Jimmy Jewell played piano at the second best joint in town. Leo, the manager, would say: “Nights when Jimmy’s not on - there’s no point coming in the joint. Nights when Jimmy can’t play - you couldn’t buy a lousier beer.” And here was the point. Jimmy wasn’t always great. Nights when he played - customers ordered the Veal Parmigiana, they ordered steak, they ordered Vinnie the Greek’s special entrecote that he only made once or twice a night, on account of how the marinade used up so much booze. Nights when he played, those steaks’d be gone like that. When Jimmy Jewell played you couldn’t squeeze another lemon into that joint between the women’s breasts, dressed to the nines, and the guys, shaking suits so crisp you could get paper cuts just running your pinkie down their crease. Jimmy’s good notes filled the place.
But his bad notes. His bad notes were like biting into an apple and finding not a worm but a wet patch where a worm had died.
Before he played Jimmy rubbed talcum powder on his hands and put a quarter in the back of his left shoe. If observed doing this, in the bathroom say while getting changed for the gig, or when he took his shoes off afterward - he would say it was for balance. So long as the quarter slid around and under his heel he would know something else was under his foot, outside the pedal and the sound of the piano, which came as it pleased - some good, some bad - no matter how he played. And every night he slipped the quarter under his heel. He could play in the nude if required, he would say - but the quarter had to press into his heel.
And the more you questioned this or that, he’d say, the less likely you were to play as well as you could. Any little edge was a miracle, he’d say after three drinks, and you needed your better angel with you when you played, no matter how many drinks you had to buy to make him come and how many enchiladas you would eat to make him stay. That was playing. If you couldn’t hack talking to your angel, you should stay home.
One day Jimmy was sitting at the bar having an afternoon Margarita when a man comes up to him and sits down at the next stool, says his name’s Satan.
“No kidding,” says Jimmy, “I’m very pleased to meet you. I got a soul I’ve been itching to unload.”
The fellow says not to be silly and how he’s come to make Jimmy a proposition.
Jimmy says talk, and waves for another Margarita from Bud, who’s the sub bartender, covering for Tony who’s off sick.
“I’m not kidding around,” the man says and Jimmy turns to look him in the eye for the first time.
He has eyes the colour of real sapphires - like grass crammed into a stone. And his teeth are the faintest yellow - like wax that’s been left out in the church too long.
“What can I do for you?” Jimmy says, and the stranger begins.
“There is a bar,” the stranger says, “where cooks make better food than this. The steak is softer, mash potato melts like cream cheese on your tongue and the asparagus... asparagus like women’s lips between your teeth.”
“You shouldn’t talk too loud about this,” Jimmy says, “I got a contract. Or at least,” he ventures to add, “...an understanding with Leo.” He scratches the back of his head. “Are you here from the Ritz? He can go fly a kite.”
“I’m not from the Ritz,” the man says, “and it’s ok, no-one can hear me but you.”
And it’s true. Tony has gone up the bar to get the Margarita mix from the spare fridge, and nobody is near the kitchen serving hatch.
“At this bar I am talking to you about, you could eat calves as white and tender in their meat as babies’ fists, when you eat veal,” the stranger said. “And when you drink - well, when you drink. You don’t get drunk. That’s all there is to it.”
“You don’t get drunk?”
“What’s the point?” Jimmy laughed.
“You can drink more,” the stranger laughed too,
“Haven’t you ever wished you could keep that - outrageous buzz you have between being sober and being drunk - that lovely, special feeling - when you’re everybody’s friend but not stupid, when you’re funny, you’re kind...”
“You can keep that?” Jimmy raised his brows.
“Oh yeah,” the guy replied, “Oh yeah. Why do you think I go there every night?”
“What are you doing here?”
“They need a new piano player. I gave your name.”
Turns out the place is only two blocks away. “How come I never seen it?” Jimmy says.
