Sunday, January 15, 2012


[When the going gets tough, the tough detach and write in the third person.]

He craved numbers. They allowed the illusion of subtle structure in a universe of random foofaraw. He knew better, but convinced himself anyway.
He was a professional pianist and, by some accounts, could have been a classical prodigy. But there was that unpleasantness at the age of twelve when he was scolded for tapping his foot while playing Beethoven. “Who wants to play music you can’t tap your foot to?” he asked his un-amused teacher. No, he was a jazz pianist. Here was his ultimate security. Here was his conclave. Here, the improvised notes only appear random to the untrained. But to him, it was the closest he could come to controlling the numbers, controlling the frequencies, controlling the neurons.
He arrived at his weekly gig and went through the checklist: enter the dining area with a shoulder pack full of music books; greet the employees with the friendly but detached smile (“I like you but we’ll never be very close”); open the piano lid and hope the guy from last night didn’t leave another disgusting cigar butt on the keys (all clear); turn down volume on cell phone and set it nearby so the clock would remind him to take a break after exactly fifty minutes; take books out of bag though he seldom used them; check over his song list to pick an opening tune (which always ends up being "Our Love Is Here to Stay" regardless); and, finally, seated at the piano with wearied posture, place fingers on the instrument to begin.
But this night the ritual was broken, though no one but him cared to notice. The bartender was busy looking at an attractive customer; the waitress was looking at the bartender wishing he would look at her that way; and the couple seated near the piano looked only at each other across wine glasses. On this singular evening, the pianist deviated from the norm as his fingers drifted away from the keys and returned to the shoulder bag. Empty of its heavy books, it flaccidly revealed a weathered photograph: a color-faded Polaroid never meant to last so many decades. With a left hand barely suggesting a hesitant quiver, he lifted the photo and placed it in sight next to the phone.

The first song began and he commenced his beautiful formulae. The ears in the room heard only the harmonically pleasing and technically impressive notes that fell from his seemingly effortless hands. But in his mind, the numbers churned and processed while seeking out purpose, order, and the perfect placement in series. The commentary flashed through his mind: “sevenths resolve down; leading tones resolve up; Lydian dominant sounds exotically bluesy; borrowed chords add a touch of melancholy, don’t overdo the chromatic scale ("the coward’s bitch"); develop a three-note cellular theme and slightly abstract it for each of two more occurrences ("not one, not three, TWO!"); employ a different turn-around progression at the end of each chorus even though they are all just bastard children of the immortal original; a smattering of Bud, a whisper of Wynton, a nod to Duke, and an outright theft of Nat before closing with “Ending Number 28” from Hyman’s big book of “101 Greatest Jazz Intros and Endings (with chords the real pros use!).” These and a thousand other numerical possibilities smashed through his brain until the song’s conclusion.

The polite applause is acknowledged with a slight head bow but no eye contact. (“I’m an artist. I don’t need your recognition. What, no tip in the jar on your way out? Asshole.”)

No one noticed when the pianist stole a few more glances than normal towards his phone. The song list consulted. A second tune chosen. The numbers swim and dodge and flutter. The process is continued. Repetition is comfort. Repetition is home.

At some point in the midst of a song, he thinks back to when he played for a while in an oldies rock band. Solo piano suits him better. He finds group dynamics confusing and the odd quirks of others hurt his brain. He specifically remembers Gabby—a great singer but so hard to figure out. There was the one gig in particular that always perplexed the pianist. On that night, Gabby was strangely subdued before the first set as he sucked a long drag from his Marlborough, prompting the polite question, “What’s up?” “Nothing,” answered Gabby. “My brother’s dying tonight. Family’s gonna O.D. ‘im on morphine.” After an uncomfortable pause, one word is added: “Aids.” That didn’t make any sense to the pianist. Aren’t people supposed to stay home when someone dies? How selfish. Aren’t there rules about that? Isn’t singing “Splish, splash, I was takin’ a bath,” while your brother takes his last breath just wrong?

Back in the restaurant, the songs continued. The evening played out. The calculations delivered their desired results. He was a jazz pianist. And he was methodically good. On this night, he closed with Monk’s “‘Round Midnight:” a beast of a tune but it allowed for the mathematically satisfying whole-tone scale, so the pianist was drawn to it. Coming out of the bridge in what would be the last chorus, his phone lit to a soft glow that caught his eye. The text message displayed only two words:

“He’s gone.”

The pianist returned to the task at hand and prepared a delicate cadence melded from several different recordings he had studied over the years. At the last moment he pulled his middle finger from the usual G and chose instead a G-flat. He let the final minor chord ring a touch longer than usual before releasing it into oblivion.

Then the ritual occurred in reverse: phone volume up; books (not ever used) back in the bag; and piano lid shut. That’s when the placement of the photo surprised him. It’s not normally there. Its existence was awkward. He picked it up and stared at the image: broad Teutonic nose, loud short-sleeved shirt, thick-rimmed black glasses like Brubeck used to wear, and a slight smile that appeared friendly enough but not quite present.

“Goodbye Dad,” said the pianist as he slid the photo into a pocket and walked towards the door.

And then, softly to himself, “Fuck you Gabby.”

Repetition is good. Repetition is life. Repetition is.

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