A MEETING WITH THE PIG
by Carolyn Soyars
Give not that which is holy unto the dogs, neither cast ye your pearls before swine, lest they trample them under their feet, and turn again and rend you. – Matthew 7:6
“You made a mistake,” I heard my mom say from the kitchen as she prepared dinner.
I was irritated that my mom, who could barely plunk out a slow, clumsy boogie-woogie tune on the piano, felt she had to call attention to my musical error. It was especially distracting while I was trying to concentrate on my playing. I didn’t need a critic from the other room interfering with the process. Since I was only eight years old, though, and not yet an acerbic teenager, I couldn’t quite put my annoyance into words.
That was Tuesday night. The next night, Mr. Marquez would arrive for my piano lesson at 7:30 sharp.
I was always a nervous wreck on Wednesday nights. In anxious anticipation of my piano teacher’s arrival, I would be too sick to my stomach to eat much dinner. My nerves tightened, and my heart pounded each minute before his arrival. Even the familiar, comforting voice of Mister Rogers, whose show came on just before my piano lesson, didn’t help. I would watch as Mister Rogers calmly, cheerfully arrived home from his job (we never knew what he did for a living), take off his tie, exchange his suit jacket for a casual cardigan, remove his stiff black dress shoes, and lace up his sneakers. I wanted to crawl inside the television, hang out with Mister Rogers, and follow the magic trolley into the Neighborhood of Make Believe, to visit King Friday XVIII and Henrietta Pussycat. Mister Rogers would have spoken kindly and soothingly to me. He would have told me everything would be okay.
Mr. Marquez did not speak soothingly.
Mr. Marquez was short, serious man, who always wore a suit. In the winter, he would wear a long, black overcoat, black leather gloves, and a fedora. His stern face was somewhat lizard-like, with bulging eyes and thick lips. He had stubby fingers, which flew effortlessly and deftly across the piano keys.
Approximately five minutes to his arrival, I would walk slowly into the living room over to the piano, as if I were about to face an executioner. Our living room was formal, with dark green, velvet drapes tied back with gold and green tassels, and white sheer curtain panels underneath. Since the other family members were rarely in this room, it was always immaculate. Nothing ever happened in the living room, except piano lessons and Christmas.
I would peer through the drapes and await the piano teacher’s arrival. As soon as I saw him getting out of the car, I’d quickly move away from the curtain and take my place at the piano.
My mom would answer the door, greeting him enthusiastically. She adored Mr. Marquez, and later in the evening, after he had left, would affectionately imitate his accent. “Play three more may-zures. May-zure. Tray-zure. Lay-zure. I just love his accent!”
Every night, I practiced my Herz and Hanon finger exercises. Mr. Marquez scrawled instructions at the top of the sheet music: “5 measures. Repeat 30 X.” I would hold down C and G with the thumb and pinky, while playing D and F with the second and fourth fingers and would repeat thirty times – or until my fingers ached. Then came the scales, followed by the arpeggios. Only after doing the exercises did I get to practice Bach and Beethoven–like a kid on a baseball team made to do tedious, repetitive exercise before getting to have fun and play ball.
The piano lessons lasted an hour. I was grilled on the usual pieces children learned at the time: Beethoven’s Fur Elise and Moonlight Sonata, the Chopin waltzes, the Bach Inventions, Scott Joplin’s “The Entertainer.”
Mr. Marquez did not hesitate to interrupt and admonish me if I wasn’t playing something correctly. He often sat down and demonstrated how the piece should be played, his short fingers flying across the keys, beads of sweat forming on his forehead.
When he played piano, I temporarily forgot my anxiety and his strictness, and was carried away by the sheer skill and emotion of his virtuosity. He brought life to the pieces of music that, to my young eyes, appeared as a confusing jumble of notes on a piece of paper.
During one of my lessons, I was struggling with a Brahams sonata. He asked me brusquely if I liked the piece. Being incredibly shy, not quick to voice my opinion either way, I hesitated before answering. Too impatient to wait for my reply, he angrily scrawled at the top of the music: “DID NOT LIKE IT.” I wanted to protest, “Wait! You didn’t even give me a chance to respond. You just decided for me I didn’t like it!” I remained silent, and never learned the sonata.
If I made a mistake, he would rap my knuckles with a ruler. Nowadays, there would be horrified parents and lawsuits and negative online reviews and videos gone viral. But this was 1973, and no one really cared.
Ultimately, neither did I. It wasn’t the fear of any knuckle-rapping that made me nervous; it didn’t really hurt, not physically, at least. It was the constant scrutiny and the arduous work, the demands and the expectation of perfection – from both Mr. Marquez – and my mother, who listened to me as she chopped carrots in the kitchen.
I loved playing piano, but it was almost like they were conspiring to take the fun out of it.
I was really excited about my new doll.
I’d been gazing at her in the Sears Wish Book ever since September. She was a Madame Alexander baby doll and was perfect–she had deep brown hair, long eyelashes, red cheeks, and, except for little white socks, was dressed entirely in pink–pink bonnet, coat, dress and shoes. I liked some of the modern baby dolls of the day, like Baby Tender Love (who cried and wet)–and my life revolved around my Barbies and their many adventures–but the Madame Alexander doll was exquisite. She was a queen among dolls.
