The apartment smelled strongly of Köttbullar, Pine-Sol and mothballs when Harris came to the Connors’ apartment. Devon remembered the day well.
Devon’s mom, Teresia had hauled clothes in a shopping cart to the coin laundry across the street. She had come back to find the dreadlocked man in loafers, too big pants, and a dress shirt, loitering by her front door with her son. A keyboard was carefully tucked under the young man’s armpit.
He greeted Teresia with a bow, cleared his throat and announced his presence as HARRIS WYDNELL JEFFERSON, piano teacher.
“I didn’t give my son permission to take lessons from you.” Teresia’s lips flattened into a line and she fidgeted. A flash of fear played at her face, and she widened the distance between them with her stuffed shopping cart. “We have no money. We have nothing in here, in fact. Nothing.”
Harris adjusted the keyboard under his arm. “I’m not here for money. I had an extra keyboard, and I would like your son to have it. Your son needs to practice his notes. I’m starting classes soon, and he can’t come over every day anymore.”
“We don’t need your instrument.” Teresia fished for the keys in her blouse. “We can’t afford it.”
“Your son has been taking lessons from me for weeks.”
She found it. Cracked open the door. “I don’t care.”
Inside the apartment, Devon’s twin sister, Lyn voice could be heard singing along to the cassette playing Celine Dion. The smell of Köttbullar floated out the door and over Teresia’s shoulders. The spiced, beefy scent mingled nauseatingly with the dirt and smog of the city. “We don’t want a keyboard.”
“A keyboard? Mommy, I do!” Lyn appeared at the door and thrusted it open. She was a mess of curly, yellow hair, scattered cookie crumbs and dirtied light-up sneakers. “What keyboard? I want a keyboard.”
Teresia shooed Lyn inside. “Settle down.”
“It’ll only be a minute,” Harris said. “I promise. No money.”
Teresia sighed and stepped aside. The twins cheered as Harris entered the apartment. Teresia pointed out an empty spot in the living room under a small, darkened window. Harris set up the keyboard and pushed a stool pushed next to it.
Harris turned on the keyboard. “Do you want me to play something for you?”
“No, that is enough.” Teresia folded her arms across her chest and wrinkled her nose. “You should really get going.”
“Let him play, mommy,” Lyn said, staring up in admiration at the older man. After much pestering from her children—Lyn specifically—Teresia relented. Harris played two songs while Devon and Lyn danced around the keyboard. He ended the tone with one drawn out chord, Lyn’s squeals and Devon’s applause.
“Play another,” Lyn said with a giggle.
“He needs to go home; don’t you think?” Teresia asked. Harris grabbed his coat. Teresia saw him to the door. “That’s all; we’ll take it from here.”
“Can I play on the keyboard too?” Lyn whispered as Harris left.
“No, it’s my—
“Yes, Lyn,” Teresia interrupted Devon. “You can play whenever you want.”
Harris came back the next day to resume his lessons with Devon. Teresia was reluctant to the agreement, but Devon argued it would be useless to have a keyboard if he couldn’t play it.
“I have no money to give you,” she said on Harris’s fifth day at the apartment. Harris grabbed his coat from the door and slipped it on.
“That’s fine. As long as your kids have the willingness to learn, I’m here to teach them.”
The twins’ ‘willingness to learn’ lasted for two painful renditions of Mary had a Little Lamb, three counts of Good King Wenceslas, and one recital—or about three months.
Harris was there for their eighth birthday. He sliced the cake for them and listened as Lyn whispered her wish in his ear. Harris left candy on the counter for them and little gifts in places they were sure to find them. He taught them a song each on the keyboard and held a miniature recital in their apartment.
Teresia sat through the lessons, clapped for her children and congratulated them when it was appropriate. She managed a polite hello and goodbye to Harris every day.
Months went by before her protests for Harris to hurry and leave weakened. After lessons, the adults sat and talked over cups of coffee or liquor or both. Their laughter reminded Devon of the sound of scattered pigeons. A coy smirk replaced his mom’s usual scowl. Her bun was replaced by free-flowing, blonde ringlets. Teresia would mill about in the kitchen, the hems of her skirt growing shorter and shorter, her neckline plunging deeper and deeper as Fall met Winter.
Devon didn’t eavesdrop much, but when he did Harris and Teresia alway talked about Daddy. Their voices grew more hushed as the night hours drained into early morning. Teresia’s fingers would trace the rim of her coffee cup, eyes watered. Their whispers were only interrupted by soft, kissing sounds.
Devon caught them one day on the couch. Teresia’s head on Harris’ shoulder, her eyes closed, and cheeks wet. Harris with his arm around her waist, shushing her with his lips pressed against her forehead. It was a comforting position; one that both calmed Devon and made his stomach clench with unease.
One autumn day was different from the others. Harris came to the apartment, but not to teach lessons. He rushed in and barely murmured a hello to Devon before slipping into Teresia’s room. Devon sat at the piano with Lyn and shot her a confused look.
The adults emerged hours later, Teresia following behind Harris with a flushed face and a befuddled expression. Spotting Devon, she bit her lip and promised them one day she would get them a real piano teacher.
One afternoon, Devon went into his parents’ room. It wasn’t an unusual occurrence; he went into the room to pick up coins under dressers and in corners. Devon trotted around the room, picking up the silver currency. In this pickpocket journey, he approached the bed.
The slither of green from the edge of a dollar bill, prompted Devon to search under the pillow. He tossed the pillow off the bed. Coins clattered on the ground and a pile of bills stared him in the face.
