Statement of Record

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A

During the walk from his Avenue B apartment to Second Avenue, Conlon gradually transformed himself into a blind man. He had recently gotten an app for Uber, and his habit now was to have a car pick him up at least three long avenues away, where he was less likely to run into anyone who knew him as Dennis Conlon, a piano tuner with perfectly good eyesight. He carried his tool case over his shoulder. He took jobs only across the Hudson now. Commuting by car was more expensive than the subway to Port Authority and then a bus to Jersey, but he was less likely to be unmasked. He didn’t miss the slow descent underground, especially in summer, pretending to feel his way, his piano-tuning case in one hand, his walking stick waving in the other. Once, standing on the F train, he could see four young men—they were still boys, really—eyeing his tool case, as though it held more valuable things than wrenches, calipers, hammers, sandpaper, a tuning fork, and disinfectant. The boys took turns slapping the case, testing him to see how much he could stand. No one in the subway car was coming to his rescue. Conlon said nothing until one of the boys kicked the case; then he whipped out his retractable walking stick with the authority of a British schoolmaster. The case-kicker grinned but retreated, unwilling to take on a blind man brandishing a metal rod.

*

On Third Avenue near St. Marks, Stella the Uber driver came around to pilot Conlon into the back seat. Stella had never driven him before. She must have been seventy. After nearly two years of blind man masquerades, Conlon was still trying to sand down the guilt he felt whenever anyone helped him. Stella couldn’t lift his tool case and asked what the hell was in there. He was on his way to Alpine, New Jersey, he explained, to tune a piano for Melody McCracken, who had won a Grammy Award several years earlier.

“Hey, I know her!” Stella said in a strong Brooklyn accent. Conlon’s inner Henry Higgins fixed its source as Bay Ridge. “’Unfastened?’ Terrific song!” Conlon murmured in agreement, but he would not be disappointed if he never heard the song again. Stella asked if he wanted her to take the Lincoln Tunnel or the George Washington Bridge. He said the bridge. He asked her how she got the job.

“I was working in HR down on Broad Street and then I get laid off. Two days later I see an ad for drivers on the side of a bus.”

“How’s it been going?”

“Gas is cheap, so I’m doing okay,” Stella said. “But what happens when it goes back up? I’d like to leave something to the grandkids. You’re lucky; there’s always pianos need tuning. How did you get into that racket, anyway?”

From behind his shades, Conlon saw Stella glance at him in the rear-view mirror. He gave her some history that was close to the truth. Conlon’s pitch wasn’t perfect, but almost. He had arrived at college as a music major but soon realized how pedestrian his playing was—he had a wide repertoire but, compared with some of his classmates, not much technique—and he began to apprentice with the university piano tuner, a man with a liver-spotted bald head, fingers like sausages, and a surprisingly light touch. “My folks figured I might be able to support myself,” Conlon said, unable to refrain from a little embellishment, “instead of depending on them for everything.”

“Can they—if you don’t mind my asking—can your folks see?” said Stella

“You mean, how’s their vision?”

“Yeah!”

“Well, they both wear glasses,” Conlon said, and Stella laughed. She got off the bridge at Hudson Terrace and drove up 9W.

Conlon was grateful she didn’t ask him about his own blindness. If he were being truthful, the masquerade stemmed from his ambivalence about being a father, and Betsy’s subsequent decision to terminate her pregnancy. They were still living together then. After the abortion, Betsy wept in bed and let him drape his arms around her. That week, Conlon tuned a Bosendorfer for the blind jazz pianist Sal D’Angelo, who proudly pointed out an old poster he kept on his wall—Sal D’Angelo, Famous Blind Pianist!—and demonstrated how he coaxed insane barking from his dog by playing “Happiness.” Conlon was impressed by D’Angelo’s collection of books on vinyl, provided by the National Federation of the Blind, stacked on the top of an old hi-fi. “I speed-read,” D’Angelo said. “They’re recorded at 33 but I play ‘em at 78. Even John Gielgud sounds like a fuckin’ chipmunk.” Conlon, in his head narrating the scene to Betsy, asked D’Angelo if he could bring his girlfriend by sometime. “Will she put out for a blind guy?” said D’Angelo, whose punctuating cackle was dispiriting, but not so much that Conlon stopped thinking Betsy might be charmed.

