Episodic Entries in the Practice Regime of Mr. Trumpet
by Jesse Ratner
At Santa Monica Beach:
It's always the same, it seems. You park the car on Pacific, three blocks from the ocean in Santa Monica, California. Bottlebrush trees and oxalis pepper the fringes of Spanish style houses. At the corner, you pass by acquaintances from the now-bankrupt start-up. You pass the dog park, where collies and shepherds and dalmatians run after a tattered tennis ball. Across Ocean Avenue, the Mercedes and BMWs and SUVs whizzing by in a fury of petrochemical insistence. You pass the quiet, tree-lined street and the counselor, specializing in sexual addiction, whose offices housed in the terminal, beige apartment building at the end of the continent offer thawed minds safety and clear-eyed steps towards finding the 'authentic you'. 'Just start your day over', he said. 'Snap the hypnosis of the mind', he said. 'Give old Ruefee a sucker punch,' he said. Across one smaller thoroughfare where traffic cops in black and blue suits tear off fifty dollar parking tickets to pad the city coffers. Pass Joe and Bill in dirty jeans and worn brown boots, holding a paper bag containing Mad Dog 20/20 or Thunderbird or Wine-in-a-Box Chablis. Down the steps, into the beach parking lot. Pass the hockey players, inline skating over the concrete like someone's Savior, moving the plastic puck towards a graffiti-scarred yellow trash can turned over to play the role of a net. And quickly across the bike lane to the walking aisle and the gray concrete slabs that serve as your bench.
Open the fraying brown leather bag that holds the Getzen Eterna 700 Trumpet. Remove the silver horn and oil the valves, a little more in the middle one because it has been sticking. Pull out the 5C Bundy mouthpiece for a deeper tone, maybe two shades deeper than the 7C; something like Miles' tone on Blue in Green. Place the leather bag on the ground face open in the hopes of an appreciative dollar or handful of change.
Play . . . anything. A blues. The Charlie Parker tune you can't stop playing, Au Privave. Or Coltrane's Mr. PC. Slowly first. Only in the proper keys. Just the key of F. Now venture further. Out of the traditional chords, to A flat and B natural. Now play Horace Silver's Song For My Father. Repeating the melody again and again till the melody is burned in your mind like a branded steer. Turn to your right and see a well-known celebrity, maybe Tony Danza, listening. Stop. Converse with movie star. He's doing a movie about a bandleader, he's playing the trumpet for fun, he's spending the summer in Malibu for a change of scenery. He says, 'Hey, watch it' to the little girl in pink tights who demands that he 'Move' off the bench and let her pass. He skates off. He comes back with his trumpet. A beat-up, brass horn with a burgundy bell, engraved with the manufacturer's name in script: Orpheus. He and you play a jaunting duet version of Paper Moon. He leaves. A woman pulls up and asks if you are the movie star's friend. You lie and say 'Yes.' She gives you a big grin and tells you to stop by the sports rental shop up the beach 'anytime' for a free inline skate lesson.
Corporate Park Towers - Parking Garage - 3rd Floor Below Ground:
Steal thirty minutes from ghostwriting emailed diary entries for the official, online home of Pamela Anderson. Take the elevator down to the lobby, and then the parking garage elevator, chrome wainscoting buffed to a gleaming brass shine, to the third floor below ground. Find a space away from the parked cars, their hunks of steel silent and unarmed, their owners upstairs creating e-commerce for rock fans and sneaker fetishists and dialysis patients
Bring the cold horn up to your lips and begin to blow air through this tube of metal, this solid shock of alloyed brass that translates the sounds you hear on the inside, swirling within you, where there is nothing but blood and organs . . . where is this music inside you? Where does it reside?
And! Hear your horn play of its own accord. Take the trumpet off your lips and still hear the horn quietly belting out Yesterdays. Realize that there is someone else in this parking garage, in this building of all buildings, playing the trumpet at the exact same time that you are here, alone with the cars. Search out the sound, now playing Joy Spring, and find Rafik, whom you have played with before, and hung out with at Billy Higgins' club, the World Stage. Rafik, your friend and fellow hobbyist, here in the middle of this stinking metropolis of fifteen million souls, in this very parking lot three floors below the cubicles and faux marble and artificial lake with plastic flamingo; . . . and think to yourself 'you just never know!'
On a windswept night in October. Angry. You are twenty one and have dropped out of college for the second time despite your promise, your National Merit Scholarship, your GPA, your full knowledge of the tilting landscapes of Nietzsche and Buber and P. K. Dick, all your promise, your golden bars of talent, wasted as no other could have wasted.
Grab two bottles of Dos Equis, and your horn, and drive off in a swirl of smoke in your Chevy Malibu towards those first friends who brought you to the camaraderie of curling smoke and the sweet release of cheap narcotics. Head east on the Santa Monica Freeway, then north on the San Diego Freeway, towards the San Fernando Valley, towards the home of your high school compatriots, swigging one, now two, now three long-necks of liquid fire.
In the dark of the car, unbuckle your pants, reach for your self and feel nothing, and so reach for your horn as you speed along the freeway. And pull the horn to your lips and blow like thunder. Storm into a swinging, brawny rendition of When The Saints Go Marching In, repeating the chorus over and over in swelling bursts of sparkling, quicksilver sound while your car speeds through the dark night. Then . . . see the accident happen in slow-motion, the eighteen-wheeler, the gasoline truck, your horn now smashing into your front teeth like a bulldozer, the hot metal brisk and unfeeling in its physics, moving gum tissue and tooth where it will.
