Photo by Norbert Buduczki on Unsplash

To Deborah for the thought and Ingrid for the name

I first see him in a sleazy piano bar on 13th Street, anonymous town, USA. Business trip, but I used to play in bars myself, so I like to ask the dopes about their real jobs, the jobs that pays the rent, waiter, salesclerk. Their answers make me feel good so I buy drinks, tip big and stay to talk music. Poor slobs, they need the dough more than I do.

This piano man playing is a new version of an old band leader: Sleek-backed hair, wire-rim glasses, a silver tuxedo and snazzy polka-dot tie. An In the Mood kind of guy? A Sixties comes out of his bored fingers, Help, but I imagine he sees melody in me because with a sly smile he punches it out a slow boogie that speeds up fast, like 60 miles a minute. The other guests are too busy talking about themselves to listen to this kid.

The manager calls over: “No messing with the Beatles, Alan. Last warning.”

“He’s good,” I say.

“Aw, piano players are a dime a dozen, but this one thinks he’s God.”

I ask my usual question to Piano Man. He plays up the scales and pretends to run out of keys. “My real job’s right here,” he finally answers. “My calling.” That makes me snort. “My vocation,” he says. “You must remember this if you want me to keep talking.”

He has that fake accent like in those old movies with Orson Welles. And he doesn’t look at the keys as he talks to me, jamming Can’t Buy Me Love like a jumbo jet. Talent all right: 88 key player. Magic Fingers.

“What did I just say?” the manager yells. I stuff a hundred in the tip jar quick.

“Are you Mister Money or just my dreams come true?” the kid asks, then struts out Million Dollar Baby.

“Robert… Bob,” I say. “My calling… card. I’m at the Ritz down the street if you want to talk. About piano.” I write my home address on the back and tuck the card into his tuxedo pocket. This Can’t Be Love, he riffs, but the manager is about to burst so he waves goodbye in mid-chord. I wasn’t planning to leave, but I can take a hint.

Back at the hotel, I google YouTube. He must have 400 tired sites with 500 views each. Lots of thumbs up, kudos. He was a prodigy twenty years ago. Some commenters don’t listen, just complain he sits funny or makes an occasional blunder or talks in that mid-Atlantic movie voice. Plays brilliantly, but so what? All prodigies go the down direction: pushed away by the next new domino. A musician’s life is heartache, but none of my business anymore. Sometimes you just have to know when to quit.

Still, I’m disappointed he doesn’t call. This Must Be Love keeps flirting with my mind, but oh well.

Months later, he texts. “I’m part of the music festival near where you live. We have to sleep in separate rooms. Snoring makes me nervous.”

What a jerk. No word till now, and I’m supposed to drive 2 hours to some retro festival that started yesterday? No way, I’m not that smitten.

I turn on the TV movie of the week. The soundtrack plays Love Me or Leave Me, and it gets glued to my eardrums. I try to wash the pile of dishes but the water tumbles out like Million Dollar Baby bubbles. This magic-fingered kid calling out, love me, leave me, come to me baby. No. Yes. Yes.

2 hour drive to the next town, terrible traffic, but all the while imagining intimate shadows of intimate things: I knock on his hotel room door, and he opens with that sly grin: “You’ve come.”

But that’s as far as my imagination goes so I keep driving.

At the festival’s fancy hotel, I can hear some dozy ragtime. 200 dollars a night for a room and another 200 for a pass. An eighty-year-old hands me a thick program, and look at that: the kid’s on the front cover, name in sparkling letters. Big fish in this one-horse town.

When I knock on his hotel room door, no answer. “He’s on stage,” the eighty-year-old tells me. So I rush the auditorium, and there he stands, talking in that lazy voice, introducing the next song. He sees me standing in the back, and he’s all smiles and blushes. “I knew you’d come,” I imagine him whispering. Oh, you beautiful doll.

 Trance-like, he plays I’ve Got You Under My Skin. Then song after song after wonderful song for a blissful hour, till he bows quick, no encore, and runs backstage. The eighty-year-old says, “He’s got a lecture now, and then another gig in Hall 103. You’ll catch him if you hurry.”

