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Piano Bar Blues (Last Night at the Capri Motor Lodge)
Stephanie Black – Santa Monica College – 1989
THE CAPRI MOTOR LODGE PRESENTS BALENTINA THINRIDGE AT THE PIANO BAR FOR YOUR LISTENING ENJOYMENT. Imagine some poor bastard having to fit all those letters onto a teeny little board like this. What a way to make a buck. Balentina Thinridge indeed! The name was born late one night when my friend David had taken one too many hits off the pipe. I’d been reading him my poetry. What I’d said was, “I’m balancing on a thin ridge. “But David had heard it as “I’s Balentina Thinridge.” From that night on that’s who I was. I finished scrutinizing the sign and took a long drag off my cigarette. I stuffed it into a potted plant and Look off across the lobby. Someone told me once that I had the gait of a truck driver. I like to think I’m just assertive. Except I wish this damn cocktail dress weren’t so tight.
My watch said five of eight. The sun was down and the lounge lizards were beginning to crawl out from under their rocks. Soon there would be an entire bar filled with the little buggers. Time Lo go to work. You haven’t really worked as an entertainer until you can say you’ve survived the piano bar circuit in western Canada. The Capri Motor Lodge is in Red Deer, Alberta, located be tween the cities of Edmonton and Calgary. It’s a haven for traveling salesmen.
It’s like every other bar I’ve ever known. The walls are papered in red and gold fuzzy stuff. The booths are padded with fake leather, and each round table with its cheap veneer top is graced by a solitary red candle in a fishnet bowl. Even though the light is dim, there is no concealing the fact that the place is a dive.
Actually, Red Deer is a cut above the last place I worked, that being a memorable engagement at the trailer court in Medicine Hat, Alberta. The bar there was supposed to resemble an old rail road car. Every night for three weeks I played a piano that was hoisted on top of a platform that resembled a loading dock. I got as loaded as I could get up there.
Red Deer, Medicine Hat … it was all the same, cheap and ugly. I was so excited when I found this booking agent who said he’d keep me work ing that I failed to ask one very important ques tion: Where?
When I hit the bar 1 raised the lid of the baby grand and ran my fingers over the keys. “God dammit, Jack, you were supposed to get this thing tuned.” At this point of my career, why should this surprise me? A musician expecting the god damn piano to be in tune. Are my expectations too high or what?
Brian came into the bar carrying a tray of clean glasses. “Who ya yelling at, Bali?” he said.
I know I shouldn’t yell. People think you’re crazy but I’ve been getting fed up for awhile. See, first of all there was the room that my agent said was part of the deal. It’s in the basement of the Capri, next to an ice machine that grinds away at my nerves and whatever sleep I’m able to get. This part-of-the-deal room is also across the hall from the Capri Conference and Banquet Room, where on any given morning I wake up to the sounds of applause from the Businessmen’s Beef Board or the local Elksmen Association. The last thing I need is to be woken up by a group of men who’ve named themselves after animals with fuckin’ horns! Sometimes I drink a little Southern Com fort before bed, and I just don’t need this kind of stuff first thing in the morning. It makes me want to puke. There was one morning that I couldn’t go back to sleep, so I ordered breakfast. I’m half asleep and trying to pick up the breakfast tray outside my door with one hand and hold my bathrobe shut with the other. Now, one of those Beefman or Elksman or something ogles me that morning. He makes these smacking noises with his lips and gives me a look. Then he mouths, “I want you.” I’m supposed to be real turned on or something by this moron. So, I mouth “fuck you” back to him. Now, even though this asshole is on me like a cheap suit, he goes and tells the Capri management. And management comes back and tells me that my behavior is out of line. “Come on, you guys, this is the fucking Capri,” I told them, but management didn’t get the joke. One day I’m gonna clean up my act, but those assholes should have to clean up theirs, too. What’s a lady supposed to do to defend herself, anyway? If you act real sweet and never swear or anything, they still try and take advantage of you. And if you assert yourself and put these guys in their places, then you’re not being a lady. Well, fuck ‘cm if they can’t take a joke. I am a lady, and I wouldn’t have ogled that Beefman or whatever he was. Anyway, it’s just one more thing.
I sat down at the piano, cursing Jack’s lack of musical aesthetics. What do I care if the piano’s in tune tonight? This is my last night anyway. This is gonna be my last night ever as a performer.
