Ten-year-old Zoe Elias has perfect piano dreams. She can practically feel the keys under her flying fingers; she can hear the audience's applause. All she needs is a baby grand so she can start her lessons, and then she'll be well on her way to Carnegie Hall.
But when Dad ventures to the music store and ends up with a wheezy organ instead of a piano, Zoe's dreams hit a sour note. Learning the organ versions of old TV theme songs just isn't the same as mastering Beethoven on the piano. And the organ isn't the only part of Zoe's life in Michigan that's off-kilter, what with Mom constantly at work, Dad afraid to leave the house, and that odd boy, Wheeler Diggs, following her home from school every day.
Yet when Zoe enters the annual Perform-O-Rama organ competition, she finds that life is full of surprises—and that perfection may be even better when it's just a little off center.
About the Author
Linda Urban's debut novel, A Crooked Kind of Perfect, was selected for many best books lists and was nominated for twenty state awards. She is also the author of Hound Dog True, The Center of Everything, Milo Speck, Accidental Agent, and the chapter book Weekends with Max and His Dad, which received two starred reviews. A former bookseller, she lives in Vermont. Visit Linda online at lindaurbanbooks.com and on Twitter at @lindaurbanbooks.
Read an Excerpt
A Crooked Kind of Perfect
By Linda Urban
Harcourt, Inc.Copyright © 2007 Linda Urban
All right reserved.
Chapter OneHow It Was Supposed to Be
I was supposed to play the piano.
The piano is a beautiful instrument.
People wear ball gowns and tuxedos to hear the piano.
With the piano, you could play Carnegie Hall. You could wear a tiara. You could come out on stage wearing gloves up to your elbows. You could pull them off, one finger at a time.
Everybody is quiet when you are about to play the piano. They don't even breathe. They wait for the first notes.
And then you lift your hands high above your head and slam them down on the keys and the first notes come crashing out and your fingers fly up and down and your foot-in its tiny slipper with rubies at the toe-your foot peeks out from under your gown to press lightly on the pedals.
A piano is glamorous. Sophisticated. Worldly.
It is a wonderful thing to play the piano.
How It Is
I play the organ.
A wood-grained, vinyl-seated, wheeze-bag organ.
The Perfectone D-60.
The best pianist who ever lived was Vladimir Horowitz.
Well, maybe Mozart or Beethoven or one of thoseancient guys was really the best, but nobody knows because they didn't have CDs or television or anything back then. But once TV and recordings came around, the best guy for sure was Vladimir Horowitz.
I saw a show about Vladimir Horowitz one time.
I wanted to watch that old show on TV Land about the twins who are always switching names and clothes and playing tricks on their teachers and boyfriends, but my mom said, "Zoe, either you can watch PBS with me or you can go to bed." And she had popcorn.
Vladimir Horowitz was born in Russia. His mom played piano. The show didn't say what his dad did.
He was a prodigy, which means that even when he was a little kid he could play like a grown-up. When he was seventeen, he gave his first professional concert, and when he came to America a few years later, he played Carnegie Hall.
I'm ten. Almost eleven.
That means I have six years to get good.
I told my mom that I wanted to be a prodigy, that I wanted to play Carnegie Hall. I told her I wanted to play the piano.
"Take it up with Domestic Affairs," she said. That's my mom's way of saying, "Talk to your dad."
My mom is a controller for the state of Michigan. She looks after all the money and makes sure she knows how every dime is spent and that nobody is cheating or stealing or buying stuff they're not supposed to. I found all this out on Career Day last October. I didn't know before.
On Career Day, the other moms and dads were things that kids had heard of. Like Mr. Nunzio, who is a baker and who brought us all little chocolate cupcakes with Nunzio's Buns written in pink frosting. Or Joella's mom, Mrs. Tinstella, who is a host of a radio program on WPOP. She had her microphone and pretended she was doing her program while she was talking to us-putting in commercials and introducing songs and taking requests-and then she gave us red-and-purple WPOP bumper stickers. For weeks afterward all the cool kids' parents had WPOP bumper stickers on their cars, but we didn't because my mom says bumper stickers fade and peel and then your car has a big gummy rectangle that attracts dirt and anyway it's just a big advertisement for WPOP and they're going to have to pay us if they want us to advertise for their noisy excuse for a radio station.
