Something In The Way

piano

Hi, everyone. My name is Tom Bristow. My therapist said I should come on here and tell my story, that I might find an understanding audience.

I’ve been a bartender since I was small, really small. My dad and his four brothers were weekly poker players, always at our house. Once they knew I could distinguish colors – and was strong enough to open a fridge – they had me fetching beers. As I got older, we started mixing different drinks alongside those beers.

There was this time, man, my dad actually tried an apple martini. It surprised me! He didn’t care for it, don’t get me wrong, but at least he tried something new.

When we talked about vocations in high school, no one ever mentioned bartending as something to consider as a career. I don’t know why not; I make a good living, have savings socketed away, and can afford two decent beach vacations every year. I’ve got no complaints, really.

It’s a fun job. I always have interesting coworkers, and the bosses are pretty cool. And it’s not like I’m tending in college clubs or seedy dive bars. I’ve graduated to some high class establishments.

It’s all about knowing how to work the customers, when to talk, when to shut up, recognizing regulars, and having a good time while doing it. No one likes a sour puss pouring their liquor, trust me.

My last gig had some of my more interesting customers, and it’s one of their stories that brings me here.

Johnny’s Gin Joint is located right in the heart of Capital City. It’s a piano bar that’s been around for years. It’s the place to see and be seen if you work in or for the government. A lot of state senators and congressman and their tag-alongs start showing up at lunch time, and the crowd thins out by dinner time.

They’re some of our best tippers – on the tax payers dime, and I’m sorry for that, but I’m not going to refuse the money.

Once they’re gone for the evening, we have the mixed singles. They don’t want to feel like they’re at a meat market, so they come to Johnny’s, listen to contemporary jazz, and hold wine glasses with their pinkies extended.

But by the end of the night it’s often the same thing as the college meat markets. Singles pair off, couples kiss in booths before heading home. Last call can be a sad affair best watched from the other side of the mahogany bar.

I’ve been at Johnny’s Gin Joint for a year now, and it has to be my favorite place so far. Johnny bumped me up to manager, and I mostly cover the days, while Joan – his daughter – covers evenings.

Saturday mornings we have liquor deliveries, so my day starts at 8 am and ends around 6 pm and then I have all day Sunday and Monday off. It’s not a bad schedule, if a guy doesn’t mind standing a bunch, and I don’t. We open at 1 so I have plenty of time to clean the place up and prepare for the busy night ahead.

It’s normal for someone to ask if they can play the piano on the stage if we don’t have a quartet or professional pianist on at the time. That can be a toss up. Some people could have gone to Julliard, most could not. I usually get the could nots, but on my quiet Saturday mornings? Those are a different story entirely.

I don’t know how long she’s been coming in. It may very well be since Johnny opened the place. When I was hired on, the guy that trained me said Johnny’s been opening early for her from his first day, and the guy that trained him said the same thing.

Generally the newly delivered liquor has been put away and I’m dusting bottles behind the bar when she slips in the back door. I leave it unlocked for her, though Johnny mentioned she has her own key.

She’s my age, I think, so nearly forty. She’s pale, a redhead that probably gets a sunburn when she thinks about summer. I expect to see freckles, but she only has a few across her nose.

She always wears dresses, and when I say that, I don’t mean your average summer dress. These are evening gowns, or fancier stuff than my ex-girlfriend ever got to wear and, man, did I hear about that a time or two.

One time she wore a tight black gown with a long slit up her right leg, with stockings, not nylons. How do I know? The slit went high enough I saw a black lace garter when she sat down at the bench.

Her Tahitian sunset red hair is thick, curly. Sometimes she has it up in a tight braid or other updo, other times it’s loose around her shoulders. I’ve had dreams of unclasping whatever holds it up, letting her hair envelope my hand as it cascades down her back. The woman is sexy, man.

She’s not much of a chatter. She comes in, does her deal, leaves a couple hundred on the bar, and slips back out into the sunlight.

What’s her deal?

She’s talented. I don’t know if she’s a professional musician, or high school band instructor, or what, but she’s definitely talented. She comes in and performs concerts for herself, and me I suppose, but these aren’t your standard piano recitals.

She doesn’t usually sing along, not that I’d heard. I asked Johnny once, and he admitted he hadn’t heard her sing either, though occasionally he’d hear a humming.

The first time she came in and played her selection was a piano version of Dark Side of the Moon, by Pink Floyd. That’s not weird on its own, I don’t believe – that’s a classic bit of music after all – and she adds flourishes and improvisational moments.

Another time she played an entire Ramones album. I’m not a big fan of their music, but I recognize their tunes. If they played her way, I’d be a huge fan.

Dire Straits, Pearl Jam, Metallica, The Doors, and The Who were all played, and played beautifully.

Over the past year I’ve had fifty-two concerts. She has never played the same music twice, she’s never taken a Saturday off. Her repertoire is the music from my teens, back in the 1990s.

The last Saturday I listened to her was two weeks ago. I haven’t slept, don’t think I’ve eaten, and I can still hear the trailing notes from Nirvana’s Something in the Way from their Nevermind album. That’s the one with the baby on the cover.

That song is twenty minutes long, and it’s already a slow ballad that will rip at heart strings. I swear by the time she was done playing it, the piano was weeping. There was vocal accompaniment this time, a soft, sweet voice that made me want to sit on the floor of the liquor closet where I was finishing inventory and bawl my ever loving eyes out.

As the notes trailed away, I went to the main room. I like to clap lightly when she’s finished, even though I don’t think she cares. I also don’t like leaving a couple hundred bucks laying on the bar that just anyone could take. A fool and his money are easily parted, after all.

When I got to the main room, she was behind the bar. I didn’t say anything, she’s enough of a regular that I don’t mind if she wants to grab a glass or bottle of water or something, and honestly if she wanted drinks I would buy them all in appreciation.

She was near the cash register, but I hadn’t put the drawer in so I wasn’t worried about her robbing the place. What I forgot about was the sawed off shotgun Johnny keeps there in case of trouble. This used to be a dangerous neighborhood, and it’s a good idea.

Or was a good idea. The last notes were still echoing when she grabbed the shotgun. She looked at me and said, “New York is quite lovely this time of year.” She put the business end of the gun in her mouth and pulled the trigger.

Blood and brain went everywhere. I don’t remember screaming, but I didn’t have a voice for three days after so I must have.

I never knew her name, I’ll never know her story, but for the rest of my life, that woman will be a part of me. Every time I close my eyes, every time I turn on a radio, her face will be all I see, her face and her brain matter splashed across liquor bottles.

Johnny is reopening this week. I don’t think I can go back there, I don’t think I can go back anywhere. Everyone reassures me I couldn’t have stopped her, that this isn’t my fault, but I can’t believe them. After all, there’s something in the way … that she had played that song, that she had allowed her voice to freely flow for the first time I had known. Something in the way she held her head cocked to the side just so. I’ll never forget her, and I’ll always wonder.

 

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