Distance (Draft 1)

The weather felt perfect. A brilliant gold sun floated in the ice-blue sky like a beacon. Green mountains rose up from the ground toward the sky and sun like furry moss clumps. The mountains’ trees swayed back and forth in a calm breeze, their leaves rippling upward, churning out a steady snake hiss among the thousands of bird calls echoing throughout the countryside. The breeze smelled of honey and peat, a soft scent, but one not easily ignored. Mountain laurel, squat and slender with delicate fibrous branches, bloomed cotton white along both edges of the well-worn path the couple traversed. The laurel stood stiff and crooked as if violently yanked from the ground during its most crucial stage of forming an erect-trunk-habit. Tiny birds peeped in and out of the laurel, watching the hikers with their eyes as shiny and round as machine bearings. The birds seemed to take shelter in the waxy-leaved trees, whether from the sun or predators did not matter. The important aspect of their flittering rested in the joy the display from being among the delicate little limbs. The birds hopped and chirped, bouncing around, sometimes in one place in a tree, sometimes in many at once, their tiny heads cocked sideways  examining the big world outside the trees, as if the world burst into a thousand-rayed macrocosm outside their shadowy insular jungle. The birds sang throaty shrill, but magnificently exciting, chirps to the day. Their song carried the power to kill pain and suffering. It sheltered the wilderness from harm.

The couple ascended the crumbly dirt path. Loose pebbles from the woman’s steps rolled randomly down to the man behind her. She glided along far ahead of him, not looking back, not acknowledging his heavy steps on the ground, his faint pig-like grunts. Strange, she always acknowledged his annoyance before; she usually hiked with him. Why wouldn’t she slow down?

Samuel watched the stillness of the scene ahead while he labored up the dirt path, his pack tight on his back, his mouth tasting of jasmine pollen. He stepped up and down like an arthritic dog. They already hiked over fifteen miles already and he felt the distance in his bones. Ahead of him, Candace skipped along the path. Her flowing blonde hair gleamed like a halo. Her thin waist, hidden under skimpy green hiking shorts, swiveled and shimmied above her tan legs like a buoy.

“Hey now, wait up!” said Samuel.

“Come on, we haven’t got all day to get back. We’ll be out of light soon,” replied Candace.

“I know. I know that. I was just watching you and thought I’d like to be closer to you, but you’re way up there bunny hopping. Come here bunny.” Samuel beckoned her back to him with his long slender, but hairy forefinger.

“A bunny? So sexy to be called a bunny. Why can’t I be a mountain lioness, or a vixen?” she asked.

“Why would you want to be a vixen? What’s so great about being that?”

“Well, I’ll have you know that being a vixen would be dangerous. Vixens are female foxes. You know you’d like me to be your little feral vixen.”

“Yes,” said Samuel, ‘“Vixen’ does sound delicious. But you’ve got no tail, do you?”

“We’ve all got tales Samuel. You should know that better than anyone else.”

She stopped and turned toward him, shooting an arrow’s stare into him. He stopped still. Her bright green eyes and angular cheekbones reminded him of a mountain cat. She seemed to stare at him, but past him simultaneously. He wanted to look her in the eyes. His vision leapt toward the mountains behind her. They stood an emerald green in the late morning sun. Samuel saw a light breeze cutting the leaves of the trees, still sweeping them upwards. He heard the velvet chirps of the birds around them. He wished he lived in the trees away from everyone else, just he and Candace and the birds, with no past, no future, only the leaves, the trees, the sun, the moment, and the chirps.

He looked at his tan hands, turned them over and saw his calloused palms. His stout hairy legs and dirty hiking boots felt stiff. He kicked dirt with his left boot.

“I guess we do. You’ve known them for a while. I don’t know why you can’t let it go. I have.”

“Let it go Samuel? Nice way to say it. Why don’t you let me go? You know, I think I have to. It’s right to do and we’re wrong, now.”

“I can’t Can, you’re all I’ve got.”

“Let’s try now. Why don’t you try to let me go right now?”

“What do you mean, right now?”

“Right now, like I’m going to leave right now and you’re not going to follow me. You’re going to turn around on this path and walk back the way you came and I’m going to keep going this way. We’ll just split up here like we never met.”

“I’m not sure I can do that Can.”

“You don’t have a choice Samuel. It’s better this way.”

