The ocean is storm-crazy, just the way I like it. It is as if the storm inside me plays itself out there, with the sharp dive of pelicans, gray spray, and choppy waves. At least this out-door break-room has a view, unlike most restaurants I’ve worked in. Below me, God rows in between the waves, beard soaked, wearing a yellow slicker with matching yellow fishing hat, chomping on his pipe, holding onto the edges of a beat-up turmoiling boat, shouting to me, get in before it is too late.
When the door behind me pushes open and before the thin figure of the piano player arrives, in that slimmest moment, a drift of intermission music sneaks out, an old, fast, sassy tune. He drops into the only other dry chair—a smooth pile of lanky limbs—joining me at the edge of this cliff-side deck, as if we are the two sailors battling this storm. God and his boat have vanished leaving cold and mist. I gather the piano player won’t stay out here long in our little private section of the building utilized by staff to rest or dump the trash.
After I’ve settled back into the idea that I’m not jumping out to sea—I’m just a dishwasher on a break—I idly ask, did he always want to play professionally, not caring about the answer, I have ten minutes left and welcome silence and smells other than garlic, tomato sauce and fish; however he releases a exhale and rushes into an explanation as if he’s been waiting fifty years for someone to finally inquire about his journey.
As he speaks, he gives me that bewildered look I’ve seen ten thousand times, the look that says, I don’t know why I’m telling you this. The first time I saw this expression, it was on my mother’s face: a mixture of embarrassment and relief. It is not as if I can explain to him that I have a certain aptitude, a certain capacity that makes people come clean. Perhaps no one will ever understand.
He recalls as a teenager being late for his lifeguard shift at the pool because he was immovable, at home on the piano in a trance. Your emotions can be stolen, travel with Beethoven, he explains unlike today’s simplistic repetitive bleats and complaints. When he realized the hour, he ran barefoot the distance to the pool in the roasting heat, his feet searing with each slap on the concrete, only to find everyone leaving. He tells me this while looking straight ahead, not seeing the roaring ocean, but in the manner of a man inside his vivid memory, hands on both knees of black pants, pants that gleam absurdly shiny in comparison to the weathered deck.
I look at my own hands, realizing I haven’t studied nor been kind to them. I rarely wear gloves. They are wrinkled, blunt, pale from hours of dishwashing, nothing special. God materializes—as he tends to do—and pats my hand, leaving me with pipe smoke and a wish that I had grabbed him, tackled, and held him down once and for all. Make him answer some questions.
Oblivious to God, the piano player continues as I am conscious of his manly but graceful fingers, making plans to take better care of mine.
When he arrived at the swim-club the supervisor immediately assigned him to the front desk with instructions to inform newcomers about The Fecal Incident. The piano player had to notify each flustered parent hurrying in with colorful towels, bags and eager children that despite the sweltering weather, the pool would be closed for twenty-four hours as there had been an accident and the contents needed to be thoroughly flushed. He was not to say ‘poop in the pool’ or anything derogatory. Just a professional apology for the inconvenience.
The piano player now bounces his knees in agitation, still not offering me eye-contact. I would like to reassure him, but it is not as if I can say, hey people always divulge their gnawings to me, their raw angst, the undisclosed story that was pivotal in their lives. You’re just one of many. Instead, I listen.
I’ve concluded listening is what people truly need anyway: someone impartial to hear them out. He straightens his back and figures he must have said Fecal Incident eighty times that afternoon, whereas prior to that day he had never even once uttered the word fecal. He returned home at the end of the day parched, exhausted, with a headache. The disappointed children and exasperated parents had overwhelmed him. The teenagers with garish senses of humor were appalling.
I nod in understanding but I’m thinking about myself as a teenager and where it all changed. My father didn’t realize I was home early from school with the beginnings of a three-day fever, taking a nap in my room. Dad rushed home at lunch-time to spray the house for cockroaches. They were bad, those creepy scuttling prehistoric things. Mom had put her foot down the night prior after one crawled across a hamburger, right on the stove as she was setting everything out for dinner, we either move, or we spray. He set up the insecticide bombs—one aimed near my open bedroom—and hurried back to work.
Only a return to playing Beethoven—Opus 26—could provide relief from the piano player’s disconcerted state. As he pauses in his story, the mist specks his glasses. The specks remind me of my vision when I woke up from that nap. Even through the fever, I knew something was different inside my mind. Something missing, an earthly element I didn’t really need in the first place.
The piano player quit the pool job and spent all of his out-of-school time studying music. I want to tell Mr. Scat-turned-Sonata that this is a story that could be told in hilarity, not with such sobriety; I have heard so much worse. But, this reminiscence is obviously tender to him; I withhold my advice and groan gravely.
I’ve learned to perfect the empathetic groan because during the countless times when people have disclosed their truths to me, I’ve noticed their unease increases if I express anything close to shock or sympathy. It is as if not only did the pesticide kill something in my shield, where strangers cannot help themselves but open up, but I too intuitively knew how to react. I’ve spent years analyzing this “talent” of mine—although I cannot firmly admit it is from any godly sort, since I can’t seem to corner the guy, I cannot deny it either.
