How to Cook a Piano


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by Patrick Redding

It takes a lot of talent to cook a piano, to really simmer one in a way that hasn’t been covered in any southern-deep-frying culinary school. They’re uncooperative creatures, pianos are, at least when it comes to being cooked (and wouldn’t you be?). Stubborn as donkeys about where they’ll go and where they won’t. It takes a lot of persuasion and no small amount of force.

Stewed piano isn’t an easy dish to serve up, and one that’s probably more trouble than it’s worth, like making chicken primavera for two-year-olds who’d just as soon have a freezee-pop.

It takes an Act of God to get a piano in a church whose congregation numbers less than three dozen. An Act of God or a bulldoggish Music Committee chairman who can’t carry a tune himself but doesn’t mind getting up to harangue his fellow churchgoers into giving up their hard-pinched spare pennies every Sunday. Oh, they grumble and complain about the cost, mentioning the price of gasoline and tobacco and a good lean chicken breast. They grumble and rumble but given their options, hearing a Music Committee chairman run his yap every Sunday or hearing a piano that might drown out the off-key tenors, well, silencing the money-changer always wins. This is God’s House, after all, and Jesus drove out the money-changers, and since nothing was mentioned in the Bible about driving out pianos, just money-changers, then it’d be best to have the piano there instead of a jowly money-changer, just in case the Second Coming sneaks up on everyone (like a thief in the night, they say, those prophets, as though they’ve already seen a Second Coming themselves, to prattle on with such authority about it). It would be better to have a piano, yes, than that bothersome little fire hydrant of a man up there yammering about the cost of making a joyful noise to the Lord.

It takes a fair amount of talent, once the piano is purchased, to coax it off its cozy truck and into its new home near the choir. There’s no such thing as a piano whisperer, you know, you just have to push and pull and heave and ho-ho-hope for the best when the thing gets away from you and tries to make its escape by taking a suicidal leap off the loading ramp and into the gravel parking lot with a bang and a clatter louder than any noise a bunch of reindeer could make. Have you never noticed how, scrambled, the letters of “piano” spell out “o pain”?

And once the surly thing is made to understand that this is its new home, that the truck has gone away, away, never to return, so long, goodbye, why, then, the thing proceeds to show itself by going out of tune. It’s not the leap from the truck that did it, nor is it the change of weather, moving from its climate-controlled home in a snazzy showroom to a poorly-ventilated, damp-rotting building whose heating and cooling depends upon a few sticky windows held open with hymnals, and the Grace of God. This is not why the piano is out of tune now. It is out of tune for the same reason a child just tucked into bed needs a glass of water, or a dog who has just been given $200 worth of vaccinations from the vet then proceeds to infest himself with fleas. Spite, pure unadulterated spite, that and nothing more.

It takes true vision to recognize this spitefulness for what it is, and to determine that the best response is not to pay out more good money to have the piano retuned properly but to engage the piano-playing services of Sister Noreen’s teenage niece – a spitfire clearly more inspired by Jerry Lee Lewis or Ray Charles than any angelic trumpeter or harpist. Oh, sure, everybody knows how she spends her Saturday nights riding in cars with boys and smoking God-wouldn’t-want-to-know-what down by the river, but my goodness she sure can make that piano sing, can’t she? Oh, those keys are hot, oh my, yes, we’re starting to cook now.

Oh, it starts out with the best of intentions, to bring that stubborn piano into line and make it sound like something that belongs inside a House of Worship rather than some infernal instrument of torture, but the next thing you know the choir’s gotten into the Spirit and the modest altos are clapping and swaying and the big-haired sopranos are bop-bop-bopping along, and even Old Man Finster, the only true bass voice in the choir, has woken up and rumbled a note or two (oh, he’s on the wrong page, but no one else will ever know). Even the tenors, the myopic men with comb-overs, the ones who think it’s more manly to say they’re basses and pretend they have hair than to face a reality involving baldness and quavering voices and mocking wives – even the tenors have begun to crane their necks and sing a little louder, now that there’s a beat, now that there’s a smidgen of a hint of someone maybe having the tiniest bit of fun at something. Listen to those keys pounding away, hammering and banging and making them all think they’re sixteen again, hallelujah.

It takes a different kind of vision to realize that this fountain of youth, this holy blessing from Our Lady of Perpetual Noisemaking, ought to be shared with one’s neighbors. Maybe it came in a dream, maybe it was one of those disembodied voices in the night which the reverent attribute to God or angelic messengers – maybe it was sheer psychotic inspiration, we may never know. We may never know where to lay the blame or credit for discovering the recipe for piano stew. The Outreach Committee won’t come right out and say it was an Act of God, or an Inspiration from On High, but they will make many references to Giving Him the Glory (even though it might ought to go something more like Giving Them the Dickens) for the Grand Idea.

