The Day I Burned a Piano

I stand in the empty living room, staring at the piano.  The gathering cold of autumn seeps into the unheated farmhouse, the temperature penetrating and raw.  After my parents died, first my mother, then my father, I have sold both their suburban home and now this weekend getaway.  I had asked Phil, the caretaker who lives at the end of the driveway, to get rid of all the furniture and housewares.  I thought the job was done, but then he calls me about the piano.  Nobody wants it. 

“Whatcha wanna do with it, Missy?” asks Phil.  The closing is in a couple days, ain’t it?  Gotta get it out of here.”  He stands next to me, wearing a stained Carhart jackets and cracked work boots.  His cheek bulges with a tobacco chaw.  Phil lifts a cup to his lips and spits a brown swill into his cup.  Its splash makes me flinch. 

The piano isn’t worth anything.  It’s a  player piano my mother got for my father so he could participate in music, do more than just sing in his beautiful tenor voice.  He’d insert a paper roll of music with punched holes corresponding to the vented holes in the motor.  The motor turned the roll and blew through the aligned holes to activate the piano keys.  The keys would dance along on their own, and my father would lustily sing his favorite country tunes while his fingers hovered over the keys. 

The player piano was the family joke.  Everyone sang along as we took turns at the piano bench pretending to play Darlin’ Clementine or On Top of Old Smokie.  The ruse wasn’t so amusing when my mother died and then my father’s thoughts began to falter.  And then the paper rolls got misaligned with the motor.  The  piano began to spew out musical gibberish that matched my father’s deteriorating mind.  

Heavy seconds tick by.   Phil breaks the silence, “Let’s burn it.”

His voice echoes in the room emptied of life.  Weak afternoon sun animates a veil of drifting dust motes.  A tendril of clumped lint hangs from the overhead fan.  One moth and a couple of flies lie dead on the windowsill.   I wonder why flies always die with their little feet in the air.  The moth lies flat on its stomach.

Phil coughs.  “You got a better idea?”

Who burns a piano?  I reach out to run my fingers up and down the keys.  Some have yellowed, some are cracked and one of the black keys sits at an odd angle, like a bad tooth that has to come out.  I plink away at chopsticks, the only song I know, and even I can tell the piano is hopelessly out of tune.  When did my father last play it?  Five years at least.    

“How can you burn a piano?” I ask Phil.  “There’s wire, metal and rubber in there.” 

I’m stalling.  Phil would certainly know how to burn a piano.     He works at a nearby factory, but on weekends he helped my father learn how to farm.  Phil knows how many cows to buy, what kind feed to buy, when to send the cows to the butcher, how to back up a trailer.  When a cow dies in the barn, Phil knows how to get rid of the bloated corpse.  He can snake a toilet but also knows how to fix the snake.  He is a boots-on-the-ground problem-solver. 

“Hell, there ain’t nothing that gas won’t burn.”

“Phil, my father loved that piano.”  A couple of months ago when I first started to clear out their possessions, I was an enthusiastic thrower.  Old yearbooks.  Gone.  School artwork. Gone.  Family photo albums.  Sent to my brother.  The piano is the last item on my check list.  I thought I was ready to start fresh, but now, maybe not yet.

“I don’t get you fancy folks.  This piano don’t work no more.  It’s worthless piece of shit.  What’s your plan?”

Phil is always one for the practical point.  My father loved working with Phil, had grown to love his rough language, and was in fact proud that he unleahsed a string of expletives in his presence, a sign of acceptance.  Something Phil never did with my parents’ suburban friends.  Something he never did with me.  When my father arrived on the weekend,  Phil would hand him a list of chores.  I remember my father wearing his trademark crisp khakis and cable knit sweater, shoveling manure out of the barn while Phil supervised from the fence.  “Ralph, put that shit over there,” he’d bark and then spit.

After a career as a salesman with demanding clients, my father appreciated uncomplicated physical labor.  After his life of physical labor, Phil relished his role as supervisor. 

