Stewart Smith
Stewart Smith Piano Lessons 1

Their construction was clumsy — an eighth inch gap between the wooden door and metal jam. My skeleton key of shirt-hanger wire found purchase on the bolt’s angled head; rewarded with a clack, followed by a descending creaking of hinges. Then complementary ascending creaks, crescendoing to the muted thud of wooden door re-meeting metal jam. The trebly tock of the painted light switch. Finally, the low whoosh and clunk of the piano’s keyboard cover rolling backward to reveal an inert, binary-colored axis of pitch. There is peace in solitude.

Tuition from two-thirds of the student body facilitated the varying levels of financial aid for the remainder of us — a fact mirrored in the social pecking order of our all-boys, catholic high school. Some were bred for it; little American Hitler Youths. In contrast, us outsider families were ensnared by the false promise of intergenerational upward mobility through paid education. Duped. Senior year I’d delight in Bill Murray’s performance as he implored the lesser Rushmore students to “Take dead aim on the rich boys. Get them in the crosshairs and take them down.” A few months later that barbed but ultimately benign sentiment would become rather taboo in a post-Columbine world.

For many of us the cafeteria was no haven. Aggressive homophobia drove Liam to sneak out to his car and smoke cigarettes alone inside. Perhaps he wept in there too. Mikhail would flee the skull-vibrating noise of the lunch crowd for a hallway bend on the top floor, his headphones further shielding him from human interaction. (Not long into college Alex and I attended his funeral. The polite story was he’d accidentally broken his neck falling from a height but the rumor was he’d purposely overdosed in his dorm room’s top bunk and fell overside in the process.) I found the raucous lunchroom’s overwhelming imbalance of testosterone to estrogen repugnant. Besides, anything decent to eat was too expensive and a tinge of hypoglycemia made contemplating the short menu nearly impossible anyhow. Best to avoid the misery of lunch altogether.

I recall standing in my bedroom’s closet doorway picking through the assortment of cheap hangers; seeking a spread of gauges to later test for fit in the jam at school. Crafting a good hook was uncomplicated: A pair of pliers and determined fingers. Untwist. Flatten. Mark an appropriate length and repeatedly ply until the wire snaps at the desired point. Shape the curve of the hook. Viola rosin for grip. Twist the butt end into a handle for better torque during execution.

Then it was off to school. Lunch period. Second floor hallway. Wait for the foot traffic to silence into classroom seats behind closed doors. Quickly make an attempt before stragglers, restroom seekers, or stray faculty appeared.

I wasn’t a member of the school band. Asking permission to use the practice room — having to explain myself — seemed too emotionally complicated and inherently gave authorities the option of denial. It was easier to quietly steal this time for myself than to form into words a compelling argument for why I deserved to have it lent to me.

Outside of school my attention had been stolen by Amy’s fishnet stockings and excessive eyeliner. (Years later she would become an actress.) The spinning heads of my portable cassette player whirred fuzz underneath her gift to me: a pirated copy of The Bends. In an attempt to play along, my clumsy fingers pawed for left-handed bass octaves and right-handed triads to manifest the jarring chorus of C major, slunking down in to F# major with a twinkle of E, and ultimately resolving in F natural major.

I spent a good number of lunches over the remaining semesters translating my paltry guitar knowledge to this more percussive outlet. It never amounted to much but I was deeply grateful for the peace it brought me. I never took piano lessons.

“Proof of life” is a series of autobiographical flashbacks. The term is used in abduction scenarios to describe actions or statements that prove to prospective ransom payers that the hostage is still alive. Through these recollections I am claiming to exist as a human person and to have experienced peculiar things.