by Elizabeth Brady
Our piano teacher’s name was Fern. She had to be in her nineties, hunched and withered as she was. But her knobby fingers raced across the keys and her tongue was just as sharp. Mom drove me and the boys to her house every week—twenty-five minutes past open fields to the next town. I was in second grade that year, still in oversized Tweety Bird T-shirts and bangs to my eyelashes. Her small house was in an old part of town, the oaks towering above the housetops, branches thicker than I was.
When Fern came to the door, the scent of stale skin and air-dried dog wafted around her. She let us into the front room: floral-patterned couches smothered in fitted clear plastic covers, her poodle sitting squarely in the middle cushion licking his loins, his tongue thwapping against the stiff plastic. Everything was aqua and pink, even the walls. The three of us siblings rock-paper-scissored for who got to have their lesson last.
When the weather was warm, my brothers and I would go outside to the backyard to kill time until our lesson. I remember an empty pool in the yard, oddly shaped—maybe eight feet deep, but hardly long or wide enough to really swim in. There was no shallow end, no gradual descent to the deep. The walls were sheer, concrete sides painted a sunny aqua. Probably intended to be a reflection pool, but it was always empty, a gaping rectangular trap in the small yard. I think there was a bird bath rising from its center, offered up on a thick pillar.
My mom found a note I had scribbled into a pocket spiral notebook. I hate Fern!!! scrawled childishly, endlessly—pages and pages of the notebook dedicated to that single sentence. Mom scolded me, reminded me that Fern was an exceptional piano teacher, very accomplished, that I was lucky to have the lessons, that they were expensive. She also asked me why I wrote what I did, but I didn’t have an answer I could tell her.
I remember other things about piano lessons at Fern’s house. Fern’s poodle looked like it had been antiqued: yellowing white curls tingeing to shades of brown at the edges—muzzle, feet, crotch, eyes. Her backyard was full of crude ornaments: fountains, pillars, arches. The empty, painted pool was smeared with dirty leaves. And while my younger brother practiced scales inside with Fern, his hands spanning whole octaves, the black of flats and sharps, the white of naturals, my older brother’s hands practiced other things with me deep in the blue ugly pool, all black.
I hated her repulsive poodle. I hated her stupid plastic couches. I hated her dyed-red hair. I hated how old she was. I hated her backyard. I hated that deep pit of blue. I hated the steeling of my stomach as we turned into her drive. I hated the feel of it. Constricting and compacting and digging deep into the bowl of my belly every minute I wasn’t at the piano.
I don’t remember the name of the poodle. I don’t remember Fern’s husband being around. Or kids. I don’t remember if she had glasses or dentures. I don’t remember the sound of her voice or how long I took lessons from her or what pieces I played or the sudden suppleness of fingers before a recital. I don’t remember anywhere beyond the backyard and the piano room.
I practiced half an hour daily on our upright Samick. I loved the reading—deciphering this new language of white and black, loved the thrill of my fingers producing a language my ears could hear. I loved the music. My bedroom shared a wall with the piano room, and I lay on the carpet in my room as I did my homework during the daily practicing schedule of my siblings. And sometimes when my mother played the piano, she sang.
I remember piano lessons with Fern. She barked out my mistakes; kept a metronome ticking loudly enough for her to hear, drowning out my timid playing; assigned theory workbooks and pieces beyond my ability. Her shaky handwriting cluttered the score with commands, reminders, cheats. I remember all of these things. But mostly I want to remember sitting at her piano. Fern’s frail body at my side, leaning in close to see that I learned.