Mr. Pursley's World
Drema Hall Berkheimer
I campaigned hard for dancing lessons, but Grandma wouldn’t hear of it.
“You don’t need to be ringing and twisting around calling unnecessary attention to yourself.”
“How come playing the piano isn’t calling attention?"
“That’s a cat of a different color. You’d be playing for the glory of the Lord.”
No matter how I pleaded my case, she could not be persuaded. Grandma most likely had visions of me and my sister Vonnie playing duets at Sunday services, her nodding up at us from the front row. My oh my, Sister Cales, that was a fine rendition of Whispering Hope, the church ladies would say. Grandma said if Mother bought the piano, she’d finance the lessons from her butter and eggs money.
Mother shopped the classified ads in The Raleigh Register until she spotted a Baldwin upright advertised cheap. When it took its place at the far end of the dining room, even our untrained ears could tell it needed work, so she found a man to come tune it. When he saw our piano, he let out a whistle.
“That’s a mighty fine piano you got yourself. You gals been playing any piano rolls?”
“No sir, not a one,” I answered, although I didn’t have the faintest notion what that was.
“Well I’m going to show you how to play this piano without ever taking a lesson. But you’ll have to wait until I finish the tuning – and it’s sounding like that could take a fair amount of time.”
We watched him plunge his arms deep into the works of the piano, fiddling with pins and strings and tuning hammer until each key sounded perfect. When he finished, he called us over.
“You got yourselves a player piano,” he said, sliding two small panels back to reveal a hidden compartment. “Stick a piano roll in there and the song will play itself long as you keep pumping them big pedals. They’s a bunch of rolls in the bench - let’s load her up and see how she sounds.”
The man clicked a roll in place. As he pumped, Tea for Two played, the keys moving up and down without anybody touching them.
We had us a magical piano, and I couldn’t wait to show it off.
“I can’t play a lick with you staring so hard it’s boring a hole in my back,” I said to Sissy. “Turn the other way, but first pinky swear cross your heart you won’t peek.”
She gave me a look that meant she’d do it, but she wouldn’t like it. Although we were best friends, I knew she was getting tired of me bossing her, so I started playing the minute she turned her back. I didn’t want to lose my audience. Stretching my legs to reach, I pedaled hard, managing to play You are My Sunshine all the way through without a hitch.
“How’d you learn that so good?” she asked.
She’d dealt with me before, so she had a suspicious nature.
“It’s playing by ear, least that’s what Grandma calls it – that’s when you hear something once and sit down and play it good as it sounds on the radio. Soon as I sat down I started playing songs front to finish just as pretty as you please.”
Grandpa called that a gift-wrapped lie. He was against lying in all its forms, but he thought a half-lie was about the worst kind. Folks, he said, didn’t expect to find a lie in the middle when you wrapped it up in the truth and tied a big red bow on it.
It was the kind of lying I did best.
I got away with it several times before Sissy broke her vow not to look and caught me red-handed changing the piano roll. It was quite a while before she believed a word I said. And I didn’t believe her pinky swear cross your heart promise for some time either.
Mr. Pursley, who lived on the second floor of a fancy house on Woodlawn Avenue, came highly recommended, so Mother took us to meet him and make arrangements for lessons. Holding his hand out, palm down and fingers extended, he looked more like he expected my mother to kiss his hand than shake it. He offered her the chair to his right and motioned me and Vonnie to a small settee, while he arranged his slim body on the tapestry fainting couch. I fought to keep myself from brushing the city bus off my behind before sullying the needlepoint collie I was about to sit on. Glad I had on my best Sunday dress, I tugged it over my scabby knees.
“I’ve prepared a light tea. You and the young ladies must join me.”
Heels barely touching the floor, he glided out, reappearing in a few minutes holding a tray with a silver teapot and china cups so thin they looked like painted eggshells.
“Would you care for a watercress sandwich? And a petit four perhaps?”
I had always taken my chances with food, so I took one of each.
Mr. Pursley leaned a little toward Mother. “If I may,” he said, “ I have a few questions regarding the young ladies’ lessons.”
And so began our foray into Mr. Pursley’s world.
Each week Mother sipped cups of oolong tea in the parlor while he played for us before we began our lessons. Hands arched over the keyboard with the tension of a small animal set to strike, he announced the piece and the composer before he began. The opening of Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1 filled the room – soft slow, louder faster, soft again. Then, as the crescendo built, his fingers blistered over the keyboard, his eyes closed, and perspiration misted his upper lip.
One day Mr. Pursley told Mother we were to perform at his annual recital concert to be held at Memorial Hall. He never asked if we wanted to be in the concert. To be fair, he never said we had to be in it either. It didn’t matter - there was no getting around it with Mother and Grandma all a-twitter.
