The Disturbance by Emma Colby
The man at the piano wore a mask of contentment to hide the strange displacement he felt that, otherwise, would surely have shown on his face. The setting was wrong. The man at the piano was accustomed to performing in locations that were much more grand--a Steinway hanging over an audience at the Ritz Carlton in London, or an antique Baldwin with bone-colored keys placed next to a window-lined bar overlooking the Sassafras River. Sitting here, bouncing his fingers along the stark white plastic buttons passing for piano keys, was outrageous. An electric keyboard attached to the empty shell of a piano (that wasn’t fooling anyone) was a present for a child whose parents wish they had some talent, not a fitting tool for a seasoned performer.
This carnival--a sad excuse for a fundraiser--was hardly worthy of his talents. The fundraiser was thrown by a handful of successful, yet undeserving, middle-aged board members--of which board it did not matter; they probably weren’t completely sure themselves. The “cause” did not matter to them. In fact, they probably weren’t even aware of the charity their donations would reach. They were only concerned with getting their tax write-offs. Well... that, and having a good excuse to flirt with their friends’ scantily clad spouses, who were wearing outfits too risque to be acceptable anywhere but at these types of events. The man at the piano could hardly remember the name of the bogus charity - children with…what was it?...sprained ankles maybe?
Tables were covered in the plastic tablecloths you buy at the Dollar Store that wouldn’t even stay on with a hefty wad of packing tape. Among the carnival games set up, there was a raffle for a personal training session with a 20-something named “Bruno”-- the cougars ate this up. It goes without saying that this brought in the most cash flow.
He sat there, grudgingly playing the most basic of tunes--songs like “Come on Eileen” and “America”--all those songs that get the guests all hyped-up, but show absolutely nothing of his skill. While he played, he watched his audience. He watched as those board members pointlessly stirred their apple martinis with cocktail straws and wondered how he ended up here. The truth is, the man at the piano had no idea. The groupies stopped gawking. The gig bookings slowed to a stop. The green stuff was depleted. But the rent was a constant. So, here he was, playing at a sad excuse for a charity carnival, entertaining passes from wine-drunk middle-aged women. At least the tips were good. And the more he entertained those passes, the better the tips became. For Christ’s sake…he was becoming a damn gigolo.
The board members’ children were there, too. Everyone knows the type--they wear the white whales on their button-downs and escort girls all dolled up in dresses that are adorned with bright paisley prints. Some were politely quiet. It was obvious that they were given an earful on the car ride over and warned to not embarrass “the family." Others were teenagers, undeniably coerced into attendance by their fathers, with promises of cash and car time. Those fathers really didn’t care if their teenagers attended, but it quelled the mothers’ need to show the “happy family” off, and, “happy wife, happy life," right? Nah - but at least it would temporarily buy the fathers some goodwill with their wives (and allow some flirting time).
Most of said teens were polished and shiny, shaking hands with adults they vaguely remember, but who may have sent them cash-filled birthday cards (checks were also acceptable). It was a thinly veiled ruse but played by almost all in this echelon--gotta shake those hands to keep that cash flowing in. Others sat at their table or at the “game booths." lights reflecting on their faces, smartphones betraying their disinterest in the event.
The man at the piano was taking requests--but few were noteworthy--just more Neil Diamond and rich people ballads.
A lanky teen approached the piano. He normally had that “edgy-but-disheveled” hairstyle, made popular by those romantic vampire movies that were so prevalent lately. But tonight his hair was slicked back, albeit in a haphazard way, hinting that his mother had run after him with hair spray and a comb as they were walking out the door. She was only semi-successful. The boy approached the man playing the piano.
“What is it, boy?”
The boy shifted in place. His shirt was almost completely untucked except for in the back--another sign his mother was running after him to fix his appearance. With an eye roll and sigh, the boy reached behind him to untuck his shirt and then shoved his hand into his front pocket. He leaned more into the stance, putting more weight onto his hip. The man at the piano took this as a clear sign of the boy saying “Look, I’m cool and chill, and…other stuff.”
“So, hey, I, uh…”
The man’s response was gruff. He was already anticipating getting the hell out of there. He couldn’t take much more of these posers. “Speak up, boy. I got a gig to finish.”
With another sigh, the boy picked up a plastic pen and wrote down a song request on one of those little pieces of logoed paper that the man at the piano kept at his station (the kind that almost always got damp from sweat rings that formed around the many drinks consumed by washed-up performers). He searched his pocket for a minute and had only a Benjamin (his weekly allowance for attending family dinner and daily classes), so he threw the bill down next to his paper and gave the man at the piano a nod.
The man at the piano had to laugh--that’s some pocket change. The request wasn’t a typical piano song--he was no rapper and never even considered performing hip hop at one of his gigs before. But it was a request and there was the money. And hell, it would break up the monotony.
The man at the piano was brought back to high school - more specifically, his high school cafeteria, sitting under the fluorescent lighting across from the stage that was usually used as storage for useless equipment. The stage was only ever used for a few things:
1. The dreaded D.A.R.E. assemblies
2. The obligatory winter concerts that the local elementary school came in to perform every year--a perfect photo op for the waspy moms
3. The man at the piano’s favorite part of high school: The Battle of the Bands
The man at the piano bit his lip--hard--to avoid showing any real emotional reaction. He remembered watching the only band that wasn’t performing hair rock ballads like “Talk Dirty to Me” or “Livin’ on a Prayer”--the only band whose members didn’t sport the iconic Bret Michaels do-rag or borrow their sisters’ Wet n’ Wild eyeliner. His mind went to their performance of the very song that the boy had requested. He remembered them getting lost in the music. The man at the piano closed his eyes and saw himself, a 16-year-old in parachute pants and a slayer t-shirt that his mom hated trying to learn that song the band performed. The song didn’t fit his look, but he learned to play it anyway.
The man at the piano knew he could do it. He knew playing it again would be like riding a bike.
It was immediate. The man at the piano belted out the wild opening, “This speech is my recital,” and there was a pause in the polite chatter of the evening. It was only a second, but it was noticeable.
Yes, the man at the piano liked this--disturbing the palpable artifice of the evening. His eyes briefly met the eyes of the boy who made the request. Yes, the boy liked this too.
It was everything--it was the bold sounds of the B flat chords the song called for compared to the cheerful bounciness of all the C and G major chords the typically requested ballads required. It was the roaring that the lyrics demanded.
But it was also the looks on the faces of those board members when he slammed his fingers onto those plastic keys to emphasize the bridge. It was the pauses in movements that the guests took to consider the lack of meaning in the song.
Even more--it was the boy. It was the boy dancing in the corner, his own personal jam session. It was the boy singing his heart out. It was that boy owning the song. It was the boy being brave enough to step out of the norm.
More than anything, it was the girl who watched him--admired him. It was the girl starting to mouth the words to herself while tugging at the Tiffany toggle hanging from her neck. It was the girl singing the words when the last chorus hit. It was the girl walking up to the man at the piano and requesting another rap ballad--which one didn’t matter.
For now, at least, the man at the piano lost himself in the music again.
It was just different now.
It was the song. It was the boy. It was the girl. It was the disturbance.
Editor's Note: "This speech is my recital" is from the first line of Run DMC's It's Tricky , from 1986.