Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Piano Lessons With Cats

For as long as I can remember, and even a bit before that, I took piano lessons. My mother determined that I needed a habit more irritating than many of my sister's irritating habits, which included talking nonstop at a high pitch, staring unblinking at people for hours at a time, and having a bladder the size of a walnut. At least with the piano, my sister's squeals would be drowned out by the lilting toils of rickety, pensive scales played eighty-seven times in a row.

My piano teacher was Mrs. Bartagas, an elderly widow who lived alone. If you could call living with forty-three cats living alone. It was more like living with moving, breathing, angora stealth-pillows with claws.

My mother would drop me off at her house and I'd knock on the front door. The cats lived inside, every last one of them, and as Mrs. Bartagas opened the door to let me in, a swirl of cat hair would rise in the draft. The cats would scatter into the shadows, kicking up more hair and throw rugs as they went. I could sense their eyes shining at me from the nooks and crannies of many years of accumulated furniture. I half expected Rod Serling to appear with afternoon tea.

Forty-three cats is a rough estimate. I was never able to line them up for an actual head count. Cats don’t cotton to counting. Once in a while I’d spot one I thought might be new. “Why, yes, that’s Oliver,” Mrs. Bartagas would reply. “He’s new.” Then I’d ask her how many cats she had now. The answer was always, “Why, forty-three, dear,” as if she was surprised to hear such a silly question.

Mrs. Bartagas had a lively past that she loved to share. Since this meant less playing time I was all for it. She had somehow been affiliated, in reality or fantasy, with Doris Day. There were pictures everywhere of Ms. Day, some even signed. It was hard to make out the signatures because cat hair blanketed nearly everything.

She would launch into a story about the olden days, and I'd keep an eye out for attack cats. There were a few that liked to bite my ankles, especially when I pressed the piano pedals. I was convinced that one day I’d be playing a tune and hear an irritated 'meowrr!' from deep inside the piano as I smacked some misplaced feline with a felt piano hammer. The top of the piano would fly open, and the angry cat would leap out and attach itself to my jugular. In a hostile territory such as this, Clair de Lune can become a dangerous enterprise.

The air in the house was pungent, thick. While I loved all animals, I was allergic to cats. Attempting to play Beethoven’s 5th whilst sneezing one’s fool head off was difficult, however the adrenaline rush produced by the cat-claw assaults on my ankles helped clear my sinuses enough to get by. Every once in a while a kamikaze kitten would wipe out the clicking metronome on the top of the piano. The constant drama kept me alert and terrified. Looking back, my visits were probably the highlights of their little feline lives. When I left I’m sure they had some tall tails to share.

The keys of her piano were real mother-of-pearl - worn, wavy and opalescent, much like Mrs. Bartagas' fingernails. I tried not to notice the similarities, but when she'd show me how to play something, her nails clacked on the keys. Ebony, ivory, and geriatric cuticles all blended to form a hopefully once-in-a-lifetime experience.

Her hands were incredibly quick and lithe on the keyboard, which was good because if they stopped for any reason, I couldn’t help but stare since they were, well, ancient. Veins, arteries, and tendons arched and mingled like a city map. I did my best to listen to her instructions, but my mind was fixated on the freeway interchange just south of her pinkie and ring finger.

In a pasture in front of the house lived Mrs. Bartagas’ white horse. When I was leaving, he’d come over to the gate and bob his head at me. Mrs. Bartagas would often ask ‘Bob’ what she should have for dinner. He’d whinny something unintelligible, at least to sane people, and she’d head back to her house of cats. He’d look at me and bob his head, so I’d pick some grass and feed it to him. Then I’d leave before he started telling me things I was better off not knowing.

When my mom picked me up, I’d be sneezing my head off and bleeding about the ankles. But I was humbled, happy to see my mom, and thrilled to be going home. I’m guessing that’s why she sent me in the first place.

6 comments:

WriterDude said...

"Musical Attack Cats" WBAGNFARB. They could share the bill with Leetie's band.

Just Ducky said...

Great reminiscence, Annie. I am reminded of the Siamese cats in Lady and the Tramp, times a zillion. Hope you (and your ankles) weren't scarred for life.

Jug said...

Wow, Annie, that makes Mrs. Volpel and her aging terrier look like a walk in the park. Excellent, as usual.

Kristina said...

"moving, breathing, angora stealth-pillows with claws" - that's a great description!

I've got 2 kitties myself. One of them is pretty relaxed, but the other is very playful.

Mr. Completely said...

I like cats better than I like most people.

VP81955 said...

43 cats and a Doris Day obsession. Well, at least she didn't teach the kitties to mew along to "Pretty Baby."