The Green Piano

After serving for five years in the Infantry and the Array Air Forces, MICHAEL ROSENE came out of the war a sergeant major determined to write. But his first short stories and the skeleton of his first novel, which were based on rear material, found no takers and in dismay he washed up on the Florida beach with the “status,”as he tells us, of “beach bum.”Then he got his second wind, which carried him to Mexico City, where for the past year and a half be has been writing part time, reading part time, and attending the Mexico City College.

A STORY

by MICHAEL ROSENE

I SPENT my last dime on a beer at Pete’s. What else can you do with a dime except give it to a poor man?

Beer is cheap in Pete’s back room, and the bartender wears an undershirt. There is sawdust on the floor. The place is built like a railroad flat, with the cocktail lounge on the street and the dive in the rear. In the middle is the businessman’s bar, and the bartender wears a clean white shirt and a black bow tie. He reads the financial news when trade is slow.

I made the beer last, but there are limits, so I swiped a few pretzels for supper and left. Big deals were cooking among the brief cases in the middle bar. I walked through it into the front one, where the bar boys wear monogrammed jackets and glossy hair to look nice for tourists who pay well for the spectacle. A beautiful dame was sitting on a stool breathing pink lady fumes across the walnut at Pancho.

“Hey, Pancho,” I said.

“Wait a minute, kid,” he replied.

The dame looked at me like I was a leper escaped from Carville. Clothes make the man.

Pancho followed me down the bar.

“Who’s the twist,” I asked, “Lily Langtry?”

Pancho is a Cuban boy with a kind heart. Me comes from my home town.

“Shhh,” he said, “she likes me. I get off at ten. It looks good, no ?”

“No,” I said, “it looks old enough to be your mother.”

“Not to me,”said Pancho. “Boy, is she fixed up!”

“You Latin lover,”I said.

Pancho grinned. “Smell that,”he said, holding out his sleeve. “I do nothing but talk to her and I already smell like Chanel No. 5.”

“You’re wrong,” I said, “that’s Vat 69. Adios, Panchito.”

“Wait a minute,” he said. “You need any dough, Danny?”

“No, I’m rich.”

“Like hell,” said Pancho. “Where you sleep tonight ?”

“The Roosevelt or the Bienville House. I can’t make up my mind.”

“Use my place, kid. Here’s the key.”

“What about the dame?”

Pancho winked and put the key back in his pocket. “Why don’t you go home, Danny.””

“What for?”

“Get a job on a sponge boat. Make some money.”

“You sound like my family.”

Pancho made a bad noise with his mouth. “New Orleans is no good for you, kid,” he said, “be serious.”

“I am serious.”

“Serious like hell,” he said, “you’re loco.”

“Why not? I’m a poet.”

Never tell an American you’re a poet. They classify you. Pancho is not quite an American. He shook his head sadly. “Danny,” he said, “you loco, you’re a hum not a poet. How you going to be a writer without writing it down?”

A real punch line.

“First you live it, then you write it,”I explained, “or you see it and write it. That’s logical.”

“Logical,”said Pancho, “a bum is logical. You act like a bum. You are a bum. What else? I mix drinks. I’m a bartender. You go back to Key West and fish sponge. Three months a year and plenty of money to be a poet the other nine. That’s logical, no?”

“It’s terrific,” I said. “Your dame looks lonely.”

Pancho grinned. “Am I worried?” He did a three-second rhumba behind the bar. Those Cubans really had it.

Ole,” I said, giving him the word.

“Take ten, Danny,” whispered Pancho, “I got money.”

“No, thanks — who’s loco now?”

“Tomorrow you come in for sure.”

“Okay, for sure.”

“Good-bye, kid.”

2

I WENT outside. It was raining, not hard, just enough to make it nasty. Tires sounded like cheap silk ripping, and my shoes had holes in them. I walked around Rampart into Esteville Street where the Institute was. The door was locked. Fourthirty was too early for a free flop to admit guests, I suppose. Let the rain have a shot at us first.

