by Tilia Klebenov Jacobs
If Cecelia could have seen the apartment, she might not have walked in. If she could have seen the blinds, which had been drawn tight against the perfection of June sunlight, hastily snapped open and filling the room with swarms of grey dust; if she could have seen the crooked sofa, propped up at one end with half a cinderblock and covered with red cushions that were blotchy as bruised fruit; if she could have known that the framed print of “Ten Rules for a Happy Marriage” was hung deliberately askew to hide a hole punched in the plaster behind it; then Cecelia might very well have said, “Home, Ranger,” and strode swiftly away, one hand on the harness, while Ranger guided her along the sidewalk at twice the pace of the cane-tappers who didn’t have dogs.
But Cecelia did not see the apartment, and though she did feel the unevenness of the porch steps and the stuffiness of the room as the door opened, she found no reason not to enter.
“Melody,” said a voice, and Cecelia thrust her hand in its direction. It met another hand, and they clasped each other. The voice was cheerful, but there was something strained and tight under it.
“Cecelia,” she replied. “And this is Ranger.”
Melody held the door open. “Come right in. There’s a step here, so—good. Oh, he’s beautiful. Where do you leave him when you come to church?”
“He stays under the pew.”
Ranger, a gold and black German shepherd, led his owner in, Cecelia hitching up the strap of her bag so it wouldn’t fall off her shoulder. “Is the piano in here?” she said. “And where is my student? I brought some beginner books since you said you didn’t have any. I can leave the first one with you so Mark has something to practice from, but by next week I expect him to have his own.”
“Of course,” burbled Melody. ”The piano is—over here—.” She faltered, but Cecelia and Ranger followed her voice and Cecelia sat down on the hard bench, setting her bag and purse on the floor. Ranger curled up in a tawny circle next to them, and Cecelia let go of the harness.
“I wish I could get my son to do that,” chuckled Melody.
“Oh, no. Just high-spirited,” said Melody. “I think this will be just the right thing for him. I loved music when I was his age. Used to play for hours.”
Cecelia waited for some indication that Melody was joking, but instead the other woman said only, “It meant so much to me.”
Cecelia stretched her hands over the keys and hit one note. It twanged. She frowned, but said only, “Where is he?”
“Mark? Oh, my goodness, I’m so sorry. He’s still asleep—teenagers—I’ll get him,” Melody almost babbled. “And—can I get you anything?”
“Just a student would be fine.”
While Melody vanished to get her son, Cecelia played a brief and abortive jingle on the piano. Each note was wrong in a different way. It was as though the keys had never spoken to each other. Ranger’s ears twitched. In a sitcom he would have sat on his haunches, tossed back his head, and howled. Cecelia frowned again. Could Melody truly have no idea how horrible this was?
“This is Mark.” Melody’s voice was bright and taut. Cecelia twisted, extending her hand; but this time no one took it.
Mark Garrick was a sullen boy of thirteen with an aversion to eye contact. He wore Vans and baggy jeans that barely clung to his thin frame. His tee shirt was long and loose, and he kept his hands jammed into his pockets as though afraid one of them might accidentally be polite on his behalf. His lank hair hung in his eyes, which were red-rimmed and squinted angrily at the dusty light in the living room. A teacher seeing him would have prayed, “Please, not in my classroom.” A counselor would have thought, “Hostility toward authority, attention deficit disorder, defensive-reactive syndrome.” But Cecelia waited for a voice, and when none came she thought, Shy or rude.
“Why don’t you sit down with Cecelia, Mark?” said Melody when the silence threatened to break like a stretched wire.
“It’s Mrs. Sharpe,” said Cecelia. “But yes, please sit down.” She slid to one side to make room for him.
Mark rocked on his heels, scowling. Finally, hands still deep in his pockets, he spoke. “This is stupid.”
Melody fluttered. “Just give it a try, sweetie. Please? For me?” Her hand touched his shoulder.
He jerked away from it. “I’m not five, Mom.”
Melody became crisp, but there was still a pleading quality to her voice. “Then let’s say you prove it and sit down.”
“Because. It’s stupid.”
“I never said I wanted music therapy. This was your idea. So why don’t you sit down, Mom?” He imitated her mincingly, a high, tight note in his voice that was so accurate it would have been funny had it not been so clearly intended to wound.
“I’m not a music therapist,” said Cecelia. “I’m not sure who told you I was, but—”
“He’s been in therapy since he was six,” said Melody reasonably. “The only thing missing now is the music.”
Cecelia reached for her books. “Look. I can see you two have some things to sort out, so why don’t you give me a call when things are more settled? No charge for today.”
“No—wait. Mrs. Sharpe. Celia. Cecelia.” Melody spoke in fragments, everything broken and wrong.
“Bye, Mrs. Sharpe.”
“Let her go, Mom. This was your stupid idea.”
“I’ll see you in church,” said Cecelia.
“No, please. If you’ll just wait a moment,” said Melody. “Mark.” And they left the room. Cecelia sat on the piano bench in wonderment, the books on her lap.
