~ Or: A Quite True Story with a Measure of Measured Exaggeration for the Benefit of Those Who Need to Laugh at Musical Instruments that Honk
~ Or: Musical Instruments invented on other planets
by L. Chrystal Dmitrovic
“I wonder how much is in here?” I asked, listening to the promising jingle as I shook my baby blue gremlin coin bank. The bugged-out eyes were unsympathetic, the scared-stiff hairdo was downright unfashionable, and its gaping slit of a mouth was mute. The sign on its bulbous stomach instructed me to “PUT YOUR MONEY WHERE MY MOUTH IS!” But my intent was to take out all my life savings.
Beating out a rhythm as I shook the little monster, I fathomed a hopeful guess. “At least 5 bucks. Here goes!” I yanked out the round rubber stopper and showered my bedspread with a rainbow of copper and silver. It took a little over 15 minutes to roll up 7 dollars and 50 cents worth into wrappers – it helped that some of the nickels had edges – with 43¢ in pennies left over as a bonus. Unfortunately, $7.93 could hardly be enough for the package deal I was thinking about – that of selling my soul to the devil in exchange for his reversing time and keeping the invention of the accordion to himself. You see, I was at an impasse. Like any child who didn’t want to grow up and face life’s greatest mysteries maturely, I knew I would never really learn to proficiently play a musical instrument that I disliked, or would come to dislike, for any reason. And anyway, to me, it has always been a mystery why anyone the right side of sane would ever want to play the accordion.
I slowly dripped the loose pennies back into the bank and looked about my room for a perfect hiding place for the rolls of nickels. Under the mattress was too obvious, and so was the closet. Then I thought of the second thing I hated most in the world: crinolines. The same one fit you at 6 years old or 12, and the one I detested above all was a scratchy white umbrella-ish instrument of torture with a hoop-wire hem that made me itch even when it was nowhere near my skin. I hated that one the most because it was an Olympic event trying to keep my skirt from swooping up like a ring of Saturn whenever I sat down. I knew I would never wear it to play the accordion, or any other instrument for that matter. Once out of the drawer, I bent the wired hem of the crinoline in half and pulled some of the mesh through to create a pocket. I plunked in all the rolls of nickels and pennies. The leftover sheet of mesh was easy to tear down the middle, and I tied both sides together after wrapping it once around the pocket. The furnace floor vent in my room lifted off easily enough, and I slid the butterfly net-like contraption down until I could no longer see the end.
“Safe,” I sighed, thinking of my brother, who I knew loved scrounging through my drawers. I released my fingers from the tip of the half-moon length of wire, and then heard, “Roll…clunk…bang…high-pitched scrape…clunk…roll…and BANG BANG CLUNK!” Somewhere within its innards, our furnace was a little richer. I decided I wouldn’t wonder about the possibility of the wrappers catching fire until winter arrived, because the accordion problem was momentarily taking up all my worry-time.
It wasn’t long after my 10th birthday that I realized children deserved the right to retain a lawyer in situations of physical and mental abuse. (Certainly, ethnic force-feeding and the threat of abandonment if one did not wish to play a musical instrument not of their own choosing qualified as grounds-for.) The subject of holy accordions came up during a long-ago discussion around a dinner table heaping with sarma, better known as cabbage rolls, and other ethnic meals like polenta, a cornmeal and bean mixture which could have been used to cement bricks together. I was born in Canada, yes, but smack in the culinary middle of Europe where every entre was fat-rich, taste-heavy, nutrition-lean and guaranteed to make my grandparents of Balkan descent gibber Slavonic rhapsodies if I dared risked my life and take a second helping.
That night, however, the gold teeth in their mouths gleamed rapturously as I rolled the sarma around like a log in my own trying to remove its inedible bark. The plots of the unseen wicked were unfolding, and the noose about my creative future was tightening. “Of course, she must play the accordion!” was their trumpet voluntary in the hopes that a descendant of theirs would gambol forth in musika guaranteed to bring back folk tale and polka talk about “the old country”. Unfortunately, their enthusiasm alone was reason enough for my parents to set up that first appointment, and I trembled with foreboding that I would lack the hand-eye coordination required to make such an instrument pip and squeak.
