[by Terry Sanville]
Albert Perkins let out a low moan as he slowly climbed the steps. “Damn knees,” he muttered and slumped into the first seat in back of the nickel-plated pole. The doors hissed shut and the bus driver momentarily twisted around, grinning.
“And a good afternoon to you, Mr. P. How’re gigs?” The driver released the air brake and swung the big vehicle into traffic.
“You know damn well I haven’t had a gig in years. You be sure to let me know when Swing music comes back around.”
“Hey, you never know, Mr. P. With all this retro crap goin’ on, it just might be your turn again.”
Albert laughed, which brought on a coughing fit. He reached for the pint nestled inside his worn black suit coat, but thought better of it. The driver had busted him before and it wasn’t worth the pain of walking to work. He tapped the driver’s shoulder.
“How’s that daughter of yours comin’ on piano? Can she play Oscar yet—or maybe a little Thelonious?”
“Nah, they have her studyin’ long-hair stuff. Besides nobody plays bebop anymore. You gotta get out more often, Mr. P. It’s all hip-hop and trash talking. Not a clean melody line to be heard.”
The driver’s voice dropped off as he braked hard for an errant motorist then stomped on the accelerator. The bus struggled up Monterey Heights Boulevard, crested the rise, and rocketed downhill to the high school. Albert knew that after the next stop, conversation would be difficult, with all the kids playing grab-ass and making time with their cheeky friends. They treated him like he had a disease, which he had, but not a contagious one, and the last seat filled was always the one next to Albert.
The final kid of that day’s after-school crowd climbed aboard, rolled his eyes, and slumped into the cramped space next to Albert. The boy sandwiched an instrument case between his blue-jeaned legs.
The doors slapped shut and the Number 6 headed south through sprawling subdivisions. It would take an hour until it circled back and dropped Albert downtown at the Wineman Hotel where he clerked the dusk-to-dawn shift four nights a week.
“So what kinda ax ya got in that case?” he asked, apropos of nothing. The boy twisted in his seat and stared at Albert with gray, closely-spaced eyes above a hooked nose. The right side of his face was brutally scarred, as if from a fire, and he kept it tucked down and away.
“It’s a Paul, the Artisan model.”
“No kiddin.’ I always thought Les Paul played rinky-dink tunes. But his ideas for guitar design were brilliant. I suppose you play that hip-hop crap on it.”
“I don’t play nothing,” the boy mumbled. “My mom’s friend left it behind when he ditched her.”
“Damn, that’s a heavy sucker to haul around if you’re not gonna play it.”
“They let me mess around in one of the practice studios during sixth period—so I get outta going to study hall.”
“At that rate, you’ll be playing Red River Valley in only a couple-three years.”
The boy stared blankly at Albert who hastily explained the origin of the classic western tune and how he’d taken a solo over it while playing with the Clint Garvin Band in San Antone.
“So, you play guitar?” the boy asked warily.
“Yeah, I’ve played some gigs, mostly before the war back in New York City and the Catskills. I’ve been out here on the coast since just after Korea.”
“Yeah, the war.”
“Did ya ever play with anyone famous?”
“Nah. I was steady and sweet—but the top-flight bands wanted flashy. Once in Buffalo, Bob Drake gave me 48 measures over String of Pearls, but mostly I just played chords.”
“These kids don’t know the difference between String of Pearls and Pearl Jam,” the bus driver butted in.
Albert grinned. The boy frowned. “Well, my name’s Joshua. Do you think you could show me some things? I can pay.”
“Damn, with a name like that you should be a trumpet player. Yeah, I can show you some things. But you gotta really want to do it or it’s just a waste of my time and your money.”
“You sound like my mom.” The boy stared into Albert’s eyes. The old man dropped his gaze, stunned by the deep blue-purple cruelty of the facial scars.
They made arrangements for weekend guitar lessons. That night at the Wineman, Albert watched the switchboard while his mind reeled with the details: do I still have those old Mel Bay books? Should I play it straight or just take the kid’s money and string him along? What the hell do I know that some punk wants to learn?
By midnight his pint was empty and Albert dreamed of his early days of women and cocaine, playing tenor banjo with the Erick Langley Orchestra in ballrooms full of black tuxedos and evening gowns swirling to a Fletcher Henderson tune.
Albert pushed open the curved aluminum door to his ’55 Airstream and squinted into the morning sun. The August heat was intense and he opened all of the trailer’s windows and roof vents. Stretching out on the rumpled bed with a pint of Ancient Age, he stared at the curved ceiling. Pasted to it, like pieces of a crazy quilt, were cocktail napkins collected from clubs, bars, and cabarets that he’d played in or stopped by to listen. The old ones told the best stories. Albert often relived each gig while gazing at his ceiling mosaic.
But that day’s meditation was cut short because he had to get ready for Joshua. The trailer was just big enough for the two of them to sit on the bed and read music off a Manhasset, with space on the floor for guitar stands and cases. Albert switched on his ancient tweed-covered Fender amp, its blue vacuum tubes casting an eerie glow in the trailer’s murky interior.
At 10:32 the Number 6 bus deposited Joshua at the stop in front of the Shady Grove Trailer Park. Albert was there to shepherd the boy to his Airstream.
“Wow man, your place looks like a bong on wheels,” Joshua cracked.
“Yeah, well I own it, and space rent is cheap. So are you ready to do some work?”
Albert’s voice had taken on the tenor of a drill sergeant. Joshua stared at him coldly, but climbed into the trailer. A 1950s Country Gentleman rested in a stand at the back of the coach. The kid picked his way through the confusion and knelt on the floor to admire the guitar—its orange maple finish, the slippery feel of flat-wound strings, the shine of its polished slender neck.
