Wednesday, August 8, 2012

The Answer Is In The Keys

Smoke filled the air in a dense cloud around the patrons of the bar. The house was packed, as it always was on a thursday and the whiskey flowed at a steady pace. This was the best night so far in the year of 1946 and the temperature peaked on the dance floor in the mid July night. Rolly Peters, the owner of the establishment eyed the packed room from behind the bar. He kept a close eye but never a close count of the transactions in the bar. His father had taught him that was bad business and bad luck. There was plenty of time to count your fish after you pulled in your net as they used to say on the Mississippi bayou, where his father had raised him. His father had worked his fingers to the bone on the bayou and Rolly had learnt everything he knew from his Pa. From the time Rolly was five, he had started out helping his mother with washing and fixing the tralling nets. When he had turned eight, his father had dragged him onto to the fishing trawler, claiming that he was going to teach Rolly a man's job. At eighteen, Rolly was running the fishing trawler himself while his father tended to the business and got into the juice. Rolly's father was an obsessive pragmatist and kept a close eye on his coin, but never jinxed a haul of fish with a premature count. Rolly had learnt it all, except for the love of the bottle, and it was the bottle that had killed his father. Rolly had been twenty five at that time, his poor mother found his father dead in a pool of his own piss and vomit. Rolly retired the fishing boat in a sale of the business and invested the money and their massed fortune (which was modest at best) in a new house for his mother, and bought a bar on Bourbon St. and never once thought about the irony.

Lorna's Bayou as he had named the bar after his ma, had opened in 1935 and had pulled in a whole thirty five cents for its opening night. He had spent five dollars for catering from the local deli and cannery as there was no kitchen in it then. His ma even cooked up enough crawfish to populate the muddy river while a crowd of hungry cats waited eagerly for the scraps and droppings. Eight people turned up for the opening night and seven left at closing time. The eighth, a man in his late forties had passed out in his chair and Rolly didn't have the heart to throw him out. He let the man sleep off his drunken slumber until five in the am and then woke the man with a glass of water and a complementary helping to the catering from the previous night. The man consumed the jambalaya, crawfish and guzzled the water down without so much as a peep and then stumbled out the door with a wink and "ah thankya boss". Rolly thought he saw his father's eyes looking back at him for a moment as the man left. He locked up the place and went to sleep for a few hours, it was Friday after all and he had to open the place at three pm. There'd be plenty of time for restin' when he retired to his grave.

Determined to make the Bayou into the best place in town, he tried every trick he could muster to draw in a crowd. He played with the prices, setup deals on off peak hours a la happy hour and had a small kitchen put in. The local economy was hit hard and the looming threat of war left most people weary of spending their hard come by money. Rolly had nearly given in to defeat when he came across a piano for sale in a competing bar that had recently gone out of business. He paid two whole dollars for it and a gave a half a bottle of Wild Turkey and a plate of seafood to the two guys who moved it for him. It was an oversized upright with eighty eight keys and a couple of cigarette burns on the lower register keys, as its last player had been left handed. It sat on a small stage in the corner of the bar and a section of tables covered what was now the dance floor. Rolly never had a piano, so he had no idea of how to play one or what was required to care for it. It was an investment for his business just like the cash register and like the cash register it had a lock.

Every day at three o'clock Rolly unlocked the bar and the piano. For two months the piano sat in that corner, without so much as a second glance, while the bar struggled to stay afloat around it. Rolly had been stressed out about the state of his business and kept himself busy running the business to stave off his worry. It was an historic night and war had just broken out in Europe and the air was full of tension. There were a moderate turnout that night and the energy in the air had changed after ten o'clock, but Rolly couldn't put his finger on it. At eleven o'clock pm on that fateful night Rolly had just about given up entirely when the piano began to sing. It began quietly at first, with a slow Southern Louisiana drawl that drew itself into a triple feel groove that left people swaying and feet a tapping. The entire bar had gone silent and all eyes had focussed on the corner where it sang. Rolly recognized the man who had slept in the chair on the opening night of the Bayou who was perched on the piano stool and bringing the place to life. The tune ran its course and the bar began to fill. By the beginning of the second tune, the place was full to the brim. The bar and kitchen were running at full tilt and Rolly found himself with more to do than he had the time to do it in. That was the way he liked it and he remembered the fishing trawler and the Mississippi bayou air.

