Circle of Fifths by Steve Gergley

Ever since Diana learned about the circle of fifths in her music theory class back in college, she’d used it as a kind of emotional compass for some of the most important moments in her life. At the time—sophomore year, fall semester—she hadn’t been particularly enamored with the concept of the circle, but as the years passed and she began writing her own songs, she quickly became familiar with the unique emotional character of each of the twelve diatonic keys. Soon after, without even meaning to, her mind began returning to the circle even when she wasn’t composing. From then on, this occurred so often and so automatically, that most things that happened to her didn’t really make sense until she placed them somewhere on the circle.

Take right now for example: this moment of quiet intimacy that unfolds around her as she sits on a padded barstool on the small stage at the back of Frank’s Cafe on the south side of town, eyes closed, her back an achy parabola, the solid woody curl of her Epiphone resting on her thigh; the lazy-yet-deliberate way she rests her elbows on her guitar and hides her unsteady hands behind its shining black body as if someone in the audience would be able to intuit her condition from nothing more than the random twitch of her fingers; the warm soup of nervous anticipation that starts to churn in her stomach in these last three minutes before the start of each show; the now familiar band of muscular tightness that wraps around her chest and makes it nearly impossible for her to take one of those full, deep, satisfying breaths that kiss the floor of her lungs and that smolder in the center of her chest with that wonderful little tongue of cool blue flame; and then there’s the muddy jumble of ambient noise swirling around her: the clinking glasses, the murmuring voices, the scattered coughing, the electronic chirp of a cell phone, the swash and swish of the swinging kitchen door, the wooden clack of Jon’s drumsticks, the metallic sizzle of tightening snares, the stony thunk of a root-position C minor seven on Jerry’s keyboard, the amplified tap of an index finger against microphone, the rumbling hum of rising feedback that follows, the timid chuckle and whoa hey now of Theresa’s voice coming clear and strangely thin over the speakers; and then there are her emotions darting nimbly through the brambles in her head: the old, familiar, pre-show nervousness; the surprising, unexpected, overwhelming relief that after tonight her silly little “career” as a musician will finally be over, that from this night on she can stop smashing her head against the brick wall of talent coordinators and record labels and club owners and booking agents and band managers and all the other countless gatekeepers who seem determined to tear her down at every turn and make her feel useless and terrible and like a talentless pretender who will never fulfill her ambitions of being a great musician like Adele or Fiona Apple or John Lennon or Patti Smith or Carole King or Joni Mitchell or Ani DiFranco or Bob Dylan or Alanis Morissette or Sara Bareilles or even Lana Del Rey, those dreams she cultivated amid the bloom and melt of the pink and brown checkerboards that morphed behind her eyelids as she lay in bed each night for the past fifteen years; and then, underneath all this, simmering at a low-flame boil, is her irrational, petulant hatred for the unfairness of her situation, of how, after so many hundreds of hours of practice, after all the lonely nights of aching fingertips and sore wrists and fingerpicked scales plucked out in a dim room with the TV on mute or with nothing more than the posters on her bedroom walls staring back at her, the universe decided to choose her brain and her nerves to begin failing her at thirty-two.

So with all this in mind, Diana tries to find the unique harmony of this moment. But even with all this information she still can’t find its proper place on the circle—major or minor, F# or Bb—but that’s okay because there is still so much more to come, the night is just beginning, she has no idea where it will go and how she will feel when this last show is finally over, so with her rig all set up and her volume knob on mute and everything on her end all ready to go, she lets her mind wonder to some of the other moments she’s placed on the circle in the past, and in seconds she thinks of A minor and remembers what it felt like to wake up in that narrow strange bed in that tiny strange room in a strange hidden corner of her college town of Barrier, NY, a few minutes before six a.m., late October of her sophomore year, just a few weeks after she first learned about the circle, the blurry gray light from the window beside the bed shining in her eyes like a splash of murky dishwater, the weird little spikes and dimples in the cream-colored ceiling hovering just above her head, a slicing wintery wind whirling outside and scudding sharply between the buildings and scouring raw any exposed skin of the unfortunate souls making their morning commute on foot, the long fingers of her left hand lost in the black sprigs of wiry chest hair belonging to Rob, the man she had abandoned her college life for the night before, the tall, solid, fiftyish divorcee with the boxy chin and the kind, pale blue eyes couched in those soft wrinkles like the creases that sprout in a plush leather sofa after you’ve been sitting in it for a while, those eyes that just a few hours before had made her forget about the terrible heavy feeling that had been sitting on the floor of her stomach for her entire first year of college, that awful feeling of knowing without a doubt that she’d made a terrible mistake by coming to Barrier to study music, that instead of listening to her sister’s advice about being smart about things and about getting a degree that’s actually worth something she had stubbornly gone her own way and had followed her impossible dreams and had fucked up her life; but that was all until she had met him at the bar last night, and from the soft sad way he’d looked at her and from the sweet things he’d whispered in her ear when they were lost together in the crowd, he’d made her feel special and smart and young and attractive and like someone who could do no wrong; and after marinating for the past year in the corrosive acid of guilt and uncertainty, those things he had said were the most wonderful words anyone could’ve said to her.

