Jazz/Blues
A Short Story by Tim Josephs
Written using the suggestion "Death"
Originally featured on 11-16-2006
As part of our series "Fall Stories"

He was crying again. There he was sitting in his old blue Honda choking down an Egg McMuffin with tears streaming down his cheeks. And because the radio knob had fallen off weeks ago and he hadn’t bothered to look for it, he was now sobbing along with “Total Eclipse of the Heart.”

Sitting there, stuffing the last of the breakfast sandwich into his mouth, listening to a sad song, the tears began to fall harder. He wiped his nose on his sleeve and tossed the wrapper to the floor to mingle with the many other wrappers and paper cups scattered there.

Why did this have to happen? he thought, reaching to the drink holder for the steaming coffee cup. The next thought came just as quickly: How many times have I asked myself that? He took a long sip and looked out the window. It was a dreary, gray morning.

She loved these kinds of mornings, he thought. That’s one of the many things he loved about her. Days which most people disliked or at best didn’t think about, she actually loved. She thought they were serene, calming; that they would inevitably lead into a sunny, beautiful day. And she was right, David thought. Every one of the gray mornings he had spent with her always seemed to turn into a beautiful and sunny afternoon.

He smiled a half-smile and tossed the now empty cup to the floor. He put the car in reverse and looked in the rear-view mirror. The large double bass in the gray case blocked most of his view, but he quickly backed out of the parking space and headed for the street.

It was time for rehearsal.

 

 

He was playing again. There he was in his old blue suit, the one that he was just now able to fit into again. He looked good. More importantly, he felt good. This is what he lived for, to be up on stage playing jazz. Especially when she was singing. He looked at her. She was wearing her favorite dress—the form-fitting blue, sequined one, her hair done up with a flower, like Billie Holiday.

She looked over at him, as she always did when she sang. He smiled bashfully and looked down at his talented hands, picking and strumming the huge bass. The song was “All Too Soon,” his favorite of hers. But then again, if you asked him, he’d probably say anything she sang was his favorite.

He slowly peeked up at her again, but she was once more looking out onto the audience of the small club. It wasn’t a big crowd, but they were lively. They applauded heartily at the end of each number and currently they were being hypnotized by the voice of Malena Jones. Even the waiters and waitresses had stopped hustling around and now stood motionless under her spell. When the song was over, the last of the evening, there was a loud ovation. Malena smiled and bowed and walked off stage to the right.

 

David smiled, thinking about that night. God, she looked amazing. He felt the tears starting to well up again and willed them not to come. He couldn’t let the guys know he had been crying. He had shown up at practice so many times recently with red eyes that they probably knew anyway, but no one had said anything and he loved them for that. A car horn startled him. He hadn’t noticed that the light had changed. He quickly drove on.

He pulled up to the big, blue house and parked behind a red Volvo. Jimmy’s early as usual, he thought getting out of the car. He opened the backdoor and hauled out the bass. As he walked around to the back of the house he could hear some musical rumblings. The music got louder when he opened the back door, which lead directly into the furnished basement, and he went downstairs. It was always a struggle maneuvering himself and the bass down the narrow staircase but he hadn’t fallen yet and only dropped the bass once and it had survived.

The piano stopped when David reached the bottom of the stairs, but the drums kept going.

“Hey, David,” Steve said from the piano bench.

“Hey, Steve. Hey, Jimmy.”

If Jimmy heard him he didn’t act like it, he just kept banging away.

“Don’t mind him. You know—drummers,” Steve said.

David smiled. He certainly did know drummers; he had played with enough of them. They were an interesting breed.

Ramon arrived about ten minutes later, late as usual. If drummers were typically weird, David thought, then saxophone players were typically late. Steve quickly launched into “All Too Soon” and soon everyone was following along. When they got to the part where the singer came in, David stopped playing.

“You alright, David?” Steve asked.

“Fine, fine. Keep going.”

They started again and soon David joined them.

 

 

He was practicing again. Sitting on a wooden chair near the end of the bed wearing nothing but faded blue boxer shorts, he plucked and stroked the bass while she slept. He didn’t know how she could sleep with the noise. He was an extremely light sleeper; sometimes even a faint car horn would wake him. But not her, she could sleep through anything.

He watched her stir a little and started to put the bass down.

“No, don’t stop,” she said without opening her eyes.

He smiled and kept on playing. He didn’t look at her but could feel her gaze. His fingers started to hurt, be he didn’t care. When he finally stopped, he bashfully looked at up at her. She had sat up and was leaning against the wooden headboard. Her long, dark hair was messy and her blue pajamas were in disarray. She smiled. God, she looked amazing.

