Why would a guy with fingers as stiff as frozen halibut choose a career teaching piano?
Fish Sticks appeared out of nowhere.
One late summer evening, just when I was beginning to think I might get a college dorm room all to myself, there he was, standing in the doorway and grinning like a self-satisfied explorer who’d found a lost tomb.
“Frank Calio,” he said, sticking out his hand into the room and willing me to get off my bed to shake. “You can call me Fish Sticks.”
I shook his hand and then he disappeared down the hall. A minute later he reappeared with two envelope-yellow suitcases and a laptop computer. He threw the suitcases on the bed and popped one open.
“What are you in for?” he asked, not looking up from his unpacking.
He turned to me and spoke slowly. “What are you stud-eee-ing?”
“Oh. I don’t know yet. Maybe business.”
“Hmmm,” he said, “I’m music education. Gonna be a junior high music teacher.” He stood up straight and ruffled his hair like a mad scientist. “I’m going to be rich, I tell ya. Ha, ha, ha, ha.”
“Not,” I said.
He nodded, then rearranged his hair. It was long in the front, and he let it hang in his eyes.
“Why do I have to call you Fish Sticks?” I finally asked.
“You don’t have to,” he said.
“But that’s what people call you? Is it your nickname?”
He flipped his front hair to one side with a quick half-turn of his head. “Yep.”
“Oh, I may tell you about it one day,” he said. “If I like you.”
That first year, Frank spent most of his time at the music building—in class or teaching piano lessons to local kids. On Saturday nights, if there wasn’t a dance at the institute, we’d order pizza and watch TV in the lounge.
One night in January, when there was nothing good on, Frank finally started talking.
“You know, I taught myself to play the piano,” he said.
“I taught myself to whistle,” I added, spinning the empty pizza box on one finger.
“I’m serious,” he said.
“So am I.”
He rolled his eyes. “Fine. I was gonna tell you about Fish Sticks.”
I dropped the pizza box on the floor. “I’ll be quiet. Tell me.”
He pushed the remote to mute the TV. “I was about ten,” he said, “and I learned to play a few songs out of the Primary songbook. You know, just simple tunes. But that got me hooked. And after a while I figured out a few real pieces—classical pieces.”
“You like classical?”
“Love it,” he said. “Anyway, all that time I dreamed about something. You know how most kids dream about playing in the Super Bowl or the World Series? Well, I spent my teenage years inside at our piano playing Bach or Chopin. And I dreamed about playing at Carnegie Hall. You know, my fingers flying along the keyboard in a blur, the music rising to a crescendo, the crowd carrying me off on their shoulders.
“That is a pretty weird dream for a kid.”
“So you must be pretty good … at the piano.”
“Uh, no. I started taking lessons when I was about 14, but I’ve never really gotten what you’d call good.”
“C’mon, you can’t be that bad. You got into music school, didn’t you?”
“I got in ’cause I know my theory.”
“Oh.” I tried to remember where the conversation had begun. Oh, yeah. “What’s this got to do with Fish Sticks?”
“Okay. One afternoon I was playing the piano. It was hot, the window was open, and a couple of my friends walked by and heard me. So they climbed up, you know, to look in the window—and they saw me playing. That’s when they laughed and called me Fish Sticks.” He shrugged. “And it’s true. When I play the piano my fingers move like stiff, frozen fish sticks.”
He held his stumpy fingers up and wiggled them for my benefit.
I nodded. “But why would you want people to call you Fish Sticks?”
“That’s another story. I’ll tell you one day if I get to liking you a bit more.”
Just before summer vacation, I bumped into Frank on campus. Looking for any diversion from studying for finals, I walked with him to the music building.
As we walked, Frank repeatedly flipped the hair out of his face. Sometimes, on a windy day, and in a frustrated attempt to free his face of hair, I’d seen Frank spin his head and body a full 360 degrees, often losing his balance and staggering to stay upright.
When we reached Frank’s practice room, a young girl was waiting. She was about ten, with long fingers and large brown glasses that sat awkwardly on her bony, high-cheeked face. She was quiet.
“Hey, Cheryl!” Frank said, barging into the room while throwing his book bag to the side of the piano. “You been practicing?”
An almost inaudible “Yes,” from Cheryl, like she was talking through a pillow.
“Fantastic,” Frank snapped back, holding up his hands like a triumphant boxer. Cheryl and I couldn’t help smiling at his enthusiasm.
“I just picked up a new book on alternating melodies. Just off the presses. You up for something a little challenging?” Frank asked.
“Okay!” He made a show of pulling the book out of his bag, like it was a rabbit. Cheryl watched closely as the blue and gray cover emerged. “Looks fun, huh?” he added, sarcastically. “Those crazy people playing football in this spring weather don’t know what they’re missing.”
He cracked the book open and placed it over the keyboard. Cheryl swallowed at the intimidating lines and lines of black notes.
“Just ten minutes of theory,” he said. “Then we’ll learn a song. Okay?”
Cheryl shrugged again and placed her long fingers on the keys.
There was a dance that Saturday at the institute. Frank and I stood on the edge of the dance floor watching and waiting before we committed.
