by Lucas Rucchin
Forte’s was a place where the rain liked to hide, which was a strange characteristic because the restaurant featured all the standard constituents of a building, including, though not limited to, walls with good posture, a set of double doors with rousing glass patterns, and a roof on which dozed an apartment complex that had no problems with rain. Somewhere the rain hummed, taunting them at every candlelit table.
Monday to Saturday, three to eight, Jones and Laurier would step onto the black makeshift stage at Forte’s without catching an eye. Jones would ready himself at the forefront, breathe in, out, let smoke trail and stream from the brass kissing his mouth; Laurier, placing himself at the bench with a back as straight as the keys before him, would dive into the silent orchards of his mind and sit there while his hands did the work. Their sounds warmed the air. They were invisible like the rain.
“Crowds this quiet back where you’re from?” Jones would mutter between his glazing impromptus. Laurier would not respond. He could speak English, but he was always sleeping as he played. It was only backstage that Laurier tended his partner’s thoughts: “Only if the food was good.”
So Jones set his blame on the chef, even if he was sweet as they come, his desserts sweeter. During his breaks, the chef would listen to their songs if the nearest table was unoccupied. “Lovely work, gentlemen. You keep my waiters so well-behaved. Like a lullaby.” He would laugh a hearty laugh while holding a few coins in his open hand.
The money was meant to be offered to them both, but Jones would scoop the donations all into his pocket at the end of his next phrase. “You’re so kind, West. Keep it up in the kitchen.” And then the brass was back on his lips and the smoke was purling.
On one rainy day, midday, like every day, the chef arrived not by himself but with another, a suited man, pacing to the black platform together to the rhythm of Jones’s brass bawls.
“That’s him?” the suited man spoke in the chef’s ear. The chef nodded. Laurier paid him no interest, but Jones recognized recognition and all its forms. The man beckoned at him to continue. Then this was someone of value, someone who enjoyed tasting his music, chewing and living, feeling it tingle his throat. The man began a light clap as they finished.
At the end of his work day—eight o’clock, the time when street-lamps had long replaced the sun—Jones found the man lingering by his car. He was holding an umbrella and he did not look real. The sidewalks and the buildings and the roaming headlights on the street were mirages in the evening rain, but this man was etched so clearly in his eyes, acrylic on watercolour. Laurier had caught a wandering cab and vanished in the grey. He was after Jones and Jones only.
The man spoke in a trombone’s croaky tones. “Forte’s. It’s nice. They know what they’re doing. Great clams. Met the owner a few years back. He has a nice wine cellar.”
Jones blinked. He could feel every droplet that merged with the fabric of his clothes. Somewhere on the street, a curbside current was strangling an empty soda can.
“How do you like it here? Not the food, I mean.” His fingers played around the handle of his umbrella. “You know.”
Jones knew. “It’s all right. The pianist’s fun to have around.”
“Is that all?”
“There’s some freedom. People spend more time looking at their spoons than our gig. Forte rarely visits and the chef will hear whatever. So the set-list’s in our hands.”
The man’s chin lifted. Maybe the rain had tampered with Jones’s eyes: he could not see the man’s face as it was hoisted into the streetlight. “You’re a nobody in there.”
“You saw me. West and I were the only ones watching. You don’t belong in a place like this, sitting in the background. You’re out of your element. You want more.” To lighten the package, he tacked on: “Don’t you?”
Jones felt as if this man was reaching around in his inmost thoughts. He did not respond. He let the rain speak for him.
“I’m offering you something. The Wayne Floor needs a new lead. Twelve to six, Monday to Saturday. Better hours, better pay. More eyes.” The suited man gave Jones no time to think. “If you want to think more than spoons, you know where.”
Jones knew. He knew all throughout the drive home and the hours he spent awake, staring at the ceiling of his dusty, often creaky, studio apartment. He knew that acceptance would mean leaving the black platform in the corner of Forte’s where no one seemed to look, for good. He made himself breakfast in the morning.
Jones found Laurier already at the piano bench as he entered Forte’s the following afternoon, like every afternoon. In the absence of customers, Laurier’s solitary chords and licks would ring warmful through the carpeted aisles. But this morning, he only sat, eyes locked on the charts. Jones could hear the whispers of the candles.
The makeshift stage leaned slightly as Jones stepped onto it, settled down his case. “Bloom Times?” A quick test of the valves, the shuffling of crinkled sheet music, then the rubbing of brass as the mouthpiece was inserted into the leadpipe. “It’s a day for Bloom Times. We’ll figure it out from there.”
Laurier would normally begin drawing out the chords of the specified song. He did not this morning. His hands had fallen slack onto the keys; his dress pants seemed a deeper grey today, fusing with the cushions of the piano bench.
Jones stood. “Hey. I know each day feels no different than the rest. But I need a pianist.”
Then the pianist looked at him, no longer in that sleepy dream-state that he harnessed on the bench. He was crying. That was not good. At least it was the quiet kind, the kind that spared the shaking hands and mouth but caused the eyes to flood still.
“That’s wonderful,” Laurier said. “That’s really wonderful.” His English was perfect, tinted slightly by those parisian silks, a sublime snake song. Then Laurier was grinning and crying, two phenomenons that Jones could’ve never imagined on the pianist’s face. “Yes,” he said. “Yes. Thank you for the reminder. This job needs me, doesn’t it? It does.”
Jones resisted toying with the third valve slide of his instrument; that would ruin the mood. He was no therapist, but he’d comforted a few troubled unwanted auditionees in his time, to moderate effect. “Are you all right, man?”