Candace turned and quick-stepped up the path, toward the hard-scrape mountains and away from Samuel and the singing birds, leaving him feeling hot and spiny, his head heavy, his thoughts like the dark sludge at the bottom of a swamp. He turned mechanically, seeing her moving away out of his periphery, and stiffly descended the path along the way in which he had just came.

A dark hound-shaped cloud moved into the sky, casting a shadow over the woods below Samuel as he slowly descended the path. He felt cold without the sun on his back. The breeze picked up, prickling his skin and making him shudder. The forest below looked cold and unfamiliar, even though he had just passed through it not even an hour before. He could not hear the birds anymore. He missed her already. Could she really be gone?

He turned around, frantically searching for her on the path, but did not see her. His stomach drowned in acidic yellow bile. He felt sick, like when, as a boy, the flu struck him down for a week during his one and only summer time at camp, when his parents seemed like blue shadowed memories as he lay on the stale canvas cot and shook, longing to simply be home. He never wanted to feel distant from anyone he loved again.

He had to find her and make things right between them. Why should a silly thing like this split them up forever? Everyone has some moment from their past that they would rather forget. He thought she knew this better than anyone.

Samuel felt anxious as he ran up the path, passing the spot in which they parted. He saw her tracks in the tan dirt. She shouldn’t be too far yet. He noticed more dark clouds to his right, the east. Samuel could hear the low rumblings of thunder in the distance. He could smell the rain, like new rust, moving toward him. He hated thinking of Candace hiking alone, away from him. He thought of the storm as a hungry beast, a monster capable of swallowing her up like a crisp snack, taking her away from him forever. He ran.

His feet felt light, his socks like dirty feathers. In the sky, a black and yellow cloud swirled slowly around the peak ahead. He watched his shadow stretch into a skinny stick ahead as he used the balls of his feet to propel himself hard up the slope. The cloud reminded him of a week-old bruise. He thought about the center of a bruise, the tender part. He imagined he could live in the cloud’s center, above the loneliness, the loss and endless searching.

Samuel searched for her figure on the trail. Maybe she started to run too. She’d be much further ahead yet if she had. His breath beat hard into the back of this throat. He swallowed a hot wet lump of phlegm as he reached for the water bottle attached to his belt. The bottle held fast to its holster. Samuel stopped and yanked the container, fumbling it off his fingertips, and watched it tumble down the laurel-lined slope to his left. He dropped to his knees, his lips trembling. A prayer seeped from his lips like black molasses.

“Lord, or whatever you are up there, please please let me find her. Let us be okay. She’s all I have. I need this, please. I just need this favor this once. I’ll do things differently. I’ll change if you’ll please just let her come back to me.”

He laid his forehead in the dirt, his body forming a humble, folded posture, as if in prayer. He wept.

He wept for being lost on a trail he had traversed so many times before. He sobbed to bring her back. Maybe she could hear him. He rubbed his face in the dirt, his left hand clutching the base of the nearest laurel tree. His sobs shook his body, and in turn, the tree. He felt something tap his hand as lightly as a sleeping baby’s breath. Samuel raised his face to look at his hand and discovered a tiny laurel flower resting on it. The flower, a pale pink unlike the other laurel blooms along trail, rocked steadily in the light wind which accompanied the incoming storm. Samuel watched the flower shudder among the hairs of his hand and a strange calm swept through his soul. He stared into the deepest pit of the yellow stamen and thought about the weight of the pollen embedded there. He could not feel the flower on his person, yet to an insect, a bee especially, the collected pollen bears a massive load. The bees completed the muscular task of harvesting pollen every day of their regulated lives, their only mission: gathering powder for the good of the hive, for the strength of their queen. Samuel realized he lost his queen. He had no one to gather for now, no need to store emotions in their relationship, no desire to care outwardly for another. He realized then, watching the small flower rustle like tissue, that he alone had the power to care or not care, connect or not, with anything or nothing. That his happiness depended entirely on his will, like a breeze dancing with flowers, like bees travelling with pollen. He knew, in the soft afternoon stillness and the grey-green silent sky alive in the calm before the storm, that he only wanted to hear the little brown and white-speckled birds sing their healing song.

 

Yardbird Suite (Draft 2)

Anonymous

He flew on stage man. The first time I saw him at Birdland he practically tore his sax up. He just moved so fast on it. I’ll never forget that look in his open eye, mad and happy and sharp, just stoned man, but boy did he sound good. He soared higher and louder on that horn than even the cymbals could crash and I just watched, and listened, and felt the cool breeze coming off the stage. It dived and swooped, and finally flew right through me.

