Non Fui, Fui, Non Sum, Non Curo

Franz Nicolay

My parents kept a messy house. It was a comfort, the rubble of our childhoods—preschool paintings, plush fauna—in every corner and under the stairs. Nothing once ours was ever truly gone.

In my house, I neaten. I wipe counters. I swipe half-drunk cups and rinse them. I sort. Separate tablespoons from tea. I do not mop.

I bike to work. Toronto is good for that: lanes big enough for buses, dutifully self-policed. Efficient snow removal. Conscientious drivers. Everything in its place. Modulated. Reconciled. Harmonized.

I tune the pianos of the old and the indigent, the reluctant beginners and the aspirational quitters. I learned enough to work on the dusty spinets and neglected uprights. You wouldn’t—shouldn’t—call me for a concert grand. I’m not in the guild. I couldn’t restring a soundboard or shave off a cent here or there for a just-intonation fundamentalist. Much less the brutal, delicate carpentry of renovation and refinishing. I just wanted a skill that could travel, and I didn’t want to tend bar anymore. I placed an ad, a discount rate. A market correction. Every complex machine has an equilibrium.

When he sleeps, he really sleeps. None of this quiet, don’t wake the baby. You could barely if you tried. The idea that a parent can control a child is ludicrous. Even newborns exert such power and agency. Just try to trim their nails with a scissor. Simple tools.

I cried to dream again.

I sop the near-odorless diarrheal mustard from beneath his preposterously swollen balls. My daughter flashes by the door in a stiff-armed toddler run. Her energy burns beyond its fuel. The eight days. Exuberance to refill the ransacked world.

My wife and I pass in the hallways like office mates, passing between bedrooms without sharing one. Imperfectly incompatible, out of phase, we remind each other of youthful versions of ourselves that it pleases us to recall. Rawer times, but now the scar does the work of the wound.

Dissonance creates beats, audible beats between misaligned frequencies. They add and subtract, multiply, evolve.

My daughter crawls into bed, and I just try to keep my accidental dream-time erections out of the way. Your dumb body, it doesn’t know which warm flesh is curled up next to your back. You’re still a grown man even after you’re a father. You can’t keep it beaten down. The design of the penis is the ultimate argument against the dignity of the almighty. Imperfect tools. Mirages in a sexual desert.

No lover, though, has been so needy and jealous of my presence, of my physical body, her breath on my neck. If I try to escape, even in sleep her portcullis hand swings down on me in gentle but commanding remonstrance. She howls and whines to wake and find me gone, curls up outside my door. O dada. I miss you when you’re in the city.

When I close my eyes again, the dreams come quickly, savage fauvist tableaux, Carthaginian sacrifice, with the full scent of the world.

She—my daughter—dragged a horseshoe crab up the beach, a makeshift leash threaded behind the wings of its plates. They—the crabs—scuttle along the sand, but when they swim, swim upside down, gills fluttering for extra propulsion, mouth to the sun. They have eyes on both the top and bottom, I told her. So they can see the light from wherever they are.

Every complex machine has an equilibrium state. A piano left untuned for twenty years may still be in tune with itself.

The hammer does the delicate work of tuning. With our tools we establish our place in the universe.

I told my daughter we had to return the crab to the water, that it was an older creature than we were, and that it would die. She said why it was older than we were. I said because it was simpler, and that complex machines wear out faster. No—it wasn’t simple, but it was the product of a different time, and its posthumousness, its timelessness, removed it and sheltered it from our cycles of existence. She said why it would die. I said everything has its place, and it’s up to us to return things to their place.

A piano left untuned for twenty years sinks comfortably. Each season has its cycle: the humid summer swells the wood, the strings tighten, the pitch rises. The dry baseboard heat in the winters shrink and crack the wood, the strings slacken, the pitch drops. You should tune twice a year, once as the world turns toward heat and once as it turns away. Reevaluate. Regulate. But the trend is always to slump.

