“The Improvisational Distance,” by Justin Reynolds, was the winner of the twenty-sixth Jerry Jazz Musician Short Fiction Contest, and was originally published on March 4, 2011.
“Casa da Malota,” by Stephen Henriques
The Improvisational Distance
Everyone is afraid to knock on the door when they hear the trumpet behind it. A closed door is like an On Air sign or a red light outside a dark room. Still, they have to talk to him. Sonny is nowhere to be found. And Thibodeau is too busy eye-fucking the women at the hotel bar to practice. And Baldwin is just tired.
They wait for a lull, a break. Three minutes waiting outside the door, and it comes. They knock soft, one of those we didn’t want to have to bother you but didn’t see any other recourse knocks; a musician has a way of using sound, its timbre, its breadth, to say everything. Knocking is no different.
Dress-shoe footsteps and then unlocking, the door opens. A tall, lean man with fingers to match wipes the sweat from his eyes, sighs heavy-like, but says nothing, nods.
No one can find Sonny, they say in near unison. And Thibodeau’s at the bar. And I’m damn tired of all this babysitting, Chi. This last sentence is breathily administered by Baldwin, his eyes, red and long, back him up. Malachi is still holding his horn, and his lips are barely moving, though he still says nothing.
Named Malachi, but his father called him Abraham. Told everyone that Chi, what people tended to call Malachi, if said three times fast, sounded like KKK, so he refused to call his son by his given name, that’s how pro-black he was. Abraham was Malachi’s middle name, the name his father wanted as his first, but his mother would only co-sign as his middle.
Before music called some years ago and Malachi answered, he had tried to follow in his father’s steel-toed footsteps. Applied for the steel-mill gig. Put on dirty gray coveralls with Andre stitched in a wobbly red cursive on the chest pocket. Malachi never met Andre. Andre had been a screw-up at the mill, always late, or hung-over, sometimes high. Andre’s uncle was a tenured foreman who all the big bosses liked, so his nephew kept his job a lot longer than he should have. But Malachi’s father despised nepotism, or any sort of charity, his belief that hard work could carry a man as far as he needed to walk required this. And so when Malachi finally caved, tired of being broke and doing gigs for free beer, Charles Benjamin was elated, finally his boy would earn a living. A real worker got paid twice a month and knew how much he had coming, that’s how he could provide for a family. A real worker had dirt and grime on his coveralls and fingernails not to mention the calluses and machine oil.
But Malachi only lasted two days. The first day went like this: Introductions to the crew. Security meeting where at the end he was issued a palm-sized ID card. The man who’d handed out the cards was Clint Hardwood, head of plant security, covered in angry tattoos, and widely known as the guy with a slice of his left index finger missing. Clint was from New Jersey, a real city unlike this place in Ohio, a factory town. Clint talked big. Talked like everything was the back of his hand. Told stories about his run-ins with the mafia, or about the time he’d wrestled a pit bull and pulled apart its two front legs so far that the canine’s brain exploded in its head (“You could hear it pop”). Funny thing was, no one knew his first name, everyone just called him Chief Hard which he encouraged. Behind his back they called him Big Hard-On and Pitbullshit. This was Malachi’s first day: Security ID.; Clint’s stories; quickly learning no one actually paid Clint any mind. Some of the older black guys on the crew said they wish’d that they could drop Clint’s white-ass on the southside after dark, see if he be talking all that tough guy stuff then. Even the white crew members laughed at this, nodding their heads. Still, one of Clint’s scare tactics had left its mark squarely on Malachi’s brain:
Just remember, he said, people die in here, young man.
Day two Malachi pulled his truck up the gate. There was a traffic light to the right of the guard house. Flashing green meant the previous day had been injury-free. Yellow meant minor accident. Red meant fatality. On day two, red. Malachi never swiped his card, just turned his father’s truck around for home. That’s when he made up his mind to play his horn. To leave Lorain and find out for himself what was out there. There were no traffic lights in jazz.
