BY ELLEN AUBRY
This is a novel excerpt. Copyright is held by the author.
MAC STOOD across the street from the jazz club where his son was waiting for him. The pulse of the club spilled out into the street, mingling with the rhythm of his heart. Thoughts of a long ago past in New Orleans swirled through his head. The image of his wife, Sophie, smiling and waving to him, kept flitting out from behind his efforts to quash it. She reached down for a small boy who squirmed as she lifted him. The boy wanted to stay on the ground with his toys. His mother lifted him up and he let out a shriek of frustration.
That squirming baby boy was all grown up now and wanted to see his dad. With a dry throat and full of trepidation, Mac stepped off the curb and walked across the street.
Entering the club, he was momentarily disoriented. Gone was the haze of tobacco smoke that characterized the early days of his career in New Orleans. The familiar smell of beer and the air pulsing with the anticipation of a crowd waiting for the music to begin, pulled him inside.
Looking around, he saw a handsome young man, narrow of hip and wide of shoulder, flirting with a waitress who returned his interest. The young man gestured with his slender fingers as he talked. It was all practiced movement like a musician playing notes. There was a familiarity about the gestures and a lilt to the voice that made Mac catch his breath. They were Sophie’s.
The young man looked over the girl’s head and saw Mac staring at him. He backed away from the girl, ignoring her protests, and reached for a saxophone at the edge of the small stage. He picked it up and offered it to Mac, gesturing for him to come forward. Mac’s lips parted in a smile only Sophie could bring out of him and took the instrument. His gaze seemed permanently caught in the eyes of his son as he raised the horn and started to blow. The boy started to pluck the strings of a base violin and as they searched out each other’s strengths, the room grew silent.
Their music spoke of the pain of separation, the loss of years, and the yearning for redemption. It swirled through the air like multi-coloured strands of light, intertwining with each other until they blended into one harmonious tone. They played until both men were drained of the bottled-up past. Drenched in sweat they stopped and laid aside their instruments.
The audience clapped and screamed and called for more, but they had said all they could for now. John indicated an empty table at the edge of the room and Mac followed him there. Mac was exhilarated in a way he hadn’t felt in years. His nerves hummed with music. He and John blended so perfectly together, it brought back all the good times of his career.
A waiter arrived with a pitcher of iced tea and two cold glasses
“On the house,” the waiter told them. “That was righteous.”
“I thought this might be better than what you used to drink,” said John, filling the glasses.
Mac let out a long breath and clinked his glass with his son’s.
“A friend of mine,” John said, “heard your music and told me about it. I went to the train station and after five notes, I knew it could only be my dad who played like that.”
“How . . . how did you find where I lived?”
John looked away, embarrassed. “I had my friend follow you. To your apartment building. Then I just addressed a letter there with your name and hoped it would get to you.”
Mac stared at the boy, searching for traces of the angry 15-year-old who had run away twelve years ago. He felt his old frustration at not being able to guide John away from music begin to rise in him like bile from a years-long binge. Mac’s fingers unconsciously moved in and out as if fingering his saxophone. This young man felt like a part of himself split off and lost until now. He could no more deny the desire to make music than Mac himself could.
Sophie had not been able to cope with John’s disappearance. Their son had run off to join the world of professional music and Sophie had fractured into shards of constant pain.
“I hate the music!” she had screamed at Mac. “It takes you away every day and now it’s taken our son. Get him back!”
Mac had tried to get John to spend more time with his mother, but the boy was too much like himself. Sophie had tried going on the road with Mac, but his time was taken up with practice and talks with other musicians to get the music right. When John was born, she had brought their infant son along. As soon as he was big enough, he was given a small violin and took to it as soon as it touched his hands. Sophie began to take him away from the clubs and interest him in other things, but John humoured her until evening when he could join his father on stage. Sophie felt like she was custodian to another musician whose heart thrummed only to the music. The love offered by a wife and mother was never enough.
Sophie had taken her own life in what Mac believed was a last desperate attempt to reach her men. The pain of it had sent him into a downward spiral he was still trying to come out of.
“Johnny,” Mac said. “Do you still go by Johnny?”
The boy drew himself up in mock self-importance.
“I go by John now.” His smile was dazzling.
Mac had to smile himself. It was impossible not to. He took a long drink of the sweet tea and felt the bile dissipate.
“I was wrong to try to stop you from playing,” he said.
John looked down at the table and shook his head. “No. You were just trying to keep me from messing up my life. It just all got out of hand and I had to go off by myself. There were some rough years for a while. Sleeping on the street ain’t no fun.”
