Literature » Jazz Fiction by Arya Jenkins

“Broad Street” — a short story by Arya Jenkins



Publisher’s Note: The publication of Arya Jenkins’ “Broad Street” is the fourth in a series of short stories she has been commissioned to write for Jerry Jazz Musician. For information about her column, please see our September 12 “Letter From the Publisher.”

For Ms. Jenkins’ introduction to her work, read “Coming to Jazz.”




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photo by David Redfern
broadstreet


“Broad Street”

by

Arya Jenkins






     The day I moved into Broad Street, the roiling waters of the Long Island Sound burst over sea walls along the Connecticut coast from New Haven to Greenwich, flooding Bridgeport so badly, a poor, emotionally disturbed man actually drowned in a sewer. At Seaside Park, water rushed across two parking lots, swirled around a few skimpy trees and headed straight for the historic set of row houses that included my basement apartment. It was early December as I arrived, two knapsacks in tow, only to find my new landlady Rosie and my neighbor Alice knee-deep in galoshes in muck, hauling out my furniture.

     A week earlier, Alice had lured me with, “There’s a vacancy next door and it’s yours. Everybody’s an artist here. You belong.” I had felt that the studio with its cozy rooms and sliding glass door leading to a private backyard would be a real step up from the third story modern monstrosity with no yard or neighbors to speak of I’d inhabited across town for a year. But here now was a true disaster.

     Dressed in a navy pea coat, her grayish hair wrapped loosely in a red bandana, Rosie was whipping the surface of what looked like a Mazarin desk — as if bruising it might detract from the irreparable harm salt water had already done. She had the sturdy, slightly bowed legs of someone whose ancestors had probably picked potatoes and lived to be ancient, the sort of trait I wished on the spindly-legged furniture that already looked defunct.

     I set my belongings on a high shelf against the far wall of the main room indoors and went to survey the damage. The stripped down kitchenette with its rustic cabinets and open, empty refrigerator had suffered minimally. But in the main bedroom, where a premature dusk had already settled, a once handsome Elmwood armoire now appeared to be sinking. Rising water smelling like a combination of rusty pipes and bad food filled the room, sending me outdoors quickly. There, I stretched my arms high, taking in the fetid air as if it was fresh and welcoming, then hunkered down to help my neighbors hoist my sopping mattress onto a big rock in the backyard. We finished just as a starless, murky sky descended over all. As we embraced, Rosie invited me to Stella’s. I had already heard of Stella’s and was looking forward to attending one of her soirees.

     “When is it?”

     Rosie snapped her fingers to indicate — “Soon as the electricity switches back on.” Which turned out to be two days later. I almost missed living by candlelight.

     Stella and her boyfriend Sven lived next door on the second floor of the last building on the block. While Stella worked all day as a graphic designer, Sven stayed home — rearranging furniture or working out, I presumed. A strange, blond hunk who couldn’t seem to get through doorways without hugging them, he rarely stepped outdoors. Stella just seemed to want to have him around.

     With its high ceilings, wall-to-wall bookcases, original artwork and colorful Buddhist hangings, Stella’s place was an artist’s dream, and when she held an open house, it became mecca. There would be a line of people clear to the door waiting for helpings of the fat turkey, stuffing, creamed onions, beans with almonds, squash, mashed potatoes, homemade gravy and cranberry sauce, cheesecakes, pumpkin pies, homemade cookies and brownies that Stella prepared and laid out alongside a steaming pot of hot cider with cinnamon sticks and bowl of spiked punch across a long table in the main room.

     After the long enjoyment of eating, a few of us settled on hard-backed chairs in front of the fireplace in an adjoining room, and Rosie got down to grilling. No one had prepared me for it, and it made me deeply uncomfortable, although I pretended to be cool.

     Where are you from? What do you think of the neighborhood? What do you write? Who do you read? I relaxed a little when I saw that she applied her routine to everybody, not just me. Where was Lena showing her photographs? Had she sold that nude of herself stretched across Saugatuck Brook? What stories was Robbie working on, had he written any new poems? Her questions were all about creative work, the most personal thing to me, and therefore felt most intrusive.

