Aaron needed help, extra help, and had to stay after class one day.
So it was that as Aaron stepped out of his anger management class he realized he was late for work. “Shit,” he said as he lit a cigarette and hailed a cab. He looked around at the endless buildings, seeing figures in their brown bricks. Aaron inspected his muscles until the lights of the yellow car shined into his eyes. He flexed his biceps, and picked a fight in his head. Now, as Aaron was stepping into the taxi a wall shot him a bad look. He felt like punching it in the face.
“Derk’s Piano Bar on Market Street,” he said to the cab driver, “and step on it.” It felt good to say it that way. Aaron was calmed by the comfort of cliché sayings. Mimicking the sublime art of Hollywood calmed his nerves. “Follow that car” he said. “What car?” the cabbie asked. “The fast one, you idiot” he stated.
Some people were born to be bouncers, their size an embodiment of their wrathful dispositions. Such was Aaron’s case at 250 pounds with his eyebrows scowling like a cigar store Indian statue. Thus his size, coupled with his unimpressed look, secured him a position at the door of the most reputable piano bar in the Bay Area. And piano bars had made a startling comeback since the economic downturn in the United States, with the desperate middle aged Republicans finding consolation in the chattering teeth of the piano. Aaron was late for work and no doubt he would arrive to a roped off line of well-dressed thirty something’s, elbowing in an elbow society whose upper class was shrinking.
“Fuck” he repeated. Fuck was a word that frustrated people often repeated the fricative of the first letter flowing from the lips and the plosive of the letter K coming down like an axe. It was a word he used often, as frustration was an ongoing affliction with Aaron. Too large of a person to be taken seriously for anything other than anger and violence, Aaron was foiled when it came to tenderness, when it came to love. And he had yet to find a girl tender enough to love such an oaf as himself. Yet.
On the other side of town Lauren sat in the university dining hall and she watched the girls, as thin as mirrors, shoot back her reflection. Granted, they were carnival mirrors that demented and magnified Lauren’s size, as she watched herself eating, again. Having failed her first year of college the freshman 15 pounds had become 30 pounds for Lauren. Business majors were never as rational as they would have liked to have been.
As she finished her ice cream, she walked back to her dorm. Lauren got ready for work, leaving early so she could walk slowly. As her greatest ambition was to be a critic, Lauren had settled for an internship as a freelance mystery shopper, after which she was supposed to present a paper to her Customer Service class, as well as her employer, The Critics’ Critique.
During those six months she had learned so much about human nature behind the one way mirrors of her sunglasses. She noticed that the rich were better thieves than the poor, and that they were wholly finer at justifications than apologies. She learned that popular rap music led people into a buying frenzy, what with its pretensions of upward mobility. But her greatest discovery was a rediscovery of her love of the piano. Years after failing her childhood recital its sound still resonated. She uncovered the heart soaked expression of that instrument one Tuesday when mystery shopping at a music store.
A man dressed head to toe in a tuxedo was typing out notes on a full body Grotrian-Steinweg. His thin fingers like candelabra touched the heroic misery of her soul. For once her mediocrity, as she sat in a drummer’s stool looking on, ceased its nagging. The sound had simultaneously brought back all of her shortcoming’s, and yet the unequaled beauty gave her the courage to confront them. She ran her hand through her curls when he finished, the mystery of her own soul laying bare to her.
”I am playing tonight at Derk’s,” the man said non-nonchalantly. He had wrinkles from smiling a wry smile. Lauren was speechless.
When Lauren left the music store she headed for Market Street, via Dairy Queen. Moving along the brick sidewalk the notes of the Nutcracker Suite ringing in her head made her feel as light as a ballerina. She felt as light as before she had entered college. Then, Lauren saw the neon sign of Derk’s cutting through the evening fog of the San Francisco Bay.
”Dress code,” Aaron said to Lauren, looking down at her sweat pants.
”I’m a mystery shopper; I have come to assess the place.”
”My boss didn’t tell me anything about it.”
”I guess I’m a mystery to you then,” she said Looking up to Aaron was like looking up to Mount Rushmore.
”I hate mysteries” Aaron said, unusually talkative. Indeed, no one was in line to judge the efficiency of his work by the shroud of silence imposed on bouncers. Aaron was delighted to talk, to find company in someone other than the monied clientele with their cocktail breaths.
”I hate mysteries too, to be honest. And I hate my job.”
”I guess that is my job, I mean as a mystery shopper, to see who does and who doesn’t hate his or her job.”
”Good luck, go ahead.” Aaron opened the steel door and Lauren slid under his large arms.
”Maybe I will see you inside later and tell you if your colleagues enjoy their work.”
