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Marin began to worry he’d done something wrong the night he first brought a man home from the bar. One hundred and sixteen miles from his quiet Cape Cod along the coast of Maine, the bar wasn’t one he’d ever been to before. No one to recognize him, to pick him out from a crowd. He couldn’t remember the man’s name, and bound at the wrists and ankles, with tape over his mouth, the man wasn’t going to be giving it anytime soon, either.
He turned onto the unpaved road that curved along the sound, his aging, rusted Lincoln bouncing on broken shocks. A thud came from the trunk as the man within it whacked against something hard. Marin rolled his windows down and let the salty air flood the cabin. Waist-high sea grass on other side of the road swayed with the sighing of the ocean, the sound of the rolling waves against the rocky shore a constant, soothing roar, like a television forever tuned to static.
This far up the coast, there was no one. Marin shut the engine off in the driveway, not bothering to pull into the garage. He pulled an animal control stick from the back seat and popped the trunk, looping the metal hoop around the man’s neck and hauling him onto the ground.
The man grunted, blood flowing freely onto the gravel from a broken nose.
“Terry it is, then. In we go,” Marin said, jerking on the long metal pole. Terry moaned as he was pulled to his feet. Marin shoved him in the direction of the front door and Terry stumbled forward, his feet struggling to catch up. Veins and cords of tendons stuck out from his purpling neck.
The setting and fixtures inside the house were archaic. Appliances rusted from the salt air and broken granite surfaces dominated throughout. Maple bookshelves and mahogany tables, polished to a sheen, reflected light from a steely ocean and slate-gray sky. A wall of floor-to-ceiling windows faced the expanse of the foaming ocean.
The piano—a Whurlitzer that Marin had dragged across the country since his mother’s passing—stood upright in a far corner of the open living room. Above it was a hook, and here Marin secured the end of the pole, shoving Terry onto the piano’s bench beneath.
Terry said nothing. He slumped forward, but the wire of the pole constricted, and he started to choke.
“Oh, right,” Marin said, ripping the tape off Terry’s mouth. “I’ll make it a double.” He went to the kitchen, and there, pulled a pair of glasses from the cabinet and poured a dram of Bruichladdich for them each.
Marin set a glass on the piano before the younger man, who had begun to weep.
“Take a sip,” Marin said, taking a knife from his pocket. He cut the tape binding Terry’s wrists tightly together behind his back. “You look like you could use it.”
Terry pushed himself upright to relieve the tension from the restraint around his neck. “What do you want?” he choked.
“I should think that would be obvious.” Marin nodded toward the sheet music spread out before him.
“I…I can’t,” Terry sobbed.
“What are you talking about? Sure you can. You said you played in a band, remember?”
“I know sets, okay? Pieces I’ve practiced. I can read a staff. I can’t just sit down and…and…play like this!“
“You sounded pretty convincing at the bar.” Marin gestured toward the piano before reaching forward to position Terry’s limp and shaking hands atop the keys. “Clair de Lune. Debussy. Do you know it?”
Terry, his face swollen, bloody, streaked with tears, nodded.
“Not exactly an easy piece, I admit, but I have faith in you. Now play.”
“Are you going to kill me?” Terry asked, his voice a throaty whisper.
Marin placed his hand on the piano and tilted his head, eyes closed, as if taking from it silent instruction.
From the piano came low, bassy chords, loud, as if a fist had been struck against the keys. Marin snapped from his thoughts and looked at Terry.
“Don’t do that,” he said.
Terry looked up, eyes wide, palms out in defense. “I didn’t touch it.”
Marin slapped him across the face. “Don’t lie to me, Terry. This was my mother’s. Show some respect.”
Terry stammered. Spittle flew from his lips, his words an incomprehensible babble.
Marin squeezed his eyes shut, pinching the bridge of his nose while Terry rattled on. He sobbed about his brother, his sister, his parents. It was all noise to Marin, a string of nonsense that only furthered him from hearing his mother’s piano once again. He rubbed his temples before resting his glass of whiskey on the edge of the piano.
“Stop,” he said, raising his palm against the panicked flood of noise that flowed from the other man. Terry ignored him.
Marin suddenly stood and withdrew the pocket knife, flicking the blade open with one hand and taking a fist full of Terry’s dirty-blonde hair with the other. Marin jerked Terry’s head back against the restraint of the pole and slipped the blade of the knife against Terry’s cheek, who promptly fainted, falling limp against his restraint.
Marin sighed, unclipped the end of the pole from the ceiling hook, and eased his prisoner to the floor. He went to the kitchen for another drink, and it was there that he again heard the clang of notes from the piano. He stopped, jerking his head from the cabinet to peer into the living room. Terry was still unconscious.
“Hello?” he asked, carefully approaching the piano. “Mother?”
A single note, soft and long, emanated from the piano.
