June 1984, September 1986
On the phone he'd said, "This will be a delicate job."
greeted me in his driveway, where he had been standing, waiting,
wearing a pinstripe suit. Immediately he ushered me into the house
where a coldly furious woman sat at a table. "This is my wife, soon to
be my ex," Gordon said. "She has the list. Do whatever she says."
Then he departed.
It was a large house in Los Altos Hills, a
pricey suburb. There they'd raised six children, of whom the youngest
two were still in college. Gordon's soon-to-be-ex sat at the table with
a pen and a pad of paper. She wrote down my every action — for later
haggling in Divorce Court, I imagine. To her credit, she offered me a
glass of milk and a cup of decaf coffee. I accepted both. I
scrupulously avoided conversation. I had the distinct impression that
anything I said could and would be used against me — or more likely,
against Gordon, who had hired me and was paying the bill and who, I
admit, had my complete sympathy. For all I knew, she might be a lovely
woman, but fury is ugly.
I repaired walls, doors, floors — the
innocent damage inflicted by six growing children over a thirty year
span. It took three days, and the soon-to-be-ex monitored my every
Later, Gordon called me to settle the bill and to say, "I
want to thank you for entering a tough situation and doing a good job.
And for being who you are."
Two years later — September, 1986 —
he hired me again. He had a townhouse to remodel. He seemed many years
older. He had glaucoma and a limp. He still wore a pinstripe suit.
He explained his job to me: “When someone threatens to sue IBM, I’m
supposed to talk them out of it.” The bitter, hate-filled divorce had
left him sad, not angry.
A disassembled player piano was spread over the floor of his garage. Gordon asked me to reassemble. It would need some new parts, which would be costly, but of
course he'd pay for them. "I bought it for my midlife crisis," he
said. "I needed something beautiful and fun."
To be a
showpiece it would need more than new parts. Gouges, water stains,
cigar burns marked the woodwork. This would be a monster of a project.
"I have no idea how to assemble a player piano. But for pay, I'll give
it a try."
"I'll start tracking down the parts," Gordon said.
I rewired the garage, Gordon chatted with me. He seemed to regard me
as some kind of parallel universe that he might have entered but had
chosen not to. He wanted to know about my adventures in the 1960s as a
war-protesting, pot-smoking, hitchhiking hippie. And the girls. Was
everybody really fucking everybody?
Well, no. I told him it
wasn't nearly as wild as he might imagine, that I'd had a steady
girlfriend who was now my wife, and that mostly in the Sixties I had
been work-studying my way through college as a dishwasher, fry cook,
school bus driver, and light bulb changer.
"I completely missed the Sixties," he said. "Back then, I was still trying to be president of IBM."
young woman showed up. Gordon introduced her as Miranda. She looked
as I would expect a daughter of Gordon to look, except instead of the
female equivalent of pinstripes, she was dressed as a college student
and had the body of a dancer, lithe, light on her feet. She had lift
as they say — a posture as if a skyhook were attached to her chest,
lifting her as she moved. Dark-haired, energetic, she was carrying an
armload of college textbooks including Introduction to Art History. I liked her immediately.
"Are you fixing the piano?" she asked.
"Maybe," I said. "It might be more than I can handle."
"Isn't it weird?" She laughed. "Like a jukebox from another century. He bought it for me."
coughed. Recovering, he asked me to build a platform in his garage
where he could store some boxes and suitcases. "I know I should do it
myself," he said. He swept his hand in a circle, indicating the entire
townhouse. “I’m planning to stay here for the rest of my life and have
to accept the fact that I’ve reached the point where I have to pay for
certain services I used to take for granted.”
Miranda blushed. I hadn't thought Gordon was talking about that. But she blushed.
A couple months later, Gordon called me: "Remember that player piano?"
"Yes. Did you get the parts?"
"No. I want that thing out of my garage. You want it? Will you take it away?"
was tempted. Wouldn't it be cool to have a player piano in one's
living room? But I declined. Already I had three little kids at home,
beautiful and fun.
Now, though, twenty-five years later,
sometimes in daydreams I look back. The pleasure, the trophy I might
have had — impractical, lovely, ridiculous. The time, the money, the
hard work it would have taken, the space it would have occupied in my
house and in my life — the player piano is one of those things that got
away, like a woman to whom I might have said "Let's get together
sometime," and never did. Thank goodness.