The Soloist

The tarnished brass ashtray clattered to the floor, spilling two day’s worth of its rank contents onto the worn wooden boarding-house floor. Tanner Simmons, startled by the ashtray’s intruding descent, sat up suddenly from the disheveled nest he’d created upon his ancient, iron-framed bed. He had no idea what time it was, or for that matter what day it was. Of late, the concept of time held little meaning for Simmons, for this was a man who had taken to measuring life primarily by cigarettes, bourbon and song.

The old bed creaked and complained as Simmons slowly swung his thin, nearly hairless legs over the side. Calloused, bare feet groped for their worn out slippers. Not finding the slippers in their accustomed location under the bed, Simmons muttered a curse and stood directly in the ashtray’s effluence. Gritty black ash and foul-smelling butts ground into the floor and between his splayed toes. Annoyed but not entirely surprised, Simmons made his way across the dingy room with its peeling 1930’s-vintage wallpaper. A crippled old bureau, held up on one corner by musty, dog-eared newspapers and trade magazines which substituted for the bureau’s amputated leg, held sentinel against one wall. He lifted the tattered, smoke-yellowed shade from the small room’s single window and peered out. The late autumn sun barely pierced the window’s haze and weakly diffused the gloomy pall. Simmons let the shade fall back; darkness reclaimed. He never understood why the window had long ago been nailed shut by Lindy, the gin-blossom nosed Irish landlord. No matter. Even if he’d wanted to open it, which he didn’t, Simmons seemed to have lost interest in daylight and fresh air. He let out a sigh and instinctively made his way back to the bed, picking up the ashtray but leaving the scattered ashes and butts to commingle with the rest of the floor’s detritus.

Though only in his late forties, Simmons looked vastly older. Once handsome and well-muscled, he'd let himself go to hell over the past dozen years or so. His fingers gripping the ashtray were gnarled like old branches from countless, harsh seasons spent logging the deep woods of northern New England. His back was as stiff as a plank milled from the hardwoods he’d cut in Maine, joints creaky as Vermont swamp maples in a nor’easter. Grey eyes, quite accustomed to the dim lighting of countless back-country roadhouses and honky-tonks, stared at the old ashtray as he fell back onto the musty bed. His grandfather had given him that ashtray before he died. Cast in brass as a replica of an exotic African watering hole guarded by a trumpeting bull elephant, the old ashtray conjured up all sorts of comforting, warm memories of his grandfather sitting in his worn, blue Morris chair, smoking an old brier pipe as he read Hoard’s Dairyman in the fading evening light. The pipe smoke unfurled into wonderous images and apparitions as it curled and drifted its way towards the open window while the ancient Zenith radio heralded the Red Sox as they bedeviled the Yankees at Fenway Park.

Simmons continued to stare at the elephant, lost in trance while fond memories of New Hampshire summers on his grandparent’s farm continued to unwind: chasing the errant cows; sneaking up to a fox’s den to perhaps catch a glimpse of the pups; climbing the huge mulberry tree to eat its sweet, purple berries; driving the tractor through the woods; catching painted turtles and swimming in the frog pond; walking to the mailbox with grandma while hoping for a new Sears catalog or a letter from mom; and riding with grandpa in his rattly, green Ford pickup to the general store for a newspaper and a strawberry ice cream cone, hurrying home before daylight evaporated into warm, cricketed evening. Grandfather would tap pipe ash into the elephant’s watering hole, signaling bedtime for a drowsy, small boy curled up on the divan.

* * * * *

Lighting a cigarette, Simmons untied his raggedy maroon bathrobe and coughed as he stared blankly at the wall. Cradling the ashtray against his thin chest, he looked down at the brass elephant’s tarnished patina. “We’re both a long way from home, brother”, he thought out loud. He reached towards the rickety nightstand littered with loose change, spent matches, faded reviews of gigs he’d played and a small, framed photograph of a young woman with dark tresses and an angelic smile holding a tiny Calico kitten. Though the light was nearly gone, he reflexively grabbed the bottle, knocking the photograph over amongst the scatter. Making no attempt to rescue the photograph, Simmons unscrewed the top and poured a mouthful of fire down his throat. He eyes watered. “Sweet Jesus!” he gasped. His mind slipped momentarily into neutral.