Rising and falling have a moral dimension. Consonance and dissonance have a moral dimension.

My wife plays with the shortwave from my grandparents’ house while I wash dishes. Mutterings from Vatican, Brazzaville, Buenos Aires, Kiev, Rio. The reception is better at night. Singapore comes in clearer than Hamilton.

A piano left untuned resists. To pull the strings taut again is a physical act. Your forearms ache, your back burns. The hard, registrational keystrikes to set the string numb your forefinger. And yet the steel itself is elastic: the pins bend as much as the string stretches. Under this pressure, the metal is as malleable as the wood, as the cork of the pinblock. For a long-neglected piano, you have to overpull, coarsely tune, then come back the next day after it has reset to do your fine work. You’ve upset its resting balance. It is unsettled.

Sleep is no longer a refuge. We are tiptoeing and inhibited, confined to a littoral of mattress by petulant small feet and the rapacious infant wail. A small, snuffling animal in its wicker cage beside the bed. The soft, mica fingernails with which it thoughtlessly scratches its face, thin red ley lines. Inhuman, prehuman: the ferocious injury of the birth, the deflated bread-dough stomach, the alien glare of the newborn.

The generational wave has crested and begun to fall. The evolutionary wave has crested and begun to fall. Control passes to the weak but ruthless, the ignorant but demanding.

I weave the red felt strips between the tripled strings, a gentle, muting wave. The flanking strings silenced so that the central strings can sound in concert. My dull dead dead dull head a woodblock, an oily runoff pool where nothing moves or lives. The fog of my sleepless thought. I pull the hammer, a spasmodic yank. The clouds of overtones suddenly part—not a shiny beam of pure tone but a strangely dull unity of phase. The beats of the intervals marching in formation. The chirp of the high octave, the muddled church bell moan of the low.

The baby frowned at the snow, blinking flakes from his thin eyelashes, this future man.

The lower octaves curve flat, the upper octaves pull ever higher. This is the nature of things. A progression, by slow degrees, from stone to bronze to iron to pliable steel. Rising and falling have a moral dimension. Happiness is a negative quality; there is only the absence of pain. Every complex machine has an equilibrium state. With our tools we re-create the balance in the universe.

The upper octaves pull ever higher. I got a call to tune a Schimmel Grand, a sixty- thousand-dollar instrument. Beyond the northern bounds of the city, beyond the range of the bike, beyond the scope of my skill. I drove. The gray crunch of the snow, the drab, low house. The lacquer and ebony of the piano, the gaudy shine of brass and bronze, the icon of a crown on the nameboard. Listen, he said. You hear that? You hear that? It’s all wrong.

Yes, of course, I said. I couldn’t, but then, he couldn’t hear what I changed either.

Ah, that’s much better. Right? he said. Right?

The lower octaves curve ever lower. Downtown, a walkup. The claustrophobic urochrome of pulled blinds. I called Steinway, and they sent a guy here, she said. He was a moron. I should sue them. Listen, she said. You hear that? You hear that? It’s all wrong.

Yes, of course, I said.

Listen, she said, while I worked. Is there something I can get that blocks certain frequencies?

Like a white noise machine, I said.

No, she said. Like the government, the president, they figured out certain frequencies, on the radio band, they can control your feelings, make you happy or sad. I want a machine that can block them.

I pulled the hammer, and the tone shrank to a blunt consonance. Frequency is a thickening and thinning of the air. It has a physical consequence. It touches your ear, your brain, physically touches your brain. To align tones, to cancel some beats and organize others, is to bring order to the world, to bring order to your consciousness. To eliminate a frequency is to counter a trough with a peak, a thinning with a thickening.

I wish I were more. I wish I were not.

Not happiness, simply equilibrium. Ataraxia and aponia.

The thin black rubber wedge mutes wave gently, cattails in the pond. Simple, imperfect tools.

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