It was Saturday night at the Tune-In Café and the only person inside its dingy walls who wasn’t drunk was seriously starting to wish that she were.
Unless you’d had a couple of beers too many, it was hard to endure the raucous laughter and the sharp stench of whiskey. Add in the 1950s décor and the sticky wooden floor and the only thing Emily Wilde—whoops, Emily thought quickly, Emily Madison—wanted was to Tune Out.
Unfortunately, that wasn’t an option.
Emily sighed as her fingers flew over the yellowed keys of a battered upright piano.
She worked here.
There wasn’t a way in hell she’d have been in the place otherwise. She was the entertainment Thursdays through Sundays and sometimes she still couldn’t get her head around that fact. How could she when she’d come east two years ago so she could become a world-class curator at a world-class museum or, at the very least, the buyer for a prestigious art gallery?
Amazing that she’d never stopped to consider that the New York art world had not been holding its breath, just waiting for a twenty-four-year-old Texan with a degree in Mayan pottery.
Talk about planning ahead…
“Right,” Emily muttered as she swung into the cheesiest possible arrangement of yet another cheesiest possible tune.
Planning was the problem. Or not planning. In a family of planners, she was the one who would just sort of let life pick her up and carry her along.
The rest of them had dropped from the womb, perfectly organized.
Her father, four-star General John Hamilton Wilde. Her brothers: Jacob, who managed El Sueño, the family ranch; Caleb, who headed an elite law firm; Travis, who worked his magic as a financial investor. Even her sisters were on the path to success, Jaimie as a real estate agent with a prestigious international firm, Lissa as a Hollywood chef.
The only Wilde who lay awake nights trying to figure out where she was headed, how she was going to get there and, toughest of all, how she was going to pay the bills en route was the youngest.
“Me,” Emily mumbled.
Except, of course, nobody in New York knew she was a Wilde.
Emily had dropped her last name more than a year ago. She’d done it in desperation after she’d realized that, for the first time in her life, being a Wilde was working against her.
In retrospect, she shouldn’t have been shocked to discover that in some circles, even in the East, the name was well-known. What was a shocker was that people would assume she was some kind of dilettante who didn’t really need a job that paid a living wage…
And what was with her tonight? All of this was ancient history. Why was she reliving it?
She took a quick look at her watch.
It was almost midnight. Her eight-in-the-evening until two-in-the-morning stint was winding down. Soon she’d be out of the Tune-In, and since tomorrow was Monday and she didn’t have to work, she could do her usual Monday thing: call up the New York Times on her Mac to catch up with all the exciting things people were doing in Manhattan, and if she ended up in a self-induced pity fest, she could plow through the pint of Ben & Jerry’s Heath Bar Crunch she’d hidden in the back of the freezer so she wouldn’t be tempted to tuck into it too soon.
Plus, she could permit herself the luxury of wallowing in thoughts of exactly how much she hated, despised and deplored working at the Tune-In and if she’d left out a couple of verbs, it was only because she was too tired to be creative.
And, yes, she knew it was wrong to feel that way.
She should have been grateful to have a job at all. Besides, pounding the time-worn keys at the Tune-In wasn’t even the worst job she’d ever had.
That list wasn’t just long, it was depressing.
Her one job in the art world had been as a so-called associate at a pricey gallery. That had lasted until the day she’d looked a potential customer in the eye and said she didn’t have the slightest idea why anyone would pay one hundred and ninety thousand bucks for a ten-foot-by-twelve-foot canvas of green stripes on a white background.
She’d waited tables in coffee shops and delis where the question wasn’t if the boss was going to put the make on you but when.
She’d demonstrated fancy cosmetics at Bloomingdale’s and Saks and Barney’s—not too bad a gig, really, until her face said “No more” and turned into a giant crimson glob.
Still, when you came down to it, a job was just a job. A means to an end. Yes, the Tune-In was… grungy was as good a word as any. So what? This was Manhattan. You never knew when a neighborhood was going to change. The Meatpacking District had once been a place to avoid; the area around the Gowanus Canal had been a bad joke. One of these days, the Tune-In might very well be at the center of some up– and– coming real estate. Actually, the neighborhood had been pretty good years ago, until some fast-cash developer had bought up half the houses and then run out of the money he’d needed to turn them into condos, which explained why a piano bar was in this area at all.
