Story — From the September 2015 issue

Tremendous Machine

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Spindling, white Fjóla Neergaard, in dun wool slacks, her marble face perched on a whorl of scarves, drove her father’s Mercedes through a trash-blown lane of reupholsterers and auto-body shops in a Krakow suburb. She was looking for a sofa.

Her breakfast — a soft-boiled egg, a slice of tomato, two gherkins, and black tea — was over. The morning squall was over, and the attendant downpour was over, and the little flood had drained into the sewers. Her childhood dread of crossing bridges and her allergy to cashews were over. She had vanquished them. But that period when we have the strength to kill dragons by merely throwing a rock at them was also over: the early adult years when our powers are perfect and we either find the work of our prime or we don’t. Fjóla Neergaard had not found it. Dieting did not qualify as a vocation. Her dogged attempts to turn it into one had failed; she had not landed a shoot in more than a year. To feel disappointed or to object that fate or fashion had mistreated her was cheap. She might go on treating her body like the sarcophagus of a virgin martyr if she wanted, but its market value was zero.

Illustrations by Andrea Dezsö

Illustrations by Andrea Dezsö

For most of the spring, she had been living in torpid exile at her parents’ vacant Polish country house, in a state of tedious hunger that, lacking the prospect of an interested camera, served no one and nothing. She read Danish, French, German magazines in the cavernous salon, neatly tearing out the pages as she absorbed the pictures with compulsive jealous agony, and feeding them to the fire, which went green in flickers from the glossy paper. For weeks, her bones luxuriated in the aches and stabs of napping on the hearth rug. Physical discomfort was so often the cost of her little achievements as to have become their reward. Then she got a wild idea: why not employ her father’s checkbook to buy a sofa and read her magazines on cushioned furniture? Beyond this ambition — as she cruised the puddled streets, struggling to decipher the Polish exclamations on the signboards — she had no plans.

Her parents, Axel and Annelise, inseparable in work and play, were leveraging other people’s debt in Frankfurt, or else skin diving on Majorca. They couldn’t have been at home, in Copenhagen: the maid was not answering the phone there, and where they went the maid went also. Anyway, Axel Neergaard detested extravagance, and he especially detested the extravagant modesty in which Fjóla lived while alone. If she could have tracked him down, he would have agreed to his flower’s buying whatever furnishings her coziness required and lazing on them as long as she liked, watching whatever picnics or storms or revolutions were going on inside her shriveled brain. Her mother on the extension would likewise have agreed — even though (she would have added, in the mother-daughter telephone language of tsks and pauses with which they carried on simultaneous sidebar conversations beneath Axel’s notice) Fjóla really must understand that by secluding herself like this she was betraying everybody who cared about her, as well as that formless striving that burned within Fjóla’s ribs, privately, shamefully, invisible to anyone else but her mother. The maid thought Fjóla ruined by comfort and would not clean her bathtub.

Communism was freshly over, and you could buy a sweeping agricultural property, complete with a derelict seven-bedroom middle-European manor, for a price that in Paris would have bought you a pair of reliable shoes. Ergo the house in Poland, which contained little more than its floors — oak boards, handsome wool carpets, granite in the bathrooms underfoot and up the walls like a crypt. Immense leadlight windows gave out on cropland and orchards, the glass in quarrels, turbid, centuries old, twisting the light a little. New plaster in the stairwells and the sloping ceilings. You noticed the surfaces, the flouncy old light fixtures: there was so little else in the house.

Her father would no more have taken ownership of the house without arranging for the meticulous erasure of its flaws and for its maintenance in its new trim form than he would have stepped onto an airplane without a necktie, but he never expected that anybody would live there. Least of all Fjóla, creature of room service, a girl to whom pastoral breezes and sunshine were poison. Axel Neergaard had merely speculated in a parcel of cut-rate hectares to which a pesky house was attached. The house itself would never appreciate. It was less an asset than a fee. It had one bed.

