It was unusual for anyone to shop for a piano on a Friday night, much less expect to have it delivered and tuned that same night, but this was a special occasion. Istvan was getting married over the weekend and he wanted to surprise his bride, Katalin. He looked at the beautiful high-polished ebony Kawai console that I had for sale in my shop (where I also lived), and in his thick Hungarian accent said, “LOO-sil, I like, but must have valnut.”
I phoned Mihaly, a Hungarian piano dealer that everyone called Mickey, to see if he had a walnut one. He said, “LOO-sil, vie you call so late? My vife she kill me. She say I never take out. Tonight, she invite neighbor. Vee going to eat, drink, enchoy. LOO-sil, bring man to store tomorrow.”
“Mickey! The man is standing here with a checkbook in his hand! Tomorrow will be too late!”
Mickey thought about that for about 10 seconds, then said, “Fok da neighbor, I doan like, anyway. Come to store in hour.”
By 9:30 p.m. we were heading north with my Volvo station wagon,
leading Mickey’s gigantic box truck, like a mouse leading an elephant. After a
45-minute drive, we pulled into the supermarket lot to meet Istvan. When Istvan showed up in his Volvo station wagon, there was an instant recognition between Istvan and Mickey. It turned out that they were from the same village in Hungary, and though they didn’t know each other there, they greeted each other like long lost brothers. They were so caught up reminiscing about the old country that they forgot I was there. I had to wait until they waded through a few decades of village news before we could get back to the piano delivery. They turned to me, and after a series of in-stereo LOO-sils, we were finally on our way.
Istvan led the procession with Mickey’s huge box truck behind him and my wagon trailing. Our caravan was now a gigantic dinosaur: a small head and a small tail and a mammoth body, creeping slowly along an unlit rural road. Istvan turned left onto a near-invisible dirt road that you’d have to know was there or you wouldn’t find it. The trees were so thick they were breaking on the sides of the box truck.
After parking our Volvos in a barely visible cinder block open garage at the lake clearing, Istvan shouted for Mickey to turn the truck around, and he directed it to the very edge of the water. I could not imagine why.
“Istvan, where on earth is this piano going?”
“Vee go to island.”
“Vee go on pontoon.”
It was pitch black and I could see no boat, but as my eyes began to adjust to the dark, I could see something moving. “You mean that door floating in the water? You’re going to put this piano on that door?”
“Doan vorry, LOO-sil, pontoon carry t’ousand pounds.”
The two men loaded the piano onto the center of this flimsy floating raft as I watched in horror. Mickey sat at the piano, I sat uneasily on the floor next to the piano, clutching my toolbox with sweaty palms, and Istvan was in the rear, operating a putt-putt motor. Istvan’s dog, Janos, a muscular dog who, surprisingly, had a squeak for a bark, stood bravely at the bow facing the black wall of night before us, like a brave sea captain.
I tried to reassure myself by whispering “a t’ousand pounds, a t’ousand pounds,” then I began adding it all up. Let me see, the piano is around 450 pounds, the men, at least 200 pounds each: that’s 850 pounds. My tools have to be around 50 pounds: that’s 900. And then there’s the dog and me. My god! That’s over a thousand! That’s it! We’re definitely going to sink! The men were so busy chatting in Hungarian that they never heard my protests. There was nothing I could do but resign myself to certain death. Well, I figured that if I have to go down to the bottom of the lake, at least it’s with a Kawai.
While you couldn’t see two feet in front of you on the lake, you could see the stars millions of miles away. The night was brisk and clear and the sky was like a comforting blanket over me—so close it seemed you could reach out and touch a star. The beauty of the heavens, the soothing sound of the water lapping against our slow-moving “ship,” and the lulling putt-putt of the motor, transported me to a tranquil place where danger didn’t exist. It no longer mattered that I didn’t know how to swim.
My reverie was soon shattered when Mickey decided to play a Hungarian love song on the piano, flowery arpeggios up and down the keyboard. Specks of light began to come on around the lake. People were no doubt wondering how there could possibly be piano music coming from the center of the lake at almost midnight. It gave me some comfort to know that there were people awake who could hear my cries when we sank.
Our raft bumped to a stop and Istvan announced, “Vee here.”
I could see nothing but the black night around me. You had to look way up to see the faint outline of a cabin atop a mountain, silhouetted against the stars.
“Istvan, are there any lights?” I asked.
“No, no electricity. Vee have chenerator.”
I could only hear Mickey and Istvan hoisting the piano onto a platform. The dog jumped onto it with them, and they all chug-chugged up the side of the mountain. They were so engrossed in chatting about the old country that they never heard my cry, “Hey! What about me?”
I had to get up to the cabin somehow, but I was afraid to touch the rail on which the platform traveled. What if it had juice, like a third rail you read about? My only alternative was to simply crawl up the side of the mountain. It wouldn’t have been so bad had I been able to use both hands, but I was carrying a heavy tool case. There were bushes along the way for me to grab hold of and pull myself up while crawling on my knees up the steep incline. By the time I reached the cabin door, I looked like I’d been hit by a freight train and all Istvan could say was, “LOO-sil, vere you go?” Where did he think? Where they left me!
