The Wrong Note

A Short Story by Maryetta Ackenbom

Ellie sat, dismayed, her head low. Her guitar practice sounded way off-key this morning, and she had just struck a chord so dissonant that it brought tears to her eyes. Her fingers were still on the chord. She strummed it again. It was actually painful!

She carefully put the guitar in its place on the table. Why am I doing this? Why go through all this agony, this spiritual agony? I know I’ll never really get it.

Her teacher, a man only a little younger than her seventy years, kept encouraging her during the weekly lessons, saying gently, “Ellie, you need the exercise, the movement of your fingers and the tendrils of your brain. Just relax and enjoy it.”

She accepted that. She couldn’t stop her guitar lessons, her stretching exercises, her vitamins and ginkgo biloba. If she stopped, she’d be crippled, physically and mentally, in months. She knew it. But where was the value of torturing herself?

I’m not depressed, I’ve got to bear it. She gazed out the window at her colorful garden she could no longer care for. Thank God for the pension which just barely allowed her enough to pay the gardener. The crotons, the coleus, the fading golden roses on the trellis she had started all those. Now she could only admire them, and make suggestions to her young gardener: a snip here, more water there, some weeding among the chrysanthemums.

When did she begin to strike the wrong note in her life? She’d been so happy and carefree with Joe.

“Let’s get married,” he’d said. Not on bended knee, and not, “Will you marry me, my love?” But at sixty miles an hour on the highway in his convertible, heading for a summer holiday with his parents after college graduation.

She had paused, cleared her throat. “Well, sure, Joe. We always thought we would.”

“No, I mean right now. In the next town.”

Fifty years ago it was fairly easy to find a Justice of the Peace or a hungry minister who would marry a couple with no fuss.

So, they found him, and were married. They continued on their way and stopped at the first decent-looking motel, suitable for a honeymoon after a slap-dash wedding ceremony.

She was still a virgin, technically, although they had each brought the other to climax with loving hands. Joe entered her carefully that first time, but it did hurt. Pain, but fulfillment. How grand it was!

The motel room was drab, she noticed when she rolled away from him. Brown and orange. They had closed the heavy leaf-patterned drapes as soon as they came in. She had no idea what might be outside the window.

How grand it was no, it wasn’t that grand. A sour note had already been struck with their impromptu wedding. It wasn’t what she’d hoped for. Maybe not a long white dress, walking down the aisle in a church full of family, friends, and flowers, and into his waiting arms. But she would have liked some beauty, some nice clothes, flowers, music. Especially music.

The years rolled on, like the adagio in a symphony. Joe sold luxury cars in his father’s agency, and inherited the agency when Joe Senior died suddenly at age fifty. Ellie taught high school English. She was good at it, and good at politicking, eventually becoming principal of the high school. Money was good, good enough for season tickets to symphony and opera.

Ellie went alone, or with a friend. Joe’s favorite music was simply loud. He didn’t care when she objected to the “noise”–he just turned it off. But he could not bear classical music. So, another sour note: no music in the home.

The home. Just the two of them, rattling around in a suburban ranch house until Joe’s father died. Then they moved in with his mother, in the downtown mansion. They hardly noticed the presence of Mom. She was a shy gray mouse. But when she took ill and died, Joe went crazy. Ellie never knew, she never understood the strong attachment he had to his mother. Joe locked himself in his room for days at a time. Ellie left food trays at the door. Sometimes he would eat, but often he would not touch the trays.

The loneliness led Ellie to turn on a classical music station, leaving the volume low. If Joe happened to leave his room, she’d immediately turn it off. She noticed, whenever she saw him, that he was losing weight. He was actually gaunt. She tried to talk to him, but he ignored her.

The time he isolated himself in his room for three straight days, not eating and not responding to her pleas, she called a locksmith. They found him dead in his bed, curled into a fetal position, like a bass clef signature.

After a few weeks, Ellie recovered from her loveless grief and began to go out with her single or widowed friends. Music began to fill her house, at the appropriate volume. Visitors came, stayed for lunch or coffee. She was only forty. She began to live a new life.

She took classical guitar lessons. She splurged on a fine Spanish guitar and found a teacher who would tolerate her slow learning process.

She knew, after the first few months she’d never be able to play that guitar. It hurt her to realize that even though she had a good ear for music. Her hands would not coordinate with her brain. Also, she began to drop things. She dropped silverware, broke a number of glasses, had trouble doing up buttons. Finally, she had trouble interpreting the music notes.

Those sour notes began about ten years after Joe’s death. After putting it off for several years, she consulted a doctor. The diagnosis premature senility. But, said the doctor, she could postpone the problem by working hard to keep her mind and body active. She could have many pleasant years before her if she’d pay attention to her health.

Why am I sitting here bemoaning my fate? Why don’t I get up and do something? Go somewhere? But where?

Allie’s life now revolved around music. She pondered that idea. Where could she go where there would always be music?

Why, I’ll go to Italy. And maybe Austria. That’s where I will go, that’s where I will live, and perhaps die. My savings will support me, along with my pension, for quite a long time. I’ll go and find my music.

She picked up the telephone, found the number of the well-known travel agency, and dialed. Oh. “Leave a message at the tone.” Stunned, she replaced the receiver. The tone was off-key.

She smiled, delighted with her life again. How funny! I’ll just have to call later. She picked up her guitar and immediately found the correct chord.

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Julia

A Short Story by Maryetta Ackenbom

Such a fine concert. Julia sat in her recliner, pushed it back and let the good feeling of the evening soak in. She needed to get up in a few minutes and get ready for bed, but she couldn’t let go of the evening, not yet.

Since she had given up her driver’s license a few years ago, when she turned 80, she depended on friends to take her to the musical events she loved so much. She couldn’t go often while Albert was alive. He demanded her full attention, all the time. Life had been hard with him. Even when he wasn’t drinking, he was demanding and abusive. But when he died, just after she had given up her driver’s license, she was free to do what she loved, if she could find friends willing to take her. She felt she was lucky to have the freedom, and the physical ability at her advanced age, to enjoy the cultural events in the city.

Now she had a steady ride every week to the symphony. It didn’t matter what was playing. She preferred the old classics, but anything would do. If it was a modern piece, with that awful cacophony, at least it was interesting. And she was with friends, which was another activity that she had been deprived of with Albert.

She looked around her large bedroom. It had been difficult to limit herself to one room when she turned over her house to her son, but it was necessary. Albert had not left her enough money to live on, and she had to make some arrangement with the house, her only valuable asset. Fortunately, John was looking for a place to live and loved the old house. He guaranteed her an allowance every month for the rest of her life, and he moved into the house with his wife and three teen-age children.

Even though Julia did not get along well with her daughter-in-law, she now had a decent life, better than the life she shared for so many years with Albert. The bedroom was comfortable and big enough to act as a sitting room. John had given her the use of the entire downstairs, but after a few months of running into family members busily leading their hectic lives, she stayed in her room most of the time. Her daughter-in-law’s cook took good care of her, bringing meals to her room.

Julia closed her eyes and remembered the concert, the strong chords of Beethoven, the sweet melody of Brahms. It was so pleasant. I am so content right now. What if I just let go?

Comfortable in her recliner, she did that. She let go of the life she had been holding onto so strongly. Now that her life was good, she could release it.