The sounds of the city street faded as the door swung shut, the chaos replaced by the comforting murmur of a few dozen conversations and the gentle clinking of silverware on porcelain. Eliza opened her eyes wide and fixed her glasses while her eyes adjusted to the dark interior. She felt along the wall for the coat hook, “her” hook, and began to question her own memory when she couldn’t find it.
Edward saw her come in and came to greet her.
“Good evening Eliza, lovely to have you back. How were the grandkids?”
“Oh, they’re just swell. Bit odd this year though, none of them wanted turkey. Young people just don’t like meat anymore, even on Thanksgiving.”
He nodded. “People’s taste is changing too fast these days, I’m with you there. Grandpop would’ve never believed how many meals we serve without meat now.” Ed’s grandfather John, who built this restaurant, used to cook Thanksgiving meals each year at the local food bank with Eliza’s father. Back when everyone ate meat, it seemed. “Can I help you with your coat?”
She turned to let him help her. “Oh and, Eddie dear, it seems my hook is missing. It was right over here…”
“I’m sorry, I should’ve mentioned I redid the walls last weekend, the hooks are all over here now.” He hung the jacket with care on the new coat rack.
“Oh all right,” she said. “Seems everything’s changing fast these days.”
“We can barely keep up either,” he said. “Customers expect so much more these days. One wrong move and we lose half our business.”
“I’m sure you’ll be fine, dear,” she said, patting him on the arm. “You always are.”
She walked to the corner and sat down at the piano her father had gifted John for the grand opening. Adjusting her posture as best as her old back could manage, she took a deep breath and played. At once she was a small girl again, sitting alongside papa as they sung and played in the parlor.
She recalled the way her father smiled at her, welling up with pride, the first time she played this song for him. She remembered the first time they performed together at the county fair — standing alongside him on stage afterward as they awaited the judges’ decision, her little hand disappearing in his, her fingertip scratching at his callouses. When they placed third, he took her to Sweet Scoops to celebrate with ice cream.
Her face contorted as she remembered the long months their piano gathered dust, when she couldn’t bring herself to play. She suppressed a tear thinking of her father’s rage when he found out why, when he learned what Rick Wallace did to her after the Sadie Hawkins dance, and stormed over to the Wallace residence with clenched fists. Then, recalling that first time they returned to play at the county fair again, she smiled.
As she poured herself into each measure, her creaky bones filled with bittersweet energy, and the room quieted to listen to the melody. She played to the end of the hour, stood to gentle applause, and headed home.
The next day, Ed called her from the restaurant and said he had some bad news.
“We can’t have you coming back to play anymore,” he said.
She was stunned. “Ed, I’ve been playing here since I was a girl. I never ask for money or anything. The diners tell me they love the music.”
“I know, and believe me it’s not my choice. But we had some very upsetting complaints from diners last night.”
“Well what does that mean?”
“That first song you played, well, apparently the artist was accused of some predatory behavior. You know how it is these days.”
“What does that have anything to do with me playing?”
“Some of our diners found it ‘horrifying’ — their words, not mine — that we show support for such people. They made some threats.”
“That they would get the restaurant shut down if we… hold on, I wrote it down… ‘if we continue to use our public standing to uphold a toxic culture and the people who support it’.”
“Well that doesn’t make any sense.”
“I’m sorry Eliza, I know. But we’re hanging on by a thread as it is, we’ve had to let go of some employees already, and just before the holidays too. I hate to take this from you, but we just can’t afford to risk you coming back.”
She thanked him for the call as pleasantly as she could and hung up. The piano in her living room, the same one she used to play with her father, the one she continued to play for her own children and grandchildren, seemed different now. It looked the same, but its history, its memory, had become suddenly tarnished.
Weeks passed, then months, and Eliza found herself without that old spark, the once-familiar excitement that got her sitting down to play each morning, and perform each evening. She walked to the park one afternoon and sat on her favorite bench to feed the birds. Watching the creek flow by, she wished her father were here to dust off the old keys once more and play a happy song with her.