“Jesus, if I knew the weather would be so bad, I wouldn’t have agreed to come out tonight,” Johnny murmured to himself as he grabbed his wet fedora hat from the passenger side of his Model T Ford. He walked toward the distant sound of laughter and jazz that hummed beneath the tattering rain until he saw rose pink lights that read, Big Easy Cuisine, shining against the blackened New Orleans sky. Women with fancy fur coats and short black dresses scuttled in, followed by men with dark blazers and matching scarf ties. As he walked toward the door, he felt his heartbeat quicken as the music and laughter became louder. He stopped a moment under the drizzling rain and reconsidered whether or not he should drive back home before anyone saw him. He hadn’t been here in almost 10 years, and his fear of how much things may have changed began to grip him, tugging at his shoulders, telling him to turn back. “Deep breath Johnny, folks already looking at you like you crazy for standing here under this rain with no umbrella. Just breathe, and keep walking,” he said to himself, then continued toward the establishment.
As he opened the dirty glass door, a plethora of sensations rushed him at once. The overwhelming smell of fried seafood, mixed with dark whiskey and cigarettes filled his nostrils. The sound of wild, black jazz music and drunk laughter knocked through his body with a dangerous rhythm. The glow of warm yellow lights that soaked the dance floor with magic and desire lit his eyes with a childish joy. Johnny tilted his hat over his knitted eyebrows and held a tight grin, allowing precious memories of himself, as a younger, and freer man, to fill his mind.
“I know that can’t be Private Smith over there by the door trying to not be seen can it?” His old friend Jack shouted with a wide smile, “Come over here and show me some love man!” “Yo, Jack! I can’t believe you got me out here in this rain man,” Johnny said heartily, “the old band is just as good as they ever were though, and this place is as lively as ever.” “Oh, don’t tell me you scared of a little rain now Johnny, and the old band ain’t the only thing that’s lively brotha. The women now are younger, and even more gorgeous than they were in our days' man! If I wasn’t shackled up with my girl, I would be all over them right now,” Jack laughed while they embraced one another. After finally releasing Johnny from his tight hold, he said “I been trying to get you to come out here for the past two years, you went and shut yourself up in a hole after the war. You know we’re brothers, you can talk to me about anything man.” Johnny scratched the back of his neck in unease and responded “Yeah man, I just been real busy with this new construction job I have over in Jefferson. Trying to keep up with the bills at my mom's house since my pops passed you know.” “I know man, I know…” Jack said as he placed his arm on johnny’s shoulder, “tell your mom I said hello too man. I’m gonna come by to see her soon.” “Yeah, for sure,” Johnny replied. “Come on, let’s take a seat, my lady’s been waiting to meet you, and she’s got a gorgeous friend that she brought over from Chicago with her too. If she fancies ugly, then who knows, maybe you’ll get lucky tonight!” Laughing, Johnny replied, “Yeah, Jack, maybe.”
As they walked through the crowd, both familiar and unfamiliar faces gave welcoming head nods and flirtatious smiles. The venue was packed tonight, but the band on stage is what Johnny was most interested in. As he followed behind Jack, he watched the older pianist play, his wrinkled fingers fluttering across the keyboard; the melodies of his freestyled soul, drawing Johnny deep into his Jazz. “Joanna, Keisha, I’d like you to meet my man Johnny, a childhood friend, and fellow brother-in-arms during the War. This cat saved my life more than once out there in Germany, I wouldn’t be here without him.” “It’s so nice to finally meet you, Johnny,” Joanna replied as she reached out to shake his hand, “All Jack does is talk about you. I’ve honestly never seen him in such an uppity mood before, not even when I first moved in with him! Please, do come over and visit more often!” In an embarrassed voice, Jack replied, “Oh, stop exaggerating, Jo.” Johnny laughed and replied “It’s a pleasure to meet you as well. All Jack did was talk about coming back home and proposing to you while we were overseas, so I’m glad his dream finally came true.” “Mhmm, I am too,” Joanna replied as she smiled over at Jack, “Well, this is my best friend Keisha, she just moved down here from Chicago so, she don’t know anybody except for me and Jack as it stands.” “Oh, hello Keisha. It’s a pleasure to meet you, welcome to New Orleans,” Johnny said as he took her hand. “It’s a pleasure to meet you as well Johnny, and thank you. New Orleans seems as lively and fascinating as everyone back home said it would be.” Shocked, Jack replied, “Oh this is nothing Keisha, once we take you out downtown, you’ll see how wild it can really get out here!”
They spent the night laughing at Jack’s embarrassing war stories, eating fried seafood, drinking dark liquor, and smoking cigarettes to the sound of New Orleans jazz. The night was a much-needed release for Johnny, that is, until Jack leaned in toward the center of the table with a wide grin stretched across his face, and asked, “So Johnny, what’s up? You gonna hit them keys tonight man or what?” This was the question he had been dreading would come up since he agreed to come tonight. With a nervous laugh, Johnny replied, “Na man, it’s been eight years since I touched a piano, I don’t think I could even do the basics right now.” “Oh, that’s nonsense man, no way you’d lose your touch, your magic hands Johnny!” Jack shouted. “Hey, if he don’t wanna play the piano right now don't hassle the man Jack,” Replied Joanna. “Oh baby, if you saw how good he was when we were younger, you’d be hassling him too. When he’s living in the everyday life, he does a hell of a good job acting like a regular member of the common folk, like you and me are baby. But on stage, on stage Johnny freer than anybody. That boy so free, he got the ancestors crying tears of joy, to see how far they people dun came! Ain’t that right Johnny?” Jack exclaimed loudly, obviously drunk from one too many shots of whiskey. “I was alright,” Johnny said blushing. “Oh–this is my favorite song!” exclaimed Joanna, “I’m sorry ya’ll, I’ll have to borrow Jack for a minute. Come on honey, let’s dance.” Johnny smiled gratefully as he watched Joanna mouth the words “You're welcome,” while running off with a drunk Jack to the dance floor.
