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Copyright © 2009

Lynn Maleh

Sugar Pills


That was the spring I forgot to notice. I knew I was in trouble when the irises grew in, but I was still wearing earmuffs. I must have been blocking out sound, because somehow, I had been feeling out of tune. It only made sense to call the piano tuner. I searched for him through the Yellow Pages and liked his name best: Chris Pleim Piano Services. It came out like plums; he arrived like licked envelopes.


His eyes were all pupil when we first met. Men wear their hearts on their pupils—two black beetles revealing their intentions. I complimented his watch but was really complimenting the tone of his skin against its silver. His lips turned lopsided with the unexpected flattery.


It felt a bit silly, explaining my situation, as if I had gone to the doctor for a runny nose.


“There are more than five hundred parts on the piano,” he told me.


He didn’t know how many on the human. Still, he set me down, and put his fingers to my body, pressing the spaces between skin and bone. His hands landed in controlled quakes, and he listened to the vibrations he was causing. I imagined an orchestra of popping, like bath bubbles risen too quickly to the surface. But my ear wasn’t pressed to my heart; his was. I knew he could hear it contracting and expanding, wildly, as he worked.


“The tension on a piano’s strings can amount to twenty tons.” We smiled with a shared secret.


It was then understood that his motions would continue through my clothes, through his clothes, until it exploded, as I had never heard, La la la! Perfectly tuned.


He blew his pitch pipe to be sure. We matched tones.


·     ·     ·


This became regular for us, and that was when spring occurred to me. I gave him my hand, so he could tweak my fingers. Do. Do. Do. Do. Re. Re. I was a bit lightheaded, but sounded just right. When he finished, he played my fingers; he pressed them like keys.


“Can you hear it?” I wanted to know his music.


“It sounds rich. Filled.” He was hearing his good intuition.


·     ·     ·


We walked through his yard, relishing in the tall grass and wild flowers. To us, the untamed land was a triumph; his neighbors mistook it for carelessness. They would never accuse him of such behavior if they knew how singularly he treated each key on the piano.  The overgrowth scratched my legs like ivy and mosquito bites. Or maybe I was actually getting bit; it was just that right time of early evening for insects and sensations.


“If you twist your hands on the petals, you can put them right.” I couldn’t be selfish with his talents. Chris could make miracles with his fingers. He could bring Pluto, tiny and unassuming, to the center of the universe with those hands. 


But he just rustled the tops of some dandelions and seemed distracted.


It was then I realized how desperately I needed his tunings. My dissonance was never so apparent to me before having been taught the satisfaction of perfect pitch. At some point, with Chris, I lost my easy faith in beautiful days and began to rely on tunings to appreciate them. Moments existed only to move me forward in time—forward to my next tuning. It was counting seconds; it was the anxious lapse between the bus arriving and actually getting off the bus; it was sleeping early to get to tomorrow faster.


“Just my throat. One tapping?” I wanted his attention and the gratifica-tion of his trinket fingers.


“You sound fine.”


I let him walk ahead of me and hummed an even mmmmmm. It may have been in key, but my stomach flopped between G minor and B flat. I tried to harmonize with the night crickets, but it didn’t seem so important anymore.

·     ·     ·


My job, at the time, was making signs. I made all of the signs at the grocery store. Those painted sausages, holding hands on the window, “buy one, get one free!”—that was my work, even if it wasn’t my sense of humor. Chris would visit me between his appointments; he always liked what I did with the produce. Something about dancing mangos made him smile. If my boss passed by and suggested a slogan (“tango mangos!”), Chris would have to brace onto one of those “tangoing mangos” to keep his laughter from getting me fired. There was a reason Chris was self-employed; he didn’t work well under anyone else’s conditions.  


·     ·     ·


I remember the night he brushed his foot against my leg, and I felt his calluses for the first time. I wondered if he could even feel me through the hardened skin. I wanted him to press down on my foot, like the first pedal on a piano, so my body could rumble with its dramatic echoes. Instead, he excused himself and cut us apart with sheets.


Without the sustaining pedal, a piano is hollow. It is without bells or flourish. “Please tune me. I can’t stand it.”


He jabbed his tuner’s wrench in my ear and worked three and a half turns. He clicked off his night lamp with the remaining eighth note, completing his stanza in common time.


·     ·     ·


There was a man, at the grocery store, who worked in the meat and poultry division. He was a meat man, in every sense—tall, burly; I imagined he could grind beef with just his hands. His motions, his manner of speaking, were the same: forceful, but unfocused, the opposite of Chris’s. He was self-assured in terms of customer service, standing pronounced, with his hands steady on the display counter, and the meat was an easy starting point of conversation for him. But away from his station, he felt clumsy, inarticulate, too large for just one person.


At closing, I would take down the signs for sales already passed. He once asked if he could take one home with him. I gave him the “two-for-five-dollar” deal on Cocoa Comets. I had sketched a chocolate galaxy, with a ringed bowl of the cereal at its center. I was particularly proud of that poster, and he seemed like someone who would appreciate chocolate cereal and a cartoon.


