Saturday, February 10, 2007

S.O.L. Stories No. 1

photo caption: Blue Branches

When I was in high school, I had to read a James Baldwin short story, "Sonny's Blues," and I knew right then and there that one day I was going to be a writer. You can find it in the excellent collection of short stories, "Go Tell It On the Mountain."

I fell for Baldwin's style especially, for his unique (at the time) way of writing that conveyed so much more than the places and people he wrote about. His language was so real, so striking and beautiful and yet his work had the feel of journalism in its urgency, but its style never out-gunned his substance. He was the first author whose work I felt spoke to me in a way no one else's had and I read (more like devoured) everything he wrote.

Years later as I continue to find my voice as a writer, it's Baldwin's that I hear most often. And in some ways, I've been trying to write my own "Sonny's Blues." This story is the one that I felt came the closest.

It is an unabashed homage to what has remained my most favorite of all the short stories I've ever read.

"Mountain," Baldwin is quoted on the Penquin Classic's book jacket, "is the book I had to write if I was ever going to write anything else." Well in my small way, my story "Voices in the Cracks," was what I had to write first before I could move onto the book that would become my first novel. It's a little rough for my tastes now, but where can you go but up, right? So, here it be:

PLEASE NOTE: This is copyrighted material that is the sole property of the author. Reproduction or any other use of said material without the express written consent of the author is strictly prohibited. In other words, my lawyers are bigger than yours.

Voices in the Cracks

Max's head was screaming but for the first time, he couldn't understand the voices. He was hunched over the bar at the Dresden Room, gulping his drink and absorbing the darkness around him. Truth be told, he was waiting for it to swallow him up.

Around him, young girls in lingerie and boys with pony tails and tattoos, drank and laughed and smoked too much. They should have been filled with exuberance, the freshness of youth, but they were more like him, pale and scarred and carrying the weight of their futures and pasts all at once, as if they could play them out in one evening. As if it would make any difference if they could.

We're all lost, he thought. The only difference was he knew it and they didn't.

Max didn't care. Knowing he was drowning didn't make a damn bit a difference. He knew he couldn't stop it if he tried.

He fidgeted in his chair, one hand wrapped around the edge of the bar as if he was afraid he'd fall off, the other around the glass. His dark eyes -- Lelia said they were brooding -- surveyed slowly, covering just enough space so he didn't have to turn his head. He was mostly tracing the scuffs and scratches on the bar top, but occasionally he'd glance up at the mirror behind the bar, its dirty, pool-like depths tracing dim outlines of the kids around him. Max was there in the middle, the eyes obliterated in the darkness, the fine, sloped nose, the small mouth and orderly mess of kinky, graying hair atop his head.

Under the sounds of muddled, angry voices around him, Max could hear ``Backwater Blues” filtering through his ears and pouring over his insides. At the moment, the music was his only anchor in space and time, more real to him than the wooden bar stool below him.

It wasn't just Bessie Smith calling back his childhood from the darkness, it was what any music did to him. The way it swelled inside him, starting somewhere gut-level and rushing to his head with a purpose. It was like being high.

The sounds gave him focus, but the din around him kept rising every few minutes to drown the music out, giving way to the haphazard electricity that bounced around in his head. Then he'd remember again how he'd lost track of what it was supposed to mean to him.

It was like staring at the sun and closing your eyes and trying to count the spots. They never kept still.

A slight woman, a girl really, squeezed in beside Max, greeting his brief glance with a thin smile. He returned to his drink.

“I'll have a Lite,” he heard her tell the bartender, then: “What's playing? Sounds like something my old man listened to.”

When Max looked up again, she was making a face.

“It's the blues, girl,” the bartender teased. “Ain't you ever had the blues?”

“Not this bad,” she seemed proud of that remark and took an impossibly long sip of her beer like a dare. Right out of the bottle.

“You never heard of Bessie Smith,” he said, his tired voice surprising him, like he didn't use it much. She slammed the nearly empty bottle on the bar.

“You ever heard of Madonna?” She laughed back at him, the shrillness echoing in his head as she disappeared back into the darkness. He tried again to focus on just one thing, a thought, a song, a note, but nothing came. He emptied his glass instead, motioning silently for another.

