By Tom Shroder
Sunday, November 19, 2006
SOMEONE OUT THERE IS GOING TO KNOW EXACTLY WHAT I SHOULD HAVE DONE WITH MY PIANO. Now that I'm about to reveal its sad fate, I know I will be cursed for being wasteful and unfeeling, and worse, unimaginative -- a crass symbol of this throwaway culture eager to take the easy way out. And perhaps I deserve that. You be the judge. But let me say this in my own defense: There was nothing easy about it.
I'd grown up with that piano. I'd toddled beneath its broad brown belly, pressed its resounding white keys for the first time by reaching above my head with fat little fingers. At every stage of my life, nearly half a century's worth of memories had been framed by the dark graceful curve of its wood and the echo of notes sounded through four generations. It was, perhaps, the single most significant heirloom of my childhood -- and unquestionably the largest and heaviest.
And when I grew up, I, of all my siblings, had been appointed its caretaker. Which turned out to be a mixed blessing. Age and frequent moves took their toll. As it neared the end of its first century, the piano was ailing -- marked and stained and increasingly tone-challenged. A daughter chose to play the violin, a son the guitar. The piano began a downward spiral of shifts to ever more out-of-the-way locations, each one requiring the expense of professional movers, until finally I could no longer ignore the fact that it was simply in the way.
"We want to give this beloved old piano free to a good home," was the wording of the notice we placed online. But as it turned out, no good home would have it. When even the Salvation Army balked at taking it, I was hit with queasy panic, a fear of something so hideous I could barely say it out loud: The final solution to my piano problem wasn't going to be a moving van.
Once upon a time, if your phone went on the blink, you didn't just toss it out and head down to Best Buy to charge a new one for $79.99. The phone wasn't even yours to trash. It belonged to the phone company (there was only one!), which sent a phone repairman (wearing a brown uniform with his name stitched on the pocket) to your home to take the phone apart, tinker with its brightly colored innards, then put it back together with the dial tone mysteriously restored.
It is to this strikingly archaic system that I owe the destruction of my once-promising career as a musician.
Okay, maybe not so promising. I was 8, a year of piano lessons had gone down the drain, and I still hadn't grasped how to make my left hand play one set of keys while my right played another. The very idea astounded me. I wouldn't have been any less stumped if someone demanded that I have two unrelated conversations simultaneously. When the forefinger of my left hand depressed a key, the forefinger of my right hand insisted on doing the same. Plus, I couldn't read music very well. And that rhythm thing? Didn't come naturally.
But the point is, I was still willing (barely) to try. So there I was at the piano in the living room of our suburban home laboring on such subtle classics as "On Top of Spaghetti" and "Puff, the Magic Dragon" -- or at least versions of those songs in which the fingering for both right and left hands was identical -- when the phone guy walked in. As he entered, my older brother, carrying his first-baseman's mitt, passed through the front hall, on the way out. The phone guy put down his heavy toolbox, turned to watch my brother disappear out the door, then coolly considered me, plinking the keys.
"So," he said -- and I can still hear the venomous condescension in his voice -- "your brother plays baseball, and you play piano."
That was it right there. No way I was going to allow my manhood to be questioned by random itinerant repairmen ever again. I slammed shut the piano lid and resolved to quit my lessons -- no matter what my mom said. I never played so much as another printed note. From that moment, my relationship with the piano was primarily as a very large, unusually shaped piece of furniture.
It would be a long and surprisingly meaningful relationship.
MY PARENTS DISCOVERED THE PIANO, a baby grand of undistinguished lineage, built in the early part of the century, in an old house on a Westchester County, N.Y., farm, which my father's construction company was going to replace with single-family homes. It was covered in glossy black enamel paint, and had an accompanying bench with spindly legs and a hinged top that opened to a storage space for sheet music. Though neither of my parents really played, both had grown up in homes with a piano, and I suppose they hoped that what had failed to rub off on them would rub off on their children.
As a music student, I never did learn what those pedals descending to the floor from beneath the piano were for. And even if I had known, they would have been useless to me, as my legs stopped several inches short of reaching them. But one thing I discovered: The spaces between the pedals made excellent stables for my collection of plastic Civil War horses, among them a five-inch-tall reproduction of Traveller, the fine gray belonging to my plastic Robert E. Lee, as well as a sturdy if less spectacular black stallion belonging to Ulysses S. Grant. The horses would get a little R&R there between battles. Eat some "hay" (handfuls of grass) and hang out while their masters (who couldn't actually stand up too well owing to the fact that they were permanently molded into a bowlegged riding stance) had powwows under a white flag somewhere near the base of the coffee table. And the gleaming track of white and black keys? A superb racecourse for my Tonka trucks and cars, which played tinkly little scales as they zoomed from low C to high C, and, over many years, chipped the edges of almost every ivory key.
