Here trumpeter Horatio does a photo-op rather than rehearsing, abdicating a part in the band to Brad Chance Literati! Five finalists are now competing for $250 and blogging rights–oops!–bragging rights in our contest, Once Upon a Time, which challenges each author to actually follow through with that banter at the last cocktail party …
Here trumpeter Horatio does a photo-op rather than rehearsing, abdicating a part in the band to Brad Chance
Five finalists are now competing for $250 and blogging rights–oops!–bragging rights in our contest, Once Upon a Time, which challenges each author to actually follow through with that banter at the last cocktail party and prove that they really are writing that novel!
Robert Marazas delivers chapter two of his novel: Dimensions in Ego. Let’s get straight into it, shall we?
Dimensions in Ego
By Robert Marazas
Brad fumes, waiting, listening. All week Ted did corny intros, announced sidemen and instruments, dramatic pause while bass thrummed, cymbals crashed, guitar strummed, tenor honked, trombone burred; a quick alto phrase and all together for a chorus of the theme and on to the first set. No trumpet in the mix. Brad can’t play yet because this Poinsky character isn’t officially gone until Saturday’s farewell performance, one set only. What’s with that? Relax, Ted told him, get the feel of the band and the room, you’ll be up there soon enough. (If we remember you). Brad doesn’t need to feel, he needs to blow. So he’s benched, Tuesday through Friday. Life stalled again, dreams on hold.
McClint got him out of the Forest Hotel and into a furnished attic room and a half on Vine Court. Brad stoops to avoid banging his head on the sloped beams. Mac lives on the second floor, Helen Hornell on the first. She owns the building, or her mother does, Brad can’t remember which. Mac gave him the key and took a month’s rent to pass on to Helen, then disappeared. One night Ted took Brad outside Setonsville to the Allnight Diner, where he introduced a waitress, his one and only he called her, a pony tailed older woman named Cheryl Albert. Everyone else ignored Brad since the audition. He reads classics until he feels claustrophobic in the attic, walks through town learning street names, drives to the club for practice, and sits at a table near the bandstand while the band goes on without him.
Horn case under his chair, untouched rum and coke next to an ashtray with a half dozen butts, Brad watches the band setting up. He likes them, likes their sound, but thinks they could be better. By now he knows their names. Sam Twiller, drummer, sad face, mop of curly black hair, prominent nose, gets carried away, needs to rein it in. Richie Grains, tenor sax, blonde hair center parted, pleasant face, competent but not close to Vandersant. Mike Fallon, valve trombone, dark eyed and handsome, dark hair short as Brad’s, holds back, carries a trumpet but never uses it. Al Sparrow, bass, long haired, skinny, dwarfed by his instrument, but solid. Ted and Mac are pros. Brad can fit in, get to know these guys, maybe drive them. If they let him.
A chair scrapes. Linda Falleroy, Cheryl Albert, followed by Helen Hornell. Brad nods, polite, uneasy surrounded by three women. He didn’t speak to Linda since the audition, and she kept her distance. Sometimes she watches him a beat too long before turning away when he looks at her. He wonders who she is, why she comes to the club. She tilts her head to look back at the bar and her hair swings away from her face. Brad notices a thin scar snake across from the edge of her right nostril, along the underside of her cheekbone, and stop at her right earlobe. He is repulsed and fascinated by the imperfection on her otherwise flawless skin. When her hair falls forward it hides the scar, and frames a jade pendant on a gold chain at her throat.
Nothing mysterious about Cheryl. When Brad first met her she peppered him with questions about his personal life. He gave nothing away, fueling her curiosity. He managed to divert her by getting her to talk about herself. And she loved that, going on about her and Ted and her father and the Albert family history. He half-listened, bored but grateful to be forgotten.
He assumes Helen is here for Mac.
