There are two huge, worry-faced mastiffs in the back of the truck I’m following. The one working headlight of my Kia is twitching and wobbling all over, and it’s driving them spastic. They jolt out like they’re trying to jump over the tailgate and onto my hood, but each time they slip and fall, making an awful clatter. It’s so alarming—this sound of their barking bodies crashing onto the truck bed and the splashing of their chains—I don’t even notice that we’ve driven right into the maze of the apple orchard. We’re passing these signs. It’s a pick-your-own kind of place. The signs say what type of apple is down each row: Macintoshes, Pink Ladies, Braeburns, etc. My wheels keep slipping in tractor ruts. It seems like we just keep driving downhill. And obviously, I’m wondering: Where the hell is this piano?
Nobody calls the shop after closing, so when this Willard Cochrane guy rings me up on Friday at 9:30 p.m.—me doing the books, drinking a birch beer, listening to my Ira Gershwin mix on Pandora—I know it’s going to be slightly beyond the pale. But he says to meet him at Sternbauer Farms, and I’m thinking he’s got this piano in like, a farmhouse. Come to find out, I don’t even think there is a house in this orchard. There’s just row after labyrinthine row of trees, and with the frothy dogs barking and it being the middle of the night, I think I’ve worked out why this Cochrane insisted that I come out here right away. “I’ve got a piano I want you to look at” I figure must be code-speak for “I’m being paid to put your head in a burlap bag,” or “what’s your take on trafficking chemical weapons?” I’m not sure what it is about being in the musical instrument business, but people always think it’s a front for some black-market stuff. You wouldn’t believe how many times I’ve been propositioned to move coke. Honestly though, my typical day at the office is not that exciting.
Anyway, when Cochrane stops the pick-up, I’m about to throw the old Soul in reverse and ramble on back to my pregnant wife, thank-you-very-much. It’s a weird moment though: all three of our headlights are finally still, lighting up a long tunnel of branches that leads to the heart of the orchard. My window is down because the Kia’s AC is shot, and a bit of a breeze comes in. All I can say is that it smells right—like the grass on a football field at halftime—like the safest place in the world. Even the dogs, I notice, have stopped throwing themselves around. They look over toward a big shed. The door is open. Everything is so quiet I can hear just-ripe apples plopping onto the ground. It gives me just enough time to think about everything: my little girl on the way, the books back at the shop splashed with red ink, the way Eleanor keeps asking me if I’m “alright” as if I’ve been keeping things from her. Things are okay, I think. I’m just fine. I open up the car door.
“I got it in there,” Cochrane says. He’s carrying one of those boxy flashlights and shining the beam in my eyes.
There are two teenage boys with him, smoking. They look like the kind of kids you’d want for linebackers if they weren’t so busy catcalling freshman girls and torturing woodland animals.
“You giving a recital out here?” I say, but they don’t laugh. Cochrane just wrinkles his giant forehead at me. The Patriots skully he’s got on doesn’t really fit him. It sits up, tall and empty on his head.
I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t still worried what might happen to me walking into that shed—with those boys behind me, their hungry mastiffs still pacing in the truck. But I go on, following Cochrane because it’s the only thing I know to do. Sure enough, it’s a piano in there. And the piano is beautiful, if a little strange. Cochrane and the two boys, who I learn are his teenage sons, pull back a blue tarp inside the shed, flashing smooth rosewood the color of Irish ale. The legs are flexed like the legs of a big old beast with tousled fur and smooth, sharp hooves. The pedal board is arched—sort of lyre shaped. Above the keys, some gold leaf says MATHUSHEK. NEW HAVEN. CT. in those gothic letters they used to use. Right away, I notice there’s something off about the proportions—the way it fits into the shed. I look over the top, past the scrolly music rack. The body is a weird shape: what’s called a “harp,” tilted to the side like an upside-down shoe.
And this is what is really weird about this piano: under the lid I see the strings going at two diagonals—”overstrung” is what they call it—and I get the flashlight from Cochrane to take a good look. All the strings are perfect and the pegs too. This thing has got to be at least a hundred twenty-five, maybe a hundred fifty years old, but the mechanics of it look brand new. I’m not really a piano guy—mostly I sell guitars and stuff for kids in school ensembles—but I know how crudded-up these things can get, how rare it is to find old ones in this kind of condition. It’s almost like it’s never been played before.
