63. Music to Soothe the Savage Beast

63. Music to Soothe the Savage Beast

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Family Matters


Music to Soothe the Savage Beast

Music hath the charm to soothe a savage beast, but I’d try a revolver first.

~Josh Billings

My legs hang over the arm of the couch. Inches away from my head, my eight-year-old daughter plinks away at her electronic keyboard. “Yo, monkey,” I say to her without turning. “What’s the name of that song?”

“I Dropped My Dolly in the Dirt.”

I smile and continue reading my magazine. I also smile at my own pleasure. It was not always possible for me to enjoy young children playing instruments. In fact, once upon a time I detested it.

Many moons ago when I was sixteen, my mother wheedled a white baby grand piano out of my half-brother’s grandparents. Mom was great at wheedling. Dear ol’ Mom had plans for her herd. Great plans. Mom placed my six-year-old brother on a pedestal so lofty that he often fell back to Earth with such a clamor that all felt the reverberations.

Much to my horror and that of my five-year-old sister, Mom had decided our brother Mark was a musical genius. Thus, logically, the only possible next step for our beloved sibling was to follow in the footsteps of Mozart. This translated into a small fiery-red-haired brat practicing at ungodly hours on a piano. That the showpiece white baby grand sat in the living room—and that my bedroom was on the other side of a wall by said instrument—further infuriated me. Each morning, my cherubic brother plinked on his scales at the predawn hour of 6:00 a.m.

I’d shove my pillow around my head and curse, but the noise continued. Teenage fury rose in me.

Eventually, I’d give up, get up and mumble the same thing I always did as soon as I saw Mom.

“WHY does he have to play SO EARLY?”

And dear Mom had her pat melodious reply: “Markie is a morning person.”

I wanted to kill or at least gag him. Or, better yet, destroy that piano.

My stepfather went along with all the musical shenanigans. After all, it was his parents who had been bamboozled into buying the piano. He never said too much, but he was constantly on edge. To be fair, Mom kept us all pretty much on the edge. She’d fly off the hat at real or imagined offenses. She had called the cops on neighbors so many times that I hung my head low whenever I walked the neighborhood. Once, she had smashed a neighbor’s front door window because their dogs had come in our yard and eaten my sister’s rabbits.

As I saw the world from my sixteen-year-old eyes, I got grief, Markie got a piano, and my sister got animals. In fact, she had a hamster called Hammie.

Now, Mr. Hammie was a normal hamster, orange-ish, fluffy, way overweight, and didn’t have much of a personality if I recall correctly. He was kind of skittish. Oh, yeah, he didn’t like being held. But if you think about it, who would like to be manhandled by five- or six-year-olds? And, to be honest, we were all kind of skittish.

Anyway, one fine day Markie was not at his piano. My sister was letting Hammie explore the wondrous white instrument. First, he was on the keys on the left side, sitting comfortably on a nice solid C note. He was taking short hamster steps, testing whether or not the keys would support his weight. Hammie got a feel for it and hauled hamster butt. He zoomed to the far right end of the keyboard. And with each step, he plunked a note. This caught the pointy ears of our brother, the king of the white baby grand.

“Hey, who’s messing with my piano?” my brother yelled from somewhere in the house.

I smelled a disaster, and that is good for a non-involved, eternally pissed off sixteen-year-old. Bodies from all over the house converged on the sacred piano zone—a stepdad body, a six-year-old Mozart impersonator body and, worst of all, THE MOTHER BODY!

My sister, reading the writing on the wall, knew she would pay for trespassing on the sacred and holy piano. She attempted to scoop up Hammie. Ah, but Hammie had a different vision of the world. The lid of the piano was open. How else to impress the neighbors and occasional visitors? Hammie jumped into the guts of the piano. He worked his way under the many miles of strung wire. My sister was horrorstruck. But her timing was just a little off. His Royal Highness Markie had arrived on the scene, just in time to see Hammie’s furry hamster hindquarters leap into the heart of his piano.

“MOM! HAMMIE’S IN THE PIANO!” he screamed.

Our house was never far from hysteria, and like a tornado picking up speed, the winds of chaos were now swirling. I continued peeking from the safety of the kitchen, wanting to see, but at least be near an exit. I had two exit options—the front door or the sliding glass door.

Hammie did his best to burrow deeper into the core of the piano. But as he ran across the inner strings, the keys would pluck, and the sucker played a song of flight. I loved it. My sister paled. My brother was mortified. Mom, well, Mom freaked… but that was pretty predictable.

“Oh, my God, my GOD, the hamster is in the piano. Roger! Roger!”

Stepdad was named Roger at birth. The only time we ever heard his name was when Mom wanted him to solve some crisis. Like a hamster in a piano. We heard his name pretty regularly.

“Roger, Roger. Oh, my God, what can we do?”

My brother added his calm voice to the din. “I HATE YOUR HAMSTER! GET IT OUT OF MY PIANO. NOW!!!”

Hammie kept up the music and took a quick turn to the left, playing a descending scale—actually better than what I normally had to listen to.

“Roger, do something. Do something!” demanded Mom.

Now, Roger was a quiet guy. He worked for the state, loved solitude, and had married my mother when his hormones got the better of him. All this pressure was building for him to do something. My sister sniffled and then broke into a howl. Markie was jumping up and down at the edge of the piano.

“There he is!” Markie said, pointing. “There he is. Get some cheese and get him out.”

“He hates cheese,” my sister sobbed.

Hammie kept up a good tune. Mom’s arms were in the air, flailing.

“Roger, Roger! Get the hamster out. What if he poops in there?”

“No!” screamed my brother.

“He better not poop in my piano!” He turned to my sister. “Stupid! You aren’t supposed to touch my piano!”

Recriminations usually were part and parcel of our domestic storms.

The chaos factor had kicked in. How do you make it stop? What could one person do to end such a situation?

Roger figured it out. He watched Mr. Hammie’s handiwork on the keys. They’d depress as a result of the fast-footed critter’s movements. Roger anticipated two keys ahead of Mr. Hammie, raised his hand, made a fist and WHAM! Eeek!

My sister hit the floor legs spread wide. Her arms were the same, kind of like a kid making an angel in the snow. She started screaming. Next, my brother went nuts.

“THERE’S GUTS EVERYWHERE!!” he screamed and tried to attack my sister.

Roger pulled him off. Mom was quiet, but her eyes were big. She looked at me in the kitchen. “Why did YOU let her do this?”

I said nothing, just backed out the sliding glass door into a crisp Connecticut November day and ran.

It’s taken me a few years to enjoy hearing my daughter play the keyboard. But then again, we don’t have a hamster.

~Paul H. Karrer

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