Mothers are like that. I guess they have to be. You don't hear mothers saying, "Oh yeah, this kid of mine here, he's loads better at playing the piano"--which is what me and my brother do--"than the other one, who's just all right."
That's probably not very mother-like. Still, everyone has always known the truth about me and Marzie, which is what everyone calls my brother. Or Mars, like he's from another planet.
My dad handled the names in our family, and if you were a boy, you were going to get named after one of the old man's favorite pianists. He also, you might say, handled what we were going to be, eventually. There's a big music gene with us Bennings. To hear my dad tell it (a single beer is usually enough to get him started, if you're out on the back porch of the Chatham house he and my mom have been in since Glenn Gould recorded his first set of Goldberg Variations; he always taught us to measure life in music history, or else by how many razor clams you could comfortably dig up in an afternoon at Gray's Edge Beach), we had relatives that once kept the Nina rocking on the Pilgrims' maiden voyage with some improvised instruments made out of driftwood that they scooped from the sea with those big hats of theirs.
Of course, my dad would slip up regularly, and sometimes it wasn't the Nina that was kept rocking but rather the Santa Maria, but given that my mom's name is Maria, he might have been angling for a bit of romance once us kids had trundled off to bed.
Penny, being a girl, didn't get named after a pianist. She was named after some eighteenth century cousin of ours who had fallen down a well in Sandwich, near the corn mill there that you can still visit and wonder how corn ever got to be so popular in these maritime parts.
We've always been Cape people, so you'd think if you were a father and you were going to give your male offspring a name that stuck to a theme, you'd have boys named, I don't know, Dace or Dirk, or Brig or Brace. I got Rich, after my dad's favorite pianist, Sviatoslav Richter, because I came first, and maybe, for all they knew, last, too. Then there was Penny, and everyone--me included--thought that was it, because our parents sat us down for one of those serious talks that make you feel older than you are about how they couldn't have any more kids, according to the doctor, who was an amateur pianist, and as a result had my father's complete confidence. So no one was prepared for Marzi, when he came along.
Even after all of these years, and everything that's gone down, I still don't know how anyone--me included--could be prepared for Marzi, or if Marzi ever learned to prepare for Marzi.
My dad had this thin book that he got at a Dennis flea market. It was so old that the pages were vellum. A book from another era, in other words. He'd read to you, a lot, from a range of books that he kept in his study, with all its nautical knick-knacks. Miniature ships wheels, tide clocks, sextants, the occasional hunk of scrimshaw. You'd sit there, on this sea chest he had, and my dad would drink Islay whisky--which smelt just like the air smelt when you opened a window and breathed in the sea--and read from Horatio Hornblower novels, or Thayer's Life of Beethoven.
But he wouldn't read to you from the ratty book he got at that Dennis flea market, for the robust sum of "three pounds, two florins, and five ha'pennies," which was my dad's way of saying three dollars and twenty-five cents. He'd talk about the book, though. It was written by one Marstrom Simmons, from Weston-under-Lizard, in England, a man who claimed that his piano talents were so great--talents that he had not asked for, and wished he could renounce, in favor of a more practical trade like smithing--that he was unable to play for anyone, save himself, like people would just up and expire when fronted with such sounds.
We--Penny and I--always assumed it was a fairy tale, and not some autobiography--even by a crazy guy--but when our Marzi started picking out tunes at the piano before he could talk, and sight reading scores before he could read Curious George books, the old man started to look pretty prescient with that flea market score of his and the name he chose--after some weeks of trying to persuade my mother--for the child who would grow up to become the man that lived with me and my family, way out in Wellfleet, for that last summer. Or first summer, depending on if you're the kind of person who views the razor clam that tops off your bucket as the end, or the start, of something.
My mother liked to say that every family had a shepherd, someone who kept everyone together, and in our family, that person was Penny. My father, as ever, would say, "I'd like to argue the point"--a phrase he got from one of his favorite maritime books, Frederick Marryat's Mr Midshipman Easy--insisting that while Penny certainly could not be denied her role as shepherdess, the Cape itself had something to do with us being so close as well.
Penny worked as a nurse practitioner in Boston, but she had bought a house across the street from our folks, so they had their whole Chatham enclave thing going on. I think my dad liked Mr Midshipman Easy so much because it was about a precocious young British naval officer who thought he was far more intelligent than everyone else on his ship. And he was, too, by an even wider margin than he had first believed.
Marzi was like that in that the moment he left a room, you'd at least have your shot at being the smartest person in it. But there was no ego with Marzi, just this total awareness of what he did and the level he did it at, and I remember listening to him howl as a kid when my father read some passage from Marryat that the rest of us did not understand.
