top of page
  • Writer's pictureSylvia Schwartz

The Piano Tuner

Updated: Mar 8

Originally published by Savant-Garde Publishing. “Your characters felt incredibly realistic, and I absolutely loved the sweet story between them.” ~ Miranda Winters-Sayle, Editor & Publisher



Jim Stark’s long legs, resulting from his six-foot-four lanky frame, had difficulty adjusting to the narrow pew at the back of the church. He wasn’t sure he belonged there. Not just in the church, his first time there, but in this sparsely populated, picturesque river town he’d found in a Southern Living magazine left at his dentist’s office. He’d moved here from Detroit right after his younger brother, Peter, died. Peter had said Georgia was one of his favorite places in the country. He’d driven around Georgia after his sculpture show in Atlanta. Said the people were like their peaches and to image everyone in Georgia covered in peach fuzz. Not the scant amount found on store peaches but the protective, thick coating on a fresh-picked peach whose fuzz can fly around and land in your hair and clothes. Getting to know Georgians takes time, he said. Try to undercover things too fast, and that peach fuzz will stick to you, marking you as rude or rash.


Only his artistic brother would have described people like peaches. Jim looked around the congregation, now standing as they sang from their hymn books. He couldn’t picture any of them covered in peach fuzz and felt foolish even trying. But he still recalled Peter’s laugh when he’d told him stories about the South. To Jim, that laugh had also seemed at his expense, his brother knowing he’d never traveled farther south than Chicago in his sixty-seven years. But he never had the need to until now.


The congregation bowed their heads. He couldn’t remember the last time he’d seen so many people gather to pray. Jim had prayed alone by the roadside for the ambulance to come and again in the hospital for his brother to make it through the night.


When the service ended, Jim rose not feeling any different from when he’d walked into the Crossroads Methodist Church — though perhaps he shouldn’t have expected to. His prayer for Peter to come home was the last one God ever answered.


Once outside the church, he couldn’t decide what to do with himself. Walk along the river? Read a book? His old Ford, parked in front of his one-bedroom apartment, needed a tune-up. But he still wasn’t up to the task, having avoided ordering the parts during the two months he’d lived here. It ran, so what was the rush?


#


Mary Rowlands had been late to the service. Getting up and around for Mary, now eighty-eight, wasn’t as easy as it used to be, though she still drove, her ample waist comfortably snug in the driver’s seat of her old Buick. She was only five-foot-one-inch tall, but she made up for her petiteness with a broad face and stocky legs that made her appear solid and surefooted. She had debated with herself all morning whether to go. It was another hot July day, and she knew the church’s ceiling fans never did more than move ‘someone’s’ overzealous dousing of perfume — that same ‘someone’ whose drugstore always ran a ‘special’ on that brand on Monday. But today, something in the air made her joints ache and her body restless. She didn’t care if anyone commented on her lateness or lack of Sunday attendance. Having reached a certain age, other people’s opinions mattered little to her. As she bypassed the stares of those already seated, she noticed the new gentleman in town sitting in the back pew alone.


After service, she caught up with him standing outside the church and tapped his shoulder.


“I heard you fix things,” she said, pressing a lace handkerchief against the back of her neck and then dabbing it over her sun-spotted forehead.


“I used to,” Jim said, not knowing if he was ready to take on odd jobs.


“Have you ever fixed a piano?”


Jim had fixed about everything: clocks, watches, locks, faucets, carburetors, and even tube TV sets when he was a kid. He’d also tuned his mother’s piano when she was alive.


“Yes, ma’am.”


“Oh, where are my manners? I’m Mary Rowlands,” she said, stuffing the handkerchief under the edge of her sleeve before raising her hand to shake his.


“I’m—”


“—Jim Stark, yes, everyone knows that. Afraid we don’t get many new people moving here.”


“Oh,” he said, wondering how people knew who he was when, since the accident a year ago, he no longer knew himself.


“Would you be kind enough to come over and look at my piano?”


“Well, I—”


“—I’m over on Sycamore Lane near the town’s gazebo. It’s 1245 Sycamore Lane. Look for the yellow rose bushes hanging over the white fence. Would tomorrow around 2:00 p.m. be okay? My piano tuner passed away, and there’s not another one for miles.”

Jim stared down at this woman in her paisley dress, yellowed under the arms, and her sturdy, white orthopedic-looking shoes. He didn’t know many people in Chesterfield except his landlady, the banker who set up his account, and the teenagers who cashiered at the grocery store. None of them had been outgoing, so he had no idea what to make of Mary or her request. But the thought of fixing something, of making something whole again, appealed to him in a way he hadn’t realized how much he missed.


#


Mary sat by her parted curtains, waiting for Jim to arrive. Mary often judged a man by his handshake. Jim’s had been tentative at first, his fingers slow to hold her hand, like a man who didn’t make snap decisions. But once his calloused hand embraced hers, his grip became firm as if once committed, he was all in. She hoped she was right. She also noticed that for a tall man, Jim appeared smaller in stature than he should have somehow. It might have been how he rounded his shoulders or glanced at his feet as they spoke. But she sensed a kindness about him. Or perhaps it was his unruly, bushy white hair that gave him a boyish quality that reminded her of her only son whose job kept him in New York.


While Jim parked his car, Mary stood waiting inside her open doorway.


#


The first thing Jim noticed wasn’t the overgrown faded roses that lined the fence and pathway to the white-columned entrance or the elliptical glass transom above the blue door; it was the ivy. The variegated greenery spread across her brick Tudor as if it had found a welcoming and permanent home. It stood in stark contrast to his front lawn in Detroit, brown and yellowed by summer’s end, despite his constant watering and weeding. He deliberately neglected it once he’d built his brother’s wheelchair ramp to the front door.


