Piano man plays pristine standards among plywood and pliers


He blithely ran through "Für Elise" as the adjacent moving ramp carried shoppers to the plumbing section on the second floor. His black-lacquered baby grand stood in stark contrast to customers' metal carts filled with paint cans, rollers, tarps, flush valve kits, and garden supplies.

He had struggled mightily in recent years to make a living playing an instrument he loved. He told himself not to be embarrassed by this first paid gig of the summer.

"Can you get bathroom light fixtures in plumbing?" asked a middle-aged women.

He looked up and saw a face marked with perspiration. His eyes focused on the sloppy application of lipstick that had resulted in rose coloring slipping asymmetrically toward her nostril.

"I don't know where much of anything is, ma'am," he replied, his fingers not breaking stride. "You'll need to ask Menards staff."

He switched to the bright and lively "Don't Get Around Much Anymore," his fingers dancing fluidly over the ivories. He ignored the announcement overhead addressing special pricing on laminate flooring, and he kept his eyes on the keys.

"Hey, could I play something?" asked a man coming down the moving ramp. "I know the 'Wedding March.'"

"Sorry, not allowed to let customers play."

"Do you sing?"

"No vocals, sir, just instrumentals."

He refocused on his fingers, pretending to be miles from hardware customers, playing instead at some hotel lounge in Manhattan. He imagined a sultry Brazilian woman seated nearby, following the D7, G7 to the C and nodding approvingly.

A recorded voice broke his reverie, warning those on the conveyor belt to "face forward" and "keep feet away from the sides." Customers with baby strollers were instructed to take the elevator.

He opened up sheet music from Porgy and Bess and tried drowning out the "Save Big Money" jingle wafting above the aisles.

His mood shifted. The gig was money, but frustration was setting in.

"Excuse me, do you take requests?"

He kept his head down this time. "No ma'am. I have a set list I'm asked to stick to."

"It's my husband's birthday. He'll be coming by shortly. He's wearing a blue fishing cap and brown corduroys. Could you play a few bars of 'Happy Birthday,' just to surprise him?"

"I'm sorry ma'am, Menards has rules."

He listened to yet another announcement, this time a special on window treatments. The fluorescent lights washed the warmth from the spruce wood soundboard.

He switched to "Summertime," allowing his mind to carry him off to a Southern field, near a brook, in the shade of an old hickory where the living was easy. He imagined a warm Georgia breeze caressing his hands, the sound of babbling water erasing the nasal tone of a woman scolding her toddler nearby.

"You got a tip jar, buddy?"

He didn't want to open his eyes, but relented. The man standing beside him wore orange suspenders and held a $5 bill.

"I'm not allowed to take tips. Thanks just the same."

Behind him a sheet of plywood fell off a cart and slammed to the bare floor as an old man cussed. A Menards employee, racing over to help, dropped a tape measure, which slid under the pedals of the baby grand.

The musician stopped abruptly and pounded his fist atop the piano.

"This is ridiculous!" he shouted. "I can't do this. This is an absolutely untenable situation. I cannot play under these conditions."

Shoppers stopped and stared. The Menards employee looked around for his manager. The old man spoke up.

"Oh, quit bitching. It was an accident. If that's going to throw off your afternoon, play piano at home."

The piano player felt tears welling in his eyes. He noticed the shoppers staring, and he raced from the piano toward the automatic doors, emerging into the afternoon sunlight. His breathing was shallow, his rage deep. He lit a cigarette and walked to the far end of the parking lot, loosening his tie and running his hand through his graying hair.

He tried to recall the good days, in Jersey, playing Charlie's Thursdays and Saturdays.

He remembered his roommate's girlfriend, how she'd sing with him on her nights off. Some evenings they could leave a crowd spellbound with "I Got It Bad and That Ain't Good."

The lyrics moved through his mind now, as he turned around to walk back inside. Blessedly, he never saw the Menards lumber truck accelerate into his path, taking him to fate's next gig.