     Rosie reminded me of my father years ago. Whenever he was home from a business trip, and we sat together at the family dinner table, he would challenge us with current events questions, forbidding anyone to speak until the one spoken to had answered. It was like that with Rosie, nobody complaining, everybody doing as told.

     In the 50s, Rosie had lived among artists and jazz musicians on Banks Street in New York’s West Village, raising two kids on her own while her musician boyfriends played gigs and eventually took off to do their own thing. You could name just about anybody well-known from that period — Miles, Coltrane, Bill Evans — and Rosie would have a story about them, having not only seen these guys perform at the Vanguard and such places, but having partied with them too.

     That night I was treated to Rosie’s album of black and white photos from that period that found its way into my hands. She had dozens of photos of well-dressed, sloe-eyed musicians perched on stools or rickety chairs alongside their instruments in dingy rooms or cafes. Many of them I did not recognize. But in one photo, a pale Rosie stood naked, save for high heels, a mask held over her eyes with one hand; a cocktail glass raised high in the other. Just to her left, Miles sat slumped on a chair, cigarette in hand, giving her a sideways glance.

     “Miles was a bitch with the public, but a dandy with the ladies. They all loved him,” she said, revealing nothing new.

     “What a great time the 50s must have been,” I said.

     “The end of a decade is when all the great artists die, having spent their greatness on us. Pres left us in ’58 and Lady Day in ’59,” she observed.

     “But Joplin and Hendrix died in ’70,” somebody else chimed in.

     “Which kind of marked the end of time,” said Lena, and a few people nodded to that.

     “No more music after that,” said Rosie.

     “Rock ‘n roll, man, the Beatles, the Stones,” said Robbie.

     “Joni,” said Alice, wryly.

     “Maybe so, but more and more instruments playing at you not for you. Nothing subtle, no attempt to work things out like jazz. Just lashing at the world, boring, loud shit, not for me,” said Rosie.

     “Real artists die with the public,” said Stella.

     “And media,” said Robbie, himself a journalist, the only one besides Stella that I knew had a fulltime job.

     I had seen Robbie before, at a café reading I’d been to with my friend Ruby, who is also a poet. After she and I had each read a short poem, Robbie went up to the mike with a manuscript thick as his arm and proceeded to lay on us the entire first draft of his first novel. “Mailer complex?” Ruby whispered to me, and I laughed. At Stella’s, Rosie changed the subject.

     “Did you hear what that idiot, Dan York said at our last block meeting?”

     “No, what?”

     “He said, we should just leave our drug problem to the po-lice.”

     “Really?”

“He did.”

     “I thought we’d already done something — taken up a collection?” Stella asked demurely sipping a glass of wine.

     “Oh, we’re on it. You can bet on that,” Rosie stabbed the pillow on her lap with a knitting needle — she liked to knit while chatting. “Would somebody get me another glass of wine before I have a conniption just thinking about that whole damn business.”

     “What business is that?” I boldly inquired.

     “Some nasty drug-dealing mother-fucker sold bad drugs to a neighbor’s kid, who OD’d and died. Right across the goddamned street. In our neighborhood.”

     “That’s the truth,” said Robbie reaching around me for the joint Alice was passing.

     “That’s too bad,” I said. “I guess drugs are everywhere,” the irony escaping everyone.

     “Maybe so, but that shit sure ain’t comin’ here,” said Rosie, loud enough for immigrants considering a trip to America from her old country to hear.

     “You got that right,” echoed Alice.

     “So what are you going to do?” I asked.

     “Oh, we’ll do something, you can bet on that. Cause we know nobody else will. Right kids?” Rosie looked around herself for confirmation.

     “You sure about that dealer, Rosie?” said Robbie, extending a burning pipe to me. I waved it away.

     I was still riveted on Rosie’s photo album when I felt Billy’s bristly cheek press against my own. Stella brought out more food, and there was another repast, after which some people took off with leftovers. After that, those remaining got too stoned to talk and I was able to do what I love best, which is just listen to music.

