Surrender_Draft 4

Posted by on April 26, 2014 
Filed under Fiction

The man with the trombone case hanging in his right hand stepped off the rusty Greyhound bus and into the heart of Belvidere Street. Richmond looked different than he’d expected. Trash hugged the gutters, beer bottles, cigarettes, wrinkled news papers. Hazy clouds blanketed the sky in an orange hue, something he’d never seen before. He thought he’d like to feel some rain splashing on his face after the long ride from St. Louis. Rain had always calmed him. Water soothed his soul.

He wondered where the jazz clubs where in this city, and which ones he could sit in at. He saw an old man in a faded red baseball cap sitting on a corner bench. The man walked over to him and asked if he knew a good place to play. The man suggested Bogart’s on Broad, only seven blocks away. The man nodded and headed South down the street.

 

The club felt vibrant, the mix of smoky haze and anticipation of song felt perfectly balanced in the man’s mind as he waited patiently for his turn to sit in with the house band. He slowly dragged on a cig while he watched the tenor player trill up the and down his horn, moving his body erratically, making the sax shine through the dense club air. The older man played with confidence, and towered over the other three house musicians like a giant. His stout arms gripped the horn tightly, built as solid as brownstone blocks, connected to shoulders which almost jumped from underneath his shirt as he composed the combinations of keys needed to swing hard, in presto time. The old tenor player gave the younger man a nod. He picked up his trombone out of its case and sauntered up onto the stage.

“Hey man, names Sonny. I just got into town. Thanks for letting me sit in with you guys tonight.”

“Sure kid, name’s Urbie. You ready to do this?”

“Yeah man, let’s go. What we playing?”

“You know ‘Greensleeves,’ Coltrane style?”

“Sure man, sure.”

“Alright then.” Urbie mouthed, “A one. A two. A one, two, three, four.” And the band screamed off the stage with Sonny in tow. Sonny watched Urbie glide along with the piano, bass, and drums like water tumbling through a sieve. Urbie’s tone filled the room and jumped into Sonny’s soul. Urbie’s light illuminated the club’s shadowed corners. The star in Sonny’s heart showed the path he would follow. He knew he would chase Urbie’s song forever. Sonny thought of a feather barely touching an arm’s hair, of the lavender scent on a woman’s neck as she captured the world with her smile.

 

A brick-paved alley housed Sonny and Urbie for the night. The men sat at the foot of a building, using the structure as a backrest, a hard couch, the lights attached to it shined a bright white light, gave the bricks a silky sheen. Sonny thought the city’s grime overflowed into this alley, like a hostel for trash, and them, the nomads. A crusty condom lay sprawled on an empty beer bottle. Boxes surrounded them, shielded them from the filth…rats, roaches, other homeless.

The night felt cold compared to the rubbery heat of the afternoon. They smiled to one another as they passed a large can of Spam back and forth, each man slurping down the pressed meat steadily. Urbie hummed a quick tune to himself and Sonny jumped in every now and again to accompany his friend. They tapped their feet and rocked back and forth as rain began to softly patter on their heads. Sonny heard trains winding down a quarter mile away as the inflections of a bow against an upright bass’ strings. He swung with their beat through the night. He felt freedom in their industrial song. He felt their metal in the back of his throat as he hummed.

“You remember the time Waxy muted his horn with that old pot top he found before that gig at Smithy’s?”

“Yeah Sonn, played that thing like a plunger! Sounded like a nightingale screeching through foil didn’t it?”

“Oh man it was a feeling! I wanted to stand up during his solo and just toast the man, keep him going all night, keep that feeling in me forever.”

“He sure could whip that trumpet into a frenzy on the spot…just terrify you with that sound…so bright you know? So damn rich. Made me proud to be near him.”

“Where you think Waxy is now Urb?”

“Last I heard he caught a bus to Chi-Town. Probably got himself a nice classy gig up there you know? Makin’ it sing sweet there too.”

“You ever think about leaving Richmond Urb, making a break North?”

“You know kid, I do. I really do. I’ve been in this goddamn city so long I feel like my head will burst if I have to look at it one more day. But I just keep on playing to it anyway, like a damn fool. I keep trying to clean it. It’s just too dirty. ”

“What else can we do man? I mean, I think it’ll get better. This can’t be the best. It just can’t. We’ve held on too long to give up now.”

“Sonn, I’ve known this for years. This is the best and knowing that is the worst. You better start seeing that, or you’ll end up just like me someday. Just like all of us down here.”

Sonny knew what Urbie felt, but he’d never agree out loud. He’d have swung with Sonny until they stretched every note over the city.

