Sunday, April 13, 2014

Midnight Appointment by Charles Howard Wise

Charles Howard Wise's sad and beautiful paean to music, nature and loss.

John put down his pen, straightened his desk and slid on his wool jacket. He used to wear it when he went hunting with his father, but that was long ago. He hadn't hunted in nearly thirty years, but the jacket still fit even if it did smell of mothballs. Once he stepped out onto the patio, John pulled up a chair and lit a Pall Mall. The smoke curling off into the moonlight reminded him of his father.

His dad had been a paratrooper in Europe. He had dropped into the night sky over Normandy early on D-Day. John's prize possession was the Colt .45 his dad had carried through Europe. John's dad never talked a lot about the war; at least about the fighting, but he would have times when he was very quiet for days at a time. It was as if he was living in another place and would drop in randomly to visit with his family. He had seen more during the war than any nineteen-year-old kid should ever see. He was especially affected by the condition of the inmates of the concentration camp his battalion liberated. His last years were spent fighting lung cancer and emphysema. John remembered his emaciated features, his sunken eyes, his grey pallor. He looked as if he had been carried out of a concentration camp. He did not die peacefully.

John sat listening to the November breeze rustling the dried oak leaves where they'd blown against the foundation. Oak leaves curl up when they dry, maple leaves stay flat. That's why the oak leaves make such good mulch: the airspaces act as insulation against the cold. Good for the roses. Maggie, his wife of twenty-two years, had died nearly a year ago. She had died suddenly. The doctor said it was her heart. Maybe, but not the way the doctor thought, not plaque and atherosclerosis.

The oak tree spread out in the side yard with its branches hanging low. That was Katie's tree. She was quite a tomboy when she was little. John could almost hear her laughing as she played with her cousins. They ran in circles until they dropped, then got up and climbed helter-skelter back up that old oak. The kids chased each other all over the yard all dressed in worn jeans and bright T-shirts. Maggie and her sister lounged on the patio under the grape arbor and talked about the news of the day. It was a quiet life and a good one.

He remembered the day Katie graduated from high school. She had insisted he take her picture under her tree. He had to fiddle with the camera settings a little, but he got several beautiful photos there. Katie was tall, slender, and athletic: she loved to run and ski. She was also very bright: she seemed mature beyond her years. She was very much a daddy's girl, boisterous and adventurous like her father, but with Maggie's sympathetic nature. She made friends readily.

John's father had been a carpenter and a damn good one at that. He knew wood as if he was the brother of a tree. People would call him in from all around to do the tough jobs that took a real craftsman. You had to get up close to see a seam in his molding splices and anyone who could afford to have him build their furniture got an heirloom they could proudly pass down to their descendents. Perfectionism and pride in a job well done was a family trait.

John's own love affair with wood took the form of a violin. His mother came from a musical family and one of her brothers played in the municipal orchestra. Uncle Felix came over one evening and played for a family gathering. Young John was enraptured by the sound, and from that day, he dreamed of being a musician. His family scraped together the money for lessons and he would work at odd jobs to raise extra money to help pay for them. He progressed in his studies and won a scholarship to help him attend the conservatory. He became a teacher and performer and rose through the ranks to become a successful professional musician.

He taught many young people how to play, but his daughter was extraordinary. She showed signs of her abilities at an early age, picking out little tunes on the piano and playing cords with her little chubby fingers. As she matured, her skills playing the violin grew rapidly and her father invited one of his older colleagues over one evening and had her play for him. Professor Kohlchin was enchanted by both Katie and her playing and agreed to take over her training. Dr. Kohlchin taught her the value of discipline and good technique but also gave her freedom to explore and experiment. He was not easy to satisfy but Katie knew she was learning from a man of great experience and she worked diligently at her studies.



John paced back and forth at the edge of the patio finally leaning against the arbor post nearest to the side yard. He lit another cigarette and stared off at Katie's tree. The evening air was clear and cold. Snow will be coming before too long. He had let the gardens go that year: it didn't seem to be worth the trouble anymore. Things were different three summers ago.



