I should just post this without prefacing it but I can’t help myself. I wrote this story for a contest. They wanted a story that portrayed the life of a jazz musician. I thought that seemed easy enough and wrote this silly little story. I know it has some problems, but it’s a much more realistic portrayal than the stereotypical stories that won. No, I’m not bitter.
Alex started packing up his trumpet as soon as he noticed the smoke billowing out of the kitchen. He didn’t wait for the end of the tune. He didn’t wait for J.D., the bandleader, to dismiss him like a third grade student.
This was only his fourth week on the gig with the big band on The Sunshine Casino Boat. The boat was full of senior citizens drinking and gambling away their pension checks. He always hated tuxedo gigs and only took this one because it was a steady three days a week and in the afternoon, so he could take another gig at night. But every time he boarded the bright yellow Sunshine Casino Boat his stomach sank to his feet. This is not what he thought it would be like when he decided to become a jazz musician. Alex was only allowed to take two solos on the gig and they were always on Satin Doll and a big band version of The Pointer’s Sister’s I’m So Excited.
The bandleader was a five foot three piano player with a perpetual cold sore on his upper lip. His face was all squashed in and drooped slightly on the right side. He often took his unfortunate appearance out on the band, criticizing their playing and constantly shortening their breaks. Anytime Alex felt like he had really expressed himself during a solo J.D. would pull him aside during one of their six minute and forty-one second breaks and say, “You’re playing too out. You need to tone it down for this crowd. We have to keep the old people happy…you know?” He added “you know” to the end of everything. Alex usually refused to work with him, but his girlfriend had pressured him into taking this gig.
“Steady money,” she’d said as she waved his gig calendar in the air. “Most of the days on this are empty and you’re turning down steady money!” This was just after she’d heard him turn the gig down. She made him call J.D. back and sat on the sofa staring at him the whole time he was talking. Alex had to make up an excuse about misreading his calendar and said that he could take the gig after all. It was a hard thing for him to do, but it was done.
The band continued to play Stolen Moments as Alex joined the mass of fleeing passengers making their way to the lifeboats, his tight black shoes slipping on the slick wooden deck. As he stepped towards a lifeboat, he lost his balance completely. His arms flailing out to the side to steady himself, he accidentally knocked an old woman in the head with his trumpet case. She fell to the ground and cried out, but Alex couldn’t think about her now. He had one thing on his mind–escape.
The scooter ride home was a thousand times more delightful than usual. Alex was able to notice the blueness of the sky for the first time in a long time. He didn’t realize that the boat didn’t actually sink. The evacuation was just an overreaction to the cook’s first attempt at making blackened catfish. After that first lifeboat was deployed the captain was able to calm the crowd, and everyone went back to drinking, eating, and gambling as usual.
Testing fate, he rode home without putting on his helmet. It was only a five-mile drive to Blue Orient Mobile Home Park, where he and his girlfriend, Rita, rented a pink, one-bedroom mobile home complete with plastic flamingo lawn ornaments.
When Alex got home, Rita was sitting at the kitchen table paying bills. Her black hair was pulled back into a ponytail. Her face was heavily made up with emerald green eye shadow and red lipstick. Mascara made her eyelashes look like spider legs. He did think she was beautiful under all of that. He had tried to tell her that she didn’t need it but she never seemed to hear him.
She had all of the bills lined up across the table end to end–water, sewage, electric, cable and so forth. The checkbook lay on the table in front of her. She twirled the pink sparkly pen she always used for paying the bills in her right hand.
“You’re more than an hour early,” she said placing the pen down on the table. Alex was early. He was one hour twenty-three minutes and fifty-seven seconds early.
Alex put his trumpet case down on the floor near the door and walked over to her. “The boat caught fire! We had to evacuate!”
“It caught fire. I made it to shore on a lifeboat.” Alex was a little too happy about this turn of events.
“What about the rest of the band?”
“I don’t know.”
“What do you mean you don’t know Alex? Did you get your check? You were supposed to get your check today.”
“The boat caught fire Rita! What am I supposed to do about that?”
Rita stood up from the table and faced him. “The rent Alex! The rent!” She picked up a random bill off of the table and waved it in his face. She had taken to waving things in his face these days.