He sees me from the stage, he nods and he smiles. This happens all day long.

11pm shows up. “He’s at the after-glow party,” the eighty-year-old says. “Isn’t he just marvelous? Better than Liberace.”

But I have no more listening stamina and head for bed.

Rinse and repeat the whole next day without a break, open piano, accompaniment, duets, lectures, workshops. The nearly-dead love him like crazy. After every gig he grins and bows at the idiot who drove 2 hours for nothing. No texts, no calls, never answers my desperate knock. Soon it’s too late to drive home but I don’t care, I’ve had it. What a mean trick. I mean, what have I ever done to him?

I knock one last time. And this time he opens wide. There’s even a piano in his room.

“My big finale is any minute,” he says. “You’ll be there, of course.”

“No. I’m leaving.”

He turns pale. “Don’t go.”

“I don’t even know why you asked me to come.”

“I thought, I mean… Because of your calling…”

“Calling who?”

“Your vocation. Top-notch listener.”

Now I want to sock him. “You’ve got some nerve. I’ve heard enough. What a nasty prank to play on a… a…”  But he bows his head and I see in his eyes little dashes of water making their way down his cheek.

“It’s important,” he says. “You’ve got to be there.”

I’m a sucker for tears and begging. “Okay, okay. I’ll stay for your big finale, and then I’m out of here, no goodbyes. Really, who do you think you are?”

“I told you who,” he says. “But you’re the lucky one, such a gift. I only wish I…” He glances at his watch, catches his breath and shuts the door. Zooming piano scales echo out to me.

So I go in late for the finale, hoping for no seats left. The auditorium is packed, not just the nearly-dead, but with reporters, teens in snazzy duds, satin ladies.

“He’s waiting,” the eighty-year-old says and points to an empty seat, front row center. “Saved, just for you.”

“I know I don’t have to introduce the next player,” the announcer says.

Please introduce him, I think. Tell me something, anything.

Then he hurries in, sheet music all akimbo, white tie and tails. Drops the sheet music and ignores the mess. On my seat is a Reserved for Robert Bob and an embossed card with a song list:

It Had to be You

Let’s Do It

Prisoner of Love

Little White Lies

What’ll I Do?

I Guess I’ll Have to Change my Plan

Blues in the Night

Please Don’t Talk About Me When I’m Gone.

No Regrets

The House is Haunted with the Echo of your Last Goodbye.

He plays each song with clever little Chico touches. And poof, by the last song I’m on a silver boat that sails me to the shore of an exotic lake, in Brazil maybe, the land of jazz, dancing girls with bananas on their heads. Teasing, hungry men in tuxes sway up, float down like empty balloons, and they cry, “Never enough, Robert Bob. Never.”

He stands to wild applause. I expect him to run out, but instead he approaches the mike.

“I have a special encore,” he says. “To turn your frown into a smile.” And he looks straight at me, and I’ve always hated that saying.

He rests his hands on the keys for a minute. One or two notes brush together, slow low-down hint, transpose, transpose, A minor sigh. Arpeggio spiders twirl around my ears, a caress here, a squeeze there, a bite, module little late, just right, tight. Sirens wail, call to my floundering ship but can’t sustain, can’t diminish, can’t augment, just wah-wah around a fat man in a derby hat striding a handful of keys, tossing them up, up, then whammo caressing crash, 52 pick up as four hands stroke an aching chord, then eight hands, a hundred, a thousand hands. One billion beats per minute, higher but don’t end, no end, not yet.

It stops for good.

I touch my face. “13th Street Blues,” the piano kid murmurs. Then he picks his sheet music up from the floor and goes.

I close my eyes tight and wait. When I open them again, the lights have dimmed and the eighty-year old is picking up the scattered programs.

I don’t see this piano kid again. He’s not my calling; I’m not his.

But sometimes I can still hear him playing when the radio’s bored. And I listen.

Louise Lemieux

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