Written By Adam Young.
This is a short story I wrote my Sophomore year at West Point. It was originally published in “The Circle in the Spiral” the one and only edition of the West Point literary magazine, published in early 1991. Apologies for in anachronisms. More on that later
Someone told me once that a woman would be my downfall. I know that my life would have been a lot less…interesting if I had never met Desiré. She was an artist and a free spirit. Gypsy black curly hair and pale white skin, large brown eyes, and energy. And I thought I loved her. But I moved too slowly, and soon her meteoric existence took her shooting out of my life.
The misery of losing her came across in my music. I had a steady gig playing sax in a combo at Orpheus, a bar in the city that was frequented by people on the fringes of society. My music seemed to attract those who felt as lost as I did.
Tuesday night is not a particularly hot night I the city, and I was feeling down. Living on music feeds the soul, but starves the body. I almost didn’t go to the gig that night, but I saw a ghost of my mentor in the mirror, looking over my shoulder. The need to play, to breathe music, swept me out the door of my one room apartment and onto the subway. The first snow of the year was just starting as I got off the train. Two blocks down was the club.
I guess the colleges had just finished up exams, for as we started up the first set, a group of ten students came in to the bar; standing room only. I put everything I had into the music. After the second set, I was drained. All the college kids were talking with each other, drinking, and doing everything except listing to the music. Except one. Her eyes were pale blue, like a lake with the faintest touch of frost. Her blonde hair was pulled back into a loose pony tail. She wore jeans the same pale blue as her eyes, a loose sweater, and low, water stained , black suede boots. She had a haunted look that reminded me of the old black white picture I had seen of Indians in the eighteen-hundreds.
She came in often after that. Usually with a group. A couple time I had thought about going up to talk with her, but I really couldn’t deal with it. Not yet. One night the group she was with decided to leave in the middle of a set. I watched her as she wavered and finally decided to stay. Alone. At the end of the night there was just the band, the bartender, the manager, and her. I walked up to her table. “It’s dangerous to walk alone this late at night.”
“You play like your world has fallen apart.” She had a low, husky voice that scraped my heart. “My name is Rachael.”
We walked along the harbor, not touching, neither of us having any place to go. We were silent for a long time. Inside, I was in tension. Remember Desiree. She seems lost. She’s just another girl going after a musician. She is beautiful. She’ll hurt me like The Rest. She turned to me, the reflection of the city making her eyes glow. She said, “Before my friends convinced me to come out, I had never really listened to Jazz before. I don’t even really know that much about the music.”
I didn’t trust myself to speak. Each word she spoke twisted like like a knife in the chest. I wanted to run. I wanted to hold her. We walked on in silence.
“Is there someone special in your life?” She asked a couple of minutes later.
I could hear my pulse pounding in my ears. I shook my head. “You?” I asked.
She turned away for a moment. Her face was hidden by a shadow. She shook her head ever so slightly. “Not anymore.”
She cut me off with a shake of her head.
We stopped at a doughnut shop and got breakfast. I watched her as she played with her food.
“What are you studying in school?”
“I want to be a Doctor. Right now I am a Nurses Aide.”
“What are you doing over the vacation?” I asked as Gene Kruppa played “Sing Sing Sing” on my eardrums.
“I have a job at a doctors office downtown. I’ll be working there.” Her eyes drew me in.
She worked days and I nights. We saw each other for a few hours in the evening between when her work was done and mine started. We would meet for dinner at each other’s apartments, (hers, usually since mine was in a dangerous part of town). Each time I promised myself I would end it. I was not going to get involved again.
One night she was supposed to come over and she never showed. I called her house and there was no answer. I called her office. The receptionist said she had been picked up by a main in a black Pickup. I left the number at “Orpheus”
Kicking myself for getting involved again, cursing all woman, I got drunk and went to the gig. I played one set and left when I finally accepted that fact that she wasn’t going to call. I wandered all over the city. Sitting on a dock on a look-out over the harbor, I looked back over my life.
Long ago I realized that the world didn’t need me to save it. I also realized that I wasn’t happy studying physics at the university. Like a cartoon character who has the bridge cut out from under him, I found myself suspended, blinking at the camera before I fell. I enlisted in the Army and drove tanks around for a couple years. After I served my time, while I was packing away my uniforms in my parents attic, I came across my old saxophone. I remembered the man down the street who played with Benny Goodman and I soon found myself at his doorstep. Joe Kent. He was old, frail, yet the Jazz flowed through him. An energy source that he had tapped, deep in the hearts of everyone who listened. I became his waiter, his lackey, his driver, and his student. He taught me how to listen. How to listen to a record and hear the notes float over the changes. How to listen to the bass, to ride it through the song. How to listen to the sound the horn made. How to listen to the beating of your own heart in ¾ time.
I watched a cargo ship get loaded with large, metal crates and then depart. Hunger and music pulled me back to the club. I was still depressed, but I could tolerate it.
