1. November 12, 1977
Sonny’s tired. He blew till 3:00 (and sat -- had one more drink -- with Harper for almost an hour after that, till he’d come down from the high six hours of playing had infused in him) on maybe four hours sleep, the adrenalin provided by the rest of the quartet, the between-sets bourbon, the music itself. Now and then by the audience though, sure, most of the time, didn’t matter that they were there: The music was for him, not them, and he couldn’t hear ’em, or see ’em: His eyes were closed, focused on the rolling, fluid blue in his head, and all he heard was Harp’s piano, was Cole’s bass, was Alan’s drums; and his own alto, blowing hard and clear, the blue behind his eyes made audible to anyone who knew to hear. And all he felt was the vibration; even the pain, that picked itself up and floated away on a river of blues. Didn’t need no drugs to do that, just the reed and the smooth paddles that were the saxophone’s keys.
He’s worn out, too, maybe more worn out than he oughta be, at fifty. Too much bourbon, too much smoke, too much sweat and too little food: Still wasn’t really hungry, hadn’t been, again, all day, but he ate a bologna sandwich when he got home, four slices of meat on white bread smothered with mayo. When he ate (his appetite had kinda deserted him the past few weeks) he ate heavy during the day -- fried chicken and barbequed pork (not as good as his Mama made, but still pretty good) and smoked ham, and fried potatoes and fried rice (“Man, you eat all that shit and you look skinny as hell. ’Cept for your belly,” Harper laughed and shook his head) -- but he forgot when he was playin’; forgot everything except the music, Norma’d said. And that was true. The breaks, well, they were just long enough to get a drink, dry his face and piss, chew a couple antacids and have a smoke. Maybe change his shirt. Norma hated the stains his sweatin’ left. Hard to get out, Sonny. And they stink somethin’ fierce! Well, Norma didn’t wash his shirts no more; he did, and he had plenty. They were all white, all cotton-and-somethin’, all wash-and-wear: He could throw ’em in the machine in the basement and leave ’em hangin’ on the shower curtain bar before he left, time he got back they’d be dry.
Too much coffee, too. He lifts the white mug and swallows from it. Still hot. On the stove, the pot’s still steaming. Three more cups in it. He’ll drink them too, before he goes to bed. Probably make his gut hurt worse -- these days, everything seems to -- but right now the hot feels good inside. Sometimes, he passed blood. Not much, but the Doc said it “concerned” him and Sonny oughta be concerned, too, but he’s not. Hell, wasn’t much a horn man could do about it. Man’s got a problem, man’s got A Problem if the man don’t got the money to take care of it and horn men?, they don’t got it. Yeah, he gets paid pretty good for club gigs, but there ain’t so many of those anymore, clubs are bookin’ comics instead of jazzmen, folks are goin’ to discos where the music all sounds the same and is all recorded, they wanna dance ’stead of listen, and the record companies got plenty of sax players to play that background shit: tenormen -- that was what the public wanted to hear, those softly rounded notes, watery like undercooked grits, instead of the tighter-squeezed reed-chewed alto ones. Even Sonny’s. But they were smooth as breast milk, Maryjane said. Sweet as it, too; he’d as soon suck the notes out of the horn as her titties. He gets sessions, too -- Harper always tries to get him called in on his -- but there ain’t a lot, ’specially in Chicago where there ain’t but a few record companies left, and they don’t pay much when your name’s nowhere on the album cover. When he’s “at liberty” he’ll sit in somewhere, make a few dollars or maybe just his bar tab, but that, he knows, ain’t ever gonna be enough to take care of A Problem.
He sighs, thinks maybe I oughta go back to L.A. and swallows more coffee, his third cup since he got home. The kitchen, where he sits, is dimly lit, a bare bulb glares from the ceiling and casts shadows into the corners, highlighting the used-to-be white walls that have needed another coat of paint since the day he moved in, five years ago. He can see the living room with its raggedy-ass olive sofa, matching lounge chair, two plastic-that-looks-like-wood side tables, a radiator that clinks in the winter; and as far from it as possible his record player, with albums stacked, straight up and spines facing out, in a wood case beneath it. All the greats: The Hawk, Ben, Pres, Bird. Clifford and Monk and Mingus and Bill Evans. Milt and Max and Harp’s buddy Chet Baker. A couple of him and Harper that they’d produced themselves; the one he’d made in Paris as leader. He took good care of them, like he did his horn, and they took good care of him in return: He could put one on, close his eyes and everything that wasn’t the music -- Life and all its blues -- went away. Just like when he played.
They were his, the phonograph and the albums; everything else came with the place. Same with the bedroom: Single bed, big enough to hold him and a woman if it needed to, so long as neither of them tossed too much. Closet and a dresser and drapes which didn’t block out the light during the day when he slept, so he bought shades. Another radiator, this one noisy as hell but he’s got used to it in five years of livin’ here.