“You’re giving me signs.” The Meat Man said, with as much heart as those words could afford.


I should have given him a gold star for his efforts, fixed him by a magnet to my refrigerator door, at least given him a passing grade (“nice work, but needs revision!”), but I think I stood there too long, too uncomfortably long, for him to make any sense of romance from our exchange.


He probably trashed my sign on his way home.


Chris would never have said something that obvious, but he also would never have revealed himself so completely. I couldn’t tell which of the two was better, but I saw the disaster in my preference.


·     ·     ·


I used to be convinced that the clocks ticked louder at night. I stopped listening for them when I met Chris. I’ve been leaving out everything from before him. This is partly because my memory remembers him too well, even when he wasn’t actually there, but mostly, because all the other men just seemed like minor disturbances along the way.   


Chris taught me that a piano tuner seeks out “equal temperament” and then taught me how that felt. Before him, I was too steady, but also too uneven. I was those clocks: ticking regularly, ticking because I had to, ticking because my right foot would always follow my left, ticking because there was morning and the sun pulled through my curtains, but louder at night, much louder, because I couldn’t contain it quietly anymore, because I realized, I wasn’t ticking with anyone else.   

·     ·     ·


By then, even when he did tune me by hand, I could tell he had lost the electricity in his motions. He blamed it on the amount of other pianos he had to tune each day, but that only made me feel worse. It wasn’t that he compromised his skill or his precision with me, that was still the same, but maybe that’s just it—maybe it was just still the same.


“It feels like work,” he said.


I put my mouth around the upper tip of his ear. The wax didn’t even taste sour anymore.


I began to consider the Meat Man, started to pay closer attention to the way he handled the meat. I hoped he would be a butcher, crudely mechanical, with animal parts lodged inside his nails. He would throw meat on his table, toss tissue and flesh aside, and wipe sweat from his face without thought to the blood across his hands. That would have been something different. But instead, underneath the Meat Man’s thick skin, all I could imagine was a pimply teenager, fumbling with an ice cream scoop, making his lunch money at $7.25 an hour. He wore sanitary gloves—that was the worst of it.


But I loved the idea of there being someone else. Someone I could hold over Chris, to taunt him to the edges of our relationship. But when I brought up the Meat Man in conversation, time and time again, Chris seemed hardly threatened. He wasn’t even frustrated by my talking in circles; that was something that used to irritate him, excite him—even if in the wrong direction.


·     ·     ·


It became fall, or winter, or maybe spring again. I was missing seasons entirely—always taking off layers, or wishing I had brought a heavier coat. That was when we stopped listening to the notes, but kept tuning just the same. It was impossible to tell if we were really fixing anything, until—


“He’s the placebo effect, girlie.” My neighbor liked to speak as if she knew something. She was the future of a 1950’s sweetheart, wearing the thick-framed glasses leftover from the era. Her kitchen was all turquoise and creams. “He’s vitamin C.” She made me angel food cake and, as always, dyed it pink.


“But vitamin C?” I let out on a mouthful.


“Is not very useful if you’re already sneezing.”


I just needed to hear it from another voice. I walked into the sun and felt rubbery; I was wearing rain boots. Chris Pleim was empty pills. He was leeches, and I was bloodletting. I had been paying too much for heat, instead of moving somewhere warm. We could continue tuning, every single second of every single day. And it would feel as sweet as angel cake, but I would still be out of tune.


·     ·     ·


I’ve seen Chris’s truck parked outside of other houses. I always wonder how deeply he is listening to their pianos. He’s called me several times since, but I never believed that the voice on the other line really belonged to him; it was just these sounds that vaguely resembled something that was once important, like a bad translation of fine poetry.


It ended easily enough; he thought I was asking too much, and I didn’t feel fixed. My sounds were as hollow as they had been when we first met, except now they were just hollow with someone else. It wasn’t enough to justify his efforts anymore, and it wasn’t enough to smooth over whatever it is that’s wrong with me.   


·     ·     ·


I’ve been trying to keep in tune; I need to figure it out for myself. Some days I read something satisfying; I meet with a friend or my neighbor; I keep busy; I keep distracted; I have a plan for the day and successfully follow through with it. On those days, I find myself appropriately dressed for the weather: umbrella, raincoat, and boots.


On other occasions, when I’m feeling particularly alone, I remember the crystal sound of that first spring and run out into the snow wearing the fluttering dress Chris liked best. Everyone else is bundled up properly. As they pass me, in their pea coats and their gloves, I can only wonder if they all have their own piano tuners. Maybe they’ve found something more effective? Or perhaps they are just better at hiding it, hiding it under their winter layers. I can’t be the only one this out of tune.


·     ·     ·


There is something to be said for a tuned piano. It can be as simple as this: one sound that enters my skin, at the frequency of pulled strings—frightening in its clarity. It is difficult to tell if it is really perfection, or if it’s just aligned right in my mind. A piano can be tuned, but there can never be an absolute tuning; any disturbance, even as slight as humidity, can turn it sharp again, can turn it flat.