The music, at the night’s gig, came out something natural, flowing like nobody’s business. Or maybe it was so good, it had to be unnatural. Otherworldly. As though the Malachi Benjamin Quartet was not only in the sound-bottling business, but had a monopoly on that shit.
Now post-show and everyone was backed up into a good mood. There wasn’t really any other way to feel after a performance like that. After a crowd that hung on to every note, practically jacking you off the way they held on to our dicks as Sonny liked to say. And though the men groaned at Sonny’s usual vulgarity, they knew when he said it, it was because it was true. Tonight a hand-job and then some, he was hooting. Thibodeau was focused on his reflection in the mirror, retying his bow-tie with a I’m-getting-ready-for-a-funeral seriousness. Really he was just getting dolled-up for the town, and the women that would follow. He had a streak to keep alive, a woman for every city they rolled into. Twelve in three weeks, and everyone was betting on whether thirteen meant an end to his luck. But Tibby, as he was affectionately called and a nickname he hated but tolerated, didn’t believe in luck except the kind you made. In his mind, the streak was all but safe. And Baldwin felt anything but tired.
Malachi, fiddling with his cufflinks, thick in the throes of one of his legendary broods, not saying shit but saying plenty, that silence that comes out flailing and breaking shit. Sitting back, like in their shows, letting the other men play before slipping into the seams, putting down his own thing with finality.
Sonny doing his full-on Sonny routine. Started faux tap-dancing around the chairs, knowing that always got everybody going, Malachi included. And right on cue, that Uncle Tom foolery in all its glory, Tibby said. Which propelled Sonny even more so, now swinging his arms in big windmill turns, while kicking his feet out in tune, that minstrel show-big grinning jig. And just like that Malachi gave a smile up.
Don’t let no white people seeing you do that shit, Malachi said, now chuckling. Likely to set us back a good couple decades in ten seconds flat.
Malachi wanted to discuss the show. More to it, the direction their music needed to take. Changes to the sound he saw as necessary. A knock at the door, and Sonny broke shuck long enough to let Janelle inside.
There had been a vibration in the crowd. A couple people spotted Janelle Morrison sitting a couple tables away from the stage, and her presence set off a hum. People thinking she was part of the show that night; that she was a plant and would find her way on stage at some point during the evening. Plus, the real jazz-heads knew the rumors that she and Malachi had been in the studio together, figured they were in for a taste. But this night they would leave Rey’s Joint elated and out of breath dizzy and discombobulated but in a good way, a few people could be heard trying to put words to the feeling but there would also be that thing in their chests, something like disappointment, melancholic, more of a question no one knew the answer to, what if. Which is to say, when?
A series of g’evenings before one high-heeled step into the back room. Janelle greeted the men back. She had a way of trapping a room’s attention. Carried eyes and imaginations in her stride, groins, too. Her walk inspiration for what would one day be called an escalator. The way she moved she seemed to be above everyone else, steadily ascending. You couldn’t help but smile at her. She knew this somewhat. Had an oblong awareness of her appeal. But she also knew when it wasn’t working. And who it didn’t work on. Malachi one of those few. She once tried to explain her feelings to a friend who wondered why she wasted her time loving such a man. People think you’re crazy when you love someone who doesn’t love you back; but really, she said, that’s the biggest love you can have for someone. Easy to love in return, when it’s steady coming back to you. No real work to that. To love someone who may never see you the same, or even begin to understand your feelings, the unfettered-ness of it all, that no one else can make you feel the same rage, or happiness, suicidal, that longing, the heights and the rock bottom of everything, to still love that person, you had to be enraptured. Insane. Beyond reason, hope and help. And terrifyingly beyond self.
Janelle and Malachi, they had one of those really good friendship things. One of those if the timing had been different, if you hadn’t been involved with what’s her name, if you weren’t such a bullshitter right now, if I had a chance to see you differently, then maybe we’d be, type things. Malachi liked women and he didn’t deny his lower desire. But only one of two things ever came of these situations. He grew tired of the whole affair. He broke their heart. The order of these events made no difference.