 

The heat on Belvidere Street stifled Sonny and Urbie as they banged out cascading harmonies into the steady flow of traffic pulsing past them. They riffed on a call and response pattern. Each answered the other’s interpretations in an eternal loop. Sonny watched Urbie sweat hard, watched him squeeze his eyes closed as he combined his finger’s movements with the reed’s compression. He chirped short long, short short short, long. Up, squeal, backward, down. Sonny watched him. He thought of dripping batter, an eggshell cracking, corduroy, a comb bristle against his skin. Sonny wah-wahed his trombone right back, which invoked in him the remembrance of the bitter lemon taste, as well as a soft breeze on the eye, combined with the soft touch of fingers on a lip while lying on a cold concrete floor. Sonny blinked slowly as he played. He watched Urbie’s expressions. He felt the melodic connection between him and the old man, but Urbie looked confused. His notes began to waver off and crack in Sonny’s ear. Sonny thought of needles in the elbow and road tar bubbling in the sun. Urbie laughed into his tenor as he did it. He strode into traffic, blaring his tenor at the sky, his shirt soaked I sweat, the veins in his neck swollen.

A car screeched to a halt in front of him and Urbie honked the tenor at the driver. The old man high stepped like a drum major directing a battle. Sonny thought of angry bees oozing from a hive and his tongue’s tip touching the positive end of a C-cell battery. Urbie looked at Sonny and threw his head back. Sonny followed him and they wailed together, creating a musical cyclone in the street.

The traffic around them slowed and stopped, helpless to the men in rags with screaming horns. Sonny watched the motorists stare at them with confused expressions. He glanced at Urbie. The old man’s skin glistened in the warm afternoon. Sweat ran down his face to his neck and disappeared into his ragged green and brown flannel. He stomped his feet in black scuffed wingtips. The left shoe, the one with the duck-taped sole, stomped to their furious beat as if Urbie punished the pavement. A few motorists began to smile. A couple rolled down their windows and cheered. An older woman with white hair and dark glasses threw money at the men. Burly men in a dump truck cursed them, the spit flying out of their mouths in a soft mist. Sonny watched in shock, “People actually listen. They hear us.”

Sonny smiled as he sipped a cold beer in the basement of The Village Café, the heart of the city for Sonny. The Café’s décor, almost as worn as the men’s clothes, had a soft brown film covering it which always reminded Sonny of the way a strip of packing tape looks after being dropped on a dirty floor, like it held the world’s smallest bits of trash. The beige-colored booths added to the grime. Sonny poked the upholstery continuously to see what would materialize on his finger next. He looked toward the juke box and bopped his head along with the Monk he managed to coax out of its innards. Urbie sat still, silent, stoic. With a beer in hand, Sonny focused his gaze on the wood grain of the table. He shifted his eyes back and forth, glanced at Urbie again, then the street. Other homeless men shuffled by amidst fresh college students who glided past as if blind, practiced in privilege.

“What is it Sonn? You don’t want to celebrate?”

“I don’t know, I guess I’m not sure about what we’re up to. It seems too disruptive, you know? I don’t want our music to get in the way of things. I just want it to be felt, and appreciated by folks who want to hear it, not because they have to hear it. Can we just stay out of the mix and do our thing like we used to? Play for ourselves again.”

“Boy, that’s what we’ve been doing for the past two years and look where it’s got us. Nowhere. We’ve got nothing to our names except these horns. I need to get out of this town. I need money to do it. I have to go, before I have no choice.”

“Urb, you know I’ll help you, but I don’t play out there with you for the money. I do it for the soul, and that tingle on my skin.”

“Shit Sonn, a man’s got to eat and if we hadn’t got out in that street and played, no one would’ve given a damn about us. We took matters in our hands Sonn. We own ourselves again. Can’t you see that?”

“I don’t know. It just seems angry now and I want to smile when I play, not worry. You seem angry.”

“Don’t worry Sonn, I’ll smile again. When I’m gone. I’m sure of it.”

Sonny gulped his beer. He looked at the pedestrians on the street, ignorant of his problems, too busy. He looked at Urbie and saw barbed wire in his eyes. “The old man’s got some kind of fever,” he thought. “He sees too much. Maybe his jazz is dying slowly. If it is, he must know it.” Sonny felt pressure build in his skull. His eyes bulged with red-veined fear.

            Sonny played his trombone at the foot of the Arthur Ashe monument, a bronze structure which stood in the median of a four-lane avenue, a break in the plush grass median, with its tall oaks which shaded the grass enough to keep it cool and green on hot summer days. The bronze Ashe smiled, frozen, a tennis racket raised in his left hand, a book raised in his right. Children sat at his feet. Traffic flowed by him, watched, heard him too. He made his trombone scream hawkish cries that draped the day in honey-tinged borders. He made “Muskat Ramble” sound like cherries being stirred in champagne. He thought of sweet Louis’ smile, of tonal love, of cups of red jell-o shaking under a tree on a breezy day, of perfection.

The sun glared off his trombone and reflected onto his face. He noticed his reflection on the bell. His usually angular, handsome features seemed bulbous in the horn’s reflection, like he faced a fun-house mirror and saw a wide-cheeked clown with a short skull and no ears.  He turned his focused back toward Monument Avenue’s bustle and the scenery behind it, a beautiful summer day. Leaves danced in the light breeze. The air held just the right amount of moisture, just enough to relieve the heat with the breeze. Yet the sun’s dazzling brightness did not feel oppressive. Instead, the sun’s heat played stop-time to the afternoon song, added a deep level of chance to the waning day, like maybe time could’ve crawled on like this forever. Sonny’s rendition of Louis’ masterpiece involved him improvising around the old time melody like a child playing tag at sunset, dodging the ‘it’ as well as the day’s end. He filled the sky and his chest with song. In the midst of the tune’s crucial turnaround, he saw Urbie strolling toward him on the shaded median. Sonny abruptly silenced his horn and watched his friend wander toward him with a small smile on his face and tears in his eyes.

