The music danced across the page as Red caressed the willing keys. The crowd swayed, entranced with their whiskeys and cigarettes. It was a slow number, about love or some other imaginary thing.
“Give ‘em hell, Red!” someone yelled.
And hell he gave ‘em. The sweet, hummingbird melody transformed into a hawk clawing its prey. The cymbals picked up, rode, and the bass walked for miles. The crowd put down their whiskeys for once in their lives and stood to dance along with the music, cigarettes still dangling from their lustful lips.
“Yeah, Red!” a young girl screamed. “Take us home!”
This was their haven from the working world, those lucky enough to even have a job. They were mostly middle aged, but a few of those artsy young’ins came in every so often. Half of them spent all day at the factories and the restaurants and the department stores. The other half would be on their way there after a few more numbers. They came to see Red play because a freedom rang from those keys, and he gave them drinks and a place to let loose. Red was their god, and he was a gracious one.
Red looked out over his congregation, his choir. He conducted them with his keys and what those keys sang, as if those keys were the very nerves in their bodies. They followed each cue – fast, slow, delicate, rugged. There was always perfect intonation and the harmonies were nothing but tight. They took the crescendo, hit the climax, and the thing was done. They cheered for their beloved conductor, fair deity, or whatever the hell, and went back to their whiskeys, right where they belonged, covered in sweat and satisfaction.
Red stood up from behind his instrument and approached the microphone in the middle of the stage. His smile was wide, and he appeared as a shining giant up there. The lights beamed around him and a suit so fine it seemed to have come right off the rack.
“Goddamn,” he said, and they cheered some more. “It’s another hot one in here tonight. You might say red hot.”
“Give us more fire, Red!” the same young thing yelled. “Burn us!”
“Sorry, honey, they must’a turned the AC up in this joint. I’m all burned out.”
Now the crowd moaned. Some boo’ed and others cursed, but it was all love. This was all they had.
“Come on, Red,” she pleaded. “We’re freezin’ out here!”
“Hey, hey, barkeep,” Red said, “a round’a drinks for the whole house on me. And I’ll see you backstage in five, little lady.”
He pointed at the young girl as the rest of the crowd cheered and the bartenders got to work. He nodded towards security to let the girl into his dressing room then made his own way back.
The smile was gone now as Red sat with his own whiskey, staring into the large mirror attached to the back of his vanity table. He never actually wore the makeup most of the performers caked on. He had too much pride. Still, he hated his old face. He looked at it in the mirror and followed each wrinkle with his eyes like little mazes that led to what once was. Each had its own story. He’d had a good and fortunate life, but something almost always seemed to weigh on him, especially as he got older. He couldn’t play like he used to, and he’d never felt like he played as well as he wanted to anyway. The women came and went often, but he wanted just one to stay, for once. A buffet is nice, but who doesn’t want prime rib? The people, that crowd out there, still loved him, but it was never enough to make him love himself. At least he still had them, though. At least he still had something to keep him going.
He finished his drink then emptied the rest bottle into his tobacco stained throat. It wasn’t enough. There never seemed to be enough when he needed it the most. Oh well, a piece of ass might end the night nicely. Of course, he’d feel like Jesus Christ leaving a whorehouse in hell afterwards, but so be it. He’d been doing this for years. Maybe she’d turn out to be the one. Maybe she’d be just another hole to stuff. Probably, she’d be just another hole to stuff. She looked young and wild. Maybe she’d give him a nice jump start, at least. Let’s hope this engine isn’t too rusted out.
He started packing his pipe when a knock came from the door. It was a quick, lively knock that certainly belonged to the mouse-like paw of that little girl. Red rose from his chair and his knees cracked and he let her in. The mouse comparison was a good one. She was all white: her skin and dress were about as creamy as a ghost floating around Antarctica. She was petite, to say the least, her head crowned with pale, potato salad, blonde hair barely reaching Red’s six foot chest. Her smile was enormous but the mass amounts of makeup barely allowed it show through. She was certainly trying to impress someone, though why some old, self-deprecating pianist, he wasn’t sure.
“Come on in, darlin’,” he said.
She sashayed in, her flirtatious eyes on his, and he closed the door behind her.
“They call me Red Plum.”
“Of course I know who you are. I’m Cynthia Davies. I always thought you had such a funny name for a man so well revered.”
They shook hands
“Ever heard of Dick Van Dyke?” he said.
She stared, confused.
“Before your time, I s’pose,” he said. “Anyway.”
He motioned towards a lounge chair in the corner of the room, and she sat down in it. He grabbed two beers out of the refrigerator across the room. He popped off the caps and held one out towards her.
“Beer?” she said.
“Nothin’ better. It certainly ain’t cream soda.”
“I’m not much of a beer drinker. ‘Cept for maybe Corona. The lime kind.”
He stared at her for a moment. Now he was the confused one.
“And what do you drink, then, sweetheart?” he said. “I got a bottle of wine around her somewhere, I’m sure.”