After I saw the 1961 World War II classic "The Guns of Navarone," a thrilling cliffhanger (literally) about an Allied assault on a Nazi mountain fortress, guess which piece of repurposed household furniture henceforth starred as a mountain fortress? Picture the incredibly cool free fall my green plastic heroes made when they were picked off by relentless German fire while standing on the sheer edge of the baby grand's gleaming curve. And what could be a better subterranean route for sneaking up on the Nazis than the marvelous complex of wires, levers and hammers inside the tilted piano lid?
Sometimes the combat under the piano was more lifelike. For some reason, my wrestling matches with my brother often ended up there, between the bench and the foot pedals, horrifying my grandmother to the point of tears. "But we're not really hurting each other," we would reason with her, which was kind of almost true, except for the time my brother's hand hit one of the shapely piano legs and his left middle fingernail popped clean off.
When my younger sister followed me into piano lesson oblivion, there was no longer anyone in our family who seriously attempted to play the piano. It got pressed into service only on rare occasions after my parents fed certain keyboard-competent cocktail-party guests a few too many martoonis. Once or twice, it served as a rehearsal piano for musical productions of the local little theater. I seem to remember someone belting out "Hernando's Hideaway" from "The Pajama Game" while I peeked out from a darkened hallway at adults behaving strangely, long past my putative bedtime.
And even though I had terminated my piano lessons with extreme prejudice, I still tickled the ivories now and then, usually on long, dull rainy mornings when no one was around to entertain me -- or, now that I think of it, to stop me. I would sit at the piano and let my soul move my fingers randomly over the keys. I found I could actually use both hands independently, as long as I wasn't too particular about which notes I hit with either one. The effect was something I would describe as "wall of sound," which I could keep building block by horrifying but oddly satisfying block, until I launched myself into a dreamy meditative trance, or somebody chased me off.
AS THE YEARS PASSED, the piano wasn't so much defined by what people did to it, but by what they did around it. What we did around it was live. The piano was there when we came back home from a Halloween night's prowl and dumped our groaning bags of candy out on the living room carpet to count and catalogue our loot. It was there as we unwrapped gifts around a tinseled tree. It was there as we sat awkwardly on the couch with our first dates, at our wedding receptions and at the first birthdays of our children.
And even though none of us had really played it for years, it was packed up and shipped from New York to Florida, and then to an increasingly transitory succession of houses and apartments, a 500-pound totem of the past that my parents dragged from residence to residence.
When my father died and my stepmother moved into a smaller place, she shipped the piano to me. I was now married and living in a house with a prime spot for a piano and small children who theoretically might have some interest in taking lessons. They didn't. My eldest daughter's musical talents ranged toward making eclectic mix CDs. My middle daughter became quite adept at her violin. My son followed in my footsteps, playing with his soldiers underneath, on top of and inside the piano.
But my wife could read music and would, when she felt like it, play what I thought of as reasonably pleasing renditions of the pieces on the sheet music still tucked into the piano bench -- though she refused to take requests. And my son also did that "wall of sound thing" -- for hours, sometimes -- as if there were some genetic predisposition to it. Except that he could actually coax something approaching melody out of the chipped and yellowing keys.
Every long while, we'd call someone out to tune the piano. This was how I learned that it was an off-brand, and probably 70 to 100 years old, possibly purchased out of a Sears catalogue. I liked wondering who had made it and who had first brought it into that farmhouse. I liked looking down at the foot pedals, and being able to so clearly picture Traveller and the stallion contentedly pretending to munch grass in their stalls, with a much smaller version of myself lying in the cave-like space beneath the soundboard, lost in some G-rated vision of a Civil War where the opposing generals' horses could be best friends.
When we moved to Virginia, we plopped the piano down in the living room. It wasn't a large room, and the piano took up a good portion of it. Or, in my wife's view, a bad portion of it.
Plus, even I could hear that this last relocation, or maybe the sudden change in climate, had taken some awful toll. A piano tuner confirmed it.
"You got a broken soundboard," he said. "I can tune it, but it won't stay tuned."
After that, the space the piano used up seemed even larger.
Inexorably, it became harder to see it as a musical instrument, and distressingly easy to consider it a very large block of wood we'd inexplicably decided to make the centerpiece of our living room.
A hundred and fifty dollars and another moving crew later, the piano was taking up space in the basement. Years went by. It was still taking up space in the basement.
