Once upon a time, there was a small village deep within the Rocky Mountains, In that village was a bar called “The Tavern.” The owners had a son who grew up tap-dancing and playing piano. The villagers called him “Little Stevie Hulse.”
There was a piano in this bar, and Little Stevie was daily pressed by his mother to practice, which he dutifully did, sometimes to the customers’ dismay. Over the years the townsfolk and regulars got used to his afternoon practicing, and actually the lad, over time, became fairly good at the piano… but not by playing classical pieces… no. He began memorizing the tunes on the nearby jukebox and duplicating them on the piano during practice.
His mother, enjoying this unexpected new talent, allowed him to continue, and before long the patrons at the bar would request a song from little Stevie, which he would gladly play.
Now in this little town lived some very interesting personalities. Harry and Nellie Fairchild were two such folk. They had owned a successful chicken farm South of Butte for years, then moved to our little town and spent it all on booze. Nellie had lost her hand in an accident of some sort, and simply wore a sock over the stub. As Stevie began taking requests from the patrons, Nellie would often ask for the Tennessee Waltz. He would always play it for her, and she would happily tap her stub on the bar as he played it.
Al Kingrey was a definite character in his own right. He owned the small sawmill at the end of town, and lived with an unusually large woman named Mary. Dad had nicknamed him “Knothole” and Knothole had endured it over time, though he showed no sign of liking it, or liking much of anything for that matter.
One bitter winter’s eve, with Stevie’s dad away on a construction job in South America, the bar was nearly out of wood, and Stevie’s mom feared the bar stove would go out during the night and the pipes would freeze. Stevie was 14 then, and already driving. He offered to sneak down to the end of town after midnight and steal some wood from Knothole’s sawmill. Having little choice, she allowed it, and Stevie sneaked down to knothole’s sawmill in his ’47 Chevy, lights off, and filled the trunk and the car with knothole’s wood scraps.
Back at the bar, he pulled into the back alley to quietly unload the wood. He was halfway done with unloading it when he noticed a truck parked at the head of the alley, lights off. It was Knothole! Stevie didn’t know what to do, so he finished unloading the wood in the dark alley, waiting for Knothole to get out of the truck and nab him. It never happened.
Knothole never mentioned it, and continued to come into the bar with Mary, for a shot and some card-playing. Stevie had told his mom what had happened, how Knothole had watched him unload the wood, without saying anything. From that day forward most of Knothole’s drinks were on the house, and never was a word spoken about it.
Yet another town character was a lady named Jeanie Jazzman. Jeanie and her husband, Mike, lived just outside town up on a hill. She would come into town several times a week, pick up their mail and stop in the Tavern for a few beers before going back up the hill.
Jeanie was a bona fide sour puss. Always semi-angry, she constantly scowled over her beers, complaining in a voice a touch too loudly how rotten the general world was and what someone did or said to her lately. In the middle of her second beer it usually became ‘goddamn this,” or “goddamn that.” No one paid much attention, as colorful language in Montana was pretty much taken for granted, up to a point. Jeanie knew where that line was drawn, and usually stopped at “that son of a bitch” or “I wanted to knock the shit out of him.”
Growing up in that bar, Little Stevie had heard it all a hundred times and long ago had begun taking rough language for granted. Still, he usually gave Jeanie a little extra room, knowing her fiery temper and rough mouth. She seldom spoke to him when she was in the bar, turns out she didn’t like kids either. Someone once asked my dad how her husband Mike could stand living with her. Dad smiled. “He works a lot. And he drinks.”
There was this one day, close to Christmas, when Stevie was playing a few Christmas carols at the piano. The big bar tree had been painstakingly decorated by Stevie’s mom, and the holiday spirit was alive in the little bar. Jeanie came in, sullen as usual and ordered a beer. Then another one. She was unusually quiet, which could be disconcerting in itself, as Jeanie was rarely quiet for more than half a beer. Likely she was perturbed simply by the holidays themselves, as most things of a jolly nature seemed to piss her off. But Stevie kept playing the Christmas carols he knew, and the few folks at the bar seemed to be enjoying them.
He began playing “My Favorite Things,” and he hadn’t gotten through the second verse when he heard someone at the bar… crying! He couldn’t help it, he had to stop playing to look over to the bar to see what was happening, just in time to see Jeanie Jazzman jump off her bar stool and head toward him, her eyes filled with tears. Fearing the worst, he braced himself for what he assumed would be some sort of angry attack.
When she got to him, she sat down on the bench beside him and hugged his neck so hard he almost got dizzy. Her voice breaking from tears, she whispered to him, “Stevie, that’s my favorite song in the whole world, and you just fucking played it so goddamn beautifully! Thank you, Sweetie!”
He finished the song for her, and she had yet another beer, then kissed Stevie on the forehead as she left. His mom smiled at him. “It looks like you made a new friend today.”
“Yeah, I guess so. She’s sure the scariest new friend I’ve ever made.”
From that day on, Little Stevie became Jeanie’s favorite person in town, and she was always soft and gentle with him. Whenever she came into the bar, he would play “My Favorite Things” for her if he were practicing… even in the summertime. She always smiled and thanked him. And when Stevie turned 21, Jeanie bought him what was probably his first legal drink.
Stevie when on to become a piano player and a “jazzman,” if you can believe that. Growing up in that bar taught him many things, and one of the best, most powerful lessons he learned there was the power of music… even if it came in the forms of The Tennessee Waltz and My Favorite Things.
Little Stevie Hulse