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Again, I’m not that good at telling stories because I try too hard to relate things exactly the way they happened. And sometimes I give away the kicker right in the title. But I think all the little details are important, and they’re what I use this blog to try to remember….

It was the Friday before last. Last day of the week for me, since I don’t work Saturdays like others. 6:30pm, almost 12 hours from a 7:15am start. Me and Handyman and Pancakes are wrapping up for the day, putting our trucks back in their parking spots and finishing up the paperwork, when an add-on comes through on my phone. (An add-on is when a client books an appointment onto our schedule for the same day when they call.) Usually we get add-ons with enough time to call client’s in advance and let them know exactly what time we’ll be arriving. But today our phones haven’t been working right, so we’re only just now getting notice of this job, which was scheduled for an appointment window of 5-7pm, the latest possible window. It’s 2 hours late when I make the call to tell the client we’ll be there shortly.

A woman answers the phone. I start to apologize for calling so late, “We’re usually better at…at….” I fumble my words. “Communicating with people?” she says for me. “Yes, communicating.” I tell her we’ll be there soon and she says not to worry, that she’ll be there waiting.

Since Handyman and Flapjack are across town parking a truck, I – at this point the solo man on today’s three-person crew – am the first to arrive to the jobsite. It’s a bi-level apartment complex. I ring the buzzer to the woman’s apartment and she lets me up. The door opens to the world’s cutest little old lady. About 5 feet tall, no more than 100 pounds, with little round glasses. As she walks me around the apartment to show me a couch and some chairs she wants removed, I notice there’s something a little strange about her, but I can’t quite put my finger on it.

Then, at the end of the apartment tour, she stops at a giant old upright piano. “And I was wondering if you guys could take this…” I tell her we just took a similar looking piano the week before. “Are you sure you can get this?” she asks. “I mean it’s really heavy.” As we discuss how it might be done, she repeats things like this, as if she wants to convince me we can’t take it. Like most haulers, I hate to admit there’s something we can’t handle. But this time I’m not so sure.

She tells me she tried to donate the piano, but no one will take it. I tell her that when we tried to recycle a similar old upright a week ago, our piano guy swung open the door to his shop and instantly, from some 40 feet across the parking lot, took one look at the thing and said “No way.” I could’ve lied (as many haulers do) and told her it would be recycled. But I don’t like to lie about hauling, especially to such a cute little lady.

So when Handyman and Flapjack show up, I’ve had a few minutes to size up this giant piano. It takes us all a few more minutes to muster up the courage to do it and to decide how. Meanwhile, the little old lady is pacing around the apartment, trying not to listen to us. She fumbles and fidgets more than most of our clients who are having a hard time seeing something go. At one point she even says something like “I shouldn’t be here for this” and goes and hides in another room.

We decide to take the thing out in one piece. I leave the apartment to make a call for reinforcements, but no one else on our staff is available. We’ll have to do it ourselves. When I come back, Flapjack and the little old lady are playing a duet on the piano, some sort of Chopsticks number or something. The piano is tuned perfectly and sounds great, and it’s apparent that the little old lady is a good player. As they finish what would be the lady’s last song on the piano, Handyman and I position ourselves at both ends to start the lifting. We hear the lady console herself as she walks away again, muttering “I only have two weeks left to live here anyway.” It’s cute the way she’s struggling with the situation. She’s managed to charmed all three of us, and we hate to make the old lady sad. But the job must be done.

The piano ends up being the heaviest upright I’ve ever lifted. We have to take the apartment door off just to get it out. And after a difficult job of getting it through the doorway and around a railing to the top of the stairs, we’re forced to reconsider taking it down the stairs all in one piece. For safety’s sake, demolition is the only way to go. But I know that the sounds of her piano being demolished will not be easy for the little old lady, so I go in and give her some warning. I tell her that it’s the only safe way to get the job done, and that it may be a little bit emotional for her. She says it’s okay, that she needs it done, and to go ahead.

So I leave the apartment again to get sledgehammers and crowbars from our trucks, and when I return this time, Flapjack is talking with the little old lady inside the apartment. So Handyman and I start the two-person job of putting the door back on (so at least we can close it while doing the demo work), leaving Flapjack still in there talking to the old lady. After a few minutes with the stubborn door, Flapjack joins us out in the hallway and asks us if we heard what the lady said. We didn’t. Flapjack is whispering now. “She’s dying. That lady is dying.” Apparently, we had misheard the lady earlier. What she actually said was, “I only have two weeks to live,” period. Suddenly her behavior up to this point all makes sense.

So here we are outside the doorway of a dying woman’s apartment about to demolish her beloved piano with sledgehammers and crowbars. Any courage we had mustered earlier to tackle this job has spiraled back down into our stomachs. We feel awful. But again, the job must be done.

Handyman makes the first strike. The sledgehammer drives the crowbar in between the mahogany panels. You know what it sounds like when you smack your hand across the bottom register of a piano, that eery death-thud sound? Well hitting a piano with a sledgehammer sounds like that. Demolishing a piano sounds like that for ten minutes. We can only imagine what the little old lady is feeling on the other side of the wall. That ten minutes passes like some weird dream, none of us entirely conscious of what we’re doing. When we finally get the entire thing into manageable pieces, we solemnly carry them down the stairs to the truck, like paul-bearers.

When the last piece is in the truck, we’re all eager to get back in there and see if the little old lady is alright. Flapjack grabs the clipboard and heads upstairs while Handyman and I close up the truck doors and put away the tools. Normally it wouldn’t be necessary for all three of us to go back up to a client’s apartment, but this time is different. When Handyman and I get up there, Flapjack is sitting at the kitchen table with the little old lady. Both of them have been crying. Among the details she’s revealed to Flapjack, a hauler – someone who no one expects to ever see again, is that she hasn’t even told her family yet.

We stand there awkwardly for a minute before remembering to grab the vacuum we saw in the closet to clean up the debris in the hallway. When we finish vacuuming, Flapjack is still sitting there. We watch as the lady struggles to write the check. She keeps making mistakes and has to void two of them. When she finally gets it right the third time, she hands it to Flapjack and the two of them start to get up from the table. They exchange the usual post-job niceties before giving in and embracing. Then I step forward for my turn. The little old lady squeezes me for a good twenty seconds. “This really means a lot to me,” she says. I’m crying now too. Then she lets go and it’s Handyman’s turn. All in all, the hugging and crying session takes a couple minutes. Even Handyman sheds a tear or two.

We leave, dazed. Another job done.

[UPDATE: This story continues in the next post: “the sweetest send-off”.

4 Responses to “demolishing a dying woman’s piano”

  1. on 16 Nov 2007 at 1:06 pmmegan calhoun

    hands down, my favorite HS post to date.

  2. on 18 Nov 2007 at 12:14 amsmidge

    Stay tuned, Calhoun dear reader, because there’s an update to this post coming soon. My encounter with this woman did not end there…

  3. on 18 Nov 2007 at 5:38 pmcalhoun

    this is almost too much antici………………….pation.

  4. on 19 Nov 2007 at 12:04 amjohnhenrey

    update? let’s unload that truck.

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