by Lucille Rains
It was unusual for anyone to shop for a piano on a Friday night, much less expect to have it delivered and tuned that same night, but this was a special occasion. Istvan (pronounced ISHT-von) was getting married over the weekend, and he wanted to surprise his bride. He looked at the beautiful, high-polish ebony Kawai console that I had for sale in my home/shop and, in his thick Hungarian accent, said, “LOO-sil, I like, but must have valnut.”
I phoned Mihaly (pronounced MEE-hi, but everyone called him Mickey), a Hungarian piano dealer who handled the same model, to get a walnut one. “LOO-sil, vie you call so late? My vife she kill me. She say I never take out. Tonight, she invite neighbor. Vee going to eat, drink, enchoy. LOO-sil, bring man to store tomorrow.”
“Mickey! The man is standing here with a checkbook in his hand! Tomorrow will be too late!”
Mickey thought about that for about ten seconds. “Fok da neighbor. I doan like, anyway. Come to store in hour.”
By 9:30 p.m. we were heading north, my Volvo station wagon leading Mickey’s gigantic box truck like a mouse leading an elephant. After a 45-minute drive, we pulled into the supermarket lot where we were to meet Istvan. When Istvan showed up in his Volvo station wagon, he and Mickey instantly recognized each other. It turned out that they were from the same village in Hungary, and though they hadn’t known each other there, here they greeted each other like long-lost brothers. They were so caught up in reminiscing about the old country, they forgot I was there. I had to wait till they’d waded through a few decades of village news before we could get back to the piano delivery. They turned to me, and after a series of stereo “LOO-sils,” we were finally on our way.
Istvan led the procession, with Mickey’s huge box truck behind him and my wagon trailing. Our caravan was now a gigantic dinosaur, with a small head and tail and a huge body, creeping slowly along an unlit rural road. Istvan turned left onto a nearly-invisible dirt road that you’d have to know was there or you wouldn’t find it. The trees grew so thickly over the road that they broke against the sides of the truck.
After parking our Volvos in an open garage of cinderblock barely visible at a clearing by a lake, Istvan shouted for Mickey to turn the truck around, then directed him to back it up to the very edge of the water. I could not imagine why.
“Istvan, where on earth is this piano going?”
“Vee go to island.”
“Vee go on pontoon.”
It was pitch black. I could see no boat, but as my eyes began to adjust to the dark, I could see something moving. “You mean that door floating in the water? You’re going to put this piano on that door?”
“Doan vorry, LOO-sil, pontoon carry t’ousand pounds.”
As I watched in horror, the two men loaded the piano onto the center of this flimsy floating raft. Mickey sat at the piano. I sat uneasily on the floor next to the piano, clutching my tool box in sweaty palms, and Istvan was in the rear, operating a putt-putt motor. Istvan’s dog, Janos (pronounced YAH-noess), a muscular animal with, surprisingly, a squeak for a bark, stood bravely at the bow facing the black wall of night before us, like a sea captain.
I tried to reassure myself by whispering “a t’ousand pounds, a t’ousand pounds.” Then I began adding it all up. Let me see . . . the piano is around 450 pounds, the men at least 200 pounds each, that’s 850 pounds. My tools have to be around 50 pounds—that’s 900. And then there’s the dog and me. My god! That’s over a thousand! That’s it! We’re definitely going to sink! The men were so busy chatting in Hungarian that they never heard my protests. There was nothing I could do but resign myself to certain death. Well, I figured, if I have to go down to the bottom of the lake, at least it’s with a Kawai.
While I couldn’t see two feet in front of me on the lake, I could see the stars millions of miles away. The night was brisk and clear, and the sky was like a comforting blanket over me, so close it seemed I could reach out and touch a star. The beauty of the heavens, the soothing sound of the water lapping against our slow-moving “ship,” and the lulling putt-putt of the motor transported me to a tranquil place where danger didn’t exist. It no longer mattered that I didn’t know how to swim.
My reverie was soon shattered. Mickey decided to play a Hungarian love song on the piano, with flowery arpeggios up and down the keyboard. Specks of light began to come on around the lake. People were no doubt wondering how there could possibly be piano music coming from the center of the lake at almost midnight. It gave me some comfort to know that, when we sank, there would be people awake who would hear my cries.
Our raft bumped to a stop. “Vee here,” Istvan announced. I could see nothing but the black night around me. I had to look far up to see, atop a mountain, the faint outline of a cabin silhouetted against the stars.
“Istvan, are there any lights?”
“No, no electricity. Vee have chenerator.”
It was too dark to see anything, but I could hear Mickey and Istvan hoisting the piano onto a platform. The dog jumped onto it with them, and they all chug-chugged up the side of the mountain. They were so engrossed in chatting about the old country that they never heard me cry, “Hey! What about me?”
I had to get up to the cabin somehow, but I was afraid to touch the rail on which the platform traveled. What if it had juice, like those third rails you read about? My only alternative was to simply crawl up the mountainside. It wouldn’t have been so bad had I been able to use both hands, but I was carrying a heavy tool case. There were bushes along the way for me to grab hold of, so I pulled myself up while crawling on my knees up the steep incline. By the time I reached the cabin door, I looked as if I’d been hit by a freight train. All Istvan could say was, “LOO-sil, vere you go?”
