“Satin Doll,” a story by Jack Tasker, was a short-listed entry in our recently concluded 54th Short Fiction Contest. It is published with the permission of the author
by Jack Tasker
The Pianist and The Cabbie
…..When the music stops there is room only for applause or silence. As the pianist etches a rendition of the Dave Brubeck Quartet’s “Take Five” into the smoky atmosphere of the club, that threat is kept on his mind’s mantle. He cannot forget it even though he knows it is what holds his music back. He has tried clearing the mantle with a drunken swoop, but all he has managed is to allow it to apathetically collect dust. Unkempt but always there.
…..The notes ring clear as the drums take center stage, teasing the audience with snares and building anticipation, all while the pianist keeps the rhythm going. The alto comes back into the center with a sleekness of a polished urn and all the emotion of its contents. Christ, thought the pianist, Jim’s back on the sauce again. There are some machines that need more oil than others to run and then there are some that can only take so much before the oil foams, rendering the engine useless. Damnit, don’t do it! The alto attempts to flourish on the last drawn off note but drowns the room in a pretentious squeal. All the instruments stop and the last ringings of the ride cymbal dust off the mantle in the pianist’s mind with the force of a leaf blower. Silence, a loathing peace, fills the room with static.
….. “Thank you, goodnight.”
….. The pianist steps outside the club, bidding his bandmates a goodnight with a puff of a cigarette. The pianist looks down the empty street full of light and wet with the day’s rain and sorrow. The next act starts up with an instrumental of Frank Sinatra’s “What Is This Thing Called Love” as the pianist undoes his tie. He pauses for a moment and smiles. The street could be the inspiration for that cover, which would make him Ol’ Blue Eyes himself. In an act of mildly-drunk whimsy, the pianist walks with a sway and a swagger, to imitate Sinatra, towards the subway.
….. The lamp in his apartment is offensive, though not as much as the dresser he just clipped his knee on in the dark. He reaches under the bed for some form of refreshment and looks at the clock on the nightstand. 3 AM? Perfection. Finding a thin neck and choking it, the pianist claims his prize and puts on Time Out to hear how it is really done.
….. The jarring melody of the alarm clock, bass of Time Out’s repetitive scratching, and the pounding beat of his head create a synchronous rhythm that, while impressive in its scope, is not welcomed. The alarm is stopped with a fist and is read with bloodshot eyes. 4:08 PM? That’ll do, I suppose. When he is dressed, relaxing to Coltrane and coffee, the pianist takes his time to relax his hands. The warmth of the cup soothes his knuckles and the music calms his mind. He does not know whether it is the strenuous play or if the fingers carry memories of every poor performance, but they are wrought with tension and periodic agony. He expresses through them and, in turn, they express him.
….. Watch. 4:38 PM, bagel and more coffee, cab.
….. Taking to the stairs with the notes of “Up ‘Gainst the Wall” still ringing in his ears, the cabbie descends to the lobby and walks up to the bagel cart on the corner.
….. “Can you change a sawbuck for me?”
….. “Sure, Harry, the same?”
….. “Yeah, plus a coffee.”
…..“Work or a gig?”
…..The vendor picks a pumpernickel bagel out and starts pouring a coffee.
…..“Huh?” the pianist asks, sunglasses dipping slightly down the nose to reveal bloody and hazel eyes, “Oh, uh, gig.” He takes the bagel from the vendor. “Jim’s off the wagon again, I think.”
…..“Really? That’s too bad. Sorry to hear it went south,” he hands the cabbie breakfast. “The coffee’s on me. Have a good one.”
…..“I will, you too.”
…..It was only three blocks and a right from his apartment for the cabbie to get to his work. The walk was always pleasant. Rain, shine, or mugging. No theft today but it wasn’t unheard of, especially on the late shift. The weather was nice and the air was dirty, that typical city condition, but there is a comfort in that. The cabbie liked the air and what flowed through it, whether it was sweet perfume or putrid sewage. He took the city as it was and it returned the favor. The cabbie liked to eat his bagel before he got to work but today his stomach would not allow it. He threw the bagel away, three bites deep, half a block from his keys.
…..The keys were in his box, behind the counter, guarded by the receptionist. She never much cared for the drivers but they all very much did her. Despite this, the receptionist took her position in stride by avoiding any recognition, beyond who is who and where their keys are. She read most days and today was no exception, though it was a magazine instead of a book. Well, if the cabbie had come twenty-three minutes earlier it would have been To the Lighthouse, but he had not and the receptionist was reading Life. Life had passed the office by, leaving the Life several years old and waiting for someone to notice it. The receptionist looked up at the cabbie as he entered the office.
