The Piano Tuner
Rain was pouring down from the skies causing mud puddles to turn into streams and parts of the dirt road to wash out. Still, Vlatko made his way down the mile-long driveway to the lone house on the lake. He parked the car, turned the ignition off and noticed the wipers stopped mid-way on the windshield as if his timing was slightly off. Vlatko always thought windshield wipers reminded him of a metronome, the tool musicians use to maintain a consistent tempo while playing music.
Sitting in the driver’s seat, he paused and looked at the view which despite the rain, always took his breath away: a beautiful small hidden lake beneath 30 foot rock cliffs and surrounded by a wavy green Spruce tree line. On a sunny day when the afternoon rays were at just the right angle, the cliff and trees would be reflected onto the water but there would be little reflection today as the dark clouds and torrential downpour so conducive to life in the Adirondacks were blocking the sunshine. And yet, the lake, the cliffs, and the trees still formed a beautiful backdrop to the brown house on the lake.
The modern octagon-shaped residence on Crystal Lake was his last appointment of the day – a service call to tune a piano for a family who spent the summers at this remote retreat. Vlatko tried to envision their days – hikes in the forest, kayaking on the lake, picnics on the rocky beach, barbecues on the wooden deck, kids and dogs jumping off the dock into the cold lake water, evenings spent around the fire pit on a cliff that overlooked the house and the lake – and in between all those activities, the little girl would be practicing her piano, her scales…which his why he came every summer to tune the 1968 brown Baldwin piano with the white e chord that always stuck.
Vlatko gathered his old black leather briefcase that looked like a doctor’s bag from another era. Inside were the tools he needed – the tuning lever, the tip wench, the tuning forks, the mutes, screwdrivers, flashlights, and microfiber cloths. These tools along with his ear allowed him to make the piano accurate and stable – the two most important aspects of tuning a sensitive instrument.
He walked down the stone covered steps and pushed the circular yellowed button to the left of the front door and heard a ring that reminded him of the sounds at the auto repair garage in Lake George. A little blond-haired girl answered the door and after telling her who he was, she yelled “mommy, Batko, the piano man is here.” His name always baffled children. The mother of the little girl appeared and welcomed him into the house, taking his dripping raincoat and asking if he would like a soft drink or a glass of water. He graciously accepted the glass of water (as he remembered the crisp clean flavor of the ice-cold well water from previous visits) and when she handed it to him, he looked at her – she was tall and thin, athletic looking with the leanness, highlighted hair, and white teeth that comes with a life that seems without struggles.
The piano tuner wondered if she ever told her husband not to come home early, to work longer hours and make more money like his wife told him when he walked in the back door on some afternoons. That he left five mornings a week in his late-model Honda at 8:00 am and returned by 5:00 pm did not please her. She complained of too little money, the many needs of the children, and the general disrepair of the small house they’ve lived in for 19 years. He loved her, wanted to make her happy but he also loved being home with his three boys and playing his violin.
Work was work and his ambitions were limited, even he admitted so much. He thought about America when he was young and had first come to this country to study music. Back then he didn’t think much about making money – focusing only on his music and the passions of a man in his youth. He shared an apartment with three other students while he studied the violin never envisioning a future that wouldn’t include a position in an orchestra where his evenings would be filled with performances and his days with practice and enjoying life. But that was not to be.
Vlatko first saw his future wife when he was playing the violin in the park. She was sitting on a wooden bench absorbed in a book when she lifted her head to better hear the music. He couldn’t take his eyes off her as she listened to the music he was playing for her, although she didn’t realize this. When he placed his bow down for the final time, she glanced at him and he walked to her. He bowed to her in an exaggerated way with his violin in one hand and bow in the other and she smiled, blushed, and told him his music was beautiful.
He asked her to have coffee with him and when they settled at a small table by a picture window at the cafe, Susan talked about her books – she was studying to be a librarian – and he talked about his violin and the orchestra he would be part of one day. He told her he was from Poland and had come to America to study music. She was from Buffalo, the only child of two teachers who devoted their lives to academia. They shared stories of their childhood and realized they both grew up without a television and were no less for it. He had his music and she had her books and over time they came to have each other.
For years he tried to obtain a violinist slot in an orchestra without success. It seemed that a musician had to die before a position opened up (and this rarely happened) so he took short-term jobs with summer music festivals which is how Vlatko and Susan came to settle in upstate New York. They had spent a summer in Saratoga Springs and filled their days reading and hiking the trails of the Adirondacks when he wasn’t practicing his violin or filling the summer guest violin slot with the orchestra at the Performing Arts Center. They went to the Farmer’s Market twice a week and grew to love the simplicity of their life. With little job prospects elsewhere, they decided to stay.
They rented and eventually bought a small dilapidated house on a plot of land fifteen miles north of Saratoga in a rural area where they settled and enjoyed the tranquility of living in the woods. Susan found a part-time position at the local library but demand for Vlatko’s violin skills were limited to summer or holiday jobs and so he started tuning pianos. A good piano tuner requires a trained ear which his violin training had honed and his expertise was quickly sought after by the schools and piano owners in the region. Vlatko would travel up to two hours to reach the rural homes so there was a limit to how many pianos he could tune in a day although there was always a piano that needed tuning. The income was steady but it seemed with each new baby they added to their family, there was never enough money.
When Vlatko finished tuning the piano in the lone house on the lake, the mother of the little girl wrote him a check and upon learning her piano was his last call of the day, commented on how lucky he was to have the rest of the afternoon free for the rain had moved on and the sun was peeking through the fast-moving clouds. Surely, his boys would be thrilled to have their papa to swim or play ball with. He glanced at this watch and briefly acknowledged his good fortune before realizing how disappointed his wife would be to see his early arrival and he tried not to let this knowledge make him sad. He realized the love that carried them through their 20’s gave way to the realities of their 40’s with three children and a mortgage and then wondered why nobody ever told him this is what would happen.