DISMANTLING THE PIANO
Almost a year to the day before my wedding, I find myself spacing tools (wire cutters, gloves, a drill, pliers, and a sledgehammer) across a blanket in the soon-to-be guest bedroom or sitting room of my house. An aging upright piano rests along one wall. The piano’s height is almost to my shoulder. A four-inch-high mirror spans the front of the piano so that when someone sits and plays, he sees his face above the sheet music. In the mirror, my image resembles the henchman from every B movie interrogation scene. Unshaven and wearing a white tank top, I am only missing a blowtorch or lead pipe in my right hand to complete the ensemble. The mirror is the first piece I remove. Two small screws, one at each end of the mirror, attach it to the piano’s frame. They twist out easily. The flower-shaped metal washers drop like rose petals into my cupped hand. When I lift the mirror free, it warbles like a crosscut saw, and my image ripples. I carry the mirror into the hallway and lean the mirror carefully against the wall. I am unsure how to proceed. What I know for certain is that the piano cannot stay.
When offered a free piano two years ago, I leapt at the chance. I had lived in my home for three years at the time, and it was still sparsely furnished. Whenever I talked on the phone, my voice echoed off the wood floors and plaster walls, and the person with whom I was speaking frequently asked me if I was standing in some kind of tunnel. In addition, I have always wanted to have a home filled with music. In high school, I scoured pawnshops every weekend to find unappreciated instruments: a 1970s Ludwig drum kit (my mother’s good china jumped with every thump of the bass drum), a 1950s National lap steel guitar, a harmonium. “All you have to do is pick it up,” the girl at the party had said. She wrote her address and number on my arm with a pen. She was moving and couldn’t take the piano with her. She just wanted it to go to a good home. The next day, a local piano store quoted me $200 as the fee to pick up and deliver the piano to my house. Too expensive, I thought. I called my friend Greg (he owed me for when I helped him assemble a grill), and, for $25, we rented a truck with a retracting loading ramp.
In virtually every endeavor there is a moment of no return. Sometimes this moment presents itself not so much as a choice, but as a feeling, like the feeling of your car first starting to spin when it hits a patch of ice. I hadn’t seen the piano before I agreed to take it, and when Greg and I arrived at the house the girl led us past her roommate smoking on the steps, through the kitchen and into a small bedroom. The piano filled the entire wall. Smoke from an incense stick rose from the top of the piano as the ash drooped onto the thin wooden holder. I had imagined a small spinet-sized upright. “It has wheels,” the girl said tentatively. Greg stood with his arms crossed as the girl recognized my hesitation. “It plays well,” she said, striking a chord. She turned the bench upside down on her bed then started clearing the knickknacks off the piano, lifting the incense slowly without breaking the ash.
I should have said, “No.” Instead, Greg and I positioned ourselves on each end of the piano, and once it moved the first two inches the girl sighed (or at least in memory I remember her sighing) as if the piano were already gone from her home. The piano probably weighed close to 700 pounds, but I wouldn’t have been able to estimate the piano’s weight accurately at the time. Only after we had moved the piano into my house did I look online to find information to approximate the piano’s weight. When you are moving something that large, the exactitude of weight shifts from specifics to generalities—700 pounds simply becomes “heavy”—and it is in that shift from the specific to the general where all trouble begins.
The move took us over an hour. We eased the piano through the house, past the smoking roommate (who had now moved to the couch and wrapped her arms around her shins like a child lifting her feet as her mother vacuums), onto the ramp of the truck (we had parked on the lawn at the girl’s insistence), and into the cargo area. I tied the piano to the wall of the truck and lowered the cargo door. When I eased the truck from the lawn to the street, the back wheels lowered over the curb and the whole truck rocked slightly, creaking like a Spanish galleon, as the strings chimed from the cargo area and the girl, growing smaller in the side-view mirror, waved from her front steps.
When Greg and I reached my house, I parked on the dirt of the neighbor’s empty lot, and we extended the ramp like a pirate’s plank from the truck to my front porch, bypassing the front porch steps. We hadn’t anticipated the problem of the small lip at the entryway of my house, but Greg and I eased one end of the piano at a time over the small ridge, both of us wheezing and panting, until the piano stood in my hallway. I turned on the light (the sun had set in the time it took us to move the piano), and the wood floors of the hallway gleamed. When Greg asked me where the piano was supposed to go, I pointed to the room down the hallway on the left.