The constant thing in his life other than music was Janelle. She was his spiritual guide, though he rarely listened to her direction, not even when they both knew her to be right. She was his healer, though she always said preventative medicine was better than emergency surgery. Her door, even still, never closed. And if closed, it was quick to unbolt, then gape wide.
What Malachi Didn’t Know He Wanted Yet:
To love so deep that it changes your insides, where you feel different, a completely other person than who you were: see a kiss is just a poor expression of all that. Same for a hug. Or a poem. Those are just shaky, small things that might as well stumble, or stutter. You get to a point, though, if you really love hard, where with your eyes, with the bridge of your nose, the way your neck moves, the crease of your forehead, you say that shit plain. You feel the fuck out of it.
What the Execs of Improv Records, Malachi’s Label, Wanted:
The record execs wanted to strike while shit was hot. Get while the getting was. Wanted a new LP to release in time for the holidays. But Malachi resisted. Still had a mind to take some time off. Not from music altogether. Just from recording. Felt like the sound wasn’t where it needed to be, where it needed going, and he wouldn’t just put out an album for a quick payday. Not unless it was something to hang his hat on. Not unless it felt like progression. They tried to get him on that if you aren’t up for it, there are plenty of musicians itching for a break with a major label, but you take your time if you want to, if you’ve lost your hunger. And had it just been him he had to think of, then cool, let that shit ride. But there was the band, his friends, their wives and girlfriends and kids, their managers and roadies, all of their mortgages and debts. Still, he thought, there wasn’t any reason why the studio couldn’t get the album they paid for with the sound he wanted.
CHI: We’re going to try something different. This old shit ain’t cutting.
SONNY: Tell that to my bank account. That cat’s doing damn well these days.
CHI: Yeah, well, that’s the whole problem, there. Money and music ain’t never liked each other. Not good music anyway. You start to see that money roll in the way we starting to see it, and you know it’s time to change up.
SONNY: What the hell you smoking, man?
CHI: Excuse me?
SONNY: Just saying whatever it is, must be in-ter-ga-lac-tic.
[Sonny and Tibby laugh. Baldwin, too, but his sounds nervous.]
CHI: Just play.
TIBBY: Don’t we get a vote, Chi? We always talked about this sort of thing in the past, y’know.
CHI: A vote?
BALDWIN: I think what everyone’s trying to say, Chi, is, we’ve been waiting forever to be where we are right now. To be right here, who could ask for more?
CHI: So, ya’ll happy with what we doing, huh? What we’ve been doing?
SONNY: All the way to the bank.
CHI: Well, any stagnant has-beens can see they way to the street. But if you ready to pick up the ball and take it where it ain’t never thought it could go, get in line.
SONNY: You talking about innovation, and I can get with that. We can all get with that, but what’s the hurry is all we asking. We just got here.
CHI: Am I in the right place cuz I could’ve swore this was the Malachi Benjamin Quartet. And what’s your name, muthafucka?
Three hours later and he wasn’t liking anything they’d been doing.
CHI: Where is your head, Sonny? That last frame it felt like you weren’t even on the same planet as us. You riding the beat like you got somewhere else to be. This is crock-pot cookin’ right here, man. Slow that shit down to a simmer. That fast stuff don’t come until the food’s all the way cooked and it’s on the plate and you in front of it with a knife and fork, that’s when you hit that stride.
CHI: Baldwin, are you hearing yourself, brother? If you coming in after Sonny just laid the shit out thunderous, you can’t come in tiptoeing, unless you got a reason to tiptoe, and if you do got a reason to soft foot it, then at some point you need to let the rest of us in on it.
CHI: I like where you taking me, Tibby. But you gotta get there a lil faster. You losing me in the middle…Yeah, the middle, that ba-ba-da-beeop-ba-di, that ain’t holding my attention. You got that bang the way you come in, and then it’s flat, like you forgot what you wanted to say. You got me listening and then it’s like you turn around while you’re talking and all I see is the back of your head.