“You gotta know what you’re lookin’ for,” the man says, “C’mon. What’ve you got to lose? You don’t play till eight. You can get lunch, maybe a little salad. Maybe a drink. What, the walk will kill you?”
In the place there are table cloths all white, only like they’re made out of Eskimo ice. The cutlery is made of real silver that’s heavy. And the piano, Jimmy notices right away, is trimmed with gold.
“What for is the gold?” he says to the stranger.
“The manager acquired it in payment for a loan, from a pianist. Some Vegas act.”
“Liberace?” Jimmy gasped.
“Some Italian. You wanna try the veal?”
Jimmy says he’ll take a little asparagus, with unsalted butter, and sits down to try the piano. It gleams under his fingertips. The piano stirs as his fingers move from key to key and knows where he is going. “I like it here,” Jimmy says, “but how will the piano sound if I play bad?”
“Try the asparagus,” the stranger says, holding up a plate steaming with greens and a little pat of yellow. Jimmy bites. He moans. “The best girl I ever had in high school - Debbie Rippenbach, when she kissed me in her father’s car after the high school prom - never warmed me to the bottom of my heart like that does.”
“You should try the steak.”
Jimmy says could he play a couple of songs. Would anybody mind?
“Hey,” the guy says, “make yourself at home.” Jimmy plays till half past nine.
“Omigod,” he says, “is that the time?” catching sight of a waiter’s wrist as it brings him another plate of greens, with just a little mozzarella grated over the top. “Leo will kill me.”
“Relax about Leo,” the stranger says, “Worry about the House Rules.”
The sign when they show it to him on the underside of the piano where he’d been playing, shows gold letters on a silver plate screwed into the polished wood. It says:
“1) Whoever plays this piano owns it. You have all the luck.
2) You can only play this piano and live if you play like an angel.”
It was unsigned.
“This is a joke, right?” Jimmy says.
The stranger shakes his long head like a horse.
“But the notice - who put it there?”
“The manager, it’s his piano.”
“But I thought he got it off...?”
“It was his before it went to Liberace. It was his ...first.”
“How can you always play well?” Jimmy said to the stranger. “It’s a joke, right?”
“No joke,” the man said and he straightened up and gave Jimmy his hand. “That’s a hell of a piano you’ve got there,” he said, pumping Jimmy’s hand like it had water at the other end, then he disappeared behind a waiter serving aubergines.
“Wait,” Jimmy said, but he was gone. When Jimmy rose an hour later the bouncers at the door asked him where he’d like the piano delivered.
“That’s ok,” he said, “I’ll come play it tomorrow.”
“Oh no Sir,” the bouncer said, “I’m afraid you either stay the night or the piano will have to be delivered to your place. Do you live in the tri-State area?”
“I’ll stay the night.” He reached out his hand and was given a set of keys.
Mornings Jimmy would play for fun. Light stuff. Show tunes. While the cleaners had coffee and kitchen staff ate lunch before starting work. Afternoons he’d try to stay off the piano. He’d eke out his dry steak and potatoes in sauce Hollandaise for an hour, then try a drink but his heart wasn’t in it. Thing was, he was waiting for night. Then the piano playing was in earnest and people came. And so far he’d been playing good, his better angel had been with him. But...
The bad days, when they used to come at the old place - were usually preceded by a heavy bout of drinking. That was usually preceded by an excessively long run of good nights on the piano. It was whenever he’d played a long run of superb nights that he’d get himself plastered and kill it. He couldn’t bear to look at himself in the mirror anymore, he was so damn shiny. Only here that couldn’t be. First off, he was too scared. Those rules. Then there was the small problem of getting plastered. When he had had a glass of wine - only the best, the house’s best vintage from the cellar’s murkiest depths, he’d grin, get a little high, crack witty - but no-one would get into a fight, no-one would think he was trying to steal their girl. He just kept playing, better and longer than he had ever played in his life - and it was starting to make him sick.
