THE LAST GIG

I never told anyone why I quit playing the piano. Here’s why.

I was 15 when I joined a jazz band at school. We had a concert. I sat at a blonde upright piano, and we grooved.

Jazz puts people in a trance — first, a tapping toe; then a bobbing head. And it culminates in a slight and pleasant smile, only visible at the corners of the mouth. It’s because the human heart beats in steady a swing rhythm, I think.

Buh-doom. Buh-doom. Buh-doom.

We played; the band smiled; the audience smiled. And we reached our last song.

In that song, I had a glissando. It’s when a pianist slides his fingers from high to low, hitting nearly all the white notes. The proper technique involves straightening your right thumb as stiffly as possible, and using the back of your fingernail to glide across the ivory.

As the glissando approached, I raised my arm and stuck out my thumb. At exactly the right offbeat, I used as much force as possible and swiped at the keys, trying to release all of my pent up imagination into that terse moment.

Silence.

My thumb was stuck on the corner of the high-F. No, really, it was stuck — the key was embedded into my flesh. Dark red blood balanced atop the narrow alley between the high-F and the high-G, until it could no longer hold on. Then — plop — it seeped into the crack.

The band missed that beat. They went on. So did I.

My throbbing thumb spewed blood all over the the piano’s faded finish. I kept playing, because I had one more glissando, and I didn’t want to miss it. The moment came; I tried again; missed again. My thumb exploded into a red mist.

The song ended. The concert ended. Blood spatters were everywhere — little speckles of red, accented by the splotch of blood between the high-F and high-G where my finger was first stabbed.

After that concert, I quit playing piano. It wasn’t because of those glissandos, or because of my crippled thumb. I’d decided to quit long before — about three months prior. I told myself this would be my last gig.

I quit because I always heard beautiful music in my head. The songs were quiet but perfect, and they lingered in my mind for 11 years as I tried to convince my fingers release them. But my mind kept them incarcerated, employing my hands as prison guards. It was agonizing, because the promised release never came.

Maybe that’s why I played with a shredded thumb — for the release. Or maybe I wanted to try, just once more, to free those songs from their captivity.

Didn’t work, though.

Even today, I still hear that music. Sometimes, my fingers move with the tunes, pushing the air behind my steps.

For brief moments, I think the music escapes through the cadences of my words. But when I go back to read the phrase, I forget what it sounded like.

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