…..“Hey Daniela, need my keys.”
…..There was only one box with keys in it on the wall behind the receptionist. “A bit late today, Harold,” she said, setting the keys on the counter and turning back to the magazine. There was an article about Louis Armstrong, that was the story on the cover. The cabbie’s sunglasses hid his eyes as he looked at hers. And you’re a bit late on that edition, he thought, I read it when it came out. Truly a wonderful world!
…..The cabbie nods and turns to the parking lot, where only one yellow taxi sits. There was a green one but the radiator was shot. So was the driver. The cabbie opens the door to his taxi to find a pack of cigarettes on the seat. They were not his brand but they were slightly used. Three shy of a whole pack. The cabbie takes one out and lights it up, climbing into the car.
…..Watch. 4:53 PM, where the hell did these smokes come from?
…..The pack read “Raymond’s Tobacco” and below it in smaller letters “Fort Worth, TX,” a far cry from the city. The lettering was orange and the packaging maroon. The product itself was swell enough, but the cabbie just couldn’t figure-
…..“Corner of Kingston and Pacific,” said the bank teller.
…..“Right,” said the cabbie.
…..“I’ve been trying to find a place to fix my necklace-”
…..So they were left on his seat, the driver’s seat, the cabbie’s seat. What was their story? Did they have a story, like the cabbie? Where did they come from?
…..“-and my husband, oh he just-”
…..Then the cabbie stamped out the cigarette. They had upset him too much. His head was full. The street ahead was swarmed with cars and a moped, several other other taxis and horns. It was piercing.
…..“-that’s when the latch just snapped, the beads-”
…..Sweat dripped down the cabbie’s face, unsettling him more. The later in the day, the sharper the sun struck the buildings. Its rays are unforgiving.
…..“Beg your pardon, are you even listening to me?”
…..“Oh, I’m sorry about your bracelet. Richmond Ave has a few stellar shops for jewelry repair. Fair price, your husband would approve.”
…..The bank teller frowns. “It was my necklace,” she pauses, “but thank you.”
…..The meter is gratified at the corner of Henderson and Richmond.
…..The moon is all the city can see, yet it rarely looks. The cabbie witnesses the murderer shuffling down the street. They aren’t wet like last night and it is seductively warm. In defiance, the murderer holds his jacket closed tight to his chest. He opens the door. How many of these do I have left? The cabbie thinks, blindly fishing out a cigarette.
…..Watch. 1:49 AM, this will be the last.
…..“Kingston and Pacific.”
…..The murderer gets into the cab. The cabbie reaches back with the pack of cigarettes.
…..“Smoke?” he asks with an exhale.
…..The murderer breathes heavily with the motion. Still, he takes one and picks up a loose matchbook from the seat. He leans deeper into the corner and lights. Using the window, the murderer reads the matchbook’s establishment. He concludes that it is some kind of club.
…..“Actually, Knox and Henderson.”
…..“Oh yeah? You a drinker or a musician?”
…..The murderer, normally silent, decides to play along.
…..“Neither, but the wind’s changed direction,” he says, blowing out smoke.
…..The cabbie felt he was lying, but smiles anyway. He turns on the next street, right. Is it wrong to tell him?
…..“You can catch me tomorrow,” he says. “The ivories.”
…..The murderer’s eyes shone black, unbeknown to the cabbie.
…..“Yeah? Any good?”
…..“I’d have to be pretty bad to say no.”
…..The murderer laughs. “Sure, I’ll try to make it.”
…..The cabbie left him in the moonlight.
…..Rays broke the crest of the thin, green curtains and shown white where they missed the wave. To describe the day noises of a city as music is uninspired, though it is deserved in the light of this morning.
…..A childish dirge.
…..Watch. 9:23 AM, shit.
…..The pianist can’t fall back asleep, probably due to the knocking. The door opens to the waitress. She had been standing there for nearly two minutes after the pianist replied, and knocking for four.
…..“How many drinks did you have last night, Harry?”
…..“What, you worried there’s none left for you?”
…..“It isn’t even 10 o’clock!”
…..“Never stopped your ol’ man.” The pianist shot back, fixing a pot of coffee.
…..The waitress paused. “There is no need for that.”
…..“For coffee? You don’t want some?” He smiles, “‘It’s not even 10 o’clock!’”
…..The waitress frowns. “I would. Cream, three sugars.”
…..“You know I don’t keep that.”
…..It was silent except for the gentle sound of the gas stove. The pianist clears off a card chair, deep olive green and stiff. The waitress sits. The record is flipped.
…..“Why are you here?”
…..“In New York or in your awful chair?” she asks looking up at him.
