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HUGEPOP!!!Bedtime StoriesOne Man's WorldThe Mispronouncer

Out of Practice

                If the evening had been ten degrees cooler, Vick would have been perfectly happy. Not perfectly happy with everything, but perfectly happy with the weather. Perfectly happy with the temperature, at least. The sun had set but some of its light lingered. Vick stood in the front yard and tested the structural integrity of last year’s rakes. The rakes had been good enough to handle fall at the old house, but Vick and Lana had recently retired and moved out to the country, and their new yard contained trees which were certain to produce leafloads the likes of which Vick’s rakes had never before encountered. So far, two rakes had withstood Vick’s tests and two had succumbed, their wooden handles snapping under the pressure. Two rakes remained untested.

                As Vick reached for the second to last rake, sweating inside of the flannel shirt for which the evening was ten degrees too warm, a car pulled into the long driveway and bumped its way toward the house. The car’s headlights seemed dim to Vick, perhaps to an unsafe or even illegal degree. He put the second to last rake handle-first back into the green plastic garbage can next to him on the lawn and waited for the car’s arrival. He didn’t want to be interrupted mid-test and have to start over. That would mean double work, which he was opposed to on principle. He was also opposed on principle to triple work and quadruple work and so forth. The only work he wasn’t opposed to on principle was single work. The rake testing had already caused two blisters to form on Vick’s hands and he was also getting bored with it. He was eager to move on to the portion of the evening where he would be indoors, seated, shoeless, drinking decaffeinated coffee, and researching new rakes to purchase online.

                The car came to a stop in front of the house and whoever was within stilled its engine, then did nothing. Vick watched the driver’s side door, waiting for the driver to emerge. The silhouette in the driver’s seat seemed to belong to an old woman, but silhouettes could be deceiving as Vick well knew from the time he’d woken in the night and thought the dehumidifier in the corner of his and Lana’s bedroom was a troll despite never having believed in the existence of trolls at any point in his life. Tired of waiting for the driver to act, Vick strode over to the car and rapped on the window with the back of his hand. “Hello?” he said. He stepped back from the car door to give it ample room for opening.

                Instead, the driver rolled down the car window and revealed herself to be consistent with her own silhouette. She was a woman of about 70. Vick was 63 and considered himself an old man, so it stood to reason that anyone older than him should also be considered old. The woman wore a dress, a jacket, a feminine driving cap atop her permed, gray hair. She looked at Vick with hopeless eyes, but not totally hopeless. There was just enough hope in them to make them totally tragic. It had been more than ten years since anyone had asked Vick what he could immediately tell she was going to ask him, but maybe if he played dumb she would lose her nerve. It was worth a shot. It was preferable to having to go through the hassle of rejecting her outright and dealing with the inevitable fallout.

                “Are you Vick Hilver?” asked the woman. Her tone was that of a woman who already very well knows who she’s talking to.

                “Yes,” said Vick. He knew better than to follow up with something like, “How can I help you?” or “Do you need something?” or “What can I do for you?” That was just the kind of opening this woman was probably hoping for, the exact kind of cue she was relying on to assist her in getting her request out.

                “I’m Claudette,” said the woman. She searched Vick’s face and was visibly troubled by the hardness she found there. But she didn’t drive away. “I play the piano for my church,” she said. “I just started a few months ago. The previous pianist had been there for, oh, years and years, but her arthritis finally got too bad and I finally got my chance.” She paused and searched Vick’s face again. He could tell that she knew that he knew where this was going. But did she save them both some time and skip to the end? No. She still thought she could soften him up. “I love playing piano at church so much,” Claudette continued. “It’s a small church. A small congregation. I don’t think of them as an audience. I play with them, not for them. I like to contribute! There aren’t that many ways an older woman like me can contribute.”

                “Yes, there are,” said Vick, hoping to derail her. “You could do nursing home visits, you could cook for sick people or for people who just had babies, you could be the one who sends Christmas cards to missionaries. I don’t even go to church and I can think of lots of ways for an old woman to contribute to a church.”

                “But I love playing the piano for my church,” said Claudette. “I find it fulfilling in a way none of those other things you mentioned would be. I feel like I’m finally using my gift. And now Mrs. Delaney wants to take it away from me.”

