Tuesday, May 16, 2006

The Piano Tuner

One summer solstice I rented a piano for a party. A friend played and guests circled round him and sang. It was a fantasy come true, a scene from a Judy Garland movie. When my daughters’ fingers could spread far enough apart I advertised in the Ballard News that I was looking for a piano for free. A woman in Kent called to say that her children were grown; the piano was mine if I wanted to have it moved. I am not musical so I called a friend with an ear, “how will I know if it’s any good?”

“Have her play the keys for you over the phone,” he said. She did, and it sounded, well, just like a piano.

The piano is an upright and has now been backed along my front staircase for over seven years. My daughter took lessons for nearly six months. I decided to take them too, and I stuck them out for nearly a year and a half. I was so tense when I practiced that my shoulders knotted and I acquired tennis elbow, mostly from attempting the blues scale, over and over with my teeth clenched. The upright makes a lovely showcase now for my daughter’s pottery. Her hands made other choices. The lid stays open though, exposing the dusty keys. Sometimes a visitor, usually a child will hit at the keys. I miss music. But what I miss most, not having thrown a party in years or a friend who plays, what I miss most is the piano tuner.

I found piano movers in the yellow pages and called A-1, the first on the page. The movers gave me a card for a piano tuner who helped them refurbish instruments. Hak Bo Lee was handwritten on the A-1 card. He appeared on my doorstep after dark one winter night with no sign of how he had arrived. Hak Bo Lee was small, sturdily built, wearing a black leather jacket and a black beard, carrying a briefcase that was revealed to be filled with tools. “How much did you pay?” he asked. “Just the moving,” I replied. “You got a good deal,” he told me. “This is going to be a good piano.” He did mysterious things to it; removed a piece the size of a board and took it away with the black keys. Reassembled the piano and then put new pads on each key. His fee seemed so reasonable; his fingers seemed so sure. He would stop whatever he was doing when my long-haired cat sauntered by. He would “tsk, tsk” for her and she would rub against his compact hands. He told me that he was a dog person himself, “little Pekinese.”

When he left I would rush to the window to see if he had a car, but he would always have vanished. After the restoration work was done, he tuned the piano. That afternoon he suddenly began playing, some classical piece that sounded so beautiful I found I was holding my breath. He didn’t sit down on the bench, just stood above the keys, stopping in mid-phrase to tweak something in the tuning. His playing was fierce, a torrent. Then he stopped again abruptly and replaced his tools with a click of his briefcase. He was off. The piano seemed abandoned; not one note lingered.

How I long to have someone touch the keys of the piano again, for friends to gather round and sing. The piano sits silent, still, dusty, stacked with pottery. My daughter’s hands are full-grown now and she is taller than me. It is still a good piano. But how I wish that I could open my door and find Hak Bo Lee on my doorstep again.


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