Marjorie Mae has a dozen chickens living on her small farm on the outskirts of San Angelo, Texas. Normal Texas folks don’t think much of chickens except when they eat their eggs or have a piece of it fried or baked. Marjorie Mae is different; she treats her chickens like real folks; all of her fowl have first names and are somewhat educated.
Gilda, Ruby, Tootie, Francis, Lucille, Ethel, Jessie, Rea, Poochie, Piddle, Bebe, and Poteet. Call any one of them by their given name, and they come running like a spotted pup. She rather prides herself on being the keeper of educated farm fowl. She isn’t sure about the depth of their education, but they seem smarter than most run-of-the-mill barnyard chickens.
One day, walking by her barn on the way to the chicken coops to gather eggs, she hears piano music. She instantly recognizes the out-of-tune sound of her ancient broken-down upright piano that’s been stored there for ten years. Unfortunately, her husband Wilfred doesn’t play, so she figures a hobo or possibly an escaped felon from the prison farm must be hiding in her barn, twinkling the ivories. She grabs a 20 gauge from the house and marches off to confront the interloper.
As she gets closer, she realizes this is not some rube pecking around on her piano, but an educated musician, like herself, that knows their way around the 88 keys. So she slows her advance to a near stop to listen a bit more. She can’t be sure, but that sounds like Mozart’s Concerto No. 3 in B minor, but the piano is old and out of tune, so it could be anything short of a barn cat walking on the keyboard.
When she reaches the barn door, the music stops, then starts again. The beautiful haunting notes of Moon River float from within the dark depths. Whoever this trespasser is, she wants to meet them and have a bite of lunch at her kitchen table; hobo or felon, she opens the sliding door and enters the barn.
Thirty steps to the center of the barn, behind the frozen-up Ford tractor, is her dust-covered piano. The tarp cover is haphazardly thrown to one side. In the low light of the barn, she can’t see anyone, yet the playing continues. Finally, the culprit is discovered when she gets within five feet of the piano.
Her Sussex Speckled Hen, Rea, is standing on the keyboard, pecking the keys with her beak and both feet. Not the corny huckster trick pecking you see the chicken at the county fair playing on the toy piano for a quarter, but calculated and coordinated movements that are producing beautiful music. The first thing that comes to her mind is, “I’m going to be rich.”
I’m into the second week of my month-long summer visit to my grandparent’s farm in Santa Anna, Texas. It’s a hot night, and everyone is sitting on the covered front porch drinking sweet iced tea and Pearl beer. My two uncles, Jay and Bill, are visiting for a few days from Fort Worth and are putting the finishing touches on a case of beer they bought this morning at the Dino station. July is beer drinking season around here. It’s considered a main food group but must be served iced-cold to gain the nutritional value from the barley and hops.
Bill gets up from his chair and reaches into the Coleman cooler, extracting another Pearl; he uses his feed store church key and a pen knife to pop the cap. Then, looking out over the Santa Anna mountain, he says to no one in particular, ” I heard this morning there’s a piano-playing chicken over by San Angelo.” Uncle Jay, his brother, immediately replies, ” bull-shit, there ain’t no such thing as a piano-playing chicken. I bet you twenty dollars it’s a can of crap.”
The two brothers are the biggest storytellers and liars in Southwest Texas and will bet on anything. The more far-fetched and unbelievable, the better. Uncle Bill says we are leaving for San Angelo in the morning. I’m excited about this one.
After getting directions from the feed store and a man standing on a street corner, we head towards the farm of Miss Marjorie Mae. She is already a local celebrity and is the gossip fodder of the town. We arrive at her farm around 10 AM.
Marjorie answers her screen door, and uncle Jay states that we are here to see the piano-playing chicken. She says, ” it’s ten bucks a carload and I can’t promise you she will be a play’in if there are eggs to lay, she will most likely be doing that first; she’s a chicken you know.”
We are led to the barn, the door is opened, and there, glistening in the sunlight is a hand-polished upright piano. A silver candelabra and swirled glass vase of fresh flowers rest on top. Marjorie collects the ten bucks from uncle Bill. Jay pokes him in the ribs and whispers, “this is all bull-shit so you might as well pay me now. ”
Marjorie emerges from the barn carrying a fat Sussex Speckled Hen. This chicken is downright gorgeous for a barnyard critter. Its feathers are fluffed up into a fuzzball, and its toenails are painted bright red. A gold nametag hangs around the fowl’s neck. I can tell my uncles are duly impressed, as I am.
The hen is placed on the keyboard and immediately launches into a jive-inspired rendition of Glen Miller’s” In The Mood.” Finishing that tune, she plays a classical number and then goes right into ” Moon River, ” closing with the theme from ” A Summer Place.” My uncles are tapping their feet and laughing like deranged mental patients. Finally, the hen hops down from the keyboard and struts back into the barn; the show is over.
Uncle Bill thanks the lady for her hospitality. As we leave, he asks her name. She replies, “Marjorie Mae Mancini.” Bill inquires if the chicken has a name. She says, “oh yes, that’s Hen-Rea Mancini.” I kid you not.