Iris lowered her wine glass, leaned back on the sofa, brought her eyes to his, and whispered, “Play me something, Mitch.”
“Yeah, play me something romantic.”
Mitch looked down at his boxers and T-shirt. “Really?”
“Yes, piano man.” She undid two more buttons on her black silk blouse for incentive. “You play your heart out at the coffee shop, but I want to hear something just for me.”
His gaze bounced between Iris and the piano. Twice. It settled on his crumpled clothes on the floor. “Um, just give me a minute.” He scooped up his pants, poked his legs through, and yanked the belt, searching for the right notch.
“What the hell are you doing?” asked Iris. Her forehead creased, and her jaw went slack.
“Just putting my clothes back on so I can play you a song.” He cinched the belt at least a size too tight and zipped up.
“I wanted you to play just how you were.”
“It’ll be better with my suit on…trust me.” Mitch abandoned resolving the ill-fitting waist of the pants and slipped his arms through both sleeves of his white button-down dress shirt. The frenzied fastening left the two sides mismatched.
Iris closed the top of her blouse and shook her head. “Look, the moment’s gone.” She clutched her purse, stood, and headed for the door. “Thanks, Mitch. Thanks for nothing. I gotta go.”
Mitch moved to the mantle and lifted the facedown frame. The man in the photo played an upright piano. His face wore an intense, hungry look. Mitch stared at the past and wondered, was it worth it?
When Mitch’s mother passed on two months ago, ten years after his father’s death, he inherited the house and all the memories rooted in the clothes, furniture, dishes and knick-knacks from their forty-one-year marriage. Every piece nudged a remembrance forward in his mind. The cake dish from a birthday celebration; the refrigerator magnets—family vacations; the ornate whiskey decanter—his first taste of alcohol; the piano—endless lessons and frustration. In their closet, he found that his mother still had his father’s gray pinstriped suit, the same one he sported in an old photo from the Village Vanguard. His father had been known as a piano player’s piano player, a jazz great in the mold of an Art Tatum or McCoy Tyner, yet he never achieved their widespread repute. Instead of inheriting his father’s keyboard prowess, Mitch had to settle for his male pattern baldness. He could still see the disappointment in his father’s eyes, a betrayal of his applause and weak smile at piano recitals.
Mitch regarded the suit, holding the jacket up against himself in front of the mirror on the closet door. The brush of his hand a gentle caress. He raised it to his nose. It still retained the faint odor of beer and cigarettes. The tag read 40 regular and gabardine, and since Mitch’s fashion sense stopped at jeans and T-shirts, the size and material meant little. A few threads were loose, and one decorative button was missing on the left sleeve. He slipped on the jacket, and a sense of comfort embraced him. The fit on his frame confounded him, for his father was a taller, larger man. Why wasn’t he buried in it, he pondered.
With a trance-like detachment, he watched himself complete the ensemble with the matching pants, dress shirt, and a striped tie. He made easy work of the Windsor knot. The fit of the suit was perfect. Mitch’s haircut, echoing early 1960s middle-aged man, coordinated well with his father’s outfit. The color drained from the reflected image in his mind. The black-and-white vision transported him to a time when his look abounded. He winked at himself from another era and headed to the living room.
Instead of following through with his plan to call the Salvation Army for his parents’ decades-old furniture, he poured himself a whiskey from the decanter and lounged in his father’s easy chair. Having never acquired the taste, Mitch found his tentative sip surprisingly smooth, calming. He marveled at how the antique chair scarcely felt broken in. He was more at ease than he had been for some time, though something was missing. Music! He crossed the room toward the stereo, but his feet stopped at the upright piano. Mitch sat down and slowly arpeggio’d C chords hand over hand until the keys ran out at the high end. He rose and rifled through the sheet music stored in the bench seat. His former go-to piece for his recitals was buried under his father’s more intricate compositions. More from muscle memory than his less than stellar sight-reading ability, the notes fell into place. He dared himself to try something more challenging and resurrected one of his father’s favorite standards. Black dominated white on the pages. With his fingers gently kissing the keys, Mitch released a breath held since childhood. The first sixteen bars were hesitant yet clean. Trouble awaited at measure twenty-four, where the notes gathered into a frenzied mob. The frequency of the left-hand chord changes increased, but he shadowed them tightly with his right hand presiding over the melody. Before reaching the bottom of the page, a ringing telephone woke him from his fugue. The music had just happened.
After telling the caller that his mother would not like to renew her subscription to Ladies Home Journal, he grabbed a second unfamiliar piece and glided through it with reckless abandon. There was no hesitation this time—the performed tempo was as designated. Halfway through, his eyes closed. The notes swirled around his head, lightening it as they formed a musical Milky Way, expanding through the cosmos.
