THEY’D AGREED: no Christmas presents this year. They had each other.
On the Saturday after Christmas, Floreta had the day off from her job at the supermarket deli. The tree was shedding its needles on the hardwood floor. Silver tinsel stuck to the bottoms of Cookie’s feet, and he tracked the strands from room to room as he shuffled about. He even brought them into their bed. Lately, at night, Floreta had been checking to make sure he was still breathing. She was afraid he might die in his sleep. The doctor had said Cookie had six months, maybe a year. There were treatments — chemo, radiation — but they wouldn’t make him well, would only prolong the inevitable, so Cookie would have none of them.
The doctor had pointed to a shadow on the scan: a tumor in Cookie’s brain that made him sleepy and dizzy sometimes. He’d already had to give up his job at Goodwill because he couldn’t put in a whole day of work. He’d taken to coming home at noon to sleep. They were living off Floreta’s pay now. Money was tight, but it had always been that way, forty years of never catching up. If they ever did get a little bit ahead, something always happened: a recession, a car crash, a broken bone, an illness. “We’re in a slump,” they’d tell each other, and sigh and laugh. “We’ll get out of it soon.” But there was no getting out of this.
Since the diagnosis Cookie had been saying how he wished he could hear Floreta play the piano again. Every few days he brought the subject up. He had even put it on his list of things to do before he died: Buy piano for Floreta.
That Saturday Cookie took it upon himself to look in the Toledo Yellow Pages for piano stores. He found three nearby.
“You know we can’t afford a piano,” Floreta said. Through the years, when times were very lean, they’d sometimes bought things they shouldn’t have, but it was different now. They had to watch every penny, and this fixation with the piano worried Floreta.
“It doesn’t hurt to look,” Cookie said. “You think you still remember how to play ‘Furry Leaves’?”
When they were first married, she would play for him, limping through the classics. “Für Elise” was Cookie’s favorite.
Floreta knew why he was doing this. He had promised long ago that he’d replace her old piano, the one they’d had to sell during a slump.
“Cookie, I haven’t played in thirty years.”
“We’ll see,” he said.
They’d already done many of the things on his list: Visit the Merry-Go-Round Museum in Sandusky, where Floreta had ridden the antique wooden ostrich, holding tight to its neck while Cookie took pictures. They’d rented a canoe and floated among the pond lilies. They’d gone camping on Kelleys Island, where they’d drunk coffee and red wine and collected stones on the shore. They’d played a game of putt-putt. At the top of Cookie’s list was for them to move to New Mexico. He’d hitchhiked through the Southwest before they’d met, and although he’d never lived there, he said it felt like his real home: the high desert, the rocks, the snakes. Floreta didn’t understand this, but she accepted it. They had a plan: As soon as they got their tax refund, they would hitch their beat-up camper to the truck and head to Santa Fe, where a friend of Cookie’s had a spot he said he’d let them park in. Once they were settled, they’d sell the truck and maybe get a small used car. Cookie would die and be buried in the desert.
Of course, a piano wouldn’t fit into the trailer — but, Cookie pointed out, an electric keyboard would. “They don’t take up much room,” he argued. “I can see it now: you playing; the coyotes howling.”
Floreta wondered if Cookie hoped a piano would remind them of when they were young. They’d married when Floreta was barely out of high school and Cookie was twenty-two. Both running from unhappy families, they had found each other at just the right time.
Floreta’s father had owned a dumpy trailer park called Utopia. He ran the business out of their house, renting mostly to Marines stationed at the nearby base. Cookie was one of them. He rode a motorcycle back then. Floreta was forbidden to ride motorcycles, but she would sneak away with Cookie on his.
Her mother was angry about the marriage and insisted that Floreta take all her belongings with her when she left home, including the piano. The lessons had been her mother’s idea: they fit the kind of sophisticated life she’d always wanted for her daughter, for herself. She used to tell Floreta that she might play in a church someday. Her mother didn’t even go to church.
COOKIE WASN’T JOKING about the piano. He insisted they go look for one. Today.
Before they left, he put out a bowl of fresh water for their Boston terrier, Willy. Floreta and Cookie hadn’t been able to have children. Instead they had given their love to a series of dogs, all terriers with smooshed faces. Willy looked hopefully at Floreta and Cookie as they put on their coats. He loved car rides.
“Sorry, old boy,” Cookie said, and Willy took two steps back and lowered his head.
As they drove away, Floreta saw Willy’s face in the window and thought she might cry. Willy was really Cookie’s dog. The two of them were best friends. How would the dog react when Cookie died?
In the truck Cookie seemed happy. He hummed a country song. Christmas Day had been lovely and white, but now the ground was mostly bare, dotted here and there with patches of ice. It was not quite three o’clock, and the sky was darkening.
