Nocturne from a World Concave
F. Chopin awoke wearing his clothes and muddy shoes to the cold slobber of the orange sun dripping along his face—he didn’t know if it was rising or setting, let out a gnarled, walrus groan. He struggled off his cot not knowing why or what getting up or doing anything really meant, then remembered the money. He pulled out the wad from his trench coat: old, green dollars mixed with colorful pesos. He thought to count it, but it looked like all of it. Most of it.
Then, like a selfish, needy friend, reliable to knock when never wanted, the retching knocked: one, two, three dry heaves, the third one long and pronounced and painful to Chopin, where for a moment he thought finally his organs had hatched their escape from his slopped-up insides. He made it to the toilet and the red sprayed in chunks and pellets, getting most of it on the seat.
Chopin brushed his teeth, washed his face, combed his hair, and for once thought of the humor of the entire equation: that after everything—the decades and centuries past, experiencing his previous legacy and influence, even after having been born again on the other side of the world as another young man—the body was still dying: the older he got and better at his skills, the more he coughed up of himself and the weaker he felt. For the first time, thinking about this, he laughed, silently and with his mouth closed.
He exited his apartment and climbed down the steep staircase clutching the railing with his right hand, thinking, This can’t be a real day…can’t be a real day.
Then he was on the sidewalk off Plaza Bonifacio near the market square of Ciudad Juarez. Hunched over, Chopin was still taller than all the people moving by him—the people that moved by him every day, and once upon a time even greeted him. Though he felt himself a ghost now it was when people smiled or acknowledged him that he feared they must know more than they should of his soul—or that maybe they were familiar with his music. It seemed a few years prior people were different; they were more bothersome when he was just trying to start his day. But now people hardly said hello or made eye contact, which, to him, was no problem, really.
Still, as he recently started to notice this, it bothered him.
He spotted the streetkids on the dayorange side of the street, saw them pointing and laughing his direction and said to himself, God, these damned kids want what’s left of my blood, and he accelerated his pace. The kids (there were three of them, siblings, two boys, one girl) in their off-colored clothes, ran as if it was actually a dance across traffic, the cabs, peseras, and people along the border, and appeared circling Chopin, facing him and chanting, “Papa Chopin, Papa Chopin—”
The eldest boy was selling bags of chicharrones and fried chips, the girl chiclets, and the youngest boy was selling nothing at all but held his hand out begging for money.
Chopin swatted one arm briskly but slowly, like he was shooing off large prehistoric insects.
“Not now, kids,” Chopin growled, “Papa Chopin’s gotta make rent—”
“Papa Chopin,” the eldest boy said, “nada mas lo que pueda, para mi guitarra…quiero tocar la guitarra como usted toca el piano. Orale, señor, porfa…”
Chopin hurried and ignored them further. It was the only way to get rid of them, and he didn’t feel bad doing so, feeling also a sort of patronage to where the good he’d done for them far exceeded these miniscule encounters.
With his left hand he felt the rubber band around the wad of money in his coat pocket, and continued along Plaza Bonifacio a few more blocks, turned left on Calle 6 de Mayo.
With a horror he’d grown accustomed to, Chopin asked himself what month it could be, then remembered, along with the year, and he chuckled with his mouth closed again. All at once he realized that his shoes were soaked, that it rained the night before, that his mother was still dead.
“Goddammit,” he said to himself, then muffled his cough with his coat-sleeve.
Chopin had buried his mother the previous week, but when he thought about it had no idea what the term ‘previous week’ meant. She was dead, though. Spared to live past the inevitable premature death of her only son, and now Chopin saw his own terminal illness as something comical.
He thought of his mother’s final days and turned to the grey skies that reflected his bowels and the soup of his ailments. He felt the roar of border life convulsing, and the faces around him disappeared and became merely the sound of their breathing—the short breaths of people took their features over, their bodies, their vehicles, buildings, even the landscape, and the world became an old west of incomplete breaths—Chopin was unable to hear anything else. He no longer felt his own heart beating—his lungs would never give him that rest. Chopin felt himself about to start retching again, but he held it—for all he was worth he held it, and kept walking amidst the breathing around him.
