“You have a new friend, Zack! Come meet him.”
He had not seen his mother so breathless, excited. She was taking him into the brightly lighted hotel on the river, the Malin Head Inn, he’d seen only from the exterior when, in warm weather, it seemed long ago they’d gathered the special stones along the beach.
They were awkward together, stumbling into a single compartment of the revolving door. A blast of warm air struck their faces when they spilled out into the hotel lobby. So many people! Zack stood blinking. Mommy gripped his mittened hand tight and led him across the crowded floor. On all sides there was activity, movement. Too much to see. A rowdy party of skiers had only just arrived, moving to register at the front desk. They wore brightly colored canvas jackets and carried expensive skiing gear. Several of the young men observed Hazel Jones as she made her way through the lobby. Her cheeks smarted from the cold and she appeared distraught as if she’d been running. In a lounge area, she paused to unzip Zack’s sheepskin jacket and to remove her own shapeless coat which was made of a gray fuzzy material, with a hood. Beneath the coat, Hazel Jones was wearing one of her two “party” dresses as she called them. This one, Zack’s favorite, was dark purple jersey with tiny pearls across the bosom and a satin sash. Hazel had bought both dresses for nine dollars at a fire sale downtown. You’d have had to look close to see where the fabric of each dress was damaged.
“He’s waiting, sweetie. This way!”
Hazel grabbed Zack’s hand, now bare, and pulled him along. Zack liked it that there were no other children in the lobby. He was made to feel special for it was late for a child to be up: past 8:30 P.M. Zack rarely became sleepy until past ten o’clock, sometimes later if he was listening to music on the radio. He was hearing music now, and it excited him.
“It’s a wedding. But I don’t see the bride.”
Hazel had stopped outside an enormous ivory-and-gold ballroom where, on a raised platform against the farther wall, a five-piece band was playing dance music. This was music to make you smile, and want to dance: “swing.” Strange that most of the dressily attired men and women in the ballroom were not dancing but standing in tight clusters, holding drinks, talking and laughing loudly.
Zack wondered if this-the wedding?-was the surprise.
The surprise could not be Daddy, he knew. Now that the pebbles were gone.
But Daddy himself is gone. He had to remember that.
Zack nudged Mommy in the leg. Such a young-looking mother like one of the female faces in the posters at the Bay Palace Theater, and in her purple jersey party dress it scared him she wasn’t any mother at all.
“Why do people get married, Mommy? Is it the only way?”
“The only way what?”
Zack had no idea. Hoping that Mommy would finish his thought for him, as often she did.
They were walking then swiftly along a corridor of brightly lighted shop displays. Jewelry, handbags. Hand-knit Shetland sweaters. At the end of the corridor was a dimly-lit room, shadowy as a cave: piano bar. Zack heard a piano being played. Here was his surprise! Hazel pulled him inside shivery and excited. Across the room a man was sitting at a beautiful gleaming piano, not a small upright like the piano in the Junior High auditorium but a “grand” piano, the kind with an opened lid. The man was playing music Zack knew from the radio, long ago on the Poor Farm Road: “jazz.”
A number of people were sitting at small tables scattered across the smoky room. At a bar, more customers sat on stools. Some were talking and laughing among themselves but most were listening to the pianist play his quick bright startling music. Zack felt the glamor of the Piano Bar, his heart beat hard with happiness.
There was a small round zinc-topped table reserved for Hazel Jones, near the piano! Hazel positioned Zack where he could watch the pianist’s hands. He had never seen such long, supple fingers. He had never heard such music, close up. It was astonishing to him, overwhelming. Zack guessed that the man at the piano could reach twelve keys-fifteen!-with his long agile fingers. He watched, he listened enthralled. It would be one of the great memories of his life, hearing Chet Gallagher play jazz piano that night in January 1963 at the Malin Head Inn.
“If It Isn’t Love”-“A-Tisket, A-Tasket”-“I Ain’t Got Nobody” Fats Waller style: pieces Gallagher played that night, that Zack would come to know in time.
At the break, Gallagher came to sit at Hazel Jones’s table. Zack saw that they were known to each other: Gallagher was the “friend.” In that instant he understood the logic of the new sheepskin jacket and boots from Sears, the newly installed telephone in their small apartment, Hazel’s air of secrecy and well-being. He would not wonder at this for he’d long ago understood that it was futile to wonder at the logic of adult behavior. It was not astonishing that Chet Gallagher should know Hazel Jones, but that Chet Gallagher, the man who’d only now been playing the piano, should wish to know him, shaking his hand, smiling and winking-“H’lo, Zack! Your mother has been telling me, you play piano, too?” Zack was too stricken to speak, Hazel nudged him and said in an undertone to Gallagher, “Zack is shy with adult men,” and Gallagher laughed, in a way that allowed you to see how fond he was of Hazel Jones. “What makes you think I’m an ”adult man‘?“
Gallagher had an oversized, oblong head like something carved out of wood. His dark, crinkled hair framed a bald front and his nose was long and narrow with amazing dark holes for nostrils. His mouth was always smiling. His head was aimed forward. At the piano, his spine had looked like a willow, easily bent. Gallagher wore the strangest clothes Zack had ever seen on a man: a black silk shirt with no collar, that fitted his sinewy, narrow torso snug as a glove; suspenders made of a showy iridescent-blue fabric, you would associate with a party dress like Hazel Jones’s. Zack had never seen any man with a face like Gallagher’s, he supposed was an ugly face and yet the more you stared at this face, the more attractive it became. Nor had Zack ever seen such kind eyes on any man.
