Somewhere in West Florida. A hot, humid night. An outdoor concert. There are people on a large grassy lawn, cross-legged on blankets. The stars are out. So are the crickets.
I am onstage. Our band is playing “Still the One” because my wife is sitting in the front row.
“Still the one, that makes me strong,
“Still the one, I wanna bring along,
“We’re still havin’ fun, and you’re still the one…”
There is a five-year-old girl in the audience, dancing the Floss. The girl teaches me this dance. I try to follow her. It’s not pretty. I have never looked more Baptist than I do when attempting to dance the Floss.
Long before I started writing, I worked almost every job there was. I worked construction, retail, food service, landscaping, and once—this is hard to admit—I dug ditches.
My official job title was “lead culvert installation supervisor.” I made that title up myself.
But no matter what my job, after I clocked out, I would play music for money at local establishments with friends.
In my life, I have played piano in a gazillion joints with various bands, for all occasions. We’ve played skating rinks, weddings, bar mitzvahs, beer joints, churches, and shoe store clearances.
People ask how I started playing piano. And I tell them, it was my ninth birthday. My parents had a small family celebration.
My mother decorated my birthday cake with piano keys—because she knew how much I liked Ray Charles, Ronnie Milsap, and the blonde gal on the Lawrence Welk Show who played ragtime.
After I blew out the candles, my father said, “Wanna go down to the basement?”
That was weird for him say. I hated our basement. It smelled funny down there, and there was a lot of skink poop behind the water heater.
Even so, we went. My father clicked on the light. And I saw it. A piano. I threw my arms around him and nearly cried. I had always wanted a piano.
My father refused to buy lessons. He reasoned that if I wanted to learn to play piano, I would simply have to teach myself.
So, I made up my own exercises, and I learned to play by ear. I had no technique, and I played sloppy. But it wasn’t long before I started playing as a church accompanist, and for choir practice.
My father had never been so proud.
And after he died, it’s funny, all I wanted to do was keep making him proud. Sometimes I practiced piano for five or six hours in the basement until my hands hurt.
I wish I could tell you this was some kind of therapy, but it wasn’t. It was me trying to make a dead man love me.
I started to get better at piano. When I was a teenager, I began playing in bands. And I just never seemed to find a good reason to quit.
When I was a grown man, after I went back to school to get my GED, my life was looking up. Don’t ask me why, but I decided I wanted to go to college to teach music, and say goodbye to blue collar work.
My wife believed in me. So I tried.
But I was rejected from entrance into a major university—which I would rather not name here—called Florida State University and is located on 600 West College Avenue, Tallahassee, Florida, 32306.
I auditioned for the music program. There were maybe fifteen professors in a room who all wore wire-rimmed glasses and smelled like Ultra Strength BENGAY®.
So there I was. A thirty-year-old man with a GED, playing piano by ear for doctors of music. I did an okay job.
Then one of the professors placed an intricate Lizst piece in front of me.
“Play this,” he said.
I hung my head because I knew he’d found me out.
“I can’t read music,” I admitted. “But I’m a very hard worker, sir.”
I could hear gasps from professors. One professor even passed out and had to be revived with defibrillator paddles. The head professor yanked the sheet music from the stand, and that was that.
I shuffled to my truck, tail tucked, and my wife was waiting for me.
She smiled and said, “So? How’d it go?”
“Your husband has a promising career in ditch-digging,” I said.
“What do those idiots know? I still love you.”
“Does a bear play piano in the woods?”
“I’m a failure.”
“Only at loading the dishwasher.”
I have learned a lot since then. Namely, I learned that those professors did me a favor. I learned that sometimes the worst thing that happens to you is actually the best thing in disguise.
I would’ve never started writing, for instance, if those professors had accepted me. You would not be reading this.
I love writing you. You have become very important to me. In fact, in many ways, you saved my life. The same way music did. The same way my friends on stage saved me long ago.
And one day, if I’m lucky enough to see old age, I hope to learn to dance the Floss.
You’re still the one, Jamie.