Philip Marlowe & The Piano Man Case
Sing us a song, Piano Man.
Saturday night at the bar and the clock on the wall said nine, if you who were that type who believed in those sort of things. I watched some more people shuffle in. You could tell they were regulars by the thirst in their eyes. The gin-blossoms on some of their faces were bright enough to stop a clock and I got the feeling that it might have been nine o’ clock Saturday night in this place forever, with the same song playing over and over again. Something didn’t sound right.
La la la, di da da, La la, di da da da dum, I thought to myself. I figured I’d probably be thinking it again, soon. It was a song I had heard before. I couldn’t refrain myself from thinking that The Piano Man had hooked himself. That was the thing about life, we were all playing solo and even if we crossed the bridge, life would make you sing. We were all in the chorus, one way or another.
I kept the Piano Man in the corner of my eye. He was pretty keyed up. Sometimes you could figure out a lot more things on a case if you didn’t look straight at them. Next to him was an old man having the kind of love affair with his gin and tonic that a G.I. had on his last night before being shipped out. No one likes to see anything that undignified. The old guy’s memory was all played out, same old song. There was a lot of that going around these days. I heard him saying something about some younger man’s clothes. I filed away the lost clothes for later because you never knew where you might find a percentage and I liked to play them.
I watched the bartender, just your regular old John. He gave The Piano Man a drink and I didn’t see any money change hands and I made a note of that. He seemed to think it was some kind of joke but there was no joking about the fact that nothing was free in this damned life. One way or another we all paid. The Piano Man might be playing them but I’ll be damned if he was playing me. I knew the score.
I head the barman say something about killing or suicide or murder. Something was killing him and it might have been himself or it might have been this place. No wonder he wanted to be out of this place. Who didn’t, I thought, Johnny-boy, but it’s not like we’re all going to hot-foot it out to Hollywood and get our faces up there on the big screen. Life wasn’t like the flicks. Then John reached in his pocket real quick and I got ready for trouble but he was just lighting a smoke. They were all getting lit. He was quite a joker, that John. I watched the stench of unrealized dreams swirl around aimlessly like the cheap cigarette smoke.
I looked into my glass and pretended not to listen to a couple other guys sitting around. One of them was some sort of real estate novelist but I didn’t see any property value in that book and I wasn’t buying it. He didn’t have a wedding ring so I guessed he didn’t have a wife, either, but who could find the time for that, anyway. The other was clearly military. I had him pegged for Navy, probably a lifer, with nothing waiting at the end but Davy Jone’s locker. Maybe he hoped The Piano Man had the key but it didn’t sound likely to me. The Piano Man’s keyboard might have been all decked out in black and white, but it added up to lots of gray, if you asked me. No one did.
Then trouble walked in disguised as a waitress practicing politics. It was a pretty good disguise, too, but I saw right through it. I thought I might give her a tip: leave the politics to the businessmen, sweetheart. They have the equipment for it. It took a whole heap of green-backed dead presidents to play that political game and there weren’t many winners.
It was a lonely room filled up with a bunch of lonely people and they were all sharing the same drink. I guess you could call it loneliness but it was sad sorry name for a drink, I thought, wryly. Mine was Rye. You could find loneliness on most menus, but not Rye.
Saturday night and it was a pretty good crowd, I guessed. Leastways, they seemed like they were all in the mood for a melody and he was playing their song. Literally. The whole song was about them, whether they noticed it not. Stick around in this business long enough and you get to see why some folks don’t like to look in the mirror.
Seemed like The Piano Man was making them feel all right. At least that’s what he said they said. I saw the manager toss a smile over towards The Piano Man. They were in it together up to their necks and everyone could see it. You could trick yourself into forgetting about dear old life for a while but you had damned well not forget about death. There was one long, cold big sleep out there waiting for all of us in the end and it was a long goodbye, if you cared to say it. Most didn’t have what it took when it came time to face the music.
The piano made me think of a carnival that I’d been trying to avoid my whole life. I watched The Piano Man spit some words and some beer into his cheap microphone and it gave off a bad smell and you could tell he was tired of it, too, and not for the first time.
I wasn’t much in the mood for the melody of the song that was playing that night but I guess I was different than most people because I saw a few of them slip some dough into his jar, like a housewife in the suburbs putting bread in an oven.
I kept my eyes on that Piano Man. I wondered what he was doing there but then everybody had to be someplace. I would keep on the case because it seemed like the kind of song that might just play forever and forever is a damned long time, Piano Man, and trouble is my business.
La la la, di da da, La la, di da da da dum. I’ll find out just what you were doing here, Piano Man.
If you’re hot on the trail of more good music gone bad, track down:
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