I count the keys—spotless ivory—there are 88 of them, same as a concert grand. I tap middle C, just a soft little press. And that note sings out, man. A little flat I think, but it’s a sweet tone anyway, and so rich, swimming out into the night, I swear to God I hear those apples falling again, as if the wave of this note is wiggling them out of the trees. Really, it’s such a beautiful thing, it takes me a minute to realize I could sell it for forty grand easy—sixty or more if I do it right.
“Pretty nice little instrument,” I say, trying to keep cool for once in my life. And Cochrane nods at me, that little hat of his nearly falling off his meaty head.
I stand in a little half circle with this guy and his two boys, who are smoking cigarettes down to burning their knuckles. I get Cochrane to agree to a 30/70 deal for selling his piano—the rate I usually make on consignment for grubby saxophones and campfire guitars. I lowball him an estimate. I tell him I’ll send some people by in the morning to pick it up. This is where he starts getting quiet. He scratches at his armpits through his wool shirt.
“You got to take it tonight,” he says. “Can’t have you driving up tomorrow with all them people picking. Mr. Sternbauer wouldn’t have it.”
I put things together finally, realize that this isn’t Cochrane’s orchard. I don’t even know if it’s his piano. So, I ask him to tell me straight up what’s going on here.
“It’s just a family thing,” he says. “A family hair-loom.” And his boys chuckle, choking on their smokes.
I know that I should tell him to forget it. I shouldn’t have come out here to start with. Of course, on the other side there is the money—easy money—I could make on this deal, and lord knows I could use it. It’s not really the money though that makes me call up Jack and Gruss, tell them to get the truck, spend till three in the morning grunting and maneuvering with those giant dogs watching us. It’s that piano—the way it seems to be waiting for something out here on this dark farm after a whole life of waiting—like it hadn’t really lived yet, but it was about to.
In the morning, Eleanor shakes me awake.
“What is that?” she says, blinking. My wife has these gorgeous eyelashes, long and thick, and red like her hair. Even when she’s across the room I can almost feel them on my cheek.
“A piano,” I say.
“I know a piano,” she says. “But what’s it doing in my living room?”
I give her the rundown about Cochrane, and the apples and everything. I explain that I want to cover my bases before I put the piano in the shop. I have to make sure everything is on the up-and-up.
“You know,” Eleanor says, “a stable environment is essential to the Nurturing Care of a newborn.” This sounds like something from the parenting books that she’s always trying to get me to read.
“Please, come here,” I say. She leans close. I lift my head and put one ear to the warm globe of her belly, and Eleanor folds her hands over the other. I listen close. What I want to hear more than anything is the sound of my girl in there—a kick, a pulse, a yawn. Anything. But it’s like I’m deaf. I don’t know why, but I can never hear anything.
“She’s got good rhythm,” I lie.
“Betty-Carla?” Eleanor says. It’s our weird joke—the very worst name we can think of.
“Don’t call her that,” I say.
When I was in college, I took a class where we studied this French pianist, Satie, who said something like: “I was born very young in an old, old world.” I remember thinking I’d always felt completely the opposite. I was an old man from about third grade. I wore sweater-vests to school—sometimes bow-ties. My favorite lunch was liverwurst on pumpernickel. Which is probably why I took to music hard. That was when I got my first clarinet. I learned the William Tell Overture well enough that the band director let me play the spring concert. I was pretty good as a kid—solos and all that. In high school, I was in marching band. By then I could play a couple of instruments okay. Halftime, I used to imagine I was playing in some royal parade—you know, a victory parade after my country’s army had conquered the enemy. Or else it was a funeral parade. We were celebrating how brave and loyal our guys were for shedding blood or whatever for the good of our nation. The people in the stands would be half in tears, I’d think, because our trombone section was so good. People could see swords swinging and hear armor clanging. It felt righteous.
Then, applying to colleges, I figured out I really wasn’t any Orpheus in the making, and the people at the game were probably just getting bags of peanuts and gulping Captain Morgan under the bleachers. My auditions weren’t anything to write home about, and I only got into the music major at Central, who didn’t even have a football team.
I did okay, started listening to some college radio, picked up bass guitar, joined some ska bands, new wave bands, funk bands, an Afrobeat combo headed up by this genius percussionist from Ghana. I cut my hair about fifteen different ways until I started losing it, wore eyeliner for a little while, etc. The whole time, I tried to figure out what the hip thing was, musically. But I never really did. When it came down to it, I liked the William Tell Overture.