Marzi lived in Boston. We figured he was just too big, mentally, for the old home and hearth, though he loved the ocean, and everything about it, even more than my dad. The thinking was that, after a few years of toil, of working lousy jobs, people would come to recognize Marzi's music for what it was. If anything was truly inevitable in life, before you ran up against the reaper and his scythe, I figured it was Marzi doing things, and being recognized for them, in ways that would eventually put him up there with anyone you care to name.
I'm talking the big boys: Beethoven, Mozart, Schubert. I'd been playing the piano for twelve years before my brother came along, and inside of his first three he had me beat, dead easy. By his fourth year, you'd hear him and get a little frightened, like here was some cosmic anomaly that had gotten loose from some province beyond the stars, where genius emanated from the fingers of kids who could barely put three sentences together.
I make my living playing the piano, so it's not like I'm terrible. I didn't push myself a ton, but I guess I'm a bit provincial. Boston held no real appeal for me, beyond Red Sox games, and there was no way I wanted to trade the Cape for a series of musical misadventures in New York City, so I became a guy you could hire out for your daughter's wedding, or the opening of your hotel, or one of those chichi Hyannis Port gazebo affairs where the gadflies whisper about the number of Kennedys in attendance.
I married a local girl--extra-local, you might say, in that she immediately set up a proximate residence in my heart (or so I liked to say; I could be a smooth one back in my prime)--and Prue--said local girl--and I soon had the daughter that topped off our little family.
Quinn, right from when she was first crawling about, had an affection for my brother that confused my wife, but seemed status quo to me. Creatures that could not talk always liked him. Babies, animals, birds. I remember we were hiking at a forest preserve near Sandwich one fall day. My dad, with a decent degree of urgency, and then Penny, with yet more alacrity, had asked me to talk to Marzi. He'd been in Boston for nine or ten years at that point, and absolutely nothing was happening for him. He couldn't even turn up the shit kind of gigs I got because his playing was just beyond that supper club sort of thing.
I'd never heard of anyone doing what he did with a piano. He wasn't a loud player, although, if he wanted to, he could take on Liszt's transcriptions of those crazy Paganini pieces and make the great Romantic master sound like a ham-fisted amateur. But it was his tone that blew my mind, and what I guess you'd have to call his ability to just penetrate you, to break through every last wall and get you at the core of who you were, who you didn't even know you were. When I was a kid I'd walk through the house, thinking, okay, what a beautiful day here in Chatham, nothing like the sound and smell of the sea coming through the window. Then you'd go over to the window to bask in all that resplendent saltiness, and maybe you'd notice that the wall was vibrating ever so slightly. You could go down a floor, up a floor, and touch any wall you wanted, and it'd be vibrating too. You wouldn't hear anything though, until you went into my dad's study, where the family piano was, and where my brother was playing his latest composition, one that he probably wrote in his head, without you knowing it, while you were jabbering on about catching bluegills or how you scored a Jim Rice baseball card on your latest trip to the druggist. The house buzzed with that music, and, after the music had stopped, and you thought about it--as you inevitably did--you felt something buzz inside of you. And you knew you weren't quite the same anymore. I suspect that some people are more okay with this than others.
You couldn't not believe in Marzi, and that's why my folks sent him money every month, so he could live in his box of a studio apartment, working upwards of twenty hours a day, seven days a week. Photostats of the scores were sent to Chatham, and to my house, further up the Cape, in Wellfleet. It was like the stuff was too different, too unclassifiable, even though you knew, if it got out there, if it got a chance, people would feel, inside of them, what I felt inside of me, even when I sight read the scores.
Penny would go by Marzi's place, but the lights were always off, and no one answered the buzzer. The pieces got darker to the point that I absolutely refused to read them at night, and when Quinn--who had become a decent little player of her own--started asking, around the time she was fourteen, fifteen, if she could try her hand at some of her uncle's stuff, I'd always give her the earlier, brighter works, rather than what was coming in the mail nearly every day.
"I think he's going to do something to himself, Rich," my sister cautioned. "You see this a lot in my line of work."
"You see people like Marzi, a lot?"
"No. Of course not. But you see people isolating, and thinking that God's fucked them"--my sister always had a salty tongue, which horrified my mother, and pleased my father--"like they're new Job or something."
"I don't think you give him enough credit. Can you even imagine anyone being stronger? How many years now? Ten? Ten years of cranking out stuff that ... well, I know you can't tell how mind-blowing it is, but trust me ..."
"I can tell."
"Yeah, well, all he does is make more, the less stuff happens for him, breaks-wise. You know what I mean."
"And at some point that can give out. Just talk to him. Tell him it's going to work out. Even if you don't believe it."
"Why wouldn't I believe it?"
She looked at me hard.
"Just talk to him."