     It was Bill Evans that night, The Solo Sessions, Vol. 2, recorded in New York City in 1963, but newly released. I was thrilled by the experimental nature of the album, as he was improvising in tenths and obviously challenging himself, striving for poetic brilliance on his instrument while struggling with his addiction. I read the liner notes, listening to Evans in a way I had not listened to anything in some time, so that I felt the world open up for moments beyond the mundane sounds of running water in the kitchen–pots, pans and dishes being jostled, washed and put away by our hosts, beyond the walls even. I left Robbie, Sven, Lena and Alice stretched out on the Indian carpet, gazing stony-eyed at the ceiling as if at a great design there.

     Another time at Stella’s, my friend Nabi brought over his double bass to accompany me as I recited a few poems, and Billy joined in, drumming quietly on a stack of books and flipped-over pan. I was so glad Billy was there, his very presence reminding me to stay sober and clean, as he and I were the only ones in that group that did not indulge. We kept our sights on one another and caught a buzz anyway, as that night the pot smoke was so dense, you could barely see in front of you.

     I was drawn to Billy, whose quiet confidence reminded me of my brother. Originally from Georgia, he had not been in Bridgeport long. Stopping here, newly sober, to take in a view of the sound and smell the sea, on his way to a job further north, he found he could go no further.

     Billy’s swagger turned me on, that, and the fact he never let anybody, even Rosie, put his back up against a wall. He would answer Rosie’s probing questions with his charming, southern, ‘Yes ma’am’s,” and “No ma’am’s,” with a simplicity and aplomb that cut through just about anything. His replies felt personal, but they never gave away a thing.

     Underneath a well-worn army jacket, Billy wore a green gold scarf, the color of his eyes that Rosie had knit for him, and under that, a scruffy tee that gave away what he did for a living. If you ever saw him on the job, you would more than likely catch him stop what he was doing inside or under a car, run his gorgeous hands across his broad chest, wiping them free of grease so he could shake hands with somebody who’d come by asking for a favor.

     Whenever he came over to see me, I’d slide the glass door open to the backyard, letting our cigarette smoke blow out into the frigid night while we read our poems aloud to one another. Some nights, he showed up in his truck and just honked-two quick honks then a third–because he didn’t have a phone, or want one either.

     I’d hop into his motorized ashcan, which is what he drove, and we roamed the neighborhood, listening to the humming darkness, the noise of slamming garbage can lids and chattering insomniac neighbors on stoops, and shift-shaper dogs and cats along the sidewalks slowly taking color and shape as we circled the hood. Billy had a penchant for driving cars without any headlights on at night, before that signified something evil in the hood, before gangsters started doing it just to get some stranger to blink his lights, so they could follow him and kill him. Now and then, we caught the glimmer of a blade of steel or a handgun whipped out in the heat of an argument, and it sent a chill through me.

     Sometimes we rode all the way to New Haven and café hopped, reading and writing poems together. Billy read from Leaves of Grass and the works of Robert Lowell, his deep, gravelly voice comforting me, while I read Neruda’s and Langston Hughes’ poems. I loved being with him, although our short history was like a roller coaster.

     The summer before I’d moved to Broad Street, he called one night drunk out of his skull begging me to meet him on a beach. I wouldn’t of course and asked him flat out why he’d bother calling me knowing I would turn him down if he was inebriated. He said something to me then that hit me like a two by four–“I called you because I’m a man with needs. Not one of your hermaphrodites, but a real man with real needs.”

     No one had ever said anything like that to me before, and it pulled me up short. After a brief marriage and divorce, I had become close to several men with whom I was intimate although not sexual. Afterward, I had to ask myself whether I was de-sexing them in the process of befriending them on my own terms. But at the time, because there was a ring of truth in what Billy said to me, I hung up on him.

