“Now, who thinks they can spell the next word aloud for the class?” Mrs. Vulgtoff asked while smirking, probing the class with her icy eyes as a farmer would his chickens before selecting supper.
I held my breath. Maybe she wouldn’t notice me? Maybe I would pass out and have to leave class? Maybe I’d—
“Christopher?” Her voice cut the air.
“Yes, Mrs. Vulgtoff…” I replied. Weakly.
“You’ve been uncharacteristically quiet. Can you spell ‘well-prepared’ for the class?”
“Well-prepared”? That couldn’t possibly be one word. Vincent gets 100’s on every spelling test and his word was “afraid.” I could have spelled “afraid,” but now I was afraid, trying to spell something I was not. The irony of second grade overwhelmed me. I hadn’t even looked at the spelling list. What rules did I remember? I before E? That’s a good one. I before E.
“Spell the word,” she demanded.
I blindly mumbled the first letter, the stupid E and I rule still fresh on my mind. Why was I so stupid? I didn’t know how to spell the word, but I sure as hell knew it didn’t start with an I. Luckily, the class laughed—I could save myself yet.
“Yes. I, 5, B4, hit, battle ship sunk… a, r, e, d; well-prepared.”
The joke was a hit—as all good battleship jokes should be—and the class sank into a fit of laughter. Everyone, that is, except Mrs. Vulgtoff. Her battleship was still afloat, and every cannon aboard was aimed at my head.
Subsequently, I walked into my kitchen with an F on my spelling test, a letter from ol’ Vulgtoff in my hand, and a heart as heavy as my backpack. I handed my mom the note.
Without opening it, she calmly said, “Mrs. Vulgtoff called ahead. Why didn’t you just spell the word and avoid this hassle?”
I didn’t want to say it, but she got it out of me.
She told me to talk to my father, who was in his room watching golf. Before I got through the door he started talking.
“Ever hear the one about the hospital, the pirate, and the piano?”
I dropped a dull “nope” and bent over to pick up a bit off fuzz from the carpet that looked more interesting than the conversation. I was in for every eight-year-old’s bane: a story with a moral.
My dad chuckled and said, “It’s one of my better ones. Grab a seat.”
With fuzz in hand and acquiescence in heart, I complied.
My dad settled into his chair and began. “I left the hospital’s church after an abridged and music-less mass and went to greet the priest. ‘Hello Father, what happened to music today? Where’s the piano?’ The priest replied, ‘It seems that Gestas wasn’t the only thief to face the Lord’s presence without repentance. It was stolen yesterday around noon.’”
I looked up momentarily from my fuzz with burgeoning interest. “How on earth would someone steal a grand piano from a hospital, and where is the pirate?”
With a subtle grin, my father ignored my questions and continued. “The priest had returned from lunch the previous day to a piano-less church. He checked the surveillance camera. A man in a baby blue janitor’s uniform carrying a grey toolbox casually walked into the church, took out a saw, cut the piano base’s lock, and wheeled it toward the door. Then he was gone.” He paused to take a sip of water.
“Come on, now,” I demanded, curious about the piano and frustrated by the clear lack of pirates. “When do the pirates come in?”
My father’s subtle grin was replaced by a victorious chuckle. The dust bunny I had been so fond of lay lifelessly on the ground. He knew he had piqued my interest.
Refreshed and still chuckling, he continued. “Two weeks passed without news of the piano. I was eating lunch with the Chief of Medicine. As he cracked open his soda, carbonated fizz bubbling out, the piano story popped into my head. I asked if he had heard about the missing piano.
Struggling to contain the carbonated rage that he had antecedently unleashed, he imprudently spurted out, ‘Uhh, no,’ while reaching for napkins.
I began the story, only making it to the man struggling to push a piano out of the church doors before I was violently interrupted by the sound of a drowning moose. The Chief of Medicine had gasped while sipping his coke. Consequently, he was gasping for air, clinging for dear life. After a minute or two, his vitals checked out and appeared to be stable. ‘I know what happened to the piano,’ he let out.”
My dad took a deep breath.
For once, I had nothing to say. I waited anxiously. He was using some great moose imagery. I was on the edge of my seat.
My dad started up again. “Confused and interested, I asked him to explain. With a look of defeat, he began, ‘My meeting finished early and I was en route to the cafeteria when a Janitor—toolbox in hand, wearing a very soothing shade of blue—appeared, struggling to push a piano out of the church. After helping, I asked what he was doing. Confidently, he replied that the piano needed routine maintenance, described the technical problems of the instrument, and explained that he was taking it to a workroom near the hospital’s entrance. Headed that way as well, I walked with him, opening the doors as we went. However, not too far from the destination, my pager rang. I wished him luck and hurried off…’
The chief and I looked blankly at one another. He pushed his coke away and took a deep, defeated breath. ‘I think I helped a man rob me.’
Sure enough, after checking the main entrance footage—the last place anyone thought to check—we saw a man in a blue janitorial uniform push a piano out of the sliding doors. Two other men pulled up in a moving truck, lowered the ramp, and rolled the piano into the vehicle, never to be seen again.”
Ah. The plot thickens. Most stories weren’t this interesting. In awe, I inquired, “A man walks into a hospital, convinces its Chief of Medicine to help him steal a grand piano, and wheels it out the front door? What could possibly be the moral of this one?”
My father, still smiling, asked, “Of the three, who do you think was smartest: the doctor, the priest, or the thief?”
Giving the man what he wanted, I answered, “Well, the doctor and priest had to go through a bunch of school. I’d imagine it’s one of them.”
“How come the thief won?” he calmly returned.
My eight-year-old brain struggled with this abstract logic, but I imagined that the answer would somehow tie into my most recent F on my spelling test.
“The thief got the piano because he knew what he needed to do to accomplish his goal, had the material down, and went in with confidence,” my dad explained. Triumphantly.
I smiled, knowing that I had called the story with a moral from the start. “Fine,” I let out, “I’ll give it a shot, but these moral of the story ideas work better in principle.”
I remembered about the pirate and felt slightly cheated. “What ever happened to the pirate?” Had he forgotten part of the story? Old people are known do that.
He chuckled, oblivious to the fact that I thought forty was old. “Oh, it’ll work.”
Frustrated that he kept ignoring the pirate questions, I asked mustering all my effort to sound sarcastic, “How do you know?”
“I know because there was never a pirate. I just needed a way to keep you interested until I got to the moral of the story. Know the material, have confidence, and know what you need to do. It worked pretty well here, didn’t it?” He ended with his face gleaming with accomplishment, “Why would a pirate be in a hospital anyway? I’m old, but I wasn’t born in the 1600s.”
He picked up his glass of water and the remote and flipped the golf tournament back on.