The Piano Player

Frank felt edgy all week.  Preparations for Bennett & Co.’s RESTORE AMERICA fund-raising tour were taking over all his time: petitioning the state for non-profit event status, circulating memos to several dozen affiliated firms and businesses around Republic.  “Y’ALL BE SURE TO COME NOW, YA HEAR?”  Crowley had dictated that every memo end with this gag line.  Frank was feeling more and more like he was working for a public relations bureau.  What was Crowley’s angle here?  What did Bennett—a U.S. Drug Czar—have to do with agribusiness?  But later, glancing at a memo on Crowley’s desk, Frank realized it had something to do with buying up peasant farmer’s lands after they’d been wiped out by D.E.A. crop dusters.

     Nothing like creating one’s own opportunities.

     Bennett and Co.’s RESTORE AMERICA tour was a three-day extravaganza: beginning with a downtown parade and winter fireworks at Waterfall Park Friday night and ending with a church service at First Presbyterian of Republic Sunday afternoon.  The honorable Jerry Falwell delivering the closing prayer.  A dozen major events were scheduled around town: Straight, Inc.—a drug treatment center for problem teens—was setting up a recruitment office in the lobby of the Republic Opera House; Partnerships for a Drug Free America was hosting a fund-raising luncheon at the Masonic Temple; and the Fort Wright Art Gallery was staging a “Happy Days Are Here Again” photo exhibit of Republic in the 1950’s.  Frank hadn’t witnessed such a deluge of red, white and blue since Ronald Reagan’s Inaugural in 1980.  Every two-bit millionaire with a 200-mile radius of Republic was showing up for the event: jamming Republic’s downtown streets—already terrible because of the heavy January snowfall—with their mile-long Cads, Lincolns and Oldsmobiles.  It seemed every street corner had an evangelist on it.  On Thursday afternoon, he’d garnered six Gideon Bibles and four JUST SAY NO!  bumperstickers simply walking to and from his office and the El Sombrero for lunch. 

     But the main event was Bennett’s $1000-a-plate keynote dinner address—entitled “I Have a Dream, Too”—Saturday night in the main ballroom of Republic’s fabled Davenport Hotel.  The local media was whooping up Bennett’s appearance to match the Second Coming.  Frank was one of the “Lucky 500!”—as the Republic Review put it—to attend the function.  At company expense, of course.  Bennett’s address was to coincide with the grand reopening of the 400-room turn-of-the-century neo-classical hotel.  The speech was to be delivered from a podium next to the same baby grand piano an insomniac President Harry S. Truman had played on the eve of the bombing of Hiroshima in 1945.  And it was inside this ballroom on Saturday morning–after attending a Zero Tolerance brunch in the hotel’s west-wing–Frank Ames stumbled upon Helen.

     “Hello, Helen.”

     Helen was standing halfway up a 5-step ladder, attaching a wreath of laurel leaves to the front of Bennett’s raised podium, and nearly fell off when Frank spoke.

     “Frank!  What are you doing here?”

     “Saying hello to an old friend,” Frank said.  “I think.”

     He waited until he was sure Helen wasn’t going to fall, then stepped over a red velvet rope barrier and sat down on the piano bench.  He ran through a few bars of “Red Sails in the Sunset” before Helen asked him to stop.

     “Don’t be so melodramatic, Frank!”

     They were alone in the ballroom.  He’d finally encountered her in a space where she couldn’t hang up on him or defer her attention to Crowley and the others.  A Mexican bellhop—watering a row of ficus trees the other side of the oval room—had looked up the moment Frank touched the ivory keys.  He turned back to his watering when Helen indicated she knew the piano player.

     “I see the Senator has you working overtime too,” Frank said, watching her climb down the ladder in a hip-hugging gray dress.

     “The wreath was my idea,” Helen answered.  Then, added: “Frank?  Are you drunk?”

     Frank lifted the plastic cup he’d brought with him from the brunch, sniffed its contents, and took a sip.

     “No one told me the punch bowl on the left was spiked.”

     Helen rolled her eyes, then turned away and busied herself with boxes strewn at the foot of the stage.  Frank had to admit that the laurel wreath was a nice touch.  Helen was always surprising him.  He knew practically zip about her past.  She’d grown up in Hope River, Idaho: a small town deep in the white pine forests of the Salmon River Wilderness: a town, she’d once referred to in one of her less eloquent moments, as “Bumfuck, Idaho.”  Her Daddy was a logger.  Her Mama she wouldn’t talk about.  Ever.  Both dead by the time she turned 14.  No known relatives.  Sent away to some boarding school she also wouldn’t talk about.  She was thirty-two now, though you’d guess younger unless you’d seen—as Frank had seen—the stretch marks on her hips.  Or how quiet she got around small children.  Two other subjects she’d never talk about.  Her strikingly beautiful gray eyes as cold and fathomless as the sea: revealing nada.

     Frank stood suddenly, raised his plastic cup in sweeping salute to the fifty U.S. flags that surrounded them.

     “Good work, Frau Helen!  To Herr Crowley and Herr Bennett!  To the ruination of my nation ‘tis of thee!  To power and absolute corruption—“

    Frank’s outburst came to a stumbling halt as he tripped and fell backwards over the piano bench.  A pint of Tanqueray slipped from an inside pocket of his blazer and miraculously landed flat in the palm of his right hand.  He must have blacked out for a moment.  When he reopened his eyes he was staring at cherubs carved in the oval ceiling overhead.  With a start, Frank observed that the cherubs had little horns and forked tails.  Helen and the Mexican bellhop were at his side.  Helen was wiping off the front of his blazer while the bellhop sponged the contents of his drink from the carpet.  Frank began to apologize when the double doors of the Davenport’s west-wing swung open.  A herd of Zero Tolerance brunch-goers spilled forth onto the main ballroom floor.  Frank could feel the clunk of their patent leather shoes reverberating beneath him like a herd of wildebeest converging on an African watering hole.

     Bill Bennett was at the head of this herd.  Crowley and a string of reporters followed at his heels—photographer’s bulbs popping.  Bennett moved incredibly fast for a man of his bulk.  With another start, Frank realized Bennett was marching directly towards them.  Probably for a photo-op beside Truman’s baby grand!  Frank slipped the Tanqueray back inside his blazer, and was standing before Bennett or the others knew any different.

     “Over here!  Get the lights on the piano player!  From the stage, dummy!”

     The photographers and brunch-goers encircled Frank as he stood beside the piano.  Helen and the bellhop had disappeared into the mob.  The scene reminded him of grade school fights he’s been in.  The hot photographer’s lights and the pungent stink of a hundred old men sucking Altoids at the same time made him want to vomit.  God, he was queasy.  Before he fully realized what was happening a rosy-cheeked Bill Bennett was beside him in a gray pinstripe suit, twin American flags pinned above his breast pocket, pumping Frank’s hand with a bone-crushing handshake.

     “So you’re the piano player!” said Bennett.

     The brunch-goers laughed heartily back.  Frank began to announce that he wasn’t the piano player when Crowley’s huge head and bulging eyes rolled into view.  He was instructing the photographers to get a picture of Bennett and himself with “Frank the piano player!”  Frank began to protest but Crowley silenced him with a knowing wink.  He threw a squid-like arm around Frank’s neck and, with Bennett’s help, ushered him to the bench.

     When the evening edition of the Review hit the streets, Frank Ames’ picture was page one, centermost between Old Man Crowley and a gum-chewing Bill Bennett.

     Frank was the only one not smiling.

 

(novella excerpt from FRANK AMES’ RESTORE AMERICA TOUR)