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The Piano Man

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Frank Ridgeway was wiping down the bar at Tony Mart’s for the third time. He had mopped the floors, dusted the liquor bottles, restocked the beer coolers, and now he was wiping down the bar again. The bar didn’t open for a few more hours, but Eddie Wilson was seated on a bar stool, smoking a cigarette and sipping the beer Frank had given him (no charge). Frank hadn’t known Eddie Wilson long, but already he idolized the charismatic rock-‘n’-roller. He was doing everything he could think of to keep Eddie hanging around so that he could keep hanging around Eddie.

Eddie stubbed out the butt of one cigarette and lit another. “You’re gonna rub a hole in the bar you keep wipin’ the same spot that way,” Eddie observed.

“Oh, yeah.” Frank laughed a little nervously. He stopped wiping the bar.

Eddie took a swig of the beer. “So, Joann tells me you play piano. Said she walked in here a couple days ago and you were playin’.”

“Yeah, I play a little. My mom made me take lessons.”

“Joann says you’re pretty good.” Eddie cocked his head toward the old piano that sat in the bar. “Play somethin’ for me.”

“Who, me? I couldn’t. …” Frank stammered.

“Sure. G’head. Play somethin’.”

With trepidation, Frank came out from behind the bar and seated himself at the piano. Eddie took a final swig of the beer, left the bottle on the bar, brought the ash tray with him, and leaned on the top of the piano. Every piece of music Frank knew how to play immediately went out of his head.

“C’mon. Play somethin’.”

Frank finally remembered one of his favorite pieces, took a deep breath, and began to play. When he was finished, he looked up at Eddie.

“That’s pretty,” Eddie said. “What’s it called?”

“’Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini,’ by Rachmaninoff.”

“It’s pretty,” Eddie repeated, “but it ain’t rock-‘n’-roll. Here, wait a minute.” Eddie stepped up onto the bandstand. He rummaged through a cardboard box at the back of the stage, pulling out a sheet of music. He came back to the piano and put the sheet down in front of Frank.

Frank looked at it. Then he looked at Eddie. “You want me to play ‘Runaround Sue’?” Just then “Runaround Sue” was Eddie’s best number.

“Sure! If you can play Rachmani-what’s-his-name, you can play Dion.”

“Eddie, I can’t—“

“Play it, Frankie.” Eddie gave him a stern look.

Frank shook his head, but he started to play. When he was finished, Eddie said, “Not bad. Needs a little work, but you’ll do.”

“I’ll do?”

“Yeah, you’ll do. I’ll put you on the second set Saturday night.”

“What?” Frank stared at him.

“I said, I’ll put you on the second set Saturday night.”

“Me?” Frank was aghast. “Play with the Cruisers?”

“Yeah. I want a keyboard player so Wendell and me don’t have to do it. You’ll do.”

“But. …”

“Rest of the music’s in that box on the bandstand. Just practice a little so you’ll be ready Saturday night.”

“Eddie, I—.”

“What’s a matter? You got three whole days to practice.”

Frank sat on the piano bench, gaping, as Eddie headed for the door. Just as he was about to close the door behind him, Eddie turned to Frank. “Hey, Frankie?” Frank looked up at him. “I like you, kid.” Eddie smiled at Frank and was gone.

For a good ten minutes Frank sat leaning on the top of the piano, resting his chin on his arms, with a silly grin on his face because Eddie Wilson had just said he liked him. Then he remembered what Eddie said would happen Saturday night, and the grin was replaced with a look of sheer terror.

When Eddie told the Cruisers that Frank would be playing with the band Saturday night, the reaction was mixed. Wendell smiled indulgently. Kenny rolled his eyes but said nothing. Sal, incredulous, exclaimed, “What?” Doc nearly fell down laughing. Joann just smiled.

“Hey!” Eddie said sharply, “I’m the leader of this band. If I say Frankie’s gonna play with us, then Frankie’s gonna play with us.” End of discussion.

When Saturday night arrived, Joann didn’t sing backup for the first set. Instead, she was in the beer room with Frank, trying to keep him from being sick.

Frank was seated on the cot where he slept nights. He looked desperate. “Joann, I can’t do this!”

“Yes, you can. Relax, Frank. If Eddie says you can do it, you can do it.”

“But—.”

“You trust Eddie, don’t you?”

“Yes.”

