(April 10, 2000)
When Spitzer arrived at my door, instead of Dobbs, I almost gave him money and sent him away. It was Monday and Dobbs had promised to some on Tuesday. “Sometime in the afternoon,” he’d said on the phone, “so I might walk around back if you don’t come to the bell. You might be doing yard work.” I almost said, “small chance of that”, but remembering my daughter Dora’s stern warning, “don’t inflict your moroseness on others”—which is a direct quote and no way for a daughter to talk to her aging father—I held my tongue.
“This is my rush season,” Dobbs went on, “Easter season is a busy time.” He spoke as if I were lucky to have him come at all, as if he hadn’t tuned our piano three times a year for two decades, spending more time in our living room than most of my law partners. It was as if were imposing on him! Dora tells me I’ve become increasingly short tempered and impatient with people. She simply doesn’t realize that her mother always dealt with troublesome, irritating things like piano tuners. I’ve always been short-tempered and impatient. It just shows more, now that Sarah’s dead.
“See you Tuesday.” Dobbs’ affected, half-British accent was beginning to annoy me considerably. “THIS Tuesday,” he said again, “in the afternoon.” His needless repetition seemingly implied I’d grown absent-minded in my widower head. So I replied, ending the conversation, “I won’t forget, Dobbs. I lost my wife, not my mind.”
I’m glad Dora didn’t hear me, though I imagine Dobbs telling one of my neighbors, while tightening whatever piano tuners tighten with their little tool, “old George Martin is getting testy since his wife died. Just the other day on the phone….” Then that neighbor might run into Dora on the street during the time she and Kelly were visiting and say—with the best of intentions, I don’t doubt—“I don’t mean to interfere. dear, but I think you should know what Mr. Dobbs, the piano tuner, told me about ‘poor George’….”
Sarah had been dead for only 149 days on that bright and clear April day when Spitzer had shown up and already I was ‘poor George’ in the mind of almost everyone—my daughter and granddaughter most especially. “Morose”, “irritable”, “short-tempered”, “forgetful”, “rambling around alone in that big house”—oh, I could imagine what they were saying, mostly because Dora said it directly to me. When she and Kelly had come at Christmas, she told me I needed to start ‘getting our’ and ‘doing things’. She said, ridiculously, “when spring comes you can work in the yard”, knowing better than anyone that I’ve never been the one to work outside. That had been Sarah’s domain.
“I’m a lawyer,” I said to her, “not a gardener.” But she just chucked and shook her head, replying, “an a ill-tempered one at that.”
Another time, on the phone line between Columbus and New Haven (fiber optics at work that I cannot comprehend) Dora said, “you should have some friends over.”
“I have no friends,” I told her, meaning every word.
“Of course, you do,” she told me, after a long pause, “that’s just not true. You and mother had lots of people over all the time. You lost your best friend, Daddy, but not your only one. For God’s sake, offer someone a scotch. It’ll come back to you, I promise.”
I was on the verge of telling her that ‘those people’ were really Sarah’s friends, not mine, but luckily realized that she probably had a list of things pointing to my clinical depression and that might just cause her to call one of the psychiatrists who lived on my block. She even mentioned two of them as she rattled off people I could ‘have over’, if only I would. Meddlesome adult children, I believe, are God’s punishment for the lust of your youth.
When I opened to door to Spitzer and said, “May I help you?”, he handed me a tan card with the deaf alphabet on the front—drawings of 26 hands in the letter positions. Even though the card said it was printed by the American School for the Deaf in West Hartford and was not for sale, I reached for my wallet. So, the real reason I almost sent Spitzer away wasn’t that he wasn’t Dobbs and it wasn’t Tuesday and it wasn’t afternoon: it was because he was deaf.
Spitzer started shaking his head and making little sounds unlike any I’d heard since Dora had guinea pigs—squeaks, whistles and grunts—which indicated I had misunderstood.
“What then…?” I began. He twisted his hand as if miming how to turn a door knob. I’ve never been a man who dealt well with confusion and was about to say, impatiently, “I don’t understand sign”, when Spitzer pointed to the card and I realized he meant for me to turn it over. On the back, in penciled block letters, as if those who cannot hear can barely write, it said: I AM SPITZER, DOBBS SENT ME TO TUNE YOU PIANO.
“Ah,” I said, turning away from him to open the door wider, “why didn’t you say so?” Then I turned quickly to face him, my neck burning, and said, with slow, exaggerated diction, “COME…ON…IN….”
Spitzer nodded and squeaked, showing what I imagined to be gratitude. He was inside the door and the door was being shut behind us when I belatedly realized I’d forgotten, in the confusion, that Dobbs had said Tuesday afternoon and was Monday, late morning. Besides which, the very idea of a deaf piano tuner finally registered in my brain as absurd and that this man might be a burglar. I was glad, for once, Sarah wasn’t there to be in danger or to know I’d might have let a thief in by the front door. I tried to decide whether to bolt out the door and go for help or try to overpower him. I’m nearly 66, but I haven’t smoked in twenty years, drink only one scotch before dinner and beat men half my age in racquetball. Besides which, Spitzer wasn’t much bigger than the 12 year old Vietnamese paperboy. All that was running through my mind—LOCAL BARRISTER TWARTS THIEF-TUNER—the headline would have read—when Spitzer rummaged through a pocket and handed me another deaf alphabet card. It was curled, dirty, much handled. The same black script said: BEETOVERN WAS DEAF, BUT HE KNEW ABOUT PIANOS.
“You must need this a lot,” I said, mindlessly.
Spitzer nodded, snorting a laugh. He looked a little like Al Pacino—swarthy and Italian—but his eyes were blue, round as poker chips, and his dirty-blond hair curled in loose knots from beneath a Red Sox baseball hat. His clothes were the work uniform—brown shirt and slacks—of Sears repairmen and he wore a carpenter’s apron packed full of the kind of intricate and medieval tools Dobbs carried in a little box Sarah once told Dobbs looked like Father Allison’s communion kit. “I’m the high priest of pianos,” Dobbs replied (or so she told me, giggling like a school girl) “the Cardinal of the keyboard.” Sarah liked Dobbs immensely, even when he said such inane things as that.
I was staring at Spitzer, about to tell him he reminded me of a cross between Al Pacino and someone I couldn’t quite place, when he handed me another card that said: A LITTLE LIKE HARPO MARX, BUT PART OF THAT IS MY BEING MUTE.
Before I finished reading the card, Spitzer had found the piano, moving to it without me noticing him go, and had leaned his head just above the keyboard, playing scales with his left hand. He turned toward me grinning, then grimaced and shivered. I must admit that the piano sounded off to me and both Sarah and Dora consider me the most tone-deaf individual they had ever encountered. In Sarah’s case, he being dead, I will eternally hold that dubious honor. Dora, I can still hope, will someday meet someone less musical than me.