Stephanie DeGnore

            Mr. Langley checked in at 3pm sharp, just as always. He leaned into the open glass window to speak with the receptionist. She entered his name into the system and handed him a clipboard. “Why don’cha fill this out while you wait?” she said with a friendly but overworn smile. A southern drawl like honey dripped off her tongue. Mr. Langley wondered if she was from the Carolinas.

            He took the clipboard but did not return to his seat. “Have you ever been to Charleston?”

            She glanced up, looking surprised to find him still standing there. “Once, with my mom, when I was little,” she said.

            She looked at the computer screen as her fingers flew automatically across the keyboard, but Mr. Langley wasn’t done. “Once, my wife and I went to the Peninsula Grill. They have this coconut layer cake, the best damn thing you ever had. I saw it featured on the Today show just the other day.”

            “That’s nice,” the receptionist said flatly. Was it so hard for her to give him one damn minute of her attention?

            “Hey, Mr. Langley,” said a steely voice. Francesca approached, looming protectively behind the receptionist.

            Francesca looked as dour as ever, with her too-shiny rose petal lips stuck in a permanent scowl. She put her hand on the receptionist’s shoulder, as if to say Let me handle this, and told Mr. Langley, “Why don’t you go fill out the clipboard, sir”

            “Hey, I wasn’t doing anything wrong, Fran. I was just going to tell this nice lady about a good–”

            “Mr. Langley–” Francesa interrupted.

            “No one calls me Lewis anymore!” Mr. Langley snapped. Then, softer, “Since when have I been ‘Mr. Langley’ to you?”

            Francesca sighed. “Mr. Langley–” she said, her lips clenched tight over lipstick-stained teeth. “I said, don’t call me that!” Mr. Langley hissed, gripping the edge of the receptionist’s desk.

            Francesca snapped her fingers in the direction of the waiting room. “Sit down, Mr. Langley. Please.”

            She didn’t wait for a reply. She slid the glass window shut, sealing the desk off from the rest of the room, but not quickly enough. He heard her tell the receptionist, “He’ll bitch for days if you let him.”


            The sheets took longer to complete than they used to. He remembered the days when he could check “no” for everything and finish in a couple minutes. Now, he had to squint to read each question, and a sense of dread swelled in him every time he had to check yes. High cholesterol, yep. High blood pressure, sure thing. And on and on and on. He wasn’t even halfway through before a nurse came out and called his name.

            The nurse was a real nice lady. She listened to everything he said in earnest. And she had this shirley-temple hair that reminded him of his wife’s curls. If he gave into his weak eyesight, he could pretend that she was his wife. They were going on a little stroll by the ocean in Palm Beach. They’d get back to their motel and call up their son, Brian, and ask him when they could come around to visit their grandson. Except they couldn’t do that, because his wife was dead. He was a long way from Palm Beach. And Brian wouldn’t talk to him anymore, not after everything that went down.

            And as for his grandson–well, he’d never even met the boy. And the boy wasn’t even a boy anymore. By now, he’d be a young man.

            The doctor did not tell him anything unusual. He put everything in pretty words, but the gist, so far as Mr. Langley was concerned, was this: “You’re old. Everything inside you is slowly shriveling. Avoid exercise or anything strenuous and you’ll earn yourself a few extra miles ‘til you reach the cliff.”

            Back at home, Mr. Langley settled into his futon recliner and called an old college friend. He told him about his trip to the doctor and that snappy lady, Francesca. I swear she has it out for me! When the conversation pittered out, he flipped through his phonebook and found someone else to call–She wouldn’t even call me by my name!— and then another–I practically begged her!— and another–slammed it shut right in my face!–until there was no one left to “bitch” to, as Francesca would say. Reluctantly, he set the phone down on his coffee table, though his fingers itched to dial again. He sat like that for a long while, staring into space.

