national anthology of the best
undergraduate writing 2010

A Heart Should Play in Tune

Its Environs, Cassie Xie

Paul’s hospital room reminds Andre of his son’s elementary school. The nurses regard him from across Paul’s gurney as if it were a parent-teacher conference. His ex-wife Kathy had made sure that Paul attended St. Luke Elementary, four blocks away from Olde Kensington, where they had all once lived together. Andre had objected because Father Andrew was an inept music instructor.

At least the nurses are not severe like the nuns, wielding yardsticks over their domain; he couldn’t have handled that. On his way to the lavatory, he passes under streamers of butterfly cut-outs and frogs on lily pads with nurses’ caps. All that is missing is the stale must of chalk and shrill bell ringing for recess.

Paul’s heart emits a perfect A-four-forty, balanced in time like a truck backing up. Andre has gone to the bathroom to throw away a soiled strip of gauze that had been between Paul’s head and the starched pillow it rests on. It has a pinkish stain, mixed with pure red splotches of his son’s blood and brown crumbs of scabbing. Andre continues stepping down on the can’s pedal even after he finishes, as if it were a dampening pedal on a grand piano. He lets the concert hall in his head fill with glistening tones. Andre manages to create peace, and holds it desperately as he reenters the pedal point of his son’s heart ticking away in the next room. His ear listens closely for any change in rhythm or pitch. It’s dead-on: four hundred and forty vibrations a second at an adagio seventy-two beats per minute. A heart should play in tune.

Paul is such a smart boy, for five. On the first night, Andre sat with him by the hospital room’s bay window looking out over Philadelphia where it had begun snowing. The mirrored windows of the skyscrapers reflected the streetlamps, dozens burning timidly, like altar candles. Paul had had a headache since September. They had thought it was just the change in routine of attending kindergarten, and that once his hyperactive mind settled in to the process of grade school, he would stop wincing while he played with his big red fire truck in the brown threadbare recliner. Throughout October, Paul complained about his eyes hurting. They took him to see a local optometrist. At their morning appointment, a swollen optic nerve had made the doctor suspicious; an MRI confirmed in black and white that nothing could be certain ever again. That afternoon, he and Kathy had rushed Paul to the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia emergency room. He had already made the call, and the Oncology Ward was awaiting their arrival. Andre was just explaining to Paul how they had come to be at the hospital, what things like “tumor” and “malignant” meant, and why this would be a new home for a while. Kathy was in the bathroom. Andre noticed that his son was staring past his words at the snowfall.

“It’s like we’re falling up,” Paul said in awe, completely absorbed by the atmosphere beyond the large pane of glass. “See it, Daddy?” Andre took a second to turn his mind from the images of neurons and needles, the surgery the next morning, to stare outward with his son. Kathy opened the lavatory door behind them. Lowering his head, Andre was about to get back to informing his son about cancer when he felt the vertigo of looking down their thirty-story view. Somewhere in the hospital a child was groaning like an old man. Blue-suited nurses scrambled. Against the gravity of snowflakes, the physics of Andre’s world inverted and shot him silently into space.

Andre had avoided explaining what divorce meant about love. He wasn’t sure how Kathy had explained last year to Paul. Andre had said his marriage to Kathy was “on vacation,” as if their lives would naturally blossom again after the warm weather had absorbed into the leaves and fallen to the ground. The genuineness of their morning smiles was chipped away by the time winter swept in across the Delaware Valley in early November. The thrill of parenthood fractured, and there was once more a duality to their relationship, as if they had returned to the volatile courtship from their first years of college. Paul had become a responsibility, a name attached to his daycare in Olde Kensington, a sports club at the Northern Liberties’ Community Center, and a music camp at the same place. He was listed on the refrigerator with laundry, reminders about utilities bills, the vegetables needed for dinner. Paul was schlepped the distance of the no-man’s-land between them with the heaviness of guilt and exchanged like accusations of who-wronged-whom. The emotional desperation of their predicament had returned them to the bipolar state of an adolescent couple, each pleasantry passed over stale morning-after coffee offering a glimpse of Promised Land out of the turbulent sea, while every dissenting squall sank the entire armada. After they made love, they attended the funeral of their drowned selves alone in the black corners of their room.

