• Story alerts
  • Letter to Editor
  • Pin it

I was 11 and I had been pleading for a piano for a long time. My parents weren't musical, and I didn't know anyone who played, so I imagine my yearning for it had something to do with the contrast between religion, which was full of mystery and beauty, and our lives, which lacked both. We spent three hours each Sunday in church, and we believed in the Holy Spirit, resurrection, redemption, and the King James Bible. I sat on the pew and pretended to play, moving my fingers over imaginary keys. To play classical piano, I believed, would lift me like the words Thee and Thou to a state where the air trembled with revelation.

So my parents, who had two children and two incomes, bought Sister Briscoe's piano. If she missed it, I never knew, never even wondered. I began to take lessons from a small-boned neighbor whose hands flaked and reddened with eczema. I rode my bicycle to her house once a week and sat before her plain beige upright piano, the only furniture in a bare carpeted room beyond which we could hear the thumping sounds of her children, forbidden to interrupt the ticking metronome, the playing of scales, the graceless attempts to speak a language that had no words. The double flats and double sharps, the trills, and Italian notations, directing me to play "dolcissimo" or "agitato" made me feel as I had felt when, for a brief period, my parents had hired a French tutor, and I sat in the kitchen of Madame Gregoire, repeating "Comment vous appelez-vous?" True revelation came in a foreign tongue, half understood, still mysterious, not quite translatable.

I won a small piano competition in seventh grade, the first and last of such prizes, and the next year we moved away from the south. A moving truck delivered the piano to a plain wooden house on the edge of the Great Salt Lake, a farm town where irrigation water flowed through ditches and Mormons were everywhere. A woman at church said her sister Beth Ann taught piano in a town 30 miles away at the base of Mount Olympus, and we began commuting there once a week by back roads, crisscrossing the farmland that was slowly disappearing under subdivisions.

The mountain peaks were always white above Beth Ann's house. Like my first piano teacher, she had an ordinary woman's life, one that musical talent had not visibly transformed. Married, devout, and efficient, she had twin boys, one of whom had been deformed in the womb, and a daughter who aspired to be a country-western singer. In her basement she corrected my fingering of Beethoven, Debussy, and Chopin, penciling marks on the chords I'd mangled, the notes I'd missed. The metronome ticked, and her children's footsteps hammered overhead.

Still, I believed that playing the piano would transform my life. I practiced after dinner every night. I played Beethoven's sonatas until the spine of the book broke and the pages were soft at the edges. To make those sounds with my hands would change everything, I thought -- did change everything, when I played well enough. The notes gave pathos to the clouds moving over the Wasatch Mountains, the flat green farmland that I longed to leave, the darkening living room, the women making dinner in every house along my street, the long straight roads, the plain ugly houses and the silvery shimmer of the lake I could see when I stood on our driveway. In the first line of Opus 49, "Sonata Facile," in the falling down trill of those plaintive notes, lay both solace and escape, revelations too mysterious for words.

-- Laura McNeal

Trouble Man

I'm a lousy housekeeper, and by the end of the week dishes are stacked on every available surface of my kitchen. The thought of cleaning them is overwhelming. So I've developed this ritual. I slip my feet into thick, cushy Dansko clogs, tie on an apron my grandmother sewed when I was a girl, put the green plastic tub in the sink, fill it with warm water and biodegradable dish soap, and carefully lower in as many crusty bowls and plates as possible. Then I turn on Marvin Gaye's Trouble Man. It begins with a two-beat wail -- whaa-whaa, ohh-whaa -- whatever instrument it is, it sounds like a voice, like it's singing, whaa-whaa, ooh-whaa, like a creature from another world who's made contact with us earthlings. And then the horns echo it, as if we earthlings have caught on and we're signaling that we come in peace.

The music turns lively, upbeat. It's perfect music to listen to standing up. I dance around the kitchen as I carry dishes to the sink, carry dishes from the drainer to the hutch my boom box sits on top of. I break out a bottle of organic brown rice sake I bought at the same place as the biodegradable dish soap. Trouble Man is the soundtrack to a 1972 blaxploitation film that's no longer in print. It's a soundtrack that has outlived its movie. So now the movie is me washing the dishes, and I'm feeling pretty good. The kitchen table is half cleared, the dish soap smells like oranges, and the sake is kicking in.

When I found a washed out video of Trouble Man on eBay, I snapped it up. It's an action flick where actors jump backwards before fists hit their jaws, so their backward plummets look more like spasms of some neurological condition than any effect of a fight. Mr. T., the hero played by the impenetrable Robert Hooks, is a debonair private eye, with more of a sense of politics and community than James Bond. The film opens with a long tracking shot of Mr. T in a luxury sedan on the Los Angeles freeways. The title song blares through the speakers of his car radio. We don't know where he's going, he's just moving, and the camera follows him with the unnerving distance with which it later followed O.J. Simpson's flight into Brentwood. Throughout the film Mr. T doesn't say much, but he seems never to stop thinking. He's always one step ahead of the game. The scarcity of words on the soundtrack is emblematic. When Gaye's voice breaks through it's usually as a moan or a sigh. Trouble Man, the soundtrack, is not about action or representation, but about a state of being, and the film only slightly more so. In Trouble Man's dystopic mindscapes, community is everything, but nothing helps the angst, the existential pain of being alone; thus the retreat to the nonverbal.

  • Story alerts
  • Letter to Editor
  • Pin it

More from SDReader

More from the web

Comments

Sign in to comment