In my cabin, I assessed the gravity of the situation. I was lying on my bed, counting down the two hours until show time. My bloated stomach was lolling starward and leeward with the ship, and the waters seemed to be growing rougher. I was dizzy, nauseous, and dull. It was apparent to me that my future hinged on my sobering up. But I couldn’t drink coffee because it would make my hands sweat and slide around the keys, and I couldn’t go to sleep because I might slumber through the alarm. Instead I unhappily passed time envisioning the worst and trying to will dexterity into my numbed fingers.
Fifteen minutes before the show I climbed into my shirt, grabbed my hat, and headed for the aptly-named Saga Theater. The ship was rolling pretty badly—the weather had turned for the worse—but I noted with some hope that I seemed to be walking as well as anyone else. I tried reciting the alphabet backwards and made it to H. Under my breath, I attempted the Gettysburg Address in Pig Latin and got as far as my usual stopping point. I closed my eyes and tried to touch my nose with my index finger. When I made contact (left nostril—not bad), I opened my eyes to discover that I had somehow journeyed to the front of the ship, and the Theater was aft.
So now I was trying to keep my dignity intact on the run, panting heavily, circus shirt puffing out around me. I smiled at passengers as I slalomed dangerously through them, hoping no one would report me. Eventually I lumbered into the backstage entrance, thankful that this workout might at least have helped sober me up. The stage manager was waiting. “What are you doing, you clown?” she yelled. “Do you realize you’re 15 minutes late?” I looked at her blankly. “We changed the time. It was posted on the musicians’ board. Where were you? Never mind, just get out there.” She pulled out her walkie talkie. “Pianist taking the stage.” I hesitated briefly, trying to think if there might be some sensible alternative. “PUT YOUR DAMN HAT ON AND GET OUT THERE!”
I set the hat on my head and walked determinedly onto the stage, still breathing hard, still wondering how drunk I was. The spotlight shone hot on me as I followed my usual zagging course through the props. Suddenly my shirt, half untucked, caught on a wall of fake bricks and sent them tumbling. I froze momentarily and looked back at the rubble, uncertain whether I should fix the mess or keep going. There was scattered snickering from the audience as I moved on toward the piano.
“Ladies and gentlemen, the Grrreatest Show On Earth: P......T......Barrrrrnumm!” The ever-exhuberant announcer was trying to make up for lost time as I scampered onto the platform. I quickly squeezed in front of the bench, and in my haste nearly knocked it backwards off the ledge. Fortunately I was able to catch it, one hand on the piano for balance. I could feel my knees shaking as I sat down and took a deep breath. Full of fear and uncertainty, I hit the first chord of the dreaded Overture.
You did it, man, you’re a star! My internal cheerleader kicked in immediately, supportive as ever. It’s okay, the ship’s rolling pretty hard, your reactions were good, they can’t tell you’ve been drinking. Don’t forget to pause after this next phrase, whoa boy, look out for that left hand jump, OUCH, that’s okay, they don’t hear it, you’re doing good, just be careful with the melody, it’s all th..OH NO, COVER IT UP, MAY DAY! Take a breath, you can do it, you’ve survived worse, what doesn’t destroy you strengthens you, remember? I said COVER UP, DAMMIT, get it back, oh my God, THE MELODY, IT’S...IT’S...SORRY, PAL, I’M BAILING OUT! I’ll call you.
I had totally lost it. I didn’t know where I was in the piece, and under the heavy weight of failure my mind was spinning. My face was flushed and my stomach churned, but my hands were still moving; they at least looked like they were playing Ragtime. I didn’t fight it; I gave myself a few measures to listen and calm down. As the platform began its humming descent I reasserted myself, improvising freely with my right hand while my left hand continued to provide the pulse.
I threw myself into this new creation with abandon. By the time the platform jerked to a halt, I had completely lost track of time. With a sigh of relief, I constructed an ending, not overly dramatic but definitely conclusive. I glanced over at the drummer to see how I’d done. He wasn’t there.
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