The Fading (Prime Number Magazine, Issue #199)

Hunched over the kitchen sink, my son held the point of an unhooked safety pin to a flame, watching it blacken clean. Then, one by one, he opened the blisters on his right index and middle fingertips. Then those on his four left fingertips.

I couldn’t see his face, only his shoulders, broad and tense, his hands working, loosely, easily still. I should have suspected that his fading began when he hauled his double bass up from the basement, ordered new strings and began practicing every day, late into the evenings, again.

He played in the high school orchestra, almost twenty years ago now. He had auditioned on cello but didn’t get a seat, so I went down the next day and—had a talk with them. They came around, asked him to play, but that he switch to bass. And it was a fine compromise. He was tall, my boy—and they needed tall to hold up the instrument—with big hands too, the width of a vinyl  LP. Big steady hands, like mine. I am—was—a carpenter. Not by trade, just a hobby. Until my fading got bad. I made nearly everything in this damned house: the mahogany countertops, the cabinets of beetle-kill pine, their L-shaped handles made to hook an arm on and pull. Yes, I still had a few good years after the fading began, and I made the most of them so I could make the most of this house, for both of us. Just in case.

“Son,” I said, reaching my hand toward his back. But I stopped short of laying it there, limp and lifeless. Surely, I had already laid enough upon his back.

He looked at me and feigned a cringe, tightening his lips and squeezing his eyes half-shut. “Bass blisters,” he said.

“Was that some Miles Davis you were playing?”

“Yes. Well, Paul Chambers—”

“Of course, So What, right? One of the best bass lines of all time,” I said.

He paused, turned to me, and set a hand on the countertop leaving four prints red as wine. “It isn’t a bass line,” he said, “it’s the melody. The only track on the album—most albums—where the trumpet, saxophone, keys—everybody—steps back to let the bassist play the melody. And it’s the best one on the record.

So What.” I nodded.

“Yeah. So what,” he said. “My intonation… I still can’t…”

“Son,” I said, unsure of how to start. I had imagined this conversation many times, but never with words, more like a movie montage, with music—maybe a melody played on the bass, low and heavy, its wooden body creaking underneath it like this old house we haunt. And somehow, I make him understand that this diagnosis isn’t an end. That we adapt. How I can help him, how—

But I remembered receiving my diagnosis and know I wouldn’t have bought such a montage then. There is a long name for the fading that I’ve long since forgotten. “It’s too late,” the doctor said. They could fix my spine but not the nerves. Then she said, “But it may not be too late for your children.”

It turned out that my daughter didn’t have the gene. She’s a musician too, by trade, a singer. My son refused to take the test. In many ways I think it would have been easier for her to have it—she makes a good living with her mighty voice alone—but I am glad it was him. If it wasn’t for this fading of sensation, of fine motor skill, his bass would have remained silently below us. If it wasn’t for this fading—mine and his—I figure I’d be living here alone.

“I should get back to practicing,” he said, walking backwards through the swinging door.

“You should let those heal first,” I said, looking toward his fingertips.

“No, it’s better this way. It helps me feel the strings,” he said, and left.

I moved to the counter, wet my sleeve under the touch-sensor tap and carefully wiped away the prints. Listening to the music, I closed my eyes and for a moment felt the smoothness of the wood again, the sandpaper against my palms as I smoothed it, the weight of my hammer and smell of saw dust.


Read in Issue #199 of Prime Number Magazine

* "The Fading" is an excerpt from a longer story with the same title. It won second prize in the 2021 Prime Number Magazine Flash Fiction Contest.

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