(written for the [Fiction] Friday >prompt on July 17, 2009: “Your character stops on the way home from work and buys an unusual musical instrument — why today?”.)
Jenny hummed quietly as she sat on the bus and looked out the window as it rumbled its way down the busy street. The rain had passed earlier and the dampness on the street was disappearing thanks to the bits of sunlight streaming through the rapidly waning cloud cover and the cars that were speeding on top of it. She looked around at her fellow passengers on the bus, wondering how many of them were staying on the bus for the long ride to its eventual Atlantic City destination and how many, like her, were just making their regularly scheduled trip from work back to their homes or, in her case, back to her father’s home for her weekly dinner with him. Another ten stops and then she would be off of the bus with a five minute walk to his house ahead of her.
A funny looking man in a dark business suit grunted as he pointed at the open seat next to Jenny and sat without waiting for her to acknowledge that it was open. She didn’t care, of course, since it wasn’t her seat. She just continued humming the tune she had been humming all day long, though she did not recognize it at all; it had simply been stuck in her mind from the moment she woke up.
“Do you mind?” growled the man next to her, leaning in toward her in a way which made him look like he was threatening to sweat on her.
“Pardon me?” asked Jenny.
“Quit making that noise, some of us are trying to sleep,” the man grunted, shifting heavily to turn his back to her.
Jenny said nothing, though she rolled her eyes a little as she leaned closer to the glass, pressing as far away from the man as she could so that he would hear less of the somewhat quieter humming she was continuing to do. She was going to have to ask her father if he knew the song because she really didn’t know it herself.
She had been going to her father’s house for these dinners every Thursday night since she moved out of the house when she went to college. She felt it was her duty to help him feel less lonely now that she was out of the house. Sure, her brother was there, whenever he decided to come home, but even he was grown up now and wasn’t around as much. Her social worker job in the city kept her busy most of the time, even on the weekends, but Thursday nights were off limits and her bosses and co-workers had come to accept that she would pack up and leave by 4:00 every Thursday.
A few more stops came and went and Jenny started to tap her foot as she hummed and thought about what she was going to make for dinner. Probably pasta again, she thought, because that’s usually what he has in the house!
The bus bounced over the pothole that had remained unfixed for the past several years and Jenny reset her internal countdown to her stop. Fifteen more minutes, she thought. Suddenly she felt a tightening in her stomach. It was a kind of cold, nervous feeling rather than a sick feeling but it still made her uncomfortable. The bus came to a stop at a traffic light and Jenny pushed her way past the sweaty, sleeping man despite his protests. “I need to get off the bus,” she said to the driver.
“Honey, this isn’t a stop,” said the driver.
“I know, but I need to get out now.”
“Oh, no, I’m sorry,” he replied, shaking his head slowly. “I am not allowed to –”
“I’m going to be sick!”
“Well, why didn’t you say so?” asked the driver quickly as he pushed the button to open the door. “Go. Go!”
Jenny departed the bus. She wasn’t going to be sick but she just felt that she had to get off the bus. Much like she had always heard that you will always get helped in the emergency room if you claim that you are having chest pains, she knew that no bus driver wanted to run the risk of having someone get sick on his or her bus. She felt bad for lying, but something made her need to get out.
She looked around and saw the usual shops and storefronts that she had seen so many times before. But one shop’s sign stuck out to her as she had never noticed it before. “Uncle Uke’s Interesting Instruments”, the sign blinked out in bright blue neon lettering from the little window across the street. Humming, she wandered across to it and pushed through the door. The door jingled quietly as she went through it, wondering to herself why she was going into a music store at all; she didn’t know how to play any instruments, couldn’t sing, couldn’t whistle and, until today, really never was able to keep a tune when humming. Music had largely been forbidden in her house while growing up because her father said music always made her brother upset. She did not really believe it, but it was not worth the effort to fight it.
Inside, the cool, dry air of the music shop rushed around her smelling of paper and wood and some kind of weird incense. Jenny stood there, just inside of the entrance, unsure what to do next. She looked around at the odd instruments, unable to name any of them. Where were the trumpets and flutes and guitars? She hummed, breaking the silence in the store as her attempt at music filled the air.
“That’s a theremin,” said a voice from beside her, pointing at a flat box with antennas coming out the side and top. “Very beautiful instrument. Unique since you play it without touching it. Do you play?”
“What? No. Um, no. I’m sure it is a nice instrument.”
“Oh, maybe Miss would be interested in a bandura?” the man Jenny assumed was the shop owner, Uncle Uke perhaps, guided her gaze to a wooden instrument with thirty-six strings, shaped like a lowercase letter b.
“I… I don’t know.”
