It's been a while since I've posted any writings, and now's a good time to change that. This will be my place for works of writing that, for whatever reason, I wish to share, but don't have any other outlet. Pretty much anything could end up here, as long as I wrote it at some point. Old stuff, new stuff, unfinished stuff… you already get it. Feedback is appreciated, but if you don't feel compelled to do so, that's fine too.
To start with, here's a short story I wrote. It's mostly an experiment at a style/setting that I don't usually work in.
Music of Dust
! My sister was the one who came up with the idea, really, and she had written the flyers. I may have been the first to bring it up, when we were talking about how I could actually start making money off of my vocation, but have no doubts, this was her machination. The flyers were all printed and professional, with cute little decorations advertising for a flute teacher, posted everywhere she went that let her post flyers. A week passed, and my phone went uncalled. I was happy for that. My own work on the flute was taking up far too much of my time, I had none to spare on some random bloke with a passing interest, who would probably give up after realizing that they would have to put in effort. Still, my album was more of an ordeal to finish than I expected, and the process of recording properly is expensive, so I had to make the extra money doing something aside from what I love. Motivational Facebook posts had lied to me again.
I was taking a quick break from rehearsing, when my phone bleeped at me. It was a strange hour, which might be why I was curious enough to pick it up.
! “You’re the flute teacher?” she said, before I could even get out the first hello. Her voice was so breathy and slight, it gave me hope that this wouldn’t really stick.
“I am,” I said, almost feeling like it was a lie. “Would you like to schedule a lesson?”
There was a stop on her end, a catch in the breathiness, so sharp I thought the signal may have been lost. “What time is best for you?”
We went back and forth on our schedules. Her hours were bizarre, and fine by me since mine were, too. We agreed to a time, 6:15 on Thursdays, though I only committed to one lesson, which I said would be free. Just to see if she was a good fit.
I went to her place. The trip was just more convenient for me, and, well, I was embarrassed about my own living situation. A stone bunny with a cartoonish face stood guard at the door. When I knocked, I was answered by a balding man who gave an impression of being tall, despite being shorter than me.
“Ah yes, Meg’s flutist,” he said. Only then did I think that, I never got her name. “Come on in. Meg’s in the study.” The study, as he called it, was a small room with a large clock in one corner, the other corner taken up by a desk covered in envelopes and paperback adventure novels. I suspected it was the one room in the house where one could play music and not disturb any other room. I sat in a small wicker chair that must have been dragged in from some other room, and waited for my first, hopefully only, student. She was already there. Meg was sitting so still, and was so obscured by the dim lighting and her dark clothes that I just failed to notice her. Assuming she didn’t just fade in, like a ghost. Her flute, possibly purchased from an antique store, was lying on the desk next to her.
“So, hi,” I said. She blinked in a way that I took as a hello. By this point, one could say that I was a little nervous. “So,” I repeated, because sometimes no words are better, “Before we begin, why don’t you tell me a few things about yourself?”
I was only repeating things I heard from other teachers. Hours before, I was watching video tutorials on YouTube, to see how others typically began. Even my tone was an imitation of theirs.
“How much do you want me to say?” she asked.
“To start with, it’s good if you come in knowing why you want to learn.”
She tilted her head, the first real movement I saw her make. “There’s this song, that I want to play.”
“Great. What song is it?”
“It doesn’t exist yet,” she said. “It’s in my head. I have to write it.”
“Oh, okay. How much do you know about writing music?”
“I was hoping you could teach me that, too.”
“Well,” I said, maintaining my false voice of understanding, “that may take some time. Learning the flute is a commitment by itself, and composing takes even longer. I’m here to help you, but if you’re expecting results overnight, this might not be for you.”
“I know. Can you play something for me?”
“Alright,” I said, getting my own flute from its box. Not as I planned, but I could go at her pace. “Any requests?”
“I want to know if you’ll be a good fit as my teacher, so play whatever you want.”
I could have just played some Ravel or Debussy, but instead I wound up playing one of my own songs, not knowing which one it would be until the flute was against my lips. The song that came out, was from the album that had been more of an on and off project for me. It was the first I had played it for anyone, and now that I had an audience, it sounded different. Really I should have spent more time on it, since it wasn’t exactly finished and I had much more polished material that I could have drawn from, but she listened carefully, watching my fingers like she could see the notes.