And so there Marzi and me were in those Sandwich woods, planning to go over to our parents' house after to stay the weekend. Marzi and I saw a fox that day, and a ring-necked pheasant, and, weirdly, a cat, as we puttered about. We'd been at a concert in the morning, in Boston. You'd want to watch Marzi's hands any time you were able to talk him into going to a performance with you, particularly if the performance featured newly composed music. His fingers would reach, on his lap, for the notes the performer had yet to play, but was about to.
"How do you do that," I had asked him, a long time ago, but this was a topic that still came up, as I never could get my mind around it.
"The finger thing. Before you know the score."
"It just makes sense to me. You can go this way, you can go that way, you can go a million ways, and it's like those millions ways each have a sheet of paper, one you can see through, that's all lit up, and they're superimposed, in my head, when I'm hearing a piece. And I guess if you spin all those lit up pieces of paper, simultaneously, in different directions, when they're all on top of each other, and you know, based off of what you've already heard, what's in the composer's heart, and head, you know what the next cluster of notes will be."
It didn't really surprise me that the fox didn't run off, but just stood there, regarding us, like it was listening to Marzi talk. The cat, who came from God knows where, sidled right over to my brother, having walked past the pheasant to do so. My brother reached down to pet him like this was the most normal occurrence in the world, although I was thinking David Attenborough would have a hard time coming up with an explanation.
"Penny wanted me to talk to you."
I knew he didn't mean our parents, and certainly not my wife, although I guess he could have meant Quinn, given that rapport--and it was often a wordless rapport, like a glance or two--they shared. But I knew he was talking about me.
"Well, it was her idea. But I guess I might have gotten to it on my own, eventually. I mean, I know it's all going to work out for you, the way you want it to. There's no way it couldn't."
"Isn't there?" We were losing the light, and I could see my brother's breath whenever he wound up to take a kick at each of the rotted stumps and logs that bounded the path. "It doesn't have to work out, you know. Someone has to be that guy. Maybe it says something. Like this grand comment on our world. You can do something that no one else can do, at a level no one can do it, and it's not going to matter luck all. No one will know. Well, you know. I know. But I wish I didn't. If there was something else I could be, I'd be it."
"Well, I'd rather be what you are, to be honest. Because--"
"No you wouldn't. Believe me, it's a good thing to be able to go to a concert, or listen to someone talk, or think your own thoughts, about how early you should get to the beach, or whether to leave the lobster traps soaking another day, or if you should use sea worms or poggies for bait without looking down to see that your hands were moving without you knowing it. And then you get to realize that you just wrote half a concerto in your head that no one is going to let you perform. I think I just need a bit of time, away from everyone. See what shakes out. If you wouldn't mind dropping me at the bus depot ..."
"You sure Mars? Mom and Dad are going to be disappointed. You know Dad, big long weekend fishing trip planned."
"Yeah, I'm sure, Rich."
When I shook my brother's hand at the bus depot in Hyannis, I couldn't help but curse Penny, in my thoughts, for making me think--like I could really feel it coming true--that I was never going to see Marzi again.
The scores stopped arriving after that, for the most part. There were a few vague notes that came to our house in Wellfleet about working on an opera that was entirely voiced by piano. I didn't even know if that was possible. An entire opera, out of one piano, with no actual, you know, singers?
My confidence in Marzi--as someone who was going to get where he'd set out to arrive--was wavering, given our patchy correspondence during the winter of that year, and on into the next. I don't mean that I thought his level of recognized success was bound up in how often we spoke, but rather that I had this concern that his abilities had gotten the better of his reason, like he had become more esoteric and maybe, I don't know, less focused. But what did I know? I slummed it at Rotary Club mixers, pounding out Louis Prima and Little Richard tunes so that we could upgrade our boat and Quinn and I could set lobster traps and I could be a real Outer Cape character, the kind of guy who turned up at the diner at five in the morning, smelling of cut herring, and boasting about the catch he's going to pull up later in the day when the day trippers and land lubbers were just getting up.
It was fun. Just like it was a relief, actually, not to be hearing from Marzi. That sounds awful. I cared about him as much as I cared about my wife and kid--more, in some ways, though I'd never tell them that, given what his life could mean to other people. Our lives only meant what they mean to each other, if that makes sense.
He wasn't dead--the checks kept getting cashed and Penny had seen some lights on. I'm a reasonably imaginative person so it didn't take a huge outlay of effort to start to think that things were really humming along for him, and it was one little break after another that would lead to a big one, and maybe he was storing up all of that info for us and there'd be this grand announcement.
