We were waiting for our Saturday afternoon carpool at the end of Hebrew school and my mother was late to pick us up. Yours? Never was. But sometimes, my mother would say, the car wouldn’t start. Or she’d tried to fit in a run to the store for groceries, and the lines were longer than she’d expected. Or Davey had made yet another godawful mess in the garage, and she knew there’d be hell to pay if she let the glue dry where it was.
So we got used to having time to sit and wait. Time to explore the empty hallways of Bradley Elementary, called into service as a makeshift Saturday school for our congregation’s children.
I’d missed a week for something — maybe an uncle or aunt on my father’s side — and that morning your eyes were wide with the excitement of a secret you couldn’t bear to contain any longer.
“That’s right — it’s your mom today! Do we have time?” I hesitated; honestly, I had no idea what you were talking about. But you grabbed my hand and pulled me back into the hallway with the deft, quick confidence of a TV spy slipping past a line of guards.
The door to the gymnasium was ajar; the room itself empty, bright and cavernous, echoing our steps on the broad, varnished hardwood floor.
“Look — there.” You pointed to the corner where folded bleachers abutted a small stage, at the base of which was a battered upright piano. I looked, not understanding, and you pulled me closer.
You whispered, as though it were a secret: “It’s unlocked.”
It seemed like a strange thing for you to say; but then, I had never thought much about pianos. It wouldn’t have occurred to me that locking was something that could be done to them. Regardless, there it was: a piano. And yes, it was unlocked. Still, what I saw was a piece of furniture. But for you, eyes bright and wide with excitement, it gleamed like the open door to Aladdin’s cave. You pulled me — still uncomprehending — to sit at your side on the bench and flipped back the fall.
So I watched. Your fingers hovered over the keys, motionless for a moment, then darted downward in a blur, dancing like hummingbirds. And the room came alive with a sound that, even today, feels like the laughter of God.
I understand there’s some debate over the proper tempo for Number 8: Hall plays it in 54 seconds, while Gould stretches it out to a lackadaisical 65. It doesn’t matter. Seeing you play that morning, feeling the music wash over me — it was a baptism, an initiation. And as you led me, again holding my hand, away from the gym (“We ought to be getting back; Your mother may be waiting.”), I was lost in an afterglow, like the very nature of the air around me had changed, and I was feeling it, breathing it for the first time.
I begged my mother for lessons. No, of course I knew I would never be able to draw magic from the keyboard the way you did, but I had to try, even if I would never be more than a sorcerer’s apprentice, stumbling over musical buckets and brooms as I tried to follow in your footsteps.
Your teacher explained to my parents that, at thirteen, I was perhaps a bit old to be starting if I were to become a “serious” pianist, and she preferred to work with students who aspired to become serious pianists. I pleaded, I promised, and she capitulated. But after the first lesson counseled that one of the instructors from the community college might be more suited to my temperament; of course she would be happy to provide a referral.
[Note: the inspiration for this story was the memory of my sister playing Invention #8 on our family piano when I was a kid, and I thought I’d made everything else up. But on showing my sister a draft, she described how, when she was 12, her best friend Sara led her to an empty classroom where there was an unlocked piano and launched into an effortless, magical rendition of the piece. My sister begged her teacher to take her on as a student, and that was the start of her musical education.
I hadn’t remembered knowing any of this, but I must have heard it from her — the parallels are too close. So this story — a fictional account — is posted with her permission.
And yes, the piano in this story, like the others, is probably also a 1920’s vintage Gulbransen, joining the one that showed up in Martin’s garage, the one that met its improbable airborne end outside of Coalinga, or the one that inadvisedly served as a beer table at The Mermaid.
As always, if you liked this, please share, comment, and/or hit the little clapping hands icon below to give me that encouragement to write more!]