That spring, I was ready to drop piano lessons. I wanted free school day afternoons. I wanted to be driven far out of town in beat-up jalopies at high speeds. Put on greasy lipstick dark as bitter chocolate so that some boy would think I was at least fifteen. I wanted to dangle a lit cigarette and drink gin and gingers in roadside dives, like in the movies. I wanted the boy behind the wheel to say, “Hey, you’re cool and sassy for a girl.”
My mother didn’t fancy my growing up so fast. She said, “Give it one more summer, honey.” Meaning the piano.
I crumbled. “Okay, but that’s it.”
My piano teacher Mrs. Fogg was a very old lady who traced her family back to colonial days around the American Revolution. She had a notable forebear. History books wrote about Aunt Betsy Fogg, famously rude to the troop of Redcoats who galloped up and demanded to sample the fresh-baked pies she had set to cool on her windowsill. She told them to get lost.
Weekday mornings before school my parents sent me out with a milk pail. They liked getting milk steamy and straight from a real cow, and old Mr. Fogg was the farmer who owned that cow. I stood in the barn, watched how to milk a cow, then walked home across the Fogg meadows and fields with my frothing pail. Saturdays I biked over to the historic Fogg farmhouse for my lesson with my Mozart minuets and rondos and thirty-five cents in a cloth change-purse.
My piano teacher had a granddaughter, Consuelo Fogg, who was a baton twirler with the high school marching band. Mrs. Fogg had Consuelo come in during my lesson to do an entire sequence of baton twirling for me. Mrs. Fogg liked talking about Consuelo, and their ancestress Aunt Betsy Fogg. When we actually were doing my lessons, old Mrs. Fogg often had trouble remembering my name was Marcelle. “Da-a-a Capo, Mercedes,” she’d say. “Back to the beginning.”
After I complained about studying the piano, my mother found me a new teacher. Miss Regina Raebury was smarter than any piano teacher I had ever met and she seemed to know a whole lot more. It never occurred to me to ask her where she went to school for her musical education, which would have seemed disrespectful, even insolent.
She lived in a frame house on Prospect Street with her sweet, witchy mother, who had her own pupils and looked like Franz Liszt. The music of numberless keyboards rippled and floated daylong from the Raebury house and out to the sidewalk, along with the rich gamy whiff of a stable as if the pianos gave off their own musical reek. That wasn’t all. The house was tucked in a grove of gingkos that hit you with the pungent, vomity bouquet of the female trees. My Daddy said that was the wrong kind to plant if you knew what you were doing. These were the wrong kind.
When I climbed the porch, where the front door always stood open, I was met by a ferocious racket of dogs, leaping, growling, barking, snarling, but always out of sight. I learned that Great Danes were kept locked up in the Raebury kitchen, and I imagined a pack of angry wolves in a densely odorous fairy-tale forest of piano music. In the foyer by the bathroom Miss Raebury kept a stack of flyers, along with the many volumes of Grove’s Dictionary of Music. The flyers showed her performing in New York City’s Town Hall.
I saw Miss Raebury give a recital once in our town. As she played, she lifted her hands high with the fluttering grace of birds. Between pieces she mopped the keys with her lace handkerchief, for her slim white fingers profusely sweated pearly drops into the ivories.
If I arrived early for my lesson, Miss Raebury had me sit on the sofa and copy pages from Grove’s, mostly about Chopin, how he coughed teacups full of blood in rainswept Majorca and wrote breathtaking music. Once I was done, I read a couple of copies of Seventeen Magazine on the sofa and caught up on the fashions I should be wearing. There were quite a few issues of Seventeen, as most of Miss Raebury’s pupils were girls. I couldn’t understand Miss Raebury’s getting exercised about Chopin and his girlfriend Georges. She told me, “They lived together and they weren’t married. They weren’t married!” So what. I looked at her with eyes bleary from reading the fine print in Groves. I didn’t get it.
Miss Raebury pushed me to play stuff way over my head, from the “Revolutionary Etude” to “The Flight of the Bumblebee.” There was an array of dazzling Chopin waltzes that all seemed to be some version of his “Grande Valse Brillante.” Plus a pert, ragtimey piece written for a girl named “Nola” where the opening beats seemed to collapse out of joint, and a Venetian love song by an American I didn’t know, this Ethelbert Nevin, whose Canzone Amorosa I adored playing since it was old-fashioned and sappy and romantic.” Finally, I wandered through a querulous Schumann fantasy titled “Warum?” that Miss Raebury told me meant “Why?”
I asked no such questions. I never asked why. I plowed on, my head bent, and frowning into the keys I did what I was told. But because of Miss Raebury’s teaching I fell in love with Chopin. I forgot about those boys I wanted to drive around with. My darling new boyfriend was Fryderyk. My piano paramour. Sick and bloody though he was.
Throughout my lessons the dogs barked and the soupy air hung thick with the rankness of a zoo. I got used to it all. Scuffling monster claws clattered along the floor like avalanches of pebbles. Muscular bodies bucked and heaved against the kitchen cabinets, dishes crashed, doors slammed, while Mrs. Raebury yelled and yanked at them, shrieking as if she were being mauled.
They made me think of the Brontë sisters and their mastiffs. When one nipped Emily she cauterized the bite with a burning red-hot poker. Emily also played the piano, very well, as I read. During my lessons I could hear sweet old witchy Mrs. Raebury in the kitchen snapping a whip or a stick or a leash, ordering, “Down, down, down!”
I pictured a dozen Great Danes but maybe there were only two, or three. I never saw them. Along with the smell of dogs, the house was redolent of fried liver. Old Mrs. Raebury, in between teaching the beginner piano kids upstairs, whom I never saw either, cooked her own dog food.
Miss Raebury had a soldier boyfriend stationed at Camp Dix before being sent overseas. One day he walked in, right in the middle of my lesson in his khaki uniform. Grinning joyfully, he was home from the war. Miss Raebury sprang from the piano. “William, William,” she cried. He soon took up civilian life again as a hairdresser in his father’s salon, and he spent the next years marrying Miss Raebury and styling her blonde, tangled, oily curls. As an artiste she was too unworldly ever to wash her hair or fuss with it but William persisted in shampooing and brushing and getting it back to a lovely fall of golden Rapunzel silk. But by then, I was no longer her pupil.
And here was the most amazing part of my piano lessons. Across the avenue from Miss Raebury’s was a cobbled street of tiny houses with front porches, where, I read many years later when I became a grownup, two writers named Zora Neale Hurston and Langston Hughes had, long, long before, sat on one of those front porches with their typewriters. Here they wrote novels and stories and poems and a play. Here they found serenity and freedom to become authors. I’d read their books, and taught them to my own students before discovering they had once lived and worked in the same town. I marveled that their blissful, auspicious, literary ghosts had hovered nearby while I was studying the piano and falling in love with the beautiful Valses of Fryderyk Chopin.
Marcelle Thiébaux’s most recent story, “SnowGirl,” appeared in December in Volume I Brooklyn. Her stories have been published in the The MacGuffin, DecomP, Delmarva Review, Dogzplot, Grand Central Noir, cream city review, KY Urban Fantasy, Home Planet News, The Griffin, The Penmen Review, Starward Tales, The Ignatian, Forge Journal, Avalon Literary Review and elsewhere. Her collected stories, Wayward Angels, came out in November 2021. Books on medieval themes include The Stag of Love: The Chase in Medieval Literature, and The Writings of Medieval Women. For her fiction, she was granted a Pen & Brush Club Award and a Writer’s Digest Writing Competition Award. She has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize.
[image: piano | Andrik Langfield]