I like Duke Ellington the best of any composer, so I usually start out the set with him. The Duke’s like the king of a court made up of Hoagy Carmichael, Frank Lessor, and Fats Waller. I shoulda been born in the 20s so I could sing the blues. I have this frequent fantasy, sort of like a reoccur ring dream. I’m in this great little jazz club in Chicago, and I’m wearing a long slinky gown and singing in a smoky room. I’m backed by a sexy sax, a hot bass player, and Buddy Rich. I’m like this white Billy Holiday, only I play piano, too.
Brian strolled over and sweetened my brandy snifter with a few ones and a five. “That’s ten ya owe me, kid,” he said as he walked away. I like Brian. He bounded a guy’s head off a tire for me one night. It was this traveling salesman who wasn’t going to take no for an answer. He’d tipped me ten bucks to play some Peggy Lee tune for him. Then when I go out to the parking lot to be alone for a few, the guy’s all over me, telling me how he’s never met anybody so talented, and he bets I have other talents, too. He tries to plant a big wet one on me, and I pushed him away. Then he’s on me, pinning my hands to the wall, saying stuff like he knows I’m feisty and don’t I like what he’s doing. I don’t scare too easy, but I was real scared, and I started screaming my head off. That brought Brian to the rescue. Brian used to be a hockey player. He told me he’d never lost a fight on skates. Well, he didn’t lose this fight, either. Before I knew what happened, Brian pulls the guy off me and throws him down on the ground in a head lock next to a car. Suddenly, the guy’s head is rebounding off the tire like a fuckin’ trampoline. When I think about it, Brian is probably the only person who ever tried to protect me a little bit. Not that I can’t handle myself. It just felt sort of nice to have someone be a friend like that. He’s a real gentleman.
“Thanks, shweetheart. Ya made my whole friggin’ night.” I always tell Brian that when he puts bills in my brandy snifter. I tell him in my best Bogie voice. Some of the bar’s patrons don’t know that it’s a nice gesture to tip a musician when you request something. Some of the patrons have gestures alright rude gestures-and they aren’t the kind who put money in the tip jar. Anyway, Brian hipped me to sweetening the pot. The way it works is every night before I start singing he takes a few bills and puts them in the brandy snifter on the piano so it looks like people arc tipping me. When the bar has a real good night Brian lets me keep the ten bucks, but I always try to give it back. “Keep it, kid. Ya earned it,” Brian tells me. With all I put up with around here, I suppose that’s true.
Considering that the Capri Motor Lodge is the only restaurant and bar within thirty miles, it’s not surprising that there’s a full house every night. The bar has its regulars. You know, truck drivers, salesmen and more salesmen, and a few local women. And we’re not talk.in’ Harriet Nelson types. But I only see and hear the people who actually sit around the piano. The rest of them arc a dull curtain of sound made up of clinking glasses and faithless propositions.
Mr. Guy sashayed over to the piano bar and pulled up a stool. You can always recognize Mr. Guy. He’s balding but combs his hair over his head to conceal the fact. His pants are too short, and he only wears synthetics, usually plaid. He always smells like too much cheap cologne. This last fact helps because if you don’t see Mr. Guy coming, you can smell him.
“Hi there, beautiful. You sure arc lookin’ good tonight. How ’bout if ol’ buddy boy buys You a drinkie,” says Mr. Guy, leaning on his elbow and giving me that look. I’m in the middle of this song, asshole, I want to say, and you’re not gonna make me screw it up.
“No, thank you.” Not that “no, thank you” ever works with these guys. Most of the time they can’t hear what you’re saying because they have their cocks stuck in their cars.
“What?” said Mr. Guy. “No drinkie for my girl?” That proves it: the Mr. Guys of the world are going deaf.
“Why don’t you put your thumb in your ear and go bowling, buddy boy.”
With this last bit of witty repartee, Mr. Guy slaps his hand down on the piano and sloshes half of his drink on the surface and down to the keyboard. No wonder the goddamn thing won’t stay in tune.
“Watch it, angel.” I really want to tell him what an asshole he is, but “angel” is more ladylike, and, besides, this is gonna be my last night, so I’ll dispense with the profanity. “You’re funny, baby. 01′ buddy boy likes a gal with a sense of humor.” While he continued to guffaw, I picked another song. Please God, not tonight, not my last night. Let me have something more to take with me.
