WIP: Smitty and the bluesman

“What you learn, kid, is that you blame her and she blames you and you both walk away with a little tear in your heart that never heals. A place, a song, a word, opens it back up. That’s how you feel, ain’t it?”

 A piece from a WIP called (so far) THREE RIVERS

Smitty swiped the last table in the row with the damp cloth, balled it up, twirled like a basketball player, launched it toward the  bus tray and smiled as he heard the satisfactory soft thump as the cloth landed in the top bin.

He’d only made about twenty bucks.

The crowd was thin, and weren’t either drinking or eating. That put the old lady waitresses in a bad mood, which meant  they didn’t pay him their usual busboy share.

Only Wendell paid him the customary ten percent, which was still only five bucks that night.

The place, Smitty decided, was in mourning for the career of the headliner, a comedian who had made a best-selling recording of political jokes.

Cause he was dying up there. All night.

Smitty had heard the maître ‘d tell the sous chef that the first night he had tried to do his old routine and got booed off the stage. Then the second night he was seen walking  the dark parking lot waiving a pad of paper and yelling out words, that he would sometimes stop and write down, as if trying to reinvent his act in one day.

The weeklong gig had been booked when the record was topping all the charts and he was yukking it up on late night TV.

Couldn’t get enough of him.

Then one of his subjects died; the jokes weren’t so funny anymore.

Smitty had heard through the kitchen grapevine that the last five days of the gig had been bought out, and some traveling folk music showcase had been brought it to fill the weekend.

Why not? Smitty thought. It was mid-summer. The corporations that usually supplied the crowds were on vacation. Maybe the white kids would come and sing spirituals.

Smitty shrugged as he walked out the dining room. Kids drinking sodas weren’t gonna fill his pockets with dollar bills.

He depressed the eight light switches in the panel one by one and watched  as the darkness cascaded from the rear of the hollow room, swallowing table sets ten at a time till finally only dim reader lights at the curtain’s edge  backstage glowed.

The air hummed softly with hidden machines – ice makers, refrigerators, air conditioners – and the place felt as empty as a warehouse.

As he walked past the darkened bar, someone called out.

“Hey, Kid. What are you doing here?”

Smitty peered in to the gloomy room see the headliner sitting at the old upright piano, his face lighted only by a thin florescent bulb in a slim shade.

“Closing up,” Smitty said. “What are you doin’ here?”

The guy laughed and emptied a glass of something down his throat.

“Killing off my career. Trying a new one.” He splashed a few notes from the piano, a chord or two. The piano was out of tune so the notes had a warbling, sad tone.

“Hardest thing, kid? Knowing it’s dying. Right there in front of you, joke by joke, and there ain’t a damn thing you can do about it. You want to be able to reach out and pull back the words, toss them around and try them again in a different order.”

He rolled out a few deep chords.

“It’s like everything, kid. It all slips away and you have to find something to replace it.” He played two chords, pressed a foot pedal and let the notes filter into the still air. “Ya ever lost someone, kid?”

Smitty stared at the floor. Danny. Katina. Maybe even himself. All lost.

“Yeah… a couple friends.”

The guy poured himself another drink and swallowed half of it.

“How old are you?”

“And you’re working here underage in this dump of a nightclub?”

Smitty shrugged. The guy’s words stung.

“Hey, sorry, kid. We all start someplace.  When I was twelve, I was playing piano in a dive bar in Akron. Snuck in, and the old blues player used to let me bang on the box for a while.” He scratched his neck and punched at a couple keys, sending out warbling notes. “You play?”

Smitty shrugged. “Played drums in a band. Katina, my, used to be my girlfriend, played classical piano.”

The guy growled out a laugh. “You’re too young to have a used-to girlfriend. Where’d she go?”

Smitty dropped his head to the bar, resting it on his arms. “Paris. Music school.”

“Paris? Fuck, man. Coming back?”
Smitty felt his insides hollow out. “Don’t…”

The guy swirled on the piano stool and  touched Smitty’s arms.

“Let’s try this. It’s what old Cedric taught me in Akron. What the blues mean. I’ll bang out some shit, and when you feel it, play on the bar.”

Smitty smiled and shook his head. Things ached a little less.

A chord or two.

“It’s like this.  Ya start the blues way down here, a low C. That’s as a low as it gets.” He punched a key and the low, slippery note leaked from the piano. “Now, if she went away, say to Paris, you go up to this,  D flat, and you kind of riffle it.” And he riffled it, a C and D flat, one then the other, then changed the rhythm, and then added a different note. “Then  you go up to this G flat, then back to the C. Feel it, Up and down; up and down. That’s her walking out. It kinda guts ya, because, kid, you don’t think you did anything wrong, but know what, you did everything wrong. You both did. She don’t feel no better. Wouldn’t be no blues if no one did anything wrong. There’s a line in a song that says, ‘I’m you friend till I get used. Then I’m gone, gone, gone.’ You’re thinking it’s about you, but it’s really about her.”

The guy played a long series of notes, rising and falling, in a slow mournful riff. Smitty picked up the beat and began to rap out a sound; he picked up a bar spoon and lightly tapped the side of a bar glass – one, then two; one, then two —  the sound ringing in the darkness. He caught up to the piano player’s syncopation.

“Good, good,” the guy said. “You stay down here. If you get into the notes above Middle C it sounds like pop song.” He pounded out a simple progression and sang. “Oh, my baby walked away, gave me back my ring, then   she ran off with Bobby and they drove into a train…” He laughed.

“What you learn, kid, is that you blame her and she blames you and you both walk away with a little tear in your heart that never heals. A place, a song, a word, opens it back up. That’s how you feel, ain’t it?”

Smitty frowned and shook his head.

“Yeah. She was so special. Amazing.” He wiped a sudden tear.  “It’s not her fault she’s in Paris. She just is. I used to walk past her house and it was still empty.”

“That’s how it is kid. And she’s sitting on there in a little bistro  and every time she hears an American accent, she turns her head, and thinks of you.”

He turned back to the piano and began to play. Smitty arranged a couple more bar glasses and piled up a few napkins to deaden the wooden bar sound, found a spoon or two, and played along.

The guy rolled through the notes, fingered some lightly, others he pounded, crashing, drawing out the pain of his soul, passing through the keys and into the air. His face closed and opened, eyes shut, head back; his shoulders bunched and sagged, then swung side to side and the rhythm lightened. A slight smile.

The guy turned his head toward Smitty, who was intently creating patterns of thumps and rings, to keep up with the piano.

“Here’s where she’s coming back,” and he lit up the room with  a jumping stream of chords that could have lifted the gloom in a club, the patrons clapping and  stamping their feet in celebration. “And here’s when she ain’t,” and he backed down the keyboard, the notes all flats and dark, deeper with every keystroke, slower, more space between, a little more soft echo, more mournful, until he punched the bottom C three times, then a couple of minors, maybe and A or a G. Then back to the C and held it. 

The notes rang,  then faded; the room silent.

“And that’s when she’s gone, my friend.”

“What’s it’s all mean?” Smitty asked.

“That it hurts,” the guy said. “Because hope never dies.”


About michaelstephendaigle

I have been writing most of my life. I am the author of the award-winning Frank Nagler Mystery series. "The Swamps of Jersey (2014); "A Game Called Dead" (2016) -- a Runner-Up in the 2016 Shelf Unbound Indie Author Contest; and "The Weight of Living" (2017) -- First Place winner for Mysteries in the Royal Dragonfly Book Awards Contest.
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