Sam pushed through the doors of the bar and went for the chair nearest the bathroom. The bartender nodded and slid a drink down to him along the polished counter, the glass hitting Sam’s hand just as the piano player started banging out a honky-tonk tune on an old black piano in the corner. The piano player was rake-thin, and wore large shades that covered a lot of surface area around the eyes. A bird perched on the piano as he played, an ugly thing with a ragged beak and dirty brown feathers. It squawked along to the tune every few beats.
“Evenin’ Billy,” Sam said to the bartender, “how’s tricks?”
Billy gestured at the empty bar with both hands, then shrugged.
“You’d probably get more people in if you didn’t have that racket going on.”
Billy nodded, and poured himself a glass of some brown liquid from under the counter.
“I’ve thought of that,” he said as he raised the glass to his lips, “but I feel sorry for old Jeremy. His family was good to mine way back when, I feel like I owe him.”
The song finished, and a new one started up, something bluesy. The pianist started singing along, a soulful sound, interspersed with the caws of the bird.
“I mean,” Sam said, “he’s not half-bad himself. It’s that damn bird. What kind of vaudeville shit is that?”
Billy looked around, theatrically checking the empty bar for eavesdroppers before he leaned in close to Sam.
“I never told you the story about that, did I?”
Sam shook his head. Billy’s face was serious, almost as serious as when Sam had seen him bury his wife, all those years ago.
“Old Jeremy there, he was one of the best musicians these parts ever produced. And you know that’s saying something.”
Sam nodded and took a drink.
“Played with all the big names,” Billy continued, “from here to the coast. Never did catch a break, though. He was always the guy that stood in, the one they feature in tiny letters way down the bottom of the label, y’know? Those others, they went on to great things. Fame, and fortune, and pretty people that just can’t wait to jump your bones.”
“Hell, I wouldn’t mind some of that action. Never could sing, though, except for maybe at some wedding with an empty bottle in front of me.”
“Even then, you couldn’t,” Billy replied, and they both chuckled.
The bird cawed at them, shrill and loud, and Jeremy cocked his head as he played. He changed the song, something quick yet with lots of sad notes, and the bird opened its wings once and shifted around on its perch before settling.
“Well, Jeremy up there, he done wrote half of those number one hits those people had, if you can believe it. He’d play with them into the night, and they’d change a few things around and bam! They were on their way to the big time. He used to say it didn’t bother him, that things just went that way sometimes,” Billy said, then muttered, “but if you ask me, I think it soured him a little inside.”
“I’d well believe it.”
“So, Jeremy would come back to town after a month or two of playing with these folk, and he’d hang out here and play a tune or have a drink, and he’d seem alright with his lot. Used to say that his chance would come around, when it was time.
Then he started seeing Madame Fontenot’s daughter.”
Sam’s voice dropped to a whisper.
“The old voodoo woman? He shacked up with her kin?”
Billy nodded, and Sam blew disbelieving air out between pursed lips as he shook his head. He half-turned and snatched a look at Jeremy, who was playing with his head back, appearing to look at the spot where the wall met the sloped ceiling. The bird stared right at Sam, and he faced forward again, a quick shiver passing through him.
“Anyways,” Billy continued, “they was together a while, and all seemed well. They would step out together on the town sometimes, and he would play a tune or seven if he was so inclined, writing beautiful songs on the spot for the girl. Leticia, if I remember right. Fine-looking woman, she was. Used to wear a small glass eye on a chain around her neck. People said it was a charm, and that it would make men dream of her and such. Although the way she looked, men tended to call her to mind in the night regardless.”
Sam shook his head again.
“I don’t care how good she looked,” he whispered, “I wouldn’t lay with no daughter of Madame Fontenot, no sir. Not worth the trouble.”
“Never say never, Sammy. She had a way about her. Wouldn’t matter no how, anyway, as they was involved too much in each other. So much so, that on his thirtieth birthday, Leticia convinced her mother – or maybe she did it herself, who knows – to give him a special gift. She gave him that bird.”
As if on cue, the bird squawked loudly enough that both men at the bar winced. Jeremy started to play a song that sounded half classical and half love ballad, and he crooned along with words that weren’t really words. They were more like sounds that had been given meaning by the music, and the bird started to crow in a ghastly duet, like it was mocking the pianist’s song.
Sam looked at Billy, his mouth hanging open.
“Don’t seem like no gift to me,” he said eventually, his eyes widening as he realized he had spoken louder than he intended. He stole another look at the corner, but Jeremy seemed not to have heard him.
“Wasn’t always like that,” Billy replied. “When she gave it to him, it was all beautiful colors, blues and reds and greens and yellows. There were some nights when men would swear that it changed colors as Jeremy played, but I never did see it m’self.
Used to sing too, a lovely sound. Both of them, singin’ together in harmony, I tell you, Sammy, you never heard anything as nice in your life.”
Sam gawped at the brown creature roosted on the piano.
“What the hell happened, then?”
“What do you think happened? He got famous, at least around these parts. People would come to see him and that bird, playing and singing together. The thing would perch up on his shoulder sometimes, other times it would fly around the room, or just sit up on the piano like it is now. The crowds would love it. You’d never see a place so quiet while they played, or how loud when they was cheerin’ for them.
Then, when Leticia wouldn’t be around as much, helping her mother when she was sick or something, women would make offers to Jeremy. I’m sure he turned them down at first, but you tell me how you would do every night, looking at fine young things promising a night of the down and dirty in exchange for a private concert. The man cracked under the pressure.”
Sam looked down, shook his head again, grabbed his drink and finished it off, and Billy poured them both another.
“I bet I can guess where this is going,” Sam said.
“I bet you can, but I’ll bet you double you won’t guess the whole thing.”
Sam looked up at him, expectant.
“Leticia found out, as she was bound to, one night in here. Put her thumb on his forehead, just once, over there by the door, and walked out into the night without a word. Jeremy went out after her, but she had disappeared. He was to play a show that night, big crowd, big money, so he came back inside and started to play.”
The music changed again, now dark and foreboding, minor notes and striking chords. The bird screeched along in time.
“Soon as he finished the first song, that damned bird up and pecked his eyes out.”
“Jesus,” Sam said in a choked whisper.
“Nothing to do with him. My money’s on the other fella.”
Both men crossed themselves, an automatic gesture.
“Jeremy told me another night, when he was drunk, that it flew back to him soon as he got home. Wouldn’t leave him be after that, every place he went. Couldn’t lose it, couldn’t trap it, couldn’t kill it. Now he plays a few tunes here, and people give what they can, to help him out.”
“Poor bastard,” Sam said.
He stayed for a few more songs, shaking his head every so often as he got drunker, while Billy moved silently up and down the bar.
As Sam stumbled out, he dropped a pile of notes in front of Billy and nodded towards Jeremy.
When he was gone, Billy slipped it into his pocket, and the bird’s caws were like laughter.
The Blue Ridge Project: A Novel
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