Nocturne

A Play

Adam Rapp

Faber and Faber, Inc.

Nocturne
I
Fifteen years ago I killed my sister.
 
There.
 
I said it.
 
I can change the order of the words. My sister I killed fifteen years ago. I, fifteen years ago, killed my sister. Sister my killed I years ago fifteen.
 
I can cite various definitions. To deprive of life: The farmer killed the rabid dog. To put an end to: The umpire killed the tennis match. To mark for omission: He killed the paragraph. To destroy the vital essential quality of: The dentist killed the nerve with Novocain. To cause to stop: The bus driver killed the engine. To cause extreme pain to: His monologue killed the audience.
 
To slay. To murder. To assassinate. To dispatch. To execute.
 
You can play with tenses. Will kill. Did kill. Have killed. Will have killed. Would like to have killed.
 
You can turn it into a gerund. Killing.
 
There's a kind of progress with a gerund.
 
If you conjugate in the past tense, it's all the same. I killed. You killed. He, she, it killed. They killed. You all killed. We killed. There's no way around it.
 
Fifteen years ago I killed my sister.
 
It's dumb-sounding, the way most facts are. Like a former President or the names of bones.
 
Grover Cleveland.
 
Fibula. Tibia. Femur.
 
There's a finality in a fact. Something medical almost. A fact is crafted. Vaguely industrial. It has permanence. It's a stain or a smudge. A botch or a spot or a blemish. A fact is a flaw It's made of wood and left to fossilize; to gatherminerals and geologically imprint itself on the side of a mountain.
 
You can look at the back of your hand and know exactly how the bones move.
 
(The sound of a distant piano.)
 
The piano doesn't sing. It sobs. It aches without release. Like a word that can't wrench itself from the throat. Like an alkaline trapped in the liver. Even one note. A C-sharp. The death of small bird. An F. A stranded car's horn bleating for help on the highway. The piano has permanence. A factual permanence. You walk into a room and there it is, in all its stoic grandeur. It has omnipotence. It waits for you without pursuit. The hulking, coffinlike stillness. The way it comes to know your touch. Like a lover's private indulgence. A kind of glacial intimacy. A cold, sexless knowing.
 
Grieg. Chopin. Tchaikovsky.
 
There's a kind of death with the piano. The final note falling. Perhaps it's the inevitable, ensuing silence. The deafening return to stillness. The instrument itself is a homicide waiting to happen. Its physical weight. Itsgravity, which slows you. The seeming need it has to render you inert. To turn you into its motionless companion. As though it doesn't want to be played. As though its potential--the crushing unheard music--as though this absence alone is some kind of motion deterrent.
 
The final movement of a sonata. An almosthuman tragedy. Slow, brutal heart failure. Coronary thrombosis.
 
The weaving voices interloping a fugue. A political death. A kind of vocal assassination.
 
Fifteen years ago I killed my sister.
 
I was seventeen, she was nine. A fact. Now I'm thirty-two. She would be twenty-four. Fact. The hipbone's connected to the leg bone.
 
The '69 Buick Electra 225 is a very lengthy car. There's something almost illegal about the expanse of its back end. From grille to taillight it's sixteen feet, nine inches long. It has a 440 engine, and when you accelerate you can feel the horsepower buzzing in your ribcage. It's like a car out of a comic book.
 
 
At my father's insistence, I buy the Electra from Bob Ranzini--our family's insurance broker--for two hundred and fifty bucks. Mr. Ranzini pats me on the back. He brags of its classic American pedigree. He speaks of its great sluicing hum and his yearly drive down to Jupiter, Florida, and all the old two-lane highways in the South.
 
Sitting in the Electra is like lounging. There's this sense that platters of food will be served. The seats buzz back. The windows buzz down. This infinite buzzing. Like the invisible drone of bees at work. Locusts in the fruit trees. A car humming with electricity.
 
The accident happens like this:
 
Joliet, Illinois. I'm coming home from Sub-Diggity--my summer sandwich-making job. I'm seventeen. I'm just off work. My clothes smell like roast beef and mayonnaise. My fingers are stained with mustard. Steely Dan's "Hey Nineteen" is playing on the AM.
 
(Singing)
 
Way back when In sixty-sevenI was the dandy Of Gamma Chi
 
I'm traveling west on Black Road. There is no wind. The air is so hot it folds in through the window like an invisible quilt. It slouches into the passenger seat. After being on my feet for eight hours I'm not exactly in my body. I'm somewhere else; somewhere near the music. Under the words. The bass line's all liquid velvet. It's a cool creamy liquor, this bass line.
 
It's the second week in July. It's roughly 95 degrees. Mosquitoes are plotting their midsummer feast. Moths are hovering under the gas station sign in a great epileptic nimbus. There's an endless feeling of Little League being played. Nocturnally and with infinite concessions. Slurpies and caramel corn. Blue snow cones staining the chins of toddlers. Hot dogs that are so good they can feed entire families. An ocean of Little League diamonds.
 
An aluminum bat hitting a ball is one of the greatest notes of July. A D, I think. A split-second song. A little chink of hope.
 
I turn north onto Gael Drive.
(Singing)
 
Sweet things from Boston So young and willing Moved down to Scarsdale Where the hell am I?
 
I'm going 45 in a 30. At least that's where the speedometer freezes after the collision. I like to call it a collision, because decapitation sounds somehow capital. Corporeal.
 
