I’ll Bid My Heart Be Still

Our grandfather, the world traveler, spent very little time in the country where we lived. He worked as an antiques appraiser, specializing in fine string instruments. Is this a real Guarneri? No, but are you a real Heifetz? The two weeks after his death were the longest time in fifty years that he had spent in the place he formally called home. This was West Virginia, our awful state. We joked, at his wake, that he had done well to avoid it. Grandpa Sam, Traveling Man.

Still, I was fond of Falling Waters, where his house was. No one else in the family lived there; most of us worked in Martinsburg, and lived there or just outside it. When I was twenty-four, Grandpa Sam had commissioned me to stay in his place and keep an eye on it while he spent a year as a lecturer in Vienna—the real Vienna, not the West Virginia one. He thought of me, I guess, because I was the one musician among his progeny. He’d given me my first full-size viola—sold it, actually, to my parents, to be paid in installments over a couple years of lessons. No art without a measure of sacrifice. He liked that I kept playing, even if I’d never be a professional or an expert like him. His house in Falling Waters, small and empty, was a good place to practice music. Rebecca Clarke’s “Passacaglia” and “I’ll Bid My Heart Be Still”—I played those dry. I’ve barely touched them since.

I was not good, that year in Falling Waters. Not all my time was devoted to the viola. In fact, I spent much of it trying to meet men (and often succeeding). I suppose in the olden days I would have waited by the fishing holes or in the bathroom of the public library, tensing myself up for an exchange of glances that might mean pleasure and might mean trouble. We have other tools now. Still, the principle is pretty much the same. It’s not smart to meet a man in his car, or go to his house before you speak to him in public. We do it anyway. I did that year, at least. I’m still alive.

Returning to Sam’s house after ten years, as I told my boyfriend on the phone the night we arrived, was not exactly like stepping out of a time machine. The house had deteriorated. Nobody else had been hired to keep an eye on it. I guess Sam decided he didn’t care. I arrived with my cousin Carrie and her husband, sitting in the back with their year-old daughter. Macy was clutching my finger at intervals, using it to wave my hand around and then dropping it. Building up her muscles, I gathered. 

We hauled ourselves out of the car into a sea of cousins. There are sixteen of us, and most were there already, crunching around on the gravel and taking pictures of each other and the house. It looked terrible. The deck was full of wormholes, slick from the dripping dogwood tree that overhung it. The tree had embedded itself into the roof, which didn’t look like it would last—half the tiles were gone, exposing the tin underneath. All I could smell was dogwood flowers, which have always struck me as rotten even when new. When I walked around to the back, I saw that the covered porch had fallen down. Beams and scraps of screen leaned against the back wall like a kid’s fort. I knelt to look in, remembering the hammock that had hung in there and the things I had done in it.

“Sully!” someone said, and when I turned around my cousin Mike was coming in for a hug like the fullback he used to be.

“Mike!” I managed to say, crushed into him. Here he was, the only cousin who had made it out of West Virginia. Smart boy with a football scholarship.

“Why would you ever come back here?” I asked, when he’d let go of me. He slapped me.

“Don’t say that. I hate the negative thinking.”

“Oh,” I said. The slap had hurt, probably more than he’d intended. I stood there, looking him over. He was thinner than I would have expected. His posture was still good. I used to wonder what went on in the locker rooms and showers with jocks like Mike. The picture of someone sucking his cock popped up, and I grinned, then reversed it, since he couldn’t see into my head. Sometimes it’s nice to have a dirty mind.

We walked back around the house together. Mike was telling me about his family, how much they loved Philadelphia, how there was this great church they were going to. I said, truthfully, that I was glad to hear it; I always imagined that I’d get religion myself someday, one that would take me. Mike laughed. That rotten dogwood smell hit again, and then I saw the kid. 

It was the way he was standing. You can’t really tell by looking at someone, right—but sometimes you can. He had most of his weight on one leg, and the other touching the ground in front, sort of ballet-style. His thumbs were in his pockets, head tilted back to look up at Talia, my youngest cousin. His hair was cut close, but I could see that it would curl and float if allowed, dark-blond. I could picture him in a club, five years on, looking out at all the passing men whose performance of indifference would be amplified just for him.

