Nora Almeida

Pianos

I found the piano on the side of the road on my way home from work. Smooth, honey-colored wood. Abandoned. It was perfect aside from a few scratches and a chipped key, a B on a low octave. I imagined the piano installed in my tiny Brooklyn apartment, adorned with sheet music and antique lamps and potted succulents. How beautiful this piano would look, I thought, looming over the room.  

I played a note, a high F. Then a C-major chord. The notes ricocheted off the concrete sidewalk, hard and clear.  

I pictured the narrow stairwell leading up to my second floor apartment and I made sure no one was looking before I placed my two palms flat against the side of the piano, bent my knees, and pushed, testing its weight. The piano didn’t move.

The next morning, on my way to the subway, it was gone.

Later that week, I saw a teenager carrying a keyboard down the stairs of the W4th Street Subway station in lower Manhattan. He set up between the F and D platforms. I heard him play the opening bars to “Hey Jude” as the train doors were closing. The following day, Ray Charles was on the radio at the grocery store. “The night time is the right time.” I hummed along. My fingers drumming across the surface of a cereal box. I imagined myself at a cocktail bar, picking out a tune on an old upright in the corner. Filling dull rooms with music.

At home, I googled “piano lessons Brooklyn.” I kept the page of results open in my browser for months. I didn’t open any of the links. I didn’t play a note.

*

Between the ages of eight and thirteen, I rode my bike to my piano lesson after school every Thursday. My piano teacher, Val, lived in suburban Rhode Island in a nexus of conjoining culs-de-sac on a street called Dolly Drive, where all of the houses really looked like oversized doll houses. Val’s doll house was blue with cream-colored shutters and a stone walkway and a manicured lawn. Automatic sprinklers at dusk.

Perhaps I’ll tell you about how beautifully Val played and how she always played barefoot. How the music lived somewhere coiled deep inside of her. How when she played she closed her eyes and seemed to float as though part of her, the musical part, wasn’t quite tethered to reality.

When I imagine myself playing now, it’s Val’s hands that I see gliding over the keys.

Val wasn’t, generally, a graceful person. She was what my mother referred to as “a card”— loud and charming and unkempt. She had the low gravelly voice of a smoker, wore oversized sweatpants during our lessons, and drank huge iced coffees from Dunkin Donuts that left rings on her Steinway. No matter the company, Val referred to her husband, who I never met and knew only from the residue of his cigar smoke and the oil spot his truck left in the driveway, as “Georgie.” Val had some grown-up sons who lived at various ages as framed photographs on the walls. During my lessons, Val’s elderly mother, who suffered from dementia, would often wander into the room, smiling in a vacant way that terrified me. Val had a regular music teacher job at St. Elizabeth’s school, so she was probably tired when the time came, in the evenings, to give lessons and take care of her mother. She had a pet parrot named Sal who lived in a cage covered with a torn sheet. Sometimes Sal would make a noise that sounded like a baby crying. Shut up, Sal, she would yell, shaking her iced coffee at him.

None of these things are the things I remember most about Val because Val was obsessed with Disney—the place and the idea and the associated paraphernalia. Obsessed to the extent that this was the defining thing about her. Perhaps this was what prompted her to spend most of her waking hours with small children. Perhaps it was what led her to convince Georgie to purchase a doll house in a neighborhood of doll houses. It was certainly the reason that every September Val and Georgie went to the Magic Kingdom for their wedding anniversary to renew their vows.

One Thursday, Val showed me the album with pictures of her and Georgie getting married over and over and over again under a canopy of fireworks, in front of the magic castle that is the centerpiece of America’s collective imagination. The album was both a document of time passing and a record of an attempt to prevent time from passing.

*

During my lessons, I played the usual pieces that children learn to play. “Moonlight Sonata” and “Für Elise.” Some of the easier Mozart concertos. Val also had me playing from the Disney feature film canon. “A Whole New World” and “Colors of the Wind.” I played imperfectly and with great difficulty. I didn’t have what my mother referred to as “natural ability,” a phrase she used to describe the way my sister could pick out the notes of a jingle or popular song after hearing it on the radio.

Over years of accumulated Thursdays, I learned to really play only five or six songs. A modest repertoire. And while the vast realm of music remained inaccessible to me, I could eventually play these few pieces well enough that I would be summoned by my mother during gatherings of neighbors and grandparents. She plays this one beautifully, my mother would say, as she listened, for the millionth time, to“Für Elise.”

I would never be Sam from Casablanca or Billy Joel or Kenny G. (who Val revered to the extent that his framed, autographed headshot hung alongside images of her children)—this coterie being the realm of famous pianists that I was aware of at age ten.

But I could, for fifteen minutes, convincingly pretend to be a pianist in the making.

*

About a year after I saw the abandoned piano on the sidewalk, I impulsively purchased an electric piano on the internet. The electric piano came with its own little music stand and a silver foot pedal. I also ordered The Great American Songbook: Piano Music for Beginners. When the electric piano arrived, I regretted purchasing it and avoided playing it. I regarded it as a strange and exotic houseguest that I was both enamored of and, knowing that any direct interaction would expose my imperfections, skittish around.