Melody and Mark went into his room and shut the door. The bed was unmade, the bare mattress showing under a clump of sheets and a pillow without a case. The windows and blinds were shut tight against the June afternoon. It smelled of old sweat and smoke and something acidic. Melody flicked on the light and turned to face him. “Please, Mark. Just give it a try.”
“No.” He scowled, arms tight, fists clenched at his sides.
“Why not, honey?”
“Because this is just another one of your fucked-up ideas, Mom. Only stupider.”
“Stupider than rehab,” he went on in a rush. “You know what rehab is, Mom? It’s where kids like me hang out so we can get even better at lying and getting high.”
“It was rehab or the hospital again,” she said.
“Oh, yeah, the hospital,” he snarled. “Staring at a white wall all day so all you can think about is doing drugs.”
“It was supposed to help. They said—”
“They said! They said! Do you ever listen to what I say?”
“I’m listening right now. Just tell me what you want.”
“I want you to leave me alone!”
Melody sighed. “And look what happens when I do.”
“Leave me alone, Mom.”
“Music therapy, Mom?” said Mark. “Really?”
“What’s wrong with it?”
“It’s stupid,” Mark almost yelled. “Stupider than the groups. Stupider than all twelve steps put together. And stupider than that stupid shrink you love so much who tells you how to fix your problem child. Jesus, Mom, why do you do everything she says?”
Melody stared at him, eyes bleak. “I don’t.”
“Yeah, right.” He crossed his arms and stared back in disgust. But Melody did not look away.
“She says I should put you out.”
“What?” Mark’s head jerked.
“Out. Of the house. Change the locks, move without telling you. Next time you get arrested, maybe.” She sighed. ”Probably won’t be much of a wait.”
“She didn’t say that.”
“Not to you.”
Mark hesitated. “What did you tell her?”
“That I should do it.”
“But you won’t.” He grinned up at her, hard and angry. “You never will.”
“No,” she agreed, “I won’t. Because I’m weak. That’s what love does to you. It makes you weak.”
The walls were thin, and in the silence they could hear the discord of Cecelia testing more keys.
“Why should I do this?” he said finally.
“So you can get well.”
He snorted. “I mean, what do I get out of it?”
“Not money, if that’s what you mean.”
“Then forget it.”
She folded her arms so she and her son mirrored each other. “You’re not getting paid to be in therapy, Mark.”
“This isn’t therapy.”
“It’s part of the big picture,” she said.
“Your big picture. Your picture of perfect little me doing everything you want. Forget it.”
In the other room, Cecelia hit a single note repeatedly, as though willing it to be in tune.
“Don’t you love me at all, Mark?” Melody spoke pleadingly.
He rolled his eyes. “Yeah, fine, I love you, Mom.”
“Then please give this a try. Just for a couple of weeks. If you don’t like it we’ll do something else.”
Mark hesitated, and finally flung his hands at the floor as though flicking off something sticky. “Fine.”
They marched back to the living room and Mark sat on the end of the bench next to Cecilia. “Hey, Mrs. Sharpe, sorry about that.”
Cecilia swung her legs around and sat stiffly, facing the keys. She had replaced the books in the holder on the piano. “Are you ready to start playing, Mark?”
“You bet,” he said cheerfully.
“Oh?” Cecelia did not reach for the keys. “And why the turnaround?”
“My mom wants me to play piano instead of smoking weed and shit,” he said. “Guess music’s gonna be my salvation.”
“Is that right?”
“Nothing else has been.” Mark picked up one of the books and riffled through it, glancing at the titles of the beginner songs. “So let’s save this problem child, okay? You and me, Mrs. Sharpe. Soon as we jingle those bells and get those saints marching, I’ll be a whole new me and you’ll be my mom’s latest superhero.” He slapped the book into the bracket and smashed his hands down on the keys. A painful, twisted sound filled the air as he banged. “Man! I feel clean already.”
Cecelia sighed. “Melody,” she said over her shoulder.
Melody hovered in the doorway. “Yes?”
“We’re done here.” Cecelia gathered the books and bent to slide them into her bag. She stood. “Ordinarily I’d stick it out—I charge by the hour, after all—but this is ridiculous.”
“Oh, hey, Mrs. Sharpe, don’t give up on me now. Things were just getting good. I could feel the healing begin.” Mark stood, and as he did so he grabbed her purse and bolted for the door.
“Mark,” cried Melody.
Cecelia heard the clink of the two chain links on the purse strap as it swept past, and she felt the swish of air as Mark ran. “Ranger,” she said.
The tawny dog, who had not moved since lying down when they entered the apartment, rose in a single, fluid leap and flew between Mark and the door. He did not snarl, nor did he show his teeth; but neither did he move, and Mark stopped, purse dangling from one hand, his bloodshot eyes on the dog.
Melody was sobbing. ”Mark, how could you? Stealing from a—” She glanced at Cecelia’s sightless eyes. “From a woman. How could you?” She wiped her eyes with clenched fists.
Mark let the purse drop to the floor. Keeping an eye on Ranger, Melody picked it up and walked back to Cecelia. “I’m putting it on top of the piano,” she said loudly.
