By Margaret Farrar
I am seven, and waiting for my first piano lesson. I’m wearing a green-plaid uniform skirt with a matching green vest over a white blouse with a Peter Pan collar. The chair I’m sitting on has a sticky vinyl seat, and my feet don’t touch the floor.
Mr. M. greets my mother and me. He’s a short, barrel-chested man, a few years younger than my middle-aged father. He wears tuxedo pants left over from some long-ago wedding gig paired with a denim work shirt, inky pens spilling out of his breast pocket. He leads me into a tiny room that has a piano on one wall and an organ on the other. The room is so narrow that you could play both instruments at once, sitting on a bench between them.
Mr. M. plays middle C, has me do the same, and then corrects my hand position. I glower at him, and he makes a silly face.
I’m nine, and worried because I haven’t practiced enough this week. I sit in the same chair, waiting, and my hands are sweaty, clutching my piano book. The Music Shoppe—spelled this way to make it seem fancier than it is—has bells on the doorknob, and they jangle with insistence every time someone enters or leaves. Mr. M. thinks the pretentious spelling is ridiculous and calls the store the Shoppy just to annoy the owner.
Once we’re sequestered in the back room, I fight my way through “Zoom Zoom Speedboat.” Halfway through, Mr. M. begins to sing along. He sings his own lyrics, which recount how Zoom Zoom Speedboat plowed headlong into the dock, knocking over Johnny’s family and possibly drowning Johnny’s bratty little sister. I help him with lyrics for the next verse, and my playing improves substantially.
I am 12, and annoyed that Mr. M. won’t let me grow my nails past the tips of my fingers. This feminine vanity apparently detracts from my performance when my nails tap against the keys.
“Real pianists don’t click,” Mr. M. says.
“I’m not a real pianist,” I remind him sullenly, and break the binding of my piano book when I open it to “Sonata in C.” I am convinced that Mr. M.’s strange restrictions are the only things that stand between me and fabulous popularity at school.
I’m 17, and my mother has disowned me, but what that really means is that I can’t use the car. Since I am working nearly full time at the Shoppe, Mr. M. takes me home each evening in his girlfriend’s ’81 Monte Carlo.
This evening, he pulls down the visor to retrieve his sunglasses, and I spy a girlie photo taped up there: a kneeling brunette with red lips and giant breasts. Mr. M. looks embarrassed for half a second and then lets out a cackle.
“Never take rides from strangers,” he says solemnly, and puts the car in gear.
I’ve noticed that Mr. M. flirts mercilessly with all the rich women whose children he instructs at the piano. He pays them compliments, and they pull their Louis Vuitton checkbooks out of matching purses, smiling. One woman also has a Louis Vuitton diaper bag, and Mr. M. and I laugh about it for days.
I am twenty, and home from college, working late at The Music Shoppe. New shipments of sheet music and trumpets arrived today, and I’m sorting, filing, polishing, stacking. Mr. M. is waiting for me to finish, playing idly on piano and organ, sometimes both at once. I’ve written him two letters from college. He replied to one of them, twenty-three months after I’d sent it.
A voice instructor comes in to pick up her paycheck. She’s a university music student with the worst case of cystic acne I’ve ever seen. She joins Mr. M. in the back room, and scats along to his little melodies. Before long, Mr. M. is crunching away back there: noxious chords that require facial contortions and grunting to sound right. The voice teacher is swinging so sweetly above it, riding it like a wave.
I’m twenty-two, and my mother is getting remarried. Mr. M. plays at the wedding, and my sister and I sing. These days, Mr. M. is always sucking on black coffee and popping white Tic Tacs, automatic motions borrowed from other ancient habits.
While the guests are drinking and congratulating, Mr. M. and I sit on the stairs, in our tired wedding finery. We talk about my parents and his parents, weddings, futures. He tells me he wants to learn electrical engineering, get out of music—it’s so unstable, he says.
I am twenty-six, and I’m engaged. My fiancé played in a band for years; he and Mr. M. get along famously. Between Mr. M.’s lessons, we all sit in a coffee shop and talk about jazz and history.
“Was she a good student?” asks my fiancé.
“She was my best student,” says Mr. M. I understand that he does not mean of the piano.
We ask Mr. M. to play at our wedding. Of course, he says.
I’m twenty-eight, and neither engaged nor married now; I’ve joined the ranks of those whose relationships are complicated and whose futures are in flux. Visiting from out of state, I drive to the Music Shoppe in my mother’s car. The bells clang when I enter.
“I’m here to see Mr. M.,” I tell the teenage girl at the counter, listening for his voice, his playing.
“I’m sorry,” she says. “He died last year. Were you one of his students? It was sudden,” the girl explains. “His heart gave out.” She sounds apologetic, as though she were responsible for it all.
“Thanks for letting me know,” I say. I think about the ways a heart can give out even if one is still alive in the world, walking around.
“Would you like to sit down?” She gestures to the vinyl-cushioned chairs.
I am fifty-two. Though he’s been gone for most of my adult life, Mr. M.’s presence still looms large. I never mastered proper hand position, but have retained my love of Oscar Peterson, Bill Evans, and Ahmad Jamal. What Mr. M. gave me was something more than piano lessons: it was a sensibility, a way of seeing the world, insight into a particular kind of soul. There’s something magical, I think, about lucking into a transgenerational friendship with an adult who treats you as a person in your own right. Would our connection even be possible today, when middle-class kids are tightly tethered to their parents and stories about children’s vulnerability and predatory adults fill our news feeds and haunt our dreams? I’m not sure. But there’s a lot to learn about being human in the years between seven and 30, and our teachers aren’t always who we might expect them to be.
And I still play the piano.
Margaret Farrar is a Cleveland-based writer, photographer, and educator. She has a Ph.D. in political science and is the author of the book Building the Body Politic and numerous scholarly articles. She lives with her husband and son and is currently revising her first novel. Find out more at www.margaretefarrar.com.