Duet For Two Women

“Now here you play dolce, sweetly,” says my mother-in-law Ruth, pointing to the open music book on the piano. She taps the word with a long, vigorous finger, the nail short and neatly manicured, the hands of a professional pianist. Her silver hair is drawn back in a soft yet precise bun, an elegant style she never varies. She wears a pleated navy skirt and a white blouse draped with a fringed scarf. The maroon in the scarf matches exactly the color of her leather pumps. I sit beside her in my jeans and worn sweater thinking resentfully, I did not ask for this lesson.

“Begin,” she says.

I play the passage, badly, and hear her exasperated sigh. She has bought the book of duets especially for us to practice from, during her annual trip to Newport, and my refusal (she thinks) to learn must be rooted in animosity.

I’m trying! I want to shout at her. How much time do you think I get to practice? Of course, Ruth knows her part already, sight-reading it perfectly the first time. The compositions are much below her level anyway. But tomorrow, Sunday, is the last day of her visit, and I must learn the harmony by then if we are to perform for Rick and the children.

“How’s it going?” asks Rick, descending the stairs with four-year-old Lauren holding one hand and Celia, two, riding piggyback.

“Just fine.” Ruth smiles pleasantly. “It’s going to take some practice, that’s all.”

“Play us a song, Grandma!” cries Lauren.

No one has to tell me to move off the piano bench. I take Celia from Rick’s back and the four of us crowd onto the couch. Ruth begins the Moonlight Sonata.

I used to think I could play this piece. At age ten I even performed a short version of it at a recital organized by our neighborhood piano teacher. Her name was Mrs. Lalli, and she gave lessons on a wheezy upright in her living room; my parents signed me up in the mistaken hope that I was talented. But after four years of faithfully plunking scales, expectations began to fade. As Mrs. Lalli tactfully explained to my mother, a child could possess a great love for music but no real ability therein. So the lessons ended, and for many years I resigned myself to being a listener.

Ruth’s fingers flow over the keys, and the Moonlight steals into the room. Yes, I used to think I could play this piece, it seemed so simple. Then my mother-in-law pointed out to me all the subtleties I had missed—the delicacy of expression, the phrasing. How could I argue? Ruth teaches music at a college in Chicago. She’s given concerts and participated in exchange programs with universities in Europe. During each visit to Newport she reports on the successes of former students, who write to her gratefully of their progress in their careers. Yes, Ruth, I want to tell her, your students love you. But your son loves me.

Her fingers press the last chord, and the Moonlight holds, binding us, then dissolves into a haunting echo.

“Hooray!” cries Lauren, clapping and breaking the spell. “You play so pretty, Grandma.”

“Thank you, darling.” Ruth turns, holding out her arms, and Lauren runs to her for a hug.

“I’m taking the girls to the park,” says Rick. “Anyone else want to come?” He includes both his mother and me in his glance.

“Why don’t you go, Ruth?” I say quickly. “It’s such a beautiful day. I’ll stay here and practice.”

“I’d love to.”

She takes Lauren’s hand, and the four of them depart. I watch them head down the street. The October day is warm and mellow, the trees fringed with gold. It’s the perfect time of year to visit Newport, now that the summer tourists have gone. I should be grateful to Ruth for making the flight. Hard as he works, Rick’s graphics business never allows for luxuries like flying to Chicago, especially since both girls now count full fare. And I do want my daughters to know and love their grandmother, and Rick, her only child, to be close to her. That’s even more important since Martin, his father, died of a heart attack this spring.

I return to the piano, fingering the carved wood. The instrument is old, a small upright, the veneer cracked and peeling. But I love its dark, winy color, and I love to fill the house with its resonant sound. After my lessons with Mrs. Lalli ended, I never thought I’d play again. But five years ago, having finally scraped together the money to buy a starter home, Rick and I were looking at this one when the agent remarked that the piano was included in the sale.

“The owners are moving out of state,” she said, “and it’s too much trouble to transport. It’s yours if you want it.”

