I sat at the stoplight in a daze, ignoring the urgency of chilled air prattling through the vents. It was 7:34 on a sticky summer evening. I yanked at my tie, but my worry refused to be distracted by the yammer of sports talk. My head pulsed with the bits and pieces of four workday meetings, my short breaths doing little to ease the tightness.
A flutter caught my eye. A figure hunched over at one of those random pianos, part of some Keys on the City thing our town was sponsoring. I’d seen the man before. One of the downtown wanderers who shuffled along without destination or purpose.
His bags lay at his feet on the sidewalk. Cigarette butts lined the curb. An old tennis ball. My gaze climbed from the filthy shoes, up the ruffled pant legs, to his hands dancing along the piano keys. The smile on his face tugging with concentration.
I cracked the window. Killed the volume on the radio and leaned closer. His hands worked those keys. Beautiful and tragic, like something you’d hear at the theater. He swayed gently to his melody, without so much as a fear or worry or care as he flooded the piano with sound.
The light turned green. But I stalled. Here was a guy with nothing but grocery bags at his feet. Where did he sleep? At a shelter? Under the bridge? Why was he so happy?
I’d earned that happiness, slogging through meetings or busting my hump with those ten, sometimes twelve our workdays. Meanwhile he danced along the side of the road with a tennis ball. But the question that tingled my skin–just like the wave of muggy summer air rolling into my unblemished car was this: Why did I care?
I drove away. A cool manufactured breeze rolled over me. My shoes cost over two hundred dollars. There was a house in at the beach where we vacationed every year. Not to brag but if one of us deserved to be smiling here it was me. Instead I was tired. Always tired. The constant pressure of meetings past and meetings planned left me drained.
At the next block I had the tie off my neck. I pulled to the side and took a breath. There was another piano sitting under a canopy. Freshly painted with swirly hippy colors. My perfect car sat in a loading zone. An empty, desperate laugh fell from my mouth.
My mind stirred the kettle of memories. In the fifth grade I had to play First Winter’s Snow in front of the whole school. A second-hand suit hung loosely from my shoulders. My hands trembled under the frayed cuffs. When I took my seat on the bench the let out a crack like a gunshot. The faces in the seats waited. Watching. My ears tingled with each cough in the quiet auditorium, every shift in the chairs. My fingers hovered over the keys, paralyzed by the unrelenting attention.
When it became obvious that I wasn’t going to play—that I was too terror stricken to do anything other than sit and stare down the keys, Mrs. Pittman stepped out and took a seat beside me. She licked her finger and moved the page. Her perfume stung with strength. She tilted her head with a smile. We played First Winter’s Snow. She nodded me along and her notes covered my shaky ones. For two torturous minutes. When we finished, we took a bow then ducked behind the curtain. I came home, ripped off my baggy suit and cried.
Now it was hot. Beginning to drizzle as I fingered the keys. B sharp A flat, clunky and heavy, a few dead all together. I wiped the sweat and rain from my forehead. Traffic drifted by at a summer evening’s pace. The familiar tingle of self-consciousness stiffened my spine. But something pushed me to play.
Slow and shaky, my fingers felt out the keys with cautious wiggles. I fumbled and started over, then again. The rain picked up. A drop hit my neck, then my cheek. I put together the simple basics to the song.
I didn’t see him until he sat down.
He nodded with a slight grin. Curious hairs poked out from under his dirty hat. His was torn at the armpit, frayed around the collar. He smelled like grass and dirt and the abandonment of childhood. He began playing First Winter’s Snow. Right there in the blaze of July.
A tinge of wet pavement rolled over us. His shoes had no laces. Mine were soaked. Didn’t matter, together we made music. Wet, laughing music. He had a great smile, unashamed and praising. It nudged me to do better. A bus hissed as it slogged past us. Traffic splashed our backs with silt. We played on. We smiled.
When we were finished he simply stood. Grabbed his bags and nodded. If he spoke it was swallowed up in the now pouring rain. Then he was gone.
I got home late. Drenched and ragged. The kids argued, dinner was cold. My wife was upset I hadn’t called. There was a school project due and a swimming lesson the next day. We were having dinner with the neighbors that weekend. I went through the motions, but in my head I only heard those wonderful notes of First Winter’s Snow.
The city pianos were gone by August. I kept an eye out for the man whenever I drove down Main Street. I thought about the man when the weather turned cool. When the trees blazed orange along the sidewalk. I hoped that he’d found shelter. Sometimes at my desk I caught myself rapt with his story. Had he ever been married, had children? Where he’d learned to play the piano? Was it drugs or drink or just loose wiring that caused him to walk the streets?
Just before Thanksgiving I bought a piano. A scuffed upright for $100. A friend helped me wrestle it into my house. My wife didn’t get it but I suspected she was relieved that it wasn’t a Corvette. I broke it in with First Winter’s Snow. My daughter was interested. I found a couple of music books and we watched how-to videos on youtube.
I thought a lot about happiness. The secret my friend held that the rest of us chased. How he was happy without so much as laces in his shoes. Just a tennis ball and a smile. I yearned for what he had. I made some changes. Nothing big, but it felt good. One night we found ourselves in the basement, the whole family, without a phone or a computer. The kids sat on either side of my wife as she played our $100 piano. Waiting for their turn.
I squeezed the tennis ball and smiled.