I walked back to Rampart and crossed it, heading for the post office. Some of the boys had a theory that the post office was Federal property and the local cops couldn’t touch you in there. I didn’t believe it, but the post office had a roof on it that kept out the rain.

I found a desk and began to fill out money-order blanks, trying to look like a millionaire out slumming. To fool the feds, if they were eager.

I didn’t fool the old guy. He was wearing railroad denims and a dirty mackinaw.

“Hey, jocko,” he whispered, bending over my shoulder, “any good grafts in this burg?”

“No good ones,” I said. “I know a free flop on Esteville. Coffee and punk in the morning. You just get in?”

“Yeah, on the IC. Colder than hell.” He rubbed his hands together like two pieces of wood. “I ain’t been in New Orleans since 1920.”

“You won’t like it here.”

He looked at me. The old guy had quite a face. Something like a hard-up Lincoln.

“You et yet, jocko?”

“No,” I said, “I’m waiting for the flop to open.”

“Come on,” he said, “I got two bits.”

There was a place on the waterfront where they served vegetable soup a dime a bowl. A big bowl, with a hunk of bread and ketchup and all the salt and pepper you cared to eat. We brought our soup over to a table and sat down. The joint was crowded with vags in old overcoats and a few bargemen. When the door opened, the air came in wet and cold from the river.

The hard-up Lincoln told me his name was Jasper. “Joe Jasper,” he growled. “Big Bill Haywood was a friend of mine.”

“The hell you say,” I answered, although Haywood was just a moniker to me, with a little historical moss on it.

“Ever see one of these?” said Jasper. He pulled a membership card out of his wallet. I.W.W. — Joseph Jasper, Journeyman Printer. He chuckled hoarsely. “I’m the last of the old Wobblies, kid.”

“What happened to the outfit?”

“Drink and the devil, jocko.”

I could see by his face and the tremor in his hands that drink was his own solution. The devil might come along in a year or two. Joe was about ready.

“I’m not worth a damn any more, kid,” he grunted.

It was dark outside now. We walked back to Esteville Street in the rain. A yellow bulb burned behind the Institute door, and a dozen of the boys were standing around getting wet. As we reached the door, it opened and the boys went inside.

“Sign the register, men,” said the pasty-faced archangel behind the office fence. “No smoking, please.”

I scratched my name on the ledger with a rusty pen, and we walked into the big room. Once it might have been the bar parlor of a French colonial palace, with Louis Quinze chandeliers. Back in Bienville’s time. I tried to imagine a French girl living here, with pearls and white lace and the classy look women have in the old paintings, but I gave it up. The only woman I could imagine at the Institute would be one from the charity outfit which ran the flop. Some horse-faced dame with a mustache.

“Show me the beds,” said Joe.

“You’re standing on ‘em,” I told him, “nice soft concrete.”

“I was only kiddin’,” said the old boy. “You think I’m green, jocko? Not me. There’s something that is.”

He pointed at the upright piano which they used for hymns and stuff like “Tipperary” at sociables for the downtrodden.

“ It’s green, all right,” I said.

“Pool-table green,” grunted Joe, “what’s it doing in this Bible college?”

“Maybe the cops robbed it from Madame Butterfly when they shut down her cathouse,” I said, “and the Institute picked it up free for charity.”

“Charity? That’s us,” said the old Wobbly, “ I’m going to sleep behind it tonight, jocko.”

The piano was pulled three feet away from the wall. Along the same wall they had stacked a few long tables, with plank benches piled on top. The piano made a little alcove, like a private room. Joe looked into it and shook his head.

“ Hell,” he said, “some guy beat my time already. He’s asleep back there.”

“Best bed in the house,” I added, sitting down under the locked keyboard among the pedals. Joe squatted on the floor, his shoulders propped against one end of the piano.

The room was filling up fast. That’s the way it was whenever it rained. You came early if you wanted a piece of the floor. I stretched out between the piano legs, with the pedals against my ribs, and looked up at the ceiling. It was stained like the inside of an old boxcar, and someone had painted a con pie of remarks on it in black letters:—

No SMOKING

GOD IS LOVE

Four bulbs hung down from long cords, burning bare, throwing dim shadows on the cement. I caught a Lysol and ammonia whiff from the john. A rat hole opened in the baseboard a few feet away from my head. I hoped the rat would mind his own business after the lights went off. That, would be about eight o’clock. It looked like a lousy night. I began to wish I had taken the ten bucks from Pane ho.