Remorse and grief aside, he said to himself, “That was that, and this is now, and I must reclaim the Pleyel now.”
Chopin looked at his left hand and he was holding a lottery ticket, then remembered (as if he was experiencing it all over again) running into his favorite street vendor, Don Alvarito, and buying a lottery ticket a block and a half earlier. He wondered what kind of bill he could’ve given him because he didn’t have small change in any pocket.
He pulled out the papers from customs and quickly fanned through them and put them away.
Again, Chopin began slightly obsessing over the scientist he’d once read about. He didn’t recall his name, but read he could prove to everybody quite simply that we live in a half-world and we are all half-beings. That we are all symmetrically divided in half and it is only our illusion that we fill out the rest—that in this world we are here to strive for the other half of our selves in order to be born full beings in the next life. He remembered a quote by the scientist saying, “Most people fail and they keep coming back as half-beings. Until, one hopes, they learn and can be born full-beings.”
He wished he’d read the rest of the article then. At least far enough to find out how he could prove this.
Since the death of his mother that article he’d read long ago about this scientist had somehow become very present in his mind. It seemed to him, suddenly, a logical explanation of this reality. Physically we are halves, yes—we are symmetrically born divided in half, yes, our real half is our imperfect half, yes, and we live out this life trying to fill in for our other half, the one which would make us perfect, yes—and our brains, our brains are so powerful they collectively fill in the rest of our selves so we won’t see how gruesome our insides are, yes—so we are always fooling our selves, yes, yes.
At first thinking this way worried him, but more and more the whole scheme of it made sense.
He coughed and again was able to laugh at the cough.
Outside the customs office, by the curb, were two men in nice hats and flashy clothing having conversation and cigarettes with a police officer. The police officer suddenly laughed like ball-bearings in a blender and one of the sharp-looking men smiled and winked at Chopin.
Chopin thought the men must be musicians in their own rite, since their wardrobe resembled that of players of corridos.
Chopin gave the winking man a half-nod and muttered something that sounded like Buenos dias, as he walked past them into the customs office.
He took a number upon entering the proper room, and as if he was expected a chubby lady with poofy, auburn hair signaled him from behind a desk. Chopin looked around to make sure she meant him, then walked up to her. Standing up, the lady asked if he was who he was. He showed her an i.d., then she said, “Your case has been taken care of,” in Spanish.
Chopin struggled in explaining it to her—how he had to play a show in the American side the previous day—not his first, but hopefully his last. And upon coming back during the thunderstorm the customs people confiscated it, and now needed to pay the tax of a third the piano’s worth, since it wasn’t a Mexican made piano. Mexican made piano—what is that? It was a new law, they’d told him, to encourage Mexicans to buy Mexican-made products. Chopin found himself losing his patience and casually mentioned he’d just buried his mother, and now the Mexican government is holding his piano for ransom, what outrage! He exclaimed he was simply an artist with the urgency and need to keep making his living—a living more and more denied to him as time went by and that was secretly killing him—
The lady placed her hand on Chopin’s shoulder and he stopped talking mid-sentence.
With a droll air the lady repeated, “Your case has been taken care of.”
She grabbed the customs forms from Chopin’s hand and tore them and threw them in the wastebasket.
“I don’t understand,” he said.
“It’s easy. Your piano’s been retrieved. They’ve paid the tariff and some deliverers showed up to take it. Have a nice day. Go play your piano.”
Chopin had many questions so he hesitated in walking away. The lady disappeared into the dim yellow of the cavernous office.
“It’s going to be delivered?” he asked. “By whom?”
Outside he was still asking himself this when he pieced it together: the two sharp-looking men he’d seen making the police officer laugh were suddenly before him and one of them started to talk. He was friendly, respectful, not at all threatening to Chopin. Chopin looked directly at him and tried to listen. Across the street was a seafood restaurant called La Piedra y El Pez. As the man talked, Chopin, as if lost in a fog, found harbor in the logo of La Piedra y El Pez—it was an illustration of a tiny fish about to be eaten by a medium fish about to be eaten by a big fish. They looked like different sizes of the same species of fish, colored red and blue, with sharp, yellow teeth.