 

Charlie

These suckers see music like a lion sees a gazelle. It feeds them. They don’t care what the musician has to do to get it out to them. They just want to devour it. They never see me and Max crying behind the bandstand over not getting enough junk to play without the shakes. They never see me sweating over Baird and Chan going hungry at night because there’s no money until I finish touring. They just want, “More Charlie! More! Rip out another one! Make us feel good because we’re too stupid to know how to do it ourselves.” Man, don’t they know nothing? Don’t they think I’ve already given everything I can? This was never what I wanted. The music is for me, always has been, but life’s complicated and things get in the way and I guess I’m just a selfish son of a bitch in the end anyway.

 

Chan

He said he’d always love me, that he’d never leave. I believed him. For a while he made me so happy and we had some much fun together. And he’d play for me every night and I’d dream we were the only two people left in the world. I’d smile and hold our son, rock him to Charlie’s song. He said he’d never leave, but I began to see that wasn’t true. He couldn’t help but leave. Whether it was the touring, the drugs, or the booze, maybe all three, he was always gone after a while, but I loved that man, his sweet sweet sound, the way he held me in his arms, the way his music made me smile.

 

Diz

That cat taught me so much, like how to really breathe in the music. I used to trade fours with him and think, “My God, this guy is sharp beauty!” I could barely keep up with the soul he put out into the world, looking back. To some he seemed frantic, to others like hot glass, like he was about to break. To me, he was the greatest, a master and the most complete artist I’ve ever known. I’d have killed to be able to play like him. I still would Bird, I still would.

 

Chan

The lines in his face seemed deeper every day. He worked so hard, you know? I know he wanted the best for me in the end. He wanted the best for us. Sometimes he didn’t play for weeks and it didn’t seem to bother him, like he’d never have missed it, like he’d never heard of the sax before. I‘d wait for him to play again, hoping he’d just break it out one day and make everyone smile again. Then I’d realize that, most times when he’d quit playing, that he really had no other choice. He’d sell his sax, you see. Just pawn it and forget about it. In the end, he just wanted to forget when he could and remember when he absolutely had to.

 

Baird

I used to see my Dad as a giant when I was little. He seemed to have always have people following him wherever we went. They wanted to hear everything he had to say, but he never said much. He smiled a lot though. He had a sneaky smile. His eyes were always half open and his lip would constantly be curled in a sneer, like there was a secret joke about to be played on us all that only he knew about. I saw him play a lot, but I didn’t really recognize what he did for music until much later, after I knew about his habits, after it was too late to be proud.

 

Miles

He taught me everything and nothing at the same time. I was clean when I played in his group, except for a little reefer every now again, but he was wild, way over the edge, even back then. Sometimes he’d be so far gone before gigs that he didn’t even know his name and that scared the hell out of me, you know? To think that this guy that I looked up to so much could destroy himself like that regularly really made me question his power. You know, I’d look at him in the dressing room all slumped over and drooling on his self, sweating through his suit coat, and I’d hate him for showing me that side of him. Then I’d hear him play and I’d forget everything I’d seen and I’d just smile in between every note I played alongside him. He’d make me score for him sometimes. I hated every minute of doing that, man. Handing him what wrecked him, his body, his marriage to Chan, his music. That’s something I’ll never forget, or forgive myself for. That dark raven, he made me blue. Sometimes I still hear him tapping at my door late at night, looking for a place to crash, to hide. Sometimes, I imagine I helped him get clean. Mostly I remember helping him die.

 

Baird

Dad’s never around. Mom cries all the time. She misses Pree. I do too. I don’t know if Dad remembers her.

 

Chan

She was his little girl. He used to play to her every night, even after he’d already played a gig. He even went cold turkey after she was born, for a little while anyway. No one ever could live up to how he saw her, especially not me in the end.

 

Diz

The man never talked about his family much. I knew he loved them, but he never mentioned them. When were together, it was all about the music. I was his brother in his musical family. I don’t think it ever really mattered much to him anyway though.