Alex caught her wrist to stop the fluttering paper. “I have a good gig tonight and two more good ones tomorrow. We’ll have the money for the rent. Don’t worry.” Neither of them knew this but Alex was about to make it–just when they had given up, just when he had decided that the music profession was no longer.
After his Saturday afternoon gig at a building demolition, Alex would stop at a 7-11 to buy a candy bar and, by chance, start having a conversation in with Herbie Hancock’s drummer. He would tell Alex that their trumpet player had broken his hand that day, leaving them in a jam for that night’s concert.
“Can you read?” he’d ask Alex.
“Yeah,” Alex would respond and that would be the opportunity he had been waiting for all of his life.
“I have to take a nap,” Alex said. He kissed her cheek and walked to the bedroom to lie down.
Rita cleaned other people’s homes. Though she never stole anything, she liked to rummage through their things so she could feel jealous of what she didn’t have. She had been doing this when old Mrs. Vandercamp came home forty-two minutes and thirty-six seconds early. Rita didn’t hear her come in and was casually trying on her diamond earrings when Mrs. Vandercamp walked in on her. Startled, Rita dropped the back of one of the earrings onto the plush beige bedroom carpet.
“What do you think you’re doing?” Mrs. Vandercamp tapped her left foot disapprovingly on the floor.
“I’m sorry.” Rita struggled to find the earring back while using one hand to hold the earring in place in her ear.
“Unbelievable! You can’t trust anyone!” Mrs. Vandercamp declared. She walked over to the dresser and snapped the jewelry box closed. “If you don’t find that back you’ll have to pay for those earrings.” Mrs. Vandercamp had eleven pairs of diamond earrings and those were her least favorite, the diamonds being the smallest, but that didn’t matter. It was the principle.
“I’m sorry,” Rita repeated in a small voice. Her hand ran across the cold earring back. She picked it up, removed the earring from her ear and placed it in Mrs. Vandercamps outstretched hand.
“I’ll have to call the agency.” Mrs. Vandercamp loved calling the agency or any place else she could think of to complain about anything she could think of that needed complaining about.
Rita stood still, looking shamefully around the room. What would she tell her boyfriend?
“You should leave.” Mrs. Vandercamp opened the jewelry box again and started looking through the jewelry. “If anything is missing I’ll have you arrested.”
“Nothing’s missing ma’am.”
Rita was still standing there when she looked up. “Leave!” she demanded, narrowing her eyes.
When Rita got home she noticed that someone had knocked over one of the pink flamingos on the lawn. She stood it up and looked around the unkempt yard. She didn’t notice how beautiful the weather was–the blue sky, the gentle breeze. She didn’t hear the birds singing. She was too worried that she would get fired from her job. She was too worried about the money they didn’t have in the bank.
Rita showered, changed and made up her face before Alex got home. She always made sure that she at least looked nice when he came home. She still had an hour and a half before he arrived so she decided to pay the bills.
She lined up the bills on the table and carefully studied the amounts. Then she looked at the balance in their bank account. They didn’t have enough and she knew it. Her head started to ache.
She was considering calling Mrs. Vandercamp and offering to clean her house for free for the rest of the year if she didn’t call the agency to complain about her, when Alex walked in—early. He was saying something about the boat catching fire and smiling from ear to ear, but all Rita heard was that he didn’t get paid. Her brain was about to burst. They were going to end up homeless, and he didn’t even seem to care. Rita waved the electric bill in his face to try to snap him out of it, but Alex just grabbed her wrist and told about the good gigs he had coming up. “But the rent is due today,” she said quietly as she watched Alex walk away from her to the bedroom.
Rita picked up the phone to call Mrs. Vandercamp. She didn’t realize that Mrs. Vandercamp was getting senile in her old age. She had forgotten to call the agency and had already forgotten about the whole event.
“What a nice girl,” Mrs. Vandercamp said as she hung up the phone. She couldn’t recall anyone ever having offered to do anything for her for free before. She was moved by this gesture. Four months later, when Mrs. Vandercamp passed away, Rita would discover she had been included in her will. Rita would get to split Mrs. Vandercamp’s estate with her dog, Tinkles.
Rita hung up the phone and walked into the bedroom. Alex was already asleep. The loved his sleeping face. It looked so innocent. She joined him in bed. He didn’t wake up. She snuggled up to him, and draped her arm around his waist. They would have to pay the rent late this month.