From the Relief Society Magazine, April 1961 –
The Ogre on Alden Street
By Barbara Williams
At the foot of the iron railinged steps of 116 Alden Street, where an old cardboard sign in the window said “Piano Instruction,” Randolph hesitated for just a minute, shifted Hanon and Schmitt and Bach and “Favorite Piano Selections” from under his left arm to his right, and sighed. Before every gas chamber or electric chair or gallows or whatever it was – along every “last mile” – there was probably a place where every condemned man hesitated and sighed. But if he had any fight left in him, he likely kicked his rebellion as Randolph now kicked the lowest rise of 116 Alden Street.
The toes of Randolph’s brown Oxfords indicated many and hard-fought rebellions, but none had waged so bitterly as the one over old Salt-and-Pepper. Nearly two years it had waged. Nearly two years ago he had first called upon Miss Lucy Pepper and learned that the tips of his fingers were birds and must sail down to hit the keys squarely. But Randolph was not one to judge unfairly or in haste. It was not until the second lesson he had decided that Miss Lucy Pepper was a female ogre whose life was dedicated to the torture of boys generally and Randolph particularly, with smiles – always smiles – and that sissy stuff about birds sailing down squarely on the tips.
Yet last week there had been something heartening in Mom’s, “Now, Randolph, I don’t want to discuss that again this summer.” Usually Mom ignored him – it was impossible to argue with someone who wouldn’t argue back – but last week she had heard him and even answered when he asked for the umpty-millionth time if he couldn’t pul-ease switch to Mr. Jordan.
Randolph’s dad, if he were alive, would have understood about Mr. Jordan. “Why do you want to change teachers?” his dad would have asked, the way he’d say it to a grownup, because he wanted to know the answer. “Why do you want to learn popular, anyway? Want to play for the high school dances?” His dad had always known what he was thinking before he did, almost.
Randolph kicked the step again and looked at his watch. Eleven minutes after ten. Fifteen minutes late was all he dared, but to go in only eleven minutes late was not only defeatist, but unnecessary. He sat on his music – it had been raining – and untied and then tied first his left shoelace and then his right. That took forty-five seconds. For another thirty he just sat. Then he stood up, picked up his music, and with his free hand grasped the railing and pulled himself up the first step. There he stopped and looked down over the railing to a scraggly gray alley cat at the side of the porch. Randolph worked up some spittle and with bomb-sight precision dropped it on the enemy. Bull’s-eye! What if he could spit fire like the dragons in King Arthur! Or how would it be to spit poison? You could sure win a fight if you could spit poison!
“Hello, Randolph.” Old Salt-and-Pepper was standing in the open doorway with a blue shawl over her shoulders. “Let’s go in, shall we?”
It was real dungeony inside – dark, dreary, and cold. Randolph started to remove his coat, but Miss Pepper put her hand on his shoulder. “Maybe you better leave it on. It’s cold in here today.”
“I’m not cold,” said Randolph, jerking quickly to one side.
She smiled. “My, you’re such a big boy.”
Such a big boy, she said. Talking to him like a kindergartner or something. Well, he would fix her. “I’m going to junior high next fall,” he said, hanging up his coat.
“Tut, tut,” she clucked, smiling.
The old hen! She thought anyone who didn’t go around with a cane still believed in Santa Claus, probably. Randolph walked to the adjustable stool and twirled it, tried it, and twirled it again. Miss Pepper was going through his music.
“Why, Randolph, where’s ‘Playtime’?”
Although the principle behind “Playtime” was pretty hard – transposing the piece into other keys – Randolph didn’t like the kids to see him carrying that sissy book with all those dopey songs. Besides, it was a kind of active defiance against old Salt-and-Pepper to leave “Playtime” home every once in a while.
“Let’s be more careful about ‘Playtime,’ Randolph,” she said, with a smile.
If only she weren’t such an old smiley. If only she’d get tough once in a while. Mr. Jordan would get tough.
“Why, I don’t think you’ve had a gold star for ‘Playtime’ since last summer.”
Those sissy stars! It was like that time his little sister Betsy came home from kindergarten with a red star on her forehead. Like kindergarten.
“Well,” said Miss Pepper, “let’s try Schmitt.”
“Schmitt may not be so good.” He ducked his head under the keyboard to find the pedal.
“Well, let’s try it, anyway. Oh, we don’t use the pedal for exercises, do we?”
We. Always we. “I do,” he challenged.
“Oh, we never use the pedal for exercises.” She put Schmitt on the piano for him and picked up her stick to tap out the rhythm. “One and two and three and four and … tips, Randolph, tips. Again now. No, Randolph, you have to keep your wrists up.” She put down her stick and played the exercise for him with yellow, gnarly hands. “See how I hold my wrists? Now, let’s try it again.”
Randolph tried it, briefly. “My fingers don’t move so good. It’s cold in here.”
