Piano Man

By Barry B. Wright

James W. Howell glanced up at the tall building. At one time he had occupied one of the corner offices at the top. He pulled up the collar of his well-worn overcoat to ward off the chill in the air. People brushed by him as if he did not exist. For the twenty years he had walked Wall Street there had been much fanfare. Now nothing. He had risen to the top of the corporate ladder. Once his word had been gold. Lots of money had been invested and exchanged when he spoke. The reflection in the glass window looking back at him caused him to wither. Youthfulness now spent, he appeared haggard and much older than his years. When did the hair at my temples turn white? He thought. Clothes once top of the town and envied by many, now just well-worn threads hanging loosely from his waist where once they were tight. The fall from his success on Wall Street had been swift and hard when the crash of ’29 humbled a nation and the world at large. Three years had passed since that black Tuesday day and he reminisced of a time when he had lived in a grand home with his family. Now he slept under a bridge, alone, and in a cardboard box. Hunger constantly stabbed him, a daily routine, though not two hours before he had stood in a soap kitchen line to get his first feed. He rifled his pockets for change. What little money he had he earned playing piano at a local speakeasy, behind a restaurant called Toby’s, three days a week.

James placed his last dime on the counter to pay for his gravied pot-roast dinner with potatoes and beets. Toby Carmichael slid the money into his chubby palm. A few minutes later he returned with a stein of his best suds, his forehead glistening with sweat. Sparse, greasy spaghetti strands of hair covered the lid over the friendly glow on his moon-shaped face.

Toby asked, beginning to frown, “How are you my friend? In all the years that you have come here I’ve never asked where you sleep.”

James gulped down halfway the golden liquid in the stein and placed it on the table. “Ah…good ale as usual.”

“Only the best for you,” replied Toby.

“You remember where I used to live?” Toby nodded. “I’m not far from there. As for my family, my wife and two kids are living with her aunt.”

“And where would that be?” Toby replied.

James scooped up a forkful of mashed potato and dipped it in the gravy before putting it in his mouth. “West coast…outside of L.A. Damn good supper!”

Toby raised an eyebrow then two. “You know James I never thanked you.”

“For what?”

“I wouldn’t have this place without you.”

James glanced at the clock on the wall. “It’s not far off eight. And I will soon be descending to your back room with haste.” The legitimate clientele ate front room while others tapped a code on the door off the alley. “I can’t play piano on an empty stomach and I’m sure you’ve got better things to do with your time than sit here with me.”

“I expect it will be sparse this evening.”

“Isn’t it normally on a Thursday evening?” James replied. “As long as I make my usual tips, I’ll be okay. Why such a sombre expression?”

“Have you looked outside? The rain is coming down cats and dogs.” Toby stood up and with a deep sigh said, “Per usual, I told Jake to serve you only the best.”

“I appreciate that,” James replied, returning his attention to finishing his meal. He peered up long enough to watch Toby disappear behind the swinging doors to the kitchen. How long have I known him? Maybe twenty years. Yes! That’s just about right. We were young men back then; each at the start of a dream that stretched out for miles and full of much might. His clothes have filled out while mine, he mused with silent laughter, are far from tight.

Ten minutes later, he descended the stairs. At the end of a long silver chain, he held his key tightly in hand. The dank winding corridor was barely with light, at its end was the door through which he would begin his night. Only he and Toby entered and left by this means while others tapped code in the alley and were seen.

A thick padded cushion had been strategically placed on the piano bench and James nodded his appreciation to Jake. Before opening the lid to reveal the keys, he placed a bright rose-colored jar for tips on the piano for all to see. Once he was comfortably ensconced on the cushion, he slid back the lid and his fingers began to dance along the ebony and white keys. By the time he had struck up the third in a series of tunes, a two-fingered whiskey had been placed where he pleased.

At nine the regular crowd shuffled in. The weather had cleared, and the tempo picked up. As the evening marched on and the rose jar grew green and silver petals, James knew he had set the melodies right and everyone was feelin’ alright. Near him sat a man who appeared familiar, making love to his gin-tonic and occasionally flashing a gold toothed grin.

“Do you remember me, James,” the man said leaning in. “I’m Timothy O’Rourke. Our houses were side by side when we were boys.”

James finished his tune and caught Jake’s attention and held up two fingers for another whiskey and rye. “I do remember. You had a sister, Liz, and a brother, Tom. How are they?”

“They are well.”

James sipped his whiskey, feeling good to see an old friend. “And your parents, how are they?”

“My father died five years ago. But my mum’s okay. Just as cantankerous and high-spirited as when you knew her back then.” He glanced at his wristwatch. “The O’Rourke’s never forgot your generosity. Without it we would have lost our home, who knows where we would have been.” He reached into his pocket and gave him a crisp, new, five-dollar bill. “When does your break end?”

“Jake, over there, signals when it begins and ends. What time is it?

“It’s a quarter to ten. Tuck the bill I just gave you deep in the jar and close it off.”

“Ten is when I start again.”

Timothy drew him closer and surreptitiously flipped to the back of his lapel.

“You’re a cop!” James whispered, recoiling away at the sight of the badge. His eyes frantically scanning the room as the panic inside him surged to bloom. “Gees Tim. These folks are only here to forget about life for awhile. They’re good people. You must know that. This piano…when I tinkle the ivory, it brings them joy because I make it sound like a carnival for them.”  

“You do James. That you do. But you must get hold of yourself. You’ll do nobody any good in the back of a paddywagon on your way to jail. Grab your rose-colored jar and leave right away. At ten the door onto the alley will come down. Wait for me at the park where we used to play.”

“But what about them?” His eyes searched the room. For a moment, his gaze lingered on the waitress practicing politics between tables.

Tim followed his gaze. “By morning most will be out on bail. And some will get away. Now go! We’ll meet once I have finished here.”

James wrapped his overcoat tightly round him to ward off the damply cold. He was in the park alone. The clock tower chimed once to herald one in the morn. Eye lids heavy, he curled fetal-like on the park bench, rubied flesh peeked through the swiss cheese soles at his feet, and drifted off to a restless sleep full of forlorn mourn. He had no idea how long he had slept when he felt a push and a shove, then again and again. The face that peered down was a friendly one, it was Timothy O’Rourke and he had brought someone along. “Judith?” With questioning eyes, tears bubbling at their rims, he sat up and glanced at Tim again.

“As I told you earlier, the O’Rourke’s never forgot your kindness. Though you no longer lived in the neighborhood, I followed your progress.” He sat beside James and with an encouraging pat of the space beside him, Judith, the speakeasy waitress, sat down. “I was heartbroken when I heard that your wife, son, and aunt perished in that fire. It was a blessing from above or shear luck, call it what you may, that your daughter was in hospital when it all happened. But why did you put her up for adoption?”

“I didn’t think I was worthy enough.” James sighed as he stared at Judith. He struggled with the knot in his throat that attempted to strangle what little words he felt. “I blamed myself. I should have been home. Instead, I chose to be on a business trip. I chose!”

“But you couldn’t’ve known, James!” Tim adamantly replied.

“You don’t understand,” James cried, glancing away, speaking in waves of sombrely sobs. “I knew about the gas leak. I thought it small and inconsequential. I should have had someone attend to it. But thought it could wait until my return.” He turned to face Judith. “I played piano to be near you. I have never been far away. I watched you grow to the woman you are now and hope you will stay.” Her hands caressed his, not a word did she say, but he could see her compassion and forgiveness and the hopes that they shared.

She stared at her father and with great earnest she asked, “How did you know where to find me?”

“In a word, and thankful I am,” he replied, “Friends.”

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