Chopin was inside a dark pickup truck when he snapped out of it. They’d put a luchador mask over his head with the eyes and mouth sewn shut, and were driving along bumpy terrain when Chopin tried to think if he’d agreed to anything—he didn’t recall saying a single word to either of the men, but was suddenly on this truck riding the terrain of some acne scarred planet.
He wasn’t afraid nor alarmed nor felt any kind of way about what was happening, and in that blue darkness under the mask he thought again about his mother—mostly, it was the mirror in his mother’s room, the same room in which the disease finally took her. It was a tall and slightly ovular mirror wide enough for a single person, where you could see your whole body reflected if you stood far enough.
The morning after the Cruz Roja had taken his mother, Chopin sat on her bed and wept for her—wept for the pain she’d suffered, and in the way she’d finally been taken. As he wept sitting on her bed, suddenly, he looked into the mirror. He couldn’t remember how, but a white shawl had been placed around the mirror and fluffed to where it looked like a pair of wings. With tears on his face he laughed—wings, what? It can’t be, he thought. Then, with some shame, he caught his reflection. For the first time Chopin noticed mirrors are a lot like human eyes, when looking into that mirror he felt the gaze of his dead mother. He felt, for the first time, a morbid fear upon looking at not only his reflection, but that of the entire room—then, somehow, a certain comfort, and wept for his mother some more and wondered what else had to be done in this world.
He felt himself laying vertically in a field of tall grass, the sun hot on his face, and could feel every stem of the grass against his cheeks, forehead—he felt he was climbing down a thick oak tree, when, suddenly, it was light and dust and a splash of wind like cold stillwater dripped down his sweaty hair and his eyes finally focused and came to—there were blurry figures surrounding him. For a few seconds he thought one of the blurry figures was holding a decapitated head for everybody to see, and its face was blue and red just like the fish illustrations at La Piedra y el Pez—but it wasn’t a head—those were also the colors of the luchador mask. One of the well dressed men was holding it up, and turned it inside out for the others to see—there was apple-red blood on it. Chopin was handed a golden handkerchief and a thick man with a machine gun and mustache pantomimed a mouth-wiping gesture to the great pianist.
There was a brief commotion within the men, one of them screaming the boss didn’t want him harmed in any way, when Chopin felt something wet tickle his left fingers. It was the tongues of two poodles standing on their hind legs and groomed in a very tacky manner, one black, one white. Chopin coughed a loud cough into the golden handkerchief and frightened the poodles—the men stopped arguing and watched him. Meanwhile, a figure in slacks and a buckled bathrobe with no shirt under approached them, and the poodles pranced his direction. The man had a thick, round face, with a pronounced greying mustache that matched his slightly disheveled hair that earlier in the day was slicked back and gelled. Also, along the left side of his face were clusters of raw boils that’d been scratched and were now caked in a white balm. They ran down his neck and into his bathrobe like scuttling baby rats, some flared yellow with puss. The men held a silence upon the approach of this figure.
There were movements made and moustached voices sucked into the pallid atmosphere started to walk. Firmly, Chopin’s hand was shaken by the man in the bathrobe, the one not holding the handkerchief. Chopin felt his legs walking along the boils of the man’s face—he saw the wingspan of a buzzard in the sky, and for the first time noticed the castle-like house they were approaching. Everything suddenly became strange to him—he stopped walking and half-stumbled. One of the men carrying a machine gun caught Chopin, and to all of them it appeared he was laughing a madcap laugh—when he pulled the handkerchief away from his face it had a thick chunk of what looked like bloodied, chewed bubblegum. Chopin saw the men around him were no longer wearing their flashy clothing and were now all in black. They’d become medieval sentries and the man in the bathrobe with the boils a half naked king. Everything around him was musicless and dark—nothing could be woven, it seemed, and the castle was under some kind of spell. The sound of silent mourning trickled from all around, the paintings on the wall, from the statues and dead plants.
The king was talking to Chopin. The sentries remained silent and Chopin faintly nodded in his pauses. The king, with potato-sack, droopy eyes, gesticulated piano playing in the air in front of him.
