Issue 189, Summer 2009
I was told they found themselves retired and so they said, Now’s finally the time to form a band! You should see the instruments they fished out of attics and basements. Not so much the instruments themselves—horns haven’t changed much over the years—but the cases. Some are covered with flesh-tone leather, boxes made of wood with rusty hinges, lined with red velvet. When they crack them open, it looks like they’re pulling metal bones from the insides of a body.
The dudes are severely elderly, these Nightblooming Jazzmen. They wear white belts and bow ties, polyester pants pulled up high. Our angle is we’re old, they say. So you have to dress the part if you’re going to be our pulse, drumbo. They got me wearing plaid pants and bowling shoes. A couple of them have moustaches and they’re serious about them. I paste one on for the big gig just to fit in around the face. Bleach my eyebrows and stick that silvery fringe under the nostrils, pop on a straw hat.
They have the coolest names. There’s Clyde and Chet and Wally and Ernie and Horace. Do you believe that? When I first met up with them, when I told them my name was Tristan, they said, Ho, ho, what kind of name is that? Some of them thought I said Christian. I said I didn’t know what kind of name it was, how should I know? I wasn’t there when I was named.
They said, Where are your people from?
My people? Sounded like they were talking about tribes. But I didn’t have an answer for them. I’m from nowhere, around, all over.
You can’t use a name like that, they told me. We’ll think of a new one.
After my audition, Clyde and Horace came over to my car when I was packing up my drums. They told me I got the gig but from now on they were calling me Stanley and if I didn’t like it I could take my twenty-two years of living and go sit on a dick.
They were grinning when they said it.
The big gig is under the elms in a lonely old park. The bandstand is covered with graffiti and the tennis courts have tattered nets and faded lines. A crowd of old people and a few of their grandkids look on from folding chairs. Everyone’s eating. I watch them bite at deviled eggs and salted watermelon from behind my cymbals. The fans of the Nightblooming Jazzmen drink wine from Styrofoam cups. They eat cheese logs and grapes resting atop green Coleman coolers. Seeds are spat into the grass.
Clyde puffs into the mic and says, Good afternoon, ladies and germs. Then we’re off and running. We cook up a carousel of sound with our hands, with the wind in our chests. Me and a gang of senior citizens just tearing up the place.
We’re marching the saints and balling the jack. And, damn, these Nightblooming Jazzmen can bring it. Chet is coaxing sad wah-wahs out of his t-bone, muting with a toilet plunger. Clyde noodles out golden lassos on the clarinet and Wally burps wetly along on the tuba. I buzz the rolls and grab the crash. I stir the soup with brushes. I do all the stuff I never get to do—that no one plays anymore. Stuff I learned from my dad.
We play the Charleston and people are grabbing at their knees and head dancing. We stir up a flock of jazz hands.
The sun tilts through the trees and everywhere are shafts of dust. We’re just a speck in the grand whirling scheme, but at least we’re making noise.
We close the set like landing a plane, bouncing along a little then rolling to a stop. The guys are breathing heavy. They empty their spit valves into the lawn.
People applaud, then stand and fold up their chairs.
I’m tearing down my set and a kid comes over, starts asking me questions. How come there’s a Rush sticker on my snare case? How come I’m not old but I play old music?
How do you know I’m not old? I ask.
Your elbows, he says. Too smooth.
I’m waiting for Clyde to cut the checks, sitting in my car smoking some reefer. I can see some of the guys standing by their van, arguing about something. Me? I’m mellow. It was just as good a gig as any. Better in some ways because there’s nowhere to hide in this kind of sound. No smokescreens of distortion or feathered edges of reverb. You have to give these guys their due. They put it down precisely where they want it, dotted notes and all. I thought they were going to be a drag. I figured I’d play this one time and score the check, then ditch them. But I don’t know. That gig was pretty sweet.
Clyde and Horace come over. I stash the nub of weed and step out. Great job, they tell me. You can swing, by God. How’d you learn it?
My dad, I explain. He loved Krupa.
Did he play?
Yeah. That’s all I say, recalling his old Ludwig drum kit. His traps, he would call them. The shells were as thin as lampshades and the cymbals were brown and dull. I pawned it all a few years after he died, after I changed the skin on the floor tom and found some blood down in the crease under the ring. He threw up his guts during a gig once. He shouldn’t have been playing in that state. They carried him home and put him to bed in his bloody T-shirt. He was a welder by profession. Health insurance was like a Rolls-Royce—both things he knew he’d never have.
