Bobbie’s parents pay Mrs. Andersen six dollars an hour to teach Bobbie to play Classics to Moderns and scales from A Dozen A Day: Pre-Practice Technical Exercises for The Piano. Mrs. Andersen has an indoor pool. Her house smells like 4711 perfume and something else Bobbie can’t identify. Mrs. Andersen is eighty-one and her fingers are crooked and painful-looking, but her fingers remember what fingers should do, and Bobbie’s fingers translate.
Bobbie gets ready for school. There isn’t any cereal left. There’s never any cereal left. Bobbie has five siblings: four older, one younger. Because of this, Bobbie has never had a toy, a shirt, or a pencil that wasn’t a hand-me-down. In fact (as her four older and one younger sibling liked to remind her) even her name is a hand-me-down—Bobbie (Roberta) is also her oldest brother’s name—Bobby (Robert).
Bobbie puts on her wide white headband, because when she wears it, Mrs. Andersen calls her Alice in Wonderland and praises her warm-up exercises, which means that she’ll probably get some of the Special Treat Ice Cream Mrs. Andersen keeps in her freezer. Bobbie knows she doesn’t really look like Alice in Wonderland, because after the infamous Hair + Dubble Bubble incident, her mother had pronounced long hair to be Too Much Trouble, and instated a bowl cut policy for all her children under the age of twelve.
At school, Bobbie reads The Railway Children under the desk until Ms. Miller takes it away. Bobbie doesn’t much see the use in multiplication, but the grownups think it’s Of Great Importance. Bobbie hopes she’ll get the book back tomorrow, because her copy at home has gotten glued shut with a layer of pureed peas.
Mrs. Andersen lives out of town, so after school Bobbie’s mom picks her up and drops her off in front of Mrs. Andersen’s house for her piano lesson.
“I’m going to Price Chopper and then I’ve got to pick your brothers up at baseball practice–if it runs late just wait inside till I get here, ok?” She readjusts her kerchief and lights a cigarette.
Bobbie unsticks the backs of her thighs from the vinyl, smooths out her skirt, and waves goodbye to her mother.
“And don’t forget to tell Mrs. Andersen we need to switch your lesson to Thursdays till Bobby’s play rehearsals are over!” Her mother’s voice recedes as she pulls away.
At 2:59, Bobbie rings Mrs. Andersen’s doorbell. She counts to ten. Then she rings it again. Mrs. Andersen doesn’t appear. Bobbie tries the door, which is unlocked. She goes inside. Mrs. Andersen isn’t by the piano, and she isn’t in the kitchen. Bobbie goes into the solarium where the indoor pool is. Mrs. Andersen is sitting next to the pool in a deck chair. Her eyes are shut, and her mouth is slightly open. A fly is washing its hands in the corner of her mouth.
Mrs. Andersen doesn’t respond. Bobbie touches her arm. It feels wooden. The fly unsticks itself from her lipstick and buzzes away.
“Mrs. Andersen?” Just to be sure.
The house is quiet. The indoor pool is vast and blue. Bobbie looks at her watch. 3:06. It’ll be fifty-three minutes until her piano lesson is over. Probably longer until her mother comes back. Should I find someone to help? A neighbor? But mama said to stay in the house. Should I call the police? But what if they think I killed her? Bobbie imagines the questions they will ask, the bustling and prodding, the noise and commotion. She decides to wait for her mother alone.
3:08. Bobbie goes into the kitchen and opens the freezer. There’s a nearly-full carton of Special Treat Ice Cream, slightly freezer burned.
3:11. With tub and spoon in hand, Bobbie goes into the living room and turns on the TV.
3:12 -3:34. Bobbie watches most of an episode of I Dream of Jeannie.
3:38. Bobbie goes to the bathroom and takes a fluffy pink towel out of the cabinet.
3:40. Bobbie goes back into the solarium, removes her hand-me-down shoes, her hand-me-down socks, and her hand-me-down dress. She folds the dress carefully and places it next to Mrs. Andersen, along with her shoes and socks. Then, wearing only her underwear, she lowers herself into the pool.
The water is warm, but not too warm—the kind of warm where if you close your eyes, you can imagine you’re floating in the air on a still day. Last summer at the Y, Bobby taught Bobbie how to float on her back. She flips over now, and her belly full of Special Treat Ice Cream breaks the surface of the water like a small, pale island. Bobbie closes her eyes. She imagines that she is lying on a puffy cloud, floating high above the earth—so high that she can’t hear cars going by, or babies crying, or buildings being built, or people yelling. It’s just quiet.
3:57. Bobbie gets out of the pool and dries herself with the pink towel. She puts on her dress, shoes, and socks, and thanks Mrs. Andersen for a lovely time. The fly has returned and is perched on Mrs. Andersen’s swollen knuckle. Bobbie brushes it away.
3:59. Bobbie sits down on the piano bench to wait for her mother. Classics to Moderns is open to the piece she practiced for today’s lesson. One more minute of quiet.
4:00 Bobbie brings her hands to the keys, and plays.