“I bought you an accordion and I’ve arranged for lessons,” my mother told me one day. I’d just come home from school and was about to change out of my school clothes. She was standing in our living room. Next to her, on our coffee table, sat something that looked like a suitcase.
I hadn’t asked for an accordion and I couldn’t remember showing any musical talent. At all. I could play the radio, but that was about it. In fourth grade, Mr. Krenicki, our music teacher, tried teaching us how to play the recorder, a kind of black plastic flute, but I couldn’t finger the holes right and make the correct notes come out. Eventually I just gave up. And when me and Mickey fought a duel using our recorders as swords, we were thrown out of music.
I tried to read my mother’s face, but all I saw was her usual look, something between irritation and determination. I wanted to tell her that I didn’t really want to play the accordion, but my mother didn’t like the sound of the word ‘no.’ I had a feeling, though, that before long she’d like the sound of my accordion playing even less.
I wondered if this sudden interest in my musical education had anything to do with The Lawrence Welk Show, my mother’s favorite TV program. Every Saturday night at nine she’d fix herself a drink, turn on the TV and tune to Channel 7, then settle into one of our armchairs.
At the beginning of every program Lawrence Welk would welcome everybody to his show, then turn, wave his baton at his band and say, “Ah one and ah two . . .” From behind his band—which he called his Champagne Music-Makers—bubbles floated up and drifted across the stage.
Every show Lawrence Welk would have one of his band members, Myron Floren, play an accordion solo. When Myron began to play, my mother’s toe got to tapping. I had to admit, Myron was good. To accordion players, Myron Floren must have been the Mickey Mantle of the squeeze box.
“Mr. Antonucci will be here Wednesday for your first lesson,” my mother continued, “so don’t dawdle or stop off at Tony’s after school. Come right home.” Tony’s was the local grocery where we stopped off for soda, candy and the latest Superman comic. When she saw the disappointed look on my face, she softened and added, “If you practice regularly you could be as good as Myron Floren.”
Was my mother thinking that if I practiced every day I, too, could be on The Lawrence Welk Show? Maybe that was her plan, but like my Uncle Bob used to say, “The best laid plans of mice and men usually turn to shit.”
When my mother went into the kitchen to start dinner, I opened the case and took out the accordion. This wasn’t one of those kiddy accordions, made of plastic, like that one I saw in Woolworth’s. This accordion was big and heavy and looked like Myron Floren’s, only this one had a shiny blue grill with the word ‘Hohner’ on it.
That Wednesday, right after school, I headed home without stopping off at Tony’s. I did, however, stop to climb my favorite tree in Mickey Leon Park. But when I got home, I was quickly reminded that there was always a price to pay when I disobeyed my mother.
“It’s after three! Where have you been? Good thing Mr. Antonucci is running late!” When she saw the rip in my shirt, my scuffed shoes, sappy hands and knees, and bits of tree bark in my hair, she pitched a fit.
“I thought I told you to stay out of trees!” she yelled, her eyes bugging out.
“I wasn’t . . . I didn’t!”
“Don’t lie to me!” she yelled, grabbing me by the arm. For a minute I thought I was going to get a smack. “Go change! Mr. Antonucci will be here any minute now! And wash your hands and face!”
I liked climbing trees. I’d climb as high as I dared until I found a comfortable limb; then I’d just sit and listen to the wind as it sang to the birds perched on the branches around me. The birds must have been wondering what I was doing up there. Most just ignored me and sang to one another.
And I liked to watch people walk by, under the tree, people who didn’t know I was there. Hidden among the leaves, I was invisible. If an adult happened to look up and spot me, and tell me to get down before I fell and broke my neck, I’d just ignore them.
As ordered, I washed my hands and face, changed my shirt, then waited in the living room for Mr. Antonucci. He finally arrived, breathless, smelling like our laundry hamper and looking like he’d forgotten to shave. He bowed slightly to my mother and apologized for his tardiness. My mother showed him into the living room where two kitchen chairs and the suitcase containing the accordion waited.
Mr. Antonucci smiled, shook my hand and introduced himself. He then sat down and took the accordion out of its case. Placing it on his lap, he slid his arms through the two shoulder straps, undid the bellows straps and proceeded to play for me – and for my mother who sat on the edge of the sofa, watching.