“Mostly vodka. The flavored kind.”
He smiled and set the bottles down on the end table by the chair.
“Good lord, you are young. I’ll see what I can do.”
He picked the phone up off the end table and dialed for the bartender. As he waited for an answer, he looked down at the mannequin that sat beneath him. Flavored vodka. What could be weaker? Woman or not, he was appalled.
“Red Room,” came from the phone.
“Eddie, it’s Red. Get a bottle of our best vodka sent to my dressing room. On ice with a clean glass. Make it something fruity.”
“Apparently there’s nothin’ better.” There was a silence. “It’s for the lady. What do you think I am?”
“Alright, you got it, boss.”
Red placed the phone back on the hook.
“Cigarette?” he said.
“Why not. I’m not too young to smoke.”
“Good. If you’d’ve turned it down, I’d’ve had to call your babysitter and make sure she knew you got outta your pen.”
He removed a platinum cigarette case from inside his jacket and handed her one. She set it between those deep, red lips, the only thing on her with any color, and he lit it for her. He took off his jacket and threw it next to his packed pipe on the vanity table. He pick up the pipe and dragged the table’s matching, wooden chair to face Cynthia. He had a seat and lit the pipe, puffed, moved the cherried leaves around a bit with the unburned part of the match and lit them again with another and puffed some more. He looked about as regal as a fine, retired race horse, always a winner its day. Cynthia stared on in admiration.
“Ya know,” she said, “you’re even more handsome in person. Especially with all that smoke floating around you.”
“Oh yeah?” he said with the pipe between his lips as he rolled his sleeves up. “In person as opposed to?…”
“My sister used to talk about you all the time. She’s a whole ten years older than me. She used to come home every night and go on and on about you and how you fingered those keys. She said you looked like Humphrey Bogart from those old movies.”
Jesus, he thought, Maltese only came out about 12 years before I was born.
He laughed a little as he lifted the bottle to his lips.
“Bogart, huh? Well, many women have praised my key fingering,” he said. “The white keys and the black.”
“Oh, so you’re one of those affirmative action types?”
“You’re far too young not to be. Why should I treat black folks any differently than I do folks that look like me? They created this music I’m supposedly so well known for, and like it or not, they created this country. I’ve got respect for them. And the women? My, my, they got such…soul.”
Red finished the first beer and reached for the second.
“I don’t play like I used to, though…” he said.
“I’d probably disagree.”
He raised his eyebrows as he emptied his pipe into the ashtray on the end table, and she gave that suggesting smile. When he didn’t react to it, she grimaced and crossed her arms.
“Geeze, it’s cold,” she said. “I guess you really did turn the AC on. Let me have another cigarette. And where’s that vodka?”
He handed her the whole case, and she lit one.
“It should be here any minute. Don’t think that vodka’s gonna help you, though. The AC is a marketing ploy. Right after you kids get all heated up from dancing, it gets cranked up. That’s when we sell our most top-shelf whiskey. Warms ya right up.”
“Well, a business man, too, huh?”
“Money makes the world go ‘round. Or at least pays for the electricity to fuel the merry-go-round axis it’s on.”
She laughed a little and puffed on the cigarette. Red finished the second beer as a knock came on the door. Red stood to open it. It was the bartender.
“Here ya are, boss,” he said.
Red slipped him a few bills and took the tray, which held and ice bucket cradling the bottle and two glasses.
“We’ll only need one glass,” Red said.
The bartender took a glass and noticed the girl sitting across the room. He smiled at Red and winked. Red shrugged his shoulders and shut the door. He placed the tray on the end table and poured the glass halfway, added a few ice cubes, then returned to his chair. Cynthia just continued to smoke and didn’t even glance at the drink.
“You don’t want it?” Red said.
“Not yet. This cigarette’s keeping me warm.”
She pulled up her dress a little and blew warm smoke on her surprisingly plump thighs. Then Red knew. He shot out of the chair.
“I’ll keep you warm, bitch,” he said.
He yanked her out of the chair by her cigarette arm. The cigarette hit the ground as he spun her around and roughly bent her over the chair. He threw his pants down and her dress up.
“Make it hot,” she moaned as he tore her panties off.
He rammed it in and she screamed. He couldn’t believe it actually got up, but he didn’t waist it and pushed and pushed. He got about 10 strokes in before he was empty. He pulled it out and pulled his pants up. Cynthia laughed as she dropped her dress back down. She turned and looked at the old man. His wrinkles blushed.
“Maybe it’s just too cold in here?” she said with a new kind of smile.
Red said nothing.
She picked up the glass and drained it in a single pull. She laughed again.
“Freezing,” she said.
She set the glass down and left the room. Red sat down wishing he had another whiskey. He put his head in his hands and looked at the floor. Next to the ripped panties on the ground was the cigarette still a bit red on the end. Then the red turned grey and stopped whispering melodious smoke. The song was over.