Broken Piano – Max Luskin

It was black and free, but it belonged to Leo. The Curtis Institute of Music gave that black Steinway Grand to him when he was accepted. Long after that, it came to its final resting place at the retirement community of Logan Square. God knew how the piano came to rest in the living room on the twenty-second story of a Philadelphia nursing home, but that was another secret He had apparently decided to keep.

The black and white keys, mechanically attached to those eighty-eight felt tipped hammers, had yellowed with time. They were made of ivory, before the ivory trade became reprehensible. The strings were new – replaced just last year. A piano tuner from Curtis still visited once a week to ensure that the instrument was perfectly in tune so Leo wouldn’t be embarrassed when his friend Chayim visited. Chayim was a Polish violinist who played with the Philadelphia Orchestra and a very old friend of Leo’s. He would come once a week to play ensemble music with as many people as they could fit in the living room.

The pedals were polished brass. It smelled, as all old instruments do, of old wood and dust. The top was usually down, to safeguard the mechanism from the world. But, even with the top down, when Leo sat down on the bench and adjusted the seat to his preferred height, the notes drifted out of the piano as if there was no such thing as heavy piano-grade maple wood inhibiting them.

All pianos command the room they inhabit, but this particular Steinway ruled the living room like an old general. It was the first thing anyone would notice when they entered, and there was little else to distract wandering eyes except for dusty piles of sheet music by Handel, Bach, and countless others. Its feet were shaped like panther’s claws. The years of constant use made it mellow, but not exhausted. Perhaps listening to music every day will do that to anything, except Leo.

While the piano had mellowed with time thanks to the musical vibrations reverberating through the soundboard, Leo was a hard man of little humor (he left that in the capable hands of Stella, his wife). He’d wake up in the morning and turn on the radio after asking “What’s going on in this goddamn world?!” His family found this endearing, but guests were often bewildered. Maybe he was gruff not by nature, but by circumstance: after graduating from Curtis with a degree in accompaniment, he developed arthritis. He could still play, but it was painful. Sometimes he’d have to pause in the middle of playing to rub his hands before he could play again. It must have seemed like an incredible stroke of bad luck. Even so, Chayim and the other musicians were always greeted at the door as old, patient friends.


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