“For the piano,” the man explained again. His accent might have been South American. He and his companion pressed very close together, the one behind the other, and gave her the impression that they needed more space than their bodies took up. “To fix the, you know. The sound.” He gestured violently towards his ears, then glanced back at the taller man for help.
She had been taken by surprise when the bell rang, because no one really ever rang. The house stood too high on the hill (and per- haps too near the church) for teenagers to bother with mischief, and her friends were never unexpected. “We haven’t called anybody,” she told the men. She knew she hadn’t called them. “We haven’t called anybody and my husband isn’t home. You should come back when we call.”
He wedged his foot in the door as she closed it. “No, you see, the, you…” He kept glancing back at his friend. They were both wearing suits, as though on their way back from a wedding or a cocktail party. The other man (her instinct was to call him “Nordic,” although what did that mean) was better dressed, with a fuller tie and a jacket that outlined his shoulders. She thought maybe she had seen him before in a movie. The shorter man’s hair was wet and parted perfectly down the middle. His jacket, buttoned once, pinned a tie listlessly to his unironed shirt. He seemed too young. The taller man put a hand on his shoulder.
“Your neighbors contacted us.” He spoke deliberately and clearly without any hint of an accent. “They complain because of the way your piano sounds. It is flat.” He reached into his coat and pulled out a thin case. Part of his left shoulder lost some definition. “We have brought these tools with us to change the strings. If you let us come in, we will only stay a short while before departing.”
She felt very vulnerable. He was staring directly into her eyes through the crack in the door, and she had the sensation that her whole body was encased in hard steel that was slowly tightening. Without look- ing at his hands, he opened the case to display a slender piece of finely polished metal surrounded by lavender silk.
“My neighbors…” she managed to say. “This is unusual.”
“Not at all,” he replied. “Frequently this will happen. It is not at all unusual in our line of work.”
The smaller man had twisted his foot further inside. She looked down at it slowly and vaguely wondered how he could sustain its an- gle without cracking his ankle. She was a nurse at a small Catholic hospital. “I think it would be better if you came back tomorrow. My husband will be here tomorrow. He is the one who plays the piano.”
“That would not, not be better,” said the shorter man, straining. She was now leaning fully on the door.
“We are busy tomorrow, you understand,” said the taller man, al- most apologetically. “There is another piano tomorrow. This is best. Please. We will tune your piano, and then we will leave so that we can tune a different piano.”
She looked up. He gestured towards the box again. The piano might have been flat. She hadn’t noticed when Jerry played, but perhaps all the strings were altered in precise ratios that had shifted the whole instrument. She supposed this was possible, that the sonatas and études could still sound beautiful and unambiguous yet in actuality be incorrect. If the whole frame of reference was shifted. Maybe the neighbors were aware of things concerning the piano that she was not. That Jerry was not, and thinking it she nearly smiled.
“Thank you,” the shorter man grunted, and when she looked again, the door had already opened into her house. “Thank you for this,” the taller man repeated.
They did not need to ask where the piano was and she followed them into the sunroom. “I don’t play it at all,” she tried to explain. “My husband hardly touches it. Only on the weekends, when we have guests over.” Sometimes she would sit at the bench after returning home from the hospital, before Jerry got back, and look at the keys. Her hand would run from one end to the other, gently brushing across the tops of the smooth ivory. Or was it ivory? She felt like they couldn’t do that anymore.
The problem was that she didn’t know, not only about the ivory, but also about the instrument itself. In the rare instances when she actually pressed upon the keys, if she ever began to hit more than one or two at a time, she could feel a great chaos of sound massing beneath the notes, threatening to overwhelm the bright room and strike fiercely against her ears. Her fingers would quickly release, the sound dissipating, her heart beginning to slow back down. The piano settled austerely, like a judgment. She would breathe for a moment and look out the window or up into the skylight, where sun would wander in and shadows form only where the wooden frames held up the glass. Depending on what time it was, the angle of the light, the feel of the bench against her legs, she might move her hands, tentatively at first, over the keys, not touching any, and hum a melody gently. Sometimes she would sing aloud. Her favorite songs were hymns she remembered from her youth: Praise the Neverend- ing Light, We Have Come At Last to Rest, O Gracious Blessing Pure and True. On occasion entire words would escape, but mostly, like a patient, buzzing telephone wire, her voice skimmed high and thin through the room.
The singing never lasted for very long; her attention drifted or she had things to do or a motor shut off. She felt that she wanted very much to understand what it was that sat in a corner of her home. But the instrument was a dark, foreboding pond she couldn’t dive into for fear of never hitting bottom.
