The International Writers Magazine: Dreamscapes
A Lesson for Mr. Schubert
The high school band raised their instruments and Mr. Schubert’s baton sliced through the air. He closed his eyes and waited to bask in the glorious sound. Like being in the opera house again.
The cloud of noise that assaulted his ears, however, was nowhere worthy of a standing ovation. His eyes snapped open and fixed on the culprit. The brass. It was always the brass.
“C sharp!” he cried, his face flushing. “We’ve gone over the passage a thousand times. You wouldn’t know a C sharp if you sat on one!”
Mr. Schubert’s room fell silent until one boy raised his hand. “Wouldn’t it hurt if we did?”
The remark had the effect of a match tossed on a haystack. This had been only one of many straws.
“That’s it!” cried Mr. Schubert and snapped his baton across his knee. “I had it with all of you uncaring imbeciles. You will never play this right!” He turned and stormed out of the room, slamming the door on the way out. “I quit.”
He was almost out the front door, when he remembered his baton. It had been his favorite, having served him faithfully in concert halls all over the world. Without a word, he slunk back to the room, picked up the broken pieces, and slunk off.
Mr. Schubert drove home by himself and entered his quiet house. Only his old dog, Clara greeted him at the door. Carefully, he placed the broken pieces of his baton on top of his rickety piano. He sat, and the bench squeaked, and leaned slightly to one side. With a scowl, Mr. Shubert propped up the loose leg with an old book of art songs.
He sat again and tinkered on the piano until bedtime. When his vision grew so blurry he could hardly see the notes, he sighed and closed the lid. “What am I going to do now, Clara?” The dog, of course, did not answer and Mr. Schubert slunk off to bed.
The next morning, Mr. Schubert rose early and wandered into the living room. “Well, Clara, there’s one good thing about quitting my job: I’ll have more time for music.”
He then sat down to play through is favorite concerto, when he discovered a page was missing. He grumbled as he checked the piano bench, the bookshelves, his piccolo case, and even the refrigerator. It was nowhere to be found. “It wasn’t you, Clara, was it? Decided that you like the taste of music did you?”
Before the dog could protest, Mr. Schubert spotted the corner of the page sticking out from underneath his sagging sofa. The concerto now complete, he set to work in losing himself between the dots and lines.
Day after day passed, completely lost in the tunes of the clunky piano. The mail piled up in the mailbox, the dishes formed a precarious tower in the sink and the floor became a graveyard of discarded sheet music.
He was about to attempt to play the complete works of Chopin, when a knock sounded at the door. Mr. Schubert scowled. “Clara! Go see who that is. If it’s a salesman, chase them off.” When the old dog stayed put, he stomped over to the door and flung it open. “What?”
On the doorstep, stood a young blonde girl he had never seen before. Behind her stood an older boy, with the same blonde hair and lopsided grin.
The girl stared up at him, fingers outstretched. “Hi! I’m Jenna. My mom says I have piano fingers. She wants to know if you can teach me.” She gestured to the boy behind her. “This is my brother Rex. He came along to make sure I’m good.”
Mr. Schubert wrinkled his forehead. “I don’t give piano lessons. Who told you to come here?”
Jenna shrugged. “No one. We heard you playing when I was walking home from school. You’re really good.”
Mr. Schubert shook his head harder. “I don’t teach lessons! Go find somebody else.”
He started to shut the door, when Jess shot out her hand. “But I have money! My mom said this should pay for a few lessons.”
Mr. Schubert took and examined the wad of money and counted the bills. It was a generous amount and his electric bill was bound to be due soon. He had no desire to play by candlelight. With a grunt, he waved them both inside. “Come in then.”
Mr. Schubert indicated a piano bench and Jess sat, and Rex found his way onto the couch without a word. With one hand, Mr. Schubert swept the music from the piano and onto the floor. He examined another pile of music, discarding piece after piece with a scowl. At last, he selected a battered sheet and thrust it in front of the little girl’s face. “Here, can you play that?”
“Uh, no, sorry.”