I can't remember the exact moment I decided to place the giveaway ad on the Internet. I suspect it followed a fervent plea from my wife. I was careful to disclose the cracked soundboard, and the estimate we'd gotten that it would cost $1,500 to replace. A response came almost immediately: "When can I pick it up?" the e-mailer queried.
"See," I told my wife. "That wasn't hard."
The next evening, a young man was waiting for me when I got home. I invited him in and showed him to the basement. "You remember, the soundboard is cracked, right?"
He looked it over, played a few tinny notes, walked outside to make a cellphone call.
He was outside a long time.
"I'm sorry," he said when he reappeared at our door, lingering uncomfortably on the front stoop. "I can't take it. That was a piano restorer. He said if you repaired the soundboard, you'd probably need to replace the pegs, and if you replaced the pegs, you'd need to replace the strings, and even then, you wouldn't have a great piano. He said unless it was a Steinway, or some other top brand, it just wouldn't be worth it."
I tried not to show my disappointment. But I took heart in the responses that kept coming in. Most of the e-mailers wanted to see photos and to know the make -- hoping, clearly, that we were unloading a free Steinway. We weren't, and we didn't hear back.
At work the next day I got a crackly cellphone call from somewhere in Tennessee. "I'm heading your way," a man said over the roar of a distant highway. "I can be at your place tonight around 11."
"You know, it's got a cracked soundboard," I forced myself to say, once again.
"I restore pianos," he said. "If it's not worth restoring, I'll use it for parts."
I quietly pumped my fist, hoping nobody was looking. Yessssssss! I knew this guy, or someone like him, was out there. I knew it all along.
He called my home again at 9. "Running a little late. Had some trouble in Roanoke. Looks like midnight or a little after, that okay?"
It wasn't, but it would have to do.
Then at 11:45: "Um, we hit some construction, and judging from my map here, it's still two, three hours away."
"Um, I think we're just going to keep on north. Sorry."
It was then that I first allowed myself to wonder how one went about throwing away a piano.
There had to be another way.
One of our early responders introduced herself as a grandmother who was presenting her piano to her grandchildren. The wistful way she said it made it clear what a generous sacrifice that was. "Having your piano for myself would be such a blessing," she said.
Then she dropped out of sight. But a few days after the piano restorer dumped us, she called. She had a truck and someone to help her she said. She was ready to come and get it, now.
I rallied my wife and son and daughter, and with groaning effort, all four of us were able to move the piano out the double basement doors onto the patio. I worried about how the grandmother was going to get it out the narrow gate in the backyard fence and up the hill to the road. But I'd warned her about that, and she assured me her helper had "all the tools" he needed. And then she was there, a sweet, slender woman in her early 60s, thanking me profusely, saying again and again what a blessing this piano would be.
I swallowed hard, and then said it, one more time: "Remember, it has a cracked soundboard."
"Oh, I know," she said. "It doesn't have to be perfect."
I could hear equipment rattling somewhere outside the fence. My piano was minutes away from just the loving home I'd pictured. Still, I couldn't stop myself.
"Please," I said. "Before you go to all the trouble, just sit down and play it for a minute."
"Well, all right," she said.
As she began to run her fingers across the keyboard, her angelic smile froze. She looked as if she had bitten into a rotten hors d'oeuvre and was trying valiantly not to betray her horror to her host.
"Excuse me," she said, then practically trotted to the gate. I heard muffled voices, but I already knew.
"I'm so sorry," she said when she returned.
"Not a problem," I said.
It was a big problem.
WE HAD TWO FINAL BLIPS OF HOPE, the first an inquiry from a family that wanted the piano for a deaf toddler, something to bang away on fearlessly. It didn't need to sound pretty. It just needed to vibrate.
This is the piano for you, we said.
They promised to look into the cost of getting it moved -- and then vanished.
I'd initially made inquiries about donating the piano to a charity but abandoned the idea when it became clear that nobody wanted to come out and pick it up. When our hopes of giving it away had been dashed, we made one last desperate call, to the Salvation Army. To our astonishment, the man who answered the phone immediately said he would call Wednesday to schedule a collection the following Saturday. Wednesday came and went, no call. The following Wednesday came, still nothing. So I called back to find out what had gone wrong. The man who answered the phone told me, and I swear on a stack of pianos this is true: "Don't call us, we'll call you."
Now the piano was on our patio, under a tarp. The first wood-warping cold snap of autumn meant that whatever slender hope of restoration remained had vanished. This piano was officially and finally firewood. But I left the tarp on, anyway. I couldn't face just letting it sit naked, exposed to anything the winter skies could dish out. And I didn't know my next move. The piano was too wide to get out the gate, too heavy to carry up the hill and too massive for the garbage truck even if I managed. And I felt guilty. What would the neighbors think of a perfectly acceptable-looking baby grand piano sitting at the curb?
