Disclaimer: Newsies characters belong to Disney. "Piano Man" lyrics belong to Billy Joel. I just added conjecture and stirred. Story contains slash.
A/N: This was one of those lightning bolt ideas that sizzles in you until you get it out and done. And it's my first bit of SpRace, which I dedicate to clio21000 and her recently wounded finger.
Yes, they're sharing a drink they call loneliness, but it's better than drinking alone. – Billy Joel
It was nine o'clock on a Saturday and Tony Higgins sat at his piano, fingers glossing over the keys without pressure, anticipating the next song without knowing what it would be. Men with tired faces and shabby suits populated the barstools and tables around him, some shared hollow humor, others stared at their drinks. For them this was just another night, but not for Tony. This night of the year always felt heavy and empty at the same time, lowering his shoulders and pressing against the nothingness in his chest.
An old man sat closest to him, his thin frame hunched over the bar, and he spun his drink glass in slow circles. His face was creased and his hands were knobbed at the knuckles, Tony saw. He leaned closer and asked, "Son, can you play me tune? A song to bring back a memory? Something sad and sweet. Help me remember when I young, like you."
Tony didn't cringe outwardly, but something inside him flinched at the words. Was he still young? He knew he looked younger than his thirty-odd years, but he didn't feel young anymore. That's the price you pay, he thought, for so much glory so soon in life. If he'd had known there was a limit on luck, that you only got so much, he wouldn't have gambled it all away in his youth.
Tony nodded to the man, "Sure thing," he said, hoping for a tip. He shuffled his sheet music, but then decided against singing one of the usual songs. Instead he opted for one Medda used to sing. It seemed appropriate tonight.
As he began to play, the melody filled the room around him, the piano's voice mingling with the murmur of the men's, and Tony felt the familiar disconnect when his fingers and lips started to play and sing on their own, like his body didn't need his mind anymore. From his vantage point at the piano, he could see most of the barroom (he didn't like to have his back to anyone, old street habits die hard) and he allowed himself to scan the faces in tonight's crowd, seeing as he knew this tune by heart.
Smoke swirled in the dim lighting, gathering around men's heads like ghosts as they puffed on cigarettes or cigars (sometimes fellas tipped Tony with a cigar – he preferred money now days, but remembered when a decent cigar was his greatest treasure). As he started into the first verse, he remembered Medda, remembered her sitting next to him as she taught him this song and many others. As much as he had loved watching Medda on stage, those were his favorite memories of her. Her Swedish accent disappeared when she sang for him because she wasn't putting on a show, then. She was helping a lonely boy pass the time. But he hadn't really known the meaning of the word lonely back then. Now, he knew, those were the least lonely days of his life.
Out of the corner of his eye, Tony caught a glimpse of the bartender, and he did a quick sideways double-take. For minute he could have sworn John, with his straw-colored hair and easy smile, looked just like an old friend, just like Blink. Compared to Tony, John was still young. Like Blink had been, John was quick with a joke or a match for your smoke. Also like Blink, John dreamed big and enjoyed being the center of attention. He loved the picture shows, always invited Tony to the new ones that came to town. "Some day," he vowed, his smile running away from his face, "I'll get out of this place. Some day I'll be in one of those picture shows."
Tony didn't know what had happened to Blink, or Mush for that matter. He didn't even know if they were still friends. It was impossible to imagine them apart, but equally impossible to imagine that they could have remained best friends. So many things had fallen apart in fifteen years.
He played on, his chest filling with the sorrow the old man had requested.
It happened again when he looked out at a table across the room. Smoke swirled and the faces in front of him became faded versions of faces from his past. This time he saw Jack, and for a half second his fingers threatened to freeze. But it wasn't Jack, Tony told himself. It was Paul, a hack for the local papers who wrote about real estate, like developments to make the Lower East Side tenements fit the most recent housing code. He had a knack for making it all sound more impressive than it was. "Improvin' the truth," Jack used to call it. Jack wouldn't have to improve the headlines these days; the war in Europe guaranteed sales for today's newsboys.
Paul always claimed he didn't have time for a wife, the newspaper business didn't allow him that luxury, but his status as a regular suggested otherwise. Jack had never married, either, Tony knew. He hadn't done right by Sarah.
In the brief moment that Tony saw Jack's face instead of Paul's, he remembered David. And now that he thought about it, the eager young man across the table from Paul was a lot like David Jacobs – a dutiful son, a guy with principles. This Davey was in the navy and, Tony guessed, probably would be for life.
Tony rounded into the last verse, sucking in air against the weight in his chest and closing his eyes. Bittersweet images cascaded around him. Medda at the rally, Blink in awe as kids from all over the city converged on newsies' square, Jack and David coming out of the World to say they'd won. One victory. Fifteen years ago. His friends at his side. Now all he knew were their names.
The bar's only waitress stood with one hand planted on her hip near a table full of businessmen with flushed cheeks. Tony saw her laugh and nudge one of them in the shoulder, then lean down and whisper something in another's ear, giving the men on the other side of the table a full view down her bodice, and he knew she was angling for an extra tip.
Sarah's fall had been harder than his own. Jack left her after a year saying he loved someone else and fled the city. By then David had gone away to university so she couldn't turn to him; it had been years she'd heard from him now. And her parents didn't want a daughter who was pregnant without a husband. Tony never knew the Jacobs, but their rejection of her after Jack left surprised him. From what Sarah explained to him later, they had loved Jack, too, and in a way Sarah was a reminder of another lost son – Les died of consumption within months of the strike. Sarah named her son Lester Francis. He was fourteen now and they all called him Frank – remembering and forgetting all in one word.
There was so much to forget. And most the time, he could. Except for this one night, every year.
As his fingers pressed the last of the chords, Tony felt his mind and body reconcile, settle together again, and he leaned back from the keys, then looked up. The manager gave him a nod and half a smile – the closest thing to encouragement or a compliment he could expect to receive from Sean.
When Tony had found out Spot Conlon owned a successful and mostly law-abiding establishment, he knew it was his last hope. He had no pride left to swallow when he showed up at Sean's door a few years ago, and Sean listened dispassionately to Tony beg. At first he said no and there was pain in his glare. Tony recognized the pain of loss, the hole faded triumph carves out of you. He also recognized another kind of pain: the kind that makes your muscles tense – the pain of long denial, of suppression.
For just one night, over a decade ago and after years of friendship, they hadn't denied it. One night of lips fighting in the dark and Spot's slim chest and hips against his own. And then he'd run.
Out of all his wrong choices, that was the one Tony regretted the most. The one he had tried to forget most often.
Eventually Sean gave Tony a chance. And now, Sean understood it was Tony who many of the regulars came to see, knew it was his knack for making them remember and then helping them forget that made Saturday nights busy like this one.
The old man at the end of the bar eased off his stool. "Thanks, son." He tottered over to the Mason jar Tony kept the edge of his piano and dropped in quarter. "That was just what I needed." Me too, Tony thought.
That was one to remember. And now, he shifted his sheet music around, one to forget.