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A Sultry Sound

As part of a writing exercise, I’ve tried to write 2k or 3k words in a short story form working through a simple theme in one sitting.  This is the first one that flowed from start to finish without infuriating me in the middle because I couldn’t decide what step was next.  Through December I am going to try to complete three a week.  Editing is also “on the fly” so typos, grammar, etc. may update as you read. 

The rose photo is, of course, by my sister.  I just thought jazzy sounds and roses went together so well.


Maybe it shouldn’t feel like a chore, dragging the cases into the club every night. Maybe he should just stick to one sax instead of needing three to play every set. Where would the fun be in that he thought to himself as he set the stands up on the small stage and scanned the crowd to see what tonight might be like.

Not much it appeared, but it was a Tuesday so really not much to expect. There were nights, not many, when he still missed the steamy, smoke-filled rooms, noisy crowds and wild nights. Tonight would be like any of the other five during a long and tedious work week. In the back of his mind he thought he should change his playlist, do something new, maybe even some of his own work, but that’s not what these crowds wanted to hear. They were here to swill happy hour drinks, light beer and forget the drudgery that was their workday and for some probably their home life as well. The faces had become familiar, they lounged from one bar to another through the same work week together. A nod or a quick wave as he set up was usually the most acknowledgment he got from them. Every once in a while, he’d see a new face or an appreciative smile. He always thought to himself “there’s some poor stiff who is working his miserable day job but he or she really wants to be up here, doing this”. As he looked at his badly, battered cases he wondered if they really understand just what that meant.

He set up the same way, every night. It just seemed to have become a pleasant habit. Place each stand, then set the horns up; soprano, then alto, then tenor. Put the extra reeds on his homemade velcro strap that hung to the side of each stand. There was only one club in town where he need a microphone and even then he was there on Sunday night, half the time it was unnecessary.

Dex, the bar manager came by to say hi. He was a nice kid. Late 20’s, transitioning from the latest love of his life and trying to decide if he should finish school or just find a better job. He always brought a really weak Jack and Coke and set it on the little table at the corner of the stage, it was a nice way to start the evening without worrying about falling of the stage an hour into the set!  This was probably his favorite place to play; the crowds were nice, it was as clean as you could expect,  all things considered and that glass, well, they never let it get empty.

The night would be three hours of total playing time. That was typical for most of the gigs he was playing lately. Start around six-thirty and end at or near eleven. If the crowd was sparse, a little sooner and on the rare night when they were really enjoying themselves…the doors closed at two.

He liked to joke that his job was really Karaoke with a saxophone. Technology had made it so much better over the years. He still missed playing in a group, but there were so many fewer hassles. Digital didn’t drink too much, get punched by jealous husbands or forget what song was next. It was two more cases he had to carry with him everywhere,  but at the end of the night all the cash…was his.

The group in this club liked the West coast jazz groove, and that was just fine. Lighter and gentler to play,  he always sweated a lot less than when he had to do a Coltrane or Parker set. Some music required more life from you to play. Some, was just a nice balancing act . You gave a little, it gave a little. The god set as he called it, with so many of the classic sax standards and legends required everything you had. There weren’t many calls for that these days. Those were practice standards for those lonely nights at home.

Tonight he’d start with some Getz because that’s what everyone knew.  He could expand the set from there, few of them would care and most wouldn’t know anyway.  He pulled the trusty Paris Tenor from the stand.  She, yeah, all his horns were she’s….that was just the way it was, although he’d never been comfortable giving them names, that seemed a bit creepy.  She was the first professional horn he’d ever bought, many years ago now.  Even back then it had cost him almost five thousand bucks.  Funny, it was the next day that nice young lady from Torrance who he’d been living with up and left without a word; well…it was funny now.    He reached over, punched the switch on the Akai controller and listened as the intro began.

He always liked to start the set with something he enjoyed playing.  Not that each song in the playlist wasn’t a favorite, most were, just not all of them were his favorites.   Desafinado had been around almost as long as he had, and it was just a luscious tune he never tired of playing.  He’d tried with a few songs to change the tempo, the short improv sections but since he was the only one who noticed,  he stuck with what worked.  Most of the songs ran four minutes, it made timing a set much easier.  He could play ten songs and be ready for a break.

There was a strange vibe in the air tonight.  He’d actually noticed it as he was setting up.  It wasn’t bad, it was just….different.  Maybe it was the weather.  It had been unseasonably cool all week and in Southern California,  people and cold went together like whipped cream and dirt.  The crowd looked bigger than usual for a Tuesday, that was ok.  He always left his soprano case at the edge of the stage and that extra forty or fifty bucks at the end of the night was always a welcome sight.  Towards the back there must be an office party group.  They were always the ones who never paid any attention to the music and half the time talked louder than he played.  When that happened the few folks who did like to listen to him play would move down front.  They would continue their conversations as well, but at least they seemed to pretend to enjoy the fact that he was at least there.

Years before the crowds would stand next to the stage and scream at every solo, holler for more and ask him what he was doing there?  He’d scorched the highways playing on the road.  He’d argued, nickel and dimed every agent and producer he could think of to play what he wanted.  But it was the early 70’s,  people wanted disco or you could play studio and backup.  None of that was what he wanted to do, so he quit.  Ventured into the corporate world with his relatively unused college education and found a home with a major electronics firm.  People loved the way he managed and after twenty-five years of a boring, daily grind, he was done.  All that time he had continued to play and practice, but now it was what he wanted to play and when and where he wanted to play it.  Being able to retire at fifty wasn’t so terrible.  His health was still pretty good.  He’d never smoked although he was certain that all the club atmospheres would catch up to him someday.  Good beer and good whiskey were his vices, most of the times in temperate quantities.

