WHILE SHE SLEEPS
I bought a small electric keyboard because I can hide it from Emma in the big storage closet where we keep our board games, and playing cards, and camping equipment, and the telescope I bought her three years ago. I want to learn in secret-- because there's no appeal in the first month of learning a musical instrument. We used to live above a beginner cello player, and each missed note leached through the floorboards and made us cringe while we watched television.
Emma likes guys who play. In high school, she'd walk the long way through the building so she could pass the practice rooms on her way home. She told me about a trombone player she watched for forty five minutes through the little round porthole window, and how he would make strained faces when he emptied the saliva from his slide.
The keyboard was cheap, but it stood out because it has a slot for my headphones and because the box calls it a "digital piano." Emma is going to bed early these days because morning sickness wakes her up cruelly, but I stay up to practice. I listen through headphones. The notes sound sharp and electronic, like cheap cell phone ringers, or video games from the 70s, or young children’s xylophone sets. I shuffle through the different settings and try to pick the one that sounds least metallic. I settle on Jazz Organ.
All of the books say to start with scales or "Hot Cross Buns," but that takes too long, and I want to be able to play for her by summer. So, I watch videos of Elton John and Stevie Wonder and try to imitate their fingers. Sometimes I watch the same two seconds of poorly shot concert footage over and over to pinpoint the notes and the chords. I play slow-- trying to remember it all. I play so much, I burn through the keyboard's four D-batteries in three days. I buy more coming home from work.
The last good gift I gave her was when I named a star after her. I did it on a website. They sent me a packet of information and pictures of her star. I bought a telescope so we could find it on our own, but when we took it outside, I couldn't figure out how the coordinates worked. Even if the telescope was pointed in the right direction, I wasn't sure if we could see the star. We looked at the sky, though-- then we put the telescope in the closet with our old dumbbells and the extra bread-maker we got for a wedding gift and never returned.
I want to surprise her because the longer we are married, the harder it is to surprise her. She knows I'll vacuum on days she visits her grandma, and I'll try and prepare elaborate surprise meals whenever I watch cooking shows. She knows me too well— and I think I know her, but she still manages to surprise me. She’s snuck mixed CDs into my car, and she’s left elaborate Post-It note hearts on the refrigerator before I’ve woken up, and she let me know she was pregnant by sending a singing telegram girl to my office, and I want to give her something good because she is awake and nauseous at seven in the morning, and because she thinks we should have a name picked out by now, and because she says she is scared. I want to give her something good. I want to play for her in the summer, so she knows I was working on something this whole time—small as it is.
So I sit in the living room closet, and watch videos of Paul McCartney and Billy Joel, and train my fingers to move faster and smoother. I learn note-by-note. I listen to the sharp, tinny melodies. When I call it a night, sometimes when the sun is starting to brighten the sky, I wrap the keyboard in a blanket and put it under the dust-buster and behind the box of junk we’ve moved out of the baby’s room. But before I pack it in, just to see if it sounds better without headphones, I'll sit in the closet, turn the volume almost down to nothing, and play a few slow-motion bars that plink out of the cheap speakers, while she sleeps.
Jeff Simonds teaches writing in at Siena College and Hartwick College, and he lives in Castleton, NY, with an ill-mannered cat. His short story collection, You Are Not Allowed To Come Back After, was printed through Pinewood Books. You can find more of his writing on Amazon or by stealing his laptop.