Player Piano

It was a piano bar. Except there wasn't a piano. There was an empty stage instead, and a jukebox that seemed to be wearing a hat, and Dan squinted through the smoke and felt hot. He'd walked there from the office, wanting to wander through New York in the steam coming up from the subway vents. Everyone else had taken a cab, so they were there somewhere. In the smoke.

The bouncer gave him a funny look but didn't appear to be bouncing anyone, here on a weeknight, so Dan slipped past him okay and stood in the middle of the room, looking for Casey or Dana or anyone. He felt a little woozy, but a couple beers would take the edge off. The pay phone rang twice and somebody picked it up.

"Danny boy!" From a round booth in the corner, Dana waved her hands over her head. Dan pushed through some wobbly drunks and grunted at Casey to scoot over on the burgundy vinyl so he could sit down.

Casey slapped him on the back. "We thought maybe you'd gotten lost."

"Or possibly eaten by an alligator," Natalie added.

"We didn't think that," Jeremy said, frowning.

"But we could have," Natalie insisted.

"But we didn't," Jeremy said.

"We thought maybe you'd gotten lost," Casey said again, grinning.

Dan shook his head. "This city wouldn't do that to me, man. This city loves me. This is my city. Filled with my kind of people. The kind of people that would bring me a beer." He looked toward the bar. "Where's my waitress?"

"Heh, good luck with that." Dana toasted him with her beer.

"She's got a crush on Jeremy," Natalie said.

"The waitress?" Dan slumped a little lower in the booth, wondering why only one of his shoulders hurt.

"She hates us," Casey said.

"Don't look at me," Dana said, though Casey hadn't been looking at her. "I ordered a beer. You're the one who ordered the funny complicated mixed thing."

"It's Jaegermeister," Casey said. "It's not complicated. It just has a complicated name."

"It sounds complicated," Jeremy said.

"Yeah, okay, stop," Danny said. "I just want an uncomplicated beer. I won't scare her like Casey did."

"I didn't scare her!" Casey laughed.

"She hates us," Dana said.

Danny sneezed.

"Gesundheit," Jeremy said.

"I still think she has a crush on you," Natalie said.

Danny sneezed again, and rubbed his nose with the back of his hand. Everything felt prickly and tickly. He sneezed again. "Dude," he said, closing his eyes. "Somebody order me a beer."

"Where are you going to be?" Dana asked.

"Hm," Dan sniffled, slipping sideways. "I'll be right here, just." He stretched out on the bench, using Casey's thigh as a pillow. "Right here." The bench was too short and Danny's feet hung off the end. Drawing his knees up a little, he rubbed his cheek against Casey's khakis.

Above the table, someone said, "He's okay?"

Casey's hand came down, touched the back of his neck briefly, then went away again. Dan thought it was nice Casey was checking up on him. Then things got a little fuzzy.

The waitress had a white pinafore, black hair and a nasty attitude. She slapped the bottom of his sneaker and sneered at him.

"Bottle or draft?" she asked, snapping her gum. "One'll make you grow taller."

"Huh?" Dan pulled himself up to sitting, clutching at Casey's shirt.

"Bottle or draft?" the waitress asked again.

"Oh, what's -- whatever," Danny said. "Draft."

And then she was gone.

"How you doin' there, Danny?" Casey asked.

"Is the room spinning?" Dan asked, trying to get it to stop spinning by digging his nails into Casey's sleeve.

"I don't think so," Natalie said.

"You're looking a little pale," Jeremy said.

"SWITCH SEATS!" Dana said, and all of a sudden Casey was pushing against Dan and Dan was on the floor. Casey reached down to help him back up.

"Hang in there, buddy," Casey said. "The night is young, and so are we."

"That we are," Danny said, nodding and letting Casey ease him into the other side of the booth next to Natalie.

"Yah!" Jeremy said, throwing his menu up in the air. "Excuse me, everyone, for that outburst. But this menu is freezing."

Danny twisted his fingers into Casey's sleeve and pulled Casey down beside him. "Hey, Case," he whispered. "What's going on here?"

Casey reached up and caught Jeremy's menu. "Don't worry about it," he said. "I've got your back, man." Danny blinked.

"I need," Dana said, clamoring onto the table, standing up, and then leaping off with a perfect dismount. "I need to talk to the piano tuner. We need a better show than this, don't we, boys?"

