By R.E. Hardy, 2017
Henry Dempsey silently cursed the dog whose perfectly-placed mound of poo had graced his path that Saturday afternoon. He was nervous to perform at his annual piano recital and juggling the pile of music that he carried just in case. His brain farts were epic, and more than once in previous years he had to shame himself by opening the music during the performance. Oblivious to his surroundings as he mentally played through each section of the first piece, he stepped squarely in the steaming mound. Even after hours a day practicing, it was still a fifty-fifty chance that he would embarrass himself in front of all those little Stepford proteges. Henry’s mother just didn’t get it when he argued that music was not fun anymore and that he’d maxed his potential at the keyboard. He’d much rather be playing soccer. He’d even offered to go to the new academy downtown to learn a foreign language. Chinese seemed pretty interesting. They had a deal that he could choose his own extracurriculars after he left for college, but he must finish what he had started with music lessons.
Mrs. Stryker greeted him at the door with her usual joie de vivre. “Come in, Henry! There’s still time to warm up at the piano back in the family room. No need to worry about who’s here yet. Have your music with you? That’s good.” Her friendliness could not be denied, in spite of the fact that there was something ramrod stiff about her. He smiled to himself whenever he thought of the evening he had babysat her children. She had come home afterward, tipsy, and told him proudly that they had been out for Middle Eastern food and that she had joined in with the belly dancers. Not a good picture in his head, and somehow it didn’t figure with her usual professionalism, sitting beside him at the piano and harpsichord. Years later he would hear a rumor that she had tossed over her kindly, college professor husband for a lover, had divorced him and remarried. She was certainly a force to be reckoned with.
Henry returned her greeting and nodded, but then pointed at his shoe as he declined to approach the front step. Mrs. Stryker’s world was cheery and perfect, not a place for dog poo. Amazingly, she had a dog, although there was little evidence of it. Bartok (the dog, not the composer) seemed to be forever banished to the garage whenever students or visitors came. Henry had only heard the animal occasionally. Beagle, by the sounds of it. Obnoxious. Not unlike the composer.
By the time it was Henry’s turn to play, he knew he had failed at wiping the offensive residue from his too tight dress shoes because now as he sat about to perform his Rachmaninoff, he could smell it, fragrant, and it made him want to puke. He didn’t dare use a tissue to reach down and attempt to rectify the situation lest the disapproving, suspicious looks of the parents identified him as the culprit. He could hardly blame them. The sickly odor that resulted from poo mingling with the scent of freshly cut peonies did not match the ambiance of Mrs. Stryker’s genteel music room. He could actually feel the rush of bile rising as he placed the music closed on the stand, positioned his fingers on the keys, and breathed deeply. He began his usual method for resurrecting the damned opening phrases. One, and two and three and… He had a sudden rush of confidence and calm. I can grind this out, he thought to himself grimly. It won’t be brilliant, but I will not open that music.
“Steven, get this zit-faced dude. He’s still playing Rach in high school.”
“Yeah, and he’s torturing me. He missed the repeat, and did you see that fingering? Lame!”
Henry recognized Bryce Pearson’s twerpy soprano voice lisping in his neighbor’s ear nearby. The two chubby ten-year-olds were part of Mrs. S’s group of insiders: her music clones. They had bought off on her mantra, “You’ll never be great until you give yourself to the music.” Henry had to admit they were amazing. Perfect. How did they do it? He had heard Mrs. Stryker’s hypnotic preaching of her music philosophy for all of his four years of lessons with her. He had tried, but he couldn’t break the code of what she meant. How do you give yourself to music anyway? He listened. He practiced. It didn’t seem to make the difference. He could not break through to be that good, as good as those little brats.
Henry wished with all his heart that he could somehow give himself to music and be brilliant just this once before he quit lessons to go off to college. He prepared to go on to his second selection, a Bach fugue. It wouldn’t go well. Likelihood of opening music in shame: 75%. He sighed and darted a look at Steven and Bryce. They were looking at him intently, eyes shining, strange. They weren’t gloating as he supposed they would, but instead they were leaning toward him like flowers toward the sun. Their hands were placed on their knees in perfect ready position. His own hands were in this position. He could feel himself losing focus, and he forced himself to begin his count. 2, 3, 4… he let go and closed his eyes, not even following his hands. The music floated dreamlike in his head, better than any he’d heard in recordings. He leaned into the keyboard, but barely felt the keys beneath his fingers. Counter melodies rose and receded. Measure after measure of perfection. What had happened to him? Maybe he had fainted and this was just a dream. Henry felt a slight buzzing in his ears as he played the final strokes. Had he been holding his breath? He felt dizzy as he moved to his feet for the obligatory bow. Family and audience members clapped and stood to their feet, smiling in appreciation. He had done it, but what had he done, and how?
