Read by James McNeill
My father was never happy in work. His one great glory came when I was fourteen, about the time I started playing jazz seriously. He was a shift manager at a fancy resort hotel. He wore a mustache then, dyed and combed, and a lemon polo, and wandered the carpeted halls of the complex with purpose, straightening pictures, rearranging the continental breakfast, and playing grab-ass with the maids. Somehow he lasted three years. They hated to let him go. Without being able to say what he actually did around the place, everyone seemed to love him.
A decade later, I had my first respectable gig, with the Charles Rigby Quintet. I was starting to play all around the city, figuring out how to make it pay. My father was living in Florence, Oregon, where he worked as a load-picker in a Costco, heaving cases of frozen fish-sticks, throwing himself into it like one of the boys. At fifty-two, his essential directionlessness had stranded him in cold storage. In this regard – direction, unswerving direction – our separate lives had become counterpoint.
“So, how’s the musician’s life?”
We talked every fortnight, noon on Sunday, faithful to a schedule if nothing else.
“The Rigby group's gearing up to tour. Charles is finalizing dates for Europe.”
“Europe? The grand tour, huh? That’s fantastic. Jesus, the kid's going to Europe! Mom'd be over the moon, Timmy.”
Why couldn’t he just say he was proud of me? Why did he have to summon the spectre of a woman I barely remembered?
“How’s the deep-freeze treating you?”
He hesitated. He didn’t love talking about his work. “Just think warm, that’s what I tell myself. Think: Bermuda, Hawaii. Can’t daydream too much though, all the activity around that warehouse. Actually,” he said, hopefully, “I’ve been hunting up new opportunities. They say things are really happening with this day-trading thing.”
“That’s great, Dad. Good luck with that.” I tried to sound like I meant it, then, failing, tried a joke. “You always seem to have beginner’s luck.”
My father trusted in a world where a good man, a well-meaning man, could get a good, well-paying job. He believed in being in the right place at the right time. After I went off to music school, he sold our house in and followed a soon-to-be-ex-girlfriend out to the Pacific northwest, seduced by the notion of sucking himself to the sleek, ravenous computer industry like a remora to a shark. While I studied the sacred rhythms of the Yoruba, he was speculated on domain names in the stampede of the late ’90s. (He scored with beaniebabies.com, but softmicro.com and theunitedstatesofamerica.net never paid off.) While I was making pilgrimages to the Blue Note, the Vanguard, and Smalls Club, he was driving an Econoline van around the Pacific Northwest, selling artisanal memorials and headstones: the catalogue stuff was too impersonal, he argued. As I graduated, he started recruiting college kids as exterminators. (I think he considered this his low-point. He would go lower.) He traded the van for a VW custom-painted with a termite and the words “high-paying summer jobs!”
“What’s the latest from the bandstand?”
“Not much. SOS: same old shit.”
For once, I didn’t want to talk music. Charles Rigby had fucked me over, hiring cheaper German sidemen for the European tour. I'd thought I was on the cusp, about to be recognized as one of the cats; turned out I was disposable. I wanted to lick my wounds, but I had to spend Sundays teaching lessons, listening to suburban brats bash along to Corrosion of Conformity and Godsmack.
“What’s the weather your end?” I said.
“Sunnier than you’d think.”
“Who needs a vacation, right?”
“Exactly.” My father laughed, though it wasn't funny. “But most days it’s gray as the afterlife out here. Anyway, gotta catch a catnap. I'm on second shift.”
“Well, stay warm,” I said, the phrase that back home in the frozen north meant both goodwill and goodbye.
I was trying to teach Brandan, my best student, four-limb independence. “This is jazz stuff,” he said, throwing down his sticks in frustration. “What’s the point of any of this?”
I asked him, patiently, if he’d heard Black Sabbath. “Yeah, bro,” he said, “they’re, like, the source for everything heavy.”
“Well, they came up on jazz: Django, Count Basie, Gene Krupa. Hell, the first Sabbath lineup had a guy playing tenor sax. Here,” I said, sitting behind the kit and playing the first fill from “War Pigs.” “That’s Bill Ward. And this”: the intro to the first cut on Caravan “is Art Blakey. What’s the difference? Difference is, Bill Ward tippy-tapped the drums, and Blakey hit them.”
Brandan scowled; this was all deeply uncool.
Halfway to the gig, my phone vibrated in my pocket: “Dad”. I let it go to voicemail. But when I checked my messages, it wasn’t my father, but an unfamiliar, official-sounding voice saying my name was top of Dad’s call history. There’d been an accident at the warehouse.
I arrived from the airport at the end of visiting hours, and they set me up on a cot in Dad’s room. He’d grown his moustache back out – grey now – along with a beard. His hair was shaggy, and sat on his head strangely, like a wig.
“You look like you’re in disguise,” I said when the night-nurse woke him.
He smiled distantly, like someone searching for a memory.
“What?” I said. “You thought I wouldn’t come?”
They’d laid him out with serious pain medication, and he was delirious. “Grape juice,” he said, wetting his lips to push the words out, “goddamn frozen grape juice.”
What happened was that the shift manager at the loading bay had sent him deep into the stacks of an arriving load to pluck out a case of juice concentrate. Someone had stacked the pallet badly; half the order toppled. A younger man with swifter reactions would’ve dodged; my father took it between his shoulders. Right place, right time.
I slept deeply next to him. Bless the silence of that hospital wing: I didn’t get much silence in my life. But in the small hours I woke, aware of someone watching me. Dad sat on the edge of his bed in a gown that came to mid-thigh. His hands clutched the bedframe, his knuckles chapped and bruised – all that work in the freezer – like he’d just gone a few rounds.
