Fiction – “December” by Teresa Jusino
It had taken three weeks for Lisa Cruz to dispose of her mother’s things. Not because she was distraught, but because once her mother died it was as if a weight had been lifted from her shoulders. After twenty years, Lisa was finally free, and she had no desire to enter her mother’s apartment ever again.
However, after allowing an appropriate grieving period, Mrs. Cruz’s landlord began calling her only brother, Ramon, saying that if he didn’t clear Altagracia’s belongings from 3E soon, the landlord would hire a company to do it and all of her things would be sent to Goodwill.
This was fine by Lisa, but Tío Ramon insisted that she be involved in the process despite her protests.
“She was your mother,” he said. “Show some respect.”
Respect, Lisa thought. What did Mami ever know about respect? However, Lisa agreed, mostly because Tío Ramon was the only member of Altagracia’s family that she could stand, and she hated that he’d sounded so disappointed in her when she’d declined. So, three Saturdays after her mother’s death, Lisa rode the subway from her dorm at NYU, the dorm Tío Ramon was paying for until she saved enough to move out on her own, to her mother’s apartment in Rego Park.
Her stomach churned the moment she stepped into the living room. The sight of her mother’s tasteless attempts to appear more well-off than she was made her nauseous: the couch Lisa was forbidden to sit on, because it was “for company;” the collection of Hummel figurines displayed as if they were the epitome of art; the reproduction of the Venus de Milo on which Altagracia had spent way too much money during a vacation to Greece she couldn’t afford, leaving Lisa with Tia Claudia, whom Lisa hated.
Ramon was already there, packing vinyl records into boxes.
“Oh good! I’m glad you’re here,” he said upon hearing her enter. “Come see if you want any of these…”
Lisa walked toward him, standing in front of the plastic-covered, off-limits couch. Years of Pavlovian training – via house slipper to the head, not a bell – made her twitch when she got too close to the couch. But as she watched Ramon pile boxes near the front door, joy flooded her. Her mother would never be able to control where she sat again.
She sat, and the sound of deflating plastic hissing beneath her was like music. She took a perverse pleasure in smooshing herself down into the seat.
It was then that she acknowledged it for the first time – the piano. The Steinway dominated the room, making it seem even smaller. The hairs on Lisa’s arm stood up as she remembered the countless hours she had spent sitting on that bench, Altagracia standing behind her ordering her to practice, despite weariness or hunger, because her daughter was going to play a classical piece at her quinceñera like a lady. Altagracia would not be made a fool of, having already told her friends what her brilliant, talented daughter was going to do. Already a hard, difficult woman, Altagracia was not going to be one of those women who let their daughters run wild after her husband died of cancer. She was going to raise a lady if it killed them both. Lisa could still feel the spot on her scalp that had scabbed over after Altagracia pulled her hair so hard it drew blood. Lisa hadn’t wanted to practice that day.
“I think we’re gonna need more boxes.” Ramon’s voice snapped Lisa out of her reminiscing.
“What are you doing with everything?” Lisa asked. “Like, where are all these boxes going?”
“What do you mean? We’re going to see what you want to take home, see if there’s anything anyone else in the family might want…”
“I don’t want anything, so…just let the family have whatever.”
“Mija, I know you’re upset. Your mother just died, and you’re lashing out, I understand…”
Lisa laughed out loud. “Tío, I’m not upset. I just don’t want any of this stuff, OK? Besides, where would I put it? I’m living in a dorm.”
“Only during school. What about after? You’re looking for an apartment, right?”
“Yes, but it’ll be a small one. There won’t be room.”
Ramon walked to the piano and placed a hand on it reverently.
“What about the piano?” he asked. “You play it so beautifully, and your mother loved listening to you play so much! We could put it in storage until…”
“I really, really don’t want the piano. Seriously. If I wanna practice, or whatever, I’ll get a keyboard or something. But honestly? I haven’t felt like playing in a long time. Let’s just give it away or something, can’t we? Or maybe Tía Claudia wants it.” And then, in more of a mumble, “She always seemed like she was jealous she didn’t have one anyway…”
“Give it away! Mira e’ta princessa que puede dar la’ cosa’ asi, porque lo’ puede obtener tan facil! It’s a Steinway, Lisa! You don’t just give away a Steinway piano!”