            Eventually, his eyes wandered across the room to a picture on the mantle. There he was, sitting next to his wife and Brian on a couch in their old home, the one Brian grew up in. His wife was just as beautiful as ever, with her auburn curls and her smirk. And Brian…Mr. Langley’s eyes lingered on the boy as a child, that toothy grin, those shining eyes. And who could forget that wild red mop, the one he’d gotten from his mother?

            Mr. Langley could see it so clearly. The boy sitting at a piano bench, his hands perched on the keys…his eyes closed…

            Mr. Langley looked away and reached for the television remote.


            It was 3 am when he woke up and couldn’t go back to sleep. He rolled to the bedside and forced his legs over the edge, straining his joints as he stood. He’d had another one of those dreams. He was trying to talk to his grandson, the one he’d only seen in pictures. But his grandson was no longer that kid with the curls and the grin. In Mr. Langley’s dreams, he was a grown man, with combed-back hair and a blame-filled scowl.

            “Nat, it’s me,” Mr. Langley had said. “I know it’s been a long time, but I’m here now!” Often, he would wave his hands as he spoke, his shoulders burning with the effort, but his grandson always looked right past him.

            He couldn’t fall back asleep, so he wandered through his house, flicking on lights as he went. He did this a lot after another bad dream. Sometimes, he found himself by the window, gazing at the slip of pale moon in the black sky. Other times he leaned back in his recliner, staring at those pictures on the mantle.

            Today he went over to the calendar hung up near the kitchen table. For as long as he could remember, he’d planned his days in those tiny square boxes. When Brian was a child, they’d been filled with piano lessons and recitals. Now they were empty but for an appointment here and there. The calendar was a month behind, so he flipped the next page up.

            The tile was cool on his feet as he made his way back to his room.

            Mr. Langley was thinking about his grandson when the ground suddenly pulled out from under him. He flailed to the side. The room turned upside upside down, and–thwam!– he was belly-down on the tile. He couldn’t tell where his arms were, or his legs, or anything else for that matter. Pain wracked his body as he groaned into the floor.

            I’m going to die, he thought.

            He drew in a deep breath.

            I’ll never see…

            Then, a resounding refusal. No.

            With great effort, he managed to pull himself across the floor and grab hold of the landline resting on the coffee table. He punched in a friend’s number and listened to the ring, his eyes squeezed shut. I have no one else to call.

            The tile was unbearably cold against Mr. Langley’s face. An eternity passed before he heard sirens blaring. Door hinges shook. Then feet were pounding, and medics hovered around him like a swarm of hornets. What hurts? they asked. The noise hurt his ears. Mr. Langley pointed numbly to a sharp pain in his left leg. One of the medics rolled up his pajama pants, running her thumb over the skin there. She whispered something to another medic, and then suddenly they were all saying things that didn’t make sense. Hands grasped him every which way, and then he was lifted onto a stretcher. His head spun as he tried to understand. “What are you saying?” he asked. When no one replied, he yelled, “What are you saying!”

            But all they did was pat his head in reply and say, “There there, Mr. Langley. There, there.”


            At the hospital, the doctor told him it was nothing serious. He’d just pulled a muscle in his leg. They’d give him some ice and crutches to help him walk while he was still sore. He rolled over and buried his face in the pillow. All this over a pulled muscle? When he’d been working, he’d fallen numerous times at the factory. A pulled muscle was nothing.

            But he was old now.

            His body frail and tissue paper-thin.

            He clenched and unclenched his fists, imagining himself in a hospital bed like this one. Taking his last breath in an empty room.

            “Would you like me to call someone to come get you?” the doctor asked.

            I have no one else to call. That’s what he’d thought to himself earlier. But this wasn’t true, not entirely.

            Mr. Langley found himself looking at the fabric of the doctor’s lab coat. It was the same ivory color as piano keys…

            “Yes, I have someone I want to call,” he said.

            “Alright, who?”

            “My son–”

            It was right there in his throat–Brian, but he couldn’t get it out.

