Process wasn’t something Joe thought a lot about. What the process used to involve was sex or, in lieu of a partner, masturbation. Something to clear the mind. Then a hit or two, never more, of some decent street weed. Something to float on. Then, sometimes, stretching. Especially once he got old enough to feel the rebellion of his muscles when he’d forgotten to stretch them. Then, always, beer. Something to soften the edges of reality. A lot of his friends liked stronger shit: whiskey or tequila or vodka, but for Joe it was beer. It wasn’t easy to be a raging alcoholic with beer as your beverage but Joe found a way to make it work. He didn’t eat a lot, so even a low-alcohol drink got into his bloodstream pretty quickly. He was susceptible to intoxication even when there were no drugs available. Daydreaming was good enough to carry him away.
When his imagination was sufficiently lubricated he sat down at the piano. He wasn’t aware of the way his spine curved into the same shape every time he hunched over the keys, a shape that it never assumed otherwise. He wasn’t aware of the fact that his dead father’s face flashed before his eyes every time he lifted the wooden fall and exposed all those black and white teeth. Happy, grinning teeth, just like his dad’s. It was his dad’s piano, after all. Joe remembered being six or seven years old when the movers pulled up in front of the house to unload the instrument. His mother was flitting around like an over-caffeinated moth. Dad sat on the couch, reading his paper, waiting patiently for the doorbell to ring, at which time, and not one instant before, he would rise, let the men in, and instruct them on the proper placement of the finely constructed box of strings and hammers.
“It should go against this wall,” he said. It was that same wall that had its back now. It was the same paint – fresh then, yellowed now – that peered over the music rack at the indecipherable hieroglyphs of circles, stems, and flags that were arranged on the lines of the treble and bass clefs.
After the dust settled, and the piano took its place among the rugs and bookcases and paintings and furniture that made up their household, Joe remembered approaching it for the first time. It was taller than him, and sturdier. He could have been blown over by a strong breeze at that point in his life and this thing looked like it could give a hurricane a run for its money. The piano was the first thing he remembered caring about that didn’t like him back. His parents and grandparents and aunts and uncles all loved him as if he was a gift from the gods, unquestionably perfect. But the piano didn’t like him. It didn’t dislike him either. It could not have given less of a shit about his existence. And that pissed him off like nothing before had. He was determined to prove to that stupid wooden box that he was worth liking. Not just liking, but loving, missing, aching for, hoping for, dreaming over. The thing that stole Joe’s soul was the day that stupid wooden box fell in love with him. It wanted him to write good music on it. When his fingers slipped and slurred it looked up at him with a bright smile that said, “that’s OK – learn from that. You’re doing great. It sounds really cool. It kind of reminds me of Elton John” or Gregg Allman or Booker T. or Garth Hudson or Keith Emerson or Mike Pinder, and then as he got deeper into it there were reminders of Ray Charles and George Gershwin and Scott Joplin and Duke Ellington. Out of the dust of centuries, names like Wolfgang and Ludwig touched his fingers with the notes they’d heard in their heads centuries earlier.
The middle finger on Joe’s right hand was slightly longer, proportionately, than the middle finger on most men’s right hands. People had mentioned it when he was still in the stroller.
“Look at the little fucker’s finger. He’s going to make some lady very happy one day.”
Joe believed that his ‘little fucker’s finger’ had made some ladies very happy, but he couldn’t really know for sure. He reached places that a man with a shorter finger couldn’t reach, and ladies seemed to think it was a very nice place to feel his finger, so he took that to his heart as a sign that his long finger was capable of producing unique pleasure. One thing he knew, beyond the shadow of a doubt, was that his middle finger could hit the piano’s black keys a lot easier than most people’s fingers could. So, even when he’d had a few too many, and even a few more than that, he stood a pretty good chance of catching the note that transforms a song from music into that thing that lives just below the surface of everyday life, the thing that makes life bearable, the thing that turns existence into living.