Clyde gives me my check. His hand’s all shaky when he signs his name.
Horace says, I tell you what, we met some nice old ladies and they’ve invited us over for a visit. Up for joining us?
What the hell, I say. It’s not like I have anywhere else to go.
Horace rides with me as we caravan over. He tells me more about the band. What happened was that they used to be a big band, all Glenn Miller, Tommy Dorsey, Benny Goodman. They had a good run for a while, playing locally. You can’t tour with a big band unless you have serious, Sinatra-sized bank. Costs too much to put all those guys in hotel rooms. But they did their thing often enough around town. Fellas started dying though, Horace says. Not because they whooped it up or got in car wrecks—the way the young bands die. These guys just died from staying in the world too long. Cancer mostly. Heart attacks and strokes. One after another.
So much for the big band. They tried to roll with it, calling themselves the littlest big band, but they couldn’t draw a crowd. So Clyde, who’s basically the leader, said they were going Dixieland and did anyone have a problem with that. Horace tells me one guy walked out, kicked over a music stand and flipped them the bird, grumbling that Dixieland was for Disneyland. Everyone else stayed put, even though Wally and Chet are starting to get flaky, Horace says.
He looks out at the yards sliding by. It’s a crazy thing to say you’re going to stick with something until you die, Horace tells me. You pick two or three things you feel that way about and life organizes itself for you.
He winks and it’s a little spooky how he’s talking right into me, how his words are driving into my head like pennies dropped from eight miles up.
The ladies are sisters, widows, some of them twice over. Three of our guys are widowers. Chet and Ernie are married, but Ernie’s wife is an invalid. Doesn’t give me an excuse to fool around, he says glumly.
What about you, they ask me before we go in.
We’re standing in the street of some shady neighborhood—shady meaning it’s leafy, not ghetto. The sidewalks are old and broken where the roots of oak trees push up. There’s a dove cooing somewhere. A sprinkler hisses a few houses down. I see the blue haze of mist in the evening light.
They’re waiting for an answer and I don’t know how much to say. You can’t tell people about your loneliness without adding to it. No one wants to hear how you’re somewhere between the beat with people, never finding the count.
I’m in between, I say.
A pair of legs? Clyde asks, grinning. He has a square jaw and a Charlie Brown curl of gray hair on his big, blotchy forehead.
Oh! Ménage à twat, Horace says.
Not like that, I say.
Now they’re all grinning.
You guys are some dirty grandpas, I tell them.
They laugh. Good band name, they say. They slap me on the back. Clyde makes like he’s strangling me. His hands are rough at my throat. You’re a good kid, he says. He pulls me aside. You’re not a cock-blocker are you?
I shake my head. Me? I’m thinking.
No one likes a cock-blocker, Clyde says. He’s patting me hard on the back, like he’s burping a baby.
The women are waiting. They’ve laid out a happy-hour spread. There’s a green ceramic serving dish with pretzels and Ritz crackers. The dish has a built-in bowl that they have filled with some kind of white creamy dip. There’s another plate of cheese and grapes and a can of roasted peanuts. I start attacking the snacks, standing over the low table, raining down crumbs.
Horace says, Easy, Stanley.
The women laugh. Someone’s hungry!
They say, You boys should take a seat, waving us over to the long, avocado-colored couch. I sit down with a handful of crackers and line up cubes of cheese on my leg and start the assembly line. As I cram it all in my mouth, I take in my surroundings. The colors are green and yellow. A massive organ sits in the corner, its wooden pedals like a ribcage on the floor. There are plastic plants in the corners and hook rugs on the wall—shag tapestries of trees with red leaves, clouds over an island, an owl with furry eyes clutching a real piece of driftwood. There are shelves lined with little owl statues made from glass and clay. Someone likes owls. This is an owl house.
The women gather up and introduce themselves. They have cotton-candy hair and foggy eyes. There’s more than one brooch and bracelets all around, so they jangle when they move. Shiny pants and small knitted vests; clown collars, nurse shoes. I have to say, these are some good-looking old ladies. The Jazzmen really scored. The ladies smell nice, too. I can smell them from across the room: it’s all baby powder and flowers. They deliver their names like they’re performing a song. Ruth and Ethel and Nancy are sisters, we learn, and Betty is an old friend from the neighborhood. Great names, I say. Some cracker crumbs fly from my mouth and Clyde gives me a look.
