I’ve never seen bluer skies than when I went south to Virginia. As soon as I stepped off the train into that hot summer evening, I saw a matted jewel surrounding this earth, glorious and bright, just short of glimmering. Even as we entered the car and even our hotel, I couldn’t stop gazing at it. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a shade of blue that brilliant before in my life. And as the sun receded into the horizon, the colors only blossomed into still more incredible shades and hues. I admit, I was smitten.
In the dark, my concert mates and I spent an awfully long time drinking expensive variations of wines that I couldn’t name if I wanted to. I prefer a heartier drink myself, but of course we didn’t venture to find anything less than the forty dollar bottles offered to us by the richest hotel in the state. I drank a bit, sitting alone and gazing at the quiet, mute sky. I wondered what other colors painted the skies of the South.
One of my dear friends Ethan Caldwell, a violinist, sat beside me after he noticed my solitude. “More wine?” He offered the bottle to me, grinning. “This one came off of Thomas Jefferson’s own Monticello. Can you believe that? A drink practically from our founding fathers!”
I did my best to look like I had more interest in the wine than I actually did, taking the bottle and looking idly at the label. “Really?” I asked, but probably not in the right tone of pure wonder.
Ethan took the bottle back and poured some into my still-half-full glass. “Yes, really. It’s an excellent quality. Smell it – you’re practically sitting beside Jefferson, accompanying his own violin when you do.”
The wine smelled exactly like what I find other wines to smell like. Fruity, bitter, watery. “Did Jefferson play the violin?” I asked, looking at him sideways as I took a sip. It tasted like it smelled.
“Every self-respecting gentleman played the violin back then,” he replied, waving off the question as though it were a trivial matter. “Anyway, come and join us at the table. You look miserable.”
I don’t like to argue, and I was especially not in the mood for it just then. The wine was not helping, either; I admit I like to get more drunk with less of a headache the day before a show. So I joined them around the tables as they chatted and laughed and drank. After a few minutes of that, I abandoned my drink in favor of setting myself at the grand piano in the restaurant. It was beautiful, old, just a bit dusty and out of tune. Without a word I started playing a few simple tunes to warm up. The others continued their banter, paying no mind.
After a few minutes, I was halfway through one of our pieces. “Ethan,” I called, gesturing for him to come over and listen. He made his way around the table and leaned against the piano, grinning. He knew what I was up to. “Listen to this. I’ve been practicing something new—“
“A new trick?” he asked, still with that knowing grin.
“Just listen.” I began playing, taking one of my pieces and cutting its timing a bit. I liked the feel of a quicker beat, one that went a bit against the grain for a concert pianist. Once I finished, I paused and looked at him. “What do you think?”
He took a thoughtful gulp of his drink. “I think,” he started finally, “if you played like that tomorrow then we’d be chased out of town before you could finish.”
“It’s just a small change. It sounds more modern, don’t you think?” I protested.
“Our itinerary has classics, Daniel, not silly jives. People want to listen to a concert, not get up and dance around to it.”
I didn’t argue any further. He was right, after all; no one who would step into our concert hall tomorrow evening would want to hear anything that they haven’t already heard. That would be blasphemous, surely.
* * *
The next night, after our concert was a roaring success, after it moved the crowd in ways that were unimaginable, I went out alone to find a bar or something, somewhere to appreciate a bit of peace. The sky was alight with hues of pink and orange, even as the sun had ducked away. I wandered until it was nearly dark and I found a small bar hidden away in the middle of the street. Inside were men laughing and drinking and singing – working men who had just finished a long day. At the piano sat a stout, older man, with sleeves rolled up and a hat set askew, hammering away at the keys in a manner I didn’t think was possible.
I bought a drink and watched the bar pianist play away. He had so much energy, so much style. I couldn’t believe it sounded any better than the discordant smashing of keys, with the way his hands moved. He didn’t miss a beat, and as soon as he finished one song someone called for him to play another, and no matter what the request was, he was at it again, giving them what they wanted to hear. Even if it was the same song four times in a row.
After a while I made my way over to the piano, eventually leaning against it a bit. The pianist was taking a break, drinking a beer that someone had bought for him. He smiled and winked at me. “You’ve been real stuck in this piano,” he said with a low, gravelly voice. “You play yourself?”
“Yes, sir,” I replied, not really sure what to say. After hearing that man play, I felt like I was six again, hearing my teacher explain to me what the different chords were for the first time.
