An Unfinished Score - By Elise Blackwell


She hears the words on the radio. It is the radio that announces her lover’s death. His is not a household name, not in most households, but he happens to be the most famous person on the plane that went down. The plane’s wreckage, strewn across Indiana farmland, is being examined for clues. Crews search for the voice recorder, the black box that holds the secret of two hundred seventy-one deaths. Two hundred seventy, plus one.

Suzanne’s rib cage shudders—a piano whose keys are struck all at once—yet she does not cry. She does not cry, but only closes her eyes and presses her palms flat on the cool counter. None of the facts of Alex’s life suggests that it ends in a soybean field.

At the dining room table, playing a board game and separated from her by the counter on which she works, sit the other members of her household, a household in which Alex’s name at least rings a bell. Her husband’s dice clack against the wood; her best friend sighs as her game piece is sent back to start; Adele’s hands clap three times.

“Starting over isn’t all bad,” Ben says, and Petra does not respond.

Suzanne lifts onto her toes to search the high cabinet for the olive oil, her hand grabbing only the air the bottle usually occupies. She spies it on the counter, where she obviously set it earlier. It has been right in front of her all along. She minces the cloves of garlic that she peeled before she knew her lover was dead, heats oil in a wide skillet, salts a pot of roiling water. The simple sounds of knife on wood, of water rising to slow boil, of onion sizzling become the distinct tones of grief.

If she lives, this will be how: moment to moment, task by task, left foot then right, breathing in then out. An eternal present in which every sound is loud. This is something she should be good at, if anyone can be. For four years she has practiced pretending that everything is fine, that she is what she seems to be.

Ben, who has been listening to the broadcast, who has heard the honey-voiced announcement, says from the table, “That’s sad. Don’t we have a couple of his recordings?”

“I think so. Chicago Symphony playing Brahms’s Double Concerto and some other stuff.” Suzanne presses her voice flat, passing for normal. “I played under him in St. Louis that time, right before I moved to the quartet.”

“Why is death always sad?” Petra says. “I mean, wasn’t he a total asshole, even for a conductor?”

“I kind of liked him.” Suzanne shakes water loose from the greens, tries to dry her hands on the oily dishcloth. Moment by moment, left foot, right foot, breathe. “Can you clear the table after the next round of turns? Dinner’s almost ready.” She breathes in and out again, short on oxygen, lungs shallow and on the edge of panic. “Such as it is.” A sputtered almost joke.

While Petra and Adele pack away the game, Ben sets out white plates. His form contradicts the domestic setting: his strong forearms bared by rolled-up sleeves, flexing as he folds the cheap paper napkins on the diagonal.

Adele signs something, and Petra interprets for Ben: “She says she’s never seen you do that before—fold the napkins. Usually you just toss them out. She says they look like sails.”

Ben spells party letter by letter, but he knows the sign for hats. Adele claps and makes one of her unconscious noises, a chirp of delight.

Suzanne watches them, grateful that they are safe on the ground yet also afraid of their emotional compasses, each tricky in its different way, each seeming to point at her all the time as though she is true north.

Ben’s absorption with fact and music rarely extends to interest in the breathing world, and never outside their small, odd family. It is a distance that feels studied, as though he made a decision in some formative year not to be touched by other people. He shields his emotional barometer so well that even Suzanne and Petra often take it for an absence, for some hole in the fabric of his nature, and their surprise borders on fright when he names some human truth, extracting the insight from his emotional hollow like a magician pulls a ribbon from the thin air.

Petra’s moods slide across her face all day—intense, shifting, and mostly short-lived. They rule her though she cannot name them, yet she easily measures