The Piano Man
For Christmas, I am posting something a little different. I was asked to write a short story earlier this year, inspired by a song. I chose the Piano Man by Billy Joel. My Christmas gift to you, is my story
A story inspired by Billy Joel’s song Piano Man by Philip K Allan
It was Christmas Eve, and Jack’s Bar was filling nicely. Stretched along the length of the counter was a wall of drinkers. Many were clamouring for attention, waving dollar bills in the air as if drowning. Jack stood back from the bartenders, working hard to keep up with the incessant demand for attention, and looked at the sheer variety of humanity that washed through his establishment.
Some groups of drinkers talked in animated clusters, while others next to them sat quietly, nursing their drinks and listening to the music. Most of his regulars were in tonight. Paul was in his usual place. He worked in real estate, but secretly wanted to be a novelist. Further along the counter stood a group of sailors, out of uniform, but all with razored-hair and tattooed arms. They were gathered around Dave, the iron haired petty officer from the local recruitment office, and one of his best customers.
Between the familiar faces were other drinkers, less well known to Jack. In front of him was a party of sharp-suited businessmen, determinedly getting drunk. Their speech was just a little too loud for this early in the evening, and he suspected that something illegal was fuelling their night out. He had noticed their eyes earlier, dark as sharks, when they came up to the bar for more drink. Further into the room was a crowd of young sport’s jocks, spilling across two of the bigger tables. Several were flirting with Molly, the prettiest of his waitresses. He smiled to himself, admiring the ease with which she used her dumb-blond looks to boost her chances of a tip. My, but she does do that well, Jack thought. About to complete her politics PhD, she was probably the smartest person in the bar. Molly only worked at Jack’s in an attempt to control her spiralling student debt. He glanced up at the large art deco clock that peered down on them all from over the entrance. Yep, it sure was a good crowd, and it was still only nine o’clock.
His establishment had not always been so popular, Jack reflected. Positioned downtown, on a side road, it struggled for any passing trade. Six months ago he would have been able to name every person in his thinly populated bar. Back then he only had his regulars, and what they brought in barely covered his bills. He had been considering letting Molly go, or selling off some of the unused furniture that dated from more prosperous times. He had decided that the tables and chairs stacked under dustsheets at the very back of the bar would fetch little, but the piano must surely have been worth something.
It was a grand piano, glossy and black, that rested on a small stage near the door. It had not been played regularly for many years, but for nostalgic reasons, Jack had kept it in good order. Each six months he had it tuned, and each morning, as he cleaned the bar, he polished its surface, his reflection ballooning and shrinking as he worked his cloth over the curves of the instrument. He had just decided, reluctantly, that the time had come to part with it, when the Piano Man had appeared.
It had been early one evening six months ago, and he had just opened the bar. Dave was there, in his naval uniform, having just closed the recruitment office for the day. Molly had been there too. She was not working, but had been passing with her young niece and had come in for a soda. The niece had sat up at the bar, wide-eyed as she looked around her, while Molly read to her from a newly purchased story book.
‘What’s that you got there, Molly?’ Dave had asked, looking up from his beer.
‘It’s a book of fairy stories,’ she had replied. ‘Cinderella, Rumpel Stiltskin, that sort of thing. This is the one about the poor cobbler, who’s down to his last piece of leather.’
‘I remember that one!’ Dave had exclaimed. ‘The elves break-in at night and make the shoes for him, right?’
‘Well don’t go and spoil it for her, for Christ sakes,’ Molly had protested. ‘We ain’t got to that bit yet!’ They had laughed together, but Jack had remained silent, his attention drawn elsewhere.
‘Hey, what’s the matter Jack?’ Dave had asked.
‘Can’t you hear?’ he had said. ‘Some wise guy is playing my piano!’
At first Jack had hardly perceived the sound. Dave and Molly had been speaking loudly, and the first few notes had been so light and hesitant that they had barely intruded into the conversation up at the bar. But slowly the music had grown in confidence, swelling into a cascade of notes, until it could not be ignored. He had glared across the bar, to see a hunched figure on the piano stool, his hands now flying across the keys. Next to him on the stage was a suitcase, a small bag of what looked like tools, with a coat and hat draped over them. Jack had hurried across, but as he had approached the piano, the music had been cut off in mid-phrase.
