Juanita Diaz-Johnson haunted the house piano at the Oceanic Brew Pub. The baby grand had been hers, when she was alive. But when she passed in December 2020, at age 79, another victim of the Coronavirus, her older daughter Evangeline penciled the piano in for a spot at the estate sale. But Rafaela, Juanita's younger daughter, intervened. She wanted that piano to take up residence in the Oceanic Brew Pub, down on Old Highway 101, for use in the newly-established "Jazz Night." Evangeline couldn't say no to her baby sister. Besides, the estate sale thingit would be like selling a piece of their mother. In residence at the Oceanic, a new downtown business owned by Roy Leahy, who grew up in the house next door to Clete and Juanita and became almost a brother to Rafaela though there were times (Juanita knew) that he wanted more than that. And in the place owned by the young man who had always called her Tia (Aunt) Nita, and where Rafaela now worked as a waitressthe piano's connection to Juanita Diaz-Johnson would be maintained.
The Oceanic's initial jazz night, on February 27, 2021, was marred by the emergence from inside Mom's piano of an escaped-from-its-cage pet snake
, a five foot long Orange Ghost ball python. It scared the bejesus out of the crowd, and it still lived inside the wall that separated the Oceanic from a neighboring business. But Roy's second foray into live jazz didn't involve Juanita's piano. He instead brought in a chordless triosaxophone, bass and drumsleaving the eighty-eights to lie fallow after its part in the brew pub's disastrous jazz debut.
So, on the Oceanic's Jazz Night #2, The Larry Lenihan Trio took the stagereally just the northwest corner of the roomand eased into a fine, straight ahead version of "I Don't Stand A Ghost Of A Chance With You," ignoring the old "never open with a ballad" advice.
The tenor saxophonist/leader of the group, Larry Lenihan, fancied himself a modern day Dexter Gordon
, blowing with a big robust tone over the understated accompaniment supplied by bassist Everett "Three Fingers" Peck and drummer Billy "Blockhead" Baldwin. Solid stuff, if not quite Dexter Gordon-ian, but the sound ticked up a couple of notches when the piano entered, to the surprise of everyone in the room, except for Larry, in his mellowed out, anything goes state of mind, having downed a couple drinks and a three "funny" gummy bears before the show. After the first verse, Larry took his horn out of his mouth so the pianist, the ghost of Juanita Diaz-Johnson, could go into a solo.
Only two people in the room could see Juanita: Larry, riding on a different level of clarity in his chemically-enhanced condition, and Rafaela, due to a sensitivity born of her genetic connection. The diaphanous pianist appeared to the receptive pair as a strikingly lovely, forty-ish masterpiece of voluptuous femininity, having revertedas do we all when we enter the spirit worldto the time when her life force had hit the height of its powers. Everyone else in the room saw her as a skeleton, "A holographic projection," according to a fatuous mid-audience computer geeka speculation that drew knowing nods from his fellow listeners.
At the sound of the piano, Rafaela stopped mid-step in her delivery of a black Irish stout to table four. Her free hand rose and her fingertips touched her lips. Recognizing her mother's succinct, Jutta Hipp
-like touch, she turned to the stage and said softly, "Oh," as a big glycerin tear seeped from her eye to roll her cheek. Here she was, Mom playing one of her father'sRafalela's grandfather'sfavorite tunes, one that both women had heard a thousand times via the 1932 Bing Crosby
78 rpm recording that Fausto Diaz had carried across the border on his first entry into the States, a song that his daughter Juanita was now playing, from her memories of a record now in the possession of Rafaelathough Rafe currently lacked a turntable on which to play it.
And when Juanita closed her solo, Rafaela, Irish stout in hand, began to sing the song, the lyrics channeled to her from heaven:
I need your love so bady, I love you oh so madly
But I don't stand a ghost of a chance with you.
I thought at last I'd found you, but other loves surround you.
And I don't stand a ghost of a chance with you.
Rafaela didn't deliver a smooth Bing Crosby-ian croon. Her take was closer to Billie Holiday
's fragile, imperfect, put-on-brave-face rendition, her heartache on her sleeve, like she'd lived the story a dozen times.
As Larry Lenihan's sax re-entered, the audience gave Raphael a respectful round of applause. She nodded acknowledgement, wiped her eyes and delivered the Irish stout. As she set the glass down, the stout man reached out and took her wrist in a gentle grip and brought her hand to his lips and kissed it. "Beautiful," he said.
Rafaela blushed, brushed an errant strand of dark hair back behind her ear, then turned to table five to see if anyone there needed a fresh drink, as Roy Leahy, behind the bar, took in the scene with feelings beyond brotherly, wondering if the band knew "I Guess I'll Hang My Tears out To Dry."