by Lee Hamblin
The sky is blanketed in a greyness that makes the world a real sad place to be. What with the steady spit of tears falling, it’s not the kind of day you’d ever wish for, given the choice. Or maybe it is, maybe today’s the perfect day for burying the old knucklehead after all.
Jack Otis pauses. We shake hands, nod acknowledgement. There’s no need for words, not today. His face has a fresh, wet-shave glisten, his moustache trimmed to perfect, and he’s wearing the same black-suit-white-shirt-slim-tie combo that he gigs in. He hands me his beloved saxophone for safekeeping. I shoulder the faded and scratched case, and think of the thousands of stories it could tell. Jack told me yesterday that he wanted to play a little something as a send off, Trane, or something, he mumbled under breath, tilting his head from side to side as if in doubt. But I knew, just as he did, that there’ll be no or something about it. He knows exactly what piece he’ll play, and he and I both know he’ll play it as good as he ever has. And if I was fool enough to believe that dead folk can hear, then for sure Boots’ll be in his box nodding his head and tapping his foot like crazy.
I take my place near the doors at the back of the chapel. Houses of worship make me scratchy, downright angry to tell the truth. It’s about all I can muster to take a step across that damn threshold. Phylis, my wife, thinks different. She gives me a light peck on the cheek, thumbs the ruby-red residue away and smiles empathy. Seduced (though maybe embraced is closer to the truth) by candle and altar, she makes her way down the centre aisle. I watch her all the way, listening to the rhythm of high heels on stone until she takes her place amongst the front row.
Clasping my hands behind my back, I look down. I squeeze discomfort into my knuckles before I have to let go so the blood can flow back through my fingers. I inch up my trousers, tilt my ankles outwards, and admire the sweetest of shines on my shoes. I’d spent a good half hour buffing them this morning, a good half hour of trying not to think about today.
It’s kept cold like a beer cooler in here, but I can feel sweat beading my brow. I’m trussed up oven-ready in a wool-heavy three-piece, so I undo the top button of my shirt, slacken my collar and tie some, hoping to grab some of the chill. It helps me out a little.
My eyes dart about the congregation like a sparrow at a bird-table. I pick out Frances, Jack’s wife, stood a couple of rows down from me. Even from behind there’s no mistaking her self-assurance. She wears her long, silvery hair in a horse-like braid, hitched at the end with silky red ribbon. Perched delicately on her crown is a fine, felt hat in navy blue, the brim embellished with black lace. Frances is one of the lucky ones, a rare example of someone who lives life at peace with herself, at least it sure seems that way to me. She even wears her skin with elegance.
Without warning, a hush descends over the congregated. The minister appears from the wings, and in a thunderous overblown baritone begins eulogising the virtues of Boots Otis. Stood amongst a captive audience, I can’t avoid listening, but there’s nothing he could tell me about Boots I don’t already know, not considering I’d known him as long as any of the folk assembled here, and I’d played in a band with him nearly as long. I reckon you get to know a man better than his wife and child does, playing music together. You get to see deep into their soul, get to see it clearer than they ever see it for themselves.
The minister pauses. He clears his throat to underscore a change of mood. His tone hushes to a trickle, and he starts reminding us of the temptations and pitfalls that led to us being gathered here today for another death come all too soon. All that moralizing only makes me thirsty. Then comes the praying, and I, for one, don’t bow my head.
After an Amen it falls silent. It’s a lucid and reflective silence; the type I suppose that offers absolution for those seeking it. It may have lasted a few seconds, or maybe for a couple of minutes, I couldn’t tell, my mind was elsewhere. Time is a rum old thing, most times years sail on by in a flash, all too quickly, and yet some moments seem eternal, like the emptiness in those milliseconds of space between two notes of a solo that says much more than what came before and what comes after. Or the exact moment love gets ripped right out of your chest and the chasm gets filled up with anger and hate.
The organist starts up, hitting a major seventh that ruffles the air. The minister’s voice leads the way, and soon enough the room is full of song. I can pick Phylis’s voice out of an ensemble any day, and it’s not because she’s the loudest, not at all, it’s her tone, it’s like the cleanest cotton shirt, it’s like a newborn rose. She’s got this controlled vibrato that I love. It creeps in perfectly on the long notes and she doesn’t even know how she’s doing it. God-given, she says, when I mention it. I call it nature’s gift.
Once the songs are sung, everyone starts jockeying around the coffin. I’d told Jack yesterday I’d be a carrier if he wanted, but he told me they had it covered, and that Boots would understand, and so I head on out instead, and take comfort in the cold, fresh air filling my lungs. Frances comes over to join me. We stroll across the lawn, stopping under the branches of a big old plane tree. I’m wondering where the two years since we last spoke had gone. She asks how I’m doing, and I tell her I’m fine, considering it’s a funeral and all.
‘Sure ain’t worth worrying about death,’ she says, ‘it’s the one thing that comes to us all.’