Toledo traffic was sluggish, with much starting and stopping. It was taking a while to get to the first store on the list. Floreta pressed her lips together, a habit she’d acquired from her mother. The older she got, the more she looked like her mother, which troubled Floreta. She and her mother had never gotten along. She wondered what advice her mother would give if she were alive now and knew that Floreta was caring for a dying husband. Floreta’s father had died first; her mother had lived six more years. How long would Floreta live after Cookie was gone?
A few weeks earlier Cookie had told her about a dream: His grandfather was in a carnival exhibit, dead but also somehow alive, in the paradoxical way of dreams. His grandfather kept enticing him to come closer: “C’mon, boy. Don’t be such a goddamn sissy.” The exhibit was encircled by smudge pots emitting weak flames. The air was smoky, and Cookie couldn’t see clearly.
“Come on, boy,” his grandfather kept saying. “What are you afraid of?”
“Were you scared?” Floreta asked.
“Damn right,” Cookie said, and he laughed. But Floreta knew Cookie was trying to shake the dream by making light of it.
She sometimes wondered if her parents had been afraid to die. She’d taken a bus from Ohio to North Carolina to be with her father at the end, and she’d held his hand and made a kind of peace with him. Floreta had tried to do the same with her mother, but they’d fought about everything from the frozen pies Floreta bought for dinner (too hard) to the way she stacked the dishes (too high). When Floreta did ask her mother’s advice about a household task, her mother cried, “For Christ’s sake, Floreta, you’re like dragging a dead horse!”
Before catching the bus back to Ohio, Floreta gave her mother a dry kiss on the cheek and said, “Goodbye, Mama. See you on the other side.” Floreta didn’t believe in heaven, and neither did her mother. Floreta had said this hoping it would hurt her mother a bit, but her mother’s face was unchanged as she sat in her favorite recliner, her mouth a straight line, her eyes glued to the TV. Oprah was on. Maya Angelou was talking about something in her slow, deliberate, important way. “What’s her problem?” Floreta’s mother said. They were the last words Floreta ever heard her speak.
Now she felt old. More than just old. She felt as if she’d never been young, not ever, as if she’d been born old. She remembered an article she’d read years earlier about children with progeria, a disease that aged them far beyond their years. She recalled the photos of their withered faces. Maybe some people were born with progeria of the mind. She’d always been the quiet child, sitting alone, watching the other kids play, perplexed by their silly games, wondering why it took so little to amuse them. Ancient even then.
But she had felt young with Cookie when they’d first met and were riding on his motorcycle. How she’d enjoyed sitting with her body next to his, her legs on either side of him. It was summer. Houses had American flags displayed on their porches. The yards were full of flowers. There wouldn’t be flowers like that in New Mexico, just sagebrush and cactuses and coyotes howling.
BY FOUR O’CLOCK they’d been to two of the three stores on Cookie’s list. The first had been closed for a year or more. The second had been completely razed, nothing left but smashed bricks and bent nails.
Driving to the third, Cookie spotted an electronics store and insisted they go in, just to check. They found one small keyboard, but it was just a cheap toy that no one had bought for Christmas. Floreta pushed a key, and it made a sound like someone saying, Eeeee. Another key: Ahhhhh.
“That’s a good-sounding keyboard,” Cookie joked. “You can have conversations with it when I’m not around.”
Floreta frowned. “At the very least,” she said, “I need a full keyboard.”
“I’m pretty sure there were keys on your piano you never touched,” Cookie said playfully. “Yes, I definitely remember untouched keys.”
They went back to the car and drove on.
Floreta had surprised herself in the store, the way she’d suddenly started to talk as if they were going to get a keyboard. She supposed she wasn’t totally resistant to the idea. She knew they wouldn’t get one, but she could play her part in pretending, if it would help.
THE FINAL STORE on Cookie’s list hadn’t closed. A sign out front said it had been in business for fifty years. Cookie and Floreta went inside. Grand pianos gleamed, long and black with open lids. They reminded Floreta of caskets, and she suddenly wanted to go home.
A woman at the back of the store raised her head from some paperwork and greeted them dubiously, as though she knew they were broke. What was it that gave them away? Was it Cookie’s old coat, frayed at the cuffs? Floreta’s stretched pullover shirt? Or was it how she moved with hesitancy, as if waiting to be invited to look, to touch?
“We’d like to see your keyboards,” Cookie said, as confident as could be.
The woman brightened. “Step this way,” she said. She was elderly and square shaped, dressed in a houndstooth skirt and jacket. She wore a gold wedding band. Floreta wondered if her husband was well.
The saleswoman said her name was Betty and asked theirs. Cookie introduced himself as William. “Cookie” was the nickname Floreta had given him, because he’d been a cook in the Marines. No one else called him that. They all shook hands. Betty’s was cool and smooth like the pink hams at the deli where Floreta worked. Sometimes when Floreta felt panicky about Cookie, she would cut off a bit of ham and place it in her mouth. It gave her strength. She wished she had a piece now.
Betty took them to a side room. “That’s Steinway,” she said, pointing to a green parrot in a cage. “Steinway belongs to the owner. His wife doesn’t like the bird in the house.”