You always kind of anticipated a grand announcement with Marzi. I think he was probably embarrassed about being a thirty-five-year-old guy who worked his ass off, who was better than brilliant at what he did, who couldn't pay any of his own bills. I asked my dad about it over a dram of Islay whisky as we watched the sun burn the latest clump of salty fog off the bay, and he said Wagner was a lot like that, for a while, only Wagner thought the world owed him money, simply because of his genius.
"And Wagner never worked like your brother used to work."
"Used to work?"
"Well, used to work at music."
"Did you hear from him?"
"I got a box from him. But he said you'd be getting one too. And he didn't want me to go into specifics before you had yours."
My dad always loved a joke. It was a Memorial Day ritual for him to rent Hardy, the twenty pound lobster that lived in its own case at Denk's Fish Market and dump it in the old kiddie pool we used to splash around in so that the neighbor kids, at our big backyard clambake, could get the scare of their lives. Never mind that it was the same set-up every year. I used to wonder if Hardy got sick of his annual star turn.
But sure enough, a couple of days later, a box from Marzi arrived. Prue and I unpacked on a Saturday night, after we'd gotten back from our weekly Trivial Pursuit match with the Destons, our neighbors and local drinking partners. We'd rip through those massive growlers-when the weather got warm--of Cape Cod beer. "A vacation in every pint," it said on the side, and even if you were a local, after about three pints in--they really hopped that stuff up--you felt like you'd gone somewhere new indeed.
"Do you want to open this now, Rich," Prue asked, as Quinn came bounding down the stairs.
"Marzi called." She never called him uncle. I get that once you hit sixteen, as Quinn had, you tend to drop the formalities, but even at five, it was always Marzi, or, more commonly for her, Mars.
"What'd he say? Did he sound all right?"
"He wasn't very loud. Kind of rumble-y."
"Like when he's playing?"
"Yes. Like when's playing. I put my hand against the wall, but I couldn't feel anything. That was stupid. But you said that Grandpa said he hadn't played in a long time, and I was hoping ..."
"I'd have done the same thing."
"But he said he'd been digging. And he'd keep digging."
Weird. We let Quinn open the box and dump its contents on the lobster trap that we had converted into a coffee table.
"What the hell is all this?"
We stared at some grubby, ancient looking coins, a hunk of what appeared to be bone, and a ground down little piece of metal that could have been some early form of bullet.
There was a note, which Quinn scanned quickly, excitedly, like this all made perfect sense to her, before announcing that my brother now fancied himself a working archeologist, never mind that he wasn't paid for it, and if the world above the ground wasn't a right match for him, maybe he could find a way to develop some bond with the world below it, before ...
"'Before a final accordance,' it says."
Quinn's cheeks were flush, just like they were that time she raced out of her bedroom, past me, sort of shaking and crying and glowing at the same time, and out the front door, with Prue trailing ten seconds behind her.
"What was that all about," I had stupidly asked.
"Your daughter has found and been using my vibrator."
You might say I was leery of boxes after one showed up from an adult novelty store in Boston's Combat Zone, but this package from Marzi was something else entirely. It had come from the site of the oldest still-existing house in Massachusetts, in Dedham. More boxes followed from locales like Dog Town--an abandoned woodland settlement in Gloucester that was once said to harbor witches, all of whom left their dogs behind when they departed, with the dogs going feral and creating this big Hound of the Baskervilles type of thing; the peat beds around the Quabbin Reservoir; various construction sites near Boston's Faneuil Hall; even right-field of Rockport's Evans Field where the local high school nine played their games.
Quinn, our de facto letter reader, would stand before my wife and me, and deliver the latest news that came in from Marzi's hand.
"The right-field portion of the park slopes up at a thirty-five degree angle. I thought maybe she would be buried in there, so I worked at night, hoping to avoid detection, to see if I might, at least, come by a trace of a garment to identify her, after all of this time."
"What the fuck ..."
"No, I mean ... what on earth is he going on about? Dig her up? Dig who the fuck up? He's lucky he didn't get arrested. I guess we can conclude by the normal handful of British coins"--and there were a lot of British coins in my brother's hauls--"that some Limeys had come ashore, so thanks be given, once more, to the War of 1812, but dig her up? What could that possibly--"
"You don't know?" Quinn had that glow in her cheeks again. My wife took Quinn's hands in her own, and then laid them atop her knees, like they were about to play patty-cake. In our family, this meant that it was time for you to say what you felt, and no one could give you a hard time.
"He means hope. Her is hope."
That night, I drank iced coffee, sober as could be, and stared out the window with my wife until it was five o'clock, the hour that, for whatever stupid reason, I considered the hour that you got after it, if you were a man of the sea, even the weekend warrior type.
"I'm going to Boston to get Marzi and bring him back here with US."
"I know. Do you think he'll come?"
"Yes. At this point I think he will."