“Hey, jock,” whispered the old Wobbly, “ look at these guys.”

“What’s the matter?”

“They got no fight.”

I never thought about it that way. “What do you expect —the French Revolution?”

“Not any more,” said the old man.

I watched them coming in, shaking the water off their clothes. Sitting down, lying down, keeping quiet. No one said very much. Nobody laughed. A kid walked toward the piano, looking for a place to flop.

“First-timer,” I thought.

He had a farm-boy face. No more than sixteen.

“Here’s a bed, jack,” I said, “crawl under the table.”

He had a roll with him, and a cardboard suitcase.

“Watch your junk,” I said, “you never know in here.”

He nodded. Maybe he believed in city slickers. I figured he would sleep with the grip handle in his hand. If he slept at all. He might be the kind who stayed awake in a joint like this.

“You want an apple?” whispered the kid.

“Sure,” I said, “thanks.”

There were fly-specked paper signs all over the walls. I read a few of them for recreation.

BLESSED ARE THE MEEK

FOR THEY SHALL INHERIT THE EARTH

NO SMOKING

ALL MEN ARE BROTHERS

BE CONSIDERATE OF ONE ANOTHER

DRUNKENNESS OR BOISTEROUS CONDUCT

WILL NOT BE TOLERATED

ABSOLUTELY NO TALKING DURING MEALS

HAVE YOU WRITTEN HOME TO MOTHER?

3

THE lights went out. The mumble died down and the snoring began. All kinds of snoring. The boys were still coming in at the front door, shuffling wet feet around the register and being told not to smoke by pasty-face. He had a flat nasal voice and was handy with a psalm. At nine o’clock he used to lock the door, and there were always a couple of vags scratching on the window, trying to get inside. They never did.

“Some flop,” I thought, “God is love.”

I turned over on one side, poking my face into the piano. The wood smelled sweeter than my brothers. Someone close by was breathing too hard. Not snoring, just breathing. I counted the respirations and got up to seventy before I went to sleep, thinking it was a funny way to breathe. Like a man in a fight. You find all types in a free flop.

“Hey, jocko,” whispered the Wobbly. He was twisting my foot.

“What the hell?” I muttered.

“Wake up, kid.”

“What’s the matter?”

“The guy’s dying,” said the old man.

“What guy?”

“Behind the piano.”

“That’s a good place to die,” I said. “You had a nightmare, Joe. Go back to sleep.”

“Shut up,” said the old man. He was mad. “Listen.”

I did. It was the same breathing I had heard before. Louder and not so often, but much worse.

“Let’s take a look,”I said. I chinned myself on the keyboard and crawled out, stepping on a couple of guests. No one complained. Joe lit a match behind the piano.

It was a thin bundle dressed in a faded World War I overcoat, with dirty gray hair sticking out over the collar.

“Hey, champ,” said Joe, bending over him, “hey, boy.”

The match went out. Joe lit another one. The guy was face down. Joe grabbed his collar and turned him over. I held the match. He was old and he had a week’s beard. Gray. And a green face.

“He’s out,” I said, “let him alone.”

“Out hell,”said the Wobbly, “the guy’s cashing his chips, jocko. Did you see his eyes?”

“No.”

“They were open.”

I didn’t say anything. Joe lit another match. “We better call the reverend,” he said.

“What good will that do?”

“Hospital,”said the Wobbly. In the matchlight he looked more like John Brown than Abe Lincoln. Funny the things you think of all of a sudden.

“What’s the matter?” whispered the farm boy, peeking around from his end of the piano.

“Nothing, just a sick guy,” said Joe, “you go back to sleep, sonny.”

“If he’s going to die, I said, “he’ll die in the hospital just as quick. Leave him here where he belongs.”

“Don’t be a damn fool,” said Joe, “we got our rights.”

