The Autumn Rag
Lucia Margarita Follman
Autumn (Halloween) 2019
The October evening light faded like a melting candle between the trees. The wind scraped closer to the ground, stirring helpless circles of crackling amber leaves. Burying my hands deeper into my jacket pockets, I surveyed the rest of the park for him. For my younger brother, time was a matter to be generally disregarded and to be observed only for the most routine of events. The habit had stayed with him as we grew into adults.
“Reagan!” My brother Ernest cheerily greeted me from behind. We exchanged the usual pleasantries—anything else would have breached our informal pact of pacifying conversation. That’s what happens, I suppose, when your only communication with someone for five years is a couple of letters asking about the wife and kids.
“It’s a shame you missed Father’s funeral,” I remarked. “If you’d left Germany a day sooner, you could’ve spared me the burden of being the only child of the deceased there. The relatives targeted me as the object of pity.”
He laughed a bit too amiably for my taste. “Germany was a blast. You should visit sometime whenever you’re not so busy with your accounting work.” He chuckled again, inhaling heartily through his cigar.
“Which brings me to why I asked you here tonight,” I said quickly, not wanting to hear all of the fascinating details of his European lifestyle. “Now that Father’s gone, his financial records will need to be reviewed, in conjunction with his will. You know Mother never had a mind for that sort of thing.” He nodded a little more soberly, and I continued.
“So tomorrow morning I’ve arranged to have us meet with his executive staff for a full-scale review of his company’s status. I haven’t seen the will yet; Mother has it, but I can only presume the profits will be split down the middle between us.” He blinked, and I decided to change the subject.
“But enough about that. Why don’t we spend the evening together, catch up on the past few years? I know—you could even play those old tunes on the piano like you used to before our college days.”
Ernest chuckled hesitantly, shivering in the dry wind. “I—I suppose we might as well, now that you’ve dragged me across the Atlantic,” he added, shooting a crafty smile. “But where would you suggest we go? You don’t have a piano.”
I smiled a bit slyly as the wind picked up. “I know a place.”
St. Michael’s Cathedral was a short distance from the park, preceded by a twisted path strewn with scarlet leaves like magma. The trees flanking the entrance had grown considerably since our childhood; they now stretched into a vaulted, creaking tapestry of branches set against the papery yellow sky. The cathedral itself was a limestone beauty, albeit a crackling one, designed after the medieval cathedrals in France. As soon as we approached the steps, I knew he’d recognize it.
“Reagan, you bastard!” He punched my shoulder like we were teenagers, and I gave a begrudging smile. We’d been altar servers here from the time we were eight to eighteen. After the last service, we’d hide in the sacristy until the cathedral was empty, then we’d come out and Ernest would play Joplin and Clementi and Broadway tunes, both of us singing along with horrible falsetto and pretending to drink the communion wine. Anything we’d heard on the radio he could play by ear—he was amazing. He received a music scholarship that took him to Austria, then he finally settled as a pediatrician in Germany.
Ernest pushed to door open slightly, his lips tense on his cigar. “Are you certain Father Filbert isn’t here?” He joked, but I could tell only partly.
“Oh, yes. He’s been dead for the past five years.” Together we entered the cathedral.
“Shall we?” I gestured to the piano bench with a flourish once we were inside. We took our seats, him sitting on the right half and me sideways on the left.
Ernest spat out his cigar and began to play. “The Entertainer” rang out into the dark, cavernous nave. It was an old piano, a rare sort of upright one with a spacious interior attached behind the strings—large enough for a child to fit in, or even a lean man.
He moved on to “Easy Winner,” one of our old favorites. When he reached the jingling, high-octave section, I trilled along nonsensically, exaggerating the awkward notes. Grinning, he played along with it, accenting the off-beats. The song quickly turned into an utter hysterical mess.
Some time later we pulled out the communion wine from the sacristy. The two of us drank from the goblets with relish. He continued playing jazz and ragtime, his torso bouncing as he kept adapting the tune to our nonsensical inventions. At one point I poured the remainder of his goblet down his shirt, like a sort of twisted baptismal rite. Laughing, he played with increased fervor, ending the song with a punchy discordant flourish. A bead of combined sweat and red wine trickled down his neck.
“Impressive,” I remarked. “You managed to stay sober with the alcohol concentration of a dead man.”
“No thanks to you,” he panted, drizzling a little wine through my hair. The intoxication in his breath was unmistakable.
When he started to play one of Clementi’s classical tunes, I groaned and chucked a missal at him. “Oh, God, not that one.”
“Alright, alright,” Ernest assented. “Okay, listen to this one,” he added unnecessarily. “This is my favorite.”