                “I’m sorry to hear that,” said Vick.

                “Everyone told me you wouldn’t help me,” said Claudette. “They told me driving out here to ask you would be a waste of time.”

                “No, no, I understand,” said Vick. “When it’s about something important to you, then you want to make sure you exhaust every option, even the ones that seem remote. So in that sense, it’s not a waste of time because now when Mrs. Delaney takes your piano-playing ability away, you won’t think, oh, if only I’d at least tried to ask Vick for help, then maybe I’d still be able to play the piano. Because you did ask for my help.”

                “So you won’t help me,” said Claudette. “That’s what you’re saying?”

                “I can’t help you,” said Vick. “As I’ve explained over and over and over.”

                “But everyone says you can,” said Claudette. “Everyone says you can.”

                “They’re all wrong,” said Vick. “I can’t.”

                “But you’ve done it before,” said Claudette. “You’ve helped other people.”

                “No, I haven’t,” said Vick. “There are unfounded rumors that I helped one other person over 40 years ago. But those rumors are unfounded, like I said. It didn’t happen.”

                “What did happen?” asked Claudette, more determined than Vick had expected.

                “I’m tired of rehashing it,” said Vick. “Ask any of the people who told you the rumors. They all know my version, which is the true version. They just choose not to believe it.”

                “Do you still know how to play the piano?” asked Claudette.

                “I’m out of practice,” said Vick.

                “But Mrs. Delaney has never taken away your ability?”

                “No. She hasn’t.”

                “Why not?”

                “I don’t know,” said Vick. He was now fully tired of this conversation. “You’d have to ask her.”

                “She can’t be reached,” said Claudette. “Not until she comes for your ability. Which you know.”

                “Then ask her why she hasn’t come for my ability when she comes for yours,” said Vick, letting himself sound as harsh as he wanted. “It’ll be soon, right? How recently did you get the letter?”

                “Three days ago,” said Claudette. She was not wilting. If anything, Vick’s rudeness seemed to be firing her up, which was the opposite of the intended effect of his rudeness.

                “Then you should be seeing her any day now,” said Vick. He turned his back on Claudette and walked toward the house, past the whole and broken rakes, and up the porch steps to the front door. It wasn’t until Vick was inside with the door closed and locked, his shoes off, and two out of three living room lamps switched on that he finally heard Claudette’s car start and back all the way down the driveway to the dark county road that would lead her back to Multioak and the end of her modest dreams.


                The next day when Vick returned from a late afternoon drive to see how the nearby corn fields were looking while thinking about the qualities he should most value in new rakes, Claudette’s car was in the driveway again. So she was going to be one of the extra-pushy ones. One of the extra-desperate ones. Vick parked his truck and strode to Claudette’s car, steeling himself against discussion. He would not allow her to lure him into a back-and-forth exchange today. He would not entertain her objections. He owed her nothing.

                However, Claudette’s car was empty. Vick looked toward his house with a sickened stomach. If Claudette was not in the car, then she was probably inside, which meant that Lana had betrayed him. As he trudged up the front walk, Vick began to worry about the extent of Lana’s betrayal. Had she merely been bullied or tricked into letting Claudette inside? That would still be a betrayal, but it would be much better than Lana having been persuaded of the legitimacy of Claudette’s cause. Vick did not want to argue with both Claudette and his wife at the same time.

                As soon as Vick opened the door and stepped inside, Lana called to him from the living room. “Vick? Is that you? There’s someone here to see you.”

                Vick didn’t answer. He knelt to untie his shoes. He didn’t want to commit to the tone he was going to take in this situation until he knew whose side Lana was on.

                “Vick?” called Lana. “This woman says she spoke to you here the other day, but you didn’t even invite her inside.”

                His shoes removed, Vick walked to the living room and stood in the doorway, surveying the battlefield. Lana and Claudette were on the same couch. Claudette wore a different dress than the last time Vick had seen her, but the same jacket was draped over the arm of the couch. Her driving cap was balanced in her lap. The top of her permed hairdo was a little flat, presumably from the driving cap. She looked at Vick with eyes that were considerably less hopeless than they had been the last time he’d seen her, which was a bad sign. Next to Claudette, Lana looked at Vick with an expression that he recognized as the one she used when she wanted him to do something but doubted that he would. It was an expression to which he wished he could be oblivious. Lana wore her shin-length burgundy bathrobe over her clothes whenever she was in the house, a choice Vick had never questioned. They’d gotten married to each other late in life and both had ingrained habits that weren’t worth the trauma that excising them from their lives would inflict.