Now, his gut hurts him somethin’ awful. Always does after four, five, six hours playin’ but tonight it’s worse than it’s been in weeks. He’s had indigestion and heartburn before, but not this bad. Not this long, either. He even went to a doctor this afternoon, first time in years, sat there while he looked Sonny over, ran a whole bunch of tests, took x-rays, scraped skin from a couple places, and drew blood. Doc’d said, since it had been goin’ on so long, might be an ulcer, told Sonny to drink skim milk and cut out all the fat and alcohol and at least cut back on the cigarettes; Sonny laughed to himself: Fat and alcohol and cigarettes -- hell: ’Cept for the tunes and the women, wasn’t much else made life worth livin’. “Can I get somethin’; for the pain?” Sonny asked. Doc looked at him long and careful, and shook his head: Nothin’, not till he knew what the problem was. “And when you gonna know that?” Sonny asked. In a few days, he said, when all the results were back. In the meantime, drink milk, take pain relievers that weren’t aspirin. Sonny sighed and said “Okay,” made an appointment with the sweet-faced receptionist for Thursday afternoon, paid her the fifty bucks for the Doc’s time (“We’ll bill you for the tests,” she said) and went home, managed to sleep a couple hours, showered and went to the club.
Phone rings. He sighs -- who in hell is callin’ at four-thirty in the goddam mornin’! Harp’s asleep now, or with some girl -- and pushes his body up from the table. A knife stabs his belly as he rises and he leans on the table and waits till the pain eases, then goes to the living room, stares as the phone continues to ring, then finally answers it on the ninth. “Yeah,” he mutters, his voice soft and raw, “What you want.”
“Hi, baby, what you doin’?” Maryjane’s soft voice melts into his ear. “I know I ain’t wakin’ you up.”
“MJ” he says, rubbing his throbbing stomach.
“Only got a minute ’fore I got to go back on.”
“Be right back.” He lays the phone down and gets his bottle of Jack from the side table, takes a swallow. It burns going down but it feels smooth lyin’ inside him. He swigs again.
Sonny sees the gun on the arm of the sofa. He took it out to clean before he left, and forgot it there. He bought it years ago and carries it in his sax case. He lives in an old part of town that’s between a high-crime ghetto and a middle-class neighborhood that’s working hard at gentrifying itself, but the places he plays, and the hours he comes home, aren’t usually the safest. He’s never fired it except at the practice range, where he goes a couple times a year: He knows how to use it, and he keeps it nearby and ready.
The gun scared Norma. Maryjane?, hell: She grew up in a house where everybody includin’ the girls knew how to use one. Had to know. Maryjane, her little-girl life hadn’t been real pleasant, but she grew up and was makin’ it better.
When he goes back to the phone his stomach feels a little better. He clears his throat and says “I’m back.”
“That’s good,” coos MJ.
“So, what you want?” he says affably.
“I get off in half an hour; less,” she says. “Like a little company? Been a week and I’m, y’ know...?”
He pulls his cigarettes from his pocket and lights one, squinting in the flame from the lighter. “I’m pretty tired,” he says.
“You too tired for me?”
“I’m like to fall asleep.”
“I bet I can wake you up.”
He laughs; it turns into a cough.
“You all right, Sonny?” Maryjane says, her voice changing from coy to concerned.
“Yeah, jus’ tired.”
He coughs again. “Like I been rode hard and put away wet.”
“Sure know that feelin’.”
“Yeah.” He takes another hit of Jack. “Tell you what. You come over, you can rub my back.”
Now Maryjane laughs. “You got a nice back, Sonny,” she says, “but it ain’t my favorite part to rub.” She sighs. “But yeah. I guess I’m tired too. Maybe we both just sleep. How’s your belly?”
He shrugs. “It’s okay,” he lies. “Saw a doc; he run some tests.”
“You gonna want some coffee? I’ll save you a cup.”
“Nah,” says Maryjane. “I’ve had plenty. Less you gonna give me some jelly roll to go with it.”
Sonny laughs again. “My jelly roll, it all gone stale, Sugar. But I get a few hours sleep?, why, I think it’s gonna be just like fresh out the oven.”
MJ laughs. “I’m countin’ on it. I got to go back on. See you in a while.”
“Right,” he says, but she’s already hung up. He takes one more -- small -- swig from the bottle, puts the gun into his sax case, turns out the light in the kitchen and returns to the living room, where he carefully puts The Hawk on the turntable, sits in the dark and closes his eyes as Body and Soul fills him and the room.
The record has ended and he’s asleep when she buzzes, dreaming about something he can’t quite remember, about bein’ a boy, eight or nine, before he had the sax anyway, in Los Angeles, his Mama cookin’ supper for him and his sister and Harper. He wipes the sleep out of his eyes and presses the buzzer, stands by the door till she knocks softly, then opens it. Maryjane steps through. She’s a small woman with silver and blonde highlights in her hair and a scar that runs down her jaw from her right ear almost to her chin which she’s had since she was twelve. She was twelve when she learned how to shoot a gun, and thirteen when she killed the man who scarred her. Shot him in the chest, then shot him in the balls, “so if he got better, he couldn’t do to no other girl what he done to me.” Pushed the body into a pile of garbage that was home to a million rats. No one ever found it. She had the abortion the day after she killed him.