Mr. Antonucci’s hands flew over the keys. He was good. Almost as good as Myron Floren. Mr. Antonucci should’ve be on TV, I thought. I wondered what he’d done wrong to get stuck giving lessons to kids like me in a city housing project on the west side of town.
“With practice you can play as good as that,” said Mr. Antonucci when he finished.
Fat chance, I thought. You’ve never heard me play the recorder.
Mr. Antonucci then explained the various parts of the accordion. “It’s really just two rectangular boxes connected by a bellows,” he said. “The piano-looking keys on the right, the bass buttons on the left, and the bellows in the middle. By moving the bellows back and forth, you cause air to pass across strips of brass, called reeds, inside the accordion. The reeds vibrate and produce sound.”
I looked over at my mother who was watching Mr. Antonucci. She seemed pleased. It was a look I didn’t see that often.
“You play the melody with your right hand and the accompaniment with your left hand. Your two hands have to work together. I bet you didn’t know that the word accordion comes from the German word ‘akkord,’” said Mr. Antonucci. “It means agreement, harmony. So, if your two hands are in agreement, they play a harmony!”
“If you get good enough someday you might perform at Carnegie Hall in New York City, like Charles Magnante,” said Mr. Antonucci. “I was there,” he said, staring out the window. There was a faraway look in his eyes, like he was reliving that night.
I’d never heard of any Charles Magnante and I thought only symphony orchestras played at Carnegie Hall. I wondered if Carnegie Hall had a bubble machine like Lawrence Welk. I wouldn’t mind playing The Lawrence Show or even The Ed Sullivan Show, another of my mother’s favorite TV programs.
“Here, now you try it,” said Mr. Antonucci, handing me the heavy accordion. “Move the bellows back and forth and finger the keys to get the feel. It’s just like playing a small piano.”
The accordion was heavy but not unmanageable, even for a kid my size. Mr. Antonucci reached into his leather briefcase and pulled out a book, The Palmer-Hughes Accordion Course, Book 1. He went over the first few pages with me, then had me practice fingering the keyboard and bass buttons. Then he had me try a simple tune from the book, just with my right hand, on the keyboard. Surprisingly, I got it right the first time.
This is easy. I’ll be playing an accordion duet with Myron Floren before you know it. Then I tried playing the same tune using both hands. This time the results were not as promising. It was like trying to pat your head and rub your tummy at the same time.
“That’s OK. It’ll come with practice,” said Mr. Antonucci, smiling. I played—or tried to play—another simple tune from the book, more like a finger exercise, but, again, my two hands wouldn’t cooperate. When my half hour was up, Mr. Antonucci smiled and said, “You did well for your first lesson.” My mother thanked and paid Mr. Antonucci for the book and the lesson.
“Your accordion cost almost $300,” my mother told me later, over dinner. My jaw dropped and food almost fell out of my mouth. My step-father made $75 a week driving a beer truck, so, for us, $300 was a lot of money, enough for a down payment on a new Chevy. My step-father had a habit of getting drunk and cracking up the family car, so, for over a month now we’d been getting around by bus or on foot. I wanted to ask my step-father what he thought about this investment in an accordion, but, as usual, he wasn’t home yet. He was probably playing cards with my Uncle Bob at the Glenbrook Tavern.
“So, I want you to practice one hour every day after school, before you go out to play,” my mother said. “And stay out of trees!” She threatened that if I didn’t practice—or if she found me up some tree—I couldn’t watch TV.
“No Three Stooges or Laurel and Hardy or Abbott and Costello or Looney Tunes. ”
It wasn’t long after I started lessons that my mother discovered there was an accordion orchestra at my elementary school. She enrolled me without even asking if I even wanted to be in any accordion orchestra. Luckily this orchestra only met only on Tuesdays and Thursdays, so I would only have to carry my accordion to school twice a week.
The first morning I brought it to school my buddies asked what I was carrying in the suitcase.
“You runnin’ away from home?” Robbie asked, kicking the case with his foot.
“Wadda ya got in there, rocks?” asked Georgie, watching me struggle with the heavy accordion case.
“My mother’s making me take accordion lessons,” I replied.