Placing the old elephant ashtray next to him on the rumpled bed, Simmons squashed his cigarette into it. The liquor still burned in his belly and he once again stood up, running his bony fingers through his long, greasy hair. His mind went into gear again and he found himself ruminating over minutia: sleep or wake? light or dark? get dressed or stay in the robe? A few hours remained before he had to take a cab uptown to Max’s Yellow Derby and play the last night of a seemingly endless two-month run with be-bop saxophonist Pinky Brown, and these seemingly innocuous decisions weighed much too heavily. Reaching for the light switch on the wall, Simmons ignited an overhead lamp so low in wattage that its glow could barely reach the corners of the room. He didn’t care; you couldn’t see the dust balls herding together under the dresser and bed, and he rather liked the way the lamp’s subdued effect reminded him of the dying embers of his grandfather’s fireplace.

Kicking aside a matted carpet of newspapers and music catalogs, Simmons shuffled like an old man towards his tiny closet. Carefully opening the closet door so that its broken hinge wouldn’t release the heavy wooden door allowing it to crash wantonly to the floor, he peered inside and tried to decide what to wear. Though he had but two suits – a green, out-of-date glen-plaid and a soiled, blue pin-stripe – Simmons again became momentarily overwhelmed with having to make another choice. He began to ruminate about the actual number of decisions a man had to make in a single day. His tabulations stunned him and he forgot what he had gone to the closet for in the first place. He returned slowly to the bed.

No longer sleepy, Simmons was nonetheless tired. Weary was more like it. It was in moments such as these that he wished he had a chair to sit in and didn’t have to resort to the damned bed, or worse, the floor. So back he plopped onto the bed, its springs grating and shrieking, in his raggedy robe, bony legs protruding like dry stalks. He picked up the bottle and took another slug. Again he gasped as the bourbon stole his wind. He lifted the bed covers and turned them aside, exposing an old, yet ornate, silver cornet that had been lying in repose beneath the musty linens and moth-eaten blanket. Here was one of his best friends. Well, maybe not his best friend, for hadn’t it gotten him into some hot spots and tight situations in the past? This was a question that was much too difficult to answer now, and it would have to wait in line with the others.

* * * * *

Simmons picked up the old cornet. His eyes glazed from a combination of liquor and old memories. It was this instrument, this very horn, which seduced him into music nearly a lifetime ago. He lit another smoke and let his mind rewind again, this time to the black and white days of the early 1950s: Crusader Rabbit cartoons, Uncle Miltie and Lucky Strike's Hit Parade ruled the round-screen, new-fangled television; beautiful, Toni-permed actresses lounged languorously on blond Danish-modern couches; cars had lines as fat and round as their tires; Kool-Aid drunk from Dixie cups; everyone “liked Ike”, but not his jowly, shadow-faced vice president, Dick; Dizzy, Bird, Frank and of course Louis gave us blue music, cool music, hot music, jazz music! These were also the days of Charlie McCoy and his silver cornet.

Simmons remembered Charlie McCoy as if the memory were tattooed to his brain. Hardly a day would pass or a gig be played without him paying homage to Charlie, his mentor, the one responsible for handing him the silver key to this life’s highway. He remembered how he used to sneak through his parent’s screened back door, opening it very slowly so it wouldn’t tattle on him, and then scamper cross-lots to McCoy’s house. He would often find the man sitting in his darkened room in his plaid silk robe and slippers drinking a glass of beer and listening to either the ball game on the radio or to jazz on his huge Wollensak tape recorder, a Chesterfield smoldering between his yellowed fingers.

Before he married Miss Wanda and moved north, Charlie played the clubs on the streets of Bourbon, Beale, Broadway and everywhere else in between. Now he worked the nightshift as a machinist at Smith & Wesson Arms, but he couldn’t wait to clock out and go off into the night to jam after-hours with the musicians and old friends who happened to be traveling through on their way to the next big thing. Charlie seemed to keep his house in perpetual darkness, maybe so he could sleep most of the day; or maybe it was something else? The boy never really knew, yet he could recall more than one occasion when Charlie’s short, plump wife would breeze in, seeming to pay no mind to Charlie, and yank up the shades and throw open the windows, letting in the morning light and air. Shortly, Charlie would emerge bear-like from his lair, growling and scratching.