Henry opened his eyes as he finished his bow, feeling the burn of embarrassment rise to the level of his ears. He looked over at the clones. Their eyes were still fastened on him, glistening darkly like that of some inhuman thing, and weirder still, they were holding hands. He wanted to laugh at them, but couldn’t.
Mrs. Stryker peered at him with eagle-like fascination as she reached out and clasped both his hands. Startled, he realized that in all their four years of lessons together, she had never actually touched him. Her well-manicured fingers were cold, steely talons locked upon him. Henry could not resist.
“Henry! That was wonderful. I knew you could do it. Welcome, dear. Now you are one of us.”
By R.E. Hardy, 2015
Mr. S tapped the corner of my desk where I had placed my newly prescribed tortoiseshell glasses. “Put them on, and keep them on!” he ordered, and I obeyed. I quaked whenever this Science teacher’s steely eyes zeroed in on my coordinates from the far quadrant of the spacious sixth-grade complex. He was the teacher who would make me stand and repeat myself until I could be heard, and he always seemed to look disapprovingly at me from over his John Lennon-style wire-rims. That severe expression of his was quite a contrast to his rocker length, thinning, blond hair and impressive sideburns.
Keeping the glasses on my face would prove to be something I preferred, after all, I could finally see the board again, and the glasses hid the slight curve of my nose which had been broken by my older brother’s fast pitch to my dad while I was running for fly balls. Wearing glasses also brought the world to my fingertips. Suddenly trees had, not only branches but twigs and well-defined leaves. The world around me was transformed from an impressionistic painting to photographic clarity almost as vivid as the world within my imagination.
Whether wire-rimmed or plastic, under-stated half-rim ovals or the rose-tinted Elton John’s I wore in college, glasses have been part of my identity as well as my windows on the world. The few times that a pair has been misplaced, I was the unfaithful friend, who parked them somewhere other than their rightful resting place beside the bed.
Some forty years later, I began to have some falling outs with my longtime companion. More and more I could no longer rely on my glasses to see anything within my reach. The flags of sixteenth notes rebelled as they blurred across my music, and sharps and naturals played tricks on me too. Also, the print of my students’ essays swam across the computer screen, and 12 point font became as frustrating as fine print. Reading had suddenly become work.
Good news came from the eye doctor. There was nothing wrong. He told me, “You are presbyopic; in short, you are old.” My distance vision, which had been terrible, was ironically steadily improving, but my close vision had gone to pot. So money changed hands, and I became the proud wearer of bifocals and even trifocals for my constant computer work. The new facets of my lenses promised to solve all my vision problems, but they lied. Like fair weather friends, they did their job when life was easy going, but couldn’t be trusted to back me up when I was tired and over-worked.
Now my glasses are often a prop for my bangs, and a thing to carry just in case I need to read a powerpoint or road signs. I peer over my glasses, and students note my more imperious seeming gaze as I work to focus over my bifocals. Mr. S’s sardonic expression floats back into my mind’s eye, which is thankfully still 20/20, but I, no longer that shy, compliant sixth grader, now mentally “dis” him as I whip off my glasses, and declare, “Mr. S., I can see you clearly now.”
R. E. Hardy, 2015
“Get on with it. Your excuses will be the death of me!” The uneven rasp of her nicotine voice grated on my complacency. Clouds of smoke from her usual cheroot rolled toward me like waves at the beach. The ash she let fall as it might. Patchouli hung about her, a constant accessory that competed for the attention of my nose. I could never get the stink of it far enough away from me. There was something vulgar about her, but she didn’t care. That alone gave her power. The sharply penciled black arches of her wrinkled brow drew me up short, for although her eyes were mere slits, dark and trancelike beneath her ancient drooping lids, staring toward some horizon beyond me, the gaze she fixed upon my soul was terrible and relentless. Her polished nails tapped out the seconds with fierce precision on the desk beside my open, empty journal. Its clean pages were uncluttered by any evidence of the unruly horde of creative thoughts that hung about in my imagination or banged mournfully upon the bars of the prison I had devised for them.
“What would people think?” The words of my mantra echoed in my head as I tried to refocus on the latest empty pass time that served as a distraction from the constant annoyance of that old bird’s encampment. She was out to ruin my otherwise respectable, anonymous existence. I rolled my eyes at her, aware that she had heard my unspoken thought. She leaned toward me, suddenly grown large and dangerous, to whisper in my ear, “Who cares if it’s any good? You’re not in charge of that. Just write, dammit.”
R.E. Hardy, 2014
Whirr, whirr, snip! Annie’s mom smiled with pride as she trimmed threads after sewing the long seams of her daughter’s Halloween costume, this year a winner for sure. The Halloween parade and costume judging were a long tradition at North Elementary, where every year community members judged the prettiest, the spookiest, the funniest, and the most creative costumes. Last year Annie had been a Southern Belle with a pink toile gown with real petticoats, hair in ringlets and a handmade lace fan–beautiful–but not a winner. This year would be the year. The second grader’s mom had chosen the red and white striped flannel for its softness, warmth, and bright colors. This year’s costume would be a classic, a traditional clown. October 31st in New England was typically frosty, and tomorrow was forecast to be the perfectly clear, bright, see-your-breath morning. This costume had the advantage of being roomy, with plenty of room to wear warm clothing and some extra padding inside the folds of the baggy suit.
