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A Repossessed Piano

She was a little girl with little fingers, reaching for difficult chords to play, stretching her pinkies and thumbs wide across the keyboard until her palms cramped and a piercing pain shot through her wrists, but nothing could make her stop. The workmen were moving their chairs and dining room table. They'd already taken the china cabinet and sofa and soft oriental rugs that tickled her bare feet with their gentle gradations of finely woven fabric, and though they'd soon come for the instrument, it was hers until then, until they removed it, until the term "repossess" became a concrete rather than abstract designation brought about by the trouble her mother had making payments now that her father was gone.

She had received the news of his untimely passing from her principal at school.

"I'm sorry, dear," the woman said, but the girl hadn't understood.

She'd recently turned eleven but hadn't quite reached the point where children lay in bed pondering the fact that one day they'll no longer be here. She existed in an illusory phase of immortality, protected from the world by her parents' love, so his passing came as her first genuine shock. There hadn't been pets for practice, a parakeet to place in a box and bury or a goldfish to flush. Instead, there was a service with a shiny black casket that she stayed far away from and plenty of his friends and coworkers to tell her what a great man her father had been, but no one had come forward to help them with their money problems, and her lessons were one of the first sacrifices.

Her father used to walk her to her teacher's studio a few blocks away. The girl had perfect pitch, and her teacher beamed to have such a promising pupil, but she couldn't work for free, as she'd recently explained. During the last lesson, before her teacher, albeit kindly, showed her the door, they'd begun Beethoven's "Moonlight Sonata," and she'd been performing the piece ever since, ignoring other songs in her repertoire, perpetually stuck in that half-hour segment of time, associating its sadness with her mother's mourning, her father's absence. Its tempo, in the opening section, was slow enough for her to pick out the right notes despite her limited span, and she learned the tricky technique of separating her right pinky's rhythm from the rest of that hand's digits for the melody in roughly two weeks. The piece, as it progressed, became more intricate, harder for her to navigate, but she concentrated on the opening, and she played it now amidst the movers with as much melancholy as her eleven years could muster. While her mother sat on the front steps, smoking cigarettes and staring into the same suburban streets where her father had been struck down by a car, she was trying to salvage her prized possession, hoping to play beautifully enough to make them weep. If she could, maybe they'd overlook it, maybe they'd let her keep it.

She rocked a bit, and the wooden bench squeaked beneath her. That squeak might be a defect to whomever owned it next, but to her, it was a joyous sound, one she likened with home. It reminded her of her parents' footfalls on the stairs at night while she lay under the covers in her bedroom, pretending to be fast asleep.

She did more than touch the keys. She caressed them, focusing, making them work together, solving a puzzle box.

The workmen grunted in dissonant counterpoint.

The plating had come off some of the keys, so her journey was a Braille trek over peaks and valleys, crossing tiny ascents and descents, and she wondered what it would be like to handle a finely crafted instrument each day. She could have used an extra hand or two to navigate the song's complexities, and she'd once seen a man on a city street corner playing an oboe with his feet, but her father had said, "In life, we make do with the gifts we're given," so she'd make do with hers. Sometimes, by herself, she'd experiment, though never consciously. If her parents were sleeping and she couldn't, she'd sneak downstairs and tap notes in the upper register so gently no one could hear; if she came home from school angry because the other kids had picked on her, she ground her thumb into the deep bass notes, letting them linger and resonate in the air; and she used the fruits of these test runs now to full effect, her left hand providing most of the drama, high-stepping and stomping in a slow funereal march, as her right waltzed with the melody.

She was putting such intensive attention into her performance that she was startled when one of them dropped a dusty canvas cloth on top of its shell. She flinched and hit a few wrong notes, their dissonance fading into silence. "Why'd you do that?" she uttered, but she understood. They spread the covering over its surface like a storm cloud, and she shrank back, her shoulders rigid as fence posts.

"What was that?" The other man asked. "It's pretty."

But from his cadence, she could tell he didn't care if she answered. He was pulling the tarp tight toward the floor, the exact spot where she used to sit in the dark, listening to her mother cry into the phone right after everything happened.

The men squatted, heaved and groaned, and lifted it from the ground, inserting a wheeled cart below before they pushed it away, and when they left, she moved from the bench to that familiar place on the hardwood. With her piano gone, it didn't make much difference if they took the bench.

"You have a musician's hands," her teacher once told her. "Your fingers are slender, and they'll grow as you grow." She stretched them out, gazing at the simple crescents of nail, the arch of her knuckles, the blue veins beneath. It's a shame, she thought, apologizing to them, then she picked at some of the grime that had accumulated around her instrument, pinched and ground it back and forth, and dropped it, tracing her name across the boards in this newly created vacancy.