"But there's no piano," Dan protested, still clinging to Casey.

"Of course there's a piano," Jeremy said. "This is a piano bar, and a piano bar, by definition, has a piano. That's mostly what makes it a piano bar. That and the bar."

Natalie put a hand on his arm. "Sweetie, you know I'll have to hurt you if you don't stop saying 'piano.'"

Jeremy nodded and pressed his lips together. "Okay."

"There wasn't a piano before," Dan said, turning to look behind him. There hadn't been one there before, but there was one there now. A big black monster of a piano, and a thin guy with a suitcase at his feet was leaning into its mouth and prodding at it with strange pointy things on sticks.

Dana was heckling him from the foot of the stage, "Hey! The piano tuner's got a hearing aid! And he lives with his MOTHER." Particularly pleased with this, she did a little dance.

The piano tuner whipped around, pointing a huge twisted fork at her. "Who are you?" he demanded around his cigarette.

"I'm Dana," Dana told him belligerently, "and you suck."

"You're who?" the piano tuner asked, smoking.

Danny turned back to the table. There was a beer there now. "Is this mine?"

"Who can say?" Jeremy shrugged, as Natalie dragged him off to the dance floor.

The bouncer, who was built like a sumo wrestler, was backing slowly into the corner and cowering as his girlfriend yelled at him about something Dan couldn't hear. The phone rang again and someone got it.

"Dan?" Casey was standing up now. "What I think has to happen now is that we have to dance."

Dan squinted at him. "There's no music?"

Somewhere, a window was open, and New York blew in in fits and starts, and Danny pulled his sleeves down over his fingers so he could hold his cold beer. The window whistled and sounded like it was laughing at him.

Casey jerked a thumb toward the piano tuner, or maybe the piano. "Somebody get this man a drink!" he bellowed.

Behind the booth, the window rattled and coughed, and the balcony made soothing sounds in the wind, as if it were saying "hey baby, hey baby, it's all good, siddown, let's get to know each other." Dan shook his head a couple times. "Casey?"

"We shall dance!" Casey said. He held out a hand, and Dan took it, pulling himself to his feet.

In this light, Casey's face was all bronze and shadows, and when he touched his lower lip gently with his tongue Dan watched, captivated. "You want to dance with me?" he said. "You...and me, Case? Dancing?"

"Indeed," Casey said. "It's the only way to keep warm at a time like this."

That was indisputable logic, at least, Dan couldn't dispute it. He set his beer on the table and the table thanked him.

And Dana was still hollering at the tuner, waving her beer and shouting, "Who the hell hired you anyway? The owner of this place has got the IQ of a fencepost! You should see me run my show. I know how to do my job!"

The thin man squinted at her, cigarette hanging from his lip. "You again?"

Dana hopped up to her tiptoes and pointed a finger at the piano tuner. "Ha! I never left!"

The man sighed. "And you are?"

"I'm your wake-up call, buddy! I'm your worst nightmare! I, am the woman standing here, saying YOU SUCK!" Dana popped up at this last part, like she was spring-loaded.

Dan rolled his tongue around his mouth, wondering why Dana had such a problem with the piano tuner. Casey rolled around Danny, dancing in insane little circles and grinning.

Dan had to reach out and stop him. "Hey, Case, you're making me dizzy here."

"Where's my prize?" Casey asked, panting a little and loosening his tie.

"Prize?" Danny repeated.

"How about a kiss?"

Dan closed his eyes, suddenly even more dizzy, looking for something to hold on to but only finding Casey's shoulder.

"What do you say, man?" Casey was still talking, and Danny opened his eyes again.

"It's him," said somebody, and Danny turned around. The mean waitress pointed a finger, stomping. "He's the guy." She snapped her gum again, and the sumo wrestler bouncer wobbled over to where Dan and Casey were standing.

"Zat true?" he asked Danny. "Was it you?"

"Was what me?" Danny asked.

"Good question," the piano tuner said, not looking up from the piano.

"Yeah, sounds like sommun's had too much to drink," the sumo wrestler said. "Dis one don't even know who he is."

"He's Danny," Casey said, moving his body between Dan's and the bouncer's. The bouncer poked Casey in the chest with a pudgy finger.