She’d come to hear him play, three nights in a row, and after the third she came up to him and asked, could he play her the way he played it? and pointed to his sax. There wasn’t nothin’ long-term there, they both knew it, but the sex was good and she had a way of purrin’ that helped him fall asleep. It’d been five, six months now but for her, he knew, he was just someone to tide her over till she got restless, and that was okay. Was a time in his life he got restless too, right after Norma’d got the divorce and he was alone in Paris, still young and without a belly, and with lots of energy built up after playin’ most every night for hours.
“Hey, Sonny” Maryjane says.
She wraps her arms around his neck, pulls him to her and kisses him. He returns it carefully. Truth is, her pressin’ on him so hard hurts. “You are tired,” she says, and he nods and yawns. “You wanna just go to sleep? It’s okay.”
He rasps “Yeah, honey. I do.”
Maryjane nods. “Lemme jus’ take a shower first. Wash off some a that stink of all them hands.” Maryjane dances, topless. She covers her scar in silver, adds a matching one on her left cheek and calls herself Silver Streaks. She’s twenty-six or -seven and makes good money, and nobody touches her -- nobody, nowhere, ’cept Sonny -- except to stuff ones and fives, the occasional ten or twenty, into the waistband of her short silver pants or the tops of her thigh-high silver boots.
When she comes out of the shower he’s lying in bed with the lights out, listening to Dex and Bud Powell play Willow Weep for Me on the radio. She steps into the bedroom wrapped in a towel; he can see her outlined in the faint light spilling from the bathroom. “You want a drink?” he says. “Nah,” she says and shakes her head. “I’m gonna turn on the little light. That okay?”
“Yeah.” He covers his eyes as she turns on the small lamp next to what’s her side of the bed when she stays. It’s only twenty-five watts, and there’s a shade, but it jars Sonny. “Ow,” he says, “that’s bright.”
MJ laughs and peels away the towel. Her perfect damp body glows in the light. She looks good and she knows it, wants Sonny to know it. “You just turn that way” she says teasingly, and points to the wall, “so you don’t got to see it.” He takes one long look at her, mumbles “Umm,” and does. She snorts a laugh. “You surely are tired,” she says, and sits on the bed beside him, picks up the bottle of isopropyl, pours some on his back and rubs it in. “Feel good?” she asks. “Yeah,” he murmurs. She kisses his ear. “You just rest up, Sonny Curtis,” she whispers. “You don’t got to worry ’bout nothin’. MJ is here.” She rubs some more, his stomach relaxes and he falls asleep.
His sleep is hard, like his waking. His belly awakens him repeatedly and he sits up chewing antacids one after another. The pain eases up for a while, and between the bouts, he falls asleep. Maryjane, still as the dead oak in his Mama’s back yard, sleeps peacefully beside him, but he dreams of Norma. Norma just got wore out, like he’s wearing out; only difference is, she walked away while she still had somethin’ left to wear. “Sonny,” she said, “I love you but you ain’t got nothin’ and you ain’t never gonna have nothin’, long as music means more to you than breathin’ does.” They never had no kids, him and Norma; sometimes he wonders why: Was it him, was it her; was it just luck -- bad or good. She’s been gone nine, ten years now -- Sonny was in Paris when he got the letter. He’d been expecting it but that didn’t make it no easier. He called her, all the way from France, and she kept sayin’ over and over “It just ain’t workin’, Sonny. I can’t be a wife to a man I don’t get to see but once or twice a year, for three years now.” It was true, and he knew it, but there wasn’t no work in L.A. no more, not much in New York or Chicago, neither. He hated traipsing around the country, a week here, a weekend there, just for enough to buy food and pay the rent on the apartment he was always leavin’ her alone in. Norma went with him sometimes, but she hated it too. “I want a home,” she told him. Well, so did he, but the jazz scene in America? Hell: There wasn’t one, not like there’d been when they got married, ten, twelve years before he went to France; that was why he left. There was a lot of work in Paris, where they still loved American jazz, and blues, and all the players who played it. Money wasn’t great but it was steady. He could even put a little aside. But Norma, she’d come there once and didn’t want to live in France. “Ain’t a thing for me to do,” she said. “You got that horn. Me, all I got is cleanin’ floors. They got plenty a girls in Paris already who can do that.”
2. November 17, 1977
He gets to the doctor’s office a few minutes before three, and he feels good. He slept well, woke up late and refreshed and, for the first time in maybe a month, really hungry (“You losin’ some major pounds, man!” Harper said last night. “You gettin’ awful thin.”), made a couple over-easy eggs and some toast and his stomach was happy to receive them. It feels, well, okay now -- least, there’s nothin’ but the feeling he gets sometimes after eating, like he’s all filled up with water. But he hasn’t passed blood today, didn’t yesterday, neither. And he’s “got prospects,” as Harp likes to say: He doesn’t have to play tonight, but Harper called him about a session tomorrow morning.
