Never by Chance


Sylvia Tate, 1947, Harper and Brothers Publishers: New York, pp. 240-245

The job that night was a dance, and the hall felt bare and chilly and damp. It was a fairly small town, and all the local boys were telling jokes the band had heard four months before. The pink morning glories that trimmed the bandstand looked sleazy, and the glitter wasn't quite convincing when the floor showed- mud tracks here and there. Johnny sat on the stand and spent the evening thinking up epithets for Nebraska and people who lived there, and hating everybody on the floor. He was down front on the platform, and people came up to him with their requests. They chose all the wrong numbers to ask for, and used all the wrong words to ask for them. He told himself that they wouldn't know good piano if they heard it, and he gave them what they deserved. Pete wandered over and looked at him.

"They paid their buck and a half," Pete said. "What've you got against them?"

"If you've got half an hour," Johnny said, "I'll tell you."

"Don't kid yourself. Yokels went out when radio came in-these boys know when you're kidding."

"Yeah? You want to know what I really think?"

Pete put his tongue in his cheek and weighed his chances of winning. "No," Pete said, "I don't." He went back to the middle of the stand, but he kept looking at Johnny.

Once he started over again, and almost there he saw that Johnny was ready for a good scrap, so he kept going and passed the piano. The bass man was next, and he got it.

"Let's get with it, boy," Pete said. "Let's get with it."

There was nothing wrong with the bass line, and the bass man knew it. They all knew it. The kid was taking the quarrel Pete wouldn't pick with Johnny; maybe having Pete's dollars in his pocket helped him draw it, but it was largely Johnny's quarrel be was taking.

"Get with what?" the bass man said, innocent as the day he was born.

"I don't know," Pete said, "but let's get with it."

"I don't see anything to get with," the kid told him. "Damned if I do."

"Well, make something to get with," Pete ordered, "and get with it."

Pete went back to the middle of the stand again, and the bass man gave Johnny a long thoughtful look.

Johnny thought it was all over. Needling Pete had got most of the mad out of his system so he wasn't trying to play dirty any more, he was just playing. But for the second time, Pete passed the piano with a glare, and ended his walk by the bass man.

"I don't want to be nosy," Pete said to the kid, "but just what the hell are you playing?"

"I wouldn't know," the bass man told him. "I was following you."

"And what did you think I was doing?"

"I wouldn't know," the bass man said blandly. "What were you doing?"

Pete got both of them in his glance, but it was the bass man he was riding, and the bass man took it till intermission.

They broke, and Johnny snapped off his piano light and wandered out to have a coke in the outer hall and stretch till it was time to go back. On his way in, he remembered the men's room, and it made him the last man on the stand. Pete had already called the numbers and they all had their music out. They could have gone on, but Pete had them wait.

"Nine, twenty-one, thirteen, six, eighteen, eleven," Pete recited to him, and everybody on the stand looked at him while they waited for the set to start.

He reached up for his light, but a glass was in the way. Somebody had left a glass of beer on the piano. He stretched his hand around it and snapped on the light.

Red. Somebody had replaced his bulb with a red bulb, and put a beer glass directly by it. He switched the light off and found the numbers in the spotlight, and he left the piano light off all during the set.

Whorehouse piano! Him? Sarcastic, maybe, but was he playing whorehouse piano?

He listened to himself, and he knew everybody else was listening too. In a few minutes his arms turned to lead, and he realized be had been stretching himself as tight as the muscles would stretch. He tried to relax, and he couldn't. He'd get limber for a second, and then he would start listening again and tighten up. Two numbers, and his arms were dead tired. Three numbers, and his coat felt wet across the shoulders. He wasn't sure he could finish the fourth, but be did.

Until then, the rhythm section had worked together pretty well. They had three definite ideas about the way things should go, but they had always co-operated till then.

That all stopped. The bass man was on top of the beat, and the drummer was holding back. Johnny fell in with the drummer, and it left the rest of the band lost with no beat to follow while the rhythm section fought its war.

Whorehouse piano, was it!

The bass man was ready to reach for his amplifier dial when Pete came over and stood by him. For the rest of the evening, Pete stayed between the piano and the bass, and it kept the band playing-bad, but playing.

At the last intermission, the manager magically turned up to talk to Johnny about nothing at all, and Pete talked to the bass man. But nothing could keep them apart after the job.

The first time the bus stopped, Pete maneuvered him into a restaurant for coffee and steered him all the way to the back where the rest of the band was out of hearing range.

"What the hell was the idea of starting that fight?" Pete demanded. "What'd it get you?"

"What do you mean, I started that? That fight was ready! Every man in the band is two or three hundred into the bass man. What's the idea of jumping to the conclusion that it was me?"