It hadn't always been this way. The voices had been good to Max; they had given him religion.

It started when he was just a kid, home sick from school and messing with his Dad's brand new radio. He was turning the dial to station after station. The sounds amazed him and he tried to imagine the beautiful people behind the voices.

Suddenly the music blurted out; some country blues thing that was mixed up with something he'd heard in church. All bitterness and hope and craziness thrown in with a kind of faith he'd been told existed, but had never known.

Max had never heard anything like it, it froze him and something small began to rise in his gut. It started to shiver but the strangest thing is that he wasn’t only hearing the music, he was seeing it. The song was like a paint-by-numbers. Max could see every note in his head though he'd never seen a sheet of music before. And with every note, the voices spoke to him. It was a sign from God.

But it was more. Like reaching into a box with no bottom. The music kept coming. Nat King Cole, Bessie Smith, Merle Haggard, The Weavers. Then later Monk and Bird and a thousand other anonymous cats that came through his town, who thought they were playing for money or Thunderbirds, but were really playing for their lives.

Max listened to it all -- and played. At first it was an old harmonica, then a guitar and finally that saxophone.

It was playing the horn where he learned about the edge, about how close he came every time he played to falling over it. When he was younger, he knew it -- Jesus the voices told him -- but he was fearless, they all were. Just like the kids in the bar. They weren't scared because they didn't know what they didn't know, what Max knew. They just hadn't lived long enough yet.

But Max got scared. Every time he got on stage to play, he felt it. It was his secret, this uncontrollable urge to lose control, to let the music and the voices make him crazy. Most times, he'd feel the rhythm, set his jaw and give his life to the horn again. But that was the problem, wasn't it? It was his life, the breadth of his experiences that made that God damned horn sing.

But he felt somehow it went deeper than that. That the need went farther back even then him and Lelia, before his parents and their parents and their parents' parents. He was caught in a circle of fire and he was the one in flames.

The only way he could stop it was to play, the only way he could play was to get burned.

He tried to tell this to the others, but if they wanted to hear it and truth is they didn’t, it came out of his mouth as gibberish. Cats all had their own weights to carry and they didn't care what made you play as long as you came in on the right beat.

Sometimes the playing would free him. But when it was over, the fear would return. He'd try to get it back another way. Women, drugs, drinking, but as high as he'd get, it was never as good as playing. It never came close. It just sunk his eyes, softened his stomach and made his hands shake. Sometimes when Max was so far gone, he'd forget to be scared. And then he was back dancing with the flames.

It was heaven until he came back down again.

The voices had him by the balls now. He'd been doing a gig in New York when they took over. In the middle of a jam, he stopped playing. Just stopped. Perry looked at him coolly, than oddly from behind his bass and signaled to the young piano player, a new guy Max didn't know real well, to take 'em home. Max just stared at the horn like he'd never seen it before, stealing glances at the audience in the dark club who, he realized suddenly, had no idea something was wrong.

Afterward, Perry found him in the men's room.

``What the fuck happened?” He pushed a tall glass of something strong at Max. He wasn’t mad. You could always tell what Perry was thinking. Max was leaning over the sink feeling sick. He glanced over at Perry, a huge, dark man with almond eyes and full cheeks, and reached without looking for the glass, back to staring at himself in the bathroom mirror.

``I'm going crazy,” Max said finally. The drink, now up to his lips. He gulped half of it, the scotch burning the back of his throat and rushing through him like fire.

``Get in line, baby,” Perry said. ``That's why we're here.”

Max set the glass down on the sloped edge of the sink counter, allowing his fingers to hover over it until the glass seemed to find a perch. They both watched it rattle for a minute.

``No, man,” Max said, still looking at his reflection. Perry could've been on another planet. ``Something's wrong with my head.” He was pointing at his temple, plugging the dike.

``Tell me somethin' I don't know,” Perry's hearty laugh filled the small bathroom, bouncing off the walls and scaring the shit out of Max. He jumped, accidentally knocked the glass over. It shattered on the tile floor, the yellow of the last drop of scotch making the broken pieces sparkle like stained glass.

``Jesus, Max,” Perry's hand was on his shoulder now, his tone more somber. ``You're shakin' like Hell, man. What you on?”

Max just stared at the floor, shaking his head.

