They Heard The Music, Together
(a short story)
Richard F. Corrigan
THEY HEARD THE MUSIC TOGETHER, published by RiverSedge Literary Magazine — University of Texas-Pan American — 2003
If Paul Avery could have made it until 9:00 pm on Saturday, he would have been incognizant of himself for fifteen years.
He was born of an attorney father and an accountant mother in the small town of Stanley, Pennsylvania. Squeezed between two sisters, he was the middle of five children and the second of three boys. He left Stanley to attend college and never returned.
He felt deeply about war and suffering but also freedom and independence, choosing to enlist in the Reserve Officer Training Corps rather than waiting to be drafted by one of the military services. After college graduation, he spent a time in Africa teaching crop-raising techniques to aborigines who had never seen an American, let alone understood American customs. He almost fell in love with another volunteer but talked himself out of it.
He fell in love only once — in high school.
He returned to Cornell to get his masters and then settled in Ithaca, New York. He never fell in love again, and so, never married. In his heart he kept his memories of his high school love, Tricia Maines, and kept his distance from the rest of the opposite sex, preferring to devote all his time to studying, preparing lessons, teaching, and writing papers that were published in all the prominent scientific journals. He eventually attained a doctorate degree.
He taught excellence under the pretense of teaching college botany. He not only taught at a local community college but also at his alma mater. He challenged each class to attain a perfect score on his tests. Perfection was the elusive A+.
Not everyone strove to reach the golden ring, but many did — and were disappointed. Something was always wrong, he would find it and minus away the perfect score with a red pen, etching negative numbers into the test paper. His students didn’t hate him; they hated his red pen. Him, they loved.
Paul always preached that a person should have a goal and do whatever it takes, with certain reasonableness, to attain that goal. Paul set goals. All his life he set them, although, he did not attain all of them. One in particular which ate at him every day of his life since high school was his missed opportunity to dance with Tricia Maines at the Friday dances.
Paul was a pudgy teen. He had a nervous eating habit brought about by the continual arguing of his parents. And at the dances he could only wish he had the nerve to ask Tricia to dance. She was in one of his study halls, and that’s when he fell for her. She had golden blonde hair and blue eyes. She always dressed in shades of blue so her eyes would look even bluer. He only had eyes for Tricia, but not the nerve. And with Paul’s fear of rejection, went his happiness. His favorite song was Blue Velvet, but she never knew.
The irony of the situation was that Tricia had a pining for Paul. It began when she was fifteen, but because of her upbringing, because of Papa, it wasn’t proper for a female to be so forward to tell anyone she liked a boy. So, she kept it to herself. And, with her silence went her chance to spend her life with someone she cared for, for she could not date until she reached the age of twenty-one. By then, Paul had left Stanley and was fulfilling his college credit requirements at Cornell. Her favorite song was Blue Velvet, and he never knew.
His back was bent now when he walked, and he shuffled his feet, unable to lift his legs more than an inch off the floor. His hands were deformed from arthritis; he could barely hold a cup or a fork. His spectacles, that’s what he called them, were always dirty and covered with fingerprints. He was still overweight, and his hair was cut so close to his head, he looked bald. But his eyebrows were thick and bushy. He had small ears, a small nose, and dark brown eyes.
When he retired he had a steady stream of ex-students paying him visits. Even when he checked into the assisted-living home in Alistair, the weekly visits were numerous. But Dementia began wrapping its memory-strangling arms around Paul soon after he retired from teaching. He was never alone though. His students kept him company throughout his later years, right up until he developed the big “A” at age 67. That’s when his self-awareness disappeared, along with his inquisitive and expressive eyes.
And, one by one, the number of visitors began to diminish until there were none. To him there were none. Few still came to see him, but he never knew it. They would talk to him and sometimes he would talk back, not making much sense, but he never remembered anyone coming to see him. It was disheartening to some, especially those who thought they were his pets; they were the first to stop coming. They couldn’t deal with the reality of the disease and the fact that it was as if they never existed in Paul’s life. Now, no one knew what he thought or how he felt about his life.
Paul was just sitting, staring when a new woman resident was led in and placed in a chair on the opposite side of the room. He didn’t know who she was, and day after day they sat in the same room and stared. She also had the big “A.”
Alzheimer’s took its turn wringing out Paul’s brain about fifteen years ago, ten hours shy of fifteen years. He used to remember looking out into the auditorium from the stage after he received his diploma and seeing Tricia standing in the back with a few of her friends. That was the last time he saw her. She was wearing blue.