Marzi didn't put up a lot of resistance. I waited outside his North End apartment, until he came shambling down the street, looking like he was going to trip over one of the cobble stones outside Paul Revere's house. We had a knack for truncated exchanges, especially in times of crisis.
"For the summer."
I'd never seen my brother look so spectral as we drove over the Sagamore Bridge. Marzi always looked like someone who could plant his hand in the ground and knock you off the line of scrimmage as soon as the whistle blew. But there was a distance to him, like he had managed to make himself less corporal in the months since we hiked through the Sandwich woods. Normally, we'd listen to the classical music station, but the radio was off, and Marzi's hands, which had dirt under the nails of all of his fingers, stayed folded in his lap, without so much as a twitch. They almost looked like they'd been grafted on to his arms, like in one of those old monster movies we used to watch on Creature Double Feature as kids, with me pulling big brother rank regards our late morning viewing fare, before he pulled genius rank later in the afternoon and kicked my ass up and down the keyboard.
That first day we got him settled in at the house. Quinn was waiting in the driveway, absent-mindedly flipping through F. Scott Fitzgerald's Tender is the Night--part of her AP English summer reading course--while Prue hosed down the lobster traps--to the chagrin of many an encrusted barnacle--we kept by the heap of mulch that had never gotten distributed in the nearby tomato garden that was overseen by a fat chipmunk.
The book landed on the driveway. Prue smiled as she shut off the hose, the remaining barnacles relaxed, Quinn ran over to her uncle, and Marzi, in the second or two it took for him to shuffle out of the car, looked more, well, above ground, if you follow me, less like someone who'd just been rescued from a cave. There was a flash of color on his face, for just a moment or two, but Quinn's cheeks again took up that particular shade of red of hers, and stayed there for most of that summer. Or whenever her uncle was around. At least when I saw her around him. I wonder if he noticed it too, and if that particular shade reminded him, as it did me, of the pizza sauce at the Boom Spar, our favorite restaurant--although it was really more like a shack--growing up, and behind which, under the glow of a street lamp, we'd once seen Jimmy Lyons, the resident bad ass of Chatham--a whale spotter by day, rogue by night--with his hand down a girl's pants, sauce and spittle around the edges of his mouth as he thrust in and out.
The three of us went out on the family lobster boat--the indefatigable Flinty Conch, which everyone called the FC, like we were all aboard a soccer team--while Prue shucked corn and cooked up some mussels and clams that Quinn and one of the Deston kids had gathered in the morning. And that was our routine, for the first few days. Beers on the boat, cherry soda for Quinn, lulling in the waves, pulling the occasional lobster out of a pot, and trying to get my brother's head clear again. Quinn regaled him with stories about her friends and their misadventures--as high school girls are wont to do--but even she kept the conversation far from music, though you could only do that so long with Marzie.
"Are you keeping up your lessons?"
"For the right reasons?"
Silence. She didn't know what to say. Neither did I. So I'd make some lame joke about how she'd only take up the tuba or the bagpipes or something suitably loud if we didn't pay her piano teacher promptly on the first of every month. But by that point Marzi would be looking back to the land--we were never more than a few hundred yards away, and that mixed smell of salt and pine seemed almost to scrub the air--like he had somewhere to get to, and we were keeping him from an appointment with a person or thing even he wasn't aware of.
"There's only one real reason," he continued, "and that's that playing does something for you. It makes you more yourself, and gives an idea about yourself that leads to something that maybe has nothing to do with playing the piano. You don't have to play to play. You can play to learn that you prefer the term autumn over fall, or you need to
go to more baseball games, or that you should try to figure out how to re-string a violin. Or that joy is a lot different than you thought it was. Or," he concluded, hauling the final pot of the day up into the FC, "that your dad is a horrible fisherman. Never mind the four stragglers from this morning. Which you said put us on a pace for what, Rich?"
"Yikes. I guess in the case of your dad here, Miss Q, the piano hasn't taught him not to be a lobster-catch handicapper. Best start practicing when we get back, Rich."
Normally, those four stragglers would have been set down on the back lawn, for what was a Bennings tradition. The lobsters would race, such as lobsters race, to a ratty strand of ribbon from one of Quinn's first Christmases--she was a ribbon hoarder--and the winner, after having exercised his dominion over the short course, would be the first into the pot.
Psychologically it was a bit messed up, although my father would argue the point, in his best Mr Midshipman Easy fashion, that there was a reward in being spared the pain of knowing what was going to happen to you. I'm not sure how convinced I was. But the lobster races were given an entirely new hue that summer. We'd come back and Quinn, inspired, I guess, by what her uncle had said to her, or just that he took such an interest in her life, would race in the house to the piano, where she'd play something jaunty, like she didn't want to further blacken his mood. There were a lot of sea shanties coming out of our house that summer, and bits of Americana that would have had Daniel Webster kicking up his heels. Prue and I would sit in the kitchen, having our time together, drinking coffee or shucking the last of the corn, with me keeping an eye on the window, over the sink, which looked out on the backyard, where Marzi sat, with the lobsters.