“Ah, it’s nothing.” Laurier fished out a tissue from his pocket. He was slowly coiling back to normal: straight back like piano keys, sleepy eyes that could see through smoke. “It’s nothing. My wife’s not well, you see. I’m not needed at the hospital, apparently—nope, they’ll take care of her just fine, as they say. They don’t need me to be there!” A quick and reviving breath. “But hey. I’m needed here. That’s good, isn’t it? Keeps my mind off of it. Our playing—it helps both them and I, you know?”
Jones knew, as well as his apartment, which seemed extra dusty that evening.
He held several lengthy conferences with himself during his morning commute to Forte’s. “He’s another man. He has his own goals, responsibilities. His life isn’t ours. Our life isn’t his. He has a wife, and we don’t. But that’s a personal choice. We don’t need someone else in our life. No—that would interfere with our goals. He has different goals, which is why he chose to pursue a relationship. We could get one if we wanted, of course. But we don’t want to. His wife—” Jones’s pointer and middle and ring finger tapped across his steering-wheel, patterning a chromatic scale to a double C. “He has a wife, and that comes with its own problems. Sickness, for example. Cancer, if we want to get dramatic. But that passes. It all passes. The Wayne Floor will pass. We don’t want that. We want to reach our goals. We’ve been at Forte’s for far too long. It’s time to move on.” And then he was back here, this concrete decision. And then he was conferring with himself again, strucken by his own words. “Another man. . .”
Forte’s was back to normal this morning. An euphony of passionate diatonics roamed the aisles.
“Good morning,” said the pianist. He’d never said good morning. “Little Sunflower. What do you think?” He’d never suggested songs. Such was Jones’s obligation.
“All well. You’re lively today.”
“Yes. She’s feeling much better. A miracle, really. The doctor has no words to describe it. A miracle.” Laurier was terrifyingly awake. “Come, let’s begin early. I find it easier to hear my playing when nobody is here. We’ll play well today. I know so.”
Jones felt his lungs smothered beneath his feet. “There’s something you need to know.”
“Something I need to know?”
“Today will be my last day at Forte’s. I’m moving on to play someplace new. The Wayne Floor.”
Whispering, gossiping candles.
When the suited man had said “more eyes”, Jones had not anticipated the well-dressed smudges gathered beyond the curtain, seated in the golden candlelight unblinking, hands placed on the circular, white-clothed table around which they gathered, all turned towards the stage like mannequins. The Wayne Floor took root in the expensive west of the city, and with expense trailed expectation. So did this audience expect, silently, in the straightness of their backs, in the smoothness of their clothes.
Sounding on the stage were some shifting Argentinian tangos. The guitarist and the flutist played well, and they pleased the expectations. Jones’s ensemble would play next, and they were all hoping that they could accomplish what those on stage were accomplishing now. They were fine, but they were not Laurier. They could play, but they could not slip into the fragile sub-space between wakefulness and slumber where magnificent ideas paraded and could only be incarnated by the most inflamed of minds, like Laurier on the bench at Forte’s.
Clapping; so the guitarist and the flutist bowed and fled and Jones’s ensemble took their place. All the eyes turned, and all the turning eyes were felt by Jones, on his neck and on his hands, in ice-cold tingles. Then the saxophonist sent out ripping silk, the drummer sifted his kit to texture the air with soft sand, and the walls became very near.
Jones readied himself at the forefront, breathed in, breathed out. But before smoke could start streaming from the brass kissing his mouth, he looked into the audience, and saw Laurier seated in the closest table, watching. Jones stumbled. A falling haze hurried his heart. Jones looked away, pushed his gaze into the depths of the audience, readied his instrument again. But Laurier resided there as well, watching. So Jones’s eyes hid behind the backs of his ensemble, but there he saw Laurier’s upright pose, his slim-fit attire, at every seat in the limelight.
Four bars passed, six, eight. The trombonist leapt into form to fill the missing melody.
For one, please. The doorkeeper was partially thinking of the man’s words, where to place him between the many four-partied and two-partied tables, as well as his familiarity. The latter thought dissolved a moment later. How many single, moderately dressed men with blurry eyes had she seen through all those months here? She reached beneath the guest-list, retrieved a single dinner menu, and led the customer through the aisles.
The doorkeeper beckoned towards an unused booth, fit between two other groups of four. The customer paused, looked elsewhere, then asked if he could be placed in the table nearest the piano. The doorkeeper nodded. As they moved, the pianist’s modest playing arrived in their ears, fully defined when they reached the table. The pianist said, This one is dedicated to the health of my wife, to no one in particular. Though the doorkeeper had not led customers into this corner for some time, she felt that something was missing.
The doorkeeper asked if regular water was fine, or if a sparkling beverage would be more to his liking. The customer did not respond. Instead, his attention was directed towards the pianist, who was nearing the end of his performance. The doorkeeper asked the same question again. She was met with the same. How many moderately dressed, jumpy, talkless men had she seen? Not many.
The pianist finished his piece. A loud clapping resounded about the aisles, the work of a single pair of hands. That customer was on his feet, applauding with a full crowd’s bravado, and the doorkeeper felt her hands come together, apart, together again in rhythm, and the rest of the restaurant yielded to this impulse as well, from those seated on the high-stools of the bar to the parties housed within the booths to the couples warmed by the candlelight near the windows.
The pianist’s head turned towards the talkless customer. It stayed in this position for a long minute. There was something in the pianist’s eyes, but the doorkeeper could not discern it from her distance. The clapping was like rain. How many moderately dressed men had come in here and made the pianist smile? The doorkeeper really didn’t know anybody at all.
Lucas Rucchin is a grade ten student at West Point Grey Academy situated in Vancouver, British Columbia. He is an aspiring writer who enjoys prose grounded in reality and the human condition. Surging Tide Magazine is his first medium of publication.