“Words and Music,” a story by Mary Corbin, was a short-listed entry in our recently concluded 57th Short Fiction Contest. It is published with the permission of the author
The symbol for a fermata, which is used to indicate that a musical note should be held longer than its standard duration. The length that the note can be held is up to the artist or conductor of the piece of music
Words and Music
…..It’s never easy to say goodbye, especially when you didn’t get there in time. Dad was hours away from me and I didn’t have a car and it was the middle of the night when I got word. Words. Sung off-key.
…..Dickie Calais was born in the year when an American president outlined a plan to end war forever and women gained the right to vote. And he was my dad. Of French Norman descent, he grew up in a small farming town in upstate New York playing sandlot baseball, the only son in a family whose other child, a daughter, died when she was seventeen and a father who tried hard to keep a job but couldn’t. His mother was the real backbone of the family, the rule maker. The keeper of accounts.
…..When my dad was ten, it became apparent that he not only loved baseball but he loved music, too, and could carry a tune like nobody’s business. His talent soon came to the attention of his Auntie Wynn while she was visiting the family one August weekend. Wynn was an artist who lived in New York City in a flat in Greenwich Village with her wealthy banker husband, a life very different from her older sister, Nettie.
…..“Dickie, you are quite a songbird, you are!” Wynn said, listening to Dad singing right along with the radio she had brought them as an extravagant gift that year.
…..“Why, he knows all the words to all the songs, Nettie,” Wynn said to her sister sitting on the couch mending a shirt for her husband who was sleeping off a little too much whiskey taken a little too early in the day.
…..Dickie was singing along to “Happy Days are Here Again” while putting the checkers back into their box. When he became aware of Auntie’s attentions, he began singing louder to her admiration. He started to snap his fingers and clap along to the music, played the coffee table like a drum with his hands in time to the beat of the song. Nettie just nodded and kept to her task.
….. “Dickie, you really are something!” Wynn said.
…..“On the Sunny Side of the Street” started up. Dickie stood to perform as though on stage, extending his arms wide and dancing back and forth across the room. He began to sing harmony to the main melody, proving he had a command and range beyond an ordinary kid. Wynn clapped and laughed with glee, looking over at her sister Nettie.
…..“Ok, time to turn that radio off, Dickie. Help me set the table for supper,” Nettie said, standing up to commandeer the room.
. . . . .
…..“Nettie? There is a new music school in the city for boys. I think Dickie should enroll, he has such talent. He could live with me for the summer . . .” Wynn began.
…..But Nettie was already shaking her head as she washed the dinner plates.
…..“No, no. He plays baseball all summer. That’s what boys are supposed to do, Wynnie,” she said, throwing a dish towel over her shoulder.
…..“Now, go get me those coffee cups off the table and let’s not hear another word about it,” Nettie said.
…..Wynn was crestfallen. Nettie didn’t like her younger sister telling her how to live her life from the vantage point of rich city folk. No, she was content to live out her days the way she saw fit, as ascribed by the good book and the words of wisdom of their elders.
…..“Ok, Nettie. I’ll get the cups,” she said, walking slowly over to the table.
…..Turning, she caught a glimpse of little Dickie sitting on the living room floor, sorting through his baseball cards and humming a tune that played only in his head. She released a soft sigh and walked back to the kitchen sink, back to Nettie in her old dress and well-worn apron, her hair pulled taut in a bun atop her oh-so level head.
. . . . .
…..When Dad was a young man, he followed his heart into music as a drummer and singer in a band called “The Hottentots.” Who the heck knows why they named a quartet playing big band music after an indigenous people of South Africa? I never thought to ask. Innocent enough to my dad was its hep sound when it rolled off the tongue. He played the skins and sang at parties and once in a while had a real gig in a café in exchange for a beer and a plate of hot food.
…..I’ve Got a Gal in Kalamazoo. Chattanooga Choo Choo. Tangerine.
…..For him it was his life’s blood to play music and express himself in rhythm and vibrato. To have audience.
…..But another war came, despite that American president’s willful plan and Dad was shipped off like the rest, thrust into a violent and tragic opera. It would take some time before a proper set of notes could be contained within five horizontal lines and four blank spaces to create euphonious harmony in the world again. Dickie would return to his hometown, meet a young woman named Marian, fall in love and create his own American songbook of love and family.
. . . . .
