I've been a fan of The Music Man for many years. Recently I saw the 2003 version with Matthew Broderick for the first time. His portrayal is certainly different from Robert Preston's, but I liked the idea of Harold as a quiet, cautious con man. This story is dedicated to his and Kirsten Chenoweth's version. Hope you enjoy.
Fall had come; the days were shortening fast and there was a chill in the air. A few leaves swept down around Harold's shoulders as he and Marcellus headed to West Elm Street. It had been another long day of band practice and chores in the River City Hotel (Marcellus had hired Harold as his assistant). Long but productive, Harold thought. Strange to think that he found more satisfaction in a day like this than he'd ever felt after pulling off a con. In those days his motto had been: Put it behind you, keep going, on to the next town. Light a cigar and don't think about it.
As they turned in the gate the voices of Mrs. Paroo and Marian reached them. Marian's indignant tones signaled that something wasn't right; Marcellus cringed in exaggerated fear.
"Gotta let you calm her down before I say hello, Greg. I don't want a book thrown at my head."
"C'mon, Marce." Harold clapped him on the shoulder. "She won't throw a book at your head. Winthrop! What's upsetting your sister?" he added to the boy who had just joined them on the porch.
"I dunno, Professor." Winthrop shrugged. "Something about the Mayor, I think. They keep talking about it and talking about it. I told them I was going to play marbles with Jack and Dennis and they didn't even notice I was leaving."
"Did you win?"
Winthrop smiled – a real smile. "Yes, sir."
"That's my boy." Harold ruffled his hair affectionately as they went inside.
"Good evening, ladies. Would you be able to feed three hungry gentlemen tonight?"
Mrs. Paroo beamed at the three of them. "Of course, darlin'. And it's hungry you must be after the day you had. Winthrop! I didn't know you had gone. What were you doing this afternoon?"
"Playing marbles." As his mother took him off to wash his hands, Winthrop enthusiastically described every marble he had won. Marian looked after him with a fond smile.
"He's a completely different boy from six months ago. And it's all thanks to you." Marcellus tactfully studied a picture hanging on the parlor wall while she greeted Harold with a kiss.
"Oh, I think you and your mother may have had something to do with it." Harold glanced up as the lights suddenly dimmed in the parlor. "What's going on? The electricity again?"
"Yes. Exactly." Marian looked exasperated.
"Exactly what, Madam Librarian?" Harold asked as they sat down.
"River City put up a small power station down by the river about six years ago. It was enough for a while. But more and more people in town are switching from gaslight, and with the new electrical appliances coming out the supply just isn't enough for the town anymore. They don't run the power during the day, only at night, and at this time of year with shorter days – well, you can imagine the extra strain on the power system. The lights are going out more and more often now." Marian made an exasperated gesture. "We still have some gas outlets in the house, but if we're burning both gas and electricity our bill will go up."
"Miss Marian's right, Greg," Marcellus contributed. "Over t' the hotel we still use gas. Mr. Toffelmier won't switch over to electricity till he knows it won't keep going out on us."
"I see a nice candelabra or two in here. Let me light some candles for you and it'll add that je ne something to dinner." Harold raised an eyebrow and got the laugh he was hoping for from Marian.
"That would be nice, now you mention it. Let's do that."
The power went out for good that evening shortly after they started dinner. Thanks to Harold's forethought, the candles made a fine substitute. Marcellus talked about his fiancée's trip to visit her sister, who had just had a baby. Winthrop talked about his cornet and about marbles. Mrs. Paroo filled in most of the gaps in the conversation. Marian smiled at Harold every time their eyes met, which was frequently; and Harold looked thoughtful.
After supper Mrs. Paroo settled Winthrop at the kitchen table with the gas lit so he could finish his homework. She shooed Marian from the kitchen – "this won't take five minutes. Go talk to your man" – and the other three returned to the now cleared table.
Harold lost no time in returning to the question of the town's power supply. "I know this frustrates you, but there seems to be more to it. Winthrop said you were talking about the mayor earlier today."
"I was. Mayor Shinn is making me furious. He won't do anything about improving the power supply. He wants to spend money on improving the roads and the railroad bridge into town, which isn't a bad idea, but I think the electrical problem needs to be solved first."
"And how do we do that? I didn't know you were an expert on electricity. Or did you research it?"
"I did, a little. I first heard about this from Tommy Djilas, by way of Zaneeta, so it's a little confusing, but it seems there's a new system called… alternating current? It's different from the Edison system we're using now. It's more reliable and alternating current holds power better, so the electricity doesn't weaken the further you move away from the station. If we had alternating current Tommy's family and the other families south of town could get electricity for the first time."
"Well, you've convinced me. If Tommy's family and the other families would benefit… if the town would benefit… but Mayor Shinn won't agree to it?"
"I've tried to talk to him myself and even asked the School Board to bring it up. The last town meeting, as soon as we raised the issue, he cut us off and said 'You've dissimulated the priorities of River City.' Whatever that means."
"That's the mayor," Mrs. Paroo added with a shrug as she returned to the dining room. "Sometimes I think the town keeps running in spite of him, not because of him."
"He's not exactly our ace in the hole," Marcellus agreed.
Harold glanced up with a start. He had been watching the candlelight play over Marian's face, but now he looked at his old friend with a mischievous grin. "That's an interesting turn of phrase, Marce. Gives me an idea." He looked around the table. "We need to get the mayor on our side. What's the best way to do that?"
"Make our case," Marian said flatly.
Harold shook his head. "That assumes Mayor Shinn is open to logic. Is Mayor Shinn open to logic?" This question brought a snort from Mrs. Paroo, but no other response. "What do you do when you know someone doesn't want to hear what you have to say? Get them to relax. Get them off guard."
"And how on earth are you goin' to do that?" Mrs. Paroo demanded.
"We're going to play poker."
"You mean for money?" Marian gasped.
"It isn't about the money so much, although I think Mayor Shinn would be disappointed if we didn't have at least a small pot going. It's just a friendly game. You'd be surprised the information people let slip after an hour or two playing cards. Sometimes you even hear stories about yourself," he added with a grin. "So after a while, I drop a hint or two and listen to what he has to say. Then I ask a few very simple questions. With luck, that might influence him enough to change his mind."
Marcellus was glowing with enthusiasm. "You've got it, Greg!"
Marian was less optimistic. "It does make sense, but… if he loses?"
"He won't lose," Harold replied quietly. "I will lose, but he won't."
This brought a laugh from Mrs. Paroo. "Aren't you the one!"
Harold leaned forward. "Marian, I promised you no secrets. Yes, I've been known to cheat at cards, but that's a thing of the past. Even when I did it was a rare thing. I'm pretty good at poker, you see. I am going to do my best to see the mayor wins because I want to put him in a good mood. Besides, if he loses he'd immediately suspect me of cheating whether I did or not. I don't need to antagonize him more than I already have."
Marian took his hand. "I'm sorry, Harold. I trust you, we all do. I've just never heard of anyone trying something like this before. It's a little unorthodox."
"A little unorthodox behavior is good for the soul, my dear." He watched Marian blush as she returned his smile. "If I can use my skills to help people instead of hurting them, I think I should. It's only fair." He looked around the table. "Let's have a vote. Yea or nay?"
The "Yea" was unanimous.
As Marian stood on the porch saying goodnight to her love, she gave a start. "Harold, I just thought of something. How do we know the mayor plays poker?"
"A politician who owns a billiard parlor? I know that man plays poker. Goodnight, my someone." He swept her into a breathless embrace, smiled into her eyes and headed down the street, whistling.