``Is it Lelia?” The big man had a way of talking sometimes softer than the wind, like the barely audible twung-twung of his instrument.

Again Max shook his head. His wife and he had been apart for months. He saw her when he was in town, but it was difficult. She understood, she just couldn't handle it. Max figured at the least she was being honest. She had always had a way of knowing he was headed for a fall before he had even arranged the thought in his own mind.

``Well, shit,” suddenly and unbelievably Perry's tone got even lower, laced with a seriousness Max hadn't heard since somebody told them their old piano player had been shot in the head. ``You losin' it.”

The last words carried some serious weight and they both knew. ``You don't got it no more.” The big man was in his face, close enough to smell the liquor on his breath, see the fine rosin left on his cheek from his fingers.

Max suddenly choked up. He couldn't speak. Instead he tried to form a song in his head, a note, anything. Nothing came in but the screaming. He grabbed the sides of his head, turned toward the sink and vomited. The force dropped him to his knees, the shattered shards of glass tearing through his dress black pants, tiny bits of blood dripping on the white tile.

A voice bellowed in the distance and into Max's vacuum.

The bathroom door swung open, hard, banging against the wall like thunder. It was Frankie, the red-headed drummer, his pale skin making him almost invisible against the white walls. Behind him was the new piano player. They stopped short when they saw Max on the floor, the big bass player bending over him.

``Can't hold yer liquor,” Frankie said in his Hillbilly voice. He was from some shit hole town in West Virginia or something. He once showed Max pictures of the house he grew up in. It wasn’t much bigger than an outhouse. The lightness to his voice faded when he got a steady gaze from Perry. Max didn't see it, but he knew that was the only thing could shut that boy up.

Perry got up and talked quietly to the two musicians. He shooed them out and all Max could hear was ``Get the hell outta here. Don’t tell nobody what you seen. Frankie, what’s the name of that horn player you know from Detroit?” until the voice faded.

Max might have felt sick from the obvious pity in the man's voice, but he was incapable of feeling anything at the moment, except the burning in his throat and the pain in his head.

He didn't remember how he got home that night or who he'd gone home with, but somewhere he lost his horn. Perry figured somebody at the club knew who lifted it, but even the force of his imposing personality couldn't convince the unknown thief to fess up. So they left New York without it.

A musician's instrument is like a tennis player's favorite racket. He may have more than one, but the others don't have the same sweet spot.

In some ways, losing that horn was harder on Max than losing Lelia, though he was sure he'd know what to do with Lelia if she came back, but not so that old brass horn.

Perry would've let him go back home early, but he needed the money and they were raking it in again, taking advantage of the latest popularity of the blues or whatever they called it out there. He convinced Perry to hold off on Mr. Detroit and used his backup horn.

The playing went nearly back to normal. He'd only lost it twice in the six weeks since New York, but he knew it could happen at any time. It made even waking up a chore. Walking onto the dark stage was like death row. Just thinking about it, could set off an attack, which is what Perry started calling it.

It had become a morbid joke. Each man understood how close he was to being where Max was and even mentioning it at all meant that it could happen to them tomorrow.

Nobody said it, but to a man, they would rather be hit by a truck.

They stayed away from him like he was diseased and he didn't blame them. He'd have done the same if it was one of them. Everyone except that new piano player, a northerner that Max learned was named Roy. He was cocky, but he didn’t make a big deal about it. Shit, he had decent chops. He was like the rest of 'em, born to play, though they all knew he was better than most. The boys wondered what kept him around a bunch of has-beens.

He seemed to think he was immune from Max's ailment. If he didn't, Max figured he got some kind of special thrill hanging with an old, used-up jazz musician losin' his shit with each passing minute.

“This seat taken?”

He was pulled back to the present when he vaguely noticed a man taking a seat beside him and a voice he knew ordering a bottle of scotch.

“This ain’t the old west, pal,” the bartender told him.

``Hey old man. Knew you'd be here,” it was Roy. ``You'd think nobody ordered a bottle anymore. Everything's going down hill.”

“You know this son of a bitch?”

Max nodded.

“Well, I’ll be damned,” the bartender said, opening a new bottle of scotch. “Max actually has a friend. Fuck me.”

Max didn't feel like talking, but he smirked at the bartender.

