One Last Note

Tusharika Tyagi / Infinitum Editor

Carl fumbled with his medication, swearing quietly as the frustration mounted. The lid was always a bastard to unseal, and his hands had stopped being perfect tools over a decade ago. A bittersweet melody of nostalgia played through the periphery of his awareness as he remembered how deftly his fingers once answered his brain’s commands. Now they had seemingly been replaced with these barely usable stubs of wrinkled flesh. Now it takes a monumental amount of focus and effort to open the bottle without spilling its contents all over the table, as he had just succeeded with aplomb. He closed his hand around one of the wayward pills and dragged it to the edge of the table, twisting his hand to catch it a heartbeat too late as it fell to the ground. He swore again and reached for another, scooping it into his other hand before raising it to his dried lips and taking a quick swig of his vitamin water to wash it down. 

Carl took a deep breath and continued doing what he had been doing for the past five days: playing the same few bars of music and experimenting with the last few notes. He had been at it for days, trying in vain to narrow his choices down as he composed what he knew would be his last piece of music. It wasn’t even named yet, but it was superfluous to his mind. He considered naming it after his son, but the boy had a temper as fiery as his hair and would not appreciate the gesture. 

The song was intended to be the final one played at what Carl knew would be his last concert. His hands could barely keep steady long enough for concerts anymore, but he felt unsatisfied with the thought of the last few pieces he made being the ones he is remembered for. In the arts, it is often the last thing you do that immortalizes you; everything else is a pretext or stepping stone, but the last thing you do before your time is up always given special attention. Carl recalled how the public eye would even exonerate or absolve some of the more controversial artists if their death was strategically or accidentally timed to coincide with the release of some work of theirs; tragedy has a way of overwriting guilt that way as if one death is enough to wash away all your sins in life. Carl, as he so often congratulated himself on, had always managed to avoid significant controversy. Oh, he’d made a few enemies here and there in his eight-plus decades of life, ruffled some feathers with particular interviews or choice comments made online towards some of the younger, more impetuous artists who would seek to make a name for themselves at his expense, but he largely kept to himself and focused on the music. 

Sometimes, he regretted this. On days where he remembered old rivals or lovers, friends or colleagues, almost all of whom had either long since passed or had simply lost track of, he would sometimes regret not stirring up more trouble as a rebellious artist ought to do. Especially these days, where his days were too often surrendered to doctors and nurses, or the ever-encroaching fatigue constantly shortening his days, a gentle, insidious lullaby inevitably coercing him into an unwaking dream. Some mornings, he found himself wrestling himself awake as if the claws of death were already around him and he needed to shake himself back to life, unwilling to move on without putting some sort of exclamation point on his life. After one of these mornings, a little under a year ago, he resolved to put on this concert. He called around, spent some money, called in old favours or simply glad-handed and smarmed his way into being hired by a charity to play a concert. Charity work suited him fine, as he had long ago made more money than he ever possibly knew what to do with. A fat cheque was just as likely to sit forgotten on his desk as it was to be cashed and spent. His only real complaint was the organizer’s insistence on using some newfangled hologram technology controlled by an AI to accompany the music. 

These thoughts swirled in his head as he continued to repeat the last few bars of music, his mind searching for a fitting end to this last song. The digital piano was all he could fit in the hotel room, but it offered a cleaner sound in some ways than a real one. Even so, the final few notes simply refused to reveal themselves, a vexing, thunderous silence filling his mind instead. At least the last few bars were enjoyable and rapturous; he felt his heart heave and swell with joy and sentiment as each note played out, a mixture of melancholy, reverie and nostalgia all intertwined, but it felt hollow without an ending. He’d previously struggled with artist’s block, but this was ridiculous. I can’t go on stage tomorrow with an unfinished song, Carl lamented to himself. This is the one I’ll be remembered for. Leaving life on an unfinished song would be like leaving the last few swallows of a wonderful whiskey to oxidize, the last few bites of a meal to sit out and rot, to let the last few rays of sunlight die over the horizon without being observed. 

Carl kept these thoughts in mind as he worked into the night, focused on capturing the dying embers of his life in song and on communicating that to the audience. He would not allow his dusk to go unobserved. That imagery reminded him of an old lullaby he sang to his son as he stroked his red hair, promising him the world would still be there in the morning. 

The rest of the event had gone off without a hitch. Carl had performed several of his older pieces, and thanks in part to the cocktail of medication he’d arranged for, his fingers and hands had been behaving themselves. He didn’t even mind the AI-controlled holograms as much as he expected to. 

He stood just off stage as the host finished his penultimate speech, reintroducing Carl to the stage for one last song, a never-before-heard work. Carl took to the stage and waved enthusiastically, more so than during his prior performance this evening and took his place at the piano. The room went silent, a familiar sound, the calm before and after the storm, and he moved his fingers into place and began to play. 

The song filled the room with sweet nostalgia, the sting of bitter recollection and the fear of the encroaching end, but it gave way to a resounding hope. The lights from the hologram danced around him, displaying patterns and colours, accentuating the music and moving as if controlled by Carl himself, captivating and hypnotizing the crowd. 

Carl felt his heart swell as though fit to burst and poured it into the song. He improvised, the lights flared and built and the music swelled along with his heart, the promise of a crescendo all but undeniable as the song neared its end. 

The final few bars began, and Carl felt the seizing in his chest, a surge of joy and pure artistic creation the only thing fueling his body as the music flowed out of his mind, through his now stilled heart and into the piano and out of the piano and into the room and the lights, suffusing the area and ensnaring the senses of the crowd as they shared in his rapturous ecstasy, the joy of creation flowing out of Carl and into the crowd as the song approached its dramatic climax, the music building as Carl felt the final few notes flow from his mind and into his heart- 

A memory. Standing on the precipice of a cliff, overlooking the ocean as the sun settled into it, reminded Carl of the fiery red hair of his son barely visible from beneath the blankets. It was a moment, unbidden, a memory, purely his own and all the more special for it. 

Carl held the note, the last one before his crescendo, in the air. In his heart, he held the last few notes of the lullaby, singing it again to his son in his mind’s eye. The fatigue wrapped itself around him like a warm blanket while the echoing silence filled the auditorium. 

Carl never heard the applause or the gasps and shouts that followed. All he hears is the soft lullaby as something unseen wraps him in a blanket and gently shuffles him offstage. 

This story was originally published in print Volume 23, Issue 8 on Thursday, April 4.

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