(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, her being dead, I will eternally hold that dubious honor. Dora, I can still hope, will someday meet someone less musical than me.
Spitzer continued to unnerve me. It had all happened too rapidly, like when a train suddenly enters a tunnel and the moving scene of trees and distant houses is replaced in the window by bricks and pipes flying by in artificial light at a dizzying speed. If I deal poorly with confusion, transitions undo me. I practiced law for thirty-seven years and was in a courtroom exactly two times—once in my first year and once in mu last year as an attorney. All of my partners and some of our associates showed up for my half-an-hour of agony before a judge in a courtroom about nine months before I retired. I later learned they had a pool going as to how many times I would say “Ah…” before answering a question from the judge. The winner, I was told, won $800 for 30 minutes of entertainment and 43 “Ah’s”.
It was like that for me the night Sarah died. It was not so much her death that left me helpless and vacant—it was the rapid series of transitions before that last one. We knew about her heart, after all, and being sensible people, had discussed it enough that the dying wasn’t the shock—it was moving toward the death that undid me.
I remember my dream that night. It was a dream of a green, lush, lonely place where I waited, expecting others to arrive. I was jarred from that dream by a run-away train plunging into a tunnel. Sarah was racked by gasps and convulsions. Pulled to consciousness, I knew she was dying and my only thought was the wish that it was not so ugly. I called 911 and my neighbor Paul and both the EMT’s and Paul found me holding Sarah’s shuttering body in the blinking lights from the ambulance parked outside our bedroom window. I was told by Paul that he had to pull me away so the medical experts could lift Sarah to a gurney and carry her down the stairs and out into the first snow of winter. Paul forced me into an overcoat but neglected to find me shoes, so I rode to Yale-New Haven Hospital in my pajamas and barefoot. I don’t remember what I said to Paul and the EMT’s or said to the people milling around in the Emergency Room or to the green-clad doctor who met me in the subdued light of the surgery waiting room. I don’t remember if I said anything at all as I walked into a stark room between the doctor with maroon stains on his greens to say goodbye to my good and faithful wife of nearly 40 years, and I certainly don’t remember what I said to Dora when Paul handed me the phone to break the news of her mother’s death to her.
But when Paul left me in some waiting room or another, near some door or another in that too large hospital, it was like the train had come out of tunnel and stopped at a station to take on and let off passengers. So, as clearly as I remembered the bran flakes and rye toast I had for breakfast this morning, I remember the conversation I had with an ancient black man who was sweeping the waiting room just before dawn.
I was watching Amos—his name was Amos Gray, I learned from the Yale-New Haven employee badge he wore on his shirt. There was his name: Amos Gray, below a picture of a much younger man. I was watching him sweep and he was sweeping, watching me.
“You don’t have any shoes on, mister,” he said, pointing to my bare feet with his broom. “And it’s snowing outside.”
No one had mentioned it before and I was surprised at being shoeless and without a wife. “I am a man of strict habits,” I told Amos, thinking it would explain everything. “I don’t behave appropriately when things happen too fast.”
The old man stopped sweeping and leaned on his broom. “Me too, mister,” he said. “Me too.” He handed me his broom and told me to watch it for a moment. The wood of that broom was real and remarkable in my hands. I never remembered touching such smooth wood. Then he came back with a pair of hospital socks—those with little rubber grooves on the bottom—and a pair of paper slippers. He knelt down before me and gently took m feet and covered them with socks and slipper. I helped him stand up, realizing he was probably older than me.
“Thank you,” I said, “that was one of the kindness things anyone has ever done for me.”
He nodded and smiled, revealing that he had several teeth missing. I remembered he smelled of cigarettes and cheap cologne—Old Spice, perhaps. “I’m sure you’ve had lots of kindness in your life.”
“Oh, yes,” I replied, tears finally blurring my eyes, “oh, yes….”
Then Paul was there to take me home. As he drove me to my Sarah-less house, I thought of Amos. The picture on his badge was the man he’d been when he first started sweeping the sad leavings of that waiting room. He was a man after my own heart—a man of strict habits.
All of that had been in November—during the first big snow. Dora and Kelly came for the funeral, of course (an hour of great music and much incense at Christ Episcopal Church, attended by several hundred people, and a cremation somewhere else, most likely, by no one) and they stayed with me until after Thanksgiving. Christmas brought them back for another five days and now it was almost Easter and another visit to this empty house, empty without Sarah.