A couple days later, as I walked in the door of Orpheus, the manager told me that Rachael’s office had called asking if I had seen her; she had not come in for the past few days.
There was no answer at the door, so I picked the lock. Going through her apartment, I came across and address book. A page had been torn out. Using a trick I had learned on Saturday morning cartoons, I rubbed over the page behind with charcoal, leaving behind the message that had been impressed. It was not too far from her campus. I walked over there and rang the bell. An elderly lady answered the door.
“Yes, may I help you?”
“Ma’am, I would like to ask you about Rachael Cullins, if that is all right with you?”
“I trust your intentions are honorable?”
“Oh, yes Ma’’am. They are. I’m just a friend. She has disappeared and no one really knows for sure where she is.”
“Oh, my. Please come in.”
I noticed that she was a very proper lady. The house was small and immaculate. “Please have a seat. Would you like care for a some hot chocolate?”
“Yes, please. Ma’am, how did you know Rachael?”
“Miss Cullins was a boarder. I have a small apartment upstairs that I let out. She left about four months ago.”
“Do you know why she left.”
She frowned at and looked over her spectacles at me. “She had a boyfriend. Oh, he was something. To look at him, he was something out of those posers you see down town. Big Smile, Blond hair.”
“So what was the problem?”
“He was a brute. Sometimes I would see her wearing dark glasses. And occasionally I would see her with a black eye or a bruise that she couldn’t cover up. Once I saw her limping. One day she just ran out. She came back later for her belongings.”
“Did he live here with her?”
“Practically. He was here almost every night, always very polite to me. But I could see her eyes when he came that she dreaded meeting him.”
“DO you know his name?””
“I never found out. He liked to be called Aussie, but I think that was because he surfed.”
“Did Rachael have any friends around here that you know of? Did anyone come to see her?”
“She studied with a few different girls. I remember one. Kim, I believe her name was. Italian. Kim Napoli, I believe.”
“Ma’am, thank you for your time. You can’t imagine how much this means to me.”
“You must let me know when you find her. You will won’t you?”
I called the student directory on a pay phone and found Kim Napoli’s phone number. She wasn’t in, but I left a message on the tape player, and then went off to the club.
As I walked in, I saw a ghost. Desiré walked up to me and kissed me on the cheek. “Hey soldier. Long time no see.”
My look must have been ice. All the emotions just solidified and I froze. I couldn’t move. Fear, anger, hurt, confusion, worry rage. I could feel myself glowing read. She took a step back and turned away. She turned back to look at me, and then walked past me out the door.
“Hey, Adam. What the hell? Snap out of it.” It was Bill, the Bartender. “Here, have a drink. He handed me something but I shook my head. I went up on stage and played. The crowd, who normally came to hear my extremely mellow sound must have been shocked. Because I played a sixty-five minute set, all above two forty on the metronome, all one straight jam. I took about four different solos. After that set, I fell down to me knees and started to cry. Bill closed up early and drove me home. At the door he said, “I don’t know what came over you tonight. You were incredible. I know that’s not what any one expected to hear, but…” He was speechless. I let myself in and collapsed on the bed. The digital clock said 1:00.
The phone ringing woke me up bolt upright. I was wired, the adrenaline pumping. The clock said 3:30. I picked up the receiver. “Hello?”
“Adam, help me.” It was Rachael.
“Rachael, where are you?” I shouted into the phone but there was no answer. “Rachael!” but the line was dead.
I can’t describe the emotion. I felt elated that she hadn’t just run out on me, guilty for feeling happy, and scared for her.
I went to my bureau. In the top drawer I had a 357 Magnum. I had bought it off a guy in my platoon who needed the money. He got transferred before he could buy it back. I had six rounds left from the one time I took it to the range. I stuck it in my belt and pulled my jacket over it. Down in the street, I managed to find a cab to take me to the college. Kim Napoli lived in one of the dorms. An undergrad coming out left the door open for me. I ran up the three flights of stairs to her room. Stepping over some junk in the hall. I noticed my watch said 4:05.
I banged on the door several time. She came to door asleep, a nightgown pulled tight around her. “Kim, listen. I know you don’t know me. Your friend Rachael is in trouble and I have to find her. Do you have any idea where she could be?”
“What,” she mumbled slowly coming awake. “Rachael who?”
“Rachael Cullens. You studied with her from time to time.”
“Oh, yeah. No, I haven’t seen her in months. We don’t have any of the same classes anymore.”
“Who is this guy, her boyfriend, Aussie?”
“Yeah that’s him.”
“What’s his real name? Where does he live?”
“She’s missing. He…may know where she is.”
“His name is Jason Peters. He lives in the Omega house.”
“Where is that?”
“Across the square. Go out the front door and take a left. It has the letters across the top. Omega looks like…”
I didn’t hear the rest of her sentence. I ran across the square. The Omega house had obviously just suffered an end of semester fiesta. There were numerous beer cans, cups, papers, napkins, and other assorted debris scattered across the front lawn. I banged on the front door. 4:28.