I felt like a criminal, a criminal with a dead body on his hands, a body I needed to dispose of. I began to think like a Soprano. I began to think of my ax.
But as the awful plan formed in theory, I couldn't face the reality. I couldn't even talk about it, least of all with my family, who I was convinced would neither understand nor forgive what I intended to do. So I kept it to myself, and stewed. All winter, that 500-pound block of guilt sat under its tarp, sometimes buried in snow but never far from my mind. And then the snow melted and April came, the cruelest month.
I CAN STILL FEEL THE THICKNESS OF THE HANDLE IN MY HANDS, hear the horrible crunch and splintering of wood, and the last crashing notes of an instrument played as it was never intended to be played -- by ax head instead of felt-tipped hammer. A wall of sound, the kind of wall they stand you up against before a firing squad.
I'd tried to disassemble the piano humanely, unscrewing the hinges from the top and the foot pedals from the bottom. When it came time to unbolt the legs, I just stared at it. Up until that second, I wasn't doing anything that couldn't be undone, but now I was going to have to tilt it over, let it crash down on its side to leave its legs dangling in the air, like a dead cockroach. My 15-year-old son, whom I'd drafted to help, hung back uncertainly. I stood there, hands dangling at my sides, uncertain myself. I knew the point of no return had come and gone months earlier, maybe even years. But this was different. I looked over the piano now, the lovely S-curve of its side, the gilded complexity of its innards. I wanted to feel all that it had been in my life, all the moments that must, in some way, still cling to it. The sun was above the house now, leaking through the cracks in the flooring of the porch above our heads. It was starting to get warm. I fixed the piano in my gaze, held it there for a few seconds in the dappled sunlight, as if I were making a mental exposure. I thought about time running like an accelerating current heading straight for a thundering falls.
Come on, I told my son, help me do this.
"Really?" he asked.
But I already had my hands on it. He came up beside me and we both heaved. The piano tilted past the tipping point, then crashed down, hard, clanging like a gong.
Now there was nothing to do but finish the job. But the huge brass screws that held the legs in place, set deeply into the wood for almost 100 years, wouldn't budge.
That's when I picked up the ax. My son stood back again, half in fear and half in awe. I hefted the handle and swung.
Once I began, I couldn't stop until it was done. I heaved for breath; my shirt clung to my chest with sweat. All around were the remains, a hundred dismembered pieces, and among the pieces, one lollipop stick of indeterminate age and a copper penny minted in 1956, when I was 2 years old. Little by little, I threw the debris into the garbage. It took weeks, but when I'd finished, no one had seen the carcass, and not even the garbage men could suspect what I'd done.
It's all gone now. The last part to go was the harp-like cast-iron frame and golden strings -- the piano's heart -- which must have weighed about 350 pounds by itself. Well into summer it leaned upright in the middle of an ivy patch, which reached tentative tendrils of new growth across the strings, as if intending to slowly devour the last evidence.
On a suffocating 95-degree day, a friend came by with his just-off-the-lot super-charged luxury pickup truck. We pried the harp from the ivy and shuffle-stepped it up the hill to the truck, grunted it up over the tailgate, drove it to the county dump. We paid our $7 admittance. Just past a mountain of discarded wooden loading pallets and a grinder the size of a warehouse spewing free mulch, the metal heap was a relatively modest mound of twisted, rusted, skeletal and mostly unidentifiable parts. A '70s-vintage console television, a stationary bicycle and a dented air-conditioning unit stood on the periphery. We slid the last remnant of my piano out of the truck and leaned it against the air conditioner, the S-curve edge pointing toward the blue, blue heavens.
Then we climbed back into the leather seats of the cab, air-conditioning turned to Arctic Blast. I watched as the glint of gold dimmed in the rearview mirror, then disappeared in a blast of mulch. As the big tires crunched on bits and pieces of other people's old lives, an unexpected emotion surged. I felt fluffy and light, giddy with joy, as if a 500-pound weight had just been lifted from my shoulders.
I called my brother a few weeks later. The euphoric relief was still there, strong enough to override my fear of censure. I told him what had happened, what I had done to our piano.
"You did?!" he sputtered, followed by a long, meaty silence. I waited for the condemnation, the recriminations I was pretty sure were coming. What he said when he finally spoke was, "Did you save me a piece?"
Tom Shroder is the editor of the Magazine.