ISSUE 3 · FALL 2009
The Great Escape of
When Emily Brockenridge closed her eyes she saw falling snow. Thousands of flakes swirling beneath the hazy night sky and piling over the streets and sidewalks. She saw herself too, strolling through the blizzard, wearing a knitted purple hat over her frizzy hair and big oval sunglasses and black jeans. She was back in the city again, walking over the Williamsburg Bridge with a Casio keyboard strapped to her back, the snow swooping across her face and the lights glowing downtown and the East River a black void far below her feet. When she opened her eyes again the falling snow had vanished, along with the city, and she was sitting in a chair by the window with a cardboard piano on her lap.
“Can’t sleep tonight?”
“I can’t ever sleep in this place,” she said. “I think it’s the meds.”
She pushed her oval sunglasses closer to her eyes and crossed her skinny legs, letting one ballet flat dangle off her heel. Then she curled her fingers over the keys on the cardboard piano and hummed quietly to herself.
“What are you playing there? A Joni Mitchell song or something?”
Song was a gross misnomer. What she played was a mesh of atonal minimalist punk rock Americana, sort of like Melt Banana belting out expressionist covers of Terry Riley and simultaneously invoking the ghost of Mississippi John Hurt, a screwed-up form of music because the D2 receptors in her brain were so screwed-up. There were a few possible names for what she played: avant-garde anti-folk vignettes or lo-fi indie noise rock art or maybe just plain old pretentious nonsense, but never, under any circumstances, songs.
“I hope it’s not the same thing you were playing in group today. That’s for sure. We wouldn’t want another scene like that. Now would we?”
She peered out the window, where the street lamps flickered over the brick row houses and parked cars, the sidewalks broken in frost heaves and the hillsides’ dark shadows on the horizon. A streak of clouds swooped across the zenith of the sky, with a full moon gleaming a halo of white light behind the haze.
“To tell you the truth, I’ve been worried about you, Emily. Not just because of group today, either. Every since that night in the linen closet I’ve been worried about you. I didn’t tell anyone about that, by the way.”
Now she could smell a mountain fresh deodorant in the air, creeping closer to her. She scooted against the window and grabbed the edges of the cardboard piano.
“I know you feel like your situation is hopeless, with the cycle of medication and hospitalization, I know all that, but when you started crying that night, it really hit me, you know? I care about you, Emily . . .”
She glanced at the doorway and prayed for another patient to wander into the common room for a late night cigarette.
“. . . and you’re still young. What are you, twenty-something?”
“I don’t think it’s hopeless,” she said. “I just need a real piano instead of these keys drawn on a cardboard box.”
“A real piano, right. That’s what I wanted to talk to you about . . .”
“So I can leave this place and fly to the moon.”
“Fly to the moon. Right.”
Outside a car rolled through the maze of brick row houses, bumping a funky hip-hop bass and conga, some classic Afrika Bambaataa from decades ago. Emily spread her fingers over the cardboard piano. She rapped hollow on the box and clenched her jaw, trying to imagine her body floating out of the chair as she played an acoustic off-key version of Planet Rock, complete with her own dog-like yipping and yapping, although quietly so nobody else could hear.
“Come on. Leave the box for a minute. I’ve got a surprise for you.”
She lifted her fingers from the keys. “I don’t want to do what we did that night again.”
“We won’t, Emily. I promise. This is different. Come on.”
When she stood up the cardboard piano tumbled onto the floor, thudded against the wall and landed with the keys facing the ceiling. The smell of mountain fresh deodorant was stronger now, warm against the left side of her face, leading her between the tables with ashtrays full of cigarette butts and past the community TV and wooden bookshelf.
“Did I ever tell you about my brother, Francis?” she said. “He’s driving out from Fort Greene to visit me tomorrow.”
“Yeah, he’s a drunk though, a big bald drunk with tattoos all over his body. He likes to say that he looks like my music, which sounds like both of our lives.”
She walked out of the common room and into the dim light of the hallway, gliding on the balls of her ballet flats with her frizzy black hair bouncing off her shoulders, and then stopped in front of the exit to the second ward, a locked door that she hadn’t stepped through in months. The entrances to the other patients’ rooms were dark and quiet at this hour, staggered down the hallway and around a corner toward the heavy gray door of the linen closet. She closed her eyes and saw herself on the Williamsburg Bridge again, sitting cross-legged on the sidewalk and playing her Casio keyboard while torrents of snow poured over the tall glass buildings downtown.
“You know how you’re always saying that music is the only thing that makes sense to you?”
“Nothing makes sense to me,” she said.
“Well, I found something yesterday that I think will help.”
There was a clanging of keys and the exit to the second ward pushed open, revealing another dimly lit hallway with white walls and sky blue carpets. She slipped her oval sunglasses into her hair and peered at the rows of closed doors in the hallway.
