Fiction

Give The Kid A Break

He did the noble thing. He stayed three thousand miles away from Julie—until his hand could again make magic on the keyboard

STEVE McNEIL November 15 1948
Fiction

Give The Kid A Break

He did the noble thing. He stayed three thousand miles away from Julie—until his hand could again make magic on the keyboard

STEVE McNEIL November 15 1948

Give The Kid A Break

Fiction

STEVE McNEIL

JOHNNY sat at the piano and ran his fingers over the keys. The piano was in one corner of the little room just off the main lobby. It was fondly called the music room, and there were big, plate-glass windows all around, and when you looked out the window you saw the lake and the timber-covered hills and the big lawn gently sloping down to the shore.

If Julie could see me now, Johnny thought, I wonder what she’d say. I wonder what she’d do. If Julie, with the long, slim legs and the deep, brown eyes walked into this room, I wonder what would happen?

He took his hands off the keys and fished the

letter from Specs Mandel out of his pocket; h( looked at the last paragraph again. “Julie comes every night, just as she always did. It’s getting a little tough to see her and still keep your address a secret. Why don’t you give the kid a break?”

johnny folded the letter and put it back in his pocket. It had been written three months ago, but he still carried it. Give the kid a break ! That was a laugh. He was giving her a break. He was giving her a great break by staying away. Time could do anything. Give her time and she’d quit coming. Give her time and she’d find some boy from New Haven.

He ran his fingers over the keys again and then, without knowing it, he was playing “Melancholy Baby.” When he realized what he was doing, he slammed his fingers down on the keys and stood up. He walked to the window, digging a cigarette out of his pocket. A dope, he told himself. A Grade A dope. Give her a break, Specs had said. A lot

He did the noble thing. He stayed three thousand miles away from Julie—until his hand could again make magic on the keyboard

Specs knew. He flexed his right hand and looked at the long, ugly scar and then he lit the cigarette and looked out the window.

THREE thousand miles, he thought, from Julie, and yet not far at all, if you stopped to think about it. I could get on an air liner and be there in no time at all. And after I got there—what would I be? I’d be a broken-down piano player with a bum hand, that’s what I’d be. What earthly use would I be to Julie? He snapped his cigarette out an open window and put his hands in the pockets of his jacket and thought back to the musical magicians who had been Johnny Marino’s Quintet r—who were still Johnny Marino’s Quintet, except that Johnny was three thousand miles away from them.

It hadn’t been anything to start with. Just five guys, with Johnny to crack the whip. He got Specs Mandel on bass and Billy Lemon on clarinet and

Fingers Rafferty on guitar and Gib Strafford on trumpet and he told them, “This is no jam session. We aren’t a bunch of characters in a basement. This is going to be precision stuff—long-hair technique with ballads.”

“Who do you think you are—Toscanini?” Specs asked him.

“You’ll think so,” Johnny said, “when we g et into Carnegie Hall.”

“Nuts,” Gib said. “We’ll play for carriage-trade dinners and they’ll drown us out with the soup.”

“I thought you guys were gamblers,” Johnny said. “Or would you rather wait for Petrillo?”

“If I liked Miami,” Fingers said, “I wouldn’t be

here. Rip Martin wanted me to go to Miami.” He picked up his guitar. “But I don’t like Miami. Let’s hear it, Johnny.”

They got to work and it would have been much better if they could also have eaten regularly. .Johnny cajoled, he promised, he threatened. He rehearsed them monotonously and strove for perfection. He drove them to the limit and two days after they all walked out on him, he got them two weeks in Artie’s restaurant. Fingers Rafferty flew back from Miami and said, “I think I must be nuts. Down there they feed you steaks two inches t hick.” He bit into his hamburger sandwich.

The fourt h night in Art ie’s, the word got around and people started dropping in and sitting down and forgetting to leave and at the end of the second week, Marshall Dallas, the top agent, talked business to Johnny and two days later Johnny sat down with Marshall and Artie and a lawyer and many sheets of paper. Two months later, Artie bought the place next door and enlarged the restaurant and then the guy from the weekly picture magazine came along and a month later their pictures were on pages twenty-three and twenty-four and they

AND then one night. Julie came and sat quietly *■ at a table and watched Johnny. She came every night after that - always alone, hut she never sent request numbers lo them, or smiled, or did very much of anything except sit quietly, drinking coffee and listening. Julie, with the black hair and (he slow smile, who just listened and somebody, one night, called her “The Melancholy Baby,” and the name stuck.