                “Why didn’t you invite her in?” asked Lana.

                “When?” asked Vick, crossing the room to the chair opposite the couch.

                “You know when,” said Lana. “Last night when she was here.”

                “Because I knew it would be a short visit,” said Vick. “And I didn’t want to give her false hope. Giving someone false hope is cruel. Much more cruel than telling them the harsh truth.”

                “So you were rude because you didn’t want to be cruel,” said Lana. “That’s your claim?”

                “Yes, that’s a good way to put it,” said Vick.

                “It’s nonsense,” said Lana. “They’re basically synonyms.”

                “I can’t help her,” said Vick. “I know you wish I could. I wish I could too. We all wish I could stop Mrs. Delaney from taking the nice lady’s piano-playing ability away. But I can’t.”

                “You’ve done it before,” said Claudette, speaking up for the first time.

                “No, I haven’t,” said Vick. He added a theatrical sigh.

                “I found out his name,” said Claudette. “The one you helped. Jules Fennet.”

                “You told me you never helped anyone with this Mrs. Delaney thing,” said Lana. “You said all those people who begged you to help them were deluded. Well, Claudette doesn’t seem deluded to me. She seems like she knows exactly what she’s talking about.”

                “They were deluded,” said Vick. He pointed at Claudette. “She’s deluded too.”

                “How come you’ve never mentioned Jules Fennet to me before?” asked Lana.

                “Because Jules Fennet is irrelevant,” said Vick.

                “You helped him,” said Claudette. “Mrs. Delaney came to take Jules’s piano-playing ability away from him, and you stopped her. You stepped in and kept it from happening. He played the piano beautifully until the day he died. That’s what everyone says.”

                “No one knows that,” said Vick. “That’s wishful thinking. Jules moved away. He probably quit practicing and lost his ability the normal way.”

                “You mean your way,” said Lana.

                “If you didn’t help Jules retain his ability to play the piano when Mrs. Delaney came for it, then how come everyone thinks you did?” asked Claudette.

                “You didn’t ask your sources for my version of the story?” asked Vick.

                “I want to hear it from you,” said Claudette.

                “Me too,” said Lana. “I’ve never heard it from anyone. You kept it from me, Vick. I’m upset.”

                Vick leaned back in his chair and gripped its armrests with the strength he’d been building up for all the raking he would soon be doing. “I will tell this story again,” he said. “Not that it does any good. No one wants to hear the truth.”

                “I do,” said Lana.

                “I hope so,” said Vick. He noted that Claudette said nothing. She couldn’t even bring herself to pretend to want to hear the truth. “Jules was the fourth one of Mrs. Delaney’s former students to get a letter from her saying that she was going to come take his piano-playing ability away. She didn’t give an exact time when she was gonna do it, but we’d heard what had happened to the first three former students to get the letters, so we knew Mrs. Delaney would follow through. Jules wasn’t my best friend, but he was my best friend who had also taken piano lessons from Mrs. Delaney, so it made sense that he would confide in me. He didn’t want to lose his piano-playing ability because he was the singer and principal song-writer in a band at the time and he wrote most of their songs on the piano before bringing them to the band. Anyway, we tried to brainstorm ideas for keeping Mrs. Delaney from taking Jules’s piano-playing ability away, but it was hard because all the information we got from the three people it had already happened to was vague. In the end, we came up with nothing. I mean, we came up with a lot of ideas, but we never settled on one.

“Then, six days after Jules had gotten his letter, he started telling people that Mrs. Delaney had come to his house in the middle of the night to take his piano-playing ability, but that I had stopped her. I wasn’t even there. When people asked Jules how I had done it, he said he didn’t know, that I had taken Mrs. Delaney aside – out of the room where he couldn’t see us – and that she had then left without taking his piano-playing ability away. He said that I wouldn’t tell him what I had said or done to convince Mrs. Delaney to leave him alone.

“It was all a lie.

