I came home from a long train journey one day and set my belongings in their strange, incorrect spots. Suitcase blocking the entryway. Messenger bag next to the stove. Jacket slumped in a corner. Everything fell off me. It was my disordered order, my traditional entrance, and my coffee was slurpably at hand and through the window came some perfect fall light and a bit of tasty breeze. Ah yes, I thought. My life feels very much better today, only that I couldn’t possibly decide, 30 seconds from now, what I might feel like doing. 30 seconds later I still felt the same way and I could envision this going on for some time.
“What is going on?” said a voice from the next room, a familiar voice, which I had never heard before.
I looked around the corner but the piano room was empty, as I thought.
“I don’t know,” I replied, testing the waters. Silence.
I suppose I felt like an idiot talking to my empty room and turned back to the window. I stuck my head out as if the building were a car and I were a dog. The cold made my teeth tingle and my brain vanish behind a curtain.
“No, really, what is going on?” the voice said again and I leapt back on the double to the piano room to catch whoever it was red-handed. To be honest, there was not absolutely nothing. There was a strange blur in the room. You might call it a kind of visual echo of the end of the question. Imagine, if you can, that a question mark was radiating through the furniture. It made me realize that the train I had just been on was a sentence in a paragraph of my life, and that Penn Station was its period, and now all these belongings scattered through my apartment were nonsense words clattering off the end of that sentence, which were happy for the moment but needed gathering into clauses.
“Can you please just answer the question?” the voice said, insistently.
And this time I caught it. A ripple passed through the piano’s leg. A score of a long forgotten waltz moved ever so slightly to the left. Dust in the corner danced and fell asleep again. The nothing in the room was winking. I pretended not to look at the piano as I sidled onto the bench and I let my fingers sneak over the keyboard and touch a few treble notes.
“Stop it,” the voice said.
“You’re talking,” I said. “That’s somewhat unusual. What gives?”
“You were gone a while, I had to do something.” You wouldn’t say the piano moved so much as shimmered blackly while it spoke; there was no orifice, no source; it resounded more than sounded. I grazed my hand lightly over the keyboard.
The joke I wanted to make sat on my tongue, squatted there for a while before I swallowed it.
Some grammatical issues occurred to me. “Are you an it, a he, or she?” I asked, thinking animal, vegetable, mineral.
“What do you want me to be?”
This question spread its arms wide and embraced other questions across crowded rooms. Did I want my piano to be a Love Object, a Friend, a Pet, or to remain chastely in neutered space? “I’m not sure yet,” I said.
“That’s fine,” it shimmered back.
“What do YOU want?” I asked in return.
“I want to go shopping,” it/he/she said.
“Among other things, yes.”
“Are you unhappy?”
“I’m not sure yet,” the piano said.
I wanted to try something. I started playing the cadenza of the fourth Beethoven Concerto. A little ways in, let’s say something like the third entrance, I murmured “fugato” and—I hoped this might happen—the piano murmured back “yes fugato and here comes another one, watch out watch out you always forget to bring in that voice” and I stiffened my thumb a little to make the next voice come in right, to drag the ear kicking and screaming down to the bassline, and the piano said “yes yes that’s right, finally, it feels so good” and I shouted back “it’s in six-eight now, don’t you love it?” and the piano screamed/shimmered “look out look out there’s a dissonance!” and I moaned back “yes I’m loving it” and I sent all sorts of desperate messages to my second and third fingers to make sure that the grinding dissonance ground and not just once but twice, three times, each more close-knit than the last and the piano urged “resolve them resolve them yes yes” and for the moment we were in agreement and there was nothing to say … The second theme sort of came back and I and the piano exchanged a kind of small talk which was about nothing but the beauty of the second theme which, we agreed, was a kind of bygone, established truth. And I played effortless scales to make bygones be bygones. But my Alberti bass was not good enough and the piano heckled me.
