Burning Piano

by Wade Dittburner


Virgil could the see the wavy front end of the sheriff cruiser through the heat of the gravel road. It was Friday afternoon. Just about quitting time. Before Virgil turned into the driveway, the sheriff stopped next to him in the road. They turned their engines off 

       “Virgil, glad I caught you.” 

       “You ain’t caught me yet, Bill.” Virgil meant it to be friendly, but the sheriff didn’t take it that way. 

       “How’s the crops looking?” 

       “Could be better. Could be worse. Be nice to get a little rain.” Virgil was nervous, wondering if the sheriff had heard about the fight at the tavern. 

       “I won’t keep you. I just come out here to tell you to get that trash off of Chekowski’s bluff by Monday. I told you enough times and I’m starting to lose my patience.” 

       “You know everyone goes up there to be a shithead. It ain’t just my trash.” 

       “I know damn well you and Charlie lit that piano on fire up there before he––” He hadn’t meant to mention Charlie like that. He fiddled with his sheriff’s hat a second before starting his engine back up. “Just get it cleaned up. I’m sick of coming all the way out here for nothing.” 

       Virgil wanted to kick his teeth in. They had never liked each other, especially now that Bill was a cop. 

       Virgil had put off hauling the piano away all summer on account of not wanting to wrangle a burned-out, upright down the hill. He also hadn’t wanted to go up there on account of Charlie. He had killed himself up there, two shots in the chest with his father’s revolver. Word around town was that he got Amy Schepp pregnant and didn’t know what to do. It spread fast over church potlucks and tavern card tables. The old-timers couldn’t decide which was worse, the baby out of wedlock or the suicide. It didn’t change anything, though. 

       Virgil pulled up to his house. He grabbed a beer from the fridge in the garage and sat down to take his boots off. It had been a lonesome summer without Charlie. He had figured it best to give Amy some space too, but the solitude was starting to eat at him. Normally on a Friday he’d go straight to the bar but he wasn’t welcome there anymore. Earl Thompson had cracked a joke about Amy, something about not needing a rubber with her being pregnant and all. Well, Virgil broke a bar stool over his back. Only reason he didn’t get arrested was the bartender heard Earl’s remark too and figured it even. After everything that happened, Virgil knew he should listen to the sheriff. Getting rid of that piano felt a little like getting rid of Charlie, but he had to do it. Virgil decided that tomorrow would be the day. 

       After he cooked some dinner and taken a shower, Virgil decided to go down to the creek for the evening. He wanted to feel close to Charlie and Amy again, in the place where they wasted so much time. When they were kids it was trying to spear bottom feeders with sharpened sticks or looking for wood ducks along the banks. Then as teenagers it was smoking cigarettes and drinking stolen beer. Now it was just Virgil. 

       He parked his truck on the ditch bank and took with him a fifth of rye whisky and what little bit of pot he had left. He smoked the joint down to the nub before flicking it into the stream, watching it fizzle away. A couple of years ago Charlie had gotten drunk and jumped in naked. Well, he had slipped off the rocks along the bank. Virgil thought he’d have to jump in to save him, but Charlie came up laughing as usual. He and Amy decided to follow Charlie and stripped down too. 

       Virgil could almost get the memory the way he wanted it, but something wouldn’t let him. Not even the haze of booze or marijuana could make him forget. He had tried not to stare at Amy that day, as she took her clothes off. They had all seen each other naked before, but something was different then. Virgil was different. He remembered it now, feeling ashamed. Not for looking at her, for feeling a rush in his chest. But before he even jumped in the water, Virgil had already buried those feelings away. 

       Virgil never wanted to ruin anything between Amy and Charlie. It was tough. He always had to be tough. His father had raised him by himself. After he died, Virgil dropped out of high school to keep farming. No one was surprised by it. He just never thought it’d happen so fast, growing up overnight like that. It’s not that he regretted it. Hell, he’d had done the same thing even if his father hadn’t passed early. It’s just that land had a way of making people’s choices for them. Keeping them tied to the seasons to make ends meet. 

       He never thought Charlie would get trapped like him, though, being smart enough to go to college and all. His family had the money too. Charlie used to light up talking about it. 

       “I’m gettin’ out of here, Virgil. You’re gonna’ come visit me at school and we’ll tear it up at the bars and when I’m done with it all, we’ll take off out West. We’ll drift around. Do whatever we want. Be free as we please! Whether you like it or not you’re comin’ with!” he would say. 

       “I don’t know, Charlie. I kind of like it here. I don’t think I’d do too good in school again.” 

       “Nah, Virge. School’s just the beginning. A way for me to get out. I don’t want to stay here forever like everyone else.” 