He gives the receptionist his name, she smiles and asks him to have a seat, the doctor will be with him in a few minutes. “Thank you,” he says, and finds a cushioned blue vinyl chair, drops into it and leafs through the magazines on the table beside it. There’s nothing he wants to read -- Sonny’s never been much of a reader, one of the reasons he didn’t do so good in school (the other: He discovered the sax when he was ten; by fourteen, he was playing in dance bands and by fifteen, in dark, smoky clubs where nobody cared about his age, only how well he blew, and where he got his nickname: You play pretty good, Sonny boy, a trumpeter told him one night, and turned to the others and said: Don’t Sonny here play good? Even Harper called him nothin’ besides Sonny after that. He’d turned eighteen a month after VJ Day -- didn’t have to worry ’bout school no more so he’d been playin’ instead of readin’ ever since). But there’s a National Geographic and he looks at the pictures: places he’d like to go, like New Zealand, and Thailand (after Vietnam he went through most of Europe but nowhere exotic like Japan or Rio or Africa), lots of birds and animals that’re pretty. Brightly colored: He likes bright colors. He don’t wear ’em, nothin’ but black slacks and white shirts, but he likes them. MJ wears a lot of red ’cause he likes it. Norma wore yellow.
He’s looking at a picture of a large toucan, its yellow-orange bill holding a fish, the one visible blue-ringed eye seemingly focused on the camera, when a girl in a white uniform comes out and says “Mr. Curtis?” He says “Uh-huh” and she smiles and asks him to come with her, the doctor is ready for him. Silently, she leads Sonny to a different office than he was in last week, this one with a big, dark-wood desk and books and certificates, no examining table. The desktop is clean, neat. He could lie down on that, he thinks, with that girl without her white uniform. Behind the desk there’s a large mahogany leather chair, a bigger, castered version of the side chair to which the girl points him. The girl says “He’ll be in in a minute,” smiles at him and leaves -- the door clicks behind her -- and he waits, looks out the wide third-floor window that’s behind the wheeled chair. It’s a clear day, unusually warm for a Chicago November, maybe he’ll walk home ’stead of takin’ the bus. Maybe he’ll call MJ; if she don’t got to work tonight, see if she wants to have a picnic in the park, they can pick up some cold cuts, maybe some ribs, and some bread, and slaw, pickles, olives, whatever, a six pack and a pint, laze out on a blanket and watch the sun go down, go back to his place when it gets cool, get warm. MJ, she ain’t gonna have on any uniform.
His daydreaming is broken by another click as the door opens and the doctor enters. He’s a slight man who squints, maybe thirty-five but already balding, with a mustache that’d make him look dashing if he had a head of hair to go with it -- and a chin. He smells of disinfectant and his face looks freshly shaved, even if it is three o’clock in the afternoon. Sonny stands up to greet him. The doctor smiles, says “Mr. Curtis” and they shake hands briefly. “Please,” he says, “have a seat. How ’re you feeling?”
Sonny chuckles. “Pretty good today,” he says. “Pret-ty, good.”
“That’s good to hear,” says the doctor; he picks up the phone, presses a button and says easily “Rae, hold my calls, okay? Thanks” and hangs up. “Now,” he says, and takes a folder from the center drawer of the desk, reviews its contents quickly, and sits, hands folded on top of it. He looks at Sonny. “Mr. Curtis” he says, and stops.
Sonny waits. The doctor continues to look at him, like he expects Sonny to say something. When he doesn’t, the doctor clears his throat. “Mr. Curtis,” he says again, and Sonny is aware the doctor is forcing himself to continue to look at him. “Your tests came back, I mean, the results of your tests came back this morning.” He takes a quick breath. “This is the hard part of being a doctor, Mr. Curtis,” he says, and lifts up the folder, then sets it down again. Sonny watches with a mix of curiosity and detachment and foreboding. This man, he thinks, he wants t’ tell me somethin’ he don’t want to tell me.
The doctor squints into Sonny’s eyes. “You have cancer of the stomach, Mr. Curtis,” he says, clearly, simply, so there will be no misunderstanding the words.
Still, it takes a Sonny a long heartbeat to understand. In it, he watches a distant plane appear at one corner of the window and fly from one side of the doctor’s head, behind it and past, and disappear beyond the other side of the glass, going someplace Sonny can’t imagine. “Cancer,” he says.
The doctor nods. “Of the stomach.” He takes a breath and lets it out carefully. Sonny thinks of a dragon trying not to breathe fire, that the doctor’s stream of air will cause an explosion in the room if he releases it too quickly. “I - wish we’d found it earlier,” the doctor says, “we might have been able to ...”
Sonny watches the doctor work not to say the words. “You tellin’ me I’m gonna die, ain’t you,” he says.
The doctor nods. “Yes,” he says quietly, with dignity.
The world whirls. Sonny is dizzy. He grips the arms of the chair and closes his eyes. It takes him several moments to regain his balance, during which the doctor gets up quickly and says “Are you, I mean, can I get you something? Water? Mr. Curtis?”
Sonny opens his eyes. He’s very tired. “Cancer” he says. “In my stomach.”