He'd take out each lobster, one at a time, from the cooler that had served as their temporary residence. There was something almost balletic, graceful, kind, but frightening, all the same, when he put each of them down on the lawn, and picked up the fillet knife by his side, and pressed it through the lower portion of the head. After the lobsters had been dispatched, he'd put one in front of all the others, and then bring up those from the rear, so that they got a chance at the start of the line as well. Watching this from my kitchen window, as my wife sipped her coffee and my daughter serenaded us with a spirited piece by Charles Ives, I came to view that backyard spectacle as both humane and equitable, even as it scared me more than anything I had ever seen in my life.
Not long after, Marzi started taking to the woods. They were all around our house, and when Quinn told him about a dried up kettle pond where some of the earliest settlers were said to have lived, and Indians before them, and a Revolutionary War-era colony of rogue hunters--but who wasn't rogue in these parts, back then?--Marzi just had to go. Excavating, as he put it.
I'm not going to lie: we'd all read--thanks to my daughter's precocity--something dire and potentially deadly in my brother's strange missives about digging up parts of Boston and Cape Ann ball fields, but who knows: maybe he had discovered something about himself at the piano, and it was on to the latest calling. I tried to get myself to believe that, even though I knew--really knew, like you know how you're tall or you're short, or if you're as good at something as you'd like to be--that my brother had no choice but to be something that I didn't believe was of his own choosing.
After seeing the lobster ritual for the fourth or fifth time, I got off my ass, grabbed two beers from the fridge, kissed my wife on the forehead, and went out behind the house. He'd sit out there for a while after the lobsters were dead.
We'd gotten about halfway through our beers before either of us said anything.
"I lied to your daughter, Rich."
"Yeah. About all of that piano talk."
"Well, Mars, it's tough, you know, to level with kids. Even kids who are almost adults. It's probably even harder with kids who are almost adults."
"It's not that."
If my brother cried, it was something he did on his own. You would not see him do it in front of you. So we sat there for a moment, listening to the gulls, and the jays, before he started talking again.
"I have to play, when I play, for one reason. And that's to take your soul from you. To make it into something that it wasn't previously, so I can give it back to you, and you can become more yourself than you ever were before. But that also means I have to give you some of mine. And when I don't have that outlet ... I've never really had that outlet ... people to listen, I mean ... my bits just float off and die. And no one gets their soul right. Which can make it hard to play, if you never see that changing."
"What about the opera? The opera for piano? That could be promising."
"I don't know that I could even write it, anymore. It's like I can't even hear water. Do you know what a lock is? Not a door lock, a nautical lock?"
I didn't, so I shrugged.
"A nautical lock is like an elevator. You can raise a boat in the water by putting them in this chamber, where water flows in through sluices, and up the boat goes when the water level becomes equal on the inside and out. Everything for me right now is outside that chamber, and I can't get the water to come in. When it did before, it made a sound like what I hear when I'm at the piano. Not the sound out loud, in the room, but the sound in my head. It's gone now, and I'm more like you than myself. Only, without the happiness."
"Look, Marzi ..."
"You don't have to say it's going to work out, that it has to, eventually. I think timing is important. A hundred years ago, I probably would have been all set. You can do something no one else can do, and no one will ever know. It's hard to have, you know ..."
His voice trailed off, but we both knew the word he left off, as Quinn certainly would have. One of the dispatched lobsters gave a quiver of its tail, and Marzi pressed the fillet knife through the base of its head again.
"Probably just a reflex."
It was around that point that Quinn and her uncle started spending the bulk of those summer days together, hiking out into the woods, where Marzi would dig with our garden tools in the dried up kettle pond, and Quinn--who always took that copy of Tender is the Night along with her, but never seemed to make any progress--would keep him company. There had been a few trips to see my parents in Chatham, and they had come to our house too. It always thrilled my mother to see Marzi, like he was some soldier of fortune who bounced around the globe, and made it home but once every five years. My father, meanwhile, had fallen in with one of the summer vacationers, a guy named Dayton Simmons.
"They clam together," my mother proudly announced, before we all said goodbye to Marzi and Quinn for the day.
"It's more than clamming, actually," my father said to me, sotto voce, an hour later when my mom hustled off to the kitchen to help Prue with the ice tea. "I understand that your brother needs a break. Or I'm trying to. But this guy Simmons--same last name as Marstrom Simmons, right? You know that's a sign."
"That Marzi should be a clammer? Can you make a living at it?"