            “I mean, my grandson” he said instead, swallowing.

            “Do you know his number?”

            “Hand me a yellow page book and I’ll find it.”

            The doctor smiled and brought over a tablet. “How about Google?”


            Mr. Langley couldn’t keep his hands still as he dialed the number. It was past midnight. Surely, his grandson wouldn’t pick up…in fact, he was starting to hope he wouldn’t…when, abruptly, a voice on the other end of the line asked, “Hello?” Mr. Langley jumped, the phone nearly falling out of his hand. It was a deep voice. A man’s voice. Right.

            “Nat?” Mr. Langley replied. His voice sounded hoarse and cracked. He hated that.

            “Who is this?”

            “It’s me…your grandpa.”

            Seconds ticked by.

            “Why are you calling me now?

            “I want to meet you, kid,” Mr. Langley said. He made sure to keep his voice steady this time.

            Nat said nothing.

            “And I don’t know what your father told you about me, but I realize I hurt him. I want to apologize.”

            “Why are you calling me now?” Nat asked again, his voice stiff.

            Mr. Langley tried to sound casual. “I’m in the hospital. It’s near your place. I was wondering if you’d stop by for a chat.”

            Nat laughed incredulously, but the sound did not seem cruel. “A chat? I–I don’t even know you!”

            He’s right. It’s too late, Mr. Langley thought.

            But there was another, quieter voice in his head. His wife’s voice: No, you’re just afraid.

            She’d always had a way of cutting right to the bone of things, even though he’d never listened to her.

            But today he would. He had to.

            “Yes Nat, I want to chat. I’m …” the word spilled out of him, “…I’m dying.”

            Mr. Langley listened to Nat’s breaths, suddenly deeper, less regular than before.

            Then: “What, are you sick? Is it cancer?” It came out high-pitched.

            “No, no, I don’t have anything. But look, I’m dying just the same. I’m eighty-two, and I feel like crap and I…damn it, kid, I just gotta talk to you!”

            There was silence. Mr. Langley clutched the phone, his hands growing moist.

            “Sure,” Nat said, “I’ll stop over for a chat.”


            A nurse came in with one of those internet-connected radios and asked if she could put something on for him.

            “How about Moonlight Sonata?” he asked.

            She found the piece and pressed play. Mr. Langley closed his eyes. The first few notes fell around him, and he let himself lean into them. His palms lay face up on the bed, his fingers splayed wide. Air from the cracked window sighed over tiny creases in his skin. Creases from years of work at the storage facility. From a life of clenched hands, of pointing and yelling, of pushing and pulling, but never, ever getting anything done.

            The notes became heavier. Mr. Langley was transported to the old house. Their old house. He stood just outside the living room and watched as Brian sat at the piano bench with his instructor, his fingertips brushing the keys in standard C position. For a moment, everything was still. Brian’s wild curls looked like they might unfurl, rising towards the ceiling with the promised notes.

            And then he was moving. His whole body moved with the piano. His fingertips brushed the keys. He leaned into his fortes. For Brian, it wasn’t just one part of him playing, but his whole being. He didn’t just dance with the piano–he became one with it.

            And then the end notes came, loud and raucous, before a final, resonant, hush. Brian’s eyes fluttered open as he let out a last breath in time with the song’s conclusion.

            Except Mr. Langley hadn’t thought any of this at the time. Instead, he’d seen a boy who spent more time at the piano bench than with his books.

            So Mr. Langley had climbed up the stairs and ordered his wife to cancel the lessons. They weren’t productive. The kid needed to focus on school. Had she seen his grades? Cs and Ds! He would never get a scholarship with those letters! His wife walked right up to Mr. Langley and jabbed him in the chest with her finger. “No. It makes him happy! Let him be happy!”

            To which Mr. Langley had yelled back, “It makes him happy? Ha! It makes him poor!”

            His wife had gone into the bathroom and locked the door, but he followed her up the stairs and pounded on it. “Don’t you love your kid? Don’t you want what’s best for him? Don’t you!”