Tuning up sounds spur his impatience. Maybe this was a mistake. Maybe he should leave for Buffalo. They swore in Baltimore that Buffalo was the place to be for musicians. The room fills with smoke and noise. He loses himself in the swell of music, crowd murmur, and ice rattling in glasses. As he reaches for a cigarette, a hand slaps flat on the table. Another rests on a battered trumpet case. Brad looks up at a man leaning into Linda’s space. He wears baggy jacket and slacks that need cleaning. His narrow tie hangs loose. His dirty blonde hair is slicked back, greasy strands draping his forehead and falling limp past his collar. He grins at Linda.
“Hey babe, what’s happenin’?”
Linda’s face hardens.
“How ‘bout you cut out with me later, swing a little like the old days.”
“Don’t hang by your thumbs,” Linda says, gritting her teeth.
“Come on babe, you know you’re gonna come around sooner or later.”
Linda angles her head at Brad. “This is Brad Chance, our new trumpet player.”
Grin fades, eyes narrow and focus on Brad. “Yeah? Where you from?”
“Painted Bridge.” In Brad’s peripheral vision, Cheryl and Helen sit up straight.
“Painted Bridge! Where the hell’s that! Well, I’m Chet Poinsky, man, you ever heard of me?”
“No,” Brad says.
Astonishment turns to a sneer. “Well you just listen, man, after that you can pack your tooty horn and head back to Nowheresville.”
As Poinsky stomps off toward the bandstand, Brad curses himself for the slip about Painted Bridge, avoiding looks from Cheryl and Helen. He lights a cigarette. Poinsky climbs up and stands close to the mike where Ted does the intro. The band opens. Brad cocks his head, face a mask, showing no reaction to Poinsky’s theatrics. In the doorway Pell is a shadowy bulk. Brad loses himself listening, surprised when Ted calls a break to end the set. Poinsky bounds off the stand and throws Brad a passing sneer as he strides to the bar. Ted and Mac pull up chairs. Mac scans faces deadpan.
“That went well, like old times,” Mac says, tasting Helen’s drink.
Impatient, Linda tugs Brad’s sleeve. “Well?”
Brad turns to her. “What?”
“Our little genius Poinsky, what do you think of him?”
“He’s good.” Linda looks disappointed. Brad stares past the bandstand. “But flashy, blows fluff, shows off. Don’t need it if you’re good. Just the notes, clean and clear. The rest is cover up. He doesn’t feel the music, doesn’t care.”
Both Ted and Mac grin. Cheryl reaches for Ted’s hand and squeezes. “Are you better, Brad?”
Brad shows surprise. He stares at his hands before meeting her gaze. “Yes.”
“Hey, what a concept,” Mac says. “Maybe we should explain it to Poinsky.”
Ted punches Brad’s shoulder. “Come on kid, it’s time this town heard you.” He glances at Pell, who steps out of the shadows. “Yeah, you got that right,” Pell growls around his cheroot.
Lights dim, spots flash on, crowd quiets. Brad mounts the steps as Ted introduces him. The crowd senses something happening. Ted calls the same numbers Poinsky blew in the first set and Mac shoots him a wicked grin. Oblivious, Brad coils down, right profile to the room, standing apart from the band near the piano facing them, and slides in behind the trombone and waits for his solo cue. And pure sound buffets the room. The crowd gets into it, claps time to the rhythm, stamps feet, urges the band on. The band roars, tight and swinging. To Mac they sound better than they ever have. Over the band the trumpet soars and climbs. At the table Linda holds her breath, turning around to look for Poinsky, but he’s gone.
“Listen to that!”
Cheryl makes a face. “Are we getting a little carried away?”
“Oh hush! Did you ever hear anything like that?”
Helen says nothing, lips parted as she watches Brad.
Ted keeps the breaks short. Brad owns the rest of the night. When Ted finally calls the theme, the crowd groans dismay as they burst into applause. On stand the guys nod at each other and pack instruments as they savor the moment. Pell shoos the crowd out, urging them to have one for the road at the bar and come back for more music. Bennie pumps taps and pours shots for his boys. Brad flops into a chair, weary face sweat shiny. Linda slides her drink to him. He raises it in silent toast and takes a grateful sip. Ted bear hugs Brad from behind. Mac drapes an arm around Helen’s shoulders.
“Good one kid,” Ted says.
Brad smiles. “Yeah, nothing better.”