"No. Not that he should be a clammer. Although a few days out on the flats wouldn't kill a guy like you. But this Dayton Simmons, he works for Deutsche Grammophon, the record label. And I've been playing him some of your brother's stuff, from when you were kids. You know how I'd get the tape recorder out. And he's impressed. How could he not be? And that's all from more than half a lifetime ago. He said he'd be happy to listen to him now. I think this could change things for your brother."
As I would have, if I hadn't heard Marzi's backyard speech.
"How long is he here for?"
"That's the thing. We have lots of time. He's here for the entire summer."
That didn't feel like a lot of time to me.
Still, Marzi and Quinn would come back every day, around dusk, and he'd be more animated than I'd seen him in a long time.
"That's the best mud I've ever seen, Rich," he'd say, at dinner. "It's anaerobic mud. Nothing dies in it. Well, stuff can die in it, but to pick it up, you wouldn't notice. There's no air, so everything gets perfectly preserved. Everything. If you dug up a squirrel it'd be totally intact. So any relics are going to be absolutely mint once you hose them down."
"We haven't found any yet," Quinn offered, between bites of her burger, that by now familiar hue of red becoming deeper in her cheeks.
What can you say? You try and be enthusiastic. I was better at that than Prue, who began to sour, somewhat, as the summer went along, like she thought something wasn't quite right. Quinn would come back to the house with one of those cheap Native American knockoff bags we'd gotten her one summer out on the Mohawk Trail, and empty it out on the desk in my study. There'd be arrowheads that looked like they were store bought, they were in such good shape, and coins that we identified as Willow Tree threepences and Spanish reales, along with parts of pipes, guns, the occasional sword hilt, even a beaver pelt.
"I'm going to bring back some Gatorade for Mars," Quinn announced, as I held a square-shaped coin up to the light, wondering if my brother now had to go back to school for this would-be profession of his, knowing that Marzi could no more sit in a classroom than I could become the Outer Cape's master fisherman. I drifted off a bit, so when I went to respond to my daughter, I saw that she was gone, and Prue was standing before me in her place.
"I think Marzi needs to go."
"Are you joking? He's doing worlds better than when he got here. And there's that record label guy I told you about. You're telling me that, in a few weeks, after making more progress, he couldn't play for that guy and something couldn't come of it?"
"I'm not saying that. But there's something about Quinn and him I don't like."
I had worried about this, actually. My wife is more protective, regards our daughter, than I am. I know it's supposed to be the other way around. But I always trusted Quinn, and I figured that, even though she was headstrong and romantic, everyone in my family was, to some degree. Try navigating that waterway between your wife and daughter. But Marzi had once dated Prue's sister, and there was sisterly gossip, and before long I had to hear tales of how my brother got up to one debauched episode after another, even if, in my wife's words, her sister had loved each and every one of them. I spent a long time out in the lobster boat that day.
A couple hours later, when Quinn came back, without my brother, again, it was clear she had been crying. When my daughter cried, she went to my wife, and, sometimes, I'd be brought in later, to have a catch with Quinn out in the backyard. Everyone has their roles. But I did note, as she walked past me, and I did my best to get out of the way, that her knees were filthy, just caked in that black, non-aerated mud that Marzi loved so much, and it was all over the back of her shirt as well, when I turned around to see if she had turned around to look at me.
Now, I know my brother. Not his whole artist genius thing he has going. That's beyond my ken, appreciate it though I do. But I do know the kind of person he is. Cryptic as he may be. But I also knew what my wife would probably think about all of that mud on our daughter, and where that mud was, and that wasn't going to do anybody any good.
"Quinn ... hold up a second."
My daughter was not used to being stopped by me in these race-to-mom moments.
She came back into the kitchen, gingerly, looking more bemused than I'd seen her in some time. Maybe since her surprise birthday party at the Ground Round when she was five.
"Take a shower before you talk to your mother, okay? She's been having me clean, and probably wouldn't want to see my work threatened."
"Okay, Dad, if you say so."
Marzi stayed on, and my dad started talking to him about coming by the house in Chatham to play--very informally, nothing too stressful--for this Dayton Simmons of his.
"He's always over anyway. You'd love him. A total googan"--that was one of the words the full-time residents used for the tourists who'd get out on the water and pretend to be proper fishermen--"but a nice man. He likes everything I've played him of yours. And that was kid stuff compared to where you're at now."
I noticed during these exchanges that Marzi would look in Quinn's direction, which in turn made my wife look in mine.
"Let me think about it, Dad," Marzi would say, before heading back out to his dried up kettle pond, and all of that black mud. Quinn had stopped going with him, and one day, after I pulled up another empty lobster trap, and drank my Samuel Adams--only two beers allowed per outing--and she had her cherry soda, I asked her what had happened that afternoon I had lied to her about cleaning the house.