I stare at the piano, reliving memories of rollicking family sing-alongs alternating with the painful dissolution of an active mind.  To salvage the first, I have to banish the second.  

Who burns a piano?  Well why not?  I turn to Phil and nod agreement.         

Phil yanks the piano from the corner, not realizing it’s plugged in.  The cord whiplashes from the wall hits him in the thigh.   “Fuck,” he yells and then turns to apologize.

“Phil, just let ‘er rip,” I say. 

Phil waltzes the piano across the room.  “Phil be careful,” I warn.  “Don’t scratch the floor.”

“Ah hell, that scratch was already there.  Another one ain’t gonna make any difference.  Rug’s going to go there.  Get those piano rolls, they’ll be good kindling.  I’ll bring the truck around.”  Phil shimmies the piano through the kitchen door and then onto the ramp between the back steps and the truck bed.  I help him push, close enough to smell him, but he smells earthy and good, not what I expected.

I gather up piano rolls as they fall off the top of the lurching piano and follow Phil’s tire tracks across the newly frosted field, up the rise just beyond the barn.  The setting sun splays orange and crimson over the horizon, bracketed by banks of cobalt clouds.  I watch Phil wrestle with the piano, waiting to see if he needs my help.  Back and forth, it is stuck on something at the lip of the truck.  On the count of three, he gives it a grunting, expletive-laden heave.  It somersaults in the air once, skids down the side of the hill and rests perfectly, peaceful in the pasture.  Phil reaches for the gas can.

The angled sun hits the piano just right, gives it a burnished glimmer, as if it sits in the spotlight waiting for the concert pianist to walk out on stage.  I tiptoe down the hill and place the bench in front of the piano.  

Phil unscrews the gas can.  I imagine seemy father walk from backstage, take his seat, flick his coat tails, and settle in on the bench.  My mother beams from the front row.  The gas sloshes.

“Phil, can you hold off for a minute?”  Phil has started to swing the can. 

“Why ya want this thing for anyway?  It’s a fake piano, ain’t it?  A plug-in piano.”

“It’s just that…”

“I got something better than a shit piano.”  Phil puts the can down and points to the barn.   See them stones down there at the base?”

I have forgotten the foundation, my parents prized project.  They covered the cinderblock with stones, different shapes and colors, some grey, some white and shades in between, arranged like an interlocking jigsaw puzzle.

“You father did that, your mother helped too.  Dug up all the stones from the pasture, lugged them back over here.  I might’ve helped them a little bit, taught them how to mix cement to glue them in place.  Never seen a pair work like that, digging and lugging.  That’s the kind of shit work I even turn down.  Just to make the bottom of a barn look better.  Thought it was a dumb project.”

I see my parents, each wearing a straw hat, bending over in the field, doing work they would never do in the suburbs, the kind their friends thought peculiar.

“Now I like them stones,” “says Phil.  “Told them it was better than some pansy-ass garden.  Must be a ton of stones in that wall.  It’s permanent.  Will be there forever.”

I nod at Phil, then raise my hand as he starts to swing the gas can again.  I go down to the piano, open the bench, rustle around inside and am pleased to find the roll for Tennessee Waltz.   When my father played this song, he would sing the first verse at the piano and then spring up to waltz with my mother. One time a dance party erupted.  I danced with Phil, awkwardly  He put up his hand to guide me and I felt his rough, corrugated hands.  When I danced with my father his suburban hands felt just as calloused.  One fingernail was missing.   

I tuck the roll of music into my purse and pat its side. 

“Phil, Okay I’m ready now.  Let’s put on a fucking good show.”

We smile at each other as Phil hands me a gas can.  He sees me looking at two plastic chairs sitting at the top of the rise.  “Yeah,  the wife thinks I’m a pyrotechno-maniac, but hell, she likes a good fire.  Tried to burn those mattresses that you wanted me to get rid of, but then it started raining, so it wasn’t much of a show.  Let’s get this piano burnin,’ put up a hell of a blaze and it’ll finish off the other stuff.  Whatever doesn’t burn I’ll bury with the backhoe.“

I help Phil stuff music rolls inside the piano.   I unspool some and wrap the perforated music around the legs of the bench, around the music stand and then around the whole piano.  I want a good blaze.   I jab some of the rolls under the piano and arrange others in pyramids at the base.  I find the piano roll for Red River Valley, another favorite, and add it to my purse. 

