Lessons In Small Town Living
Gwendolyn Miller, who actually hadn’t been called Miller since she’d married Ron Dixon 20 years ago but would nevertheless remain forever Miller to my mother because they’d been classmates when they were small, was bashing the be-Jesus out of Mahler as she did most afternoons, when I arrived for my piano lesson. It was raining, and because I had traipsed across the football field – I was late, having stopped to retrieve the butt end of a soggy cigarette I’d found tossed beneath the bleachers – I was covered in mud up to my armpits, but Gwendolyn Miller made no mention of the kack I dragged across the Persian runner, because she was, when bashing the be-Jesus out of Mahler as she did every single afternoon, so deeply deeply ennn – as she liked to draw the syllable out – raptured with the passion and fury of the man, as she hoped I, in particular, among her 20 or so pupils would come to be, that she lost not only all conception of time and space, but the general obsession with tidiness that seemed to be the raison d’etre of all mothers in our tiny town.
This, and this alone, though not this only, made Gwendolyn Miller different from all other mothers I had ever encountered. This, and the fact that not only did she speak Latin and Greek, but she washed her valium (it was 1956 remember, and women with passions as European as that of Gwendolyn Miller’s had to be kept in their place, preferably pharmaceutically) down with red wine rather than the more feminine white or the more familiar spirits that lingered in living rooms in heavy crystal decanters and could be diluted (to a point) and made to rise to former levels of glory without raising the suspicions of the Mr Millers, pardon me, Dixons, of the very same desperately small town.
The first time I entered Gwendolyn Miller’s house I was greeted in the entrance hallway by her enormous progeny, all teeth and chins, and challenged to a wrestling match. Lindy Dixon, at least 200 pounds larger than me, had me pinned to the carpet, which reeked of antique urine and chalk, within 15 seconds of my arrival. And then, in that charming way that 12-year-old girls do, Lindy let drop a steady stream of spittle viscous enough for her to suck back just as soon as it had lapped my face. Little did I know, as I writhed in horror under the weight of a girl whose spittle approached with the threat of a poisonous snake, the velocity of an arrow, that I was about to enter a room that would change the shape of all other rooms I had ever entered.
Gwendolyn Miller, none the wiser to the tortures inflicted by her one and only child, still hammering the hell out of Mahler in the living room, shrieked: “Lindy? Has my next pupil arrived?” The fat girl unpinned me then, gave me a smug evil smirk and hauled me from the floor with a single pudgy hand. “I’m home schooled, you know,” she then declared, pushing me into the living room.
It didn’t matter that I tripped, it wouldn’t have mattered if I’d thrown up on Gwendolyn Miller’s feet as they were pumping the pedals of the piano; nothing at all mattered in the house of Gwendolyn Miller except a deep and abiding passion for the compositional exploits of dead European men.
The day of my first lesson, she gestured from the piano bench, patting the space beside her, and told me to open my ears as wide as I could. “Listening,” she said breathily, “is the only way to know music. All the great composers heard music before they wrote it down. All great musicians can hear music when they read a score.”
“Like I can see how to win a chess game even before I’ve moved a piece?” I ventured.
“Exactly!” she shrieked, and then turned her head to take a good look at me.
“What’s your name again?”
“And whose child are you?”
“Mr and Mrs Stoddart’s.”
“Hmm,” she nodded, turning back to face the score and pressing the keys with her talons.
I did my utmost to listen, dropping my jaw so my ears would pop, trying to block out thoughts of Melody Lister, who’d coyly dropped the chalk brush and bent over so that the entire classroom could see the outline of her prematurely well-developed behind in math class that morning, trying to forget the sight of the used condom that had sat only inches away from the soggy butt I’d retrieved from underneath the bleachers less than an hour ago.
“You’re not from here, are you?” Gwendolyn Miller asked, the music suddenly stopping, her fingers still poised on the keys.
I looked at her with some confusion. I was from here. So were my parents and their parents before them. In fact, she’d even gone to the same schools as my mother, or so my mother claimed, before Gwendolyn, whose father was the bank manager and played the organ at the church, went off to Vassar, returning four years later full, of what my mother called, ‘pretensions.’
“I mean, there’s something different about you,” she said cryptically. “I can’t quite place it.”
Being 14, I trundled home that day feeling somewhat torn and conflicted. No, I’m not different. I’m a normal teenager in a normal town, I don’t want to be different at all. And: Why yes, thank you for noticing. Nobody else in this town has ever noticed. There is something special about me, isn’t there. Perhaps I am destined for greatness. Perhaps you have just discovered me.
By the time I reached my front door and heard the predictable shouts of my mother and father in the depressing interior within, I’d concluded that I probably did lean slightly more in the direction of the latter, at least, I’d be willing to admit as much to Gwendolyn Miller if she would agree to keep my very exceptional specialness a secret.
At our next lesson, still searching for the thing that apparently made me different, Gwendolyn Miller, stopping mid-Mahler, asked: “Have you travelled extensively?”
“I went to Boston last spring,” I finally spoke, clearing my throat. “For the regional chess championships.”
“Boston,” she nodded, and went back to playing.
“But I lost in the quarter final,” I added.
