The piano man

A chapter from “Valley Road: Uplifting Stories from Down South”by Gary Lloyd, complete with video of the man playing the piano:

As long as I have known him, he has played the piano.

At Christmas, Mr. Darby would play “Jingle Bells” and “Santa Claus Is Coming To Town” at my grandmother’s house. He could have played professionally, and there is no doubt about that.

When I moved into my grandmother’s old house not far from Trussville, Alabama, the brown Wurlitzer piano remained. Its top held framed engagement and wedding photos, and its bench often acted as a resting place for bills and other mail. I never played, but there was a time, when my wife and I lived there, that Jessica would sit down on that piano bench and play. Our dog, Abby, sat with her.

When we moved out, the piano again remained. It stayed when a family friend moved in, and after he left. It has stayed since my mother-in-law moved into the house. She likes the piano there, and so do I. It provides a glimpse into the past.

The man who tickled those ivories for so many years is in his nineties now and has lived in a retirement community for a number of years. He has battled severe dementia. When he has called my parents’ house and spoken to me, he has believed I am actually my dad. When I have visited him at the retirement community, he has asked the same questions over and over. He doesn’t remember asking them the first time. Each time, I just answer him, as if it is the first time he’s asked.

This retirement community has a spacious lobby area, almost like a huge living room. There are couches, women at tables playing card games, and a huge, glass case filled with fluttering birds.

There is also a piano.

We visited the Piano Man on September 1, 2014, to see him for his birthday, which was the following week. Mr. Darby wore gray slacks and a teal sweater, and I wondered how in the world people can wear sweaters in September in Alabama.

Somehow, we convinced him to sit down at the piano and play. I wondered how he would know what to play, how he would remember which keys to press. He sat down, and muscle memory took over. He played “It Had To Be You,” not messing up a single time in a video recording that lasted one minute and four seconds. I couldn’t believe that a man who often forgot my name could do this. It was remarkable.

Elderly women stopped dealing cards. Men, aided by their walkers, came to sit closer. The staff looked on. Everyone clapped. Mr. Darby’s cheeks reddened.

That song has been recorded by famous surnames such as Sinatra, Holiday, Charles, Bennett and Stewart.

Call me biased, but I would add Darby to the top of that list.