See, I’ve been a musician all my life. It runs in the family. What l remember about my dad, aside from the fact that he was always drunk, was that he played great rhythm and blues. We didn’t talk too much. Most of the time he slurred his words so bad I couldn’t understand him anyway. But through the music, that’s how 1 knew him. He told me he loved me through the music. When I was little, I wanted to learn to play everything that he played. I guess that’s how I told him that I loved him, too. It’s sort of screwy, though, because we never said the words to each other. People should says the words “I love you” so that you know for sure. I mean, I know and every thing, but he died when I was sixteen, and I wish I would have told him. I dropped out of school right after he died, and I’ve been gigging in bands and bars ever since. But this is the last night. I swear it. See, I have this plan. I’m not going to tell anyone. I’m just gonna do it. I’m gonna go to school. I know that I’ll die of liver disease just like my dad if I keep hangin’ out in these damn piano bars. Besides, they’re too dark, and they make you lonely. I used to think it was the sad songs that made me feel that way, but it’s not. It’s the bar and the people who keep coming back to hear the sad songs. I already drink too much Southern Comfort from time to time.
I watched this T.V. show once where this girl escapes into books. So, I got this idea, and I started to read a lot. You can find great paperbacks at the airport and bus stations: Judith Krantz and Daniel Steel, and this lady, Jackie Collins. Collins is a real sophisticated writer. She’s Joan Collins’ sister. You know, Joan from the T.V. show “Dynasty.” Anyway, I read this entire series of books called Harlequin Romances once. There was this story about a beautiful psychologist who goes around helping people and making their lives better. It gave me an idea. I listen to a lot of shit from people sitting at a piano bar. You know, people get real loose lipped when they’ve had too much to drink. Anyway, I listen real well, and I give pretty good advice, too, so I think I’d be a real good shrink. No one has to know about my plan. I’ll just go off somewhere and find a school. I mean, I know that I didn’t finish high school or anything, but there are tests and things you can take.
Maybe when I was done, I’d go home and see my mom. I’d give her my degree and let her hang it on the wall. She’s not a very happy person, but she’d like that, I know. I’d be Balentina Thinridge, Ph.D., famous shrink, and I’d be gorgeous, too, like the woman in the book. People tell me that I’m a looker. I don’t know. I think I’m okay. But if I was somebody who went to college and everything, I would be more beautiful. You know, like beautiful on the inside. I know that if l gave up Southern Comfort my eyes wouldn’t be so bloodshot, and I’d look better, too. Well, maybe not give it up completely. It provides some interesting insight, not to mention patience. It’s medicinal.
Mr. Guy leaned closer on his elbows. There’s always someone to interrupt your fantasy. Next to Mr. Guy, a young Dudley Dooright type was pulling up a chair. Oh, those Canadian boys.
“Excuse me, ma’am,” said Dudley. Why do they always interrupt? What do they think I am, a goddamn jukebox?
“What would you like to hear?” He seemed like a nice enough kid, barely old enough to have an i.d. for this place. I don’t recall anyone ever calling me ma’am before. Jesus, I’m only twenty-six myself.
When I started to play Fats Waller I saw Dudley out of the corner of my eye putting a dollar bill into the brandy snifter. That’s sweet. So, now what’s the kid doing? Fishing around to retrieve change? Fortunately, there is no silver in the bowl. My God, he was taking back his dollar. Men are such dogs. I got Cyclc-4 on the right of me and Puppy Chow on the left.
By midnight I’ve usually kicked back a few Southern Comforts and smoked half a pack of Winstons. The combination of drink and smoke gives my voice a good jazzy rasp. The bar quiets down about now, and so do I. Sometimes I get lost in the haze of the drink and the music, and I think this isn’t so bad.
I pulled out an old Hoagy Carmichael song called “I Get Along Without You.” l get along without you very well, except when soft rain falls and drips from leaves, then I recall. How will I get along without the music every night? Somewhere in side is this softer version of me. There’s this really beautiful woman who’s smart and who people respect. I’m not gonna die of some liver disease. No, I’m gonna go to college and be somebody. But I get along without you very well. I sing because music makes my life worth something. lt gives it some value. But I keep feeling like I missed something. 1 really think I want to go to school and be important, be respected. No more fending off the Mr. Guys of the world.
Maybe I could go back to Karen White. That’s my real name, before Balentina. But I like Balentina Thinridge because she’s still trying to balance on the ridge.
A smattering of embarrassing applause broke the spell. I wish people wouldn’t clap. It takes me away from my dreams and reminds me that I’m just living inside my head in some bar in Red Deer.