The women tell us how much they loved the music.
Ethel says her fingers are sore from snapping. The guys chuckle at this.
I hit the peanuts, throwing a handful in my mouth. I watch their lips move through the grinding in my head. When I swallow, I hear Betty say, So many of the summer concerts are such disappointments.
Ruth recalls a terrible rap act and they all shudder.
Wally says, That’s not poetry, what they’re doing. I don’t buy it.
They look to me, expecting an opinion, I guess. Rap sucks, I say as I reach for some more cheese.
You have the most unusual eyebrows, Nancy says.
I don’t understand, then I remember that I had bleached them.
Goes better with the moustache, I say.
Everyone laughs because, at the moment, my moustache is curled up on the dashboard of my car.
How’s that for commitment? Clyde says. The kid gets lands a gig and he goes the extra mile to fit in. You didn’t tattoo our name on your backside, did you?
I shake my head, because my mouth is full.
Stan the man can swing, Clyde says, reminding me of my new name. His smile has something like pride in it. They all look at me, smiling warmly.
I feel like I’m eight years old—a little kid with a whole army of grandparents. I never knew my real grandparents. My dad was already old when I was born and my mom never told her parents about me. One day she told me her father had finally died. That was all I had ever heard about them.
Wally slaps his thighs. Say, how about some drinks?
Clyde says to Chet, You bring in your kit?
Chet says, Get yours.
The way he says it is kind of harsh. Clyde looks at him and there’s a quiet little stare down before Clyde whistles through his teeth and heads out.
When Clyde comes back he has a small black box with a handle. It’s like a square suitcase. He puts it on the dining room table and opens it up. I go over to check it out and he tells me not to get crumbs all over the place. I peer inside the case and see its shimmering contents. The inside is lined with black velvet. Held in places cut into the walls of the box are stainless-steel tools—shaker cups, some tongs and long spoons, a strange coil of spring and, behind a secret panel, he shows me that it holds a blue bottle of gin and another bottle of tonic water. It’s an incredible thing. I like cases and gear and kits. That’s one reason I love the drums. I like how everything collapses, folds up, and has its place to go. It looks professional, just like Clyde’s kit looks professional, even a little religious.
Would you ladies like to try a fine gin and tonic? Clyde asks. When they seem to hesitate, Clyde reminds them that the gin and tonic was invented as a health drink. Everything about it is designed to keep you alive. British troops in India came up with it, he explains. The tonic water has quinine, which cures malaria. Add gin for its cleansing quality and a lime to fight scurvy and you have yourself a good glass of medicine.
No, insists Betty. You’re pulling our leg.
Nancy says, It’s true, Betty. I heard that somewhere before.
Ethel and Nancy head to the kitchen to get glasses and ice while Clyde goes to work. Not everyone wants gin and tonics, but the ladies also have scotch and rum. There’s no wine or beer, just hard liquor.
The party chugs forward, with the ladies pumping on the organ and some of the guys playing along on their horns, with stories of wars and coming West to pick citrus, more nuts being poured, more cheese being cubed and tossed like dice.
In the kitchen, a roast sits smoldering like a meteorite in the old car-sized oven. Nancy is sitting in the breakfast nook, telling a story about how she was the only sister brave enough to go barnstorming with a crazy carnival pilot, spinning low over the long-gone orchards and vineyards and looping over the fairgrounds, so close to clipping the Ferris wheel she could hear the riders scream. She’s staring into space as she tells about it, like she’s watching it happen on an invisible screen.
After the dishes are done, they start dancing to records. Ethel’s on the turntable, spinning Rosemary Clooney and Louis Armstrong. Horace thumbs through a dead husband’s stacks and finds Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys. He insists on “Sittin’ on Top of the World” and it calls for pushing back the coffee table and pairing up. I watch, still hitting the crackers and nuts, even though Nancy had served up roast beef and potatoes, hot buttered rolls and Jello salad, cottage cheese on a leaf of lettuce. Wally sits next to me, watching Clyde dancing with Betty.
Wally hums along. His ears are big and floppy. Hair creeps out of them.
He turns to me and says, Why don’t you cut in?
You never cut in?
I don’t know what you’re talking about, Wally.
Cutting in? You know, you just go up to a fella who is dancing with the gal you want to dance with and you tap him on the shoulder and say, I’d like to cut in. Then he has to stand aside and let you take over.