He never did bring Betsy over. He went home that evening and poured himself a bourbon and water. Savoring the second or third gulp, he sensed things weren’t right. Betsy’s framed one-sheet of Vertigo was no longer on the wall facing the fridge. Her plates and pots and pans were gone from the cupboard, her blues and classical CDs withdrawn from the shelves. She was so tidy that she had removed her clothes from the garment rack they kept in the sleeping alcove in lieu of a closet, disturbing his stuff not at all, and had taken her grandmother’s afghan that she had kept wrapped beneath the bed. Her note, the size of miniaturized sheet music, was propped up on the lid of the spinet: I’ll come back for the rest. Be well. Later, she instructed him to take her name off the lease. He did so, though he prayed for a miracle—that this had all been a dream, or that she had changed her mind. Be well.

The Goldenbergs, of Fairlawn, New Jersey, wanted their Baldwin tuned because their daughter was beginning lessons, and a friend of Conlon’s told them he knew a piano tuner who had recently worked for Sal D’Angelo, Famous Blind Pianist. The Goldenbergs misunderstood and, asking Conlon if he would have difficulty coming out to them, assumed he was blind. Conlon, who barely slept anymore, the pouches beneath his eyes turning purple, then blue, figured he might as well have been. He went back and forth between hating Betsy for abandoning him and understanding that, at 36, two years younger than he, she didn’t want to waste any more time with his ambivalence. If he could have, he would have torn his eyes out. Someone had left an old wooden cane in the garbage put on Avenue B; he retrieved it, grimy as it was, and it became his first instrument he played at being blind. The second was the piano. He showed up in Fairlawn as a blind piano tuner, taking the bus because it was cheap and because he was feeling sorry for himself. The Goldenbergs paid him twice his usual fee. He might never love again, but financially he was prospering. Clients referred him to one another, rewarding him with compliments and enough money to enable him to keep the East Village apartment that he and Betsy had shared.

*

The Alpine homes, set back from the road, reeked of affluence and pre-fab construction. This was not the New Jersey that Conlon was familiar with; then again, he didn’t usually tune the pianos of famous pop artists. Conlon pretended to fumble with the back door handle and allowed Stella to take his elbow and steer him to Melody McCracken’s house. Conlon held out a twenty.

“You already paid for this, honey,” Stella said.

“Above and beyond,” Conlon said. “Please take it.” She took it. “And may I say, Stella, you are looking fine today.”

Stella laughed. “You kill me! That’s Chanel Number Five you’re lookin’ at!”

The doorbell was a three-inch-high brass treble clef. Stella pressed it. The chimes played two bars of the hit McCracken song.

“There it is,” Stella said, humming the patch of melody that followed.  “Want me to wait and drive you back?”

“Thanks, but this could take hours, ‘specially if I run into problems.”

The door opened and a small, pale pregnant woman stood in the doorway. “Well, the piano tuner!” the woman said. In his quick glance, shielded by his sunglasses, Conlon saw she was wearing flip-flops and sweatpants and a peasant shirt with the sleeves rolled up and the top two buttons open.

“Ms. McCracken?” said Conlon.

“Padma. The Grammy winner’s not home yet, but she’d like you to get started.”

“You’re getting the best in the business!” called Stella, before she got back into her car.

“What is she, your mother?” said Padma, ushering him across the threshold.

“Maybe,” Conlon said. “Does she look like me?”

Padma brought him into a long living room whitewashed by a skylight. They heard Stella’s car roll away from the house. Conlon made a show of feeling for the edges of the piano bench and placed his tool case on the floor. He stretched a hand toward the keyboard—Mason & Hamlin was stenciled above it—and said, “May I?” and Padma said, “That’s what you’re here for.” As he lowered himself onto the piano bench, her swollen belly brushed against his ribs. He said, “Excuse me! Sorry!” and she said, “No worries. It’s just a baby. Do you want to feel it?” “Well,” he said. He had always been wary of how people thought nothing of touching an expectant mother’s stomach.

“Feel,” Padma said, placing his hand there.

“A soccer player!” said Conlon, nodding and removing his hand. He went back to the safety of the keys and played a few notes, then gathered speed, listening for flat pitch.

“What is that?” said Padma.

“’Parisian Thoroughfare.’ Gives me an idea of what’s going on inside.”

“Can’t you do that with ‘Chopsticks’?” She was teasing him. He thought of Padma as an Indian name, but this woman was not Indian. She was bursting out of her peasant shirt, but she hovered so near that he couldn’t look without giving himself away.

“’Chopsticks’ could tell us a thing or two,” Conlon said. “But usually we start at A-four-forty, four white keys above middle C.”

“Fascinating,” Padma said, meaning the opposite.