I should have stopped. I should have considered the floors, the piano’s weight, even the very relationship between needs and wants. Instead, I pushed forward, bearing down against the piano as if it were a high-school-football blocking sled. I didn’t look down until Greg and I had maneuvered the piano into the side room. Grooves as wide as my thumb ran along the floor all the way back to the front door. The soft pine boards were over one hundred years old, cut from the same trees that the Spanish, French, and British harvested in the area from the 1600s onward. I bent down and studied the grooves closely. They weren’t cuts in the wood, but compressions. What nature couldn’t do over the course of a century, I had done in a few minutes. I could have rolled a marble down the grooves and it would have followed the path unerringly.
There are hundreds of free pianos listed on Craigslist. A representative entry, posted under the title, “Free Piano for Catapult Artisan,” contains these lines: “If you don’t care about technicalities like, say, notes being in tune or fully functioning black and white keys, I have your instrument,” “I bet it’ll make a wonderful thunk/plong/crash noise when it lands,” and “You must bring some strong folks to help you load it into your catapult. You must aim the catapult away from my apartment as I am hoping to get my deposit back.” A section from another entry, entitled “Free Upright Piano,” reads, “The first person to show up and take it gets it. This piano was listed once before, and you wouldn’t believe the number of homeless dying one-legged Mongolian orphans that just needed a piano to make life better. I heard some great sob stories (probably all true!) about why I should hold this piano for this person or that person. Well, I ended up holding it for the first caller, who never got it. Then I held it for someone else, and they never got it. Then everyone was gone, and I still had a piano. I don’t really want the piano. It came with the house when I bought it. I play the flute, which I can carry in one hand.”
Virtually every entry mentions that the pianos are extremely heavy, unwanted, and out of tune. The out-of-tune problem soon became an irritant. The girl who gave me the piano had been telling the truth when she said the piano played well in the sense that its large size projected sound well, yet the piano clearly didn’t “play well” in any harmonious way. I started noticing several dead keys; they thumped whenever I depressed them, sounding to me as if each song I played had a limp. I have never been an especially good player anyway. My most notable performance was playing Wagner’s “Bridal Chorus” (aka “Here Comes the Bride”) for a wedding that took place in a West Texas restaurant in which I worked during a summer home from college. When asking me to play at the wedding (his third), the manager of the restaurant (with heavy twang) said, “We’ll pay you $40 and buy you the instructions.” The wedding train was short—passing the bathrooms in the restaurant and extending to a side room where the Justice of the Peace waited, flanked by two cages of preening live doves. I missed notes frequently, stumbling through the first few measures as the bride grimaced and the restaurant patrons (the manager hadn’t closed the restaurant for the ceremony) looked up from their plates.
Un-tunable, monolithic, the piano in my home was played less and less until I began to regard it as more of a statue than an instrument. If not for my impending wedding, the piano most likely would have sat unused for years to come. “Way leads on to way,” Robert Frost says, and the union of marriage permeates all aspects of the bride and groom’s new life together. Choices must be made, and the vestiges of youth (not unlike the caged doves I helped the busboy liberate behind the restaurant after the wedding) must be released.
After I lay the mirror in the hallway, I return to the room and lie down on my back at the base of the piano. When my father was in Vietnam years ago he heard a story of a pilot transporting a helicopter piece-by-piece back to the states—disassembled in Vietnam, mailed across the ocean, then reassembled in America. I imagine a suburban scene of a family lounging by the pool when, next door, a helicopter lifts from the yard, overturning lawn chairs and tables, churning the grass and trees in a whirlwind as the mother screams and the children cheer. My plan is similar, except for the reassembly. Removing the piano piece by piece from my home accomplishes two goals. First, I do no more damage to the floors. Short of sanding, staining, and varnishing, there is no remedy for the grooves I made. I fruitlessly tried “ironing” out the grooves (as suggested on the Internet) by using a damp towel and iron. The only effect was to create a small steam room in the hallway. Second, like the POWs in the movie The Great Escape who distribute the dirt from their escape tunnels handful-by-handful down their pant legs, removing the piano piece by piece will allow me to dispose of it sequentially in the garbage can or recycling bin. In its entirety, the piano would never be picked up by the trash service. But in fragments, who’s the wiser?