There had never been a misses right.  That was a sticking point for most of his friends and his family.  For a long time he lived in denial of the fact that his strict structure and regime probably, no, almost certainly, drove most people crazy.  He’d seen it in the groups he’d played with and while he’d been no stranger to love,  there had only been one woman who had appreciated him completely, and he’d been too stupid or stubborn, or probably both to snatch her up before she got away.   Had that really been twenty years ago?  As he worked his way into the next song his mind drifted to her face, her laugh, it seemed like only yesterday.  Those big blue eyes, her “hair of many colors” as she’d liked to call it, even that made him laugh.  To look at her you’d have never know she was an accountant.  That was probably the reason she understand his obsessive behaviors.  She had her shoes arranged by color, the kitchen cabinets had cans sorted by size and category;  they were perfect.

Moving into the next song he tried to push the memories from his mind, what good did this do?  None whatsoever, but why of all nights had he thought of her, here, tonight?

At the back of the room the office party had quieted a little so he didn’t have to play as loud to try to compete.  In each set he would do a ballad or two, sometimes someone would want to dance, mostly they would just stare across the tables at each other in silent conversation.  He liked some of the 80’s songs for that.  They were songs everyone knew.  He could play Dorsey or Miller but most of the time it was wasted on untrained musical palates.  A song jumped into his head just before the scheduled one was ready to start.  He stopped the playback and scanned for it.  It had been a long time since he’d played that song, it had been a long time since he had wanted to.  There it was.  A short and long version.  Yeah, at seven minutes the long version would finish the set and let him get some fresh air.  He reached for the glass on the table and drained it, something he normally didn’t do, it felt right.

From the console he dimmed the lights just a little and began to play.  It’s tough to play while you smile, so he had to fight back the grin as memory after memory flowed out with each note.  Sometimes he would scan the crowd while he played, other times he’d close his eyes as tight as he could and image a different place and time.  Strange right now he wanted to do both.  The song felt so good to play and it sounded good to, he could tell.  Whenever people stopped talking to look while you were playing, that’s a good hook.

They all smiled as he played.  Seems there were a lot of memories floating though the room that night.  Even the group towards the back had stopped and looked towards the stage.  Maybe he should play this song more often.  A few couples got up to dance which was always nice. It made him feel like he was doing more than just performing, he was…performing a service.  Giving them something to enjoy; an experience.  The group at the back seemed to have almost parted as they came a bit closer to the stage that was nice,  usually he just played, unnoticed.

As he turned towards the center of the stage something caught his eye.  It wasn’t something,  it was someone.  Seeing unusual things in most clubs was by no means a rare occurrence.  Most times they were unusual for everyone, when he looked up and saw those big blue eyes he knew this would only be unusual for him.

He’d played half the song.  Something told him to finish, something told him to stop, something told him things might never be the same again.  He played on.  With each note she moved a step closer to the stage.  He didn’t want to stare, but he couldn’t help it.  Those in her group seemed to sense something a bit peculiar was happening, although from the looks on their faces, most weren’t sure exactly what.   Now it felt as if every note should say her name, every time his hands moved they should be holding her, every time he took a breath, they should do it together.  In all his years the last three plus minutes of that song had to have been the longest of his life.  When it was finally finished he stepped back to the console, pushed stopped, set the Paris in her stand and walked to the stairs at the edge of the stage.

More thoughts raced through his mind in those four steps than he would have ever thought possible.  By the time he made his way to her, standing there at the front of the stage, his brain had turned to pudding.  She was still as stunning as ever, if possible maybe more so.  He had thought perhaps a handshake would be appropriate but as he reached out she fell into his arms and hugged so tightly he thought she would pass through to the other side.  Everything was so familiar, so wonderful, so perfect.  How could that possibly be, after all this time?  Pleasantly enough neither one seemed to want to let go…that was more than ok.

Wrapped in the cocoon that was their own little world they didn’t notice the rest of her group begin to slowly work their way towards the back of the room again.  There they stood, together, under the dim stage light as if they were waiting for the music to start for the next dance.

The next thirty minutes flew by in the blink of an eye.  There was just too much history to catch up on.  He was working, dammit!  They had exchanged all the important information, like…neither of them was married, or involved or…anything, and oh, phone numbers too!  She walked him to the edge of the stage as he prepared for his next set, took his hand and kissed him gently on the cheek.  Time…stood still.  She winked before she turned and walked away.  At that point he may have finally taken a breath.

She rejoined her group at the back of the club.  You can always tell when people are talking about you, you just can.  He knew there was something unusual about tonight.  He was glad she was it.

He scoured the playlists for that perfect song, the one that would just be…it.  He didn’t have a lot of time.  He looked to the back of the room.  She stood and blew a gentle kiss as she turned to leave.  He had to find it before she was gone.  He knew he’d see her again, that wasn’t the point.  He needed it to define this night, this moment, the two of them…right now!

Then he saw it.  Of course, it wasn’t West Coast jazz, it wasn’t any of that, but it was the perfect song for this perfect moment.

As he started to play, she turned and stopped in the doorway.  He could see her smile like a spotlight, shining on the stage, shining on him.  There were smiles all around the club as they acknowledged a great song, even the band name could describe what they were to each other until this very moment.   “Waiting for a Girl like you” by Foreigner …yes they had been, yes he had been….not anymore.