The boy loved to sit on McCoy’s large bed and listen to the tape-recorded jazz music. Often, McCoy would pick up his horn and play along with the recording. Then he would say, “OK, Tan-the-Man, your turn!” and he’d hold the mouth piece to the small boy’s lips and let him buzz and brap along to the music while he smoked another Chesterfield. Simmons also loved it when McCoy would hook up the square broadcasting microphone and allow him to sing or say anything he wanted into the tape recorder! The sound of his own voice playing back to him thrilled and amazed him; he couldn’t believe that that voice, sounding so thin, high and far away, was actually his own!

It was generally known that Charlie had a grown son somewhere, but he took special pride in Simmons for it was he who Charlie taught about Dixieland jazz, about Chet, Parker and Armstrong, and what the various instruments sounded like and who played them the best. The boy could identify nearly all the instruments he heard on the radio or TV, and often he knew who was playing them – no mean feat for a five-year–old. Charlie also enjoyed teasing the lad: he would take off his tortoise-shell glasses, look quizzically up at the ceiling and ask the boy if he could hear the chickens scratching up in the attic. Simmons was eight years old before he discovered that there were no chickens in the attic and that the old pork bones he’d found out behind the collapsing garage were not really dinosaur fossils. He would truly enjoy it when Charlie, in his black beret and sunglasses, would call over the back fence for the boy to accompany him downstreet to the music store to purchase some valve oil or a new record. McCoy would talk jive with him about George Orwell, Gulliver’s Travels or the merits of socialism, and Simmons unknowingly absorbed these words like a thirsty sponge. But it was the music stories he loved most.

* * * * *

Unscrewing the cap from the bourbon, Simmons “loosed th’ devil” and drained the last from the bottle. He coughed from deep inside his chest, returning in time to his twelfth birthday. His mother had made him his favorite spaghetti dinner and asked him who he’d like to have as his guest. Without hesitation, the response was, “Charlie!” Later that day, McCoy, slightly inebriated and with Wanda in tow, came by the house. Under his arm and wrapped in green tissue paper was a box that had “Happy Birthday, Tanner!” scrawled upon it with black crayon. The young boy's eyes danced as he speechlessly tore the paper from the canvas-bound box to reveal a shiny, brass trumpet! His very own horn! Though the trumpet had obviously been around the block a few times and had suffered a few knocks, it was the most beautiful instrument in the world, and it served to cement the bond between the old jazzman and the boy that would last for another nine years.

Refrains from Red River Valley, South Rampart Street Parade, Ciribiribin and When the Saints Go Marching In reverberated through Simmons’ memory as he recalled the days when he would take his trumpet to McCoy’s darkened house and try to learn the intricacies and complexities of improvisation from the master. “Don’t be thinkin’ too much about it,” Charlie would caution. “You ain’t gonna risk it sittin’ on your biscuit.”

Still enthralled in memories, Simmons found himself at his grandfather’s farm practicing in the hayloft, not only to the annoyed dismay of the swallows and a sleepy barn owl, but to the delight of the French hired hands who would applaud and congratulate him in their broken English. His grandfather didn’t mind his practicing so long as he ceased during milking time and helped with the chores. His grandfather wondered aloud if the boy would ever amount to anything worth-while as “that bugle steals your every waking hour!”

When Simmons turned eighteen, his grandfather, hoping to ensure “something worth-while” for his grandson, had gotten him a job as a rigger for a logging firm out of Newport. Though he’d finished high school, Simmons accredited his real education to the lessons and discussions he’d had with Charlie and he was not pleased with having to leave his old neighborhood and McCoy’s tutelage. But he knew that he had to earn a living and didn’t want to stay in his parent’s home forever. He packed a duffel, took his trumpet (in a new gig bag) and boarded a bus to northern Vermont. He figured he’d work hard, save some money and perhaps move to Boston, New York, or even Chicago or New Orleans and make his way playing his music. He fantasized how he would be doing a gig at Thackery’s or The Blue Note and the crowd would be going crazy for the music. During the height of the show, he would walk into the audience and lead Charlie McCoy, now blind and arthritic, to the stage to duet with him on How High the Moon. They’d be bathed in a sea of adulation, the crowd calling out “Bravo!” and “More!” until they encored with Charlie’s signature tune, Crazy ‘bout You.

