BY SARAH PASCARELLA
Bertie was not surprised when Frank Murphy showed up at her doorstep, hat in hand, just a few weeks following Lou’s funeral. Truthfully, she had expected him sooner. From the porch screen, she could tell he was wearing his best suit, the camel tweed he usually reserved for Sundays, and a starched collar, all paper-airplane angles and sharp folds. He simply held up his hand in greeting.
She opened the door, led him to the kitchen, and put the tea kettle on. She heard the scrape of the chair—Lou’s old chair—as Frank sat down. She lingered for a moment, the ache for Lou buckling across her chest. The sound she associated with him had brought him back, if only for a fleeting second, but she hoped to draw it out as long as she could. It was so strange how he could reappear in different forms: the new issue of Field and Stream magazine arriving in their mailbox, the whiff of his same aftershave on passersby in the grocery store. These little encounters, cumulatively, made her grief both comforting and overwhelming.
She collected herself, although the thought of turning and not seeing Lou there was almost too much to take. But she did turn, two steaming mugs in hand, to find Frank instead of her beloved. She tried not to look disappointed, and took a seat across from him. The ache spread and caught in her throat as she realized that she now understood Frank a little better. How long had Frank pictured Bertie, wished she were present in his day-to-day life, only to see no one?
Frank removed the pouch of tea, winding its string around a spoon to extricate the last drops into the mug. He reached for the creamer.
“Honey?” Bertie asked, and Frank looked up in surprise.
Frank blushed, and Bertie felt as though they were teenagers again.
“No,” she said, even though she knew Frank didn’t need further explanation. “Do you want honey with your tea? Or sugar?”
“Nothing, thank you. Just a little milk.”
Bertie prepared her own tea, then took a sip. “So, Frank. What can I do for you?”
Frank’s eyes were far away. When he spoke, he didn’t look directly at Bertie, but instead just past her down the table. “Nothing for me, Bertie. I thought I would just call on you, see how you were doing. I figured you might be wanting some company by now.”
“I appreciate that, Frank. It has been strange, being here all by myself,” Bertie said.
“I’ve been getting my daily walks in lately. I could try to stop by more often, if you like.”
Bertie considered this. “Perhaps.”
“You’re also always welcome at my home, should you want a change of scenery. You know not much has changed there. Still have the piano, though. It still sounds good to me.”
The piano. She could easily picture their rehearsals, despite all the years since. Frank at the keys, Bertie with the sheet music, their voices unique complements—her earthy alto against his gravelly baritone.
She recalled that first session, when she had made Frank play a verse twice. On his second run-through, she sang what she heard: an ethereal, just-discernible line above the actual melody.
“What are you doing?” he had said.
“I hear this—these phantom notes,” was all she could say. “I hear this whole other harmony—even though it’s nowhere on the sheet music.”
Frank had smiled. “Do it again.”
Sitting across from Frank again, she almost felt she owed him some time. Just time—to sit, to listen to what he wanted to say. Lou was gone. It was more than Frank, if she were honest with herself. It was how to repay former slights. She felt she also had owed Finn, a correction she was never able to right. Finn had cleaned up her mess; he had salvaged what he could of his twin’s shattered heart. If she could atone her past with current kindness, then maybe she could give Frank some sense of peace, while honoring her own choices as well.
“Your mother’s piano? You’re still playing that?”
“I try. I haven’t gotten it tuned in a while.”
“Tell you what. You get it tuned, and maybe I’ll stop by.”
“I will.” He looked distracted, and paused, his head slightly cocked to one side.
“What is it?” Bertie turned toward the direction where he appeared to be listening.
Frank shook his head. “Nothing, nothing. It’s just…quiet. Your house is as quiet as mine. I think I expected something different.”
“Well, things have been pretty quiet the past few weeks. After the hubbub of the funeral, that is.”
“I remember, when Finn passed, the house felt like I was in an echo chamber it was so quiet,” Murphy said. “Do you remember how many people were there for the funeral and after-party? It felt like a dance hall, although that would have been the oddest party. And then everyone left, and I couldn’t understand it at first. Where all that noise had gone. I almost wished I had recorded it, even if it had just come out as background noise on the tape, but that I had captured it somehow. That I could have played it long after everyone left, to remind me of what the space had held, what it had sounded like. What had really been there. That he had really been there. It would have been a way to hold and keep all that love for my brother.”
Bertie studied Frank and found herself missing Finn, her old friend, the rational, funny, sweet counterpart to this weird, eccentric man across the table. She hadn’t thought of Finn in so long, and now, Frank seemed to be channeling him in a way that was unsettling. Bertie wondered if they would still have looked identical in middle and old age. If Finn would have lost as much hair as Frank, or if he would have gained a pot belly or stayed trim. The loss suddenly seemed as fresh as Lou, newly gone.
“You must still miss Finn every day,” Bertie said.
Bertie paused, but did not want to be dishonest. “I think I’ll miss Lou every day.”
“You will.” Bertie noticed Frank’s eyes were unbearably sad. “I know because I’ve missed you every day.”
