Winner, New Ohio Review Fiction Contest
selected by Charles Johnson
By Leslie Rodd
Featured Art: Nymphs and Satyrs Playing Musical Instruments by Claude Lorrain
San Francisco, 1969
Outside the jazz club where I’ve been audience, player, and piano tuner over the years, it’s quiet at this sunstruck ten o’clock, and I have a shivery thought of a guitar and a girl that began inside my head last night. No rocking, no rhythm, no foot-stomping or window-shaking. Only the fifty measured strides I’ve counted from the corner where the 30 Stockton dropped me off, past the police station to the alley, the dip in the pavement and the sloping rise, the manhole cover to my left, yes, here it is, the last of my landmarks, reassuring me I’m in the right place. A thought of a girl, who used to make my music glow.
I rap the metal tip of my cane against the partly opened steel door, the tradesman’s entrance.
“Easy does it there, fella,” a man calls out to me.
“Jimmy McGee,” I identify myself.
He says, in a voice that’s smoother than Roscoe’s, “Come on in, Jimmy. Mustafa Monroe, at your service. Roscoe’s on-again bass, as of yesterday.”
“I’ve heard you in one of those fine establishments in Oakland!” My hand finds his.
“Yeah, likewise, I seen you play at shows. Mighta seen you tuning once, too.” Mustafa chews on silence, a thoughtful musician.
“You got a big tone, man, and you push the band. I noticed you from the get-go.”
“I seen you noticing me! You sit smack dab in the front row, man, and pay attention.” Mustafa’s voice hits the jackpot and drops the coins. “You’re one of those guys, Jimmy, where I can both see you and feel you listen.”
“A good player listens.”
“Not just anyone gets a call from Roscoe Jones, Jimmy.” He speaks from a slice of space a good four inches above my ears. “He will be on stage at the piano.” Mustafa rings his keys. “And me on the bass.”
Five different brands of smokes, last night’s illicit weed, beer spilled like kisses at late-night jam sessions, but if it’s a proposition of fresh air or the sweetest lavender fragrance, I fill my lungs. I hear the whirr of a vacuum cleaner in a shrill B minor and it sounds full and fine, and when the noise stops abruptly, I wonder if I’ve imagined it, was it just the excited motion of my heart at a high RPM?
“Let’s go. I’ll show you where the chairs are at for today. You need help with that guitar, buddy?”
“No, sir. Just get me to where you want me.”
I have my bearings, I want to tell him, I always have my bearings, but instead I put one hand on Mustafa’s shoulder and go where he takes me. “How many are auditioning?” He leads me and my guitar up the center aisle.
“He’s got four guitars coming, yours included, and six horns.”
I do my usual humming, a navigating-by-sound technique, real low, and when my voice goes from distinct to slightly muffled I know we’re close to the sound-absorbing velvet curtains on the stage.
“Guitars go first, horns are coming later.” Mustafa pauses like he wants to say more. I stop where I am, tilt my head as if I’m open to accepting light, images, anything at all into my extremely limited line of sight, and he understands. “We ask Roscoe, what do you want? He waves us off! Maybe he don’t know what he wants in a player?”
“He knows,” I say solemnly, with conviction. “We all know. It’s a matter of reaching down and pulling out . . . ” I stop midsentence.
I sit down on the aisle and slide my guitar in its velvet-lined case—a Gibson Super-400, the best guitar this club will see today—to the inside of my chair. In the quiet club I realize it’s the sounds I’m not hearing that haunt me: the clink of glasses, the hum of ambient audience noise, the starburst sound of a woman’s laughter, the potheads whispering in the dark corners near the restrooms dealing to a lavender-scented girl named Monica. Monica. One more question comes to mind.
“The club empty now?”
“Empty and both full at the same time, heh-heh,” Mustafa answers in a jazz riddle. “You have your songs ready, one standard and one original like Roscoe said?”
“Practiced, ready, and waiting.” The side door bangs.
“Here he is now.” Mustafa walks over and exchanges whazzups with Roscoe, who tromps like a heavyset man up the steps to the stage and creaks the piano bench, one, two, three, getting settled. I stay sitting, paying close attention. Roscoe yells down to me in the same distinct voice I heard over the phone, when he offered the moon, invited me to audition for his brand new touring band with the astrological name, the Aquarius Band. Roscoe speaks rapidly now and his voice crackles, forest-fire intense.