Almost two years ago now, when my partners at Martin/LeSur/Markham and Leland—all 16 of them—bought me out for a king’s ransom with the permission to retain my name for the firm, I told Sarah, “tax law is too much with me.” And she replied, “Maybe now we can measure out our lives in some way besides waiting for Dora and Kelly to visit.” But we both knew we were just talking, certain that my ‘early’ retirement at 64 was because of her health and heart and we wouldn’t be traveling or ‘doing the town’ much as we’d be spending time together on St. Ronan Street, waiting for her to die. But we had a rich, warm laugh about that, none-the-less knowing it was true enough to notice, but not so true to cause bitterness. Dora and Kelly’s visits and phone calls and letters and emails (when we could figure out how to access them) were part of the quiet routine Sarah and I shared and enjoyed. A year and a half after my retirement, they were all I loved for.
The phone was ringing—had been ringing for some time since Sarah and I never had an answering machine. I was staring out the window of Spitzer’s train and heard the phone only in the back of my mind. He raised his head from the piano, removed his baseball hat and pointed to the kitchen and the ringing phone, squeaking.
“The phone?” I asked and Spitzer nodded. I started to go but turned back to inquire, “How did you….”
Spitzer waved his hand in the air, not unlike a hula dancer, then pointed to his head, his face, and touched his chest. I suppose that meant he had felt the vibrations somehow, but I was not convinced or comforted.
“George, it’s Dobbs…did my man get there?”
“Spitzer? Yes, of course. He’s there then?”
“Quite something, isn’t he? I found him by chance—dumb luck, one might say.” Then he laughed.
“Is he really deaf?”’
“Certainly. Didn’t he show you his cards? But I know what you mean. He can be, how shall I say it…disarming?”
“Dobbs, I just don’t….I mean…”
“You needn’t whisper, George. He’s quite deaf for all his…uh…gifts. ‘Deaf as a doornail’, as they say.”
“It’s ‘dead as a doornail’, Dobbs. And why didn’t you…”
“I think it can be both, George, but don’t get tedious. He’s a remarkable tuner and as soon as I’m through here—down the block at the Greenburg’s, in fact—I’ll come there and make sure….”
“I’m not being ‘tedious’, Dobbs, it’s just that…”
“Just what, George? I am sorry of course, for not ringing you warn you but….”
Dobbs went on to tell me how Mrs. Greenberg’s piano was a mess—a ‘proper mess’—and how Spitzer was quite remarkable and how it was Easter, after all his rush season. I stopped listening at some point, having added ‘tedious’ to ‘testy’ in the litany Mrs. Greenburg would tell Dora when they ran into each other at Prime Market or on St. Ronan Street. When Dobbs stopped talking (praise be to my Anglo-Catholic God!) I simply told him that everything was fine, that Spitzer was a paragon of piano tuners, that I knew how busy he must be, so close to Easter and all that.
Busy. Spitzer was busy playing scales and manipulating strings. I was busy sitting at my kitchen table staring at the deaf alphabet. The letter A was a closed fist with the thumb extended, like a Black Power salute from the 60’s, a symbol of defiance. B had the four fingers extended and the thumb folded into the palm—a ‘How’ from an old cowboy and Indian movie. Fingers and thumb bent toward each other, like a hand holds a handrail, was C. D—index finger up, the other fingers folded, the second one touching the thumb…the way football players always signal ‘number One’ after winning the big game or the finger of God pointed toward Adam on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. E is represented by the fingers folded over tightly, the thumb tucked beneath them, the fist of a karate master. Some of the letters—G and H, K and L, P, R and V—were like the hands I held up in front of the lamp, casting shadows of the wall of Dora’s room when she was a child, trying to make rabbits, dogs, tigers to entertain her.
When I looked up, I was surprised to see Spitzer beside me. He must move through the silence of his life like a fish through dark water. Had he watched me trying to form the letters with my hand? Did he know how unnerving he was to someone like me? Did my confusion travel in waves, like the ringing phone, to his forehead, his face, his chest?
He held out another card. This one was freshly written and he was holding a pencil in his other hand. The writing was script, not block letters, though it was squiggly, like the first cursive of a child.
“Who is Sarah?” was all he had written.
“My wife,” I said, looking straight at him, wondering how he knew her name. “She has died.”
He looked confused and leaned down to write on the back of one of his ubiquitous cards on my kitchen table. He scribbled and pushed the card toward me. “She is better than the other one…Dora?” the card said.
“Dora is my daughter,” I told him, realizing he was a true wonder at reading lips. I imagined he had found an old lesson book with her name on it.
Spitzer held out his arms in a pose of searching. He looked from side to side.