“It’s nice,” she said. “Reminds me of someone I knew once.”
I, too had written the song with memory in my mind. There was little left to say, so we started learning from there. It’s said that there are students who will pick up music for the first time as if it fit them their whole lives, that all they needed was to be pointed in a direction, and the rest would come from there. Meg’s not one of them. When I first showed her how to do a basic e flat, what came out was a shuddering screech. The rest of the lesson was devoted just to getting her fingers right. Her pinky kept inadvertently rising. The lesson went on until Meg’s parents called her down to dinner, and as I walked out the door, I found myself scheduling our next lesson.
! That Friday was one of my irregular gigs at a dingy bar, with my friend Mike and his band. They played this sort of electric folksy music that I wasn’t much into, and I didn’t like the audience, but they were an audience and there was money involved, so I could say I’m a paid musician. I was sipping my beer in between songs, when who should I see at one of the tables, but Meg. She was there with some other girl, wrapped up in some other conversation, but the way her eyes flicked towards me every so often was enough to know that she noticed me. After the band finally stopped playing, Meg was still sitting around, though her friend had already gone, so I pulled up the vacated chair. Despite the recognition, chatting to her was like talking to someone completely different. Last night, she seemed like she could only exist by lurking in shadows and dusty corners, but here she open, agreeable, and even smiled when it was appropriate. Maybe the demeanor I saw when we were alone was only my imagination. It wasn’t my business, but I thought the girl I taught the flute to was far more intriguing, but the girl in front of me said she liked the band, so I stuck around. She explained that she only lived with her parents to help pay for college, and because it was so near to her job. She worked at a coffeehouse called the Lemon Cup downtown, or, as she explained, “not exactly downtown, but it has that vibe.”
“I’ve been trying to find a good place like that,” I said. “I’ll check it out.”
“Nice,” she said. “Actually, my boss said that they might be looking for live musicians soon. Nothing too fancy, just something mellow and chill.”
She sipped her beer slowly as the conversation dwindled. I wound up giving her a ride home, and she sat in silence, watching the city stream by and listening to the music lightly playing in the background. She felt very familiar, then.
We got to her house not long after.
! For a complete beginner, she learned faster after that first week, having mastered the basics in only a couple of lessons. I couldn’t help but think that she might have learned even faster if she didn’t keep trying to get ahead of herself. For every instruction I gave her, she had a question, and with every answer, the questions got harder. Her issue was breath control. She would tire herself out before she got to the end of our sessions, so each Thursday would close out with me demonstrating a song or two for her. I could almost see her taking the notes in her head as she listened. It was fascinating to watch her like that.
Between lessons, I kept practicing, and when I wasn’t doing that, I was writing plans, as if I thought that I was a real teacher. My sister probably would have been thrilled. I couldn’t tell you what was going on in my mind, those days. The songs that were stuck there were lovely, though. Meg’s flute lessons were almost like a dream, that I slipped in and out of in between long bouts of reality.
I sent an email to that coffeehouse, the Lemon Cup. They got back to me with the typical, “We’ll think about it and see if we can fit you in,” which I long ago learned meant that I would never hear from them again. The next afternoon, they sent me another email, asking me if I was available in a couple of weeks. When I brought it up to Meg, she said she had talked to them about me.
The Lemon Cup gave the impression of having an Asian feel, but had no real cultural details on display. Meg greeted me from behind the counter with an open smile, and set me up with the cheap mic they had as their stage. The place was clearly not made with performers in mind, just big enough for me. It was rather full that night, and the patrons were all old and rich enough to have respectable tastes. The songs I played were all old and familiar to me, material that Meg had already heard. When she wasn’t the only audience, she wasn’t listening so closely. When the last note fell, she clapped. I went home with a small amount of money, a promise from the manager that they would see about scheduling a regular time for me, and a complementary bag of their tea.
Months passed, a lesson a week, same as ever. I would go in, chat with Brian and his wife Sandra, and make my way to the study, where I would begin. We cleared off some of the clutter that was spread across the desk, and during the latter hour of the lesson, taught her the basics of writing music. She experimented with precision, forming melodies that, even when she was just getting the hang of it, even in the weeks before she came to me with all these facts about music theory that I had never heard of, were as focused and yet subtle as she was. I couldn’t grasp where it was all coming from, only saw the results of it in her work. What I never got to see her write, was the song she first said she wanted to play.
