Shane Paquette is just getting his feet wet in the world of writing. Currently, he’s enjoying flexing his creative muscles, tackling any and all challenges he can get his hands on, and hoping to one day have the privilege of sharing his stories with larger audiences. A native of Ontario, Canada, Shane is married to a wonderful, supportive woman, and is a proud father of two beautiful girls.
by Shane Paquette
“Just take it one note at a time.” He said. “Look here.”
Mr. Johnson sat next to the boy on their creaky oak bench, his spindly fingers hovering just above the higher range of white piano keys. Starting with his pinky he pressed down, slow and deliberate, singling out each note and letting it fill the apartment before moving on to the next one.
“You see? Each one’s got its part. The trick is to let every finger have its turn.”
“But Papa,” the little boy said. “You can move your fingers way faster me.”
He smiled, lowering his hands to rest on his lap. “Not always. When your Grandpa started teaching me, I had to go slow. Just like you.”
“And you got gooder?”
“Well, what you think?”
His fingers danced up and down in a series of chords, half notes and quarter notes; something new and bluesy he’d been working on. The boy nodded, a broad toothy grin spreading across his face.
“Papa. I think you are much gooder.”
He played the last few notes and then placed his hand on his son’s back reassuringly.
“Happy to hear that. But, we all gotta start somewheres.” He took a deep breath and moved his hand up to rub the back of the boy’s head. “One day, you’ll play gooder than me.”
“I don’t think so.” He put his smaller hands on the keys in front of him, starting with middle C. On his fourth try, he managed to get through all eight notes without a mistake.
“See?” Mr. Johnson said, clapping his hands. “You did it! I knew you could. Now,
“Can I go play with my soldiers now?”
“Oh. Umm…” He stumbled, surprised by hurt feelings. “Go on, then. I guess I worked ya hard enough today.”
The boy spun on the bench, his dangling feet dropping down to touch the floor, before he began skip off.
“Mama’s gonna be home soon. Don’t make too much of a mess before supper, okay?”
Mr. Johnson watched his son run around the corner into his bedroom, trying not to dwell on his son’s lack of interest. He turned back to the piano, playing that new and bluesy song from a few minutes ago.
It wasn’t long before he heard the key fumbling inside the lock on the front door. She floated in, as she always did, like a cool breeze on a warm summer day. No hint of the grueling twelve-hour ER shift on her face.
“Mr. Ray Charles, playin’ in my living room.” She said smiling, teasing him. “Heard it as I was comin’ up those stairs.”
“Mmm-hmm!” she said, fanning her brow. “Lord, I don’t know where you store that.”
She leaned down to kiss him, then pointed in the general direction of Ellis’ room.
“How’d he do on his first big piano lesson?”
“Just fine, I suppose.” He avoided her eyes for a moment. “Don’t seem he took to it like I did at his age. He off playin’ with those figures of his now. Guess makin’ war with those little green plastic men was more interestin’ than… time with Papa.” He flicked his hand at the piano.
“Don’t worry none.” She said, cupping his cheek with her hand. “Give him time. He’s Papa’s boy.” She kissed him on the forehead. “Supper smells delightful.”
“Be fixed by the time you done cleanin’ up.”
She straightened up and winced, rubbing her temples. Mr. Johnson turned to face her.
“You head still hurtin’?”
“Don’t pay no mind.” Mrs. Johnson said, waving her hand. “It ain’t as bad as it was.”
They laughed together, later that evening at the table. Talked about the time when Mr. Johnson played his first solo in front of the entire St. Gertrude student body during their Christmas concert, when he forgot how to play the rest of ‘O Holy Night’ and threw up all over the music teacher. Ellis laughed as his parents did, not understanding why but wanting desperately to be part of the inside joke.
“I don’t think it were ever cleaned right.” Mr. Johnson said, still chuckling. “They called it the ‘puke piano’ for years.”
“Oh Lord, I forgot about that.” Mrs. Johnson stood up and began taking the plates and used cutlery away to the sink. “The custodian was gonna burn it up on the football field, right? Be ash on the wind now, if you hadn’t seen to it.”