“When I challenged Jules’s story, pointing out that I had been home in bed when he claimed I was at his house intervening with Mrs. Delaney on his behalf, Jules said that I was denying my involvement because I didn’t want people to know how I had thwarted Mrs. Delaney. We had a big fight about it. A fist fight. But he wouldn’t back down from his lie, not even just between the two of us.

“Of course, then every former student who got a letter from Mrs. Delaney saying she was going to take their piano-playing ability away came to me for help. They all believed Jules. None of them believed me. I couldn’t convince them. A girl I knew named Betty offered me 200 dollars to keep Mrs. Delaney from taking her piano-playing ability away from her. She begged and begged until I agreed to try. I slept on the couch in her apartment living room for three days. Then, one night, Mrs. Delaney showed up. My attempts to stop her from taking Betty’s piano-playing ability were ineffectual. Completely ineffectual. I mean, it was over so quickly. I can’t even really remember it, not in a way that I can describe. When I left Betty’s apartment, she was plinking out single notes on her piano and sobbing.”

“What song was she playing?” asked Claudette.

“It wasn’t a song,” said Vick. “Betty couldn’t play songs anymore. Mrs. Delaney took her ability. I’ve never tried to help someone keep Mrs. Delaney from taking their piano-playing ability away since that night and I never will. It would be pointless. I don’t know how to stop Mrs. Delaney and I never did. Jules might have known how, but he’s dead. And even if he weren’t dead, he’s a liar.”

                Lana and Claudette regarded Vick from their couch across the room, separated from him by a few feet of carpet and a long, narrow coffee table covered in junk mail one layer deep.

                “No,” said Claudette. “No, it’s too easy. Your version of the story lets you all the way off the hook and places all the responsibility on a dead man. It’s too convenient.”

                “Why wouldn’t I want to help if I could?” asked Vick. “Even if I were completely self-interested, do you know how much money I could have made as the only person capable of preserving the piano-playing ability of every one of Mrs. Delaney’s former students? I know she hasn’t been as active recently – probably slowing down in her late 90s – but there was a time when she was on the warpath around here. Why wouldn’t I take advantage of that?”

                “Because you know what it takes to convince her,” said Claudette. “What you have to do. What you have to say. Whatever it is, you did it once and you don’t want to do it again.”

                “No,” said Vick. “Incorrect. Wrong.”

                Claudette stood. “But whatever it was, I’m worth it. My piano-playing ability is worth it.” She centered her driving cap on top of her head and pulled it down, re-flattening her hair beneath it after it had just finally fully de-flattened. “I’ll convince you to help me, Vick. And if Mrs. Delaney takes my piano-playing ability away from me before you agree to help, then God help you.”

                “Don’t threaten me,” said Vick. He stayed seated out of disrespect.

                Lana showed Claudette to the door. When she returned, she had the expression on her face that meant that Vick had not done the thing that she had hoped but also doubted he would do. “You should help her, Vick.”

                “I can’t,” said Vick. “I literally cannot.”

                “I don’t believe you,” said Lana, speaking on behalf of everyone in the world.


                The next day, Vick visited most of the rake-selling retailers in Multioak to confirm his belief that he would need to order his new rakes online because all the locally-sold rakes were insufficient to meet the demands of his new yard. When he got back to the house, Vick discovered that his driveway was filled with unfamiliar vehicles. Unfamiliar except for Claudette’s car, which was all too familiar.

                Inside the house, they were all waiting for him. Lana, Claudette, and everyone Claudette had invited. Vick went to face them without stopping to remove his shoes. They were packed into the living room, sitting around and standing around, waiting to be called upon. Lana and Claudette were back on their couch, but Vick’s chair had some long-haired old man in it who looked too frail to dump on the floor.

                “Who are all these people?” asked Vick.

                “They’re here with Claudette,” said Lana.

                “They’re here to ask for your help,” said Claudette.

                “If I won’t help you, why would I help all of them?” asked Vick.

                “They’re here to ask you to help me,” said Claudette.

                The people nodded. They were all between 60 and 90 years of age. How many of them were there? They all blended in with each other. Vick found this effect disconcerting. “It doesn’t matter how many people you bring with you to ask,” he said. “I can’t help you. I’m incapable.”