‘Don’t stop, bud,’ he had urged. ‘That was real nice. What was it?’
‘Chopin,’ the man had said, without looking round. After a pause, he had started again.
‘Can you sing as well as play?’ Jack had asked, once the piece came to an end. The man had shrugged his shoulders.
‘I can, mister, but there ain’t no words to go with Chopin.’
‘OK, so give us a song that does have words,’ Jack had urged. ‘You got us in the mood for a melody.’ After a moment of hesitation, the pianist had resumed playing, the tune languid and flowing, blending well with his rich tenor. Jack had returned to the bar.
‘Hey guys,’ he had asked. ‘What do you think of him?’
‘It ain’t no tune I’ve ever heard, but I like it,’ Dave had said, his hand swaying in time with the beat.
‘That’s because it ain’t no cover version,’ Molly had offered. ‘I reckon he’s made it up himself. You know, a singer/songwriter, or something?’
‘All right,’ Dave had enthused. ‘Like that limey Rocket Man guy, with the specs and the outfits. You should take him on, Jack. Be nice to have a little music round here again.’
‘I don’t know Dave,’ he had said. ‘Takings ain’t what they were, and the brewery are charging me five bucks a barrel more for beer, starting next week.’
‘Jack, you got to speculate to accumulate,’ the naval man had urged. ‘Fact is this place ain’t pulling the crowds no more. I haven’t heard that piano since last year, when that guy passing through played it, and he weren’t no Liberace. But this guy, he sounds good.’
He had looked across at the piano again. The man seemed unaware of the conversation, and had seamlessly moved on to another song that was more upbeat and lively than the last, and yet still unfamiliar.
‘What you got to loose, Boss?’ asked Molly. ‘Look at the state of his clothes! I’ve seen hoboes better dressed, and those shoes ain’t seen no polish for a while. I reckon if you offered him a roof and chow, he would snap your hand off.’
And that was how the Piano Man had come into Jack’s life. He couldn’t pay him much, at first, but Molly’s instincts had been right. Jack had offered him one of the rooms over the bar. It was nothing much, just a bare space, with a steel framed bed, a sink and a wardrobe. For the use of that, his food and a share of tips, the Piano Man had agreed to play. Within a week, Jack’s takings had started to rise, as word spread of the pianist now playing in the bar. New customers had begun to walk through the door, wearing fancier clothes than his regulars, and ordering more expensive drinks. A few weeks later, yellow cabs from uptown had started to be seen, pulling up outside, and emptying men in black and ladies in long dresses with bold eyes onto the sidewalk. Within a month, he had put the Piano Man properly on the payroll, as an essential part of his establishment. Molly and Dave had been right. It was just what the place had needed.
What had impressed Jack the most about his new employee, was his genius for judging the mood in the bar around him. He seemed to have a natural instinct for it, despite never appearing to look up from his instrument. At lunch time, when some of the block’s more elderly residents came to sip at a drink and enjoy some company, he would play quietly in the background. Never anything that might jar or intrude, but music that first blended with the mood in the room, and then began to lift it. In the evenings, his repertoire was more fulsome, perhaps jazz to start with, then some more popular sounding songs as the bar filled, and finally softer, romantic music as the evening drew to a close. And yet he had never played a song that anyone in the bar was familiar with. Molly must have been correct, Jack decided, and the music did all come from inside him.
The Piano Man was a great singer, which was strange, because he wasn’t much of a talker. His voice was a fine tenor, warm as chocolate, as it wove through the melodies that he played. The words just seemed to cascade from him, always complementing the music and fitting the atmosphere at that time. A nod from his place at the piano was the most acknowledgement he gave to any applause. When a customer came up to the edge of the stage to tell him how much they enjoyed his music, “thank you” or “you’re welcome” was all they got in reply. If they asked him what it was that he had just played, he would shrug, and mutter something about not being sure, and that it was “just a song he had heard somewhere,” before he hurried on to his next number.
He wasn’t much better when it came to communicating with Jack and Molly. Beyond, an initial “good evening” and a final “good night,” they barely heard a word from him. But on the other hand, he never gave much cause for a conversation. He was never late to work, never wanted an evening off, kept his room perfectly clean, and never seemed to go out at all. He drank little, ate the food Jack provided, quietly at the piano, and as soon as the bar closed, he would return to his room once more. Jack had nothing to complain about, and seemingly neither did the Piano Man.