 

Miles

I nearly lost my mind the first time I shot with Bird. We were on tour in the Southeast and he somehow managed to cop a bit, but he didn’t want to do it alone for some reason. It might have been right after Pree died. Maybe he felt lonely or something. All I know is that he’d never asked me to do anything with him before that night. He’d always kept it to hisself. We all knew he did it, and I’m pretty sure Max was doing it a little too, but we never pressed him about it. We just let him do his thing and he was always cool, except for acting a little clumsy every now and again.

Anyway, we shot up. He shot me, then his self and I don’t know what the fuck happened after that. I only remember puking everywhere and then everything going white and tingly, like I was in heaven man. I felt so good. I don’t remember nothing until I saw Max standing over me yelling that I had to get on stage. That son of a bitchin Bird must’ve left me there on the dressing room floor when it was time to go on. He didn’t care if I went on or not I guess. He just wanted someone to get high with.

 

***

 

Charlie steps on stage. The lights hurt his eyes. He squints, even more than usual. He doesn’t look fresh. His skin lays on him, grey like an elephant’s hide. It matches his tie perfectly. His suit, a navy pinstripe, fits well and his sax looks small against his bulging stomach. One of his shoes flops on his foot, unlaced and he kicks it back into place. He tilts his neck slightly to the left and bops his head along to Max’s fast ride cymbal and taps his foot to the drummer’s opposing bass drum. A slight smile breaks up his sluggish attitude. The smoke-filled room seems to sense his  energy. The audience applauds and whistles, screams and bangs on tables. The rhythm section is indiscernible from the crowd, has become one with it, one with the royalty in the room.

He stretches his lips around the reed-tipped mouthpiece of his sax, inhales a sharp breath, and blows pure, crisp, sonic beauty through the tiny woodwind. The sound exploding put of the instrument silences the audience and even the rhythm section seems to decrescendo. Charlie’s cheeks puff out slightly as he pushes wave after wave of thawed amber into the air. The notes, linger in the room like the heat from two spent lovers. Each one equals the next and the next after that. He plays his songs, his birdsongs and no one can answer them.

 

***

 

Charlie

Ornithology one two three four one two three four one two three four They’re tight tonight Max is on two three four e and uh one two Wish I had lit a smoke New reed Tight action in the keys for some reason but here we go Here I come  my old friend C  F# Geeeeeeeeeeee Ze du weeeee I’m going This is right with ‘em Miles sounds a little sharp He got that look He checked it I itch I’m hot Ze du weeeee Look at her looking at me She’s coming back to my room tonight Got to get a little more before then though Go to keep well Can’t let down the boys Can’t let down Chan but I can see her tonight for sure and she’s gonna do me right Don’t get enough blondes Perfect night for one Gonna make her believe in me at last until I get some and I’ll feel it this time too Ze du weeeeeee And it all fits so nicely into a tight little package for them tonight by god I am on it tonight Got to keep up this momentum for the rest of the tour Can’t get tired Not now Not ever Don’t ever let them see you sweat Play it right The only way I can My way Ze du weeeeeeeeeeeee ded lu bi ze doo op za

Feeling It Out

My body feels different today. As I run, it feels stronger, more in tune with my pace, but it also feels weaker. Not like I can’t continue, or that my running regimen stresses my body too much. No, it feels weaker because I’m rigorously conditioned, aware of an invincible feeling inside. I’m terrified of losing it.

My thighs feel like stone, my feet electricity. The woods pass by as if frozen, each feature still, brilliantly detailed. Large trees, their leaves shiny in the sunlight, stand as statues, silent in the still afternoon. Birds chirp in the distance, the occasional squirrel bounding about rustles the dense population of ferns covering the forest floor. The trail beneath my feet feels soft under my shoes, the smooth dirt only occasionally interrupted by baseball-sized rocks. I feel free, without worry. I notice every detail of the forest with the time and intricacy of a photograph.

I think about Mike. He runs behind me, somewhere. He knows me well. I think we run for the same reasons, meditation, relief, escape.

“You close?”

“Yep, just a little back from you.”

“You want me to slow it up a bit?”

“No, this is fine. I’m good.”

“How’s Laurie?”

“Still pretty broken up man. Neither of us expected this. We both miss him.”

Buckley died a few days ago. Mike’s strong, but anyone’s going to miss their dog, be sad, feel cheated. Death seeps into the spring of life like a cold thick bog. It lingers, still, dense, and wet.

