Joseph shifted his weight on the piano bench to better reach the pedals of the magnificent grand piano. This piano was one of the main reasons he had taken this job. It was a joy to play.
The lobby of the hotel was pretty quiet. But for 10 o’clock on a Wednesday morning, that was not unusual. His hands moved over the keys expertly producing the notes of “The Shadow of Your Smile”.
He was matching the music selection today to his mood, which was morose. But that was nothing new. He couldn’t remember the last time he felt really happy. And today, his depression was even more acute. That morning, Patricia had told him she was moving out. She said he was completely lacking in ambition and she had come to the city to “do something with her life” and she could see that was never going to happen being around him.
The movers were coming that afternoon, and she was leaving him the couch. She said she never liked it anyway. It was the only thing they had bought together. Funny, he always thought she liked that couch.
He was supremely thankful that he could play almost automatically. This left his mind free to wander about where it would. Today the wanderings were grim imaginings of what it would be like to die. How many sleeping pills would really be enough to do the job right? The last thing he would want is to wake up in some hospital after a failed suicide attempt. Can you imagine how embarrassing that would be? The questions that strangers would ask. . . strangers that didn’t know him and really could not care less what his personal problems were.
Pills were really the only thing he might have the courage to try, because all the other ways seemed to involve too much blood, too long a period of terror, or too much room for failure. The idea of slowly sinking deeper into a drug induced haze, then into stupor, sleep, and death didn’t seem TOO frightening. But can you imagine the horror of putting a gun to your head and pulling the trigger? And the mess that he would leave for someone to clean up? Unthinkable. But so was going on with life the way it was right now. It was exhausting just to think about it. Even suicide seemed like nothing but a bother. He wondered if he could just sit down in his apartment and wait to die. Just lay on the couch that Patricia didn’t like and not get up till he died. Even that sounded like too much work.
He was distracted from this train of thought by the ding of the elevator.
Out of the corner of his eye, he caught sight of two young girls stepping out. They were standing close together, their shoulders touching, staring at the huge lobby in awe. They were dressed in cotton print dresses that reminded him of something girls might have worn in the early 50’s. One of them had on a rolled brim straw hat with clusters of cherries embroidered on it.
They wandered here and there with their arms linked. Now admiring the huge arrangement of white and pink gladiolus near the front entrance, then going over to the women’s dress shop window, staring and pointing at the mannequin that was dressed in the latest version of the “little black dress”. They couldn’t be more than 13 years old he thought.
They most certainly were with the latest group of rural kids from podunk towns that the hotel hosted twice a year. It was a sort of community service thing to provide a block of deeply discounted rooms during the slow seasons for kids to come and visit for three days and go to the museums and perhaps see a play. He remembered seeing a billboard in front of one of the conference rooms that morning welcoming students from a short list of small towns. He had never heard of any of them, but was particularly struck by one of the names on the list. Bogwillow. Who in their right mind would name their town Bogwillow?
He segued into “Memories” and watched the girls go out the front door. He wondered if they were supposed to do that without an adult. But in just a few minutes they were back and he noticed one of them had a pink carnation clutched in her hand. They had gone out to the flower stall just down the street. They strolled around the lobby, trying out the different seating areas and looking over the rack of tourist brochures near the main desk, which was within his earshot.
“Phoebe, you wait here, I have to use the bathroom. I don’t want Mr. Hawthorn to miss us when the others come down. I’ll just be a minute.
She left Phoebe, who wandered over to a padded bench not far from the piano. Joseph continued his song, keeping his eyes hooded, but every now and then glanced up to watch her. He had developed the skill of seeming to be engrossed in what he was doing, but being able to watch everything that went on in the lobby. He wondered what she thought of this big city. She sat there, nervously swinging her feet back and forth that were crossed at the ankles because the bench was too high for her to rest them on the floor. Every now and again, she pressed the carnation to her nose and inhaled deeply.
In today’s melancholy repertoire, Joseph decided to play “My Funny Valentine.” After the first few phrases, which were introductory and most people were not familiar with, he began the first verse. He saw her snap her head up in recognition. He was surprised that she would know this song for some reason.
He was so used to people ignoring his playing, that it was a bit disconcerting having an attentive audience. It distracted him enough that he miss-timed a transition. He looked up to see if she had noticed, and to his surprise saw that she had her eyes closed and was silently mouthing the words to the song. ‘You make me smile… with my heart.”
He had always loved this song. He knew it was outdated and possibly the most overplayed song by people like him, in lounges and lobbies all over the country, but at this moment he forgot all his embarrassment about caring for this schmaltzy song. He played the next phrases with all the suppressed passion that he loved about them.
‘Is your figure less than Greek? Is your mouth a little weak? When you open it to speak, are you smart?’ . . . The notes filled the lobby, causing the desk clerk to look up from sorting the mail. What’s going on over there? He wondered.
Joseph and Phoebe lost themselves in the music, each in their own unique way. He from a sense of despair and loss, she peering into the great and murky unknowns of adulthood.
When he opened his eyes, he saw that she was walking toward him. He forced himself to keep playing. What was happening? She had her eyes cast down, staring at the flower in her hand.
Very gently, she placed her pink carnation on the corner of the piano. And oh so briefly, her eyes met his. It was a great effort for her to meet the eyes of a strange man, in a strange place, but she seemed to have crossed some great and perilous expanse to do this deed. “I know.” He could swear he heard a voice say, but her lips were silent.
She turned quickly to see her friend returning. The other girl pulled her away whispering into her ear loud enough for Joseph to hear, “Phoebe why did you do that? You just spent a dollar and fifty cents for that carnation!” Her response was to straighten her shoulders and adjust her hat. She seemed to grow taller before his eyes.
Just then a gaggle of kids came spilling out of the elevator, all talking at once, accompanied by three adults. The whole troop began filing out the doors. In a few seconds they were gone. The lobby was deserted.
With his hands resting lightly on the keys and the vibrations of the last chords slowly fading, Joseph was left to reconsider everything.