When two girls came in, Frank nudged me with his elbow. I’d seen them in church before, but hadn’t said anything to them or even smiled in their direction. They moved to the far edge of the dance floor and talked to each other as lively as two birds. Frank, bold as usual, walked over and I followed.
“What do you think of the dance?” asked Frank when he got to them. He was nodding too much. He wasn’t nervous very often.
They stopped talking and considered.
“We just got here,” one said.
“But it seems okay, I guess,” said the other.
“Good,” said Frank.
One girl reached behind her and began tapping her fingernail rhythmically on the wood molding of the wall.
I thought Frank would ask one of them to dance then, but he didn’t. Instead he put his hands in his pockets and leaned backward, reflectively, like a professor who thinks he has something really important to say.
“You know,” he said, “I’ve loved music since I was a kid—classical music, that is. And I’ve always wanted to play a concert. And next Saturday night at the auditorium I’m going to do that. And I’d like you both to come and bring any friends you want ’cause it’s free.”
They considered him for a few seconds. One pushed a few wisps of hair out of her face and smiled, nicely.
He repeated the request to about a dozen other people before the night was over.
I worried that week about Frank and the concert. Despite his love of music and his skill at teaching, I knew he wouldn’t lie about his playing. If he said his fingers moved like fish sticks, they probably did. I didn’t want to see Frank, so full of confidence, flattened by failure.
Then all of a sudden it was Saturday night, and Frank was walking out onto the stage. Under the lights and on the stage he didn’t look his typical fearless self. He seemed pale and wispy, like a crumpled tissue in a dark blue suit.
He raised his hands above the keyboard.
“You can do it, Fish Sticks,” I gasped under my breath.
He flipped the hair out of his eyes, mumbled something to the piano, and struck the first chord.
That night I walked with Frank back to the dorm. We were quiet for most of the way, but I knew it couldn’t last. Finally he asked.
“So, how was it?”
“What?” I played dumb, stalling.
“The concert, bozo. My concerto sans orchestra.”
“Oh, it was good,” I said quickly.
He grunted. “I got off tempo a few times,” he said.
“Ahh, no one noticed,” I lied.
“Seriously, I want you to tell me what you thought of it.”
I looked over at him.
“Well, I guess your playing could still use a little work,” I said.
“Yeah, I guess,” he admitted. He stuck his hands in his coat pockets. “It frustrates me sometimes—that I can’t play.”
“No, I didn’t say that.”
“No, I know. I can hear the music in my mind and I know how it’s supposed to come out, but it just doesn’t. Like tonight, Fish Sticks took over. I was halfway through and I wanted to climb up on top of that piano and jump up and down.”
I let out a little laugh and Frank looked over and began laughing too.
We rounded the bend and stopped under a streetlight, looking up at our dorm.
“So why didn’t you?” I asked.
He flipped his hair off his forehead to reveal raised eyebrows. “My students, most of them, were in the audience.”
“Well, tonight I shared something personal with them,” he said. “I showed them that Fish Sticks isn’t the greatest pianist in the world. And maybe that means they can mess up sometimes, too. You know, they can make mistakes. It’s okay.”
I waited for more.
“You remember the parable of the talents?” he asked.
I shrugged and nodded my head. “Sure. If you got it, use it—or lose it.”
“That’s the idea,” he said. “The servants who are given more talents use them, but the guy who gets only one talent buries it. And in the end, the Lord takes his talent away.
“Well, most of my students are around eight or nine, and if you ask them they’ll tell you they can play the piano—no problem. I bet if you ask them that same question in a few years—when they get into high school or college—they’ll probably say they can’t play. Most of them will lose their confidence, their belief in their talents.
“But I think the world needs more writers, and singers, and, uh, actors, and pianists. I want these kids to share their gifts with others. And I think they will if they know it’s okay to mess up once in a while on the way. That they don’t have to be the best.”
I smiled and told him, “You know, I was listening to music when I began to realize I really believed in God.”
“I don’t know. I just realized that it was impossible for music as beautiful as Beethoven wrote to come out of nothing. There had to be something more to the universe. There had to be a God. It was soon after that experience that I started to investigate the Church.”
“And the people who were playing the music you listened to, well, someone had to believe in their talent. Someone had to be there when they played wrong notes to keep them going.”
Frank tilted his head, ready to sweep the hair out of his eyes, but stopped. Instead, he reached up and pulled his hair straight out.
“You know,” he said. “I just might get a haircut on Monday.”
I laughed. “You sure you feel okay?” I asked.
“I feel fine,” he said as he started to run toward the dorm. “Honest,” he called out. “I feel great.”
Frank Calio is a band teacher now. He lives in Idaho. When I called him to let him know I’d written his story he laughed. “Call the story ‘Fish Sticks,’” he said. “The kids at my school call me Old Fish Sticks. Every year I play a little at our school recital. I’m better than I was in college, but I still make mistakes and the kids get a good laugh. But they all know in my class it’s okay to mess up while they’re learning. I just want them to play music and to try hard. That’s all.”