The story is about a family man who must sell an heirloom piano to make space in his house for his daughter and husband-to-be's conjugal bed. He puts an ad in the paper and several potential buyers show up but are unimpressed by its quality. Resigned to the fact the instrument has only sentimental value, the man offers it to his cousins as a gift but they politely decline. Finally, frustrated but determined to do the right thing by his daughter, he recruits a team of local boys to carry it to the sea. The local people are horrified that such an object is being discarded but none of them are willing to take it in, and the police want to charge him for illegal dumping. Eventually the piano is taken off by the sea.
I won't spoil the ending, in case you find the story.
So what makes it so damn good? Well, here are just three reasons:
a. The story is a perfectly balanced and subtle blend of the comic and tragic. We really feel for the man's disappointment in finding out that his beloved family heirloom is nothing more than a heap of junk. And the process he has to go through to get rid of it is funny and touching.
b. The personification of the piano is brilliant. I found myself as desperate as the protagonist for it to be saved by someone, anyone. By the end, it really feels like he's euthanizing an old relative. With his skill, Machado shows us the ultimate superiority of the written word. It is impossible to imagine how the piano could be so well humanised by any means other than words. It would take an exceptional director to effectively put this on screen or on stage.
c. Freedom is the big theme in this story but it's totally unobtrusive. The story is set against the backdrop of WW2 which has compressed the world and curtailed the freedom of all its inhabitants. In the end, we sense that the piano is in fact fortunate: it can float free and its parts can travel wherever the currents take them. It is so difficult to have a big theme and not let it get in the way of the storytelling. In the anthology where the story appears, the editor claims the ending is weak (dismissing it as O'Henry-ish) but - in my view - the neat, humourous ending is a strength. It prevents the big theme, which becomes apparent towards the end, from hijacking the story for its own political ends. As it is, Machado has given us enough to ponder, if we so choose, without ramming it down our throats.
It's this last point that makes me envy Machado's prowess. I like themes but seem utterly unable to avoid bludgeoning my reader over the head with them; as my trusted friend and psuedo-editor is always pointing out. I'm patronising apparently, unable or unwilling to trust my reader to make connections or reach their own conclusions. On these grounds, my editor has - quite correctly - told me to give my story, Boxed In, a complete overhaul. Fortunately, I have Machado's model of near-perfection to help me out.