After graduation I moved back to Thames, played with a couple of guys doing Doors covers and “originals”—pretty much Pearl Jam rip-offs. We recorded an EP. The singer wanted to tour. I did the right thing by quitting, but—and this is the point, I guess—I wondered whether going on the road would have been the thing that finally taught me what it would be like to be as young as the rest of the world. And I guess the other point is that everyone you see selling instruments is probably someone that was born too old to be what they really wanted to become.
The day after I get this Mathushek piano, going into the store makes me feel ancient. Saturdays, the kids who come in—and they’re all kids—pester me with their hedge-fund tastes and grocery-bagger budgets. All morning, they take down these artisan luthier guitars and whack them around, strangling out bar chords through my best tube amps—taking cell phone videos of the whole thing—then walk out with Chinese Fenders, if they buy anything at all. And I’m thinking about the Mathushek, wondering how I’m going to find a buyer. More than that, I’m trying to hear it in my head. It feels like reaching back in time for some good memory I can only touch the furry edges of.
Gruss comes in at eleven. I tell him to watch the front. I go out, buy a paper from the sidewalk box. Back in the office, I call a piano tuner friend of mine. I’ve got a guy who comes by once a month and tunes the couple of uprights I keep on the sales floor, but this is a different situation. I need someone I can trust—an expert.
While the phone rings, I can’t help but scan the local headlines, the police blotter. There’s no mention of missing antique pianos, which isn’t all that surprising, but it doesn’t totally put me at ease either.
My piano tuner friend shows up at the house around six—Nadia. She’s got her brushed-steel toolbox in her hand, and she’s wearing this black cape with a red brooch on it. I introduce her to Eleanor, who says, “Glad to meet you,” but doesn’t lift her hands from where they’re resting on the curve of her belly.
She’s a pretty girl, this piano tuner, and I know maybe it looks kind of bad to Eleanor, who’s already spent the hour since I’ve been home asking me questions about the whole piano thing, which are questions I can’t answer exactly. So, I tell Eleanor how Nadia is the daughter of one of my few regular customers—a church choir director—and how her dad tells me she’s been all over the world tuning concert pianos. To me, this seems like a pretty interesting sort of life, but all Eleanor says is “I’ll get you a glass of water,” which is at least polite.
I show Nadia to the living room. The Mathushek is waiting there. It looks so much like some reddish bull taking a nap that Nadia jumps back a little.
“Are you really going to sell this?” she says. She makes it sound as if I’d be betraying the thing—hurting its feelings.
I don’t tell her the whole story, just that it’s a consignment deal. Really, it’s kind of a loaner and not mine at all, I explain. I don’t tell her how, truthfully, I don’t know whose it is.
She walks to it slowly, as if she’s afraid of waking it, then opens the lid and plays a quick run of notes. The pitches are clearly off, but the way she shakes her head, I can see that she hears it the same way I did out in the orchard. This piano has a voice that shakes something deep down in the ancient place of your ears.
Nadia opens her case filled with wire-handled mutes, sparkling forks, belts of bright coiled felt, etc., and then she looks at me, waiting. I figure out she wants me to leave the room—as if she’s about to try on some clothes. I feel kind of stupid and wave my thumb at the kitchen to say: “I’ll be in there.”
Eleanor is dishing out ice cream and pushes a bowl into my hands. She points a bottle of chocolate syrup at me.
“Sounds like she’s impressed with your instrument,” she says.
“It’s not like that,” I say. “She’s a professional.” Eleanor squeezes the chocolate bottle and it blows goop over my bowl. I just smoodge the chocolate off with my thumb.
“Clear communication is the foundation of effective parenting,” Eleanor says.
“I’m okay,” I say, “We’re okay. It’s just business. I’ve got to figure out some new revenue streams, or whatever.”
“What about lessons?” she says. “I thought you were going to start offering lessons.”
“I am,” I say. “I’m going to.” The idea of giving lessons terrifies me. I don’t even like selling things to these kids.
I put my hands around her waist and look right at her eyes. I understand why she’s nervous. The whole deal with the piano is a little sketchy, and maybe having Nadia come to the house was a bad idea, but I tell her I’m being careful. She looks down and flicks at me with those lashes looking like chrysanthemum petals. I tell her again how this could be good, quick money. I remind her that we could use it now. We could’ve used it two months ago.