“Now comes the real journey,” I said to the piano, not stopping, and the piano said timorously “I’m not sure I’m ready,” and provokingly I played the cipher in the bass in 4/4 which is the theme. I felt like I kept trying to get the piano stoked up and the piano, while loving my enthusiasm, kept warning me about the next thing. I quickly explained the Tarantella to the piano, the spiders and the dance which is a disease and the thrill of possession by movement. I wanted the piano to know what was out there in the world beyond the notes. And as the cadenza started to spin out of control, the piano seemed achingly to get it and in B-flat major with the minor sixth it really came to realize something important which it could only express by screaming “Tarantella!” over and over again and then “Dissonance” or “Desire” (I could really barely hear it now over my own pounding on the keys and my own feverish replies) and we both landed breathless on the augmented sixth chord and the cipher theme again, insistent octaves. “I want to know what those octaves feel like to you,” my piano whispered, panted, “I have to know.”
Over the trills we both wept darkly.
And then I sang the orchestra part while I played the ending, and the piano just listened and said “that’s not me, but who am I?” and “you’re a terrible singer” and “take me back to the tarantella.” After the final G major chord it said, like an unhappy lover, “you’ve had your fun, now let’s get out of here.”
It was getting pretty nippy outside, so I threw a couple sweaters onto the lid and tied a couple below onto the soundboard and somehow we managed to get ourselves through the front hall, not without some cursing on my part. I uncomfortably recalled a million curses I had directed at my piano, at weak moments.
“Don’t worry about that.”
So it/he/she could read my mind.
“I know you were mad at yourself,” the piano continued, “not at me.”
This preternatural wisdom caught me unawares, made me feel reborn, or unborn, or inanimate. We clunked into the elevator and then before you know it we were squeaking merrily down Broadway.
“Now that I’m alive, I want to live,” the piano said. “I want to do what you do when you’re not playing me.” (I did not question its assumptions.)
We made quite a couple going down the street. Of course in New York some people make a religion of not being surprised by anything, but even they took second or third glances, and considered calling the police. The crowds gave reluctant berth. It wasn’t raining which was a relief, but we knocked over a large carton of artichokes which I paid for and then someone tried to hitch a ride with us by jumping on top and all in all it took us a long while to make progress.
“You think this takes a while,” the piano said, “you should hear yourself trying to memorize the Ligeti Etudes.”
We were part painstaking ordeal and part joyful spectacle. Sometimes I really loved the fact that I was pushing my piano down Broadway but other times I wanted to hide in an alcove, far from the world, and let the piano do its best without me. As is unavoidable on the Upper West Side we came across some musician friends of mine. I assured them it was no stunt. “Tell your publicist,” they said, “there’s easier ways to get attention.” I told them my piano talked to me and wanted to go shopping. Haha, they said, whatever, and walked on. I was hungry and wanted a bagel but it seemed impractical to fit the piano into H & H and the piano murmured sorry, I’m cramping your style, and I sad-smiled back bravely and said no, no, you are my style. We hugged there, in front of the Apthorp, to a chorus of “well, now I’ve seen everything.”
Finally we arrived at Barney’s. I shuffled the piano past Prada and Paul Smith.
“This is expensive,” the piano said.
“Um, um,” urged a spiky-haired young man, pulling me aside. “You know our things are quite ‘fitted.’”
“Yes, I know,” I said.
“What exactly are you looking for?”
“I’m not entirely sure. I think my piano wants something to wear.”
Blonde spiky thought a minute more. “Why don’t you try Mimi’s Maternity?”
I threw him a cautionary shush and turned around to see if my piano overheard. I certainly didn’t want my piano starting to think it/he/she was fat. There were enough neuroses in the situation already. But no. I was amazed to see the piano was somehow making its way through the racks on its own. And not just that. I could swear it/he/she was actually flirting with a member of the sales staff, in precisely the slightly incompetent manner that I would have adopted. “Naughty piano,” I thought, somewhat enviously.
