December 2, 2007

Pianos Don't Play Themselves

  In 1943 or so, my parents bought a beautiful upright piano in Memphis. My mother played Chopin and rag, and I started taking piano lessons at the age of three, and six years later I refused to practice, so the piano sat silent. I painted a picture of it, with the bench waiting for someone to sit on it. Sometimes we used the bench to hold a tray of objects collected quickly from around the house so the family could play "Memory". Thirty seconds to look at all the objects, then the cloth went back over them, and you'd write down what you remembered.
  My parents sold that piano while I was away at college, and bought a Steinway baby grand at a house sale. They asked how much it was, and the man said $150. My father, standing a few steps behind my mother, saw that she had one finger pointed down from her hands clasped behind her -- she loved to signal with eyebrows, lips and fingers -- so he said "I'll give you a hundred," and the deal was done. The piano was moved into our living room, which was bigger than the old one, and now it was my brother who played the piano. There's a photograph of my brother and me sitting on the bench playing something together. Forever.
  In the 60s, my brother rented a piano from a small company in Manhattan. They delivered it, two skinny guys who knew how, and set it down in his living room, which looked out over the George Washington Bridge. You could look inside the piano and see where some of the strings had crinkles of tinfoil wrapped around them, then look outside and see crinkles of lights on the Bridge. My brother enjoyed playing the piano with the foil-wrapped strings, but he finally took them off. Turns out, the person who rented the piano before my brother was Bob Dylan, and he'd put that foil on to give the piano a funky trashy sound.
  My boyfriend Paul and I used to find things on the street and take them home. I found him a table saw once on 75th Street. In 1969, he found a piano, and I went to watch him and two friends carry a piano up two flights of Forest Park steep steps. Paul was small and wiry, Darwin was tall and thin, Chris was tall and hefty, and I stood at the bottom watching. They didn't know what they were doing so they laughed, and the old upright jiggled and tinkled, and finally they got it inside the apartment. Paul taught himself to play, and to repair and tune. I think there was some leftover soul in that piano and The Goldberg Variations sounded wonderful on it.
  In 1991, I bought a house in Baltimore built in 1871. In 1995 an antique dealer in Charlottesville showed me the 1870s square piano he'd bought at a field auction in Crumpton, MD. I bought it for $100-- if I'd take it away the next day. A few guys unscrewed the fat shapely piano legs, and slid the piano into my truck to rest on carpeted pads. The legs rode with me in the cab. When I drove up in front of my house, my neighbors Tom and Edward were having a get-together, and so Tom and Edward and Steve and Will and I carried the piano into my living room, and Will and I screwed the fat legs back on while the other three held the piano up, and there it stood against my living room wall. Home at last?  In a cold rowhouse parlor? 
  In 1995, my brother hired movers to take the Steinway my parents had bought in the 1950s in Toledo from their home in Charlottesville to his mountain house in North Carolina. The mover said it was automatically insured for $2000, but my brother paid extra to have it insured for $4000, and they hauled that baby down highway 29 to Hillsville to Mouth of Wilson to Creston and wound through the mountain roads and hauled it up the mile-long gravel drive, and carried it into his vaulted stone living room. The driver hit center C -- maybe that's something they always do -- and left.  It sounds like a concert hall piano now.

October 15, 2007

Linda Finds Leaf, Joe Sees Parrotfish

The parrotfishleaf is still alive. Green leaf has golden fins and swam down to the path. A sapsuck bug has cut an eye that will be seen by Joe. Through the veins sugary blood is slowing. With the first frost, the parrotfishleaf will bleed out and turn brown, be crushed by feet, turn to dust, sink in the shallows of black dirt and rain. Down below, undisturbed by the current, a worm will eat the parrotfishleaf dust and poop out its remains. The thready root of the parent tree will stretch another inch, so father will eat sonleaf, or mother will eat daughterleaf, and in the spring, more green minnowleaves will venture from the eggbud on the twig, and many months later, another parrotfish will swim on a breeze to earth.

October 2, 2007

Thank God It Was a Small Picture

...and a blurred screen. When Katrina hit, and the pictures of bloated bodies were in the paper and on the news, I thought I saw my friend Mickey Lee, floating face down in the water with some boards and branches. The same tan jean jacket (or is it John who has one of those?), the same cowboy boots (or is that my brother?), the same gray ponytail (or is that Paul?) Ten days later Mickey Lee called, safe from Baton Rouge. I asked him about his ponytail and he laughed. "Don't have it anymore! When your ponytail begins to look like a tired squirrel, it's time to cut it off."

