SOMETHING VERY UNEXPECTED happened on Valentine’s Day this year, and as I sit here composing these words, I’m still reeling from the events that squished together in just the right enough way to have brought a piano into my life.
It was Sunday morning. I’ve had a lot of Sunday mornings in my 45 years, but when I woke up on this particular morning, I felt different. Not presto chango different, as in I was now an aardvark. It was more like I really just felt kind of different.
Unsure of what to make of this, I let the dogs stay in their warm cocoons, evenly spaced all around me under the blankets, and reached for my laptop, conveniently kept within arm’s reach in case of an emergency. This wasn’t an emergency, and I have no idea what kind of emergency would require a computer in the middle of the night, but there you go.
When you’re broke, you’re prone to worry. When you’re perpetually broke and you suffer from anxiety, the stress can pull the marrow out of your bones. Some of the things I was feeling that morning were old hat: I’m pathetic. I am old and pathetically pathetic. And I need underwear. I can’t afford underwear. I also need a Starbucks chai latte. Well, maybe we can do something about that.
And then: I’m stuck in someone else’s life and this person has crow’s feet and chin hairs, and screw Starbucks. She really needs new underwear!
The sky was blue and sunny out the sliding glass door in my bedroom, but that didn’t help. I’m not terribly fond of sunny days, and seeing all that forced happiness, on a Sunday no less, wasn’t putting wind in my loincloth. In need of some comfort, I snuggled deeper under the covers and pulled up Craigslist on my laptop and browsed the listings, hoping to find some free lumber I could transform into a chicken coop.
Yes, I just wrote comfort and chickens in the same sentence. There are comfort dogs in this good world of ours, so why not comfort chickens — and if they provide us with daily batches of fresh organic eggs, even better.
But there weren’t any wood scraps to be found, not even an old free desk I could strip and mill into timber for a nesting box. Discouraged, I was just about to throw off the covers and round up the dogs for a morning potty, when my eyes settled on a vintage needlework on the wall near my desk. It’s one of the first things I see every morning. A young girl in a pretty pink frock sits at her piano, a large score of music open in front of her, while a white cat plays with one of her ribbons under the bench.
I found this needlework at a thrift shop a couple of years ago and have loved it ever since. The colors are simple and cheery and the design kind of kitschy and thick. Someone probably bought it as a kit in the 1970s and carefully pulled each bit of wool yarn into place, not at all considering where their newly created art piece might end up some day.
And now it hangs in my home. On Valentine’s Day morning my eyes took in the girl, the piano and the cat and lingered more than usual, and there was that curious feeling again.
IT HAD BEEN weeks since my last foray into the Craigslist piano listings; no money, no piano was my thinking, and so I stopped my daily haunt. But on a whim, I typed piano into the search bar and there it was: the same mahogany upright I’d been pining over and dearly wanted to meet. On an even greater whim, I sent a quick message to the owner, as I had done a few months ago. But this time, instead of a general inquiry, I made arrangements to come see the piano.
Ballsy is probably one of the words people would use to describe me, and balls is exactly what it took to drive all the way to the other side of town (on gas fumes) to visit a piano I couldn’t afford, I didn’t know how to play, and that any self-respecting piano technician, tuner or piano teacher would have urged me to turn down.
The Greek Chorus bellowed, but I muted those dummies and looked the other way. Sure, this scrappy 1948 Conover Cable post-war piano was two fleas and a tick away from a trip to the landfill, but I just knew I had to see it. So I threw back the bedding and sprang out of bed, saluted the sunshine with a quick wave of my hooves, pottied the dogs, tidied the house, delivered the husband to work, and arrived several minutes early on the piano’s doorstep.
And boy was I feeling good about myself. Not.
I instantly took a liking to the kind woman and her two chubby dachshunds that greeted me at the front door — and there I was, a piano novice (a sub-novice, really) who only wanted a quick peek at a piano I knew I couldn’t possibly afford. Her objective was to sell her old, derelict piano and free up space in her yoga room, and mine was to romance a musical instrument I had no intention of buying.
When I first saw the piano on Craigslist, it was priced at $300, which was exactly $300 more than I could spare. But I couldn’t resist sending the owner a repertoire of questions:
Has anyone smoked (or second-hand smoked) anywhere near the piano? No, not since her mother bought it at an estate sale over 20 years ago. When was it last tuned? Over 20 years ago. How often has it been moved? Twice in 20 years. Has it ever been placed against an outside wall? Yes, for 20 years.