"I thought you were lying. There was sand everywhere."
Quinn could be a wiseass when she wanted to be. But then her cheeks assumed that color that reminded me of the pizza sauce at the Boom Spar, and she got serious again. It's strange when your child is like a walking sun shower.
"Did Mars ever talk to you about locks?"
"He talked to me about them too, that day. And how he couldn't hear like that anymore, in his head. And that he wouldn't be able to play for anyone, even if there were people to play for ... you know how he gets with the stuff about him being ... what's that guy's name?"
"Job. How he's new Job."
"Yeah. And I said, this Mr. Simmons that Grandpa is always talking about, he could do something. I believe in you, I believe this could be your chance. So he said, 'my chance?' So I said, you know, not your one chance, but a chance, and I couldn't ever imagine him playing badly. But he said he needed to hear that sound in his head again, and since he had come to stay with us, just about all he heard in his head was ..."
I pried the cap off a third beer, and gave my daughter the wheel.
"He said he had to keep looking on his own. I asked him for what, and he told me he didn't know. And I knew I had to go." "What did your mother say?"
"She said to tell you she was sorry for thinking what she did."
My dad refused to table his talks about the record label employee in our midst that summer, and Marzi eventually gave in, agreeing to come to our parents' big annual end of summer bash, complete with Hardy, the sumo-lobster.
Marzi never went to bed before it was almost light out, and so we arranged to let him take my car down to Chatham, given that Quinn, Prue, and I had to get there early, to help my parents set up. And I loved that end of the summer clambake. It was brilliant. Every year. That's why you lived on the Cape, for stuff like that, and why you felt a part of it. You could have had all the clambakes you wanted in Sharon or Swampscott, but it just wouldn't have been the same. And boy was that Dayton Simmons excited to hear my brother play. The only person who might have been more excited was Quinn. I figured I pretty much knew what to expect: something unlike anything I had ever heard before, which I'd keep in my head as I walked around our block at night, back in Wellfleet, and then walked around again, and maybe again, trying to come to terms with art that seemed to emanate from inside of me, like my brother had snuck into my chest, and planted it there.
Most everyone was tuckered out by the time Marzi arrived. There was this sense that he was going to close out the festivities, close out the summer, as it were. The lobsters had raced and been consumed, Frisbees and Wiffle balls had come perilously close to windows, three coolers of beer and soda had been drunk, Prue's baked ziti, with bits of mussel, had proven a hit again. But New England being New England, a day that hadn't seen a single cloud came to have a sky full of them, and once that happened, everyone knew to get inside, before the storm started. So Marzi had a full house, an impromptu concert hall, when he came through the front door. He had Quinn's knock-off Indian bag with him, which I thought was kind of strange, but he looked at his ease, although baffled to find an audience awaiting his arrival.
I watched him walk over to my dad, who introduced him to Dayton Simmons. Marzi kept shaking his head, and smiling, and making these movements with his hands, like he was apologizing for something. I don't think anyone else but me could tell what those hands were really doing though. But then I caught Quinn's eye, and I saw those cheeks of hers. She walked near the front door, and stood there, behind everyone else, who had gathered around the piano. It was then that I knew my brother was not going to play.
But I hadn't expected him to reach into Quinn's bag, and take out what looked like a giant scorpion, encased in mud, blacker than any I had ever seen, and put it atop the piano. He shook Simmons' hand, took his card, mouthed something to my mother and father, and walked past Quinn, out the front door, and into the rain.
The cacophony of people sounds resumed. There were brownies, apparently. It was against that backdrop of happy noise that I watched my daughter catch up to Marzi on my parents' front lawn. She asked him two questions, which he answered with nods in the affirmative. One of the Deston kids, meanwhile, had handed me what I had thought was some sort of monstrous, prehistoric insect. I went to the tap, and ran the thing under the water, washing the mud away, and there it was, a lobster, without any holes in any part of it, perfectly preserved, all of its flesh intact.
That night, back home, Quinn and I walked out to the beach to pitch the lobster in. Neither of us wanted to see it start to rot.
"Hope," she said, as the creature returned to a different kind of darkness, but one more fluid, which seemed fitting.
"You asked him if he was leaving, right? Out on the lawn."
"I did, but I knew."
"And what was the other thing you asked him?"
"I asked if he was going somewhere where there were locks, so he could listen to them and see if they sounded like what he was starting to hear in his head again."
"Do you think they will?"
And for the first time, I saw my child look at me like we both knew that it was her turn to be the strong, clear-eyed grown-up of the situation.
"Of course. Don't you?"
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|Article Type:||Short story|
|Date:||Jan 1, 2014|
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