“Suppose you right,” he said, looking back into the family room at the piano up against the main wall. “I think ol’ Jackson were just relieved he didn’t have to deal with the fire department.”
Ellis looked at their piano, and then up at his dad.
“Is that the puke piano, Papa?”
He put his hand on the boy’s shoulder.
“All it took was a bit o’ love an’ time, son. Ain’t nothing can’t be fixed when you’ve got both to give.”
The plate shattering on the scuffed parquet floor made Mr. Johnson jump.
His wife stood over the sink, gripping the edge with both hands, her legs wobbling for a moment until she slid sideways to land on the floor next to the broken dish.
Mr. Johnson jumped up, his chair toppling over behind him.
“Carole! What’s wrong??” He knelt down beside her, pieces of ceramic cutting into his knees, and cradled the back of her head with his hand. “Baby, tell me!”
“I just got dizzy, is all.” She said, her voice light and wispy, her eyes half-closed. “Just give me a minute, I’ll be all right.”
Ellis began to cry from behind them. She lifted an arm, reaching out to him.
“Honey, it’s alright. Mama just tired is all. Don’t go frettin’ over me, now.”
Mr. Johnson looked down at his wife. “We goin’ to the hospital. I ‘ma call Mama to come stay with Ellis while we gone.”
“No you ain’t.” Carole said, struggling to sit up. “Help me up now. I’ll be fine after some rest.”
“We goin’,” he said, easing her up. “You have that headache for weeks, and now you passin’ out in the kitchen. Come with me to the couch and lay down till Mama get here.”
She said nothing, wrapping her arms around him while he scooped her up.
“What are you doin’, Otis?”
“Carryin’ my wife. I don’t see no blood. Plate didn’t cut you, anyhow.”
“You gon pull your back again.”
He took her to the faded brown couch with the floral print, Ellis following close behind, and laid her down as if she were a porcelain doll about to break. She tsked at him.
“This ain’t necessary. I just overdid it today.”
Mr. Johnson was already on the phone.
A couple of weeks after the funeral, Mr. Johnson got a call from their family doctor.
“Three months?” he repeated, his lips shaking. “Why didn’t she tell me, Doc? Why she keep something like that from me?”
“Wish I could answer that, Otis. Truly, I do. And it breaks my heart telling you. But after some hard prayer, I felt like it was something you deserved to know.”
The doctor mentioned something about ‘condolences’, but Mr. Johnson had already begun to hang up the phone. He sat down on that same couch, the one she had been on just a month before.
“Pregnant?” he whispered. They had been trying for another for almost two years. She’d started blaming herself. He’d always wanted a girl.
He stared at the floor, tears cascading from unblinking eyes.
The first time he sat down on that solid oak bench again, he played her song. The one he had written for her for their first wedding anniversary. Ellis had just been born; they were new parents and run off their feet. The date had fast approached and it had completely slipped his mind until a couple of days before. So, Mr. Johnson stayed up late the night before, until the first rays of the dawning sun slipped through the blinds onto the kitchen table to illuminate the white of the sheet paper covered with scribbled music notes. He heard Ellis crying, so he got up and filled the kettle before placing it on the stove burner and clicking on the flame. Then he scooped up his papers, shuffled them into order, and slid the small stack behind the music book that sat on the rest above the keys. She shuffled into the kitchen yawning, with Ellis tucked into her arm in a soft blue blanket. Her hair was a mess, her fluffy white robe hanging off one shoulder, looking like one wrong word would ignite the fires of Hell. She’d never looked more beautiful to him than at that exact moment.
He said nothing to her about the song. He pretended that it was just another day, and carried about his business like he would any other Tuesday. Pretended not to notice how her temperament got ever sharper with each passing hour. Until just before supper time, when she’d had enough. He was sitting at the piano, playing sections of music, putting lessons together for class.
“Otis Johnson!” She said, storming into the room. “I cannot believe you’ve gone and lost your mind already!”
He stopped mid note, scrawling a lesson idea down on the small table beside him, doing his best to keep a straight face.
“Huh? What you mean?”