One afternoon, I finally sat at the piano and opened The Great American Songbook. I stumbled through a few bars of “Don’t Get Around Much Anymore,” clumsy and uncertain. Thought I’d visit the club. Got as far as the door.

I stopped playing. I’m sorry, can I start over?

I closed my eyes and tried to remember what Val had me do at the start of my lessons, but all I could think about was my bicycle and the sprinklers coming on and the framed portrait of Mickey Mouse mounted above Val’s mantle. The crack of ice melting in her iced coffee. Sal, the sad parrot, wailing. And the comforting sound of SUVs pulling into the orderly suburban driveways of life-sized doll houses.

*

The performance in my head always starts with a bow and ends with an ovation. The interval is precision. Allegro. Adagio. Each note is transported cleanly from the page to the atmosphere. A refrain finds its way to the rafters where it ricochets and returns: a drop of water falling into a clear pool.  

There is no real performance. There’s only the empty space where one could be. And it remains my greatest wish to inhabit this liminal space that is the possibility of music.

Where Val, ensconced in a Disney hotel room, struggles with the zipper of a wedding dress.

And her elderly mother, who has no obligation to remember me, pretends she does because she is afraid I am a person she is supposed to know.

Where the Magic Kingdom towers above the scene like some aberration.

*

When I was twelve, my father decided to acquire a piano, which I’m certain had nothing to do with me. He found our piano in the classifieds section of the local newspaper, which he annotated each week with circles and scribbles. My father had either determined that the piano was a worthy investment, or, more likely, he imagined himself to be the sort of man who owned a piano.

My father would, he told my mother, move it himself. He solicited the help of “a couple of guys” who were frequently in his employ and who all had the vacant expression and marred clothing befitting transient, out of work, house painters.

I don’t know how they wrestled the piano into my father’s plumbing van, but I remember when they arrived with it at our house. My mother and sister and I sat on the staircase just inside the foyer, a rapt and silent audience, carefully tucked out of the way. We watched as my father and the house painters plotted their course. They would negotiate the piano down the front walkway and up the stairs of the porch and through the narrow doorway and along the hall and into the living room, and, finally, into a designated corner that my mother had cleared of furniture and vacuumed earlier that morning.

The truck bay screeched and groaned as it yielded the piano. Followed by the muddy thud of keys accidentally depressed.

When the piano was navigated down the ramp of the plumbing truck, it didn’t look like a piano at all. It was covered in blankets and bits of old carpeting, which seemed familiar, and I realized had, in a prior life, covered the floor of my sister’s bedroom. The piano was bound with a number of ropes, which the house painters tugged on and argued about.

The ropes were eventually integrated into some kind of pulley mechanism which conveyed the piano slowly down the front walk and up the stairs but not quite into the house because the piano wouldn’t, it turned out, fit through the door.

My memory of the scene, at this point, turns unreliable. Too many possible endings jumble what did and could have happened.

Hold it, my father probably shouted. HOLD IT.

*

Val and Georgie’s real wedding was at St. Elizabeth’s parish and was much like a regular five o’clock mass with extra tears and flowers. This was before Val taught music in the adjoining school, before Val taught piano lessons to anyone. She had just graduated from the conservatory and believed that she would be a famous pianist. Georgie believed this too and it was like a secret they held between them, this image of the people they would become.

Their wedding reception was supposed to be in Val’s mother’s backyard, when Val’s mother lived somewhere else and wasn’t yet old, but it rained and so the wedding party crowded into the living room of the house where Val had grown up. There was hardly space for dancing.

This scene now replaced by an accumulation of Magic Kingdoms, like an early draft, overwritten.

Stopping mid-note, during a flawed performance: I’m sorry, can I start over?

*

On the day my father brought the piano home, the walkway in front of our house was a confusion of bodies and ropes and tape measures. The piano was suspended between the truck and the front door like time itself. Beads of sweat ran off my father’s forehead. The house painters’ arms trembled.

Invisible waves of sound penetrated the atmosphere and spread across our front yard. Not a melody, but more like a steam valve wrested open, the whine of something unloosed.

HOLD IT, my father shouted.

The house painters faced each other on either side of the piano. Their arms were outstretch as though, if it weren’t for the impediment, they might embrace. My father studied the doorframe. I held my breath.

The piano was like an overgrown and swaddled metronome. It swung between failure and possibility. In my mind, it is still suspended there—liminal and sincere and apologetic.

Like a rogue arrangement, trying to resolve itself differently.

Nora Almeida

Nora Almeida is a writer and librarian. Her essays have appeared in Entropy, The Offing, Essay Daily, Ghost Proposal, The Normal School, Diagram, and other journals. She lives in Brooklyn, works at the New York City College of Technology, and volunteers at Interference Archive.