            There was a knock on the door. With a shaky breath, Mr. Langley opened his mouth to answer, but the words didn’t come out.

            He had to dig his nails into his palm to force them. “Come in!”

            Mr. Langley knew he was about to meet his grandson. Logically speaking, he knew that. But he was looking for his son. That sturdy build, those set, determined eyes that seemed to know everything. But this young man was not that. He was tall and lean, a stringbean compared to his father’s stocky build. He wore a shirt with what looked like a band name on it, and his hair was a mess, not combed back like Brian’s had been in high school.

            Nat stared at the old man, his face pale.

            Mr. Langley tried to smile. “I’ve become a real old sack, haven’t I?” he asked.

            Nat met Mr. Langley’s eyes, a hesitant smile on his lips. “At least you’re alive. Mom thought you might be dead.” Nat paused, as if realizing how that might sound. “I mean, since we haven’t heard from you since grandma came to visit that last time and she brought those cards.”

            Mr. Langley laughed a hollow, bitter laugh. “Well, I’m not dead. And–and your grandma made me sign those–” He stopped himself short and patted the seat next to him. “Why don’t you sit down?”

            Up close, Mr. Langley could see Nat’s eyes were the same warm mahogany as his mother’s.

            “So, how old are you now?” Mr. Langley asked.

            “Seventeen. I’m a senior now.”

            “Ha! I’m a senior now,” Mr. Langley said, and Nat cracked a smile. Mr. Langley hoped it was genuine.

            “So, what, are you applying to colleges?” Mr. Langley asked, taking a sip of water from the glass on the tray the doctor brought him.

            “I guess. I want to go to NYU for piano, but there’s no way my dad’s gonna let me. He says music doesn’t pay. He wants me to go into business.” Nat stared at his hands, “I practice in the music room after school when my dad thinks I’m in debate club.”

            “Oh, yeah? Seems like you’re pretty committed.”

            “Yeah.” He didn’t look up.

            “What kind of music do you like?”

            “Everything, really,” Nat said. “Classical, jazz, rock. Sometimes I play in my friends’ band.” He met Mr. Langley’s eyes. His lips quirked up. “We’ve got this gig at this local bar on Saturday. It’s a big deal, a lot of kids from school are going to be there. And we want to record an EP…” he kept on talking, his eyes sparkling.

            Mr. Langley sucked air through his teeth. What had he told his son all his life? Get a good education and job so you can support your wife and children!

            Shame buried itself in his gut. He closed his eyes. “Believe it or not, your father was a musician when he was a kid.”

            Mr. Langley opened his eyes to find Nat staring out the window, his eyebrows drawn together in deep concentration. “That’s hard to imagine”

            Mr. Langley took a deep breath and said, “It’s my fault he doesn’t play anymore.”


            He couldn’t meet Nat’s eyes.

            “Because I was…afraid.” Of him being poor. Of becoming like my father.

            There was a sudden knock on the door.

            The doctor came in with a pair of crutches for Mr. Langley. Nat offered to drive him home.

            It was a struggle to hobble through the overcrowded parking lot to the car, which Nat had parked with a young person’s disregard for distance, but with the kid’s help, he managed.

            Nat started the car and pulled out of the parking lot. “Which way do I turn?”

            But he couldn’t let Nat take him home. He didn’t know when he’d made up his mind, but it had been sometime after Nat mentioned NYU.

            “Take me to my son,” he told Nat.

            Nat tensed and looked over. “Are you sure? I don’t mean to be rude, but you guys haven’t talked in a long time.”

            Mr. Langley looked his grandson squarely in the eyes. “I’m sure.”


