Piano Screws

Fingernails screeching down a chalkboard didn’t bother Sidney. In fact, she rather liked that texture. That’s how she thought of sound, as a texture or layering of individual noises. The particular texture of fingernails on a chalkboard was something most people avoided. They claimed it hurt their ears, set their teeth on edge, and gave them cold shivers. But the people who didn’t like chalkboard scratching loved to hear a piano being played. To them it was relaxing, entertaining, even exciting.

Sidney was different from most people. She hated piano music. If it had just been a case of the sound hurting her ears, she could have found a way to cope. But it was worse than that, much worse. It was the vibrations. Even if the piano was perfectly in tune, she could feel the vibrations. She could feel them bumping into each other the way most people can feel a sonic boom. If that had been the extent of it, she could have found a way to cope. But Sidney could feel each individual vibration scraping up and down the nerves in her body, causing excruciating pain. The low, slow vibrations from the long thick copper-wire-wrapped strings wreaked havoc with the nerves in her legs. If all three strings of any given pitch weren’t in tune, it felt as if sandpaper was rubbing her nerves raw. As the piano strings got shorter and the sounds higher, the pain manifested itself higher in her body. The very highest of the 88 piano keys caused her intense headaches both outside and inside the top of her brain.

The obvious fix for this would have been to live without a piano. But Sidney’s mother was a gifted pianist, and Sidney’s older sister was very likely going to follow in her mother’s footsteps. Even at the tender age of five, Shireece was aware of her extreme talent and was already practicing an hour a day. By the time Sidney was born, her minimum daily practice routine was an hour and a half.

It didn’t take Sidney’s parents long to figure out that it was the piano music that caused their new infant to scream as if in acute pain. Within a few days of Sidney’s birth, Shireece was allowed to practice only when both parents were home so that one of them could take Sidney out of the house until the piano was silent. This worked until Shireece was in junior high. By then Sidney was old enough that their parents felt comfortable leaving them home together for the amount of time it took to run to the grocery store or get a haircut. What they didn’t know was that Shireece resented the special attention Sidney got. She resented the fact that her practice time was determined by Sidney’s special needs. And Shireece knew just how to punish Sidney when their parents were gone – by practicing. Oh, how she practiced! Her furious fingers flew up and down the keyboard, crashing through chords and glistening glissandos, releasing years of angry ambition.

Shireece got away with this for two reasons. The first was that Sidney had never mastered the art of conversation beyond the few words necessary for simple communication. She had no idea how to make her parents understand the dynamics of this complex situation. The second was that Shireece would stop playing the instant she heard the garage door begin to open. Sidney’s intense pain left her so exhausted that she fell deeply asleep in the two or three minutes between the time Shireece quit playing and the time her mom walked in the house. Sidney never saw the sweet smile on her mom’s face as she looked in on her sleeping daughter, nor did she witness Shireece basking in the grateful attention her mom lavished on her for taking such good care of her younger sister.

Sidney’s father was not a musician, but he was handy with tools. As a toddler, Sidney would follow him around, trying to help as he puttered at odd jobs around the house. Her father realized early on that Sidney had an affinity for simple tools, particularly screwdrivers. Unless a screw was rusted into place, there was no screw that Sidney could not remove. She understood how to judge the size and type of screwdriver for each job, and exhibited incredible strength in her hands and forearms.

During the second semester of her senior year in high school, Shireece won a piano competition, earning her the privilege of soloing with the orchestra in town. Naturally, both her parents wanted to attend the performance, but they knew they couldn’t take Sidney along. Because of Sidney’s difficulty with communication and poor social skills, there weren’t people, other than Shireece, whom they trusted to care for her in their absence. Gently and persistently, Sidney found ways to convince her parents that she could stay home by herself just this once. Reluctantly, they agreed.