Mr. Schubert’s head flushed like a tomato. “What? Why not? Don’t you know anything about piano?”
Jess shrugged. “Well, I know some things. Bu I only play things with a few dots. This one has lots and lots of dots.” She looked up with wide eyes. “Can you play it? You must be really, really good!
Mr. Schubert’s lower lip shot out from his top one. “Of course I can! It’s elementary, really.”
“Well, then I’ll learn it next. But could I start with an easier one, please?”
Grumbling, Mr. Schubert shoved some books from the top shelf and snatched down a yellowing piece of music. “Here, try this one. I could play it when I was three. Easy enough?”
Jess studied it for a few seconds. “Oh, “Go Tell Aunt Rhodie”. Sure.” She placed her fingers on the keys and began to play.
“Stop!” cried Mr. Schubert. “What are you doing?”
Jess looked with confused eyes. “Playing the song?”
“Not with fingers like that, you’re not! Did you stick them in the freezer this morning? They’re stiff as frozen fish sticks.”
Mr. Schubert sat down next to her on the bench and started playing. “What do you notice about my fingers?”
She squinted. “They’re old and wrinkly?”
Mr. Schubert flushed even a shade darker. “No! They are curved. You don’t play piano with flat fingers.”
“But my mom says-“
“I’m your teacher now. You need to listen to me. Now try it again with curved fingers.”
Jenna did her best, playing much more slowly than before. When she finished, Mr. Schubert snatched the music from the piano. “Fine. That was your lesson for today: play with curved fingers. Now go, and don’t come back until at least next week. He shoved the yellowing paper into her hands. “And don’t forget to practice.”
Jenna beamed as if he had just given her a lollipop instead. She skipped to the door, motioning for her brother to follow and swinging her music. “Yep, sure, curved fingers. Thanks.” They disappeared, not even bothering to shut the door.
Mr. Schubert let out a low growl and slammed the door. He was about to return to his piano, when he remembered the bills in his pocket. Music would have to wait. If he left his bills unpaid, he would only affect his playing in the long run. Still grumbling, he shrugged on his coat and grabbed his keys. He tried not to think of the lesson with Jenna, but found himself humming “Go Tell Aunt Rhode” all the way to the bank.
When he returned, he sat at his piano and played and wrote late into the night. He finally collapsed in bed and lost himself in dreams.
He found himself in front of a stunning orchestra, all awaiting the first wave of his arm. He raised his baton and brought it down and the room sprang to life with heavenly music. They played on and on, filling the hall with the thrilling sounds of the 1812 Overture.
Suddenly, there came a sound that he was not expecting. A knocking sound. Over and over. He looked around, thinking that the drums were playing at the wrong time. He waved his arms faster and faster, but still could not stop the knocking. Finally, he clutched his baton and broke it over his leg and…
The dream shattered. The knocking, however, did not stop. He tried to smother it with a pillow over his head, but at last, he was forced to roll out of bed to silence it himself. He grasped the doorknob open, intent on sicing Clara on whoever had disturbed his sleep. He put on his most menacing face and flung the door open. “What do you want?”
There sat Rex and Jenna, the little girl displaying all ten curved fingers. “Mr. Schubert, look at fingers!”
Mr. Schubert stared at her though half-open eyes. “Great, curved fingers. But you also need to get some manners. What’s the idea pulling a man out of bed like that on a Saturday? Do you have any idea what time it is?”
Jenna wrinkled her eyebrows. “It’s 11:47. Were you really still in bed?”
Mr. Schubert curled his nose. “Of course not. But why are you here? It hasn’t even been a day, much less a week.”
Jenna offered the music from the day before. “I want to show you what I can do! I practiced really, really hard.”
Before Mr. Schubert could protest, she pressed past him and into the living room. She plopped down at the piano bench with a grin. She slipped the music up on the piano and started to play her song.
Mr. Schubert Stumbled forward, intent on ending her unauthorized performance on his piano. Right before he reached her, however, he noticed something incredible: she was playing all the right notes and with beautifully curved fingers. He paused and listened, his hands falling to his side. She finished her song and folded her hands neatly in her lap.
