Piano Lessons



Piano Lessons

Lily stood in the doorway of the living room, her mouth a tiny O of surprise as she watched her mother clean. Lily’s mother hated cleaning. She hated scrubbing pots, folding towels, running the vacuum, driving her daughters to the doctor, and holding Lily in place while she squirmed against her vaccinations. She did these things simply because they needed to be done, did them with a determined air, her mouth set in a straight line. But today she had vacuumed neat lines into the carpet and fluffed the pillows on the neat sofas. The scent of lemon polish perfumed the air and the furniture shone. A new piano would soon be delivered, she told Lily excitedly, and the house must be readied for a visitor that afternoon who was coming to take the old one away.

Lily knew of only two things in the world that made her mother’s face soften: Talking about her older daughter, Holly’s, many accomplishments, and playing her upright piano. Sometimes Lily left for school as her mother practiced scales in the living room. Her ears filled with music, and she carried it throughout the day, a soothing background to shrieking children and impossible math lessons. She returned home to her mother playing Mozart or Beethoven. Lily knew she could not have played all day, and yet she felt her arrival prompted her mother to replace joy with a grim mouth and forced movements while she fixed Lily a snack.

Sometimes Lily would dance to her mother’s playing. Even when the music didn’t lend itself to such enthusiastic leaps and twirls, Lily would prance about, trying to feel the music her

mother loved so well. But far too often her mother removed her hands from the keys and said, “Really, Lilian, I cannot play with you stomping around like an elephant.”

Lily though the old secondhand piano was beautiful. Off-white, with a scrollwork of thick vines across its front, a shiny glaze run through with fine cracks like an old painting in a museum. It had yellowish keys like old teeth and three pedals her mother used to lengthen the sound, layering the notes on top of each other. Lily loved that piano. And now someone was coming to take it away.

Lily sobbed over its loss.

“I don’t know why you’re so upset,” her mother said dismissively. “You’ve never even played it.”

“You won’t let me touch it!”

“There is no delicacy in you, Lillian,” her mother said.

Her sister Holly smirked at this. Lily was shuffled off to her room while her mother changed her dress and sprayed her hair back into place.

Lily listened for the doorbell, eager to greet their guest and demonstrate her good manners to her mother. But when it rang, and Lily rushed to it, she greeted only a pizza delivery man brining their dinner. She was suddenly very hungry. Holly nudged her out of the way to take the box. She carried it carefully to the kitchen—“You’ll carry it wrong and all the cheese will slide off the top!” she said—and placed it in the oven to wait until after the lady came to see the piano. Lily’s mother sat in the kitchen with a glass of wine, watching the news on a little black and white television she kept there. Lily was sent to her room again but stole back out to the living room to wait. Some part of her associated getting rid of the piano with her mother’s opinion of her. In her ten-year-old brain, if she could show herself to be lovely and dutiful, to be

cheerful and graceful and polite—all the things her mother was always telling her she was not—her mother might change her mind and let the piano stay. She might even teach Lily how to play.

Outside it grew dim, a shade slowly lowered across the sky. Inside Lily grew hungrier and hungrier. The time came and went when the lamps should have been switched on, but still Lily sat with her hands folded in her lap. She would be the one to answer the door. She needed the toilet, but still she waited patiently.

Then Holly stepped into the living room and snapped on a lamp. She turned and saw Lily and let out a little scream.

“What are you doing? Lurking out here like a thief!”

“I’m not lurking,” Lily replied sourly. “I’m just sitting.”

Their mother appeared in the doorway, her hair perfectly styled but her face slightly puffy.

“What’s going on?” she demanded.

“Lily’s creeping around in the dark,” said Holly.

“I’m not creeping!” Lily protested. “I’m just sitting. I’m not doing anything.”

“Isn’t there something better you could be doing?” her mother said with a sigh. “Don’t you have any homework?”


“Then go read a book!”

Lily got up and stomped down the hall, not her room, but to the toilet. As she was flushing, she heard the doorbell ring. So, she was not the first to the door. She came and stood behind her sister, hands folded neatly to impress, though no one bothered to notice. The woman at the door was youngish, with long straight brown hair, hanging loose, and wearing neat denim

jeans and brown shoes. Her face looked free of any makeup, and she wore a simple clean blouse. She smiled uncertainly, as though concerned she’d come to the wrong house. In almost every way she was the opposite of Lily’s mother: her clothes, her hair, her unblemished skin, her friendly, self-conscious smile. Lily instantly loved her.

“I’m here about the piano?” she said uncertainly. Another way she was different. Never ask a question, Lily’s mother always said, when you mean to make a statement.

“Yes, this way. Hello!” Lily’s mother said, bright and cheerful.

The woman stepped inside, and everyone shifted to make room. Lily stumbled back, suddenly in the way, and thumped against the wall. Holly smirked. Lily’s mother led the woman into the bright room, talking the whole time about the virtues of piano in general and this one in particular. Lily watched the woman follow her mother, the long curtain of her hair swinging behind her.

“I played when I was a girl,” the woman said softly. “Now my daughter wants to play. I thought I might play again, too.”

