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Luigi Andante’s small apartment sat on the fourth floor of a block in the West Bronx at the corner of 18th and Davidson.  It was adequate as a living space, but Luigi craved more than this.  “A penthouse overlooking Central Park would suit me just fine”, he had told his friends often enough. Belly-shaking laughter had been the standard response to his pipedream, but Luigi was not to be put off. All he needed was a break. Lots of successful people had launched their fame and fortune by just getting that one break and Luigi Andante saw no reason why it should not happen for him.  If nothing else he had confidence, albeit some might have said it was misplaced.  Others had conjectured that such aspirations had no place at all in Luigi’s life. His was a life of the mundane; of a day-to-day survival. It had been this way since he was a boy of fourteen, when both his parents had been killed in a gangland crossfire. The orphaned Luigi had been taken into care by his uncle, Frank Maestoso, and for the past seven years had worked for him in his bar on 11th Avenue.

  The bar provided  a meeting place for racketeers like the Mancando family and their henchmen, who ran most of the illegal import operations on the east side of town. Luigi was thankful that his only involvement with them was to serve their drinks. He would gladly have found somewhere else to work if he had not owed such a great debt to his uncle Frank, but life can sometimes present a person with an opportunity at the most unexpected of times.  In the quieter periods of the day Luigi would tidy the bar, collecting glasses and emptying ash trays. A popular repository for customers to leave their empty glasses was on top of an old upright piano in the corner of the bar. Luigi had been captivated when he first heard Max Lowenstein playing a selection of tunes from the Broadway shows on its keyboard. Max had been a regular customer in Frank’s bar for years and was a former professional musician. Now 82 years old he spent his time enjoying a couple of glasses of Bourbon in the company of friends.  Luigi had watched Max casually knocking out tune after tune, much to the enjoyment of the customers, for whom he would gladly provide a rendition of a favourite melody and always with the prospect of a free drink.  Luigi learned much from Max and determined to be just as good one day. He practised for hours at his scales and declared to Max one evening how hard he had been working at them. Max laughed.

“Forget your scales. Practise with your heart and your soul and your hands will take care of the rest,” he had told an incredulous Luigi. “And read music only if you don’t have a good book to hand.”

Max had spent an entire career playing by ear. “I wasn’t no concert pianist, son,” he explained. Max had played with some of the top jazz combos in his youth, and in later years had been resident pianist in clubs, restaurants and hotels. He explained as much as he was able to about rhythm, tone and syncopation to an eager Luigi, who spent all his spare time at the old keyboard until his fingers ached.

Max’s visits to Frank’s bar were metronomic in their regularity and, on the occasion that he did not show up, the worst fears of all his friends were realised when he was found dead in his apartment the following day. The send off  he was given on the day of his funeral was staggering with the great and the good of the musical fraternity turning out in his honour. Frank had never done such good business. However,  with the absence of evening entertainment, the bar’s profits soon began to diminish. Luigi was twenty and eager to be finding something in life other than clearing tables, and it was an evening in March that an opportunity opened up for him.  Tony Largo had just been released from Sing Sing after a three year stretch for fraud and was having a ‘meet’ with some ‘associates’.

“Where’s the music, Frank?”

“Didn’t you hear? Max passed away.”

“You don’t hear much in the slammer, Frank, except for the squeal of sex offenders. Too bad about old Max. So, do you have a replacement?”

Before Frank could make apologetic noises, Luigi said, “I play a bit, Mr Largo.”  Tony Largo slowly looked at Luigi and then turned his head to Frank.

“Yeah,” said Frank, “Max taught the boy a few things on the piano.”

“So, are you as good as the great Max Lowenstein, Luigi?” said Tony Largo.

“One day I hope to be.”

Luigi’s enthusiasm was palpable. Tony Largo regarded the young man as someone he might once have been himself. Someone wanting to make his own way in the world, wanting to make a name for himself. Fame and fortune. It was all there in Luigi Andante’s eyes and eager expression. This boy had a hunger.

“Do you have dreams, kid?”

“Sure. I want to be rich and famous and have a big car and live in a penthouse overlooking Central Park.”

Tony Largo smiled and nodded to the others around him. “OK, let’s see what you got. Can you play ragtime? I really like ragtime.”

Luigi made his way to the piano and began a distinctive ragtime vamp with his left hand while picking out a well-known melody with his right. His head nodded slightly as he maintained the beat. He felt as though he were being auditioned, since that was the distinct feeling he was getting as Tony Largo, dressed in his grey pinstripe three-piece suit and camel hair overcoat, surveyed him like some theatrical impresario. He finished the piece and Tony Largo clapped enthusiastically, at the same time encouraging his henchmen to do the same. He addressed Frank. “I think I can offer young Luigi an opportunity in one of my establishments.” The look in Frank’s eyes betrayed his fear that business would suffer even more without Luigi. Tony Largo over many years had learned to discern many different types of fear. This was the type of fear he had sympathy for.