! I became a regular at the Lemon Cup, even on the days that I didn’t bring my flute. I avoided going on the days that Meg wasn’t there. The dissonance between her when she was at her job, and when she was devoted to our work, was too much for me. I stopped playing at other gigs around town. Mike’s band had broken up, his drummer having changed direction, his bassist having changed location. All the venues around town were getting stale anyway.
At some point, I had to wonder what would happen when Meg got past the point where all the YouTube tutorials stopped, where my knowledge of music would stop being useful to her. We’d be peers, then, and that was exciting, but it was hard for me to picture planning a Thursday, without stepping back into a poorly-lit study and breathing in so much dust. Those days, she would just play a song she had practiced, and I would listen, offering her just enough advice to nudge her to refinement. The big clock in the corner was a natural metronome. She started scheduling performances for herself at the Lemon Cup. We alternated weeks, and of course we went to one another’s shows. She mostly played classic songs, but in a unique way. There’s no way I could replicate it, so please just take my word for it, that to hear her “La Mer” is a sensation you haven’t felt before. It’s to venture into the sea itself, going down, until the only lights are from bioluminescent fish and the only heat comes from the heart of the Earth, and you’re slowly enveloped by the pressure of so much black water. Well, that’s my interpretation.
I brought my own teachers to her shows (the ones I was still on speaking terms with) as well as a few music expert who’s email addresses I had on hand. They all agreed that she was good, though none of them had the same views on her style as I did, which bothered me. I guess because it only proved they never did know what they were talking about.
The really good thing about the Lemon Cup, was that the patrons there were just rich enough to want to not only listen to flute music, but buy it from the artist as well, so I sold plenty of my old CDs I had lying around. What space on my shelves had been taken up by copies of my own music, was now vacated, and replaced by complementary bags of tea. I was making just enough, almost enough, to be able to finally produce my next album. The more I made, the more I realized I could do, so I decided to wait a bit longer, until my funds matched my ambitions.
I called my sister, on the pretense of asking about her sick cat. Really, I just wanted to tell her that, in some way, her encroachment on my life had paid off.
“That’s good to hear,” she said, in a half-interested way. Her phone was on speaker, as she was using both her hands to wrangle her cat and feed him medicine. “So what’s next?”
“What are you doing after this?”
I was almost dismayed when I didn’t know what answer to give her. “I guess I’ll focus on tryouts for another orchestra.”
“I thought you weren’t interested in those anymore.”
“For now. Just to see what it opens up.”
“What do you mean? What’s going to come after that?”
“I don’t know. I’ll see when it happens.”
“Sure, yeah. Sounds like you’re happy with the way things are now, then.”
I didn’t reply to that. She was so busy, she didn’t even notice. The cat was absolutely sick of all the attention he was getting, and all the better for him. I ended the conversation. It was time for me to teach.
For the first time since that first Thursday, how long a time I stopped keeping track, Meg wasn’t waiting in the study, sunken in the chair like that’s where she had been all day. I waited, watching the clock, making sure I hadn’t come in early, in my haste to end the talk with my sister. Meg only came swooping in about two minutes late, flute in one hand, and scrawled sheet music in the other.
“Can you help me with this today?” she asked.
“Sure, what are you wondering?” I replied. Given that I wasn’t the most inventive instructor, it was a good day whenever she came in with the lesson idea. She spread the wrinkled papers on the desk.
“This section,” she said. “it’s wrong.”
I looked it over, softly humming the notes to myself, trying to find the issue. It sounded perfect and beautiful. “You’ll have to point out the problem.”
She blinked at me coldly, as if she was catching a lie. “You don’t see how clumsy the transition is?” A finger tapped on the measure, like an executioner’s axe. “It needs to be smooth, more like…” she moved her hand in a sort of wave. “Like that.”
“Oh.” I saw what she meant when I read through the paper a second time, even if I never would have noticed otherwise. It’s something one of those music scholars would have said. “Let’s see what we can do about that.”
The transition was a harder puzzle than I thought it would be. The problem with Meg was, her work came from such a strange place, with little understanding of the structures other musicians abided by, that the sheet music she wrote read almost like a translation, from a language I didn’t have access to. Any attempts to explore it from a conventional angle, was a fine way to be lost in the dark. From the way her lips tightened as she thought, and the way her head bent over the page, I could tell she was plagued by the same. By the time we sorted our way out, the rest of the song had to be adjusted to match. We only got halfway through, before Sandra called for Meg to come down for dinner. We both jumped, having been so involved in the sheet music that we forgot about the outside world.