Gallagher rose. Time to return to the piano. He’d brought his drink to the table with him, a clear-looking liquid in a tall glass. As he turned away, his hand drifted against Hazel’s shoulder lightly, in passing. Zack would fall asleep listening to Gallagher’s fingers moving up and down the keyboard in a wild antic rhythm that made his own fingers twitch in emulation: “boogie-woogie.”
I knew then that a man could love.
A man can love.
With his music, with his fingers a man can love.
A man can be good, a man does not have to hurt you.
Zack was wakened, later. The Piano Bar had closed. The bartender was cleaning up. Chet Gallagher had ordered roast beef sandwiches for them: four sandwiches for three people of whom one was a six-year-old child dazed with sleep. Of course, Chet Gallagher was famished. He would eat two and a half sandwiches, himself. He was thirsty, too. After his stint at the piano he was in a mood to celebrate. Hazel was laughing protesting it was late, after 2 A.M., wasn’t he tired, Gallagher shook his head vehemently-“Hell, no.”
Zack went eagerly to the piano. Had to stand, for the piano stool was too low. At first he just touched the keys, depressed them cautiously, hearing the sudden sharp, clear tones, the notes out of the piano’s mysterious interior that always excited him, the wonder that any such sound might exist in the world and that it might be summoned out of silence by an effort of his own.
That was the wonder: that sound might be summoned out of silence, emptiness. That he might be an instrument of that sound.
Gallagher’s voice came teasing and fondly familiar, as if they’d known each other for a long time: “Go on, kid. Piano’s yours. Play.”
Zack played the scale of F minor, right hand alone, left hand alone and both hands together. His fingers fitted the keys as if he’d played this beautiful piano before! The tone was very different from the piano he played for Mr. Sarrantini, though. It was far clearer, the notes more distinctive. Here, his fingers began to take on the movements and syncopation of Gallagher’s fingers, jazz rhythms, boogie-woogie. He heard himself playing, trying to play, one of the catchy melodies Gallagher had played earlier in the evening: the one that sounded like a child’s song-“A-Tisket, A-Tasket.” Out of this, too, he fashioned a clumsy boogie-woogie. Gallagher came laughing to the piano to lean over him. There was a smell of Gallagher’s breath that was sweetish-stale, smoky. “Jesus, kid. You play by ear, eh? Terrific.” Gallagher’s enormous hands descended beside Zack’s small hands on the keyboard; his long black-sleeved arms enclosed Zack, without touching him. His fingers that were so long and supple moved with authority up into the treble keys, down deep into the bass keys, lower and lower until the notes were almost too deep to hear. Gallagher was snorting with laughter, it was so funny that Zack’s child-fingers tried to follow his, slipping and faltering, striking the wrong notes, yet not giving up, like a clumsy puppy running after a long-legged dog. Zack’s face was warm, he was becoming excited. Gallagher struck the keys hard, his hands leapt. Zack struck the keys hard, too. His fingers stung. He was becoming overly excited, feverish.
“Kid, you’re a firecracker. Where the hell’d you come from!”
Gallagher rested his chin on top of Zack’s head. Very lightly, as Hazel sometimes did when he was practicing piano at the kitchen table and she was in a playful mood. “Just a touch, kid. No need to pound. You draw the music out, you don’t beat it out. All you need is a touch. Then move quick, see?-the left hand is mostly chords. One-two-three-four. One-two-three-four. Keep the beat. Keep the beat. With the beat you can play any damn thing. ”St. James Infirmary.“”
Gallagher’s big hands struck the keys with dirge-like authority. To Zack’s astonishment Gallagher began to sing in a sliding, bawling, nasal voice, you didn’t know if you were meant to cry or laugh:
“Let ‘er go, let ’er go, God bless her-
Wherever she may be-
She can look this wide world over-
She’ll never find a sweet man like me.“
Gallagher returned to the table, to Hazel who laughed and applauded with childlike enthusiasm.