“Oh,” said Mickey. Georgie and Robbie looked at each other, but said nothing.
When I got to school, I dropped the heavy accordion case on the hall floor, pushed it all the way to my classroom and into my coat cubby.
The Westover Elementary School accordion orchestra met in the auditorium every Tuesday and Thursday morning at 10:30, right after arithmetic. We sat on metal folding chairs arranged in a semi-circle like some kind of symphony orchestra, except everyone had the same instrument—an accordion. There wasn’t a tuba or violin to be found. Not even a set of drums. Every band or orchestra had drums, I thought. Lawrence Welk’s band had drums.
On my first day, Mr. Krenicki, our music teacher, handed out sheet music. I couldn’t read music yet, so when everyone started playing, I just followed along, trying to pick out the tune. Mr. Krenicki stood up there, waving his baton around just like a real conductor, trying his best to get us to at least play together. Some did. Some didn’t. Several of my band mates played at their own speed, reading the sheet music and carefully fingering each note. Some played whatever song they wanted.
I wondered what my mother had gotten me into. This mob didn’t sound like any orchestra or band I’d ever heard. I don’t know how Mr. Krenicki stood the racket. A couple of times he stopped us, wiped his forehead with his handkerchief, tugged at his tie and said, “OK, let’s take it from the top one more time.” If Myron had been there he would have cried.
I wondered whose idea this was, an all-accordion band. Then I remembered once seeing an all-accordion band on The Ed Sullivan Show. It was made up of kids, mostly. I’m pretty sure they played “Lady of Spain.”
Maybe Mr. Krenicki, the conductor of this mob of kiddie accordion players, thought he could get us on The Ed Sullivan Show.
Good luck with that.
As ordered, I practiced for one hour every day after school, and Mr. Antonucci came to our house every Wednesday at three. My mother sat on the sofa, watching. Before long, and much to my surprise, I graduated from Book 1 to Book 2 of the Palmer-Hughes Accordion Course.
On Saturday nights, when my mother tuned to The Lawrence Welk Show, I watched Myron carefully, hoping to pick up a few tips. I pictured myself on TV playing an accordion duet with the Myron Floren. When we were done, the audience would applaud and Lawrence Welk would thank me.
To help save up for a new car—to replace the one my step-father cracked up—my mother got a part-time job waitressing at The Brass Rail Restaurant on Stillwater Avenue. She worked three days a week, Wednesday through Friday, from four to ten. She didn’t leave for work, however, until after I had practiced my accordion for one hour.
Occasionally my mother and step-father had family and friends over for drinks. If it was a Saturday night, at nine we’d all sit around and watch The Lawrence Welk Show. When Bobby Burgess and Barbara Boylan came out and did their dance routine, my mother would push the coffee table over into the corner and dance with my step-father or my Uncle Bob. My grandmother would sometimes join in, dancing with my Uncle Johnny. My grandfather just sat and watched, smiling and working on his whiskey and soda while his toe tapped to the beat. When the show was over, my mother put on some records.
When Lawrence Welk went off, I headed off to bed. The drinking and dancing and carrying on continued late into the night. Even with my pillow over my head I could still hear them whooping it up. The next morning our living room looked like a train wreck.
One night, a couple of months after I started my accordion lessons, my mother woke me and said she wanted me to play for our guests. I was tired and just wanted to sleep, but like I said, my mother didn’t like the sound of the word ‘no.’ So I put on my bathrobe, dragged my accordion out of the closet and followed her into the living room. The room was smoky and noisy, but when I walked in, everyone laughed and greeted me.
“Play something for us,” my grandmother said, smiling through slitty eyes, drink in hand. My step-father got one of our kitchen chairs and placed it in the middle of the living room for me. My mother told me to play something from my ‘repertoire’ – a word she learned from Mr. Antonucci. I started off with “The Marine Corps Hymn,” a piece in one of my Palmer-Hughes accordion books. One of my Uncle Bob’s friends joined in, singing along at the top of his lungs. He was with the Marines during World War II, my Uncle Bob later told me. When we were done, everyone cheered, clapping and spilling their drinks on our rug and each other. The Marine gave me a dollar.
“That was great, kid,” he said.
“That was nice,” said my Aunt Mary, who gave me a hug but no dollar.