Then the piano disappeared from the listings, and I mourned the loss of an old friend I’d never had the pleasure of meeting. But fast forward several weeks to Valentine’s Day morning, and suddenly the piano was back and I was smitten all over again.
It was a very impractical kind of smitten, and not just because of the money factor. The piano had seen better days. It had dings and encrustations, smears of sparkly purple paint on the keys, several chipped and cracked keys (tolerably sexy for real ivories, but these were plastic, being a post-war gal and all), and it was sorely out of tune.
But the sound was warm and cozy and reminded me of the Estey baby grand I grew up with and that still resides in my parents’ home. I’d had maybe a year of piano lessons when I was a kid; it could have been more, but no one seems to know for sure. But we all remember when I would practice a stripped down version of “Greensleeves” and “Ode to Joy” on that piano in preparation for my debut of these pieces at a recital hosted by my piano teacher.
The Estey was old and familiar and full of memories, and so was the Conover Cable, though I’ll never know how it spent the first several decades of its life. It was made from mahogany and had a nice dark finish that pre-dates the mid-century palette I’ve never much cared for. It had a smooth, rolling profile instead of the crisp, boxier cabinet of more contemporary pianos, and at 40″ tall it was just barely not a spinet, which meant I would enjoy a somewhat richer tone and an accessible action I could hopefully learn to service myself.
That night I sent the owner an email and thanked her for welcoming me into her home, but I politely declined the piano. The unreasonableness of buying an old piano on a dourly (well, non-existant) budget was irksome. Repairs, tuning, moving costs: What was I thinking? But it gnawed at me all night and made me feel like a cranky, stubborn child who wanted chocolate cake for dinner and pizza for dessert.
When I woke up Monday morning, I felt leaden and out of whack. I’m not one to wax overly poetic and bemoan the loss of something I’d never really had, but that’s how I was feeling. But there was also something else scratching at me, and so there I was again, reaching for my laptop just as I had done the previous morning. In a moment of brazen bravado (yep, I really did just write that), I fired off another email to the piano’s owner. Here’s a somewhat indulged version of what I wrote:
This piano! What is it about this piano that it sings to me in my sleep and whispers love ballads in my ear? Please, would you consider $75 in cash and some vintage books in trade?
Okay, that was a bit drama queenish, but it struck just the right chord with this lovely lady, and lo and behold she said yes. The piano was to be mine.
You’d think I would have stripped my clothes off in exuberance and danced au nude around our land, swinging from trees and poison oak vines and sharing the good news with the coyotes and the rabbits and the lizards and the deer. But, alas, I suddenly had a dilemma on my hands, and it went something like this: Um, money. Errg.
See what I mean about feeling pathetic? I didn’t even have $75 to spare, so where the heck was I going to find the money to pay for this piano and enough funds to hire some beefy dudes and a truck to help me move it home? My husband is decently beefy, but 1) he didn’t even know about the piano yet, 2) we don’t have a trailer, and 3) pianos are pretty dang heavy, even the smaller ones with all their extraneous parts removed.
Ladies and gentlemen, meet Carla Conundrum, an odd little woodland nymph who was two hairs away from owning her very own piano — except, maybe not.
THERE IS SO much more I could say about this experience — and since this is an essays blog, verbosity tends to runneth overeth. But this isn’t just any essays blog. Nope. It’s a piano essays blog, and that pretty much says it all. Just to be sure you understand how this story ends, though, since some of you may have skipped the first paragraph way up there at the top (it happens sometimes), here it is in a pecan shell:
Carla Conundrum went and got herself that piano, and I have eBay and our neighbors to thank for helping me make that happen.
In a flurried panic (better than brazen bravado, right?) and with the countdown to pickup day well under way, I quickly listed a few things for sale on eBay and sold them in a single day. No kidding. Just like that, I had enough cash on hand to buy the piano. And thanks to some friends of ours, who refused to accept payment for their slave labor (aside from the homemade lasagne, salad and dinner rolls I delivered to their house), we had some strong arms and backs and a trailer to boot.
And the rest, as they say, is history — and not even the discovery of termite damage on the exterior underside of the keyboard could take this joy away from me. I’m scruffy, the piano is scruffy, and together we are going to do wondrous things. It’s like I’ve suddenly been fluffed to life by an insect-eaten piano, and it has changed absolutely everything for me.
Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have warring hummingbirds to disband and a lovely piano just begging to have its pedals reattached — even though pedals, I’ve learned, aren’t really necessary when all one intends to play is Bach.