“You probably know all this.”

“Why should I know it? I’m not a musician.”

“No?” Conlon pulled out a set of wrenches. “Do you work for Melody?”

“I used to. Now I’m the Grammy winner’s wife.”

“Ah,” Conlon said, his voice looking away as his eyes might have. He began the process of testing and tuning more than two hundred thirty piano strings. It would take a while before the strings were properly related to one another.

“Could you use some air conditioning?”

“Okay for now,” Conlon said. “I can hear better without the blowing.”

“Coffee, then?”

“That would be great.”

“Milk and sugar?”

“Black, thanks.”

She went away. Sometimes Padma seemed to be looking at him as though she wasn’t buying the blind routine. Once on the N train, listening to a “blind” panhandler sing “A Change Is Gonna Come,” Conlon was seated across from a Dahomey princess with almond-shaped eyes. He knew not to stare. But then as the panhandler reached the end of his song—Bring it, yeah, bring it on home to me—Conlon saw him wink at the woman, who just stared right back at him. Now Conlon heard the gabble of a coffee-maker. The Mason & Hamlin had a decent action, but the pitch was off in too many spots. He knew he’d be pinging through the afternoon, turning his wrench ever so slightly until he heard what he wanted.

“Your coffee’s on top on the left side,” Padma said, placing a coaster and the cup on top of it. “Unless you want me to hand it to you.”

“That’s not necessary.” Conlon said. More buttons on her shirt had come undone, her cleavage blooming before him. He felt along the top of the piano for the coffee cup and snagged the handle. He sniffed the coffee.

“Humid,” she said.

“Yeah. Not so good for the piano.”

“Or for us.” She sighed. At first Conlon thought she was referring to herself and to him. As she moved away, her flip-flops popping along the floor, he figured she must have meant herself and the baby she was carrying. Moving onto A-sharp, Conlon was curious who the father was, or if she knew the father. For the past two years the very idea of pregnancy filled him with regret. He had proved himself unworthy of Betsy and blown his shot at fatherhood.

Conlon was checking the balance of the piano’s rail pin when he heard Padma return to the doorway. Yet she didn’t move. He changed hands to feel for the keys’ bushings and got a blink’s view of her. She had opened her shirt so that, no more than six feet away from him, her belly, shiny beneath the skylight, and engorged breasts were exposed. She seemed to be testing him, if not testing herself. He swallowed—too loudly, he feared. He played several notes individually and, bending an ear to the piano as if to better hear but really to just keep looking, turned to her. Padma inhaled and exhaled, basking in his supposedly sightless gaze. He had not touched, nor been touched by, a woman since Betsy had moved out.

The front door opened—they both heard it—and Padma began to fumble with the buttons on her shirt. He tried not to be infected by her panic.

“What the fuck do you think you’re doing?” Padma’s wife, Melody McCracken, had caught her with her shirt still halfway open. “Did you touch him?”

“No! I let him feel the baby.”

“You let him?”

“I took his hand and placed it on me. Don’t have a cow! Who were you with?”

“You let him see you!”

See me? He’s blind, sweetie! It’s about time you came back to the real world! Who were you with?”

“I was in midtown trying to squeeze a few more bucks out of Business Affairs! For you! For the three of us! And I come home to find you giving this guy a lap dance!”

“I didn’t touch him!”

“Do you want me to get sued?”

Trying to block out the couple’s bickering, Conlon played a note and tested the damper. This qualified as one of his stranger house calls. There was the time he spent hours tuning a Baldwin baby grand—this was before he pretended to be blind and charged half what he charged now—feather-tuning and hammering each pin, but then he had forgotten to anchor the piano legs, so when the client played that night, the piano rolled away and crashed into a glass coffee table. “Mea culpa,” the client said sarcastically. “I should never play Liszt after dinner!” There was the time Conlon found bits of felt scattered in the piano and he had to tell the clients they had mice; it meant disinfecting the piano keys and placing mothballs inside the works.

Wrapping up, Conlon played through a couple of choruses of “Bemsha Swing,” the blue notes mashing playfully into each other, then switched over to a florid Scriabin prelude to show off the entire keyboard. Padma had retreated to another part of the house. Satisfied, Melody McCracken waved a check in front of him. “My business manager usually does this, but I forgot to tell her about it, so—here,” and she folded the check, placed it in Conlon’s breast pocket, and patted the pocket protectively, almost maternally. “It’s what you guys agreed on.” Assuring her the check would be fine, Conlon got a glimpse of the anger in her eyes. He called for a car, then packed his tools.