…..I’m Louise, by the way, Dickie and Marian’s third. The middle child in a family of five kids, with two older brothers and two younger sisters. I’m the bridge in the song that ties both ends together into a whole. Casey is the oldest, then Joe, me, and Sarah and Melody are on the other end. Melody, or Mel, is the youngest and keeper of the family flame. Sarah has lived in Paris for years. She’s a jazz singer, which is fitting because my parents named her after one of their favorites, Sarah Vaughan. We hardly ever see her and Dad always hated that the thing he loved the most is what took her so far away from him.
…..Growing up, Dad was always organizing us into a band. We had a dedicated music room with a piano front and center surrounded by guitars and a banjo, a violin, a clarinet, a tambourine, a full drum set and a xylophone. We all played something and some of us played everything. We had a stereo system and a wall of records spanning all music genres and generations. Andy Williams to Frank Zappa.
…..My sisters and I would gather around the piano and sing three-part harmony, putting on shows for Dad. I’d look over to see his hazel eyes sparkling in the limelight of our performance, his toothy grin adding to the shine. I don’t think there was much that made him happier than that.
…..On Sundays, Dad would croon in church, singing loud and clear. People would turn around to see where that voice was coming from. A kid would stare at him and we’d get a little bit embarrassed, nudge him to take it down a notch. He had his own way of holding his hymnal, his own way of interpreting those devotional sentiments and putting them back out into the world.
. . . . .
…..My sister Melody, she was there. Of course, she was there, even though none of the rest of us could be. It was all too sudden. She was the one to call and tell me it was time to say goodbye. She said Dad couldn’t speak and his eyes were closed but she felt he knew she was there. I wondered why I wasn’t, why things hadn’t aligned more perfectly. Like notes on a piece of sheet music, in perfect cadence and space and metered time. Just like the way he had taught me to write it out.
…..“Make the music first, Louise. Then add the words,” he’d say. “Heart and soul first.”
…..I always did the opposite, worked it all out in my head first, what I needed to say, despite his instructions.
“A fermata is a symbol used to indicate that a note should be held longer than its standard duration. The length that the note can be held is up to the artist or conductor of the piece of music . . .”
…..I could hear my dad’s explanation during one of our music lessons at home while he taught me how to read music when I was twelve. My siblings were better at learning music by ear. I insisted on knowing the intellect of it all, the phrasing, how to parse it all out like a math problem. He was thrilled to hand this down to me and he knew we shared a special shorthand that the others were not in on. We had our own secret language, we did.
…..Sometimes, when he was having his Saturday morning coffee, I’d hand him a page or two of my scribblings; words that needed to be set to music, a tune that only he could hear in his head. He’d take the sheet from my hand and give me a wink.
…..“I’ll take a look, baby,” he’d say and set it down on the table.
…..I’d hear him later after we had all gone to bed tinkling away at the piano and I knew. I’d wait for the big reveal a few days later. The two of us sitting side by side on the bench, then, working it out together in perfect two-part harmony.
…..“Hold the phone up to his ear, will you, Mel, I want to say something,” I said between gasps for breath. I could feel her nodding.
…..“Ok, give me a second and then just start talking,” she replied.
…..I heard a little muffle of words from her as she was apparently placing the phone next to Dad’s ear, telling him it was me.
…..“Dad? Can you hear me?” I asked.
…..“Dad. I’m sorry . . .” I started to say.
…..No. Not that, I thought to myself.
…..“Dad? I know you can hear me. I don’t know what to say…Except…We’re together right now and we’ll always be together. Every little breeze . . . I’ll be with you and you’ll be with me. Always . . .” I rambled, barely able to say the words through my tears.
…..Then I spoke my final words to him, uttered in a secret whisper into his ear, something meant only for him. I wiped the wetness from my nose and waited. Melody must have been able to tell that I had stopped talking. It was her voice I heard then through the fog of my advancing grief.
…..“Louise?” she asked quietly. “Are you done?”
…..“Mm-hmm,” I said.
…..“Ok. I better go then,” she said. “I love you.”
…..“Mm-hmm,” I managed again.
…..Setting the phone down on my dresser, I staggered across the room to my bed and crawled onto my belly with my head turned sideways on the pillow towards the big oak outside my window. I could only just make out its penumbra, full light not ready to break the darkness and I lay there for a minute or two before my phone rang again.
…..“Hello?” I said, though I knew it was Melody.
…..“He’s gone,” she sobbed. “It’s like he was waiting for you. Whatever you said to him, it was all he needed to hear. He slipped away just seconds after we hung up.”
…..I hung up the phone before I was even able to understand that he really was gone. There was nothing in the void but my final words to him, hanging loose in the air. He was my music. Without him, there could be no song.
. . . . .
