June 1984, September 1986
On the phone he'd said, "This will be a delicate job."
Gordon 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 moment.
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.
As 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."
A 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."
Gordon 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?"
I 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.