One Hymn or Another

  The same piano Hermione had refused to practice was still in the living room, but it was fifty years since she'd maddened her mother by sitting on the stool, twisting back and forth, screaming "No, I won't" over and over. Hermione lived with the petulant ghost of the Volga Boatman and the veils of Psalms pulled over her eyes by her father. Her mother's powder-dusted room (with pearly beads rolled under gaps in the baseboards) had been closed for thirty years. Her father's room (smelling of crystallized urine and his dry-rotted galoshes) had been shut for nearly twenty years, since the day her father walked down to the river, lay down in the water, and grappled with a fallen tree until it pinned him.
  One thing Hermione loved was to drive--fast and alone. She'd kept her mother's last car--a 1971 mustard Ford Galaxy. Saturdays she drove the hell out of it-- to "blow out the valves."
  The husband of one of her friends was stricken with his own clogged valves while he played billiards. He was going to make a bank shot to put three balls in three pockets, but after chalking his cue, plop! he fell across the table.
  Could Hermione give a few ladies a ride to the funeral in the Galaxy? No, the car wasn't up to going so slow--behind a hearse--plus with the lights on.
  But she drove the piano stool down the hill and cut through a shopping center parking lot, twisting in the seat to turn, and never once had to stop. She pulled up at the funeral parlor, carried the stool in and set it down at the keyboard. Hermione was playing Chopsticks when the hearse arrived.

Brown-Eyed Handsome Man

  This was Memphis, 1963. One place to go late was a six-stool counter diner, where for about a dollar you could get fried eggs, toast, and cigaret ash, dusted on the grill when the cook talked out of the folds and squints of her face. She always had a Lucky Strike in her mouth. We were so young she seemed even older than she was and we'd sort of laugh about her later. Sometimes we had enough money to play "Brown-Eyed Handsome Man" on the jukebox. She danced a little one time on her steel-strung legs and winked at my dark-eyed friend Mickey Lee.

Ivory Tunes

Polished with milk, and tickled by childish fingers, the tuning clings to the hammers and the keys like a damp leaf does to a birdbath, until hot weather dries it up. What do piano keys do when they're not played? They tremble notes back into the elephant's tusk; the elephant stamps on the veldt; the veldt vibrates the blood of vultures, without prejudice; and some just-born composer sounds her first note, a high B#.

What a Ride!

  Soon we'll be off to the burial of our friend Haines. What a fine man he was. Loved his dogs, ate his apples, helped his neighbors. Now, outside the church, we look around. We'll each be driving ourselves--a race to beat the black-coated minister, who wants everything sombre and by the book. For Haines? According to rules? Hell, no.
  One friend slides across the butt-shined bench seat of his old gray Ford sedan. It knows him well; every lever and knob is ready with a secret handshake. He turns the key and off they go.
Another friend climbs heartily into her old tan van--a Dodge so set in its ways it tries to drive home and she has to arm-wrestle it to go down Willow Boulevard to the cemetary. Another friend jumps on his silver motor scooter from Japan. He turns the key in the heart of the scooter's chest and it clears its throat, and goes.
  I stand looking around. Gray sedan, tan van, silver scooter--all out of sight now; they follow the mischief of our dead friend as he is pulled toward the cemetary in a hearse. Well, so, remembering how our Haines loved B-flat chords and dubious harmony--he couldn't play anything but a kazoo--I find myself on a piano stool--mahogany, with little wheels on the four legs and a swivelling seat. I ride downhill on Willow, steer around the sedan, hop over broken bricks, pass the scooter with its throbbing heart.
  Finally, with a wave and a halloooo! I pass my friend in the van, and the hearse too, and ride through the gates. I'm singing some song I don't know the words to, but I hear a kazoo.

August 9, 2007

Keys to the Organ


¥ou can hear it, can't you? the sung-along sigh
of a few hymns in a Baltimore hallway next to
furled umbrellas and gappy overshoes?
Right next to the steam radiator?
Oh, there was no room for the new organ in the
living room; that's for the sofa, the collection of
souvenir pitchers, the end table with the ashtray,
The dog in the deeplap chair, the pricey
Wood-toned console with a three-speed record
player, (even a spindle for 45s),
an ocean of radio waves,
a little television screen, with a
picture tube in the back smelling of hot dust.
All fully paid off too, about 1957.

So she played out there in the front hall on
not-yet-radiator-faded indigo, tan, red
bakelite keys. Quietly, at night after supper,
one streak of light from the lightpost outside
shining through the transom on the
polished fold-up music rack
(she didn't need to use sheet music), with the
pocket door pulled between her and her
parlor husband. Even so: "Hey, turn that down,
wouldja?" when a game was on; she'd reach over
and turn the Extra-Voice knob a little more
to the left. After he died one night on the sofa,
the organ stayed out there in the hall.
She liked it out there.

