Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Melody Lines

Among my story collection's various threads of interconnection are a recurring character (Wes, the sax player), a musical "score" (jazz), and a thematic element (alcoholism), all introduced in the story "Blues for Jane." Later, Wes gets the full historical treatment in "The Saxophone," invisibly influences various strangers in "Echoes," and makes a brief appearance in someone else's story, "A Confession of Love and Emptiness." In these opening paragraphs, we meet him in the midst of a self-pity crisis...

Blues for Jane (excerpt)

I tried to be Sonny Rollins tonight, but instead I sounded like Sonny Ferguson, the fat kid who played second saxophone in my high school marching band, honking like a donkey next to me, twenty years ago. All my cells, angry, buzz: just another tenor man, just another one, one more tiny loser cringing in a dark corner of big cruel America. This tour was a waste, and I can’t drink.

Maybe it’s finally time to give up.

I stand in the shower, in the slimy motel steam, until my fingers are crushed velvet, and when I come out, Jane is in bed, lights out, eyes closed. The rainforest drum and sizzle seem to follow me and I realize the desert sky is pouring outside. Today was a hot, still day, dry and dusty, with that waiting tension in the air, the familiar electrons-humming-in-wires tension like before the first note of every gig, the dull tension that is now being washed away by this western rain, no same old New York drizzle, but pounding big drops of rain, much much bigger than tears.

As I stand naked in darkness, holding the drape aside, staring out at the wet street, Jane comes up behind me. She wraps her arms around my stomach, presses her breasts against my back, and whispers, “Come to bed with me?”

“I’m not tired.” I don’t turn.

“I know. Let me feel some of that energy.” She strokes my chest.

“I feel like taking a walk.”

“But it’s raining.”


I feel her smile; her cheek rests on my shoulder blade. She sighs and murmurs, “Boy, are you a piece a work.”

My breath goes out with a sound like opening a beer can. It’s sarcastic and dismissive, like I hoped. Her face lifts from my back and her voice goes sharp. “Wes, give yourself a break, for God’s sake.”

So maybe I’m finally getting to her. She’s been slow; with other women it was always fast work, boom bam, woman gone, me alone again, bitter drunk. But that was before.

For a blink she’s ice, but then she melts, touches me, her voice a whisper, low and smooth. “You know, I get so hot watching you play, the way you hold your...”

“Yeah, yeah, man and his tools. Everything gets you hot.” I forcefully remove her long arms from around me. “I’m going out.”

I get dressed; Jane doesn’t move. I feel something, maybe good, tough anyway, leaving her flat. This is not the first time. She stands there naked, not sure what to do with her hands so she hugs herself, a tall girl with big sad eyes, looking at the wall, at vacation romance fading, a film’s end, black. I button my shirt, slow fingers moving up like I’m playing a ballad on worn brass keys.

I remember there was a little of her look, the lonely part of her look, in those wide eyes the night I first saw her in the little club on Second Street in Jersey City, watching me solo. Those eyes were lighthouse beacons piercing the smoke, headlights in the fog bearing down on me, a truck, a train of trucks, roaring like wind through misty midnight straight at me, me and my rambling solo, and suddenly I was caught, pinned in the glare, so self-conscious, every fingering suddenly suspect, my stance pretentious, my breathing so obviously faulty, and I closed my eyes and prayed, closed my eyes and fell away from that wide pure stare into the rhythm, and breathed, and finished okay. As Joey began his piano riff, I opened my eyes to meet hers, wide again but with a little smile, a shy smile, no more trucks in the fog, just a girl, and she clapped her hands, and I made a small bow, and then I watched her move through pools of light and smoke, moving like a young racehorse, all legs, long legs rolling from the hip joint, the young awkwardness of big feet, big hands, big shy head, eyes down as she moved through the dimness in long steps, all odd grace, all awkward pieces joined into smooth flow, big eyes glancing at me once more from the bar, and I knew I’d see her after that set, and after that night.

Now, here, my hand is on the door. She’s looking away.

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