“Jimmy McGee! Good to see you buddy!” He presents me with a run of chords on the mid-range keys. “I still hear talk about that tune you got going with Bird, man, years back. Never finished. Now that’s longevity,” he says in that inimitable Roscoe Jones way, half-talk-half-song, that he crosshatches from piano and voice. “It was about that young girl. You gonna play that for me today?”
“Not today, Roscoe,” I say with a hitch in my voice. “I got two others, guar- anteed to please.”
Last night my best buddy, Charlie, and I had a talk about that long-lost girl. He said, “I’d like to take advantage of a break in your serial monogamy to suggest . . . ” and I answered a resounding “No!”
Then Charlie brought up that girl, that Monica, in relation to my music. He suggested one from that time, a sad personal suite I wrote about my childhood called Yellow Tornado Sky, No Cellar. She was involved in that music, as my springtime muse. Every once in a while, when the rattling of empty beer and bourbon bottles being picked up outside the bars on busy Geary Street is over and my apartment is finally early-morning still, I’ll light a fresh Camel, pour two fingers of bourbon over some ice, and ease it on back to 1949, when Monica was still sighted and I wrote real songs for her.
“You once told me those were the best songs you ever wrote. You want this job? You play your best compositions!” Charlie argued. “No matter how old.” I had known him a long time, knew his intelligence, but this time . . .
“I don’t do personal songs anymore. Not in a long time, and then not in public! I’m better doing what I’ve prepared, what I know I can handle, the professional, in-charge way.”
I dismissed Charlie’s suggestion, knowing I could triumph today with my technique, my facile bebop style, so it wouldn’t matter what tunes I played as much as how I played them.
“No, Charlie,” I said quietly, then, and because he didn’t say anything, and I felt a little bad and a little lonely, I let him slip me a card where he wrote her name and phone number, “just in case.”
Roscoe and Mustafa start warming up on the stage and two more guitar players file in and join me on the metal folding chairs. When they announce themselves—Bernard, St. James—I know them, have heard them play and they have heard me, and we throw out how-are-you’s and ask about gigs, nonchalant like we’ve just run into each other strolling in the park. They knock their guitar cases on the furniture with a whack, whack. How clumsy sighted people are.
Our last guitar player arrives without footsteps, speaks the name Robinson in my ear like a lullaby, and sits down next to me so carefully the only sound I hear is him slipping out of his coat, Houdini-like.
After a few minutes we get quiet, and maybe those, like Robinson, who don’t know me already as a good guitarist, are noticing me and my white cane and thinking, oh no, a blind guy, what’s he doing here? Can he play? How the hell can he read the charts?
We working musicians are ready to die for a job with the Roscoe Jones Aquarius Band. As it is now, we piece together our livelihoods and for me it’s piano tuning, advocacy for the rights of the blind, and a weekly one-night solo guitar gig at a hotel downtown. Pickup jobs when they’re offered, too. I’m a fine player, I know that. I even have a small following. But, sitting next to these A-1 performers and the unknown Robinson I suddenly have—well, no, all is well. No one beats Jimmy. A breeze sweeps the club from the open side door, and a few horseflies from the garbage cans on the alley come pestering my face. I welcome the horseflies.
Roscoe’s voice leaps from the stage. “Golden apple of opportunity, six-month tour, best jazz houses in the entire world starting right here in San Francisco, full steam ahead, more and more magnificent, and if we’re good enough, really good enough, a chance at the one and only Village Vanguard.”
Robinson whistles sotto voce on my right.
“We are booked into some grand jazz clubs already, on Roscoe Jones’s sworn promise to deliver something soar-ing, something mem-or-a-ble,” he emphasizes in staccato and my breath goes staccato, too. “I want more, an all-star band playing original material from deep in here.”
Next to me Robinson whispers Amen, and with my fingertips I tap my breast- bone, near my heart.
Roscoe roars out his instructions. “You want to be in this band? Tell me something a million other guys haven’t already told me, something important. Tell me a secret that hurts.” He rests. “Let’s go! Bernard, you’re lucky numero uno today!” Roscoe barks out. I lay all thoughts of Charlie and Monica to rest, cross my hands on my lap, feel my skull breathing as I make myself ready.