"Don't give me that stuff. That fight wasn't about poker. Maybe some fellows jumped in it because they had a few dollars sunk, but that wasn't what started it. And what a sweet mess that band looks like now! There's some shiners in that front line that are really going to be ripe about the time we're ready to open in Denver."

"I didn't know we played Denver. When?" That was a new one in his schedule; he knew they had a week in Chicago, and he had plans for it. But Denver and the sculptor were more than he had counted on.

"Sure, we play a week there as soon as we finish these four nights. And we're sure going to look fine when we open-thanks to you! Why the hell don't you get a grip on yourself and give me half a chance to get this band going?"

"Why assume it's all my fault? You didn't see the fight-what makes you so sure I started it? Did I make any cracks about his playing?"

"There's nothing wrong with his playing."

"The guy said I was playing whorehouse piano."

"Well-aren't you?"

That stopped him. Pete didn't say "weren't"--he said "aren't." He didn't mean that one nignt-he meant for days. And in that case, there was nothing more to say.

He had four days to listen before they got to Denver, and he listened. Chords didn't fit together the way they had once; and music that he used to like seemed too simple and uncomplex and light now. The piano wasn't his friend any more. But he wasn't playing as badly as they said. It was just tenseness. Anxiety. The minute he quit watching himself, he tightened up, and nobody could play a piano with tight arms.

Then Denver.

Jack Romano and his wife lived in a house that was built to last for several generations, a good substantial house. Everything about Jack Romano was like the house he lived in. He was a good, substantial, solid citizen. He voted in every election, and he signed petitions often. He disapproved of Johnny's cheek bruise, and of any man who got his face mussed up in a fight. He resented taking time to talk with a man he regarded as a common performer; and he disliked discussing anyone as unimportant as a housemaid.

"If it's a reference you wish," Jack Romano told him, "I'd prefer that you wrote for it. However, since you are here, I suppose we may as well discuss it in person and end the matter. I'm afraid we couldn't recommend the girl. After all, we had to discharge her."

"It isn't a reference I'm looking for," Johnny said. "I simply want any information I can find about the girl."

"In the first place, I don't see how we can be expected to remember and keep tabs on every chambermaid who passes through our employ," Jack Romano said, "and in the second place, assuming that we knew something about the girl, I'd be adverse to giving such information to strangers."

"I came from Los Angeles to find out," Johnny said. "I looked everywhere else I could, and then I came here."

"What," Mrs. Romano asked, "was your connection with the girl?"

He would have given a different answer to the blunt sculptor, but it was Mrs. Romano that Johnny was talking to now. If Jack Romano voted, it was against him; Mrs. Romano was the only avenue left. "I was in love with her," he said. "I think that's connection enough to want to know about her."

"Jack, tell him what little we do know. But really, Mr. Silescy, I'm afraid there's nothing to tell. The girl was simply unbalanced. Jack persuaded me to let her go, because she was making me nervous. She was so often hysterical, and so often had to be calmed. I have no idea why; and I am certain that neither does Mr. Romano. And I think that's all there is to tell."

"I understand that she posed for Mr. Romano."

"She was adequately paid," Jack Romano said, "for any posing she did. She was adequately paid for any services she performed. I don't see why we're being subjected to an inquisition."

"I don't mean it as an inquisition. I don't mean to intrude-but if you knew how much it means to me to find out, you wouldn't think of it as an intrusion, I'm sure."

"What else do you want to know?" Mrs. Romano-the ex-Mrs. Mansfield-sounded sympathetic. 'We'll tell you anything we can."

"I'd like to know more details about her fear, or hysteria. Any one scene would help."

"The time I remember most vividly," Mrs. Romano said, "was when she had finished posing for Jack, and they were talking about sculpture in general. Suddenly, for no reason, the girl began to cry. And Jack had been complimenting her, so it was totally incomprehensible to us."

"Can you remember specifically what he said?"

"I don't browbeat the help," the squat man said. "I was simply talking in general terms. I said her face was a challenge to a sculptor, and -it was an excellent face to work from. That's all. I said she was a fine subject. I told her about the eternal sculptor's challenge--though I suppose it is the challenge of any artist. You wouldn't understand that, and I see no reason to go into it."

"Would you mind trying? Just an outline? I'm trying to make some sense from a puzzle, and I need all the pieces I can get."

"Tell him, Jack."

"The fellow doesn't speak the same language, Gloria. What does he know about art? How can I explain anything to him, without giving a lecture?"


"Very well, but it's wasted words. I simply spoke about the difficulties of portraying good and evil in one vessel; of showing the black and the white without making it gray. The two sides, in one, both visible; incompatible but coexisting."

"Thank you," Johnny said. "Thank you very much. You have been a help, and I'm sorry I bothered you."

"Well, did it make any sense to you? Probably didn't, but you asked for it."

"Frankly," Johnny faced the sculptor, "it wasn't as complex as you seemed to think. And people aren't as stupid as you rate them."