He shaped the hammers one by one, listening to every string, shaving and minutely aerating the felt again and again. He was like a diagnostician, knocking the nerves below a patient's kneecap, measuring the response. The piano called out each time in compliant reply. Hello, hello.
'Fertig,' he said when the work was done. He wiped the sweat off his forehead with his sleeve, pushed the wisps of white hair away from his face. Standing back from the piano, he regarded this complete and brand-new entity that would be—after being played in properly— capable of incredible feats. The first few years were unpredictable, but over time it would open up and gather into itself a unique history. For now it was a perfect instrument, characterized only by its potential.
The Meister fluffed his apron as he sat down on the barrel he'd borrowed for a seat and, flexing his fingers, considered which piece to christen the piano with. Schubert, his favorite composer. He would play the rondo of his penultimate sonata, the big A Major; the opening melody was pretty, with a feeling of hopefulness and joy that preceded its more pensive, agitated development. This would be the perfect inauguration of the glistening black Blüthner No. 66,825.
"Listen!" he called out, but nobody could hear him above the factory's ambient noise. "Here she is born!"
And he pressed his finger down on C-sharp, the first note of the rondo, listening hard, and it rang out to meet him with the innocence and power of a child's first cry. Finding it as pure as he'd hoped, he began to play the rest of the sonata. He would send off this shining new piano with as much optimism as he could gather, knowing it would no longer be as vestal once it was touched by its future owners' desperately human hands.
CLARA LUNDY KICKED a step stool against the front tire of an old 1996 Chevrolet Blazer and leaned over the engine, tossing her dark blond ponytail over her shoulder. She unscrewed the cap of the relief fitting and put a shop towel over it to catch the gas that leaked out when she pressed the valve. When the lines were bled, she stuffed the towel into her back pocket and went to her toolbox to grab the 16mm and 19mm wrenches and the quick-disconnect tool. Then, with an athletic jump, she disappeared into the yellow-framed pit so she could work from underneath. She removed the bracket, released the snap-lock fitting, and pulled the rubber hose off the outlet side of the filter first to keep the fuel from dripping in her eyes. She'd learned that lesson long ago in her uncle's garage and had never forgotten it.
"Hey, Clara?" Peter Kappas, one of the shop owners' three sons, peered down at her. A halo of late afternoon sunlight outlined his bulky silhouette. "That guy with the rack-and-pinion job's back again. He says it's still making noise."
"Same noise or new?"
"Popping. Bolts, probably."
"Can you do it? I'm not done with this filter."
"I promised the Corvette would be done by five."
Clara slipped the new filter into the bracket. "Okay, give me fifteen. I'll get it up in the air and see what's going on. But if it's the mounting bolts, then you'll have to do the alignment again. You got time?"
He raised his arms. "Kidding. Yeah, I can do it."
After she tightened all the bolts and checked the lines, she went back up to prime the system. She turned the key to On, waited for the fuel pump to kick on and off, then switched the key to Off. She did that a few more times, and sitting there, she glimpsed herself in the rearview mirror and was startled to see that she looked older than her twenty-six years, like she'd aged a decade overnight. Her eyelids, in spite of the little bit of makeup she'd put on, were still vaguely puffy from her crying jag the night before. Her mouth was set so hard that tiny lines radiated from her lips; she'd been clenching her teeth. When she relaxed her jaw, her pale cheeks seemed to sag and her mouth turned down at the corners. There was a smudge of grease across her forehead—probably from having pushed her bangs out of her eyes—that resembled her late father's birthmark. She looked at herself, at his light brown eyes and pale eyelashes, their matching high cheekbones, and felt a gut punch at this unanticipated image of his face in the mirror. An old grief added to the new.
She turned the key all the way, and the Blazer's engine fired up perfectly.