…..The pianist pours their coffee, giving himself something extra. He doesn’t have to work today. “I figure one answer will satisfy both questions.”
…..Taking a sip, she nods. Her eyes fall on the white light on the hard oak floors. “I got a job,” she says looking back at him, “Nolte’s on Park?”
…..“A diner…” he smiles, “I never could’ve pictured you doing that when we met.”
…..The waitress sips her coffee.
…..“So… that means you’re moving here?”
…..“Yes, clearly.” She reaches into her chestnut pocketbook for her cigarettes. The pianist leans over with his own lighter.
…..He flicks it several times without it catching.
…..“It’s all right. I can take care of it myself.”
…..“Yeah, of course.”
…..The amiable music brushes roughly with the choppy conversation, enhancing the unease. The pianist stands against the wall. In between sips he can smell the waitress’s perfume and it makes the pianist wish that he didn’t need the coffee. She used to not wear perfume. She smelled of lavender conditioner and hairspray. That scent used to make the pianist not want to put the top down.
…..“Just leaving behind Jersey?”
…..“That, and other things,” she replies, exhaling. “You did.”
…..The coffee handles gave them both something to hold on to besides the past. She ashes into a chipped diner saucer. The waitress never smoked when she knew him. She never knew how he felt about her doing so. The waitress no longer cares.
…..“You never answered my question.” The pianist says, setting his coffee down on the counter, firing up the stove to a cigarette, “Or both of them, rather.” He smiles at her.
…..Seeing the pianist, the waitress stamps out her cigarette and sets her finished coffee on the table. “I needed a change, leave behind what I was back home.” She stands, fixing her skirt and complexion. “I thought you should know I was moving here, at the very least.”
…..“Do you need some money? I don’t got much bu-”
…..The pianist looks her over, ashing his cigarette into the empty coffee cup in his hand. The record ends and the waitress moves her arm to stop it completely.
…..With a smile, “Let’s go get some food, huh?”
…..“I have work.”
…..“Well, dinner later.”
…..“I have an appointment.”
…..The pianist nods. The city echoes the childless youth. The street outside is full of cars and people, the honks and hollers of day. She stares at the light on the floor boards, arching now. The arch is a crescent moon, white and long like the hills across the valley of the Ebro. She sighs and the pianist fully registers the disassociation.
…..They are stuck in the silence. His hands ache.
…..I’m sorry, Julia.
…..After a warm shower, the pianist dried his body in the aging sunlight of the room. He smoked, lounging to various records from Peggy Lee to Lee Dorsey. The chipped diner saucer rested on his stark chest. There was filtered cigarette swimming amongst the peppery ash and the pianist’s own butts. There was magenta tattooed against it.
…..Watch. 6:07 PM, whatever.
…..There was not much to do for 7 hours, or to drink for about 2, so the pianist walked the street for a payphone. He was not looking so much for a payphone but rather someone to call. The pianist couldn’t think of any numbers, much less a person so he put the receiver on the hook and looked out across the street to the park. In the park, the pianist saw the lawyer eating, the pilot smoking, and the pedophile walking the bernese mountain dog. The pianist frowned and continued looking for a payphone.
…..Watch. 7:13 PM, rain, or drizzle, I suppose.
…..The diner was warm. The kitchen was old and produced heat that infected the whole restaurant, sticking to surfaces like a thin sheet of cooling wax. The cook wore only an undershirt and slacks. The patrons pat their brows. Summer in the city was cruel, where the winter was at least apologetic in its crimes. The coffee was cold.
…..The pianist loomed over a plate of steak and eggs. The steak was half eaten and the yolk was ripped. It ran slowly, polluting the white of the plate with it’s warm yellow. The pianist smoked. I like Nolte’s more than this shithole.
…..Watch. 8:26 PM, off on Knox.
…..The air in the club was dense, full of things beyond the smoke. When the burlesque dancers perform to rudimentary jazz played by jaded musicians, thick lust crosses throughout the space tailed by desperation, insecurity, and loneliness. In the early morning, the musicians of hope dispel their perversions of the classics or their own derivative material through the infinitely faint scent of prominent apathy that hangs in the crowd or at the bar. On stage, the whiff is a stench and the performers excrete the odor of anxiety with their fumes of liquor.
…..The pianist sits at the bar as the dancer finishes wafting broken passion in his direction from the other room. He sits alone. The patrons, all inside the showroom, clap and whistle. He looks at his reflection.
…..“I think I owe you a cigarette, cabbie.”
…..The voice came from behind him. The pianist sees the murderer extending an arm in the mirror. He takes a cigarette.