     After Billy got sober, we did wind up fooling around on Fairfield Beach. It was a beautiful spring day not long after my brother had died of the same disease that could have claimed Billy, and I was feeling low, wanting to be close to someone warm and tender. As we lay on the sand, Billy kissed me and I rested my head on his shoulder while caressing his hard cock through his khakis. He said something then that stayed with me too. “With most women, the closer I get, the further I want to get from them. With you, it’s the opposite.” He kissed me then, his warm mouth lingering, teasing, tender at first, then plumbing me for all I was worth. He was a great kisser. Tender and simple, the way I like. The way it never was with us, unfortunately.

     When Billy drank, he got into terrible fights and wound up in jail and I wouldn’t have anything to do with him. I don’t flatter myself that he quit drinking on account of me, but I happen to know he stopped the day after making his drunken plea over the phone that I rejected, asking me to join him on the beach so he could read me his poetry. Did I mention that was part of the lure?

     Billy was at the center of everything then, pulling me forward into the future. We would wind up in New Haven together for a time, until his longing for the south and mine to move on, got the better of us. As it turned out, all the people on Broad Street I thought would play a key role in my life stayed peripheral — Robbie, and Lena, who also came to Stella’s and had lived in my apartment before me until a rich uncle died, leaving her a trust fund that allowed her to get an apartment in New York’s West Village, which is what she had always wanted. After that, everybody wanted to get close to her, as if her good luck might rub off on them. She sat wrapped in a white shawl Rosie had made for her at one end of the love seat at Stella’s, looking beautiful and languid, her long limbs entwined around herself, enduring the steady rain of compliments from men and women alike that came to her over the course of any evening.

     And of course there was Alice, who always struck me as kind of invisible. Thin, mousy-haired and grave, she exuded little confidence or appeal, but was always there to help, so you couldn’t ignore her. She had dark, prodding eyes that fixed you, with either an adoring or despising glare, nothing in-between. Truth was, she scared me a little.

     We had met a few years back, in the days when I had a decent job as an adjunct teaching creative writing at a local college, and Alice was waiting tables, and studying Reiki and bodywork at night. We met while working part time at a feminist vegetarian restaurant — Alice, washing dishes, while I put together salads. Alice had just moved to Broad Street then.

     She was an artist too. Her neat, watercolor seascapes hung in an uneven line along the dark hallway of her basement apartment, which was under Stella’s and next to mine, although I never saw art materials of any kind there, so I figured art with her was a thing of the past.

     The Sunday after my first neighborhood soiree, Alice had me over for tea, and I came over, feeling a little hung over from the exposure to all the smoke and weed at Stella’s the night before. I thought tea might be just the thing. I was no longer into getting high with drugs, that being old news for me that I could no longer tolerate. I had been clean and sober a few years then.

     Alice was a freak about Joni Mitchell and, while not into jazz herself, knew I was. First, she played Mitchell’s collaborative effort with Mingus, which I had not heard. I half listened, drifting with the tunes, but not totally into them, while Alice went on about Mitchell, listing her albums in the order in which she had heard and liked them, this being her way of discussing music. At some point, she lit a joint and extended it, and I just shook my head refusing.

     After the Mitchell and Mingus album, she switched to Keith Jarrett, The Koln Concert, and we talked, or rather, I did about improvisational work and Coltrane while Alice seemed to disappear into her couch, either bored or stoned or both, I couldn’t tell.

     At this time of my life, the early 90s, I was enamored of all things experimental, so it was jazz I hit on and stuck with when it came to music. I was exploring Ornette’s The Shape of Things to Come, which I listened to over and over again on a cassette player. Ornette had become a private minstrel reorganizing and sparking the dormant places inside, connecting my body and mind. Whenever Alice saw me sitting with a cup of espresso at my kitchen table, she would slide open her back door, so Mingus’s Ah Um or Ornette’s music could drift over to me from her stereo. That was the love she extended, for which I was always grateful.

     As I wrote, I explored my own darkness with my pen, encountering as I plumbed it, weary characters full of angst and rage desperate to escape reality. I lit their cigarettes, heard their footsteps following one another across damp cobblestones at night, listened to their dramas and registered their complaints. Hyped on caffeine, I disappeared with them into alleyways, back streets and dens of iniquity, where they challenged one another and death.

