Thursday, September 24, 2009

The Last Piano Lesson

Eva Smith was my first piano teacher. She was a beautiful African American woman well into her seventies. Lessons were no more than fifty cents a pop yet came with so much history and joy. Her students were mostly the black children who lived on the fringe of our town. Everything about her in this piece of fact/fiction is spot on. I owe my world of music to her patience and love for piano.

The Last Piano Lesson.

Every Thursday after school, Charlene would arrive a half hour early for her piano lesson. Ms Evelyn’s sizable back lot, thick with ragweed, wildflowers and tall grass, was enough landscape for a young girl’s imagination run wild with fantasy. Charlene would quickly dash back of the stately wood frame manor, then disappear in the overgrowth, defying wind as she cut an Olympic path through tall blades of blue grass and goldenrod. Wind bowed Tea Roses slumped near the edge of a window box attached to Ms Evelyn’s makeshift conservatory.

Charlene would sprint past pretending to eavesdrop on their conversation then regain top speed. She made friends among the undergrowth, small beings who awaited her weekly arrival then collapse among dried leaves of deciduous plants, gasp for breath, close her eyes, then inhale the garden’s sweet confection. As moisture rose through the wall of her throat she’d guide each syllable through small passage producing the most glorious tone.

“Mona Lisa, Mona Lisa, men have named you, you’re so like the lady with the mystic smile. Is it only ‘cause you’re lonely, they have blamed you for that Mona Lisa strangeness in your smile”.

It was three days beyond Charlene's fourteenth birthday. Up to now she held emotion in check growing from an awkward child into a young woman sleek of figure, skin polished to an ebony sheen. Hope, aspiration and a tremendous will would serve her well in the coming years.

“Are you singing something special for me Charlene?”, asks Ms Evelyn.

“Oh, Ms Evelyn, I’m coming,” she says, then hesitates. ”

“I can’t talk to you through that screen door. Come on in and let me dry you off.”

Charlene carefully slips past the rusted screen trying not to attract any permanent stain to her new birthday dress. Evelyn takes notice of the long trail of perspiration,.

“Don’t sit on the sofa child until I dry you off! Stand there until I get back.”

Ms.Evelyn quietly disappears into one of the unseen rooms of the manor and returns with a small white towel.

“Ms. Evelyn, I just don’t feel like the person that was here last week.”

“Of course you don’t feel like the girl who was here last week, you’re a young woman now. You’re fourteen and start to think things a woman thinks. .”

Evelyn lifts Charlene’s thick tightly wound braids and lightly presses the folded towel along the upper shoulders and slender neck then falls silent as if lured into a dream state by something familiar but yet faraway.

“You are the most beautiful creation mother of the universe has ever given. Look at you, your skin is as black as the coal my father lifted from the bottom of those hills in Harlan County and your eyes clear as mountain spring water.

Charlene listens then faces her teacher. “See how much I’ve changed.”

Ms. Evelyn lifts an eye pretending to examine the young pupil.

“Ms Evelyn, do you like Mona Lisa ?”

“Who don’t like Mona Lisa? Are you talking about the painting or Nat Cole’s Mona Lisa,” inquires Ms Evelyn.

“The song Mona Lisa! You know I just don’t think the songs you’re teaching say much. We’ve done played Hanon, Clementi, Czerny - it all exercised my fingers. You know I love Chopin, Brahms and Mozart but they’re just notes without words. When King Cole sings Mona Lisa, Mona Lisa, I feel he’s talking about me - I am that painting on the wall.”

“Is this about music or have you fallen in love?” Evelyn asks.

“Ms Evelyn, I’m always in love. I can’t help myself - I’m surrounded by love. Mom calls me her Nubian princess and dad says I’m an African queen, daughter of the Pharaohs. Aunt Emma prays evil away, sings me spirituals. Sister Angie’s my best friend. How much more love can I take?”

Ms. Evelyn directs Charlene towards the old upright piano. “Girl, we’ll talk more next week but right now I’ve got to put some knowledge in your head.”

Charlene positions herself directly in front of middle C then arranges her slim fingers directly over ten partially chipped white keys she’d played a hundred times before. Ms Evelyn conducts the downbeat with an inch and half hook nail curled beneath the second finger. An arthritic hand unfolds exposing the strange appendage -making it look more like a falcon’s claw than human.

Charlene’s first encounter with the ghoulish joint sent her squealing all the way to papa’s lap. Dr. Logan soothed his six-year-old daughter then placed her back atop the oak veneer bench. Ms Evelyn just laughed, fetched some candy corns from a crystal jar, spreading a few along the keyboard. Young Charlene moistened her middle finger, tapped until one stuck, then lifted to her mouth. This pleased Ms Evelyn as she gradually acquired the young girl’s confidence.

