Tim In Alaska
I had never been on the other side of this. Well, allow me take that back; I had been on the other side of this sort of activity… It had simply been a while. I just never had had the time to focus too intently on the other performers onstage, when I was one of them. I should have done this more often… I should have found more ways to treat myself like this –in ways that weren’t harmful, to be specific. The music was calming.
My story ends the same way that it begins: with me being alone, as cliché as it sounds. I was in high school, and I was in Juneau, Alaska. Only a sophomore, I had no idea of what I wanted to do or who I wanted to be. I still don’t. I could play the piano and I liked to read; those were the only things I had going for me.
It had almost been two years since my family had moved, but I was still getting used to the weather in Juneau. It was Thursday, the 5th of February, and today’s weather was a high of 10 degrees Fahrenheit. The snow had been falling down in thick flakes for the entire day, and it wouldn’t stop for another four. I had a job at Benjamin’s: a small meat shop owned by a frail old man named Greg Haleigh, who’s convicting, gray eyes made him look larger and stronger than he actually was. I’d get there right after school, which was around 3:30pm, and would work from around that time to 8:00pm on Tuesdays and Thursdays.
I shifted uncomfortably on the small stool behind the counter, shivering occasionally from the permanently set temperature of 52 degrees inside of Benjamin’s. I wore a black cap with the word “BENJAMIN’S” in small red print on it, a regular brown sweater, and gray gloves that freed my fingertips, allowing me to flip the slim pages of the book I read. The book was Brutal: Uncut by Aiden Shaw, a diary-style novel regarding the sexual adventures of a young man named Paul, especially regarding his addiction to physical abuse from men. I kept the novel’s cover wrapped in brown paper, seeing that it consisted of a sculpted, nude man on his knees… That and the title were sure to draw questions upon first glance.
The last customer had left almost an hour ago, but that was normal for a Tuesday afternoon. The air was crisp, and I could see my breath turn into vapor whenever I exhaled. I didn’t have to glance up to know that the front door had opened; it made a low squeaking noise, similar to the sound of a windshield wiper gliding across dry glass.
I closed my book immediately and allowed it to slide down and out of the grasp of my fingertips, causing it to fall into my open bag which lay unzipped on the floor and propped up by my stool that it leaned against. I finally glanced up to see the customer who had come in, my eyes wide and lips slightly agape from the cold air in the shop. I exhaled quickly, nervousness already beginning to build in the pit of my stomach, as it usually did around this man. I smiled quirkily, the way I always did when I was looking at him; I hoped that he wasn’t bothered by it anymore. Hopefully he had already concluded that I was a strange young man. It was Mr. Avery Brassington, my piano teacher who also, occasionally, helped me with my homework; my parents had found someone who could do both. I’d known him for a little over a year now, but had never seen him at Benjamin’s; most people got their meat from the supermarkets. I didn’t mind that… I liked the silence of the shop. I just felt bad for old Mr. Haleigh; he barely had had enough customers to keep Benjamin’s open as it was.
Avery Brassington was, unfortunately so, one of the most attractive men I had ever known, in all my fifteen years. He was thirty-nine but looked twenty-nine, the only thing giving him away being the few strands of gray mixed into his dark brown –and nearly black –hair. His facial structure was chiseled, and his skin appeared smooth and olive in color. He was a tall man, around 6’3’’, with large muscles that were toned enough to reveal that he spent hours a week doing anaerobic exercise. He had a light dusting of a beard, as if he didn’t want a full beard but also didn’t want to shave it all.
Mr. Brassington approached the counter slowly, dressed in layers of clothing that appeared warm and well-kept. He wore no hat, revealing soft and thick curls of hair which I still couldn’t believe were natural.
“Hey, Mr. Brassington…!” My voice shook, and my tone sounded softer than I had intended it to be. I always had this lack of control over my voice after staying silent for hours; I cleared my throat a bit.