…..“You’re a little early for my set.”
…..The murderer looks at the bartender as he takes his seat, “Johnnie Walker, rocks.” He turns back to the pianist, “Well,” leaning forward to light the gift, “I’m not going to stay too long, I’ve got my eye on Charlize up there.” The dancer had just begun, opening with a dark purple feather boa coiled around her neck to the tune of “New York, New York.”
…..“Ha, good luck.”
…..“I hear she likes Jews.”
…..The men laugh.
…..“I’m David, by the way.”
…..Still smiling, the pianist shakes his hand, “Harry. What’d you do, Davey?”
…..“I was in the war, but now it’s just the mail.”
…..“Ah, I figured we had something in common.”
…..Smiling, “The delivery kind, yes.”
….. “Yeah, well,” the murderer takes the drink, “at least you have people to talk to.”
….. “At least you don’t.”
….. The men laugh again. The music continues to pop as the dancer sheds the black, veil-like, translucent dress that she wore out onto stage, exposing shining, satin undergarments. The boa wraps her inner thigh and moves between her breasts from the neck where it began.
….. “So, Harry, what are you playing tonight?”
….. The pianist lets loose a long sigh, “No clue, at this rate some hackneyed shit my sax wrote.”
….. “You write at all?”
….. “Nah, I just know what to play and improvise when I feel it.”
….. The dancer has allowed the boa to stream itself down her front, through her legs and up her back, only to convolute around to her front. The music has dozed off into a crawl of what it was.
…..The murderer nods.
…..The silence between the men grows as the song throbs. The instruments are like a dying heart, pumping the sound with intensity but very slowly. The boa has draped itself around the shoulders of the dancer, submitting to her will rather than its own. The dancer relinquishes her breasts from the front-open clasp of the satin and tassels battle each other for a synchronized direction. She walks backwards and, with a wink, goes behind the curtain as the instruments flatline. Whistles and claps.
…..“Well, if I ever need a ride to the airport, I’ll call you.”
…..“And if I ever need a smoke…”
…..The murderer laughs.
…..“If you want to grab a drink later after I’m done with Mrs. Blue-Eyes up there, I’ll be at the bar.” He smiles greedily, “What a doll.”
…..The pianist pushes his cigarette into the ashtray and massages his knuckles.
…..Watch. 1:40 AM, thank christ we have a bassist tonight.
…..The band is on stage. The bassist leans against a stool, tuning the instrument. The drummer sits, rubbing in the sticks against each other slowly as if he was sharpening a knife. The alto stands pensive, looking across the stage at the piano.
…..The pianist arches over and begins the main measures of “Satin Doll.”
…..The keys whittle the silk smoke to a point and drives it through the beating heart of levity in the room. The notes are labored and slow, but not tedious, like the tears of a woman or child. The bass begins to bounce, joylessly full of emotion. The soft hitting of the high-hat with the brush would normally carry a buoyant mood in combination with the light tapping of the crash cymbal, but it does not. The rhythm that the drums present with the bass smells of melancholy and nostalgia. The piano falls back, the song is all percussion and rhythm to back the low crying of the feminine alto. At first, it is the same as the piano’s gentle and subtle tears, hidden by averted eyes and cigarettes. But these actions cannot conceal emotion for more than a few measures. The result is a Darwinian evolution, or devolution, into primal weeping as the alto progresses forward. All the playful sexuality is absent from the song, there is only regret.
…..Across the showroom, there is a face and the pianist sees it. It is not his time to shine so he basks in the light of the waitress, staring at him. He smiles.
…..The alto dies out into a whimper and the pianist begins to inch into the spotlight. He is gentler and the band follows suit, with only the drummer playing slowly. The air sinks into the Earth until the smoke freezes, holding there in between the warmth of the sun and the core. The pianist looks back to the waitress. She sits in her uniform, filter in mouth, staring back at him. The pianist continues delicately, growing in volume and hitting a key sharply at random, creating unease. The alto plays softly, away from a microphone. The bass jumps back in for a small solo which is followed by the crushing blow of all the instruments playing in sorrow. Playing the last five notes with the pianist, the alto then falls off with the rest to allow for the pianist to hit the final note.
…..The audience erupts.
…..Harry looks at Julia.
…..A loathing peace.
Jack Tasker grew up just outside Charlotte, North Carolina. He attended Loyola University Chicago for journalism and creative writing, and now spends his time trying not to talk about himself — often failing miserably.
Listen Charlie Haden’s Quartet West play a 1988 recording “Live Your Dreams” (featuring Haden on bass, Alan Broadbent on piano, Ernie Watts on tenor, and Lawrence Marable on drums