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A Player Piano in Pigtails

SOME scoff at player pianos, saying they're gimmicky and only for those who never learned to play the real thing. But me, I'm fascinated by all those honky-tonk keys dancing about, pressed by unseen fingers, and oh! to have my hands so big to span so many octaves that easily!

But once a player piano turned into a piano player right under my nose and the hands were not big but tiny, and they belonged to a girl called Heidi.

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It was high in the Rockies in a town that went all cowboy for the summer. I had just been for a stagecoach ride and was waiting for the bank to be robbed (as it was every day at 2 o'clock from May till September).

It was lunchtime. Nina's Restaurant across the street looked promising. It had lace curtains and blue gingham tablecloths and a player piano in the window at which sat two lifesize Ma and Pa Kettle dolls with puckered stocking faces. I went in and sat down and presently Nina came over to take my order. As she did, somebody plugged in the player piano. (``City Lights Rag,'' I think the tune was called.)

Now, I was delighted because I love dining to music and, besides, nothing conjures up for me the image of the old Wild West so much as a honky-tonk piano turning out a bit of ragtime.

It was good, toe-tapping music, full of soda and spice, and it took my spirits up to the ceiling. But just as I was about to give Nina my dessert order, ``City Lights'' suddenly went dead.

I thought there had been a power cut so I said to Nina, ``There's something wrong with the player piano.'' She looked at me with an arched eyebrow but said nothing.

Then it started up again. The piano began tripping along again, a little bit more warily, a bit slower in tempo, but apparently none the worse for wear. I was just getting back into the toe-tapping routine when that great black hole suddenly came out of nowhere and swallowed us up again.

But this time the piano didn't take it lying down. No, it got up, circled that troublesome hole, backed up and took a few practice runs, and then, while we waited breathlessly, sailed over in a great leap and went hurtling down toward the finale, triumphant.

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Now, I was trying to puzzle this all out because I had never before heard a player piano behave in quite this fashion when a thin slip of a girl slid out from behind the piano and took a bow. She wore a big straw hat with pink ribbons and her two side teeth had not yet lined up with her front ones.

``She's 10 years old and her name is Heidi,'' winked Nina.

The girl named Heidi came over with a sign that said ``Songs I Can Play'' and looked at me hopefully. So I selected two from the list that I knew, tucked a dollar bill into her hand, and then instantly regretted it. (Oh, should I have given such easy money to a child so young?) But she took it happily enough, flashed me a grin, and fled back to the piano.

What followed then were my two songs, a Bach and a Beethoven, plus ``City Lights'' again and a battery of ragtime and blues which I hadn't ordered but which got thrown in for free anyway.

They were wonderful songs. They bubbled and spilled over with joy and exuberance and made our spirits soar.

By now I knew the routine. Now, instead of holding my breath on the parts where she stumbled, I just sat back and waited while Heidi got things going again. She was ever careful of her precious songs. They were precious, growing things and she coaxed and indulged them.

She ended her concert and bowed a deep bow, and then came to stand at my side. For my dollar I was also to receive the pleasure of her company.

She told me that she came with her mother to town every summer and last year she had only two songs and people said they wanted more so this year she had 12. She didn't know them all perfectly yet. (This was not said apologetically but just so that I would have all the facts.) Yes, she loved ragtime and next week she was going to summer camp. Where? Well, she knew where it was but it was hard to describe how to get there. Just a minute. She would ask her mother.

About three hours away where they have horses! She let this sink in, as if it were adding significantly to the sum total of all my worldly knowledge.

We talked about ragtime and horses and then it was time for me to go. By the crowd gathering outside I could see that the bank down the street was getting ready to be robbed. Could she play one more song for me before I left?

I paid my bill and my compliments to her mother and went out into the street. As I looked back I could see her there in the window, smiling and playing my Bach again, doing her best to get him through it in one piece.

She was having quite a struggle with the old fellow, I could see. He was being a bit contrary. If she can only just get him over the next few bars, all would be well.

But it was too much to expect. She looked up and saw me and grinned that wide, uneven grin and I knew all was lost. I stood helpless when that worthy old master of prelude and fugue slipped off the keyboard and took a spectacular nosedive, straight to the floor.

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