“Betty-Carla could use it, too,” I say, touching her stomach. Eleanor laughs a little.
“Don’t call her that,” Eleanor says, rolling her eyes.
From the living room, I hear the soft ringing of the strings as Nadia taps the dampened keys.
“It is pretty isn’t it?” I say.
Eleanor nods, but with a sad sort of smile.
Before I go to bed, I notice Nadia’s brooch is on top of the piano. I pick it up and look at it closely. It’s made of little red stones arranged in a long spiral. I set it back down and run my hand over the smooth, dark wood.
Over the next few days, I call every rare piano dealer on the East coast from Boston to Miami, asking if they know anything about harp-shaped Mathushek pianos. Talking to all these people, I find out that there aren’t too many out there. One of the things I learned from being in all kinds of bands is that circles of folks that have oddball interests are pretty tight. The folk rockers in Albany trade tapes with the folk rockers in St. Louis, and the gypsy punks in Boston play shows with the gypsy punks in Denver. Another thing I learned is that if you want to talk shop—man, you had better be ready for an earful. Antique pianos aren’t much different.
Nobody I talk to knows about a stolen piano, but I still have my questions about the provenance of the particular item now sitting in my living room.
I do find out that my Mathushek is a true collector’s piece for the right buyer—maybe worth even more than what I was guessing. That kind of money could go pretty far towards buying a new vehicle—something Eleanor would be happier putting a baby’s car seat in.
Keeping busy with all of this makes work a little easier, too. I don’t mind so much the kids coming in and strangling out “Seven Nation Army” ad nauseum. I’m not having a great week sales-wise, but it’s not terrible either.
On Friday at 9:30 as I’m counting receipts, exactly a week after I got the first call from Willard Cochrane, the delivery door’s buzzer rings. I think it must be some kid wandering by who can’t resist pressing a button—then I hear the buzz again. After a second, I get up from my books and open the door.
There standing outside on the loading dock is Willard Cochrane. He’s got his sons with him—all three men have their hands in their pockets and smokes jammed between their lips.
“We were just in the neighborhood,” Cochrane says. “Thought you might like some apples.” He hands me a plastic shopping bag, stretched with fruit and looks at me with a particularly uncharitable expression. It is a confounding gesture.
I invite them into the office, offer each of them a birch beer but apparently no one is thirsty. I can smell the dogs on them, the cigarette-soured wool of their coats, and the apples, too—sticky and sharp. The bag dangles heavy from my fingers. One of the sons picks up a viola with a loose sound post from the damages counter.
“Look at this fiddle,” he says to his brother.
I want to tell him, “Put that down,” but my throat is bee-stung. The son with the viola thumbs an open string. The emphysemic post rattles.
I swallow hard. I say, “I’ve been meaning to call you. About your piano.”
“You been meaning to,” Cochrane says.
The kid plucks again. He stares at me. “Is this thing off-tuned?” he says.
“Give it,” the other son says, ripping the viola away.
“Yeah,” I say. “I’ve been meaning to tell you. I’ve got some prospects.”
“You mean you ain’t sold it yet,” Cochrane says.
Now the boy is trying to tune the broken viola. He twists the pegs with a sliding moan.
“No, I haven’t sold it yet, but I’m showing it around,” I lie.
Cochrane grumbles. I think I hear him say, “You better be,” but I can’t be sure. The viola’s string pops. One of the boys pounds his brother in the side of the head. The instrument falls to the floor and its back cracks in two.
“Look what the fuck you did now,” one boy says.
“The fuck I did?” the other one says and picks up the viola. He looks at me with his mouth open and strums out a croak.
“I’m sorry?” I say to Cochrane. “Didn’t hear you.”
“I said, ‘I hope you like apples,’” Cochrane says.
One of the boys shoves the wounded viola at me.
“We’ll be seeing you,” Cochrane says. They walk out leaving me with my hands full of fruit and splintered wood.
I go home that night with a stack of sheet music and a bench. I need some kind of distraction. After dinner, I do the dishes, and Eleanor goes to bed to read another book about parenting. I sit down at the Mathushek. I run through some arpeggios, playing with the soft pedal down. I’m not a great pianist, but that night, when I land a chord just right, the sound is sharp and electric. It moves up my fingers, my arms, straight into my brain and back again. When I feel pretty well warmed up, I dig a few Satie pieces—the Gnossiennes—out of the stack of music and give them a shot. I haven’t even heard this music since that one class in college, and it’s not exactly easy stuff because the chords are so strange and because there are no measure bars to help find the time. I stumble over the notes. The sound becomes muddy and muted. My fingers start to feel stiff. I strike a collision of notes, lift my hands and hear the sound evaporate into the living room.