“You gone and forgot, didn’t you? First year—mmhmm!—you done gone and forgot.”
“Forgot what, now?”
She threw her hands in the air.
“My mama warned me about you, she did. ‘Don’t marry no musician,’ she said. ‘They heads always in the clouds.’ And now I went and had a baby with y’all, oh my Lord what have I done?”
He almost lost it then and there. She got so dramatic when she got upset, and he loved it. The laughter was coming up his throat, but he swallowed it down and coughed on it.
“What you on about, woman?” He swiveled on the bench to face her, positive she could see the corners of his mouth quivering against the hilarity of the situation.
“Woman?” she said. “You best not be calling me no ‘woman’ like that, Mr. Johnson. Not when you up and forget about our anniversary. Our first anniversary, I’ll have you know. You off to a bad start.” She started to walk away. “I ‘ma call my mama.”
“Hold on, now!” he said, laughing. “I can explain!” He turned back to the piano, pulling out the papers that he’d hidden that morning. She spun on her heel.
“You best have one hell of a good—”
Mr. Johnson began to play. The notes were quiet at first, stretched out into pear shaped semibreves and drowsy minims, an occasional harmonized chord to accompany each tone as the song floated above them both. It was light and wispy, like the cool air on a mid-autumn morning, the kind that brought a crisp, fresh promise to a new day. She pulled her robe over her, tightening it around her shoulders, the frustration she had felt just moments ago being carried away on the breeze of purifying sound that circled the room.
Each finger began to play its part, the notes coming faster and more frequent, his hands moving higher up the keyboard. She sat down next to him, her back to the piano, falling in love all over again. His eyes were closed as he played, a delighted grin spreading across his face as she slid her hand up onto his shoulder. The song increased in its complexity, his hands a blur as the music swelled and lifted them together in its crescendo. As he lazily played the final chords and notes, he opened his eyes and looked at his wife.
“I never heard you play that before,” she said, her voice soft.
“Well. This your song.”
“What you mean, my song?”
“This how you make me feel, darlin’. How my heart beats when you around.” He reached over and touched her cheek. “Without you, there’d be no music.”
So, when Mr. Johnson sat down again after her funeral, the first song he played was hers. The song he’d played more than any other. The one that made him feel like she was there again with him, her hand on his shoulder. He closed his eyes like he did that first time, and cried as he played.
The voice startled him, and he stopped the song. His son stood next to him.
“Ellis? You okay, boy?”
“That Mama’s song, right?”
Mr. Johnson smiled, wiping the wet from his face. “It sure is.”
“Can you teach me to play that?”
He was sitting at the piano that day, the day when Ellis came late through the door on a warm Friday evening. Football practise never went that long.
“Where you been, Ellis? Supper been ready for an hour, now.”
“Sorry, Dad. Had somethin’ to tend to.” He walked through the family room towards the kitchen and looked inside a simmering pot on the stove. “You eat?”
“I was waitin’ on you.” He got up from the bench. “They got phones at school, don’t they?”
“Course they do.”
“Could a called.”
“I could a.” Ellis ladled two bowls of stew and buttered some bread before setting it down on the table. “C’mon Dad. Eat now.”
They sat down together, Ellis’ head buried in the stew, Mr. Johnson staring at his boy.
“How practice be?”
“Alright.” He said, dipping his bread in the bowl. “No big deal.”
“You work on that bootleg been givin’ you trouble?”
“They always hammerin’ you on that play. You say something to Coach ‘bout it?” He took a helping of stew from his bowl and ate it.
“Don’t matter none, Dad.”
Mr. Johnson sat there for a minute, chewing the soft beef in his mouth. Inspecting his son.
“Why you not lookin’ at me, Ellis? Something goin’ on?”
“Naw, Dad. Nothin’s—”
“You hidin’ something?”
Ellis put his spoon down, and for the first time that night, looked at his dad. Mr. Johnson shook his head.
“You ain’t been right for weeks. You grades slippin’. Coach says you been missin’ practice.”
“‘Coach says’.” He shifted in his chair. “You called the school, Dad? Checkin’ up on me?”