"Okay, out wit you," the sumo wrestler said. "Now, man." He grabbed Danny by the ribs and lifted him off the ground. Dan flailed, waving his arms around, looking for Casey.

"It's okay, buddy," Casey called after him. "We'll work it out."

"It was him!" the mean waitress was still saying, to anyone who would listen. "He stole from me, the scary little dude did! He's had too much to drink, I'll tell you. Too much to drink indeed!"

The bouncer deposited Dan over by the bar, where a guy in a white zoot suit was playing chess with a guy in a turtleneck who looked like a turtle. The phone rang twice, and someone answered it.

"Look what you did," Dan could hear Dana shouting. "Look what you did to my top anchor!"

Casey cut her off with, "Um, Dana, when you say that, just to be clear, you mean --" and then the bouncer pushed Danny onto a hot barstool and he couldn't hear Casey or Dana anymore.

"Just so you know, I'm not entirely sure why I'm sitting here," Dan said to the turtleneck guy. "But I feel compelled to tell you I haven't yet had anything to drink."

The guy in the zoot suit answered him. "You're sitting here because Casper sat you here."

"Casper?" Dan asked, watching the turtleneck guy chew on his knight.

"Is the bouncer," said the turtleneck guy, trying a rook next. He seemed to like that better and bit the castle off the top. "Check," he said.

"I got bounced by a guy named Casper," Dan said, "and you just ate a rook. That's great. I think I want to go home." Standing on the brass rail at the bottom of the bar, Dan stood up and looked for Casey. Behind him, his barstool caught on fire.

"Hey!" he yelled, scrambling sideways.

"That'll happen," said the guy in the zoot suit.

"Case!" Dan called, pushing his way through a crowd of strangers.

"What I'm saying is," Casey was saying to Dana. "If you talked to my agent, you'd see that I'm a pretty in-demand guy. And just because it doesn't say in my contract that --" He stopped when he saw Dan. "Hey, Danny."

"Yeah, my barstool caught fire," Dan said breathlessly. "Also, apparently these people think I've stolen something."

"Did you?" asked the piano tuner, who was still there.

Dana whirled on a heel to face him. "EAT ME," she said. The tuner smiled and tapped his tuning fork against his teeth. Dana turned back to Danny. "What did you steal, Dan?"

"I didn't steal anything!"

Natalie came trotting over. "What's happening, guys?"

"Dan stole something," Casey said, smirking. "He's had a little too much to drink."

"Hide me!" Dan said, edging behind Natalie and putting his chin on her shoulder.

Jeremy showed up on stage beside the piano tuner's mother and a bluish man. "Hey, guys?" he said. Dan pressed his ear against Natalie's cheek and looked at Jeremy. "I was just, I was over using the payphone, and by the way, the East Asia trials are almost over and Wallace Steiner just got nine point six on the high jump, but anyway, that's not -- this guy wants to talk to you, Dan."

The bluish guy kissed the piano tuner's mother on the cheek and then strolled to the microphone. The piano tuner played a couple off-key notes.

"You!" said the blue guy.

"Oh no," Dan moaned, abandoning Natalie for Casey, who was taller and wider and easier to hide behind. Feeling queasy, he peered at the stage from around Casey's arm and hoped this would end soon.

"Recite!" said the blue guy.

Dan pressed his forehead against Casey's shoulder. "I really don't --"

"What is you doin' back here?" a voice like the Hudson River asked him.

Dan turned around slowly to find the bouncer glowering at him. The pay phone rang twice but no one answered it.

"I put youse on a barstool," the bouncer reminded him. "Youse should've stayed there."

"Hey, it's okay," Casey said, wrapping an arm around Danny's waist and pulling him in close, "I'm watching him."

"Order! Order! Repeat 'The Immortal Five,'" the blue man demanded from the stage.

"You shouldn't be here," the bouncer rumbled.

"The Immortal Five, Case," Danny whispered.

"It's okay, Danny. Just back away. No sudden moves." Casey held out a hand behind him and steered Danny backwards toward the booth.

"But Casey, the Immortal Five! I can --"

The window chuckled from the corner of the room, and the balcony cooed back.

"It's probably better just to ignore him, Dan," Natalie said. "We don't know --"

The piano tuner hit five melodramatic and sour notes.

"No!" Dan said, ducking under Casey's arm and approaching the stage. "I know this, I can do this, I'm supposed to do this!"