Urbie had the tenor to his lips. The sun shined on him through the two rows of old oaks overhead. He bounced his steps and gestured the horn up and down with each stride toward Sonny, playing a song the young man had heard, but couldn’t quite recognize. He thought of rain digging grooves into soil. He watched Urbie play. “People need to feel again, even if its anger,” he thought. Sonny wanted to run toward Urbie and scream his horn at him for fun, pure joy, without the weight he’s seemed to have made in everything these days. He knew the music had abandoned Urbie’s body, his soul lay somewhere in the past. The music he played seemed to choke him as he took his necessary breaths. But Sonny felt light and free somehow, like he floated on this afternoon’s breeze, weightless. He remembered the song: “Be de le de le de le de du…du dap. Be de le de le de le de du…du dap. Dweeeee de le do dup do!” He recognized the giant of melody, Mingus! “Better Git It In Your Soul.”

Urbie stepped off the curb, and walked into the front of a shiny grey Suburban cruising down the street. The vehicle shattered Urbie, his sax, tore through them leaving the old man crumpled under its chassis as it screeched to a halt. The old man’s body shook violently as Sonny ran toward him. Blood pooled under his broken torso, his sax imbedded in his abdomen like a brilliant cyst. Sonny stood over Urbie in silence. He could not touch his friend. He knew it would comfort neither of them.

A tiny stream of moss-legged water ran over a worn quarter, Washington’s face looked smooth, featureless, anonymous. Sonny watched the water glide over the coin. He wanted to snatch it up and drop it into his shabby pants pocket. He stared at the rippling water pulsing against the quarter, attempting to drive it from Richmond to the James. The water never stopped. It reminded him of the stillness he found at night. It covered him like a warm blanket, his home.

A grimy overpass sheltered the stream, the quarter, the man. Traffic coursed above him, creating a static whir that drowned his dynamic ear. The water moved fast, but the quarter remained anchored. He smiled, rubbed his grimy hands together and focused on the quarter. Its silver hue reminded him of his horn.

He thought of the last time he saw Urbie walking toward him with his tenor. He remembered Urbie’s song that autumn day before the city strangled them, “Better Git It In Your Soul.” Urbie used to scream that tune with a perfect balance of grit and silk and make it his own. Sonny turned toward the case beside him and unlocked the latches slowly, then looked back to the quarter, to the textured water, the air so damp, the day so new. He opened the case. His trombone waited to be assembled. Its nickel coating shined brilliant in the sun, despite some random dry water spots on the bell which obliquely obscured the horns hue like the lone cloud in an otherwise clear sky. Sonny grasped the handle of the bell section and kneeled with it over the water. With his right hand he cupped the stream water and wiped the bell methodically. With a rag from the case, he polished the bell until it shined for him. He smiled and connected the slide to the bell. He stood, connected the mouthpiece to the slide, wet his lips, and placed them against the mouthpiece. He breathed in and exhaled into the horn a long steady note, soft at first, it crescendoed gradually until it flew full in the morning sun. He played a middle Bb, the tuning note. The horn sounded in. He knew this horn well. He played a D, then an F: a major triad. After five seconds his soul leapt through the horn and glided out of the bell through slow sweeping notes which evoked in him the feeling of a smile amidst a great tragedy…warmth in cold…tingling amidst numbness. Sonny closed his eyes and his music filled the concrete canal. He thought of hot yellow candle wax crumpling torn tissue paper, the spark from a hammer striking a nail, the innermost embers of a camp fire, a piece of velvet brushing skin. He pictured the quarter in the water and played to its helplessness. He felt rich in loss.

 

Sonny wiped clean the urinals in the first floor bathroom of the Jefferson Hotel. The stately building resembled a palace. Its twin towers and ornate lattice work more reminiscent of Viennese Germany than southern Virginia. Sonny wondered if anyone not privileged had ever pissed here. He watched the toilet water slowly trickle around the shallow oblong bowl. He remembered the way the water had moved over the quarter on the last day he had played music, that last moment with Urbie. The urinal had little black curly hairs on it that he couldn’t get to stay on his rag. What he had in song he discarded for a mop, a rag, a paycheck. His practice now consisted of mopping, wiping, spraying, and sleeping instead of running scales and standards. He looked at the drops of piss under the urinal as he breathed in its metallic stench. He finally removed all the hairs and stood. He looked at himself in the mirror. His eyes, once green, seemed black to him in this light. His hair once trimmed short and tight, had grown spiked and tangled. His blue jumpsuit, stained from a year’s worth of cleaning toilets, stunk like spoiled milk. He turned from the mirror toward his mop bucket. He thought of crying.

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