Most Thursday evenings over the last twenty years in Big Goose, the largest of the three pubs in the town of Mercy on the far north coast of California, Ricardo Alvarez, his long black hair in a ponytail, plays piano for a few hours on the small stage at the south end of the pub.
For the first seven of those twenty years, the poet Helen Morningstar was certain she was the originator of what Ricardo’s twenty-three acolytes say to each other on Thursday evenings when they take their seats close to the stage – Magic Time.
Then one night near the end of Year Seven, Helen, who was twenty-nine at the time, drank more than her usual one glass of good red wine nursed through the entirety of Ricardo’s performance, and she opined to Artie Green, who has been coming with Helen and Monte Riley and Sonia Benítez to hear Ricardo since Evening One, that she invented the groupies’ greeting Magic Time, and Artie replied, “Methinks you misremember, dear, for it was Ricardo who spoke those words when he first sat down to play for us seven years ago.”
And though Helen had no memory of Ricardo saying Magic Time to the Original Four before he played his first tune on the Big Goose upright (now a six-foot grand), she much preferred Artie’s origin story to her own and ever after believed Magic Time first came from the lips of their messiah.
Ricardo was born in Mercy, the youngest of three children, his mother Maria a maid at the Mercy Hotel, his father Roberto a logger. The family of five, along with Ricardo’s paternal aunt and maternal grandmother, lived in a little house on Portuguese Street, so named because in the 1800s when Mercy was a logging boomtown, Portuguese Street and Lisbon Lane were where the Portuguese families lived – Portuguese men comprising a large part of the work force that cut down all the old growth redwoods within fifty miles of Mercy. Over time, the Portuguese barrio became a Mexican barrio, and today the neighborhood is a mix of Mexicans, hippies, and retirees, with only a few of the original houses remaining.
When Ricardo was five, his father Roberto was seriously injured in a logging mishap and was unable to work for three years. To pass the time during his recuperation, Roberto took up the guitar and Ricardo was so keen on learning the instrument, too, Roberto bought Ricardo a small guitar. After just a few months of practice, the little boy could play well enough to accompany the singing of Mexican folk songs, and he eventually became a superb guitarist.
With the insurance settlement from Roberto’s accident, Maria and Roberto were able to buy their little house, and for Ricardo’s seventh birthday they bought him a big old upright piano, which Ricardo took to like a fish to water.
Ten years later at the age of seventeen, a self-taught virtuoso, Ricardo began playing piano on Thursday nights at Big Goose. In those days he was working as a dishwasher at the Mercy Hotel and would go on being a dishwasher at the hotel until he was twenty-one and got a job as a waiter at Jessica’s Seafood & Mexican, a gig he kept until he was twenty-six and moved with his wife Lisa and their two little kids Vincent and Jessica to Los Angeles where Ricardo hoped to make it big with his music.
Those nine months in Los Angeles were the first stretch of Thursdays when Ricardo didn’t play at Big Goose. The other stretch was for three months when Ricardo was thirty-two and a wealthy couple from New York City with show biz connections heard him play at Big Goose and decided he was the second coming of Bill Evans and George Gershwin rolled into one. They bankrolled Ricardo’s second crusade to make it big with his music, this time in Manhattan.
When his songs fell on deaf ears in New York as they had fallen on deaf ears in Los Angeles, Ricardo returned to Mercy where today he is a waiter at Campeona, one of Mercy’s snazziest restaurants, his wife Lisa is a loan officer at Mercy Savings, and Vincent, sixteen, and Jessica, fourteen, are fine musicians, Vincent a guitarist, Jessica a pianist and singer.
This Thursday, the week after Thanksgiving, the night stormy and cold, only a dozen of Ricardo’s regulars brave the bad weather to get to Big Goose to hear their maestro play.
And the minute Ricardo sits down at the piano, a drunk guy named Blair – snarled black hair and wild beard – sitting at a table in the middle of the pub shouts, “Play the blues, Cardo. None of that New Age crap.”
“Blooze!” shouts Blair’s companion, another drunk guy named Phil – scraggly blond hair and lopsided mustache. “Play the blooze.”