“Yes!” I cried, the word leaping from my throat.

Rick slipped his arm about my waist. “I think,” he said casually, “we’d like to make an offer on this house.”

As soon as we moved in, I began to practice. I went back almost to the beginning: Easy Piano Pieces, Exercises for Young Fingers, Waltzes for Beginners. But four months later Lauren was born, and the expenses of a new house and a baby soon mounted. I had to return to work part time at the local newspaper, taking classified ads. When Celia arrived, I added more hours at work to cover the increased cost of daycare. For weeks at a time, the piano stood silent.

Then one day I heard cracking sounds and loud, jangled notes, and flying into the living room I found Lauren, toy hammer in hand, gaily whacking the keys. By the time I pulled her away, more than a dozen were broken. I fingered the jagged edges and cried. After the repair, I kept the piano locked. But every October, a week before Ruth’s visit, I open the cover and beseech my stiff fingers to make up all I have missed.

The phone rings, and I go answer it.

“Hi,” says my best friend, Julie. “I saw your troop heading for the park and thought I’d give you a call. How’s it going with Ruth?”

“All right.” I relate my trials with the duet, and Julie listens sympathetically. Her own mother-in-law lives with Julie and her family, in a house not much bigger than ours, and I’ve never met a more meddlesome woman. Julie gets by with a deaf ear and a store of jokes. But Ruth doesn’t lend herself to jokes. She doesn’t interfere. She doesn’t fault my cooking or the way I keep house. She just teaches me piano, and therein somehow lies the lesson that her life is superior.

“Cheer up,” says Julie. “I’ve finally got the lowdown on our mother-in-law woes. Listen to this: The man every woman really wants to marry is her son.”

“What?”

“Creepy, huh? I read it yesterday in a magazine at the doctor’s office. Actually, it’s not as sinister as it sounds. What this psychologist was saying is that most women end up being disappointed in their husbands. They don’t earn as much as we expected, they aren’t as generous or exciting or loving. Not that it’s all the guys’ fault. The article claimed women have unrealistic expectations, white-knight fantasies no man can fulfill. So what we do, when we have a son, is to mold him into everything we’re missing in our man. We’re raising the husband we wish we had.”

“Which makes it hard to turn him over to another woman,” I muse. “But that can’t be true in Ruth’s case. Martin was very successful, senior partner in his law firm, and the few times I met him he was charming.”

“Maybe he was a lousy lover.”

“Oh, Julie!” I laugh, then sigh. “No, it’s just me Ruth doesn’t like.”

We hang up and I return to the piano, but my hands stay in my lap. Every woman wants to marry her son. Could that be true? With two daughters and no plans for a third child, I feel safe from the pitfall. Yet part of Julie’s news strikes a disturbing chord. Haven’t I wondered what it would be like to be married to someone other than Rick—an engineer, a scientist, a doctor, a professor at some Ivy League school? Haven’t I daydreamed of where we would have lived, the children we’d have had, what I’d be doing now? Always, I realize, a step up from our present state.

But I love my husband, I do. And if I dare be dissatisfied with Rick, how does he feel about me? Composing classified ads isn’t a career to brag about, and most nights after Lauren and Celia are tucked in all I want to do is sleep. Does Rick spend his time with the girls quietly shaping them to be the wife I’m not?

Their voices outside startle me from my thoughts, and I plunge my fingers onto the keyboard and focus on the duet. But when they enter, though Ruth says nothing, I can tell she knows I haven’t been practicing.

*****

Late that night, I awake to a faint sound. The digital clock reads 12:43. We have given Ruth Lauren’s room, and put Lauren in a sleeping bag on the floor beside Celia’s crib. Now I hear Celia shift and whimper. She has been fussy at night lately, and the added excitement of Grandma’s visit and her sister camping in her room has her up at odd hours. I lie stone still, hoping she’ll settle down without my having to get up. Beside me, Rick snores, and I feel a twinge of annoyance. Why don’t men ever hear the crying in the night?