As the garage door closed, Sidney silently gathered the sizes of flat head and Philips screwdrivers she would need. Her plan wasn’t so much an act of revenge or payment in kind as it was an effort toward self-preservation. Noiselessly, and ever so carefully, she began removing all the screws she could find on the piano. The screws under the key bed were easy to remove, though she had to lie on her back to get a good angle for the screwdriver. She pushed the piano away from the wall and unscrewed the big screws from the back of the soundboard. Then, lifting off the front part that served as a music rack and kept the hammers and strings hidden, she began removing screws one after another. Large and small, they all came out. She didn’t want anything to actually fall apart, because that might bring serious consequences from her parents. As a precaution, Sidney put all the screws into a plastic cup so the damage could be undone if necessary. Her goal was to remove enough screws so the piano would not only sound different but feel different to her very particular sister. Sidney hoped that the difference would be enough to make Shireece stop practicing.

All too soon she heard the garage door creak open. Sidney hid the plastic cup inside the piano at the bottom of the strings, pushed the piano back against the wall, replaced the front piece covering the hammers, put the bench back into position, and replaced the screwdrivers in her dad’s toolbox. By the time her elated family entered the room, Sidney was safely on the couch “reading” a book. Then next day, however, when her mom left for a dentist appointment, Shireece began to inflict the all-too-familiar torture. Sidney tried not to scream, she really did, but she couldn’t help it. The pain, though slightly different this time, was still as intense as ever.

But after about three minutes the piano stopped making noise. Sidney could hear Shireece moving the piano away from the wall, rapping her knuckles on the wood to test the sound, and trying an experimental note here and there. A few minutes later she gave up and settled down to practice, regardless of the altered sounds, ignoring Sidney’s screaming accompaniment.

At dinner that night, Shireece complained about the change in the piano. It was time for a new instrument, she said. Grandma’s heirloom had finally just worn out. She wanted a seven foot grand, she announced, so she could open the lid and really feel the sound as she practiced. Sidney started to shake. Just thinking about what a seven foot grand could do to her was almost as painful as being around the actual sound.

The phone rang. Shireece answered it and was silent for a long time. Her face looked excited, though. “Thank you very much,” she said. “I’ll be there at nine on Monday.” She aimed a smug smile at Sidney as she sat back down at the table.

“Well?” asked her dad.

Shireece took a bite of food, chewed, and swallowed before answering.

“I’ve been offered a full ride, piano performance scholarship to the university, studying with the top piano professor, starting Monday at the beginning of the summer term. I guess you don’t need to buy me a new piano. I’ll be practicing at the university from now on,” she tipped her chin high and inhaled deeply, “on a nine foot grand.”

Four years passed. Through a special program, Sidney found employment doing minor maintenance and repairs for the city. She got to ride around in a city truck with the men who were in charge of maintenance. Every morning a city truck would pick her up and every evening a truck would drop her off at her parents’ home. Sidney had replaced all the screws in the piano once her sister had moved out for good. Sidney knew her mom would never torture her the way Shireece had, and didn’t think it was fair to punish her mom for Shireece’s cruelty. Sidney wanted her mom to be able to enjoy playing while Sidney was at work.

Every once in a while, when she had a day off and the weather was nice, Sidney would walk the twelve blocks to the university and wander through the music building. If no one was practicing any of the pianos, she would slip into a practice room, lock the door, and quietly remove as many of the screws as she could without the piano actually falling apart. She always left the screws in a plastic cup hidden inside the piano at the bottom of the strings on the far left. She was sure there were other people like her, and she felt it her duty to do what she could to help them. After all, one of them might accidently wander into this music building while someone was practicing.

A deep peace always settled in Sidney’s soul every time she set the cup of screws inside a piano and gathered up her tools. Before leaving a piano room, it became her custom to stand a moment, wishing this same peace upon anyone who entered this particular room. On her walk back home, Sidney rejoiced in the textures of sound all around her – bird songs, dogs barking, car engines whining and roaring, people talking, and her shoes slapping the sidewalk. To her, these textures were relaxing, entertaining, even exciting. If someone had added fingernail screeches on a chalkboard, it would have been just perfect.