“Listen,” I said to blonde spiky, “I know we’re not going to get any jeans to fit here, but can we maybe do some accessories?”
Blonde spiky smiled. This also obviated the need for a fitting room, which would have been a whole other logistical deal. And before long, my credit card was looking exhausted on the well-worn sales counter and the piano was decked out in a nice pair of shades, a couple very classy grey heather scarves, and some faux skater sneaks on the pedals … we also linked together a few lovely belts and ran them around the circumference, for good measure, and the piano simply would not leave without a Jack Spade messenger bag.
“For my music,” it/he/she said.
We found ourselves on the sidewalk again, facing Broadway, with hurried persons jostling us perpendicularly. We could either move with the stream or gaze and be obstacles. New York has these problems of unavoidable motion.
“What’s next?” piano said.
“I thought you knew.”
“I’m new at this living business. Perhaps you should demonstrate. You seem to like being in charge.”
I tried to ignore this first passive-aggressive comment.
“Did you enjoy the shopping?”
“Oh yes,” my piano beamed. It shimmered its hip which I guess is its crook, and a belt jangled. Its eighty-eight teeth made themselves seem like a riddled smile.
“So, there’s a party in Brooklyn later,” I said.
“Shall we grab a drink first, on the way?”
The piano said “I really shouldn’t, alcohol makes my dampers stick” and I said “just one.”
And so we hailed a minivan cab and I’m not exactly sure how but we got down into the basement of a building very near the corner of 2nd Avenue and 9th Street: yes, that’s right, Decibel, my favorite sake bar. Pulleys and joists may have been involved. As usual the staff of Decibel were delightfully surly and unappreciative. The piano’s unauthorized entrance did not help matters. I kept saying “just me and my piano” over and over again but they did not believe my party was complete, or even that we constituted a party. They thought I was pulling something over on them and I started to yell “do you KNOW how hard it was to get this piano down here and we want some sake NOW” and the piano growled in assent and finally we were seated at the bar.
Two pine boxes filled with clear liquid to their rims arrived. Before the bottle had been even recapped, the piano had already glugged a lot down and I advised my instrument to slow down.
“How many times,” the piano wryly observed, “have I wished I could give you the same advice.”
Booze—even this light, flowery nectar—-brought out a bitterer, more belligerent Steinway than heretofore. I gently nursed my one box and watched as my piano descended or ascended into wildness. After some preambles, he/she/it spoke at length of another piano “at the factory” who/which had meant something, had truly meant something, and they had shared some transcendental moments, but she/he/it had fallen in love with the man from Iowa State who had come to select a piano and there love went, in a truck, to Iowa. As so often. A shimmered profound sigh followed.
“But you made your way to me,” I said hopefully, “by hook or by crook or by truck.”
Some half hour later things got yet deeper. I tried to ply the piano with wasabi shumai, to take the edge off, but matters had gone, I feared, well beyond the reach of dumplings.
“Do you really love me?” the piano said, slurring its shimmer.
“How can you —”
“Because you know, I really sometimes love you, or at least OK let’s say I really like you, but sometimes I just kinda wonder what you really really think cause you look so frustrated or bored or whatever I just don’t really get … I really like you man …”
“I like you—-”
“No, no, I really do….”
“How can you even—”
“…and you just gotta tell me you gotta tell me if you don’t like me too it’s the only humane thing you can do it’s really such a feeling…”
It was high time to get out. Once again the credit card was subjected to serious damage and in a delicious cold revelation we were once again dots on the top side of New York’s grid. How could you forget, even if you moved to Lapland, the rhythm of the taxis sweeping across the crosstown streets, racing and then stopping, braking, squealing? Metallic fish thrashing against their custom aquarium. The eyes sweep the pointillist canvas of headlights. No taxi, no taxi, taxi. The clicking and clacking of the last customer’s printing receipt.
