Blinded By False Redemption

This is the story of Buddy Gray, a blind piano tuner who entered and exited our family's life while I was in high school. He seemed larger than life at first. Then I saw him use his handicap to prop up an ugly truth.

Buddy Gray visited our family twice a year to tune our small, humble piano. For an hour his jokes and his loud southern twang and the promise of pitch descended onto the silent pallor of our Maryland home. Upon finishing, Buddy would always sing one of his own Christian songs, banging recklessly in marvelous opposition to our own timidity, his notes resonating well past supper.

Our home felt empty for days after he left, even with four children, a dog and a cat. I think my mother bought one of Buddy’s records but it was nothing like having him in person, his squat, home-fed Pillsbury body jumping off the bench in rhythm to his song, momentarily transforming our living room into a Godful honky-tonk. He played so loudly I couldn’t make out the words, just the magic feeling behind them, but maybe that was just our walls vibrating with the thrum.

Buddy Gray was blind, the result of an accident when he was much younger. Alabama was his home. He had a wife and children — girls, I think — but he traveled to southern Maryland every six months to tune and repair pianos and to preach his gospel of redemption. I was an easy convert, compelled now to search unsuccessfully for trouble to be redeemed of. I could never picture myself at 13 or 14 with long hair, using drugs and women.

Then again I couldn’t picture Buddy Gray that way either, but I was always looking for affirmations not just of God’s existence, but his willful involvement, tweaking and correcting us each toward a better path. Or at least guiding the Lakers past the Celtics.

Our piano was handed down through generations, and moved from New Jersey to California to Maryland to Alabama to Florida before settling in northern Virginia with my sister, the only one who took an active interest in playing. Linda gave up the piano shortly after being forced into a recital, a frightening experience for someone never comfortable with a spotlight being poured onto her developing interests. Her legs shook so badly during the performance I was surprised her notes didn’t also quiver.

There was nothing remarkable about our piano, a Wurlitzer console that belonged to our grandfather. It’s the kind you would expect to find propped up against a dining room wall in the 1940s. Its body is a faded, crackling yellow, and its brown, wooden roll top cover blankets the keys. Buddy would shake his head when he tuned it, imploring my mother to continue its maintenance, under his care of course, every six months. She would nod her ascent violently, probably wondering how to enlist the support of my cheap, unsympathetic father. Come to think of it, I’m certain the piano lessons we children so often protested fortified an argument we were never privy to.

I hated playing the piano, but Buddy’s visits sometimes made me reconsider.

The first time Buddy was to come to our home, my mother warned us about his blindness, and as with most things like this (race, heritage, handicap) she taught us to celebrate the difference rather than gawk or cower or judge. I remember not wanting to stare. My sisters and I gathered around and watched Buddy work, his big burgundy satchel’s shiny leather reminding me of something a doctor might bring to a house call, only bigger and practically bursting with the weight of his tools.

He would practically disappear into the piano’s insides, placing his odd rubber wedges among the sets of strings that corresponded to a key, and then he would pound a note and apply his tuning lever to the pins to adjust the string, which stretched like a cat’s meow, or the accent of his voice, now quietly packed away, replaced by a mystical concentration. Buddy would insist on absolute silence, and in time we would scatter back to our lives until it was time for him to play his encore.

I don’t remember Buddy using anything like a chromatic tuner. Occasionally he’d bring out a tuning fork, but his ear was so locked in he could hear things we couldn’t. Note by note he would go, moving his wedges, pounding a key, tweaking a string until it was properly tamed. Sometimes he would revisit a pesky string and strive for a perfect sound that escaped us all. I’d never met a piano tuner before, and haven’t since, but I imagined him to be the best at his craft, such was the spellbinding impact on me.

During each visit we thought we knew Buddy better. He would reach out his hands, guessing at how tall my sisters and I had grown since his last visit, always a little taller than his hands reasoned. My mother quizzed him about his life in Alabama. His wife. His kids. His works in the name of God.

When Buddy was finished tuning, he’d boldly proclaim the piano good as new. I could never tell the difference. But it never really mattered. He was larger than life. Full of life. He told stories of the evil of booze and drugs. Buddy’s was a turnaround story, about a bad man who had embraced Christianity, life and family, and changed. The man we saw here, tuning our piano. I wanted some of his God.

Years later when I had a driver’s license it was somehow arranged that I would drive for Buddy during his visits. I don’t know whether he inquired or my parents suggested, but one bright morning in the summer of my 17th year I found myself driving down the highway to Waldorf, Maryland, where Buddy was staying with friends for his two weeks of piano tuning. It would be easy money and I would get to know Buddy even better, listening to his stories and soaking up his wisdom.

I’m sure I arrived early that first day, but Buddy was already up making phone calls and confirming appointments for later in the week. Some of the family was awake, and they had that weary look of the morning. But it might have been that they’d already had their fill of Buddy’s loud echoes.