At ten years of age, what exactly did I know about the secret society of accordions? I studied the music school picture I’d been given by my parents. It was half the size of the mustachioed gentleman wearing embroidered leather shorts. The embroidery didn’t bother me, as grandmother, better known as Babitza, embroidered all the family pillowcases, whether they were adorned with intricate stitchery already or not. It was that the man was wearing a hat stuck with a feather, and above him was a flock of birds, eyeing him menacingly as he embraced the dark grey honk-in-a-box. Would I be counted as the 1st recorded attack in history by Canada geese if I, too, played the accordion out of doors during migrating or mating seasons?
My only comforting thought then was that I would treat the technologically regressed alien as though it were an ersatz uneducated third cousin to the harp. Yet, one could never totally deny it wasn’t a mutant musically inclined platypus minus the fur, as no other species of keyboard instrument had airy reeds instead of plucky strings. I finally concluded that it was in a class all by itself. If it had never been invented, I wondered, what would scientists determine about it if it had one day fallen out of the sky instead? All the musing, of course, was a device for self-preservation, as I considered any future meeting with the thing a reservation for eye-to-eye contact on an ill-harmonied battlefield.
On the soon-arrived day, I was admittedly by now a little curious to get acquainted with the new x-factor in my life. I ran up steep, curving Wigmore Drive, then past the crowded squash of Princess Plaza tiny storefronts on Victoria Park Avenue to a side entrance beneath a store at the end, and then raced down concrete stairs to a sunken door, and infiltrated an unfamiliar macrocosm. Other children were waiting cheerfully, each brandishing an instrument that had been polished to the point of effulgence – a violin, a guitar, a clarinet. I drummed my fingers on my knees in trepidation. Not one of them was balancing an accordion on their knees or trying to hide it in its cage behind a chair. Was I the only student enrolled for the fine art of squeeze box playing? It didn’t look good.
My name was called. Entering the correct tutorial room, #1, I came face to face with the most perfidious looking woman I’d ever seen. She was dressed all in black, stockings, shoes, everything. Her hair was fashioned like a psycho-spinster’s, with a hair spray lacquered bun which would certainly have scared off potential suitors or tempt naive children to press on it as though it were a panic button. Her lipstick, dried and compressed into the vertical lines of her grub worm-plump mouth, was the dark-streaked crimson of tulips stabbed by a thunderstorm. Her eyes were, well, at little later they will be spoken of at length. The ears were pixi-ish, pointed and curled like Mickey Rooney’s in the 1935 film A Midsummer’s Night Dream. Yes, most certainly one of Nick’s minions, I thought. My fate was sealed.
Was there any way of escape? Bars strapped the windows. With a silent gulp and the feeling I was staining my underarms, as they were running like Niagara Falls, I looked around surreptitiously to see if the walls were soundproofed. Oh God, they were. (Years later I would come to realize the walls had been constructed of acoustic tiles.) Then it spoke. Her name, she said, was Mrs. B~ and as it turned out, she was from a neighbouring Balkan country to my grandparents. From hereon in, she shall be irreverently referred to as Mrs. Bullhit.
My instincts began to serve me well. Immediately I dreaded the notion of lessons continuing after sundown. My toes began to twitch and knot in my shiny black oxfords, screaming to depart the haunted floor. That condition was always the first stage of healthy paranoia for me, alerting me to the necessity of scramming from a crime scene in which I could inadvertently find myself the unwitting victim. I could well justify my anxiety, as my grandparents believed in vampires.
