Pianos and Stuff

I was only teasing when I started calling my wife Jumper. But it stuck with us, and with our two friends. Just one of those things from the old days nobody wants to toss over the fence. 

“We’ll jump off that bridge when we get to it,” she was always saying.

We kind of hated Jackson and Sara. What could we do?  They were our friends. We went out for dinner once every three months or so. Jackson drank two bottles of grape juice and after some appalling anecdotes from his psychiatry practice, he’d say, “Let’s split the tab.” 

Jumper let it slip she’d gone back to the piano. She’d grown up on a keyboard, the way some are born with their boots on. But she feared recitals, preferring a claustrophobic practice booth in Ithaca. Her former teacher, now in her nineties, had complained that Jumper was all technique and no heart. Now her heart was bigger, but she was rusty.

“These arthritic hands,” she said, waving her galled feel-ies at us. 

Jackson said he’d always wanted to be a busker. “An ecstatic busker,” he said. Jumper slid a few nickels across the table and Jackson broke into the first part of a Seventies song, all lies and jest. 

“We need to celebrate,” Sara said, hiding her smile behind a wine glass. She was relieved that Jumper had found something to do besides galloping horses at the racetrack. She and Jackson lived on the acoustic side of punk alley. Fast horses drumming outboard tanks weren’t their scene.

Last year, Jumper had rolled with a horse. The grabs on its shoe snagged her arm and pulled the skin down from her shoulder to her elbow. A de-gloving accident. 

Jackson came to the hospital. “Aren’t you afraid of getting killed?” The next day he walked outside and found a tree had fallen on his car. If his powder blue Mercedes had been a horse it might have moved out of the way. 

Jumper started playing the piano with a goal in mind, hustling through jog and gallop sets at the track so she could get home to Bach. 

I’d meet Jackson for a late lunch sometimes on Dark Days when the track was closed. There was a tap room down from the office I rented in a church rectory. Tuesdays, Mother Laurie did run-throughs of next Sunday’s hymns, so it was nice to slip out of the holiness. 

Jackson got away with eating so much because he rode his bike on weekends, a hundred miles or so. Once he pedaled to Ashville. Took him five days. Halfway there he found a grove of cumquats growing wild and he beavered those trees into stumps.

“It’s never too late to plan for a fiftieth wedding anniversary,” I said, suggesting he rent the clubhouse. “You could renew your vows and bet the seven horse.” 

“Maybe a little trumpet combo off to the side,” he glistened. He ate his tenderloin like he was digging a ditch. I suffered my bruised kale salad like it had literally been punched in the face.

I told him our plan for eternity. Jumper and I’d mix our ashes and all the ashes of our favorite animals in a hog pot. “You guys are welcome to join us,” I said. “It’ll be like a hot tub except we’ll all be dead.” 

That night I hustled past Jumper at the piano to set a bag of carry-out Indian food on a small table. The long side of the grand was pushed against a plastered wall insulated with horse and pig hair and boiled pine sap. Sounds dulled easy. Even Wi-Fi couldn’t penetrate the heavy lathe. 

Jumper looked up from her Pachelbel. “Did you remember the mango chutney?”  

My caesura was a seven-second strand of silence. It was like acknowledgement silence. But if you listened closely you could hear a surbahar walking over the drone. The chutneyThe fucking chutney

Jumper’s piano was in the corner of the ancestors’ room. One of those rooms we don’t use very often despite the fireplace. There isn’t any place to sit except for the piano bench. Most of the space is taken up by boxes of dead cremated animals, stacked like condominiums. Dogs and cats on top of the bigger boxes for dead horses. Passing through, I tried not to glance at the instrument. I kept my gaze lowered and I sort of hurried to get to the space on the other side where we watched television and opened curried dinner buckets and talked about our son who was living somewhere near the headwaters of the Ganges. 

It figures a religion known for funeral pyres would be good at grilling chicken. 