“What are you doing, man?” she asked.

But it wasn’t her speaking. It was Steve. David suddenly realized where he was — up on stage again. He had actually started to put his bass down in the middle of a song. He shook himself and resumed playing. He gazed out into the audience and it didn’t appear is if anyone had noticed. He looked back at Steve. Steve gave him a slight disappointed look and then looked back at his fingers dancing along the keys.

Just keep it together, David told himself. You’ve done okay so far, there are just a few more songs. He began to relax a little again but ever so often would glance to the middle of the stage expecting to see her holding a mike instead of Ramon holding his sax.

They hadn’t replaced her; and they weren’t going to as far as David knew. They were a good band before her and a good one after, that’s what Steve said and they had all agreed. Deep down David knew that none of them really believed that. They were a decent if inexperienced jazz band before she came along. She made them great. It was because of her that they were playing four or five, sometimes seven or eight gigs a week.

She made them special.

Again David looked to center stage but Ramon had moved to the left side and there was just an empty space there now.

She was gone.

 

 

They had met (of all places) in the heavy metal section of a record store. David went to the little store every couple of weeks to see if they had anything new or interesting. On that particular day he stopped in to see if they had a Mingus record he had been looking for. As he walked up one aisle he noticed that they had changed things around again, the jazz section was not in its usual place. As he scanned the racks, out of the corner of his eye he noticed a woman slowly moving towards him doing the same thing.

He couldn’t help but look at her. Her hair was casually put up into a ponytail. Her cheeks had a rosy glow to them that David first thought must be from makeup, but found out later that she never wore any.

When she stopped suddenly and looked up at him he was startled and smiled nervously. He quickly put his head down and started moving past her.

“I can never find anything in this store,” she said. “They’re always moving things around.”

David stopped. He turned and swallowed hard. “I know. I was just looking for the jazz section”

“Me, too.” She looked at him and smiled.

They helped each other find the right section and started talking. Normally painfully shy around any woman, David found Malena incredibly easy to talk to. After perusing the jazz titles for a little while (David had completely forgotten to look for the Mingus), she suggested they continue their conversation at a little coffee shop around the corner which he happily accepted.

Later on David tried to remember what they had talked about but couldn’t really come up with anything. He only remembered her blue eyes.

And of course, jazz.

When she mentioned she was an aspiring jazz singer he blurted out that his band (did he say it was a jazz band? he couldn’t recall) was looking for a singer. Actually, they had never mentioned getting a singer but he didn’t think it was important at that moment.

Malena laughed, her face lighting up, and declared that it must have been fate that brought them together. David smiled at that notion. Why not? Fate was just as good an explanation as anything else.

David insisted that she meet the rest of the band and the next day she came over to Steve’s house. Steve and Jimmy were there working on some new songs. After David stuttered his way through an explanation, Malena had sort of an impromptu audition.

From the moment she opened her mouth, David was mesmerized. She had a beautiful voice, deep and smoky at times, light and airy when needed. Steve and Jimmy were impressed and told her they just needed to speak to Ramon.

Once they convinced Ramon they needed her (and he really only protested for the sake of protesting) they were on. They already had a gig lined up for the weekend and decided that’s when Malena would make her debut. They had a few rehearsals and the way she fit in it was if she was meant to be with them.

 

 

Backstage before the show Malena approached David as he was strumming his bass. He hadn’t heard her and looked up startled.

“I’m sorry, did I scare you?” she asked.

David turned red. “Uh, no, no, I was just warming up. You look really nice.”

She sat down next to him. “Thanks. I’m a little nervous. I have to tell you something. I’ve never actually sung in front of an audience before. I’ve always been too shy.”

David smiled. “You’re going to be fine. The first time I played in front of a crowd I was nervous as hell.”

“And everything was fine, right?” she asked.

“Yes, up until I fell off the stage.”

Suddenly she looked very worried.

“I’m just kidding. Once you’re out there you forget about who’s watching; you just don’t think about it. You’re an amazing singer.” She smiled and blushed slightly. “And you’re going to do great.”

And she did.

It was one of their best shows. Afterwards, the band went out for a celebratory drink at a bar a few doors down from the little club. It didn’t take long for Jimmy to get past his limit and Ramon offered to take him home. When Steve left a short time later, it was just David and Malena.

They nursed their drinks and talked about everything. But inevitably the conversation would always return to jazz. They talked about what musicians they liked and playfully argued about who the greatest jazz singer was. He loved Sarah, she was crazy about Ella.

Much later, as they walked back to their cars, she suddenly turned and faced him. She threw her arms around him and squeezed deeply. David was a little surprised but returned the embrace, if not as forcefully.