The entire cabin was lit by one solitary generator-powered 25-watt bulb that cast shadows everywhere. Dim as it was, there was enough light to see that Istvan’s bride-to-be was very pregnant and, in fact, she was in labor.
I said, “Katalin, is it wise for you to be on this island where you have no phone and no electricity?”
Istvan heard me and piped up, “Doan vorry, LOO-sil, doctor coming to vedding.”
Oh, how nice, I thought, and what is he going to do in an emergency on an island with no electricity?
I tuned the piano by flashlight while Istvan, Mickey, and a few relatives from out-of-state who emerged from the shadows, were drinking and celebrating this triple event: a piano, a birth, and a marriage: possibly in that order. Katalin wisely excused herself and trudged slowly up the stairs to bed. She wasn’t particularly interested in partying in her condition. By the time I finished tuning, they were all drunk and laughing loudly at anything and everything.
Then Istvan said to me, “LOO-sil, vee toast piano. C’mon, vee drink togadder.”
“No, Istvan, I don’t drink. It’s late. I have to get home.”
Istvan ignored my protests and stuck a glass in my hand.
“What is this, Istvan?”
“Wodka. Vee make toast to piano.”
His partying relatives staggered over to us with drinks in their hands and formed a disjointed circle. Istvan shouted a loud Hungarian toast in the air, and everyone threw their head back and inhaled their drink in one gulp. It was dark enough for them not to see—and I’m not so sure any one of them could see straight even if it were light—that I threw my head back with the rest of them and tossed the drink over my right shoulder. When I did that, I heard a protesting squeak behind me. I didn’t know the dog was lying down behind me but he wouldn’t move away, either. Five squeaks later, Istvan was so delighted that I was such a good sport about drinking, he allowed me to leave. I didn’t see Mickey anywhere, but I couldn’t worry about him. I had to get home.
Istvan said, “I help you,” and offered me his unsteady arm in the black outdoors. I expected to take the platform down the mountainside to the pontoon, but instead, we were headed in a different direction. Istvan was so drunk that while he was walking safely on a narrow path, pontificating loudly about the universe like a dramatic orator, with left arm sweeping broadly across the vast expanse of starlit sky, he left no room for me and led me into every possible hole and rock on the side of the path. At one point, Istvan was so preoccupied with his philosophical babbling, now accompanied by deep hiccupping, that he failed to notice that I had fallen to my knees in a hole. He just kept talking and walking, dragging me out of the hole without missing a step, his left arm still waving dramatically.
It suddenly struck me that I had to rely on this inebriated man to bring me safely across the lake to my car, a man who could hardly utter a single rational, undistorted word, nor take one firm step. I asked Istvan, with fearful recollection, “Are we going back on the pontoon?”
His happy reply was, “No, vee go by spidboat.”
“Spidboat! Oh my god!”
His speedboat was moored at a floating pier. It took several stumbles before he could plop me, then himself, successfully into the boat. It took even more uncoordinated tries to get the key into the ignition. When he finally started up the motor, he gave it so much gas that the front of the boat bolted upright and we skipped across the surface of the lake in vertical position, like astronauts headed toward the moon. This ride made the pontoon ride seem like a pleasure cruise.
Istvan had made this trip so many times that he didn’t need his mind. The boat knew the way. As we neared the pier at the clearing, he managed to turn off the motor after a few tries. When we hit, he stood up and stuck one unsteady foot out of the boat onto the pier. He was trying to tie the boat to a post but he kept missing. The boat started to drift away from the pier, and Istvan’s legs slowly parted until he was in a full split. While hovering precariously over the water, he somehow managed to inch the boat and the pier together, finally securing the boat. It was like watching a Charlie Chaplin movie.
Istvan leaned over the edge of the pier to help me out of the boat, but with so little coordination, he misjudged, and yanked me up so fast that my head hit his chin and his head snapped back, almost knocking him out. As he reeled backwards, I remember thinking, “If this guy falls off the pier, he’s just going to have to die, because I can’t save him. It’s too dark, and I can’t swim.
He did some fancy Fred Astaire footwork, teetering on the very edge of the pier a few times. I didn’t wait around for him to recover his balance, but ran toward the faint outline of my car in the cinder block garage. I fumbled for my keys, then nervously started up my Volvo. I quickly backed out and as I was taking off, Istvan unexpectedly stuck his head in the window. In my frenzy, I drove off with his head. He hung on as long as he could, still babbling incoherently about the stars or the universe or something, and then dropped off with a dull thud. I could hear a cheerful “Goodnight, LOO-sil” from the ground, so I knew he was still alive, and I drove home like I had just escaped prison.
Some piano sales are just a little more difficult than others.