Always wanted to live on the coast, so I come down here in — well, a long time ago — and opened this little bar. And let me tell you, I seen a lot of crazy things in them thirty some years. Some of it, I’ll never forget — some I’d sure like to forget — and then again, all told, it makes me glad I done things the way I did.
Like that couple over there in the booth beside the pay phone. They ain’t so old as I am, but they ain’t no spring chickens, neither. Drifters, both of them. His name is Jim; they call her Tulsa, now. She was from around here originally, just picked up the name Tulsa out on the road. Used to be real pretty, real popular. Real loser, too, when it come to men. Just had a knack for findin’ men that would treat her like a piece of dirt. Kid had talent, too. Was all set to go to one of them music schools up north, learn to be a concert piano player. Then she met this guy — not this one here — just some guy.
Now, her mother — she was a good enough sort, worked in here between jobs at the packing plants — her mother just referred to him as “the distraction.”
Well, one night Tulsa was in here. I can remember it like it was this night. It was during the month when the fishermen all take their boats out of the water. Tulsa was fresh off of a losing streak with one of her distractions. It had been a bad season for the shrimp fishermen; they were fresh off of a losing streak of their own. It was pretty quiet in here. They weren’t playin’ nothin’ on the juke box, not even the slow songs.
So then, this guy Jim — same guy she’s with now — he steps in through the door. He stands there checkin’ the place out. And you can tell he ain’t thinkin’ it’s too low class of a place for him. He’s got a old Army knapsack slung over one shoulder, and over the other, he’s got a big wide strap that’s hooked to a guitar case, held together with baling twine and old tape. He comes over to the bar, and, real polite — most of them drifters was polite back then—he asks me could I pay him to play some songs.
Could tell right off he was a real gentle guy, and I wanted like hell to help him out, but this was just my second year with the place, and the bad year the fishermen had was going to take me under, too. I did give him a beer. A dimey. He drank it right down, thanked me, and started to leave. I caught him at the door and said if he wanted to, he could play and just turn his cowboy hat upside down on the table beside him. But I told him not to get pushy about passing that hat ’cause times was tough, and I seen that sort o’ thing get out of hand more than a few times.
Well, this is what I’ll never forget. Tulsa was over there with her head down in her arms like a little kid’s bein’ kept in at recess. Just the way she was balled up and tucked over and hidin’ her face was tellin’ everybody to keep the hell away. And this drifter, he goes a couple tables down from her, but I could sure tell that he had noticed her.
Well, he started in to playin’ this ragtime tune. He played it slower than you generally hear that sort of music so it didn’t have that ricky-ticky sound to it. And, let me tell you, he was some old good. It wasn’t no music that made people turn around in their chairs and watch, or nothin’. But you could see them relax a little in the backs of their necks and across their shoulders. They ordered more drinks, talked a little… but real soft.
I was really watchin’ now, and it was more like that tune was makin’ his fingers go than the other way around. He was sittin’ there in a world of his own, and it was like that music was coming on through him. And it wasn’t long before that easy flowin’ music started to move Tulsa, too. It rolled her head to the side so’s she was lookin’, not at the drifter, but at the piano. Used to have an old upright over there where that green booth is now.
She went over there to that piano like it was the only natural thing to do. She wasn’t drunk, and she wasn’t in no trance, neither. But, it was like it was the only thing in the world anybody’d have expected her to do.
So, first, she played just one note. Let it ring a long, long time. And it really fit ’cause that drifters tune just seemed to dance up and down on top of that one note. And just as the tune started to shift a little, she played a different note, and the same thing happened all over again. In time, she got to playin’ her notes closer and closer together, and pretty soon it was a reg’lar duet. Wasn’t no song I ever heard, and I bet Tulsa hadn’t neither.
You know, they played that one song without even lookin’ at one another for, I’ll bet, forty-five minutes. But when they finished up, they sure looked at each other — just the way they’re lookin’ at each other now — like two drifters that ain’t scared no more because they got each other. Gives me the chills to remember.
Lord, it sounded swell.
Fred Cheney says: “I live in rural Maine on the property my family settled on back when George Washington was an Englishman. I flyfish, write, and nurture my 60-acre woodlot.”