Wide eyed, Marin approached the piano bench and sat. She’d never spoken to him like this before—directly, the piano an extension of her voice. Always her instruction had been a thing felt, intuited, like the way the wind smelled before a storm even when the sky was still clear. It was why no one believed him when he insisted she lived on. Her voice was a silent one, speaking only to him, but it was there, nonetheless. Had he done something wrong, then? Was this not what she wanted?
“You said to…to bring you…”
He placed his hands above the keys, unsure of what to do next. He could play, if she allowed it, if he’d done as she demanded. But it had been a long time since then, as if disgusted by who he was, what he’d failed to become. The dropout from Juliard. The failure who should’ve been an extension of his mother’s legacy, her brilliance nearly a household name in the world of concert pianists. When he decided he would play for himself instead of the world, that was when she’d cut him off. All that mattered to Marin was the music, and that had always been the problem. He recalled the last time they’d spoken, some days before her death.
If only you were a disappointment, Marin. I could live with that.
Then what am I?
He wanted to believe it was the dementia behind the wheel of her hatred, but her eyes had been more clear and alert than they’d been in months. He’d been unable to play since, desperate though he was to try. If the piano was to be played, it would be through the hands of others, Marin only allowed to watch, not to touch, as it had been when he was a boy.
But now a note song forth, then another. His hands remained fixed, his fingers hovering over the keys.
Terry stirred, groaned. Shivered. A fifth note came from the piano. Marin understood. Terry had been a mistake, then. Not what his mother wanted.
“I’m sorry,” Marin said, taking up the pocket knife he had left on the piano. He reached across the bench and to the floor, thrusting the knife into Terry’s throat and slashing savagely. Warm blood doused his hands and spread outward while Terry spasmed, gurgled, and fell silent. Carefully, his nerves wired and tense, Marin resumed his position at the keyboard, waiting for what would come next.
He pressed a key tentatively. When there was no rebuke, no discordant slamming of furious notes in rejection of his touch, he pressed another. But that’s all it was — individual notes — and he wondered what it would take for something more to come forth.
Tears fell against the keys, though he didn’t know why. He tried to wipe his eyes with the back of his hands, but he couldn’t. They were covered in blood.
“Please,” he whimpered, urging her to let him do more, to once again make the piano sing. “Please. I just want to play.”
Interview with R. Leigh Hennig, Author of “Piano Man”
What inspired your story?
As with most writers, I think, there are bits of myself scattered throughout. I had a rough childhood. My mother was very abusive. I’ve been working through that a lot with my writing. My grandmother on the other hand was a saint, and I grew up listening to her play her piano—a Wurlitzer—and when she passed, I fought like hell to get ahold of that piano. I dragged that thing all over the country for so many years, from New York, to Seattle, back the other way to Maine. I can’t play myself, though I’ve tried, but I held on to it in hopes that my children would some day learn to play it.
This story, then, has something to do with abuse, and like many abused things, a twisting of that which was once good. I’m still trying to figure out what that means.
What’s your favorite gothic story or poem and why?
Do we consider William Peter Blatty’s ‘The Exorcist’ to be gothic? I do. That book is a favorite. But it’s such a loaded word. Most people today associate the gothic with images of castles, dark cellars, decrepit mansions. Academically, that’s not strictly the case. Setting aside that can of worms, I think that Stephen King’s ‘Salem’s Lot’ checks a lot of the conventional boxes, and a few of the non-conventional ones, too.
How long have you been writing?
Since early childhood.
Do you have a theme you return to time and again?
Abusive mothers. As I said, I’m a victim of child abuse. It’s very difficult to write about, and even harder to sell, because no one wants to read about that kind of thing. But I try my best to treat the subject matter with the gravity and respect it deserves. I don’t mind uncomfortable themes in stories, as hard as they can be to read. What really bothers me is when people write them from a place of ignorance. I have no tolerance for that.
Do you have a favorite quote that inspires you?
“My mother always said there were no monsters—no real ones—but there are.” This is tattooed on the inside of my right forearm, so I see it whenever I’m writing. I have it there as a reminder, because it scares me. Because it’s true.
What are you working on now?
I moved recently and work has been off the charts busy, so I haven’t had too much time to really breathe. I have a couple of things going that aren’t really worth mentioning at the moment, but the big thing isn’t a story, it’s the building of a new forum for Codex Writers (a writing group for authors who have been professionally published). I’ve put a lot of time and effort into that, and hopefully we’ll be migrated in the next couple of months.
What else would you like people to know? Where can people find you online?
I have a Twitter account I rarely use, and I have an irregularly updated blog at https://semioticstandard.com, but if you really want to get ahold of me you can send me a note to firstname.lastname@example.org or find me on Facebook. Yeah, yeah, I know, Facebook is evil, but it is what it is.