He thought about that Sunday morning in June when the smell of roses and of freshly turned earth filled the early morning air. If you could get drunk on life, that morning would have done the job. He had awakened to the sound of wild turkeys parading through the yard. When he walked out onto the second story balcony and looked out over the gardens that filled the back yard, it was barely light. He watched their old tomcat, Bernie, stare at the birds from under the edge of a hydrangea bush. Its leaves drooped nearly to the ground, silver and laden with dew. Bernie's stance showed a comical mixture of excitement and fear. Turkeys are big birds and Bernie didn't know whether to spring at them or run for his life. It was probably fortunate that the whole flock took off in a squawking rush, thrashing the air with their large wings. They plopped onto some sugar maples at the far edge of the field. They squawked for some time.

"John? Are you alright?" Maggie's sleepy voice sought him out from the nest she had made in their bed. He padded back into the unlit bedroom, his slippers scuffing along on the varnished floor. He stood beside the bed watching her for a moment then bent slowly and kissed her on her cheek. Her skin was warm and soft on his lips and he lingered a moment taking in the lilac scent that remained from yesterday's perfume. As he stood, she stretched and purred, then turned away hugging John's pillow. Her closed eyes and soft, regular breathing told him his kiss was the only answer she needed.

He lowered himself gently onto the blue overstuffed chair that sat facing the open bedroom door. His back was sore, a not too subtle reminder that he was not getting younger. The growing sunlight filtered through the ivory-colored lace curtains and danced on the coverlet that lay across the foot of the bed. He watched the slow rise and fall of Maggie's shoulder as she breathed in and out and he sat in the early morning coolness listening to the whispers of the leaves in the nearby woods. He let his eyelids droop and his thoughts drift to another June years before when he and Maggie were lying on an old blanket in a wooded park by the lakeshore. The sunlight dappled them in yellow and gold as it sifted through the canopy of leaves far above. The lake shimmered in the afternoon sun and the sound of waves rolling up on the shore was hushed but still noticeable. Maggie was telling John stories about her family and John tried to listen but mainly lay there gazing into Maggie's eyes.

John studied her face and watched it blur and change. Her voice became higher in pitch and lighter in timbre as she spoke to him.

"Dad," her new voice whispered. "Dad, wake up." He felt a light touch on his shoulder and Katie's face came into focus where Maggie's had just been.

"Finally awake sleepyhead?" Katie asked. "You said we could play the Sinfonia Concertante today; I'd like that very much." John rubbed the back of his neck, yawned and grinned back at his daughter.

"Alright, you get warmed up and I'll be down in a bit."



The music room was at the front of the house on the ground floor. It had been a parlor, but with two musicians in the family, a music room made more sense. Katie liked to look out over the gardens in the front and watch the butterflies and hummingbirds flit about in the riot of color that filled the front yard. Her mother and father were both ardent gardeners and spent much of their free time tending to the yard together. Katie walked over to the large wardrobe in the corner and pulled out her violin case. She smiled at her instrument as if she was greeting an old friend. She took her A from the piano and began to tune in the manner her father had taught her so many years before. She ran through a few scales and played a few snippets of this and that while she waited for her father. She pulled out her music for the Mozart Fifth Concerto and began to play the last movement. The notes poured out of her instrument like golden light, the music as sublime as anything Mozart ever wrote. Katie closed her eyes as she played, her tall, slender form swaying rhythmically to the music. She was well on her way to memorizing the solo part and only used the score as an acrobat might use a net. When there were rests, the sound of the music would soar through her mind so vividly that she was sure that if she turned around quickly enough she would see an orchestra playing along with her. The notes sounded with a warm singing tone like a cello. When she came to the middle of the movement with its brilliant "Turkish" theme, she bit into the notes with her bow, moving to the music as if she were about to whirl away into some wild dance.

Her concentration was unbroken when her father entered the room. There was no hesitation as she closed her eyes again and dug into the music, her bow bouncing on the strings, her fingers darting up and down the neck of the violin with precise movements. As she reached the last page of the concerto, the carefree singing theme of the beginning returned and she shifted perfectly to the lighter tempo bringing the movement effortlessly to its last five notes. A broad smile broke out on her face as she finished. Her father applauded.