“She lives in Ohio…Columbus. She teaches at Ohio State.”
He moved his fingers, playing a piano.
“She teaches law, not music,” I told him.
Spitzer nodded, drew a card from his pocket, bent over the table and wrote: “I hope her law has more soul than her playing.”
Before I looked up from reading, Spitzer was gone and I heard chords from the living room. Silently, he had returned to his work.
You hold up your pinky finger to form I, the other fingers folded over the thumb. J is the same position, only you move the pinky downwards and up, as if writing J in the still air.
I could no longer sit at that table, staring at that alphabet card. I went up the back stairs from the kitchen to our…my room. On the bed, I remembered Sarah and I talking softly about Dora’s future. Twelve years of piano lessons were not wasted, of course, but Sarah said Dora played ‘without soul’. Sarah smiled bravely, knowing her dreams of vicarious pleasures in crowded concert halls were not to be. Dora would be a lawyer.
“She’s your child, George,” Sarah once told me. “She plays with unusual competence, but without imagination.”
Marriages, even the best of them, are made up of countless competitions. No two people, so far as I can tell, can live long together without ‘winning’ and ‘losing’. It’s not a pretty thing, but neither is it wrong—it is only human. And the worse battles in marriages are waged through the children. Those are the worse because they endure. Who left the milk out overnight or burnt the toast or left a towel on the floor or who can make the best souffle are competitions that matter only briefly. Children live on and remind us who won.
In our marriage, Dora was our only real battlefield. Sarah and I were both too reasonable to let it become bitter or divisive. But is was a closely, spirited contest. Sarah always thought that I had one. “Your lawyer daughter called today,” Much to my shame, I never pointed out that Dora had called her mother and not me. I wanted the victory, even if it were only in Sarah’s mind. It had something to do with ‘only children’. I was one, and Sarah too. And we only had Dora. And Dora, unless she remarries soon, will have only Kelly. All of us then, at the very least, know how to be lonely.
Squeaking, Spitzer stood at my bedroom door. He had somehow found me in that huge house.
“Yes?” I said, half-rising, feeling threatened, dizzy.
He handed me another card. In tiny letters he had crowded in all this: “I was wrong, mixing them up. There are three—all women. One plays like heaven, the second with skill, the third could be best of all. She is still young.”
I read the card twice, three times. Spitzer had swum away. He was back downstairs, playing chords that drifted upstairs to my room. I thought of him moving through a silence no less profound that the silences of my life. I dared not wonder what he had discovered hidden in the strings of my piano. I rose and went downstairs to watch him work.
He was using his fingertips by then, rather than his forehead. He worked with frenzied speed, striking a key, feeling the vibrations with his fingers, tinkering with his instruments, striking the key again. As he worked, he squeaked and snorted, alternately shaking his head and smiling. I watched him for a long time—it seemed like half-an-hour, but by then, time seemed strangely altered.
Through the front window, I watched people jogging by in tight, shinny pastel suits. While I hadn’t been paying attention, people had begun to run in clothes I’d never seen before. I saw my neighbor Paul walking a dog—a gangly German Shepherd mix, no longer quite a puppy—yet I didn’t remember Paul getting a new dog. The Smyth girl, passing by on her bike, was too tall by a head. There were buds and bulbs and the subtleties of spring light I hadn’t noticed previously.
“One thing you have to do, Grandpa”, Kelly told me on the phone the last time they called, “is get the piano tuned. It was awful at Christmas, but I didn’t want to tell you then, you know, so soon….”
I imagined I had been fine at Christmas. But Dora and Kelly walked around me as if I were made of fine glass, soap bubbles, spider webs, something fragile and about to break. I had thought Christmas was fine—I was a man of reason and habit and I imagined that the lights to be hung and the tender little ornaments Sarah had collected over the years and the roast beef for dinner, before midnight Mass, proved that I was doing well, recovering, moving on. But the carols around the piano on Christmas day were diminished without Sarah’s clear soprano, though Kelly played so well and both Father Allison and Dora sung twice as loud, as if to cover Sarah’s silence. But I was far from ‘fine’ at Christmas, that’s what I realized while Spitzer was tuning the piano…and far from ‘fine’ even then.
“I want to play the piano,” Kelly told me in that same conversation about the need for a full tuning. “I want to play the piano the way Grandma could. Not like Mom, she’s such a klutz….”