Lauren slumped into the glittery room in her tennis shoes and drab colored clothes. In the limelight of stares she walked through a wall of smoke to the bar. Feeling foreign among the upper echelons of society she sat alone.
”A Strawberry Daiquiri,” she said to the bartender, sparing the please and the thank you. For a tip she left an empty pack of cigarettes. Her job was to bring out the worst in people, and then note them on their humility in serving the customer. Her calling was to confirm that adage that the customer was truly king.
The bartender received a 4 out of 10, when, ordering a second daiquiri, he intentionally served Lauren’s neighbor before her.
”You don’t look too impressed with the service, but I can see my rehearsal at the music store earlier today won you over,” a thin man with a bolero said, staring straight ahead. “Maybe I can cheer you up?”
”It’s my job”
”I play the piano for people that play the victim”
”I’m just joking, it was a slogan I was playing around with”
”You play around with a lot of things huh?”
”Actually I don’t, they pay me to be serious, it’s a piano bar after all.”
”Depressing place isn’t it?”
”Misery loves company, like they say. Can I buy you a drink?
”I already have one.” Lauren didn’t accept drinks from just anyone. No one bought a big girl drinks unless it was out of sympathy, or so she thought. She looked away.
Laura noted the piano player in her head, along her employer’s criteria: 8 for listening to talking ratio, 9 for honesty, and 9 for presentability.
”My name is Josh.”
”I’ll dedicate a song to you, Lauren. I’m on.” Josh thanked the bartender and then walked away.
Lauren swung around on her stool to the barroom floor, and as a reflex noted the environment. Derk’s would get a 9 for cleanliness, although she would have to verify the bathrooms as well. As she observed the waiters like dogs with their tales between their legs she gave them a 9 for service on the floor. The rococo statues, with women’s’ rotund bellies made her feel in good company. The decor got a perfect 10.
As Josh positioned himself in front of the black baby grand piano and shook his fingers loose. He jerked the microphone back and forth in front of his lit face. It was a red light that showed the wreath of wrinkles around his mouth.
”This song is dedicated to a girl I met once. Her name was Lauren. Lauren was as distant as a judge, her knuckles white from holding the gavel. Lauren please don’t judge me so cruelly.” Josh took a deep breath and then began. It was Chopin, Nocturne number 2. Lauren recognized it. She herself had fidgeted through it as a kid during piano lessons.
At first, the high notes tickled Lauren’s ear. She closed her eyes, slightly heavy under the spell of strawberry daiquiris. It was almost unbearable. Now she was sliding down the keyboard. Then, almost falling over a cliff, she opened her wings, using a minor key as a stepping off point. She licked her lips. At a turning point, someone took her hand, only to throw her into the wind. When she landed again on the low notes it was dark. She looked around, alone, and dropping to the ground looked up. Lauren opened her eyes. Josh was tapping out the finale. They both rocked in unison in their chairs.
The awestruck bar erupted in applause, gazing at the piano player, disarmed as if tucked into bed.
”Thank you,” Josh said into the microphone. He grinned. He took a drink and spoke, “The song you just heard was composed by a man that rarely played to anyone other than the aristocracy, but tonight he played for someone else, for Lauren.” Flattered, Lauren’s face lit up, the alcohol finding its way to her cheeks and through her defenses.
Aaron pulled out a stool next to her. “You look like you have been working hard.”
”Hardly working!” she said.
Josh continued, “This next song is something I learned at a job I once had. You could say I was inspired. The truth is that I used to work at a suicide prevention hotline. The only problem is that we were severely understaffed in Las Vegas, the suicide capital of America. I guess you could say there were never so many losers as in Vegas. Well the story goes that, as the calls for help would ring at all hours, we had to put suicidal callers on hold all too often.”
Josh took a drink and smiled. Lauren saw those same wrinkles she saw in the piano store earlier that day. It was a half-hearted smile of a martyr, smiling for those he saved through the gift of music.
”And as a former piano child prodigy my boss programmed in the soothing sounds of his instrument for those waiting for counseling. But Fred never understood how to turn off the speaker phone for those on hold. 10 hours a day I would hear the great composers playing over the speakers in our office. That’s how I learned the notes you are about to hear. I will forgo the usual piano bar music, only for tonight. This next song is for all the bleeding hearts of Las Vegas.” Josh took another drink, “and why not San Francisco while we’re at it.”
Someone in the crowd whistled.
As he leaned forward and touched the diving boards of the piano keys Lauren sighed. He began Eric Satie’s Gymnopedie. It was another piece that she had failed to master as a kid. It came through an atmosphere of cologne and laid her down.
Next to her the dim lights comforted Aaron. He no longer needed to act big. The dim lights also comforted Lauren. She could be big.
”Can I buy you a drink?”
”I’d love you to.”
And the royalty of the piano played marbles into the night.