I'd just gotten home from school when I found my mother, hands on hips, standing in the living room. Next to her, on our coffee table, sat something that looked like a suitcase. "I bought you an accordion and I've arranged for lessons," she said, a look of determination on her face.

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 Georgie fought a duel using our recorders as swords, Mr. Krenicki took away our weapons and told us to go sit in opposite corners of the music room facing the wall.

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 I had no interest in playing 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 was at a loss to explain this sudden interest in my musical education. Then I remembered that time I overheard my mother talking about her stepfather to a neighbor. My mother's stepfather was a guy with a Polish-sounding last name, a guy I'd never met. She said that when she was fifteen, her stepfather died in what she called a 'drinking accident.'

"He loved to play the accordion," I heard her say. "Every night after supper, he'd practice for at least an hour. Whenever we had company, he'd take out his accordion and play for our guests. Once in a while, usually on a Saturday night, my stepfather would take his accordion to his favorite bar and play for his drinking buddies. They loved to hear him play. Everyone wanted to buy him a drink, he was so good," she said. "One night, however, he was too good. After too many shots, he passed out, fell over, hit his head on a barstool and died."

As she told this story, there was a look on my mother's face and in her eyes, a look I rarely saw. A sad look, like she really missed her stepfather, a guy named Mike. Maybe these accordion lessons of mine were a way for her to relive fond memories. Anyway, the last thing I wanted was to follow in his footsteps, this guy who dropped dead in a bar playing the accordion.

Then I thought, maybe this move of hers had more to do with one of my mother's favorite TV programs, The Lawrence Welk Show. Every Saturday night at nine, she and my stepfather would fix themselves a drink, turn on the TV, tune to Channel 7, and settle into separate armchairs.

At the beginning of the program, Lawrence 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 across the stage.

During every show, Lawrence would have one of his band members, Myron Floren, come out to center stage and play an accordion solo. When Myron began to play, my mother's eyes lit up and her toe got to tapping. Maybe Myron reminded her of her stepfather. I had to admit, Myron was good. To accordion players, Myron Floren must have been the Liberace of the squeeze box.

"Mr. Antonucci will be here Wednesday at three for your first lesson," my mother continued, "so don't dawdle, or stop off at Tony's... or climb any trees. Come right home." Tony's was the local grocery where we stopped off for soda, candy, and the latest Superman comic. When my mother 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 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 one was big and heavy and looked like Myron Floren's. It had a shiny blue grill with the word 'Hohner' on it.

That Wednesday, right after school, I reluctantly headed home for my first accordion lesson. As ordered, I didn't stop off at Tony's. I did, however, dawdle. I stopped to climb my favorite tree in the park across the street from the city housing project where we lived. When I got home, however, I was quickly reminded that there was always a price to pay when I disobeyed my mother.

"Where have you been?" she shouted. "Good thing Mr. Antonucci is running late!" When she saw my scraped hands and scuffed shoes, 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. "And you ripped another shirt? Do you think money grows on those trees you climb all the time? Well, next time you're up one, grab a couple of twenties to help pay for a new shirt... and groceries!" For a minute I thought I was going to get a smack. Instead, she just shoved me toward my room. "Go change! Mr. Antonucci will be here any minute now! And wash your hands and face!"

I liked climbing trees. Up in the branches, hidden by the leaves, was my secret clubhouse. I'd climb as high as I dared until I found a comfortable limb, then sit and listen to the wind as it whispered to the birds perched on the branches around me.

The birds must have wondered what I was doing up there. But after a while, when they realized I meant them no harm, they just ignored me and picked up the tune they were singing to one another before I invaded their world.

I especially liked watching people walk by, under the tree. Hidden among the leaves, I was almost invisible. Sometimes, though, an adult would spot me high up in the branches. "Come down here before you fall and break your neck," they'd yell. But I'd just ignore them and climb even higher up the tree.

As ordered, I washed my hands and face, changed my shirt, then waited in the living room for Mr. Antonucci. He finally arrived, sweaty and breathless, looking like he'd forgotten to shave. Up close, he smelled like that pile of laundry in the corner of my room. Mr. Antonucci bowed slightly to my mother and apologized for his tardiness. My mother showed him into the living room where me, two kitchen chairs, and the suitcase containing the accordion patiently waited.

Mr. Antonucci smiled, shook my hand, introduced himself, then sat down and took my 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 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. I even thought I detected a slight smile. It was a look I didn't often see.

"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!"

I looked at my hands, calloused and still somewhat sappy from climbing trees.

"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 Welk 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 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 okay. 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. "You did well for your first lesson," he said. My mother thanked and paid Mr. Antonucci for the book and the lesson.

"Your accordion cost almost three hundred dollars," my mother told me later, over dinner. "So, take care of it." My jaw dropped and food almost fell out of my mouth. My stepfather made seventy-five dollars a week driving a truck, so, for us, three hundred was a lot of money, enough for a down payment on a new Chevy. My stepfather had a habit of getting drunk and cracking up the family car, so for the last month we'd been getting around by bus or on foot. I wanted to ask my stepfather what he thought about this investment in an accordion, but, as usual, he wasn't home yet. He was probably playing cards with 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 a tree—I couldn't watch TV. "No Three Stooges or Laurel and Hardy or Abbott and Costello or Looney Tunes, or... "


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 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, as expected, my buddies gave me a hard time. "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. Their looks of pity, tinged with amusement, said it all.

