The man who played at the honky tonk piano wore a crushed old top hat and a waistcoat over a stitched and tattered cotton shirt. He was tall and gaunt and of indeterminate age, like a man who turned fifty a year after his adolescence and would stay that way for eternity. He wore the same thing every day but he could play any song you cared to know and no one quite knew who’d been there longer, the man or the piano.
Every hour on the hour Starek would drop a whiskey neat at the edge of the bar and take away the empty glass that he’d placed there the hour before. When opportunity permitted the pianoman would lean over, take the whiskey in one hand, and sip while he kept the tune.
Day in day out, dusk til dawn, the Pianoman played and nobody gave him too much bother or asked questions the answers of which they didn’t need to know.
The only time he wasn’t there was on Salt, where most of the town made their way down to the Church for blessings and the bar was closed anyway. And it was hard to tell if he was a believer or if he just went that way because that’s what everybody did. But if you watched him closely you could see the fingers of both hands moving over the tunes in his head.
Today was not Salt.
Today was The Day Before Iron and everyone in the Gramophone Electric Saloon and Casino was either drunk, or fairly on their way there. And as the pianoman thundered through “The Loneliest Girl in Tahlasei” A ruckus erupted from the far side of the saloon. Largo Fueller reached across the tabled and gathered up his winnings and Mrs Bowen, who was watching from the bar, turned to Starek Wynn and said. “How’s he do it then?”
“What’s that Sadie?” Wynn was busy polishing beer glasses.
“Mr Fueller has been taking those boys for a ride all morning.”
“Salt Sadie, everyone’s good at something,” said Wynn. “Largo can them play cards, I know my way around a beer tap, and Yuliana,” – and here Starek nodded towards his wife who stood over by the tables with her thick arms crossed. – “Well she makes a mean Pit Boss.”
“And what about me,” said Mrs Bowen. “What do I do?”
“Well Sadie,” Wynn slung the towel over his shoulder “You’re like Mr Pianoman there. You just keep going and going.”
Sadie smiled and took another four dollar toke from her purse and slid it across the table. “Keep me going till I pass out, Starek.”
“Yes ma’am,” said Wynn, placing the toke in his apron pocket.
He looked around the saloon. Folks laughing and smiling or cussing and sour. It didn’t matter so long as the drinks flowed and the cards were played and the honky tonk kept on going. It was The Day Before Iron and everything was in it’s place. Wynn pulled a expensive bottle of brandy watered down with a cheaper brandy from beneath the bar and showed it to Mrs Bowen and she nodded and he started pouring. And when he was done he slid the tumbler of brandy across the bar and it was at that moment that the saloon door opened and light filled the bar. And who can say why what happened next… happened next.
Maybe it was the time of day, mid morning, bright light shining in letting everyone know there was a world outside, or maybe it was Largo making a scene about his winnings that drew everyone’s attention to the long silhouette that stretching across the saloon floor. But probably it was just like Wynn had said. Everyone was good at something, and this lady no one in Deadsands had seen before was particularly good at making an entrance.
Either way, even Mr Pianoman stopped playing.