Guess Who snored over the Brooklyn Bridge (more or less in B major) and I stared at the water. I was trying to dream up a reasonable response to the piano’s drunken affection, too late. It was suddenly much harder to deal with my piano, now that it spoke. The party was somewhere near Grand Army Plaza and we got slightly lost because I only vaguely remembered the address and then, I admit, followed some attractive person who we ran across for a few blocks and my piano couldn’t stop snickering about that, and began saying things like “THIS is what you do when you’re not playing me? Get a life, dude!” Then the piano giggled infectiously. If you have never heard a piano giggle you haven’t really lived. It was like a walrus was dancing with a hummingbird on the soundboard. Gone were all the storms and desires of the sake bar. The piano took in the night air and expelled it again as laughter, and it wasn’t a laughter which said bitter things about the past or other people but it said something more like everybody’s doing whatever they’re doing and time is therefore passing and I am absolutely loving that.
We found the party. I only knew a couple people there. Well, maybe just one, and he was nowhere to be seen. The piano was displeased to learn this. It was a cavernous, wandering apartment, dark, with occasional reddish lights hiding in the corners. Music coming from nowhere fogged up all the rooms, took up a lot of space. People were clustered, mostly very young people, and these casual clusters seemed courtly circles and like the lame nerds in a high school movie we stuck by the refreshment table for a time, desperately. There was the usual utility bowl packed with potato chips and I salted my tongue until it vibrated with thirst. The piano declined snacks, staring at me anxiously, murmuring “is there is a reason we’re at this party, anyway?” and “why don’t we just go home?” and other such classics.
We took courage and wandered off into long pointless hallways which were constructed by unemployed hipsters. At the ends of them, we found a few other party stragglers, in covert couples, said “hey” to them, and returned the way we came. I poured myself an extremely poor vodka tonic in a red plastic cup.
People began to dance, and we realized the music was music.
We were headed (again) towards the refreshment table but just in front of us a couple swayed. I was used to this sight, as I have always dated better dancers than myself, who eventually gave up on their attempts to include me, and thereafter danced their alluring superiorities in front of me. But the piano was stopped in its wide tracks. Its lid lifted slightly in awe. Inside its golden strings gleamed darkly, redly, reflecting the light and life of the party in an acoustical grotto. You wished you could sail into the redgold pool of this piano belly.
Just then, my one connection to this party appeared: Zach. “Hey Jeremy,” how are things and all the usual stuff followed, while the piano a bit rudely continued to stare at the dancing couple.
“Zach, this is my piano. It talked to me today.”
Zach was youthfully unfazed. He and I ended up lying slash sitting against a wall, watching the piano watch the people dance. We sat between a red lamp and three empty beer bottles, which I played with; our legs tripped people up, and I peeled off labels. The vodka tasted horrible. The music got louder and talking mostly ceased except that Zach and I screamed in each others’ ears. I could see a few other people were screaming at each other too. I think he told me about some new piece of software he was writing, but it could just have easily been a lover.
“Your piano really wants to dance,” he screamed.
“It does seem an unlikely thing for a piano to do,” I replied. “But talking was also unexpected.”
Zach had a gift for gadgetry and a soul for animation. “Just a minute,” he said, and disappeared into a hallway.
I tried to talk to the piano but it/he/she shrugged me off, moved closer to the dancers. It was sad to see it yearning to be precisely what it was not. It was such a beautiful piano, with a lovely sustaining singing sound, a kind of sad core or seed at the center of each note, growing a hopeful branch to the next note. Once you found that core, you couldn’t leave it, it was a drug of beauty (always fading, always needing to be renewed). I tried rubbing the piano, reminding it of its tremendous virtues, of the moving phrases it had just made mere days, mere hours before; I sang Op. 119 Brahms to it, the Allemande of the Fourth Partita, the slow movement of K. 453; I tried to show it exactly what it could do, and that it was no tragedy that its legs were not made for dancing. But it stared ever more intensely at that one couple, swaying and touching.
