“Earworm” by Anna H. Zetlin

It was the summer of 1964, and the much-maligned borough of Queens was hosting the World’s Fair in Flushing Meadow Park. The park had been built on a garbage dump, and a month-long heatwave had boiled the nearby man-made lake and turned it into a swamp. Underneath the mirror-still surface, the water had percolated, forming a breeding ground for mosquitos, and releasing toxic fumes stinking of rotten eggs.

At dawn, I had snatched two tokens from Mother’s purse, stuffed my pockets with babysitting money, snuck out of my city apartment, and met up with my friends Rob and Brenda on the corner of 96th and Broadway. The subway car had rattan-wicker seats, mustard-yellow with age and frayed from neglect, and they scratched my bare sun-burnt thighs. Brenda—her hair carefully coiffed in a pageboy—sat opposite me wearing a mini skirt and white go-go boots.

At Times Square, we switched to the turquoise express train. Though I had grown up in Queens, my family had moved to university housing in Manhattan when my dad got tenure, and I had grown to love the City. Only a World’s Fair could bring me back to the borough of my childhood.

A sulfur-yellow haze made me light-headed as I stood on the long line for the Disney exhibit—a promise of world peace sung by mechanical dolls.

“Maybe next time we can go without the others,” Rob said, without making eye contact, as the line slowly inched up to the entrance. Before I could answer, we were inside the exhibit, where we sat on the wobbly, child-size plastic seats of a long miniature open-air train. By the end of the ride, a fragment of the singsong chorus of “It’s a Small World” had successfully crawled through my ear canal and landed in my brain.

“Do you hear that?” I asked Rob.

“Hear what?” Rob said.

“Oh. Oh. Never mind.” The last thing I wanted was for Rob to think me weird. After viewing the G.E exhibit—a future of robots doing housework—my friends and I waited in the long line of the highly touted Picturephone. Brenda was fascinated by the idea of someone being able to see her while she spoke, but after an hour, hunger won out. Rob, Brenda, and I headed to the Belgian Waffle stand, where we ate waffles cooked on the spot and topped with strawberries, confectioners’ sugar, and heaps of whipped cream from a can. An hour and three exhibits later, we returned home. My Che Guevarra tee-shirt was soaked with sweat, so I yanked out the rubber band and released my long hair, hoping to hide my breasts.

On the subway trip back to the City, the Disney melody returned, repeating in an endless loop. It was odd that a cheesy song I had heard only once would get stuck in my head. A piece from Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier would have been more appropriate. Bach’s Prelude No. 1 had been my first practice piece before I had abandoned Mother’s dream of me becoming a concert pianist. “She’ll regret it,” Mother had whispered to my dad, in her annoying mid-range volume, too loud to ignore but almost too low to make out the words. “Leave her alone,” he had replied. “Anyway, she’s not that good.” Then he turned to me and winked, and I knew—from that moment on—he was my ally.

When I returned to my apartment from the fair, I used the back door to avoid Mother. My strategy worked until she spotted me tiptoeing down the long hallway that led to my bedroom.

“For god sakes, don’t slouch,” Mother called out, repeating her usual greeting.

She didn’t understand. In addition to being taller than all the boys in school, I was the first one in my seventh-grade class to have breasts, and they were enormous. I darted into my room, slammed the door, and unloaded the gifts I had bought for Dad’s birthday: a commemorative snow globe, a cigarette lighter, and a pocketknife. A soft rapping at my door interrupted me.

“May I come in?” My dad asked, always the gentleman.

“Of course,” I said, flinging a bed cover over my loot from the fair.

Dad shot me a grin and entered my room, accompanied by a whiff of cigar smoke. If he had figured out my morning escapade, he didn’t say anything. Then, he handed me a large brown cardboard box. “I saw this in Macy’s. You might get chilly in the fall.”

“When were you in Macy’s?” I asked. The thought of my dad shopping for clothes was ridiculous. Corduroy slacks and a cardigan sweater comprised his entire wardrobe. The cardigan had large diamonds of navy and brown against a tan background, and the smoke from his favorite cigar was released whenever he moved.