The doctor sits again. “Yes,” he acknowledges.
Sonny takes a deep, deep breath, filling his lungs, his head, his gut with air, like balloons. There’s no pain. He does it again. Still: no pain. He touches the shirt he wore today, white, and like all his other shirts growing loose against his neck, his wrists, his skin. “So,” he says softly.
“I also need to tell you: It’s pretty far advanced. The x-rays show it’s metastasizing.”
“What that mean?”
The doctor continues to force himself to look into Sonny’s eyes. “It’s spreading, Mr. Curtis, to other parts of your body. It’s beyond the point where we can treat it -- cure it -- or remove it surgically.” He folds his hands on the desktop and takes a breath. “You have a few more months, perhaps,” he says kindly. “We can - make you comfortable, in a hospital, help control the discomfort.”
Sonny nods and reaches for his cigarettes. Quietly the doctor says “You can’t smoke in here.” He tries to gentle the words with a smile. “It’s not safe; all the” -- he waves vaguely -- “around.”
“Mm,” Sonny murmurs. “Well.”
They are silent.
Finally, the doctor sits straight up. “I’m going to give you a prescription, Mr. Curtis, to help with the pain you’ve been having. It’s pretty strong, so be careful with it. Only take it as directed. And” he begins to write on a pad, “you shouldn’t use alcohol while you’re taking this, and you shouldn’t drive.” He looks up. “You understand?”
“Good.” He finishes writing the prescription, tears it off and hands it to Sonny. “I’m sorry, Mr. Curtis,” he says. “I know this is a - shock. If you like, I can ask a counselor to talk with you, someone who can help you with the - issues.”
Sonny shakes his head. “I got no issues, doctor.”
“Well.” The doctor gets up. “Can we call someone to come get you? Or would you like to just sit here for a while?”
“No. Thanks.” Sonny gets up. He’s a little unsteady on his feet but, damnedest thing, there’s no pain, not even the filled-up feeling. He takes the doctor’s hand, shakes it and starts to leave.
“Mr. Curtis?” The doctor stops him.
“I can make arrangements for you. At the hospital. If you’d - like me ...”
“I - don’t know. Got to think. It over. Y’ know?”
The doctor nods. “You’ll think about it? We can make you more - comfortable.”
“Yeah. I will. Think about it.”
The doctor nods again. “If you decide not to go into the hospital, right away I mean, we’ll need to monitor your condition. You can come in whenever you need to, but I’d like to see you once a week, just to see how - whether the drugs are working, give you a refill or something else if you need it.”
“Okay,” Sonny says.
“I’ll walk you to the reception area. The nurse will give you some information about - that you can read that may answer some questions you’ll have.”
Sonny nods. The doctor opens the door and, as if Sonny had changed to glass in the last ten minutes, guides him slowly, gingerly to the lobby.
At home he drinks a glass of water, goes into the living room, calls Mama. Mama is 78 now, frail but with her faculties very much intact -- more than his own, Sonny thinks sometimes. Like now. He sits on the frayed sofa, another glass of ice water on the side table, and dials the ’phone.
Vernita, his sister, two years older, answers and calls “Mama, it’s Sonny.” They don’t talk much now, never did, really. ’Nita spent her whole post-girlhood life with Mama in Phoenix, moved when she finally got married in ’65, but she visits nearly every week, practically lives there instead of Tucson with her husband, while Sonny hasn’t been to see Mama in two, three years. Partly it’s the money, partly it’s the trip -- flying has always upset his equilibrium, train ride’s too damn long and he doesn’t have a car -- and, partly, he always feels like he’s let her down, done nothin’ with his life, least, not as much as she always told him he could do when he was a boy. All he’s ever done is play the sax; that never meant much to anyone, except him.
“Vernon, that you?” Mama says into the ’phone. She’s the only one ever uses his given name anymore. “How you doin’?”
He doesn’t know what he can tell her, or how. I’m gonna die, Mama, in a couple months, and I’m hurtin’ bad a lot of the time, he wants to say. But he can’t. For one thing, he’s not sure he believes it yet and, for another, how can he say something like that to her over a telephone, how can she hear something like that on a ’phone. He says, instead, “I guess I’m doin’ okay. Keepin’ busy. How you?” He says it, and he wants to cry.
“I’m good, son. Workin’ in the garden a lot. Sold fourteen cactus plants this week. Can’t believe folks in Arizona wanna buy cactus.” She chuckles.
“Fourteen!” says Sonny.
“Uh-huh. That’s so far. And it only Thursday. Last week I didn’t sell but eleven the whole week.” She laughs. “Still hopin’ you gonna give me a grandbaby ’fore I pass.” She raises her voice. “Your sister ain’t never gonna have none.” He hears ’Nita’s voice in the background. “That’s for damn sure” she says.
Sonny smiles, then winces. He got the prescription filled and his stomach is beginning to hurt; he has the clear plastic bottle there on the table -- “take as needed, no more than one every four hours” it says -- and wonders if he should take one now. He decides to wait. Pain ain’t that bad yet.
