“We’ll take the piano. You’ll deliver it, won’t you?” The heavy-set, unkempt man in front of me is not cut from the same cloth as most of my piano customers. He’s what we would call “local color”, wearing his dirty overalls, one strap unhooked and hanging behind him. The long, bushy beard looks wild and the dirty matted hair, even wilder. Nevertheless, he reaches into his pocket to bring out a handful of cash and pays the price for the old upright piano. It’s a good piano, but shows clear evidence of its seventy years of use. We’ve done everything we can to make it function properly, but the darkened, almost black finish will never polish up. His wife and daughter hang back nearby, and it’s clear from her demeanor that the girl is to be the principal beneficiary of the purchase.
The teenage girl is, like her father, carrying more weight than is normal for her build and is a bit backward. Her social skills are minimal and she looks to her father to answer every statement or question which I direct to her. After a few unsuccessful attempts at conversation with her, I realize that I’m making her uncomfortable and turn my attention to the dad and the task of concluding last minute arrangements. They live a good distance from my store, but have given me fairly complete instructions, so the date and time for delivery having been set, they depart, leaving a good bit of evidence of their visit behind. The scented candle and opened door will rectify that little issue for us fairly quickly.
On the day of the delivery, my piano-moving companion arrives and the trailer is loaded quickly and efficiently. We’ve done this before, so nothing is going to catch us napping, or so we think. The first 15 miles of our journey pass uneventfully, but then we leave the pavement of the state highway for the gravel road. Still no problem. Then, following the instructions I’ve been given, we turn again into a dirt lane, along which we travel for several miles. We realize that we’re in what is known as “the boonies”. Of course, that word comes from the more common “boondocks”, which our military brought home from the Philippines in the early 20th century. The word “bundok” from a common Philippine dialect means simply, mountain and came to signify any place away from civilization and hard to get to. (Yeah, only a word-nerd would care.) Wherever the word came from, we were in it. The foothills of the Ozarks have many such places, but we seldom deliver pianos to them.
We pass old, tumbledown shacks with porches piled high with debris and multitudes of dogs piling out from under them to bark and snarl at us as we go by, the dirt swirling up behind us. The one or two individuals we see don’t seem as friendly as the country folk we’re used to when out in most of the more traveled areas. No raised hands in friendly greeting; no smiles in response to ours. My faithful sidekick mutters from his side of the truck, “‘Deliverance’! It’s just like the movie all over again.” Thankfully, following our homemade map, we reach the entrance to the driveway between the fence posts, as it has been described to us, and we turn in. Just follow the driveway up to the house, the man had said, so we follow the winding course of the driveway, actually just a couple of ruts through the field. It winds around the edge of the hillside and all we see before us is a couple of decrepit, tumbledown chicken houses.
Surely this can’t be right! But, we follow the drive as instructed and are steered to a small tin building right between the two long-abandoned chicken houses. This is obviously the shed where the poultry had been processed over the years, where sick animals would have been treated and feed might have been stored, but there is a car parked in front, so we pull up and go to the door. The man greets us from inside and shows us where we are to place the piano. A look around makes it obvious that the family is indeed in residence here, although I have never seen such accommodations. The shed has a few bare light bulbs strung up on extension cords inside its one-room interior. There is a wood stove for heat and an ancient, filthy refrigerator, along with an electric hot plate to cook on. Other than that and a couple of beds in opposite corners, there is nothing but junk in the tiny dark hovel. The piano is taken off the trailer and moved into the designated location and we prepare to leave, still reeling from the conditions that we have observed. We are amazed as the gentleman bids us goodbye, just as jovial and pleased to be the new owner of this piano, as if it were the finest grand and we had just placed it into a well-appointed drawing room in his mansion on the hillside.
We are relieved to be out of the area and back onto the highway within minutes, but can’t get over what we have just witnessed. But, as seems to be common with events like this, as soon as we arrive back at our pleasant comfortable homes, the plight of this family is all but forgotten, except to relate the tale to a few folks who express complete disbelief.
I didn’t think much about it again, until one day about two years later when the Lovely Lady returned from a high school music contest, which she had been asked to judge. Because of her years as a piano teacher, she, along with a couple of other knowledgeable educators had judged the pianists entered in the contest. The contestants played their prepared pieces on the Steinway grand piano at the performing arts center; for most of them, the first time they had even sat at a grand piano. The Lovely Lady told me about one girl in particular, a heavy-set young lady, dressed unfashionably, who was reticent in her responses to the judge’s questions. She sat at the piano, obviously in awe of such a fine instrument, and took several moments to settle down. Then, she began to play. Her playing was confident, the timing impeccable. She executed the piece with feeling, starting quietly and soaring to a climax of emotion with great musicality, then back down again as the passion of the music ebbed, concluding the performance with beautiful chords and quiet melodies and counter-melodies spiraling down into silence. As it was related to me by the Lovely Lady, it was not the most polished performance they heard that day, nor the most perfect, but without question, worthy of an “excellent” rating and a great surprise to those present who had been inclined to expect less from the backward young lady.
Yes, it was indeed that young girl who lived in the chicken house, learning to play on a rebuilt seventy-year old clunker of a piano. In the midst of poverty and lack, accomplishment reared it’s lovely head. I am still learning that appearances can be deceiving, and presumption is a dangerous path to follow, but this one was a real wake up call, almost a shift in paradigms (if I may use that trendy, trite term). I have delivered beautiful pianos to astounding homes, the buyers only interested in the integrity of their decor, with no interest whatsoever in the quality of the sound or the touch of the keyboard. I have left homes, having delivered the piano, only to be followed out the door by the whining tone of children asking why their parents bought that stupid thing. But, I’m fairly certain that I have never before or since that day delivered a more important instrument to a more important customer.
I don’t know what she has done with her talent and skill since then, but simply to know that this young lady had in two short years developed the joy and confidence that she displayed then, inspires and motivates me to believe that no one, regardless of their environment or financial condition, is beyond hope or expectation of great things. I pray that it is never otherwise.
“Men in general judge more from appearances than from reality. All men have eyes, but few have the gift of penetration.” (Niccolo Machiavelli~Italian writer and statesman~1469-1527)