Monday, February 23, 2009

"Music and Friends": A Stranger on Earth, fiction excerpt

Writer's Note: "Music and Friends" is a chapter in a proposed novel, A Stranger on Earth, a work-in-progress; and here is the beginning of that chapter.

Thomas had asked Mark to bring him his personal papers—banking records, insurance policies, pension records, mortgage papers, and other things, and though weak, Thomas read them, and read them, and read them again. Thomas made calls, he wrote notes, and he told Mark to remember certain things—Give people photocopies of this stuff, if they ask, and if they want to see an original, don’t let the original out of your sight. This is New Orleans—people will do what they can get away with. My father had a son with a woman other than my mother—I never knew the boy. If he or somebody connected to him comes ‘round, I have nothing for them. It’s in my will—they get nothing—no money, no thing, nothing. I have a niece in New York—there’s some money for her. She used to write me. She hasn’t written me in years, but I liked her letters. She was a smart girl—Sarah. I want her to have a little something. See that she gets it. It’s in my will. There’s a copy of the will in the courthouse. There’s a copy of my will in the bottom drawer here. There’s copy of it written on the back of a music sheet I sent to the congressional library—“The Blues Is Nothing but a Good Man Saying What He Saw.”

Mark heard what his friend had to say. He supposed he would not forget it, but he made notes when he left Thomas’s bedroom and went into his own. Mark did not know what he was going to do when Thomas died. There had been years to think about it—but he did not know, now, what he was going to do. Mark thought of their careers, of their lives. They were hardly more than boys, though each thought himself a man when they had met at the same audition. Mark had been the serious one, the one who thought that Armstrong and Gillespie were too much the entertainer and Parker and Coltrane bad examples for their use of drugs. He loved their music, but none was an icon for him—he was going to be his own hero. Thomas just wanted to play—he wasn’t about representing anything, and Thomas was the one who had the early success. Doors, wallets, and women’s legs opened for Thomas. Mark did the apprentice thing, learned under flawed masters, played in cheap clubs, and got small-time contracts—and that entire hard work ending up giving him some kind of legend he had not anticipated. By the time the big money started to come his way, he and Thomas had found each other again, weren’t so rude about each other’s differences, respected each other talents, and Thomas began to be sick—his body began to cave in on itself. Mark had come to help out a little until Thomas got better or until one of Thomas’s people came to take care of him—and Thomas never got better and the people who came wanted to help Thomas into the grave and Mark ending up staying for twenty years. Mark ended up saying no to the big gigs and big money and did small records for small labels that let him alone, or almost alone, to live his life—and he ended up taking care of the fun, shallow bastard who meant no real harm and had become his best friend.

Mark put the dishes in the sink. He let the water run. He poured liquid soap over the frying pan with its tiny grit of bacon stuck to the bottom, its slight brown fried foam of egg on the sides. He put his fingers under the flow of water, testing for heat. He thought about the hopes he had years ago for the music, the conversations about the music’s relation to folk, blues, and classical, literary and sculpture, to history and politics. He had wanted a high art that people would finding meaning and pleasure in. He wasn’t the only one—he thought of Abbey and Max, of Archie, of Anthony. He wondered if musicians weren’t the only people who really cared about the music, who really saw it as important. Weren’t the others just using it, using it for dancing, for easy fun, using it to justify a false idea of who they were, using it to intimidate people? It was a path to freedom, and they could not see it. Mark picked up the wash cloth and began to scrub the plates first. He went back and forth between using paper plates and regular dishes. The plates came clean easily. He scrubbed the forks, careful to remove the grease near the printing of the maker’s name. The music was for everybody, but who wanted it? Mark picked up a spatula and scrapped it against the bottom of the frying pan, then scrapped the sides of the pan, before washing the spatula. The children today were listening to another kind of music, simpler music, what somebody called music for morons. Why did things always have to begin at the bottom? Why did they often have to stay there? Why couldn’t you just hand the next generation the task as you had completed it, and let them go on and develop that? Mark looked up from his task and looked out of the kitchen window. He saw small garden of vegetables—potatoes, egg plant, string beans—and the few fruit trees (apple, plum, fig), and the garden chair next to the garden. He thought he might take a book and sit outside for an hour or two. Would Thomas be alright inside? Would he want to try to sit outside today? Mark wanted some fresh air. He opened the window. It was not enough. He looked down and scrubbed the frying pan. He reached below the sink and pulled out some powdered cleanser and sprinkled some into the pan. The scrubbing became easier. You had to have the right tools to make things come right.

(c) DG