“What do you want?”
“Where is Jason Peters?”
“Who wants to know?”
“Listen, buddy, there is a girl in trouble somewhere, and I have got to find him.”
“Well, we brothers aren’t supposed to…”
I pulled out the pistol and held it between his eyes. “Listen, man, I don’t have time for this. Where the fuck is he?” I was raging. He almost passed out. I grabbed him by the shirt and shook him.
“he, he, he, he has a place up north, where he takes off to for the vacations. For all I know that’s where he is.”
“Where?” He told me the town the the road. I guess they had partied up there once so he had a pretty good idea where it was.
At the nearest main street I waved down a cab. 4:49. When I told the driver the location, he demanded the money up front. Since I was practically broke, except for a visa card, he refused to take me. The next cabby pulled over, saw the magnum in my belt and took off. 5:14. Giving up on the cabs I ran to the train station. 5:35. I bought a ticket. The next train didn’t depart until 9:05. I had time to try and think of a plan, but my mind could only think of her. Her sad eyes. Her dark voice on the phone. People were giving me uneasy looks. As I paced back and forth. A guy offered me a cigarette. Finally, as I was about to explode, the train came and I got on. During the ride I paced the length of the train and beat my hands against the windows.
I walked down the path to the house. It was a vacation house on the side of a lake. Aussie must have a tidy sum of money, because he had a sizable chunk of real estate. The house was two-storied. From what the brother at the door had told me, Aussies room faced the lake upstairs. There was only one car in the driveway—a black pickup truck with ornate chrome and a car-phone antenna. The front door was locked. I went around back. That, too was locked. There was an oak tree that had a limb that reached out onto the roof. I climbed down enough so that I could lower myself to the window. I slowly worked it open, my hands almost numb in the January air. A few flakes spin past me as I snaked my way into the house.
The room I entered must have been the parents room. I walked around the double bed and opened the door to the hall. I heard voices through the door across from me. Reaching for the pistol, I realized it must have fallen out of my belt as I climbed in. Cursing, I put my ear against the door.
“Come on, Rachael, you have to eat something. You haven’t eaten for days. Listen, if you are still mad about that first night, don’t be. You have to admit it has been a long time.”
All the world focused on that voice behind the door. I felt cold, like a machine. I crashed through the door and my fingers found his throat., just as the Drills had taught us to do in Basic. His hand caught my wrist, broke my watch band. Four second and he slumped unconscious. My fingers stayed locked. Kill. Death. Blood. Silence his life. Still.
Then I heard it. Like a bass, low, soothing. Pleading. I looked up. Rachael sat there, curled up like a fetus. Her blue eyes unfocused. Lost.
I remembered Joe.
“Man,” he said to me in my memory. ‘The Jazz is everywhere. It ain’t just music. It ain’t just blues. It’s the felling you get when you’re with a lady. It’s seeing home again after a year on the road. It’s the feeling when the drummer misses a beat and when you wake up with a hangover. If you let it, it can ruin you. Look at Bird. But if you know how to listen, and ride it right, it can give you peace as you have never known before.” Just then, as I had never heard it before, I understood Jazz. I could see the notes fly by my eyes and in the air I breathe.
My grip loosened. I saw the red impressions of my fingers on his neck. I stood up beside her and looked in those frozen eyes.
We took the train back to the city. I took her to her apartment, put her to bed, and slept on the couch. The next morning, I spent my last few dollars on groceries and made breakfast. She didn’t eat. That night I took her with me to the Orpheus. Bill said he would keep an eye on her for me as I set up backstage.
I opened my case and took out my horn. The cold metal warmed to my touch. The horn assembled itself under my fingers. The reed touched my lips, wetting itself, then fit to the mouthpiece, lining up tip to tip. The mouthpiece slid on the cork to the line worn by pressure. The strap lay around my neck. The hook secured the saxophone to my body. The horn rested on my thumbs. My fingers rested on the keys.
I walked out front and onto the stage. The rhythm section looked to me and I said, “Follow my lead.” The horn and I fused into one musician and Jazz flowed. Dark blue smoke filled the air. The music was like electricity. Instead of me playing the horn, the horn and I were both played by the music. When I looked up, the icy film over Rachael’s eyes had melted and rolled down her cheek.
A couple days later, I stopped by her apartment. I knocked on the door. She looked though the peephole and then unlatched the door. Most of her belongings were packed in boxes stacked in the living room. “How are you doing?” I asked.
“”Okay. I called the police and they arrested Au…” she shook her head. “I’m going home for a while.”
I helped her pack up the rest of her stuff. Her father came over a half hour later and we loaded up a U-Haul. Her father for in the car. She opened the front door., then looked at me nervously. “Will you testify? In court?”
She sighed. She looked down at the street and then up at me. A half smile played across her face. She gave me a peck on the cheek and then got into the car. I stepped back as her father put the car into drive and pulled out into the street. I turned up my collar against the cold and walked to the subway.