Devon picked up the crumpled money. He counted them out, his eyes widening. He’d hit the jackpot!
But there was something else on the covers: a note on college-ruled paper. Devon held it in his hands.
If you're unhappy, why do you stay?
The writer extolled the beauty of the lover: her pale skin, her aqueous eyes, her silky hair… He reminded her to pay the rent and leave a little something aside for the children. And what did she want for her birthday? P.S. Please remind Devon to practice his notes.
Wordlessly, Devon put the letter back under the pillow. He pocketed a five and returned the rest of the money.
That qualified as a ‘little something’. He slammed the door on his way out.
Devon sat down at his lessons. He went into his scales in the same dry, disinterested repetition he’d shown in the past few days. His mother stood in the doorway watching him and Harris, her eyes glowing and smile wide.
Screw-faced, Devon turned off the keyboard.
“What’s wrong?” Harris asked.
“Do you love my mom?” Devon glared at Harris.
Harris exchanged a glance with Teresia.
“Devon…” Teresia started.
“Yes,” Harris said.
Teresia looked taken aback.
“I do,” Harris continued, “I hope you don’t mind.”
“Yeah, well, I do.” Devon hopped off of the stool. “And you should stop leaving stupid notes under pillows.” Devon bolted out the door and slammed it shut.
The night air outside caught in his nostrils. It smelled like tobacco smoke. His heart was pounding, pounding. Rage reddened his face.
What was more stupid than playing the keyboard? Why would anyone want to do such a disgusting thing? He didn’t need that crap. He didn’t want it.
Pounding, pounding, was the sound of his feet on the street pavement. The voices of the night carried into the air. They mocked him: his chubby rolls of pasty skin, his heaving breath. What the hell was he running from? Didn’t he know what time of night it was?
Men bent down into car windows, talking fast. Cars sped into the darkness. Shouting. Voices faded into a night as indifferent as the world that watched them on the six o’clock news. People rode bikes into the road. Swear words floated by…dirty words…bad words…words children shouldn’t hear or say.
Hey white boy! A man grabbed his arm. Devon pushed away, never breaking his pace. His eyes charted the area in front of him wildly.
Pounding, pounding, pounding…
Was it his feet or his heartbeat? He couldn’t tell.
His chest threatened to fall out of his body. He stopped, gasping for air.
This was a different part of the city. How long and how far had he run? The streets were clean and the houses locked behind iron gates.
Devon collapsed on a bench, heaving, and put his head in his hands.
His parents always preached at him about right and wrong. This was bad, that was good and never do that.
What about dad? Does mom even care anymore? Did she forget? Did we forget?
Devon looked up at the night sky, with the fat, yellowed face of the moon. He stared back at his hands, wringing them.
And he wept.
He walked until he found a police station and calmly asked for a phone to call his mom. Teresia came to pick up her son an hour later, relieved.
“Things are going to be different now,” Teresia promised him as they drove back home.
Harris stopped coming to their apartment. Teresia wasn’t of much use that week, either drunk, about to be or hung-over.
The food in the pantry started to dwindle. Devon emerged from his parents’ room and started down the hall. Coins weighed heavy in his pocket. He found his sister sprawled across the living room carpet. She lay on her back, her face up to the ceiling.
“I’m going to the store to get food. Wanna come?”
She didn’t answer.
He poked her side with his foot. “Lyn, you stupid girl.”
She stared at the ceiling.
Devon squatted down next to her. Her face had a purplish tint. “Lyn?” She wasn’t breathing. He panicked.
He rested a hand on her left side. Her heartbeat was little more than a flutter around her chest.
“I don’t know how we’re going to pay for this,” Mr. Connors said.
He sat at the kitchen table, his keys and the unfolded medical bill in front of him. His formerly burly form had slimmed down considerably and his hair was cropped low into a Caesar.
Devon sat in a chair nearby and observed the exchange. The adults seemed altogether unaware of his presence. Caught in a strained marriage, their concerns weren’t more than the perceived annoyances they had with each other.
“Don’t talk to her like that, Charles” Teresia said. She finished fixing her daughter’s hair and sent the girl away with a pat on her rear. Lyn walked down the hallway, casting a worried glance back at her parents. She disappeared into her room.
Just the week before, Devon had watched his sister slip into a diabetic coma. Her tiny body had been hooked up with tubes, and machines helped her breathe. Like a hellish, futuristic robot, she’d been pinned in the same place for two days. His dad had taken a leave of absence to see her.
Charles cleared his throat. “I wasn’t talking to her.” He clenched his teeth and glared at his wife. “Or can Lyn work now?” he asked.
“I’ve been trying to find work around,” Teresia said.
“You need to try harder. There isn’t a single can in the cupboard. What have the twins been eating?”
“So, you’re saying she got sick because of me? I fed them what I could, but yes, we’ve had to make due.”
“What happened to the money I sent you?” Charles demanded.
“That was hardly anything,” Teresia said, voice rising. “Or have you forgotten the cost of rent and utilities? I don’t know how we paid for anything when you were away.”
Charles sank back into his seat, tired. He always looked tired nowadays, and worried. His hair had gotten all gray, and his face wrinkled. Nevertheless, Devon was relieved his father was home. Somehow, he felt more secure, safer. Maybe everything that had gone wrong would finally be righted. Devon lined up his toy race cars on the table.
Charles ran a hand through his hair, his eyes a steely blue. “You could have asked your mother.”
“My mother? So, she could remind me we should never have gotten married?” Teresia snapped. She looked at him, as though she wanted to say more, but stopped. She pushed the broom across the living room, in short, angry sweeps.
Charles left the room.