The Tune-In was a holdover. Its customers were holdovers, too. Nobody would deliberately seek it out unless they already knew it was here.
Which was, in a way, a very good thing.
It meant that none of Emily’s siblings—and certainly not her father—were likely to wander through the door. As far as they knew, she was working for a private art collector who insisted on remaining anonymous. On the occasions any of her family came through New York, she’d dress up, plaster on a smile and meet them at whatever hotel or restaurant they suggested. Her place, she always said gaily, was being painted. Or the floors were being scraped. Or it was crowded with catalogs and brochures she was searching before buying something new for her employer.
Emily segued into an overblown version of “Hello, Dolly.”
Not that she lied to her family, exactly. Or, OK, maybe she did. But they were well–meaning lies; otherwise she’d have to tell them stuff that would upset them. Stuff they didn’t need to know. Why tell them she’d dropped her last name in favor of her middle one? Why tell them she lived in a building that, like the Tune-In, was waiting for a real estate revival? Why tell them about her none-too-stellar job?
Being the underachiever in a family of overachievers was hell.
Until she’d come to New York, she’d never lied to anybody, but what choice did she have? Her father would go into full command mode if he knew the truth. Her brothers would go crazy. Even Jaimie and Lissa would get into it.
At the very least, they’d all inundate her with advice and cash, and that was not what she wanted.
One way or another, she was going to make it on her own.
Which was why she was here, playing at a bar the Board of Health or at least the Board of Good Taste should have condemned.
Nine weeks ago, she hadn’t known the place existed any more than she’d known you could make a living playing piano. Well, not a living, exactly, but you could make enough to get by.
It had happened strictly by accident, the way a lot of things did in New York.
Her roommate, Nola, had invited her to a party. Though they shared an apartment, they were acquaintances more than friends. Emily didn’t know a lot of people. Nola knew everybody.
“This party’ll be fun,” she’d said. “Come on, Em. You need to get out more. Maybe you’ll meet a guy.”
“Thanks,” Emily had said, “but I don’t know if I can make it.”
She’d had nothing to keep her from going, certainly not a date. She’d pretty much given up on New York men. Relationships with them tended to last not much longer than a New York minute, and she wasn’t into the latest crazes—one-night hookups or the weirdness of communicating via smartphone, you in one bar and a guy you’d met online in another.
Why party if you didn’t want to connect with a man? But Nola had kept urging her to go and at the last minute Emily had thought, why not? At the very least, you could always scrounge something resembling a free meal at a party.
So she went.
The party had been in an old brownstone in her own East Village neighborhood. The apartment was small, the rooms were jammed with people. She didn’t see a familiar face, not even Nola’s. There wasn’t any food aside from a bowl that held what appeared to be potato chip crumbs and a smaller bowl smudged with what she figured had been dip.
After twenty minutes, she’d headed for the door, but the route to it was crowded and instead of getting closer to it, she’d been pushed back and back and back until she’d almost fallen into an old Baldwin upright in a distant corner. To her surprise, a guy was playing it; the noise in the apartment had completely drowned him out.
He’d flashed her a smile. “Hi.”
“I don’t suppose they’ve put out any food yet.”
“Not even a hot dog,” Emily had said, laughing. “I thought I was the only guest who’d noticed.”
The piano guy had assured her that he wasn’t a guest. He was the entertainment. “Not that anybody noticed that, either,” he’d added.
“You mean, you’re working?”
“Yeah. Hell of a way to make a buck, isn’t it?”
Emily, who had just lost yet another waitressing job, had assured him that playing the piano looked pretty good to her.
“So what do you do?” he’d said.
She’d slumped down on the bench next to him and sighed. “Nothing right now.”
“Yeah, that sounds familiar. Well, what can you do?”
“Good question. I wish I had an answer.”
It was the truth. What, indeed, could she do? She’d grown up on a ranch the size of a small kingdom, and sharing hostessing duties with her sisters at their father’s formal dinner parties had been a great learning experience if you were into folding linen napkins into swans, or knowing how to seat people so they wouldn’t end up glaring at each other, or being able to carry on polite chitchat in four different languages. She could talk about places in Europe, Asia and South America, thanks to visits she and her sisters had paid to the general.
Because of her otherwise useless degree, she could also write research papers on esoteric topics so deadly, you’d sooner eat nails than read them, or, conversely, speed read an endless document and boil it down to two cogent paragraphs. She’d long ago developed her own kind of shorthand, but then, that was what being a straight-A student did for you.