He stopped and looked up at his father. Tears threatened to spill over. “I just never thought Mom would — you know — do what she did. I was so full of myself; I just didn’t think.” He wiped his face and cleared his throat. It was a ragged sound, like a sheet of music being torn in half.
Mac reached across and touched his son’s hand. The skin was smooth and warm and he felt a shock of connection go through him. It was too much, too fast and he withdrew the hand.
“No. We were too much alike,” said Mac. “You needed to find your own way to the music. Eventually, I needed to leave New Orleans to save myself. I haven’t done too well since but I’m alive. And right now, this minute. That’s all I need.”
John looked up and tried to smile. It was a little twisted with grief but the smile stuck.
“Your mother was never a strong woman,” said Mac. “I think the club life wore her down until she just broke. Like that vase she loved that you knocked off a shelf when you were little. It got pasted back together but the pieces were fragile. That was your mom.”
John nodded as the club’s musicians came onto the stage and father and son turned to watch them. As the musicians played, Mac looked across the table at John and thought of all the missing years. Hope for the future tapped small notes inside of him. Perhaps the two of them could move on together; become a duo in local clubs.
“Are you living here now?” Mac asked.
John stopped tapping his foot to the music and turned a distracted face to Mac.
“Here? No man, I’m on the road. Leaving tonight as a matter of fact.” John turned back to the stage.
Mac watched his son, feeling the music pulse through his body and knowing it was the same for John.
“Be careful, son. Don’t let the road take everything from you.” He said it quietly like a prayer.
“Huh? Take everything away? That’s where it all is. You saw that girl I was talking to when you came in? I can have one like her in every town. People in the clubs buy your drinks and dinner when you got the groove going. Ain’t nothing like it.”
Mac watched John’s head bob and weave to the music and looked back to the stage. His eyes closed on the lively hands of the musicians and when he opened them, all he could see were the shadows under their chairs.
One of the musicians waved at John to join them and he jumped up. Extending his hand to Mac, he said, “Well, it’s been real. After listening to your music, I found out what I needed to know. You’re good but I bet I can beat it. I’m your blood, that should count for more than practice. I’ll be great!” With another showbiz smile, he turned, walked to the stage, and took up his instrument.
The first thing Mac noticed as he stumbled from the club, was the quality of the darkness lingering between the street lamps. It was seductive and drew him in. Walking in and out of pools of light cast by the overhead lamps, he veered away from them looking for the dark streets. It didn’t take long before he made a purchase and started the long walk to Providence Avenue. Taking the bus seemed too easy. He wanted to punish himself for believing in a future with his son.
When he arrived at 1901 Providence, Mac stood for a moment looking up at the front door. Usually he walked through that door and felt as if the arms of a friend were welcoming him home. Now he felt chastised for believing in something that would never be.
The lamp over the door shed a brilliant light down the stairs and reflected off the glass door. Mac moved to the side of the stairway and went up as far out of the light as he could. Inside the building, he pulled his purchase out of a tattered pocket in his woolen jacket and clenched it in his hand as he made his way to his apartment. He felt a hush in the air as if the building held its breath.
Inside his apartment, he grabbed an old tie out of a drawer in his bedroom, tied it around his upper left arm, and felt the sweet syrup of drugs enter the vein and flow into his soul. All thoughts of music drowned.
His saxophone, neatly nestled in its open case, gleamed with the promise of the sounds that had exalted and then ruined his life. When he played, sweet sounds that could stop people in their tracks and transport them to a place without troubles, slipped from the horn. Funny, he thought as the drugs carried him into oblivion, those notes only took from me.
Later, as the sun began to rise and light tentatively entered his shuttered apartment, he sat upright with effort and shuffled into the bathroom. Filling his cupped hands with water, he worked the water around inside his mouth, and spat it out into the sink. It was a habit he acquired during his drinking years when he had woken up with a taste like baked asphalt in his mouth every morning. The water dripped off his chin as he looked at his reflection in the blotchy mirror. His 58-year-old face, with its stubble and a hint of ruined dreams, stared back. Lines, worn like crevices into his skin, flanked each side of his mouth. He had wanted the reunion with his son to offer him a way forward.
Pulling his worn and faded robe about himself, he sidled down the hallway to the kitchen. He was successful in avoiding looking into the living room. He could pretend the letter from John was not there.
His hand trembled as he reached for the chipped mug in the strainer. Coffee would help calm him. Putting the water on to heat, he leaned back against the counter and folded his trembling hands. The shaking stopped but the whirl of thoughts in his head grew stronger. Mac shook his head to clear it of the past and reached for the screaming kettle.
Pouring a mugful, he downed it in a series of quick swallows and waited a minute for it to work. Taking his hand off the worn Formica counter, he held it up. Its trembling had ceased. Satisfied, Mac poured another mug of coffee and went back to his bedroom to dress.