“They’ll be back in droves, we’re on our way.” Ted pats Brad’s head. “Poinsky’s gone and you’re our trumpet. It’s your job.”
“Better be careful, Mr. Chance, or you’re going to become a legend,” Cheryl says.
Brad is startled. Does he hear a hint of sarcasm? When the others laugh, he shrugs off doubt and joins the laughter. But as they leave for the bar he glances at Cheryl, uncertain whether she paid him a compliment or pronounced a curse.
Brad lies on the bed and embraces his horn case. Exhausted, head buzzing with echoes of sounds, he replays every tune. He was born for tonight, everything he did leading him to now. Hours at the piano in the back room above the bar in Painted Bridge, Maggie unrelenting, hounding him to practice. The day he saw the trumpet in the pawnshop window. Lessons from the elderly German with bad breath, wispy gray hair and thick accent. High school band four years, partial scholarship to Axton College, classes in music theory and composition, college band. Army band, off duty bands in basements, garages, rathole after-hours joints in Baltimore and Washington. All for tonight. Vivid images: cigarette smoke drifting through soft spotlights, shadowy tables, customers tapping feet, bouncing fingers off table surfaces. And the band: Al standing tall, serious, long fingers plucking bass strings, humming; Sam, hands blurred above glittered drums; Mac slumped in his chair strumming guitar, spots glinting off his glasses; Mike working trombone valves, making growling sounds; Richie, animated, jiggling body, attacking his tenor; Ted, head tilted, blowing sideways, dropping crystal notes in the air. And Brad Chance, indistinct, blurred at the edges, a mystery. His trumpet gleams. That sound, his sound, no one will ever mistake it for anything else. Hear that sound and know it’s Brad Chance. Tonight Cheryl called him a legend. He liked that. A legend. Of course. Nothing will stop him, not his past, not his secret.
You hear that Maggie? A legend. You created a legend.
Word becomes a song, a lullaby. His eyelids flutter and droop. He clutches the horn case tighter.
Gigs all summer, blowing your head off, nothing but music, sound, always the sound, beat pulsing through veins, racing along nerves and muscles, singing in your brain while you slept. Mac dug it. Crowd noise, quiet while they blew, smoky room, soft spotlights, close packed tables, crowded bar, faces turned toward them. Mac heard Ted urge the crowd with those corny intros a hundred times, winking, grinning at himself. One by one the guys blew their signature phrases, ran through the theme, and barreled into the first number. Once it was rote, a bit stale, but now it was exciting because Brad was there. Mac heard a new band building. They anticipated each other with a nod, a gesture, or a look. They blended, drove each other, played off each other. Before Brad they were passable, workmanlike, plodding through gigs. Now they were good, and better with each session. They had to be. Brad watched them, studied them, vacuuming everything in.
Brad had a routine. Mac woke groggy, trudged up the stairs, banged on his door. Downtown to the Seton Inn for coffee black and hot. Helen joined them more often than not and sat next to Mac across from Brad. After she left for work they drove to the club. Bennie poured more coffee. Brad sat at the off-tuned piano to work on arrangements or his jazz suite. He drew Mac in, or whoever was at the club that early. They worked with him, fed him phrases. He banged away at the piano, scribbled, getting it down on paper. He rarely ate lunch. When Cheryl worked the diner night shift he and Mac had dinner with Ted.
What amazed Mac was the new rehearsal ethic. It used to be a drag for Ted and Mac to get them together, because Sam worked as a short order cook, Al and Richie worked at Richie’s father’s garage, and Mike gave music lessons while trying to finish his master’s degree at the college. Yet now they found time to work with Brad or rehearse all afternoon. Richie’s brother Merlin came every day, waiting for his chance to sit in on drums. Ted drove them hard. They might screw around, then get serious, and suddenly they were onstand blowing the crowd away. They worked almost every night, first time since the band started. After closing they caught second wind after a few drinks at the bar. Brad got them going and they jammed for hours until Pell and Bennie threw them out, or Mike took them downtown to the Moose club for an after-hours session, or Linda led them to Oak Falls or Bandireo or over to Corning. She knew all the late night joints. Other nights they toured the circuit, the Forest, the Inn, the Balboa, Tommy’s, the Blob’s, the Joint, grabassing, talking music. They ended at the diner, their unofficial hangout, for breakfast or coffee, winding down, rehashing the night, reluctant to surrender the town to the day people wandering in. Brad and Mac finally climbed the wooden stairs at Vine Court, Mac pausing at his door to watch Brad trudge up, Brad grinning down at Mac, giving him a wink that said hey, couple hours we’ll do it all over again.