Her mother was down to sewing the final piece of the costume, a gorgeous wide ruffle that would be tied at the back of the neck. The cloth was a stiffer material, white, dotted with red, blue, and gold stars, with a bright red binding. Hurrying to finish, with difficulty, she pushed the gathers under the presser foot of her old faithful Singer sewing machine. Ouch! She realized that in her urgency she had placed her finger in the way of the machine needle. She nursed the wound, applying the bandage tightly and returning to her work. A few drops of blood had seeped into the ruffle. “No time to wash this, but it won’t show in all the folds.”
The next morning, Annie stood patiently as her mom stuffed the baggy costume with fluff and tied all of the closures firmly: three bows up the back, another under her chin to secure the little cone hat that perched above her twin ponytails, and finally a bow at the back of her neck to close the big stiff ruffle that surrounded her neck. A bit of powder on her cheeks, a black teardrop below each eye, and a wide, unnatural red grin, applied with her mom’s brightest lipstick finished the girl’s clown image. Annie, a little apprehensive about this parade tradition, couldn’t help smiling at herself in the mirror. She was transformed into a classic baggy-pants clown, almost like the one she’d seen at the circus last year. She hugged her mom and stepped aboard the school bus, noticing the admiring eyes and hands of monsters, hobos, and ghosts that reached out to touch the soft flannel sleeves as she found her seat. Apart from the awkwardly large ruffle at her neck, the costume was as comfy as pajamas.
Annie stamped her sneakers on the frosty macadam, the soles of her feet bitten with the cold as she paraded with her classmates to the spot where cranky Mrs. Kennedy’s second graders were assigned on the edge of the playground. “Toes on the line, class!” Winning the costume contest meant nothing to Annie, but Mom would be so proud if they would just give her a ribbon this year. It didn’t have to be first prize, even an honorable mention ribbon would be so great to take home. Mom had worked so hard.
The elementary students waited impatiently for the committee of judges to pass and make their awards. There would be cupcakes, candy, and fun activities back in the classroom after this formality. As the judges approached, smiling and making sounds of approval, conferring with each other quietly, and scribbling notes, Annie became aware that somehow the ruffle was beginning to annoy her. It was scratchy on her neck. Maybe it was tied a little too tight. She clawed with cold fingers to undo the bow at the back of her neck. She couldn’t reach it properly. Maybe turning it around would help, she thought, but as she tugged at one side, it bit more deeply into her tender flesh. Almost panicking now, she bit her lip as she forced the ruffle to twist around in spite of the pain. “Be sure to smile, Annie. Don’t be a sad clown, okay? Enjoy the parade.” This had been mom’s last advice. Annie forced her dimples to remain in place as she fought the impulse to cry out. Finally, she had access to the bow, and she sighed in relief. But as she began to work the knot, she was struck with fear. It was tied too tightly, and her fingers, somewhat numb with cold, could not free it.
The judges smiled warmly at Annie and gave her the thumbs up as they passed on by to the third graders. She beamed back at them brightly on that cold Halloween morning, through a haze of sunshine and a little cloud of the last frosty breath she would ever take.
I composed this short, short story as an extended reminiscence example for my students at Halloween. It twists a real experience in my life, that of my mom’s devotion to making beautiful costumes and clothing for me when I was young. Sadly, those costumes never did win a prize, but I loved them, and I love Mom for sharing her sewing machine with a daughter who used all her sewing scraps to make Barbie clothes. Mom died this year, and I feel her loss. This is definitely a weird tribute, but Mom, you deserve far more than Honorable Mention.
Ruth Hardy 2016
Clanging the gate and shortening the lead; we’re off.
Over the heaved sidewalk and ducking the grab of that rude lilac,
We plunge. How many blocks today? “We’ll see, my girl.”
White tail flying high, black nose and trembling jowls work the air,
Mining scents of wondrous objects along the paths of their neighborhood.
Watch out: some broken glass, a growl behind that fence, eyes in the window.
An old fence stands remarkably incorrupt, dignified beneath its crown of vines.
“What magic keeps your canvas clean, passed over by those moonlight toughs?”
Mother Mary, peeking through the roses whispers, “Peace be with you.”
The peddler’s bell jingles insistently; come and buy, just one, just one.
A door opens, and the little girls stream down the walk, giggling.
“Perra grande!” Dancing about, shy hands reach out to pet soft ears.
Silently, the mother nods, shepherding her children away.
Home again. My gate opens once more, and then closes, sealing in the foreigners.
Ruth Hardy 2012