Notes from the Lobby
Confusion would cross their faces, then a shock of recognition. Then, up on their feet, they would applaud the piano solo, my solo, whistling, hollering. On the break, they would ask my name, slap my back, buy me a drink, conversation flowing freely. It could be that simple, that sudden, that joyful: After years of stony silence, we become friends, not just for the night, but for all the days to follow.
And even now, to my surprise, they approach. First one, then many. I prepare for their arrival, recalling all my imagined conversations with them, fearing that with too much to say, I might become dumbstruck. Joy wells up within me, years of pent-up emotion suddenly rushing forward.
But as they draw closer, I can see that they are unsympathetic, even angry, threatening. I seek cover from the tropical foliage surrounding my workspace, frantically clutching a handful of its variegated branches and pulling them in front of me. Their shadows ripple across the brilliant ivories, strobe-like, swallowing up and spitting out the black keys. I am dizzied, nauseated. I can only look away, toward the coming assault.
A tall, tanned middle-aged businessman in a designer suit is the first. His eyes scorch me as he demands, "Where is the bathroom?" I cower, nearly falling to the floor as a branch snaps.
Next, a younger man, casually dressed for lunch or a round of golf. He is wearing headphones, and through them I can hear the violent popping of a drum. He doesn't speak, but his angry eyes tell me I'm seeping through between the snare hits, polluting and defiling his music. At last I matter, but only in the worst way: No longer a nonentity, I am a pest, a nuisance, a blight.
There are so many others. The interrogation is relent-less: Can't you play classical, country, can't you rock out, do something more upbeat, slower, different, better? Each time the tone is accusatory, and I recoil further, eventually forced to cling to my miserable instrument for balance.
Then, the worst: A beaming young mother, lifting her squirming toddler above me so he can stare down, watch at my hands at work. I can see her hurtful words coming; I know exactly what they will be, a torturous command. My only hope is to cut her off by speaking first, sharing my anguished story, its words so long suppressed. I would tell all: the loneliness, the alienation, the degradation. My desperate attempt to find sanctuary in the music, its beauty and complexity an elusive ideal, my pursuit an escape in itself, refuge from the harsh surroundings.
If I could just find those words, wouldn't she under-stand me, pity me? And, mercifully, reconsider her sense-less request for the Charlie Brown song?
But the child's unblinking gaze renders me mute, and his mother's cruel words spill forth. He snorts as my face involuntarily crinkles in the happy Entertainer's smile and my hands launch into the dreaded melody. Squinting painfully into the cruel light, I look up at his shadowed, slobbery face, harshly backlit. Our eyes meet; he revels in his power, my servitude. He squirms some more, and a milky dollop of drool lands on my shoulder. A second globule lands on middle C; it glistens brilliantly until my hand, already in motion, makes its ill-fated landing. As I pull away in horror, phlegmy strands trail from my fingers, a germ-laden bond between me and the cursed piano.
Out of my despair comes a vision, no less chilling: 25 years from now the kid is back, spittle wiped clean, cellphone in hand, marching in lock-step with the others. Some other toddler is leering down at the piano, wriggling against his mother's grip, the Charlie Brown song sounding yet again, sickly sweet. Hearing those notes, somehow familiar, the young executive pauses in mid-stride, causing others to stumble all around him, He turns toward the pianist, itching a vague memory, seeking explanation for a question he can't quite form.
And who will that pianist be? Will I have escaped, finally, to the elusive nightclub, finding comfort at last in its dark corners? Or am I doomed to play out my life, note by note, in the unforgiving light of the lobby?