Mr. Brassington greeted me with his silent smirk; it was my favorite out of all of his smiles, and was the kind of smile that caused me to stop breathing. It began with a light pulling up of the corners of his open mouth, revealing perfectly-aligned and white teeth. The smile itself was innocent, but his eyes were a different story. Mr. Brassington’s eyes could change the entire meaning of a smile. The rising of his lips caused his cheekbones to lift, resulting in his eyelids shutting just slightly… perhaps only a millimeter or two. His eyes barely moved, but the movement was more than enough to turn the smile into an all-out smirk. His gaze shook me to my core. My cheeks were probably already red from the coolness of the shop; I prayed that they wouldn’t get any worse.
“How are you, Tim?” Avery Brassington’s voice was soft, low, and silvery as he placed his hand, palm down, on the countertop.
I quickly glanced down to his hand, then back up to his face, “Good.” I smiled goofily; he did not look like a piano instructor, “What can I get for you?” I rose from the stool that I was seated on before pulling off my gloves and stuffing them into my right pocket. I flashed Mr. Brassington a calmer smile before turning and heading back towards the sink that was located a yard or two behind the counter. Once my face was no longer visible to his, I rolled my eyes at myself, silently convincing myself to calm down. I had seen Mr. Brassington a million times by now, but for some reason, I always reacted to his silent smirk.
I turned the hot water knob on the sink, knowing fully well that the water would run ice cold for around ten seconds, before beginning to warm up. After rinsing my hands off, I grabbed the small square of orange soap, which had no particular scent, and began to lather my hands into it.
It wasn’t until after I had dried my hands off and had begun to pull on a pair of plastic gloves that Mr. Brassington spoke again, “Let’s have a pound of hickory-smoked ham.”
“One pound of hickory-smoked…” I repeated, making my way back to the counter once more and bending over so that I could slide the glass aside and grab the huge leg of ham. I could feel his eyes burning into my back. Out of my periphery, I could see that Mr. Brassington now had both hands on the counter. I stood up again and brought the leg over to the deli slicer before placing it onto the circular gauge plate; it was heavy, “How thick do you want it?” I lift my gaze from the machine to meet Mr. Brassington’s stone, blue eyes.
The corners of his mouth quirked upwards, but only for a moment, “Thick, but not too thick.”
I flipped the switch that turned on the deli slicer, grabbing a thin plastic sheet before beginning to push the handle back and forth; my left hand held the plastic sheet on the other side of the slicer to catch the pieces of ham. I moved my arm back and forth in a slow rhythm and glanced out the window, watching the snowflakes fall silently as I attempted to keep time with my own meat slicing, now that my piano teacher was here. I was going at a pace of around… thirty-eight beats per minute. It was a rough guess; I was probably one or two bpm off.
All this time I was trying to keep my mind off of Mr. Brassington. Time always seemed to slow down when I was around him. What was he doing here? I had never seen him shop here before, though, I just had told him last week about me working at Benjamin’s.
“What are you reading, Tim?”
I turned my head back, already beginning to feel my face redden, “Uh, something for school.” I turned off the slicer; it didn’t take long to slice a pound of ham, “It’s Beloved by Toni Morrison.” I lied, walking a few steps over to the scale to make sure that the ham I held was somewhere around a pound.
I wasn’t looking, but I knew that Mr. Brassington held some disbelief in his facial expression, “That’s an interesting book cover for a paperback.”
That was when I turned; I glanced down at my bag, which was noticeably open beside my chair by the counter and especially visible to Mr. Brassington since he was leaning over the counter. Aiden Shaw’s Brutal: Uncut, complete with my brown paper bag wrapping, peeked out of my backpack, “Yeah,” I trailed off with a nervous laugh, never finishing that sentence. I turned back to the scale and clicked a red button, causing a small label to print out of the side of it. It read: 1.03 lbs. That was close enough. I looked around beside the scale and sighed when I found no bags there. Suddenly, dropping into a squat, I reached into a small drawer and pulled out a new pack of bags. I stood and sealed the pound of ham in one of the bags before placing the label onto it.