Perhaps that was the reason making a buck playing the piano had seemed, at the very least, interesting.
“You play?” the piano player had asked.
Emily had nodded. “Eight years of lessons. You know how that goes. But I’m not a pro like you.”
“A pro? Me? I’m an actor. Well, I’m trying to be an actor. I pick up a few bucks playing piano on weekends. Want to play a little?”
He’d segued into “Malaguena.” Emily had grinned, put her hands on the keys and joined in.
It turned out that she was no better and no worse than he was.
“Is it hard to get jobs like this?” she’d asked.
The wannabe actor had scribbled a name and number on a scrap of paper. Two days later, Emily had met with his agent. Max Pergozin of Pergozin, Pergozin and Pergozin. She’d auditioned on a piano in Max’s office and he’d given her what he called a fake book, a collection of sheet music that contained the melody lines, chords and lyrics of what looked like every song ever written.
“Keep this with you,” he’d said. “You can fake your way through any tune.”
The next weekend she’d played her first gig.
She’d earned a pittance. Well, union scale but one job added up to a pittance when there was rent to pay, groceries to buy, bills, bills and more bills. Still, it was better than nothing and other gigs had followed, all of them forgettable, none of them steady. When she’d complained, Max had sighed and explained that she was never going to get what he referred to as callbacks until she learned to judge the mood and needs of her audience.
“You play a ladies lunch, they want Cole Porter. You play a wedding rehearsal, they want Elton John. You play an upscale singles hangout, they want Adele.”
It might have been good advice, but how would Emily have known? Max had yet to book her into a lunch or a wedding rehearsal or an upscale anything.
She’d told him that, at which point he’d sighed with the resignation of a physics professor explaining addition and subtraction to a five-year-old.
“You got to work your way up, Miss Madison. Right now, the kind of people you play for—they want lively stuff. Big chords. Big runs. Schmaltz. Know what I mean?”
Schmaltz was not a word in Emily’s North Texas vocabulary.
Max had rolled his eyes. “Play loud. Play fast. Play big. Dramatic. You get my drift?”
Emily got his drift. And she schmaltzed.
She tossed aside the formal rules a childhood’s worth of piano lessons had taught her, added chords, trills and frills, created arpeggios that should not have existed. She never took her foot off the right pedal.
It had worked.
Or, at least, it had led to the Tune-In.
“You’ll get lots of experience playing there,” Max had assured her.
One look and she’d almost turned around and walked out.
Then she’d reminded herself that playing piano was just a detour on her way to… well, on her way. So she’d taken a deep breath—a big mistake, considering the smell of the place—and told herself that the Tune-In had character.
Sighing, Emily slid from “Hello, Dolly” to “My Way.” Definitely two huge, in-demand current hits, she thought with a mental roll of her eyes.
Why Gus, the owner, wanted somebody to play piano was beyond her.
“A little class,” Max had said when she’d expressed surprise. “He keeps hoping the neighborhood’s gonna be discovered and he wants to be ready when it is.”
Gus was somewhere in his late fifties. Perhaps longevity ran in his family because Emily figured it would take at least another fifty years for his dream to materialize. Still, his optimism, though misplaced, had turned out to be her salvation because aside from occasionally providing musical accompaniment to ancient silent movies that were the passion of a bunch of equally ancient movie buffs in the West Village on Monday nights, this was the only real employment she had.
She tried not to dwell on that, or on what in hell she was doing playing piano anywhere.
Unfortunately, as of late she found herself unable to think of anything else.
What am I doing here? she’d find herself musing, and always at the damnedest times.
It was a great question if you were studying existentialism. If you were trying to put food in your belly… not so good.
Besides, that kind of thinking changed nothing. Only she could do that, but how?
“How?” she muttered as she moved into her last hour of ruining more of what had once been perfectly acceptable music and now was pluperfect crap.
It was important to remember that the Tune-In was most of the reason she could pay her bills. Without it, without Nola paying half the rent, she’d be in deep trouble.
Another glance at her watch. It was five after one.
Emily launched into a too loud, too fast, too everything rendition of “New York, New York.” She played a lot of old Sinatra stuff. Not that she didn’t like Sinatra. She did. Or she had, before this. The problem was that what the Tune-In patrons wanted was strictly Las Vegas Frank. None of the soft ballads, the sophisticated lyrics of Classic Frank.
