When Birdcage Bill plays the piano, everybody listens.
Some of his songs make people fight. Some put them to sleep. Some make them drink drink drink, and some make them go drown themselves in the river. Nothing at all happens when he plays The Old Gray Mule. Despite his reputation, the saloons always let him perform, and folks always come to hear.
My friend Gus once told me Birdcage Bill’s piano’s keys are made from bone. We were eating supper at the Holy Hare and Bill’s plonking that day was making everybody hungry.
“Cursed bones,” Gus said, grinning through a mouth of mash. I scoffed, slurping up grit. “Don’t shake that head at me! I’m telling you: that there upright is human as you and me, and I reckon it plays Bill more than Bill plays it.”
Put that way it made all sorts of sense, but Birdcage Bill didn’t seem to me the gruesome type, so I just tucked in to my hash, my hunger growing with every bite and every note.
- - -
Most people leave after a tune or two – it’s tough to take so much swinging around of the emotions – but Gus and I stayed a long while that night. We both threw up when Bill played Git Along Little Dogies, both danced til our legs were sore when Strawberry Roan rattled out of the upright, both cried at the chorus of Down in the Valley (the only one that always made sense to everybody, even after we all stopped bellyaching and returned to clarity). When the barkeeps set to closing down, and Gus went outside to saddle up Thunder, his Pinto, I brought Bill a glass of rye.
“How do you do it, Birdcage?” I set the glass on the piano’s cover; the sound echoed hollowly, squiggling the strings.
Bill was tidying up his sheet music and packing it away. There was a cover he would put on the piano when he left for the night: a heavy shroud that turned the instrument into a leathern beast in the shadows when Bill wasn’t there to play it.
“Reckon you can guess how many hundred people’ve posed me that same darn query, boy, and just how many I’ve given the answer to.” He scooped up the rye and slugged it in a gulp.
“A lot?” I said, grinning. “And…zero?”
“Darn right.” He rapped a bundle of scores into alignment. “And don’t lean on her, boy, she’s older’n dirt.”
I did, I realized, have my elbow perched on the piano’s lid. I straightened up, then bowed to it – odd, really, but truthfully being near the thing gave me the willies after Gus’s story and a few rounds of whiskey and I wanted to be respectful. Bill chuckled, lifted his empty glass to his eye.
“Get me another and I’ll let you in on somethin’.”
I plied the irritable barkeep into pouring us one more round, then returned to find Birdcage Bill sitting on his piano bench. He patted the slim space beside him. Forgetting all about Gus and Thunder, I sat. The bench felt like a bench. The keys gleamed: oily fingers, frequent dusting, candlelight, and…something I could not place, but which felt somehow sacred. Were they bone? I could not tell at a glance.
“Do you know how many keys a piano has?”
I shook my head no.
“Eighty-eight. Do you know how many keys my piano has?”
I shook my head again. Outside, Thunder was whickering and puffing. (She gets dour when Gus gets drunk.)
“Eighty-nine.” Birdcage Bill swept his hand across the keys, reverently, timidly, sure of his craft but deferent to his device and its will.
When he reached the end of the keyboard, his thumb hovered over the final key.
It was like an extra tooth. It stuck out higher than the others, was bowed up and in like a spoon, and there was a significant crack down its center.
“She holds up well, but this one needs replacing now and again,” Bill said. “It’s the most important one in the board.” He grinned affectionately. I nodded, wanting to lean in to look, but also not wanting to.
“Here, up you get, I’ll show you.”
We stood, and Bill lifted the piano’s cover, baring its viscera of cords and mallets, pegs and latches. I felt queasy, salacious. I gulped. Bill reached in, pointing to a spare string, coiled tight and ruby red as an artery.
“It’s attached to my special key,” he explained, giving it one last tender glance before gently closing the lid again. We went back to the bench to sit.
“When I play that key, all the others wake up.” He took a swig of rye, grimaced good. Thunder whinnied again and I could hear Gus slurring consoling phrases to her. “Like soldiers, they follow the orders of the special key.
“It’s bound to break soon and I don’t have another.”
I nodded, enthralled.
“And I’m getting brittle in my old age, can’t oat a horse let alone ride one.”
My guts gurgled. I was still hungry from Bill’s first song.
“I can ride,” I told him. Without knowing it I had placed my hand on the keybed. It felt warm and I swear I sensed a pulse: something more than a hoary reverberation.
“There’s only one place to get one,” he warned, cheered by my offer. “And it’s a long ways off.”
I held my hands over the keys and felt an arcane inspiration to play.
“I’ll fetch you that key, if you teach me to play.”
- - -
I helped Birdcage Bill sloop the heavy cover over his piano. He gave me a map sludged with a red circle near an indecisively-shaped river.
“Only the key, boy,” he warned. “Don’t barter or buy nothin’ else. Never get a good deal, in that place.”
I went home to sleep.
On waking I was bleary with forget until I saw the map on my table. Spurred, I gathered my provisions, prepared my horse, and rode off toward the steeping horizon.
- - -
I rode for a day, two days, three. At first I hummed Birdcage Bill’s songs to myself and my horse (Tall Man Riding and Little Sod Shanty), but they made me sleepy or starving or made me sneeze so I stopped.
On the fourth day I found a place where the three streaks of river touched like a slingshot. There: the saloon Bill said would be. Deserted, bone-white, creaking audibly in the slurry desert wind. I tied my horse to a rotting post, hoping she wouldn’t spook and run off, leaving me in the sands.
The swinging doors sung me through with a tragic tune. I looked around and saw clearly but not truly the dozens of ghosts and their reticent brethren, perched on barstools, playing cards, drinking, chattering, done and gone.
I looked around and saw a stage.
A raised platform thick with cottony dust, it was adorned with instruments (fiddle, flute, banjo, piano, drum) and no artists to play them. I sensed their sadness, their longing: they were made to be played, not loosened and lost to time, silent, in strife.
As I got closer I saw.
How hollow the piano. How foreshortened the flute. The drum, with its skin busted straight through.
Their brokenness was secondary to their boniness.
It felt like there were hundreds watching as I crept like a beetle onto the stage; felt like there was music playing – Birdcage Bill’s – that was prompting me unwitting to tenderly touch each instrument in turn. The piano was eons older than Bill’s, white as a ghost but hefty, with an acute gall, a breathing, a huff like Thunder’s. Closer: its pedals were patellae, its keys were shaved-down ribs, curved up in the same way as Bill’s special key. I shuddered at the underbitten maw of it. I could not clench such a tooth. I turned away.
I was drawn to the fiddle.
(A key, a key for Bill…)
It had a spare string.
(Do not barter, nothing else…)
It was red and vivid as a vein.
(He never runs away with you,
Never cuts up any shine;
For the only friend I have on earth
Is this old gray mule of mine.)
I could not keep away.
The fiddle was sun-white, its bleaching its own tone, its body the fine kind of ivory you can see light through.
Its neck was a backbone.
Its bridge was a rose-pink palate.
Its strings, tender tendons.
I took up the rib-bow and played a long, quivering note, which morphed into a monstersong:
Windy Bill was a Texas man, —
Well, he could rope, you bet.
He swore the steer he couldn’t tie, —
Well, he hadn’t found him yet…
- - -
When Sawtooth Sam plays the fiddle, everyone listens.