Surprisingly, the first substantial piece of the piano—the “bottom door” that extends between the pedals and the base of the keyboard—removes easily. Two screws and a simple latch hold the board in place. With the piece removed, the bottom half of the piano’s harp is accessible. The top of the piano and the “top door” (the board between the keyboard and the top) remove easily as well. Like the hood and trunk of a car, these pieces are designed to integrate seamlessly into the piano when closed, but also to offer easy access to the inside of the piano for maintenance and tuning. With these pieces removed, the inner workings of the piano are clearly seen. That the piano is a percussion instrument seems counterintuitive. Its predecessor, the harpsichord, produces sound through an elaborate system of quills (contemporary ones are made of plastic) that pluck the strings when each key is depressed. Unlike a piano, the volume on a harpsichord cannot be varied depending on how hard the keys are struck. When a key on a piano is depressed, a felt hammer strikes the strings with a velocity proportionate to the musician’s force on the key. The piano’s full name, “fortepiano,” which means “loud-soft” in Italian, virtually crows about this design innovation.
The “loud-soft” nuance of the piano is the source of its expressiveness, yet what the fortepiano initially gained in expression it lost in volume. To produce volume, the size of the instrument grew, string tension increased, and (unlike the plucked strings of the harpsichord) each hammer in the fortepiano descended on up to three strings. The three-string structure is painfully relevant to anyone who currently owns an un-tunable piano. When a piano is tuned correctly, the three strings sound in unison. When the piano is out of tune, a single keystroke produces two or three approximately similar pitches. Like poorly matched voices in an amateur choir, the dissonance is unsettling. Science reinforces this discomfort. Two close but not identical pitches produce vibrations in a sound wave like the tremolo effect of an electric guitar. When the pitches are significantly out of tune, the sound wave fissures.
I run my fingers down the keyboard, and the hammers rise and fall in a small wave. With each piece I remove, the piano chimes in response. The next step is to remove the keys. Each key lifts out individually. The keys pile like kindling in the middle of the room. A metal bar helps hold the strings to the harp, and after I remove the bar with a drill, I notice a ribbon interwoven in the strings. I draw it out from the strings, and it ripples back and forth, reminding me of a trout darting in a creek. Strangely, there are a few small objects in the body of the piano: a playing card with the image of a cartoon samurai, a plastic green army man, and a few random nickels and pennies. There is no indication if these things were placed in the piano intentionally. They are small tokens of the lost ephemera of the world—playing cards, plastic army men, homes, cities, entire civilizations consumed by sand.
At this point in the process, all of the pieces I have removed from the piano were designed to be removed, which, for me, produces a false sense of accomplishment. Until now, I have been working with the designer of the piano. I must now work against the designer. With the drill, I extract the bolts that attach the apparatus with the hammers to the harp and place the apparatus off to the side. The shelf on which the keys rested also unbolts, and I remove it, revealing the full harp of the piano. Cast iron and painted gold, the harp reveals itself like something from a dream—otherworldly. “Cleveland, OH” is engraved in the plate, and I image the harp’s construction in the early twentieth century with iron ore transported across Lake Erie as factories billowed on the Cuyahoga River. The same river would catch fire decades later when sparks from a rail car ignited oil and chemical-soaked debris floating on the river. Cause the Cuyahoga River goes smokin’ through my dreams. Burn on, big river, burn on the musician Randy Newman composed on a piano that might or might not have been from Cleveland, Ohio.
The Internet suggests removing the strings with wire cutters, rather than attempting to unwind them. Cutting the strings feels like my first act of violence against the piano. I can’t decide whether to begin with the highest-pitch string or the lowest. The lowest-pitch strings are thickest and could writhe when cut. The highest-pitch strings seem to have the most tension and could break free at the snip, piercing me in an eye or testicle. I decide to begin with the low strings. The pieces on which the strings wind are uniform across the piano. The low strings resemble cattails where the thick wire rounds off and attaches with a thin wire to the piano. I place the wire cutters at the top of the lowest-pitch string, look the other way, cover my crotch with my free hand for good measure, and squeeze. When the wire snaps, the string shivers, then falls, striking the other strings before coming still. I snip the bottom of the wire and then place it in the middle of the room next to the pile of keys. With the removal of each string, I grow bolder, more methodical. Every snip produces an incrementally higher pitch until the harp stands barren, and the pile of wires equals the size of the pile of keys.