And then one night Johnny walked over to her table and said, “You like our music?”

“It’s not so much the music,” she said, “although I like that, too.”

“Well, I know it’s not the coffee,” Johnny said, “so it must 1M* something else.”

She smiled at him. “It’s that half-smile you have when you play. And it’s that little-boy haircut.” Johnny frowned. “Are you ribbing me?”

She shook her head. Her eyes were serious.

“All right. What would you like to hear?” “Nothing in particular,” she said.

Johnny peered at her suspiciously and then he Sind, “Well, bow would you like to eat ham and eggs with me when the show’s over?”

She tilted her head at him and grinned. “Patience,” she said, “like virtue has ifs own reward. I’d love to.”

“I have to play something for you,” Johnny said. “If I tell the boys that it’s my haircut instead of the music, they’ll cut your throat.”

“All right,—‘Melancholy Baby,’ then.”

After that, she waited for him every night. They ate ham and eggs at four in the morning and then walked the streets until the sun came up. They sailed and swam and spent long, hot hours on a float. They danced and bent over juke boxes with nickels in one hand and hamburgers in the other. And, somehow, they never got around to talking about the future, because they were so sure of it.

THE accident that changed things, came about a year after they’d met. Johnny didn’t like to think about the accident. It wasn’t his fault. He wasn’t driving fast. There was an icy stretch that hadn’t thawed and he didn’t know it till he hit it. There was the sickening skid and the swift lurch as he tried to bring the car out of it and then there was the rending crash and Julie’s scream. Then there was silence, except for something dripping -oil or water onto

Continued on page 42

Continued from page 19

the pavement. It took some time for Johnny to realize that it wasn’t oil or water, but blood from the gash across the back of his right hand. It hadn’t seemed important at the time, because Julie was unconscious and white and very, very still.

But, when they took the X-rays and found that Julie had nothing more serious than a lump on her head the size of half an egg, Johnny thought about his hand. And later, when Johnny looked at the white bandage that covered his right hand and listened to the surgeon, he winced, lighted a cigarette and thought, Well, what do I do now? Get a job peddling brushes or washing dishes in Artie’s restaurant or fitting shoes? Johnny Marino, the one-handed piano player. “No mistake?” he asked.

The surgeon shook his head. He was a good guy; he gave it to you straight. “The hand will be stiff. I don’t know everything. I’m a good surgeon, but I’m not God. There is a guy who has done some wonderful things over at the Veteran’s Hospital.”

Johnny looked at the man and tried to smile. “I always did want to have a music store,” he said.

The surgeon didn’t smile. He put a hand on Johnny’s arm. “I’m sorry.”

“Yeah,” Johnny said. “You said that the Veteran’s Hospital had a guy—”

“Colonel Epstein,” the surgeon said. “I’ll call him for you.”

The colonel was a thin, wiry, dark little fellow with a soft voice and snapping black eyes. Johnny was there three months without Julie finding him. Specs Mandel came every day and Specs was a clam, loyal but worried. “The kid is going nuts, Johnny,” Specs said. “You shouldn’t do this to Julie. I told her you left town, like you said, but it isn't right.”

Johnny held up his right hand. “You bet,” he said. “I’d be a big help to Julie.”

“Listen, she cries on my lapels and smears my suits with lipstick. She keeps asking me why—why you don t write—why you don’t call—and I can’t tell her because I promised you I wouldn’t. But I gotta tell her something or she’ll drive me nuts.”

“Tell her you don’t know where I am.”

“I do, but she doesn’t believe me.” “Can you think of anything more useless than a one-handed piano player?” Johnny said. “Julie will find some guy—some lad from New Haven. Give her time. Time can do anything.” “Some guy from New Haven!” Specs snorted. “Well, I’m from New Haven. Does she want me? You know what you sound like? You sound like some guy being noble. You sound like some joker in one of those soap operas. You sound like some big dope who feels sorry for himself.”

“All right, Specs,” Johnny said. “How about letting me do it my way?”

WHEN Johnny left the hospital the colonel said, “It will be a year, or two, or maybe three—depending on you. You take this little ball and hold it in your hand all your waking hours and try to squeeze it. Work up every ounce of will you have to squeeze that ball and, if you do it, someday you’ll be able to pick out a note on a piano. It’s up to you. And it wouldn’t hurt to say a little prayer once in a while, either.”