Helen Morningstar, for whom listening to Ricardo is a spiritual experience, fixes Blair and Phil with an icy stare and Blair flips her the bird and says, “Back off Morningstar. Free country.”
Which outburst prompts Justin Ogelthorpe, the bartender and bouncer of Big Goose, to come out from behind the bar and approach the two drunk guys – Justin who happens to be Helen Morningstar’s husband and also happens to be six-feet-six and mostly muscle.
“Blair and Phil, my esteemed fellow humans,” says Justin, smiling his Cheshire-Cat smile. “May I remind you that Thursday nights here we feature Ricardo playing his music for people who want to hear him play and not hear you interrupting the show. So get with the program or I must ask you to leave.”
“I’m a paying customer,” says Blair, jutting out his chin. “Freedom of speech.”
“Irrelevant,” says Justin, locking eyes with Blair. “Either keep it down or I will facilitate your exit. Simple.”
“Actually,” says Ricardo, gazing out on the forty or so people in the pub, most of them speaking quietly among themselves – his twelve fans reverently awaiting his music – “I’ve been playing lots of blues lately and thought I’d open with one tonight. So this is for you Blair. No title yet. If something comes to you, let me know.”
He plays a lush opening chord, waits for the notes to decay to near silence, and with his left hand begins a slow bluesy bass line way down low – a train leaving the station and ever so gradually gathering speed until the train is rolling along at a bodacious clip and he adds bluesy flourishes with his right hand, the flourishes coming faster and faster until he’s playing a glorious run of notes – love requited! – a marvelous melody resolving into flourishes again as the train disappears in the distance.
During the break between the first and second sets – Blair and Phil gone – Justin hands Ricardo a napkin on which Blair scrawled Choo Choo Train Blues.
“I like it,” says Ricardo, smiling at Justin. “Only I’ll shorten it to Choo Choo Blues. Too many songs with train in the title.”
“He wrote on a napkin for Helen, too,” says Justin, serving Ricardo the usual between-sets lemonade. “Apologizing.”
“He’s had a rough life,” says Ricardo, who has known Blair since kindergarten. “Considering his horrible father and cuckoo mother, Blair’s a sweetheart.”
As she often does, Helen spends the intermission writing in her notebook – Ricardo’s playing unleashing torrents of words.
I wanted to kill that drunk and what does Ricardo do?
Gives him a beautiful song. I wanted to answer hate
with hate and Ricardo answered with love.
He made a train with his music and I rode that train
from the railroad yard of despair to the glorious
heights of acceptance and down into the valley
of forgiveness, wounds healed with love.
I know why I come here every Thursday,
faithful as the moon. To be opened by his music,
opened to the miracle of being alive.
Blair pulls up to the decrepit trailer where Phil lives on his mother’s property two miles south of Mercy, the truck’s headlights illuminating broken down cars and piles of junk.
“Got some killer weed,” says Phil as he always does when Blair brings him home. “Come on smoke a bowl.”
And for the first time in years Blair says, “Not tonight, man. Gotta get home.”
“What for?” says Phil, grimacing. “So Sheila can bitch at you?”
“I just want to,” says Blair, shrugging. “I’ll call you tomorrow.”
“Fuck you,” says Phil, getting out of the truck. “Won’t even smoke a bowl with me.”
Blair watches Phil stumble through the mess to his trailer and thinks He’s crazier than my mother was.
When the trailer door slams, Blair backs away and heads north on the coast highway, his truck long overdue for servicing, though he hadn’t noticed the telltale sounds until now.
Blair pulls into the driveway of the old two-story house in Mercy he inherited when his mother died six years ago, the house he’s lived in his entire life save for the six years he was in the Army. His father died when Blair, an only child, was twenty-four and stationed in Germany. When Blair’s mother called with the news of his father’s death, Blair tried to feel sad, but instead felt a wild joy that lasted for months and made him decide not to stay in the Army.
He imagined Mercy would be paradise with his father gone, but within a few weeks of getting home he felt lost in the same way he’d felt lost before joining the Army. He wanted to get a job as a car mechanic, having been an excellent car mechanic in the Army, but when he got turned down at a couple garages, he took a job at the lumber mill and was glad to be making money again.