“Frank, don’t worry. I got the ideal replacement. A new music machine. You fill it up with records and people put money in a slot to hear the music played. I can get one put in here for you at discount. You get a percentage and everybody wins. What do you say?”

Frank realised that this was not a question for debate or refusal. Tony had already made the decision. There was nothing he could say except, “Thank you, Mr Largo. Good luck Luigi. I’ll miss you.”

*

The Sunset Club was on 15th and Earlwood. It promoted ‘exotic dancing’ and was to all intents and purposes a strip joint. Luigi was part of the small band that played for each of the acts that came and went. The intervals were filled with him playing the piano while the rest of the band members went for smokes and drinks. He had built up a considerable repertoire of tunes from the shows under the tutelage of the late Max Lowenstein. This talent together with his boyish looks had made him very popular. Luigi felt he was on his way at last and the $25 a week he was getting enabled him to actually put some cash aside. His vision of fame and a penthouse suite was gaining more clarity in his mind. He was now even beginning to draw up images of the kind of furnishings he would have. In this respect he was receiving more than the occasional word of advice from some of the performers at the club.  A young unsophisticated piano player was certainly more of a catch for the girls than the careworn, beer -sodden horn or bass players from the band.

Tony Largo was quick to identify Luigi’s popularity amongst the females and reckoned he would be ideal in one of his restaurants on the east side of town.  Luigi had quite enjoyed being part of a band and had picked up quite a lot from the other members, including tips like having a cigarette dangling from your lips while playing. Luigi did not smoke but an unlit cigarette served just as well to provide the suave image. The cultivation of this image which Luigi had developed without his even realising it, and which in many ways retained his innocent charm, was taking him even further into the realms of a world he had only previously dreamt of.

Ristorante Scherzo was situated in one of the tidier areas of town and consequently attracted a better class of customer. Luigi was required to wear a suit, shirt and tie, but which were thankfully supplied by Tony Largo. Tony also had Luigi sent to his own hairdresser on 5th Avenue, where he was given a classy haircut.  Luigi was not just a pianist, he had become a product. A product of Tony Largo. A piece of artwork on a plinth, but a piece that could also play the piano. It is always nice to have an attractive piece of art, but it always means that someone will be envious of that piece and want it for themselves.

Leo Mancando had been surprised at the appearance of a music machine in Frank’s bar and asked where Luigi was these days. The answer he got did not please him. He remembered the days of Max Lowenstein. “This is typical of Tony Largo. You can’t replace live music with this Rock-Ola junk,” and he scowled at the machine against the wall. “Where’s your Luigi now, Frank?”

“Last I heard he was in that fancy restaurant of Tony’s..The Skirt ...or something. Over on the east side.”

“Right, well I might just drop over there and see what’s on the menu.”

The Mancando family was well known, so it was not long before word reached Tony Largo that Leo was seated in one of his fashionable restaurants and Tony aimed to find out why.

“What do you want here, Leo?” Tony’s words were edged with menace. The enmity between Largo and Leo Mancando was long-lived.

“Well, since Frank’s place no longer has any good music, I came to listen to young Luigi play here. I heard the food ain’t too bad either. I also thought I might introduce Luigi to people who enjoy how he plays rather than what he looks like.”

“You get out of here, Leo. That kid’s going nowhere.”

“My point exactly. He’s not going to make anything of himself as window dressing in a place like this. He deserves better, and I thought you of all people would know that, after what happened to his folks.” The last remark carried a significant hammer blow. “It’s pretty clear he has no idea who was responsible for them getting killed.” Tony Largo was expressionless.

“You’re talking crap, Leo.”

“Oh, believe me, Tony, your stooges sing like birds in Sing Sing. Anyhow, as soon as he’s finished his set here, Luigi has agreed to come and meet some people I know.”

“You can’t do that!”

“I can, ‘cos he ain’t under contract to you. I suppose that way, you pay him what you feel like, eh?”

Luigi was elated when he left the restaurant with Leo, talking excitedly about potential recording sessions in a studio. The two were so deep in conversation that they were unaware of the open window of the black sedan parked across the street. The first two shots killed Leo instantly. The third stray one hit Luigi in the chest. As he lay on his back in the street, his last vision was of the penthouses on top of the New York skyline.

 

END

 

As well as short stories, articles and plays, Wally Smith has published three novels: The Intricate Soul, Empirical Evidence and Shelf Life,  and a fourth, The Night Cleaner’s Guide to Buddhism, published in episode form on his blog, silverscouse.wordpress.com.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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