In a year Johnny was picking out notes. In another six months he was fingering the keyboard, searching for the touch, wishing mightily for the thing he used to have. He fought sleep and he fought hunger and he ran his right hand over keyboards in beer joints and cocktail lounges and music stores and anywhere else that had a piano; hut he never told anyone who he was, because he was ashamed of the beat-up suit and the run-down shoes and he was ashamed of the right hand that had once made magic on the keyboard.

}T WAS at the coast he heard about the job. It wasn’t much of a job. The guy ran a resort hotel and he wanted someone who could play a piano during the dinner hour and evenings, so people could sing or dance a little.

The guy was tall and lean and dark. He wore fawn-colored slacks and a yellow sport shirt with a Harris tweed jacket. His name was Paul Vincent and he wasn’t a bad guy, Johnny thought. Just dumb.

“What I want,” he said, “is somebody who can play commercial. I mean I don’t want long-hair stuff all the time

and I don’t want boogie-woogie all the time. I want a guy can play business piano.”

“Business piano,” Johnny said. “Well -—well.”

“I’ll pay thirty-live a week and board and room.”

Johnny took a long look at the guy. Try and get the old Johnny Marino, he thought, without the scar on his right hand, for thirty-five dollars a week, or even thirty-five dollars a day.

He said, “All right.” He sat at the piano. “What do you want?” He bet himself a week’s wages the guy would want “Rhapsody In Rlue.”

“ ‘Rhapsody In Blue,’ ” Vincent said.

Johnny smiled. He hit the keys with his fingers and he faked the parts he couldn’t play, but Vincent didn’t know the difference, as Johnny knew very well, but what did the guy expect for thirty-five a week—Count Basie?

When he finished, Vincent nodded. “Okay,” he said. He hesitated, and then he asked, “What’s your name?”

“Johnny Moran,” Johnny said.

“Okay by me,” Vincent said.

That had been six months ago. Johnny conceded that the food was good, the hours not long and he had a piano. He began to smile slightly when he played and if it weren’t for his right hand and his thoughts of Julie, he would be almost, if not exactly happy —less unhappy.

TURNING away from the window, Johnny walked into the coffee shop, got a Coke, poured it into a glass full of ice and took it back into the music room. He sat at the piano and ran his right hand over the keyboard and then he played “Sweet Lorraine” and then “Handful of Keys.” When he finished, he looked at his right hand, flexed it and shook his head.

“That sounds sweet,” he heard someone say, “very sweet.”

He swiveled around on the bench. Paul Vincent stood in the doorway and grinned at him. “Yeah,” Johnny said. “Sweet.”

Paul came into the room and sat in one of the chairs. He swung his leg over the arm and he said, “I hate to say this, Johnny, but I think that hand is almost well.”

Johnny’s mouth dropped open. He yelped, “What!”

“Sometimes,” Paul Vincent went on, “that guy in that radio station in Astoria—what’s the name of that program?”

“Bob’s Bandstand,” Johnny said, dazed.

“Yeah—well—sometimes he plays your recordings and I can hardly tell the difference.”

“You mean,” Johnny said, “that you knew all the time?”

Paul Vincent nodded. “Sure.”

“But how?”

“I heard you in that restaurant on 52nd Street, just before you got hurt. I figured if you wanted to be Johnny Aloran, well that was all right with me. I’m getting Afarino, almost as good as he was, for thirty-five a week. Why should I say anything?”

Johnny shook his head, “And I thought you were dumb!” he said.

“Not dumb,” Paul Vincent said. “Just cagey. Well—the season’s almost over and you won’t be back anyway, so I thought I’d say something.”

Johnny lighted a cigarette and took a drag. He said slowly, “I’m not going back until this hand is well.”

“I think your head’s in the sand,” Vincent said. “I think the hand is well. Why don’t you go into town and make a recording and send it back to one of your pals? Don’t take my word for it. I’m no musician.”

Johnny stared out the window for a few minutes. It was an idea. Specs would tell him. Specs would give him the straight dope. He couldn’t, he knew, know himself. He was chuckful of phobias. He grinned at Vincent. “How about using your car?”

Vincent nodded. “Now you’re talking.”

When he got to town he went into the local music store. A guy came out of an office. He rubbed his hands. “Can 1 help you?”

“You got a recording machine? I want to wax some piano numbers.”

The man grinned. “Something for the girl friend? Sure, we got a recorder. Latest thing. Cost us—”

“All right,” Johnny said.