"Don't you be countin' your money..." the singer's voice pierced the air and hit Rolly smack dab in the chest. Rolly had to stop and look.

"But you can always count on me" the voice continued while the ebony and ivory of the keys countered.

She was a medium framed lady with a figure like a violin and a voice like the night that left you in anticipation and wanting more. Rolly held his eyes steady on her, unable to move.

"Don't you be giving up lovin'..." she continued, the words rolling off her tongue and over her red and glossy lips.

"Unless you're giving it up to me" she winked at Rolly, and his heart jumped five steps back.

She moved her hips gently in sway to the beat, and Rolly stepped forward to clear away some tables from in front of the stage. A few couples stepped forward and started to dance and before long it was officially dubbed the dance floor.

"You don't have to keep on looking..." she looked towards Rolly and then to the rest of the room which was in motion to the rhythm that everyone shared.

"Unless you're looking at me" and she found Rolly's glance again and this time it was him that winked.

The music continued and the room peaked at midnight and Rolly hadn't stopped while this crazy river ran its course through the Bayou.

At exactly one in the am, the last tune ran its course and the floor cleared as quickly as it had been overrun by those eager couples. Rolly had during the course of the night hired two extra hands to help out, one a neighbor from down the street who had a tiny apartment above the shoe repair shop and the other a young lady and former waitress he had met while picking up the piano. By the time the music had stopped, his team had gelled like they had been together for years. Something magical had happened and Rolly's confidence returned along with his father's pragmatic discipline. He took inventory of the situation without counting the fish.

"Not the same man I saw a few hours ago." the serendipitous siren approached him from his flank, catching him off guard.

"Did that angel's voice come from you, or was I just dreamin'?" he replied, turning on his charm, and smiling slightly from the corner of his mouth.

She just smiled back at him, leaning seductively against the bar in a display of her confidence. It wasn't an invitation as much as it was an expression.

"I'm Rolly Peters, the owner of Lorna's Bayou." Rolly extended a hand, which she accepted gracefully.

"And who is Lorna?" the siren inquired, no visible change of her expression.

"Lorna is my mother. I named this place after her." Rolly answered, looking around and appreciating the moment the singer had given him.

"By what name may I call you?" he asked the singer without pushing her.

"In due time I'll let you know. You just look after old Jimmy and I'll see you again." she replied, looking over to the piano bench where the piano player had passed out onto the piano keys. A bottle of Old Port sat on the piano beside him.

"I'll see you soon Mr. Peters." she started for the exit of the establishment, strutting her stuff playfully as she left while maintaining her dignity; and her strut.

Rolly watched her every step of the way without giving her that impression, but she knew all the same.

The bar had cleared a little since the music had stopped, and Rolly let the atmosphere die out on its own. His father always told him never to pull the nets too early:

"Sometimes too late is a little better, even if it means that you lose some. Those ones are just on their way to tell their other fish friends about the great spot they found. You'll just get 'em next time." and then he'd take a pull from the bottle, and that would be Rolly's cue to start cleaning the deck for ten minutes until he'd pull the nets.

Jimmy took a long and hard pull from the bottle, setting it down on the piano. Rolly jumped over to it and pulled it from the piano, wiping the spot clean. Jimmy looked over almost at Rolly and spoke:

"I'sa just checkin to see if you was payin' a tenshun boss."

"That's alright Jimmy. You played a good night here Jimmy and I thank you." Rolly replied to Jimmy, not really sure of who was taking care of who.

"She's a beauty, aint she. Huh boss?" Jimmy spoke again, not really looking at Rolly as much as we was looking through Rolly.

"She's an angel and that's for sure. A voice like one too. Sent by the almighty himself. She sure is a beauty." Rolly replied looking at the door where she'd departed just five minutes earlier as if he could make out the imprint her figure had made upon the smoke.

"Boss. I'sa talkin about the piano." Jimmy responded in all seriousness.

"Well I..." Rolly tried to finish before Jimmy broke out into laughter.

"I know who you was a talkin' bout. Its ok boss. Yousa with Jimmy." Jimmy responded again before responding to the call of the bottle.

Rolly smiled and ventured back to the bar. He had been thinking about how he was going to make this up to Jimmy, and the mysterious singer but wasn't quite sure how.

© Copyright 2012 Brian Joseph Johns
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