Crosstown – by T.R. HEALY

 Crosstown

 

Still half asleep, his eyes cloudy and sore, Chastain rode the rackety escalator to the third floor of Garrity’s Department Store.  Men’s Furnishings.  He had not been in the store in months, not since Alice took him there to help her pick out a necktie to give to her father on Father’s Day.  He smiled, remembering how appalled she was when he suggested a polka dot tie with dots the size of lemon drops.  As before, the air was thick with the smell of shoe polish and cologne.  Fidgeting with the loose change in his pocket, he walked past a counter gleaming with watches and cuff links, past stacks of sweaters and aisles of overcoats and suits, until he came to the Steinway still stationed next to a display of antique muskets and swords.

Surprisingly, no one was seated at the piano, and before he knew what he was doing, he went over and sat down on the narrow bench.  It wobbled a little, but he scarcely noticed, and just sat there for a moment and stared at the keys.  Again he smiled, remembering when he was last with Alice here and she sat down at the piano and played a very choppy rendition of “Chopsticks” with one finger of each hand.  She was almost halfway through when the store pianist appeared and demanded to know what she was doing.

“Trying to entertain my friend,” she answered, winking at Chastain.

“Well, I suggest you do that somewhere else, young lady.”

“Oh, I will, sir,” she said as she got up from the bench.  “You can be assured of that.”

Squeezing his eyes shut, he bent down and began to play the birthday song because today was Alice’s birthday, barely touching the keys so he didn’t attract much attention.  He was not in the mood to get in an argument with the store pianist, not today of all days.

*

He paused a moment after he stepped through the glass door of the department store, trying to remember where he parked his car.  Frustrated, he shook his head, amazed how often he forgot such mundane things.  Sometimes he wondered how he even remembered to tie his shoes in the morning.  Anxiously he closed his eyes in concentration, and gradually the alley where he left his car appeared in his head, and he started to cross the street then he paused again and headed in the opposite direction.

Three and a half blocks east of Garrity’s was another department store, the Hemsworth House, that he and Alice visited many times on Saturday afternoons.  The items for sale there were much too expensive for them to afford but she, especially, enjoyed wandering through the different floors, confident that some day she would be able to purchase something there.

The store also had a piano, an even grander one, on the Fifth Floor where wedding dresses and elegant ballroom were featured.  Faintly he heard the strains of “Brown Eyed Girl” as he rode up on the escalator and chuckled because it was one of Alice’s favorite Van Morrison songs.  The pianist, a gangly guy with shiny, swept back brown hair, wore a tuxedo even though it was the middle of the afternoon.  Chastain was not surprised, though, because every piano player he had seen perform in the store wore a tux.  It was required.  His arms crossed, his ankles too, he leaned against one of the thick blue pillars and listened to the pianist whose fingers glided like skating blades across the keyboard.  Just after a few notes into another Morrison song, “Moondance,” an older woman spun out of the arms of the gentleman she was standing with, and they began to dance in front of the piano.  They were not very graceful, stumbled more than once as they circled one another, but they were clearly enjoying themselves as were the other customers gathered around the piano.

“Come on, let’s dance,” he recalled Alice saying to him one afternoon while they listened to another man play the piano at the store.

He shook his head.  “You know I can’t dance.”

“I can’t, either,” she said, grabbing his hand.

“I’ve got two left feet.”

“Oh, come on, Jamie.”

Again he shook his head, and, annoyed, she released his hand and glided around the piano by herself, her arms raised above her shoulders, her eyes closed, lost in the music.  He saw her so clearly in his mind he thought for a moment she was really there.

“Damn you,” he scolded himself, wishing he had danced with her that afternoon.

*

Around the corner from the Hemsworth House was Barlow’s Music Box, a venerable piano store that primarily sold upright pianos, and Chastain opened the door and saw the lone salesman speaking with a customer seated at a spinet in a corner of the showroom.  Quickly he looked around the store then sat down at an electric piano that was about the size of a computer desk and began to play “My Funny Valentine.”  It was the tune he played for Alice when they were in the store nearly four months ago.  Neither of them could afford to purchase a piano but earlier that afternoon he came up with the idea of playing one across town.  He first proposed the notion over beers in McElroy’s Bar and Grill on the waterfront, and she thought he was kidding until, a few minutes later, when he led her into the Music Box and asked her what she wanted to hear him play.  And, without a moment of hesitation, she said the Rodgers and Hart song because Valentine’s Day was only a couple of days away.

“You interested in purchasing this little gem?” the salesman inquired as Chastain tapped out the last notes of the tune.

“Oh, I’d like to have it but I’m afraid my budget won’t allow me to at this time.”

The salesman frowned.  “You play pretty well but you can’t improve unless you play regularly.”

“I know.”

“You should have your own piano, young man, and I’m sure we can work out a plan that will allow you to have one.”

“I’ll have to think about it,” he said, abruptly rising from the bench.

“Don’t think.  Play.”

*

It was still the middle of the afternoon so there were hardly any customers in McElroy’s, and no one was seated anywhere near the bear-stained console piano in the back of the grungy bar.  He was glad and sat down on the rickety stool, lifted up the keyboard cover and spread out his long fingers.  Then, before he started to play, he glanced up at the bare wooden ceiling.  The last time he was here with Alice it was covered with dollar bills.  Patrons were encouraged to toss money onto the ceiling to benefit a shelter for battered women across the river.  Neither he or Alice had any idea how the money managed to stick, and when they asked someone, they were told “Its Irish magic.”