Autumn had come, bringing lashing rain that blurred Jack’s windows and rattled the door of his bar, and still the customers had flowed in. Then the weather had grown progressively colder, until when Jack followed the last customer outside to pull down his shutters, he had found that the sidewalk was sugared with frost. The customers from uptown now came through his door heavily muffled, the ladies hunched in furs, but still they came, until the inside of the bar’s windows dripped with condensation. Across Jack’s Bar, the music from the piano and the voice of the Piano Man had reverberated, perfectly counterpointed with the ringing of Jack’s till.
Nine o’clock on Christmas Eve. Jack glanced down from the clock to see yet another yellow cab drawing to a halt outside, and something else, falling from the sky. The next party through the door stamped their feet noisily, and brushed at the shoulders of their coats. An extra level of excitement spread across the room as news that it was snowing spread, until even the sound of the Piano Man was drowned out. People were standing up, moving towards the windows to look, until Jack could no longer hear the music over the roar of noise.
It wasn’t until many hours later that the bar at last started to empty. Regulars and customers alike were embracing each others, wishing all around them a merry Christmas. Then they wanted to kiss Molly, and pump Jack’s hand before they left. All of them told him how much they loved his bar, and how they would be back soon. As the crowd thinned, Jack realised that for the very first time he could recognise what the Piano Man was playing. It was Silent Night.
‘I got to fly,’ announced Dave, downing his glass. ‘I still need to wrap some presents. Been great tonight, Jack. Merry Christmas, Molls!’
‘Be seeing you, buddy,’ said Jack. ‘And Happy Christmas to you.’
The bar was empty at last, and Molly and the other staff where getting into their coats, talking excitedly. Jack came round from behind the counter, and walked across to wish the Piano Man a merry Christmas too. To his surprise, he found that the piano stool was empty, although now his attention was drawn to it, he had not heard any music playing after Silent Night had finished. He looked around the room, trying to see where he might have gone. Then he noticed something resting on top of the instrument. It was a wrapped Christmas present, in bright paper with a thick ribbon and bow. Caught under the ribbon was an envelope, addressed to “Jack” in a flowing hand. He pulled it out, slipped it open, and drew out the page it contained.
‘What does it say?’ asked Molly, who had followed him over, and now stood next to him in her coat. He unfolded the note, and read it aloud.
Your bar will do just fine now, so I will be on my way. Have a lovely Christmas and a great New Year.
The Piano Man
PS: Below you will find the names and numbers of some local pianists you might want to check out to replace me.”
‘Wow, that was sudden,’ exclaimed Molly.
‘Yeah, almost as sudden as when he showed up,’ replied Jack. ‘That’s a real shame.’
‘Ain’t going to be the same around here without him,’ she agreed.
‘Nope, it certainly ain’t’, mused Jack. ‘Where can he have gone to, on a night like this?’
‘He must have somewhere planned,’ said Molly, and then ‘So come on!’
‘Come on what?’
‘The present, Jack!’ she said. ‘What’s he given you?’ Jack put down the note, and pulled at the bow.
The ribbon slid off, and he peeled back the paper to reveal a plain, cardboard box. He took off the lid, and looked inside.
‘Well, I’ll be damned,’ he said. ‘It’s a pair of brogues. Real nice ones, too.’ He pulled out a pair of richly-tanned leather shoes, and examined them in the light. ‘They look hand-made! And they’re in my size. Now, why did he buy me these?’
‘Buy? Or make?’ asked Molly.
‘OK, why would he make me shoes, and then just disappear without a word?’ Jack asked. Molly looked up towards the ceiling.
‘He turns up out of nowhere, sorts out your life, and goes leaving you new shoes. Even my niece could tell you what’s going down here,’ she said.
‘But I ain’t as smart as you Molls!’ he protested.
‘Remember the story I was reading when he first showed up?’ sighed the waitress, and then. ‘Merry Christmas, Jack.’ She gave him a peck on the cheek, and stepped out into the whisper of falling snow.
Merry Christmas to you and your loved ones and thanks for your support - I am off now till the New Year now - my next blog will be in January
All the best