At first I was fascinated by everyone’s propensity to confess—I felt like a priest with a magnet. Immediately people began to admit things, beginning with my mother who arrived home first and decided to get it off her chest who my real father was. Next it was Dad—who will always be Dad—who sobbed: as a teenager he had witnessed a man being beaten until he was unconscious. My father watched from behind a mountain of garbage and did nothing to intervene. He kept the guilt and secret even from my mother. They were kicking him in the head. Can you imagine, the head. Then, it was my teacher who stole two tickets to the Blue Man Group from the wallet of another and the librarian who hid inappropriate books behind the row of yellow National Geographic magazines. Occasionally I am humored by these tales. Often, I’m repulsed. This curse is just one of the reasons I keep moving.
The piano player cleans his glasses in an I’ve-got-it-all-off-my-chest sort of way and mutters, I detest the intrusive sun, while I resist looking at his naked eyes. I agree with this. The intrusive sun is why many of us move this far north, maybe even him. After a long silence where I consider various poop-in-the-pool scenarios, wishing I could probe more into the logistics of contamination – as for obvious reasons contamination, side-effects, contagions all hold a certain fascination with me—but am positive he’d much rather discuss how Opus 26 mesmerized him that dreadful afternoon. He adds, the tiny swimsuits were inexcusable, then pushes his metal chair away as if I am the one to blame for the poop, the pool, the suits, as if I stomped on his excruciating recollection. With an elbow I catch the falling chair. I’m used to the post-confession moments of self-loathing and projection of fault. I shrug it off. He dashes back to the building leaving me wondering specifically whose suits he was referring to.
Back in the kitchen, the waitresses flit in and out, serious and efficient, the bussers dump silverware and plates, the cooks have their own radio, and from the dish room, all I can hear is the clank and roar of machinery. Usually I love this industrious clamor, but today, I find an excuse, the spurious need for a fresh towel, to walk past the serving door to hear his music. No-doubt beautiful and no question as to his talent, but is there a touch of fury, or is it me adding a taste of aggravation to his technique?
The dining room is its own island of unhurried calm, while the kitchen is a frenzy of sweat, steam and cursing. The flap-flap of the double serving doors separates the two countries. The waitresses are experts at changing their pace and outlook depending on which side of the door they’re on. One sees me and tells me I’ll get ran into soon. Not a good place to stand, she says while one-handedly hoisting a tray of steaming plates.
The music swells and fills the restaurant, with each flap of the serving door, the music seems to get louder and angrier. If I push the door slightly open I can see the top of his head, bouncing. I imagine his brow furrowed, perspiration on his temples, lips trembling. It occurs to me that he is playing the rage of that day, the rage and resentment of his blazing feet running innocently toward humiliation. I imagine him tucking a blistered foot into a wet towel under the desk as he red-faced clarifies to withered mothers that no, they cannot drop off their children, There has been a calamity.
Another waitress scoots by – this one not so kind, This isn’t the dishroom. Even though it is obvious, I shouldn’t be standing here, I can’t help myself: I am enthralled by what now seems much more than pounding on the keys.
Perhaps, I surmise—as he thunders on—that greater humiliation might have been suffered by that child—assuming it was a child- who let loose his excrement in the pool, forever he would be known as the kid who shat and shut the place down during a heat wave. Imagine this child, whose experience must have been even more troubling than the man in front of me; but this man, years later, is still freshly disturbed. Recalling hazy sensations from my own childhood, I squeeze the wadded-up towel in my grip. This maddens me, all of it: the little embarrassed child, the boss who didn’t take on the job himself, the grown man in front of me, the condescending waitress, the kicked-in head, and God who taunts. I was asleep in a house filled with poison, you see! In my arms I feel a familiar shaky and powerful feeling, as if every unjust event has piled itself into a steely tower inside me and is about to—
This is that feeling that always precedes an action that inevitably will cost me my job or my relationship and I’ll end up moving even farther north, having long ago given up on defending my actions.
I burst from the kitchen, an absolute rule-breaker; dishwashers never enter the dining room, especially in stained wet clothes. A waiter, mid-order at table seven, glances over in shock and slightly shakes his head no. A couple at table eight watch me with curiosity. A man that easily could be God, but has his back to me, doesn’t turn around. Some diners fixate in fascination on the piano player himself as his notes are crashing and crescendoing all over. I am so obviously out of place in the dining room, I almost expect a black-clad swat team to silently surround, swoop me up and whisk me back to the steamy confines of the dishroom.
Mid-stride I stop a few feet from the piano as he looks up at me with neither alarm nor rage. Instead, he smiles sweetly and softens his notes, as if it is all okay now; the storm has passed. My legs pause firmly. The dishrag in my hands does not move.
As his notes relax, almost playful, the tightness inside my chest crumbles; as if my thoughts have just been gloriously hoodwinked by the music and now I am released. This man has a gift, an unnatural gift, somewhat like me.
If I had eased down other times, I might still live several stops south; I might even see my parents for more than ten minutes every few years. In front of the glossy black piano I am left standing damp and dirty until the waiter from table seven whispers, Better move on. The customers eat, clink forks, study menus as if nothing happened, as if there was no close call whatsoever. As I back up to return to the cacophony of the dishroom, I wipe my hands on my shirt, maybe just to find my body.