“Mind you speakin’.” He pointed a thumb in the direction of the phone. “They call me. Two weeks ago. They’s worried ‘bout you.”
“Bah!” Ellis waved his hand dismissively.
“What’s goin’ on with you? You don’t even play the piano no more. Your mama’s
The young man shot up from his chair. “I’m done with that, Dad! Done with… with… with all o’ this!”
“All of what?” Mr. Johnson asked, stunned. “What you talkin’ bout?”
“You, Dad! You! That damn piano, and talkin’ ‘bout mama all the time. Not movin’ on, watchin’ you get worse every year. I’m done with football and being they punchin’ bag. I’m done! Finished!”
“Where this comin’ from, Ellis?” Mr. Johnson stood slow, his hands up. “Listen, now. Ain’t nothin’ been said or done that can’t be undone.” He took a couple of steps forward. “Tomorrow. Tomorrow we’ll call Coach, tell him—”
“I joined the Army, Dad!”
A silence crept into the room like a slow-moving fog, thick and heavy it filled the air. Ellis flicked his hand towards the front door.
“That’s where I was today. Why I was late comin’ home.”
“You… you what?” Mr. Johnson said, dropping his hands.
“Been thinking ‘bout it for months. Nothin’ for me round here. Not no more.”
They stared at each other, across a kitchen table that might as well have been the Grand Canyon. Ellis crossed his arms and looked down at the floor. Mr. Johnson moved again, trying to close the distance.
“You know what’s goin’ on out there right now, don’tcha son? Where you gonna get sent to?”
“I don’t care. This is what I want. There’s no life for me here.” He backed up, keeping his dad away. “And I can’t watch you anymore.”
“They’s a war goin’ on, Ellis! They’s fightin’ for oil in Kuwait! They sending everyone there!” He reached out for his son. “Please, son! It ain’t too late to change you mind!”
“It’s done, Dad. Papers are signed.”
“No. No! I’m not lettin’ you do this! I won’t let you!”
Ellis walked into his bedroom. “I’m eighteen, Dad. There’s nothin’ you can do about it.”
The door slammed shut in Mr. Johnson’s face, making him jump in his skin. He stood there, looking at the wood, the blue color that they had painted it together when Ellis was twelve, now chipped and cracked. He touched the growth lines that he’d scribbled in along the right-hand side of the door frame with his finger, the last one marked on Ellis’ fifteenth birthday when he’d decided he was too old for it anymore. Then he placed his palm on the door, hoping somehow his son would feel his father’s grief through the wood, that he’d come back out and tell him it was all a lie. He wanted to tell him he was sorry, that he was proud of the man he had become. That he would support whatever decision he made for his life.
Instead, he turned and went into his own bedroom. And closed the door.
Mr. Johnson awoke one night to the sound of knocking. He was confused, disoriented, the room cast in an eerie dull glow from the digital clock on the dresser drawer across from his bed. He searched for his glasses on the side table and then squinted at the time.
“11:14pm?” he grumbled. “Who’s bangin’ at my door at this time of night?”
He threw on his old plaid robe and tied the waist around him, sliding his socked feet into his slippers as he shuffled out into the apartment, the knock growing louder and more intense.
“Okay, now!” he shouted. “I’m comin’!” The knocking stopped abruptly as he made his way to the front door.
The chain was always easy, but the door stop at the bottom needed to be wiggled before it let go. It was the dead bolt though; it always caused him problems. He fiddled with it, back and forth, pulling on the handle at the same time. Sometimes he’d had to get Ellis to unstick it.
“Be right with ya! This door’s always so damn—”
The door flung open, and standing under the subdued light in the hallway were two men, both dressed in formal military uniform. Mr. Johnson’s stomach sank, and he covered his mouth with shaking hands.
“I apologize for calling on you at such a late night, sir,” the first one said.
“Oh, please Lord. Please no.”
“Are you Mr. Otis Johnson?”
Gripped with the finality before him, he could do no more than nod.
“I am Sergeant William Holden, sir. This is Major Gerald Hicks, one of our Chaplains.” He pointed beside him to an older man with graying hair, who solemnly nodded, but did not speak. “The Secretary of the US Army has asked me to express his deep regret that your son, Ellis, was killed in action on the borders of Saudi Arabia, in Khafji.”
