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Piano Down

Years earlier, in grade school, she studied piano twice weekly in the garage of an older woman in the neighborhood, whose maiden name would eventually become, in one of the many immaterial harmonies that can give sixty years of life and middle-management work the taut arrangement of parts in a fiction, albeit here betokening nothing, the very name she took after marriage: Daily, Egan, it barely matters. The older woman, her piano instructor, had strange habits which grew in number and deepened during their time together, small quirks of the hand or eyes, and something she did with her silvering hair; she tore at it, chewed it; the way she decorated that to another her age might have been the danger signal of a down at the mouth and phobic complexion, though to her young student she was unvarying. An adult seemed solid. A teacher without a temper, all the more so. There was surprise in what she knew. The garage was cluttered in the way a house was, and only longer, more discriminating looks, and only those in retrospect, necessarily, could have revealed the woman’s madness. Cobwebs, blue as hairs, were of course expected, as were animal droppings and the dry smell of dust and stone that hung like a sheet over this poorly heated room which, in its most essential composition, was neither outside nor in, so that at first the only thing out of place was, in fact, the piano itself. Tuesdays and Thursdays each week, the young girl was driven over to the woman’s house by her father, who had just once entered the residence to make whatever admittance was necessary to arrange for his daughter these biweekly appointments, and would not do so again until it was too late, but instead sent his daughter up the walk alone with a dull-colored envelope carrying the requisite lesson fees before he parked the car around the block where he beat back time for an hour and a half under trees in the autumn or at a nearby bar, some public place that could afford him the private pleasures of his lonesomeness. The old woman was said to be a widow. Before that, presumably—a bride, a mother. Had given birth to four, the first of whom died of pneumonia. But she was Irish, for what that was worth, of a large and close-tied family which in successive generations had wrought smaller families whose lines of descent held at Korea and spinsterdom, and her house having fallen in on itself so slowly, she was on her own now without hardly the shock of having once been otherwise, pushing out at a regular rate parish choir directors and mediocre pianists, instrument tuners, hobbyist sons, who when the need arose would have only enough of the necessary ability to play “Danny Boy” at wakes. Nowhere a torch singer, seducer, a crooner could be found among her graduates but that their lounges were yellow living rooms, the piano a wallside upright, strewn about whose varnished fallboard spare change, mail, receipts accumulated, like to draw a domestic symmetry between this debris and its morose equivalent never not within sight in the old woman’s garage. Perhaps it’s this, what the instructor taught. It was hardly music. It was maiden names. In an afternoon, she might coax the young girl through “Hot Cross Buns” and later on, when a certain skill had been expanded upon, “Old Folks at Home,” “On the Banks of the Wabash”—once or twice through watery melodies, tuneless, and after that submitting for the remainder to a quiet conversation in the calm yet halting style similar in measure to the girl’s own novice fingerings, kept up as an uncouth duet between those, neither student nor tutor, who had never quite learned the maneuvers of small talk. To the young girl this awkwardness was her fault. Her father knew himself, his conversation brighter where it was most condescending, and as for the old piano instructor, what she derived from these chats, her feeling about them, one could not say. She smiled easily, no easy thing, and if time and again, once, then more than once, then every week, she made a freak claim that the dust around them, the cobwebs clinging to the high corners of the garage where her late husband once looped his tools, were not signs of neglect but an extension of her very bones, more than intrigue or a small, passing horror at the yard-high stacks of riverboat sheet music coarse with the smell of secret life, animal decay, what the garage provoked most of all was silence. Crossing paths at church with another student of the woman’s, a Saturday morning percussionist in the underfunded school band who arrived at piano taking the long way around, the girl came away to feel the gossip between them had barely touched what it was they shared. It was another Saturday, the day of the girl’s final lesson, when a last-minute rearrangement in schedules put her father for the third time that week in a red booth at the saloon he frequented, where from his own noisome place between a jukebox and the men’s room he imagined time as a procession of objects. Beer nuts, men’s shoes. A piece of meat under red lights at a carving station. It was getting colder and the men came in in insulated topcoats and knocked their feet at the door where in another few months a pool of snow would softly melt. He was expecting a phone call, or, rather, its absence. His mother, the young girl’s grandmother, had been to hospital with a stomach infection, not that it was serious, or too serious to put off a day’s plans, but at that age and with her history of allergies it made the phone’s ringing, when it finally came, like the divination of bad weather after a week of low, dirty skies, and he rushed on foot to the old woman’s house, choosing not the car but for some vapid reason to run down sidewalks in what he felt at the time a mock-heroic gesture befitting his officer status as a father, a son, elated at the sudden, altogether terrible excitement of life. He entered through a back door and took it in in one breath. Magazines, newspapers, trash bags cut like window gels and hung or glued against the casements, what had ruined the garage now threatened the kitchen. He stepped over dishes to find his daughter with the woman, and though she had to have understood or at least guessed his anger, her sorry face against his storm of silence betrayed that mix of confusion, fear, and shame not uncommon in one who has forgotten her living. Wait by the car, he said to the girl, but it was nearly dark out, and after all he had run there. His arms shook with rage enough to tear the piano down.

Joseph Michaels is a graduate of Hamilton College and Columbia University. His work has appeared in Passages North and in the Manhattan anthology from Dostoevsky Wannabe Press. He teaches English.

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Art, with gratitude, from:

The Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs: Print Collection, The New York Public Library. "Peasants Behind the Hedge" The New York Public Library Digital Collections. 1546 - 1547.

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