Friday, September 23, 2011

Piano Girl

I ran home as fast as my legs could carry me. I had to be first, I just had to. My burgeoning musical career counted on it. I did the math in my head, over and over, not believing this could actually happen.

65 dollars...65 dollars...that's all I need...65 dollars...

My chorus teacher had just pulled two of us aside and presented us with an opportunity.

"Now that we have a new piano for the high school, I am moving the high-school piano over to the middle school," he said. "And that means I need to find a new home for the old piano in the middle school. Whichever one of you can put $65 in my hands first gets a piano. And I will even deliver it."

I looked at the other student, who was my some-time adversary. The two of us had been teaching ourselves how to play piano on small keyboards, which was the best our financially struggling families could do. We had worked together to accompany the choir before, but mostly we were in competition with each other for the unofficial title of "most musical" in our grade. I didn't know how quickly he could hit his parents up for money, but I had just started taking piano lessons from an actual human teacher instead of a hand-me-down instruction book. Two-and-a-half octaves on my Yamaha were not cutting it. In a rare moment of aggressiveness, I decided I was getting that piano. Even if I had to throw someone under the wheels to do it.

I got home so quickly that afternoon that my dad hadn't left for work yet. Mom was home early. I exhaled for the first time since the bell had rung. Being able to make my case to both of them would save me precious time.

Like Ralphie in A Christmas Story when he finally got to tell Santa what he really wanted for Christmas, I took a deep breath and rattled off my argument in one long, unbroken stream of pleading.

"Mr. Durham said he needs to get rid of the middle-school piano because he got a new one for the high school and the old high-school one is going to the middle school and whoever gives him $65 first gets it and he will even borrow a truck and deliver it if someone can help him get it into the house and the bottom octave doesn't sound really good but I can work around it and it's really the only chance I'll get to have a piano and I really need a full-sized piano to keep practicing the songs Ms. Judd wants me to practice and if you do this for me I swear it can be my Christmas present and birthday present and everything for the whole entire year so can I?"

My parents looked at me the way a scientist studies a new bacterium under a microscope: part awe, part confusion, part concern for the future.

"Don't you have almost that much money in your savings account from the $50 prize you won in the 5th grade?"

Oh, God. I had forgotten about that. I had won an essay contest sponsored by the PTA in honor of the 100th anniversary of the dedication of the Statue of Liberty. My ability to wax poetic in regards to Lady Liberty was about to pay off in a way I hadn't even thought about when my dad forced me to use my winnings to start an interest-earning savings account instead of starting a sticker collection like I had wanted to do.

Dad fished out the bank statements he had been saving to teach me all about interest and the importance of saving money. I hadn't particularly cared, mostly because the statements involved math, which I tried to avoid as much as possible. Suddenly I cared a great deal. Nearly four years of sitting in an account and occasionally being augmented by quarters dug out from under couch cushions had gotten the account to just shy of sixty bucks.

"I think we can put ten dollars in on a piano," Dad said. And with that he left for work and left me to hitch a ride with Mom to the bank and then to the band room in the hope that it wasn't too late.

As luck would have it, my teacher was still there. As luck would not have it, so was my frenemy. The select choir was still practicing. This was a sore point; I had auditioned for and not gotten one of  three alto spots while my adversary had easily gotten on the bass squad. While I had not won that battle, I was about to win the war.

My teacher saw me running into the band room and smiled mischieviously.

"Yes? Do you have something for me?"

I held out a white banking envelope with crisp bills inside.

"I have the $65. Is the piano still available?"

He looked at the other student, questioning. The bass shrugged.

"She was first with the money while I've been here practicing. It's hers."

I felt the subtle dig, but I didn't care. I had a piano. I hoped that someday my fellow musician would find it in his heart to forgive me. But if he didn't...well, I could cry about it over my new instrument.

Several days after purchase, my dad and my chorus teacher unloaded an old, worn spinet into our house. The only place it could go was in the kitchen, but it fit perfectly on the wall behind our dining table. Like it was meant to be. Dad left for work and I had the house to myself. My fingers touched the keys and I began to play. And for years, I didn't stop.

In one of life's twists, I later started dating the guy I stole the piano from. I think he forgave me long before we became husband and wife, though one can never be sure. He eventually had a piano of his own, an aesthetically beautiful instrument much nicer than the one he lost. When you're talented and your family recognizes your talent, things have a way of happening. He started taking lessons from my piano teacher, and his ability soon eclipsed mine. Once it did, I didn't much feel like playing anymore. He was truly gifted as a pianist, and I had other things to compete with and other people to compete against. I didn't touch a piano in any serious way after my junior year in high school. And eventually Mom got rid of the old piano I so eagerly raced home to get. Priorities changed.

Recently, we welcomed our first shared piano into our home. Like my old piano, it was a deal too good to pass up. Someone needed a piano gone quickly and asked a price I knew we wouldn't see again. My daughter's skill was starting to surpass the available keys on my old Yamaha keyboard. (My mother had kept that all these years; she said she knew my child would need it someday.)

When the piano movers showed up, I had a few quiet moments with the instrument all to myself. I touched the keys and began to play an old, favorite melody. Some things you just don't forget.

I thought of the incredible joy I used to get from playing. And then the pride I felt when I watched my then-boyfriend play in college. And how now I feel both whenever our daughter makes either her guitar or her keyboard her first stop after homework is complete.

And to think that the seeds were sown one afternoon long ago when I rushed into the band room with my life savings and tried to break my future husband's heart.

1 comment:

Robert K. said...

Great story. :) The smile this put on my face is a nice start to my Friday morning.