Playing Well

Photo by JR Atkinson

Photo by JR Atkinson

I watch Dad watch Pop. Pop flips through various pieces of sheet music resting on the piano. “This song’s called Gwendolyn,” he says. “It’s an original composition.”

He begins to play, head down, eyes glued to the keys. The song is lilting and rhythmic. Dad listens with focus, tapping his foot and bopping his head, the way I’ve seen him do at countless indie rock shows. Pop loses his place about halfway through. “Sorry, my memory doesn’t always work the way it should,” he says before finding his way again.

Dad brought me to Pop’s show because he thinks it’s important for me to hear him play at least once, and something in his voice makes me think this will be my last chance. Pop finishes the song with a strong chord, the band following his lead. Gwennie is the first to clap. Everything is warm and makes sense. At the intermission I duck into the bathroom. I don’t really feel like mingling right now. The stalls are oversized, I suppose to accommodate the abundance of wheelchairs. I sit and hold my face in my hand, biding time before they’ll start the second set.


Re-meeting Pop

Everyone in Seattle is clean, pale, brunette, and wears tastefully chunky sweaters. We share smoked salmon on a stick and roasted pumpkin seeds at the Pike Place Market. Dad, Jennifer (Dad’s girlfriend), and I roam the market, looking at but not buying the various hemp crafts we pass. Dad had told me on the plane that he’s planning on proposing to her next Saturday. She doesn’t listen to music like we do (consistently, fiercely), but she and Dad can at least agree on bluegrass.

We meet my cousin Isabel in the lobby of the Ballard Landmark, Pop’s retirement facility, which everyone makes sure not to call a nursing home. There is a printer paper sign taped to the wall in the lobby highlighting notable residents: Reilly Atkinson—jazz piano, Gwennie Worthy—painting. Gwennie is Pop’s ex-wife and current best friend. They went to high school together but didn’t really know each other until re-meeting in the 90s. They were married for 10 or 12 years, Dad can’t quite remember, and divorced around 15 years ago because of “money troubles.” Gwennie and Pop now live here together, in separate apartments. Dad thinks he moved in because he missed her.

The elevator doors open, and Pop looks around for a few seconds before spotting us. He’s over six feet tall and skinny. He’s got round eyes, a big forehead and straight nose, just like Dad and me. He’s wearing a navy sport coat with jeans and boat shoes and gives us all short hugs. He’s scruffy and bony. Dad tears up a little.

Pop takes us through the lobby to a sushi place where the backdoor spills into the Ballard Landmark. As we sit, Gwennie enters the restaurant on a walker. With some struggle, she takes a seat next to me.

“I was asleep, I didn’t even have time to spike my hair,” she says apologetically, out of breath.

We get our food, and I overhear bits of conversation as I eat my portion of seaweed salad. The adults all drink sake except for Pop, who doesn’t drink anymore.

“I thought you were going to order tequila,” Dad says to Gwennie with a chuckle.

She laughs. “I was so drunk at Reilly’s service. I mean, what else was there to do?”

Reilly (IV) was Pop’s oldest son, Dad’s brother, who passed away from pancreatic cancer a handful of years ago.

Gwennie leans over to me in the booth, her eyes on Pop across the table. “Isn’t his little hair sticking up cute? It looks like a feather.” I look too. He does have one small wisp of chalk-white hair pointing straight to the ceiling. I ask her if she’s excited for the performance tomorrow. “The trio is really very good,” she says. This is a phrase I keep hearing.

“Do you like it here?” I ask Gwennie, making conversation.

“I don’t like how I got here.”

I wasn’t expecting her to be that honest. 

Various Effects of Wine on a Jazz Show

At the show, Dad, Jennifer, and I assign ourselves the task of serving the wine that Pop bought for the performance. After we pour for a few eager residents, someone tells us that it was meant to be saved for intermission. We have somehow messed up. I wonder if any of the residents we served came for the wine and bailed before the concert. I guess it would be our fault if they did.

“I can’t believe I’m adding this to my list of alcohol related offenses throughout my life,” Dad laughs.

Isabel and I put our coats over one of the overly-plush seats and try to stay out of the way as they gather sheet music and unzip the drums from their vinyl carrying cases. A sizeable number of residents join us in the comfortable seating. The audience is a sea of blue-white coifs and complicated looking wheelchairs. There are four people on “stage” (an empty space toward the front of the room). Brian and Kevin on bass and drum, Pop on keys. Garry is the emcee, a bald old man who wears a Dave Brubeck t-shirt.