Ms Evelyn was a beautiful woman in her early seventies. Both sides her cheekbones were covered in red rouge smeared in circular patterns. Cold cream rubbed deep in her silky brown skin making her look like an precious Christmas ornament. Every item of clothing hung at natural length on her diminutive frame. The signature red-rubber boots worn rain or shine were always polished to a reflective mirror finish. Whether sitting in front of Calvin’s Cafe waiting for the Utica bus or weeding her wildflower garden, the shiny red boots were Ms Evelyn’s calling card.

As Charlene depressed each note a hammer would strike three inharmonious strings. The sound was ungodly. If one could imagine dueling riverboat calliope’s you‘d begin to understand what Charlene was up against.

“Ms Evelyn why don’t you ever tune this thing?” Charlene begs.

“Its just like it was when my husband Pastor Wilkins was around young girl. He’d smoke his favorite cheery blend over there and smile approvingly. If it sound good to him, it sound good to me”.

“But Ms Evelyn how am I going to sound good to you if you never tune this tired piano?”

“Young lady, that piano will never be tired or fail to deliver if you play the notes correctly,” a rather taken Ms Evelyn responds.

Charlene quietly goes about her lesson. As she labors through Hanon exercise number thirty-five, she suddenly halts play, pauses, and then looks Ms Evelyn in the eyes.

“I’ll never be a great concert pianist. I could never memorize a book thick with classical notes. Ms Evelyn, what I want more than anything is to sing and play like Nat King Cole. I just can’t relate to these old men with bad hair perms.”

“Charlene, you know what you’re saying? ”

“Nat’s beautiful, Ms Evelyn. His face is so smooth. His manners, the soul in his voice touches me like no other man in them books.” Charlene, realizing what she had just said, buries her eyes in the pleats of her dress.

“Look at me, Charlene! Your words ring true. I see something in you so different from the other students. You hear, feel and breath music like God picked you special. It was the same for me when I was just a bit older.”

“Ms Evelyn, you like the blues too?”

“Charlene, when I was twenty-two I got a call from the father of the blues, W.C. Handy. He said his piano player got a temporary job at the world’s fair and I’d come highly recommended. He also said there’d be a train ticket waiting for me to Memphis and he’d be there to meet me . Do you know how scared I was?”

“Did you go?” Charlene asks.

“Of course I went! Do you know how many evenings we sat around my mother’s house singing St. Louis Blues? Oh, I love that song. People don’t play it right no more. It’s a spiritual! Scoot over young lady, let me show you what I mean.”

Ms Evelyn had never played a note for Charlene. She taught by waving her slender arms like a miniature Toscanini, then jabbing her pencil into a collection of Walter Thompson etudes and minuets. She’d say “No, no, no. Did I teach you to play like that? Start from the top ‘til you play it right.”

Ms Evelyn didn’t scare Charlene. She cared for the notes she was playing, even the bad ones.

Ms Evelyn placed her weather-beaten hands in G minor position, began rolling a sorrowful passage. Her voice opened with the phrase “I hate to see the ev’nin’ sun go down.” She paused, and then listened as if to hear a chorus of angelic voices repeat her words. “Hate to see--the ev’nin sun go down. Cause-ma baby, he done left this town.” She then skipped a couple verses and got to her favourite lines. “St. Louis woman, with her diamond rings, pulls that man around by her apron strings. Twant for powder and for store-bought hair, the man I love-would not gone nowhere.”

“Charlene, you hear that B flat, that’s the blue note. Come here child and put your middle finger on it.” Charlene slowly extended her lanky arm over Ms Evelyn and depressed the black note. “Honey, that’s you. That’s your history, that’s your sorrow, that’s your joy. That’s your grand folks. That’s community, Thats spirit. That’s your ancestors blood spread all along railroad tracks and over every field where the tall grass grow down south. You’re home young one, you’re home.”

Ms Evelyn rose from her stool, and walked to a cedar chest next to the china cabinet. She lovingly removes photographs of Pastor Wilkins, then folds each doily, carefully placing them on the dining room table. After lifting the heavy cedar lid, she dips her slender arm under an assortment of lace, crochet, Afghans and heavy quilts. Ms Evelyn pulls a magnificent tapestry up from the crowded storage. With the caution of a museum curator, she unfolds the scholarly find, drapes it across her lap. Gold tassels adorned the outer rim, with the name Evelyn Smith
embroidered in the middle over a picture of downtown St. Louis. Charlene kneels next to Ms Evelyn then gently massages the threads linking each letter of her name.

“Ms Evelyn, this is the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen. The world should know about you. You’re probably the most famous person nobody’s heard about.”

“Charlene, Ms Evelyn don’t need to be famous. Mr. Handy told me all I need to know. If the music is inside you and you keep talkin’ it out, it will one day flow like an endless river releasing you from uninvited pain and sorrow, bringing God’s love. You’ve got to be aware of what it’s saying.”

“Ms Evelyn, that’s just what I’ve been trying to explain to you. I hear it so deep and true. There are times my soul weeps when I hear hateful words. The ones that try to shame the color of my skin,my mother, and her mother. There’s something in those piano notes that tell me I am the Mona Lisa in the painting, half smiling, half crying, and that God will look after me.”