They have a Grand Idea, you see, for a Processional – not merely a back-to-front, promenade-down-the-aisle processional, but a Grand Processional, a Heavenly Parade, a Glorious March of the Faithful which will begin at the church and wind all the way up the narrow hairpin curves of Pritchert’s Peak. They have this idea, you see, that this God-given gift of music ought to be shared by hitching the choir to a hay-wagon and taking the God-given piano on a missionary trip. They have the conviction that if their neighbors along this mule-track of a road could only hear the glorious sounds of the choir singing along with this Spirit-filled piano music, why, their neighbors would immediately throw down their Baptist hymnals and their Books of Common Prayer and their Watchtowers, and join the church that God saw fit to bestow such a piano upon.

Of course the Glorious March will be in July, and of course the choir might sweat beads of holy perspiration in their golden 50%-polyester robes, but just imagine how heavenly the piano will sound, reverberating off the hills and valleys as it makes its way up the mountain, riding in the back of Brother Hunsucker’s hay-wagon. Just imagine.

There’s the matter of coaxing the mulish piano onto the hay-wagon, of course; everyone still remembers how it stumbled and nearly broke its legs as it got off the truck last year. These are good, God-fearing people, so there’ll be none of that heathen hocus-pocus such as raised the likes of those rocks over in England. No, what they’ll decide to do is, after prayer meeting on Wednesday night, while all the hurly-burly men are standing around talking about how poor the gardens are this year and how we won’t have any good tomatoes and how we could use a good hard gully-washer of a rain, what will happen is, someone on the Outreach Committee will have yet another Grand Idea, which will be that instead of standing around and talking about their lousy tomato crops, the hurly-burlys could pitch in and get the piano onto the hay-wagon now, since Brother Hunsucker has kindly left it parked behind the church. Why, it’s only two days and three nights until the Grand Glorious March. They can cover the piano with the tarpaulin that Brother Brewster brought for last week’s potluck dinner, yes, they can drape the piano with that, just in case it rains, but it hasn’t rained for the past two months and it certainly wouldn’t start now, because God wouldn’t do that to them. Oh, the Music Committee chairman might shake his jowls and make a nervous objection or two, but it’s just common sense to shift the piano to the hay-wagon now instead of waiting until the last minute Saturday morning. God hates the unprepared. We don’t know exactly where it says so in the Bible, but it must be in there.

It takes a lot of faith to load a piano onto a hay-wagon two days and three nights before it needs to be there, yes, it takes a lot of faith, brothers and sisters, and these folks are surely full of it. It takes even more faith to watch the heavens open up and rain for the entire next day, and then watch the sun burst out, blazing across the blue sky to turn all that wonderful water to steam for the entire next day after that.

It takes a lot of faith to watch all that happen, and still show up for the Grand March of Glory, expecting the piano to pump up that choir just the way it always has. Faith is its own reward, they say, and so no one should have been surprised. No one should have batted an eye when the tarpaulin was pulled off and the piano unveiled, and its body showed off swags and curves bigger than the lead soprano without her corset. No one should have been surprised, either, when the teenage piano player started whining about the keys sticking together. She was like that, you know, always complaining about something, you know how teenagers are. Oh, sure, it sounded a little different, they agreed, but maybe it was just because they were used to hearing it indoors and had never heard what it sounded like outdoors on a hay-wagon. No one was going to come out and say God’s good rain ruined their God-given piano. It would take one more Act of God to get the point across.

It doesn’t take a culinary genius to recognize that stewed piano isn’t an easy dish to serve up, and one that’s probably more trouble than it’s worth, sort of like making chicken primavera for two-year-olds who’d just as soon have a freezee-pop. And it doesn’t take an engineering whiz to figure out that a piano, cooked or raw, probably shouldn’t be served on a hay-wagon being pulled uphill at a 30-degree angle. Nevertheless, there’s a lot to be said for the hands-on experience, which was what the choir got when the shake-rattle-and-rolling piano, followed closely by their amazingly ungraceful piano player, slid to the back of the hay-wagon, scattering the choir members in their golden 50%-polyester robes like so many sunbeams for Jesus, or like wobbling yellow bowling pins, to use a less holy but more apt comparison. There were some especially loud braying and screeching noises as the piano tipped and leaped onto the road and proceeded to backslide all the way down the steep brake-burning grade of Pritchert’s Peak, taking its kicking-and-screaming teenage rider along with it.

Some of the Good Baptists who came out on their porches to watch still say it was a Sign from God, but the chairman of the Music Committee knows that God doesn’t usually speak through runaway cooked pianos when He gets ready to send a message. He knows that this was just God’s way of telling them that He didn’t approve of that little heathen teenage piano player. Pride goeth before a fall – that’s in the Bible somewhere, for sure. You have to break a few legs to cook a piano, but it takes real talent to get anyone to swallow it.

© Copyright 2005 by Patrick Redding. Republished 2011, 2015.

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