Zack remained at the piano, determined to play like Gallagher. Left-hand chords, right-hand melody. The melodies were rather simple when you knew them. Over and over, the identical notes. Zack began to feel a strange dizzying sensation, he was coming close to possessing the secret of the piano through these notes that Gallagher had played with such assurance, one day he would be able to play any music he heard for it would exist (somehow) in his fingers as it seemed to exist in this man’s superior fingers.
Hearing and not-hearing his mother confide in Chet Gallagher that she wasn’t happy with Zack’s piano teacher, Mr. Sarrantini was an older man who seemed to dislike teaching children and who was very critical of her son, often hurting his feelings. “And Zack tries so hard. It will be the purpose of his life, music.”
He didn’t have a piano at home, though. He had little opportunity to practice.
Quickly Gallagher said, “Hell, come by my place. I have a piano, he can use mine. All he wants.” Hazel said hesitantly, “You would do that for Zack?” and Gallagher said, in his warm easy way, “But why not? The boy is talented.”
There was a pause. Zack was playing piano, echoing Gallagher: “St. James Infirmary.” But his fingers were faltering, less certain now. With a part of his mind he heard his mother’s low anxious voice, “But-it could leave him, couldn’t it? ”Talent.“ It’s like a flame, isn’t it? Not anything real.”
Zack heard this, and did not hear. He could not believe that his mother was saying such things about him, betraying him to a stranger. Hadn’t she boasted of him, for years? Urging him to play piano in the presence of strangers, hoping for their applause? She had insisted upon the lessons with Mr. Sarrantini. She had told Zack more than once that his fingers would be worth a fortune someday. Why was she speaking so doubtfully now? And to Chet Gallagher of all people! Zack was angry, striking high treble notes and chords to accompany them. He’d lost the beat. God damn the beat. His fingers struck almost at random. He could hear his mother and her new friend speaking earnestly in lowered voices as if not wanting him to hear nor did he want to hear yet there was Hazel saying, protesting, “I-I don’t think I could do that, Mr. Gallagher. I mean-Chet. It wouldn’t be right,” and Gallagher saying, “Not right? In who the hell’s eyes?” and when Hazel didn’t reply he said, more sympathetically, “Are you married, Hazel? Is that it?”
Now Zack tried not to hear. His mother’s voice was almost inaudible, abashed.
Zack’s fingers groped at the keys, fumbling a melody. He was searching for the melody. Strange how once you lose a melody it’s gone totally, though when you have it, nothing seems so easy and so natural. His eyelids were heavy. So tired! Hearing his mother in her glamorous purple jersey party dress confess to Gallagher that she was not married, and not divorced, she had never been married-“Not ever married to any man.”
This was a shameful thing, Zack knew. For a woman with a child, not to be married. Why this was, he had no idea. Just the words Having a baby pronounced in a certain insinuating tone provoked sniggering laughter. At school, older children teased him asking if he had a father, where was his father, and he’d told them his father had died, as Mommy had instructed him, and he’d backed off from them, their cruel jeering faces, he turned in desperation to run away. Mommy had told him never run away, like dogs they will pursue you, and yet he could not help it, he was frightened of them shouting after him gleeful and aroused, tossing chunks of ice at him. Why did they hate him, why did they shout Jo-nes as if the name was something ugly?
Mommy said they were jealous. Mommy said he was special, and she loved him, and nobody loved them the way she loved him that was why they were jealous, and because Zacharias really was special in the eyes of the world and all the world would know, one day.
Gallagher was saying, “Hazel, that doesn’t matter. For Christ’s sake.”
“It matters. In people’s eyes.”
“Not in mine.”
Zack was not watching the adults. Yet he saw the man lay his big hand over Hazel’s hand, on the zinc-topped table. And the man leaned forward awkwardly, brushing his lips against Hazel Jones’s forehead. Zack was striking keys with his left hand, low, and lower. High in the treble like a bird’s nervous chattering. Every damn melody he’d thought he knew, he’d lost. And the beat, he’d lost. His fingers began to strike the keyboard harder. He held his thumbs and fingers like claws, striking ten keys at once, as an ordinary ill-tempered child might do, banging at the keyboard he could no longer play, up and down the keyboard like thunder.
“Zack! Honey, stop.”
Hazel came to him, seizing his hands.
It was time to leave. Lights in the Piano Bar were being switched off. The bartender had departed. Chet Gallagher stood, taller than Zack had imagined him, stretching luxuriantly like a big cat, yawning.
“C’mon. I’ll drive you Joneses home.”
He was being helped into the rear of a car. Such a big car, wide as a boat! The backseat was cushioned like a sofa. His eyes kept closing, he was so sleepy. Seeing by the green-luminous clock in the dashboard that it was 2:48 A.M. Mommy was sitting in the front seat of the car beside Mr. Gallagher. Last thing Zack heard, Gallagher was saying extravagantly, “Hazel Jones, this has been the happiest night of my misspent life. So far.”