“No. Not my… my…” His knees buckled, and he fell against the frame of the door.
“The Secretary wishes to extend his deepest sympathies to you and your family in this tragic loss,” Holden said.
“Family?” Mr. Johnson stammered.
Hicks stepped forward.
“Is there someone you can call, sir? To be here with you?”
“Ain’t… ain’t no one else left now.” He wiped the tears from his face and took a deep breath, trying to compose himself. “I told that boy this would happen. I told him.”
“We can stay here with you, sir. Until you are able to contact some help.”
“No. Thank you. I don’t need you to stay.” He began to close the door. “Appreciate you makin’ the trip to tell me, boys.”
“One of our Casualty Assistance Officers will be in touch within twenty-four hours, sir. To discuss arrangements for Ellis.”
“G’night, now,” Mr. Johnson said.
He placed the folded flag on top of his piano, next to the picture of Ellis in his formal army attire. And for almost a week, the phone didn’t stop ringing. Almost every family member and co-worker he knew offered their condolences, all telling him the same thing—Call us if you need anything. A few of Ellis’ friends stopped by with flowers and cards, the girls always crying, saying what a ‘nice guy’ he was. Even Coach called, stammering through a practised speech about hard work and determination, and how Ellis had been the embodiment of those values.
But the calls had stopped now. There were no more cards, and the flowers had died. Mr. Johnson sat on the edge of Ellis’ bed, staring at the floor, the apartment silent. It would be dinner time soon, and he’d have to eat, though he hadn’t enjoyed food for weeks. He couldn’t taste anything anymore.
Life passed Mr. Johnson by. The weeks turned to months, which turned to years. He had taken an extremely early retirement from the school; a behind-closed-doors arrangement by his teachers’ union, after his attendance had become so poor it was either that or be fired—and the school board didn’t want to fire a man who’d lost both his wife and son. All it did was give him more time to feel the emptiness, the regret, the guilt. To recognize that those notes of magic and emotion that once kept his heart beating, that gave him purpose as a husband and father, were gone. The music was dead, like everything else in his life.
He left his apartment one morning to get some trash bags from the store on the corner. As he stood in the hallway fiddling with the key, trying to lock his door to leave, he heard a voice behind him.
“Hi! What’s your name?”
Mr. Johnson said nothing. There had been enough children over the years that had come and gone in his building, and he’d always ignored them too. The door lock finally clicked and he turned around to leave, blowing past the young girl with the ponytail.
“I’m Emma!” she said as he walked away. “We just moved in yesterday. Right across from you. So, we’re neighbors!”
He looked over his shoulder at her, but said nothing. Soon, he was down the stairs, and outside.
When he returned half an hour later, she was still there. Sitting on the floor, her back leaning against her side of the hallway, she jumped to her feet when she saw him coming.
“You’re back!” she said. “Well, I just wanted to say ‘hi’ again. I thought maybe you didn’t hear me because you’re old like my grandpa.”
“I hears you jus’ fine.” Mr. Johnson mumbled, looking down at his keys.
“Oh! Well, good!” The girl smiled. “Well, I’m Emma. It’s very nice to meet you.” She stuck out her hand. He glanced at it before turning his back to fumble once again with the lock.
“Go on, now. I ain’t got time for you.” The lock clicked, and he went in.
She dropped her hand. He didn’t look back as he closed the door behind him.
It was well after lunch when he opened his door again, a full bag of trash in his hand to drop in the chute at the end of the hall. Emma jumped up from the wine-colored rug.
He couldn’t help but be shocked at her persistence.
“You still here? Ain’t you got someplace better to be?”
Her face blushed, her voice low.
“Well. My mom and dad were playing too rough and now mom is in bed. Daddy is sleeping really loud on the couch with his shirt off because he spilled his drink when he fell. He told me to sit out here and be quiet.”
“I see.” Mr. Johnson started walking towards the trash chute. Emma followed close behind.
“Do you get tired and fall down?”