“So how come you callin’ me out a nowhere, middle of the day?” Mama asks.
“Mama,” he begins, and falters.
Her voice changes: The lightness that’s almost always there, that reflects the tenderness, disappears and is replaced by the darkness of concern: her love. “What is it, Vernon,” she asks. “Tell Mama.”
“I ... I got the cancer, Mama. In my stomach.” He hears Mama suck in her breath. “It’s - bad,” he says.
Mama smacks her lips, what she always does when she’s thinking. Then she says: “You wanna come home, son, I take care of you. You my boy. You always gonna be my boy.”
“I know, Mama” he says weakly. He wipes his eyes.
“You gettin’ treated?”
“Yeah. Best ’s they can.”
“What that mean.”
Sonny shrugs, aware she can’t see it and glad of it, glad she can’t see him right now. “It just means they doin’ what they can do.”
“You in the hospital?”
“Nah. No need for that. ’Sides, wouldn’t do no good, I mean, there’s nothin’ they can do for me in the hospital they can’t do for me out.”
“Well...” Mama sighs.
“I’m doin’ all right, Mama. I got some med’cine. And the doctor, he’s gonna check me every week. I got appointments.”
“You gonna tell Norma?”
Now Sonny sighs. “Mama, I don’t even know where Norma is no more. You know that.”
“She’s in Los Angeles. You know that. Prob’ly get her number from ‘Information.’”
He shakes his head. “I don’t know.”
“Well,” Mama says again. Then there is silence.
“I got to go, Mama,” says Sonny finally. “Got to get ready.”
“You playin’ tonight?”
“Uh-huh, I ---” he grunts as the pain suddenly jabs him. “Shit” he mutters through clenched teeth.
“Vernon, what’s happenin’? You ---.”
“I’m, I jus’ - spilled something, is all” he says. “Glass of water. All over me.”
“Didn’t sound like you spilled no water.”
He hates lying to her, but he needs to get off the ’phone. The pain is suddenly monumental, an eruption sprung up like a gush of oil from a just-drilled well, glorious and black and uncontrollable. He clenches his teeth and his gut. “Jus’ water,” he tells her. “Look, I got to go. I’ll call you over the weekend.”
“Saturday. I’ll be at church almost all Sunday. They holdin’ a yard sale and a barbeque. Asked if I’d make the ribs.”
“Well,” says Sonny, “you save some for me then.”
“You come out here and get ’em, I’ll make ribs for you, every night.”
“Sounds good, Mama.”
“And you c’n play that song for me, that one by what’s his name, the Little Tramp?”
“Charlie Chaplin, Mama.” He is straining, hard, to hold back the pain. He can feel the strain in his throat as he speaks. “Tune’s called Smile.” First time he heard it was in a movie Mama took him to; 1932 or ’33. He was five, six. She spent the dime ’cause he wanted to be with her.
“Yeah. That the one. I like that song.”
“You play it real good. Prettiest thing I think I ever heard. Your record.”
“Thanks, Mama. I’ll play it for you.”
Mama sighs. “Well.”
“You get your rest now, Mama. Say ‘Hi’ to ’Nita for me.”
“’Nita,” Mama calls, “Vernon says ‘Hi.’”
“Hi, Vernon,” ’Nita calls back.
“’Bye now, Mama” he says.
“’Bye, son.” He starts to hang up, but, in the low, concerned voice, she adds: “Sonny, you take care. I love you.”
“I know. I love you, too.”
“’Bye,” she says. “’Bye,” he whispers, and waits for her click before he hangs up.
When she does, he sits back and looks at the pill bottle. He opens it and taps out one of the small orange tablets. He looks at his watch: It’s 5:45. “You better work,” he says to the tablet. He swallows it with a swig of water, sits back and waits. The pain grows worse, then, in fifteen or twenty minutes, begins to ebb. He closes his eyes and hopes it will stay away.
3. November 18, 1977
When Harper calls it’s past midnight and Sonny doesn’t want to talk. Talking will make the pain worse. He tells Harp he’s tired and he’ll see him at the gig.
He sits in the living room, the lights out, smoking and listening to Ben Webster play ballads. The long, breathy notes of his tenor are as blue as Sonny’s, and they mingle with the smoke and the spilled light from the sign across the street that flashes “OP N ALL NIG T” in bright white neon. He wants a drink, but he’s got a pill in him and he won’t do somethin’ stupid like that.
He’s known Harper forever: since they were kids in L.A. Harp was the one turned him on to the sax: He thought they looked cool so he stole one for Sonny from a pawn shop, reeds, case and all, and Sonny just picked it up on his own, listenin’ to records and sneakin’ into clubs with him. Told their Mamas Harp’d bought it with money he made playin’. Which could a been true: He was the wild child who played the piano like he was born at one: even played in the church both their Mamas went to when he wasn’t but seven. Harp’s Mama’s passed now. He never knew his Daddy. Sonny hadn’t known his, either, but that was because he’d died when Sonny was four. Harper’s Daddy never knew he had a son.
