One too many old movies

Tuesday, May 7, 2002
Renae Bottom

"Did you hear that?" I whispered to my husband, who was fast asleep beside me in bed. He rolled over and mumbled something in Swahili, with a little Portuguese mixed in.

"Wake up! Did you hear a noise?" I whispered louder and shook Mark's shoulder. My "newlywed" instincts told me it was the husband who should go downstairs at a time like this.

We had been married for about two years. We lived in family student housing at the university we were attending. And I was certain I had just heard a burglar downstairs, playing "Mary Had a Little Lamb" on our piano.

Yep. I awakened in a cold sweat, heart pounding, positive that the final strains of "... fleece as white as snow" were echoing up the narrow staircase of our apartment.

I attribute such delusional moments to a childhood affinity for suspense movies. Not horror movies. Those were gross. I liked the old black-and-white psychological thril-lers, the film noir kind of stuff.

In those old flicks, the villains typically had some physical trait or peculiar personal habit that set them apart from the crowd.

Sometimes the bad guy walked with a tell-tale limp. During the climax of the picture, he would step-clump up the stairs to where the diamond jewelry was hidden, while the music swelled and the camera zoomed in on his orthopedic shoe.

If the movie had a villainess, she might wear an unusual ruby necklace, or habitually finger a pearl ring. Sometimes, she would lose control when she heard a trigger phrase like, "I told you not to get your new shoes dirty in the mud," or "Why can't you be a good girl, like your sister?"

Tuneless whistling was a favorite quirk for movie bad guys. I think that's where my "Mary Had a Little Lamb" hallucination came from. It would be just about right if the guy who stole your silverware stopped on the way out the door and played a few strains of a nursery song on your piano.

Of course, it would be the same song he'd learned from the cruel matron at the squalid orphanage where he grew up.

In a series of flashbacks, the audience would see how she made him play it over and over again, until his tiny fingers cramped and the evil notes echoed through his head like so many clanging church bells.

Finally, the villain would meet his demise when a piano fell on him, just before the final credits. (Hey, nobody said these movies were good. Just memorable.)

But meanwhile, back at "Mary Had a Little Lamb." I finally shook my husband into a state of consciousness sufficient for trekking downstairs to check things out.

I sat on the bed and listened for a struggle. "There's nobody here!" he called up after a few seconds. I didn't think it was sufficient time to search all the closets, but he seemed satisfied. Actually, by that time I was pretty sure there were no piano-playing burglars roaming the house.

Since that night, I've learned that "Mary Had a Little Lamb" is the only song my husband knows how to play on the piano. I find that strangely significant.

He plunks it out with one finger. He says that someone in his family taught it to him, long ago, when he was just a boy. Thankfully, he didn't grow up in a squalid orphanage, and I've never seen an orthopedic shoe in the closet.

But I'm keeping an eye on him. If he ever starts any "tuneless whistling," I'm hiding the silverware.

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