It’s just that way.
What if he doesn’t want to give up the girl?
He won’t want to, but he has to.
No one says, it’s just the way it is. Go on and see.
I can’t dance to this kind of music.
Sure you can. It’s just a box step. Go cut in.
I look over the dancing couples. The lady who catches my eye is Nancy. I notice the way her hands rub at the back of the guy she’s dancing with. She just keeps them moving in slow circles on their back. She’s doing it to Chet now. He has his head bowed and I can see the age spots on his neck. That looks like it would feel pretty good, just to have her rubbing that way. So I stand up and a bunch of nuts fall from the folds of my shirt. I’m a little buzzed from Clyde’s gin and tonics, so I knock into Horace as I make my way to Nancy and Chet. Clyde sees me and frowns over Betty’s shoulder, but lightens up when I move past him. I tap Chet on the shoulder and tell him I want to cut in. It works just like Wally said it would. Chet kind of puts Nancy’s hand in mine with a little bow. Up close it’s a small hand with swollen knuckles and purple veins, but it’s warm and softer than it looks. Nancy smiles and even looks a little flattered. She moves in close as Chet stands back with his arms crossed.
I don’t know how to dance to this music, I say.
Just follow my lead, Nancy says. She starts pushing me around the floor. I step on her foot once and she winces, but her smile climbs right back onto her face. She has waxy skin and bright red lips. Her hair is a cake of white curls. Her face sits behind a veil of wrinkles and creases, but the smile shines through it. She’s light in my arms and I take care not to crush her. She’s saying, Step and step and step and step. I smell the gin on her breath and I like it.
When I finally get the step, she says, Atta boy!
Her hands are rubbing at my back. I feel it in my chest, this feeling of almost burning warmth. It’s been a long time since I felt it. It’s how my body responds to kindness. I used to feel it at school, when a teacher would lean over me and show me how to draw cursive letters. Or when an older kid showed me how to fly a kite. I thought I had outgrown the ability to have that feeling. I had forgotten about it. But here I am, feeling it again as Nancy rubs my back.
I’m lost in these thoughts when Chet taps me on the shoulder and asks to cut in. I surrender Nancy like a real gentleman, transferring her hand like it’s a parakeet that has to hop from my finger to his. He says, Thank you kindly, sir, and pretends to tip a hat.
No problem, sir, I say.
What a classy bunch of fellas, Nancy says, eyes rolling.
Looking out from the haze trapped in my car, I can see them, silhouettes jitterbugging in the rosy window. The music is faint, but I tap along on the steering wheel. Maybe it’s sad to say, but it’s been just about the best party I’ve ever attended. Through the window they look like a movie flashed on a wall, hanging in space with no connection to time. It seems impossible that I stepped out from it, or that I could get back in. It’s like a soap bubble you try to put in your pocket.
I pick up the moustache, which has curled up from the heat, and I smooth it under my nose. It still has some stick. From across the street, I hear a song end and everyone shouts out, More!
That’s all I need to be called back. I cross the dark street and walk up the curvy brick path. I finish the joint leaning against a massive pepper tree, listening as I press at the moustache.
They’re laughing in waves, singing harmonies. Someone’s mixing drinks, shaking ice like a maraca. Someone’s slicing meat with an electric knife. Why couldn’t I have met them a long time ago, and played their music and eaten their cheese and crackers and drank their gin? But they didn’t exist a long time ago, I know. Not as they are now. They only exist now and not much into later.
My dad didn’t talk much. In the time I knew him, he only said one religious thing. He said, You know why people like beats? Because they tell you what’s going to happen next. I’ve thought about that a lot. I think he was talking about patterns, about loops. And it’s true that once you hear a measure or two of the beat, you know what’s going to happen next and what to do when it happens. And the part that makes me think everything still has a chance—always has a chance—to work out is that you never know when the beat has completed a full cycle. This means everything in life that seems so random could actually be part of a beat. We just don’t know yet. The full measure hasn’t been played.
The door opens and one of the ladies peers out. It’s Nancy.
There you are, Stanley! she says when her eyes lock in on me.
I wave, thinking I should probably tell her my real name.
Don’t think I don’t recognize you behind those handlebars.
I touch the moustache and smile.
She shuffles toward me and I offer my arm.
Got you right where I want you, she says.
She slowly leads me around to the other side of the pepper tree.