     As I reveled in the film noir of my imagination, old demons came back to haunt me. I itched to get high again, to allay the fear and angst that were, I then felt, being triggered by energy seeping in through the walls of my apartment from the nervous systems of others in the neighborhood with whom I was now connected and who were conspiring to put an end to my sobriety — if not in actuality, at least psychically. I was convinced of this.

     I had friends in recovery who disapproved of my being in the hood. “You’re playing Russian Roulette with your sobriety,” Steve would say. I had known him since the days when I was married. He and I had worked for the same company, gotten sober together and hung with each other through his many relationships and my divorce. He was a protector, but I was bothered that any time we got together, he would harp endlessly on what he perceived as my “bad move.” He wrote long lists of positive thoughts for me to recite to myself in front of a mirror that I kept tucked under my pillow. On rare occasions, I let him or Nabi take me to meetings, but the truth was, while I lived on Broad Street, I didn’t much pay attention to AA or my sober buddies, although they turned out to be right. Broad Street was not safe. I had learned that early on. But those were the days when I felt sure art, literature and music could trump anything.

     I had been on Broad Street only a few days when, one afternoon I became distracted by the sound of fireworks — a party happening? I set aside my writing tools, grabbed my jacket and stepped outdoors to check out what was going on. I had taken no more than a few steps along the sidewalk when I heard a window creak up and Rosie’s voice calling, “Hey, where you going?”

     “A walk. I think there’s a party somewhere. I just heard fireworks.”

     “That’s not a party. It’s gunshots. Get back in your apartment. You can’t take a walk in this neighborhood.”

     Rosie’s words set me straight for the moment, but didn’t totally register. The whole incident just felt like a momentary deterrent, nothing more. I had come to the garret with the aim of nourishing my imagination. Even if the energy on Broad Street always felt thick and dark as pipe resin, the darkness was conducive to creativity, was it not? I had a support system of sorts here among my neighbors, a view to the stars through glass sliding doors, a private backyard, and all the inspiration I wanted and needed in music, conversation and my own ideas — These were the thoughts that won out.

     A few weeks after that, determined to do my part as a new neighbor, I decided to host a party, and invited everyone I knew to it, something I have not done since and hope never to do again.

     I invited tough-talking ex-druggie and alkie friends from AA; rock and roll and jazz musician friends–some active, others recovering in 12-step programs. I invited poets; exes, who were from the good side of the tracks in New Canaan, Stamford and Darien; even an African-American model who looked like a princess that I had just met. After an AA meeting, a few of us had gone to a café, and she had tossed this line to me across the table, “I have never slept with a woman, but if I do, I want you to be my first experience.”

     I figured I’d stick to tradition and get a modest-sized turkey for the party. I had no intention of competing with Stella, but couldn’t get away from the idea that what everyone expected was a turkey. Unpretentiously, I set bowls of chips, raw veggies and dip around the room for hors d’oeuvres, and served sliced turkey, stuffing and beans on paper plates for the main meal.

     My neighbors rolled joints and drew somewhat self-consciously from pints and fifths of bourbon and vodka discretely tucked inside paper bags so as not to tempt those in recovery sipping soda from their styrofoam cups. As my modest space filled, the potheads gravitated outdoors, encircling a Mother Mary statue inside a rock enclave in the backyard. Indoors, a trio of jocks from my pool party days in New Canaan got rowdy, hollering stories at one another, saluting the air with beer bottles, while a gaggle of writers and former students, huddled close on the floor beside them, attempting to read poems aloud to one another. In the midst of this, Eve sashayed her lithe self in a wide brimmed hat, thin arms chock full of jangling bracelets, back and forth like a pendulum. Out of the corner of one eye, I thought I saw Alice, head in her arms, crouched under a table, but I couldn’t be sure.