But now Fjóla would acquire a sofa and have it planted close to the fire, where with any luck a cracking ember would hop onto the upholstery while she slept (dreaming as she sometimes did that she was Napoleon sacking Egypt in a muscly bronze breastplate) and immolate her, and the sofa, and the rugs, and the house. All of them weightless as smoke. Over, forever.

She turned the Mercedes right, and right again, and right again, around a colossal block of crumbling concrete in which, a placard alleged, a furniture outlet was housed. Yet the building had no proper doors. She parked and climbed the wooden ladder of a loading dock at a gape in the masonry covered with a plastic tarp that dappled her with storm droplets when she pulled it aside. Yellow fluorescent light, in a burst. She entered a warehouse of old sideboards, fiberglass garden tables, love seats with their springs lolling in the open. Chamber after chamber smelling of straw and bleach. She announced herself by making no sound at all and being pretty in a big room.

Clocks and armchairs and old reel-to-reel tape players, but nobody attending them. A lustrous oak door leaned against a wall crowded with mirrors from which the silvering was peeling away. On closer inspection the door was in fact mounted in the wall. She turned its knob and passed down a dark corridor redolent of pine-scented mop water. At the far end of the corridor, a second door, of steel and glass.

Bright light coming through the glass.

She opened it.

She went inside.

A vast room now enclosed her, its columns seeming near collapse from rust, the concrete floor sown in every direction with pianos.

They were tall, squat, brown, black, red, white, newish, antique, on wheels, and on stylized paws. They stood right side up, or upside down, or legless on their shoulders, or aslant against a post with their innards spilled on the floor. Instinctively she surveyed the room for a lavatory in case she should need to vomit.

From a shadowed bulkhead, a wan and carbuncular man emerged. He wore a whipcord jacket and pulled the tail of his tie from between his shirt buttons. Fjóla followed Polish doubtfully, via Russian, but she thought he said, “You tell Constantine to come here himself. I don’t talk to lawyers.”

“How do you do?” she said in her best accent.

“If he can’t manage —” The eyes went down and came up again.

All at once the spotted face rearranged itself. “I beg your pardon. You have caught us at a moment of transition,” he said in English. “But if I may be of some help to you it would of course be my sincerest pleasure.” He bowed. Customer service was so new here you sometimes saw it taken to such excesses.

His tone was clipped, world-weary, sinister, calm, his speech punctuated with clever profanities about the weather. Shortly, he was sitting at a Schimmel grand, circa 1932, with a strange finish — faded yet shining, like wet coal — and elaborate custom scrollwork around the case. It had a new soundboard and pin block, he said, and fresh hammers furry as peaches, but she had no idea what any of that meant. As to her question about how such an instrument had survived the war, and even, thoughtlessly, in whose home it had presided before the war, the dealer responded, “I couldn’t know.” In any event, he could tell her, until recently a clerk in the Ministry of Transport and Maritime Affairs had owned the piano. This fellow had quit the country and was not expected —

“And the cost?” she interjected in Polish.

“But you should hear it first. I know an excellent mover, you’ll permit me to mention. He also tunes. A father-and-son firm. Those are lovely pants.”

She stuck her head under the lid. Hammers beat the strings. She had always assumed a piano worked by plucking. She lowered her face to the mechanism as though to smell it while the dealer played a piece she didn’t recognize — until she did recognize it, and then she needed so intensely to be able to play it herself that she believed indeed she could play it, right then. Her sinuses reverberated, and the hairs in her nose itched. The instrument was playing her. It was not true that she had never before today played a piano. In a concurrent life, heretofore undetected, she had done little else. The piece was “Clair de Lune.” She believed she could play it with her will.

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’s novel The End (Graywolf) was a finalist for the 2008 National Book Award. His story “The Hidden Person” appeared in the January 2013 issue of Harper’s Magazine.

More from Salvatore Scibona:

Story From the January 2013 issue

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