Chopin did the same, but moved his fingers slower and they turned into the legs of tarantulas.
The king then mentioned the state of Michoacan.
Chopin repeated, “Michoacan?”
“Yes,” the king reiterated, “Michoacan.”
“No,” Chopin said, “I’ve never been invited to play in Michoacan.”
All their faces expressed deep tragedy and regret over this.
Chopin looked at the handkerchief in his hand and finally realized the blood. He stuck the handkerchief in his coat pocket, slowly wadding it up into a ball with slight embarrassment.
For the first time he looked into the king’s eyes and recognized the boiling red roses of inconsolable sadness and little sleep. He felt, also, a mournful presence that seemed to be guiding them like a spirit through a graveyard—so strongly was this feeling that he kept looking around for another person.
They were now in something like a large ballroom. Chopin looked up at the 20 ft. ceilings with stalactite chandeliers and felt trapped. There was a wall that seemed to be an entire mirror on the other side of the ballroom—Chopin waved his arm and saw it wave all the way over there.
They continued walking through bright corridors with covered windows. He noticed strips of mirrors outlining the walls in every room and hall—to Chopin they felt like eyes winking at him at first seductively, then like a warning or secret code to watch his back.
But to Chopin none of it mattered. He was there. He was following this man in this mansion, and they were being trailed by these goons with guns, though they hadn’t hurt him.
If anything, he thought, joke’s on them, ’cause I’m probably already dead, and this is not a real day.
Chopin coughed, this time quietly and with his mouth closed, and swallowed the blood. With his tongue and mouth still closed he wiped his front teeth.
Everybody stopped walking when they got to a tall, white, steel reinforced door with black trim—it appeared to Chopin more like an ascending staircase—he oceaned musical notes from the staircase—he felt they’d finally reached the stream and source and all the static was now harmonizing. The man with the boils in the bathrobe opened the infinite, pale door and crept inside, alone. All of the goons in flashy clothes with machine guns took the opportunity to quickly check their cellular phones.
They were finished by the time the man in the bathrobe crept back out, and he motioned for Chopin and only one goon to follow him in.
The room had even taller ceilings than the rest of the mansion and no windows with strong artificial daylight throughout. There was faint music playing from the far end of the room—painted on the ceiling was a blue sky and bellows of clouds floating all around so that it was perpetually a nice day in that giant room. He turned to the wall behind him and faced what looked like the painted streets of Ancient Greece around the whitesteel door. He followed the man in the bathrobe and the faint music—as they got closer Chopin saw a man on a ladder painting a mural of an image we all know—the city of Paris.
Then he heard the black keys of the Pleyel and quickly turned around.
The man in the bathrobe was plucking at them—behind him, Chopin thought he saw two men dressed like doctors.
“Wait a minute here,” Chopin said out loud.
Nobody heard this.
About five feet to the right of the doctors was a red, pink, and orange exposed canopy bed—it was the biggest bed he’d ever seen, and wondered why he hadn’t noticed this as soon as he walked in.
Chopin felt the breathing of the machines. He felt a deep rumble in his chest and dared not cough again.
Along the edge of the canopy bed, and not without any horror, Chopin saw an unconscious harp seal dressed up in an emerald evening gown. To its left was an old woman knitting and humming, and to the left of her were definitely two doctors. Their ankles were chained to snakes that crawled along the floor of the room toward the wall. The rumble he’d confused for music came from the various medical equipment surrounding them, looking sorrowful to be the silent witnesses to this scene.
Chopin looked into the eyes of the doctors, couldn’t stand it, and looked immediately away, then made eye contact with the knitting old woman, who didn’t appear to have whites in her sunken eyes.
When he looked back on the open canopy bed he saw the figure in the emerald gown was not a harp seal but a hairless young girl. A scalding sense of desert starvation ran through Chopin.
The man in the bathrobe knelt in front of the sleeping young girl and he seemed to weep quietly as he pressed her emaciated hand to the good side of his face. Chopin saw a revolver dangle from under his bathrobe as he did so.