                “It’s not that you can’t,” said an old woman standing near Vick and Lana’s mostly-unused piano. “It’s that you won’t. Just you like wouldn’t help me. You just stood there and watched while Mrs. Delaney took it from me.”

                “Who are you?” asked Vick.

                The woman looked offended. “I’m Betty,” she said. “You came to my house to help me like you helped Jules, but when the moment came, you just stood there. I offered you 200 dollars!”

                “Oh boy,” said Vick. “Who are the rest of these people?”

                “A lot of us go to church with Claudette,” said an old man wearing a bandana on his head like a biker but otherwise attired like a regular old man. “We appreciate her playing the piano for us. If you don’t help her by keeping Mrs. Delaney from taking her ability away, who’s going to play the piano for us at our services? You?”

                “I’m out of practice,” said Vick.

                “Don’t try to be funny,” said Lana. “No one’s in the mood.”

                “There are other former students of Mrs. Delaney’s here as well,” said an old man with a big, round stomach. “I count myself among them. 22 years ago, I pleaded with you to help me, but you ignored me and Mrs. Delaney took my piano-playing ability away. Do you know which hobby I had to switch to once I could no longer play the piano? Sitcom memorization. Have you ever tried to memorize a sitcom, Vick? And I mean every single episode of a sitcom that lasted for three seasons. Have you ever attempted anything like that?”

                “No,” said Vick.

                “All he cares about these days is rakes,” said Lana.

                “How did Claudette convince all of you to come out here?” asked Vick. “Most of you – maybe not the church people – but most of you know it’s hopeless. You know I won’t do it.”

                “Claudette is very persuasive,” said an old woman unselfconsciously seated on the floor like a child. “She persuaded us that if she could persuade all of us to come here, then we could collectively persuade you to persuade Mrs. Delaney to let Claudette keep her piano-playing ability.”

                Vick surveyed the assembled faces, the thousands of skin wrinkles assembled against him. He didn’t even have to ask if they hated him more than they hated Mrs. Delaney. The answer was obvious. Would agreeing to participate in their farce change their opinion of him at this point? He knew it wouldn’t. They would not view his acquiescence as him doing the right thing. They would view it as a rotten tooth finally surrendering its grip on a socket due to the combined efforts of many good people. Setting aside questions about how many people could feasibly combine their efforts to pull one rotten tooth, in such a scenario, the rotten tooth, of course, would get no credit for its role in being removed.

Vick had never wanted to take piano lessons. His father had insisted. “You might be the next Dineldi!” his father would sometimes proclaim. Vick had asked his mother who Dineldi was and she had confessed that she had no idea. Once his lessons were underway, Vick also asked Mrs. Delaney who Dineldi was and she also had no idea. Had Vick’s father misheard the name of a famous pianist? Had he imagined the name entirely? Was Dineldi just some guy he’d once heard play a piano at a party? Vick hated to think that he had arrived at this moment in his life – standing in his own living room being glared at by at least fifteen hateful old people – all because of a piano player who didn’t even exist. But it was also appropriate, it was consistent. Vick thought that if Dineldi really didn’t exist, then maybe it would be nice to be the next Dineldi, at least for the next few minutes.  


Vick had worried that he would have to spend multiple nights camped out on Claudette’s saggy couch, but he didn’t. At 6pm, he had been surrendering to Claudette’s army in his own living room, and by 2am, he was standing at Claudette’s front window and watching as Mrs. Delaney’s long, white car pulled into Claudette’s driveway and tapped against Claudette’s car’s rear bumper. It was a light tap, but Vick hoped it left a dent. Two dents. One in each car.  

Mrs. Delaney stepped out of the driver’s side door and stretched like an animal. Even at her advanced age, she appeared to be in good shape. She was apparently still driving herself, her white hair was done, her post-stretch posture was better than half of the old people who had helped Claudette harass Vick into being here tonight. Mrs. Delaney wore a long winter coat over a dark dress belted at the waist. The thick soles of her orthopedic shoes added two inches to her height. Mrs. Delaney cut diagonally from the front walk to the front door, not wasting any time with the less-direct paved route. The front door was open in seconds. Had Claudette left it unlocked? Had Mrs. Delaney picked the lock?

