THE PLAYER piano stood upright, demanding my attention and beckoning me toward it. Having an MA in Music, specializing in the Roaring Twenties era, I could tell it was a genuine pianola authentic to the period. It was handcrafted from maple, mahogany, and spruce with an elaborate leaf-pattern molding. Aunt Nia stood next to me in the corner of the basement with her hand planted firmly on her ample hip. Her familiar scent of coconut soap permeated my senses.
“Andre Beaufort, are you going to stare at that dusty old piano while the entire apartment building floats into the Hudson River?” My aunt missed her calling as an actress.
“How long has this pianola been here?” I asked.
“I’d say since the year of the flood, but with this leaky pipe, I don’t want to tempt the fates.” She handed me a roll of Teflon duct tape, led me to the ladder, and pushed me by my behind up to the top. “You get that bubble butt from my side.” She giggled.
My father, French Canadian, and my mother, African American, had died with my baby brother in a car crash when I was four years old. My mom’s sister had raised me ever since in the building she managed, an Art Deco mansion converted into an apartment building. I had lived in apartment 1B with Aunt Nia until my twenty-first birthday. For the last four years, I’ve exerted my independence and lived on my own—in apartment 3A—a walk-up that keeps my legs toned and my inherited butt firm. As I ripped a piece of thick tape off the roll, I asked Aunt Nia, “Shouldn’t you call a plumber?”
“I did, but he’s booked until the end of July.” Looking authoritarian in her peach ankara maxi dress and matching bib collar necklace, Aunt Nia announced, “The tape should hold for a month.”
“Is that all right with the owner of the building?”
“How can you work for someone you’ve never met?”
Still beautiful at fifty-five, Aunt Nia shook her head, and long dreads formed a halo around her smooth face. “I get my monthly check, and the bills are paid. So Florida’s Tzar Me In Corporation is all good by me.”
“But shouldn’t they know about this?”
“What the owner doesn’t know won’t hurt him—or me. I’ll email ‘office’ about it.”
I wrapped the tape around the pipe and the leak stopped. “Maybe I should have been a plumber.”
She snickered. “You’d make more money.”
“True, but you know I love teaching.” I grinned. “Now that it’s the end of June.”
“I hear that.” Aunt Nia, who was a high school guidance counselor, chuckled as she helped me down the ladder.
As a grade school music teacher, it was fulfilling to share my love for music with children, teaching them about history, culture, self-expression, emotion, and different sounds to calm and delight. However, with so much state-required administrative work thrust upon me lately, fewer children labeled “gifted and talented,” and pushy parents demanding their tone-deaf and entitled children have solos in the school’s spring concert, I was in dire need of my summer break.
After handing my aunt the roll of tape, I was drawn back to the player piano. Sitting on the dusty bench, I sneezed and then placed my feet on the pedals. The center section at my eye level was open, so I could see the roll of preprogrammed music on perforated paper. It was a George Gershwin song from 1926: “Someone to Watch Over Me.” As I pressed the pedals, a few familiar notes played. “It still works!” I rose and lifted the top of the bench. “Aunt Nia, there are nine more rolls of music in here! Who owns this?”
“It must have been left here by the original owner in the 1930s. The building has changed ownership a few times since then. I guess nobody wanted it. I can’t say that I blame them.”
“Can I have it?”