…..Things weren’t always harmonious between me and Dad. We had words. I was a teenager in the 1970s and there was plenty to argue about with someone whose generation was steeped in tradition and sacrifice. He didn’t understand plenty about us girls, especially me, the rebel of the three. My brothers were hippie boys with long hair, but he sort of let them be. But, when I stopped going to church, threw away my bra and quit shaving my legs to protest the double standards for men and women, we got into it more than once.
…..My siblings and I were emerging from a different world into one that demanded our attention and our right to express them freely. Dad didn’t want to believe any daughter of his might not want to get married and have kids. He had tautly drawn gender definitions. I tried to explain it to him in a way he might understand.
…..“Dad, I’m the cadenza.”
The cadenza is the moment in a musical piece where an instrumentalist or singer is given the opportunity to solo with complete artistic license outside of a rigid tempo or rhythm.
…..He tried to see it, he really did. He didn’t want to be the rigid tempo holding me in check, but I was his daughter and there were expectations.
…..All of that conflict, it always dissolved when the music began to play. Someone would put on a record and no matter if it was Mick Jagger or Perry Como, the tossing ship would right itself again onto a calm sea. Dad would become his true self, the hep cat Hottentot drummer, the bon vivant, floating on an ethereal cloud of true meaning and bliss.
. . . . .
…..Flipping through the channels a week after Dad left us, there it was. Innocents of Paris, an old film he had loved and watched over and over since he was a kid.
…..What’s this doing on, I wondered.
…..The part where Maurice Chevalier sings “Louise” in his French accent was about to begin and I sat up straight from my slouch on the sofa to take it all in. It was the special song dad used to sing to me. Looking right into my eyes with a bright smile, tucking me in at night, he’d sing it. Or when we walked hand in hand on an early summer day to the corner market for hand packed ice cream, he’d sing it. It was our song. Here it comes. I sat up even straighter.
Every little breeze seems to whisper Louise
Birds in the trees seem to twitter Louise
Each little rose, tells me it knows
I love you, love you.
…..I could hear him singing it to me now, the beat of my heart keeping time with the music. He was there with me.
. . . . .
…..The morning Dad died, I could barely function. Getting to Melody’s would take a lot of stamina, but I knew it was what we both needed so I pulled myself together, packed a few things into my daypack, grabbed a bag of cookies from the kitchen counter and caught the bus to pick up a rental car.
…..“What did you say to him? I mean. I guess it’s really between you and Dad, but it’s weird how you sort of . . . released him,” Melody said.
…..“I think it is between me and Dad, Mel. It was just his time,” I said.
…..Melody had the music channel on her big screen TV tuned to the channel that played the old stuff dad loved. Tommy Dorsey, Benny Goodman, Glenn Miller. “Begin the Beguine.” “In the Mood.” “Take the ‘A’ Train.” Those songs.
…..We were sitting on Mel’s big leather couch sharing stories. Once in a while we’d get up and slow dance together, imitating the way Dad would take one of us into his arms and glide us across the living room floor. We’d laugh and twirl each other around, Mel and I, take turns leading, until one of us would just get too teary and have to throw ourselves back down on the couch.
…..Then we’d sit looking at each other until a new song came on. A still frame of Rosemary Clooney appeared and the notes began.
…..“Always Together,” I said.
…..Melody looked up at the screen.
…..“Yeah. Rosemary Clooney. ‘Always Together,’ Melody said.
“Stay near to me, we’re meant to be, always together.
Me loving you, you loving me, always together.”
…..“This song. I don’t think I’ve ever heard it before, have you?” I asked Melody while I kept my eyes on the screen, like I was expecting an image of Dad to suddenly appear up there, singing directly to us or something, sitting on a cloud from his perch in heaven.
…..“What is it?” Melody asked.
…..“That’s Dad. He’s singing to us right now. Through her, I mean,” I said and turned to look back up at the screen. “Those were my last words to him.”
…..We sat staring at that still photo of a young Rosemary Clooney, feeling the words, feeling something was happening that was meaningful and a little bit unsettling all at once.
. . . . .
…..The next morning, the sun was coming up over the trees over Mel’s patio.
…..“I think Dad is here with us, Lou, don’t you?” Melody asked.
…..I nodded. “Yep. I do,” I said, looking over at her sweet face and I could see the little girl in her all over again.
…..“He wanted us to know,” Melody said, her chin trembling. I reached over and took her into my arms and we stood there, feeling a little breeze sweep over us, the sound of birds in trees all around us.
. . . . .