He didn’t answer. Instead, he opened the chute and threw the bag in. When he turned back, he almost ran her over. He noticed the filth on the front of her white, polka dot dress.
“So, what’s your name?” she asked.
He grumbled. “Mr. Johnson.”
“Do you have grandkids? It would be great to play with them.”
He shifted to one side to avoid her and continued back towards his open apartment door. He could hear her skipping behind him. As he got to his entranceway, she squealed.
“Is that a piano? I love pianos!”
“Go on, now,” he said, closing the door.
Mr. Johnson shuffled into his kitchen, filling the kettle for a pot of coffee. But before he lit the flame, he stopped and went back to the door, looking through the peephole. Emma was still there, her head down, and he watched her slump back against the wall and slide down to sit once more on the dirty carpet that lined the floor. She stayed there like that, long enough that his hip began to ache from standing there watching.
So, he went back to the stove, and turned on the burner.
He heard glass break just as he sat down for his dinner the following night. It came from across the hallway, louder than it should have been. The apartment building had always been quiet, it was nothing if not a dependable place to live, so he let his curiosity get the better of him.
The door across the hall was closed, and Emma still sat there, her hands cupping her ears, still wearing that stained polka dot dress. Even through the limited visibility of the peephole he could tell that she was crying, but the sounds coming from inside that room drowned out any fussing or whimpering she may have been making herself. He turned away, taking a few slow steps back towards the kitchen, when the tricorn flag caught his eye. The blue was faded now, years and years of sunlight and dust and neglect had stolen its lustre. But it was still there, in the same place on top of that old untouched piano, next to his boy. Mr. Johnson moved to the picture and picked it up, wiping the few specs of dust that had made a home on the glass since he cleaned it that morning. He looked at his son’s face.
There was a loud bang in the hallway, and something else broke. Mr. Johnson went back to the door, looking out through the peephole again. Emma hadn’t moved. Only now, she was shaking. He looked down again at the framed picture in his wrinkled hands and nodded to himself. He undid the chain and the door stop, pausing to look out once more before unlocking the dead bolt. He expected another fight with the door, but it opened without effort. He cracked open the door, popping his head out. The girl jumped up, wiping the wet from her blotched face.
“Oh, hello!” she said, smiling through the tears. “It’s nice to see you again.”
He looked down both sides of the hallway before turning to her.
Emma nodded a little too enthusiastically.
“Yes, thank you.” She stole a quick glance over her shoulder at the door to her apartment. “Have you got some more trash to throw away? Could I come along?” Mr. Johnson pointed behind her.
“That happen a lot?”
The tears began welling up under her eyelids. She was still trying to smile, trying not to jump each time her dad yelled an obscenity. The mother was crying, begging him to stop from behind the door.
“It didn’t used to. But Daddy lost his job. And he gets… tired. I have to sit out here.”
The argument was growing louder, and Emma’s body was rippling with uncontrollable panic. Mr. Johnson opened his door wider.
“You say you loved pianos?”
“Oh yes, I sure do.” she fought to control herself.
“I used to take lessons. Before Daddy…” She choked on the recollection of better times. “But not anymore.”
He looked at her apartment door, felt the rage behind it spilling out into the hallway, saw the terror in the girl’s eyes.
“If ya’d like, you’re welcome to come in and show me what you got. I was a teacher, a long time ago.”
She took a step and then stopped. “You think Mom and Daddy would mind?”
“How ‘bout I leave a note on the door? Let ‘em know where you is?”
Emma sniffled, a visible relief pouring over her face. “Okay!”
He closed the door behind them, smiling as he put the picture of Private Ellis Johnson back beside his flag.
“And maybe, if you’s up for it, I can teach you a song. You can come and practice here any time your Daddy gets tired. I used to play it for Mrs. Johnson, and my boy could play it too, when he wasn’t but much older than you.”
Emma sat down, opening up the fallboard, pressing each yellowed key cautiously. Then, she looked up at him and grinned.
He couldn’t be sure, and it would take some love and time to fix, but he thought that just maybe… he could hear the music again.
Copyright 2021 by Shane Paquette