I saw her from across the room, and it was love at first sight. Even from a distance I could tell she was a player. I had to have her. She excited me. I wondered how many others wanted her too. Her beauty was not typical. She had a nice pair of tapered legs, kind of flat, with a few rolls, a little squarish and kind of flakey, but I knew when I got her in my hands, I could fix all that. I was going for it. She was coming home with me, but first I had to ask my wife. She gave me an understanding “O.K.” like she had so many times before. It had been a long time since I had done any bidding, and I wasn’t sure how far I was willing to go to get her.
I was drawn to player pianos as a kid. My Uncle Carl took the front off of his and replaced it with Plexiglas. He did this to display the multicolored artwork he did on her inner workings. Although I was fascinated by the complexity of the fluorescent billows and hammers convulsing up and down the harp strings, I felt pity for her. I’m sure at one time she dripped with elegance, but now she was reduced to a cheap painted lady, overexposed like a sideshow act in a small traveling circus. I could picture her in her earlier days, gracing the parlor of a fine Victorian home with a loving family. Now she sat in the corner of a guest room calling for the company of clowns and monkeys.
Maybe that’s why this recent find caught my attention so quickly. Maybe I just needed to, in my mind, right a wrong from the past. Maybe I could save this one.
The auctioneer started the bidding at one hundred dollars. Surely no one was crazy enough to think they could do anything with her. Think of the work it would take. No one but I… and I tried not to let it show. The hand-raising stopped at two hundred fifty. I was elated. She was mine now. I later bid on her rolls and picked them all up for ten dollars.
I pulled her out of the barn, like a hippopotamus in a pair of second hand high heels. She was so big and heavy on her tiny rusty wheels. Loading her on the trailer, I noticed the wounds of her past. Plywood was nailed to her sides to cover some holes. Layers of thick brown paint with spider web cracks encased her like an armadillo shell, so the rain drizzling over the trailer could do no further damage. Sporting a hobo smile, the keys were yellowed and graffitied. Before I went any further, I had to open her up and look inside. I flipped up the top, held my breath and pulled off the musty front. Relieved, I saw that her heart was still intact and untouched. I did not imagine I knew “this” Cinderella was going to the ball.
We were in the process of doing a total renovation on the house, so piano work was put on hold for a while. The next year the saw dust stopped flying, and a spot was waiting for her in the center of the house.
I found a piano specialist, Bill Riley, who came out and gently removed her insides. I helped him lay her parts on soft blankets in the back of his truck. He had his work cut out for him, work that required a lot of time in his shop.
Now it was my turn. I knew absolutely nothing about repairing pianos, and at the time I didn’t care. I did not set out with a plan, only a lofty vision. The first thing I had to do was remove the ugly crust of paint and varnish. It was messy work. I knew it would be. Just when the monotony of constant scraping was getting to me, she encouraged me with a glimpse of the goal. It was an incredible cherry wood grain. Long waves of orangey-brown and gold covered the entire piano. I spent a month and a ream of sandpaper hand rubbing out her imperfections. She had become my Aladdin’s magic lamp.
This was an exciting time in my life. Along with finishing the house, and the piano, I had also learned that we were expecting a baby. With the pregnancy, Lisa spent a lot of time sleeping, and I spent a lot of time in the garage trying to bring life back to this pitiful old piano.
Five months of late nights finally paid off. It was time to bring her into the house. The journey from the garage into the natural light revealed the incredible liquid shine of twenty coats of lacquer. You could read the back of an aspirin bottle in her reflection. The sun appeared to penetrate beyond the shine and bring movement to the light waves of wood grain. Bill Riley was to come back in a few days to put in her newly restored insides. It was a long three days. Upon arrival, Bill carefully put each piece back into her. I stayed in the garage, pacing and trying to do little things to distract myself. In the house, it was surgery in stereo; knocking, tweaking and twanging were followed by ascending and descending scales. Bill performed a little jam session and then called me in for the song rolls. I eagerly pulled out three boxes of old rolls dating back into the 1920’s. He pulled one out and popped it into the roll slot, reached under the keyboard and flipped the switch to a newly installed pump. The pump started humming like a defibrillator in an emergency room. He slid a lever in front of the keys to allow air to flow into her veins. It was like magic. Billows were puffing air, hammers were pounding strings, and the new white keys were being fingered by ghostly hands. Her resuscitated heart screamed out a song that said “I am back! What took you so long?” I felt joy for both of us.
Bill tried out a few more rolls, gave me some lessons on running it, and got ready to leave. On the way out he told me to play all of the rolls, and make two piles: rolls that worked, and rolls that didn’t. He said he would be back to make adjustments that would insure all the rolls would work. I couldn’t get him out the door fast enough. I was ready to play with my new toy.
As soon as Bill’s truck pulled from the drive, Lisa came home. An oncoming pregnancy coma kept her from appreciating the latest progress on the piano. She went straight to bed, and I was faced with a decision. On one side of the wall I had a loud piano and seventy song rolls I was dying to play: On the other side of the wall was my wife asleep and already snoring. What would I do? ……….. It amazed me how soundly she slept. I could hear her snoring through the roll changes. When I would peek in at her I could see that she never even changed positions. I often wonder if my unborn son could hear the songs I played over Lisa’s heartbeat...and log sawing.
The piano became a harmonic addition to our home. She has entertained all of our family and friends, much the same way she did close to a hundred years ago. It’s been fun gathering around her and watching her play. She knows only one volume, thunderous, so most of the house not only hears but feels each strike of a key. My ninety-three-year-old great aunt, who was deaf her entire life, recognized the “Charleston” and did the full dance in perfect beat through the vibration in the hardwood floors.
Over the years the piano has held all of our birthday, anniversary, Mother’s Day, Father’s Day and Christmas cards graciously on her lid. She has played pacifier to a wide-eyed toddler on my lap. My son has grown up with her and has given her a few character scars with a riding toy.
She has never lost her shine, but we learned, through our son, that she did go out of tune. Chad started taking piano lessons on a keyboard in his room. When he outgrew that, we tried to get him to play the piano. He would have no part until we tuned it. To my amazement, I remembered the piano wizard’s phone number. Bill was out the next day to get her in tune and exchange “remember when’s”.
She was singing in proper pitch now, but this time, the tickling fingers of a budding piano player had control. He has learned many of songs with her. My favorite is “Dreams Come True”.
I realize she’s just a glorified music box, made mostly of wood, cast iron and a bunch of overstressed strings, but there was so much joy in finding her, in saving her, and in hearing her play. Her songs can make you want to dance, or even make you want to sing, but her story…..her story makes the soul celebrate. She came into this world with a purpose to dazzle and entertain, and that she did. New technology left her abandoned and neglected. She lost her dignity then her home. Her second life gives me a glimpse of how hope and love work. It’s sort of a “riches to rags to riches” story. The hard work was well worth it. She gives back to me every time my son tickles her keys, and there is a special sweetness in the air when together they play, “Dreams Come True.”
Written in August 2008
Ray Owen is a woodworker that holes up in the top of a barn to write. He currently lives in Pekin, Indiana, with his wife, son, and a majestic tree hound named Duke…who has yet to live up to his name.
For information on his novels and other work go to: https://crackinthesky.wordpress.com