Piano Man (Entered in Reedsy “Second Chances” Contest)
"Ok, just to recap, come on out when you hear me call your name," Chad explained. To Chad Holding, the host of 'Second Chances,' tonight is just another Thursday night prime-time. But to the contestant, this is life-changing.
"Going live in 5, 4, 3, 2, 1, ACTION!"
The set erupts with cheers as the theme music begins to play as Chad steps out from stage left.
"Welcome back, ladies and gentlemen! I hope you're all doing well tonight," he says, lights reflecting off his dark gelled hair. Taking a seat in one of the two blue armchairs in the center of the stage, the audience quiets down.
"For those of you joining for the first time, welcome to the live broadcast of 'Second Chances,' the show where we help paroled ex-cons change the trajectory of their lives. Tonight, we have a recently released parolee and his story is one of trials and inequalities. So please give a warm welcome to Lex Vincent from Baltimore, Maryland!"
The crowd once again goes into an uproar as a pale, muscular man comes out from stage right, meeting Chad in the center. He nervously waves as he sits.
"So, tell us about yourself, Lex; what was it like growing up in Baltimore?"
"Well," Lex began, obviously not in his zone, "it wasn't easy. My father was a janitor at the local high school and passed when I was 12. He was in the wrong place at the wrong time...ended up in the middle of a bank robbery gone sideways. And my mother was a struggling alcoholic who couldn't hold a job. After my father died, I had to support us. When I was 16, I was emancipated after my mother died in rehab. Even on my own, I had to work three jobs to make rent while I tried to finish high school."
"Wow," Chad sighs, "I'm so sorry. How did you get through it all?'
"It's kinda funny actually," Lex chuckles, leaning back in his chair, "Walking to school, there was this music shop on my way. It had red bass guitars, glossy violins, and the shiniest tuba you've ever seen. I always looked in the window at all those beautiful instruments, but I never dared to go inside. One afternoon, there was an ice storm and I finally went in to get out of the storm. Once inside, out of all the instruments, one caught my eye; it was an old, wooden piano."
While reminiscing, Lex looks at ease for the first time since he sat down that evening. The audience could see the struggles of his life melt away.
"So you liked this piano? What happened next?"
"Well, I sat down," Lex explains simply, "and then the owner, Ms. Lansing, greeted me. I'll never forget her, she was just so kind. She saw how much I loved the piano, so she offered me a lesson."
"How did it go," Chad inquires. "I bet you were a natural!"
"Quite the opposite. It was awful," Lex laughs, as does the audience. "Good thing there were no cameras. But even though I was horrible, Ms. Lansing didn't laugh; she sat with me and taught me my first chord. After that, I came back every Wednesday for the next six years. She taught me chords and songs and music theory. I'd help her out around the store if she needed something, but she never asked me for a penny for those lessons. She taught me how to read and play music on a page, and to feel the music in my soul. I bet it's no surprise that she was a retired piano teacher. But one Wednesday, she wasn't there. Then she wasn't there the next or the one after that. I got the news that she had a stroke in her sleep. Her shop closed after that," he remembers, tears in his eyes.
"You know," Lex continues, "she let me crash in the back of the store sometimes in between my shifts. She was good like that."
"Ms. Lansing sounds like a very special lady," Chad notes, almost as if it were just them talking, "I hate to change the subject, but how did a guy like you end up in prison for two years?"
Lex pauses. "I honestly didn't see it coming. It happened on a rainy night. I had been working three shifts, including the night shift, at a gas station. I shouldn't have been on the road, but I had no money for a cab. The road was empty since it was so late and I was so tired that I fell asleep. I ran a red light," Lex pauses, lost in thought.
"Her name was Hilary Janice. She was walking home from the grocery store because her car broke down. I didn't see her," Lex stops and takes a deep breath. "I was arrested and charged with involuntary manslaughter. I pled guilty. To this day, I will never forget the faces of her young children sitting in the courtroom." The audience is silent; some even have tears in their eyes. "I made parole just this week, and here I am. I haven't even found a new apartment yet."
"What a story," Chad inhales, collecting himself. Even the people sitting farthest away from him can hear the sadness in the host's voice. "I want to ask you to share something more with us, Lex," he says, turning to the audience, and then gesturing to his left. To the left of the men sits an old, wooden piano. Lex gasps as tears well up in his eyes.
"While it might not be the same piano that was in Ms. Lansing's store, I'm hoping that you will play something for us."
"I can't believe this...," Lex breaths, walking towards the piano.
The worn patina of the piano shines in the bright stage lights as Lex walks towards it. Sitting down, his hand ghosts over the keys. He sighs, looking down at the keys, and then at the audience. Taking a deep breath, he says, "The song I'm going to play is 'There Must Be A Better World Somewhere' made famous by Dr. John. Ms. Lansing taught me this song after my mother died."
Lex starts to play, filling the studio with the rich sounds of blues. Each note is so organic it sounds like a part of Lex's soul. Each chord and note resonates throughout the set. And then he begins to sing.
"Sometimes, I wonder just what I am fighting for, I win some battles but I always lose the war. I keep right on stumblin' in this no man's land out there, but I know, yes, I know that there must be a better world somewhere."
The stark purity of the piano contrasts perfectly with the gravel of Lex's voice, while at the same time the jazzy, bluesy piano accompaniment blends with his voice in perfect balance. The entire stage is now dark, with only a spotlight shining on Lex and the piano. Every single note is filled with emotion and soul.
"If it ain't here, maybe in the year after. Instead of tears, I'll learn all about laughter. Meanwhile, I'm stuck out here; Lord knows it just ain't fair. But I know, yes; I know that there must be a better world somewhere."
As sings the last verse, the music decrescendos, and his voice is bearly above a whisper.
"Lord, now there must be a better world somewhere."
The entire studio is silent for a moment - and then the audience is on their feet, erupting in applause. Nothing could be heard over the cheering and clapping of the crowd.
"Ladies and gentlemen, give it up for the Piano Man!" Chad proclaims loudly, walking over and shaking Lex's hand. The audience quiets.
"That was spectacular!" he exclaims. "As you were playing, the studio got a call from Sony Records; they want to offer you a contract and recording time to create your first album. 'Second Chances' also wants to help you get on your feet, so we have paid the rent for an apartment for 12 months. That apartment and - the shop below it - are both yours. That shop just so happens to be the welcoming music store in the middle of Baltimore that used to be owned by Ms. Lansing."
At this point, Lex has tears streaming down his face, as Chad helps to stabilize him and keep him upright. The audience is clapping, openly crying, and many are hugging each other.
"What are you going to do now?" Chad inquires.
Sniffling, Lex says, "This is all just so amazing. I never thought anything like this could happen. I would love to use the store to help introduce music to the kids of Baltimore. Music is such a gift. I also have to help out Hilary Janice's kids. I haven't been able to do anything while I was in prison. So I want to pledge a good chunk of whatever I earn from this record to those three. I know money can not give them their mom back, but it can help them with college or with anything else they might need."
"How touching! Well, my friend, I can honestly say that this has been my favorite episode of 'Second Chances' that I've ever hosted. I wish you luck on your journey," Chad replies, beginning with a shake of Lex's hand, but pulling the man in for a meaningful embrace as the audience applauds.
Lex doesn't squander his second chance. He uses his music contract to become a rising blues star but keeps to his roots in Baltimore and to his promise to the Janice children. In the end, Lex knows that he can't reverse time. But with the fresh start he's been given, he makes sincere efforts to make amends and to live life to the fullest with his second chance.