“Psalm,” a short story by Ian Rictor, was a finalist in our recently concluded 42nd Short Fiction Contest. It is published with the permission of the author.
by Ian Rictor
I watch my hand remove the phone from the wall above the couch’s arm and there is a sweat in my ear as I hear a distant Miles Davis. I am called by the distorted voice of Miles Davis rasping my name.
John, he says, are you busy?
I let my eyes blur into my mother’s sofa, melting a monotonous no out of my mouth toward the receiver. I feel the room sloshing peacefully in waves around me and the buzzing of my lips from my mouthpiece and reed. My saxophone sits strewn across the floor along with my spoon and needle, fading from vision into the carpet as my thoughts escape me.
Good, he says, proceeding to offer me a job in his band, speaking in gravelly tones, accompanied by erratic crackles in the connection. Sweat slickens me. I am swimming in hesitation but also a spark of want—a vague itch left in clouds. The end of our conversation comes with a fuzzy click, and I allow the cord to pull the phone away from me, causing it to smack jingling against the spoon on the floor.
I am going to be leaving for New York to play my saxophone with Miles, Philly Joe, Red, and Paul. I am delighted to the point of ecstasy, silently cackling into the pleasant cushion. I am nervous, fearful, but clouds cover fear. I am drooling, open-mouthed, dry-eyed, on the flower pattern of my mother’s couch covers.
It isn’t until later, around noon, that the clouds clear and I am left with only my always tired, bagged eyes, the phone, my spoon, my needle, and my saxophone all in the center of the room. I realize the weight of Miles’s call. Miles Davis. Miles played with Bird. Miles and Bird. Bird. Bird Miles Bird Miles Bird. I reach down, hang up the phone, and begin to resume my study of the horn. I tighten its strap around my neck allowing my saxophone to reverse hang me, pulling me down, down toward the mouthpiece, and I blow. First chirping, then singing crassly, I play seeking clouds, but only with failure as notes fall without purpose, without piety.
I hear my cousin’s voice behind me, making me jump. I turn facing her, my saxophone hanging still from my neck, hunching me downward into a stoop, hands at my side.
Yeah, I’m still blowin’.
You always look so glum you know.
She laughs, but her face goes blank as her eyes move toward the carpet, toward the spoon and the needle I had left in my urgency.
Coldly, she says, are you on it right now?
No, Mary, that was from earlier. I just forgot—
Listen Mary, it’s not—
Why do you want this?
I—I don’t know.
You said you were done.
She cries quietly.
I know. I just—I just needed a little more to help me through.
I step toward her, and she backs away, quickly entering the kitchen out of my sight. I stand there in the living room, aching with sore, cracked lips and a thin, paper skin of shame. I see the needle and it is empty. I return my hands to my dangling horn and play for a while longer. I hear muffled bible verses in Mary’s hesitant and shaking voice from the kitchen. I stop and remove my noose, placing my saxophone in a stable resting position on the sofa, before walking out of the living room and over toward the sound of her. Inside the kitchen, I find Mary sitting at the table with closed, puffy eyes and our family bible shut in front of her. She is praying.
I’m sorry Mary.
She opens her eyes, staring into me as I continue.
But listen, I’m going to be doing a whole lot better. I got a call today. A big one. No more scraping for R&B gigs in Philly. I got a call from Miles.
Miles Davis. He played with Bird.
She looks at me, not saying anything, not knowing the pivotal change of it all.
I’m going to New York to play in Miles Davis’s quintet.
I smile in spite of myself and there is another long pause. Mary looks at me with awe, but also with pity.
Will you pray with me, she says.
I am engulfed in a city so large, it is not of the Earth, not for and by mortal people. I am in clouds, reaching desperately for light behind the faint outlines of swimming and unswimming doors. Through light and from behind the doors comes a figure ever radiant, stepping toward me. I reach forward at the outline of Him. His hand reaches back toward me and our fingers touch. Inside my hand is the faint outline of a needle. The clouds I am immersed in begin to clear and an unpleasantness overtakes. But He is here. He takes the needle from me and throws it to the floor, grabbing my hand and pulling my arm over His shoulder, helping me through the doors.
Jesus Christ, Trane.
Miles helps me out of the bathroom at Prestige Records as I wipe vomit from my mouth with my free hand. He walks me into a lounge and lays me across a couch. There is still light as the clouds continue to clear and a sickness seeps further in my veins, hollowing me.
The fuck were you thinking?
I murmur, thank You Lord.
Sleep it off.
He turns me on my side.
You’re gonna be fine.
I awake to the sight of Miles and the producer, Bob.
Did we get all the takes, I ask Bob nervously.
Yeah. We got ’em. Just finished with Half Nelson. How you feelin’?
I’ll be alright. Listen, I’m sorry.
Bob nods, but remains silent, and Miles exhales slowly.
I’ll give you two a minute, says Bob.
He leaves the lounge, heading toward the main lobby, where I can hear the chatter of the rest of the band. Now it is only Miles at my side.
Trane, this can’t go on, man.
I avoid his gaze, but nod.
Maybe talk to Monk. I hear he’s lookin’ for a player. But no more of this.
He starts to walk down the hall toward Bob and the rest of the band.
I call after him.
I’m sorry Miles.
Just get your ass clean. It ain’t worth it, he says, still walking.
Miles, I say.
Miles doesn’t break stride.
You know I didn’t mean to mess with the group and all. I didn’t mean to mess with your records.
Miles stops and turns.
He says, no. You’re a selfish man, Trane. Just like Bird was.
I am lying in bed at my mother’s house in Philadelphia and Mary is patting at my forehead with a damp cloth. She says prayers under her breath and I join her in my own quivering tongue. Her face is hidden and smudged by dark clouds, encased in the remains of a tattered heaven that has left. There is nothing. There is a swallowing hole. My veins are fortunate to be on the verge of bursting, verge of releasing the evil of me, how they burn. The smoke in the clouds on fire forms into Mary, forms into Miles, forms into my father. I am watching as my saxophone melts into the corner of the room, and my father, the tailor, sews me a new instrument upon the instruction of my mother who is now Bird. I am now in Hawaii in the Navy, playing saxophone with the white musicians who allow me, as they tell me I am a prophet who met the God, Bird. I am now leading the white Navy musicians in a band that plays God’s songs. I am meeting Him with my friend Benny in Philadelphia, after a show the summer before I leave for basic training, and He allows me to share the load of His saxophone case. God tells me to move to New York. Mary, please Mary. I recall Miles and the crackle of the phone. I am at Grand Central on forty-second street in New York, and my train becomes the cab I take with Miles to the Upper East Side for lunch one Wednesday, where he points out the hotel God died in. I am slickened by sweat, Mary. God is a false prophet, and I hear only what I wish is God. I must find God. Oh Mary, please Mary, stop the burning, I must find God.
Ian Rictor is a saxophonist and jazz enthusiast from Littleton, Colorado. He’s an Army Band musician currently stationed with the 1st Cavalry Division Band at Fort Hood, Texas where he entertains soldiers and civilians alike. His work has previously appeared on McSweeney’s Internet Tendency.