The Day We Burned a Piano

Nick  and I stood in the empty living room quietly staring at the piano.  We had sold the farm after my parents died and now were clearing it out for the new owners.  Some of the contents stayed with the house and others were distributed among siblings, but the piano was unclaimed.  What were we going to do with it?   I couldn’t bear the idea of trekking back up to the farm with a rented van and finding someone to help me load it. Where was I going to take it anyway?  Phil, the neighbor who lived at the end of the driveway, walked in and stood with us.  Minutes ticked by.

Suddenly Phil said, “Let’s burn that fucker.”

Okay, the piano wasn’t worth much.  After all, it was a player piano.  You inserted a paper roll of music with punched out holes.  A motor, which made the piano really heavy, turned the roll and out came the music, but only barely recognizable since the holes were hard to line up properly.   But who burns a piano? That seemed sacrilegious.  A piano represents music, the arts and creativity.  Wouldn’t it be like torching a set of Dickens or a printing press?  Burning Mozart, Bach, Alicia Keys at the stake?  And is a piano even flammable, aren’t there a lot of wires and metal in there?

Phil’s solution hung in the air. Then the two of us spoke in unison, “Yeah, let’s burn it!”

We lurched and heaved the piano into the back of Phil’s pick-up truck.  While we packed up the rest of the sundries (I still have a roll of wax paper from the farm) Phil drove the piano somewhere into the back field, dumped it, poured gas over the frame, and lit it.   I felt too guilty to watch.

On a recent Sunday afternoon, the incident came flooding back in exquisite detail.  I heard our voices echoing in the empty living room and saw the discolored patches on the wall where pictures had hung.  Dead flies and one moth dotted the windowsill and the slanting sunlight highlighted a vast collection of dust motes.  I pictured Phil standing there in his stained Carhart jacket and cracked work boots, holding a spit cup for his chaw of tobacco.  Why did I remember this incident at all, and why did it come bubbling up as Nick and I sat quietly reading the paper?

My thoughts drifted back to the colorful fifteen-year chapter in my parents’ retirement.  They had bought a weekend hobby farm in Wisconsin, an hour and a half from their suburban home north of Chicago.  Neither of them had any farming skills, but they warmed to the idea of a unique project to fill their empty-nesting days.  Their farmhouse sat atop a hill overlooking a small pond, where their grandchildren spent many afternoons on a rope swing hung from an overhanging branch.  The rolling land was not ideal for farming, but was suitable for cross country skiing in the winter.  They grew some feed corn and raised a few beef cows.  My father liked to point out that the money he lost on the whole operation was tax deductible.

Phil, who worked at a nearby factory, became vital to the whole operation.  He would tell my father how many cows to buy, what kind feed to buy, what model of tractor to buy, and when to send the cows to the butcher.  When a cow died in the barn, Phil knew how to summon the renderer to pick up the bloated corpse.  Phil knew how to snake toilet but also to fix the snake.  He was the epitome of a boots-on-the-ground problem-solver.

My father would arrive on the weekend and start doing the chores Phil had set out for him.  I remember my father, wearing his trademark crisp khakis, shovel shit out of the barn while Phil supervised from the fence.  “What the fuck, Ralph put that crapload of shit over there,”  he barked and then spat.

My father looked up, a piece of straw stuck in his hair, and dutifully slung manure to the appointed spot.  His khaki pants became stained and worn, his hands cracked and calloused. The whole time that he worked the farm, I don’t think his hands were ever completely clean, but his standard was now Phil’s and that was good enough.  After a career in coat and tie with demanding clients, he appreciated uncomplicated physical labor.

Phil had the filthiest language imaginable, every sentence was studded with F-words, used as nouns, verbs, adjectives and adverbs, often strung together into a vulgar garland.  I doubt if my father used an F-bomb in his entire life, though I did hear him say “Bullshit” once. Now he could take vicarious pleasure in the company of a champion swearer.

Phil immediately cleaned up his language when my father’s suburban friends came to visit.  He didn’t swear in front of just anyone and my father was proud to be one of the chosen few, a visible sign of Phil’s acceptance and trust.  One of my father’s signature characteristics was his absolute lack of pretension.  He often referred to his suburban peer group as “swells” or “white shoe boys.”   Phil picked up on this; the acceptance was mutual.

My father would have looked to Phil for practical advice on the piano.  As I turned the memory over in my mind, I imagined Phil expanding on his advice to us, “Shit Ralph, what the fuck are you going to do with such a crap piano – it’s out of tune, plays like fuck, and the fucking asshole has not yet been born who would want the fucker.  Let’s burn it up.”  And like Nick and I, my father would have smiled and agreed, grateful for Phil’s brilliant plan, a solution we would never have thought of ourselves.  Who burns a piano?  Well why not?

I set my paper down and looked across at Nick.  “Hey, do you remember that time when we were getting rid of all the junk at the farm”

The  memory deepened as I realized that Nick’s presence was a key part of the event.  He had spent hours on all the negotiations and paperwork on the farm sale; the piano was merely mop-up duty.   There was no compelling reason for him to be there other than his unwavering support and love for my father.

Nick nodded and said, “You mean, ‘let’s burn that fucker’?”  We both smiled and returned to our reading.

I felt the comforting weight of our 37 year marriage.  The memory glowed quietly between us, perfect in every detail.  I knew that Nick was also thinking of the triangular relationship between Phil, my father and a smoldering piano.  I imagined the next owner walking through his field and puzzling over a pile of ashes mixed with metal bits and piano pedals.  If I could find that pile again, I would raise a toast to Nick, my father and Phil.

I now wanted to put the memory into regular rotation.  Over the years I have concocted family code phrases signaling that it is time to go.  For years the phrase has been, “Have you pleasured the bear?” derived from a sanitized punch line to an awkward joke we once heard at a banquet.  It is time to retire the bear.  As of this writing, here is our new family expression, “Are you ready to burn a piano?”

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