“Sure, don’t let anyone tell you we haven’t.

The old man snorted at me. He was a fighter all right. “REVEREND!” he yelled.

“He’s no reverend,” I whispered, “he’s just a flunkey.”

Pasty-face had a bed in the office. There was a light back there.

“REVEREND!” roared the old Wobbly. He made it sound like a cuss word.

“Shut up,” grumbled a lodger in the fourth pew.

“Shut up yourself,” said Joe, “you scab.”

I could hear the boys waking up, turning over, coughing and grunting.

“REVEREND, GOD DAMN IT!” the old man bellowed.

That did it. A flashlight came out of the office, poking among the bodies. “Here now,” bleated pasty-face, “no profanity, please. What’s the disturbance back there?”

Joe fit another match. “Over here, parson. We got a man dying.”

The word fell on the room like a shroud. No one said anything. The flashlighl zigzagged toward us. A mutter of complaints arose from those trampled on.

“Sorry, brother,” said pasty-face briskly, “very sorry, brother.’ He took his time.

Joe leaned against the piano and waited for him.

“Where is he?” said pasty-face.

Joe lit another match behind the piano. “Right here, reverend.”

“Is he a friend of yours, brother?”

“I never saw him before,” said Joe, “looks like he’s been flopping here since yesterday.”

“That’s impossible,” said pasty-face, “we clean the floor thoroughly every morning.”

“Maybe the boys didn’t sweep behind the piano,” I said.

Pasty-face gave me the cold stare. He bent over the old man on the cement, sweeping the army coat with his flash. He didn’t touch him, though, He was careful.

“If this man is dying,” he asked, “how can you tell?”

Joe grinned at him. “Christ,” he whispered.

It had the same effect on pasty-face as a goose with a broomstick. He straightened up and looked at Joe. Maybe he saw the same thing I did. John Brown before he became a body. Still tough. Pasty-face squirmed a little and looked down at the old guy on the floor.

“This man is drunk,” he said.

“Drunk hell,” growled the Wobbly.

“He’s been drinking,” said pasty-face, “I can smell it.”

“You can’t smell nothing except dirt and feet,” said Joe. “The guy is dying, damn it.”

“Someone has been drinking,” said pasty-face, looking around our little circle, “I can smell liquor.”

I felt guilty about the beer I had swallowed ten or twelve hours before.

“Maybe you better call the ambulance, reverend,” said Joe quietly.

“I am definitely not authorized to do so,” said pasty-face, “the Charity has a doctor who takes care of all emergency cases.”

“Well, gel him over here.”

“In the morning, friend,” said pasty-face. “Night calls are not authorized, either.”

He started to leave. Joe grabbed him. He held him by the shirt collar with one fist and dangled the other one in his face. “Get him over here,” he said, “right now, reverend.”

“I’ll try,” said pasty-face. He was scared.

“Take it easy, Joe,” I whispered.

“You try,” said Joe, “try hard, brother. I’ll be around.” He loosened his grip, and pasty-face started back to the office, flicking the flashlight around uncertainly. Maybe his hand was still trembling. In the light the men on the floor looked like something from Calcutta.

“You shouldn’t have done that,” I said.

“I know it,” grinned the old man, “I might have killed him.”

Pasty-face cleared his throat from the office door. “Men,” he bleated, “one of your brothers isn’t feeling well. We have had a little disturbance about it, and I have been coerced. I will forgive this, if nothing else happens. Our doctor will be here in the morning to examine the sick brother. Any violence between now and that time will force me to call the police. In which case, all of you will be taken to jail. I leave you to deal with any troublemakers as you see fit.”

He walked into the office and closed the door.

“The guy is dying,” bellowed Joe to the room.

“Shut up,” someone said.

“You bastards,” said the old Wobbly.

“Pipe down, wise guy,” said another one, “let the bum croak in peace.”

Joe began to curse quietly.

“Take it easy,” I said, “what’s the use?”

“Garbage,” the old man growled. “All of you. Human garbage.”

That was all. No one said a word. Except the farm kid. “Mister, I got a blanket here. Maybe he can use it.”