“I’ll klutz you, young lady,” I heard Dora say, like an echo over the phone, a sound through dark water. Kell laughed, giggled actually, as only ten-year-old girls can do. Getting the piano tuned, I thought, would lend routine to life. So, I called Dobbs, immediately impatient with his fake British accent and the babbling that Sarah enjoyed so much. But he’s come with that silly box and irritate me some more. Then Dora and Kelly would arrive. Getting Dobbs to come was something to mark the days. But he sent Spitzer instead.
T is the really silly one. R is like crossing your fingers for luck. S is a fist with the thumb across the other fingers, not straight up like A. But T is silly. The thumb goes between the index and second finger, stealing a nose off a child. “Look, I’ve got your nose!” And everyone knowing it was a trick, a game, something to entertain and pass the time. How many noses had I stolen from Dora? From Kelly?
Spitzer had appeared without notice, beside me as out the window and reflected. He pushed another card in my hand and squeaked loudly. I read the back of the card. It said, in block letters again: YOU’R GOING TO LIKE THIS.
He motioned to me and I joined him at the piano. He took my right hand and held the little finger against a string, hard, almost cutting. He snorted a laugh and hit a key.
There was a sound but it was through the vibrations that it came. In my mind, I saw Kelly, as clearly as looking through a window. She was bathed in the pale brightness of a spotlight, ten years older than now, sitting at a piano on the stage of a large hall. The string I was touching was the last note of her performance. I stood for a long moment, looking at her, gazing, in the breathless and grave instance that proceeds applause. Then the whole hall was standing with me, applauding madly, calling out to her, acknowledging the beauty and wonder of what she had done.
Without waiting for me to recover from that, Spitzer drew my index finger and thumb apart, like the L in the deaf alphabet, and placed them on two stings. He struck two keys.
…and I was standing by a frozen pond at twilight. Dora was 12…13…and ice skating. It was a lovely moment I had long ago forgotten. I waited for her to finish. All the other skaters had gone home, but she was guiding over the ice, the last light catching the spray from her skates. Her face burned with chill. I longed to be home by the fire, sipping sherry, but she moved like magic, like foxfire, like grace itself through the gray evening. And in the silence of the swiftly falling darkness, she was beautifulness itself.
Spitzer touched my hand and then drew back because my hand was as cold as the scene I had seen in my head. He fairly chortled and then grew solemn—Harpo Marks trying to look like Al Pacino. He held up one finger—the letter D?—but I knew he meant, “one more”. Taking out a card he wrote in a clear, bold script: Are you up to this?
I nodded, imagining what was coming. Lying but unable to resist.
He stretched my little finger and my thumb, laying them on two strings, pushing down harder than ever, indicating with a nod that I should maintain that pressure. He moved to the keyboard, gave me a look I can only describe as ‘compassion’, and played two keys.
Sarah had been crying. She was 22 or23, about the time I met her when I was 27, and dressed in a light frilly thing we used to call “summer dresses”. She turned to me, her eyes glistening, and in the reverie could not know if this ever happened—like a memory—or was happening only now. She had been crying tears of sadness, loneliness and pain. Had I hurt her? What had I said or not said or done or left undone? When her hand reaching for my face, she was no longer young. She was the woman who woke me up dying beside me. The tears were suddenly gone. She was smiling, her upper teeth biting lightly into her bottom lip (as I had seen ten thousand times). And though she spoke not a word, I could feel ‘good-bye’ through her fingers as she touched my face, my mouth, my now closed eyes. “GOOD BYE”, she said, the vibrations of the piano strings dying into a profound silence.
Spitzer gathered his tools, handed me a card that said, in block letters: PAY DOBBS WHEN HE APPROVES MY WORK, and without hesitation, he let himself out the front door. My hand was still in the piano.
“I thought I’d find you out here,” Dobbs said. It was growing dark on the first real day of Spring. I was cutting back the goldenrod from the fence between my yard and Paul’s. Spitzer had been gone for hours. There was a lot of yard work to be done before Dora and Kelly arrived.
“How’s the Steinway?” Dobbs asked, “did Spitzer fit the bill?”
“Fill the bill, is more traditional, I think,” I replied. Then I stopped cutting and nodded, “I’ll send a check with something more for him.”
“He’s remarkable, just the same,” Dobbs said. “even deaf as a…did you ever remember George? Deaf as a what? Not a ‘doornail’ certainly…or a ‘bat’.
“I can’t remember either,” I lied.
“Guess I should run along then< George. If the piano’s done….”
“Busy time for you, Easter and all….”
Dobbs nodded enthusiastically, but gave no indication of leaving.
So, I invited him in for a scotch or two…and maybe dinner.