       “Well what’s so bad about here?” 

       “Nothing, Virge, nothing. It’s not like that. I just want something different. I got a chance to be free from here and everyone with it. I couldn’t give a damn about any of them but I want you with me man.” 

       “Amy too, right?” 

       “Yeah, man. Amy too.” 

       Virgil loved to listen to his bullshit. There was some truth, but mostly just bullshit. They both knew it. It was what they both needed to hear. Virgil was a couple years older, but always thought of Charlie as the mature one. Virgil would listen to his stories about the future and live in them. Charlie always seemed so sure about how it was going to be. Virgil wanted to be young and dumb. He was young but couldn’t afford the dumb part. He would always listen with a smile, though. Even when Charlie had come that Sunday morning with pale skin and cold sweat, told him that Amy was pregnant. 

       “I don’t want it. I don’t want it,” he said. “I don’t want her. I don’t want any of it. What the fuck am I gonna do?” 

       He rubbed his hands together until Virgil thought he’d tear the skin. Virgil had been busy that day. It had rained for a week and the weather guy on the radio was finally calling for clear skies in the morning. Virgil had to get the machine shed painted while could. Now he wished he’d let the old building fall to pieces. Hell, he’d burn it down if it would change things. 

       “Charlie, it ain’t that big of a deal.” He was mixing up a can of lead paint. “Amy’s a good woman and you’re gonna be a good father, man. A real good father.” 

       “This wasn’t supposed to happen, Virge, man. I was supposed to get out of here. I have to go to college in a couple months. She wasn’t supposed to get pregnant. I can’t be a dad, man.” 

       “College can wait, man, and so can this. Look I got to get some work done. I’ll see you later, alright? Things are gonna be alright. Havin’ a kid is supposed to be a good thing, goddamn it.” Virgil was frustrated with the old paint, worried that it had sat too long, and his words came out harsh. He just didn’t see how this was a bad thing. A woman like Amy and smart as Charlie was, “Shit,” he thought. “Charlie don’t see how lucky he is.” 

       Now, it was just Virgil and Amy and Charlie’s baby on the way. Well, Amy’s baby anyway. Alone by the creek, Virgil couldn’t help but feel guilty. Guilty for being drunk and stoned. Guilty for loving Amy and keeping away. No amount of whiskey, or pot, or broken bar stools would change it. 

       Amy only lived a few miles down the road from the creek. Her folks had a farm up there, in the marshy land. Virgil made his way up the dew soaked banks, his boots slipping on the wet grass. He got in the cab of the old pickup and puffed on a cigarette a little to try and sober up. He took one last sip of whisky to steady his nerves and started up the truck. 

       He drove slow, hugging the shoulder of the road. The sun had just dropped below the trees and he was feeling that mellow tone of a late summer sunset, all purple and haze but so stirring. He pulled up to the Schepp place and hopped out with the truck still running. He knocked on the screen door a little louder than he’d meant too and Amy answered the door. Her eyes were red like she hadn’t slept in a few days. 

       “Virgil, what are you doing here?” He opened his mouth to speak but Amy cut him short. “Are you drunk? Damn it, Virge. You’re gonna get yourself killed. If the sheriff catches you again–” 

       “There ain’t no cops out here, Amy. I was down by the creek where Charlie and us––Well, I wanted–– are you alright?” He was acting like a kid who got drunk for the first time. 

       “Virge––” but a man’s voice inside stopped her. Her father’s voice. 

       “Amy, who is that? Is it that Virge kid?” 

       He didn’t wait for an answer. Virgil could hear shuffling of boots on shag carpet. 

       “I can smell the booze on you from inside the house, Virgil. Now look, it’s late and we’re all real tired and I appreciate you caring about Amy’s well-being but you’re drunk and my patience is worn thin.” He paused. Virgil may have looked like a man but he wasn’t. Not yet. His rough look softened up a little and he dropped his voice before he spoke again. “Virgil, I knew your father. He was a friend of mine and you remember that. He was a good man but he just couldn’t keep from drinkin’ and I don’t want to see you end up like that. Now, you can either sleep out in the shop with the heater or—” but Virgil cut him off before he could finish. 

       “That’s okay, Mr. Schepp. I’m sorry to come bother you all like this. It’s a warm night and I’ll just sleep in my truck. I promise I won’t take off until I’m sober to drive.” He jutted out an awkward hand to shake and turned to Amy after Mr. Schepp had let go. “Goodnight,” he said and he turned and walked away. Virgil drank what was left of that bottle and smoked cigarettes until he thought Mr. Schepp had gone to sleep. Then he drove home real slow, hugging the shoulder like always. 