“I hope it’s your size.”

I opened the box; nestled in many sheets of white tissue paper was a bulky fishermen’s sweater.

“I love it, Dad.”

“If it’s too large, the salesgirl said I could return it.”

We both already knew that it was too large, which made it perfect.

Dad left as quickly as he had appeared. After hiding my souvenirs under my bed, I rushed to the den and stood hovering at the entrance. Dad said he went to the den to smoke cigars and play the piano, but the real reason was that Mother never bothered him there.  

“Oh. I didn’t see you standing there. Come in. Come in,” my dad said, finally noticing me.

I leaped through the doorway, almost tripping on the wood saddle separating the den from the hallway.

“Duet?” he asked, frantically waving away the cigar smoke that hung in the air.

“It’s okay,” I said, trying not to choke on the pungent aroma of vanilla and tobacco. Mother was the only one who objected. She didn’t mind his smoking but thought pipes were more distinguished.

“Come. Join me,” Dad said.

“There’s a tune I can’t get out of my head.”

“Ah, the cur-sed earworm! I know it well,” he said, eyes wide with excitement. “The Beatles? Their melodies will surely cause earworms. Catchy, well-crafted.”

“No. Not the Beatles. Listen, Dad.”

I sat at the upright piano shoved against the wall of the already crowded room and eked out the few measures that had gotten stuck in my head. Then, I pounded the keys with an anger that surprised me.

Dad grinned. “Ah. A new tune. Never heard that one before. But that won’t work. You can’t exorcise the earworm.”

“So, what should I do?”

“You must welcome it as the occasional visitor who hopefully leaves in five days before it goes bad. Like houseguests and fish,” Dad said, laughing at his own joke.

“But it’s not even a full phrase.”

“It never is. Incomplete memories last longer than complete ones,” he said, looking off into space.

“There’s something else. Dad. Dad,” I shouted, hoping to bring him back. “I met a guy.”

“And does this guy have a name?”

“Rob,” I whispered, afraid if I said it too loudly, Mother would hear.

“Rob. Good solid name.” He repeated Rob’s name several times, then slapped his hands on his thighs. “Okay, then. Tomorrow. Central Park?”

“Of course.”

The following morning, we headed to Central Park, where—in series of walks spanning over a decade—Dad had taught me to identify trees by their bark and the shape of their leaves.

Opposite the bronze statue of Daniel Webster, a young pimple-faced guitarist had laid out a hat and played the opening riff of Autumn Leaves. Dad stopped and handed me a dollar. “You know what to do.”

I walked over and carefully placed the bill in the empty hat. A tall, long-haired musician zipped open his case and removed a bass as the oldest member of the group blew scales into his horn.

The steady rhythm of our footsteps increased in tempo as we ventured further into the park, our shared silence punctuated by an occasional question.

“Will Rob be in your class next fall?”

“Oh. I think so.”

Dad nodded and quickly changed the subject. “Birch or aspen?” he asked, pointing to a white tree.  

“Too easy,” I said. “Both are white but black knots on the bark, heart-shaped leaves—aspen, for sure!”  

When we walked under the Osage Orange tree, He picked up one of its prematurely fallen seeds—large and fleshy with deep grooves. Dad and I christened it Monkey Brain and presented it to Mother as a trophy from our expedition. Barely suppressing a smile, she wiped it down and silently added it to our collection.

In 1985, I flew home from London on my sabbatical. “I’ll pick you up. Are you landing in Idlewild?” Dad asked.

“JFK. Dad. It’s been renamed. Anyway, public transportation is faster this time of day. And I always travel light,” I said, trying to sound upbeat. Though Mother had warned me of his occasional lapses, it was still unsettling to hear.

On the last leg of my journey, I hopped into a shiny red subway car—the mayor’s attempt to deter the graffiti artists who had proliferated in the 1980’s—and got off at 72nd street, looking forward to the walk in the park.

Songs of peace emanated from Strawberry Fields. Further uptown, boom boxes blasted in a clash of cultures. Mounds of garbage—calling cards of the ongoing sanitation strike—were piled up outside my parent’s apartment, and my nostrils burned, unaccustomed to the stink.