The guy got the machine set up beside the piano. Johnny ran his fingers over the keys and the guy’s mouth

dropped open. “Okay,” Johnny said, “let’s go.”

Johnny played a medley that he had once recorded. “Honeysuckle Rose” and “Ain’t Misbehavin’ ” and “Tea I for Two” and when he finished he i looked around. The music store was full of people, looking at him curiously.

“Look,” the man said, “1 bet I can get you a nice job right here in town—” “I got a job,” Johnny said. “Thanks anyway. How about playing that back for me?”

It sounded all right to Johnny, but he didn’t know. He paid the man and tucked the record under his arm, and the music store man turned on a radio. Johnny listened to it for a moment, thoughtfully. “Where’s that radio station?” he asked the man.

The fellow pointed. “Three blocks.”

THERE was a teletype machine clicking in the corner of the radio station and a long counter. A thinfaced, dark-haired man with tired eyes was reading the stuff at the teletype. “Where can 1 find the fellow who runs ‘Bob’s Bandstand?’ ” Johnny asked.

The man looked at Johnny. “Right here,” he said.

“How about listening to this recording I made,” Johnny said. “Tell me what you think of it?”

“Looking for a job?” the man asked. “In a way,” Johnny said. “I guess I am.”

The man hesitated. Johnny knew that if he had wanted the man to listen to him in person, he probably would have said, “We have auditions on Friday," or something like that. But no disc jockey could resist a recording.

He said, “All right,” and Johnny followed him into a little room and the man put the disc on a turntable. He leaned hack and lighted a cigarette. His look became more sour as the record played on. When it was finished, he picked it off the machine, handed it to Johnny and said, “That’s nice piano, but you didn’t make that recording.”

“How you figure?”

The man tapped the record. “Don’t try to kid me. That’s an old Marino platter.”

Johnny’s heart leaped. “Did you say an old Marino platter?”

“That’s right. It was released about three years ago—just before Marino hurt his hand in that automobile j accident.”

Johnny grinned at him. “You got a fountain pen?”

The man nodded. “Sure.”

Johnny took the record from him and wrote. “To Bob’s Bandstand. Johnny Marino.” He handed hack the pen.

“I’ll leave this record with you. Maybe it’ll make a little story for your program. You can ask the guy in the music store down the street where I got this record.” He handed the record to the man and walked out, quickly.

IF THAT radio guy can’t tell the difference, nobody can. He flexed his right hand and grinned. Three thousand miles to 52nd Street, he thought. So far and yet not far at all. This time tomorrow night I might make it to Artie’s restaurant. I’ll walk in and I won’t say a word. I’ll sit down at t he piano and I’ll see if Julie’s there and if she is I’ll play “Melancholy Baby” for her and then we can make up for all the time we missed. Maybe, he thought, I ought to wire Specs. No. I’ll walk in on them. I’ll knock them dead. I can hardly wait to see their faces.

When he got back, he packed his stuff and looked for Vincent, to spy good-by. “I don’t have to send the record hack East,” he told him. “That radio guy couldn’t tell the difference either.”

Vincent grinned. “I’m glad to hear it.” He fished in his pocket. “You got a wire. Came just after you left.” He handed Johnny the envelope.

Johnny slit it with his thumbnail and opened the telegram. “YOU CAN COME BACK NOW. JULIE FOUND THE GUY FROM NEW HAVEN. SPECS.”

“Bad news?” Vincent said.

Johnny held the wire in nerveless fingers for a few seconds. He folded il carefully and put it in his pocket. His spirits draped themselves around the rug at his feet. He could see Specs writing the wire, and then he could hear Specs saying to himself or to anyone who was with him—Fingers Rafferty, maybe, “Well, what did Johnny expect? Julie wasn’t going to wait forever.”

“Bad news?” he asked. “What makes you t hink that?” He wondered if it was Specs. Specs had said he was from New Haven. That would be kind of funny. Or would it?

“You’re kind of white,” Vincent said. “Think nothing of it,” Johnny said. “It must be my heart. 1 think it stopped beating. Telegrams always affect me that way.”

Vincent put out his hand. “Well, good-hy, Johnny. I hate to see you go, but I’m glad the hand is okay.”

Johnny shook Vincent’s hand and then he looked at his own right hand “Yeah,” he said, “the hand is okay."

Three years, he thought, for the hand to mend. I wonder now about my heart? How long will that take? ★