First there were liver spots on his fingers, but he wrote that off as too much drinking and cut back. Then he did notice, in the mirror by the door of the hotel suite the manager had given him, that his temple hair was thinner and one or two strands strayed white. He wasn’t distinguished like a mature man; it was white. His temples turned white as the tablecloths.
He asked the manager if he could see a doctor. That is, he wrote a note to be passed by the maitre d’ to the manager, when he came in. (He’d never met him, never even seen him.) Word came back: no doctor, more food, more drink. Jimmy must play and live, like a prince. Jimmy considered rubbing boot polish over his ears.
He drank orange juice, tried salads rather than steamed greens, walked on the roof in the cold sun that came through the cloudy glare. His lungs struggled. Eventually his hand shook when he came to play. It didn’t hurt the sound, immediately, just the pleasure he took from playing. Then it hurt the playing.
He missed notes. It was one note and only he heard it but it hurt his pride. Then there were two notes, then three. It was still nothing if you played like butter melting in a woman’s mouth on a piece of crisp, hot asparagus. But it was three notes. The manager left a note in Jimmy’s pigeonhole behind the bar.
The manager had hair white as the cloths over the tables and his mouth was pursed where the lips came from his chin. It was as if he had had to keep his mouth from swallowing a lot of water and had been treading it for a long time. He asked Jimmy to sit.
“It’s nice to meet you,” Jimmy said, “finally - ”
“The piano must have its due,” the manager said. His eyes were coals.
“I haven’t been missing much,” Jimmy began.
“Five notes,” the manager said, “Six tomorrow.”
“How do you know?” Jimmy frowned.
“I know,” the manager’s voice powdered and crunched like snow. “I’ve heard how you could play tomorrow. How you’d play - if and when.”
“If?” Jimmy said. He held out his hand to the desk. It was shaking.
“If you don’t take the honourable way out.”
“What’s the honourable way?”
“Work in the kitchen. Catering. There’s lots of possibilities.”
Jimmy stood. “I’m a piano player.”
“We all have to face facts,” the manager shook ash off the burning end of his panatela.
“I never played this good before,” Jimmy said, “It was good or terrible - not this - slipping from the top.”
“You can’t only be good,” the manager stood. “You can have another shot,” he said, “I could be wrong.” He smiled and his eyes looked like pools of spit.
The first numbers that night were radiant. He played no single wrong note. The sad notes, the glad notes, all rose to meet him as he roamed the keys. Then the after dinner crowd came. He was tired, maybe, but he didn’t used to get this tired this quickly. Someone requested some old time song. And he played it. Then in the last chords, when his heart was almost light, his fingers strayed. Just a phrase, but he got up. The crowd applauded. Sweat broke out in the middle of his back. A waiter made his way through the tables with a tray with one glass on it, smoking.
“The manager’s compliments,” he said, “His favourite drink.” He wiped the piano lid as he left the cocktail cool and wet in Jimmy’s hand. It tasted like mother’s milk. So soothing. And Jimmy went to bed.
How bad could the catering work be? He’d worked hours before. At least he’d be near the piano. He curled into a ball and closed his hand.
Next morning, when the sun shone through the windows on the very tops of the tables and their crisp white cloths, when the glasses rang with the morning light and sang, Jimmy went down to the kitchen with the assistance of the manager’s trained staff and was introduced to the main fridge. He was shown knives and carving board, the cloth to wipe stray blood up off the floors, and the mop used to wipe large quantities from where they fell. Then he was assisted to the broilers, where small quantities of meat are seared and served immediately for the lunch time crowd. Then to the boozy marinade, a medley of white wines and scented spices with a little dash of Oregano, like his mother used to make. And Jimmy hung around at least two days because taste at its best when it’s matured. And Jimmy’s angel went the way of all intermittent gifts and sank into the bottom of the piano where it shone, behind the silver plate. And the next pianist knew Jimmy, and the next pianist after that. And all of them played without knowing that the plate just left of where they were sitting held talented fingers in it, just like theirs, once. But talent doesn’t always last.