Holding up the last two shirts he had worn, he decided on the cleaner one, dropping the unworn shirt on the floor. As he pulled it on, he heard the doorbell ring. He scowled in the direction of the door and considered not answering. It rang again.
His shoulders drooped and he shuffled toward the sound, buttoning his shirt. Opening the door, he found Betty, her inquisitive face set in lines of concern.
“Don’t start, woman,” he held up a hand and backed into the apartment.
Betty eased in. “Harry saw you come home last night — or should I say this morning — and was concerned that you made it to your apartment.” She looked him all over, her eyes picking out the details of his disheveled appearance.
Mac turned away from her and went back into the kitchen. Her friendly concern from the day he had moved in three years ago, had helped straighten him out. Occasionally, he admitted to himself that living a cleaned-up life and being cared about was a good thing. But trusting that life would remain good was another matter.
“You want a cup of coffee?” he asked her.
“Yes, thank you.” Betty primly settled herself against the counter.
He handed her a mug of coffee and then poured another one for himself. Walking into the living room, he sat on one of the worn chairs. Betty followed him and settled in the chair across from him. Mac decided he would head off her well-meant concern.
“You know how musicians get into drugs and booze?” He paused and glanced at Betty’s attentive face. Where did this woman get the strength to care for so many of the residents in the Grandview Arms? He wished he could siphon off some of the source of her strength and feel better about living.
“You’re playing night after night,” he continued. “Maybe traveling in-between — and you got to be good. It’s your job, you know? But it sucks all the energy out of you and you still got to show up. So, you look for something to give you that energy. Ain’t no time to rest.”
Mac strode over to the open door of his apartment and slammed the door. Betty jumped.
“People get upset when they find out their idols use. But they want them to go on. They want the feel good they get from the music. They keep suckin’ like a hungry pup with a teat.
“So, you find something that helps you strut onto that stage, take it over, and knock the audience on its heels.”
Mac walked back into the living room and ran both hands over his black hair. The hair was so short it created a rasping sound.
“At first I told myself I was working all the time for Sophie, my wife,” continued Mac. “Then when our son, John, came along, I thought maybe he could follow in my footsteps. The two of us together. Wouldn’t that be grand?” Mac flung an arm toward the ceiling as if acknowledging a long-ago audience.
“But it was all a lie. I was doing it for me. For the feeling I got when everything went right. It’s like an addiction. You can’t stop. The music gets hold of you and there’s no way you can let go of it.”
“Just be careful you don’t strut into trouble again,” said Betty as she got up from her chair.
Mac sat down and stared between his knees at the floor.
Betty looked at him a long moment before settling back into her seat. There was a hush in the air while the building’s old walls prepared to hear another hard story.
Mac told her about the previous evening, the words coming out lost and bewildered.
“Why couldn’t we connect with each other? Maybe stay in touch. Visit now and then. John acted like he was sizing me up to see if there was anything he could use before throwing away anything we might have together.”
He looked up at Betty with all the loss and confusion in his heart on his face.
Betty didn’t flinch away. She looked straight into his eyes and again he wondered at the source of her strength.
“From what you’ve told me, I think you’re too much alike,” she said. “The two of you are two pebbles bouncing down a hillside. You sometimes knock into each other, but the contact pushes you apart.
“My daughter and I are so different, we entertain each other. We fill in gaps in each other’s lives. She kids me about taking life too seriously and it helps me lighten up.
“You and John rub up against each other with all the same obsessions. It’s not complementary, it’s competitive. He has to know if he can beat your skill.”
Mac looked at her a moment, getting his thoughts together. She was right. John was himself 20 years ago.
“Now what?” he asked Betty.
This time she did look away, out the window with its tattered curtains into a foggy morning sky.
“You have a gift,” she finally said. “It makes people forget for a while they have the same troubles as you.
“I saw you once just playing in the hallway for anyone who wandered by. It was beautiful. Didn’t that give you a lift as well?”
Mac looked at her in surprise. He remembered the few sessions he played in the hall and the smiles that had come his way.
Betty tilted her head at him waiting for an answer.
Mac got out of his chair and moved to where his saxophone rested in its case leaning up against a wall. Taking it out, he lovingly ran a hand down its length. He put the horn to his lips and began to serenade Betty.
There was a pounding on the wall from the next-door apartment at the noise. Mac continue to play. The pounding moved to his apartment door. He stopped playing, got up, and went to the door.
“Come in! he said. “Enjoy the music!”
He began to play and the neighbours at first outraged, began to succumb to the magic of his horn.
A deep, contented breeze blew in through an open window and scattered the notes out into the hallway where more neighbours gathered to listen.