They lived only a few doors apart, walked to school together in the morning and got into trouble together when school let out. Till they started playin’ music together. Then they didn’t have no time for trouble.
Harp’s his friend. When they were young, he was the big brother Sonny never had. Sonny is two months older but Harper was the protector, the one who made the rules that Sonny followed and took the chances Sonny reveled in.
Last few years, though, Harper’s been gettin’ into trouble again. Usin’. Did that, just a little, experimenting, when he was a kid, seventeen, eighteen, playin’ -- and livin’ -- like crazy with guys who had habits. Sonny knew about it then, didn’t want to know any more about that and Harper never offered to teach him. He got over it, though; least, Sonny thought he did. Spent six months in jail while Sonny was off touring; he wrote to Harp, picture postcards mostly, and Harper wrote back.
He don’t talk to Sonny ’bout it now, either, but Sonny can tell. There’s that look in his eye he knows, because he’s known Harp forever, because he’s been playin’ with men like Harp forever and he’s seen their eyes, a little too bright, a little too wide, filled with a gaze that’s a little too at the world inside them and not at all at the world most of the rest of the world is seeing. That pains Sonny too: They been friends so long. Used to see each other two, three times a week, even when they weren’t doin’ a gig. Go out, have a drink, maybe with MJ and whoever Harper was seeing at the time -- his girls changed often as the colors of the sky at sunset. Now, Harper calls him, late, wantin’ to talk, wantin’ to say the somethin’ he can’t say, or won’t, or just ’cause it’s late and he’s high. Sometimes, they talk for a couple hours; Harp talks, mostly; Sonny listens. Last couple months though, since his gut’s been botherin’ him, Sonny finds it hard to listen, to concentrate on what he’s sayin’. That don’t bother Harper: He needs to talk and Sonny hates tellin’ him no like he did tonight, but the pill’s mostly wore off and the pain keeps gettin’ worse and he needs to take another one, and he don’t want to tell Harper that: Fool’d start worryin’ himself into usin’ more a whatever it is he’s swallowin’, or sniffin’, or shootin’ into his arm. Sonny’s never tried it, not even when Norma quit and he stopped carin’ about anything -- even the music -- for a while. He don’t even like takin’ these orange things. Man’s got pain, he’s got to deal with it. Unless the pain fucks up the man’s mind even worse than the drugs do.
He avoids taking another pill till after one, then falls asleep quickly under its influence. He sleeps and doesn’t dream.
Friday is hard. The alarm is set for 7:00 but he wakes up at 5:30 and knows he’s
awake for good, so he gets out of bed and takes a shower. He sits on the toilet; when he gets up he looks and sees: The water’s a dark reddish brown, a little brighter than the color of watery shit. He’s not hungry and he doesn’t eat or drink anything except two, three glasses of water, no pill -- pain isn’t too bad -- and when he gets to the session he looks like he feels, drawn and worn. He blew a little before he left, just to make sure he could.
They start at 10:00, layin’ down background for some girl singer who’s got a nice voice but he’s heard a thousand like her. The music’s Muzak and boring as hell, but it doesn’t require much effort. And they’re only laying three tracks today, conductor’s gotta be somewhere, the rest’ll be Monday. Sonny’s glad. He’s supposed to play the club tonight, startin’ at 9:00. He can get some rest, take a pill: By the time they wrap the second track, he knows he’s gonna need it.
They break at 3:00, and Harper suggests they get something to eat. Sonny’s still not hungry and his stomach is hurtin’, but he oughta eat somethin’ before the gig and he knows if he don’t do it now he won’t do it at all. So he walks with Harp into a diner where Harper orders a Greek salad and a gyro and a bowl of bean soup and Sonny asks for scrambled eggs and dry toast. Harper looks at him with too-bright eyes. “That all you eatin’?” he says. “Or did you have a big breakfast for a change.”
“Nah,” says Sonny. “Jus’ ain’t hungry.”
Harp cracks a short laugh. “You lose any more a that belly, you gonna be concave. Girl’s head just gonna sink, she tries to lie on your chest.”
Sonny smiles. He knows he’s got to tell him, too, but not here. Not at the club, either: After he tells Harp, ain’t neither of them gonna be able to play worth a damn. “Look, man,” he says, “I’m kinda wore out. Didn’t get much sleep? And it’s hard playin’ shit like that” -- he waves in the direction of the studio -- “all that time.”
“Know what you mean, brother. Know what you mean.” He looks at his fingers and cracks the knuckles. “That crap?, it make my hands sorer in a hour than they get in four at the club. Got to play too sloooow.”
They talk for a few minutes, nothin’ in particular. The waitress brings coffee and Sonny sips his, then the food. Sonny takes a bite of toast, moves the eggs around, drinks more coffee and takes another bite of toast while Harper wolfs it down. “Man,” he says, “I was hungry like a bear.”
“Yeah,” says Sonny with a grin, “I noticed.”
Harper laughs. “Look like you hungry as a bird,” he says.
“I just ain’t got much appetite. Prob’ly ’cause I didn’t sleep much.”
