This is a very short story inspired by Billy Joel’s ‘Piano Man’
One Night at McGinley’s
The bar towel is clean, straight out of Lynette’s tumble dryer, but it still holds that scent of beer and smoke that will never truly be washed away. Joe shakes his head, trying to refrain from comparing himself to the towel as he polishes the empty glass and places it on top of the piano. He’s ready for the night, his one and only complimentary beer sitting on the coaster, beads of condensation clinging to the neck of the bottle – almost as if the drink was anticipating being drank as much as Joe is waiting for that one customer to notice him and his talents and hand him a business card.
“Sing us a song, piano man!”
George laughs as he slaps Joe on the shoulder, as if it’s the first time he’s ever made that reference, as if he greets Joe differently any other night. Just for shits and giggles, Joe starts to play the Billy Joel classic – something he’s never done before, something he’s always avoided because the truth of the tune is too close for comfort. The song sounds empty without a harmonica, no matter how much Joe tries to fill the voids with his expert knowledge of the keys he presses. Barman Bill shakes his head and tries to forget he’s waiting on a call back from an audition; instead he pastes on a smile and focuses on old George.
A beer and a whiskey chaser, old George had been ordering the same thing since Bill’s dad bought the place. George had passed the title of ‘regular customer’ twenty years ago, now he was a fixture, marking his days by passing through the door to McGinley’s and sitting in that same barstool. Waiting for the day when he wouldn’t be able to do it. Lynette had seen the same misty acceptance in her father’s eyes between the time of his retirement and his passing. She’d known George since her first day on the job and each day that passed after that she saw his body slowly become frailer, more delicate.
Like George, she lived alone. Oh, she’d been married and had a kid – much like he had. But rather than her partner dying and her kid leaving town and eventually forgetting about her, her husband had run off with another woman and her daughter eventually ran off to live with her daddy in his New York brownstone rather than stay in town that doubled as a truck stop. Lynette bites back a bitter sob as she remembers dancing to a song in a movie with her little girl, was it too late for her prince to come? ‘Some day’ was vague enough to build the tiny flickering flame of hope that made her get out of bed in the morning and put on her mascara. She watches as Karen side-steps a groper, sympathy for her colleague and jealousy wars within her. The two waitresses share a look, Karen had confided in Lynette when she was sexually assaulted, and Lynette comes to the younger woman’s aid instantly.
“Hey there, not every waitress likes a pat on the ass as much as I do!”
Lynette’s smile is bright, her yearning to feel desired evident. The thoughtful look on the trucker’s face is replaced by indifference. For him, it’s more fun to convince them they want it, these older chicks are way too desperate.
“Just ‘cos you like it, don’t mean I wanna do it.”
Lynette hardens her stare on the trucker. “I was just tryin’ to be nice – you reach out to touch her again and I’ll get Bill here to throw you out.”
The trucker looks at Bill and assesses him. Bill is about ten years younger, and although they probably weigh about the same, Bill is pure muscle. “I was just leavin’ anyway.”
He sneers at Karen on the way past; she clutches her tray close to her chest and visibly shrinks back from his gaze. Joe’s notes stall as the trucker sweeps an arm across the top of the piano, the tip glass shatters on the floor at his feet. He stops playing and bends to help Karen clear up the mess, carefully picking up the shards so as to avoid cuts. The scent of Karen’s shampoo tickles at his senses, like someone passing an expensive fruity cocktail under his nose.
Their eyes meet, not for the first time in the years Joe has been sitting in the seat that Patrick McGinley vacated when he died. Karen reminds Joe of a baby deer, he’d heard that when she first started at McGinley’s she was vibrant and often sang along with Pat. But he’d only ever known her after she dropped out of college and started working at the bar full time. Karen tells Joe to stop helping her, worried that he might injure himself and be unable to play. She lived for his smooth voice rising above the sound of the piano and dreads the day the he’ll be discovered and taken away from them.
So many times she’s stepped forward, ready to sing with him – like she used to do with Pat. But she wasn’t that girl anymore; she hasn’t been that girl since … what seemed like a lifetime ago. The feeling of Joe’s hand on hers makes her jump away from him, the fear in his eyes and the apologies slipping from his lips makes tears sting at her eyes. One day she’ll be ready, she just hopes Joe will still be there when she is.