The hairless young girl had no eyebrows and she wore a beret that matched her gown. Her skin was grey and taut like a spiderweb. She had her nostrils and arms attached to the droning and fatigued machines. Chopin paid no mind to the two doctors and felt a sweaty hand shaking his right. It was the hand of the young painter, whose face he recognized from some glossy magazine page.
Chopin was seated now on a stool before his Pleyel piano, the piano he’d been playing since he was a boy and his only possession—what remained of his once privileged upbringing and what his father once jokingly and prophetically referred to as his only inheritance.
Chopin didn’t notice, but he had started playing its keys—in them were the trees swaying, painted like the trees out west—in them was the pact we’ve made with the animals and people living in mirrors that are doomed to imitate us—don’t forget, animals and mirrors—blankets on the moon and sun and bed, don’t forget—stars in lagoons, artificial skies, melting wax and burning wickers, childhood toys, don’t forget—Chopin played an improvisation, it seemed, sweating over the keys and looking like a melting iceberg—cold, prayerless nights, don’t forget, the insects that have bitten us and taken our blood and fragments of our skin—good mothers that have taught us how to read, how to hum before a sunset, knitting scarves and quilts which have kept us warm, don’t forget—people in the streets we’ve bought papers or candy from, window washers, don’t forget—Chopin thought he saw the girl in the emerald gown stand on the bed to watch him, the man in the bathrobe sitting along its edge—those dark, lonely rooms we’ve braved both winter and heat, don’t forget—don’t forget the pain we have all felt, all that we’ve been through—every day things around us, our chairs and tables we’ve had our meals on, our stuttering cars and utensils that helped feed us, don’t forget—don’t forget the person you’ve fed, fork, knife, don’t forget whose steak you burned, oven and fire—don’t forget who you’re denying white blood cells, blood—don’t forget what you’re doing to me, lungs, what you’re doing to me, dark sky with your big, turd clouds—don’t forget what you’ve taken from me and what you will keep taking and to what satisfaction, to what end other than the casket, which can’t really be a casket but a canoe out at sea which we slowly embark into, reminding it we once bathed in it and walked its sands—don’t forget us, sea, don’t forget us, sands—wolves rising early for their prey, don’t forget—don’t forget the doves we’ve fed, the sound of horses’ hooves, dogs barking at us, don’t forget us, dogs—don’t forget us, distant yesterdays and impossible tomorrows, whales under moonlight, blood upon clear, green waters, don’t forget—sea-dark wine we’ve consumed, lilies and cherries and shrieks of distant wells where children once drowned, don’t forget us while we are still here, while there is still time, desperate-to-be-loved bell-tower up high somewhere far off and tragically echoing—fill our lungs again like when we were young and music still meant something—don’t forget who you once stomped on, dirt—Chopin played, played, played, when suddenly the painted sky ceiling cracked in half and lifted to the heavens and let in a macabre whirlwind—the doctors, the old woman knitting, the man in the bathrobe, and the girl in the emerald evening gown looked up at a giant bird with plumage like the dusk in dreams—its beak the size of a clipper ship probed down into the room, opened—the girl in the emerald gown unhooked herself from the machines and crawled into the flesh-colored beak—Chopin played-played-played, the man in the bathrobe pulled out the revolver and unloaded on the bird—the goons ran into the room and machine gun fire cursed-cursed-cursed, Chopin’s fingers grew hairy like tarantulas again, the keys of the Pleyel dripping with his sweat as the bird creature flew away with the dying girl—don’t forget us, bird—giant bird of the apocalypse, we’ll meet again, bird, we’ll meet again, frozen lake dreams—dreams—don’t forget us dreams.
Sunrise or sunset—the light of day seemed to heave out of his chest as Chopin once again woke up with muddy shoes on his cot. The Pleyel piano was there, at its usual spot by the window. He felt the wad of cash in his coat, pulled it out and looked at it. Next to his head was the blue and red luchador mask with the holes sewn shut, but he didn’t touch it. Then he looked at the piano. It was definitely there. He was definitely back in his room off Plaza Bonifacio. He got up, coughed into the toilet in a less violent manner he’d recently been used to, flushed and stared down that old Pleyel piano again. Now that it was back he no longer felt like playing it.