…..Two days later, I peeled myself out of bed, climbed into the same clothes I’d worn the day before and looked for my wallet. The two-block walk to the grocery store felt endless, my energy low as if my legs were tethered to a ball and chain tethered to my heart.
…..I was standing in the dairy aisle staring into boxes of butter when I heard it. Everything around me was artificial. The store, cavernous. The lighting too bright. And this music being piped in directly over my head, only for my ears.
…..Could anyone else hear it?
…..I looked up to see if I could find the source of it, some speakers or something. I didn’t recognize the song at all, a man’s voice singing over and over and over again, “Don’t be sad. Everything is going to be alright.”
…..I looked both ways to make sure there was no one else in the aisle. I set my hand basket down softly onto the floor and looked up.
…..“Dad? Is that you?”
…..I was sure he was trying to reassure me that he was in a good place and that I should stop my crying. I stood there for another minute staring into space until I had to move because I was blocking the eggs and this woman was trying to reach around me, no doubt wondering what the heck was my problem in the first place. Shaken from my stupor, I picked up my hand basket and made my way to the check-out.
…..For at least the next month, I kept hearing words and music that reminded me of Dad. He was everywhere with me no matter how far afield I would go. One weekend, my best friend Jackie persuaded me to go away to help get me out of my funk. I did need to get away, break the routine of things, try to shake off at least a little bit of the grief.
…..We got off the elevator and walked down the hallway to our room, engaged in easy small talk. Stopping in front of our door, I looked up at the number posted in big numerals. 1407. My dad’s apartment number. After Mom died, we had moved him into a little apartment a few blocks from Melody’s house where he lived for the last five years of his life. 1407 Waverly Court. As Jackie scanned the key to let us in, walked into the room holding the door for me, I stood frozen. When I told her about the coincidence of the numbers, she laughed.
…..“That is just like your dad not to want to miss out on the fun! He had to come along with you, Louise, even here,” she said, and I nodded.
…..I pulled my suitcase into the room.
…..As we unpacked, I made a promise to myself not to dominate the weekend with my sorrow and revelations. Jackie knew I was in a slow heal but she didn’t need to listen to me sob and mutter regrets all weekend. As we stepped out into the hallway later for dinner, I heard it. Playing in the hallway just for me.
“The best is yet to come and babe, won’t that be fine . . .”
…..One of Dad’s all-time favorites! I wanted to cry. But I took a deep breath and didn’t even mention it to Jackie.
…..The funny thing is this. On Monday morning, when it was time to leave, there we were again in the hallway and I could hear the song, that same favorite song of his. It must have been on some kind of loop but here it was, meeting me at the door again. I knew that familiar one-finger piano intro. I began laughing.
…..“What’s funny?” Jackie asked as the door closed behind her.
…..I started to snap my fingers to the tune. I started to sing along. I felt theatrical. Overcome by feeling, I belted it out right there in the hallway for Jackie. And for Dad.
“Out of the tree of life I just picked me a plum
You came along and everything’s startin’ to hum
Still, it’s a real good bet, the best is yet to come”
…..I was throwing my arms around and dancing back and forth across the hallway to Jackie, the same way Dad did for Auntie Wynn. The way we girls used to do, putting on a show for him as kids. Jackie giggled, watching me, delighted that I was experiencing joy again.
…..Then I looked up and gave Dad a little wave. We heard the elevator bell and the doors open and I quickly pulled myself together as the song descended into its fade out as we headed down. With Dad. Above us following along.
. . . . .
…..Dad. I just keep wondering one thing. What happened to your timing? Your rhythm?
…..Where was your fermata after all. I mean, couldn’t you have held the note just a little bit longer. For me? Maybe I could have gotten to you then, held your hand, whispered my special words to you in person.
.“The length that the note can be held is up to the artist or conductor of the piece of music . . . “
…..I wasn’t ready for the music to end, for the singer’s final bow before the curtain fell and the lights came up and the audience dispersed. I guess I’ll have to rise, too. Let my seat flip back up behind me. Walk up the aisle and back out into the light of day. Carry the tune with me always.
Mary Corbin is a writer and artist based in San Francisco. Whether in words on a page or paint on a canvas, she aims for strong narrative with relatable characters and experiences. Her stories contrast a simple moment, thought, or gesture of the ordinary with the mysterious layers that lie beneath the surface. This contemplation is her constant source material.
Listen to the 1960 recording of Rosemary Clooney singing “Always Together”
Click here for details on how to enter your story in the upcoming Short Fiction Contest
Click here to read the winning story of the 57th Jerry Jazz Musician Short Fiction Contest, “Constant At The 3 Deuces,” Joe Zelazny