Ed sank into his sagging chair feeling like a half-forgotten bag of potatoes. His rattle-trap oven creaked and groaned as it began the long slow process of warming up. It would be a good twenty minutes before Ed would need to peel back the silver foil on his TV dinner. He glanced over towards the little side table. The evening paper lay precariously balanced on the far edge. Ed picked it up and began thumbing idly through the pages. Behind him the oven sighed. It seemed to hesitate for a moment causing Ed to stop and listen. Another groan told him he’d have a warm dinner sometime that evening and he returned to his paper. Somewhere around halfway through it something made him stop and turn back a page.
The left hand page held a few small photos of smiling women in long white dresses, of young couples in a light embrace, their temples almost touching, smiling at the camera, of a smiling family around a freshly blanketed bundle. The right hand side held much more somber pictures of distinguished men in distinguished suits. Solemn furrows lined their brows. Ed pursed his lips, released a long slow whisper of a whistle and tapped out Chopin’s Funeral March with an index finger. The obituaries page, he recited to himself, where the glorious get a photo and half a page, the great get half a column. The good? Ed stifled a snigger. Lucky to get half that. And the rest, well, twenty-six words at best. Not much of a return for their journey through the vale of tears.
Ed couldn’t see what, if anything, might have grabbed his attention. Narrowing his eyes he scanned the page again, this time more slowly. He was about to give up when he found it. Buried deep within the rest his eyes settled on:
Hazel Springwater, music teacher.
Funeral: Thursday at Barren’s Funerals, Dry Creek Lane, 9PM.
Internment: Hollow Valley Cemetery, Friday 1pm.
Hazel Springwater, music teacher. Ed stared at the phrase trying to work out its significance. Music … music teacher … Hazel … hazel eyes … an image, fluttering like a butterfly, danced in his mind … hazel eyes … harmony … hands … hands on the keyboard … the image started to settle … raise your wrists a little … fix your hand like you’re holding a ball … no, no, no, not like that … don’t hold it so tightly … an evergreen forest … the smell of an evergreen forest after a spring rain. Ed nodded his head in recognition. He’d had a piano lesson. Years ago, sixth, maybe seventh, grade. The teacher’s name could have been Hazel or Hannah or Haley or something like that. Hazel Springwater sounded about right, or at least possible. Ed counted the words in the notices above and below. Both had twenty-six exactly. Hazel Springwater had nineteen. Both the notice above and the notice below contained dedications from a devoted family and beloved friends. Hazel Springwater had no dedication. A shadow of utter loneliness fell onto Ed’s shoulders. He let the paper fall into his lap. Inside the oven ceased its creaking and groaning. Outside it started to rain. Ed’s mind spun.
Hazel Springwater? Maybe it was his piano teacher maybe it wasn’t. A music teacher and not one person said she’d be missed? Not one person would say he’d be missed. Everybody ought to have somebody. Dry Creek Lane was about an hour’s walk away. Ed snapped the paper straight, folded it and let it fall on the table. He rose, turned off the oven and threw his still frozen dinner into the garbage. He marched into his bedroom and dusted off his Sunday suit. Once dressed he checked what was left of his hair in the mirror, tugged his sport coat straight, double checked the oven was off, and walked out. He’d made it half way down the front path before he turned back to check, for the third time, that the oven was off and pick up an umbrella.
The evening was city quiet with only the occasional whoosh of a car penetrating Ed’s train of thought, Hazel Springwater, music teacher … music teacher … music … Hazel … hazel … hazel eyes. There was a young woman. She had hazel eyes and flaxen hair and she was called Hazel or at least she might have been called Hazel. That detail was fuzzy but Ed’s memory of the classroom and the effect she had on it as she bounced in on her toes was clear as crystal. It was as if she were sweeping across a spring meadow. Sunshine bathed her; nature surrounded her, a vision of new promise. Ed’s heart fluttered and his body tingled as he remembered being transfixed by this embodiment of spring. She was beautiful. Standing at the front of the class she smiled and asked if anyone might be interested in piano lessons. The hand of every boy in the class shot up in an instant. Ed’s nearly hit the ceiling.
