‘An Occupation’ by Adam Stumacher


From Granta:

Before coming to the West Bank, Nathan worked for years as piano tuner, which left him with a nervous tic: one more slight turn of the crank, one more gentle pull, and the pitch will be perfect. He has begun to see the world as an instrument of dense hardwood and heavy alloy, pulled into a state of constant tension, to see himself as the only person capable of getting the damn thing into equal temperament. But no matter how he coaxes the pin, the strings will never quite render. A waver remains in that octave, a twang in that unison. So he has taken to a constant puttering, an endless low-grade effort to fix everybody else’s problems. He might let his own bills pile up unopened on his desk, but he keeps busy repairing the lives around him, like so many busted D-strings.

This tendency used to drive Julie nuts, and even though he knew it was pushing her away he couldn’t help himself: he needed to tell her the right tone to use when talking to her mother on the phone, the right anecdotes to tell when trying to impress her boss, the right grad programs to consider in pursuit of a career that would, finally, make her happy. The more he advised, the less she listened. Not that she had ever paid much attention to begin with; she couldn’t tell a Steinway from a Hamilton if her life depended on it, never seemed to really feel music. He has begun to see the world as an instrument of dense hardwood and heavy alloy, pulled into a state of constant tension… So they ran out of things to discuss, and by the end they just stopped talking. And they had been such good conversationalists in the beginning. They were that noisy couple on the next table over in the diner, interrupting each other’s stories with laughter that sprayed root beer across the booth. Over the years, their voices quieted down, and by the end they hummed absently as they read different sections of the newspaper and passed the sugar across the table without looking up. If their fingertips accidentally brushed together, Julie shivered as if her body were fighting venom. Maybe if he had been in a different line of work, Nathan thought, maybe if he had developed a different set of habits, things might have worked out.

On the other hand, the habits of a piano technician seemed well suited to survival in a war zone.

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