“That is a lovely song you are humming,” said the shopkeeper. “What is it called?”
“I don’t know,” said Jenny, looking up at him for the first time. He was a small, thin man, with glasses and a lot of long, dark hair. His thin, white striped shirt was unbuttoned mid-way down his chest. He wiggled his toes in his sandals as he stood there smiling at her. “I don’t think I’ve ever heard it before. I’m sorry, I don’t know why I even came in here,” Jenny continued. “I haven’t seen this shop before.”
“Just opened — grand opening today, in fact. You are the first customer!” He smiled widely at her and then added hastily, “Well, I hope you are the first customer.”
“I feel like… I have to buy something.”
“No, no, do not feel pressure by my presumptive statements.”
“No, I feel… like I have to play this song I have been humming. I need an instrument that will make it real. Something that sounds like…” she sang out loudly, trying to mimic the sound she wanted to imitate.
The man, tying to maintain his smile despite her lack of pitch, interrupted her. “Yes, yes, I know just the thing.” He shuffled away and returned with a small box. Opening it, he pulled out a wooden instrument with metal bands on it. “This is a thumb piano,” he said, plucking a few of the bands.
Jenny’s heart raced with a jolt of adrenaline. “That’s it!” she said, grabbing it. “How much?”
“Oh, does Miss know how to play the thumb piano?”
“No, I have never played music or sang in my life,” she said holding it and flicking her finger against the metal bands, making a flat, stifled sound. “But this is it. Here, take my credit card, whatever the price is.”
The man hesitated but put the card through. “You know, this instrument is officially know as the ka-”
“I don’t want a history lesson on this. You called it a thumb piano and so that is what it is.”
Finishing the transaction and putting the instrument into a box, she walked out of the store embarrassed by her rudeness. Her heart was pounding as she flagged down a taxi to bring her the rest of the way to her father’s house. Once there, she paid the driver and headed inside.
“Dad,” she said as she hugged him. “How are you?”
“I was worried,” he said. “You are late.”
“I’m sorry, Dad. I should have called. I got distracted. I’ll set straight to making dinner now.”
“No need,” he laughed. “It’s my turn to cook tonight, you do it every week. Dinner will be ready in five minutes.”
“It smells wonderful!”
“I got a good deal on eggplant at the market and decided to make eggplant parmesan. I know that’s one of your favorites.”
“It is my absolute favorite! Dad, this is a wonderful surprise!”
“Now you go sit on the couch and relax. You seem like you have had a rough day today. I’ll finish up dinner.”
“Thanks, Dad.” Jenny hummed as she headed to the couch, carrying her box.
“What’s that you’re humming?” her father called from the kitchen.
“I don’t know, I was hoping you’d be able to tell me.”
She pulled out the thumb piano and started flicking the metal bands as she hummed, trying to match the pitch. The noises from the kitchen stopped and her father came abruptly into the room.
“What are you doing?” he asked sharply.
“I don’t know,” she said without looking at him. “I just bought this on the way over here because this song in my head seemed to need to get out. It’s a – ”
“Kalimba,” he interrupted. “It’s a kalimba. Why did… what made you…”
“No! It is a thumb piano. That’s what the guy, Uncle Uke, called it.” She continued plucking at the metal bands trying to match the song that was in her head.
“It’s a kalimba,” he repeated.
“Dad, what’s wrong?”
“I thought I told you never to touch a kalimba.”
“Dad, I’m a grown woman now, I can do what I want. Besides, Randy isn’t here and you said that it was because music would set him off. Dad?”
Jenny’s father was walking quickly around the room, pulling the shades down and flipping switches, some of which turned on the lights in the room, some of which appeared to do nothing. He went to the desk in the corner, the one the kids were never allowed to go into, and he opened the drawer with a key he had in his pocket. “I knew,” he whispered. “I knew that this day would eventually come. No matter how much I prayed that it would not, I knew it would.” He pulled a box out of the drawer and walked back to the couch, sitting down roughly.
“Dad? What’s that?”
“Shhh,” he said. “We apparently need to talk. This was your mother’s.” He pulled the top of the box and pulled out a wooden block with metal bands on it. “This was your mother’s kalimba.”
“Dad, you’ve kept this around for all these years? After what she did to you?”
“Did to me?” He looked and met his daughter’s gaze.
“When she left you for that other guy,” said Jenny quietly, “you were a wreck. I was just a stupid kid but I was paying attention when we got shuttled off to Aunt Maude’s house for a few months. I can’t believe you kept any of that woman’s stuff.”
“That woman was your mother,” he said sternly.
“After what she did to you, after she left me… Emily Jones is no mother of mine. And Randy… I love Randy –”
“We all love Randy.”