He remembered the introductory lesson. Sitting next to her on the piano bench, his stomach in knots, so tense he forgot to breathe. When he finally remembered he inhaled deeply. The air around her was like the air in an evergreen forest after a gentle rain but still he couldn’t relax. He couldn’t look at her. He couldn’t move. He could see, just out of the corner of his eye, that she was speaking but he couldn’t hear her for the pounding of his heart echoing around his head, every thump louder than the last. Her hand touched his wrist. He nearly leapt from the bench. His heart stopped. She gave it a gentle shake making him look up at her. She smiled sadly. He couldn’t remember the conversation that followed or anything else of that day. He couldn’t remember leaving. He couldn’t remember how he got home or what he did when he got there. But, looking back on that moment, Ed was certain that sweet smile destroyed every dream he’d ever had and ever would have of being something other than plain old ordinary Ed and that was the point he’d begun his steady slide into the degradation of accountancy.
The funeral home, save for the funeral director, was empty. Ed sat alone at the front through the perfunctory service. He hung around afterwards to press the director for details of Hazel Springwater. The director said he didn’t know much. Ed eyed him and concluded it was more a case that he wasn’t prepared to say much, although he did manage to learn there had been a scandal of some kind and Hazel Springwater may have taken her own life.
Leaving the funeral home Ed shoved his hands deep into his pockets and, through long slow breaths, drew the night air in through his nose. It had stopped raining. The faint perfume of night-scented plants softened the sharper tang of the city. An occasional moth or some other night insect buzzed him. Something huge, probably a beetle, sounding like an attack helicopter nailed him on the forehead. It nearly knocked Ed flat. He started scraping his feet along the sidewalk for company. Gazing up at the few stars that could penetrate the city’s canopy of light he felt infinitesimally small. He picked out a single star and spoke to Hazel silently, everybody ought to have somebody. Even if that somebody is a nobody.
That night Ed dreamed he was standing on a sheet of ice surrounded on all sides by the fathomless sea. Beneath the surface, out of sight, lurked something, something monstrous, waiting for him to slip. Ed woke up with a start. Cold sweat trickled down his neck. He crept to the toilet, keeping a wary eye on the shadows. At the wash basin a streetlight bathed half his face, the other half stayed in shadow. Light and dark. Brightness and promise, or darkness and … and nothing. Ed realized he hadn’t had anything to eat, sighed and went back to bed listening, for a very long time, to the silence of the night.
When Ed opened his eyes it was morning. He lay still, still listening. Some kind of song bird was rattling away in the branches of the pines behind the house. The curtain gave a languid waved. The scent of pine drifted in through the open window. The bird was answered by another some distance away. Probably marking their territory thought Ed. Birds squabble so melodically. Human bickering should sound so sweet. He exhaled half a chuckle as he recalled his unsettled night. Weird dreams weren’t scary. They were just his brain, in a ferment, grasping hold of random images, throwing them together every which way, creating a disjointed story for him to unravel in the morning. Most of the time he laughed them off and enjoyed the calm and clarity that came with laughing away one’s worries, but this morning Hazel Stillwater lingered in his mind. He swished his feet back and forth like windshield wipers and tried to remember what day it was. He sensed the coming to some sort of a decision, but for the life of him; he couldn’t work out what it was.
Friday! Work! Ed felt his whole body tense up as he realized that if he didn’t shift pretty quickly he’d be late for work. He held that tension for half a minute or more, then relaxed with the decision that today he would not go to work. It had to something to do with the decision he couldn’t work out and, anyway, it was far too comfortable lying in bed listening to territorial claims being settled by song. Ed’s stomach twisted itself into a knot reminding Ed that he hadn’t eaten the night before and, now that he thought about it, he was quite hungry. Yet he lay there until the birds grew quiet. Perhaps they’d abandoned the defense of their empires in favor of finding breakfast. Not a bad idea. The sun’s warmth trickled in through the open window. Ed’s hunger gave him the energy to get out of bed.
In the bathroom he gave himself a sponge bath and, looking long in the mirror, decided not to shave. Today he would be rustic. He’d never been rustic before, at least he didn’t think so. Heading back to the bedroom he picked up his clothes and was about to throw them into the laundry when he reconsidered. Underwear excepted, after all even rusticity has its limits, he donned the togs from the day before and headed out to the cafe. He could tell by the sun that he was later than usual and celebrated by slowing down, picking his head up, looking around and swinging his arms.