"That was great: even Wolfgang would have approved." Katie bowed low and blew a kiss to her father. John opened his music folder and handed Katie's part to her. Sinfonia Concertante in E-flat Major for Violin, Viola and Orchestra, K. 364. Katie knew the piece well though she had only played through the violin solo twice. She played an A and John tuned his viola to it. His viola was a fine Belgian copy of an Amati that he had acquired in Paris while the orchestra was on tour in Europe a few years back. Its tone was rich and sad: in short, it sounded just as a viola should.

John and Katie turned to the middle movement and started to play at the cue after the orchestral introduction. Katie's violin entered first playing a melancholy theme that was taken up in turn and varied by John on the viola. The music had an unworldly aching beauty that made Katie's chest tighten as if she'd been crying. Her eyes caught her father's for an instant as they passed the melody back and forth and she knew that this music had the same effect on him. She felt that the instruments were conversing with each other like a pair of very old, very close friends who could read each other's thoughts and finish each other's sentences. Kate listened carefully to her father's playing and followed his lead and he listened carefully and followed her lead.

They played on through the movement as partners and equals; both violin and viola blending into a great whole that surpassed by far the sum of its parts. The music flowed and ebbed like waves on a shore, sometimes quiet, sometimes louder, but never ceasing in its inevitable motion. Father and daughter played on to the movement's end and there they paused. They played out the final measures in their heads, the orchestra keeping the final sublime moment as its own. They stood for a moment facing each other, lost in reflection as they slowly dropped their instruments to their sides.

A sound from the doorway brought them back to the present as they turned to see Maggie standing in pink robe and scuffs, her arms hugging herself, tears streaming down her cheeks, her face glowing in the morning sunlight.



John checked the time, walked out to the oak tree, and stood under it in the stillness. The moonlight filtered through the rattling dead leaves and lightly dappled the ground below. I wonder why oak leaves stay on the tree after they've died and curled. Skeletons hanging onto life even after it's gone. Pretty pointless; a lesson of nature I suppose. He lit yet another cigarette. He'd given them up years ago when his father started getting sick. Quit cold turkey. That was then, before life turned to shit.

Katie wasn't even scheduled to work that night and was filling in for one of her college friends. Her shift would have been over in another thirty minutes and she could have driven back to the apartment she shared with another student. He didn't like her working late in a convenience store by herself, but she insisted on doing her share to pay for her education. It was pointless to argue with her. She had just made a drop to the safe when the two thugs came in. Katie was murdered for seventy-nine dollars and five cartons of cigarettes. That was exactly one year ago. Maggie died a few days later.

John looked at his watch, took a last drag on his cigarette, and ground it into the earth with his toe. He raised his father's Colt to his temple and pulled the trigger.

5 comments:

  1. beautifully written, moving , shows the power and grace of a short story at its very best.

    Michael McCarthy

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  2. A slow build to this story, that, while short, the writing gives it the power and impact of a deep novel. So many crafted lines that paint the picture, tug at the heart - one in particular "If you could get drunk on life, that morning would have done the job." Even though I somewhat knew where the story was heading, I couldn't veer from its course. The words pulled me on. Nicely done. A heartbreaking, yet wonderful read.

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  3. I remember when you first started writing this story years ago. As many stories do, it decided on its own course giving you permission to present it to the world. Well done darling. I enjoyed it very much. Now will ya write a funny story for me.
    With love,
    Karen Wise

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  4. First of all, I'm not going to lie my eyes moistened at the end, and I'm still trying to keep my cool. This was a slow paced story, normally, I like stories that are fast paced, with action and all, but the description in this story captivated me, love how you play with words, so beautiful. With the way John kept looking into the past I knew something had gone terribly wrong, was waiting to find out what. I feel I should say more, but honestly, there aren't enough words to express how much I love this story, thank you.

    Ethan Regal

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  5. Thank you all (and my lovely and long-suffering wife) for your comments and appreciation of my story; they mean a lot to me and my continued work. Writing is a lonely passion, and it is gratifying to know you have connected with your readers. (P.S. It would be good to be able to edit these comments after you have posted them. There is nothing worse for a writer than to not be able to correct errors in his writing; just saying.)

    C.H. Wise

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