To my joy, Celia quiets herself. But something else is strange in the house, and I recall a tremor, a vibration, heard at the instant of waking, now silent. The darkness in the bedroom seems thin. I lie a moment longer, puzzling over the eerie sensation. Then I throw off the blanket and step into the hall. A pale glow shows on the wall, signaling a light on downstairs, but all is still. Whoever is there has heard my footsteps but makes no attempt to flee. Cautious but unafraid, I descend. Halfway down, I see Ruth at the piano.

“I’m sorry,” she says quietly, her hands in her lap, not turning to look at me. “Did I wake you?”

“No, Celia did. But she’s gone back to sleep.”

I continue down slowly. Ruth is wearing a rose-colored satin robe and her hair is undone, the first time I have ever seen it so. It lies soft and silver-gray about her shoulders.

“When I play at night, I always use the soft pedal,” she says. “An old habit, so I wouldn’t wake Martin.”

I go up to her. The lamp on the piano casts a concentrated beam on the music, the Moonlight Sonata. Ruth waits, as if expecting me to question her nocturnal behavior.  But all I voice is amazement.

“You practice at night,” I say, looking around the darkness and shaking my head in surrender. I can’t top that. I can’t match either her talent or her devotion. “All I can think about at night is getting eight hours’ sleep.”

“You need it,” she replies. “You have your hands full.”

Again I shake my head, denying her stock answer. “You had your hands full. You taught music and played recitals. You had a husband, a son, a house to look after. You managed to do it all—”

I stop, catching the frustration in my voice before it becomes a complaint.

“Anyway,” I continue, trying for a joke, “I’d sure like to know your secret for staying awake on the night shift. Maybe then I’d get some laundry done.”

Ruth shivers, an involuntary tremble.

“Ruth? Are you all right?”

“Yes.” She closes her eyes, and her words come out in a gasp. “Oh, I thought I’d sleep better after Martin’s death, but maybe it takes more time.”

“Of course it does.” I slide onto the bench, my arm going instinctively around Ruth’s shoulder, realizing suddenly how deficient Rick and I have been about his mother’s loss. Rick went back for the funeral and afterward called his mother regularly. But Ruth seemed so composed, so independent, and Martin’s estate was settled without complications, leaving her financially secure, that we assumed all was well. Rick himself did not grieve deeply over his father’s death.

“He was a good authority figure,” Rick confessed to me after the funeral. “He set rules and made me obey them. But he wasn’t a good father. He loved me when I reflected well on him, but he never cared about what I thought or felt.”

Yet all this time Ruth has been grieving, alone after thirty-two years of marriage, her only son a thousand miles away. And no daughter to share her tears. A lump rises in my throat as I imagine how I would feel if Rick, ideal or no, were to die and leave me.

“Of course it takes time,” I repeat. “Oh, Ruth, I’m sorry we didn’t understand. We thought you had taken Martin’s death so well. Please don’t cry. Or no, maybe you should cry. Go ahead, let it out. Oh, I’m not saying the right things, am I?”

I try to hug her, but to my horror Ruth throws off my arms and crashes her hands onto the piano keys. I jump—No!  You’ll wake Celia!—but the notes only shudder faintly, the soft pedal still pressed down.

“Martin hated my playing,” she whispers. “That’s how I developed this trick of waking up at night to practice. I was so afraid he’d…”

Her eyes brim with tears but they don’t fall, as if she won’t allow anything to soil her.

“Afraid he’d what, Ruth?”

She presses her lips closed, and urgency overtakes me. “Please, Ruth,” I say, clasping her hands in mine, “tell me.”

“I was afraid he’d find out and kill me.”

“Kill you?”

“How could I tell anyone?” Ruth talks not to me but to the music, yet I can feel the story coming, releasing its pain into the night. “What would our friends have said? What would Rick have thought? Things like that don’t happen in families like ours, only to drunkards and poor people. And he never left marks that would show. The next day I’d wonder if it really happened or if I had only been dreaming.” She shivers again. “What did I do wrong? I was always at his side when he needed me. I canceled concerts. I never let the music interfere.”

