April 2012 - Comments Off on The Piano Tuner

The Piano Tuner


My grandfather died when I was sixteen. I’m not sure how exactly. Heart attack? Embolism? He collapsed one morning on the gold-flecked linoleum floor of the hallway between the kitchen and the parlor of the house in Flushing where he and my grandmother had lived since forever, since before (or so they said) a single Asian had arrived in Queens and all the store signs were replaced with Korean hieroglyphics and their Jewish neighbors decamped for Brooklyn. I don’t know if my grandfather died there in the house or in the ambulance or on a cold narrow cot in the hospital, but I do know that when my dad called to tell me the news I didn’t feel anything about it at all.

My grandfather’s name was Fred Zander, formerly Fritz Zander, once of the Zanders of Berlin and now the last patriarch of the Zanders of New York City. I called him Opa, which is the German word for grandfather. I did this even though he wasn’t really German but Jewish, and Jews, Opa told me, are always really Jewish no matter what country they happen to come from. Even though Opa was Jewish he hadn’t wanted a rabbi at his funeral—had, I later found out, specifically forbidden it. A rabbi showed up anyway. I don’t know who arranged for this but suspect my Aunt Caroline, who is the kind of person who never throws out the computer manual or wears white after Labor Day and thinks that having a religious figure at a funeral is compulsory.

The rabbi knew Opa as his piano tuner. They had spoken Yiddish together, the rabbi said. I hadn’t known Opa could speak Yiddish. The rabbi was a nice man and did his best, but it was clear he hadn’t really known Opa all that well and I couldn’t help looking at him as an imposter. I thought of Opa working on the rabbi’s piano. I imagined him rolling up his sleeves and plunging waist-deep into the belly of the organ, the wood vibrating around him like the muscle walls of a living heart as he plucked wires with the precision of a surgeon, making minute, deft adjustments until the valves pumped a rich aortic symphony under his hands. All this while the rabbi sat in his easy chair reading the paper.

I played this scene over in my mind as the rabbi talked until by the end of his speech I had convinced myself that Opa had been mortally insulted by this bourgeoisie pulpitarian, this self-righteous Talmudic fraud. I could barely bring myself to shake the rabbi’s hand. When he complimented my dress I wanted to hit him.

In retrospect, I should have been grateful the rabbi came at all. The overlarge funeral parlor made it painfully clear how very few mourners were in attendance. The room was almost empty. Most of my grandparents’ friends were dead, or, more likely, too old and lethargic to make the trip from Brooklyn. Perhaps they had even forgotten about the old man with the blue beret, the fraying suspenders and the thick-rimmed bifocals hanging from a cord around his neck. Perhaps they remembered instead only the handsome young piano tuner with the bootblack hair and clever, calloused hands. Such forgetting happened when people got old. When Opa had been admitted to the emergency room the week previous (chest pains? headache?) he hadn’t known what year it was, or who the president was, and kept glancing at my grandmother in confusion, as if wondering how this withered-apple woman had come to replace his wife.

The next speaker was Opa’s cousin, a famous sex therapist in a black pantsuit. Opa had all of the sex therapist’s books on a shelf over his desk, and once I was old enough to understand what the books were about I averted my eyes from them, embarrassed, and tried not to wonder what they were doing in his office. I hadn’t known that the famous sex therapist was his cousin. My grandmother didn’t get along with her and she was spoken of only in those strained, disapproving tones with which mention is made of illegitimate children in BBC costume dramas. This could have been due to sex therapist’s profession, but I suspect my grandmother simply disliked her, was, perhaps, even jealous of her. The sex therapist was after all a rich and successful woman, while my grandmother was only a secretary, married to a Jewish piano tuner.

The famous sex therapist talked about growing up with Opa in Berlin. She was an impoverished relative; his family owned a chain of movie theaters and had a chauffeur. They collected art, she said, then waved her hand as if to disperse a bad smell. The Nazis took it all, of course. I think of visiting the Met with Opa, him stopping suddenly in front of a painting, staring hard, frowning. I wonder if what I had taken for amateur interest was in fact a moment of recognition.


After the funeral we returned to the house in Flushing. Aunt Caroline marched around the living room thrusting trays of nuts and raw vegetables at the guests. She side-eyed the guys from my dad’s Alcoholics Anonymous biker group, who were tracking graveyard dirt between the treads of their combat boots. My dad stood by the fireplace with a scotch in his fist, the muscles in his face clenching and unclenching as he stared hard into the middle distance. His new wife clung to his arm and watched his eyes redden and blear with an expression of mingled dismay and resignation. His ex-fiancée looked on from across the room, nursing a seltzer and picking absently at the radiation burns on her arm. My mother was outside chain-smoking.

Somewhere between the eulogy and the burial my grandmother and the famous sex therapist had found time to put their contention temporarily aside, like a hat ill-suited for the season. They sat hip to hip on the couch and murmured to one another in French.

Someone (probably Caroline) had put an old home movie in the VHS. Muted images flickered across the screen. Christmas morning, my cousins serene amidst a carnage of torn paper and ribbons; my grandmother and I throwing baguette crusts at the ducks in Kissena Park; someone’s birthday cake. I was watching my sister run across the lawn of our vacation house on stubby toddler legs when suddenly a blurred shadow appeared in the frame. The image shifted, refocused: the shadow resolved itself into the palm of a hand. It was Opa, adjusting the lens.

During all the hours of footage Opa shot of us he had always remained a disembodied presence behind the camera. Sometimes he would speak, cajoling us into a smile, but more often he was silent. Now, seeing his hand hover on the screen, I felt as though I was witnessing one of the spectral apparitions that manifest in the Polaroids of eager tourists. After a moment the focus changed again and the hand withdrew—no more substantial than a glimmer on the lens, a ghost in a bad photograph.

Published by: in Prose, Volume 68

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