“Fine. We’ll sell it on eBay.”
Ramon sighed, throwing his hands up. “I’m going to get boxes. I have more at my place that I can drive over. Can you stay here and not give anything away until I get back?”
Lisa smirked. “You better hurry.”
Ramon smiled, grabbed his jacket off the dining room table, and locked the door on his way out.
Lisa put her elbows on her knees and her head in her hands, rubbing her temples. She hated being in this apartment alone.
You think you can just do whatever you want, don’t you?
Altagracia’s voice. She heard it. But it was in her head. She looked up, focusing her eyes on one of her mother’s monstrously ugly plastic-covered armchairs.
Don’t ignore me when I’m talking to you!
The voice was sharper this time. So sharp, Lisa’s head jerked. Feeling a chill up her spine, she shot up from her seat and started flapping her hands trying to rid herself of the tingle creeping under her skin. She scanned the room, hoping she would find a tape recorder, that this was someone playing a joke. Lisa walked away from the couch, edged past the coffee table, and didn’t look at the piano as she picked up speed heading for the front door. She would wait for Ramon outside, say she needed air. He’d probably feel sorry for her and think it had something to do with her “missing” her mother, but she didn’t care. At that moment, all she wanted was out.
The knob wouldn’t turn.
Lisa tried the lock, but that wouldn’t turn either.
Siempre quieres dejar me, verdad? Siempre quieres irte de aqui!
The voice was right. Lisa did always want to leave here, leave her.
Lisa stood up straight, planted her feet firmly, and balled her fists so tight her fingernails left crescent-shaped grooves in her palms. She squeezed her eyes closed.
“This is all in my stupid head,” she said aloud in an even tone.
You stopped going to church once you started going to that Devil college. Is this why? Because you can’t believe in souls and spirits even if proof is in your face?
It was then that Lisa felt a pressure at her back. Constant pressure, as if she’d turned her back on a strong gust of wind. It continued pushing her, until her feet were forced to move, and she was taking mummy-like steps toward the piano. When she finally arrived at the bench:
Play the Tchaikovsky. November. No! December.
Though Lisa tried to steel herself, she felt her eyes and nose begin to tingle with the need to cry.
“I don’t want to play anything, Mami…”
Once the first tear escaped Lisa’s eye, there was no holding back the rest. Slowly, her hands went to the keys, and she played. After the first few measures, her impulse was to stop. When she tried to lift her hands from the keys, however, they would not be moved. Her fingers continued to play of their own accord, or rather, her mother’s, the notes of The Seasons swirling in the air like snow. Mucus dripped from Lisa’s nose, and she couldn’t lift her hands to wipe it.
“Mami, let me stop. Please. I have to wipe my nose.”
Why do you always want to stop playing when you play so beautifully? You weren’t like this when you were little. Before your father died, you always played when he asked.
“He would let me stop, Mami!”
Ah, y yo no importo a nadie, verdad? Siempre querias a papi mas que yo!
Lisa was fully sobbing now.
“I didn’t love Papi more than you! I loved you the same! But you always kept pushing me, pushing me, pushing me…”
Desgraciada. Of course I pushed you! It was the only thing that would get you to do anything! Your Papi died, and you became a girl I didn’t know.
“Mami, I was seven! I was sad!”
Ay, y tu eres la unica que te pones triste, verdad? YOU were sad? I was sad, too, OK? I was sad!
Gratefully, Lisa reached the end of December, but before she could will her hands off the keys, they started playing again. The same song. More tears came, as she realized the futility of the situation. She hoped Ramon would return soon.
You play when I tell you to play, do you hear me! I knew it was a mistake to let you live at that school! You never came back to visit, off doing God-knows-what…Do you see? This is what that Devil college turned you into! The one time I let you be on your own and you leave me and disrespect me…
“I didn’t mean to disrespect you, Mami!” Lisa’s hair was beginning to stick to the tears and snot on her face as her body swayed involuntarily with the music. “I just wanted to be on my own!”