Bertie laughed, misplaced, but couldn’t help herself. “I’m not dead, Frank.”
Frank chuckled, and reached out for her hand. Bertie let him take it. “No,” he said. “No, that’s true.”
She recalled several weeks of piano rehearsals that had led to the afternoon by the lake. She remembered how the reeds seemed to rustle in time to the lowing of bullfrogs, the calling of pine warblers, and buzzing of dragonflies. The notes entwined with theirs, joining everything around them.
Their coupling had been a mistake. Lou, stationed with the Navy, had been gone for months; they had made no plans, exchanged no intentions. In her loneliness, in her need, she had reached for the real, the present. Frank’s expression throughout had startled her; it contained unwavering devotion, commitment, and love. Her recognition was twofold: she simultaneously saw his love and knew she didn’t reciprocate. She had the power to break his heart, and she would.
At the table, his fingers around hers were warm.
“Frank?” Bertie said. Was it cruel to be kind, to let him hold her hand like this? She wasn’t certain. “I wish…I wish you hadn’t waited for me. You could have made a very lovely partner for someone more like-minded to you.”
“I didn’t wait for you. After you, I knew I would live a solitary life.”
Bertie tried not to sound exasperated. “Why?”
The wall clock behind them chimed the half-hour.
“I loved—” Frank paused. “I love you.
“I had to, in a way, invent you for my life. I was so lonely for you. I had thought my faith would be enough. So many days, for so long, I thought would be the day, the day you might change your mind. It would be the way the sunlight fell through the trees, or the way the autumn air would smell, and I could almost taste anticipation. You’d come around that day, or I’d see you and you’d smile at me and wave, and it would be enough to keep me going. It would be the way squirrels ran across my lawn, as though they were panicking, as though they were prepping for something big. Everything seemed symbolic, prescient, possible. And then too many of those days came and went, just ordinarily.”
“And you don’t feel that way anymore?”
Frank paused and seemed to weigh his words carefully. “I don’t not feel that way. But I don’t anticipate things the way a young man would.”
“How long have you felt this way?”
Frank ran a hand across his face. “Maybe since Finn passed?” He looked past Bertie, at some indecipherable point. “Since Finn passed.”
“And yet, a few seeds of doubt don’t stop hope,” Frank continued. “It was the last thing I had really, once Finn was gone. If I could just remain steadfast, if I didn’t give up, somewhere along the line, you would be convinced. So I still hoped.”
Bertie shook in her own skin. She didn’t know, still, how to reconcile her own needs against Frank’s overwhelming need, his all-consuming loneliness. She felt, simply by existing, by the fact that she was taking in air and filling a space, cruel. Cruel that she still couldn’t fulfill him, couldn’t help him. Her life kept her here. Her life hurt him here. It was an impossible dilemma.
She noticed the tremors in Frank’s hands, ever so slight, as he folded his napkin into ever-smaller squares, and felt a great tenderness for him.
She had left Frank by the lake, that afternoon, after her reckoning.
Finn found him hours later, stunned and broken, and brought him home.
The letter from Lou, outlining all his love and intentions, had arrived the following week.
What Frank felt for her was not love, Bertie was certain of that. No, instead it solely was a need, a spore of which had been planted decades ago and now multiplied as she aged. As Frank avoided life, avoided love, the avoidance grew in the shape of his need for the idea of her, a loneliness that used her as a living vessel. It could have taken any shape, it seemed, but he had selected her for its manifestation. And so she realized all these years that she had been living, unwittingly and without her consent, a dual life—her own, and a shadow life, a fiction Frank had created for her. And even though that created life wasn’t real, it still existed, albeit only for him. As long as Frank lived, took in air and inhabited space, she would continue to be cruel, because she could not become his intention.
She thought back to the afternoon by the piano, all those years ago, her hearing the phantom notes over his playing, singing them so they both could hear. They had become each other’s phantom notes, each hearing what the other could not. Frank’s phantom version of her life, a life full of mystery and faith, did not exist for Bertie, while Bertie’s desires for her own life, a life rooted in the earth and all its tangible pleasures, was in a note beyond Frank’s register.
Bertie didn’t know how to change her life, to become someone she wasn’t. If she had been steadfast as a young woman, her convictions were solidified now, in midlife. And yet, she couldn’t bear being cruel. She couldn’t resolve how her sheer existence was essentially torture of this tormented, long-suffering man.
In the moment, then, Bertie resolved to always show Frank as much kindness as he could bear. She couldn’t change who she was, couldn’t change the choices she had made and would continue to make. But she could show him mercy.
She noticed his teacup was nearly drained. “I’ll make us another cup,” she said, standing to go to the stove. “Then, if you want, I’ll walk a little bit with you.”
SARAH PASCARELLA is a Boston-based writer and editor. Her work has appeared in The Quotable, Gravel, Travelers’ Tales, The Boston Globe, and USA Today, among other publications. She has a Master’s in Writing, Literature, and Publishing from Emerson College. Her novel, The Virgin Mary Hotline, is available via Kindle and Nook. She is currently at work on her second novel.