Mother was in Boston for a conference, so I used my spare key, hoping to surprise Dad and spend some time alone with him before she returned. I flung my backpack onto the floor of my old bedroom and ran into the den. But the den was dark. Dad didn’t notice me standing at the entrance and walked right by me. He tentatively approached the piano, started the c-major scale, stopped, rubbed his knuckles, then started again. “My reach is over an octave, like Horowitz,” he used to boast. Now he grimaced when he stretched for an open chord.

“Dad, I’m home.”

“So you are. So you are. Come, join me.”

I slid in next to him on the piano bench, nestled against the arms that only yesterday had lifted me high onto his shoulders and given me piggyback rides. Fingers failing, he stumbled, and I ached from the tension of not wanting him to make any mistakes. Every time he invariably did, I winced as if his missing a note somehow brought him one step closer to death.

It took a while, but the sturdy structure of the melody gave him strength. I emphasized my part, playing it forte, willing him, needing him, to stay strong, to still be my dad.

It was difficult to convince my husband John that it was safe to take the train into the City from Westchester. “Only one year ago. Too soon,” he pleaded.

“If we stop doing things, they win. Anyway, Metro-North takes a lot of precautions: German Shepherds, body pat-downs, bag searches, cavity searches.”

“Not funny. I’ll join you later, but I still don’t understand why you can’t wait so we can drive together.”

When we reached the Ardsley train station, he leaned over and kissed me hard, like we were new lovers. My laughter embarrassed him. “Don’t worry. I’ll be fine. And I really don’t mind the trip.”

The truth was I loved the trip. The Hudson River accompanied me as the train glided back to the City. Rowers from Cornell in sleek boats traced graceful swoops and swirls on the calm surface. Life was returning to normal.

I untangled the cables, positioned my headphones, and welcomed Aerosmith as my traveling companion. Mom interrupted my idyllic journey by texting me to ask if John was still a vegetarian. She’d been trying to wean Dad from his steaks, and this was a good excuse for a meatless meal. Her regime of diet and exercise had revived him, though he cheated whenever possible and loudly objected whenever she served what he labeled as rabbit food. “Don’t worry about it, Mom.”

When I got off at Grand Central Station, I turned toward the park. On 72nd street, the sounds of Autumn Leaves greeted me. There, opposite the Webster statue, stood the jazz group Dad and I had listened to decades ago: a tall bass player with ebony hair slicked back into a ponytail, a teenage guitarist, acned and earnest, and the veteran of the group who still played the horn with a weary sadness. All were replacements of the originals in a long-running television series.

After exiting the park, I walked up Amsterdam Avenue. Trendy restaurants and boutiques had taken the place of sex shops. Pet supply stores stood proudly next to Vietnamese and Thai take-out places. Housing was scarce, and Airbnb’s prolificated in neighborhoods that only a few years ago were no-man lands. Retracing the familiar route, I hummed Autumn Leaves, trying to hold onto it, but Stephen Tyler pushed it out. Then, I remembered what Dad had always said. “You don’t choose the earworm; the earworm chooses you. You must welcome it; it’ll leave when it’s ready.” And I relaxed.

Mom died after a brief illness in 2015, so John and I—newly retired—returned to the City to help take care of Dad. Our sprawling house in upper Westchester had bought us a two-bedroom apartment on the Upper West Side. It would have been the perfect plan. By the spring of 2020, most of my old friends had abandoned the City and took up what was becoming permanent residence in their country homes. Construction had been halted during the worst of the pandemic and formed a frieze, frozen in time and space and the sorrow of abandonment. Buildings were shrouded in black mesh, mourning the death of their City. Crumbling bricks still waited to be replaced in what had always been a futile attempt to maintain structures that had already outlived their usefulness. Every few blocks, squads of hard hats had left gaping holes like yanked teeth.