Grandpa Simons was visiting from California. He had difficulty hearing. His friends and family tried to convince him to get a hearing aid, but he refused, making up some excuse that hearing aids picked up every little distracting noise.
“Oh, pooh. He just doesn’t want to hear. There’s a reason he doesn’t buy a hearing aid: it’s so he doesn’t have to listen to Meli yack all day,” grumbled Mom, referring to his talkative, gregarious second wife.
One afternoon during his visit, Grandpa Simons was seated in a recliner in the den. I placed the Madame Alexander doll on the back of Grandpa’s chair and spoke loudly. We all had to speak loudly to Grandpa so he could hear us.
“Grandpa, this is my new doll, Victoria,” I yelled, lifting her up off the armchair for his perusal. “She doesn’t cry and wet like all the new dolls, but she’s old-fashioned and she’s pretty. I picked her out of the Sears Wish Book and told Mommy I wanted her for Christmas. I take her everywhere. Sometimes, I have to put her back in her crib when Kathy and I are playing Barbies, when their boyfriends come to visit, and sometimes our Barbies have to go to their stewardess jobs on the Barbie Friendship, and then Kathy and I make them go back to the 1800’s and wear old-fashioned bustles, and . . . and . . . Mommy likes to make mermaid tails for them out of aluminum foil and then so they’re mermaids and that takes up a lot of time–we spend hours and hours with our Barbies–but mostly, I take Victoria everywhere. I like to take put her in the stroller when Mary Ellen and I walk our dolls down to the field. Then we stand at the front of the field and hold up our babies, and show them how pretty the meadow is, all green and wide and open. Mary Ellen’s brother, Chrissy, said that he . . . “
“That’s nice,” Grandpa interrupted gruffly. “She’s a pretty doll. That’s a nice gift. Every little girl should have a pretty doll like yours. But, very soon, you know you’re going to have to set her aside, maybe put her up on a shelf. You’ll need to practice piano more, if you want to get into any competitions, if you want to become a concert pianist. Toys are fun, dolls are nice, but those are for children. You’re going to have to set her aside, and you’re going to have to get serious about the piano. And you’re going to have to grow up someday real soon.”
I frowned, bowed my head, lifted Victoria off the back of the chair, and stormed out of the room.
“Don’t worry, Victoria,” I whispered to my doll. “It will never happen.”
Mr. Marquez lived on a small farm, in a rural part of New Jersey. He told me that he got up at 2:00 A.M. each morning to feed the chickens and the pigs.
The piano recital was coming up. I’d chosen my two pieces – “Fur Elise” and “The Entertainer.” More importantly, I’d also chosen my outfit –a red and white gingham dress, with ruffled sleeves, and a large red satin sash around the waist, tied into a big bow in the back. After a night of sleeping in sponge rollers, my hair would fall into Shirley Temple ringlets, and I’d wear red satin ribbons in my hair to match my sash.
The piano recital was going to be held in the living room of Mr. Marquez’s house. I wasn’t looking forward to the recital. The only thing I was looking forward to was seeing the farm and the animals.
“I want to see the pig,” I told him, in an unusual burst of assertiveness.
“Sure, sure. I’ll bring you out to the yard, to show you the pig,” he replied, with his usual seriousness.
Hanging over the couch in our formal dining room was a painting of a lion. My father had brought it home from Korea during the war, and his mother had promptly placed it in a 1950’s gold gilded frame. The frame was embarrassingly gaudy, clashing hideously with the stark, minimalist Korean painting.
There was nothing showy about this lion. Painted with thick, bright, angry strokes, he stood on top of a rock, his right foot thrust in front, glaring furiously at the viewer. Behind him, beyond the rock, seemed to be a limitless black void.
From the stairs in our house, I had a view of the entire living room: the lion painting, the couch, the piano to the right, the antique chair and table to the left in front of the green velvet drapes.
Every night, I played a game: I had five seconds to get to the top of the stairs, or else the lion would come flying out of the frame and devour me.
Standing on the bottom step, I would meet the malevolent glare of the lion’s, take a deep breath, and begin counting. I ran up the stairs, two steps at a time.
I always made it up the stairs in five seconds; my life depended on it.
The night before I saw the pig, I dreamt I didn’t make it up the stairs in time.
In my dream, I waited on the bottom of the stairs, and began to count.
This time, the lion bounded out of the canvas before I’d finished counting.
“Wait!” I yelled. “I haven’t counted to five yet! You’re supposed to wait! That’s cheating!”
The lion didn’t attack me, but ran past me and up the stairs, where my parents, brother, and sister were asleep.
“I need to go save them!” I thought, and tried to run after him, but my legs were suddenly heavy, as if I were wading through syrup in slow motion.
Mr. Marquez appeared at the top of the stairs, ruler in hand, scowling.
I stopped, terrified.
I began to feel angry, and started running, fists clenched, towards him. But my legs were still slow-motion heavy.