But Alzheimer’s brought with it a certain empty, monotonous harmony. And all was harmonious in Paul’s world until this morning. He was staring across the room as usual and a nurse came in and asked the new woman if she needed some painkillers for her arm. Paul stared until he heard the nurse say, “Tricia, do you understand me? Ms. Maines, do you need a painkiller?”
It was as if a board rapped Paul alongside the head. He reeled, almost falling forward onto his face. He grabbed the arms of the chair and focused his eyes. His incomprehension began to melt. His confusion began to dissipate. He began to feel the breeze on his skin, hear the music playing over the speakers, smell the muffins cooking in the cafeteria, and feel the itch of a teenager. He remembered his name.
Paul’s eyes burned a hole right through that Alzheimer’s and woke up a memory that had been dormant since he was 67. He was now 82 and feeling the effects of rebirth. He remembered he wanted to dance with Tricia. But he never got the chance. He never made the chance. He was too scared she would say, no. So, he never asked, saving himself the embarrassment of the rejection. One of his lifelong goals was to dance with Tricia. And this time, he wasn’t going to go another day without attaining that goal.
He struggled to stand. His sudden movement shocked the nurses. Ever so slowly, sliding one foot alongside the other, he shuffled toward Tricia. The attendants didn’t know whether they should stop him or let him go.
“He could fall and hurt himself,” said one.
“Where’s he going?” asked another.
They watched as Paul shuffled across the room. Tricia Maines was in the room, and Paul remembered who he was, and who Tricia Maines was, although now, it seemed she wore gray, for Paul’s eyes couldn’t see blue as well.
He finally made it to within a few feet of where Tricia was sitting and cleared his throat. He listened for a moment. The music was still playing. Then the nurses heard him say, “Would you like to dance?”
The nursing staff was puzzled by Paul’s sudden determination to get up off his chair, walk across the room, and ask Tricia to dance. She stood up when he pulled on her hand, but she didn’t understand what was happening. She didn’t know who he was. But that didn’t matter to Paul. He was committed to asking her to dance, something he had not done the last time he should have, and this moment was not to be wasted.
They moved around the room in a disjointed manner. Finally, one of the nurses, fearing they might fall and hurt themselves, stopped the waltz and encouraged them to sit down together.
Paul was as nervous as a teenager on his first date. He didn’t know where he should put his hands, and he couldn’t keep his legs from bouncing up and down. Tricia sat still and stared into space. Paul began talking, and it was two hours before he stopped. He told her about his life without her, and how meaningless it had been. All this, while Tricia sat not comprehending who this person next to her was, or why he was talking so much.
Finally, Paul stopped talking. He looked at Tricia and understood her circumstance. He knew she didn’t know who he was. He realized it, and he began to cry. All those years, lost. And now that he was finally with her, and had mustered the courage to ask her to dance, she didn’t even know who he was. He cried. And as the tears rolled down his face, the shroud of Alzheimer’s began to cover his consciousness. As the last tear fell, he didn’t know who he was, where he was, or who the person was sitting next to him.
Eventually, the time came for the attendants to assist the residents off to bed. One of the orderlies came over and said, “Paul, it’s time to go to bed,” and grabbed hold of Paul’s arm to lift him off his chair. As Paul shuffled away, he thought he heard a familiar voice whisper something. He turned back to look at Tricia. He was too far away to see the tear running down her face.
For weeks afterward, Paul would sit in his chair and stare across the room. Tricia sat in her chair and stared back.
“Remember that day when those two tried to dance?” asked a nurse. “Something happened that day. Paul came back for a while.”
“Let’s set two chairs in front of the window for the sunset and set them together,” said another nurse.
The two nurses arranged two chairs in front of the big, bay window just before the sun was about to go down. They turned on the oldies station.
“Come on Tricia, you’re going to watch the sunset with Paul,” said the one nurse.
Tricia was ushered over to a chair in front of the window. Her eyes began to dart from side to side. Paul was walked over and placed in a chair next to her.
“Watch the sunset with Tricia, Paul,” said the nurse. Paul’s eyes widened. The music filled his ears: She wore blue… vel-vet…
As the sun set, spraying the room with a brilliant orange, Tricia’s hand began to move. It rose, floated over to Paul’s arm, and came to rest on his arthritic fist. He turned and looked at Tricia, twisted his arm, and opened his deformed fingers for Tricia’s hand to fall into his palm. Tricia turned and looked into his eyes. Their tears began to fall, and they smiled. They watched the sunset together. They heard the music, together. They were teenagers again, and together.