ALTO by Kathryn M. Barber

ALTO by Kathryn M. Barber

We’ve spent this summer in your house, the one that belongs to your father, the one that’s brimming to the top with a hundred thousand ghosts. Memories haunt this house: your parents, still together; your brother, asleep down the hall; your college girlfriend, alive, her laugh echoing across the staircase. We sleep beneath a framed photograph of that girl you loved so much, the one whose car went off that bridge we drive  across every day. She’s the only thing that reminds me you’re capable of love, that it can even exist inside you. The way you grieve her is the last living thing that makes me not afraid of you—and I am, I’m so afraid of you: I was afraid that night on the pier, that night out on the highway, every time your hand reaches for that handgun beside the bed. I’m afraid of the way you laugh when I’m angry.

The only time I’m not afraid of you is when you play the piano. Your fingers trace those keys you know by memory, and I worship the sound that comes out of it, bathe in it, roll it over on my tongue and suck it in and out through my teeth. It suffocates me, and I hold my breath. As long as that music is moving through you, you’re something else, someone else, somewhere else. 

I quit playing piano when I was fifteen, when I could still hear the notes of “How Do You Solve a Problem Like Maria?” coming from the piano in my parents’ old house, the one we lugged all the way from my grandmother’s house in Mississippi. My aunt would come from Richmond, and her fingers were the same as those ivory keys; she had grown up inside that Yamaha. You quit and you’ll regret it the rest of your whole life my mama said, and I didn’t believe her then but I do now, because I understand now that somehow, if I could still play, I wouldn’t be here sitting, listening to you. If I could make the sounds you’re making right now, I’d be long gone. If I could remember the notes written inside your hands, in your every vein, if I could remember how to be on my own, I wouldn’t need you.

I had four piano teachers, kept starting over time and time  again. The first one, Mrs. H, taught violin and piano, and while I was waiting for my turn, I’d sit out in the horse stalls with her daughter, my best friend, and we’d brush the horses’ manes, braid their tails, shovel out the barn until her mama had to come outside and get me. We were eight and her parents’ house was on the state line, and because her parents’ bedroom fell on the Tennessee side, it was long distance for me to call her fifteen minutes down the road on the Virginia side. We only got to see each other at church on Sundays, when we’d share a Frostie root beer from the drink machine in the hallway, and it would taste sour in our mouths after Mr. Bowling gave us pieces of Big Red chewing gum on the way into the sanctuary. Her mama was my favorite until her daddy convinced the deacons to convince my daddy to resign his church and start over somewhere else.

There were two more piano teachers in between that first one and the last one, between missing shoveling those horse stalls with my favorite friend and the one who taught me I didn’t need notes to play music. 

The last one was my ninth grade English teacher, Mrs Rodeheaver. She was Pentecostal and she told me she could teach me to play by ear and I didn’t believe her. She said we didn’t need to read music when we could feel it—said she could teach me to feel music in way it that my ears would hear it and my fingers would know how to play it , that all those years struggling to read music wouldn’t matter anymore, that I wouldn’t need those mnemonic devices Mrs. H taught me to remember which keys were which letters.

I didn’t mean to quit. I was just taking a break during tennis season; the practices kept conflicting. I didn’t mean to never resume those lessons in that Pentecostal church sanctuary at the bottom of the hill. I didn’t know then it was my last lesson. I can feel music now harder than I ever could back then, but I can’t remember how to make it come out of my fingers, can’t remember which ones go where and which ones make which sounds, can’t connect my heart to my head to my hands like she taught me to. That last day, we were standing by the piano, and Mrs. Rodeheaver  was telling me to sing louder, sing louder, and my weak airy soprano voice squeaked and faltered. I couldn’t make the notes come out right. I could feel them, could feel them in every centimeter of me, couldn’t make them come out loud, strong.

Louder, she said. 

I sang the note louder.

No, she said. Louder. From your diaphragm. From deep down inside of you. From the deepest parts of you.

I sang the note again.

Louder, she said. I want you to break these stained glass windows.

 So I did, I did, louder, louder, louder. She kept making me sing that same damn note until we could both feel my voice coming back off those church pews. Until I felt like the secondary version of my own note could’ve knocked me over.

You’re not a soprano, she told me, grinning. You’re an alto.

I asked her why she didn’t just tell me that the first week we started, months ago. She smiled, made me keep singing those notes over and over until I found the strength of my voice, understood. She never really answered me, but she didn’t have to, I knew then what I know now: that sometimes you have to sing the wrong note over and over again until it comes out the right way and then you know things your brain could never have known because the music told you. Because the music told you. Some things you can’t know until the music tells you.

You’ve never heard me sing, never seen me inside any song except yours: the way I swing my body when your fingers glide across the piano I can’t remember how to play. Every song we listen to, every track we play, belongs to you,. None of it is mine. You don’t know anything of the basement I was lying in the night I fell in love with Deana Carter or the back porch where only Garth Brooks held me or the lined shuffles of my boots across that beer-sticky dance floor just off I-75. You’ve never heard my voice echo across a church sanctuary.

And you won’t hear the breath I’ll let out as I turn up my radio and drive away from your house for the last time. You won’t hear the songs I’ll sing a few weeks from now under North Carolina skies as I let you go—no, not you, the hope of you, what you could’ve been. What I hoped you were. You won’t be able to name the piano medleys in the songs that carry me to sleep. You’ll never know the ballads that fortify my bones, deteriorate my fear of you. You’ll never see the record player by the window, the screen that separates the porch swing from stacks of country records that remind me I am free I am free I am free.

For now, for tonight, you’ll keep playing the piano, and I’ll keep suffocating in you, and I’ll keep singing soprano. Tomorrow, tomorrow, I’ll hear Mrs. Rodeheaver saying you’re an alto you’re an alto you’re an alto and I’ll sing that note over and over again until I remember who I was before you.



Kathryn M. Barber grew up in the mountains along the Tennessee/Virginia state line, near the Carter Fold. She holds an MA from Mississippi State University and an MFA from UNC Wilmington. You can find her on the mastheads for Ecotone magazine, Press Pause Press, and Southern Humanities Review, and more of her work can be found in The Masters Review, The Pinch, Moon City Review, Door is a Jar, Helen, and elsewhere. Currently, she teaches literature and creative writing at Mississippi State University. Twitter handle: @kathrynmbarber and website:

Art by Bob Schofield @anothertower

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