Turning around, I see Eleanor is staring at me down the hallway. She’s leaning against the wall, the impossible bubble of her belly curving through her t-shirt. Her look is telling me, “You know you can’t keep it.”
“I was just taking it for a spin,” I say.
“We need all the room we can get in here,” she says.
She sits down next to me on the bench, and I tell her how Cochrane is already getting impatient, and how I’ll move it to the shop. I promise her I will.
“Let me listen,” I say.
I put my head down on her stomach, and then with one hand I tap at a key. The sound of the note moves through both of us—all three of us. I can hear it almost growing there.
This first week becomes two, two become a month, etc., until it’s three months later—end of October—and Eleanor is due any day. The gold light of an Indian summer hangs feebly on around us, ready to be blown off by the first strong wind.
I’ve been getting a call from Cochrane every week. Every time, I tell him the same thing: it’s difficult to find the right buyer for collector’s merchandise. I’m doing whatever I can. At first, it’s difficult to lie, but I get used to it. It almost seems I could keep telling him this forever, except sometimes, when I least expect it, I find a shriveled apple sitting on the loading dock outside the shop.
All this time, I’ve done almost nothing to get the Mathushek sold. I spend most of my off time putting together a purple nursery, which keeps Eleanor happy enough not to worry too much about the piano. I don’t touch it while Eleanor is around, and slowly it becomes invisible to her. This is a funny kind of miracle—like a dictionary on the bookshelf, or the biggest knife in the block—the way the most obvious things start to disappear when you don’t use them.
After work, and when customer traffic is slow, I practice on the pianos in the shop. It starts one morning when I’m alone. I start plunking at an upright Baldwin, picking out the theme from the old William Tell Overture. Before long, it becomes a habit. My progress creeps along. My fingers feel only shreds of a beat speedier, specks livelier—only seconds younger. I wonder if there will ever be enough time in my life to play the way I want to. And I go home to Eleanor feeling guilty.
A hand-drawn diagram slides onto the sales counter one day. Pencil on crinkled paper—a picture of a harp-shaped Mathushek piano. At first, I’m confused. I don’t recognize it. I look up, and a guy’s standing there in a pinstripe suit. He’s a got a little white beard and a red satin tie—shiny pink cheeks, a Whiskey Man, I decide. He introduces himself, but I don’t catch the name. He shakes my hand.
“I understand you have a piano,” he says.
I tell him we have a few of them. I can show him around if he’d like.
“I understand you have a piano that looks like this,” he says, jabbing at the picture. I really see it this time. It terrifies me. I look back up at this Whiskey Man, wondering how the hell he found out about the Mathushek. Was it Cochrane? Did Cochrane steal it from this guy? Is he the police? I can’t speak, and I’m sure my eyes must be a mile wide.
The Whiskey Man looks around the shop as if he expects to see the Mathushek sitting in a corner of the sales floor with a fluorescent price sign on it. He’s pulling a stink face. He asks me again if I’m familiar with the piano in the picture.
“I don’t think so,” I say.
“The instrument holds a certain personal value,” he says. Now his eyes are big. He’s looking me straight in the face. “It would be of considerable pecuniary value if anyone could assist me in locating it.”
I nod, but there’s something stopping me from telling him what he wants to hear.
“That’s a weird looking piano,” I say instead.
The Whiskey Man juts out his chin and his pointy beard switches like a metronome.
“When I was a child,” he starts in…
For the next hour he tells me a story about a piano—the Mathushek I have sitting in my living room. I don’t remember the details exactly, but the gist of it is: he grew up in a wealthy family that had fallen on tough times. His father inherited some kind of business, fabric mills maybe, but he was a drinker and didn’t manage the wool making or whatever very well. It turned out not to be an ideal childhood for the Whisky Man. The only thing that he had going for him was this piano, which he played pretty well, I guess. Anyway, between the Great Depression and the drinking, the father lost the business and dug out a small gorge of debt. So, the family sold off all of their things—from their mansion to their fancy spoons. The piano went with everything else, and this, he tells me, was like losing his youth.