Bernard begins the melody of “Nature Boy” on a single string, like he’s playing tenor sax, adding super-fast Charlie Christian riffs on what sounds like a new model Gibson hollow-body guitar, his quick young fingers declaring him- self a virtuoso and asking Roscoe to respond. Roscoe’s piano is silent. Word on the street is Bernard has a real mean streak and today he’s trying to tell us why. A broken family and maybe a military-alcoholic father send him moving back down the guitar’s neck, descending through G minor 6 and D minor. Roscoe’s piano is silent, doesn’t ask, Bernard, did your father love you, is he dead?
Where are you, Roscoe? Bernard asks, plucking the strings insistently. On the final chorus, Bernard trips over his own fingers, makes a glaring physical mistake. There is no applause, just embarrassed silence.
His original composition comes next, in C major, full of C and G brightness, sweet, light, but he has lost some bit of its tension, its brilliance.
I run my hands over my leather guitar case as he plays, feel the familiar contours, the latches, the handle, no surprises there, as reliable as the songs I’ll be playing. But Bernard has shown astounding technique, I give him that. And still Roscoe is unmoved.
Robinson slips up to the stage before I know it and bounds into the melody of “Blue Monk,” on a locomotive of imaginative arpeggios. I sit up straighter in my chair, tilt toward the stage and the sound, bounce my feet on the floor and work my hands on my knees in time. This B-flat blues has a chord progression that really moves a guy, activates the brain and undulates the hairs of the skin. Brum, brum, “Blue Monk” goes on, hypnotic. The perfect tune, irresistible, let’s start a conversation it says, quick, quick, and whoa, here comes Roscoe, on piano, doing a little stride playing, Monkery. Look at Roscoe go.
“Great choice, brother,” Roscoe says to Robinson, a river of jumping fish in his voice.
Robinson’s original piece is next, and he starts with an exotic 7/4 beat that invites notice, a ladder of notes from very low to very high, slowing to a pro- found few seconds of silence, letting us hear the notes he isn’t playing, then pick- ing right back up in 4/4 time with a series of six deep, hushed, complex chords, rarely played together. I sit back. What’s up? He does those chords again and it dawns on me! It’s those hushed chords. Instead of striking the notes right on, saying this is his story, he brushes the chords around those notes to distance himself, saying this is a story about his brother. The notes by themselves are declarations, the chords innuendoes. After listening to the first verse to get the gist of it, Roscoe plunks a few choice notes, and Mustafa jumps in as if they’ve rehearsed this masterpiece of empathy. They’ve understood, like I have, that Robinson’s brother is the one who witnessed the lynching, the one who did time in prison, the one whose wife, whose wife . . . It’s his brother, not Robinson, who’s the star of his song. I can learn from him. Right here and now Robinson, my competition, has demonstrated for me how to safely play deep. So maybe, just maybe I can present Yellow Tornado Sky from a little distance, not so close, not so close.
I direct my attention to St. James, an up-and-comer who just this morning seems to have arrived, has the confidence to be playful, does the Cole Porter tune “Don’t Fence Me In.” When I hear Roscoe chuckle and bound right in to embellish the old number along, I think of when I got my break playing on the radio with Smitty, and Monica’s connection to the music again. It comes from deep inside, where it’s been hiding since last night, and I shake it off.
St. James finishes with his own solid jazz tune, interesting changes I wish I’d thought of myself, though no secrets are revealed.
“Jimmy McGee!” Roscoe calls and I hop up, take my beauty of a guitar and head toward the lip of the stage where he meets me and gives me a hand up the four steps. “Sit here, Jimmy. Glad to see you today.” He makes me feel as if he’s looking forward to getting to know me better. “What about it, Jimmy? Change your mind about that song?”
“No, Roscoe, not today, buddy,” I say, cool-like. My mind is not quite there yet. “I’d like to play ‘You Don’t Know What Love Is’ first, and then ‘Animal Dreams,’ an original number.”
I tiptoe into the sad ballad, playing it silky smooth but behind the beat, adding new notes, worshipping that beautiful melody the more angles I expose.
On the second chorus I fall into line in tempo, then slide into an upward and optimistic series of notes that ends with a reverberating and obvious off-note, a personal question of higher stakes, do you, Roscoe, think that I, Jimmy, could learn what love is, could fall in love again, that dizzy kind of falling in love by the light of the moon? I try it, then begin to hold back, I have gone too far already. But, he answers! Roscoe tells me that love is the stuff of stars, of earth, has been around forever, and there is a simple answer, and that answer is, it’s up to you what you do about love. You have to seek it out. You have to remember.
