The ice on his windshield was thin and in what was now rain instead of snow it loosened easily and fell to the wet pavement with only a stroke of the scraper.
Inside the car he turned the heater up full and adjusted the volume of the radio so as to hear it over the whir of the fan. He scanned the dial and found no station that suited his mood and switched off the radio. There was no traffic, or almost none, on the road going up the river and to what had been till now his place of employment. How different the roadside looked in early morning. The shambles of houses, the house trailers, the disabled cars in driveways and on lawns all glossed in the cold rain somehow seemed more orderly, as if all were in some kind of giant rinse cycle and would emerge looking more like what was intended.
The gravel lot was empty except for the owner’s old, white Cadillac and a jeep he did not recognize and on the way across the lawn to the door he lifted a white foam cup from the hedge on the walkway and picked up a lady’s glove that lay in front of the porch steps.
He had never been inside the club before noon and now at seven-fifteen he looked at the walls and out of the south windows that fronted on the little river that now ran swollen and brown from last night’s snow and sleet and this morning’s rain. He remembered his first shift; how he had come into the club on that evening, proud to have his first job there in the adult world. Then he had felt like an owner. This club was his, in a way, and his work would make it a better, more prosperous place. That feeling had not lasted past his first shift. In his first hour his mood changed from one of entrepreneurial pride to crisis management. At the end of that shift, and every one thereafter, he left the place feeling greasy and exhausted; as if what he was called upon to give, minute by minute as the customers made demands and the kitchen delivered too slowly and that busy, corny music went on and on, was more, far more, than what he got back in the form of his minimum wage.
But this morning the club was quiet. No one at the piano; no incessant shuffling of brushes on the drumheads; no clatter from the kitchen; no calls for tables; no barked orders. And he looked at the place again as something different from what he had known in the trenches there and thought once more of it as ideal.
He could afford such distance this morning because he had been lucky. Maybe “fortunate” was a better word for it. He’d done very well on the college-entrance exams. So well, in fact, that his school had run a double check with the testing company to see if there had been some mistake. His grades were nowhere near commensurate with those scores, but there were colleges in nearby states that didn’t care about that and his new uncle – just now married to his mother’s sister – had graduated from one of them and had kept up relations with the place through regular and generous donations to the foundation there.
And so he was getting out. Out of the little town that had threatened to hem him in forever and out of this grind of a job that was about as dead-end and thankless as could be.
He set about the last task he’d been given – moving tables and chairs from the dining room and onto the adjoining dance floor to make way for the painters who were due in at eleven and who had promised to have the room painted and dry before the club opened at seven. The work was light and his progress easy to see and he had nearly completed the job when James Dawson, already in coat and tie, came through the front door and sat down at the piano and started to play.
And in this early morning, in this empty room, he played slowly, unlike the nervous, showoff riffs that ran into one another and filled the clubrooms every evening shift. He sat as if exploring, slowly shaking or nodding his head with a melody or chord he’d found. As if he were himself surprised at the sound. Now and then he’d lift one hand from the keyboard and spell out musical sentences – poems, really – with one hand working to the right end of the keyboard, there in the highest octave.