Because you didn’t love me! You couldn’t ever be grateful! You would leave your own mother…
The notes corkscrewed into her brain like syphilis. She tried standing, but couldn’t do so comfortably, as she had to stand at a 110-degree angle to accommodate her fingers on the keys and the bench now attached to her backside. Sitting again, she pulled her hands from the keys in hard jerks, hoping to free herself from the piano, but as she pulled, it felt as though she’d tear the skin from her fingers, so she stopped. She saw the piece to its end. When it started for a third time, she could no longer stand it. Lisa screamed at the top of her lungs, flailing her body as much as her predicament would allow. If Ramon wasn’t back yet, perhaps one of the neighbors would hear her and investigate.
Slowly, Lisa’s jaw was pressed shut. With her mouth forcibly shut and the music overpowering the room, her screams sounded like low moans. She sobbed more than ever now, finding it increasingly difficult to breathe with her hair in her face, her mouth sealed shut, and mucus filling her nose. She began December for the fourth time. Her butt and thighs began feeling uncomfortable, as she couldn’t properly adjust herself on the bench, and a twinge began in her lower back. She couldn’t scream. She couldn’t tear herself away. She couldn’t stand.
And she had to go to the bathroom.
When Ramon returned with cardboard boxes half an hour later, he smiled as December greeted him in the hallway. Doña Echeverria from down the hall was knocking on the apartment door, and when she saw Ramon she said in Spanish, “I heard noises in there…”
“I’m sorry if the piano playing is too loud,” he replied in Spanish. “That’s Lisa in there. It’s the first time she’s been back here since Altagracia passed…”
Doña Echeverria crossed herself. “Que en paz descanse,” she said.
Ramon leaned the flattened cardboard boxes against the wall, pulled the key from his pocket and tried to put it in the lock. The key was stopped right at the entrance, as if there were Scotch tape over the keyhole. He jiggled the doorknob, which wouldn’t turn.
“I wasn’t talking about hearing piano before, Ramon. I heard something else…”
Ramon knocked on the door and called in to Lisa,
“Hey! I’m back, but I can’t open this door now for some reason. Come out here and help me with these boxes!”
The music didn’t stop. December ended and began again, for the ninth time, and still no answer from Lisa. Ramon pounded on the door, calling her name. Nothing. He turned to Doña Echeverria.
“Poor thing. When my mother passed away, I went a little crazy, too. I’m going to try and get in from the fire escape.”
The living room windows were the ones that went out onto the fire escape, so when Ramon got to the third floor he could see over the couch and into the room. He watched as Lisa began December for the eleventh time. He knocked on the window to get her attention, and she looked up at him, wild-eyed. Pleading. Ramon couldn’t believe how disheveled she’d become in so short a time. He called to her, but she couldn’t respond except to begin December for the twelfth time. He attempted to pull open the windows, but they wouldn’t budge. He couldn’t seem to break the glass. Lisa was beginning to scare him. But it wasn’t until he saw a steady stream of urine run from the piano bench to the floor that he clambered down the fire escape and went for help.
It took three weeks for Lisa to go back to her mother’s apartment. It took three days for her to leave it. In that time the NYPD, NYFD, and Lisa’s friends were called. All unsuccessful. The door and windows were impervious to hatchets and blowtorches, and Lisa’s mind to reason. When the music finally stopped, Ramon, who had been pressed against the front door, wearily pleading with Lisa to stop, realized the door now opened easily. A raw, guttural scream erupted from his throat when he found her, face-down at the piano, lifeless fingers on the keys, sitting in three days worth of her own filth. He gently leaned her back into his arms, tears streaming down his face as he patted hers, furious at himself for having left her.
Later, as the coroner closed the zipper on Lisa’s body bag, Ramon stood in the corner by the Venus de Milo, watching his niece being wheeled away. He realized he was subconsciously humming December, and when he stopped and felt the heavy silence in the room, he thought it tragic that he would never hear his brilliant niece make music again.
About the Author
Teresa Jusino was born the same day Skylab fell. Coincidence? She doesn’t think so. She is a freelance writer in New York City who is a regular contributor to websites like Tor.com, ChinaShop Magazine, Pink Raygun, and Newsarama. In addition to her geeky online scribblings, she also writes prose fiction and screenplays. She is the author of a chapbook of short stories called On the Ground Floor, and she is working on a webseries called The Pack, coming in 2011. She is also the last member of WilPower: The Official Wil Wheaton Fan Club.
Visit her at The Teresa Jusino Experience.