Sometime during my labeling of the bag, Mr. Brassington had stood up straight again because when I returned to the front counter he was no longer leaning over it. Thank God. I had already spent enough time being close to him during piano lessons; it didn’t help that he smelled really good. I scanned the barcode on the label, waiting for the horizontal, red beam of light to align perpendicularly with it before the computer finally recognized the item with a short, high beeping noise.
“That’s three fifty-seven. How do you want to pay?” I looked up into Mr. Brassington’s eyes at the last of my words, nearly choking on my own breath; his gaze literally made my heart stop.
“Ah, I have cash…” He reached into his back pocket and retrieved a brown leather wallet; after opening one of the pouches, he pulled out a crisp twenty dollar bill, “I apologize, I don’t have anything smaller.
“That’s fine.” I reassure him by waving my hand, “Out of twenty,” I type something, almost unconsciously, on the keyboard before the register; the small black drawer beneath it pops open, and I begin to fish out sixteen dollars and forty-three cents.
“Keep the change.”
When I glance up, Mr. Brassington has already put away his wallet; the small package of hickory-smoked ham is in his right hand. I pause for a moment before finally replying, “I… can’t take this-“
“Keep it, Tim. You deserve it. I’m assuming you don’t make much here; am I right?”
I shrugged, taking a deep breath as I did so, “It’s eight an hour, but I don’t do much so it’s okay.” I slid the sixteen dollars and forty-three cents across the counter, in hopes that Mr. Brassington might take it. I could understand keeping three dollars, or so, but this seemed like a bit much.
Mr. Brassington took a step towards the counter and slowly pushed the change back under my hand, his fingertips lingering on mine for a moment; it felt like eternity. I had stopped breathing before I had even realized my doing so. His stony-blue eyes looked directly down into mine, “I’ll see you on Sunday, Tim. And bring that book.”
It wasn’t until Mr. Brassington had taken a few steps back that I finally responded; I grasped the change in my hand, “S-See you on Sunday.”
Mr. Brassington simply smirked, still walking backwards with his mouth slightly agape, as if he was almost going to laugh; he turned around and strode towards the door of the shop.
I dramatically mocked exhaustion once the door closed behind him, releasing a breath of air and rolling my eyes back as I did so. What the hell? Anyone would have thought that it was my first time seeing Mr. Brassington, but I had nearly known him for a year. Why did I let him get to me? Why did he make it so God damn difficult to act normally?
And the book; I’d have to remember to wrap my copy of Beloved in brown paper and bring it to my lessons.
I sat back down on the stool, removing my uniform cap to run my fingers through my hair. The sun hadn’t come out today; it rarely did around this time of year. It was making me tired.
No one entered the shop after Mr. Brassington had left. I even waited until 8:05 before locking up Benjamin’s.
Chopin hummed from my speakers as I drove home; the heat wasn’t functioning, so it was just as cold in the truck as it was outside. It was a twenty-five minute drive from Benjamin’s to my house, but I had made the trip so many times that I could barely even recall getting in the car anymore. When I pulled into the driveway, I saw my mom through the large spread of window at the front of our house, which allowed any passer-by to look into our living room and kitchen- if the drapes were open.
When I opened the door, the heat from the house surrounded me and the smell of beef enveloped my nose. I could hear sizzling coming from the stovetop, and the sound of the fan on its highest power, “Hey, mom.” I shouted above the mess of noise.
“Hey…” She whipped her head around from the stove to smile at me, but only for a second.
I locked the door behind me, beginning to take off my boots, “Need any help?”
“No, thank you. How was work?” She shouted.
I noticed that she was sautéing something… perhaps it was onion, “Good.” I half-yelled, and then yawned before reaching to rub the back of my neck as I headed off towards my room.
“The neighbors are coming over for dinner tonight!” She shouted so that I could hear her words.