Later, Malachi pointed upward and complained about the room’s acoustics. I bet Trane ain’t have to work in these conditions , and later in the session, hands thrown up after the first chorus came back flat for the fourth consecutive time, Miles would never stand for this shit. Treating us like fucking field niggers. And while there was some merit to his discontent the ceiling was paper mache, and the walls, while coated in foam board, could’ve been wet newspaper stretched over a wooden frame Everyone knew it wasn’t the room.
Farah Kennedy came around the time the music wasn’t.
They had a gig that night at the D. Dot was one of those places where if you didn’t bring your A-game, stay the fuck home. Sonny called it Little Apollo. The crowd would tell you about yourself with a quickness. Plenty of talented cats had their heads handed. But tonight, the place was lit up. Between the electric crowd, the nicotine clouds, and the fire that the band was burning onstage, no one would’ve been surprised had the fire department showed up. Plus it was literally hellish hot, and more than a couple times Malachi had retreated off-stage to wipe at his brow, get a drink, letting Tibby elongate his solos before slipping back into the seams. A woman had caught Tibby’s eye and he was going full board, smoothing his horn out as if it were a preview of his other prowess. A brunette with legs for days, one of those little black dresses that make a woman more mysterious than normal. Had a Hepburn quality about her face. Audrey. He was planning on buying her a drink or two, but after their set she was thin air.
Before the door could even close behind them, Sonny was already starting up, Damn, Tibs, you were playing like your freedom depended on that shit.
Thibodeau shrugged, Yeah, well, sometimes the Spirit moves you.
Or maybe it was that blood moving from your big head to your small one, Sonny said.
The men laughed.
Malachi said, you played so good, we might have to hire something pretty to sit in front of you every show. That might be a good investment. You likely to double our fee.
Anybody know the score, Baldwin asked.
What game you talking?
The Knicks-Nets, what other game is there?
Tibby looked up from the drink he was pouring himself, eager to deflect the unwanted attention elsewhere, I don’t know any man who would relish the opportunity to see other grown, muscular men wearing tight ass, booty-clenching shorts is all I’m saying. I mean, you practically got drool hanging from your lips. Just something funny about that.
Please, Malachi said, don’t get B started on that shit tonight.
This from the guy who puts on make-up, right?
That wasn’t make-up for the last time. It’s stuff professional actors use to hide blemishes and shit.
Yeah, muthafucka, what you think make-up is?
And then Sonny, yeah, that pretty much sound like make-up to me.
Man, whatever, just turn the radio on so this man can get his fix. But I’m going to tell you all right now, don’t bring your lame asses to me when you got bags under eyes or you’ve broken out in acne or something, talking all that Tibby can you please help me out, look at my face. Make sure of that shit, ok.
Acne, negro, I’m a grown ass man, and last time I worried about a pimple I was sucking your mama’s titties.
Fuck you, too, Chi, Tibby said, hurling the only thing he could find, a matchbook, at Malachi.
We need to start demanding they put a TV in these rooms, Chi, Baldwin said, settling in the lone plush chair, the radio speakers just inches from his head.
One of Dot’s security people popped his head inside the room, Mr. Benjamin, you have a guest.
Malachi scrunched his forehead, not sure who it could be. Okay, let him in.
The bouncer nodded, then stepped aside, and in came Audrey. She looked at Malachi, you stay seated when a woman enters the room, do you, she didn’t say this, her look said it all. Malachi stood up, and looked over at Tibby who he could see was changing into that knight-in-shining armor mode in a hurry.
Evening, Tibby said, standing, kissing her hand. She gave him a weak smile. And stepped past him toward the band leader. Sonny looked at Tibby with one of those you just got murdered looks, and Tibby looked at Malachi with that what the hell glare, who in turn, looked back at Tibby with a no idea. Tibby, not sure what to do, excused himself to go get a drink from the bar, not bothering to ask if anyone else wanted anything, really planning on making a run at that fine bartender more than anything else, his confidence a bit uneven but looking to rebound.
Hell of a show tonight, Mr. Benjamin.
Thank you, Mrs..?
Missssss Washington, she corrected. But call me Farrah.
Pleasure to meet you, Farrah. And I’m Malachi. Or Chi for short. Whatever your pleasure.