“I think I want to go back,” she said.
“Don’t worry. You’re going to love this. Come on.”
Something warm took her hand and led her through the doorway. She followed, gliding over the sky blue carpets and then stopping at a plain white door. More keys jangled on a ring. Then the door opened into a dark storage room with wooden rafters crisscrossing the ceiling. Dusty brown boxes and stacks of folded chairs and tables were piled along the walls.
When she stepped inside the door slammed shut behind her, locked with another click of the keys. She could smell the mountain fresh deodorant again, hanging over her face, warm along her chest and hips, pinning her against a column of boxes in the darkness.
She stood completely still and saw herself crouched on the Williamsburg Bridge, her Casio keyboard overturned on the sidewalk and her arms wrapped around the rusted metal railings as she gazed down at the murky East River, wishing she could disappear from this life, somehow, from this lack of life she was cursed to live.
“My brother Francis paints pictures sometimes,” she said. “Mostly about death and suicide. It’s real depressing stuff.”
“I’m going to compose some expressionist music for them, one composition for each painting, when I get out of here. If I ever get out of here this time.”
“Please don’t start talking like that again.”
The mountain fresh deodorant retreated from her body and she stared at a whirl of dust floating in front of her.
“Hey, look behind those boxes over there. I bet it’ll cheer you up.”
She closed her eyes and could hear the J train rumbling over the bridge, cranking along the rails toward the lights on the Lower East Side.
“Go ahead. Have a look.”
When she opened her eyes there was silence. She dug her forefinger into a frayed tear on the thigh of her jeans. Then she stepped around the stack of boxes, past a pile of wooden chairs and into a shadowy corner where a dusty spinet piano was pushed against the wall, beside a window that overlooked more brick row houses awash in yellowish street lamps.
“Isn’t it great? I stumbled upon it last night.”
The mountain fresh deodorant was on her again, sweaty against her back and neck, running along her chest and stomach and then down between her thighs.
“I know I promised, Emily, but I can’t help myself. You’re so beautiful. You’re like an anomaly in this town. I wish I could make you better and take you away from here.”
“Back to the city?”
“Anywhere you want to go.”
“How about the moon?”
“Sure. The moon. Whatever.”
“Could I play the piano now?”
“Later, Emily. Not now.”
“Please, could I play it?” She squirmed away from the warmth cradling her backside and slid open the window, letting the smoggy winter air rush into the storage room. Somewhere in the distance, a sludge metal guitar was churning through the night.
“Okay. Sure. Play the piano a little bit first.”
She sat at the piano bench and slipped her oval sunglasses back over her eyes. The mountain fresh deodorant dissipated into the cold breeze filtering through the open window. She straightened her back and relaxed her arm muscles, closed her eyes, spread her fingers over the keys, and then played on a spinet piano so out of tune that it resonated like a steely harpsichord.
Most of the notes were eighth or quarter tones, and some were entire half-steps off, but her fingers breezed over the keys regardless, her scrawny body swayed and her neck arched toward the raftered ceiling and the world melted away beneath the chords and scales of a piece she’d written years ago, a fluid elastic epic that rang sadly through the storage room, as if mourning some deep unspeakable loss inside herself, and then slowly rising in tempo, bellowing into an angry flurry of atonal notes, a free jazz punk rock explosion that shot through Emily’s arms and into her chest as she sang and howled nonsense, banging chords and non-chords on the piano, playing so hard that pain arced through her fingertips and the mountain fresh deodorant smothered to nothing beneath the deluge of noise, when she suddenly opened her eyes and saw her thighs floating off the piano bench. She was rising and spinning through the air, teetering like a feather, somersaulting in anti-gravity and then catapulting through the open window and into the night, where flakes of snow swirled around the brick row houses.
She floated high above the glowing windows of the hospital, above the rooftops and cars and hillsides, through the whirling snow and into a puff of storm clouds. When she popped out the other side, clusters of stars spattered the sky above her, surrounding a bright full moon hanging in the vacuum of outer space. She sang into the emptiness, wrenching a landscape of sound from her throat and tapping invisible piano keys as the earth shrank beneath her feet, the shadowy slopes of the Appalachians dotted with towns and the fields of Western Jersey and the sprawl of New York City gleaming on the dark edge of the Atlantic, all of it falling away as she soared into the atmosphere, flying toward a place where nothing, not hospitals or medication or even her fantastic delusions, could stop her now.
Sean Thomas’ work has appeared in The Vestal Review, JMWW, Fickle Muses, The Southern Maine Review, The Sandy River Review, and Disembodied Americana. He has spent the last three years working on a giant labyrinth of a novel. This story is taken from that novel.