“Oh,” said Miss Pepper, coughing nervously and swallowing so her Adam’s apple jiggled. “They turned – that is, I had the furnace turned off. I’ll get your coat.”
“No, I don’t want it.” Treating him like a kindergartner!
“I don’t want you to be cold.” Miss Pepper scurried to the fireplace where she busied herself with some kindling and a newspaper.
“That won’t do any good. You need a log.”
“I – I’m sorry.” She tugged at her blue shawl, and Randolph felt all empty inside. He wished he hadn’t said the kindling wasn’t any good. He wasn’t really so cold. He’d just wanted to get out of Schmitt. “Oh, you don’t need a log, I guess. I feel better now.”
“Well, let’s try Schmitt again.”
Schmitt was grand, just grand, and she gave him a red star. She put it on an extended little finger to lick with a long, pointed tongue. Randolph had to turn away.
“Now let’s try Hanon, shall we?” She opened the music and set it on the piano. “One and two and three and …”
Randolph felt something on the under sides of his wrists. They had fallen again, and she was jacking them up with her stick. He gave her a look that was scorn and disdain and hate. But she obviously didn’t comprehend it. She smiled back.
Smile at him, would she? Well, just let her put her old stick under his wrists again. Just let her try it.
“Again now, Randolph. One and two and three and four …”
There was something on the under sides of Randolph’s wrists. “You old biddy!”
Miss Pepper stopped smiling. In fact, for an instant Miss Pepper stopped breathing. “You’re tired, aren’t you, Randolph?” she said after a good swallow that jiggled her Adam’s apple. Well, if she thought he was going to apologize, she had another think coming. But what if she called up Randolph’s mother and told her about it? Then he never would be able to take popular from Mr. Jordan. Oh, all right, thought Randolph, all right.
“I guess you’re not a biddy. But I don’t like that old stick poking me!”
“Of course you don’t. I’m sorry I poked you, Randolph.” She jumped up nervously and got a dish from the table. “Here, have a jelly bean.”
No thank you, he started to say. He didn’t want to eat salt in the home of his enemy – or whatever it was in the Arabian Nights – but after all, a jelly bean was a jelly bean. “Okay.” He burrowed for a licorice, but there weren’t any, so he took red. He flipped the candy into his mouth and curled the sides of his tongue around it. He felt its coating melt away as the sweet juice ran off.
“Here, have some more. Put some in your pocket to take home with you.”
He picked out all the red ones. “Thanks.”
“Oh, those red ones muss so. Here’s a tissue. Let me wrap them. there. Why don’t you rest for a minute, and I’ll play for you for a change?”
Miss Pepper slipped quietly to the stool Randolph vacated, rubbed her hands together, and gently but confidently began to play. For a moment Randolph watched her softly swaying head and certain fingers until an uneasy feeling of familiarity overtook him, and he closed his eyes to listen. Where did it come from, that music? Not from the piano or Miss Pepper or anything outside him, for with his eyes closed he felt darkly, coldly, completely alone.
“Well, let’s get back to our lesson.” Miss Pepper was smiling her tiresome smile. “Where were we? Hanon?”
Oh, Hanon was fine. And the Bach etude was coming along just grand.
Grand this, grand that. Randolph wished she would stop saying “grand.” He wished he hadn’t taken any jelly beans. He wished he’d said, “Only kids eat jelly beans.” He wished he hadn’t acted sorry for calling her an old biddy because that’s exactly what she was – an old biddy.
Finally, it was over – for another week, anyway. Miss Pepper bustled over to where his coat was hanging and got it down. “Randolph,” she began quietly.
He looked at her, and all he could think of was to hurt her – to hurt her as she had been hurting him every Saturday morning at ten o’clock for the past two years. He wished he really could spit poison.
“Randolph, I’ve been wondering if you don’t have any little friends who might like to take music lessons.”
Well, he’d show her! He stood up tall. “All my friends take popular. All my friends take from Mr. Jordan.” For the last recital, Randolph had begged old Salt-and-Pepper to let him play “Manhattan Serenade,” which wasn’t even jazzy, really. But she had gasped and said what would people think. “In fact, I’m going to take from Mr. Jordan myself pretty soon now.”
“You’re going …” she said softly, and her eyes started watering, and Randolph could actually see the tears getting ready to fall. “Oh,” she said, and it sounded more like a choke than a word. “Oh, I’m sorry, Randolph. Is it because of that piece you wanted to play at the last recital – because maybe we could …” She shivered and broke off. “When did you say you were going to start with Mr. Jordan?”
Randolph watched his heel mash into the rug. “June, I think.” He had to go on with it now. It wasn’t that he had told a lie – a white lie, really – but it was something bigger that he wasn’t quite sure he understood. He’d made Miss Pepper cry, and he’d never seen her do anything before but smile. There she was shivering and crying, and she didn’t even have a log for the fire. “But maybe my little sister Betsy will be taking from you.” That was another lie. Just last week Mom had said Betsy couldn’t take lessons for another year or two. Randolph would have to talk to Mom.