Phil works alongside me, drenching the piano.  The smell of gas is overwhelming, and I look up to brush back a strand of hair.  The setting sun is reflected in the windows of the house.  The dank, dismal house glows golden. 

Phil’s wife arrives carrying another bucket so we’d all have a place to sit.  Phil works quickly around the piano, flicking matches toward the gas-drenched paper.    The fire leaps upwards.  Phil holds his wife’s hand, and I see his foot nestled against hers.   Sparks blossom into the air and gently flow down like a fountain.   Phil flicks one out of my hair.  We move our buckets back from the edge. 

I stretch my hands to the fire’s spreading warmth.  A plume of black smoke rises from the side.  “Phil, the keys are coated with some sort of plastic.  Lots of felt in there too.  Don’t know how that’ll burn.”

“More gas.   Mother, did you bring them milk cartons?”  He turns to me. “She collects the empties from her school cafeteria job.  We use them to make firebombs.  You’ll love this.  It’s going to be great.” 

Phil pours gas into the waxed containers and crimps the tops.  I grab one and fill it up.  “Whoa there Missy, don’t overdo it.  You don’t want to blow us up now.  Put two glugs in.  Don’t need no more than that.  When you toss it, you wanna get it to land near the pedals, get the fire going at the base.”

Phil’s first toss goes wide right, misses the piano completely.  I give mine more of an arc and it bounces on the top, then tumbles down the front and lands at the foot of the piano.   Phil matches my perfect toss.   I watch my little carton.  At first there is nothing and then a sudden whoosh as the gas ignites.  The flames lick up the side and climb into the piano guts.  The fire is blazing now.   I hear a pop, a twang, and then a jumble of noise.  “Phil, the piano wires are popping off in the heat.”  

“Best music I’ve ever heard from that piano,” says Phil.  The piano sputters and then collapses, sending up another spray of sparks.  Phil and his wife join me when I clap.    

Embers emerge at the base of the slumping piano.  Phil turns to me and spits a blob that splats close to my sandal, but I let it be.  “You had good parents, ya know?  When I heard rich people had bought the farm, like it was a hobby, when I am busting my ass at the factory, I thought it’d be totally screwed up, but your parents – nobody like them ever respected me.  We were friends.  How ‘bout that?”

“Phil, why didn’t you come to the church service down in Chicago?  I hope you knew you were invited.”

I thought of my father’s funeral in the fancy suburban church with soaring stained-glass windows, overflowing bouquets of flowers, a congregation dressed in coats and ties, a minister intoning a lifeless blessing, listing my father’s accomplishments, that he was a golf champion  and sang in the choir.  He didn’t think to mention callouses and a broken fingernail.  I’d spent days organizing music, flowers, food, housing for out-of-town relatives.  Everyone said the same thing, that it was beautiful, and that I was a good daughter. 

 “Ah hell, the wife and I, we’re not church goers.  Besides, I don’t own a suit.”

He pulls a flask from his jacket.  “Your father gave me fancy scotch in this fancy flask.  I never drank this shit before.  I only ever drink beer.  I’ve been saving it for a special occasion.   Now seems ‘bout right time.  Let’s drink ‘em a toast.  Yes, we was friends.”

He tosses back a gulp and passes the flask to me.  I want to wipe the lip of it, get rid of any residue of his chaw, but I tilt my head back.  The burn in my throat is both raw and comforting. I pass the flask to his wife.  Together we lift the flask, “To Ralph and Fanny.”

The sun sets, the fire sets, and the chill sets in.  We pick up our buckets and walk back to the empty house.  

Posted in ,

Leave a Comment