When I was nine years old, my mother bought an old, upright piano. The wood had been painted white, and my mother was planning to repaint it, I imagined, with images of the elves and fairies she had told us lived in the garden. But she never did paint our piano, and my brother and I got used to its off-white color and slightly chipped paint.
My mother had bought the piano so I could take lessons, but I was not a good student, being impatient and a self-critical perfectionist already by the age of nine. I didn’t like to practice, and one day I scribbled all over my book of scales with a dark number two pencil that was almost impossible to erase. My teacher saw what I’d done, and feeling keenly embarrassed, I told her some silly lie—which made me feel even more embarrassed—about how the marks had been made. Then, in a rebellious fit, I quit piano lessons when I was twelve, a decision I wholly regret, as I love solo piano and wish to this day that I knew how to play.
My mother kept the piano and practiced with it when she took singing lessons. She also learned her favorite piece of music, the Andante from Mozart’s Piano Sonata in G. Whenever I hear it, I see my mother’s long fingers move across the keyboard in the same lilting manner as the music, and then she appears to me for a few seconds. I listen to the piece over and over again, and I imagine that my mother is in the room playing it.
For lack of money, the piano was not tuned very often, and it sounded slightly off key. But that never seemed to bother us, and we enjoyed it as we would an odd, but gratifying friendship. The top was covered with pictures, decorations, flowers, and books, and the keyboard was always open, inviting someone to play.
After my mother died in 2005, the idea of getting rid of the piano deeply saddened me, but I had no room for it in my house. Since I don’t play, I thought it unreasonable to spend the money it would have cost to move it from California to Arizona.
So I tried to donate it, first to a school, then to a church, and finally to a library. But no one wanted it. It was too old—about one hundred years—and it was not the kind of piano that teachers wanted their students to learn on.
I was stunned that I couldn’t give away my mother’s piano. I had assumed that everyone would want a free piano, that the moment I offered it a line would form outside my door.
But no one at all wanted it.
Then Rebecca, whom I had hired to help pack my mother’s belongings, posted it on Craig’s List. Within twenty-four hours, a man called and said he wanted the piano. I felt immense relief, as I had begun to seriously worry how I would get rid of it. I had even considered closing up the house, secretly leaving town and abandoning the piano for my real estate agent to deal with. I was tired of the “problem of the piano,” as I had named it, and I was obsessed by a Grimm’s fairy tale, worst-case scenario: that I would never be able to leave because of it. I would fall asleep into a very long dream, and thorn-studded bushes and trees would grow over the house and imprison me inside with it. For one hundred years I would slump over the piano, and then I would wake up like a 21st century Rip Van Winkle. Everything but the piano would have changed, and it would still be standing there, breathing, heavy and unwieldy, a slow, broken-down person that no one wanted to deal with any longer.
I explained to the man who had telephoned that the piano was very heavy and that he would need to bring the right equipment to move it. He said, “Yes, of course,” and he seemed to understand. And anyway, how could one not understand the weight of a piano? But when he showed up at the door with his boyfriend, both obviously suffering from AIDS, I knew that neither one of them had any idea how they were going to move it. They looked drawn and grey beyond their years, worn down by illness and suffering, but they were obviously thrilled about the piano.
They had come in a small red truck, and when I went outside with them to the curb, I saw they had brought a few ropes and blankets. The truck did not have a lift. I was so angry at their lack of preparation that I yelled at them:
“What did you think you were going to do, carry it out of here in a paper grocery bag?”
I pride myself on my sense and expression of gracious candor, and I do try to draw the line at rudeness, if not always successfully. Even if I think of making that type of remark (and I admit I often do), I almost never actually utter such words. Yet I felt sheer contempt for the men staring at the piano and wondering how to lift it from the ground to the truck. I was furious, and I suddenly felt as vulnerable as the piano itself.
I pictured it shattering on the ground into a million pieces as they flexed their biceps, and like determined, but now weakened supermen, tried to lift the piano from the ground to the truck bed.
Of course, they did not try to lift the piano.
I burst into tears. I sat down on the curb in front of my mother’s house, I held my head in my hands, and wept loudly. I didn’t care if anyone saw me or heard me, I didn’t retreat to the house to weep privately. Before the sky, the moon, the sun and the stars, my mother’s neighbors and all passersby, I wept.
The men had no idea how they were going to move the piano, absolutely no idea at all.
Then Rebecca—upbeat and ever optimistic Rebecca—had an idea. The siding on the townhouses in my mother’s neighborhood was being replaced. A man had been in the parking lot all day long—moving,
with a small forklift. Charming and calm, Rebecca walked over to the forklift operator, said a cheerful hello, smiled, showing her beautifully white, symmetric teeth, and began speaking with him. He spoke almost no English, but Rebecca, who had lived for several years in Chile, spoke Spanish. A few minutes later she pulled out some bills from her wallet and handed them to him. He drove his forklift over to the curb in front of the townhouse where the two men had managed to roll the piano from inside the house.
One of them said something about how sick his partner had been, that recently he’d barely pulled through some lung disease, and he now hoped to enjoy what remained of his life with his new piano. Piano lessons would make him happy. At least he had some time. He sounded earnest, even cheerful. My mother’s beat up, old piano would give life to his beloved, and best of all, it was free.
The forklift operator gently slid the fork beneath the piano. The two men and some other workers in the parking lot, recruited with more bills from Rebecca’s wallet, came and steadied the piano as it teetered slightly, all four yelling in Spanish and English. Rebecca joined in. They all hovered around, each holding a leg, a corner, or an edge, leaning in with their weight. I sat on the curb, continuing to weep, half-covering my eyes, occasionally glancing, still imagining the colossal crash of the white piano to the ground, a mass of splinters, ivory keys rolling down the pavement like dominoes, and the screeching, out-of-tune voice of a dying beast. Very slowly, the piano rose from the ground and reached the edge of the truck bed where it was gently eased in like a precious albino elephant being lowered into a pen at the zoo.
The piano was secured and wrapped for transport across the bay to San Francisco. It would have a long, slow ride in the small red truck.
The men thanked us profusely and gave us their phone numbers. We shook their hands, hugged them, and finally a smile emerged from my tear-stained face. They had our phone numbers, and they promised to call and confirm the arrival of the piano. They drove out of the parking lot very slowly, the piano wobbling slightly in its rope girdle. I watched until I could no longer see it, and I waved and yelled “thank you” and “good luck.”
The men never telephoned us. I don’t know why. Nor did I ever call them. I no longer cared. I wanted a clean break from the piano. I didn’t want to hear bad news. I simply felt relieved that the piano was now their problem, not mine.
Yet, I have often wondered whether the red truck and its delicate cargo made it to the other side of the bay, and how they got it out of the truck once they arrived. I was sure they would not have the dumb luck of finding a friendly forklift operator on the street in front of their house. I repeatedly imagined the old piano on the side of the freeway next to the stretch of mudflats that had been covered, since my childhood, with sculptures built of scraps of metal and wood. I remembered an airplane on the end of a long plank, stick figures, and mythological animals. Through some magic, the white piano would now be suspended on the end of an enormous metal girder, joining the rest of the collection of found art and family secrets emerging from the mud.
Years later, I have come to understand that the men’s enthusiasm at getting a free piano, while they were wasting away from AIDS, made them come over completely unprepared. All that occurred to them was the joy they would derive from a musical instrument—even an out-of-tune, old piano—not the logistics of getting it home.
I wonder how long the sick man lived and how much pleasure he derived from my mother’s piano at a time in his life when every second was precious, when every second had to be filled with some bit of happiness, in case it was his last.