       The next morning Virgil took his time waking up. He still had to move that piano later, but he could afford to be hung-over. He made some breakfast a little before midday. It was a good day, with a little rain in the morning to cool the August sun and clear out the still air. They had needed the water. After the morning talk shows and polka music had finished, he turned the radio up inside the house hoping to catch some Creedence. Virgil opened up the windows and sat on the porch whistling along here and there between cigarettes. Amy was still on his mind. Even though he’d been drunk, he had meant it, being there for her. He would be there for her and the kid, if she’d let him. 

       It was afternoon now and the air was getting sticky. He decided he would put some proper clothes on, take his time getting to the Bluff, and maybe scout some deer for the fall. But when he stood up to leave, a car pulled into the drive. He couldn’t make it out at first until it had made its way between the old lilacs. It was Amy’s primer gray Skylark. 

       “You shouldn’t be driving around drunk, Virge.” 

       “Oh shit, Amy. I only had a little bit. I was fine. I shouldn’t have come over like that, though. Sorry to wake your folks. I just been thinking about you and the baby and wanted to know you’re doin’ okay.” He was leaning in the doorway, scuffling his feet awkwardly. He was always so nervous around her. “I’m glad you’re here, though. You want something to drink I got beer and— oh, shit. That’s right you can’t drink. I’ve got some lemonade I think. Here, I’ll go—” Amy let out a little laugh. The first he had heard her since Charlie died. “Virgil, relax I’m alright thanks. Grab something for yourself if you like.” 

       She moved up the steps and took a seat on the porch. Virgil had a nice spot there, overlooking a little watering hole with oak woods behind it. Good fields off to the North that opened up and when the sun set it was like an ocean of green. She hadn’t been there since last winter when he had thrown a Christmas party. Well, more of just a regular party. 

       Virgil stepped back out with blue jeans and bare feet and a bottle of High Life in his hand. He had brought her a glass of lemonade anyway. 

       “Last time you was here, we got that Skylark stuck in the snow and I about tore the bumper off with the tractor trying to get it out. Remember that?” He took a swig from the bottle. “That was a fun night. Charlie got so drunk I thought he was gonna puke in your car on the way home.” 

       “He did puke in my car!” Virgil let out a tear of a laugh as he passed her the lemonade. “That damn, Charlie. Don’t he beat all.” 

       It felt like they were all together again, talking about him. Not dead Charlie. The real Charlie. Amy fingered the droplets of perspiration on the glass and let it drip to the floor. Virgil took a swig of beer. And after a moment, the two were back in that August afternoon. 

       “I really miss him, Amy.” He slung his arm around her shoulder like a little sister, a friend’s lover. But that wasn’t the truth anymore. Virgil stole his hand back as if it had run off on its own. Looking at her, just then, he wanted to make love to her. They would go down to the meadow by the pond and watch the sun set and it would be good. They would begin to heal from all this. He had buried it away but now it was just them. He wanted to make things right. He wanted to love her. 

       “Amy,” he said, “I’m not that baby’s father, but I want to help raise it.” 

       “Well of course you’re going to be around to help, Virge. I wouldn’t not have you around.” 

       “No, Amy. I mean I—” his voice trailed off. He was so nervous. Blood rang in his ears. He could barely speak but something compelled him. “Amy, I love you. I mean it. I love you and I love that baby and I want to marry you.” Even Virgil knew how stupid he must have sounded. 

       “Virgil you shouldn’t be drunk like that this early.” 

       He chucked the beer bottle across the yard into the ditch, but he wasn’t mad. He just wanted her to see. 

       “I ain’t drunk. I mean it! I love you, Amy. I want to be with you. I’ll quit drinkin’ and I’ll start raising more crops and get a job in the winter. I can help take care of this baby.” 

       “No, Virge.” She spoke low and her tone made him feel cold. “No.” 

       “Don’t answer now. Shit, I didn’t mean— Shit. I’m sorry, Amy. Just think about it and don’t answer now, you don’t have to answer now.” 

       “Goddamn it, Virge! Why’d you do that, huh? Why do you have to do this?” She was standing now, yelling at him. “Why! Huh? I can’t marry you!” 

       “Well why can’t you? What’s so wrong with me? At least I’m still here in front of you! At least I ain’t dead!” 

       Virgil knew he’d gone too far. Amy sat down on the porch again, like she couldn’t stand anymore. 

       “There’s no baby, that’s what’s wrong! There’s no baby. There’s no fucking baby and Charlie’s dead.” 

       Virgil snorted. He didn’t understand. 