The entire cabin was lit by a solitary, generator-powered, 25-watt bulb that cast shadows everywhere. Dim as it was, there was enough light to see that Istvan’s bride-to-be was very pregnant. In fact, she was in labor.
I said, “Katalin, is it wise for you to be on this island, where you have no phone and no electricity?”
Istvan heard me. “Doan vorry, LOO-sil, doctor coming to vedding.”
Oh, how nice, I thought. And what is he going to do in an emergency on an island with no electricity?
I tuned the piano by flashlight while Istvan, Mickey, and a few relatives from out of state, who had emerged from the shadows, were drinking and celebrating this triple event: a piano, a birth, and a marriage, possibly in that order. Katalin wisely excused herself and trudged slowly upstairs to bed. In her condition, she wasn’t particularly interested in partying. By the time I finished tuning, they were all drunk and laughing loudly at anything and everything.
“LOO-sil, vee toast piano,” said Istvan. “C’mon, vee drink togadder.”
“No, Istvan, I don’t drink. It’s late. I have to get home.”
Istvan ignored my protests and stuck a glass in my hand.
“What is this, Istvan?”
“Wodka. Vee make toast to piano.”
His partying relatives staggered over to us with drinks in their hands and formed a disjointed circle. Istvan shouted a loud Hungarian toast, and all threw their heads back and inhaled their drinks in one gulp. It was dark enough for them not to see—I’m not sure any of them could have seen straight even if it were light—that as I threw my head back with the rest, I tossed the drink over my right shoulder. When I did, I heard a squeak of protest from behind me. I hadn’t realized that Janos the dog was lying down behind me; and he wouldn’t move away, either. Five squeaks later, Istvan was so delighted that I’d been such a good sport about drinking that he allowed me to leave. I didn’t see Mickey anywhere, but I couldn’t worry about him. I had to get home.
“I help you,” Istvan said, as he offered me his unsteady arm in the black outdoors. I expected to take the platform down the mountainside to the pontoon, but instead we headed in a different direction. Istvan was so drunk that, while walking safely on a narrow path, pontificating loudly about the universe like a dramatic orator, left arm sweeping broadly across the vast expanse of starlit sky, he left no room for me, and led me into every possible hole and rock on my side of the path. At one point, he was so preoccupied with his philosophical babbling, now accompanied by deep hiccups, that he failed to notice that I’d fallen to my knees in a hole. He just kept talking and walking, dragging me out of the hole without missing a step, left arm still waving dramatically.
It suddenly struck me that I had to rely on this inebriated man to bring me safely across the lake to my car—a man who could hardly utter a single rational, undistorted word or take one firm step. With fearful recollection, I asked, “Are we going back on the pontoon?”
“No, vee go by spidboat!” he happily replied.
“Speedboat! Oh my god!”
Istvan’s speedboat was moored at a floating pier. It took him several stumbles before he could plop me, then himself, successfully into the boat. It took even more uncoordinated tries to get the key into the ignition. When he finally started up the motor, he gave it so much gas that the front of the boat bolted upright and we skipped across the surface of the lake in vertical position, like astronauts headed toward the moon. This ride made the pontoon voyage seem like a pleasure cruise.
Istvan had made this trip so many times that he didn’t need his mind. The boat knew the way. We neared the pier at the clearing, and after a few tries, he managed to turn off the motor. When we hit, he stood up and stuck one unsteady foot out of the boat onto the pier. He was trying to tie the boat to a post, but he kept missing. The boat started to drift away from the pier, and Istvan’s legs slowly parted until he was in a full split. Hovering precariously over the water, he somehow managed to inch boat and pier together, finally securing the boat. It was like watching a Charlie Chaplin movie.
Istvan leaned over the edge of the pier to help me out of the boat, but with such poor coordination, he misjudged, and yanked me up so fast that my head hit his chin and his head snapped back, almost knocking him out. As he reeled backward, I thought, If this guy falls off the pier, he’s just going to have to die, because I can’t save him. It’s too dark, and I can’t swim.
He did some fancy Fred Astaire footwork, teetering on the very edge of the pier a few times. I didn’t wait around for him to recover his balance, but ran toward the faint outline of my car in the cinderblock garage. I fumbled for my keys, nervously started up, and quickly backed out. As I was taking off, Istvan unexpectedly stuck his head in the window. In my frenzy, I drove off with his head. He hung on as long as he could, still babbling incoherently about the stars or the universe or something, then dropped off with a dull thud. From the ground I could hear a cheerful “Goodnight, LOO-sil!,” so I knew he was still alive. I drove home as if I’d just escaped from prison.
Some piano sales are just a little more difficult than others.
Lucille Rains was a jazz pianist and bassist in New York City until she became breadwinner of her household and left New York for the suburbs. She had been tuning her own piano right along, so it was inevitable that she would go into tuning to support her family. She happened to write a letter to the editor of the local newpaper that got the attention of the mayor, and she became the mayor’s ghostwriter. The local editor also invited her to write a column. This unexpectedly launched a second career for her, in the writing field. When a Pulitzer Prize–winning writer put his stamp of approval on her writing, it led to her book of humorous essays, Ya Wanna Laugh? (Xulon Press, 2011). At present, Lucille Rains divides her time between tuning and writing. She can be reached at email@example.com.