We've lived on Gael Drive for most of my life. My mother, Jan; my father, Earl; and my little sister and I. It's a threebedroom ranch house with blond brick. We have a garage and a sprinkler system. We have a birdhouse. We have dragonflies that hover and dart like miniature helicopters. We have bees. We have a small bearded gnome that looks as if he's suffering from some sort of gastrointestinal disorder. In the front yard there's a sycamore tree that bleeds. At night its shadow hangs on my bedroom window like an enormous man trembling.
 
Inside the house we have infinite Formica. Bookshelves and cupboards and countertops. Tables and sideboards.
 
Desks and dressers and headboards all around. A credenza. There's so much Formica it's as if it was archaeologically excavated and the house was built around it in honor of its laminated magnificence.
 
I sometimes think that the color of my skin is not white but Formica.
 
In the living room we have a 1942 Steinway piano. There is not a scratch on it. It's my father's prize possession. It was his father's--Grandpa Earl--and it was handed down with the understanding that it would be played only if the hands that traveled its ivory cusps were worthy of its glory. My father would spend hundreds of dollars having it tuned every spring.
 
In our blond house the Steinway is so black it sometimes has an air of war. As though it can be mounted and fired up and driven right through the Sheetrock. My mother places doilies on its hood and family pictures on the doilies. My dad holding a rather bored-looking bass. My sister in a pair of roller skates that make her prepubescent legs look long and coltish. My parents clutching each other at the altar, looking as if they're about to walk into a meat locker. An 8-by-10 seventh-grade photo of me.
Snaggletoothed. My hair trying to levitate in one very large and rollicking cowlick.
 
 
I would play that Steinway from the ages of ten to seventeen. I would practice for three hours a day and I would play until my hands would grow long and slender like a woman's. I would eventually start walking around hunched and knotted like some kind of Transylvanian harpsichordist. My parents would enter me into local competitions, where mothers and fathers execute a cold, Machiavellian reticence. Sitting together not as husbands and wives but as co-conspirators. Not as lovers but as collaborators in the industry of manufacturing perfection. Hands poised on knees. Backs arched. Necks stiff with righteous perpendicularity. Some stand incredibly still, as though their severity will somehow conjure the perfect note. Some kneel in a strange, sustained genuflection. Some position themselves in the aisles, arms akimbo. A posture of gentle warfare.
 
These parents are agents and coaches and tutors and mentors and managers all rolled into one. They are priest and jailer. Savior and executioner. Investor. They lock you in practice rooms and surreptitiously recordyour third crack at Grieg. They keep time with a pencil better than your teacher. They drill you and hug you and make you manicure your nails to the point of cuticle supremacy. It is uncompromising, willful training.
 
Over time a horse owner rears his prize colt from foal to derby winner with the subtle sustained use of his riding crop.
 
I would win some of the small competitions. I would lose all of the big ones.
 
So, it's seven-thirty and the sun is a flaming orb on the horizon. There are colors in the sky. Reds. Pinks. Burnt oranges. Clouds like frayed gauze. Their underbellies golden somehow
 
Steely Dan is well into its chorus.
 
(Singing)
 
The Cuervo gold The fine Colombian Make tonight a wonderful thing Say it again ...
I turn north onto Gael Drive and I decide to not go home. There's a place where I sometimes go and think. It's an enormous platoon of power lines that buzz with a kind of indifferent somnolence. The Radio Trees. Some people go to bars. Others go to the quarry. Some go to a restaurant on the East Side where women in cheap lingerie will dance on your table. I go to the Radio Trees. I want to take my shoes off and feel the buzz in my feet.
 
I accelerate. Something small runs out into the road. I brake. Nothing happens. It's a dog. A garbage can. A plastic bag that's stolen a bit of breeze. I pump the brake pedal. I might as well be pumping a bologna sandwich. I swerve. There's a thud. A hollow, almost wooden thud. Small as an egg. I continue pumping the brakes. Nothing happens. Steely Dan turns into the Alan Parsons Project. I am the eye in the sky. I pump the brakes and the Electra just keeps going, as though by its own volition. I swerve. I counterswerve. I crash into a large oak tree at the end of the street. The front end of the Electra accordions to the windshield. Birds are everywhere. A schizophrenic cloud of crows.
 
I crack three ribs and break my nose. I can taste the metal in my blood. Like warm pewter. The speedometer sticks at 45 miles per hour.
 
In that strange, post-crash ethereal silence I get out of the car and walk the hundred yards or so back to where I heard the thud. The crows have formed a kind of wavering anvil and are flying south toward the sound of the highway. It feels as if the steering wheel has been inserted into my rib cage. My legs take me. The hipbone is connected to the leg bone.
 
My sister's body lies in the street. It looks like a doll's body. Legs. Feet. Yellow socks perfectly folded. Bits of lace turned down--my mother's touch. Shoes so small it's as if they were born out of a children's fable. Hands. Arms. Neck. A small white dress with blue flowers. Anemones. Buttercups.
 
Her head is across the street. It has rolled into the Petersens' driveway. I walk over and pick it up. Simply. Perfunctorily. Only a feeling of great clarity and absence. Like a sudden gust of lake wind. As if it's a ball or some kind of fugitive picnic toy. Its weight seems tremendous. I will reattach it to the neck and she will rise off the pavement and go back into the house and wash up for supper.
 
As I'm reattaching, my mother can be seen framed in the living-room window, her hand pressed against the glass,her head slightly tilted, as though she is peering out over a strange body of water; as though she is watching something hellish emerging from the fog.
 
 
The sound of sirens. Shrieking sirens from all directions. The shrieking turns into a kind of weeping. Sirens weeping in an octave only known to whales and dolphins.
Copyright © 2001 by Adam Rapp