“All right there, Jimmy,” Roscoe shouts out rocket-like, and on the last verse his fingers ascend the keys in double time, then race back down the keyboard, opening up the tune, asking me to bring even more of my knowledge of broken hearts to bear on it. I stutter and hold something back because maybe I don’t know Roscoe well enough for this type of conversation. Trust me, he says, going lightly in the higher octaves, a sweet woman’s voice of notes, lavender, and I can’t resist, give a little more and when I play a crazy mix of chords and tempos to illustrate how complicated I find love—I might know a guy whose girlfriend had a horrible accident on graduation night that wrecked their plans, that he feels responsible for and has never talked to her about, might you know him, too?—I move myself just enough without going over the edge.
Roscoe is the gentleman, doesn’t pry, but tries to show me, with what he coaxes from the keyboard that it’s okay to tell it in pieces, as long as you tell the whole story in the end. We finish up with a parade of single notes that says I’m willing to try love again, and an off-note I extend to acknowledge, hey, the odds may be against me but I will try.
Yet, Roscoe is still waiting for something, and all the songs, including what I’ve just played, are not good enough to land me a job in this band. Long ago, that personal composing of mine went one step too far, led to a song that was finessed out of me by Bird himself. That song turned me inside out, tender side out. And I’d never played such things in public again.
Roscoe is asking for water for the guitar player and he means me. I could break through in this band. I could pull it all together—past, present, and future—in this band. I just have to follow the advice of the masters that, hear this, true happiness doesn’t sit lightly on the surface of life, but goes deep.
The only way I can beat out these guitarists, more flashy and agile than I am, is to go deeper than they’re going. Yellow Tornado Sky, from an angle, like Robinson telling about his brother I’ll tell about a blind kid I once knew who was abandoned to a convent in Texas.
“Change of plans, Roscoe. Nix the second tune. Instead I’d like to play an- other composition called ‘Pray to the Moon,’ from my suite Yellow Tornado Sky, No Cellar.”
“Go for it,” Roscoe says, smiling big. And “ba, ba, boom, boom, cha, cha, cha,” so softly maybe only I hear him.
Before my left hand forms the first chords and my right picks up fingering, a brief beat of fear grabs me. Fear? Come on, I tell myself, aware of Roscoe and the others waiting expectantly. I’m going to play my composition just the way I always do, late at night, whiskey at my side, make them weep and stomp and yell hallelujah, and get this job.
I make the first few measures simple, offer up the innocent feel of childhood with barely audible harp-like plucking on the open strings, then use the bass notes for foreboding. A steady back and forth strum of two alternating chords, children’s footsteps, sets the scene. And then, I roar into the piece uninhibited. I am telling this story about that other blind boy and I’m fine. He is in his bare feet . . .
Near the end of the first chorus, Roscoe comes along very lightly in his piano’s highest registers, Mustafa sets a walking bass, and I am off. I get all of us to the middle-of-the-night fire, and the ringing out of shots, backing and filling the melody line between convent, fire, and faith healer to that moment of climax, the burning cross, me praying for rescue, when I notice the club is deadly quiet. Who will rescue me? my guitar wails, in the voice of a blind boy who’s been abandoned, and hearing my lament Mustafa switches to ostinato bass.
Roscoe, I say at last, I’ve got to let you off here and go on alone, tell exactly how it felt when that boy understood there was nothing and no one to pray to for rescue but the moon he could barely see. But when I finger the phrase about that eight-year-old blind kid standing all alone in that fiery pasture with no adult to keep him safe, to hold and comfort him, wetting his pants in terror, the notes carry each and every sadness from that lonely time and agitate my grown- up heart like crazy, man, gathering enough musical gravitas to break me down. I’m in trouble. I can’t sidestep like Robinson.
I miss a beat, almost enough to drop my guitar, and then, out of the blue, Mustafa rises up behind me on his bass and he morphs my chords into “Sophisticated Lady.” Oh, Mustafa! He’s reaching out a hand to pull me back in and I take it, use the safer notes and chords of Ellington’s burnished-gold measures for my touchdown, my safe landing.