Gwendolyn Miller didn’t seem to register this. “Boston,” she repeated breathily. “It’s a beautiful city. My favourite city is Vienna. I always thought I could have been a famous pianist if I’d moved to Vienna when I was young.”
I thought about it later. Perhaps that trip to Boston had changed me, made me different, and perhaps that showed, at least to Gwendolyn Miller. I know that it was that trip, where my Dad and I stayed in a big hotel and I moved chess pieces in front of an audience under a sparkling chandelier in the lobby, that made me realise for the first time what a very small town we lived in; that when Dad and I drove home, I thought we’d missed our town because it seemed to begin and end in exactly the same place.
Yes, Boston, although I can’t say I saw much of the city. There had been almost two hours to wait between rounds on the first day, and after winning my second match I asked my Dad if we might go out into the city and have a look around.
“What would you want to do that for?” he asked me.
“Dunno,” I shrugged. “Just to look at the people. See what’s what.”
“We’re not here for sightseeing, son,” he said, shaking his head. “I think it best you stay here and watch your competition. See what you’ll be up against.”
He was probably right, I told myself, but then again, this was Boston and I’d never been to a big city. I’d never even been in an elevator until we arrived the night before. It seemed a shame to have to spend all day in a hotel lobby even if this was the ostensible reason why I was here.
When the matches for the day were over, I tried again. “Maybe we could just take a little walk around,” I pleaded.
“I don’t think so, Tom,” said Dad, once again shaking his head. “It’s near dark, you know, and the city is full of criminal elements just waiting to step out of the shadows.”
Dad didn’t realise that this only made the streets seem all the more inviting to me. Made me want to pretend to work for the FBI and seek out pickpockets and muggers and mafia-types and general ne’er do-wells. But alas, my soles were not to touch these streets as long as I was young enough to need parental permission.
“That will be all for today,” Gwendolyn Miller said summarily, as she released the final pedal, exactly as she had done the last time.
“But don’t I get to actually play the piano?” I asked, feeling rather helpless.
“Yes. When you can prove to me that you understand how to listen.”
“But how do I prove that?”
“You’ll know,” she said, waving me off.
I didn’t get to touch the keys until I was 15. I didn’t dare tell my parents. They were already pestering me, asking me when I’d be doing my first recital. I could just imagine my father shouting: “I’m not paying good money for her to teach you how to listen!” The thing was, her other pupils, ones who had been studying piano for even less time than I had, were having recitals. Their parents were being summoned to the church basement to witness the painful exercise. My parents began to wonder if I was simply utterly lacking in talent, but Gwendolyn Miller kept reassuring them that I had exceptional ability, although how on earth she could know this, when she’d never let me loose on the keys, I couldn’t possibly understand.
In the months that I’d been taking piano lessons I’d developed acne and become even more unpopular at school. Being a chess champion and good at math makes you popular with parents but not with their children. I wasn’t sure whether the piano lessons and the acne were related, but by this point, I’d listened so long and hard and my parents had paid so much money for me to do so, that I was determined to make a success of it. I was useless at sports and I had no friends, I really had nothing to lose.
“I think you’re ready to show me how well you can hear,” said Gwendolyn Miller one cold afternoon in November after I’d disgraced myself in gym with an irrepressible erection that seemed, somehow, to be related to the gym teacher wrapping his arms around my knees as he hoisted me up to the rings. I was feeling so generally humbled and humiliated that I didn’t think I could do anything much that would impress Gwendolyn Miller that day or any other, but still, she encouraged. “Come on, Tom,” she said, speaking to my hanging head. “I want you to hum the top line,” she said, pointing to the score.
“I don’t think I can,” I said, shaking my head. It was an aria for a tenor, one I’d never heard her play before.
“Of course you can, you silly boy,” she chided, “you have a very sophisticated ear.”
I went as red as I had hitherto only gone when I’d tried to choke myself one day (just to see if I could) in the mirror. I thought of the day’s earlier embarrassment and realised this was my only chance of redemption. Sophisticated, she’d said.
Gwendolyn Miller played a chord to orient me, counted to three, and made me take an enormous breath in, and then, there it was – my voice carrying a tune I’d never heard before straight off a page. I saw it float above me, tremble like a disoriented moth in the room and then, just as I was about to discern its colour, it slipped coyly out the window, flying straight past the town sign, travelling lightning speed down the length of the hydro wires, passing over field after field of early snow-speckled ground, undulating with the hills and the valleys, then ripping through new housing being developed on the outskirts of the city, and then finally, down Boston’s cobblestoned streets, landing right at the entrance to the hotel I’d stayed in with my father two years before. It didn’t enter the hotel. It bounced off the front door and filled the square with light. I watched the Boston sky light up above me.
“Where did it take you?” Gwendolyn Miller whispered as she lifted her foot from the pedal.
“To Boston,” I marvelled.
“I thought so,” she said.
“But how did you know?”
“Because it takes me to Vienna.”
Toronto denizen, Camilla Gibb is an internationally acclaimed author of four novels, including Sweetness In The Belly and The Beauty of Humanity Movement. Her works have been translated into 15 languages and she generally divides her time between Toronto and London.