“My father had a parrot,” Floreta said. “My mother didn’t like birds in the house either.”
“I thought your father had a mynah bird,” Cookie said.
“He had both,” she said. “The mynah bird’s name was Duke, after John Wayne.” Floreta hadn’t thought of the bird in years. She remembered how her father had taught Duke to say, “Pay your rent.”
“Now,” Betty said patiently, “you’ll want a real piano keyboard — the full eighty-eight. You mustn’t purchase anything less, or you will run out of keys.”
“That’s what she said,” Cookie said, smiling.
Betty went on: “Which one of you plays?”
“Floreta,” Cookie said.
Floreta felt herself flush. “I haven’t played in thirty years,” she said.
“How many years did you take lessons?” Betty asked.
“I don’t remember,” Floreta said.
But she did: three years. Her lessons had been on Wednesdays. Her mother worked those days, so her father would drive her. Before the lesson they often stopped at the Tastee Freez and sucked fruity slush through straws while sitting in the car. Her favorite flavor was cherry; her father’s was lemon-lime. When her father drank too much, he craved sweets. He always drove too fast and had to slam on the brakes, so Floreta would arrive at the lessons feeling anxious. Her teacher was a refined woman who wore her glasses on a chain around her neck. She had a fake wishing well in her yard and a print of Thomas Gainsborough’s The Blue Boy above the piano. The teacher often complained about Floreta’s poor performance and accused her of not practicing.
“I’d more or less be starting over,” Floreta said to Betty.
“This is an easy keyboard to learn how to play on,” Betty said, guiding them to a Roland. She sat down at the keyboard, punched some buttons, and opened a music book. Then she played “Unchained Melody” with an orchestral backing. “Isn’t that pretty?” she said.
No, it wasn’t, Floreta thought. It was that song from the movie Ghost, where Patrick Swayze played Demi Moore’s dead husband. Floreta wished Betty would stop playing it.
Cookie looked at the price tag, and his eyebrows went up. Floreta glanced at the number. It was more than she’d thought.
“This one’s a good price,” Betty said. “It’s one of the best brands, and it has all the features you could want.” The parrot squawked in its cage. Betty pressed more buttons and launched into an old show tune. “Isn’t that nice?” she said.
Floreta felt sick. This wasn’t how she’d imagined the day would go.
“We’ll think about it,” Cookie said.
Betty’s face fell. Then she got the look in her eyes, the one that said, I knew you didn’t have any money.
AS THEY LEFT the store, Cookie hummed “Unchained Melody.” “Maybe we could drive to Cleveland,” he said, “look for a keyboard there.”
“Cookie, I don’t need a keyboard. I don’t even think about music anymore. Really I don’t.”
“I don’t believe you,” Cookie said. Floreta could see in the glow from the dashboard lights that he was smiling. That was the problem with living with someone as long as she’d lived with Cookie: she couldn’t get away with lying. Sometimes this was OK, but other times, like tonight, it felt like an intrusion.
She did think about playing. In fact, at Kelleys Island, lying in their tent, she’d put her earbuds in to listen to the radio and heard a pianist perform “La chanson de la folle au bord de la mer” — “The Song of the Madwoman on the Seashore.” She’d thought she could see the notes in her head, and her fingers had twitched inside the sleeping bag. If things had been different, and they hadn’t been forced to sell the piano, might she have actually learned to play well?
Floreta wasn’t ready to go home yet. She didn’t want to see the browning Christmas tree, the glittering tinsel, the dark house. So they went to a cineplex with a large, brightly lit lobby to see a comedy. The movie didn’t start for another hour, and Cookie suddenly felt tired. This had been a lengthy outing for him. There were no benches in the lobby, but there was an empty arcade. He went and got inside the cockpit of a game called Star Trek Voyager. He beckoned for Floreta to join him.
“What if someone wants to play?” she asked, peering cautiously into the game. She imagined a couple of tough teenagers ordering them to move.
“We’ll tell them we’re using it,” Cookie said. “We’ll say we’re taking a trip.”
She climbed inside, and he put his head on her shoulder.
“Are you sleepy?” she asked.
“I wouldn’t mind if I drifted off for a few minutes.” And he did.
While Cookie napped, Floreta watched people’s reflections in the game’s monitor: ghostly figures buying popcorn and drinks. Next to Voyager was a game called Road Burners. A player would sit on a life-size motorcycle in front of a large screen that displayed the image of a road flying by at scenery-blurring speeds. Every now and then the cyclist wiped out on the virtual road, and then the demo reset itself as if nothing had happened.
They would never have the money for a piano, Floreta thought, and it was too late to save any. They didn’t even have the money for all the items on Cookie’s modest list. But they could scrape together enough for a movie. Movies, it seemed, existed for people like them, who couldn’t afford to travel to Paris or Acapulco. But maybe they could make it to New Mexico.
She looked for signs of Cookie’s breath, saw the slow rise and fall of his chest.
The riderless motorcycle rode on and on.