He was nervous and appeared to be sweating, although she sup- posed that it could have been the dampness of his hair. “You no, we are begin working, please if you go out…” He trailed off, but this time his partner didn’t say anything, only walked over to the piano and began running his hands over its hard black surface. She saw he was smudging the finish. She wondered if she should say something. “Need to fixing this, if you could got to, okay, please…” She thought she would and stepped forward. Without warning the taller man’s hand came cracking down on the lid, and the inside of the piano barked, lurching. The action flashed the strength in his shoulders, and that unpredictable power suddenly gave her the sensation that she was very very alone. Before the sound inside the piano faded she realized how frightened she had been for the past few minutes. Whatever words she planned to say a moment ago retreated back into her chest. She hadn’t thought he was so strong.
He looked up at her. “We require nothing from you but a glass of water, and that is all that we need of your assistance,” said the tall man neatly. She saw the open window behind them and wondered why it didn’t let in a breeze. The air lay so heavily in the room.
As the sink ran in the kitchen, she heard more bangs, and during the pauses some faint mealy dialogue in a language that, even al- lowing for the distance, still didn’t sound like English. She looked at the clock. Jerry wouldn’t be home for two hours at least. For the first time in a long time she wished he might return sooner. She thought of the piece of metal in the box that the tall man had provided as ex- planation in the doorway and supposed it could be used to stab deep into someone’s chest provided the wielder had enough strength. She didn’t consider why she had agreed to give them some water, or if she had agreed, but it flickered through her that maybe she should try to poison their drinks. She thought about chemicals under the sink but couldn’t imagine any of them dissolving in water, which at that moment seemed very clear, and the transparency of the liquid would ensure that the tuners would know everything she knew al- most immediately. There didn’t seem to be any way to surprise them. Briefly it occurred to her to poison herself.
A loud crash reminded her. The water had overflowed onto her hands and pressed the sleeves of her blouse so she dried them on a towel before bringing the glasses back into the sunroom. As she entered the men looked up. They had raised the lid of the piano higher than she’d ever seen it. On the floor next to them the bench had overturned and sheets of music spilled onto the bright green rug. She recognized the title of one of them: “Allegro in F Major.” A tune began to trickle through her head, staccato notes tripping down a staircase, and as she calmly walked towards the men she tried to connect them to the speckled page, but neither worked.
“This is very kind of you, and your actions have been to great ben- efit,” the blonde man said, lifting the glasses of water. Her heart was speeding up the melody she was imagining so that it played much faster than normal. “If you would not mind standing back,” he said. “Step back until there is more space for us.”
“Out the, the room,” explained the other man nervously, “it is a, we.” She didn’t immediately move.
“You’ve knocked the bench over and, excuse me, you’ve knocked the bench over,” she began.
“Not to worry, we can pick it up.” He indicated and the shorter man righted the bench, and more sheets slid to the ground. “You see?”
“Yes I see but—”
“I am very sorry but we must continue to tune. For now you should not talk, and if you could provide us with space.” She flinched backwards as he raised his arm, but it was only to lift the glass of water above the piano. He kept it there and looked at her. After a moment she moved to the couch opposite the piano and sat down. She was still alone but she had bought the couch from a charity auction at the hospital. The shorter man twisted but the man at the piano used his free hand to calm him. He smiled at her. “Please, be comfortable there if you want. That is enough room for us. Don’t worry, the piano will be corrected very soon.” His companion said something rushed in the other language. The taller man smiled at her still and without moving his head emptied the water glass into the piano. She didn’t make any sound.
His companion’s mouth folded in on itself and he overturned his water glass into the piano as well. The taller man kept looking at her but she didn’t say anything. He extended then broke his gaze. She realized now that the song she had been hearing in her head earlier was the theme music from a sitcom she had seen. He reached into where the strings were kept and moved his hand around. She heard a rumble of discord, maybe muted because of the water. He reached in and, having found it, with a quick wrenching motion pulled. There was a horrible sound that ended so quickly she might not have heard it. Without reacting she tried to see if they had heard it but realized how stupid that was. His hands pulled out a thin wire from inside the piano, and she knew that it was a piano string because she had looked under the lid once. It had reminded her, in a slightly sinister way, of anatomy charts she had studied in school. There were too many tendons. And the image of a tendon being threaded out of somebody’s wrist came to her now, so his second pull detach- ing the wire from wherever it had been fixed made her clench her fists and tense. She wished Jerry would come home. She tried to think of somebody else but there was no one really.
