by John Haymaker
At thirteen I fixated on playing piano like John, Paul, and Elton — the new kid in 1970. But not until I graduated college would a prostitute unlock the secrets of rock music for me — techniques I might have learned from my first piano teacher, Raleigh, a sightless British gentleman.
With an accent as charming as that of my rock heroes, Raleigh inspired me to memorize a new Beatles tune each week and, within months, “Für Elise” – right, the Beethoven bagatelle: my mother conspired with Raleigh to redirect my attention, which wasn’t difficult. The beginning pop selections, barebones renditions, weren’t the hard driving, rhythmic rock I had in mind. The week I learned Eleanor Rigby, Raleigh seized opportunity and played a mashup with the bagatelle. “You like that?”
“Very cool,” I said as he handed me a newly released volume, Beethoven’s Greatest Hits. If I sucked at rock, the book at least made Beethoven seem like another pop idol and I soon obsessed over this Ludwig Van. Entering a liberal arts school, I continued advanced lessons as electives – focused on Beethoven sonatas but still dabbled with pop selections – which in my hands never rocked or popped.
Nearing graduation, I hooked up at a nightclub with a young man queuing for drinks. He smiled, coy but pleasing, and waved, one arm in a cast. Despite his handicap, he managed the transaction and bought us both beers. We hit it off talking about music. Ronnie played rock by ear and we both adored the Beatles and Elton. Understanding my hankering, he lured me to a nearby piano bar just before closing. He spoke to the bartender, got us cocktails and took a seat behind their lacquer black concert grand. I pulled up a stool to a bar wrapping the piano’s contour as Ronnie rocked out Beatles and Elton hits, his right hand fingers and thumb wriggling free of the cast. Then he serenaded me with the Rocky Horror Picture Show theme, “Science Fiction/Double Feature.” Die-hard patrons applauded and bought us a round.
Ronnie’s heartfelt serenade, though, was tongue-in-cheek I’d learn the next morning when the calls started: Ronnie was a popular call boy. Double feature, indeed.
“Well, aren’t we all a bunch of whores,” I said. If he supposed I’d be angry I was, but I wasn’t bailing on this prodigy: not if I could learn. He later confided he’d come home from an evening college class to find his parents on the floor weeping. They’d found a letter he’d written to a boy. His father rose to his knees, crumpling the letter, wailing, “If you’re homosexual, I wish you were never born.” Ronnie dropped out of college and moved to the big city. Offering up his youth to older men restored his innocence. His cast? A john had gotten rough.
“But why’d you pick me up?” I asked.
“You’re my type. Call boys need to get laid too,” he said, tugging my collar. While he showered and primped for his calls, I tinkled a couple of Beatle songs on his keyboard, then embarrassed, reverted to Beethoven.
Unimpressed, Ronnie propositioned me while dressing: “Drive me to a few calls and I’ll teach you to play the way you want.” I agreed, delivering him to his johns, studying while waiting, and we soon had our own thing going. I moved in as summer began, lining up jobs for fall.
When not working calls, Ronnie played and sang at home or after-hours at the bars, throwing back shots. Mostly I watched his fingers, his touch, his strike, the power he generated using octaves and arpeggios. When I played he provided vocals, often snatching my sheet music: “Do you read the Kama Sutra over my shoulder in bed? Just play what you hear. That’s what makes the Beatles so freeing, everyone hears them differently. Artistic arrangements are endless.” I should have learned that from Raleigh: at Sunday brunches he took requests and sometimes, briefly, shuffled and fingered brail sheets before playing jazzy renditions.
One morning Ronnie heard me tinkling Bennie and the Jets. “Great, but what about Elton’s piano solo?”
“It’s not printed here,” I said. “The sheet music is just bare bones.”
“Good, then let’s see you figure it out.”
I spent a few days working up the solo, and one evening Ronnie applauded. “You’ve nailed it.” Yes, I had the feeling I could throw out my hands and do no wrong. That first chord of that song, a major 7th, the Delta chord, played with Elton’s sudden and deliberate touch is enough to set an auditorium on edge – once I’d heard myself strike it, it unleashed new confidence within me.
When his parents sent a card asking him to perform for their church gala, deepest desires for both of us seemed on the verge of working out. Of course, they had no clue about how he made his living, but Ronnie went home for a few days, hoping to reconcile. He returned dispirited. At the reception, members of the congregation repeatedly asked about his “new girlfriend” – clearly his parents had planted a narrative that his abrupt absence from their home and church was owing to a girl in his life. His parents hadn’t accepted his sexuality at all, but attempted to put on a brave face for the church.
Ronnie took to drinking more heavily upon his return and his alcoholism soon drove us apart. One evening, when I picked Ronnie up after a call I found him limping – the john had fractured Ronnie’s ankle. On they way to the ER, I told Ronnie I wouldn’t drive him to any more calls and begged him to stop before he got killed. Ronnie said he just had brittle bones. X-rays revealed two fractures and the bones misaligned. Later that evening, loaded with pain medication and alcohol, Ronnie lashed out in a drunken rage, “It takes bedding a real whore to make you feel clean, doesn’t it?”
We were over: my concern about his injury compounded with his parent’s renewed rejection left him feeling doubly dirty. Any hope of forming a powerhouse rock duo faded, but that was never really in the cards anyway: I wasn’t a natural and he was too self-destructive. At best, I’d learned through his pain to reach my own. Summer was over. I knew what to do and moved on, or I would in a few weeks time. Ronnie still required transport to doctor appointments and physical therapy, of course. We’d lost each other, but still shared our love for the piano.
John Haymaker writes from the Bay Area but also feels at home in Chicago, Houston, Denver and the PRC. Recent stories and LGBTQIA non-fiction appear online at Across the Margin, Bull & Cross, Flash Fiction Magazine, Better Than Starbucks, Bewildering Stories and CC&D Magazine. Chinese to English story translations appeared in Chinese Literature (Beijing) and Pig Iron Press (Youngstown). Op-Eds appeared in the Kansas City Star and the Christian Science Monitor. http://johnhaymaker.com.