Vick stepped away from the window into the middle of the dark living room as Mrs. Delaney came through the front door. He assumed she would ignore him as she had 40-some years ago in Betty’s living room, that she would quickly accomplish her business and be on her way. Why had no over ever tried to physically fight her, to strike her?

“Vick Hilver?” Mrs. Delaney was not ignoring him. She was looking right at him, her eyes reflecting green light from a digital clock face on the entertainment center behind Vick.

“Hi, Mrs. Delaney,” said Vick.

“So it’s finally happened,” said Mrs. Delaney. “I wondered if this day would ever come and now it has. This day has come.”

“What day?” asked Vick. “It’s the middle of the night.”

“The day when you would again stop me from reclaiming a portion of the piano-playing ability I recklessly scattered throughout this community in my younger days,” said Mrs. Delaney.

“Wait,” said Vick. “What do you mean ‘again?’”

“Like when you stopped me before,” said Mrs. Delaney. “That night 40-some years ago at Jules Fennet’s house.”

“I wasn’t even at Jules Fennet’s house that night!” shouted Vick, inconsiderate of Claudette sleeping in her bedroom down the hall.

“Of course you were,” said Mrs. Delaney. “I came to reclaim the portion of piano-playing ability I had foolishly given to Jules, but you pulled me aside into the other room and either said or did something to convince me to leave without taking Jules’s piano-playing ability away.”

“I did not,” said Vick. “You can’t even remember what I supposedly said or did to convince you!”

“Well, it was 40-some years ago,” said Mrs. Delaney. “And I’m a very old woman now. I must have forgotten what you said or did.”

“No, you don’t remember because it never happened,” said Vick. “You’re just repeating the same rumors that everyone else does. Rumors cannot change what really happened! Rumors cannot change the facts!”

“Why else would I not take Jules’s piano-playing ability away?” asked Mrs. Delaney. “I’ve taken it from everyone else I sent a letter to. He’s the one exception. There must be some explanation. Right?”

“Don’t ask me,” said Vick. “You’re the one who was there!”

“Yes,” said Mrs. Delaney. “So I’m a more reliable source than you are. And I say that you said or did something to convince me to leave.”

A headache sprang upon Vick. “But if your contention is that you’re a more reliable source than me because you were there and I was not, then you can’t use that authority to say that I was there, because if I was there, then I’d be just as reliable of a source as you are.”

“This is sophistry,” said Mrs. Delaney. “Just take me aside and say or do whatever it is that you’re going to say or do to convince me to leave without taking Claudette’s piano-playing ability and let me be on my way.”

“Look,” said Vick. “Mrs. Delaney. Look. Your memory of that night at Jules’s house has been replaced by rumor. You heard the rumor so much you started to believe it. Things like that happen. I have a friend who insists that he participated in our most legendary college prank even though everyone else who was there knows he stayed back in the dorm to study for his Chemistry midterm. But he remembers participating in the prank! It’s because he’s heard the story so often that his brain has-”

“If you didn’t stop me at Jules’s house, then why would you be here?” asked Mrs. Delaney. “Why would you lie in wait to confront me in Claudette’s living room if you had never successfully confronted me before?”

“I was bullied into it,” said Vick. “Everyone is against me.”

“So everyone except you believes that you can stop me,” said Mrs. Delaney. “Everyone including me. Yet you’re the one who’s correct.”

“Yes,” said Vick. It felt, sounded, and was feeble.

“You’re embarrassed,” said Mrs. Delaney. “You’re embarrassed because you’ve forgotten what you said or did to stop me all those years ago. That’s why you haven’t helped anyone else since then. You forgot! Just like me. We both forgot what you said or did.”

“No,” said Vick. “No, I wasn’t even there.”

“Let’s think about this,” said Mrs. Delaney. “What could you have done? What could you have said? I probably know myself better than anyone else does – certainly better than anyone else who’s still alive – so I know the kinds of strategies that might work on me.”

“I wasn’t there,” said Vick. “I was at home and in bed.” It had dawned on him that Mrs. Delaney was now committed to the idea of having him foil her plan to take Claudette’s piano-playing ability. Which meant that everyone was going to have their convictions about him confirmed. Claudette, Lana, all those former piano students, all those old church people, they were all going to pat themselves on the back for banding together to force Vick to do what he selfishly refused to do on his own. They were going to shake their aged heads at him, stiff necks crackling. They were going to say, “We knew you were lying.” They were going to say, “I knew you could have helped me.”