       “You’re just sayin’ that. Right? You’re just saying that, Amy.” He got down on his knees in front of her. “You’re just saying that, Amy. You’re pregnant with, with Charlie’s baby, right?” 

       She looked him in the eyes and shook her head from one side to the other. 

       “I wanted to marry him, Virge. I loved him so much and I thought if I told him I was pregnant he would stay and…” She drifted off.. “I’m so sorry, Virgil. I didn’t know what I was doing. I didn’t know that he would, he would…” 

       Amy sat down on the porch before Virgil could say anything, her back turned to him. He wanted to say something to make her hurt. She had suffered for Charlie, and probably always would, but he felt she hadn’t suffered for himself yet, not the way he wanted. Virgil wanted that because she’d have to love him first. But Virgil wasn’t cruel. It wasn’t in him. He couldn’t bring himself to hurt her. He couldn’t bring himself to say anything at all. The two sat there together. Under heavy silence, waiting for something, for each other. 

***

       He didn’t watch her get in the car. He didn’t watch her drive away. He only turned to look at the plume of dust lingering above where she had been. He decided it was time to clean up that piano. The sun was setting now and he figured if he hurried he could make it up to the bluff. To catch the end, the best part. He threw on his boots and shirt and flew out of the screen door with a bang. He floored the truck and dug grooves into the gravel. He didn’t care. He had to make it to the bluff. Tearing through the back roads, there was no fast way to get there. It was up on the marsh, past Amy’s and past the creek, to the northeast where the land began to change. 

       He could see the bluff across the last stretch of field. Virgil hadn’t been there since Charlie last went. The sun was sinking lower in his rearview mirror now. The orange needle on the dash dug into the right side of the dial. He pulled the truck in the turnaround at the base, parked and started climbing. He was running up the foot trail, sprinting on all fours when the slope became too steep. His muscles burned. His heart was about to burst through his chest. Just when he couldn’t run anymore, he was there. 

       The bluff leveled out to a slab of sandstone that had been there since the beginning, since the flood carved it out. If there ever had really been a flood, that slab had been through it and came out all right. It faced the West. Looked out over everything so you could get all the colors right when the sun was almost gone. Everything was there for Virgil to see. And on the edge was the old, burnt-out upright grand piano. He had been surprised it didn’t burn down all the way, but the piano wouldn’t give up. Virgil had called it a graduation present for Charlie, but it was really for all of them. Just another excuse to drink too much. He had found it in an old shed on the farm. Some old lady had played the hell out of it in church every Sunday for a lifetime, but now it was just forgotten in a barn, put there even before his father’s time. Virgil knew it was a waste to burn it up like that, but Charlie couldn’t get the idea of it ablaze on the bluff out of his head. 

       “How cool would that be, huh? Just burnin’ up there and us dancing around it, just being wild!” 

       Virgil could still hear him up there. But it sounded different now, like a proverb turned to nonsense. They had needed about twelve guys to get it up the hill, but it was worth it. It was always worth it. 

       He touched the charred keys with his fingertips but they didn’t make a sound. He couldn’t play anyway. Charlie had been the musician. He would play and Virgil would howl and holler. Sometimes he’d try and shout out words to go along but get embarrassed and try to hide his blush in a cup of beer. 

       That had been the last time they were all together, up on the bluff watching that piano burn. Virgil had woken up in a ditch a quarter mile away and didn’t remember much, only that the cops had come and broke the party up on account of it being private property. Someone must have seen it burning up there and gotten nervous. But he did have one memory from that night, clear as day. It was of the three of them. Him, Charlie, and Amy. They were sitting down next to the keg of beer, watching everyone else drink and smoke pot and celebrate making it out of school. No one spoke. They didn’t have too. Everything was right in that moment. And when the moment was over, not before, not after, Charlie got up and made his way to the burning piano. It was hot, real hot, but he didn’t care. The fire was still far enough from the keys for him to play them quick. Most of the strings were broken when they found it and the rest of them had popped or melted by now, but they could hear it. Virgil and Amy watched Charlie play that burning piano like he was a ghost already gone ahead of them. 

       Virgil looked up over the black piano and caught the last arch of sun before it dropped below the horizon. Everything in front of him was covered in that warm glow of the evening, that glow that makes you recollect and yearn at the same time. And as the tune of their last night together died out, Virgil came back to the charred keys underneath his fingers. He had no idea how to get it down the hill. He didn’t see how he could do it by himself. Virgil bent down and put his shoulder into it, pushing with everything he had, grunting and sweating over the damned thing, worrying about what it’d mean if he didn’t have it gone by morning. 


Wade Dittburner is a writer and climber from Central Wisconsin. He can be found where the water is sweet and beer is cheap.

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