She took a step back and, with her arms still clutching his shoulders, she looked at him.

“Thanks.”

“For what?” he asked.

She smiled and shook her head just slightly.

“Just thanks.”

She kissed him on the cheek and then quickly turned and walked to her car, got in, and drove away.

 

 

He was remembering again; remembering that night, that kiss, how soft her lips were. He put his hand to his cheek. That night was magical. The band never seemed so in sync, so together; it was effortless.

And he knew now they would never play that way again.

He was sitting alone in his bedroom just staring at his bass. He knew he needed to practice; they had just added some new songs to their repertoire and would be performing them in a couple days.

But right now he just couldn’t seem to move.

 

 

After that first night, they were inseparable. David was amazed at how quickly she immersed herself in his life, how natural, how right it felt.

The guys, most likely wary about two band members seeing each other, didn’t say anything. They could see how happy they both were; plus, they all agreed they had never played better.

She never officially moved in but she was at David’s place nearly all of the time, when they weren’t rehearsing or gigging. She talked about making plans to do so many things. She wanted them to take a trip together to New York City where they could see (among other things) the Blue Note and the Cotton Club. She wanted to get a cat and name her Ella. She couldn’t wait to introduce him to her friends.

David was more than happy to let her plan their life together.

 

 

The funeral was on a Wednesday afternoon.

David woke up at 4:30 that morning after sleeping on and off for about three hours. He wasn’t planning on going but at 1:00 he found himself at the cemetery wearing an old, dark blue suit standing in a steady drizzle with Steve, Jimmy, and Ramon and a small group of people he didn’t know.

He didn’t make it through the whole ceremony. In kind of a daze, he slowly wandered away. Jimmy went to follow him but Steve told him to let him go. Eventually David made it back to the parking lot. He couldn’t remember where he parked and it took him a while to find his car. Frankly, he didn’t even remember driving to the cemetery.

As he pulled out of the lot, he glanced at the white sign with fancy black writing: Fitzgerald Memorial Cemetery. He smiled sadly. She would have liked that, he thought and drove away.

 

 

He was struggling again. He kept losing his place in the song. Steve had to keep whispering to him to stay with them.

David just couldn’t stop thinking about the accident and the way she looked lying on that hospital bed.

He shook himself and stared out into the audience, squinting into the hot spotlight. There were only a few people out there and they didn’t seem too interested.

He tried to focus again and the rest of the set went pretty well. But he could see the looks on their faces, the disappointment, the frustration. David knew they were thinking about replacing him, he had overheard Jimmy and Ramon talking one day. He wanted to care but he just didn’t.

 

 

He was on his way to a pawn shop; it was only a block away from his apartment but he had never been there before, really never had any reason to. But today he was bringing his bass there. He hadn’t touched it (other than to move it out of the way) in almost two months, and he wasn’t sure he would ever play again.

As he approached the shop, the bottom of the case got caught on a jagged piece of the sidewalk and David had to grab it quickly before it fell. When he had it upright again, he noticed a small folded piece of paper sticking out from one of the pockets. He leaned the bass against a phone booth and took out the paper and unfolded it.

His eyes starting tearing before he even read it; just one glance and he recognized her writing. The note read: “Once you’re out there you forget about who’s watching; you just don’t think about it. You’re an amazing bass player. You’re going to do great and I love you.”

Suddenly David felt extremely weak; he had to support himself against the phone booth to keep from falling. She must have written that note before that big show a couple months ago, he thought. She knew I was a little nervous about it. How did I not see this?

With watery eyes he read the note four more times and then folded it up and put it in his pocket. He glanced toward the pawn shop about 50 feet away, grabbed the bass and turned around to go back to his apartment. All of a sudden he didn’t feel like selling it anymore.

 

It was a sunny morning when he found himself at the little record store. David couldn’t remember the last time he had been there and only stopped in as kind of an afterthought on his way downtown. Maybe they have that Mingus I’ve been looking for, he thought.

As he perused the racks, he noticed once again they had moved things around. Out of the corner of his eye he noticed a woman walking slowly towards him. He quickly glanced that way and saw that it wasn’t a woman at all, just a man with his hair in a ponytail. David smiled to himself.

He finally found the jazz section and they did in fact have the Mingus. When he got back into his car, he tossed the blue bag on the passenger seat and turned on the radio. (He had finally found that damn knob). After a moment he settled on a jazz station; a wonderful singer was singing “All Too Soon.” David smiled and looked in the rear-view mirror. Although his bass was almost completely covering the back window, he quickly pulled out onto the street.

It was time for rehearsal.

Read More By Tim Josephs

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Portland Fiction Project

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