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MacQueen’s Quinterly: Knock-your-socks-off Art and Literature
Issue 11: January 2022
Flash Fiction: 660 words
By Mary Hannah Terzino

The Duet


“It’s her artistic temperament,” Fran’s husband said. “That’s why Jorie can’t handle the real world like we do.” His real world swirled with objects, implements, and routine. Fran’s swirled with worry about Jorie, their only child, their gloriously talented singing daughter, discharged last month from a psychiatric ward, where she’d been under observation for depression. She’d taken a small handful of soporific pills, not enough to have her stomach pumped, just enough to make her sleep for twenty-four hours. It was a performance more than an effort.

“She’s so much better,” Fran said. “She’s singing again.” Jorie sang with a jazz combo, but her real love was classical music. Fran sang, too, though not professionally like Jorie. Fran participated in a local women’s chorus. She’d persuaded Jorie to pair with her in a duet for the chorus spring concert. Jorie had been distant since her discharge, and Fran wanted a reason to keep tabs on her several times a week. The director thrilled at the prospect of twenty-five-year-old Jorie livening up the chorus of middle-aged and senior women.

During her recovery, Jorie’s voice had lost none of its tone, a soprano simultaneously rich and bright, a twinkling counterpoint to Fran’s alto. Jorie chose a lullaby, nothing intricate, a soothing piece with elegant but straightforward harmonies. Their rehearsals in the basement at Jorie’s keyboard brought them together in ways Fran had never experienced. The intensity of singing with her daughter spun Fran into an otherworldly place where only their voices lived, where the sole contribution of her body was its steady breaths enabling her low voice to provide the solid floor from which Jorie’s notes ascended, her eyes closed, her high range soaring.

“Let’s record it,” Jorie suggested one afternoon. “I’d like to listen to the blend.” They positioned Jorie’s iPhone on the bookcase where it could capture both of them, sweat-shirted and makeup free, and pushed the button. Fran thought their recording sounded magical, joyous. After they listened to it, they both cried, hugging as they hadn’t since Jorie went into the hospital. “I love you, Mom,” Jorie said for the first time in many months. Fran’s whole being buzzed with happiness.

And then her sleepless nights began. How could they match at concert the intense beauty of their private sessions? Fran continued to perform well in their rehearsals, but afterwards, a gloom descended on her, a feeling that she could never pull it off live at the concert, that her nerves would ruin Jorie’s re-emergence as an admired singer. She said nothing to her daughter. Jorie pressed on, handling the practical details, meeting with the lighting guy, instructing the accompanist, coordinating with the director, choosing their outfits. Fran tried to numb herself to her anxiety, but it was almost frightening how tightly the filaments of her nerves stretched.

The evening of the concert, Fran paced and moaned in the bathroom, trying to hide her worry from her daughter. “I’m going to take one,” she muttered to herself. She popped the lid on her Xanax prescription, deciding as the first pill cleared her throat to swallow another, for good measure.

The choral portions of the concert proceeded as rehearsed, a woozy Fran held together by fear and the helpful hand of Cassie Bromberg, who stood next to her. After two choral pieces, it was time for the lullaby duet. Fran and Jorie walked to the center of the stage and began to sing. The music immediately lulled Fran into a peaceful place where the audience evaporated and the piano’s tinkling rhythms floated to the concert hall’s ceiling. During eight measures where Jorie sang a solo, Fran closed her eyes and saw Jorie as a beautiful toddler in a field of dandelions. She emitted a loud, snorting snore. Cassie Bromberg swiftly stepped forward to pull Fran backstage. Jorie sang on, carrying the melody, certain this was how it was meant to be.

Mary Hannah Terzino
Issue 11, January 2022

writes overlooking the Kalamazoo River in Saugatuck, Michigan. Her prose has been published in The Forge Literary Magazine, Blue River Review, Lumiere Review, and MacQueen’s Quinterly, among others. She was a 2018 finalist for a fellowship for emerging writers over 50 from The Forge Literary Magazine, and was awarded first prize in the 2021 flash fiction competition sponsored by the UK’s Fiction Factory. She is an occasional contributor to Brevity blog, an online publication about writing.

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