And never play the trumpet while driving on the freeway again.
Basement of Hollywood Apartments, 1767 Orchid Avenue:
You're living in Hollywood now. You've met a smart, sassy, passionate woman and you are finally in a relationship. Sure you fight, and you yell and cuss and heap abuse on each other; but most of the time it is bliss. You and her. And your horn.
It is a fine Saturday in April. You and your girl are feeling a sweet harmony, not a whit of curse or unfocused distance while you talked, she not staring into the glaze of the TV, or the yellow and black bees far away from the slight tear in the screen window. A tall glass of orange juice on the light blue formica countertop, innocent. Your framed picture of Hokusai's Great Wave not imposing, or threatening, but soft and beautiful. The neighbor, claiming to be a Kennedy, and climbing onto the rooftop in nights past to raise the flag of Cuba into the Hollywood sky and cry, 'Viva Che! Viva Castro! Viva La Revolucion!' His eyes like a dying fish, flopping this way and that, till the police officers, heavy with gear, with handcuffs and radios and pepper spray (and maybe even a Holy Bible), drag him down to the patrol car and the brick station house under the shadow of the CNN building, where Larry King transmits intimate conversation with the first President Bush out across the solid wasteland ('So, tell me George, was Jr. a heavy drinker?'). This neighbor now quieted, the whole building quiet as a blade of grass. No. Today is different. The apartment behind the Chinese Theater is silent except for an occasional tourist.
So you grab your horn, and she let's you have it. 'Why don't you spend any time with me? Why don't you talk to me? Why do you always go and play your trumpet? What? Are you fucking it?'
And you say, with a laugh, 'Yeah, I am.'
And you shoot out the door without a word, the eggs landing against the wall with a crack as you close the door. You leap down three, four steps at a time now. Down, as the eggs explode against the wall, grenades of yolk. Out past the discolored pool, and the barren plot of dirt, down into the parking garage and the solace of shadows and cooler air. You pull out your horn. It looks different today. Heavier, harder. You bring it to your lips to let the music out. You play the notes, the melodies that you know so well they hush you to sleep as your mother once did, singing 'Somewhere/Over the rainbow/Way Up High/There's A Land That I Heard Of/Once In A Lullaby.'
But the notes are flat, tired, and no matter how much you pour your emotion into this scoop of brass, it will not ring true. And you head back upstairs to explain yourself, to ask forgiveness, to lean into the cottony smell of her caramel neck and cry.
A Hollywood Hills park:
It is late September, 2001. The air is full of flags, the red and blue stripes affixed to your car, now a de facto part of your automobile registration. The very air on Hollywood Boulevard peppered with threat. Even as you discuss Camus at Starbucks, a uniformed officer appears to make sure your passionate dialogue with the Greek tourists who share playing cards with pictures of the Pantheon, that your glad shouts of appreciation for Nausea and your passionate derision of Pet Cemetery (the gall of King's petroleum symbolism) are not some terrorist's decoy.
Even as you play in the night, the sound now bouncier, now more full of joy as you have returned to this forgotten pleasure, put aside for six months until attending Wynton Marsalis' performance of All Rise at the Hollywood Bowl. Bereft of music, until this inspiring moment at the Bowl. The Los Angeles Symphony, the 100-member choir, the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra all staying and even playing an encore after the two-hour plus work is completed (even if the violin section of the Philharmonic did run off the stage before Mr. Marsalis could launch into a second encore). You bouncing all the way home on foot, scat-singing their encore number, Duke's Place, without care. And going right out the next day and renting a horn, any horn, even a tin can made in China that actually melts in your apartment after sitting in the soft, September sun for a few afternoon hours. And renting another, and now here, in the night, you look out into the Hollywood sky and see the green neon of the Hollywood Roosevelt building, where the Academy Awards were first held in 1929 with Fairbanks and Chaplin and the others, and it now a green light like an egg, full of promise.
And you grab your new case, and your shiny, brass rental from Ash Music and go 'round the corner to Mildred Bailey Park. The borders of the small plot of grass ringed with oak and sycamore trees, the leaves now a little brown as the season has slowly turned. You sit in the park at the little brown bench, now a little cooler as the breeze picks up, and you wince at the chill. And you open your case like in days gone by, and a man and his baby girl venture near and sit off to the side. And you put your horn together and begin to play. A simple tune, just a wisp of a phrase, like Mack The Knife. The melody now possessing you like a blessing.
You have been away from the horn for months now, but you immediately feel again the sound and the swing that fills your heart like nothing else. You stretch the phrase melodically, then harmonically, and the sound becomes like a weave and your lips a loom. Now your sound, spent in the squalor of a blue-gray parking garage, swept across a sandy beach, belted out as you sped down the highway, always the partner who never judged you, the only unconditional love you ever felt despite all your parents care -- now you truly know your worth. Your music is of the highest order, unbounded, full of life, full of complexity and delight. The baby girl ventures within feet of you and your horn. You meet her eye, and smile.
About the author:
Jesse Ratner lives on the banks of the San Lorenzo River in the Santa Cruz Mountains. His fiction has appeared online in All About Jazz. You can email critiques of his poor syntax and overwrought phraseology here.