“This is really cool. Never saw one like it.”
“Yeah, Chet Atkins made them famous playing Hillbilly stuff. But the Gentlemen are also great jazz guitars—play all night long without breaking a sweat.”
Joshua nodded and unpacked his Les Paul and sat it in an empty stand. Albert picked it up. “This was a fine ax at one time. It’s playable, but will need some major work. I know a guy that can fix just about anything.”
Joshua sat on the bed and stared at walls covered with black and white photographs: a torch singer in a sequined dress crowded a chrome microphone, with a glimpse of Albert in the background; a packed stage with a bare light bulb hanging over a black woman with mouth agape, the band in shirtsleeves and open collars; an immaculately tuxedoed orchestra leader listened to Albert play a solo on a huge Epiphone Emperor, with Albert’s hair black as sixteenth notes.
“Yeah, that was me.” Albert chuckled. “My nose didn’t look so big and my face was smooth.” He stared at the boy, who shrunk from his gaze, hiding his scarred face.
“So Joshua, you gonna ta tell me how that happened?”
“It’s no big deal. I fell out of a bus and got dragged along the road. I—I was stoned. It was stupid.”
“Yeah, those roads are hard—took my wife away years ago. That’s her in that first photograph. She had such a sweet voice, but strong and full when it needed to be.”
They sat listening to the trailer’s aluminum skin expand in the late morning heat. Albert finally broke the stillness.
“So let’s see what that Gibson of yours sounds like.” With a crackle, he plugged the Les Paul into the hissing amplifier and tuned the badly-corroded strings. Joshua watched intently.
“How’d you do that without a piano or anything?”
“Always had a good ear, perfect pitch they call it. But you can buy a tuner.”
“Nah, I want to learn it your way—it looks cooler just to get the notes right, without any help.”
With both guitars plugged in, Albert started the lesson, forming major chords with his left hand while holding a pick and strumming the strings with the right.
“Jesus, my hands will never bend that way,” Joshua complained, massaging his wrist. “Besides, the bands on TV never play it like that.”
“Yeah, well if you learn it right, it’ll be easy to play it wrong like those yahoos. Believe me, your hands can take more punishment than you think.” Albert held up his left mitt. Sausage-like fingers dangled from badly swollen knuckles.
They kept at it, with Albert placing the boy’s fingers in just the right positions and forcing him to bend his left wrist to get the proper chording position. At the end of an hour Joshua was exhausted
“So what do you think?” Albert yawned and looked around for his bottle but decided to wait. “With practice you can do it. But it’s not gonna be easy.”
The boy stared at the old man with eyes blazing. “Yeah, yeah. You said that already. But how long till we can play a song—you know, jam together?”
“We’ll make it your Christmas present.”
Albert smiled, remembering his own excitement seventy years before, how a shiver had run down his back the first time he’d cleanly played a chord; how the power surged through him when he’d rose to solo with the George Whiteman Band, and how the audience had applauded afterward.
“I’ll see you next week then?”
Joshua nodded and pulled a wad of wrinkled bills from his jeans and handed them over. He moved to his guitar case and lowered the Gibson into its velvet-lined bed. There was a loud crack. Joshua froze. The black cord snaking from the Les Paul had snagged Albert’s guitar stand. The Country Gentleman lay on the dirty linoleum, its neck bent at an ugly angle, strings humming.
Albert’s mind struggling to form a curse, a question, a pronouncement, or whatever you do when an old friend is killed. Their eyes met.
Joshua grabbed his guitar case and bolted for the door. As he hustled along the narrow lane between trailers, he heard Albert’s amplifier howl from the feedback. It was a cry he wouldn’t forget.
“I’m going back to the bus,” Joshua says. “You guys can drink yourselves stupid, but remember, tomorrow we play KC and we’ll need to be sharp.” He downs the remains of his Stoly and slides off the stool. The rest of the band mutter their good nights.
At a dressing table in the back of the quiet Orion, he strips off makeup from his scarred face with a damp cloth. Susanne has shown him how to do it. Slumping into a reclining seat, he stares at the bus’s curved ceiling, then reaches into his shirt pocket and slides out a cocktail napkin from the Hard Shell Café. Grabbing a roll of scotch tape, he pastes it to the metal roof where it takes its place among the crazy quilt of souvenirs from gigs scattered across the continent.
“Damn you Albert, ya shouldn’t have got me hooked,” he murmurs at the faded photograph of a rotund white-haired man in a dusty black suit sitting next to a frightened pimply kid. They’re playing lounge lizard music for the gray hairs at the Madonna Ballroom and loving every note of it.
Joshua rolls onto his side, gazes out the window across a desolate snow-dusted parking lot and smiles. “You said you knew someone who could fix anything—glad you fixed me.” He falls asleep under the cold winter stars and dreams of old jazz clubs full of sleek lascivious women and dark corners where he strokes his guitar tuned to perfect pitch.
Terry Sanville lives in San Luis Obispo, California with his artist-poet wife (his in-house editor) and one skittery cat (his in-house critic). He writes full time, producing short stories, essays, poems, and novels. Since 2005, his short stories have been accepted by more than 250 literary and commercial journals, magazines, and anthologies including The Potomac Review, The Bitter Oleander, Shenandoah, and Conclave: A Journal of Character. He was nominated twice for Pushcart Prizes for his stories “The Sweeper” and “The Garage.” Terry is a retired urban planner and an accomplished jazz and blues guitarist—who once played with a symphony orchestra backing up jazz legend George Shearing.