Then I played “Drink to Me Only with Thine Eyes,” another song in my ‘repertoire.’ My Uncle Johnny gave me another dollar. At the time I was thinking, a couple more performances and we’ll have enough for a new car.
One afternoon, while I was practicing my accordion, my mother walked into the living room and told me my step-father had left for California to find steady work and that he’d be gone for awhile.
“While he’s . . . away, I’ll have to pick up more hours at The Brass Rail.” There was a look of uncertainty on her face, but only for a moment. “I won’t be here when you get home from school, so make sure you practice,” she said, that usual stern look on her face.
But with my mother working more hours at The Brass Rail, she was no longer able to keep tabs on me. So when The Three Stooges came on at three thirty I turned on the TV and practiced while watching Moe, Larry, and Curly. I wanted to play good enough to get on The Lawrence Welk Show, but I couldn’t resist The Three Stooges. Every show the wacky trio smacked each other around and threw stuff, like pies and hammers. I laughed so hard I almost peed my pants. Like Cherry Coke and Strawberry Twizzlers, the Three Stooges were hard to resist.
At school, me and my band mates were sounding better day by day. We could now play the same tune, all at the same time. We were beginning to sound like a real orchestra. I knew must have been getting better when Mr. Krenicki moved my seat closer to the front. Maybe if I got good enough I’d make it all the way to the front row and Mr. Krenicki would let me play an accordion solo.
Look out, Myron Floren! Ed Sullivan here we come!
I became a regular at our Saturday night family get-togethers. I was a hit. The dollar bills were piling up in that shoe box in my closet. Soon we’d have enough for a new car. Or at least a down payment.
One Saturday night the party-goers were especially loud and rowdy, so loud I was afraid the neighbors would call the cops on us. As I sat down to play for our guests, Uncle Johnny asked if I knew “Lady of Spain.”
“Sure,” I said. “It’s in my repertoire. Mr. Krenicki taught us that song at school.” But as I played, my uncle sang lyrics I was unfamiliar with.
“Lady of Spain I adore you, lady of Spain you old whore you . . .” His girlfriend, Nancy, yelled at him. “That’s terrible. Stop it!”
Uncle Bob laughed and picked up where Uncle Johnny left off:
“ . . . take off your pants I’ll explore you, Lady of Spain I love you.”
“Knock it off,” Aunt Mary yelled.
My grandmother tsk-tsked, shook her head in disapproval, and shot them both a hard look.
Then Uncle Johnny and Nancy began to argue.
“Sit down and shut up or leave,” my mother yelled at the two who were standing nose to nose.
Uncle Bob told my mother to get the stick out of her ass.
“Do you know ‘My Bonnie Lies Over the Ocean?’” my grandmother asked me, trying to find a more suitable song, one my uncles couldn’t ruin.
When I started to play, Uncle Bob began to sing again: “Your mother swims out to meet troopships . . .”
“Bobby!” my mother yelled. Uncle Johnny laughed so hard he spilled his drink.
“That’s not funny!” yelled Nancy.
“There’s children in the room,” my grandmother scolded. I wondered who she was talking about. In a year and a half I’d be thirteen. My grandfather just chuckled.
Uncle Bob probably learned his version of “Lady of Spain” and “My Bonnie Lies Over the Ocean” in the Navy. He had a tattoo on his arm of a heart with an arrow through it. In the middle was the name “Helen.” He told me Helen was a girl he knew when he was in the Navy.
“I met her while I was on shore leave in San Diego,” he told me. “She liked to swim out to meet troopships,” he said with a wink.
Just when things began to calm down, Uncle Bob comes out with, “I saw a stripper try to play the accordion once. Her tits kept getting caught in the bellows.” I wanted to ask if her name was Helen, but thought the better of it.
Uncle Johnny laughed so hard he shot beer out his nose. Again, my mother didn’t think it was funny. At all. She stood up, glared at Uncle Johnny, then started across the room, heading for Uncle Bob. My grandmother grabbed her by the arm and held her back.
“There’s ladies in the room!” my grandmother yelled, giving Uncle Bob another hard look.