     In the middle of “The Circle Song,” which Rosie put on, and my friends in the hood were grooving on, my friend Paul, who had brought his guitar, pulled up a chair and began his own performance of an original — I could tell by the way he enunciated every word. His song drew most of the women over to his corner. The more women closed in around Paul, the louder the jocks got, and the wilder and more desperate the poetic discourse. Now the diversity of sound was at its peak. It was close to 11, and Mingus’s “Boogie Stop Shuffle” was playing in the background, following the party’s crazy tempo when a small thing happened that changed everything. Either ignoring or unaware that Stella and Sven were an item, Paul put the make on Stella.

     Sven began hollering incoherently in broken English and lunged at Paul, but, although taller and better built, he was clearly not a fighter. Paul held him back with a stiffened arm, while hoisting his guitar out of harm’s way. The jocks cheered, a crowd got ready to mosh. Then, just as someone yelled, “Take it outside,” I heard sirens and two cops were at my door. Dutifully, I switched off the music and promised to send everyone packing, nodding so often the cops must have thought I had Tourettes. I was lucky the authorities did not enter my den.

     Alice and Eve helped me clean up, sweeping up cigarette butts and putting furniture back in its place. Afterward, Alice came up to me, her eyes wide and out of focus, as if expecting something. I gave her a loose hug, thanked her and sent her home.

     All night the tenderness of Eve, her sweet flesh and warmth, competed with incumbent realities. As often happens with me when I have sex, all I do is think of what I have to do, and this night my frustrations raced like caged mice on a wheel–the longing for a decent job, a way to write without worries. I wanted to get high again too, and was now searching my mind for that right drug every addict dreams of that would saddle me with neither hangover nor consequences. I was aware of “getting one step closer to the drug with my stinking thinking,” as those in AA would say. Until then, I had kept those desires at bay, knowing if I let them surface, I would have to confront the reality of my situation on Broad Street. But that night, the palliative of Eve allowed them to rear their ominous heads.

     In the morning, Eve still in my arms, I gazed out the rectangular window overhead, where I normally contemplated the promenade of legs and shoes on their way to work and saw instead a repo man under my Honda, attaching it to a hitch.

     “Look at that,” I said as if we were watching something on TV. Eve huddled closer.

     “Don’t worry, babe,” she said. “Make you a deal–I’ll take care of your vehicle, if you drive me back to Stamford and spend the weekend with me.” Eager to take a vacation from reality, I let Eve take the wheel, so to speak. After a few hours shopping, we spent the rest of the time in her studio. It wasn’t until the second or third day playing house, when I felt I might go loony from the constant rotating of an overhead disco ball and blaring hip hop, that I decided it was time to get it together.

     Eve was less than a month sober, and messing with someone so early into recovery was considered a big faux pas in AA. I made up my mind to do the right thing, and by the end of the weekend found myself kissing away her crocodile tears while delivering to her the program cliché that I had to “let her go to grow.” An old boyfriend of hers had called while we were together, so I was sure no hearts were broken, and she was probably on the phone with someone else by the time I got to my car.

     Back on Broad Street, I sat for a moment in my vehicle, pondering how quickly good times dissipate, then how best to keep my car safe parked where it was. Stella had told me she always left her car windows down, doors unlocked, so nobody would be tempted to steal anything. It was a crazy idea that might work. In the midst of contemplating this, a lunatic came at my car out of nowhere, hair flying, and slapped a note so hard on the windshield, I thought for sure it would crack. My jaw dropped as I watched her hop into her car, slam the door, and take off before registering it was Alice, an Alice I had not seen before.

     Her note read: “You are a two-timing son of a bitch bastard. I want my tapes back.” It was in this way I came to realize I had to pay a price for having had a girlfriend that was not her. Too late, I saw where Alice had been all along where I was concerned, and told myself I should have known better, should have seen it coming. But how was I to have known? I had never felt sexual toward prim, vague, asexual Alice. Had I known she had a crush on me, I doubt I would have behaved differently, although I might have paid her more attention.