Paul suffered the most, attempting to correct his assumed wrongs with petitions of friendship: a construction-paper heart depicting Kathy lifting their home on her shoulders, an extra energetic dig into Bach’s Well-Tempered Klavier, which Andre had started teaching from at the cheap upright piano on Saturday afternoons. Paul was not eased, as Andre and Kathy descended from each tier of happiness with a renewed complacency. Paul offered them a point of reference through the directionless blind, a lighthouse that gave them guidance to land but, like a siren, attracted them to the rocks of its foundation. Kathy would take Paul to Love Park while Andre waited angrily to give him his daily voice lesson. Andre would take Paul early on Sunday mornings to sit in on his folk string quartet practice, while his wife ironed overalls that would have been worn to church by the boy not in the next room. They would once and again break upon the jagged edges of the life they had constructed for their son. Some Sundays Andre would return with Paul in the afternoon to find his clothes waiting, pressed and eagerly perched on the scratchy wicker of his mother-in-law’s rocking chair, the iron curiously hot.

The surgery failed. Paul had had two masses in his brain. After the operation he only had one. The first and largest was floating in a sack of pus in the center of Paul’s cerebellum; it came out minutes after Dr. Juneval trepanned the skull with a miniature drill. The smaller tumor was more deeply entrenched, toward the brain stem where it was bound to his facial and acoustic nerves. A Nerve Specialist was called in to watch the operation. The extra tutelage and repute made no difference. A micrometer of movement did the trick; no one could determine if it was the doctor or Paul who had twitched and caused the severing of those delicate, high-traffic wires. They pulled out immediately, losing a piece of the tumor down the spinal canal.

Paul woke inside a duplex of sensuality and deadness. The right side of his face was crumpled as if a landslide had initiated from his halo of gauze and been diverted by his nose, the skin succumbing to gravity like that of an infirm centenarian. There was room for only one parent on his left side, where the intravenous drips hung like barren chrysali. Andre and Kathy competed for their son’s bright eye and warm flesh, banishing the other to Paul’s dead half. His toy fire truck sat on the gurney next to him unnoticed. The first day after surgery, when shock set in, they gingerly touched him the way a trapped tenant taps his apartment doorknob to heed warning of the inferno on the other side.

Trapped in such a room, it is burn alive or jump from the smoking window. Their son is the smoldering door, and a fire truck full of morphine will not stop his screaming.

Andre loves to teach music. Philip Kearny Elementary in Olde Kensington is a few blocks from his brownstone sliver of house, with air-conditioning units poking out from one room on each of the three floors, and a one-way stoop licking the tar-marked side-walk. He teaches music for the entire school: around 600 students from kindergarten to sixth grade. Pictures of great classical composers like Bach, Haydn, and Mozart, and jazz musicians like Gershwin, Mingus, and Miles Davis encircle the room, and loudly colored bulletin boards offer graffiti-like depictions of solfeggio syllables. Amplifiers and cheap electric guitars sit in the corner, waiting for the usual oddly-dressed children who attend Rock’n’Roll club after school. A giant carpet-piano attached to an electronic staff sheet flashes the notes children play with their feet. Paul liked to play on it when Andre worked late and Kathy could not take him home. Andre has since rolled up the keyboard into the corner, so as not to be distracted from his lessons by the familiar music of his son’s dancing.

With Andre’s dynamic voice and quick transitions, eight times a day the large chorus room that serves as his daytime classroom becomes a 90-minute universe, in which music’s elements create sonority in young minds, in which creative potential is tapped. He encourages his students to get songs stuck in their head, to sing phone numbers by solfeggio, to take up an instrument and play along to their stereo without written music. The children’s holiday concerts are attended by more of the community than just parents.

On the last day of class before Christmas break, some of the fifth- and sixth-graders pooled their change and bought him a can of holiday toffees, which he placed next to his bed on the oil heater for weeks before he realized that the contents had melted. Perhaps divorce would have been more difficult if Kathy hadn’t been a teacher or had been at a different school, but they were separate in their conferences, lesson planning, and lunch breaks from the beginning, so that togetherness was an easy thing to drop from the process. The rhythms of their lives were swinging on opposite beats, while Paul waited in the middle, his keen ear listening for a lead-in.

There was another boy, a young patient Andre saw at the hospital many times during the first week. It was usually in the elevator, when he was going to the lobby to get lunch from the cafeteria or adjacent McDonald’s. Andre frequently had to block out the kitsch sounds of smooth jazz coming from the weak sound system networked through the medical labyrinth. The child was always unaccompanied, rolling his own wheelchair through the opening doors of the elevator. He was bone-thin and, under the fluorescents, looked as though he had procured his skin from the lamination machine Andre used for craft preparation at school. He could have been a creature from the dark reaches of the ocean. A bag was cupped around his mouth, held on by a string wrapped around his head. Andre understood that the boy breathed through the nose, but it was odd not to see the bag moving in and out.