“So, did I do good?”
Mr. Schubert paused. “Sure,” he mumbled, “but that’s probably because it was too easy." He stormed off to the bookcase and rummaged through his music. In the meantime, Jenna reached down and petted Clara behind the ears. The dog wagged her tail in delight. Jenna then glanced up and noticed a picture on top of the piano. It depicted a young man wearing a tuxedo with a baton in one hand and a broad smile on his face.
“Mr. Schubert, is this picture you?”
Mr. Schubert whirled about and slapped the picture down on its face. “Not anymore. Don’t ask so many questions!” He turned and stepped towards his bedroom. “Now, go home, and this time, don’t come back for a week. Seven whole days, you hear?”
He glanced down at Clara. “Clara, if they’re not gone in 10 seconds, chase her out.”
Clara folded her legs under herself, giving no signs that she might obey.
“But, wait. Did you like it? Did I do good?”
Mr. Schubert grunted and kept walking.
“Mr. Schubert, where are you going?”
He turned and scowled. “I’m going back to b-“ He caught himself just in time. “None of your business!” He stormed back and slammed his bedroom door.
Mr. Schubert lay in bed, starring at the ceiling. Every time he closed his eyes, the young man in the tuxedo stared back at him. “Not me,” he mumbled, rolling over.
The week passed slowly and though he tried, he couldn’t seem to write a single note of music. By the time the weekend had passed, he found himself stealing glances at the door. Clara glanced up, as if asking a question. “If you must know, I’m waiting for the mail. My rebate for the new toaster is supposed to come today.”
However, when the mailman dropped a single envelope in the box, Mr. Schubert did not stir. He stared out the window, his eyes glazed over until Clara nuzzled his leg, her usual signal that she needed a walk.
“Okay, girl. Let’s go.” He attached Clara’s leash and out they went, heading for the park where they made their usual rounds. His head swept from side to side, stopping momentarily at the children he passed. As usual, children turned away as he walked by. Clara turned her head and gave a little yip.
“No, I’m not looking for her. I’m just being friendly. I can do that, you know.”
Just then, Clara broke off in a run, yanking her master along. “Clara, what’s gotten into you?”
She ran and stopped abruptly in front of the swings. Mr. Schubert looked up and saw Jess seated on one of the swings. She stopped swinging and hopped off. “Hello, Mr. Schubert! Hi, Clara!” She bounced over to them, a look of concern wrinkling her nose. “I didn’t miss a lesson, did I?”
Mr. Schubert shook his head. “Oh, no. I was just wondering if you could come tomorrow. I want to give you some new music, just as long as you play with properly curved fingers.”
Jess smiled at Clara and then up at Mr. Schubert. “Okay,” she said, displaying her best curved fingers. “I’ll see you tomorrow.”
Mr. Schubert turned Clara around and headed towards home, a smile of his own creeping up his face.
Jenna and her brother came the next day, and then every day that week. Her excitement grew each day as she showed Mr. Schubert what she was learning. Every afternoon, he took Clara for a walk, and they often ran into her and invited her to stop in again to learn something else. She learned one piece and then another and Mr. Schubert found that whatever she was playing was the song that went through his head all day. One day, after a lesson, Mr. Schubert looked at her and a rare full smile spread across his face. “I think you’re ready for a recital.”
Jess wrinkled her forehead, “Does that mean I’m doing good?”
Mr. Schubert nodded. “It means you get to show everyone just how well you are doing.”
Her crumpled face smoothed out. “Okay! I’ll have to practice extra hard.”
They set a date for a few weeks away, rented a small local stage, and picked out a few of their favorite pieces. Jenna’s mother helped her make invitations, which Jenna sent out to all of her friends. Jenna doubled the practice time every day and told everyone she could about it, even the people in line at the grocery store.
At last, the day arrived, and they had to set up a few extra folding chairs for all the people who came. Her parents came, her friends came, even a few people from the grocery store came. Jenna waited in the hallway, shifting from one foot to another, her face set in a frown.