How Lily envied this woman’s daughter. She stood in the doorway, watching the woman with the shiny hair and beautiful skin.

“I think it’s a wonderful thing when children follow in their parents’ footstep,” Lily’s mother said earnestly. “You daughter will love this piano.”

Lily felt the whole room darken. Her mother wouldn’t let her touch this piano. This piano, that this beautiful woman with her presumably beautiful daughter would now be allowed to play. And this was a wonderful thing that this unseen girl would be allowed this thing she herself was not. Lily pictured this girl, a tiny version of her mother with dark swinging hair,

sitting at the piano, bored, impatient, and forced to practice when she’d rather be out playing. She wouldn’t appreciate it. She didn’t deserve it. She shouldn’t be allowed to have it.

Lily took an unconscious step forward into the room, bumping against her sister, who responded by shoving her sideways into the doorframe. Lily stumbled, catching her shoulder on the corner and gasped at the sharp pain. The two women turned at the noise and stared at her. Lily’s mother’s mouth pinched into a frown. The woman looked startled.

“What is it, Lillian,” her mother said tightly.

“I…” Lily stood with her mouth gaping, realizing there was nothing to say. She couldn’t tell the woman not to take the piano. She’d only be confused, and her mother angry. Already her mother’s eyes grew fierce, the light of the lamp behind her turning her skin faintly green, and Lily’s determination collapsed.

“I’m really hungry,” she said lamely.

Her mother smiled, close-mouthed.

“Well, it’s a good thing we have a pizza in the oven, isn’t it?” she said evenly, and turned her attention back to the woman, who smiled nicely at Lily, in the manner of someone who had no idea of the subtext going on around her.

Lily stepped back into the hallway. Holly leaned towards her and hissed, “What is wrong with you?”

Lily blinked away angry tears and didn’t answer. Nothing she said wouldn’t open her up to further ridicule. She had failed to impress anyone with her manners, and the beautiful woman would only remember her as the hungry girl who kept bumping into things. Her mother would be reminded of why she’d never wanted to let Lily touch her piano in the first place. Holly wouldn’t think of her at all.

At last, her mother showed the woman with the shining hair to the door. Lily couldn’t tell if the woman would buy the piano or not. Lily’s mother was describing the new baby grand piano that would be delivered soon, how excited she was, how she simply didn’t have room for two. Lily didn’t bother to follow them. She stood by the dining room, smelling the scent of gently roasting cardboard coming from the oven. At least they could eat the pizza now, something to distract from her humiliation and disappointment in herself.

The door closed and her mother’s feet came rapidly to find them. Her mother’s face was firm and red. Her makeup had loosened, beaded by sweat. She grabbed Lily by her arms and shook her slightly, her fingernails digging into her flesh. Those hands, so soft from the Vaseline she rubbed into them nightly. The nails painted pale pink and rounded smooth.

“I am so mad at you!” her mother said, her voice high and quavering.

Lily stared at her, shocked by the vehemence. Cutting insults were more her mother’s style. Dismissal, annoyance, but not anger. She stared up at her mother, the soft skin of her chest above her cleavage puckered as it struggled to defy gravity. Up close Lily could see fine lines crinkling the corners of her eyes, and tight around her lips.

“Mother,” Holly said, her voice uncertain and just a tiny bit afraid. “Are we eating now or waiting for Daddy?”

Her mother glanced over Lily’s shoulder at her older daughter while Lily’s eyes stayed locked on her mother’s face. The spell broken, Lily’s mother looked back at her, and slowly released her grip. She stepped back, and her hand went up to her perfectly sprayed hair. She patted it down and smoothed the front of her skirt. Then she smiled.

“Your father will be home soon. We’ll wait for him,” she said. She pivoted to the kitchen and refilled her glass from the open bottle of wine waiting there. She sat in the chair by the

counter and didn’t look at them. Lily turned to see Holly watching their mother, a startled look still on her face. When she saw Lily looking, her face rearranged itself into a smirk.

She hid in her room until her father came home, a new magnetic force which would heretofore push her away from her mother. She stayed away from her sister, too, in whose eyes she already saw her mother gazing back at her. She would be like neither of them, she vowed, with all the certainty a ten-year-old could muster. Instead, she would be like the beautiful woman with the shining curtain of hair. She would be the kind of mother who didn’t criticize or dismiss her daughter or do anything to make her doubt herself. She would only ever by kind and patient and good. Lily knew these things about herself intrinsically, precise ideas even as the details were blurry. She possessed the benefit of youth when decisions were simple, and the unequivocal belief that her will done could shape the future.

Anne McPherson Arthurs


Anne McPherson Arthurs grew up in Carbondale, Illinois and earned a BA from Southern Illinois University and an MFA from Western Michigan University.  Her fiction has appeared in Ariel Chart, The Whitefish Review and a collection titled Short Stories from the Neighborhood Vol. 2.  She currently lives outside Chicago with her husband and two children where she reads and writes daily, usually with a dog at her feet.



  1. Magical story. A real delight.

    1. Thanks! I love that people are reading it.

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