Mike moves up beside me. We’re the same age, 34, our birthdays are a mere seven days apart. We share a strong kinship, understand each other, feel we are brothers. We used to drink hard, a nightly twelve pack, or the equivalent in liquor, along with a steady dose of cigarettes and pot; we weren’t the healthiest men in the world, but we always had fun, at least until morning came. We roomed together in college, but remained hard partiers well after. I moved away after school. We always stayed close and visited each other often.

When my sister Sarah died, I threw away my chemically-choked lifestyle. I chose running as a new and healthy outlet. A lot of people close to me couldn’t understand my change. They wanted me to continue with them, keep quickly scratching years off my life. They didn’t understand my mission, maybe because I never told them. I choose to live a better life in the wake of Sarah’s death, to live healthier in her honor, transcend the grip of vice, a grip she from which she could never break free.

Sarah and I only partied together in minor ways, drinking and smoking pot. I never knew she used heroin until two years before her death. She was four years younger than me, so I broke off my partying with her when I found out about her addiction. We grew apart, mostly because I chose to lecture her on the importance of getting clean whenever I saw her. She didn’t want to understand why she should be good to herself, much like later, when no one close to me wanted to understand why I chose running as the new focus of my life. No one understood, except Mike.

“Do you think you’ll get another dog?”

“I don’t know. Laurie’s pretty upset right now. So am I.”

“I think you guys will. It was sudden though. Same thing happened to Rob’s dog. His stomach flipped, no one knew it happened , and he just died right in Rob’s arms. No warning, nothing.”

“That condition is crazy. I’d never even heard of it before. It seems like vets should always tell owners of large dogs to watch out for GDV.”

“I know, why wouldn’t they if it’s so common? Doesn’t make sense.”

“No, it doesn’t.”

“It’s beautiful up here today,” I say.

“Perfect.”

Three Ridges’ trail, half shaded half sunlit, winds up the mountain at a forty-five degree angle, a steep climb. The sunlight toasts my skin when I’m in it. It feels wonderful, like heated silk cloaking my body. The breeze, slow and tempered, wisps my hair back as I climb, a little faster every step.

Mike supported me when I decided to become an obsessive runner. He listened intently when I spoke of my newfound passion. I think, as he became aware of how much happiness I found, he decided to take it up too. His choice drew us even closer. We traversed a major boundary together, began steadily building a new basis for our close relationship. Running became our shared priority, began to define us. We talked of our exploits, our increased mileage and varied training methods, our tools to achieving top spiritual and physical form. We formed a healthy bit of competition, not necessarily who was better than whom, but more like a, “See where I’m going with this? Want to follow? Or take the lead?” attitude.

“Are you ready to do this? I want to get up it fast,” I say as I continue to pull ahead of Mike.

“Yeah I’m ready, but I want to see the views a little. I don’t want to kill myself getting up here.”

“That’s cool man,” I said. “You stop when you want, but I’m going to move up this thing as fast as I can.”

“You’ve never been up it before. Don’t you want to see the views?”

“I will, but I’ve wanted to run Three Ridges for a while. I want to test my strength.”

“Alright man, but you know a lot of hiking isn’t about the exercise. It’s about talking to the people you’re with and relaxing in nature. If we just speed up this thing we’re not going to talk, we’re just going to work.”

“That’s what it’s about to me man. It’s the work that matters. I can talk to you on the ride back just like on the way here. This is what we came to do right?”

“Right, but I don’t think we need to be so strict about how we go up. We can relax a little.”

“Listen Mike, you go up it any way you want, but I’m going up quick. Let me do it how I want alright? You move the way you want and I’ll move the way I want.”

“Alright buddy, alright.”

I feel the front of my thighs burn as the terrain steadily rises, steeper and steeper. I stay on the balls of my feet and push harder up the trail, concentrating  on the pain as hard as I can. My mind becomes a liquid washed in silver light. My thoughts jump up and down like the bubbles in boiling water. I smile as a drop of sweat stings my eye.

Sarah died on July 2, 2011. Running tramples the pain of her loss into the ground. The solitude of long distance running gives me time to think about her, how things could’ve been different. A ballet dancer most of her twenty eight years, Sarah used her physical presence, her movement, to evoke emotion in audiences. Her fitness astounded her audiences. She seemed to glow onstage. Shimmering blond hair hung straight and thick to her waist. She flipped her mane around as much as she could, on the stage and off, with a wry wide smile over her shoulder. Onlookers stood paralyzed in front of her butane blue eyes which had the power to warm even the most frozen soul when light danced across them, their brilliance sparkling like sunlight on a thousand tiny-fingered sea waves. Her wide deep smile, combined with her grace and power on stage, warmed me whenever I watched her perform.  I always felt both nervous and excited for her. I wanted her to succeed so much, but I always doubted her just enough to believe that she could fall at any moment.