``How would you know,” he said to Roy, his voice still low and scratchy. He cleared his throat. ``You're a step out of the cradle.”

``Yeah,” Roy laughed, a high-pitched sound that seemed to come from his forehead, ``and you're a step from the grave old man.” It came in gulps now, a young man's devil-may-care laughter that would have been silly on someone older. Max had always liked it. It seemed free.

He mumbled a ``Fuck off,” but held his drink out to be refilled by the bottle of scotch brought over by the bartender, who was hovering a little and eyeing Roy like he was trouble. Max's voices were dimming, the liquor was setting in and Roy's mood seemed to be catching. He managed a weak smile.

``Don't worry,” he told the bartender. ``He's okay. No more trouble, no less.”

``I should kick you both out then,” the bartender's eyes shared the joke between them. Roy lifted the bottle toward him, a kind of peace offering. The bartender grabbed a glass from beneath the bar and Roy poured it for him.

``You're O.K.,” he said to Roy and moved down to take another order.

``Nice guy,” Roy was checking out the place. ``Lousy bar. The music's right though.” He winked at Max. `Ain't a soul in this room know what they listenin' too.”

Max shrugged. The two sat in silence. Max fighting his demons, Roy working hard on the scotch. A couple of women walked up to Roy, trying for some action, but he waved them off.

Max said, “You like guys or what?”

“Ain’t nothing here worth picking up,” he said. “I got standards.”

``You must be sick, boy,” Max egged him. ``I never seen you turn a woman down before.”

“I’m on vacation.”

Max smiled. A new face in the mirror.

After another couple of drinks and a long silence, Roy looked over at Max, set his jaw like he'd come to say something important.

``Somebody die?” Max asked finally.

Roy shook his head. More silence. Max figured the kid would talk when he was ready.

``I heard you play once,” Roy's voice startled Max. It was quiet, like Perry's, only when Max looked, there was an earnestness in his eyes. Perry's had been tinged with fear.

Max knew that look in the kids who thought of him as some kind of legend. He didn't want to hear it. Not anymore, anyway -- and not here.

“In Gator Brown's, in the Keys,” Roy was down his road. ``We were on spring break, you know a bunch of college kids tearin' up the place. A buddy of mine had this white girlfriend. We all liked her a lot. Sang in our band. Well a bunch of guys down there the U. of G. didn't take to us hanging out with her. Or her hanging out with us or whatever. We ran into them in a bar, all of us drunker 'en shit, I mean long gone.”

He stopped to take a long sip and to fill up Max's glass again.

“So anyway, they chased us out of that place, or at least some of us,” he laughed nervously. “Like we discussed, I’m no fighter, and, you know, my fingers,” the last word with emphasis. “I need 'em. I just hauled ass out of that joint. Ended outside Gator's, smoking in the alley when I heard it; it was magic, man. Something deep and hot, but, man, different somehow. I swear it sounded like it was coming from a guy who knew he was going to hell and was just trying to make the ride worth it, trying to leave something of himself behind. Really sad, you know?”

He stopped again. He was starting to feel the liquor. Max stared into his drink, trying to keep the voices down. In the background, somebody was wailing something about pig feet. The bartender nodded at him. He knew what he wanted to hear.

“So anyway, I went in and the place was packed. I had to stand off to the side. I knew right then I had to play with you.”

He took another drink, refilled his glass and raised it.

“To the greatest sax player it was ever my pleasure to hear.”

Max was embarrassed by the other man's admiration, and touched. He held his head down.

“You'll get over this,” Roy said suddenly, almost pleading. “You gotta. There ain't nothin' else for you to do.”

"Right, I'm just gonna slick my heels together, I guess," but Max's voice didn't have the cynicism of his words. He knew he'd looked up at the kid too fast, knew that Roy's words were hanging in the air like lightening.

Something he always knew, but had never formed into words. You weren't supposed to. Roy sensed his alarm.

``Ain't nothin' any one of us can do but play, man,” he said, the pain Max felt now suddenly appearing at the corners of Roy's eyes, in the twitch of his lips. It had already started, he thought; this kid was long gone.

“It's why God put us here,” he said. “Most folks die without knowing.”

“Knowin' it can kill you too,” Max said.