“Afternoon, Jim.”


“Afternoon, Mary,” he said as he entered and set down his toolbox. “Now, what exactly is wrong with your piano?”


“Frankly, I don’t know. At one point, Mr. Murphy, my previous piano tuner of almost thirty years, said it was a lost cause, but then he believed in lost causes. Do you believe in lost causes, Jim? Too many people nowadays give up on things when they get old.”


“I’ve had my car for over twenty years.”


“Good, you understand. Sit down. I’ll get us some lemonade.”


“Shouldn’t I look at your piano first?”


“Down south, we only rush time when it’s disagreeable. I hope you don’t find me disagreeable,” she said with a smile before disappearing into the kitchen.


While she was away, Jim snuck over to her yellow-keyed, ebony grand piano, covered in a fine layer of dust, and peered under the heavy lid. He wasn’t prepared for what he saw—a cracked soundboard, misaligned dampers, and rust on the brass agraffe screws. All the pleasure he’d experienced earlier—the weight of his toolbox in his hands again and the power to fix things—vanished as he stared at the utter brokenness.


Back home, Jim had fixed everything he could for his brother. He reconfigured the house they’d inherited from their parents: widening doorways, lowering countertops, modifying bathrooms. He also managed Peter’s pain and sleeping meds and oversaw his physical therapy treatments. But it wasn’t enough. He wasn’t enough, he thought, as he returned to his seat before she re-entered the living room carrying a tray with glasses of iced lemonade and cookies.


“Mr. Murphy liked his oatmeal molasses cookies with extra cinnamon. I do hope you like them.”


Now that he’d seen the insides of her piano, he was confused and unsure of what to say but decided to be polite and go through the motions.


“What did Mr. Murphy say was wrong with your piano?” he said as he reached for a glass of lemonade.


“Said the problem was humidity. Every time he almost got it tuned and ready for me to try it, he’d say, ‘sorry, not today, that darn humidity has done it to us again.’ Afterward, we’d have a good little chuckle, knowing there are some things you can’t do anything about. Bless his heart, he was here almost every day. Said it was the only way to stay on top of it.”


“When was the last time you played it?”


“Well, let me see, it’s been a long time. I remember the parties my husband Henry and I had. How the Moonlight Sonata, which I played, filled the room. You could feel it—waves of music moving the air. It was like a cool summer breeze had come through the windows and touched us, like the grace of God. Do you believe in God, Jim? I don’t mean to pry. Not everyone who goes to church does. Though maybe ‘believing’ isn’t the right word. I believe he’s there, but that he keeps to himself. He certainly has since my Henry died, which was over thirty years ago. Guess it forces us to be more creative in fending for ourselves.”


Jim set down his glass, his hands cold and damp from its condensation. He wiped them across his jeans, wishing he could wipe away having to tell her the truth. He remembered the moment his brother asked him in the hospital if he would be all right. Jim hesitated, and at that moment, his brother knew, knew he wouldn’t walk again.

When Jim’s palms were dry, he said, “I don’t think I can fix your piano.”


“Nonsense, you haven’t even looked at my piano. You seem like a capable man. Besides, fixing and trying are two different things, wouldn’t you agree?”


“Well, yes, but—”


“—then won’t you at least try?”


Jim walked over to the piano and lifted the lid. He stared at the total damage he’d only glimpsed at earlier. Of the two hundred strings once tightly wound with high-quality copper wire, only one or two weren’t slack or broken. It was impossible to see them and not recall the devastation he’d witnessed after the crash. The passenger’s side crumpled around the street pole; the metal buckled like a crushed can. After pulling himself out of the driver’s side of his brother’s car, he called 911. It took a blow torch to get Peter out of the car. A miracle, they said, that his brother was still alive. Black ice. Nobody’s fault. Still, Jim blamed himself and his inability to make his brother whole again, at least in spirit.


When he turned to Mary, her bright eyes looked like she had all the faith in the world in him. Didn’t she understand it couldn’t be fixed? That broken things only break your heart. In the end, his brother took his own life.


“I’d like to help you, but—”


“But, but, but. You seem like a man with a very limited vocabulary,” Mary said, almost spilling her glass of lemonade when she set it down. “Oh, I’m sorry,” she said, clutching her hands together. “I don’t know what’s come over me. You had a nice handshake, and


I really thought you were the one.”


“The one?”


“The one who could fix this old piano. I thought, well … never mind.”


The hope he’d seen in her eyes vanished. Whatever energy had pumped her up dissipated, leaving Mary looking deflated and forlorn as she slumped back in her chair, her small chest caving in on itself. Would coming back be so bad? It wasn’t like he didn’t have the time. Before he talked himself out of it, he said he’d try.


“Good!” she said, sitting upright again. “Trying is all anybody should be asked to do in this world. It’s the only thing left I can do. So you will stop by tomorrow, won’t you? You don’t have to stay long.”


Jim took a few moments to consider how this would work. “There’s one condition, Mary.”


“What’s that?” she asked tentatively.


“I’ll only charge you once the job is done.”


“Why, that’s the same arrangement Mr. Murphy came to. You two must be more alike than I realized.”


Then he sat down and tasted one of her cookies.


“They’re good, aren’t they?” she asked.


“They are,” he acknowledged. It was the only thing he was certain about, aside from the fact that he’d never be able to fix her piano. But, for now, that seemed enough.


“More lemonade?”


“Don’t mind if I do.”


###






44 views0 comments

Recent Posts

See All

Comments


bottom of page