I move steadily faster, but quieter, lighter, concentrating on my breathing. I let my thoughts come and go freely. They often involve Sarah, how I’ll never see her again, how our family fractured after her overdose, how I anticipated her death for a year or more before it finally happened. Oftentimes, I find myself having conversations with her, “Why did you do it? What did you shoot that last shot?”

“I couldn’t help it Chris. I was on it so long. It became second nature.”

“You should’ve told me. I’d have tried to help you.”

“No one could help me but me.”

“I could’ve helped you. You crushed Mom you know?”

“I know. I know.”

“You know? I don’t think you do. She’s lost everything, starting with you. She’s not the same. None of us are.”

“We were always fighting anyway. What does it matter if one person isn’t around to do it?”

My thoughts become too sporadic to pin down. They feel like lead, dense, dark. A dirty film coats their surface. A strong wind blows in my face. It feels forceful, like it intends to keep me from fulfilling my promise to Sarah for the day. I need to run to improve my life; she needs to see me heal.

I concentrate on the surrounding forest. Thick oaks, pines, delicate maples glide by me as I push forward up the long incline. The ground crunches under foot, acorns and dry leaves lingering from last fall break down into tiny granules indistinguishable from the sandy brown dirt of the trail. Birds chirp and sing repetitive songs overhead which put me in a soft trance as I watch a light wind slip through the leaves.

I cruise at a five minute mile pace, joy energizing every cell in my body. I feel weightless, free, thirsty, acutely aware of my surroundings, but sweaty and swirly. The wind brushes me slightly sideways, knocking me off balance. Hot anger boils in the back of my eyes like a cinched vise.  I strain to reset my thoughts.

Once negative thoughts creep into a run, they poison it slowly. They intrude on a blank space like a scream interrupting silence. My body tenses. I feel hot, pulsing anger, not because I’m unhappy, but because I cannot control my emotions. Control is essential, especially when everything around me radiates a harsh static whine.

But the mountain’s scenery silences the whine. The thick summer air shoot sunbursts through my head. I’m calm. I can control the stress on my body. The world seems right somehow, maybe it’s the magnetic pull I feel for a strong finish. Maybe it’s the feeling I have that Sarah might be watching.

My body still feels different today. It reminds me of my first sexual experience, anxiety and triumph blended into one mechanical motion too complicated for me to break down into individual steps. Better to just go with it and hope it gets better, hope for the best. That’s what we all do in the end anyway right? Do our best, or what our mind perceives to be our best in a particular moment, in a particular time, in a particular place.

Sherri, she made me laugh. She was five years older, nineteen when I was fourteen. She knew I loved this about her. What teenage boy wouldn’t love an older woman hitting on him? We worked together at my first job ever. I was a busboy, she a server, at a colonial inn slash restaurant in the small town in Northern Virginia in which I grew up. Her blonde hair, slightly shiny like wheat fields caught my eye immediately. I’ve always been attracted to blondes, but her emerald eyes and the naughty way she smiled didn’t hurt either. She stood about 5’10’’ and, I realize now, carried herself like a runner, all hip swagger and carefully swaying shoulders. She took me back to her house after work one late winter night. She lived in an old beat up camper, moved around quite a bit, camping in whichever national forest she felt suited her seasonal needs. She took me to her trailer. The whole way there, riding in her beat up baby blue Ford pickup, I’m anticipating touching her tight stomach, moving her thin white panties aside if she’s game. She must have been anticipating some things herself because, after getting me in her camper, she switched on some tunes and she jumped me in one swift motion. All I could think about was how good she felt compared to how good I felt. She felt great to me. I wanted her to feel great too, and here lies my first memory of bodily disparity. My body felt great, but I knew I could lose that feeling at any moment. Nothing good lasts forever. If it did, it wouldn’t be better than normal, it would actually be normal because it would be constant.

“Does it feel good?”

“Yes, yes.”

My god I hope it feels as good for you as it does for me. “You feel amazing.”

“So do you baby.”

“I almost can’t take it.”

