The heavy-set, unkempt man in front of me was not cut from the same cloth as most of my other customers. He was what some might call local color, wearing his dirty overalls, one strap unhooked and hanging behind him. The long, bushy beard looked wild and the dirty matted hair, even wilder. Nevertheless, he reached into his pocket to bring out a handful of cash and paid the price for the old upright piano.
It was a good instrument, but was showing clear evidence of its seventy years of use. We had done everything we could to make it function properly, but the darkened, almost black finish would never polish up. His wife and daughter hung back nearby, and it was clear from her demeanor that the girl was to be the principal beneficiary of the purchase.
The teenage girl was, like her father, heavier than average, but she was also a little backward. I asked her if she was taking lessons and she looked nervously to her father for help with the answer. It was the same with every subsequent question I directed to her. After a few unsuccessful attempts at conversation, I realized that I was making her uncomfortable and I turned my attention back to her dad and the task of concluding last minute arrangements.
On the day of the delivery, my piano-moving companion arrived and the trailer was loaded quickly and efficiently. We had done this many times before, so nothing was going to catch us napping, or so we thought. The first 15 miles of our journey passed uneventfully, but then we left the pavement of the state highway for the gravel road. Still no problem. Then, following the instructions I’d been given, we turned again into a dirt lane, along which we traveled for several miles.
We soon realized that we were driving through what we commonly call 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 passed 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 swept by, the dirt swirling up behind us. The one or two individuals we saw didn’t seem as friendly as the country folk we’re used to when out in most of the more traveled areas. There were no raised hands in friendly greeting, and no smiles in response to ours.
My faithful sidekick muttered from his side of the truck, “Deliverance! It’s just like in that movie. What have you gotten us into?”
Thankfully, following our homemade map, we reached the entrance to the driveway between the fence posts, as it was described to us, and we turned in.
“Just follow the driveway up to the house,” the man had said, so we followed the winding course of the driveway, actually no more than a couple of ruts through the field. It wound around the edge of the hillside and all we saw before us was a couple of decrepit, tumbledown chicken houses.
“Surely this can’t be right!” I exclaimed to my helper, who just shook his head.
But, we followed the drive as instructed and were steered right up to a small tin building stuck between the two long-abandoned chicken houses. This was 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.
There was a car parked in front, so we pulled up and went to the door. The man greeted us from inside and showed us where we were to place the piano. A look around made it obvious that the family was indeed in residence there, although I had never before seen such accommodations.
The shed had a few bare light bulbs strung up on extension cords inside its one-room interior. There was 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 was nothing but junk in the tiny dark hovel. The piano was quickly taken off the trailer and moved into the designated location and we prepared to leave, still reeling from the conditions that we had observed.
We were amazed as the gentleman bid us goodbye, just as jovial and pleased to be the new owner of that 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.
My companion and I were relieved to be out of the area and back onto the highway within minutes, but still, we couldn’t get over what we had just witnessed. But, as seems to be common with unusual events such as this, as soon as we arrived back at our pleasant comfortable homes, the plight of this family was all but forgotten, except when I related the tale to a few friends who expressed complete disbelief.
I didn’t think much about it again, until one afternoon about two years later when the Lovely Lady returned home 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 rated the pianists entered in the contest. The contestants had played their prepared pieces on the Steinway grand piano at the local performing arts center; for most of them, it was 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 about her teacher and the piece she had selected. She sat at the piano, obviously in awe of such a fine instrument. It took a few moments for her nervousness to pass, so she could proceed.
Then, she began to play. Almost it seemed as if she was no longer in the room with the judges. 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 best performance they heard that day, nor was it perfect, but without question, it was worthy of an excellent rating.
The performance was also a great surprise to those present who had been inclined to expect much 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 delivered a more important instrument to a more important customer.
I have no idea what she has done with her talent and skill since then. Simply to know that this young lady had in two short years developed the joy and confidence that she displayed on that afternoon 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)
© Paul Phillips. He’s Taken Leave. 2014. All Rights Reserved.
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