Whatever my pleasure, she said, you sure about that. I tend to hold people to what they tell me. Can I hold you…to that…Chi?
Baldwin turned down the radio, his interest arrested. And Sonny leaned forward. Felt like that moment in the movie when the two stars are finally going to kiss. Except there was no kiss that night. Or at the very least, no witnesses.
It was one of those where you are is where I wanna be things. Those the thought of being away makes my heart weep and my eyes tear things. The press, the tabloids snapped it up like goldfish do anything flaky. All the fanfare, the hoopla, the fireworks, you would’ve thought they were channeling Shakespeare instead of dishing the syrupy, gossip columns that bore their bylines. Farah, being some sort of young, heiress to some sort of estate worth some sort of money, and Malachi, being an emerging superstar musician who’d pulled himself out of the depths of obscurity and even deeper hole of poverty.
The he’s-black-she’s-white dynamic made for good controversy, too. And the fact that they refused to discuss the topic of race in the context of their relationship made it all the more interesting. Malachi had tried to tell Janelle first, before she caught wind of it from some third-party so-and-so. But he was too late. A few pages into the Sunday paper and she had as much of the story as she wanted to know. She stopped taking his calls for a few weeks. Partly of anger. Partly to let him know she wasn’t his on-call thing. That she had shit of her own going on. Told herself, when she did resume his calls, she would not allow herself to return to that place again. Where she was wide open. Her sister, who doubled as her manager, warned her of being the other woman. How not only was that humiliating on a personal level, have some pride in yourself, it wasn’t a good career choice to be viewed as a hanger-on, did you see that singer Janelle, poor li’l puppy dog of a girl, all panting after that white-woman-chasing trumpeter like she ain’t got a bit of dignity. After all, Janelle, too, was an up-and-coming artist, a sought-after talent, gaining star momentum all the time. How would it look to be the third wheel. Her sister/manager started arranging dates for her, usually with up-and-coming black professionals, lawyers, doctors, and the like, but never fellow musicians. Sheila didn’t trust artist-types. Sheila arranged for photo ops, calling the press herself with tips about where Janelle would be out on the town that evening, who she would be with, and while these events weren’t splashy, netting three or four lines write-ups in the part of the paper where you could look for job listings or search for a used automobile, they eventually made their way back to Malachi. And he would never formally admit to the jealousy, but if pressed, he wouldn’t be able to convincingly lie about it, either.
What Farah Did for Malachi’s Music:
Farah encouraged him to shake things up. That rather than just build on what he knew, rock the foundation. Find his creative voice. Once you got your sound, you’ve got your vision. He started playing D flat for the challenge. To prove he could make it as smooth as C. Malachi’s quoted as saying, there are so many cats, musicians, all trapped in the same, damp basement. Knew I had to take it to the second or third floor just for the elbow room. Once I had the space I needed, everything else was an elevator to the top.
Track after track began falling in place. Rehearsals, studio time, these sessions felt spiritual. Like they were building wooden steps to a place above the heavens that no one even knew was there, just a regular hammer, and every note another nail closer.
“The album was like getting your toes wet at first. But you just knew if you were patient the levies would burst and you’d have more water than you knew what to do with.”-Danny Thibodeau, Downbeat, June 1965.
Malachi and Farah officially broke things off a couple days prior to the album’s release date, but both agreed not to discuss it with anyone, especially the media.
He was sad and relieved at the same time. Things with Farah were intense, and he’d learned a thing or two about himself, the ways he was a coward, the ways he wasn’t. How he never let himself think too much on consequences, just went with what he was feeling no matter where it would take him, or who it hurt.
His feelings took him to Janelle. And the consequences: Farah was gone. For the last three months he felt as though he were incapable of producing a single musical note without Farah’s input. She’d been his muse to say the least. But what she was really doing was what he wasn’t doing for himself: telling him that he had to push. That it wasn’t enough to yearn for it, he had to strive for that next sound, drag it out of its hiding place, and wrestle it until it gave him a blessing.