Dreary autumn Monday. Low, heavy clouds, quick bursts of slanted rain. Brad hates Mondays. Club closed, Pell and Bennie disappeared so he can’t work on the piano. He slumps in the diner, bored. A few counter customers, half asleep. Brad, Ted, Mac and Linda in the large rear booth. The thick accented Greek who named the diner loves Pell and his musicians, although he’s never seen the club. He opens twenty-four hours a day with his wife, four daughters and son, plus a pool of eager waitresses from Setonsville. Mac and Ted share parts of the Axton County Chronicle. Brad broods and stares at the steady drizzle, pretending disinterest in their running commentary. Linda sits next to him, too close, making him aware of her perfume and body warmth. Cheryl works the day shift, pouring coffee refills. Brad wants to find a piano. Maybe Mike can get him into the Moose club for a few hours.
All summer his new friends tried to break his routine, dragging him to movies, museums, drives around Axton County, shopping in Corning. Once they took a day trip to Niagara Falls. But wherever they go he gets restless, anxious to return. Except for music and reading, little interests him. Still they hover, keep a watchful eye, give advice, and try to draw him out. And he resents them. He questions Linda’s motives, is wary of Cheryl’s curiosity. He likes Ted, Mac and Helen, although Helen watches him too intently, as if trying to place him. Pell and Bennie are okay. He spends time with Sam and Mike. But he wishes they all would give him space, stop asking questions, stop digging into his past. All his life he was a loner, used to not belonging. He accepts loneliness. Potential change makes him anxious.
Cheryl’s shift ends. She squeezes in next to Ted. “God, what a long day!” She sips Ted’s coffee. “Feed me, handsome, and then let’s go to the movies.”
“Sounds good to me,” Ted says, turning a page.
“Any worthwhile news?”
Linda yawns. “Some things never change.”
“You don’t know the half of it,” Mac says. “Must be a drag for you after swinging Buffalo.”
She smiles. “I take full responsibility for making my own excitement.”
“Hey, Painted Bridge made the news,” Ted says.
Brad freezes. “Your home town, Brad,” Cheryl says, as if everyone forgot his mistake with Poinsky.
“Get this, there was a fire in a bar called, you won’t believe this, the Last Chance Saloon.”
Brad turns from the window.
Mac grins. “Last Chance Saloon. Brad Chance. What a coincidence. You know the joint?”
“Heard of it,” Brad says.
“Owner broke a kerosene lantern, started the fire.” Ted reads, “They got it out, some water and smoke damage, took her to the hospital, released her, she’s okay. Owner’s name is Margaret Chance.” He looks a question at Brad.
Brad frowns. She? What about him? Where was he?
Brad clutched the toy soldier with the missing arm, trying not to cry but failing. “Daddy!” The man turned and stumbled, mouth slack, reeking of whiskey. “I ain’t your daddy get that straight and stop looking at me like that!”
Maggie hugged the boy. “Shorty, you promised!” She drew Brad away. “It’s all right, baby.”
“He’s eight years old, it’s time he knew. Make him stop looking at me like he already knows!”
Maggie whispered, “He’s not your daddy. I’ll explain everything but not now, later when you’re older. Now stop crying, be a big boy.”
She didn’t explain for years and Brad didn’t ask. He stopped looking at Shorty because Maggie wanted it.
“Do you have family in Painted Bridge, Brad?” Cheryl asks.
Brad sips his coffee and shakes out a cigarette. His face is stone. “Last I heard there was nothing in Painted Bridge.” He turns back to the window and watches the rain.