I immediately recognized the jovial opening notes of “Maple Leaf Rag.” It was a good piece for autumn, I thought, characterized by a sharp, cool melody and nutty undertones. When he finished, I smiled politely.
“You always ended your little shows with that one.” He nodded reminiscently, gazing down at the keys.
“Do you remember what you always did after playing?” I pressed on.
Ernest responded with that old characteristic grin of his, the one that infatuated young girls and made adults suspicious. Using my shoulder as a booster, he heaved himself up to the top of the piano and reached for the latches. He paused, and I felt intensely anxious for a moment.
“Do you know something, Reagan? I—” He gave a short laugh of disbelief—“I just realized I haven’t had this much fun in five years.” He looked down at me with bright, youthful eyes. “I’d like to thank you for that.”
I gave him a broad, self-contained smile and helped lower him inside the piano.
“I still fit!” Ernest laughed like a child. “I’ll be darned...close it, Reagan, to see if I really fit all the way.” As he compacted himself further down, I shut the lid and deftly latched it.
Ernest’s voice was muffled beneath the dense wood, his chuckle without its usual resonance. “You didn’t need to latch it, for Christ’s sake. But I fit!—I fit like I was eighteen . . .” His voice trailed off, and I heard a few bumps.
“Alright, Reagan, let me out.” I didn’t move.
“Reagan, open up!”
A cool silence.
I remember how he started shouting after that, how the impatience in his voice eventually gave way to angry terror. I only responded to his screams by calmly taking a seat at the piano and playing the one song I knew, the one he would play over and over . . .
Ernest made wild sounds like a madman, rattling and heaving his strength against the instrument as “Maple Leaf Rag” rang out. I played increasingly louder, trying to conceal his noise. I needed him gone, I thought seethingly. I wanted him entombed in his own passion. He had no real need of Father’s profits—an accountant’s salary was nowhere near a doctor’s.
He screamed like a banshee, demanding to be released. I casually looked around, still playing, and noticed a few paintings on the walls, almost bright in the darkness with streaks of scarlet. There were strange sculptures, too, that I hadn’t noticed before, adorning the pillars— life-size carvings of angels with colorless vigilant eyes. A bit shaken, I played the song over and over until Ernest’s rattling began to subside and his screams faded to a whimper.
One long minute of creaking passed.
Exhaling, I stiffly shut the key lid. I gathered up my jacket and what remained of Ernest’s cigarette pack, then, avoiding the sculptures’ gaze, walked briskly down the aisle towards the doors. I was about to exit when I heard a creaking.
It was coming from the piano.
Cautiously, I walked back up the altar and stared at it. One of the pedals was shifting up and down. I drew in a shaky breath. I’d heard of how on chilly nights like this, strong gusts of wind could seep through old buildings and disturb the inside—
Then the music began to play.
Frozen, I stared at the instrument, not daring to lift the key lid. The “Maple Leaf Rag” played ever so softly, seeming to spiral up towards the sculptures. The angels’ gaze bore into me with uncompromised finality, their faces suffused with twisted condemnation. Frantically, I swiveled back to the piano, accidentally knocking over a goblet in the process. Dark red wine splattered across the wood.
I looked up, with vague desperation, but my eyes stopped short on the wall. The scarlet painting, painted with fire and blood, depicted the agony of sinners being dragged into a chasm. They had shrunken bodies and haunting, screaming faces. As I stared into a man’s open mouth, I could almost hear my brother’s piercing cry, resurrected by the music. The song, the angels, the sinners, the wine . . . My head pounded and pulsed beneath the cacophony. Half-mad, I ran down the altar and was almost at the door when I slipped on something smooth in the dark. My head bluntly hit the floor, and, just before I lost consciousness, I felt a gust of cool autumn wind from beneath the door.
I woke up in the hospital, a janitor having found me early in the morning. The only words of real significance I caught in my daze were ‘intoxication’ and ‘concussed’. When I returned home that afternoon, I found a letter wedged in the mail slot. I opened it and read the contents—first with curiosity, then horror.
I thought you might be staying with your brother, considering you never responded to my previous letters—presumably out of shame.
I know your circumstances have been difficult for the past few years, jumping from job to job in Germany and Melinda eventually leaving you before you could go bankrupt. Overall, I think it was best that the rest of the family knew nothing more than that you were a successful pediatrician.
But things have changed now, and with the loss of your father comes a new opportunity for you. Before he died, we agreed the business was to be split between you and Reagan. This was mostly done for your benefit—while your brother makes a steady enough income, we wanted to keep you from living off the streets—as I’d heard you’d been doing in the past month.
It’s never too late to start over, to begin a new life for yourself. I wish you all the best.
Lucia Margarita Follman is a high school junior in San Antonio, Texas. In addition to writing fiction, She enjoys painting, travelling, and looking for adventure.