Whoops. Tipsy, she says when she trips on a root.
We step out on the lawn under the massive dark canopy. I can see a rope slicing down from a high branch, catching light from the house. I follow it down with my eyes and see that it is weighted on the end with a tire swing. Nancy pulls me to it.
We have this here for the grandkids, but they’ve outgrown it, she explains. It needs a muscle man to get it going and here you are. Lift me?
Before I know it, she has both her arms around my neck and she’s hanging off me like a human necklace. I scoop up her legs and slide her into the tire. All I can say is, Really? You want to swing?
Swing, baby, swing, she says. Be-dap bap bap!
I look up at the rope. It looks solid, but it’s dark so who can tell. I stand back. There’s a buzzed eighty-year-old woman hanging a couple feet off the ground in front of me, jewelry jangling, white hair slightly aglow.
Come fly with me, she sings, Come fly, we’ll fly away!
I’ll swing her a little, I think. Why not?
I push her gently forward again. She’s shaking her head.
Come on now, she says. Put some muscle into it! We’re not going to get off the ground if that’s your idea of swinging.
I give her a good push and she swings out over some of the yard.
She swings back into me and I grab on to the tire and throw it out into the darkness. She goes with it, saying, Atta boy. Now really put your back into it!
She comes back at me and I sidestep her like a bullfighter, but as she passes by again, I throw my weight into a push that drops me to my knees. I watch her sail up and away, then reach the top of her arc, ease to a point, then fall back at me. She’s yelling, Woohoo!
I roll out of the way and get to my feet in time to add to her momentum as she swings by. I watch her flying upward, now higher than the roof of the house. So high, her feet are up above her and her head aimed at the ground. The rope is creaking. The tree is moaning, shuddering when she hits the end of some slack.
All the way, honey! Loop the loop! Loop the loop!
I stand back and watch her moving past me like the arm of a metronome. She’s keeping time but losing the beat with every pass, slowing more and more, until I come in and use everything I have to get her back on the beat, to hold the time steady. It will only slow down if I let it. I step in after her as she jangles by and try to send her over the top.
Glorious! she shouts as she sails up into the darkness.
Then I hear the guys yelling inside. Something crashes and someone screams. Be right back, I tell Nancy, giving her another shove into space.
Inside, I find the living room a mess. The coffee table has been knocked over and crackers and peanuts cover the ground. The guys are trying to pull Wally and Clyde apart as they grapple on the floor. I push in and pick up Wally.
Clyde comes with him, then lets go and falls to the ground with a grunt. The others pull Wally away as Horace helps Clyde to his feet. Clyde makes a big show of dusting himself off.
Hey, guys, I say. Chill out!
You’re lucky this kid came along, Clyde says. I was close to murdering you.
You see what you did, you son of a bitch! Chet is yelling at Clyde. You see?
Chet points at Wally’s ear, which is ripped a little by the lobe. Blood runs down into his collar. Wally dabs it and looks at his fingers. He rushes at Clyde but I push him back and he falls onto the couch.
You’re all a bunch of assholes, Horace says, swatting at the air. You’re all bent on ruining a good thing.
What’s going on? I say.
Everything has to end, Wally says. It’s the way of the world. You think you can escape that?
At first, I think they’re talking about the party, the ladies. But what I soon realize is that they’re talking about the band. They’re talking about breaking up the band.
I sit down on the couch. Well, goddamn.
You said it was over when Abe died, Wally tells Clyde.
Then they’re all shouting about Abe, who I learn was the drummer who just died. Abe was their meter man, their beat. It seems that Clyde promised Abe on his deathbed the band was kaput.
But you just got to keep going with the charade, Chet says. Look at us, for Christ’s sake, we’re down from fifteen guys to just the five of us.
I count the guys and it’s clear that Chet isn’t counting me. I’m six. If they want me, I’m six.
You think anyone cares about what we’re doing? Chet yells.
They argue on, shouting in each other’s faces. Ruth comes in and says if they don’t leave she’s calling the police, but they ignore her as they bring up old complaints about each other: Horace is losing his ear and he’s hitting a lot of clinkers. Wally’s lip is shot. Chet can’t make it through a song without getting dizzy.
It’s DOA, Wally is saying. It’s DOA.
I reach up and pull off the moustache and smooth it out on my thigh, then crumple it up in my hand anda stuff it in my pocket. Outside, I can hear a woman’s frail voice, calling for someone named Stanley.