“If it wasn't like that, we'd make it that way,” Max was seeing in Roy a wisdom he'd thought beyond this kid's experience. “Nobody wants it easy. Oh sure they say they do, but it’s bullshit. We’re all fucking coin flips. On the edge, man. That’s why we do it. Like guys who jump out of planes for fun. It ain't no macho thing. They do it cause they have to. Something inside is telling ‘em to do it. It ain't no more complicated than that.”

He lapsed into his street speak to emphasize his point and Max realized suddenly how special this kid was. He'd heard his own voices and now he was trying to ease Max's.

“You know” he said after taking another drink. Max hadn't touched his in a while. He was listening. “I heard you tell Perry about your voices.”

Max looked up -- he didn't want this kid's pity.

“I started playing when I was three years old. It always came kind of easy for me. A boy genius, I guess,” he said, the voice different somehow, out where he hadn't gone before.

“Sometimes when we're jammin' and I'm layin' it on, it feels like I'm floating over my piano. It's like somebody else is playing. Something inside me keeps screaming at me, telling me to stop. Stop or I'll lose it, you know, go insane. But I can't stop, my hands are on their own doing their own thing. It's out of my control.

"I know I sound like a lunatic, but it's like the damn piano is playing itself."

He stared at Max, his eyes betraying a little fear, a little embarrassment, a wayward tear. He wiped it away.

“I never told this to anybody before,” he said. “But that moment, when all that shit is happening, well, you can't match it. It's like being high and crazy, but free. When I'm there, I know I'll be all right, but at the same time, I'm scared cause I know it'll end and I wonder if I'll ever get back there again. Or if I'd even remember how.”

Max felt the tears running down his face and into his drink. Roy fell silent, his confession out now. They drank in silence, the sounds of a few stragglers still in the bar, another blues tune on the juke box. Max was thinking of Lelia's face, her soft lips and hard cheek bones, the darker-than-night eyes. He was thinking of his folks and Perry and Frankie and Clarence the dead piano player and all the others that peopled his troubled dreams.

The pain and anguish, the tragedy and euphoria, how it all melded into one when he was up there blowing his lungs out thinking so many times of blowing his brains out instead.

Roy clinked the bottle on the bar. Put the top in and tucked it under his arm. He left a fifty next to his glass. Max heard him leave something else on the bar, but couldn't yet look the kid in the face. He felt a hand squeeze his shoulder and wondered again how someone so young could know so much.

He didn't even turn to see him leave, just stared down at the drink, letting the tears flow. When he finally looked up again, he was nearly alone in the bar, the bartender on the other end counting his receipts, giving him room.

He fumbled in his pocket, but the bartender stopped him. “Your friend paid your fare,” he said from the corner. “A good kid.”

"Plays a mean piano, too," Max said, wiping his nose on his sleeve.

Max nodded, pulled himself off the stool and leaned on the bar for support, the volume in his head relaxed. A little. Then he saw it, there on the bar.

Max's lost saxophone, the beat-up black case, his name stenciled on one side, was laying on the bar.

He flipped open the case to examine the dulled, scratched brass horn, resting his hand on it, feeling his pulse jump. For the second time, he felt the tears in his eyes again.

He shut them now and blindly closed the case, the solid metallic click echoing like a slap. The sound stumbled around his head the whole, long walk to Lelia's place.

He could feel an old tune he couldn't name, just a phrase tickling the inside of his lips, a few bars pausing for release in his cheeks. He tried to whistle. It began awkwardly in time with the beats he couldn't quite shake, but he kept searching until he found the notes and sprung it to life.

There was still other noises in his head, the late-night traffic, a far-off siren, the flat hum of the phone wires above and the wail of a lost alley cat.

But they were secondary, fading with everything else in his brain where the name of the tune was. He'd never be able to call it up on demand, but he'd always know it was there.

He actually smiled at this as he walked up Lelia's back stairs, but the song he left hanging in the night was long and sad and mournful.

It had a purpose for Max, a kind of cleansing for whatever demons he'd still have come daylight. Max thought he could hear it drift away, carried on the thick air, traveling its own path through the half-lit darkness. It would come to rest, he was sure, in the now-blackened room, on the bar top where he'd left the saxophone.

Los Angeles, 1994.

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