It rained a gully washer on recital day, threatening to ruin the dress Grandma made me from a silk World War II parachute Mother ordered cheap from the back of a magazine. She made Vonnie a parachute dress, too; then she made bedspreads for every bed in the house with the leftover silk. When I sat on my parachute bedspread in my parachute dress, I almost disappeared.
By evening it had almost rained itself out, so we arrived only a little damp and a little late. When it was my turn, I walked across the stage beaming my best Lana Turner smile. Not watching where I was going, I tripped and fell flat, catching my heel and ripping my new dress. Although I didn’t break anything, my pride was bruised to the bone. I made it through my pieces, but my heart wasn’t in it. I wanted to go home. I wanted to cry. I wanted to start all over. But most of all, I wanted to play in another concert.
And next time I wouldn’t fall on my behind.
Grandma got it into her head that if we could play good enough to be in a concert, we could accompany her and Grandpa singing a duet for Sunday services. The fact that she could not sing a lick was just a bothersome detail she was sure she could overcome with practice and the help of the Lord. And if Grandma thought Grandpa could sing too, well then, he would just have to oblige her.
She borrowed one of the red hymnals from church and sat at the kitchen table leafing through to find the right hymn, finally deciding on Amazing Grace. We each learned our part, Vonnie on the bass and me on the treble, but for the life of us we couldn’t put the two together. We would get a few notes in and I’d be going too fast or she’d hold the half note too long or we’d find some other way to mess up.
Grandma determined one or the other of us would have to play both parts. Vonnie backed out right away, but I was getting a little taste of show business and liked it. Every evening I plunked and plinked until I got a barely recognizable rendition of Amazing Grace going. Grandma managed to hit a good note every now and again and Grandpa did his best to sing bass, but truth be told, they sounded awful. And while we’re truth telling, so did I.
Before we took the show on the road, Grandma decided we needed to have a dress rehearsal. Sister Wood, Grandma’s best friend, and Sissy were both at our house visiting, and we recruited Mother and Aunt Lila and Vonnie from the kitchen where they were making crepe paper flowers for cemetery day. Red bandanas tied around their heads Rosie the Riveter style, Mother and Aunt Lila came in and sat cross-legged on the floor, still wiping crepe paper stains from their fingers. Vonnie tagged along behind. We had our audience.
We managed to start pretty even, me playing and grinning, and Grandma opening wide and warbling toward the ceiling. As for Grandpa, he had his mouth twisted peculiar, trying to reach the bass notes. It didn’t matter; me and Grandma drowned him out anyway. I expect Grandma thought we’d get better as the rehearsal went on, but I was so tired I’d slowed down like a music box needing a wind-up.
Sister Wood said “Well now, wasn’t that something.”
Mother and Aunt Lila agreed that yes it most certainly was. Vonnie and Sissy had enough sense to keep quiet – until Grandma made the mistake of asking them how they thought we did. Sissy smiled and nodded her head up and down and got away without saying.
But Vonnie didn’t hold back. “I’ll tell you one thing right now - I’m not setting a foot in that church again if y’all get up there doing that in front of God and everybody else that knows us.”
Grandma said she expected it didn’t sound that bad, but when nobody came to her defense, she said well, everybody knew this was just a rehearsal and all. We practiced a couple more times, but soon Grandma stopped mentioning it and started making quilts for the missionaries. But I wasn’t ready to call it quits. Mr. Pursley’s recital was scheduled for the following month, and I was counting on redeeming myself. When he came up with the idea of me and Vonnie playing a duet, I could not be talked into it. This was my moment. And I wasn’t about to share it.
I finally decided on Leibestraum, which was a good bit harder than anything I’d tried before. I was determined to shine, so I practiced that song until everybody at home was sick to death of it. By the day of the concert, I was ready.
My taffeta skirt rustled as I went ringing and twisting up the steps, crossed over to the piano and flashed my movie star smile. I sat down and played Leibestraum through to the end. After I took my bow, I walked off the stage just a little slower than necessary. Like the last square of Hershey’s chocolate on your tongue, some things are meant to be savored.
Although I never played in public again, I had done what I set out to do. By this time Vonnie and I were getting bored with the piano, so we talked Mother into letting us quit taking lessons. But anytime I hear the opening movement of a Tchaikovsky concerto, Mr. Pursley is playing, and I am sipping tea from china I could crush in my hand like a Dixie Cup.
I can still play Amazing Grace, but not well.
Drema Hall Berkheimer is writing a memoir about growing up in post-Depression West Virginia, the child of a coal miner. She is published in Babel Fruit literary magazine and Persimmon Tree. She is a member of West Virginia Writers and The Writer’s Garret in Dallas.
Drema Hall Berkheimer