“Charlene, you have African blood in your veins. You are part of a proud people going back to the beginning of time. All of our trials and tribulations flow like tributaries from the heel of your foot to the top of your head. You hear the blues, the screams of your ancestors, the laughter of children, the heartbeat in a mother’s stomach, prayers in testament. You are beauty, you are grace, above all very much alive. It’s time you move on.”

“Move on?”

“That’s right Charlene. Everybody’s got to face change”

“But Ms Evelyn, I’m just getting to know you.”

“Charlene, you come and see me anytime, and we’ll speak as women about all things, but there’s no more I can do to help you play the music you hear. I’m not a modern teacher. I don’t understand sophisticated harmony and complex chord movement. This you must find with someone more educated in contemporary thought. This will have to be our last lesson.”

Charlene begins crying uncontrollably. “What about your backyard?

I’ll miss the tall grass and the smell of wildflowers.”

“Of course you will, I’ve got to cut them sometime,” Ms Evelyn
responds. “Life is about change. Even I’m thinking about learning to drive a car. Every few years I’ve got to learn something new. That’s why my mind is always young even though my body keeps changing. I love you Charlene, you’re my most favorite student ever. Now go out and send in your dad, we’ve got to speak. Remember, you can come and visit anytime you want.”

“Ms Evelyn, are you sick?”

“Why do you ask that child?”

“Us women don’t need to keep secrets from each other, right?”.

“Charlene, you don’t need to know my personal secrets.”

“Ms Evelyn, you’re not feeling well. I can see that.

“Child, it’s really none of your business.’

“I knew it, you’re hiding something terrible from me, aren’t you.”

“Please Charlene, keep it to yourself. Nobody but me and you need to know. You saw my hands tremble on those notes. I’m afraid it’s only going to get worse; at least that’s what them doctor’s say. Remember, this is between me and you.”

“ But you said you’re going to drive a car?”

“I know what I said Charlene. There are nights I cover myself in bed and cry like a baby girl. Sometimes the pain is more than I can bear. This house has been dark all the years since Pastor Wilkins passed away. When you kids come its like someone switches on the sunlight, but when you leave darkness sits wherever it feels. I hear Pastor Wilkins’ sweet voice whisper , ‘just a little longer Eve, just stay a little longer, the children need you, I can wait’. They say you’ll know when your time comes, just like you know when it all begins. Charlene, my work is done. You’re my masterpiece. Go git your dad.”

“But Ms Evelyn”...

Charlene sits for a moment, then begins crying. She slowly rises, walks behind Ms Evelyn and curls her arms around the old woman’s neck, then presses the soft flesh of her lips next to her cheek. A steady row of tears meet the saliva from her mouth causing Evelyn’s makeup to spoil.

“Charlene, you’re making a mess of me.”

“I don’t want you to die. I’m scared for you.”

“Charlene, I’m not scared to die. I’ve seen all I need to see. The good Lord delivered me and my family from the fields of Alabama and showed us the way north. I met the love of my life and five grown children later I got to see the world. Singapore, Bombay, Istanbul, the Belgian Congo, all these places I can still hear the children’s voices laughing and taste the midnight air. How many will ever have such a beautiful complete life? And look at the past twenty years with all of the children who passed through that doorway and left with a song in their heart. I have nothing to feel sorry about or for that matter nothing to fear.”

“ I’m so sorry Ms Evelyn. You’re right, it ain’t none of my business, I think I’d better leave now. Can I see you next week?”

“A young woman can always make a social call.”

Charlene squeezes past the large presence of Dr. Logan then timidly walks back of the manor and climbs the decaying porch stairs. She studies the vast uneven terrain, closes her eyelids and savors the humid air. She then blindly walks forward as if summoned by a benign stranger. Her long arms unfold, cross, then rise gently over her shoulders . The overpowering fragrance of an isolated flower awakens her from a temporary dream state. One long thorny stalk of a single rose with petals curved by the sun’s rays hangs silently only inches from her face. The plant rising near eight feet seems to be conducting a rapacious movement to some unfinished symphony.

Charlene cautiously pulls the stem near and sinks nose and mouth deep into the petals, then dusts her face and neck before snapping the limb separating the flower from its life source. “Forgive me, it’s only one,” she says as if addressing a thousand jurors. Minutes pass as she walks slowly back to the front porch then places the broken stem holding the single rose in Ms. Evelyn’s wicker chair. She positions the flower so that it rests in the centre part of the thin cushion, then climbs into the back seat of Dr. Logan’s ‘58 Olds, rolls over and begins sobbing. Within moments her voice unleashes the most beautiful sentimental tone. “Mona Lisa, Mona Lisa men have named you, you’re so like the lady with the mystic smile. Is it only ‘cause you’re lonely, they have blamed you, for that Mona Lisa strangeness in your smile.” Charlene tucks her face deep into the warm leather upholstery and drifts peacefully to sleep.

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