“Hey,” Mike said, “You haven’t seen Kelly since she was a baby. And have you even met Shay?”

“No,” I said. “I definitely haven’t.”

Mike introduced me to Kelly, a tall dark fifteen-year-old who looked just like him. She said, “You’re the musician,” with cocktail-party poise.

“Sure,” I said.

“Are you going to play at the funeral?”

“I guess so. If we don’t run out of time.”

She was bored with me and I was bored with her. Mike was tackling another cousin. We exchanged smiles. We drifted. I took the chance to get my stuff out of the car and made my way up to the front door, bruising fleshy white petals with my shoes.

So, escaping like that, I didn’t meet Shay until dinner. We cousins cooked together in Sam’s rundown kitchen. Hotel pans of macaroni and cheese, salad in huge aluminum bowls from Carrie’s restaurant in Martinsburg. Our parents, Sam’s five children, set themselves up in the living room on old plaid furniture and got the bar going. 

“Hello, dad,” I said when I saw my father with a tumbler of Scotch and something. “I see you found the good stuff.”

“He stocked a bar well, if he didn’t do anything else for this place.”

We hugged. We stopped doing that for a while, when I was younger and angrier. Then both of us gave in a little. I liked feeling the loose, warm skin of his neck against my cheek. Dad was small and fine-boned, and was beginning to look more and more like a cat as he got older. Alert, springy, those green eyes. He said, “You want a drink.” I admitted it and he built me what he was having. We went to the dinner table matching like that.

There were actually three dinner tables: kitchen, dining room, and the big coffee table in the living room for the kids to squat around. Dad and I sat down in the dining room together, but eventually Talia came in to ask me if I minded joining her at the kids’ table, since there weren’t quite enough chairs out here for all the “original crew,” as she put it. 

“I always thought you two were immature,” Dad said. Talia made as if she was going to bite him, and he laughed.

When we joined them, the kids were having a roaring discussion about whether or not it was disgusting to put ketchup on macaroni. The twins, Grace and Amelie, were liberal with the big glass bottle. They offered it generously to us as we sat down.

“No thanks,” Talia said. “But I love you anway.”

Shay was across from me. He ate quietly, but paused sometimes to smile at what another kid was saying. At one point, he tried to suggest something, but his “And then—and then—” got covered up each time by louder voices. I looked over at him and raised my eyebrows.

“Then what?” I said.

He shrugged. It didn’t seem to matter. But he smiled at me.

“I’m Sully,” I said. “I’m your, I guess, your second cousin?”

“Okay,” he said.

I didn’t talk the rest of dinner, but the kids had plenty of conversation on their own. Talia joined in too. Towards the end, one little boy started crying and his father had to come take him up to bed. Pretty soon they were all going to bed.

“Cocktails once we blow the all-clear,” Mike said. But instead I went up to Sam’s study, where I was assigned to sleep on the leather chaise-lounge, and called Anthony.

“One of the next generation is gay,” I told him when he picked up.

“Oh really?” I heard his big hot voice laughing, then coughing. “Hello to you too!”

“Hi,” I said. “I’m telling you the important stuff. I am not alone here. Finally.”

“I still don’t believe none of your cousins are gay. There are too many.”

“Neither do I, but that’s as far as I get. This kid, on the other hand. I know.”

Anthony was silent. He got it. His sister was a lesbian, so it was something different; but he understood. Just to be with family, and look at one of them, and know—it had never happened to me before.

“How are you doing?” I asked.

“I’m just fine. Just fine. Doctor tomorrow.”

I was sorry I wouldn’t be there for that. I always went with him. My Anthony.

“Let me know,” I said.

“I will.” He paused, then asked, “This kid—how old?”

“I don’t know. I’m guessing twelve, thirteen.”

Anthony whistled.

“Young,” he said. “You better look after him.”

“I’m going to try.”

We said good night, I love you, be safe, I love you, good night. I brushed my teeth in the little hall bathroom. Passing the master bedroom, I could hear a whole slumber party of kids stirring in their sleeping bags.