Sheila worked at the mill, too. She and Blair fell crazy in love and got married when they were both twenty-seven, and they were happy for a few years. They went to Europe once and Hawaii twice and had a blast, but they never could save enough money to get their own place, so they went on living with Blair’s mother who was a hoarder and delusional and smoked like a chimney – the house a giant rat’s nest except for Blair and Sheila’s room.
Then the mill closed and Sheila went to work in a bakery and Blair worked for UPS until he hurt his back and went on disability. Then Sheila got fired at the bakery for arguing with her boss, and because of that firing she was out of work for six months until she finally got a job trimming bud for a large-scale marijuana grower.
When Blair’s back was better he got a good-paying job driving a cement truck and they were finally saving money so they decided to get pregnant. But Sheila had a miscarriage and Blair got busted for driving the cement truck without the proper license and his driver’s license was suspended for six months. Sheila got her boss to hire Blair as a trimmer, but he was too slow and mangled the buds and they let him go.
Then Blair’s mother died and left them the house and eighty thousand dollars, which was just enough to get them out of debt. They threw away tons of Blair’s mother’s junk, cleaned the house from top to bottom, tried to get pregnant again, Sheila had two more miscarriages, and the doctors said she couldn’t have kids.
Now they’re thirty-eight. For the last three years Blair has been a clerk in a liquor store and Sheila is still a trimmer. They have separate bedrooms – angry strangers sharing the old house – and lately Sheila has been thinking about divorcing Blair and marrying a wealthy older guy she met a few months ago. She hasn’t slept with the guy yet, but she’s on the verge. He has a beach house south of Mercy and a condo in Maui and millions in the bank, and though she doesn’t really like him, she is so tired of trimming bud from which she’s developed arthritis in her fingers, and she hates living with Blair who she hardly recognizes as the person she loved so much she couldn’t imagine living without him.
All that is true when Blair gets home a couple hours after listening to Ricardo play piano in Big Goose.
He finds Sheila sprawled on the living room sofa watching an old movie on their big-screen television and Blair thinks She’s still the most beautiful woman in the world to me even though she hates me now.
“You’re home early,” she says gruffly. “World ending?”
“Just wanted to talk to you, Dove,” says Blair, coming into the living room and sitting in an armchair across the room from her.
“Hold the presses,” says Sheila, turning off the movie. “You haven’t called me Dove in a million years. You need some money? That why you came home early? Ran out of cash?”
“No, I…” He gets a CD out of his pocket. “I wondered if you’d like to listen to some music with me.”
Sheila sits up and squints at him. “You stoned?”
“No,” says Blair, shaking his head. “I was at the Goose and Ricardo was playing and… I thought you might like to hear some of his music. I bought a CD from Justin on my way out. Thought you might like to hear it.”
“I’ve heard Ricardo there a few times,” says Sheila, wondering where this is going. “Sure. Put it on. You hungry? I got takeout Thai tonight. Some left.”
“Maybe later,” says Blair, popping the CD into the stereo.
They sit on the sofa a few feet apart, listening to the music, neither of them saying a word during the first two songs.
When the third song begins, a tender ballad, Sheila turns to Blair and says, “Hold me?”
They move close to each other and he puts his arms around her and says, “I want to start over, Dove. I can make good money as a mechanic. I just have to be more aggressive about getting a job and then I’ll make enough so you don’t have to trim anymore and you can make jewelry or whatever you want. I want to do this, Dove. I’m not high.”
“I can tell,” she says, relaxing in his embrace. “You sound like the old you I fell in love with.”
“I really want to try again with you.”
“I want to try with you, too. And maybe…”
“Maybe what? Tell me.”
“Maybe…” She starts to cry. “Maybe we could adopt a baby. I want to be a mother. You know I do.”
“Yes,” he says, holding her tight. “We’ll adopt a baby. And you’ll be a great mother. I know you will.”
“And you’ll be a wonderful father.”
Thursday again, the faithful gather close to the stage at Big Goose to hear Ricardo play, and they are joined by Blair and Sheila – Blair with his hair and beard trimmed, looking sharp in a silky green shirt and black corduroys, Sheila looking fine in a sexy red dress and glittering earrings.
Now Ricardo sits down at the piano and Helen turns to Blair and Sheila and whispers, “Magic time.”