He sat on his easy chair in the living room, light blue eyes behind thick-rimmed glasses staring out at the rain emptying into the backyard, soft veiny hands clutching the brown pleather armrests. His gray tracksuit matched the gray paint of the walls, dwarfing a skinny frame. White downy hair covered the interesting landscape of his skull— all of the bumps and dents behind his ears and at the nape of his neck.
This was his sanctuary that housed his fragile-boned body for long periods of time during his visits. He would sit for hours, the wrinkles of his skin reflecting the wrinkles of his pleather chair until the memory of him became embedded into the room itself, echoing throughout the walls. The skylight showered beams of water-logged light onto the hardwood floor, just as his liquid eyes shone from his face; the fireplace held a little burning entity, just as flames traveled beneath his skin, resulting in the constant motion of his fingertips; the piano stood upright in the corner, just as his spine aligned with the back of his chair.
I sat next to him on the armrest of his pleather chair, holding questions in my pockets and on the tip of my tongue. “Halabuji, why are your eyes blue?”
He peered at me— skylights behind spectacles. “I don’t know, Naeun. Maybe from my treatments.”
“Maybe it’s because they got tired of being brown,” I said, reaching to hold my grandfather’s soft, soft hand.
“Halabuji, why are your hands so soft?”
His fingers fidgeted inside of my palms as sparks rose from the flames under the mantel. “From my medicine.” Cough. “Naeun?”
“Are you going to practice your piano?”
I glanced up from studying his blue hand veins to sigh in the direction of stiff black instrument in the corner. “Oh, fine…what should I play first?”
A rusty chuckle, then: “Hmm, Czerny?”
I always played that Czerny first, fingers moving in repetitive patterns across the keys in monotonous rhythms and exercises. The notes seemed to elevate my grandfather into another dimension beyond the limitations of his frail body, spine straighter than ever as the strains of music climbed the walls. The speed of the sound of the raindrops falling increased as they chased the noises of my hands across the black and white. The fire in the fireplace flashed in reds and yellows and oranges, whirling into kaleidoscopes of colors that reached past infinity, mesmerizing me as they energized him. His fingers would contract in reaction, clenching and unclenching to follow the underlying beats of the music.
My gaze tunneled to focus on those hands until I could imagine the wrinkled skin smoothed out in youthfulness, grabbing onto the roofs of trains in North Korea, gripping onto pickaxes in German mines, shaving down the sharp edges of glass in his refinery shop, holding my grandmother’s gentle fingers, smoothing the baby-down hairs on my mother’s head, and flicking bleak black ashes from stubby cigarettes.
After I finished practicing, I wiped the keys with the red cloth and closed the lid of the piano. The thud jolted my grandfather from his reverie, and his head lifted as I walked closer, blue eyes maybe a little glassy behind his spectacles. My routine kiss on his cheek produced a pleased huff of breath from his mouth and a resounding bout of coughing deep from his lungs, resonating from somewhere inside of his chest. Somewhere dark and unknown.
The skylight dimmed as the clouds obscured the light. The chair creaked.
“Do you want some water, Halabuji?” I asked, straightening.
On my way out of the living room, at the threshold of the double doors, I looked backwards and saw him gazing out into the wet outdoors.
His hand was trembling as he touched a white, white handkerchief to his mouth, then let it slide downwards to press against his chest.
A thread of smoke rose from the burning logs in the fireplace.
And I ran from the living room to find a glass of water, leaving him behind sitting in his brown pleather easy chair, watching the rain fall without any music.
A few months later, I ventured into the living room again. The fire had been reduced to ashes. The upright piano had a black covering draped over it to keep its surface clean. The skylight illuminated the dust motes settling upon the cushion of the easy chair.
I ran my hands across the smooth paint of the walls, tracing the bumps of plaster beneath my fingertips. My bare feet scrubbed across the hardwood floor as I walked, loud in the silence of the room. At some point, I reached the brown chair and allowed my fingers to trail across the back, touching the brass studs that held the pleather to the wooden frame underneath.
The moving truck was waiting for me outside, packed full of faded cardboard boxes and furniture.
But this furniture was staying here.
“Sarah, we’re about to leave!”
My hands grasped empty air as I backed away from the room, emptiness filling the space and memories choking the walls.
Don’t leave me behind.
I closed the doors.