by Jared Carter
Other musicians take their instruments along. On cross-country flights you see fiddle players who had to buy an extra ticket for the Stradivarius in the seat next to them. They look nervous.
It’s different playing piano. Each time you come to a new place, the piano is already there, browsing in the middle of the pasture, a long way from the fence. It’s black, usually, but sometimes roan. Once in a while it’s a buckskin.
It’s usually up in years, too. It’s been there a long time, it’s earned the right to graze anywhere it wants. Not like those cows, down by the river, under the cottonwood tree. They move with the shade, all day long. When the sun moves, they move. Not until.
Worn steps lead up to the stage, to the flats of last night’s scenery waiting to be moved back to storage. Underneath the fake-wood flooring the actual surface is concrete. Gray corridors lead to dressing rooms, with doors you have to stoop to get through. There’s a wooden table, mottled with cigarette burns, its veneer peeling.
Backstage the walls are exposed brick. Masses and coils of rope swirl up into the darkness. Banks of switches and circuit breakers. Styrofoam cups left on dusty ledges, stuck in behind fire extinguishers. Windows opening onto airshafts. Anything people touch – doorknobs, levers, the backs of metal folding chairs – is worn to a pale brass sheen.
The piano waits at the back of the stage. It stands patiently while you slip off its thick blanket. If you had remembered to bring a cube of sugar, or a carrot, and held it out now, it might raise its head and glance around at you. And switch its tail a few times.
Feel the strange vibrations echoing when you lift the keyboard cover and look at its teeth. Tap a foreleg; it raises a hoof, so you can check the shoe. It’s accommodating. This is a horse that can stand, tie, and load. Its flanks ripple to keep the flies away.
Reach out and stroke its neck, its mane. Try a scale in G, then E-flat. Then a chromatic, middle C up three octaves and back again. Each key has a different feel. Each waits for you to get acquainted.
The trainer’s been here already. That’s part of the contract. It’s perfectly tuned. You look around. Sometimes there’s a square-legged bench grazing alongside. Or an adjustable stool with four claws made of cast-iron, each one grasping a little glass ball. Sometimes there’s a wooden kitchen chair with the back broken off.
The piano seems to know what you’re doing. It snuffles in the lower registers. Later, when the others get there, you’ll put on all the tack – blanket and saddle, bridle and bit – and you’ll swing up, and it will be time to head out.
Now, you have it all to yourself. No one else around. You try a few tunes you haven’t thought of in a long time. Dorothy Fields and Jimmy McHugh, “I Can’t Give You Anything But Love.” Shelton Brooks, “Walking the Dog.” King Oliver, “Hello Central, Give me Doctor Jazz!”
The horse perks up. Its ears start forward. Now we’re getting somewhere.
Bio: Jared Carter’s sixth collection, Darkened Rooms of Summer, was published in 2014 by the University of Nebraska Press. He lives in Indianapolis