The elevator doors opened and assisted-living residents poured into the dimly lit lobby like molasses in January. I heard an enthusiastic “Ooooh, music today!” as I tried to coax an acceptable rendition of “Deep Purple” from the wobbly-keyed spinet. A man shuffling by stopped to listen for a moment. “Hmmm, pretty good,” he muttered, and continued his journey. A resident seated on the dated floral sofa commented loudly to his companion, “I think she’s better than Loretta. Don’t you think she plays better than Loretta?” No response. He raised his volume a couple of notches to question the occupant of an easy chair: “DON’T YOU THINK SHE PLAYS BETTER THAN LORETTA?”
Amused by the voices swirling around me, I was caught off guard when a woman maneuvered her walker around a wooden end table and appeared at my side. Her limp grey hair brushed my shoulder as she leaned in close and snarled, “Why don’t you go play somewhere else?” Was this Loretta, confronting her competition? I reeled in confusion but managed to go on with my performance.
That was my introduction to Agnes. (Loretta turned out to be another volunteer I have never met.) Ornery Agnes complained about everything—the food, the staff, her fellow residents. She railed especially against the musical entertainment. No one seemed to know the reason for Agnes’s aversion to music. Perhaps her parents forced her to take dreaded piano lessons. Maybe she was tone deaf or suffered from amusia. If music sounds like noise, who wouldn’t want it to stop?
I tried many kinds of music to please Agnes: Rogers and Hammerstein favorites, jazzy Gershwin tunes, patriotic songs, even the occasional hymn or short classical piece. She viewed it all as an assault to her ears. When I asked her if she had a favorite song, she scowled and turned away.
For more than two years, I showed up for my volunteer gig on alternate Tuesdays. Agnes stuck to her routine, as well. She aimed her walker and charged hell-bent through my audience, deftly delivering her verbal slap when she reached the piano. “Hey, take it someplace else!” “Go away!” “No one wants you here!” Her words varied; her sentiment did not. One memorable afternoon she swooped in, landed her first zinger, walked a lap around the piano, then returned to my side to strike a second time. As she huffed off, she chided a man sitting nearby, “How can you stand that awful music?”
I calmed myself by imagining the set I could dedicate to Agnes. First Cole Porter’s wry “You Irritate Me So,” followed by the Benny Goodman hit “Don’t Be That Way.” Then a cajoling “Get Happy” à la Judy Garland. Hoagy Carmichael wrote the perfect title for my finale: “I Get Along Without You Very Well.”
Copyright © 2013 by Paulette Bochnig Sharkey
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