The man had thrown the wire on the ground. “You won’t need this,” he said. His hand slipped into his coat and it made sense to her that he would bring out another wire to replace the first. Instead he pulled out the box from earlier. He unfastened the clasps (had there been clasps before?) and gently lifted out the metal piece, which looked like a long, thin Y. The shorter man loosened his tie and unbuttoned his jacket. He was sweating more and moved to the corner of the room where he bit his index finger. She watched as the taller man took the metal piece and turned it over before, with the same kind of sudden force he had hit the lid with earlier, he tapped it against the leg of the piano. Many things happened at once. A high vibrating pitch split the room. The shorter man began chanting in a low deep voice words she had never heard, his voice rising in volume as the taller man struck the leg with the metal Y again. And again. And then as he hit the piano he began yelling, “This is the tuning! This is the TUNING! THIS IS THE TUNING!” He spun around. The smaller man sometimes clapped his hands. Both of their faces were very red. She sat and did not move. She thought she might die and prayed to God.
Her prayer had no words but it was a color, a shade of desperate intensity that seeped into her senses. She had prayed with words before and it had worked and it hadn’t worked. “THE TUNING. THIS IS THE TUNING. THIS” This time was a different situation and she didn’t even realize that she was praying. She felt very helpless, and the helplessness itself was not a plea for assistance but it was there next to the plea, nudging it and confirming it. “TUNING. THIS IS THE TUNING” It was as though she kept forgetting that she hadn’t already run away. The scene in front of her wasn’t clear enough to run from, although she knew she thought the men might be dangerous. “IS THE” If she had understood her prayer this might have motivated her to say something, but as it was the tall man suddenly stopped yelling, turned and threw the metal object as hard as he could into the chest of his associate. It sunk in several inches and pinned the tie back to his chest. He looked surprised and sank that way, with his mouth open, scraping the wall to the floor.
She waited too.
In the pause something crept in, a lack of confidence for the first time tipping her presence in the room towards equilibrium. Every- thing, everything, slowly sagged around her; something had col- lapsed with the body and she wondered what it was.
The taller man walked to the couch and sat beside her. After an amount of time he took a white handkerchief out of his breast pocket and wiped his forehead. She saw the silk had been stained through and through. He put it away and they sat next to each other looking at the piano.
The man shifted and tilted the cushion. “I am the best,” he said then, his shoulders hunched, his suit crumpled. “At this job I am the best, and I can take a piano. This one at your house has been no trouble for me and my efforts are now successful.” He stopped and sighed, and the sound of him exhaling surprised her so much.
When he turned and looked towards her she tried to catch his eyes but they pushed past. “You understand there are times when the world expands around you and there is nothing to do but put your head down and do your job to the best of your own ability. Do you understand this?” It didn’t occur to her to respond. He turned to look away again. “My own ability is very, very good.”
In that moment she remembered a day when the subway she rode to work had taken fifteen minutes longer than it usually did to get to the hospital. It happened between the third and fourth stops. She was sitting, swaying with the tracks and looking out at the black- ness of the tunnel, when it felt to her like they should have been at the next station. It didn’t come, and she looked at her watch, and it didn’t come, and she was certain it was taking much longer than usual. She began to look around, but everyone was reading their newspapers, or reviewing for an exam, or prepping for an explana- tory presentation at work, and no one seemed bothered. The station didn’t come, and she nearly asked the person next to her, who in tweed and glasses appeared to be a professor. But maybe the train was moving slower than normal, or there had been an announce- ment about a detour she had missed, although she guessed it would not be easy for a subway to take a detour. In any event, she prayed silently during the jostled, stretched minutes before the platform slid into view, and when the train came to a halt she stood up to get out but then sat down again, telling herself she was being silly. The hos- pital was only four stops away. So she made herself calm and waited them out. Lips glued together, she sat the long stretches of tunnel and flashes of station and waited them out.
The remaining man stood finally and walked over to his associate. He pulled the metal piece out and wiped the blood on the rug before replacing it in its box and the box in his coat. With some effort he slung the other man’s limp body over his shoulder, not managing it at first but finally bracing his leg against a side table.
“Do not worry about compensating us,” he said to her as he moved to leave. “Your husband has paid us exactly what we requested.” This time she caught herself praying and stopped. He turned again. “Your neighbors have paid us exactly what we requested.” He nodded quickly, as though they had both agreed. But, stepping outside, be- fore he closed the door behind him, he paused to say more gently, “I hope, I hope you do not understand.” And then, shifting the weight of his partner’s body on his shoulder, he was gone.
The house was so quiet it pressed on her ears. She saw the sun and the blood and the string and the piano, and the composition of the room struck her balanced and shadowed. At one point she had wanted Jerry to come home. In the hospital she could tell anyone how their lungs worked, taking up air and pushing it back out again, how the diaphragm created a vacuum in your chest that something outside had to rush and fill. She knew things like that very well.
The piano sat as if nothing had happened. After an amount of time she stood up and went over to the bench and sat down. She didn’t think about singing and stared at the keys. That handkerchief stained through and through… “I hope, I hope you do not under- stand.” But she didn’t even need to admit to herself that she did.
After an amount of time a motor shut off. A door opened. Her head sank and she closed her eyes and knew, in any event, she would wait it out.