We set out and Buddy set the rules. His goal was to get in and out of each house within an hour so that we could maximize the day. He had each day planned with the precision of his beloved pianos. His appointments were handwritten in a spiral-bound notebook, which held the schedule and addresses in his eerily precise penmanship, but it was all in his head anyway. He was like that.

I would drive him, guide him to the house and to the piano, his hand on my elbow, and then I was free for the hour, free to listen to him tune or to read or snoop around. I listened to him chat with his clients, filling the room as he had done so many times at my own house.

The allure of that faded quickly in the first couple days. I suppose there are stories you can only hear so many times.

Buddy Gray taught me the uncanny power of the blind. He had grown up in southern Maryland, but he had been blind for at least 20 years before I met him. Yet he knew every turn on every road we drove. He would give me a few directions and after driving on a highway for more than 20 minutes, he would suddenly announce that our next turn was in 500 yards.

My gasp must have been audible because then he started doing it more, just to prove that first one wasn’t a fluke. And then he would just laugh. I would never know those roads or have turn by turn directions in my head like Buddy did. His sight was intuitive, unexplainable.

And Buddy knew about sound. I don’t just mean singing on pitch and tuning a piano or being able to play a song by ear, though he was pretty good at all that. He could also throw his voice. I had an old Chevy Camaro with a 350 V8 engine and it just barreled down the road, growling as it went. That car meant business and on some of the hilly, windy back roads that led to those big colonial-era estates, I would just start to let the car take over.

Buddy would let me go for a while; I suppose even a blind man knows what’s fun for a young boy. But one time I heard a siren and all feeling left my body. I frantically searched my mirrors, and seeing nothing I finally pulled over, confused and scared. Buddy just laughed. He’d been whistling that siren and somehow threw the sound of it behind me. He was like that.

Sometimes the houses we visited would be empty, the door unlocked and a check sitting on the piano. In other houses maids or housekeepers would greet us. But mostly there were families and they’d all take to Buddy like mine did. Many of them lived in gloriously large houses and the pianos were epic compared to the one we owned, gleaming like polished ebony trophies in their dedicated rooms.

Occasionally we would encounter a lost cause, a piano with its paint chipping away like a dilapidated, abandoned house. The owners of these were almost never home, and tuning them wasn’t really an option because the interior workings were usually even more diminished. We would quickly assess the situation and depart without bothering to take the check, but the mood was punished by the harsh judgement of Buddy Gray, who was intolerant of poorly kept instruments.

In hindsight it was likely just intolerance for having his time wasted, the wrath of which I would occasionally feel if I couldn’t find a road, or miscalculated a turn a few days into our time together.

We worked long hours and I would often return home well after dark, collapsing in my bed. When I dropped Buddy off, he would immediately take to the phones to reaffirm the next day’s appointments, call some of the homes he hoped to visit later in his tuning tour, having me read off the phone numbers one by one. He was relentless.

My exasperation with the pace and his persistence grew to match his impatience. Buddy liked to make the most of his waking hours. Even our stops for food were of the fast variety, and I built up a stomach of iron to march against the threat of too many Big Macs and french fries and milkshakes. When I returned home my Camaro’s back seat looked like a drug store parking lot and smelled like grease. I took solace from the monotony’s crescendo with a long, hard shower.

When Buddy and I finally got to know each other better, the things that once uplifted me about him grew oppressive, the jokes heard across the zip codes, the folksy wisdom of a recovered malcontent, the glory he gave to his God.

Over time, his interactions with me became jarring. He asked me what the woman whose piano we had just tuned looked like. At first I figured this was just that blind part of him trying to see. But in time, I measured more behind the inquisitions. In time, with use, he too fell out of tune.

Riding the high of one particular visit with one of his long-time clients he asked me to verify that the eldest daughter of the last client had developed breasts. He asked it innocently enough, as if his extra senses and his brilliant memory had calculated a maturation. Then he told me that I had merely confirmed what he already knew, the way he always knew.

I had somehow completely missed his deception. He admitted that he would pretend to reach out to see how tall a teenage girl had grown, but that he always purposely reached too low, for he would have easily heard the girl’s height by listening for the source of her voice. Buddy Gray had been eagerly feeling teenage breasts for years.

Turns out he was like that, too.

I don’t know why he told me about this habit, or did so conspiratorially, as if our perversions ran in harmony. He must have thought I was still in his thrall. His powers of perception had mysteriously failed him, or I had credited them too abundantly.

Buddy’s time in our lives was almost inconsequential. My parents and siblings are hard-pressed to remember any details about him, even the self-proclaimed redemption orchestrated by his glorious God.

Funny how I can’t get his song of hypocrisy out of my head.