            In the car, Mr. Langley thought of his father. The man had been a drunk, a good-for-nothing brute who never came home from the factory on time–or sober. He had hit his wife, hit his son, hit his daughter. Every time it happened, Mr. Langley and his sister would hide in a closet, or under a bed, while their mother tried to calm the man down. It was never any use. Eventually, she’d stopped crying out, taking the beatings with a quiet resignation. Once she’d been taken care of, Mr. Langley’s father would inevitably stomp through the house to look for his children. He always found them.

            They could never fall asleep afterwards. He and his sister would stare at the ceiling wide-eyed, their eyes bloodshot, until the sun came up. Mr. Langley thought about how his father had always become angry after trips to the bank. After his wife made one small dish for dinner because they hadn’t had enough money for more.

            Never, Mr. Langley thought. I will work somewhere nice and make money. He didn’t. And I will never hit my children. He didn’t. I will never hurt my children. He did.


            Mr. Langley pressed his head to the cold glass as they pulled up to the large house with a wrap-around porch at the end of Pleasant Lane. Lights glowed from a window on the second floor.

            He’s right there, Mr. Langley thought.

            Nat helped with his crutches and trailed behind him as he hobbled up to the front door. Mr. Langley was halfway up the path when he stopped. He closed his eyes and took a breath.

            No backing out now, he told himself. He climbed up the steps to the front porch.

            His hand hovered over the brass knocker.

            Suddenly he was in the old house.

            Brian was in high school. Mr. Langley had saved every dime he had to hire a tutor, but Brian was still getting poor grades. Brian really needs to shape up, was the nightly refrain in his head. Or else he’ll work the same job I worked, the same job my father worked. Have the same shitty life.

            After Mr. Langley’s fight with his wife, the one about the kid’s fixation on their piano, he had called the piano teacher and told her to cancel all future lessons. “Are you sure?” she’d asked, her voice melancholy on the other end of the line. “Your son has such great potential, Mr. Langley.” After, he had stomped into the living room, where Brian had been sitting at the piano bench. He’d told him they were selling the piano.

            Mr. Langley still remembered how his son’s face had twisted with shock. How loudly he’d yelled. He’d yelled like he’d never yelled before: You don’t love me! You pretend to, but you don’t! You don’t care about what I want, only what you want!

          Only what you want!

            Mr. Langley grabbed the knocker, exhaling shakily. And he banged it against the door.


            The door drew back.

            His son stood there in his pajamas, posture rigid, hair neatly combed back. Minus the pajamas, he looked just like he did on his LinkedIn page.

            He stared at Mr. Langley as if he were a ghost. He opened his mouth to say something, then shut it. Then he opened it again and said, “Get out.”

            His voice was emotionless. He grabbed the door, but before he could slam it shut, Nat inserted himself between them. “Dad, just listen to him,” he murmured, his voice pleading.

            Another pause.

            “No,” Brian said, tightening his grip on the door. “Get inside, Nathaniel.”

            Mr. Langley stuck one of his crutches into the space between the door and the frame. “Wait. Brian. I just want to talk to you.” He stood helpless before his son, his crutches barely holding him up.

            “I’ve made a big mistake,” Mr. Langley said, his voice creaking. There was no response. He forged ahead, grimacing. “But I’ve done a lot of thinking since your mother died. And I’m sorry. I’m sorry I didn’t let you play piano.”

            Brian cracked his knuckles.

            “I…” Mr. Langley felt a hot tear trail down his cheek. “I was scared you would end up like me. Poor and unhappy and–” His lip quivered. He wanted to make it stop, but he couldn’t help it. Old age made you soft. He wished he’d been softer when it counted. “I just want things to go back to the way they were.”

            “The way they were?” Brian snarled. “Because as I remember it, you berated me for every single thing I did. And you apologized, just like you are now, but you know what? It wasn’t real. You did it again and again. Things were never okay between us. There’s nothing to go back to.”

            “Son–” Mr. Langley began.

            “No!” Brian shouted, taking an angry step forward. “I don’t want to hear it!” His face was flushed now, startlingly red and unrecognizable.

            Nat’s eyes widened. He drew back.