“You must really like Jazz Johnny,” Keisha said. “Me? Yeah, just as much as the next person I suppose.” Johnny replied. “Well, your finger hasn’t stopped tapping since you’ve been on this table, so I think you might like it a bit more than the next person. That, and Jack been boasting about how good a pianist you are all week now,” Keisha laughed. “Oh,” Johnny said in embarrassment, “well, you know Jack, he can exaggerate a bit at times.” “That is true,” Keisha replied in concession. Johnny looked back up at the pianist playing on the stage, took another smoke of his cigarette, and said “Well, I used to play the piano for my pop’s church, he was a pastor over at Shining Baptist, so I was there from Monday to Sunday. That’s how I got so good at playing Jazz.” “Church boy playing the devil music huh?” Keisha replied in sarcastic jest. “What can I say, Satan may be bad, but he sure as hell know how to make some good music,” Johnny laughed. “Ain’t that the truth,” Keisha said, smiling back.
Johnny pushed his seat in toward Keisha, looked into her eyes, and began to speak seriously for the first time the whole night. “The thing about Jazz though, it ain’t too different from Gospel. The Spirit… the Spirit is still there, moving you, healing you, guiding you, ya know?” “Seems like you’re really passionate about this Johnny, this gift you have. But you too afraid to use it for some reason.” “Yeah, well… the funny thing about fear is that the more time you spend trying to avoid it, the more you end up believing in it. You believe in it so much that the thing you trying to run away from turns out coming true. God is one hell of a comedian I’ll tell you that.” They both smiled at each other while taking another smoke of their cigarettes. “But, enough about me. What do you do?” Johnny asked. “Oh, well I’m a public school teacher,” said Keisha, “I teach elementary school kids math over at William S. Gray Elementary.” “What’s that like?” asked Johnny. “It’s amazing, honestly. You get to work with a whole bunch of different kinds of kids that are full of so many hidden talents and possibilities. Possibilities that they don’t even know about! But if you can give them the right push, they capable of doing some amazing things.” Johnny listened intently as she continued to speak about her classes and her 33 students. He admired the confidence in her voice and the glimmer of excitement that sparkled in her eyes as she shared her stories with him. He realized that this was the first time she had spoken seriously the whole night.
“Oh–I think the band just got a lot quieter Johnny,” Keisha whispered in embarrassment. Johnny looked over at the stage to see Jack’s smiling face talking to the lead singer while pointing over at their table. “Oh God, what is that fool doing now,” said Johnny. “I think he might be trying to get you back on the piano,” Keisha laughed. Johnny shook his head in embarrassment “That man doesn’t quit.” Keisha looked him in the eyes and said “Hey, I think Jack sees you like those kids that I teach over at my elementary school. Someone with so much potential and possibilities, that you don’t even see in yourself, but with the right push, capable of doing amazing things.” Johnny looked up at her for a moment, took another drink of his whiskey, and said “Well… when you put it like that.”
“Ladies and gentlemen, my main man Jack from way back told me that ole Johnny from Treme is in the building tonight, Johnny, that you son?” Johnny tipped his hat toward the man speaking on the microphone. “Well for those of ya'll that don’t know, Johnny used to jam with me and the fellas here back before the war, and he was one of the best pianists I’d ever seen for his age. Since Johnny’s back in town, what do ya’ll say we give him a warm welcome and see if he still has those magic hands?” The crowd cheered on in drunken joy. Johnny smiled nervously at Keisha and said “Well, I guess this is that push you were talking about before huh?” She smiled back and said, “I guess so.”
Johnny stepped on the stage, shaking each musician's hands before sitting behind the piano. Looking down at the crowd from this stage brought back many memories, but he didn’t remember the crowd ever seeming as close as they did tonight. He could see all of their faces, some looking curiously, some uninterested, some smiling at one another. He placed his fingers on the piano keys, testing each note one by one, as a child would. His heart began to race, and so did his thoughts, “Just breathe Johnny, just breathe, you can do this,” he said to himself. “We ready for ya johnny!” Jack shouted, arms around Joanna's waist, right hand holding a lit cigarette, “give it to us one time good, for old times sake!” Johnny closed his eyes, feeling the glow of the stage lights hit his face, then the eyes of the crowd swarming his body, and finally, the memories of a younger him, playing on this same stage. He remembered this feeling, this was the feeling he always had right before he knew he was about to take flight. He held a tight grin on his mouth, took in a deep breath, and said “for old time's sake…” then began striking the keys with a fire that set the entire room ablaze. The band quickly jumped in to follow his lead, the crowd exploded in joy, and he could see Keisha smiling in amazement, bobbing her head while watching him play. Johnny couldn’t help but feel a great sense of freedom as he found himself on the stage once again, playing the piano, an older man, but just as free, and just as good as he used to be.