“Yes, I know,” said Cecelia. “And you needn’t shout. I haven’t suddenly gone deaf.”
“Call off your dog,” said Mark. “He’s gonna bite me.”
Cecelia gave a dark chuckle. “If Ranger wanted to hurt you, believe me, you’d know it by now.” She lifted her hand in a signal. “Ranger. Heel.” And the dog trotted past Mark, positioning himself at Cecelia’s side so that she could reach down and grasp his harness.
“Mark,” said Melody desperately, “isn’t there anything you’d like to say to Mrs. Sharpe?”
Mark looked as though there were any number of things he wanted to say to Mrs. Sharpe, but instead he turned an aggrieved face to his mother. “Geeze, Mom, I can’t believe you. This is part of my recovery.”
Melody looked blank. “What?”
“This is it, Mom. The ninth step.”
Mark’s lower lip trembled. “Mom. I can’t believe you would do this to me. You’re supposed to be keeping track of my steps.”
“Of course I’m keeping track of your steps, honey,” flustered Melody. “I know the ninth one is, um, about confronting your inability to stop doing drugs.”
“We’re supposed to be in this together.” Mark blinked rapidly. “I can’t heal without you, Mom.”
“The ninth step is only, like, the most important one. It’s where I make direct amends to the people I’ve harmed.” He swallowed. “I was going to buy you a present.”
“But Mark,” said Melody in despair, “you can’t steal to make amends.”
“I know.” He stared at the floor. “But I feel like I’ve really turned a corner, Mom. This is it. And the thing is, I spent all my money on, y’know, drugs, and I didn’t know how to get any more, money I mean, not drugs, ha ha, and I just really want to make it up to you after all I’ve put you through. And then I saw the purse and I lost my head. I’m sorry.” He looked at Cecelia. “I’m really sorry, Mrs. Sharpe.”
Cecelia, who had been listening in fascinated silence, did not answer. Mark sighed. “I don’t blame you,” he said. “I guess I’ve been bad so long I’ve forgotten how to be good.”
Melody swept forward and enfolded Mark in her arms. “Oh, darling boy,” she cried. “You aren’t bad. You never are. Just your behavior sometimes.”
“This time is different,” he said, voice muffled.
She pushed away. “Really?” Mark saw the flit of hope in her eyes, and Cecelia heard it in her voice.
Mark gave a damp chuckle. “Scout’s honor, Mom. I’m ready. I wasn’t before.”
“Well, that is…wonderful news, sweetheart.”
“I think it might have been the piano playing,” confided Mark.
“No,” muttered Cecelia.
“So that’s why I wanted to get you something,” he went on. “To show you how much I appreciate everything you’ve done for me.”
“I don’t need anything, sweetheart. I just want you to get well.”
“Okay.” He smiled. “But…that ninth step is so important, Mom. And I don’t want anything interfering with my recovery.”
Melody smiled back as she reached for her purse, which hung on a hook by the door. “Oh, silly. There are plenty of other people you could make amends to, you know.”
“Good point, Mom.” Mark’s dark eyes fixed on the purse as his mother fished in it and extracted a small wallet with worn edges.
“So why don’t you start with some of them?” She handed him some bills, folded over. “I think you know who I mean.”
“I sure do. Thanks, Mom. You won’t regret it. This time it’s for real.” He shoved the bills in his pocket and opened the door. “You’re the best mom ever.”
“Be back for lunch—dinner,” she called after him as he jumped over the threshold and down the steps. If he answered, it was swallowed up in the noises of the street.
Melody shut the door. She turned to the piano teacher, beaming. “Look at that!” she exclaimed. “And after just one session with you. You really are a miracle-worker, Cecelia. I’m going to tell everyone at Al-Anon about you.”
Cecelia’s eyes widened. “You can’t be serious.”
Melody gestured at the door. “You heard what he said.”
“Certainly.” Melody spoke with a firmness Cecelia had not heard before. “He’s gone straight. Finally. It’s been a long time coming, I can tell you.”
“I see,” said Cecelia acidly.
“He’s gone to buy me a present. Even though I told him not to.” She shook her head, smiling. “Kids.”
“He’s gone to get blind,” said Cecelia bluntly. She shouldered her bag and purse, and grasped Ranger’s harness with her free hand. “Do you really not see that?”
But Melody shook her head. ”Not this time,” she said. “This time it’s different.” She held open the door for Cecelia and spoke her last words to the piano teacher.
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Tilia Klebenov Jacobs
Tilia Klebenov Jacobs is a graduate of Oberlin College and Harvard Divinity School. When Tilia is not writing she is teaching (aka “getting paid for bossing people around”). She has taught middle school, high school, and college; currently she teaches writing classes for prison inmates, and is a judge in the Soul-Making Keats Literary Competition in San Francisco. She is the author of Wrong Place, Wrong Time and Second Helpings at the Serve You Right Café. Tilia lives near Boston with her husband, two children, and two standard poodles. www.tiliaklebenovjacobs.com