Briefly he closed his eyes then started to play another favorite tune of Alice’s, “Some Day My Prince Will Come.”  Soon he was quite hunched over, his nose almost touching the keyboard, consciously imitating the posture of his favorite pianist Bill Evans.

“I haven’t seen you in here for a while,” one of the servers remarked after he finished playing the piece.

He nodded in reply.

“Where have you been keeping yourself?”

“Oh, I’ve been keeping to myself.  I haven’t been going out much lately.”

“And I haven’t seen your girlfriend in a while, either.”

Again he nodded.  “Neither have I.”

*

Off to another watering hole, he crossed the street and headed east, and as he came to the corner, he noticed a young couple walking toward him, their wrists bound together by a ragged piece of rope.  He smiled at them but they didn’t notice, they were so absorbed with one another.  He was not surprised.  Always he used to hold Alice’s hand when they were out together, sometimes so tightly that she complained and he would apologize and let it go but never for very long, as if afraid if he did she might walk away.

*

The piano at Moe’s Taproom was always a little out of tune but he didn’t mind, not this afternoon anyway, and sat down and played “Some Day My Prince Will Come” again and then “The Night We Called It a Day.”  He had barely started the second piece when a blustery woman in a tight maroon sweater suddenly leaned over his left shoulder.

“I can’t dance to what you’re playing, mister piano man,” she complained in a slurred voice.

“Then don’t dance.”

“I want to dance, though.”

Frowning, he continued to play the Matt Dennis song, ignoring her demand that he play something more upbeat.

She would not go away, though, and stumbled around to the front of the piano so she could look directly at him.  “Can’t you understand English, mister?”

“Is there a problem here?” a server asked when the tone of the woman’s voice became sharper.

“Yeah, her,” he snapped, lifting his hands from the keyboard.

“I want to hear something I can dance to.”

Before the server could reply, Chastain said to the woman, “Why don’t you go outside then?  There’s plenty of noise out in the street you can wiggle your ass to.”

Suddenly the woman poured what little beer remained in her bottle over his head, and he jumped up as if he wanted to slap her, and she glared at him as Alice sometimes did when he lost his temper.  Gathering himself, he took a deep breath then sat down, wiped his face with a handkerchief, and resumed playing the melancholy song while the server escorted the agitated woman back to her table.

*

“Where do you see yourself in three years?” he remembered Alice asking him late one night a few months ago.

“With you.”

“You do?”

“Of course.”

She smiled, stroking a finger across his forehead, without saying if she endorsed his prediction.

*

Cars lined the street in front of the ramshackle Catholic church, including one that had a string of soup cans attached to the rear bumper, so Chastain assumed a wedding was taking place.  He grinned to himself, snapping his fingers against the buttons of his corduroy jacket.  Several months ago, walking with Alice past this church, they noticed a wedding was going on there and on an impulse went inside and watched even though they did not know anyone in the ceremony.  Afterward, they went downstairs to the reception where they drank so many glasses of champagne they had to lean on one another to keep from falling on their faces.

He was about ten feet from the main entrance of the church when he heard voices in the basement and, grinning again, he went inside and joined the reception.  Quickly he grabbed a glass of champagne then sat down at the piano and began to play “Our Love Is Here to Stay.”  He doubted if anyone was listening to him but it didn’t matter to him because he was playing it for Alice, remembering how excited she was when they crashed the wedding and reception that other Saturday afternoon.

*

“You’re trying to hide yourself inside the piano,” Alice said to him once when he was bent very low over the keyboard.

He laughed.  “Be serious.”

“That’s what it looks like to me.”

“What am I hiding from?”

She shrugged.  “You tell me.”

“I can’t because I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

*

The last time he saw Alice was at Harvey’s Hideaway, a dingy uptown lounge located under an obsolete railroad bridge.  They went there so often that the bartenders knew what they wanted to drink without having to ask them.

“The piano is all yours,” Kevin, the youngest bartender, said as soon as he entered the lounge.

“Anything in particular you want to hear?”

He shook his head as he prepared an Irish coffee for him.  “Whatever you feel like is fine with me.”

Again he played “Some Day My Prince Will Come,” recalling vividly that was the piece he was playing when Alice suddenly burst out of the lounge almost a month ago.  She was perturbed because he wasn’t ready to leave, and she was and demanded the keys to his car and he gave them to her and she left without giving him so much as a peck on the cheek.  Not quite half a mile from the lounge, according to a neighbor, she lost control of the vehicle and crashed it into a metal guardrail.  She appeared pretty rattled when she climbed out of the car, and the neighbor asked if she wanted him to call an ambulance but she declined his offer and started to walk into the woods on the other side of the guardrail.

“I told her she was welcome to wait at my house until someone came for her,” the neighbor told Chastain later, “but she didn’t answer me and continued to walk away.”

Incredibly she vanished, as if scooped away by a powerful gust of wind.  With their bloodhounds the police managed to trace her scent down to the river at the bottom of the ravine and speculated she fell into the choppy water.  He was not so sure and remained hopeful that some day soon she would return.  And when she did he would play whatever she wanted to hear, he thought, as he began to play a waltz from the Disney film “Alice in Wonderland.”

****

    ***T.R. Healy was born and raised in the Pacific Northwest, and his stories have appeared in such journals as Gravel, the Houston Review, Limestone, and the Steel Toe Review.***

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