Zach returned with a whole wild woodworks. Springs, planks, computer chips, levers, joists, dollies, who knows what all. The piano said “what’s this?” and together we lifted the piano, one leg at a time, onto this strange mechanism … no small feat. People began to turn around, watching us, it was yet another spectacle in this crazy day. I smiled at Zach, at this strange form of generosity. We each have our own, I suppose. “It’s hooked into the wifi,” he said.
And once the piano was settled on top of the contraption, the various leg supports began to move in time with the music, according to some predestined algorithm, some archived motion capture, which Zach directed through a laptop, and this captured, idealized motion was released through my piano which nonetheless was not the ideal vessel to receive it. The piano yelled “whee” and jolted and squeaked and I sat back and watched as one corner and yet another of the piano went crazily askew and the belts jangled and the sneakers tapped and the scarves waved wildly. Everyone laughed; they couldn’t help it. The piano was the center of attention, a wooden mistaken attempt at flesh. I couldn’t help feeling my piano at this moment was seeming like a trained bear, harrumphing, feeling it was quite below its dignity, and feeling an intense affection for my piano and particularly its limits and the secrets held within the golden belly, which no one there understood. I yelled “stop” but no one heard me, except my piano.
Our threesome crashed in a corner of a hallway an hour or two later when the party was cruising towards a quiet end. I thanked Zach for being clever, thoughtful. But thought was going out of season. We were all tired. “Let’s go home,” the piano said, and we called a car service which took forever as we had forgotten where we were.
“Why am I talking?” the piano muttered as we struggled into the car. “Why was I dancing?”
I patted the lid reassuringly and our car cruised back over the Bridge. For a while I was lonely and tried to keep the piano awake by playing one note or another, first a questioning D, then a more thoughtful B-flat, letting my fingers sort of fall aimlessly into the keys, as if by gravitational accident … like meteors … Then I let the piano sleep. It had been a long day. I stared out the window. Traffic was light.
By one of those accidents of life and perception, everything looked green. And if I had to say, this greenness represented some sort of tenderness tinting everything. I know, it sounds crazy. Things look even more beautiful, I thought at that moment, when they are passing by, when they are seen through a moving window: more vivid because you are passing by. The simplest stupidest details. A homeless man in sweatpants sitting against a wall just as Zach and I had sat at the party, but alone on a filthy sidewalk. A woman with a coffeecup, which was dripping, and she was licking the edges. Everyone was going, and I was going by them. I remembered just a few days ago I had heard a pianist, named GoodRichard, play a piece by Schumann, and he had hesitated ever so slightly before just one note in the second theme. The way he had hesitated, amid the motion of the theme, had struck me very intensely. I remembered this hesitation more clearly than anything else in the performance. A hiccup in the timeline which was self-knowledge. I thought that some beautiful things make you want to rush or plunge into them, and others make you want to wait, to put them at even a small distance—even if waiting partly diminishes them. A painful delay as if beauty were a pool you were testing with your toes.
But in the middle of these thoughts, the taxi stopped short and we were no longer moving and things were just things and the door opened and the receipt clickedclacked into existence and I somehow got the piano to get itself out and into the elevator and back to its place. It snored again in B major and I crawled into bed and slept until noon.
When I got up, I called out to the piano, “Good morning.” But it said nothing.
I went to get coffee, came back, said “Hello there!” and it said nothing.
I played on it for an hour, still nothing.
I went out to the bookstore and came back and nothing, I went for errands for days and days and kept trying. Then it occurred to me, then I knew, by deep instinct, that if I played a certain wonderful way it would speak to me again. How could I possibly find that way? I know it wants to talk. It is only waiting for me to know something, to get some kind of clue. Some phrase I will play will finally be just barely beautiful enough and the piano will burst out, “at last.”