I had one more trip to make.
There once was a little girl and her father slept with another woman, and her mother’s heart was so broken that she hung herself. What can a father do, but compensate for love lost? And so he bought his little girl a piano.
But the piano never came into the girl’s possession, but instead the stepmother’s. And over the years the hammers and strings deadened and the ivory was picked from the keys by one child or another.
The piano had come from the ABC Piano Store on the corner of El Cajon and 30th. The store belonged to Oleg Gladkoff, a White Russian from the Ukraine. He was a young boy, and during the War he fled all on his own. At the close of 1944, he picked his way across Russia and Germany, stealing uniforms from dead German soldiers. He was once caught by the retreating army, and the apprehending soldiers were set to execute him. Desperate to live, he told them what he could, he told them that he could play Schubert. The soldiers laughed at him and they took him to the quarters of the ranking officer who had with him a piano. Played, they told him. Play your Schubert. And Oleg all of 14 did just that. He played for the German officer, so beautifully, he said, that they let him go.
Years later he came to the States as an aspiring pianist. Once he even debuted in Carnegie Hall. But it wasn’t ever going to come to anything. Call it a crisis of confidence.
Instead of becoming a world class pianist, he moved to San Diego and opened up a piano store and raised a family. He would sit for days alone in the store, playing the piano just for himself. And he sold pianos to families in the neighborhood, but after years, even that came to a stop, as pianos came in and he found himself unable to part with them. So they accumulated around him, piling higher and higher until they formed a tomb of sorts and he buried himself with his best companions.
He had four sons, George, Andy, Michael and Nick. His son Michael was my best friend growing up, and so I in turn I grew up with the family.
Just after we moved to Sebastopol, I called Nick. Anna wanted to have her piano back at last. Would he be able to help us move it?
That’s how I came to fly to San Diego, and rent a truck and load it with whatever remained of my family’s busted up furniture. And how in the evening, Nick met me and some friends at a house, and as only a master could do, effortlessly slipped a thousand pounds of wood and wire onto a dolly, glided it up a ramp and through the house, outside and up to the waiting truck. He ratcheted it down tight with tie straps. And he shook my hand.
I thought of Oleg and the now empty store, and of everything that gets lost along the way, and of true service done well over years and of how guardians present themselves in the most common of men.
I drove that piano all night, up the five, along the backbone of California and deposited the broken heap in our very own home.
But except for one winter day in 1944, I don’t know if a piano has ever really made it any better.