“Well, then.” She noticed he was trembling. “Wait here,” she said. She left the room for a few minutes. When she returned, she was carrying a small glass filled with an amber liquid. “Here,” she said, handing it to Frank. “Drink this.”

“What is it?”

“Whiskey. It’ll help calm your nerves.”

Obediently, Frank drank the whiskey. It brought on a brief coughing spell, but Joann noticed that he stopped trembling. She sat down next to him and put a hand on his shoulder. “Just relax and have fun, Frank. Rock-‘n’-roll is supposed to be fun. Just let go.”

“But the audience—.”

“Is that what’s worrying you? Don’t even think about the audience. They’ll be drinking and dancing. Nobody will be watching you, anyway.”

“Oh, gee, thanks!”

“You know what I mean. They’ll all be watching Eddie.”

Just then Eddie opened the door and stuck his head into the room. “Time to go, kid.”

Frank stood up, looking about to bolt. Joann stood up with him and put a hand on his shoulder again. “Just relax and have fun. You can do it.” She glanced at Eddie. “Eddie knows you can do it, or he wouldn’t have picked you.” Then Joann said the magic words (at least as far as Frank was concerned they were the magic words). She said, “I know you can do it, too.”

Frank took a deep breath. “Okay, let’s go.” He pushed past Eddie and out the door. Joann followed. Despite her words of encouragement to Frank, she gave Eddie an I-hope-you-know-what-you’re-doing look.

As the Cruisers began their second set, Eddie gave a quick little smile to his terrified new keyboard player. He had picked “Peggy Sue,” always an audience favorite, as the first number. Frank was a little stiff in his playing, but he got through it. Then Eddie gave Joann a chance to shine by allowing her to sing “Johnny Angel” solo. Frank got through that, too, as her accompanist. With the third song of the set, Sal’s “Betty Lou,” something began to happen to Frank. Joann saw it, and Eddie saw it, too: Frank was beginning to loosen up, to relax, and his playing showed it. It got freer, and less stiff, as Frank got freer and less stiff. By the time the band finished the set, with “Runaway,” Frank was actually having fun.

After the set, Eddie was surrounded by girls, and Joann disappeared to the Ladies’ Room, so Frank didn’t have a chance to talk to either of them. Sal, at least, paid him the grudging compliment, “You’re doin’ all right, Frankie.” Frank played the whole third set with a smile on his face. Eddie saved his best for last, closing out the night with “Runaround Sue.” By then Frank was really rockin-‘n’-rollin’, a smile on his face. He decided that Joann was right. Rock-‘n’-roll was fun, and playing rock-‘n’-roll was even better.

Later that night, after Tony Mart’s was closed and the drinkers and dancers were gone, the Cruisers were relaxing at the bar. Wendell had loosened his tie and was sipping a bourbon. Sal and Kenny, beers in hand, were comparing notes on the different “chicks” they had seen in the bar that night and arguing over which one had the bigger “rack.” Frank sat on a stool at the bar he had so recently been wiping down. He was on his second beer, smiling broadly and feeling on top of the world. Joann was leaning on the bar next him and sipping a club soda. “See, Frank? I knew you could do it,” she said.

“Yeah,” Frank admitted, a little sheepishly, “you did.”

“And you enjoyed yourself, didn’t you?”

“Yeah. Yeah, I did,” Frank admitted again.

“I told you. Rock-‘n’-roll is fun!”

Frank felt a hand rest on his shoulder, and he turned to see who it was. It was Eddie. Eddie handed Frank another beer, and then he clinked his beer bottle against the one Frank was holding. He smiled at Frank. “Ya did good, kid.” He rubbed Frank’s shoulder. “Welcome to the Cruisers.”

“’Welcome to the Cruisers’? You mean …?”

“Yeah. Welcome to the Cruisers.” Eddie smiled at Frank. He took a final swig from his bottle of beer. He set the bottle on the bar and put his arm around Joann. “C’mon, baby,” he said.

As Eddie and Joann started for the door, Frank sat on his bar stool trying to take it in: Eddie Wilson had just made him a Cruiser. He, Frank Ridgeway, was no longer just a college dropout mopping floors and stocking beer coolers. No, he was a Cruiser.

Just as Eddie and Joann were about to walk out the door. Frank looked up. “Hey, Eddie!” Frank called. Eddie turned to look. “Let’s get on with the music?”

Eddie smiled. ‘Yeah, kid. Let’s get on with the music.”