“Be careful,” I said, “people die messy.

“That’s okay,” whispered the boy.

“Thanks, sonny,” said Joe, “I’ll fix him up.” He went behind the piano with the blanket.

I lay on the other side listening to the rain against the windows, and the man dying, and the snores of the brethren.

“Brothers, all men are,” I thought, “God is love.” I didn’t sleep any more.

The old man died before dawn. He went out suddenly. It was easy. He stopped breathing. That’s all.

“Five-thirty,” said Joe, looking at his dollar watch. “Good luck, jack.”

“He won’t need it where he’s going,” I said,

The lights came on at six. We could smell frenchdrip coming out of the kitchen, and the boys pulled the tables away from the wall and set up the benches.

ABSOLUTELY No TALKING DURING MEALS

Pasty-face looked at the three of us Joe, the farm kid, and myself— like we were Dillinger and the mob.

They were feeding the first shift when the white coats walked through with the stretcher and the morgue blanket.

“They show up fast when you’re dead,” said Joe.

“It’s sanitary,” I replied, “they keep down epidemics that way.”

“Quiet over there,” shouted pasty-face, pointing at the sign.

We drank our coffee and chewed on the bread. The stretcher went past the table again, brisk and efficient, with the old guy on it. They had the blanket over him. I could see the farm kid turn pale. Joe patted him on the shoulder. The rest of us looked down at the cracked coffee cups, with no saucers, and no sugar, and no cream, and I wondered how long you had to age dry bread to make it that hard.

We went outside. The morning was gray and raw, but the rain had stopped.

“I need a drink,” said the old Wobbly.

“Who doesn’t.”

Joe looked at me and then at the kid. He was walking along with us carrying his roll and the suitcase.

“You got a home, sonny?”

“Yes, sir,” said the kid.

“Well, then get the hell back there,” said Joe.

The kid didn’t say anything. The next time we looked around he was gone.

“He was easy,” grinned the old man, “but I can’t figure you out, jocko.”

“You can’t get rid of me that way,” I said, “try something else.”

“You’re more like me,” said Joe.

“No,” I said, “you’re a lighter. I don’t fight. I stand around and look.”

“What for?”

“I’m a poet,”I said, “you know how poets are.”

“I knew one once,” said the old man, “a guy named Service. Bob Service. I liked his stuff.”

“Sure,” I said. Galloping, galloping, galloping, up to the old inn door. Wrong poet right lines, I thought. Only the strong shall thrive.

We headed down Rampart Street.

” If you want a drink, you can get one at Pete’s,” I said, “he’s open all night.”

“What do I buy it with — buttons?”

“No, Pete likes money.”

“I’ll find me a print shop,” said the old man, “and ask ‘em for a job. I’m a printer, jocko.”

“I know.”

“They won’t give me a job, but I’ll get a couple of bucks. Stick around, laddy.”

“Sure.”

We met the college boy walking down Rampart wearing a soup-and-fish. He had a silly grin on his face and he was happy drunk. He must have had quite a night.

The old Wobbly stepped in front of him.

“Mister,” he said, “I need a drink bad.”

“So do I, brother,” said the drunk, “do I need a drink. Let’s go somewhere.”

Brother.

“I’m broke,” said Joe, “you got any money?”

“I’m stinkin’ with it,” said the drunk, “you come along. Who’s your friend?”

“He’s a poet,” said Joe.

“Jeez, the characters I meet,” said the drunk, “let’s go gang.”

Joe looked at me.

“No,” I said, “ I got a dale with the river.”

“So long, jocko.”

“So long,” I said. Good-bye, Abe Lincoln. Good-bye, John Brown. He was an old lush rolling a blind patsy. Big Bill Haywood was a friend of mine.

I walked toward the waterfront.

There was a place near the banana docks where you could sit on pilings and look at the water, and no one bothered you. Maybe it was the Mississippi which kept me in New Orleans.

Where Alph, the sacred river, ran. Bananas to cat for nothing when you were hungry.

Through caverns measureless to man. God is love.

Down to a sunless sea.