Grace and William Trevor’s Piano Tuner

This comes to us from Mockingfriend, Larry Parsley. William Trevor, the Irish master of the […]

Mockingbird / 8.18.16

This comes to us from Mockingfriend, Larry Parsley.

William Trevor, the Irish master of the short story, opens “The Piano Tuner’s Wives” with words that could almost launch a parable. “Violet married the piano tuner when he was a young man. Belle married him when he was old.” In the story that follows, Trevor renders Belle’s jealousy of the departed Violet with dozens of deft brushstrokes.

originalThe piano tuner, Owen, is blind. In his younger years, he was loved both by Violet and Belle. Owen chose Violet over the younger and more beautiful Belle, and subsequently Belle never married. During the four decades of the first marriage, Violet managed Owen’s career as a musician — his primary job of tuning pianos at various homes in their village, and side jobs playing the violin. Yet Violet did more than serve as Owen’s driver and bookkeeper. She narrated the visual reality of his life. Violet augmented Owen’s stellar senses of hearing, touch, and smell by presenting him with vivid descriptions of every piano-owner’s home they visited. “Now, tell me what’s there,” Owen would ask as they drove away, and Violet would verbally “conjure” the hues of mountains, the pattern of carpets, and the palette of flowers. A primrose, she told him, was shaded like “straw or country butter” with “a spot of colour in the middle.”

When Violet died and “a decent interval had elapsed,” Owen initiated a courtship with Belle after church one Sunday, and soon the two are married. But the proverb’s diagnosis — “Hope deferred makes the heart sick” (Proverbs 13:12) — is palpable in the resentment that infects Belle’s heart. For all her excitement at late romance, Belle lives in Violet’s house with Violet’s husband among Violet’s flowerbeds and interior decoration. That is when Belle’s campaign begins — she throws away Violet’s old frying pans and wooden spoons, paints banisters, and orders new vinyl for the kitchen floors. This, of itself, is not unusual.

But the “plundering” of Violet’s home was not enough. On their shared trips to tune pianos, Belle recklessly edits Violet’s prior descriptions of customers’ homes. If Violet had said a nun’s cheeks were “flushed,” Belle replaced that description for Owen with “chalky white.” After one visit, Belle lies and says that the Catholic statues that occupied one customer’s mantelpiece (including “St. Catherine and her lily, the Virgin on her own, Jesus in glory”) had been cleared out. The reader is left to imagine the mental violence happening inside Owen’s interior gallery, what altars are being swept clean. Apparently, “hope deferred” can make the heart mean as well.

Since the time of her rejection Belle had been unable to shake off her jealousy, resentful because she had looks and Violet hadn’t, bitter because it seemed to her that the punishment of blindness was punishment for her too.” In their early years, Owen had not been able to see Belle’s beauty, and in choosing Violet, he inadvertently robbed Belle of her moment: “An act of grace it would have been, her beauty given to a man who did not know it was there.”

The word “grace” is a marvelous choice, of course. If you can resent the missed opportunity to grant grace, was it truly grace to begin with? Arguably, Belle’s opportunity to offer grace is greater now. As she cares for this man Violet loved so well, she can ‘touch up’ Owen’s interior life like a painter skilled in the art of restoration. To live this way, of course, is to view the life we have received as its own kind of grace, and to accept life’s late blessings as blessings still.

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