One day, as he rode the elevator back up to the Oncology Ward to bring Paul and Kathy some sandwiches, the small, pale boy started to heave violently, so that his backend bucked out of the chair. Andre, afraid to touch him, stared deliberately at the vibrant mural of running children on the back of the elevator. The child made a sound like a cat coughing up a fur ball. When the boy righted himself, brown chunks and rich yellow mucus had collected in the bag. Andre was instantly sick, vomiting into a corner while he held the bags of food behind him. He wiped his mouth and nose with one of the napkins he had stored in his pocket.

“Take it easy, man,” the boy said sarcastically in a much older a tone than Andre was expecting. He wheeled out onto his selected floor where an orderly was waiting.

She looked in at the mess Andre had made and chided the boy: “Matthew! I told you to keep that bag on always!” She turned to Andre and asked if he would find another elevator so this one could be cleaned. Andre nodded and closed his eyes, his breathing grave and bilious. From the low-amp speaker overhead, Kenny G moaned on his soprano a few cents sharp, and Andre felt fear enter him. His fingers were off the piano keys, but the hammers were pounding incoherently on their own power. He opened his eyes on the elevator, transfixed by the running children made of glass.

Dr. Juneval warned that Paul needed to rest since he would be getting MRIs that day, which are exhausting enough, head trauma aside. He told Andre and Kathy to go home. The surgeons would be reentering the brain on Sunday. So they left their son in the hospital’s care and went back to their homes, to their teaching lives.

Kathy taught general elementary education, although her focus in college was exclusively English. She had always confounded Andre with her love for Russian literature, how she could spend hours with Dostoevsky or Nabokov, Gogol or Chekov, and then keep him awake with dissertational statements about Marxist themes or Eastern Orthodox parody. Kathy had noticed her husband’s reticence and started analyzing him for literary taste. Slowly, they had begun to complement one another’s interests. During the few weekday evenings when they had finished their lesson preparation before bedtime, they would sit in the upstairs office on cheap embroidered pillows. Kathy would read to Andre from The Canterbury Tales, or any selection of Shakespeare, her head resting on the nape of his neck. Listening to Kathy’s lilting meter, he would play full-handed Rachmaninoff chords and runs across her thighs, her belly.

Kathy moved back in on a Saturday. Andre had been engrossed in cutting colorful music notes from a large sheet of plastic lamination when he heard footsteps on the concrete stoop and a key turn. As he came down the stairs, he recognized her sand-colored hair through the semicircle window above the front door.

“It just makes the most sense,” were her only words as she wheeled her suitcase past him to claim his upstairs office as her living space. That night, with his door closed, he sat at the upright piano in his room where he and Paul had their lessons, playing with more anger and sadness than he had ever mustered. His fingers were sloppy with emotion, sloppy like his pulse as it skipped in panic when a beeping alarm clock or microwave reminded him of Paul’s heart monitor. He crushed the small, ugly piano, punished it with callused fingertips and cracked nails. He did not reserve enough calm to evenly resolve the Prelude of Rachmaninoff’s Opus 3 in C-minor. The final, explosive chords depicted a blind man flopping in the mud. Sweating and red in the face, he got up from the piano to lie down. Across his small sleeping space, he saw that his door was opened a few inches. He crossed the room and shut it, then collapsed onto his bed.

Andre lay staring at the molding around the base of his ceiling fan, painted over so many times that the petals in the design resorbed one another. Enough hours had passed that it was now dark. On this dark eve, the glass children came and danced before Andre. Light lanced over him. Kathy came to the bed and sat on the far edge, then slid onto her back, weightless . Her eyes were closed, but too tightly for sleep.

“I don’t want to be touched. I just want to lie here,” she said, her voice like glass breaking.

They are an odd species of counterpoint: two people in contrary motion, at imperfect consonances, given harmony by the boy between them. Tomorrow, Paul will live or die by another’s hands, but Andre and Kathy will be forever haunted by his present melody, by the sound of how differently they love their son. But tonight, a grand pause. Kathy tells Andre that all will be well. A spotlight shines down on him. Andre rises to play his part, taking an A from his son’s perfectly in-tune heart.