imagined he was playing Carnegie Hall. The tail moved like tail feathers on a scissor-tailed swallow perched on a wire as he tinkled the keys.
A slow smile grew on his face, and his head nodded, and turned with the melody. His shining black hair caught the light from the window, and lay flat against his scalp, combed back and held in place like a helmet with some kind of greasy mousse. “They love me,” he whispered.
He ended the sonata with a flourish of movement, his long thin fingers manicured to perfection were lily-white, and on the last note, he lifted up from the stool, turned toward the old recliner in the corner and bowed low and long. He blew kisses to his invisible audience, and playfully ducked imaginary bouquets of roses thrown on the stage to him. He took one last bow, sliding the piano bench back from the polished instrument, and decided to take a break from his concert.
On his way downstairs, he paused at a desk piled high with sheet music, old 33-records, and bottles of pills. He gasped with remembering, and talked to himself.
“Sorry Maestro, I nearly forgot to take my “make me better,” pills, “I won’t let it happen again, I beg your forgiveness, Maestro.” Then his voice changed and he answered himself with a deeper voice, “Don’t worry, Mr. Plummer, you are the greatest pianist the world has ever heard, and next week, you will be playing at the Met.” The Maestro was as invisible as mountain air, but to Horatio, it was as if he could see the conducting baton in the old man’s hands.
“The Met?” Horatio’s eyes widened and he answered himself again playing two parts now, himself and the Maestro. His nimble fingers removed the cap from the pill bottle.
“They love me. Don’t they, Maestro?” He popped two of the pills into his mouth, and picked up a dirty glass of lukewarm water near the bottles and washed them down.
“They adore you, absolutely adore you.” The bitter pills slid down his throat, and he set the glass down. He studied it, and moved it three times until it was covering the water ring left on the desk. He stepped back and studied it, and nodded his head with satisfaction that the bottom of the glass fit perfectly in the ring.
“A round peg in a round hole,” he muttered to himself…three times over. He walked from the desk and paused at the piano. His fingers gently caressed the top of it, and he said, “I won’t be long, baby.” He bent down and kissed the black polished wood leaving his lips impressed upon it, and two fog marks where his large nose exhaled to steam up the gleaming black. He went downstairs.
In the kitchen, he saw his landlady picking up the package of ground pork off the floor.
“They attacked Pearl Harbor, did you hear?” She looked up at him, then straightened and placed the pack of meat on the kitchen counter. She shook her head.
“Horatio, they attacked Pearl Harbor, seventy-four-years ago. I was two when that happened.” She studied his face, and asked him, “Did you take your medication, today?” The old lady knew when Horatio skipped his pills just by some of his outbursts that rarely made sense.
Horatio nodded his head that he did.
Her old eyes locked onto his brown eyes, and his moved with jerky movements from left to right. It reminded her, that she had to take her medication too. She turned from him and reached up to a cupboard above the sink. She hated taking the anti-depressants, but since her husband of more than fifty-years died two years ago, she just couldn’t shake the feelings of despair. Barely making it, she had to take Horatio in as a boarder. She plucked the pill bottle from the shelf, opened it, and tapped a pill into the palm of her hand.
Her morning orange juice sat on the counter near the meat grinder, and she picked it up, slapped the pill onto her tongue, and swallowed it with a large gulp of the juice. It mixed with the after effects of the powdered drywall, and felt like paste going down her throat. She reached to set the glass back down and paused in mid-action when Horatio said, “The Maestro said I am playing at the Met, next week.”
Mrs. Fletching simply played along with him. Sometimes it was best. Why just last week, he told her Billy Joel was stopping by to tune the piano.
“That’s great news, Horatio.’ She set the glass down, and with shaking fingers brushed the hair back from her right ear. Sometimes, he scared the hell out of her. There were times she wished she hadn’t answered the door eight months ago, when she first ran the ad in the Chronicle for someone to rent the upstairs in the brick house on the corner lot on Cherry Street. The day he showed up, he seemed normal. He looked clean, and groomed, and when he told her he played piano, well, it was a welcome and comforting thought to her then. Music might just lift her out of her life of gloom. Now, she couldn’t wait until his year lease was up. She groaned, and told him there was a bowl of left over soup in the refrigerator, and that he could have it. First though, would he help her lift the heavy, electric meat grinder from the counter to the table?
“Why sure, Mrs. Fletching,” he answered.
The large machine was on a heavy iron base, and together they grunted as they lifted.
“Careful now,” she said. They sidestepped from the sink counter, to the table, and managed to set it down on the top of the large wooden table. She lowered her glasses and studied the old machine. She had made tens of thousands of links over the years with it. Her husband loved her homemade sausage, and so did the neighbors. They said many times, that she should sell it locally. It embarrassed her to be honored with such a request.