As Conlon ducked into the car, the songwriter shut her front door. He wished she had waved. But why wave at someone who can’t see? The driver, who sounded like he came from St. Kitts, maybe Nevis, drove him back across the GW Bridge and down the West Side Highway while listening to something on his earphones. Grateful not to have to make conversation, Conlon kept flashing on Padma—on her ripeness, her loneliness. Did she find it thrilling to exhibit herself to someone who couldn’t see her, even if he really could? Well, he found it thrilling.

*

Walking east on Astor Place, Conlon retracted his cane but kept his shades on. He checked his phone. There was a message from Melody McCracken: would he please return the call at his earliest convenience? Uh oh. Had he made mistakes? Had her ears detected a flat note? Up ahead, emerging from the sidewalk cluster on St. Marks, a handsome couple came toward him—the man bearded in a trimmed, TV bachelor contestant way and carrying a horn case, the woman looking disconcertingly like a blonder version of Betsy.

“Hey, you!” It was, in fact, Betsy. ‘What’s with the Ray Charles?”

Conlon had not seen her for nearly a year. “What? You mean the sunglasses?”

“Your head is moving like one of those bobble dolls.”

“What are you doing in the neighborhood?” said Conlon.

“P.J.’s playing a concert at Cooper Union. P.J., this is Conlon.”

“Ah, the famous Conlon,” said P.J., quickly shaking his hand, then pulling Betsy away. “Hey, I was due on stage like, ten minutes ago.”

“Good to meet you,” Conlon said awkwardly. “Your hair looks different,” he said to Betsy.

“Highlights,” she called over her shoulder, making little running steps to keep up with P. J. “We should catch up!”

Conlon watched them wade into the vast space of Cooper Square. He had never pulled her along like that. She would not have permitted it.

*

At home he poured himself an Evan Williams—half the price of Jack Daniel’s, it was the brand he could afford when he’d started out, and he was too loyal to switch now—and glanced at the calendar on his phone. We should catch up, whatever that meant. This week he had to replace broken hammers on a Chickering at a church in Newark and repair a cracked bridge out in Sparta. An Uber ride there and back would be a luxury. Fortified for bad news, he called Melody MacCracken.

“Mr. Conlon!” she said, his number evidently coming up on her phone. “Did you make it home okay?”

“Yeah, thanks, I’m an old hand at commuting. Is there a problem with the piano?”

“Hold on, please. Padma has something to say to you.” Waiting for Padma to take the phone, Conlon took another gulp of bourbon.

“Hello?” said Padma, her voice more tentative, girlish than it was in person. “I’m really sorry if I distracted you today.”

“Not at all,” Conlon said. That was a lie. He would be thinking about that lush pregnant body—the basketball-round belly, the stretch marks that looked like parentheses, the blue-veined breasts, the roughened, wide brown nipples—for a while. Conlon could hear the women whispering on the other end. “I got the piano tuned—unless Ms. McCracken isn’t pleased.”

“She’s pleased, she’s pleased,” Padma said. There was a fierce mumble from McCracken, then Padma said, “Melody says I have trouble remaining neutral. She reminded me immoderation is a good thing in music and art, but not so much otherwise.”

“She is a wise person,” Conlon said, trying to stay neutral himself.

McCracken came back on the line. “It’s me again. May I call you Dennis?”

“Yeah, of course.”

“Dennis, let me ask you: do you have a partner?”

“A business partner?”

“A wife. A husband. A lover.”

“Yeah,” Conlon said. That was another lie. He had been alone for two years now.

“A name?” asked McCracken. “Will you give me a name?”

Before he could suppress it, the name shot from his mouth.  “Betsy.”

“I’m going to write a song for you,” McCracken said. “On the piano you tuned today. We’ll call it ‘Betsy.’ Would you like that?”

“I would be honored,” Conlon said. He imagined the completed song, three and a half minutes of tough love. Or treacle. McCracken would win another Grammy. From his breast pocket, he took out her check: the fee was correct but she had neglected to sign it. Fixing it might require another trip to Alpine. Maybe he would even take the bus.

***

About the author

Gary Marmorstein has written about film, theater, and popular music for The New York TimesThe Los Angeles Times, and Stagebill, among other publications, and is the author of A Ship without a Sail: The Life of Lorenz Hart, The Label: The Story of Columbia Records and Hollywood Rhapsody: The Story of Movie Music, 1900-1975.He lives in New Jersey.

Statement of Record