“How long, Ruth?”

“All through our marriage. I kept forgiving him. I thought he’d change. At least he never touched Rick.” Anguish rises in her voice. “I still can’t believe I let that happen to me.”

“Why didn’t you leave him?”

“Because I loved him. How could I have loved him?” She shakes her head, blinking back the tears.

For a minute I don’t speak. Then I say, “Ruth, you have to get help. And Rick must be told.”

“No.” Her eyes beg me to keep silent.

“Yes.” I say it as gently as I can. But inside me a rage against my husband grows. All those years at home—didn’t he guess, didn’t he know? Why don’t men ever hear the crying, or the music, in the night? Then I realize something else: that Rick is nothing like his father, that somehow he grew up tender and considerate and loving. My mouth opens in a silent “Oh” of recognition. Ruth has raised for me the husband she wished she had.

“Come get some rest,” I say. “We’ll talk in the morning.  Rick will understand.”

Ruth hesitates, then nods. Then her eyes move to the music, and her fingers reach longingly for the keys. “If it won’t disturb you, I’d like to stay up and play.”

“Yes, go ahead.” I rise and walk to the stairs. The muted notes of the Moonlight follow me up to bed.

*****

“Okay, girls, settle down,” Rick says, motioning with a finger to his lips. “It’s concert time.”

On the sofa, he puts an arm around each of them, Lauren on his right, Celia on his left. We are all dressed in our Sunday best. But while I sat earlier with the girls at church, Rick and Ruth left the pew to talk in the pastor’s study. I marvel at Rick’s ability to act naturally before the children; when he glances at me, his eyes betray his turmoil. We’ll be up late tonight talking, and I suspect that in the days to come Rick and his mother will talk often on the phone.

But now we have a concert to perform, before we take Ruth to the airport.

“Your mother and I have been working very hard to learn this piece,” Ruth says, and Lauren and Celia sit up attentively. “If you listen carefully, you’ll hear the music trying to speak to you.”

We take our places on the piano bench, facing the book of duets. I stretch my fingers and lay them over the keys. Ruth’s hands move into place beside mine.

“Ready?” she whispers.

“Ready,” I whisper back.

And so we play, not without effort, not without mistakes, but not individually either, not as two parts struggling against each other, the harmony resenting the melody, the professional scorning the amateur. We play together, forgiving the missed notes.

I did not ask for this lesson. I never planned to play duet. But I hear the music speaking, and the piano trembles with the fullness of the sound.

(Copyright©Arliss Ryan, 1991)

Winner of the Providence Sunday Journal annual short-story competition, August 1991

ABOUT THE STORY (from the Providence Sunday Journal Magazine)

Attention to detail, believable characters, and a gently paced narrative that pulls the reader right in are the ingredients of this year’s contest-winning story, “Duet for Two Women.” The ending, a surprise but not a trick, lingers long after the story has been read.

Arliss Ryan, the story’s author, is observant. She knows how to use detail to reveal her people, and her dialogue demonstrates an excellent ear. She clearly understands that nothing sinks a piece of fiction, especially short fiction, faster than dialogue that doesn’t ring true.

A nice device is the (sparing) use of italics to get into the narrator’s thoughts. Italics are like loaded guns; very effective if handled carefully, a nightmare with a single wrong move. Ryan has made no wrong moves.

But ultimately it was the subject matter, family dynamics—the competing emotions and expectations of people brought together by marriage and birth—that sold the judges. Ryan’s characters need no time to establish themselves; they are real from the very first paragraph. The children are children. The narrator is a mother and wife and daughter-in-law. And the mother-in-law is such a prim and proper and overbearing woman. When her secret is revealed, it is devastating, but sadly believable.

We probably all know a family like the one in “Duet for Two Women.” We may even live in one.

–  G. Wayne Miller

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