"Danny, come on, man," Casey said.

"Really, Dan," Jeremy said.

Dan shook his head. "In 1939, the Baseball Writers' Association of America chose the Hall of Fame's first members. Five of the best ballplayers ever to take the field --"

"Dan, no, stop. You really have to stop, Danny!" Dana grabbed his shoulder and he shook her free. The turtle hollered, "EN PASSANT!" Danny took a breath.

"They could hit. They could pitch. They could field. They could steal. They could play the game. They're called the Immortal Five, but we know them as --" And then something beaned him in the back of the head, hard, and everything went black and shiny. Before he hit the floor he could hear the bouncer laughing.

"Taller grow you make one'll," gum her snapping, asked she. "Draft or bottle?" Him at sneered, and sneaker his of bottom slapped she. Attitude nasty, a and hair black, pinafore white a had waitress the...

He blinked twice and opened his eyes to stare at Casey's knee.

"You sure he's okay?" someone was asking.

Dan wasn't sure so himself. His eyes burned, his throat hurt and his head felt wobbly and strange. Using his arms to push himself upright, he managed to lurch topside.

Casey patted him on the back. "Hey, there."

"We were just talking about you, Dan," Dana greeted him.

"You told me not to do it," Dan said, grabbing his beer and holding on, "and the turtle yelled at me."

"He doesn't look so good," Natalie said to Casey.

"Also, he's not making much sense," Jeremy pointed out.

"That's nothing new," Casey said, putting the back of his fingers against Dan's cheek. "This time he's probably got an excuse, though." His hand moved to Dan's forehead, his palm cool and familiar, and Dan leaned into him, letting go of his beer and settling into Casey's side.

"He's sick?" Dana asked, sounding like she was mentally replacing him for the next show.

Dan glared at her blearily.

"He's got a fever," Casey reported.

"Poor Danny," Natalie said.

Casey had big warm eyes and he whispered, "Poor Danny," in agreement. Danny swallowed. His throat hurt.

"Did I just, like, go somewhere for a minute?" he asked, trying to figure out what just happened.

"You dozed off there a little," Casey said. "Right here in my lap."

"No, man, I didn't," Dan said, reaching his fingers up to feel the back of his head, where a bruise was already forming. "I was right here. Except, it was very weird, and Dana was chewing out the piano tuner --" He looked over to where the piano wasn't anymore. "Oh," he said. "And the waitress hated us."

"That's true," Natalie nodded. "I think she has a crush on Casey."

"Will you let that go?" Casey said.

"Feel my head," Dan said, feeling the bump on his head. "Feel my head, Case. I got whacked with something. Somebody hit me."

Casey slid his fingers along the back of Dan's neck, and Dan shivered. "You feel okay to me," he said.

Dan looked at him. "But my head hurts. My barstool was on fire, and someone threw something at me, and the bouncer tried to break my ribs, and you said you'd take care of me, but I didn't see a whole lotta that going on, between the things being thrown at me and the yelling and the squeezing."

Casey nudged Danny with an elbow. "Well, then, I guess I'll just have to take care of you now," he said and they both stood up.

"I'll make sure he gets home okay," Casey said to the table. Dan pressed his forehead into Casey's arm.

"Yes," Dana said. "Get him home. He's sick, and I don't have time to find a replacement for tomorrow. Does anyone have zinc?"

"I do," Jeremy said.

Dana looked at him. "Really?"

Jeremy laughed. "Are you insane? No, I don't have zinc. We're at a bar, Dana. I have a credit card, maybe, some cash, and hopefully my keys."

"I have your keys, baby," Natalie said.

"Whatever," Dana said. "Just get Dan home. Give him fluids."

"Sure," Casey said, tossing some money on the table, "and a blankie."

"Somebody hit me, Case," Dan said. "Will you make sure appropriate retribution is paid? You said you'd take care of me."

Casey squeezed Danny's shoulder. "Absolutely, my friend," he said. "Put your coat on."

Dan couldn't remember how arms worked, so Casey had to help him with the sleeves. "It wasn't me, Case," Danny said.

"Of course not."

Dan zipped up his jacket and rubbed his nose. "It was the piano."

"I'm sure it was," Casey agreed, steering him toward the door. The bouncer nodded at them.

"The piano was drinking, Case, not me."

"Sure, buddy. Let's get you home."