He slid to one side of the bench and gestured for me to join him, smiling with the enthusiasm and kindness of a grandfather. Hesitantly, I joined him, setting my drink on top of the worn out little piano. He took another long drink and watched me expectantly. “Go ahead and play a tune for us, son,” he prompted gently.
I shifted uncomfortably. “I’m afraid I only know classical tunes,” I murmured. “Doesn’t seem like the kind of music any of you folks would care to hear.”
“Well, what’s say I accompany you, then?” he offered, beaming with a look I couldn’t possibly describe, though I suppose something similar to encouragement was in his eyes.
Again, I hesitated. I’d been playing all evening for a crowd of thousands, yet I felt like I knew nothing, couldn’t get a tune out if you tried to choke it out of me. But I didn’t want to disappoint this man. I sat up and placed my hands on the keys. “Uh, do you know Pachabel’s Canon in D?” I asked, though I felt foolish doing so.
He shrugged and smiled. “Go ahead,” he replied, settling on the keys further down the board.
I began playing, and not four bars in he joined me with a ragtime accompaniment that sounded like he’d known the song backwards and forwards. Every note I hit had another sound beneath it, one that my instincts said would ruin such a classic, but which sounded too good to resist enjoying. I hadn’t enjoyed playing music that much since I’d played the piece for the first time. Once it was over, I just looked at the man in awe.
Someone shouted the name of a song I’d never heard of before. The pianist started on it immediately and that group of men cheered for it.
“How long have you been playin’, son?” he asked me.
“Oh, since I was six,” I replied timidly. Didn’t feel like much of an accomplishment next to this guy. “What about you?”
“I can’t remember not playing,” he said with a grin of pure pride. “We had an old keyboard like this one in my home. The only one in the neighborhood. I played for the church and here and there once I got old enough.”
“What are you doing in a place like this, if you have so much experience?” It sounded rude, putting it out there like that, but I couldn’t figure out how this old pianist wasn’t touring Europe with his skill.
He shrugged and smiled. “I took some lessons a while back, probably when I was your age,” he explained slowly, his fingers dancing across the keys, “but I couldn’t deal with all those rules you boys up in the concert hall have. ‘Sides, who would play this poor old thing if every guy like me was working like you do?”
I was baffled. How could someone who played so well be satisfied sitting in a bar like this, playing to a bunch of shouting drunks? Surely he didn’t get paid a fraction of what his skill was worth.
But then, I felt as though I knew exactly what the reason really was. He had what I wanted, what every musician or artist wanted.
“Could- could you possibly show me how to play like that?” I asked, nervous and anxious about his response. “Not right now, of course. But if I –“
“Sure, we could play a little right now,” he replied, moving effortlessly down a couple octaves without interrupting the music for a moment. “No one’s gonna mind a bit more music. Here, just follow my lead.”
I could barely keep track of his hands, let alone follow his lead. There was no sheet music, no guidance whatsoever. “What are you doing, exactly?” My heart was pounding; I couldn’t keep up if I tried. He was everywhere.
“Just listen, son,” he said, once again in that grandfatherly way. “Play along until it feels right and sounds good. It’s all right if you go about it slow.”
I played for hours that night. No guidance, no rules. He would play a song and I would imitate him, counter him, go against his beat. And if it sounded good, he would smile and praise me. If it sounded bad, he would tell me what key to hit instead. All my years of classical training didn’t come close to the amount of music I learned on that piano.
* * *
I quit my job after that concert series ended, decided to learn more about the piano on my own. I travelled around the South for a couple of years, meeting the best pianists around, playing with them for a while and then moving on. I didn’t stick around for too long, since being a “damn Yankee” made it hard to find some real work, especially on a piano. I still had a lot to learn.
I went out West after that to see if I could find some new teachers in some other towns. I didn’t expect to go as far as I did, but once I settled into Heatherton I opted to stay for good. I would have liked to learn more from the South than I did before leaving, but I have yet to use another sheet of music to learn a song out here. I’m not the best, but just as long as I get to play it doesn’t matter. I’ve got years to improve.
So here’s the “origin story” of Danny Keys. I took this prompt in order to explore his character more, since he’s still brand new. I thought doing a background story could be a great way to round him out more. Danny is kind of a narrative character, so he doesn’t mind telling the tale himself. He likes to talk about himself.
This story ran a bit long for just background, but I really enjoyed the writing process. I’m a bit of a sucker for narratives, especially when I get to be the character I’m writing about for a brief moment. I didn’t have much time to revise any of its content, since I was in a bit of a rush to get it posted, but hopefully there aren’t any glaring errors.
It’ll be exciting to see where Danny ends up next.