In the early 1900s in the wilds of Serbia, I was told, many a dead-drunk husband returning home too late after a too-long night in the forest partying with combustive plum brandy (Slivovitz) and a loose petticoat (not belonging to the wife), would wake up deader than he had been drunk – with garlic stuffed in his mouth and his lips blood-red (from the loose petticoat’s lipstick), with the customary stake (or barn rake handle) through the heart. For me, it was easier to believe that the wives believed their husbands were vampires, who had co-incidentally sought out the village vamps. I didn’t wonder that some travel books well into the 1980s warned single woman to never travel alone in the then-Jugoslavia, and especially not in the countryside. While I wanted to laugh at the notion that my accordion teacher might be a species of vampire, I now found myself intensely studying her bicuspids.
“Here, for you,” Bullhit pointed to the floor, to an open battered case containing the little red loaner accordion. “You keep for six weeks, then buy new one if you good.”
For the next six weeks, she grunted and barked out commands through the introductory lessons, and I learned the mandatory scales and simple songs. I was always careful to never hold eye contact for very long, for if I did, I feared that those uninviting, frosty black holes so sunless and imploded upon themselves, like lodestones, would magnetically draw me into her parallel universe composed solely of contorted, nightmarish black marble and ivory staircases that had been made to be climbed endlessly, so endlessly, while The Beer Barrel Polka was unwinding in minors and plunking in a dirge.
I couldn’t look anywhere upon the rest of her person for very long, either. As the weeks wore on, she seemed to transform for the worse before my eyes, and no one else seemed to take notice. Her lipstick grew darker as though she’d been drinking stronger poison, her smile increasingly resembling a midnight-blue demonic gash. Her hoof-thick nails appeared to have been rough-honed by a blacksmith’s rasp. Appearance aside, her methods were graduating up the scale in sadism. Her guttural, tooth-spitting instruction was now accompanied by verbal insults to my intelligence and threats to my body parts. I cringed when the pointer she used to tap out the beat always came too close to my fingers as I turned pages. One day, holding back tears playing The Merry Widow Waltz by Franz Lehar, , just as she was about to crack my angry white knuckles on the bass buttons for hitting the F instead of the G, I swore at her to the best of my ability, “You horrible, dirty, mean, creep-faced plop of bullpoop!” (Note that the last word I said in the sentence was actually spelled slightly differently.) Then I gasped, realizing what I had said and done. I had sealed my fate. Would I live until the next sunrise?
There was a padded, surreal silence for about fifteen seconds. Her eyes then began to boil. I closed my own, but I couldn’t help smiling. In accordion boxing matches, I had just won the first round with a grand bellows. As I opened my eyes, she connected. Her full, flat, evil hot palm forced itself with delight upon my cheek. “I am phoning your parents as soon as lesson is done! You are no good, you very bad girl!” she shrieked. And all this time, I was still certain she was holding back her true disposition, suspecting she would remain tolerably sadistic only until I could sign a longer and more tormenting contract – which would of course require that my family buy a new and accordingly very expensive accordion from her music academy.
A strange serenity haloed the dinner table that evening, but I could read all their thoughts.
I knew they knew about the afternoon, having heard the phone ring just as supper was being arranged on the table, and knew that it was the phone call from Bullhit, because my mother called for my father to get on the extension in the basement. Above me, a mental guillotine blade was ready to descend upon my degenerate conscience, but I wouldn’t let it drop. I was not sorry for showing disrespect to my music teacher by insulting her, only sorry that my family had to find out. I was the one who had been tortured, after all. I made sure, however, to appear excruciatingly sorrowful to all concerned, as I did desire to enjoy a normal life span. The way of the world demanded I be punished, however undeservedly.
Then, suddenly, inwardly, I smiled – and sighed with relief. When my dad was at his most mad, my brother and I both knew we wouldn’t get the belt or be spanked by hand, as we knew he feared he might injure either one of us if he disciplined us physically. And this was one of those times I could tell I would not be punished. So, without knowing what else to do, I bided my reprieve the whole long silent dinner, rolling peas around in my spoon until they were seasick, gumming mashed potatoes into my cheeks, flattening strings of ham with my fork to my plate. I waited for some mode of curtains of judgment to swaddle me.