So what? she thought, her lips compressing as she segued from pounding out “New York, New York” to a tinkling rendition of Tony Bennett’s “I Left My Heart in San Francisco.” “Chicago” would come next. Nothing like ending the night with a tour of the USA and then, mercifully she was finished until next Thursday.
The entry door swung open. Three already lit middle-aged guys entered the Tune-In on a gust of cold, damp wind.
It was raining. That meant the always late bus would show up even later by the time she headed home. Bad enough to travel at two in the morning, but now she’d have to stand on the corner waiting for who knew how long.
Emily’s jaw tightened as she played a glitzy intro to “Chicago.”
This was not a good night. None were, not really, but this was stacking up to be bad. The rain. The cold. The fact that not one person had put so much as a dime into the open tip jar she kept on top of the piano. The twenty singles that were already inside it were hers, bait money for people to add a bill or two.
Not good, no, and she knew that her rapidly deteriorating attitude wasn’t helping, but—
“Hey, baby, how you doin’?”
Emily looked up. She saw a stained shirt hanging over a huge belly, and above it, a hand clutching a bottle of beer.
“I’m fine,” she said brightly.
“I got somethin’ I wanna hear. Noo Yawk, Noo Yawk.”
“This is my last set, sir. I don’t take requests during my last set.”
Gus, her boss, was at her end of the bar polishing glasses with a towel that gave new meaning to the color “gray.” He looked at her, eyebrows raised. Emily shrugged and kept playing. Yes, she’d made up the rule on the spot. So what?
“Your last what?”
“My last set. Of tunes. And I’m not accepting request.”
“Thass your job. To play what people wanna hear.”
He was right. It was. The correct response to make was Yes, of course, I’ll play that next…
“I told you, this is my last set. No requests.”
“Gus?” the drunk said with indignation. “You hear this?”
Gus put down the glass and the towel and folded his arms over his chest.
“Play what the man wants,” he said in a hard voice. “That’s what I pay you to do.”
He was right. Absolutely right.
“Thass right. Gus pays you to play what I wanna hear.”
The drunk grinned. Leered. Pointed his bottle of beer at her for emphasis.
That was when it all went bad.
Maybe somebody jostled his arm. Maybe he was a little unsteady on his feet.
The bottle tilted.
Ice-cold beer poured over Emily’s head and straight down the neckline of her dress, her silk dress, one of the few still-decent things in her closet, stuff she wore only for work.
Gasping, she shot to her feet.
“You,” she sputtered, “you—you stupid jerk—”
The drunk laughed. Gus shrugged, as if what had happened was the kind of thing she’d just have to put up with.
Later, Emily suspected it was that shrug that put things over the top.
She grabbed the bottle from the drunk’s hand. From the weight of it, it was still half-full Good, she thought, and before the idiot had time to stop her, she jammed the neck of the bottle into that big belly, tilted it so that it was pointed down under his belt and into his pants and had the joy of hearing his laughter turn into an almost girlish shriek.
The shriek drew everybody’s attention. People turned, stared, saw the stain spreading over the drunk’s trousers and laughed.
Unfortunately, Gus wasn’t laughing. His face had turned purple. He raised his hand and pointed his finger at Emily.
The crowd went silent. Emily’s heart leaped into her throat.
“Listen,” she said quickly, “I didn’t mean—”
“Take that ‘I’m too good for this place’ act of yours and get your ass out the door!”
She stood a little straighter. “If you’d let me explain—”
Gus marched around the side of the bar and stood in front of her. He was big and bald; he stank of sweat and beer. Close up, the finger he pointed at her was the size of a cigar.
“You got a problem understanding English?”
“No. I mean, of course not. I’m just trying to tell you that—”
“Get the fuck outta here! Don’t make me say it again.”
Emily began to tremble. “I want what you owe me. My pay for Thursday and Friday and Saturday and for to—”
Her eyes filled with angry tears. Dammit, she would not let anybody in this awful place see her cry! Max could handle the money thing. That was part of his job. Quickly, she bent to the little cubby under the bar where she kept her handbag. When she straightened up, tears were streaming down her face.
“You,” she said, “you are,—you are not a nice man!”
Seconds later, she was on the street, in the rain, in the cold, alone in what that stupid song the drunk had requested referred to as the City That Never Sleeps except it was really the City That Had No Heart.