‘True enough,’ I say, which only gets me thinking about my son. To be honest, it’s hard for me not to be thinking of my boy, even more in places like this, even more on days like this.
‘I’m sorry, Ed.’ She says, ‘that kind of came out all wrong. It was insensitive of me. Sorry.’
‘Don’t you worry,’ I say, and I mean it. I do. Frances wouldn’t even swat at a fly buzzing round her nose if she could guide it to safety.
She lays a gloved hand on my back and gives it a firm rub. It calms my hurt, though I wish people would lay off the rubbing, and you know, just let it sit there a while; that’s when I feel the love coming through. Mind you, I’d sooner the rubbing than those guys who slap you like you’ve a fishbone stuck in your throat.
From inside her coat she slips out a pewter hip flask and offers it to me. I thank her, moisten my lips, and before taking a heavy slug, I offer a toast, ‘Here’s to Boots Otis,’ I say. ‘He sure was a fine man, and a mighty fine drummer.’ The moment I say it, I’m thinking he’d have thought different about the first bit.
Frances bows her head, but something escapes from her lips that I can’t make out. I suppose it’s something that’s meant to stay between her and him. The whiskey is good, and burns a trail in my throat, right down, deep into my heart.
‘I’m not one for church nowadays,’ I say.
‘Nowadays,’ she says, mocking me, ‘I reckon it’s more like five years, Ed’
‘I suppose it is,’ I reply.
But of course I know that it is. I could tell you exactly, down to the months, days, even the minute. The day I gave up on God.
We fall quiet for a while. It’s a comfortable quiet.
The rain is still falling, patting out a steady beat on the chapel lean-to’s corrugated roof. My mind starts counting in six-eight, working up a rhythm, beginning to hear the seeds of a flowing bass line.
‘What’s that you’re doing there, Ed?’ Frances asks, noticing the something that’s brewing in me.
‘Oh, I’m just thinking,’ I say.
She gives me the side eye, just like my grandma used to when I was goofing about instead of eating my greens at the dinner table; a look that told me this sure ain’t the time, or the place, young man.
My grandma was never one to waste her words, but she taught me more than any schoolteacher ever did. So I let it lie, thinking that if the groove’s got mileage it’ll come right back to me at another time, a more appropriate time.
I switch channels.
‘How’s Jack Junior?’ I ask.
‘Driving me crazy running through his scales all hours day and night. He’s swapped over to trumpet two years ago now, ever since Jack played him Kind Of Blue. Seems to suit him better,’ Frances says.
I take another slug from the hipflask of whiskey I’m still holding on to.
‘That’s really cool.’ I say, ‘Hey! You nearly got yourself a section.’
She laughs, and takes back the flask. She wipes around the rim with her neck-scarf and allows herself a small sip. She then tucks it away safe, which is probably for the best because my head’s already a little lighter than the occasion calls for, and in truth I’m not one for the drink nowadays.
I hold out my hand to see that the rain seems to have abated. I look up and see the day’s first wisp of blue. I may even have smiled at a fluffy white cloud passing on by.
‘I’m surprised Ruby didn’t make the journey,’ she says.
‘Yeah,’ I say, ‘but she and Boots was a long while back, last I heard she was living in Europe.’
‘Even forever and the other side of the world ain’t long or far away enough to forget,’ she says.
There’s movement from the church as the doors are ushered wide open. Jack’s positioned front left of the casket bearers, his Pop’s over on the right. Phylis is among the last to leave, and once she spies me, she comes right on over.
The minister leads. We all traipse behind, busy of mind, silent of voice. The gravel pathway crunches underfoot like snow that’s set. Everyone gathers round the hole set in the ground, most still taking shelter under umbrellas, even though the rain has stopped, and dark clouds are threatening elsewhere.
Some folk say a few words. What words I wanted to say I’d written down, sealed in an envelope, and asked Phylis to leave them safe with Boots.
Last of all to speak is Jack. And when he’s done, he kneels down to lay a brand new pair of drumsticks on top of the casket, getting his pants all muddy in the process. Frances uses a white handkerchief to clean him up as best as she can. Jack stands there for a while, dead still looking like a four-year-old done something wrong, but not sure what, and that sure ain’t raindrops trickling down his cheek.
I walk over, and hand Jack his sax. He wipes his face with his hand, breathes in deep, and starts to blow. He plays Trane’s Resolution. He plays it for his brother. He plays it from that place deep in his soul. He plays it wishing each and every note could wash away the pain.
I close my eyes and let my heart listen. I take Phylis’ hand in mine, squeezing it gently. I think of our boy, our son. And then, because I need to, I squeeze her hand a little tighter.
Lee Hamblin lives in Greece. Stories published in FlashBack Fiction, MoonPark Review, formercactus, Reflex, Ellipsis, Fictive Dream, and other places. He tweets @kali_thea.
Find links to his stories here: https://hamblin1.wordpress.com