So, it had been there, amid the noise and chatter of that upstate New York bar, that she had decided she was done with college, done with her family, done with being responsible and doing things the right way (as her dad had always told her), and that her music and this kind man were the only things left in her life that mattered; but before Diana can get any further in the memory she feels the warm squeeze of Theresa’s hand on her shoulder and moments later they start the show, Theresa deciding to lead off with “Cryonics,” nothing new there, but then, just before the beginning of the second chorus, Diana’s hand suddenly jumps from the fretboard on its own and her pinky catching a few of the strings sends a sharp, dissonant clang through the speakers, throwing Jon and Jerry off their groove for a few bars.

From here Diana peers back at them to offer a look of apology, but before she can turn back to the crowd Theresa throws an angry glare at her and seeing this Diana looks away and her face flashes red and she curses herself for deciding to wait until after the show to tell her bandmates that this will be her final performance; so, to escape this rotten feeling and this crappy start to her last show, Diana dives into her memory once again and searches the outer ring of the circle for something good, some happy memory that can erase this bad start, and moments later she settles on E major, one of her favorite and best known keys, the memory of that solo acoustic performance she gave on open mic night at The Brickhouse in Barrier coming back to her now, that magical night that occurred just a few weeks after she had met Rob and had abandoned school, the night that had put her life back on the track that would eventually lead her here; but before she can really immerse herself in the beauty and magic of that night, another memory crowds it out of her head and she’s suddenly swallowed up by C# minor and it’s eight months ago to the day when she was sitting alone on the raised bed in her neurologist’s office, the long strip of sanitary paper crinkling beneath her, her temples aching from those frightening, jarring jolts of spiky pain that tore through her head each time she moved her neck the wrong way, the deepest parts of the big muscles in her legs trembling and twitching to the malfunctioning electrical rhythm of her failing nerves, her anxiety running wild because of all the weird things happening to her, and because she hadn’t been able to take a deep breath in three full days, and because of all the stuff she had read on the internet even after her neurologist had told her not to, the big one being that Wikipedia page she knew was trouble but just couldn’t stay away from, the list of people with Multiple Sclerosis; and then there was her stupid theory that she would somehow feel better about her diagnosis if she read about other people who had it, but of course that didn’t help, all it did was give her the tools to look up how long those famous people had lived after they were diagnosed, which is how she had spent the rest of her night before the appointment, some of them only making it another nine or ten years, and in a few of those cases half that time was spent barely being able to walk, one heavy metal guitar player dying at thirty-eight after being diagnosed at thirty-two, just like she had been, and so with these thoughts returning to her then and with the idea that that might happen to her she started to cry because oh God what if that was it? What if that unhappy, perpetually striving, unfulfilled, half-finished, mostly squandered thing that felt like it hadn’t even begun yet was all her life was going to be? If it was just going to be a life of practice and preparation and withholding and waiting for some future idea of something better that would never have the chance to arrive?

And so she had cried while waiting in that small room, the possibility of her neurologist walking in on her at any moment making it worse, especially since her neurologist was an abrasive, plump, uncaring German woman with a thick accent who often berated her with cutting, forceful comments about how crying never got anyone anywhere. But as bad as that day was, it soon passed; as does its memory, and for some reason, instead of making Diana’s anxiety and performance worse, the revisiting of this memory somehow eases her nerves and helps her get back on rhythm just in time for the entire band to surge into a tight, energetic coda.

Then, a few seconds later, amid the watery crash of Jon’s cymbals, the urgent wail of Theresa’s vocals, the spiral staircase of Jerry’s arpeggios, the flitting wisps of the past, and the looming shadows of the future, Diana settles into a moment that is absent of color and key and memory and emotion. It is a moment in which the world and her life are free from the circle, free from what came before, free from what will come in the days ahead. It is a perfect interval, a fifth, a fourth, and it is not confined to one place on the circle. It exists everywhere: in major and in minor, in past and in present, within her and without. It is a moment in which she is alive; it is a moment in which she is no longer afraid.


Steve Gergley is a writer and runner based in Warwick, New York. His fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in After the Pause, Barren Magazine, Maudlin House, Pithead Chapel, and Five on the Fifth, amongst others. In addition to writing fiction, he has composed and recorded five albums of original music. Follow him on Twitter here and visit his website here.

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