After the third piece well above his play-grade, Mitch was invigorated but also frightened by his unnatural leap in ability. He felt his forehead for a fever. No strikes to his head were in recent memory. A stroke? A tumor? Radioactive spider bite? No plausible answers came forward. He postponed any cleaning of the house, so he could enjoy this sudden and possibly fleeting power. Not wanting to leave the house for dinner, he ordered a pizza.
When Mitch answered the door, the deliveryman said he’d been pounding on it for a full minute.. “That’s some great playing, dude!”
“Thanks,” said Mitch, pride elbowing out his sheepishness.
“Hey, I play standup bass and we have…I guess had a trio, but our piano player moved away. You should jam with us. I’m Clay.”
“Nice to meet you. I’m Mitch.”
“We play at the coffee shop on Main Street. The owner’s a friend of mine. He’ll let us rehearse there after hours. What do you say, Mitch?”
Mitch’s head dropped forward. “I’m not sure I’m good enough for you guys.”
“Shit. Are you kidding? I heard you already.” The pizza box shook in his hands from the excitement. “You’ll be the star of our trio!”
“What the hell… I’ll try it. Just let me know if I’m holding you guys back.”
“Ha, fat chance. Here’s my number. Oh, and here’s your pizza. That’ll be sixteen fifty.”
“Thanks. I’ll give you a call.”
“Cool. Lenny, the drummer, will be so stoked when I tell him!” Before Mitch closed the door, Clay finished with, “Cool suit, man.”
The aroma from the pizza augmented the pangs in his stomach. Yet Mitch ate only a single slice before returning to the piano. He met any complexity with poise and determination while going through the stack of sheet music. The setting sun illuminated the motes of dust flurrying through the room. He played with such fervor that soon his collar and underarms were drenched. His fingers slid the Windsor knot down and opened the top button of his shirt. He slung the suit jacket on the back of the easy chair, loosened his fingers, and began the last piece in the pile.
His hands stuttered across the keys. His movements were jagged, stilted. The room fell away. The carpet became a creaky wooden floor, the wall to his side, a curtain. Snickers from the more advanced children behind him offstage still plagued his mind. He froze his hands over the keyboard. Whatever it was had vanished.
Mitch poured another whiskey and settled back into the easy chair. It was too good to last, he thought. He’d call Clay tomorrow. The smoothness of the whiskey had turned acrid. His thoughts darkened with the natural light through the window. Something poked his neck from behind. Expecting an insect or spider, his head jerked around. A thread from the suit jacket, draped over the chair, jutted out. He turned his head forward for two seconds, but then brought it back to the jacket. He nodded and slowly smiled. Mitch popped out of his seat and grabbed the jacket in a single movement. His landing on the piano bench was so swift he nearly skated off. His hands were through the sleeves and perched above the keyboard in an instant. He eyed the chart. “Let’s do this thing!” he declared. Every measure a symphony. Every syncopated beat a war drum. His laughter maniacal.
Clay was right—Mitch became the star. Clay and Lenny suggested that they call themselves the Mitch Carlton Trio. They interspersed club shows with their steady weekend gigs at the coffee shop, whose elated owner hired extra help for their performances. Amid the comforting smells of the coffee of the week and fresh baked goods, Mitch was showered with adoration yet did not discover love, for Iris had taken her coffee fix elsewhere after her private performance. One ardent fan photographed the combo six weeks into their tenure. She framed and gifted a black-and-white photo that showed Mitch at his best, rattling the piano with a passion. When he unwrapped the present, his confusion turned to wonder, as the image was identical to that of his father. Mitch placed the unintended re-creation next to the original on the mantle.
Nearly a year after his first gig with the trio, while practicing an original composition, he noticed it. A loose thread had sprouted every month or so, however this was serious. The left sleeve had separated at the shoulder. Not willing to accept the first tailor’s opinion, he searched out three others before admitting defeat. The ruling was unanimous—the frayed material of the seam could not hold a stitch. The suit was done.
That night Mitch kept the whiskey on the piano. Wearing the one-armed jacket, he played until daylight returned to the living room. With a resignation that sullied his soul, he played his go-to recital piece. As the sustain of the final notes hung in the air, he closed the cover over the keys. The seam holding the right sleeve unraveled, sending it to the floor. His red eyes could barely focus on the keypad. His aching fingers radiated a pain like bone hitting bone with each button pressed. He brought the receiver to his ear where his last notes still reverberated.
A friendly voice greeted him. “Hello, Salvation Army.”
“Hi. Do you take pianos?”