The streets on route to my dad’s apartment had morphed into strip malls—GAP, Starbucks, CVS—the Holy Trinity of the Upper West Side. For a decade, rent hikes had driven away most mom-and-pop grocers, shoe repair shops, and independent bookstores. The pandemic had closed down the rest. Outdoor cafes were springing up on Amsterdam Avenue in response to the ban on indoor dining. Customers sat anxiously clustered around molded plastic tables, separated by plexiglass partitions. Glancing around furtively, diners pulled down their masks, gulped wine, shoved food into their mouths, then pulled up the masks as quickly as possible.  

After walking north for a few blocks, I turned into Central Park. Runners and bicyclists asserted their right to fresh air and exercise, some wearing black masks over their noses, others dangling the masks around their necks. My new air buds hurt my ears, so I removed them, placing them into my runner’s belt. They were an expensive gift from John, but I preferred the sounds of the park. I strained to hear some jazz, but the music was gone — victim of the City’s ban on group gatherings.

I ached from the memory of the walks my dad and I had taken together. But that dad was never coming back. Now, he couldn’t use his walker on the uneven, often slippery grass and dirt paths of his beloved park. He was safer on cement.

The odor of bleach assaulted me as I opened the door. The apartment suffered from mom’s absence. Knickknacks gathered from her conferences and my trips abroad were stuffed into a closet—an aide had complained that Dad kept knocking them over. The cleaning lady concurred, adding that they were difficult to dust. The refrigerator door displayed the schedule of the visiting nurse, physical therapist, cleaning lady, and nurse’s aide. All were supporting a man who had simply grown old.

Dad was sitting in the darkened and stuffy living room. He had stopped smoking cigars years ago, and I missed their smell. I opened the blinds and cracked a window. “Dad, I’m here.”

He blinked and stared at me for a long time. Then a smile lit up his face. “Yes. Yes.”

I walked over and hugged him.

“Rob, he’s good?”

“John’s fine.”

“Do you like the sweater? I bought it in Macy’s,” my dad said.

“I love it, Dad.”

“I bought it in Macy’s.”

“Yes. You did,” I turned away.

“I can bring it back.”

“It’s perfect, Dad.”

“Are you up for a round?” he asked.

My pleasure was palpable. Dad had stopped playing when Mom died. After trying for years to coax him, I finally gave up asking. “No one to play for,” he had said, unaware of much the words stung.

“A round? Sure, Dad.” I helped him up, leaving behind the walker. He was so frail; I could’ve carried him on my back. In the den, the piano had become an awkward shelf, heaving from the weight of supporting old photographs. I opened the cover of the upright piano to find that its ivory keys had yellowed from age and neglect.

“Mozart?” he asked.

“Mozart,” I echoed.

Dad started slowly, laying the foundation.  I joined in at the end of the first phrase. It took a lot of skill to keep my part and not follow him. When he finished, I rushed to complete my last few measures. “There,” I said with a flourish.

Dad laughed, and for a moment, it felt like old times. Then the laugh turned manic. Finally, he collapsed into waves of cascading sobs. “She left me alone again. When is she coming home? I hate it when she leaves me alone.”

“You’re not alone. I’m here,” I said, feeling old resentments percolating to the surface.

“Who are you?”

“You know me, Dad.”

“No. Who are you? Why are you here?”

I remained still, knowing that he would eventually remember.

“Ah. Yes. Yes. Stay for dinner. Your mother’s making lamb chops tonight. She’s such a good cook. She always knows what I want.”

“Come, sit down here,” I said and steered him in the direction of his easy chair. His thin layer of flesh felt like tissue paper under my touch. I reached into my tote bag, grabbed a newly purchased red and gray cardigan, and yanked off its tags.

 “You’re shivering, Dad. Put this on.”

As I lifted the sweater, traces of cigar smoke escaped from between the fibers of the past. I inhaled deeply, trying to hold on to my dad’s memory one more time.

Anna is a retired civil rights attorney who is currently teaching math to adults. She was born and bred in New York City, where she lives, loves, and writes, and is invigorated daily by its energy and diversity. Her previous publications include Fredericksburg Literary and Art Review, Chaleur Magazine, Waxing and Waning: A Literary Journal, fresh.ink, and Bookends Review. She was a winner of the Two Sisters Writing and Publishing LLC Fiction Contest, and was short listed for the Five South, Fiction Award.