“What’s wrong?” asked Mr. Schubert. “Are you nervous?”
Jenna shook her head slowly. “No, not really.” Tears sprang to her eyes, as her face crumpled into a mask of grief. “My daddy got a new job, really, really far away. We have to move!”
Mr. Schubert blinked hard, holding back the emotions flooding him. “What? When?”
Jenna shrugged. “Soon, I think. We’re already putting our stuff in boxes.” She started to cry even harder and Mr. Schubert put a hand on her shoulder. “I don’t want to go. What if I can’t find another piano teacher like you?”
Mr. Schubert sighed. “Oh, don’t worry about that. I’m nothing special.”
“But you are,” cried Jenna. “It won’t be the same without you.”
“Jenna, it’s always been you who is special. He dropped to one knee and gazed into her eyes. “Promise me one thing, Jenna. Don’t you dare quit. Don’t even think about it.”
Jenna’s eyes dropped to the ground. “I don’t know. I’m scared.”
Mr. Schubert squeezed her shoulder and she glanced up again. “I know,” said Mr. Schubert, “I’ve been afraid so many times…and you know what I did? I quit. I walked away from the best things in my life, because I was scared. I was a fool.” He paused, and a slow smile to crept up his face. “But you, little girl, are no fool. You should run towards this as fast as you can, and never look back.”
Jenna sniffed. “Really?”
Mr. Schubert nodded. “Really.”
She turned and dashed onto the stage.
Mr. Schubert reached out and was about to call her back, when he stopped, happy enough that she had taken his advice to heart.
The audience cheered as she took her seat and Mr. Schubert decided that the best thing to do would be simply to begin. Jenna sat on the bench amid a round of applause and the first notes of “Go Tell Aunt Rhodie” filled the room. Mr. Schubert watched from offstage, and noticed how neatly curved she kept her fingers.
He closed his eyes and enjoyed the simple music. At once, his thoughts carried him back to the concert halls of New York and Vienna and to the grand feast of sound on which he had constantly fed. Somehow, in this unimpressive hall, the music had never tasted so sweet.
The song ended, and she waited only a moment before beginning the next piece. So she continued, piece after piece until she had played a dozen simple songs. When the last note had faded into the air, she stood and faced the audience. “That’s all I know. Thank you.”
The audience rose to their feet with an enthusiastic round of applause. Unsure of how to react, Jenna stood, stiff as a Popsicle. She glanced offstage to where Mr. Schubert stood, his eyes glistening with long-withheld tears. He bowed low and nodded his head.
Her body shot downward, mimicking her teacher’s movements. The audience simply smiled and clapped harder. After a minute, she glanced back over to her teacher, who gestured for her to stand. She shot back up, her face flushed like a cherry tomato and rushed off the stage.
Breathing heard, she looked up at Mr. Schubert with wide eyes. “Did I do good?”
“Perfect, little one. Perfect.”
The applause cut off, the refreshments vanished at a rapid tempo, and, at last, all stood at rest. Mr. Schubert returned home and collapsed on the couch. He starred into space, his face frozen into a tragic mask. “What am I going to do now, Clara? She was the best student I ever had? I can’t go back to school, I can’t go back to the symphony, and now I don’t even have her.”
Clara nuzzled his leg and gave a soft growl.
“Yes, I know I still have you.” He reached down to pat her head, and then stood. With a sigh, he made his way to the piano bench and sat. “I’ve only got two days before she moves, and I’ve got to give her something special to remember me by.” He ruffled through the papers stacked on the piano, until he found a mostly-blank piece of manuscript paper. He fished a pen out of his pocket and scrawled the words Opus 142 across the top.
He paused, trying to think of a fancy title to go with it, and finally settled on “Jenna’s Song.”
“I can always change it later.” A bittersweet smile on his face, he placed his fingers on the key and began to compose.