Initially, the soundlessness of the piano is disconcerting (I feel like the piano has abandoned its argument and withdrawn into itself), yet its silence soon emboldens me. No longer an instrument, the piano is merely a block of wood and steel. I extract as many bolts from the harp as possible, but several, either from rust or inaccessibility, refuse to budge. The harp, now only partially bound to the piano, flops back and forth against the soundboard like a giant, loose, cast-iron tooth. I wedge the sledgehammer between the harp and soundboard and attempt to break the harp free, but it resists. To better leverage the harp, I decide to turn the piano ninety degrees so that both the front and back of the piano are accessible. The piano is significantly lighter, but it still retains approximately sixty to seventy percent of its original weight. The piano’s center of gravity shifted with the removal of the parts, and, perhaps in an act of retribution, the piano falls backwards towards me. I press my entire weight against the piano, and it pauses mid-fall, balancing against me and pressing into my forearm and shoulder so that a thin-lined bruise begins to form at the crease of my forearm along the piano’s edge. I cannot right the piano. I start to sweat, and I can feel my heart throbbing even in my ear canals. My legs tighten. In middle school, the coaches, for punishment, made us hold ourselves in seated positions against gym walls as our thighs burned and gravity bore down. Every kid eventually dropped. It was just a matter of time. I image my fiancée, like Dorothy, finding me under the piano, only my legs protruding out into the room.
My fiancée. Would she forgive me, crumpled beneath the piano? Would she ever believe that all of this is for her? Though she has asked for nothing, expected nothing, my fiancée is at the center of my every thought. Yet pianos cannot be bench pressed by thoughts alone. As best I can, I swipe my back foot around me on the floor to clear off anything that might be crushed. Like a frightened cat, I leap back (I imagine my arms and legs splayed out in all directions) and when the piano (thankfully missing me) hits the floor the whole house jumps as if it is a chambered heart and above us someone has applied electric shock. Amazingly, the floor seems to absorb the force without splintering (or even scratching), and the shockwave (as I imagine it) moves like a pulse through the beams, the earth, and dissipates through the neighborhood.
On its back, the piano is at my mercy. I rub my arm and circle the piano slowly. The bruise is already starting to purple, but the skin isn’t lacerated and no bones are broken. I lift the sledgehammer from the ground and place one foot on the piano. I have enough foresight not to wield the sledgehammer like an ax over my head down onto the piano. Using the sledgehammer like a crowbar, I pry the harp, tearing out the large screws. Each removed screw increases the leverage I can apply to the harp until, like the loose tooth, the harp breaks free and I am able to separate it from the soundboard. The harp weighs more than I anticipated. By itself, it probably weighs close to a hundred pounds.
The final stage involves removing the soundboard and separating the wooden posts that form the piano’s structure (and give the piano much of its weight). The soundboard is thin, but because the piano is lying on its back, I cannot break through the soundboard without harming the floor. I stand like a lumberjack over the piano and knock the bottom of the piano loose by swinging the sledgehammer between my feet. When I knock the posts loose, each one creaks and groans. The soundboard eventually splinters, and I work my way through the posts, removing each one until the piano is finally divided into multiple piles around the room.
When I carry the pieces outside, I place the smaller ones in the garbage can and the larger ones by the curb. The trash pickup comes once a week, and I imagine waking up and finding everything gone, the only trace of the piano in the pieces’ outlines on the sidewalk from the falling buds of the crape myrtles. Spring is in full bloom, and my neighbor Amos, surveying the piles, waves to me from his driveway. He’s just come from work, his name embossed on a patch above his breast pocket. I’ve only ever seen him wear two outfits: his work clothes or the pin-stripped suit he wears to church. When I explain to him my project, he laughs and places his hand on my shoulder. His wife Jeanie has built a greenhouse in their yard as well as a garden. A pergola with purple bougainvillea hanging from the latticework creates a shaded walkway from their driveway to back door. I know that times have been tough for them lately. Jeanie explained to me recently that the business for which she works cut back not only on hourly wages, but also cleaning staff. Now she and the other workers must take turns scrubbing toilets and mopping bathroom floors.
Amos asks me if I care if he takes the piano’s harp for scrap metal. “You’ll be doing me a favor,” I say, and help him carry the harp across the street. When I tell him about my engagement, he smiles and nods, still focusing on the weight of the harp. “Let’s put it over here,” he says. We lean the harp against the side of his house, and I walk back towards the pergola. Light filters through the latticework. I pause under the arch. The bougainvillea flutters in the early-evening breeze, and the scent is like the dusting of powder my fiancée applies after a bath, her fair skin blooming from the water’s heat, my hand at the small of her back.
Jonathan Fink is an Associate Professor and the Director of Creative Writing at University of West Florida, where he also edits Panhandler. His poems have appeared in Poetry, New England Review, TriQuarterly, Slate, The Southern Review, Southwest Review, and Virginia Quarterly Review, among other publications. He has received the Editors’ Prize in Poetry from The Missouri Review and fellowships and scholarships from the National Endowment for the Arts, Emory University, the Florida Division of Cultural Affairs, the St. Botolph Club Foundation, and Breadloaf Writers’ Conference, among others. More of his work is available at jonathanfink.com