When the Whiskey Man got older, he made his life’s mission getting everything back. He went to college, banked money in oil and then stocks. He didn’t have to work anymore, so he started going to auctions and antique dealers. He bought back the family mansion, the bed he slept in, the china he ate off of, etc. He even bought whatever kind of mills they were—now condemned, half of them—and turned them into lofts. The piano was the only thing missing.
Now, all this should make me feel for the guy. I should want to just give him the Mathushek, no questions asked. And if the Whisky Man happens to want to give me a pile of money for it, I should take it graciously and go on with my life, happy for that little extra help. But I’m lost in the idea of this piano, caught under its hoof the same way he is. And when you see your own obsession mirrored back to you like that—in someone else’s face, their voice—the horns jab and stick between your ribs.
“I’m sorry,” I say. “Can’t help you.”
He pulls at his beard, smooths his satin tie.
“Consider it,” he says, and leaves that drawing on the counter with a phone number on the back. “Good luck, young man,” he says.
One A.M. that same night, I check that Eleanor is asleep. She’s rolled over on her side, somehow embracing every pillow on the bed. The book beside her is open to a page that reads: “successfully nurturing a new life is a consummate art.”
I crawl out and go to the piano. In the dark, the smell of the rosewood seems stronger—musky. I take the pile of sheet music out of the compartment under the bench seat. The red-stoned brooch is there on top of the music, I hold it up in the little bit of light and imagine myself, for just a minute, going from city to city—the way that girl Nadia does. Each one of them is different, each one of them has a sound.
I put Satie’s Gnossiennes on the music rack and start to play as soft as I can. For all my practicing, I’m still not a match for this piano. My fingers slip over the ivory. The strange chords get bungled under my hands. I take the opening passages slower and slower, until I’m hitting one note at a time. It gets a little easier. At first, it sounds like a bunch of random tones. The new ones have nothing to do with the ones before. But I keep going, and a pattern starts to form. The pattern slowly becomes a melody. It’s a little chaotic, but steady in its own way. My fingers become steadier too, like finding a string that leads you home—the path isn’t completely clear, but I can see that it’s been crossed before.
About halfway into the first piece, I think I start to get what Satie was saying about him being young—about his music being young. I feel like I’m finding things in every phrase—discovering things even in the rests. The themes of this song feel like reaching and wanting. Every time the chords find their way—resolve into what they seem to be reaching for—some note vanishes, or some new note comes in. I find myself falling into this crumbling. I play for hours.
I get a text from Eleanor while I’m at the shop: “You better think of a better name quick. Betty-Carla is breaking out of here.”
She tells me one of her coworkers is driving her to the hospital, so I should meet her there. I speed home to get our hospital bag and the blank baby book, bookmarked where I’m supposed to put footprints. I fly around the house, collecting last-minute supplies. Heading out the door, I realize I’ve left my keys on Eleanor’s dresser. And on my way back to the bedroom, I see that the living room is empty.
The Mathushek is gone.
A bolt of panic punches me in the hollow of my throat. I look around. Everything else is in the exact place it was when I left for work: bookshelves against the wall, television on its stand, even the piano bench still tucked away in the corner of the room.
There’s a part of me that wants to call the police, but what would I tell them? I stand there, in the middle of my own house like someone lost. I have to go to my wife.
Driving to the hospital, I think of the money, of course, and the car I’d hoped to buy—something safe and beautiful, maybe European. But it isn’t those things that really worry me. It’s the sense of some pattern of my life—a vital one: forming and then falling away.
There are so many possibilities, I can hardly begin to list them: The Whiskey Man, Cochrane, the guys from the shop. With one eye on the road, I call the contact in my phone for “Whisky Man.” An operator tells me this number is not in service. I call Nadia, the piano tuner, and her voicemail says she’s working a festival in Salzburg till the New Year.
I see the sign on the highway for Sternbauer Farms—a shining red heart of an apple.
I don’t have time for this. Eleanor is probably being admitted. A nurse—some stranger—is tying her into one of those humiliating, backless gowns as she clutches her belly. But what did the doctor say about first pregnancies and long labor? And don’t those nurses know better than I do about breathing through the pain and the proper technique of sacral pressure massage?
I can make this quick.
The orchard looks so different in daylight—less like a misty labyrinth of gnarled wood and more like what it is: a place to take the family to burn off Sunday morning’s donuts. Of course, it’s the end of the season now. A fleet of red wagons are lined up beside a barn/gift shop. A couple dozen picked-over pumpkins are scattered in a field. There’s a chalkboard showing what kind of apples are open for picking. Everything’s crossed off except the “Ruby Nonsuch.” I get out of the Kia and feel the first good chill of the year on my face. I follow the board’s arrow.
