Devotion

Phyllis Gropp


The shutters and clapboards leaked music every day, those melodies from the cubic house of an old couple near Downtown. When piano sonatas and concertos wafted over the block, serenading the nearby park, people walked more slowly and birds sang more brightly; neighbors opened their windows to Chopin and Liszt, while children passing by asked their elders for piano lessons. Then one dreary fall the music stopped and the house grew dilapidated, as voices ruptured the peace. A year later the shouting continues. "You only have time for your family. Bucelli, Bucelli." Randall calls across the modest living room to his wife, Iris, who bites her lip, who doesn't want to cry. Occupying the barrel chair, which keeps him upright with no effort on his part, slumping in an undershirt and pleated wool trousers twenty years old, he says, "Drive yourself. Wreck the car."

Iris offers no answer, tries to filter his ranting. She can't imagine what set off his brain chemistry in recent years, what surge or trickle turned him more hostile, turned him paranoid, turned his incessant griping into vicious attacks. On his trip from irksome to cruel he acquired a bit of dementia. She sits at the piano squeezed into the corner of the living room, where she looks out the front window at old homes and the park; as if missing a lover, she silently strokes the two octaves above middle C, the keyboard which she has been forbidden to play because it disturbs her husband--her glissandos and cadenzas more objectionable to Randall than his tirades. She wants to pound the keys, blast him with the last measures of Tchaikovsky's 1812, drums and canons.

Under duress, she quit giving piano lessons three years ago. "You love your music," he says. "You live for music and the Bucellis." Because of her heart condition and because she wants to be around for her young granddaughter, she has learned to shift out of her anger, resorting to prayer, willing herself out of the snares Randall sets for her. She looks at the crucifix above the piano. It's Tuesday, and all she wants is to visit her sister next Sunday, but Randall won't cooperate. She must go. She needs the relief of friendship. Since Iris retired from teaching at sixty-five, her eyesight has narrowed and the State forbids her to drive; she depends on him. There was a time when they were bound by love, when he would take her side in squabbles with her brother and sister. Randall's large physical presence made her feel protected. Now his size is menacing. Dizzy and short of breath, she props her elbows on the piano and mentally crosses the room to the battered island of a sofa, which sags on one end where he broke the springs, jumping on it during a rage. He refuses to see a psychiatrist.

She closes the keyboard's wooden cover. Her only reliable escape is to walk in the park, her dim eyes barely discerning the curved path, a spangle of sunlight crossing the playground, where he thinks she meets a lover. Many afternoons, bent over plants in the front yard, plucking weeds, he watches her advance along the pathway. "I see what goes on," he says. Weeks ago he troweled a clump of violets and stuck them in a pot with a spiky succulent. The pot stands in a dish now, at the living room window--the violet blooms gone, their foliage wilted.

The room provides a grim backdrop to the excited whirring of the clock. Remembering her greatest joy, Iris holds a photograph close to her face, a picture of their daughter and granddaughter, each with blossom cheeks and a chin like the bottom of a heart. As if admonished by the picture, he offers her a cushy chair, and she swats him away, tired of his empty gestures, his apologies for his mood swings. Another woman would have left him, but she is a good Catholic who channels her anger into her body, knowing God wouldn't forgive her for leaving a husband who is sick, mentally and physically. He has been declining since their daughter, Julia, got married, which Randall calls her Renunciation and Iris calls her Escape. Before she retired, Iris' bitterness flowed into her handling of misbehaved students, pulling their ears, administering humiliation. Now she leans her cheek on the music rest, on the old Kimble that has propped her up for years. Shifting away, she kneads her left arm near the shoulder, hoping it's not the start of something dreadful, and wondering if she would have the strength to play the bass keys, should Randall miraculously exit her life. Instantly she rejects that possibility; he will put her into the grave.

"What's the matter?" He watches her rub her arm. "If you die, I die." Randall draws a line across his throat. Of course, he has made his life so cramped and painful, he has no one but her. The drama makes her weary. He had a baseball career once. A double A farm team. Randall would say, "The coach loved regimentation, dictating my a.m. and p.m., telling me how to train, when to sleep. I told the bastard off." Randall's life had always run uphill, but it took a steeper angle after he quit playing ball. He trained fighters who never won; he gave Swedish massage, went on the road selling hair tonic and brushes, peddled insurance, and later relieved a few shop owners of their bookkeeping, until they tired of his temperament. As the years crumbled away he made himself financially dependent on Iris.

"I'd live longer if you could be civil," she says.

"You provoke me. You and your Bucellis."

She watches him make his eyes into mean slots. He has no blood relatives; the last of them died right after Lyndon Johnson.

"They don't give a damn about you. I give you love and affection," he says.

Love and affection. He always says it that way, as if love weren't enough. He's right. When he saunters out of the room she usually feels lighter, but today when he leaves, the tension clings. She wishes her sister, Addy, could drive, tries to think of how she'll get to her sister's house, where Iris will confide to Addy and then make happy noises for their friends, women who don't know about Iris's home life.

He returns, unreasonably hopeful as he presents a cup of watered down coffee and two slices of bread, jelly on both. Frowning at his offer, she accepts the cup and sets it on the piano. "You don't have to do that. Just exercise self-control." He sits down to eat the bread. Her patient brother, Gino Bucelli, the pastry chef, might listen to Randall's woes; the wild man avoids Gino after maligning him the other night, maligning him and raging at Iris.

Extending the cease-fire, he crosses the living room in two steps; retrieves the newspaper and puts it on her lap, turns on the piano lamp. What she reads is Randall. He's been irritating, he thinks, and this will make up for it. The outbursts are just a quirk of his. Anyway he's really a caring guy, he would tell you. He retrieves a glass of water and feeds it to the dead violets.

Iris sets the paper on the floor, points to the bedroom. "You could get my pills. Please."

Ignoring her, he speaks idly, as if there'd been no angry words, no contrition. "Let your daughter drive you on Sunday. Exactly alike, you two. Iris had taken Helena and left him for six years, growing years, for the girl's sake and Iris's.

"She hasn't called." Iris waits for her pills.

"That's how much she thinks of you."

"It's not me who pushes her away." She presses the center of her chest. "My pills. Please."

He stares while his face rearranges itself, responding to some trickle in his brain. "Anything you want, Sweetheart."

In spite of his dutiful tone, she knows he'll dismiss her, but she's too weak to get up and retrieve the pillbox. With no purpose he gets on hands and knees and inspects the nail trim on the old chair, then turns it over and checks the bottom.

"My pills." She hardens her face.

He turns angry. "She's like that because of you, poisoning her mind, turning her against me. I'll prove it."

"Don't start." She rubs her breastbone while he sulks; he disappears and she hears the atonal chiming of the telephone touch pad.

"Helena?" he says. "Who do you love?"

Breaking into a sweat, Iris notes the violets in the front yard nodding, mourning their sisters in the house. As her pain blossoms she raises the keyboard cover, and with one hand, she weakly plays the last measures of the 1812 Overture. In her mind the floor vibrates and the windows hum in their loose casements; a bass drum thunders, and the final canon seizes her chest. Iris slumps. As the sun retreats behind a cloud, the cramped house in the city goes quiet but for Randall's breathing and a dial tone. In the street a boy whistles a thin tune.