“You know it’s serious when the drummer is wearing a leather vest,” Dad murmurs to me. I can tell he’s nervous by proxy.

Gwennie sits in an armchair not far from us. She’s wearing big sunglasses, a black lace tank top, and a black sparkly beanie. She reminds me of a retired Broadway star that still comes to important openings to wish the ingenues well. Pop has a bit of trouble getting the crowd’s attention. Nobody can hear well, so he shouts into Garry’s microphone.

He thanks everyone for coming and makes Dad and I raise our hands to identify ourselves as his family. “And if you’re wondering where I get my awful sense of humor, it’s all from my son.”

“Don’t start, old man!” Dad shouts performatively from the audience. They begin to play and it’s a little clunky, but I’m feeling the wine and tapping my foot. Their next song is “What Is This Thing Called Love.”

“What is this thing called love? I think we all want to know,” Garry quips.

Photo by JR Atkinson

Photo by JR Atkinson

Post-Dinner Truth Telling

After sushi, we walk through hallways with endless doors to apartments. It feels distinctly collegiate. Gwennie’s room is dark and carpeted wall-to-wall. Cozy and arty. Pop and I sit on the daybed. He and Dad talk about jazz.

“You can play what we play, but we can’t play what you play,” Dad says. He played in a rock and roll band throughout college and still plays the guitar. Pop has played jazz for most of his life, but Dad is merely an appreciator of the form. I think he’s a little self-conscious about that. “You jazz guys are superior,” he adds. There is a brief moment of silence.

“This morning at breakfast, a fire truck with flashing lights came and got somebody. Some woman I didn’t know. It kind of shook us all up,” Pop says.

“I bet it would.” Dad says.

“There was another woman once, lively and bright and everything, and she decided she would come here to die. She wanted to do it on her own time.”

“Let me tell you, don’t stop eating and drinking. That’s what she did,” Gwennie interjects.

“You don’t leave here unless it’s in a pine box, so to speak.” The rest of the room, especially Dad, grumbles. We decide that it’s probably time to go home.

Pop wants to show us his apartment, though, so we take the elevator down a few floors. He has a picture of the three young boys pasted to the outside of his door, who I recognize as my Dad and his brothers. Pop tells us he used to keep his door unlocked, but someone stole his colander and a physics book, so he locks it now.

“Here’s my apartment, please don’t laugh.” It is small, coffee-stained, and vaguely smells of pot. There’s a slapdash array of books and framed documents. He struggles to get around his furniture to show us a picture of some of our distant relatives, all of whom served in the military. He walks us back to the lobby and we talk about the upcoming performance.

“I’m lucky I can still play. Most folks my age have arthritis and it really makes it very hard. I have arthritis of the mind, but that’s a different story.”

He hugs us goodbye. He tells Jennifer, “I really hope you stick around.”

“I plan to,” she says.


The Duke Takes Us Home

The majority of the crowd doesn’t stay for the second act. Maybe we should’ve served the wine at the end of the concert. A handful of dedicated women sit in the front row, though. I’ve been told that Pop is kind of a celebrity here. We sit a little closer, and the band really finds its groove. Dad has started whooping when they venture a particularly funky chord. They’re closing with the classic “Take the A Train.”

“Now you have to pay the admission!” Pop exclaims after they finish. It reminds me of the scene in Let it Be (1970), the Beatles movie Dad me showed this summer. It’s their last concert, and they play on the rooftop of the Apple Music Studios. “I hope we passed the audition!” Lennon says at the end of their set. 

Soon, we’re making the rounds of goodbyes. We hug Gwennie. “Thank you for everything you do for Pop,” Dad says, tearily.

“Your brother thanked me too. He got it.” She replies. “It’s been a lot to get him here but he’s here now, and he’s himself. For better or for worse.” They both chuckle. Dad says goodbye to Pop, and they start to laugh.

“Who had this sense of humor first? You or me?” Pop says.

“It was Reilly,” Dad replies. “He was subtle, though, and we are not subtle.”

On the way back to the hotel, Dad says, “You know, in the first half, he struggled, I could tell. But in the second half, he really picked up. He’s really as good as any professional.” he says. “It means so much to him that we came.” - JR Atkinson

JR Atkinson is a sophomore at Wesleyan University, from Chicago, IL. She is planning on majoring in English and Film.