When the song ends, Roscoe grunts. What does that grunt mean? Rather than admit that something went wrong, I rest my guitar flat on my lap and nod my head.
The joint is quiet, like the kind of quiet a guy never knew existed underneath ordinary silence, and then boisterous applause bursts forth, from the people who came in when I was playing, and the others, the important ones. But, they see through me, I think, every last one of them and especially Roscoe and Mustafa, but they appreciate my effort. My head bent to my chest, I try to compose myself. There is no other blind kid, no one else who’s had my childhood experience, just me.
“That’s a whole helluva lot of playing there, Jimmy,” Roscoe finally says, with something new in his voice. “It’s not Charlie Parker, but it’s class.”
“Well, I’ll be . . . ” exclaims Mustafa.
Roscoe comes over to help me off the stage. “I’m taking a short break, fellas. Horns are up after lunch.” He folds my hand under his arm and walks me down the stage steps past the rows of tables and chairs to the back of the club where we sit. I’ve lost track of the other musicians, don’t know where everyone is anymore.
I think we’ve had the most interesting conversation, me and Roscoe, but I know I’m not the most accomplished guitar player here or the brightest talent and I screwed up one of my best songs. By bringing me to the back like this, he’s being kind, not letting a blind guy down in public.
“So, Roscoe?” I ask, voice shaky.
“Ah, Jimmy, Jimmy.” He offers me a smoke, lights up for both of us. The harsh, of-the-earth tobacco I’ve smoked since I was a teenager hits me this time like a knuckle punch between the eyes. “We had a good thing going on ‘You Don’t Know What Love Is,’ didn’t we?” He inhales and exhales again and I’m right in rhythm with him. Forget the chit-chat, Roscoe, I think. Just tell me you’re cutting me and let me go. I picture what could have been my band barnstorming from sold-out gig to sold-out gig all the way to New York City without me. “And on your original, you took me to a different place, man, a personal place. The hell of it is, you were unpredictable, either you had me waiting for the note, or the note whizzed by and was waiting for me!”
“I felt pretty copasetic up there today, Roscoe.” I place my feet—wide, bear-like, from years going barefoot on the Sisters’ ranch—flat on the floor, bracing myself.
“Robinson played up a storm, too, didn’t he? ‘Blue Monk’ and then that damned fine composition?”
“Yes, he did.” There must be ten or fifteen people still inside this club but there isn’t one sound, nothing to distract me from the let-down that’s coming.
“Are you employed, Jimmy?” He puts particular emphasis on the word “employed.”
“I have several jobs, as a matter of fact.”
He sits up, puts his face close to mine. “Quit them all.” His breath on my face blows me back.
“You’re in. You’re my guitar man.” He whistles like a goddamned Texas mockingbird and when I open my mouth to say thank you, laughter erupts in place of words.
“Thanks a million, Roscoe,” I get it out, rough-edged, ticklish, and real.
“You see, I need more than a virtuoso guitar player, Jimmy.” Clearing his throat of those fish again, my new bandleader leans even closer, has another chorus up his sleeve. “I need a composer who can plumb the depths.” He stubs out his cigarette in the ashtray we’ve been sharing. When he speaks again his voice is stern, no-nonsense. “It’s 1969, man. For one thing, we’re about to step on the goddamned moon! Play your song about the moon and we’ll have a hit. We’ll feature it. I want you to show up here ready to dictate the charts for Yellow Tornado Sky, the way you wrote it, all the way through. No ending with ‘Sophisticated Lady.’” He picks up my folded cane and taps a few beats on the table, emphatically, like with a drumstick and says, “Jazz is like life, Jimmy, remember? Don’t float on the surface, man,” confidential-like. “You know what you need to do?”
“Yes,” I answer, fingers tingling, flecks of loose tobacco on my tongue. As Roscoe leads me back to get my guitar, I am heel-toe, heel-toe walking on air, one hand on his generous right shoulder, the other touching the Braille card in my pocket, Monica’s name, Monica’s name, and perhaps a little lavender.
Leslie Rodd is a graduate of the Creative Writing Program at San Francisco State, where she was the winner of the Wilner Award for Excellence in Fiction, and she has also been published in The Sun, Transfer, Cyanosis, with honorable mentions in 2009 for Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award, and The Hackney Award for Short Fiction.
Originally appeared in NOR 20.