The manager at Café Spice couldn’t believe someone would order tandoor chicken and order the same red drumsticks the next night or else the spinach or the Rogan josh. It was our usual. Everyone had to have a usual, right? We’d also get a samosa on the side. And some flattened bread with burn spots like leopard skin.

There was a copy store beside Café Spice. Personally, I liked making copies, placing the originals face down. They kind of knew me there. I was the messy-haired guy who was always making illicit copies of sheet music. I’d been coming for about six months when one of the employees told me that if I wore reading glasses, I’d have much better results at the machine. She sold me a pair of readers. I tried it and she was right. 

“Jackson’s throwing a fiftieth for Sara,” I said. “I guess we’re invited.” 

“Isn’t that ten or twenty years away?” she said. “We all know he’s not going to make it.” 

“Ox tail soup, and the ox isn’t even born yet,” I said. “And carvings from an animal that lived in a plastic igloo for forty-five days.” 

“Veal?” she said. “I’m going to vomit.” She went to the small bathroom under the stairs. I could hear her cough choking and the sounds of her heaves made me realize I hardly heard anything besides piano anymore. That’s the problem with musicians. They practice. The same movement of the same song for a month or so. My ignorance of whether it was the Simone Dinnerstein version or the Glenn Gould version enraged her, as if each day I gaily set out to prove all her misperceptions about me. 

In late June, about a month after Jackson died of the thing none of us talked about, someone came to tune the piano. We’d known the tuner, David, since he was a young man. Before David, his grandfather tuned us. It was very much like Jumper to have a piano she hadn’t played for ten years tuned on a regular basis, just in case her mother’s ghost wanted to play it. But then she went back to it and so it was normal again

When his grandfather got sick, David was helping him. My bet would be stomach cancer. The old man was always kind of shifting his insides with the butt of his hand.  

Funerals must be tough for tuners, listening to “Amazing Grace” on a poorly varnished Methodist upright. I didn’t really know if David was religious, but I doubt there was incense. Maybe just a little cologne and some conservative weeping. 

Before he started helping his grandfather, David had been just hanging out. The places he worked usually gave ball caps to its workers and David had a good collection. He’d quit whatever job after six months or so. That’s why he had time to help his grandfather and, eventually, to schedule his own appointments.  

David has never once talked about his Dad, and his grandfather never talked about his son. Maybe his grandfather was maternal, but I didn’t think so. They had things in common which only seem possible by sharing a tiny forked chromosome. Both rambled a little, then settled into the piano. When it was tuned, they’d ramble again. It was like they were nervous or ashamed of something unless they were making pitch.  

I had tried to get the grandfather to talk about the Navy. I was sure he had shelled Japanese soldiers. Now he was servicing Yamaha pianos. He would die doing it, die saying, thank you, Sea of Japan, for giving me mixed emotions.  

The first time our son came back from India we didn’t recognize him, partly because we didn’t know where to look. At the airport we waited as hundreds passed through security aisles. It was late. The last plane emptied. Still, no son. 

“Want to go look at the crab?” I asked Jumper. There was a large sculpture of a crab with velvet roping around it so its claws wouldn’t be confused with a bench. 

A lanky bearded man approached us. Hair to his shoulders. “International arrivals are downstairs,” he said. We hugged him and yanked on his beard. 

“Hey, nice crab,” he said. 

For about three months he stopped referring to America as “America.” Instead, he called it, “the West.” He ate with his hand or used bread like a ladle. He meditated and played sitar and then he went back to India. A month turned into six. He sent us a picture of a baboon who lived outside on the deck. He said he went out there with a stick once, but it turned and hissed and showed teeth. Our son ran back inside. Sometimes, he tossed a little food out there, and the baboon feigned disinterest, kept looking down at the street. It seemed to be asking Shiva, how engaged and distant can you be at the same time? 

For Jumper, if it wasn’t the piano or the racehorses it was the hamster wheel upstairs. She liked to read aloud in between the panting grunts and gasps of the interval program. Sometimes it was poetry. Or talking with our daughter. It all sounded the same. Blue was thirty, but we still got calls about her knee bumming out or some new mishap with a boy like she was still a kid. 