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 ten-thirty, 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. 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 really read music yet, so when everyone started playing, I followed along as best as I could, 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 bandmates played at their own speed, reading the sheet music and carefully fingering each note. Some played whatever 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, "Okay, let's take it from the top one more time." If Myron Floren had been there, I'm sure 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.

If that was the plan, all I could say was 'Good luck with that.'

As ordered, I practiced for one hour every day after school, and every Wednesday Mr. Antonucci came to our house at three. My mother sat on the edge of 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 and Myron.

To help save up for a new car—to replace the one my stepfather 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 I had practiced my accordion for one hour.

Occasionally my mother and stepfather 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 Uncle Bob. My grandmother would sometimes join in, dancing with Uncle Johnny. My grandmother's boyfriend, a big guy in a white shirt and brown tie named Fred, 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 Polka records.

When Lawrence Welk went off, I headed off to bed. The drinking and dancing and carrying on would continue 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 kid's birthday party gone wild.

One Saturday night, 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 got up, dragged my accordion out of the closet, and followed her to the living room. The room was filled with smoke and noisy guests, but when I walked in, everyone cheered and greeted me.

"Play something for us," my grandmother said, smiling through slitty eyes, drink in hand. My stepfather 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, 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, slapping me too hard on the back.

"That was nice," said Aunt Mary, who gave me a hug but no dollar.

Fred smiled and tossed me a quarter.

Then I played "Drink to Me Only with Thine Eyes," another song in my 'repertoire.' 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 stepfather 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 look of uncertainty gone, replaced by her usual look of irritation and determination.

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 red licorice, The Three Stooges were hard to resist.

At school, me and my bandmates were sounding better day by day. We could now play the same tune, all at the same time. Well, most of us. We were beginning to sound like a real orchestra. I must have been getting better because one day Mr. Krenicki moved my seat one row up, 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 I come!

I became a regular at our Saturday night family get-togethers. I was a hit. The coins and 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 partygoers were especially loud and rowdy, so loud I was afraid the neighbors would call the cops. As I sat down to play, 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, didn't care for his musical interpretation. "That's terrible. Stop it!" she yelled.

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 as the two stood nose-to-nose, arguing at the top of their lungs.

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.

"Sure."

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 beer.

"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 twelve. Fred just chuckled.

Uncle Bob probably learned his versions 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 once 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. At the time, I had no idea what he was talking about.

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 grandmother's boyfriend, looking around and chuckling. My grandmother dumped her drink on his head. 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." Still pissed, Nancy took another swing at Uncle Johnny, but this time she missed. She fell onto me and my accordion, spilling her drink in my lap and knocking me over. I almost hit my head on the coffee table.

I figured the show was over and it was time to head back to bed. I retreated to my room, closed the door, put my accordion back in its case and shoved it in the closet. I changed out of my wet pajamas, climbed into bed, and pulled the covers 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 Curly, and less time with my accordion. And without Mr. Antonucci's lessons, I fell behind my bandmates 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" or "There's No Place Like Home."

Embarrassed, I began to skip practice and hide in the boy's lav. I'd place the accordion case on the toilet seat and sit on it. 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 from finding out, 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 Accordion Recital never found its way home.

After our last gathering, my mother stopped inviting guests to our house on Saturday nights. My run as the Myron Floren of Merrell Avenue was over. 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 putting a down payment on a new Chevy.

Time passed and my stepfather still wasn't back from California. To be honest, I didn't miss him. He drank too much, crashed the family car—whenever we had one—got into bar fights, and fought with my mother all the time. And he changed jobs every couple of months, it seemed.

On our way to school one morning, Mickey asked when my stepfather 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 stepfather got sent upstate for six months. He 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 staring at the ground, then turned and headed off to school, leaving me red-faced and puzzled.

Now I understood the side glances and whispers. I thought I'd worn one of my ripped shirts to school. Or forgot to pull up my zipper... again. Why had my mother lied? I didn't care where my stepfather was. California. Jail. I was glad to be rid of him.

I thought of running to my hiding place, 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 stepfather. And why she led me down a musical road that went nowhere. Not to The Lawrence Welk Show or The Ed Sullivan Show. Instead, I just stared at her, then turned and went to my room. I dragged the accordion out of my closet, pushed it out into the hall, closed my bedroom door, climbed into bed, and pulled the covers over my head.

When I got up the next morning, the accordion was gone. I dressed and ran out, not to school, but to my favorite tree. Up I climbed, pulling myself higher and higher until I could no longer see the ground below through the leaves. Up I climbed until I could go no further, the limbs turning to slim branches that threatened to break under my weight. I was lost in the tree, lost to the world, so high all I could hear was the sound of the wind and the rustling of the leaves that hid me, so high I felt dizzy and feared I might fall.

But I was safe. I'll stay here forever, I said to myself.

At least that was the plan. But then I thought, what will I do in October when the leaves begin to turn red, yellow, and brown, and start to fall?

Maybe Uncle Bob was right about the best-laid plans of mice and men.


Title image "Song" Copyright © The Summerset Review 2022.