* * * * *

Nine years unraveled and Simmons hadn’t made it to New York, Boston or any other real city to play his music. Instead, he had had to content himself with sporadic gigs playing with odd, “pick-up” wedding and polka bands, with an occasional Legion parade tossed into the mix. He looked forward to his trips home and the rejuvenating reconnection with Charlie. Most days, however, were spent deep in the woods operating a chainsaw or riding a skidder with a rough, nine-man crew of lumberjacks who knew nothing about jazz and wanted to know even less about any attempts at his practicing. If he had a couple of days off, he would try to visit his grandparents, who, despite their age, still managed to do some farming and didn’t mind his practicing as long as he didn’t bother the cows. It was while he was at the farm one February afternoon that he received the telephone call.

He had just come into the house from plowing the drive with the tractor when his grandmother handed him the phone. “Your ma has something to tell you,” she said quietly and sat down next to the credenza.
His mother’s voice through the wire sounded light years away. “Charlie died last night, Tanner. I’m so sorry, honey,” her voice trailing off as if from another galaxy. “Wanda’s here and wants to speak with you.”
He sat down on the floor, his legs buckling as if they were made of crepe paper. His mind froze and his hands turned icy. Then he heard Wanda’s voice. It, too, sounded almost ethereal, like some spinning galactic orb hurtling towards heaven’s outer banks.
“Hello, Tan-Man, how are you? I’ll bet it’s really cold up where you are, true?”
“Charlie’s dead”, Simmons heard himself stammer.
“That’s right, son,” Wanda continued. “Last night it was. Quiet, too, not like our Charlie. He was coming home from a jam at Buzzy’s place and he dropped right down. He was complaining last month about a tight chest, was going to have it checked but never did. You know how he was about that stuff. He always loved you, Tanner, you know that, right?” Wanda intoned from her cosmos.
“Yes”, Simmons heard his voice crack as his eyes filled with hot tears.
Wanda went on, “Charlie always said that he loved his cornet as much as me. He also said you couldn’t have me, but you could have his horn.”
Simmons smiled weakly through the tears at Wanda’s attempt at humor, but he knew that life, once again, would never be the same. “When’s the funeral?" his voice cracking. "I’ll be there.”

* * * * *

The weak yellow light from the boarding house ceiling lamp spilled gently onto the old silver cornet as it lay on the rumpled bed beside him. He lovingly studied the exquisite baroque engravings in the silver, his nicotine-stained fingers exploring the workmanship of the instrument’s fine joinery. He put the old cornet to his lips and took a breath, filling his smoke-ravaged lungs with the stale, lifeless air of his dereliction. But the music! Expressive and mellifluous, the music impregnated the room, echoing past his shuttered door, flowing freely down the bleak, darkened hallway in Hallelujah proclamations of both grief and celebration! Music at once full of somber mourning and profound joy, whose roots sprung from deep within the souls of two men from different eras, both bound by their love of music and for each other. As his fingers flew over the cornet’s valves with silky precision, spirit music poured forth like molten gold, forming perfect sonic images that no one would behold.

Suddenly, as if the music had touched some secret, primitive wound, Simmons stopped playing. He gently placed the horn back on the bed and covered it with the bedclothes. He reached for the bottle. Its emptiness infuriated him and he flung it into the naked corner where it bounced and retreated under the bureau. That bottle reminded him of himself: drained and empty. “Even so”, he rationalized to no one in particular, “an empty bottle is not entirely worthless because you can fill it with something else.” A peculiar, disturbing feeling enshrouded him and he knew it was time to go. He lifted himself slowly and the old bed groaned its approval. He shuffled to the closet and pulled out the blue pin-striped suit. He rummaged through his laundry piles and found a shirt that still had a day left in it. The drawer of the old bureau squawked as he pulled it out and began to root through its contents for a razor and fresh blade. Tying his tattered robe loosely around his concave waist, Simmons pried his feet from the tired slippers and opened the door of his solitary room. The cool glare of a lone streetlight sliced through the hall window, casting long, craggy shadows on the threadbare runner on the hall floor as Simmons wearily made his way to the bathroom.

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