“Me either. Try though, try. I want to come together.”

“Okay, okay, okay.”

Some people say it’s not worth it if it doesn’t feel good, but how can that be true? Those people have led too easy lives.  Never had their will tested and known themselves when their nerves were frayed like old yarn strands.

I push myself into a fatigued state, into pure exhaustion. Where is Mike? I want to enter the running dream, where the world moves by slowly and I catch every minute detail as my senses strain to grasp at anything resembling the velvet touch of rest. The mind blanks, yet doesn’t. A myriad of thoughts, ideas, still appear in the mind, but they are glossed over, coated in something sticky and sweet. The mind becomes a honey-comb, its thoughts saturated in rich nectar.

Whether through persistence or luck, I achieve the running dream today. My body still feels different, even under the dream’s influence. A snowflake slowly melts inside me as I run. The tiny drop of liquid left after the flake melts serves as my body’s last resort to quench its thirst. The tiny snowflake has always been there. I only realize its presence after it starts to melt. It carries my body weight, disperses it, frees it from gravity in the same way that a stone falls slower under water than in the air, gravity maintains its pull, but loosens its grip for a brief moment, enough to soften the concussion of the stone landing on the bed of whatever particular body of water it has been dropped. My body gradually becomes heavier because the weightless flake inside me disappears, transforms into boiling blood.

I keep moving through the mountain trail, my weight crunching forest scraps into dust. My feet are anvils, the melted snowflake disintegrates under them, but at least my feet feel like something. They are here. My body feels different, like a metal cable connects it to my mind.

The mind is a very powerful resource for me as a runner. It allows me to persevere, to traverse fifteen plus miles a day. My mind is my will, but it also has the power to destroy my progress, make me think I don’t have the strength to do what I do. I walk a tightrope made from metal cable, daily. The cable itself is me staying on course and completing my daily pilgrimage, along with everything else my life throws at me, but on either side of the cable lays a void, dark as water on a moonless midnight. In this dark void, defeat waits for me to acquiescence for a simpler day, a simpler life in which I don’t push my body and mind to the extreme places I need them to inhabit. I must continue on my path. My mind can trick me into inhabiting this void, usually while I am still on the cable. My mind constantly tries to trick me, make me think I’m too tired, overworked, that I need a little rest, that I need a little time to regroup. Accepting these excuses incepts doubt in my ability, the first step toward never running again. Once doubt sits comfortably in my head it may never leave. The cable must be springy enough to bounce on, if it’s too slack it bows and slips into the void. The rope feels tight.

I see Mike in my peripheral. “Hey, I’m sorry man. I get a little nuts about this stuff sometimes.”

“It’s alright man. You’re right, we should just do what comes natural. I’m just stressed out, you know?”

“Yeah, I know. I’m sorry about Buckley man. I know you loved him, even if he was a spazz.”

“That’s one word for it. Yeah he was a good dog, goofy and dumb, but cute.”

“Loyal.”

We’re just guys going here, moving there, with no particular purpose to our journey, just to climb, each step faster than the one before.  We embrace pain, continue a relentless pace forward. Without pain, the pace becomes dull, tarnished, like a mind caught in addiction’s snare. Sarah, a girl who jumped into addiction instead of running toward the freedom I knew she attained as a ballet dancer. She worked hard, but in the end she worked hard at the wrong things and it compromised her life, and almost compromised mine as well. She brought me back. She brought Mike back too. So many people remember her, but what did they do to honor her? What did they do to honor her life?

Maybe everyone’s sense of honoring the dead varies. Actually, I’m sure does, but there have to be universalities. We’ve all made choices for our lives based on others’ deaths. We have to learn from the deceased’s mistakes, or we might as well be deceased ourselves. Practice strains both the mind and body, but becomes easier as it becomes routine. There is no routine to death. It happens once. We have no more choices afterward.

“Sarah, today is fine, thanks to you being there somewhere, smiling at me regardless of how many times I curse your choices. In the end you’re really all I’ve got to keep me grounded, to keep life from pushing me forward too fast, to keep me free. It’s slow right now and the scenery passes by in intricate detail, every tiny limbed tree, every small fluttering bird, every glint of sunshine on even the smallest of puddles radiates in full, and undeniably beautiful, focus. Thank you for talking to me in your own special way these past two years, for keeping me aware of the dark void lurking around every bend on the trail.”

Surrender_Draft 4

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.