The organ-player passed away suddenly,
about 25 years ago in early August.
it was awfully hot that summer.
Her daughter came back to the house and
pushed two keys, center C, and B sharp,
without even turning on the switch,
and then she gave that old organ away.

To a man up the street. He was always saying
Sure wish I could play the organ,
Boy, that'd be nice, but then he passed
and his landlord came in and sat down and
picked out the notes to something
he remembered from his childhood,
and then paid a guy five dollars to
carry it to the curb.

The organ was on the street for about
two hours, and then a young man who liked
old cars and typewriters and plastic toy ray guns
and cast aluminum electric drills,
lugged it inside with the help of a guy walking by,
who refused to take money, or even a cold beer.
The young man had his ups and downs.
The organ stayed in his living room, a parlor,
where people are supposed to talk to each other.

Having sat there for so long, the organ's tubes
were wheezing inside deep space, so when
the young man turned it on, they
expanded with heated gas that might have
smelled of percolated Maxwell House coffee
or Max Factor face powder, or Chesterfields,
or Tide-washed sun-dried housedresses and
aprons -- that is, if they had exploded.
like milkweed pods do to let out their seeds.

Sometimes the young man pulled a chair over
and turned the organ on, and waited for the
Pop! of the speakers, and faint siren calls
of the tubes heating up, and he'd
turn up the volume on the Extra Voice knob
as high as it'd go, and play Rock of Ages
by ear, like his Grampa had back in Toledo.

Then the young man had one of his downs.
When he was evicted, all his stuff, the organ too
-- with its radiator-faded keys, the soul of
E. Power Biggs, and echoes of organ concerts
broadcast Saturday nights out of Detroit
in the sixties--was thrown out.

A woman in a truck saw the organ at the curb--
under bags of trash and broken chairs--
and so she stopped and called a writer friend
in the neighborhood. Then a man who had
biked across the continent came out of his house,
bouncing with energy, and a friend of his who
loves Billie Holliday came out, and the writer
who had left his punctuation marks and
walked 14 blocks to help -- he arrived.
They all looked at the organ.

Two of them lurched the organ across the street.
It was so heavy they didn't even lift it out
of the gutter until they saw if it worked.
The woman could see that while she liked the idea
of an organ, let's be realistic about this...
would she ever play it? Probably not.
Well then somebody plugged it into the
extension cord, and everyone waited
for it to warm up. They bent over to
look at the tubes. A light came on,
and the speakers popped.

The woman, having first dibs, played
standing up, with her right knee up
against the lever, treading a maroon and black
octave. Deepest voice she ever heard --
deeper even than the original Platters'
bass singer. (Later she thought it was neat she
was wearing her old cotton pedal pushers.)
The bass notes groaned out through the golden
mesh underskirt that hid tubes and innards, and
it was one helluva
Bellow of Jubilation.

August 8, 2007

Aardpoo Nicky Copernicus

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I am an earth poodle.

August 7, 2007

Flibberdegibbet or ADD?

A philosopher in the 18th C said that there was enough to study for a lifetime under your hand, if you laid it on the ground. Amoeba, paramecium, crystals, worms, division of cells, water drops, grass blades, ants, rolypoly bugs, skin flakes, grub larvae, granite, clay, decay, beetle wing, rat hair, mosquito wing, eye of newt, and toe of frog, wool of bat, and tongue of dog, Adder's fork, and blind-worm's sting, and from there to Shakespeare, witches, aquariums, fire-bellied toads, crickets, song, birds, bird poo, eggshells, calcium...get it?

July 26, 2007


Reading James Joyce now -- realize I woulda been him if I'd been born a hundred years ago, or he mighta been me. As he says in ULYSSES: "As we...weave and unweave our bodies...their molecules shuttled to and fro, so does the artist weave and unweave his image. And as the mole on my right breast [not me, it's on my temple] is where it was [waiting to be] when I was born, though all my body has been woven of new stuff time after time...." (lines 376-380). Anyway, took my elderdawg to the vet for an ultrasound of his bladder...there's a polyp on a stalk at the cranial end of his bladder, which shows up clearly in a lateral sounding...and it's nothing to worry about right now. Who knows? his polyp on a stalk may have been a teensy polyp on a stalk when he was born 11 years and five months ago! Waiting to be woven and unwoven and woven again. So why is this called "dadgummit"? And why is that called a "polyp"? Isn't poly a parrot? I mean, isn't poly several if not many? Why isn't it a unip on a stalk? But dadgummit came to my unconscious whistle for a word, and so in it went.