… The hot white light of the spots illuminates the swirls of smoke as the heat overwhelms the whir and wobble of the small metal fan bolted to the top of the scarred and battered upright piano on the left side of the small stage. Stage is probably too generous, someone long ago had built a small platform out of 4X4s and plywood that the band somehow managed to fit on. The outside of the piano looks like it has been rescued from some local salvage yard, but inside its polished, tuned and maintained as lovingly as any concert hall Steinway, certainly not what you would expect on the “bar stage” at Danni’s Drop Inn. The name was a holdover from another time, there never had been an Inn and locals had always just called it Danni’s, never had been a Danni either for that matter, but that’s another story.
The young man is bent to his keys with a certain fury, fingers moving faster than you can follow, eyes closed in his own completely mad little world TJ Jackson is a honkytonk Mozart. The crowd roars as another searing piano solo emanates from the battered box the local band struggling to keep up as the clap and stomp of the crowd rises and falls at his command. It’s impossible to tell if he even hears them, his face a fusion of passion, pain, and longing, he may be playing here in this smoky little room but he is clearly somewhere else. The band breaks after a long set, but TJ never leaves the bench his long bony fingers continue to barely touch the keys eliciting a not quite melancholy soulful melody from the beat-up piano. A tune that reaches inside you and wraps itself around your heart bringing a tear or smile not caring which, pure in its incantation.
The evening ends like all evenings at the Inn, most folks meander out to the parking lot lamenting the late hour while a few faithful drunks continue holding up the bar well past last call. TJ gently wipes down the keys with a bar rag he keeps in his back pocket carefully closing the lid before disappearing quietly out the back. He shuffles head down, hands shoved down into his faded and torn jeans, aimlessly kicking at a stray beer can before crossing over the abandoned train tracks behind the bar. It isn’t far to the cinder block motel he has called home for the past few months, but he takes a circuitous route insuring no one has followed him. He wedges the flimsy wooden chair under the door knob and lays down behind the bed, he doesn’t bother to get undressed after that night in Macon he knows a few seconds make a difference. Another fitful night fraught with snatches of dreams oft repeated passes for rest before the morning traffic outside rouses him, another night of freedom.
Dan looks up from the flat top with a small smile, the name is just a coincidence, he doesn’t bother to say anything as TJ never speaks. He points to the coffee as the bacon sizzles along-side the half dozen eggs he cracked moments earlier. TJ drops the bread in the toaster pulling the butter and half & half from the walk-in. They have fallen into a strangely comfortable routine over the past few months, neither needing to inquire about the other happy to just share a few uncluttered moments of silent companionship. TJ’s conscience chides him to tell Dan his story, which is all the motivation he needs to make tonight his last performance before moving on, something special though – all great artists leave their best for the encore – TJ is no different.