The silence became almost unendurable. I tried to catch the eye of my grandmother, but she avoided my attempts and kept straightening a small doily she’d crocheted beneath the gaudy hen and turkey salt and pepper shakers. Grandfather kept sniffing loudly through his grey-hair sprouting nostrils. Mother kept holding her breath. They were all mad, not to mention disappointed, in me. Well, all except for my brother, who kept holding his cheeks flat in against his face to keep from laughing out loud. They all kept doing something to keep from talking about the way I had disgraced the family.
No one ate dessert. In the middle of the table, the chocolate cake sat uncut and lonely, warming to room temperature as vanilla ice cream iceberged in a bowl beside it and lost its chill in a slowly enlarging velvet sea. Finally my father spoke. I knew he had taken mandolin lessons as a child – and had hated it. His eyes, still vexed into braids from the phone call, betrayed no sympathy. “Next time, you will die, understand?” was all he said with the authority of Taras Bulba. I understood.
For the next few weeks, during the bouts with Mrs. Bullhit, I clenched my teeth to prevent a repeat performance on my part. Whenever she rapped my knuckles, I would cross my eyes and make Harpo Marx faces at her as soon as she had turned her face away. Not once did I speak again disrespectfully to her. I was extremely proud of myself, and I had succeeded in remaining sane while learning every nuance to the meaning of the term “self-control.”
Shortly before the day to sign my soul to Accordionist Perdition arrived, my parents hesitantly asked, “You do like the accordion and enjoy taking lessons, don’t you? You haven’t said a word about it at all lately.” It appeared they had completely forgotten the talk-back incident. Was my inheritance hinging on my answer? We were at the groaning board of a dinner table again. My grandparents looked at me with expectant wide smiles. That night we were having bakalar, a smoked, dried salt cod dish reconstituted and boiled until it flaked and tasted like stale oatmeal. Only rescued by heaping it with epic divides of garlic, one did not reek for hours, but for days. Sen-Sen only helped if you engulfed enough to put you into suspended animation.
I carefully raised a mounded fork of the blanched vampire-killing fodder to my trembling lips, and thought to myself, “I can’t say that I HATE accordion and wish the teacher would slink back into the conflagration she had emerged from.” I also considered the bounty of chocolate bars and bags of potato chips – most often Coffee Crisp or Sweet Marie, and Frito Lays – that Babitza pulled from her handbag on their visits when I was, as she liked to call me, “A good accordion-playing girl”. If I truthfully admitted my dislike of the corrugated red anathema, Grandpa would likely never talk to me about Russian politics again either. I envisioned my parents disowning pitiable, untalented me and ornamenting my brother’s hockey-helmeted head with 24KT gold laurel leaf.
In our family, it was long tradition that only one child should be crowned god and saving grace. Hadn’t my parents taken my brother during his hockey tournament finals in Quebec to see the Bon Homme? Yet, they had never attended any of my musical or other recitals or plays at school, and had never shed a solitary sympathetic tear for me, even during winter, knowing full well what I carried week in and out up an icy hill.
I looked at my family resignedly, sighed out my defeat. I had only one chance to win their lifelong respect and affection. As well, I couldn’t risk disappointing my grandparents and losing the perks that came along with keeping them happy.
“I love accordion,” I fibbed.
It was a lie I’d regret uttering for two years. And, my God, nothing is more like eternity to a child than two whole years.
So, within a week, IT arrived. The new accordion must have been related one way or the other to Mrs. Bullhit – with its gnashing keyboard teeth and its overall cold-blooded appearance. Black and white with chrome, it resembled a first cousin to a tuxedoed vampire whose well-dressed manners concealed its true intentions. I knew I was in mortal danger. Feeling faint, I quickly closed the lid of its imitation blue crocodile coffin, locked the latch and stood next to it. It came up to the top of my thigh. I tried picking the case up by the handle, and winced. Fully grown accordions were not good sport. Now I really wanted to cry.
