Suburban Soliloquy #87




Before I was born, there was a piano in our apartment in the Bronx. On the fourteenth of June 1943, my father and mother were working at different jobs in Manhattan. Lou, my father, telephoned Esther, my mother, to meet him for lunch. It being the first year anniversary of their marriage, Esther was convinced he would be surprising her with a good robe, a hostess robe, for which she had been arduously hinting. They ate lunch without him ever mentioning their anniversary and no flat box was pulled out from under the table. She was convinced her husband of one year had forgotten. Later that evening, when she arrived home, there in the living room of their one-bedroom apartment was an Otto Altenburg baby grand.

Despite promises, my mother never learned to play it, but my older sister did. A musical instrument, particularly the piano, was de rigueur of bourgeois refinement. I remember her performing pieces from a yellow book, Schirmer's Sonatina Album. She still reads music. To this day she occasionally plays on an electric keyboard in her Berkeley apartment from Margaret Bradford Boni's Fireside Book of Folk Songs.

Underneath that piano I took refuge from my parents during one of their clamorous fights.
My older sister crawled under the piano to hold me and yell at them, "can't you see what you're doing to him!"

As a child, I wasn't interested in music lessons, but as a teenager I asked my parents for piano lessons. A year of piano lessons went badly for me. My teacher, Mr Jack, had me practicing children's pieces. What more could I expect since I was a beginner? I was not prepared to practice those boring pieces ad nauseam, so I was never very good. Then came the required once-a-year performance expected of all Mr Jack's students. It took place in one of the music rooms of the local high school in front of a gathering of proud parents. I absolutely did not want to participate, but Mr Jack insisted it was required. There was even a correct way to bow that I had to learn, which was from the waist and very low. I was forced to it by my parents, who were oblivious to the affect this would have on me.

A girl, years younger, had remarkable fingers that pranced effortlessly through a difficult etude by Chopin. My far simpler performance with clumsy fingers followed hers. My humiliation was unbearable. Mortified beyond repair, I quit my piano lessons. Indeed, I refused to endure the shame of learning any musical instrument.

It didn't mean I didn't love music. While I believed my thick, short fingers were never intended for musical instruments, yet music is the ears' ecstasy. Even this Atheist can't help but wonder if music isn't proof of God, the only convincing proof. And like God, music is unimaginable to those who are not in possession of it. Music cannot be described in any terms other than itself.

This evening I am thinking about the passion I've derived from listening to music. For two years I have been plagued with the onset of tinnitus for which there is no cure. More recently I have been cursed with infections in both my ear canals that have temporarily devastated my hearing - at least my doctor has assured me it is only temporary to mitigate my morbid state of mind. I have been deprived of what comes closest to being God for me.

I had returned to school in the autumn of 1974. I was going to Ricker College in Houlton, Maine, and there I became enamored with a very beautiful woman named Robin. One day she found me in the lounge of the dormitory playing those stupid pieces Mr Jack had me learn. Well, I had been practicing them from memory for a decade and they no longer seemed stupid. I had the courage to bring feeling to my performance. The music was simplified versions of Bach and you certainly cannot go wrong with Johann Sebastian Bach. Robin, thinking I could read music, ran to her room and returned with sheets of music for me to play. It was embarrassing to admit I couldn't read music. She pressed. Okay, hardly read music. She pressed harder. So I learned to play Vārvindar Friska, a Swedish spring song. I would play it and she would sing along, in Swedish, in her operatic voice. That was as close as I ever got to her.

It was not the end of my musical career. The summer before my first marriage I was living with my parents, who now owned a three-bedroom ranch house in Levittown, Pennsylvania. The same Otto Altenburg piano had traveled with them from the Bronx. In the piano bench I found some of my sister's old sheet music. So while I waited for Matsui-san, my first wife, to return from Japan, I learned to play Beethoven's Für Elise. When she arrive, Matsui-san, who could play piano spectacularly, helped to correct all my mistakes. Eventually I memorized the piece. It never failed to impress at the first performance, but it soon became a joke among my dearest friends and the family that came with my second marriage to Ms Keogh because it was all I could play.

I acquired the piano when I acquired my parents' house in Levittown. That Otto Altenburg is gone now. My father, when he was alive, insisted that it possessed a Steinway harp, which, because of an imperfection that didn't affect its performance, was demoted to a second. This was never true. The piano experts came to give us a quote. They opened a book and could point to the piano's serial number. It identified "our" piano and it was never a Steinway. It wasn't even an Altenburg. Altenburg bought it on the cheap and welded their name over the original forgotten name. Also, that imperfection was a crack. Also, with age and careless moving, a second and more serious crack had developed, one which the experts regarded dangerous. The harp was useless and the piano experts would not buy it. They were willing to take it for its beautiful fruitwood cabinet. The price they offered covered the cost of having them move it.

At my New Year's Eve party of 1982, my friendship with Ms Keogh was expanded to something more, underneath that piano. We fell asleep with her wrapped in my arms and when we woke New Year's Day 1983 I was still embracing her. On the seventh of March 2005 we will have been married eighteen years.

Bruce Bentzman

This essay is the most recent in a series of regular reports from the life and times of Mr Bentzman. If you've any comments or suggestions, the writer would be pleased to hear from you.
Mr Bentzman's collection of poems, "Atheist Grace" is available from Amazon, as are "The Short Stories of B.H.Bentzman"