“Where?” said my grandfather, looking around and chuckling. My grandmother threw her drink in his face. Uncle Bob roared. Aunt Mary dumped a bowl of potato chips on his head. When Uncle Johnny laughed, Nancy punched him in the eye.
Hoping it would calm everyone down, I started to play “There’s No Place Like Home,” but when Nancy took another swing at Uncle Johnny and missed, she fell onto me and my accordion, spilling her drink in my lap. I figured the show was over and it was time to go to bed. I retreated to my room, closed the door, put my accordion back in its case and shoved it in the closet. I climbed into bed and put my pillow over my head.
The following Monday afternoon, while I was practicing my accordion, I overheard my mother call Mr. Antonucci and tell him we couldn’t afford lessons anymore. “My husband is looking for work and money is tight,” she said.
I continued to practice every afternoon anyway, but with Mr. Antonucci gone and my mother working full-time, I began to spend more time with Moe, Larry and Curley and less time with my accordion. And without Mr. Antonucci’s lessons, I fell behind my band mates at school. Before long, I was in the last row again, back where I started. I tried my best, but eventually gave up and just played “Lady of Spain” during rehearsal.
Soon I began to skip practice and hide in the boy’s lav. I’d place the accordion case on the toilet seat then sit on the case. Since my feet didn’t touch the floor, nobody knew I was there. And since Mr. Krenicki rarely took attendance, I wasn’t missed.
After a while, I stopped going to band practice altogether. To keep my mother quiet, I still brought my accordion to school every Tuesday and Thursday. I hid it in my coat cubby, hoping Mr. Gaipa, my teacher, wouldn’t notice. And I made sure the notice announcing the Westover Elementary School Spring Accordion Recital never found its way home.
After our last family gathering, nobody wanted to come to our house anymore. My run as the Myron Floren of 42 Merrell Avenue came to an end. And with it, any hope that I would ever be on The Lawrence Welk Show . . . or The Ed Sullivan Show . . . or any other show for that matter. Gone, too, were any hopes of buying a new car.
Time passed and my step-father still wasn’t back from California. To be honest, I didn’t miss him. He drank too much, he and my mother fought all the time, and he changed jobs every couple of months, it seemed.
On our way to school one morning, Mickey asked when my step-father was getting out.
“He’s in California looking for a job,” I replied, wondering what he meant by ‘getting out.’ Mickey and Georgie gave each other a puzzled, look then looked down at the ground. There was something they wanted to tell me, it seemed, but didn’t know how.
“He’s not in California,” Mickey finally said, shuffling his feet and looking away.
“What do you mean?”
“He’s in jail,” said Georgie.
“That’s a lie,” I yelled. “How do you know he’s in jail . . . what did he do?”
“My uncle was in court for a speeding ticket when your step-father got sent upstate for six months. Your step-father got drunk, borrowed somebody’s car and crashed into another car. Some people got hurt. The judge said it wasn’t his first time.”
Mickey and Georgie stood there for a minute then turned and headed off to school leaving me red-faced and puzzled.
Now I understood all the side glances and whispers at school. I thought I’d left home without socks again. Or forgot to pull up my zipper . . . again. Why had my mother lied? I didn’t care where he was. California. Jail. I was glad to be rid of him.
I thought of finding the tallest tree in the park, climbing all the way to the top where nobody would ever find me and staying there. Forever. But I went to school anyway. At lunch I sat by myself. I was sure everyone was staring at me.
A week later my mother told me she had to sell the accordion.
“We need the money,” she said, nervously wiping her hands on her apron. There was a troubled, uncertain look on her face. I wanted to ask why she’d lied to me about my step-father. Instead, I just stared at her for a minute, then went to my room. I dragged the accordion out of my closet, pushed it out into the hall and closed my bedroom door.
When I came home from school the next day, the accordion was gone. I ran out, found the tallest tree in the park, climbed to the top and belted out “Lady of Spain,” singing the lyrics I learned from my Uncle Johnny.
Mike Mulvey teaches English, has an MFA from Southern Connecticut State University and has been published in twenty or so lit mags and anthologies, big and small, in the US and the UK, print and electronic, some of which you’ve probably never heard of and a couple that are now belly up. But last year he was nominated for a Pushcart Prize.
–Art by Jan Rockar
–Art by Plamen Stoev
–Art by Joel Hohner