I froze in my tracks, “Which ones?” I furrow my brows in an angered kind-of-way, but my mom couldn’t see me from where I was in the hall, so I wouldn’t face any disappointed comments because of it.
“Uh, it’s Ms. Fridley, her husband, and her daughter Kristen.”
I rolled my head back, grumbling with so much exaggeration that it sounded like I was gargling air. So, that was why mom was cooking.
I ate my stir fry slowly.
Not because I wasn’t hungry- it was quite the opposite, really- but because I needed something to distract myself from the conversation between the Fridley family and my parents. That, and Kristen had been staring at me the entire night- the way she always did at school, and the way she always did at Benjamin’s; it was creepy, really… I tried not to make eye contact. She was so persistent, and it was almost frightening.
I ignored the conversation at the table; I hated it all: the unnecessary gossip regarding what was happening in our small community, Kristen’s outstanding grade point average, what wonderful new restaurant Ms. Fridley happened to stumble upon after leaving the grocery store last Sunday, and my dad’s and Mr. Fridley’s talk about the Seahawks (even though I could have sworn that the football season was over). Couldn’t we have talked about anything else? I wanted to go back to California. Alaska was too far from everything; so far away that the people here forgot that there was a whole world out there- one that didn’t include just them and one with problems other than the heightening price of salmon at the supermarket.
I was pulled from my train of thought at the sound of my name, “Hmm?” I looked up from my plate of food, realizing that everyone’s eyes were currently on me.
“Your mother asked if you could play something on piano before we have dessert.” My dad spoke in an upbeat yet slightly annoyed kind-of-tone.
“Oh yeah, sure,” I would have done almost anything to leave. I got up from my seat immediately, already leaving the table and heading towards the piano. It wasn’t that far, perhaps only two yards or so; the dining room was connected to the living room. Though, I didn’t know that everyone would be leaving the table with me until I heard the loud movement of chairs and footsteps; the Fridley family and my parents made their way to the couches behind me and the piano- which was tucked away into the corner of the living room. I sat down and lifted the section of smoothed wood that covered the keys, before sliding it back into its compartment.
I paused for a moment, my mouth slightly open as I thought about what to play; nothing was coming to mind. I rubbed my cool fingers together childishly, as if I didn’t think I was worthy enough to play the piano; I couldn’t help but stare at the piano in confusion, like I had been tasked with playing an impossible piece- one with a tricky time signature and notes one wouldn’t think existed on a scale- and all of this after just one piano lesson. But, this was hardly the case… there were so many pieces I could play after fourteen years. Why did small crowds bother me so much? My brows furrowed together and I slowly pulled my hands apart, allowing them to fall wherever they may; I closed my eyes.
It was Chopin’s Nocturne No. 2 in E-Flat Major, Op. 9 No. 2.
My fingers pressed the very keys they had been trained to hit over and over. Because I had set the tempo nice and slow, I had given myself the time to be precise- so my fingers and wrists rolled elegantly and rhythmically. I took my time and allowed myself to slow down at certain parts in the song, emphasizing specific notes to add personality and color to the piece. My trills were spotless; practice really did pay off.
I was a greedy pianist. I had never, not once in my life, played for anyone but myself. I loved the way a perfectly performed piece sounded, and it was that sound that drove me to continue and practice playing after all those years. I loved the feel of the sound waves the piano gave off, and when they hit my senses, they set my mind at ease as if the piano was singing to me, instead of me playing it.
After the short series of trills, I quieted down at the end of the piece, slowing down so that anyone who had ever listened to music would know that the end was approaching. The ending chord was an octave lower than the previous chord- a thing that Chopin often wrote for his pieces- and I allowed my fingers to linger until I felt like letting go. The sound of the low chord resonated and vibrated its way to the core of my chest. It was always too short, that moment I held the last chord or ending note… it reminded me that the song was going to end and that I had to leave this dream-like place where the piano would sing to me. Before letting go of the keys and opening my eyes, I gave a sad smile as if to say, ‘Sorry, I have to leave.’ It was true; I didn’t want to.