The lion stood next to him, and the two of them remained at the top of the stairs in a bizarre show of unity. I felt furious and annoyed, though I wasn’t sure why, and had an urge to pummel the both of them with my little fists.
I woke up before I reached the top of the stairs.
Mr. Marquez lived in a part of New Jersey that was older than the modern, state-of-the art 1968 suburb where my family and I lived. His living room was small and stuffy, with faded upholstery and the smell of old books and sheet music. It was a claustrophobic setting for a recital, with approximately 25 guests crowded onto folding chairs.
Surprisingly, there was enough room for a Steinway baby grand. As I played my recital pieces, I found the keys less responsive than our piano console at home. The keys were cold, hard, and made of genuine ivory, unlike the plastic keys of my own piano. I had to stomp down hard on the sustain pedal with my little foot to get it to respond, but I remember getting through the recital well enough.
Afterwards, while another student was playing Mozart, Mr. Marquez tugged gently on my sleeve. “Come on; I’ll show you the pig.”
The room was dark and we slipped away unnoticed. I put on my heavy winter coat, and the piano teacher donned his long black winter overcoat and hat. Even at that age, I wondered at Mr. Marquez skipping out on another student’s performance, and how that student would feel if she’d known. Would she be offended?
It was bitterly cold outside, but it felt good to get out of the stuffy, crowded room and into the night air. Mr. Marquez walked quickly, his expression stern as always, hands in his pockets. I had to jog slightly to keep up with him. We walked down a rural dirt road, my shiny patent leather shoes quickly becoming dusty.
The pig was not what I’d expected. It wasn’t what I was used to seeing in cartoons or children’s books–small, perfectly pink little animals, with long lashes and curly tails, and ridiculous smiles. The swine, even from behind the safety of its fence, seemed enormous and intimidating. He was not pink, but sort of a grey-brown color, filthy, snorting, loud, and did not seem to welcome my presence. I thought of Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz during an early scene in the movie, still in dreary, black-and-white Kansas, when she balances herself precariously on a fence in the barnyard and falls into a sty of squealing hogs. Screaming, she’s rescued by one of the farmhands (who chastises her for “not having any sense” – he later emerges as The Scarecrow). As I gazed at the threatening beast, I wondered why Dorothy would have done something so stupid.
As I peered over the fence and watched the pig at a safe distance, Mr. Marquez stood by, hands in pockets, never smiling. Although his stern, aloof manner was intimidating, it was also a welcome relief from the cloying, saccharine tone of the adults who were around me that night. “Oh my! Don’t you look pretty, with your curls and your dress and shiny shoes? And what a good little pianist you are! Your parents must be so proud!”
I think he enjoyed taking a break from the recital, from the crowded, stuffy room, and into the winter air; from the stifling atmosphere of the recital, into the barnyard.
As for me, I felt honored that he’d chosen me, and not any of his other students, to be his ditching buddy, to cut class and sneak out to the barnyard, like a couple of rebels – to escape the claustrophobic atmosphere of the recital, the formality, the polite applause, having to patiently listen to the classics being torn apart by young hands. Was I his favorite? Did he like me more than the rest of them? Did he think I was the best?
It only occurred to me years later, when I was an adult, that Mr. Marquez probably had the pig slaughtered for meat.
The day my mom informed Mr. Marquez we were moving out to California, he seemed distressed. It meant he would no longer have any control over me.
“You need to make sure she continues with her piano lessons,” he lectured her, “or everything I’ve taught her will just to garbage. Make sure she does her Hertz and Hanon daily, and to keep up with the pieces she’s learned! As soon as you’re settled in California, you need to find a quality piano teacher. Don’t just choose anyone! Get recommendations! All these lessons are for naught, if she doesn’t continue!” My mom nodded obediently.
I felt elated. I was free.
I imagined my Wednesday nights now – somewhere in California, maybe with a horse in the backyard, like Mom promised – a backyard with palm trees and desert shrubs and cacti and lizards. Maybe I would be playing outside on the beach or running across a sunny hill during dusk. Or maybe I would be inside our new house, fussing over Victoria, changing her outfits, and still maintaining my Barbies’ high standard of living and thirst for adventure. No more waiting for Mr. Marquez, no more anxiously peering out from behind the white sheer panel curtain, no more ruler rapping my knuckles
We moved to southern California – there was no sunny beach nearby, and of course no horse in our backyard–but there were layers of brown smog that made my throat constrict and my eyes water–and there were mean, tan, athletic pretty girls who made fun of my pale skin and sudden allergies.
I would never be free from Mr. Marquez and his ruler. He would still dominate every musical piece I played, everything I said or thought, every decision I made in life, whether minor or major. He would always be there waiting at the top of the stairs, ready to admonish me, to rap my knuckles with a ruler the second I screwed up.
“Repeat that measure 20 more times,” I’d hear him say.
And I would obey.
About the Author:
Carolyn Soyars is a musician and writer, who lives in Ventura County with her husband, Dave, and their neurotic tuxedo cat, Roscoe. She is a regular contributor to The Los Angeles Beat, and has written film, concert, and CD reviews. You may read more of her writing at www.carolynsoyars.com