Two days later, Mr. Schubert rose early, put Clara on her leash, and set out down the street. When he reached Jenna’s house, the moving van already stood outside. A burly man placed a few small boxes in the back and shut the doors. Mr. Schubert quickened his pace as he heard another car’s engine flare to life.
A bright blue minivan backed out of the driveway and pulled onto the street. He broke into a full run, dropping Clara’s leash and waving his hands faster than he ever had as a conductor. He stumbled as the car sped away, and fell painfully to his knees.
Tears formed in his eyes and he waved the sheet of music like a flag of surrender. “I can’t believe it. I’m too late.” He knelt there on the street for many minutes, too discouraged to stand. His head rose, as Clara began barking excitedly. He blinked furiously, making sure he was not seeing things. Jenna stood before him.
“What’s wrong, Mr. Schubert? Do you need a Band-Aid?”
Mr. Schubert finally rose, dusting off his knees and shaking his head, “No, no. Not unless you’ve got one for right here.” He lifted a wrinkled hand and tapped his chest directly over his heart.
“I don’t think so. I could ask my mom, though.”
“No, don’t worry about it. I just came to say goodbye and to give you a present. I thought you had already left.”
Jenna shrugged. “No, those were our friends from church. They came to say goodbye, too.”
Mr. Schubert extended the piece he had written for her. “It’s not much, but it’s something. Your own song. I-I hope you like it.”
She accepted the music and looked over every measure. She ran forward and threw her arms around him. “Maybe I could play it at my next recital.”
Mr. Schubert returned the embrace and smiled. “I’m glad to hear there will be another. Let’s hope many more.”
They took a step back from each other. “I want to get practicing right away, but they already packed the piano.”
As if on cue, a voice called from the doorway of the house. “Jenna, come on get in the car! We’ve got a long drive ahead of us.”
Jenna looked up one last time at Mr. Schubert, and his nodded. The last thing Mr. Schubert saw as she drove away were a pair of hands sticking out the window, curved as if ready to play.
The days drew on and Mr. Schubert did not so much as touch a piano. Between waking up late, and going to bed early, he practically lived in bed. Clara might have gone crazy had she not figured out how to nudge the back door open to let herself out for a walk. Only after the lights and water stopped working, did he realize that he was in serious trouble.
By candlelight, he set to work creating signs. They read, “Piano lessons from the famous Dr. F. Schubert. Beginners welcome.” At the bottom, he wrote in his phone number and address.
On Clara’s next walk, he took the signs with him and posted them all over town. “There,” he muttered as he hung his last sign on the window of a local grocery store. “I found my best student by accident, without any signs. Just think what I’ll be able to do with signs!”
A nervous lump in his stomach, he wandered home and slunk into bed.
A loud, shrill note woke him the next morning, and he snatched the phone before it could utter another. “Dr. Schubert,” he muttered.
The lady on the other end had seen Jenna’s recital and remembered his name. By the end of their conversation, he had his first new student.
And so it went for many years, taking on new students, saying farewell to others as they lost interest or moved away. Many of his students proved to have great talents, but none of them could take the place of Jenna.
One day in October, Mr. Schubert sat slumped over on his coach. His only student for the day had just called and cancelled their lesson. He ached to his bones and felt like nothing more than watching TV. “Might as well, while I still can.” With a grunt, he flicked on the set, and flipped through the channels. A scowl darkened his face, and deepened with every channel.
“Nothing but rubbish. What’s the point of..."
He stopped mid-complaint as a familiar scene filled the screen of a local PBS station. “Carnegie Hall,” he muttered. “This might actually be interesting.”
A man in a tuxedo walked out on stage with a microphone. “Welcome to the 2010 Showcase of Young Virtuosos. They’re not old enough to rent a car, but they can do things with musical instruments that would make musicians twice their age jealous. Let’s first introduce Willie Margetts, who just might play the meanest fiddle this side of the Mississippi.”
Willie stepped out with a broad smile and a fiddle and struck up a lively tune. Mr. Schubert’s foot had just started to tap when the doorbell rang. Mr. Schubert glanced at the door as if someone had just smashed it down. He reached for the remote to turn up the volume, when the person behind the door called, “Delivery!”