“Beginner’s luck, huh?” he said, looking so intensely at me I thought he must be seeing something else. “The fuck's that supposed to mean?”
“Pop,” I said, “you’re high out of your mind.”
“What’s it mean?”
“Well, you got lots of enthusiasm. Make friends easy. People like you, I guess.”
“How do you live?” He strained forward like he was going to grab me, then suddenly sprang upright, seized by his spasming back, the cords of his neck popping. “How do you live without any constants?” he repeated when I’d settled him down.
“I can’t start from scratch again. I can’t. What are we doing here? Come on, let’s get out.”
He started up again, but I pushed him back down. gently “You want another shot? I'll call them for another dose of the good stuff.”
“Mom’s here,” he said matter-of-factly. “Can’t you feel her? She just came in.”
“I know, Dad, she’s here. Right here beside me.”
I thought to get the night-nurse, but then I just sat there sort of rubbing and petting his hand. Finally, I held it. I don’t know how long. Long enough for the world to shrink to that one room, the fog curling past the window one horizon, the hallway with its faint green glow the other. My mother. I suppose if she was anywhere that night, except under the ground, she was there with us, dancing between the vapour of my father’s breath and my own, borne up again if only for a last few minutes.
In the morning, Dad was more himself again, flirting with the nurses, play-acting the stoic, enfeebled old man giving himself into their tender care. A doctor wearing Converse All-Stars blew in and described some beautiful things: physical therapy, deep-tissue massage, acupuncture. “You’ll have discomfort,” he said, “so I want to think about ways we can manage that.” Dad just grunted. I could already see the big tub of IcyHot re-emerging onto his bedside table. When I was little, Dad would dab it on the tip of my nose. “Icy, then hot,” he’d say, while I giggled uncontrollably.
When visiting hours started, his coworkers began filing in. He had plenty of work buddies. Just four months, and he was already like a mascot. The shift manager showed around noon. “We hate seeing these kinds of accidents,” he kept saying, “we just hate them.” This man, I understood, was the company’s messenger. You could smell the Freon coming off him. He asked Dad a hundred little questions: How’s the food? You got enough pillows? Why don’t you take a few weeks? Take your time, rest up, don’t push yourself too hard.
Dad turned to me, his expression helpless. “You met my son?” he said. “He’s one of the best jazz drummers in the country.”
“Come on, Dad,” I protested modestly.
“You like jazz?” Dad asked his boss.
“Sure, yeah,” the shift manager said uneasily, “all that jazz.”
My phone vibrated, showing a long, strangely-formatted number: Europe. I hesitated. “Oops,” I said on the fourth ring, “gotta take this.” I went in the hall. It was Charles Rigby telling me that Ernst, the Bavarian drummer he’d replaced me with, couldn’t swing for shit. “Mr. Tim,” Charles said in that legendary raspy voice, “get your white ass over here.”
“OK, Charles,” I said, “sounds good, sounds good. Listen, we'll talk soon.” I snapped the phone shut on him midsentence.
“They’ve been in meetings all morning,” the shift manager was telling Dad when I came back in. “They’re taking this seriously. I mean, you’ve got 'em on the ropes.” Dad was hardly listening. “You’ll have discomfort, sure, but this kind of thing – well, you’ll never have to work another day in your life.”
Dad set his jaw, trying to harden himself. But I was there to see, the instant it began, the waste setting in. Over the two years he had left, he started maybe twenty different armchair hobbies. Seagram’s Whiskey and Winston cigarettes were two of them, but they weren't what killed him.
The nurses came in and kicked us both out so they could change the sheets and clean Dad up. “I’ll be right back, Pop,” I called out. “I’m going to pick up some of your stuff.” In the hallway, the shift manager shook my hand. “I’ll look out for your name,” he told me.
I got directions to Dad’s apartment on the outskirts of town, where I picked up a change of clothes, some books and magazines, and a few other things to keep him distracted. As I drove through the misty streets of Florence, I did the math: if I got a flight out of PDX by early evening, I’d be in time to meet Charles at the Düsseldorf Jazz Rally. It wouldn’t be a question of asking Dad’s forgiveness. He of all people would understand.
The apartment was tidy and small; exceptionally small. Dad had built shelves on almost every wall, and his rooms breathed the fresh, astringent scent of bare pine. I went into the bedroom and picked out a couple flannel shirts. He had nothing but work clothes. In the dresser, his underwear was ironed and perfectly folded – he had time on his hands. I threw together an overnight bag as quickly as possible. I was rushing now; it was going to be a matter of minutes, not hours.
But then, hurrying out, I stopped. Framed by a small library of sci-fi paperbacks were photos, certificates, ribbons, a little trophy of a tiny man wailing away on saxophone. “Outstanding Soloist,” the plaque read.
He’d built a shrine to me, like he’d built one to my dead mother in our old house: a photo of me sitting front-row at a club, watching Elvin Jones play, leaning over intently, studying his every move. Another of me unpacking my first drum-set. A dumb teenage drawing of a concert, flames shooting up from the stage, every spotlight on me.
What can be said about it? There was no time to linger. I felt embarrassed and shy to see that here, in this obscure corner of nowhere, I’d already made it.
Beginners by Will Boast was read by James McNeill at the Liars' League Hired & Fired event on Tuesday 13th March 2012, at The Phoenix, Cavendish Square, London.
Will Boast was born in Southampton and grew up in Ireland and Wisconsin. Beginners is taken from his story collection, Power Ballads, which won the 2011 Iowa Short Fiction Award. He’s held fellowships from Stanford University and the University of East Anglia. He has new work appearing in The New York Times and The Atlantic.