Thoughts Akimbo

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When life is like a box of bonbons

My piano lesson was over.

We sat side-by-side on the dusty sofa of musical virtuoso Elsie Weinstein, in a room full of scary smells and stacks of decades-old magazines.

My sister didn’t play the piano, and didn’t want to. But she was forced to accompany me to lessons because, at age 8, my mother felt I was too young (and too attention-deficit) to ride the Chicago Transit Authority buses alone.

Eileen was only two years older, but centuries more mature. So she had the honor of listening to me massacre Mendelssohn for 30 minutes a week while Mrs. Weinstein clapped her hands and I scrambled to stay ahead of the metronome’s incessant clicking.

My piano teacher was a tiny, gnome-like woman who generally wore long sleeves and a sparkly ring on each of her stubby fingers. But when she played the piano – her short arms frantically leaping between upper and lower octaves – sometimes the tattoo on her wrist peeked out from beneath her cuff.

“They put that on her in the death camp,” my mother explained.

“Russia was a beautiful place,” Mrs. Weinstein would say sometimes. “The Nazis, they spoilt everythink.”

I brought Mrs. Weinstein a carefully folded $1 bill for each of my Monday afternoon lessons. Little by little, I came to know the sweet satisfaction of playing classical piano music.

Then my parents’ divorce spoilt everythink and I had to tell my teacher I couldn’t afford to take lessons anymore.

“Oh, little girls, you can come by on Monday afternoons anyway,” she said. “You will have to pay nothink.”

My mother, ever after, referred to this as my “music scholarship.”

On this day, Mrs. Weinstein asked us to wait for a surprise. She brought out a dusty white box of Fannie Mae candy. Her eyesight had never been good, I can only hope that, in the dim room, she missed the look of horror on our faces when she lifted the candy box lid and several Chicago-style cockroaches climbed out.

My sister shot me a wide-eyed look, then daintily took a chocolate from the box. I removed one as well – the pink peppermint, which was my usual favorite, when not covered with insect droppings. We both smiled and said thank you.

And then, thankfully, Mrs. W. left the room.

Since Eileen had taken a candy, despite the roaches, I thought they might be OK. This lack of judgment was why I needed supervision.

I lifted my candy to my mouth and actually put my tongue on the pink peppermint frosting before she caught my hand.

“Don’t!” she whispered fiercely. “It’s icky.”

“What should I do with it?” I whispered back.

She pulled a Kleenex from her pocket and scrunched it around the corrupted confection, then stuffed them back into in her pocket. The peppermint curdled in my mouth.

We stood up, eager to leave this socially awkward situation.

“Goodbye, Mrs. Weinstein,” we called. “See you Monday.”

Eileen, ever the polite one, added, “Thank you for the candy.”

Just then, the piano teacher reappeared.

“Oh, did you like them? I’ve had those FOREVER!” she said.

She reached for the box, which had been sitting on an end table, encircled now by the angry roaches displaced by her initial generosity.

“Would you like another piece?”

“Um . . .” Eileen said, at a loss for words.

“Mom says we can only have one candy before dinner,” I said. “And excuse us, I think we’re late for dinner now!”

I was rewarded for this brilliant improvisation by having Mrs. Weinstein hand me the whole buggy box.

“Then you just take the rest home for later,” she said.

I shouted “Thanks!” and bolted down the stairs, Eileen on my heels. When we got outside, I tossed the box to her, afraid of what might crawl up my arm. She tossed it back to me.

“Ewwwww!” we both squealed, racing toward the bus stop.

As we passed the alley, I hurled the candy box toward a Dumpster. It opened in mid-air, the spoiled bonbons spreading out like dotted eighth notes against the gray Chicago sky.

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