The funeral was the next day. We all woke up, stiff from sleeping on couches or the floor, and put on our black. Our aunt Carol had gone out for dozens of bagels and gallons of orange juice. Getting into our cars, we brushed sesame and poppy seeds off our clothes onto the grass. The children were very loud that morning. There was more than one tantrum. But something about the funeral home cut it all off; we were as silent, entering the chapel, as a bereft family should be.

The brief service was given by a minister who, surprisingly enough, had actually known Sam. He made some jokes—Return of the Native, and so on. A couple of people were crying. My father was one of them, so I kept my arm around him as long as I could. But I had to get out my viola, and hand over the sheet music to the funeral home’s accompanist.

It was “I’ll Bid My Heart Be Still” that I played. It was still in my fingers, though stiff. The chapel was overheated, but my hands were so cold. They get this way, and can’t be warmed by rubbing or hot water. What happened to me, as I stood up there and heard the first notes of the introduction? They rise, and the viola answers by falling. My whole family was in front of me, all dimmed, all looking alike. I was trembling. 

Rebecca Clarke’s piece comes from an old song, in which the singer mourns for a dead lover. The man who is gone and will not return—he was behind me, coffined, and I played for him even though he was not my beloved, even though I never properly knew him. The song reaches a high point of grief towards the end. When I first played it, I had loved that point. This time, I reached it and found it filled with people—men. Gone lovers. Anthony. I opened my eyes and mouth, working to breathe and to play. I made it to the end.

Playing the viola takes the place of crying. Afterwards is the same: the shock of being naked, the world too bright around, the working of cords in my throat. I got back to my seat and concentrated on putting my instrument away quietly. The rest of the service, even the lowering of the coffin, went by very fast.

The wake began as soon as we made it back to the house. Mike opened his trunk to reveal a box of bottles to rival Sam’s own bar, and we all went inside. 

“Wake up, wake up,” someone said. The kids sat with us, and we went slowly from silence to the high, fierce party noise that any wake struggles for. Nobody sent the kids to bed. I saw Kelly drinking whiskey, but said nothing. Late in the evening, someone opened all the windows. In came the dogwood smell, stronger than ever, and I went for the bathroom to hold my head against the jade-green toilet.

When I came out of there, the one person waiting in the hall was Shay. Maybe he’d had a drink too—his face, in the dark, was very pink.

“Shay,” I said, one hand on the door still.

“Hi,” he said. “I need to.” He gestured.

“Sure,” I said, and made way. But I waited with my back against the wall, and when he came out again he gave me a doubtful look.

“Hi,” I said. “Listen.” It built up in me, the necessity of saying this. I had to, or I wouldn’t, later. “If you ever need to talk about anything, please, I want you to know, you can call me.”

I should have put my number on a scrap of paper. I hadn’t thought that far. He looked at me, and I saw that I had scared him. Then he said, “Okay,” and turned back to the living room.

Carrie and I left late the next day, the last car in the driveway except my dad’s. I hugged him before we went, and he said, “Careful, I’m fragile.” 

“Yeah,” I said, and kissed his cheek.

I had slept through Mike’s departure with his family. On their way now, up through the Allegheny Mountains and back to Philadelphia. In Carrie’s car, I rested my head on my viola case. 

“Ready for home,” I said. Macy went for my finger, put it in her mouth, then shook my hand again.

“Home’s ready for you,” Carrie said. “How’s Anthony?”

I hadn’t heard from him, hadn’t called last night. No news, best news?

“He’s fine,” I said. “He’s wonderful.”

“You’re lucky,” Carrie’s husband said. I couldn’t recall him saying one word, that whole trip. “We’re all lucky, if we get someone who sticks around.”


  • Liam October O’Brien grew up on a small island. Some of his recent work can be found in Joyland, the Bennington Review, and Nightboat Books' We Want It All: An Anthology of Radical Trans Poetics. He received his MFA at the Iowa Writers' Workshop, where he was an Iowa Arts Fellow.

  • Altered images from 42nd Street, directed by Lloyd Bacon in 1933.