“Yes, we love Randy, but he was never the same after she left. Why did you keep this or anything?”
“I haven’t exactly been truthful,” he said quietly. “Your mother did not leave us. She was taken.”
“Wh-what?” asked Jenny, still playing the kalimba hesitantly, but looking at her father.
“You are so much like your mother. Smart, beautiful, loving… Absolutely no musical talent whatsoever. Loyal.”
“She left you, that’s not loyal.”
“She was taken,” repeated her father.
“You told us all these years that she walked out on us, that she started a new life with another man.”
“I had to tell you that,” he said, setting her mother’s kalimba on the couch. “When you were at your Aunt Maude’s house… that was because I was in a psychiatric hospital. I spent six months in that psych ward, being fed all kinds of drugs, given painful shock treatments and other horrible things because the police did not believe me when I told them what happened. She was abducted, Jenny, taken by aliens who came down from outer space in their starship and took her. But no one believed me. Six months of telling the same story and no one believed me. But I had to get out of there, get back to you and Randy. So I did what I had to do and told them that your mother had an affair and left us.”
“Okay, Dad,” said Jenny, laughing uncomfortably. “You had me going there for a minute. Aliens!”
“I am serious!” shouted her father. “You are getting better and better at playing that tune. Just like your mother did.”
“I don’t understand.” She still plucked at the kalimba. Three short notes, two long ones, then a scale going down…
“Your mother woke up one day, thirteen years ago today, with a strange song in her head. It stuck with her all day and by the evening it was all she could do to focus on anything else. We had a big fight about it because you, at thirteen years old, needed her help with some boyfriend issue you wouldn’t talk to me about, Randy wanted to color with her and I wanted her to help me decide if the dinner was ready. It had been getting worse and worse for a long time, but that day, that night, was horrible, as if she had just checked out. But all she would do was sit on the couch, playing this kalimba that she had bought from some shop that had just opened in the city. We were all yelling and screaming but she just kept playing.”
Three short notes, two long notes, a scale going down, three short notes, two long notes, a scale going up.
“I know you’re really not listening to me. Just like your mother that night. But I’m sorry. I should have told you long ago. I guess I knew that you always needed to play this instrument. I knew this day was going to come.”
She did not look up, just continued trying to play the song in her head. Three short notes, two long notes, a scale going down, three short notes, two long notes, a scale going up…
“It was the same song, Jenny. The same one you are playing right now and have almost perfected. And then…”
“I’ve got it!” shouted Jenny, happily. “Listen!” She picked up her mother’s kalimba and played both, one in each hand.
She played as if she was a virtuoso and the instruments resonated with their complex, spirited sounds that sounded like chimes and drums at the same time. Three short notes, two long notes, a scale going down, two short notes, three long notes, a scale going up. Rightmost band, middle band, leftmost band, then a scale up.
Jenny looked up and smiled at her father who stared at her with a fearful look on his face. The lights in the house dimmed suddenly as the shades all flung themselves open. A bright light shone down from the sky and the same tune played, its music filling the air as it and sounding as if the earth and the house were making the sounds.
“I… I think I have to go out there,” said Jenny. “To play this song. To understand this song. I need to know. I need… to go and find my song.”
Her father protested but she did not hear his words. She was playing the tune on the kalimba again, matching pitch and tempo with the sounds that were shaking the house as she walked slowly, trancelike, toward the bright light. Her father looked out the window, helpless to stop her. He saw the ship, the same gray, metallic ship he had seen thirteen years prior as it hung above the rusty swing set in the back yard.
He picked up the phone and dialed the sheriff. “I’d like to report a missing person,” he said hesitantly.
“Oh, Mister Jones,” said the husky voice of the sheriff. “You’re not calling to report another alien abduction this time, are you? You remember what happened the last time. The crazy farm and all that…”
“I remember,” said Mister Jones. “I remember the psych ward very clearly. But yes, I am, calling to report another alien abduction. But this time is different. This time, I have video cameras.” He hung up the phone without waiting for a reply. Looking out the window, he watched the bright light disappear and the ship speed away, looking as if it disintegrated in mid-air. The lights in the house regained their power, as did the lights in the back yard.
He slumped back down onto the couch, trying to cry but unable to accomplish the feat. Instead he held his face in his hands and tried to control his racing thoughts. Suddenly he heard a quiet sound, a chiming, clicking sound. Looking up he saw her, his wife, walking through the door playing her kalimba. Three short notes, four long notes, a scale going up , two short notes, three long notes, a scale going up.
“It is all okay, sweetheart,” she said quietly. “I am back and I am playing a different tune now.”