The next day was worse. With my parents working, and blithe grandparents nowhere to be found, no one could help me up to lessons with the larger accordion. I would endure two years of macabre sessions, feeling like a stranger journeying toward an even stranger land.) Up that hill I trudged faithfully, feeling my alternating left and right arms stretch as I hauled the equivalent weight of an extinct dinosaur. Cowering under Mrs. Bullhit’s threatening snarls of “Don’t be so stupid!”, I bit back tears when she compressed the fingers of my right hand on the keyboard whenever I played a wrong note. And I remained silent. Being disrespectful is one thing I had learned not to indulge in, if you remember.
But enjoying secret revenge is a completely different horse altogether…. What joy, what deserved bliss I experienced, skipping home after every lesson down Mount Everest. I’d push that bloody accordion so vengefully it would pitch end on end and bang loudly on the pavement ahead of me. One time I launched it so hard, it screeched and scraped as a rolling square projectile out of control. Down the hill it careened, like a dervishing torpedo scraping bottom.
“Please explode!” I begged as I ran panting after it. I knew I would be doing the universe a favour if I could exterminate it. I truly hoped I had killed it, but by the time I had reached the bottom of the street to see if it was having death throes, I knew God wasn’t smiling on me that day. I spat out my gum despondently. I opened the case with great trepidation, hoping that the thing’s ivory teeth had fallen out and its reedy guts had shredded into a linen and plastic coleslaw. But no, that damn wheezeamacallit was immortal! “They must have guardian angels!” I sheeshed.
It now became all-out war. I can’t recall how many times and ways I tried to execute it. I even once considered lugging it to Toronto City Hall to the observation deck, but figured I wouldn’t have the muscle to lift it high enough to heave it over and down. The case eventually became so battle-scarred I worried my parents would figure out my obsessive atrocities carried out against it, but as usual, they were oblivious.
The last lesson finally took place the first week I entered junior high and discovered part of the curriculum was a compendium of music classes – which trained the young and impressionable on every musical instrument imaginable except the accordion. Official academic assessment had determined I’d be able to learn a classical instrument, and I chose the cello first. But after three months, I became hopelessly attracted to the violin. I figured I even had an advantage with my extra long right bowing arm, thanks to what I’d carried around for 24 months. Eventually I worked my way up to 2nd violin. Memories of the boxed terror slowly faded like the whiny exhale of downtime notes from a bagpipe. Having had to keep the accordion as it had been paid for, I stashed it at the back of my bedroom closet behind 16 Magazines from which every picture of Mark Lindsay of Paul Revere and the Raiders had been removed and tacked on my walls.
My strings class teacher, Mr. C~ was as much a stretch from Mrs. Bullhit, a really nice guy as they say, and he lived right across the street. My mother and he once backed out of our driveways at the same moment. I remember her later frantically explaining to the insurance company how both cars had suffered rear end damage only – but that’s another story.
Nightmares about Mrs. Bullhit ceased. But I did go on to reluctantly play The Blue Danube and other ethnic wedding favourites for years, much to the delight of my Old Country grandparents. “Now our granddaughter plays two musical instruments, and the violin especially well!” was their incessant report to anyone with ears. Until the day they died, I’m certain they thought I was still enthralled with that damn accordion. I never had the heart to tell them that I thought such instruments should be put to better use as mega-sized blockheaters or opera-calibre hog callers.
So it was meant to be. Sweet gentle strains of the violin, not the honk of reeds and bellows, would be my road toward appreciating classical music. I even eventually became the proud owner of a fiddle years after picking one up in junior high.
And revenge was very sweet indeed, regarding that eventuality. One day when I was in my thirties, that old monster accordion came in handy. I used it, most eagerly, as a trade-in for the violin I plan to one day pass on to my son.
Or perhaps I should say I’ll only pass it on if he honestly wants to play it. Maybe I should even wait to see if he’ll beg me for it. (Even so, would it hurt to teach him a little scale or two in the meantime?) Everything is fine with the world, because I don’t think they even make accordions anymore, unless they’re special order for persons by the name of Walter. They must have gone the same way as the iron maiden, or I hope they have, because I never met an accordion I liked, and I hope that my son never will either.
Copyright © 2002, 2003, 2015: L. Chrystal Dmitrovic