Robert Shelton

Issue 3: Flash Nonfiction


My father is ten years old. He sits at the piano bench, hands on keys. I stand behind him, looking past his shoulder to an open Presbyterian hymnal. He is the seventh child of a circuit-rider preacher who needs an organist. So my father will spend this summer of 1940 teaching himself to play.

I am watching a person assemble himself. It seems a remarkable feat of acquisition. As if one’s unformed talent could act as a magnet, pulling toward oneself some new and complex mode of being.

If drawn as a line, such a process might resemble a sine wave: a small, gradual ramp turning abruptly skyward, then leveling off in preparation for the arrival of its mirror image: the opposing downward cliff that gives the wave its definition.

I am ten years old. I sit at the left hand of my father, in a pew built for the organist. He is the organist, up on the bench, hands on twin keyboards, shoes heel-toeing across a third keyboard on the floor. He rules the instrument as God rules Earth.

When the music stops we recite an Episcopal call and response. I find the prescribed speech empty; devoid of meaning. The Liturgy’s inertia marches us toward communion, toward doxology, toward benediction.

My father is eighty-five years old. I sit in the day room at Daisy House, talking with the remnants of a lucky man. This memory-care home went up the year he was diagnosed. As if they built it just for him.

There’s an upright in the corner but no one plays it. Seventy-five years after teaching himself to play the piano, my father has done whatever the opposite of that is: Forgot it. Unlearnt it. Cast it off. The musical mode of being has been pushed from him, repelled by a reversed polarity as mysterious as the Earth’s own magnetic field.

Across six years of Sundays our conversation has calcified to rote, as the plaques inside his brain reduce his choices down to zero. Each week we hold our call-and-response, reciting the same facts: That I am not his brother, but his son. That it is bright and beautiful outside. That I live only a few miles away. That I will come back soon.

The circuit-rider preacher arrives and starts the service. Dad’s heard it all before. Rituals across the decades have served him well, preparing him to access the comfort of the familiar: I am the alpha and the omega; the first and the last; the beginning, and the end.

He looks happy. It must feel good to speak from memory, walking a path you’ve been down a hundred times. One whose every step and ultimate ending you already know.

So this is my father’s second childhood: sliding down the far half of the sine wave, casting off his acquired modes of being, as whatever magnetic force pulled him together in the first place reverses its polarity, and repels.

Robert Shelton studied English in Northfield, Minnesota, dabbling in Linguistics and German Literature before moving to upstate New York to race motorcycles on road courses throughout the Northeast and Canada, where he earned a few minor trophies and several memorable concussions. Today he is a writer of automation in the machine-code genre, as well as of human stories. His writing is featured at Rochester Spoken Word’s Speak Easy events, and at the upcoming 2020 Listen To Your Mother show.

View Robert’s other work in Howling Mad Review here:

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