Somewhere in the rows of trees is the shed where I first saw the piano. The ground is muddy and cold. As I stride down the hill, past the near-barren branches, I convince myself that the Mathushek is there or it’s decrescendoed out to nothing. I’ll find the shed, check inside, and leave—no matter what I see, at least I’ll know where my piano went. I pick up the pace—decided now—jogging down the slope and squelching mud onto the back of my khakis.
But between the Jonagolds and the Winesaps, I lose my way. With no sign of the shed, I’m out of breath. All I can see are sleeping trees. A thin flurry starts to fall.
In the silence, I hear a grinding sound—a mechanical chewing back beyond the rows. I don’t know what it could be, but it’s the first sign of life I’ve had since I took off into the orchard, so I follow it, running again. The grinding gets louder, punctuated by popping and slamming noises as I go.
I reach the end of the trees and enter a clearing. Standing there is the shed. It’s larger than I remember, and now it’s the epicenter of this noise. As I get closer, I see one of Cochrane’s sons walking briskly around the building with an axe in his hand, one of the mastiffs following.
I chase after him. “Hey, you! Kid who broke my viola!”
He can’t hear me over the din coming from inside the shed.
When I get to the other side, I see a system of conveyor belts—up and down, leading from hopper to bin, past motors and gears and hoses—moving bruised and half-mashed apples through a window high in the side of the shed. Everything smells of sweet rot. Amid the racket and the thickening snow, it takes me a minute, but I think it must be a cider mill. The Cochrane boy is now standing on top of a roof-high platform, in a kind of vat, jabbing down into it with the axe handle.
“Is your father here?” I yell up.
“What do you want?” he yells down, still jabbing.
Something must become dislodged in the vat because the rhythm of the noise changes suddenly, and the boy begins to climb out of the vat and down a ladder.
“I got to talk to your father about the piano,” I say.
He knits up his eyebrows then spits into a tub where apples are bobbing in some kind of steaming bath.
“Adds spice,” he says by way of explanation, then walks into the shed shouting, “Dad!” The big dog slobbers after him.
Cochrane comes out, scratching his forehead with the band of his Patriots skully.
“What’s this crap about a piano?” he says.
“The piano,” I say. “The Mathushek you gave me to sell for you in my shop.”
He pops out his lower lip and shakes his head.
“Look,” I tell him, “I understand maybe you didn’t come by it in a way that was completely legal, but I need to have a direct conversation about this. I don’t have much time, so I’d appreciate it if you’d drop the act.”
“You don’t have time? I’m at work here. I don’t know where the hell you are.”
“See, the piano—it’s gone. It was in my living room this morning, and this afternoon: Ploof. It’s gone.”
“Ploof? I don’t get it. Are you insinuating I stole your piano?”
“Well, no,” I say. “I’m asking if you took back the piano that I was selling. Selling on your behalf, remember?”
“So, you’re insinuating that I stole my own piano.”
“Yes. Well, no. That’s the gist of it, but…”
“A piano. Christ, buddy—lookit my hands” he says, pulling off a pair of tattered work gloves.
His hands are the color of frozen hamburger, fingers swollen and crooked, knuckles bruised and cracked—hands that have worked not artfully, but honestly. They are hands that have worked harder than I ever will.
“You think I play the piano?” he says.
“Probably not,” I say. “But can I just look inside the shed?”
I motion toward the door, open a crack, just fifteen yards behind him. I hear the mastiffs’ hungry growls inside.
“What’s in that shed,” he tells me. “It ain’t for you. You understand?”
His eyes are chiseled down at me. The snow is falling over us in fat flakes.
“No,” I say. “I don’t understand at all.”
I fake him out with a stab step—just like we used to do in marching band—and slip by him. I start dashing toward the shed. I’m almost to the door, when I hear thudding behind me, then feel something hit my ankles: the son. The axe-handle.
I trip and lean through the air to the sound of huge dogs barking—extending just far enough to shove the shed door open. I hit muddy, snowy ground. Nose-first.
What I see when I get up on my knees is so strange that, at first, I don’t even notice the blood dripping from my nostrils.