“I know what you must have done,” said Mrs. Delaney, holding her index finger up in the air. “It must have been sacrifice. A noble sacrifice. I always admire a noble sacrifice. I bet you offered to let me take your piano-playing ability in place of Jules’s.”

“No,” said Vick. “I wasn’t even there. Now you’re just making things up out of thin air.”

“Can you play the piano?” asked Mrs. Delaney.

“I’m out of practice!” shouted Vick.

“We solved it,” said Mrs. Delaney. “And now that I said it out loud, I remember you offering your piano-playing ability in the place of Jules’s. So that confirms it.”

Vick said nothing. He stood defeated in Claudette’s living room and silently cursed Jules Fennet for, well, not ruining his life, but certainly worsening it. Why had he lied? Why had he started this rumor that had now twisted reality around itself, reformed the past in its own image? Was it to avoid suffering this very fate? That had to be it. Even then, he had foreseen what would befall the one known to have fended off Mrs. Delaney’s grasping hands.

“So, now the problem is this,” said Mrs. Delaney. “You already sacrificed your piano-playing ability once. So you can’t sacrifice it again to save Claudette’s piano-playing ability. What can you sacrifice?”

                A smile appeared on Vick’s face, surprising him as much as anyone. The pointlessness of his minute-to-minute existence, which had always felt oppressive but not oppressive enough to resist, was finally paying off. “Nothing,” said Vick. “I have nothing to sacrifice.”

                “Nothing?” asked Mrs. Delaney. “You don’t paint? You don’t write? You don’t build furniture?”

                “Nope,” said Vick.

                “But aren’t you retired?” asked Mrs. Delaney. “How do you fill your days?”

                “I prepare for leaf-raking season,” said Vick. “By shopping for rakes.”

                “That’s it?” asked Mrs. Delaney. “That’s all you do? How can that fill a whole day, much less all of your days?”

                Vick shrugged.

                “Fine,” said Mrs. Delaney. “I’ll take it.”

                “What?” asked Vick. “You’ll take what?”

                “Your rake-shopping ability,” said Mrs. Delaney. “If that’s all you’ve got to offer, then I suppose I’ll have to settle for it.”

                “No!” cried Vick. “Please, no! The leafload in my new yard is going to be unlike anything I’ve encountered before!”

                “Too late,” said Mrs. Delaney. “I already took it. But your distress makes me think it must have been important to you, so I guess it was a good sacrifice after all, which makes me feel better. Good night, Vick, I hope I don’t see you again, but now that everyone will know the rumors are true, well, let’s just say I’m not going to let this become a common occurrence, OK? Once every 40-some years is all right, but I’m just going to take the next person’s piano-playing ability no matter what you offer of yourself in its place.”

                “Will you at least tell that to everyone else?” asked Vick. “Maybe put it in the newspaper or something?”

                “No,” said Mrs. Delaney. “You can tell them, though.” And she was gone.

                Time passed.

                “Was she here?”

                Vick looked up and saw Claudette standing in the hall doorway wearing her long, heavy nightgown. “Is that why the door is open? She came?”

                Vick nodded.

                “Did she…?” Claudette couldn’t bring herself to finish the question.

                Vick shook his head.

                With a gasp of delight, Claudette scurried across the living room to the upright piano against the far wall. Tears of joy streamed from her face as she hammered out a mediocre rendition of “The Old Rugged Cross.” Vick could still hear it, mistakes and all, as he backed out of Claudette’s driveway and drove toward his home where each changing leaf in each huge tree hung like a tiny executioner’s axe over his doomed lawn.

Discussion Questions

  • What’s the most useful use for which one could use one’s piano-playing ability?

  • Why do you think Mrs. Delaney wants to take piano-playing ability away from her former students? Answer this question silently in your head. Do not write your answer down anywhere.

  • Why don’t we practice playing the piano as diligently in adulthood as we did when we were children and our parents were paying for our lessons and actively forcing us to practice in order to feel like they were getting their money’s worth?

  • In what ways have rumors probably dictated your reality? Does that make your reality less real?

  • Which of your memories do you most doubt?

  • Who do you think Dineldi is?