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  • For weeks it has been out of tune. For weeks it has been unplayable. I've known this, and tried anyway, on occasion, but it was unbearable. I never lasted more than five minutes before being frustrated by the dissonance, unable to engage. It was awful.

    I've been too busy, or too lazy, or too distracted by everything else to deal with it, so I just walked away, leaving the big piano alone with its rotten middle C. To sit quietly. To collect dust. To rot some more.

    Until today, when my big toe barely touched the rock at the bottom, that big dark cold hard rock, the one that hurts. And I find myself home alone with my own middle C, equally rotten, dissonant, unplayable.

    The two of us, silent, brooding, voiceless, alone together in the living room. Alone in our togetherness. Together in our aloneness.

    Dammit, if there is one thing I can do, and only one thing, I can at least call the tuner. I can’t control anything else, but I can at least call the piano tuner.

    Please leave a message after the tone.

    Our middle C's are off
    No one can stand listening to us
    Yes, right in the middle
    The most important key
    It's rotten!
    We can't go on like this!
    It's an emergency!
    Don't you see?
    Listen...
    Can't you hear?


    Sigh. It's the Saturday before Easter. The piano tuner is definitely not sitting around waiting for my call. Nope.

    Maybe I can just turn it off? Maybe I can put something on it so that it doesn't resonate, something to keep just that one string silent, that one string among so many, that one really important string. Maybe a bit of tissue or tape or a pencil eraser. Even a dull thud would be better than that noise, that spine scratching, offensive don't-DO-that-again noise.

    I wake up the dust, move the tattered books and the family pictures aside, and take the pieces apart to examine the insides. Oh. Each key controls a felt hammer that strikes three strings. I didn't know that. And only one of the three is out of tune. I didn't know that either. Oh. And here is the metal pin that is connected to that string. Oh.

    Well. I can tune a violin. I can tune a guitar. This is really the same thing. It's just one note. It's just one string. Just a little twist of that pin is all it should take. What could go wrong? It's already rotten. We are already unlistenable.

    With an adjustable wrench poised, it occurs to me that actually there are things that could go wrong. Very wrong. I could snap the string and it could hit me in the face, cutting, scarring, blinding. It would hurt. It would bleed. It would be permanent. Or I could strip the pin with my not-quite-right tool, rendering the piano never again tuneable. A rotten middle C, in perpetuity.

    But I'm in that foolish-desperate-determined state where I need to fix what is not right. I can't turn back. It's just not possible.

    I summon a bit of courage, a bit of care, a bit of strength. I inch the pin clockwise, then counter-clockwise, a bit too sharp, a bit too flat. A bit less than a bit now. A bit less than that. It doesn't need to be perfect, I assure myself, just close enough. Just close enough that it matches the other two strings. Just close enough that you can stand to be in the same room together, that others can stand to be in the same room, with you.

    There! I think I've got it. Yes. It's there. Wow. I did it. Do It Yourself piano tuning. Who would have thought it possible? I smile, maybe even laugh a little.

    I put the piano parts back together. I sit down to play that Bach Prelude, the one in A-flat major. Four measures in I hit the D-flat. Or rather it hits me. Ouch. I must have knocked it off with the wrench. It hadn't occurred to me that that minor adjustment would have a cascading effect. A moving up of being out, a never-ending, a never-quite-right, a you-are-making-the-problem-so-much-worse-you-better-give-up-now kind of thing.

    Deep, heavy, breathy, open-mouthed sigh.

    I disassemble everything again. Thankfully it adjusts easily. I am relieved. I check the keys on either side. All okay. I think this is okay. I think this will work.

    I try the Prelude again. It's not perfect, Lord, it's never perfect. But we can do this. We can get through it. We work at it for an hour, taking apart the phrases, the measures, the notes, putting them back together again. Getting lost and then found, in the math of it all, in the music of it all. Inching our way up from the rock at the bottom, moving around and away and beyond and back again -- to that string, to that note, to that core -- of our mostly, close enough, back-in-tune middle C's.
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