It’s not exactly a cider mill. Sure, there are plenty of apples coming in on the conveyor belts from outside, but there’s also all this other stuff on the belts. Some of it obviously valuable: watches, a gold chain, some fancy looking dishes. Some of it is just very—well—particular. Like a kid’s stuffed rabbit. Or a not especially masterful painting of a house. All of this stuff is being fed into a series of grinders along with the apples. It gets mashed up into paste, which, as far as I can tell is pumped into another machine—a big box that belches little puffs of smoke. Some kind of oven?
What’s more, there are piles of other things, half pulled apart, hanging around in the corners of the shed. There’s the cracked-open hull of a boat. There’s a heap of snazzy-looking clothes torn to rags. And there’s the Mathusheck. All the keys and the key frame have been pulled out, and the lid has been ripped off its hinges.
I feel a blocky hand clutch my shoulder.
“I told you. This ain’t for you,” I hear Cochrane say.
“We can put it back together,” I say, holding my hand out toward the piano. “If you let me have it back, I can still—it’s still possible.”
“You can what? Sell it?” he says. “I never needed you to sell it anyways. I needed you to want it.”
I try to move toward the Mathusheck, but Cochrane tightens his hold and presses down until my knees nearly buckle. His son braces the head of the axe against my chest.
“I run a complicated business,” Cochrane says, “I’m in what we call the ‘undurables’ trade. All you really need to know is I move things that don’t last. They ain’t meant to last. Get it? For a while, they’re everything. But after, they’re nothing. See?”
On cue, the second son appears with the first, and the boys lift the body of the piano, and grunt past us. I know where they’re headed—out to the conveyor belts that lead into the grinders. I try to move towards them, but Cochrane kneads into my shoulders, and my knees nearly give out.
“What do you get out of this?” I say.
“Cider,” he says, pointing.
Sure enough, there’s a brass spout on the oven-box that is dripping some kind of nacreous liquor into a cask.
“Some people—they try so hard to hold on, it ain’t good for ‘em,” Cochrane says, putting his pointing-finger in my face. “Let us take care of this for you.”
The giant dogs are crouched around me, shaking their heads—jingling the choke collars around their necks.
“I just wanted to get it right,” I say. “Just one perfect time.”
“Don’t you have somewhere to be?” Cochrane asks.
As I trudge back up the hill toward the red wagons and pumpkins, I listen for the the axe striking the Mathushek. I imagine the crack and gong of a dying bull, but all I hear is the sound of my feet in the snow.
I don’t even try to explain the dried blood and the mud on my shirt, or why it’s taken me over an hour to get to the hospital. Eleanor’s understandably mad at me, but it’s too late now to hash it out. Seated on the edge of the bed, the anesthesiologist tells her to bend down as far as she can to stretch apart her vertebrae. I squeeze her hands tight and wish I’d read all those books about pregnancy and parenting and communication. I can only hope she knows how sorry I am.
Eleanor is a hero. After two hours of puke and cold-sweat and blood, we have a daughter. We name her Suzanne, after Eleanor’s grandmother. She is tiny and beautiful—her eyelashes are already nearly a mile long like her mother’s—and she screams. It’s funny, but it’s her screaming that I find the most enchanting. The sound of it is hard won, but surprisingly quiet. Screaming to find her lungs. I listen to this skipping and stretching in her voice—building up and then sinking back into a long quiet—all night in my chair beside the bed and then on the ride back from the hospital. Eleanor stares down at her—both of them in the backseat—and the solo headlight of the Kia rocks along the road.
I open the front door to our house slowly. The piano is still gone, but I hardly have time to think about it. I just help Eleanor swaddle Suzanne and go to the kitchen to get her a glass of water.
By the time I get back to the bedroom, Eleanor is asleep with Suzanne in her arms. I take my daughter up cautiously. I rest her head against my elbow and carry her down the hall. With one hand, I drag the piano bench over in front of the couch. I sit down, open the bench’s lid and see that the music is still there, Satie on top of the stack. Maybe in the morning, I’ll try to tell Eleanor about what I saw in the orchard.
Tonight, I do the only thing I can think to do—with my daughter warm in my arm and the song spread out on the couch—I try to sing her this strange music. She doesn’t wake up, but I can almost hear her singing along with me. Her breathing holds a touch of harmony in it. I sing my melody into her, and she whispers it back to me, down to the deepest part of my ear. Of course, we stumble at first, but after a little while, we find the tune.