Miss Pepper handed Randolph his coat. “Tell your mother I’m anxious to meet Betsy.”
“Yeah, I will.”
Randolph jumped down the iron-railinged steps, then started to run – up Alden, left at Danbury. Mom just had to let Betsy take lessons. He crossed catty-corner to Juniper where his breath gave out and he stopped long enough to see that the leaves weren’t out on Penrose’s cherry tree. Randolph reached into his pocket and pulled out a piece of tissue wadded around five jelly beans. The candy was stuck to the paper, and he didn’t want it any more. He tossed the paper to the street for a mail truck to splash contempt after indifference. Miss Pepper couldn’t have bought those jelly beans instead of a log, could she? Randolph stared at the gooey red tissue for a moment and then picked it up and put it back in his pocket.
His mother was at her sewing machine with tissue patterns and pieces of blue material strewn about. “Mom,” he began panting, and sat in the easy chair.
“Don’t sit there. You’ll muss that material. How as the lesson?”
“Mom, you’ve got to let Betsy take lessons from Miss Pepper right away. She wants to so bad.”
“Now, Randolph …”
“And she and Miss Pepper would get along swell. She’d love the stars Miss Pepper gives you when you play good.”
“Play well, Randolph.”
“Well. Please, Mom, you’ve got to.”
“Now, Randolph, you were right there when I went through that with Betsy last week.”
“Seven’s pretty old, Mom. Lots of kids take when they’re only seven.” Randolph’s mother only took some pins out of some cloth and put them in her mouth. He spoke softly. “Mom, Miss Pepper’s poor.”
He waited while she put the pins back into the cloth.
“Miss Pepper’s real poor, Mom.”
“We’re not exactly rich, you know.”
“She didn’t even have a log for the fire.”
“Now, Randolph, that doesn’t prove she was too poor to buy one.” She turned around, and the sewing machine went zig-zag-zigging across the blue cloth.
Randolph wanted to pull that plug from the wall. Didn’t his mother care that someone was poor? Randolph’s Dad would have cared. Randolph’s Dad would have seen that Betsy just had to take lessons so it wouldn’t matter when Randolph switched to Mr. Jordan.
Randolph jerked a leaf off Mom’s African violet on his way out to the front porch. He sat on the top step, making green scratches on the cement in rhythm as he whistled. He stopped. He was whistling the music Miss Pepper had played – the music that had overtaken him and his dad in quiet death on a winter’s night in Symphony Hall.
Listening that night to the music, lifted and transported by it, he had forgotten who and where he was until he heard Dad’s moan – throaty, startled, and so close it was almost Randolph’s own.
“Home!” Dad had grasped him with a clammy hand.
Clammy and shaking were hands once strong and sure, and Randolph had stumbled out of the row for help. The doctor he located could only explain, for Dad was already dead, huddled in his seat with dank hair held tight to his forehead.
Later, much later, Randolph had cried – when there were baseball games to be attended or model airplanes to be assembled or decisions to be made. For a boy has many decisions – though none as difficult as what to do about Betsy and Miss Pepper.
Randolph sighed and took a soggy, red-stained tissue from his pocket. He pulled most of the paper from one jelly bean and flipped it in his mouth. Well, he thought, as he curled his tongue around the candy, what if old Salt-and-Pepper didn’t have a log. He had tried to help Betsy take lessons, hadn’t he? But it would be his fault if he quit. If he quit, maybe she wouldn’t have a log or any food, either. Well, why should he care? He hated her. He hated her and her bird stuff and sissy stars.
“Hi, Randy!” Rod Ashton’s bicycle skidded to a stop.
“H’lo.” Randolph wished Rod would go away. Rod never stopped by unless he had something to show off.
“Your dog had kittens.”
“Oh, don’t be a dope. Guess.”
“I’m too tired to guess.”
“Mr. Jordan’s going to help me and some kids get up a band!”
Randolph swallowed before he spoke. “Oh, what do you want a band for? All that extra practicing!”
“Say, I thought you … I was going to ask you to be in it. Dad’s going to get me a trumpet, and I thought you could be piano. You’re going to take from Mr. Jordan next summer, aren’t you?”
Well, he was, wasn’t he? He’d even told old Salt-and-Pepper. Yes, he’d told her and watched the tears form in her eyes. She’d sat there with that blue shawl over her shoulders and tears in her eyes. Oh, darn Rod, anyway! Why didn’t he go away?”
“Well?” Rod insisted.
“No. I changed my mind. I don’t want to any more.”
“I bet your Mom said you couldn’t! I bet you have to go on taking from that old fish face on Alden Street.”
“She did not. I just changed my mind, that’s all. Popular’s a waste of time.”
“Well, okay! If that’s the way you feel, okay!” Rod turned quickly on his bike. “Tell old fish face hello for me!”
“Oh, go soak your head!” Randolph called. “Go soak it for a month! Yeah, and Mr. Jordan, too!”