By the time he pushed on the cafe door the morning rush had begun to peter out. His normal stool, third from the far end of the counter, waited for him. Barry and Pete, perched on theirs, were sipping coffee from their mugs. Ed sat down. Neither turned to look at him. Mary Beth set his mug in front of him and filled it three-quarters full. She reached under the counter and pulled up a sugar dispenser. Ed held his hand up to say, no thanks. Raising an eyebrow Mary Beth put the sugar dispenser back.
Looking up and catching all three in his view Ed said, “Could I have some scrambled eggs, bacon, hash browns, a side of toast, no two, sausage and some jam please … ummm … strawberry. Wait no, raspberry.”
Mary Beth looked at Ed like she didn’t know who he was, “Right away.” She looked at Barry and Pete who both gave barely noticeable shrugs of their shoulders and cried out to the kitchen, “Plate of scrambled, bacon, sausage and browns, double side of toast.”
A heavy clang from the kitchen signaled Ralph’s acknowledgement of the order. Mary Beth picked up her cloth and headed towards the other end of the counter.
Pete leaned forward and looked over towards Ed. “Howdy, stranger. I don’t believe we’ve met though you do resemble an old friend of ours. Wouldn’t happen to be a relation of some kind would ya? Maybe a cousin or something?”
Blowing over his coffee Ed met his gaze and said, “I’ve decided to make some changes.”
“Any particular reason?” asked Barry.
“I think my piano teacher’s died.”
Barry and Pete took considerable time to absorb Ed’s news. Screwing his face into a question Pete said, “I didn’t know you played piano.”
“I don’t,” said Ed. “Only had one lesson, back in sixth or seventh grade.”
Pete and Barry continued to sit in silence while most of the rest of the cafe dragged themselves off to work. Mary Beth bussed tables. Sammy, an out of work furniture maker, busied himself with tapping the jukebox awake. He coaxed a blues out of it and heading into the kitchen. Ed heard a hearty greeting followed by the clatter of dishes falling into a sink.
“Must have been one hell of a lesson,” said Barry.
“Well I got me a house to wire,” said Pete, slapping the counter with both hands. “Can’t lollygag around here all day.”
A private smile curled around Ed’s lips. As far as he was aware lollygagging was what Pete did more than anything else.
Pete slapped Ed on the shoulder as he passed, “Hang in there kid. The world’s full of piano teachers.” He bowed his legs, spread his arms slightly as if he was packing six-shooters and sauntered out of the cafe with a wave towards Mary Beth.
Sammy brought Ed’s breakfast out of the kitchen and set it in front of him, “Any sauce with that?”
“No thanks,” said Ed, shaking his head. “Wait … got any tabasco?”
Sammy reached under the counter and set the small bottle on the counter. Ed picked it up, unscrewed the top, took a sniff and splashed a little on his eggs. The fiery orange scattered about the eggs pleased him. He picked up the pepper and dusted the creamy peaks with a couple of shakes. He set a fork-load of eggs and toast onto his tongue. Tabasco-pepper opened up his taste buds to the pleasure of creamy warm eggs, and the comfort only buttered toast can provide. Ed closed his eyes and let the mixture sitting on his tongue melt.
“Guess I better push off too,” said Barry, starting to rise. “You’ll want to shake a leg. You’ll be late for work.”
Ed swallowed and said, “Not going.”
Barry stopped mid-rise, “Why not?”
Mary Beth came by with the coffee pot, raised it towards Ed to ask if he wanted any more. Ed indicated just a swallow would do.
Barry passed around behind Ed. He must have signaled something to Mary Beth because she raised her eyes up to him and gave a slight nod.
Barry put his hand on Ed’s shoulder, “Why don’t you drop by the bank after you’ve eaten.”
“Could do,” said Ed, loading his fork with another pile of eggs. He placed the pile gently on his tongue and returned to his reverie.
Slowly Ed devoured his eggs making each mouthful a moment. Only when he’d finished and taken his last gulp of coffee, cold and unseasonably delicious, did he look up to see Mary Beth eyeing him with a thoughtful expression.
“Absolutely delicious,” said Ed. “Best eggs I ever ate.”
“You … ah … you got some time today maybe?” said Mary Beth.
Ed wiped his mouth with a paper napkin, “All the time in the world.”
“Because … well … you know about bookkeeping and stuff like that don’t you?”
“Could you look at something for me? I could use some help.”
“Sure, anytime you like.”