            Brian’s lip twisted and he focused his gaze on Mr. Langley. “Things always had to be your way. You didn’t care what I wanted. Or what Mom wanted. It wasn’t just the piano–it was you.” He shook his head. “But none of that matters anymore.”

            Mr. Langley reached for Brian’s shoulder, but he threw his hand away.

            “No! Get out! I don’t want to see you ever again!” he screamed.

            Mr. Langley stared at his son.

            He watched Brian collapse against the door frame, panting.

            Mr. Langley reached for his son once more “Son–”

            Brian’s head lurched up. He tossed Mr. Langley’s hand off his shoulder and wiped his tears away, jabbing his finger towards the door. “Get the hell out!”

            Mr. Langley looked into his son’s eyes one last time and hobbled away.

            Nat drove him home.


            The moon was still out. Mr. Langley rifled through the drawers of his office cabinets. His legs nearly gave out underneath him from the pain, which still lingered from the fall, but he dug his crutches out from under his desk and forced himself back upright. He was eighty-two, he was dying, and he felt it, but he pushed on, dragging open the drawer containing the slim blue checkbook.

            He lowered himself shakily into the chair by his desk and gripped a shiny metal pen between his fingers.

            His hand shook as it hovered over the paper. The image of Brian’s scrunched up face, his tears, burned into Mr. Langley’s mind. His heart ached more with every stroke of the pen. He saw Brian look up from the floor, his gaze steely, refusing to let anyone see his pain. Mr. Langley had closed himself off like that so many times before. He supposed that’s how Brian had learned to do it. Mr. Langley took a deep breath. He finished writing.

            The first time, the numbers and letters were crooked and illegible, as if written by a five year old, so he ripped off that page and tried another. He had it. His fingers felt sore, his eyelids heavy. Each second of his long life seemed to pile up before his eyes. He tore off the check and felt Brian’s accusing stare at him one last time.

            He stuffed the check inside an envelope and turned his thoughts to Nat. His grandson. His warm, mahogany eyes. How they’d brightened as he spoke about music. The way he’d tried to step between his father and grandfather. There was hope for Nat.

            Without having to rely on his dad’s money, he could go to NYU to study music.

            Mr. Langley got up and walked on shaky legs over to the mailbox outside. He opened the slit and dropped the check inside, smiling.


            Mr. Langley dreamed. It was the largest auditorium he had ever been in. He walked down the aisle and marveled at the endless rows of seats, packed full of people chatting and holding programs. Up ahead, bright yellow beams shone down on a large stage. A grand piano sat at its center, glowing in the heavenly lights.

            Mr. Langley didn’t need to look at a ticket or ask anyone for help getting to his seat. He had it memorized. He walked down the aisle with a bounce in his step. Mr. Langley straightened his tie before he made his way down the designated row. “Excuse me, sir. Hi, yes, excuse me, Miss. Sorry, sorry, thank you,” he said, laughing a little as he bumped into several people’s knees. And then he reached his seat. The last seat in the room.

            “I’m glad you’re here,” said a deep voice.

            He looked to his right, where his son sat. His hair was wild, and he sprawled lazily in his seat, an infectious grin on his face. So much time had passed.

            “I wouldn’t miss it for the world,” Mr. Langley said.

            “His first piece is an old favorite,” Brian said. “We’re going to hear Adagio in D Minor, Sunshine.”

            “That’s my favorite, too,” Mr. Langley said, smiling at the obvious pride in his son’s face. He was no longer afraid of what he might see there.

            The lights dimmed.

            Nat walked across the stage wearing a suit and tie. Someone had attempted to comb his curls back, but they would not be tamed.

            As the applause died out, Nat folded himself onto the bench. He placed his hands on the keys.

            And then there was music.

            It took him away.



Stephanie DeGnore plans to study creative writing as well as political science. She enjoys a wide variety of genres and is constantly experimenting with new writing forms. You can usually find her munching on something delicious while devouring a good book.