The remote fell from his hand. He hadn’t received a delivery since the spring of 1984. His attitude appropriately adjusted, he hunkered to the door and flung it back. There stood a short deliveryman with black hair and a brown uniform.
“Hi, you Mr. F. Schubert?”
“Yes, what do you have for me?”
The deliveryman produced a long slender package and handed it to Mr. Schubert. “Just sign here.”
Mr. Schubert searched in vain for a pen and the deliveryman indicated the electronic stylus on the pad. With a nod and a muttered thanks, Mr. Schubert shut the door and examined the package. What could anyone…
His eyes found the return address and his heart nearly seized. “Jenna,” he muttered. “It’s been more than a decade.”
With gusto he hadn’t felt since his earliest Christmases as a child, he tore open the box. It contained a clear, plastic tube and a single sheet of paper. With trembling hands, he lifted the sheet of paper to his eyes.
“Mr. Schubert, I still remember that broken baton on top of your piano. I don’t know how you broke it, but it doesn’t seem right. Please accept this as a token of my thanks. With affection, Jenna. P.S. Turn on channel five, March 15th at 3:00 pm for a surprise.”
His mind reeled-it was already 3:15 on that very date. He dropped the box and freed his eyes from the TV screen. In his heart, he knew what was coming, but it took several minutes for his brain to comprehend what it was seeing.
“Now, let’s give Willie a hand! Now our next guest can do more with 88 keys than most people on this hemisphere. Please welcome Jenna Jenkins!”
Mr. Schubert felt his knees buckle and he collapsed in front of the TV. She had grown from an endearing child into a striking young woman with long auburn hair and dark, sparkling eyes. She bowed slightly to the audience and sat at the piano. Her hands flowed over the keys and Mr. Schubert could not help the smile which broke over his face. It was the song he had written for her all those years ago or rather, it was a version of it—an arrangement that had matured along with its namesake.
Clara joined Mr. Schubert on the floor in front of the TV and they sat enraptured until the final chord had died away. She stood, accepted the applause and joined the announcer. “So, that was impressive. I’ve never heard it before. Did you write that piece yourself?”
“No, it’s a Schubert.”
The announcer arched an eyebrow. “Like Franz Schubert?”
“No, but he’s probably a decedent. He’s just as brilliant. He’s the one who really got me excited about playing the piano.”
“Well, I’m sure he’s proud to hear you now. Thanks for sharing that piece with us.”
Jenna smiled into the camera. “Yes, if he’s watching, I want to say thank you. My life will always be different because you carried enough about me to teach me.” Jenna gave the camera a final smile and then vanished offstage to be replaced by a white gloved young man surrounded by a table filled with gleaming bronze bells.
Mr. Schubert gazed at the screen, wishing that Jenna would reappear. She did not. The credits rolled and Mr. Schubert switched off the TV. He sat for a long while, starring at the blank screen. Finally he patted Clara on the head. “Well, Clara, I’ve written many works, but I think she was my real Magnum Opus.”
Clara looked up at him and tipped her head to the side.
“What? Don’t you know Latin? It means ‘great work’. It seems that I’ve been remiss in your education. With a smile, Mr. Schubert rose and retrieved the plastic tube containing the baton. We an even bigger smile, he took it out and tested it in his hands, waving it about as if conducting an unseen symphony.
And with the biggest smile of all, he took the pieces of hi broken baton from the piano and replaced them with the new baton. “There,” he said “good as new. That old thing depressed me anyway. Only one thing left to do.”
Rummaging on the shelves, he found a blank sheet of paper and a pen, then sat at the desk. The box had a return address and he had no intention of losing track of her again. His chest swelled with emotion as he placed the pen to paper. “Dear Jenna,” he began, “Thank you. Thank you.”
© Michael Young Jan9th 2011
The Canticle Kingdom
Read Now - http://bit.ly/b72ifm
Twitter - @mdybyu