“It’s so hard being alone, having no one,” Blue told me once. 

“I know,” I said. “I know.” But I was lying. Not having someone sounded fantastic.

When Jackson died, she was the first to call me. “You OK?” she said. “It’s so terrible.” 

Jumper’s exercise bike was old. The “hills” on the console looked like tiny skyscrapers to me. Like some guttural language, when there wasn’t any melody, music could still be about the pace and the volume. Hurrying, resting, and screaming. That was music too when you put them together. 

None of my business, but one time, David the tuner was rambling in the piano room, which was how I learned about the big break up. Her name was Cheryl and first they dated and then lived together. He had never talked about her before. I tried not to look at him because I didn’t want to see any hurt in his eye. He wasn’t playing the piano so much as commanding its keys, giving orders.  

Mortality softens you. I was relieved when David developed a minor liver problem and later got fat. His hair had begun to thin a few years ago and last summer he showed up on the wrong day with equipment designed for a harpsichord.  

Not long after his grandfather died, I’m pretty sure I caught David pissing in the hearth, his right heel slightly raised and quivering. 

In bed, Jumper was crying. “Our son is in India and Blue is in England. Why are they so far away from us?” Johnny had called her an hour ago to wish her a happy festival of lights, meaning the moon was in Pleiades. He was looking at it now, and we should be looking at it too, and getting high.

The way some people think about sex all the time was how I thought about lighting a fire. There were a few decorative river birch logs stacked on the irons. It was pretty and harmonic too, balancing solids with air. And not everyone knows that a river birch sheds its bark like a snake. I imagined how the bark rattlers wick the flame.  

“You didn’t make a fire, did you?” Jumper said. 

“No,” I said. “Are you accusing me?” That was how we talked. She wanted to know everything, and it made me defensive about my anguish.  

There was ash in there, but the logs hadn’t been touched. Or else they’d been replaced. I checked the damper. Closed.  

I wondered if David had left his grandfather in our fireplace. It was disgusting but sweet too. I sifted my fingers in it, looking for bone chunks or some part of his face that hadn’t flamed all the way through.  

I’d like to say that Jumper and I lay down on the bear rug and made love beside the gray lumps of David’s grandfather and our memory of Jackson. Instead, she went to the piano bench. She liked to tell acquaintances—even close strangers—that she could still “give the finger” to Bach inventions. Tonight, it was the Beatles. The pace was off. Some chords were late getting to the melody and there were places where a transition was too abrupt. But it moved me, and by the last song I was singing inaccurate words along with her disjointed playing. I was singing—Why didn’t anyone tell you how to unfurl your love?


  • Barrett Warner is the author of Why Is It So Hard to Kill You? (Somondoco, 2016) and My Friend Ken Harvey (Publishing Genius, 2014). His fiction has appeared in Phoebe, Gargoyle, Oxford Magazine, Quarter after Eight, Berkeley Fiction Review, Crescent Review and other places. Find out less about him at https://barrettwarner.com/

  • These illustrations for the 1906 French edition of H. G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds are by Brazilian artist Henrique Alvim Corrêa. Not a great deal is known about Corrêa, who died of tuberculosis at age thirty-four, only a few years after the illustrations featured here were published. During the first decade of the twentieth century, as The History Blog puts it, Corrêa “developed a style of strong contrasts and dynamic movement in both drawing and painting,” returning again and again to themes of “eroticism and violence individually and in combination”. Reading The War of the Worlds in 1903, Corrêa saw a work perfectly suited to his talents and obsessions. He did several illustrations of the book “on spec” and traveled to London to show them to Wells, who was apparently so impressed he invited him to illustrate the new Belgian edition of Davray’s translation. “Alvim Corrêa”, Wells said after the artist had died, “did more for my work with his brush than I with my pen”. See The History Blog at http://www.thehistoryblog.com/archives/36376 and The Public Domain Review at https://publicdomainreview.org/collection/henrique-alvim-correa-war-of-the-worlds