Her eyes moved the frayed black cord of the machine, and she picked up the plug on the end of it, and pushed the prongs into the outlet.
“Hold your ears, Horatio,” she said. She pressed the red button on the base and the grinder came to life. The noise of it startled Horatio, and he slapped the palms of his hand over his ears, and wailed loudly. Quickly, Mrs. Fletching pushed the button and the growling, loud machine sputtered to a stop.
“Oh, stop it, you big baby. It’s not going to hurt you.”
Horatio slid his hands from his ears, and his bottom lip quivered.
“I don’t like that. Too loud. Horatio hates loud.”
“Well good, then I know you won’t be messing with it when I go to the Frank’s Butcher Shop, I have to buy some more pork. Eat your soup, while I am gone.” The old woman slid past Horatio, grabbed a sweater from a hook near the back door, and her purse. She slid the sweater on and slipped the purse over her shoulder.
“I’ll be back in twenty minutes,” she said, and went out the door. It screeched when she closed it. Horatio stood in the kitchen thinking. “The soup,” that’s what she said. He opened the refrigerator door, and cupped the large covered bowl with both hands. At the microwave, he took the lid off, and placed it inside. His finger played the timing pad like it was a piano, and he set it for three minutes. Suddenly, he turned around and with wide eyes, said, “They did what? “ His head shook violently as if centrifugal force could throw the words in his head out through his ears.
“They cancelled, Horatio. The Met cancelled your concert.”
“How dare they cancel on the great Horatio?” Horatio screamed.
“They said you aren’t good enough.”
“Maestro, but you promised I would play there.”
“You’re a square peg, Horatio, you don’t fit. The Met is a round hole.”
The microwave sounded a loud beep. It triggered anger in the mind of Horatio.
“How dare they, and how dare you, Maestro.” Horatio looked at the microwave and he pressed the button causing the door to open. He grabbed the bowl of soup with both hands and the glass bowl stuck to the palms of his hands. His beautiful hands seemed to melt on the hot glass.
“Nooooooooo,” he screamed and he threw the bowl toward the sink. It crashed into the chrome spigot and soup splattered the counter, the short curtains covering the small window, and the bowl shattered into countless shards that tinkled and slid across the counter top and onto the floor.
Horatio flipped his hands to study his red, skin-peeled and burning hands.
“Look what you did, Maestro.” He pushed his hands out in the air to no one, yet the no one responded. His fingers appeared twisted, and gnarled.
“Way to go, Horatio. You’ll probably never play piano again.”
“I can fix them, Maestro, I know I can. They will get better.” Horatio’s face grew red with anger.
“Put them in the finger fixer.”
“The finger fixer?”
“Yes, on the table, that machine. You’ll be as good as new.”
Horatio walked to the table and looked at the meat grinder. The silver funnel at the top widened out bell-like. He flipped on the switch.
“That’s it; you’ll be good as new in no time.”
The old machine growled. Then it smiled. Then it begged in a voice that was soft and sweet. It reminded him of the kind nurse back in the asylum, the only one he would take his medication for when she asked.
He watched the Maestro disappear before his eyes in a cloud of yellow. Then, Horatio put his fingers together as if he were praying. He plunged them deep into the wide opening of the meat grinder. He leaned forward and used the weight of his body until the worm screw ate at his flesh, bones, and tendons. Blood spurted from the top of the grinder, and at the outlet tube, his piano playing hands plopped like raw hamburger onto the kitchen table. He felt nothing. He pulled his forearms dripping with blood and ragged torn edges of his flesh hung from sharp bones that once were his wrists. His arms hung loose, stumps where his hands were just a minute ago.
He trailed blood from the kitchen upstairs. Mrs. Fletching found him first, bent over the piano, his bloodied tux tails hanging limp. His white face rested on the black top of the piano, and his eyes were frozen open. She looked down at the stumps resting on the keys in pools of blood. Eighty-eight keys were smeared with red as he tried to play his last song before he bled out, and died.
The shocked old woman grabbed her chest, and stumbled backwards, and down the steps she tumbled. A neighbor found them when she happened by to buy some sausage. It was a tragic event, read the Chronicle’s headlines, the next day after the discovery. The only sound interrupting the peace that Mrs. Fletching wished for was broken by a rustling breeze that moved the curtains in the kitchen of the empty house and outside the place, the laughing children played in yards with anxious talk of Halloween. Leaves rustled, and the first fires of October took the chill from the land in houses lining the street. Somewhere, the distant notes of Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata stroked softly over the town and it was almost as if it purred itself to sleep.
Happy Halloween and for more of Ronnie Ray, click the link below.