“Crap,” Meg seethed, folding the fragile pages.
“It’s alright,” I said, “we can always finish next time.” That is, if she didn’t finish on her own before then.
Meg shook her head. “Can’t make it.”
“Really?” I asked. “Why not?”
“I’m doing a show. At the old Pensbrook Theater, next Friday. They want me on Thursday to take care of some stuff.”
What I felt there, wasn’t a blow. It was too good a feeling to be called that. But it was familiar. “That’s huge,” I said. The Pensbrook itself isn’t huge, no massive auditorium, but it’s historic, which is kind of better. “How did you get that?”
She shrugged. “Someone at the Lemon Cup posted a video of me playing online. I guess it took off. My mom knows someone at the Pensbrook, so she’s really the one who pulled the strings for me.”
“Wow,” I said. What else was there to match that? “I’m happy for you.”
“It was good luck. One in a thousand.”
I offered to take her out to celebrate, but she had to stay behind for dinner. I went to the bar alone.
! The next week took me to Meg’s front door again. Only after I knocked, did I remember that she wouldn’t be there. It was too late for me to do anything, except maybe hide in the bushes. I didn’t.
Brian opened the door, with such an “oh-shucks-you-goofed” expression that those bushes still seemed beckoning.
“Looks like you forgot,” he said.
“Sorry,” I replied.
He chuckled, and said, “Don’t worry about it. Say, since you came all this way, would you like to join us for dinner tonight?” He probably only said it to diffuse the awkwardness.
“Thanks very much. But, I don’t want to impose…”
“Come on. You teachers always starve yourselves anyway, right? Sandra’s making extra. Guess she forgot Meg’s not here, too.”
All the weeks I had been to their house, I had never seen more than the space between the front door and the study. The dining room was the kind of place one feels perpetually underdressed. I ate more than I probably should have, despite the pasta being smothered by far too much spice. Brian wouldn’t stop asking me questions about my career. He would have had a lot to talk about with my sister. How could Meg have come from a place like this? Perhaps they didn’t, and she emerged from some shadow to assert herself there.
“You know, I’ll tell you this,” Brian said after a third glass of wine. “I’ll be happy to have my study back again.”
“What do you mean?” I asked, spoonful of ice cream in hand.
“Just that, she was practicing all the time. Practically every second she wasn’t at work. I think even her friends stopped talking to her after a while.”
“It wasn’t every second,” Sandra said reassuringly. “Of course she got plenty of sleep.”
“I admire her dedication,” Brian went on, “but, it would have been nice if she had more of a social life. Well, her dedication’s paid off. I don’t exactly know about flutes, but I never saw her invested in anything I did know about.”
“Really,” I said. It never occurred to me. I only saw her for a couple of hours every week, but that study wasn’t just a moment of a dream for her. Maybe she didn’t ever awaken from it.
“So, hopefully we’ll still see you around. I’m sure Meg would like having someone to jam with.”
“If you aren’t busy with other students,” Sandra added. Maybe they were oblivious, or maybe they knew and, like me, didn’t want to bring it up, but while I was on my way back home, I knew. I wasn’t a teacher anymore.
! I was in the Lemon Cup one day, maybe a year or so later, reading a magazine and nonsense on my phone. As I often did, I had a performance scheduled for that night, another performance for my regulars, but I got there a bit early. I had nowhere else to be for the day. Besides, the music they played over their speakers was so good. Familiar, but new, songs I had heard before, but arranged slightly differently. I asked the barista what they were playing.
“It’s this local artist,” she explained. She was new. Or I never noticed her before. “Actually, I hear she used to work here.”
! I sipped my coffee, and sat back down. One song ended, and transitioned to another. I never heard this one before. Unlike the others, it was achingly simple. No frills, barely any instrumentation besides the drawn out notes of a single flute. I put down my magazine, my coffee, every thought I had with me, the whole swarm that gathered in my brain and muddled to nothing. The space that opened in my thoughts, was filled with dust and shadows, ghosts and the ticking of a clock. I was once again back in the study, even there in the coffeehouse. But I was there alone.