Farah was not surprised about Janelle. She’d known from the beginning the hold that Janelle had on Malachi; it wasn’t something easy to miss. And she was fine with it, or rather she would be. The ride she and Malachi shared was worth the admission. And she never saw their relationship as a last stop sort of thing.
Yesterday, Janelle put the plate on the table, while bringing a cigarette to her lips with her free hand, and then turning away the wisps of brown hair that made a play for her eyes. Coffee was in the air. So was hot grease.
Malachi eased into the room, said, Girl, you in here tryna burn, huh?
She snapped the dish towel at his arm. Don’t you say I don’t love you, man. Okay? You know I have no business in the kitchen. Let alone messing with grits…I put in the butter like you said. And a little salt, shake of sugar.
I’m not going to even ask what I owe you for this.
Whether you ask or not, you owe.
Now, this morning, their second real morning together, it was his turn to cook. First thing Janelle said this morning, while they were still in bed, swaddled by blankets and sheets, let’s run away. Someplace we can just be together without all of this…this…glitz and…cameras…and eyes, all the gawking. Even if just for a few days.
He rolled over to face her, and then turned his face back a few degrees to escape the sun that was entering her side of the bedroom, he said, Is there such a place?
He, Malachi, thinks all of this in four literal minutes while sweating over the range:
He’s pulled out all the stops, eggs cracked and beaten lie in wait.
He can hear her breathing in the bedroom, a deep resonance that can only be achieved at the height of physical exhaustion. They had a long night that cheated into the morning. Catching up. He’d forgotten how beautiful she was. Maybe that was best. If he’d remember exactly, the distance and time that separated them would have been his death.
Slices of ham reduced to confetti.
Does she like ham? Not completely sure. Just put a little in, just in case. She asked him what his life plan was. At his age, 37, most of the life you would have planned is behind you. What was there to plan for now? He had money, stability. Love? He told her he still had the same ambitions, change the scope of music, give it the breadth, depth, width, it deserved. She laughed, then smiled, and he wasn’t sure how to take either.
Bacon, slightly crispy, slightly chewy, crumbled.
She rubbed his shoulders last night, the way she used to do sometimes when one of them came home from touring. Reminded him of what could’ve been as if he didn’t think about that enough. The faint freckles on her shoulders were just how he remembered.
He had watched her walk naked around the room. A brown goddess orbiting around the bed, gathering strewn clothing articles, socks and panties and blouse and skirt, collecting them into her arms crossed around her breasts. Her hair pulled back, and he saw that her neck, its curvature and its color, was a moon crest.
Cheddar cheese, shredded.
He asked her to stay. And the way he said stay was as though he wanted to tack on forever. She said she couldn’t. She would stay the night, but tomorrow would be a different story, a different day that she could not yet wrap her hips and thighs around. She said this as she closed in, her mouth an orifice that housed a dragon, her tongue fiery and incensed, singed his throat, his cheek, his ear, his lips, all burning, all damned.
She has an irregular heartbeat, an arrhythmia, she’d told him while he rested his head on her chest. He listened for its cadence, but only found decadence. She climbed out of bed, pulling at his arm to join her. They danced to music he hadn’t brought into the world.
Where’s the fungus? Portabella, check.
Green peppers diced.
The kisses between them were tight as slipknots, threatened to never let go of their lips. But then sleep came, her head in the crook between his chest and arm, her left leg slumped between his.
Melt a teaspoon of margarine into skillet.
Cook on medium heat.
He’d awaken in the middle of the night to the sound of music. He always watched the five o’clock news, always set his alarm fifteen ’til, which gave him ample time to brush his teeth, turn on the coffee pot, and slip into his robe, slippers, favorite chair. This morning he let the music play, classic Mingus hovering just above their heads, a canopy of plucked strings.
Separate edges with spatula. Fold. Transfer to plate.
Fresh parsley sprinkled. Flowers in vase. Tray. Fresh orange juice, pulp strained.
Feeds 1-2, comfortably.
He paused. In the next room, he could hear the creak of the bed, and her feet touch ground.
For information about Justin Reynolds, click here to visit his website.