When Mrs. Trimble introduced my mom and Mom started talking about being a controller and fiscal responsibility and keeping your ducks in a row, most of the kids looked really bored. Even Mrs. Trimble looked like she was going to need to head to the teachers' lounge, which is where she goes when she has had it and desperately needs a cup of coffee and a Tylenol.
But then my mom started walking down each row and asking each kid's name, and she'd say, "Lily. Nice to meet you, Lily. Here is a quarter. Buckley. Interesting name, Buckley. Here is a nickel." She talked to each kid and gave them money and then went back up to the podium and kept on talking about how a controller has to know where every penny is and not get distracted by emotion or politics or home life or what's on the radio. Which made Joella Tinstella turn around in her seat and stare all mean at me for about five minutes. Everyone else was watching Mom. Hoping she was going to hand out more money, probably.
"In any organization there are distractions. Personalities. Drama. It is a controller's job to ignore these distractions and focus exclusively on the money," said my mom.
Then, with her eyes closed so we wouldn't think she was cheating, my mom said, "Lily, quarter. Buckley, nickel. Colton, quarter. Ashley, dime." She named every single kid in the class and said exactly which coin she gave them. "I got them all right, yes?" asked Mom and we all said yes and clapped. Mrs. Trimble said, "Thank you very much," and started telling my mom how much we all enjoyed her talk. My mom interrupted her.
"Before I go," Mom started. And my stomach started aching and my hands started sweating and I knew that every kid in my class was about to hate me.
"Before I go," she repeated, "I'll need you to pass those coins up to the front of your rows. Every penny counts. That is fiscal responsibility!" Mrs. Trimble made us all pass our coins up and Mom counted them at the end of each row, and when one quarter was missing in row three she said, "Wheeler. My quarter." Wheeler Diggs pretended that he had already passed it up to the front and then faked like Sally Marvin dropped it on the floor and he had to crawl around under his desk before he handed it over.
Later, after music class, Wheeler Diggs stopped me in the hall and looked all mean at me and I thought he was going to punch me in the stomach and I threw up and I missed my bus and my mom had to come back to school and take me home.
The first time I told my dad that I was supposed to play the piano, he harrumphed. The second time, he rubbed his chin. The third time, he said, "That's a big commitment for a little person." My dad knows about big commitments. He has twenty-six framed diplomas from Living Room University.
"I am destined to play Carnegie Hall," I told him.
"Baby steps," he said, pulling a flyer from the stack of junk mail on the counter. It was from the Eastside Senior Center, and in it was an ad for More with Les, a revolutionary method for learning the piano. Six weeks of lessons with Lester Rennet, Award-Winning Music Teacher and Trained Motivational Speaker! Specializing in Children and Seniors! No Instrument Required!
The senior center had one piano, and it was not grand. It was an almost-upright. It leaned to one side. I guessed it had been donated by a school because there were initials carved into its legs, and if you lifted the yellow scarf off the top, you could read all about a Mrs. Pushkin who smelled like fish. The bench was bowed from years of supporting senior citizen backsides.
The More with Les students sat at folding tables. There were nine of us. Me and eight seniors, including Mr. Faber, who was ninety-two years old and slept through most of our lessons. He was not motivated by the More with Les philosophy.
"My philosophy is simple! My method revolutionary!" said Lester Rennet.
"Save it for the brochures," grumbled Mr. Faber.
"This is your More with Les songbook." The cover featured an out-of-focus photo of Lester Rennet surrounded by kids who appeared to be holding up homemade accordions. SIMPLE! it said. REVOLUTIONARY!
Mr. Rennet told us to turn to the back of the More with Les songbook. There we would find the revolution.
What I found was a piece of perforated cardboard folded over on itself a couple of times. There was a piano key design printed along the bottom edge.
"Voilà!" said Mr. Rennet.
"The More with Les paper keyboard!"
The blurry kids on the songbook weren't holding accordions at all.