     At Stella’s the following weekend, Alice played the hurt stone, staying far away from me as she could. I pretended not to care, but it was hard not to notice the glacial shift in the room. The universe was sending me a message and it was not in code. By hurting Alice, I had upturned my own place in the hood. Rosie did not so much as glance at me, attending to her knitting with extra detail, and I realized quickly it was she, Alice’s ally, moving the ice, making the decision now to detach me from the group.

     But the group was undergoing a general catharsis, I was soon to learn, as something else had transpired, far more deviant and important that concerned everybody.

     “So, what’s up with sneaky Pete?” someone asked.

     “Oh, he’s gone. Won’t be coming around no more. We got rid of that sonofabitch real good, didn’t we,” said Rosie, stamping her cigarette out into a yellow ashtray.

     “Mob style. Back of the head. Bam!” somebody elaborated.

     “Where d’ja bury him?”

     “No burial, no way. We had our friend take him to the dump. We set fire to him.”

     Robbie stood, putting both hands up in a resisting gesture. “Woah,” he said, “I don’t want to know.”

     “You were there when we voted,” said Rosie.

     “I didn’t vote,” he left the room lighting a cigarette.

     “We have the best neighborhood watch in Bridgeport,” said Rosie, still looking at the yarn on her lap. Everybody nodded, agreeing, looking down, examining fingernails, avoiding eye contact with anyone, so the gravity of the situation sank into me. It was the one time Billy was not there to act as buffer, so there was no protection from the seeing and hearing, from my registering completely what was going on. I left soon after, like someone leaving a burning building, not caring whether I had said goodbye to anyone, not caring at all.

     It was the same night Bill Evans played a song for me, as I sat at my kitchen table, trying to make sense of what I had just heard. The smoke of ages, illness and death permeated my living room, congealing into shapes, with Bill Evans at its center going over all of it with me, his way.

     It was him all right, beautiful though gaunt from drug abuse, a limp cigarette protruding from the right corner of his mouth. A new moon reflected on his glasses as he played “On Green Dolphin Street,” just for me. I recognized it immediately, although I had missed the first eight-bar section. He was keeping harmony to the treble of LaFaro’s bass, although I could not see him, or Motian on drums either, his perfect trio. While Evans’ left hand was agile on the keys — he was a leftie anyway — I could see the fingers of his right hand, two or three of them paralyzed from shooting heroin, only occasionally striking the keys. Still, hunched over the piano with his usual intensity, his playing seemed natural as ever. Indeed, if I closed my eyes, just listening, nothing seemed irregular. Evans’ sound was beautiful and pure, and this, the true rendition of the song. As I wondered whether he was playing on Glenn Gould’s Steinway, I saw him nod affirmatively in my direction.

     I began to dwell on another performance, that of my peers, which was not unlike a jazz improvisation, a marriage of minds, but its effect had been narcotic, leading me to deeper somnolence, poisoning me. As a group, my artist friends had agreed to take a life, collectively ridding the neighborhood of what they had determined was vermin, hiring somebody to do it. I had been so deep in my distractions, so intent to be there, I had not seen what was happening, or picked up on their casual righteousness about it. They were amoral, wicked, no longer artists in my mind, but calculated hustlers themselves, and I wanted no part of their design. Now Evans, in this place I had adopted, supplicated me only to listen, a pure artist’s plea, and I would do that, keep honoring the music that way, for it was clear I had not listened before, not really.

     “Can you play Broad Street,” I asked, and he indicated he could not. “There is no Broad Street,” I heard. Then he went back to grunting over the keys, like Monk, Jarrett, and Glenn Gould, at the end, shifting the key up a third, midway through the out chorus, making the piano sing as the song disappeared slowly and him with it, his presence joining the trees and elements beyond.

     There was nothing left, but the simple items I had brought with me, books on shelves and other knick knacks, tools with which to dream I would take with me to another destination, continuing my artist’s life elsewhere.


* * *


Read more fiction by Arya Jenkins:

“Epistrophy”

“The Bluest Train”

“Soliloquy”

“So What”