On a Sunday afternoon I sat at my kitchen table with a snack and heard thumps and footsteps in the stairwell. I stepped out and saw someone on the landing between the second and third floor. In a flashback to the summer, I was pulling a hand truck up the same steps loaded with a very heavy file cabinet while my friend Lee helped to lift it up over each riser.
“Looks as if you’re moving a piano,” I said, about the same as I took a closer look and realized they were moving a piano.
Wrapped in moving blankets and rope, a small grand lay on one side wedged between the banister and the outside wall, a bearded twenty-something guy straining against it, and a red headed woman on the upstairs edge pulling on two thick straps attached to a stretcher beneath.
“Could you use a hand?” I asked.
“No. We’re OK. … Well. Yeah, maybe so,” he said.
I stepped closer to him and saw there were two other people, a tall bald guy was giving directions on how to maneuver the instrument, and a stocky young woman with curly black hair, glasses, and a flannel shirt moved to one side to get a better mechanical advantage.
“It’s stuck,” the bearded guy said.
“You’ll need to lift it up to slide your end over. Then it should come one up,” the bald guy said.
Before I could find a place to grab hold, he and the red-headed woman coordinated their hefting and pivoted the piano past the binding point with the outside wall.
“There!” the bald guy said. “Now it should come straight on up.”
“All right, ready?” the read-head asked everyone.
I reached over the bearded guy and put my hands squarely against the top
edge of the piano and pushed along with everyone else. The moving apparatus clattered, and the piano went several inches up the incline of the steps. Stepping backward and up, the red-head squatted and counted for the next heave. It took the piano several more inches up. With a few repetitions, it made it to the top of the steps, pivoted on its side from down slanting to level, and then horizontally.
My neighbor L. was supervising the entire operation, with a sort of helpless astonishment on his face.
“Well, you’ve just proved it can be done,” I said to L. and for the hearing of the others as well.
“What’s that?” he asked.
“That a piano will go up these steps, and to the third floor no less. I have a piano and had thought about bringing it here, but had talked myself out of it.”
“Well, I just hope the landlady doesn’t kick me out,” L. said. “You play?” he asked, the way amateur musicians sometimes ask that question, with the mixture of a bit of contempt, surprise, and delight.
“Yes,” I said, with the thought crossing my mind that he might ask me to come up and play sometime. He did not.
I asked the movers if they had a card, and the red-headed woman, felt in her shirt and jeans pockets, but came up empty-handed.
“I might have one in the truck. Come on down.”
I followed her out to the front where a beat-up pickup sat with two ramps sitting on the driveway behind it and a steel rack bolted into the middle of the bed. She rummaged in the cab, but again could not find one.
“I’ve got a piece of paper, I’ll write the number here,” she said.
She handed it to me.
“You do servicing and tuning?”
“He does it all,” she said, referring to her husband, the bald guy.
“I may be in touch at some point,” I said.
The possibility of having a musical instrument here had seemed totally out of the question. Meeting these people somehow dispelled that and created a space where the idea might grow to a reality. Were the keyboard to materialize, then passers by could look into the 2nd and 3rd floor windows at night when the lights are on and see two people at their art, one above the other.
The next day I came in from work and listened as I climbed the stairs to see if L. was playing. No sounds. Either the walls and floor were thick enough to insulate the sound, or he really wasn’t playing.
The day after that, I didn’t think about the piano up over my head. But when I entered the building, I could hear music. I walked up the stairs, putting my feet where I knew the risers wouldn’t squeak and tried to make out what it was. It was a piano, not well tuned, and someone was playing… what was it? I know that piece! The middle movement of Sonatine, a little minuet in D-flat. In this Francophonic musical moment I re-lived a thread of life, in an instant, like the flash of one’s life in the moment of death–college friends infatuated with 20th century French art music, an introduction to Ravel, getting the sheet music by mail order, late nights at a practice room piano, struggling with technique. I realized I had not experienced the sweet loss of self in the art, not touched a keyboard, in months. In the apartment I slid open the music file, thumbed through to the Rs, and pulled out a collection of Ravel compositions. Excitedly, I found the piece and confirmed it was what I had heard.
The music stopped. Maybe he got tired of it. Maybe he was worried about disturbing his neighbors beside and below. I wanted to hear more. But I had to be content with studying the marked-up score in front of me and imagining the keys beneath my fingers.