Lester Rennet pulled his own paper keyboard from his briefcase and unfolded it. "As you can see," he said, holding it up to the tired piano at the front of the room, "your More with Les paper keyboard is exactly to scale. It has black keys and white keys, just like a real piano except, of course, that they make no sound when you touch them! The More with Les paper keyboard is the perfect practice instrument! No worrying about plunking out wrong notes in front of your friends! You can practice anywhere. At the kitchen table! At Bingo Night!" Mr. Rennet pointed at me. "You can practice in the school lunchroom!"
Had Lester Rennet ever seen a school lunchroom? Did he understand that the lunchroom is a jungle, where sixth-grade beasts stalk the weak and the dorky? Unfolding a revolutionary paper keyboard would be like picking a scab in a pool of sharks the scent of blood would cause a frenzy.
Lester Rennet continued. "Each week you will be assigned a piece from the songbook. I will play it for you here à la piano while you play along on your More with Les keyboard!" Then we'd go home and practice-the More with Les recommendation was twenty minutes a day-and at the following week's class we would each take a turn in "performance" at the real piano, hearing for the first time the songs our fingers had trained for all week.
"And now," said Lester Rennet dramatically, flipping my More with Les songbook to its paper keyboard page, "let us begin!" And with that he tore out the magical paper keyboard that was supposed to be my ticket to Carnegie Hall. For the first and only time, the paper keyboard made a sound: rrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrip.
We have 432 rolls of toilet paper in our basement. Four hundred and thirty-two. This is enough to last until I'm out of high school, my mom says, provided we are conservative in our usage. She figured it out. Family of three-one of us gone almost all day every day at her office and one of us at Eastside Elementary five days a week-goes through about one roll of toilet paper a week. That means we will use fifty-two rolls in a year. 52 x 8 (the number of years until I go to college, as long as I don't flunk a grade-not likely-or skip a grade-even less likely) = 416. That leaves sixteen extra rolls for emergencies.
We have 432 rolls of toilet paper because my dad went shopping by himself. Dad is not supposed to go shopping by himself, but sometimes he gets all worked up about how he should be able to go shopping like everybody else. And then he gets to the store and there are lots of people around and if it is noisy or there are flashing lights-like maybe a blue flashing light announcing an extraspecial, limited-time offer on toilet paper-my dad gets really jittery, and if somebody notices and tells him something like "This is a once-in-a lifetime deal that will not last," my dad will say, "I'll take it," and the people with the blue light will be very happy to help him. If he says he is going to take all of it, they will even offer to deliver it to the house. And all Dad's jitters will fade and he will believe that he has done a very smart thing, making sure that his family has enough toilet paper to last for eight years.
And then he will forget all about it.
Until the delivery truck comes to the house.
The Perfectone B-60
My dad was supposed to buy me a piano.
But instead of going online or calling Rewind Used Music, he went to the mall and it was crowded and noisy and he was walking by the big fountain with the stone hippo in the middle and he heard this sound.
This boompa-chucka, boompa-chucka sound.
And his toes started tapping and his hips started wiggling. The man at the store that sells Perfectone D-60s saw my dancing dad and waved him over.
Dad told me everything that happened after that. But he didn't need to. I could have figured it out for myself.
"You look like a man who knows fine music," Mr. Perfectone said to my dad. Boompa-chucka, boompa-chucka. "Do you play?"
My dad laughed. He was supposed to say, "My daughter is about to have a concert at Carnegie Hall. I just need to buy her a piano so she can start her lessons." But Dad was mesmerized by the boompa-chucka-boomp.
"Go ahead," said Mr. Perfectone, slithering around behind my boompa-chucka dad. "Press a key." Chucka-boomp.
Dad pressed a key. A Cuban nightclub act sprang out. That's what my dad said. A single key and he could hear bongos and trumpets and guitars.
Mr. Perfectone flipped a switch. "Again," he whispered in my dad's ear. Dad was bold. He touched two keys. An entire orchestra tumbled out of the speakers. "Not bad, Mozart," Mr. Perfectone said, sliding a sales slip and a pen from his sleeve.
Two weeks later, instead of an elegant piano slick as black ice, two hairy guys dropped off a wood-grained behemoth.
Now, the Perfectone D-60 is mine.
Excerpted from A Crooked Kind of Perfect by Linda Urban Copyright © 2007 by Linda Urban. Excerpted by permission.
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