“Somethin’ on your conscience?” Harp says, smiling. “Or is somethin’ else botherin’ you.” He says it lightly, but Sonny knows what he’s askin’.
Sonny shakes his head, says “Unh-uh,” drops a five on the table and gets up. “I just got to get me some rest, Harp. I’ll see you tonight.”
Harper grabs his wrist. “Sonny?” he says, “Somethin’s goin’ on. You look like shit, man. You sound like shit.”
“Jus’ tired, is all.”
Harp stares right into him. “You seen the doc yesterday.”
“Yeah,” Sonny admits.
“What’d he say? About your stomach, boy.”
Sonny shrugs. “Didn’t say nothin’ ’bout it. Why you think he said somethin’ ’bout my stomach?”
“’Cause you ain’t said nothin’ about it. Not last night on the phone, not before the gig, not durin’ breaks, not since we been sittin’ here. Only time you don’t talk about somethin’ is when somethin’s wrong, bad wrong.” Harper pulls him down into the booth and leans across the table, speaks quietly. “I’ve known you forty-some years, Sonny. You got no way to lie to me.” He sits up straight and stares into Sonny’s eyes. “No fuckin’ way.”
Sonny looks down at his hands and breathes carefully. “I - can’t talk about it, Harp. Not now.” He stands up; Harper eyes his every move. “I do got to rest. I, we’ll talk, maybe tomorrow.”
“Why not tonight? After?”
“If I ain’t too tired.”
“Okay.” Harper gets up from the booth as the waitress approaches with their check, steps around her, and does something he’s only done one other time in their lives, the day Sonny married Norma, right before she came down the aisle. He puts his arms around Sonny and holds him, hugs him to his bulky chest, squeezing Sonny like he was the last man on earth and there was no way he was gonna let him get away. Sonny is surprised, and the pressure makes his gut ache, but he doesn’t move. He just lifts his arms and he hugs Harper back, not so hard, but hard enough.
“’Scuse me” says the waitress. “You boys want anything else?”
“Nah,” mumbles Sonny, still in the embrace.
“Okay,” she says, and drops the check and leaves.
Harper lets go. Sonny steps back and sees: Harp is crying. Sonny’s embarrassed. “Hey, man,” he says, puts his hand on Harp’s shoulder and tries to smile.
Harper clasps the hand with own massive, lissome fingers. “You my brother, Sonny.”
“I know. You’re mine.”
“You all I got.”
Sonny nods and squeezes Harp’s shoulder.
“Shit,” Harper says. He wipes his face. “Look - at - this - shit!” He laughs, Sonny joins in. “Hey: You go get that rest now. I’ll see you tonight.”
“Yeah, man,” says Sonny. “Tonight.”
He lies in bed, the radio on, unable to sleep. The pain won’t back off. He took a pill, finally, but it’s not helping: His gut’s on fire and he’s passin’ blood again. He called the doctor who again suggested he come into the hospital; they could give him something IV that would help. And he would sleep. “I got to play tonight,” Sonny rasped, “and tomorrow night. How’m I gonna pay for anything if I don’t? ’Sides,” he went on, “how’m I gonna think straight with that shit goin’ through my brain?” “It’s up to you,” the doctor said, “but I strongly recommend it, Mr. Curtis.” He cleared his throat. “It’s not going to get better, only worse.”
In the end he agreed to see Sonny Monday morning, first thing, and Sonny agreed, if it kept getting worse, he’d maybe go in then. He hung up, turned on the radio, set the alarm for 8:00 and lay down.
He tries to breathe slowly and shallowly, so his belly won’t blow up, and wonders where he’s gonna get the breath to play tonight. Well, he’s got to. He needs the money, he needs to get away from the pain and the music, it can do that, move him along like a cloud in a summer sky. Even a stormy summer sky.
He finally does fall asleep, he’s not sure when, but the alarm jars him. He rubs his eyes and shuts it off, lies there trying to figure out how his stomach is. He takes a small breath, then a slightly larger one, then a deep one. That hurts, but it’s not as bad as before he went to sleep. Pill is still workin’. And he can take another one at, what, 8:30.
He gets to the club just before 9:00. It’s busy; lots of people and noise. Harper’s at the bar, with Cole; Harp waves to Sonny who waves back but keeps going, into the dressing room. There’s a pitcher of ice water there and he pours himself a glass, takes out a pill and swallows it. His stomach is still hurtin’ but it’s nothin’ like this afternoon, and he waited so this one’d last as long as possible. He’s not supposed to take another one till 1:00, but he figures if he needs it he can take it sooner. Just so’s he can get through the night. Then he can go home, sleep some more, maybe he’ll feel better when he wakes up tomorrow.
When he comes out Harp, Alan and Cole are on the stand, jokin’ and laughin’, loose and eager. He steps onto it, one hand on the sax hangin’ from the strap. He smiles and waves at all of them. “How you doin’?” Harp says, his eyes clear this time, sharp and focused. “Okay” Sonny says. He blows a couple notes and does a sound check, takes the song list from his pocket and looks it over while Harp says into his mike: “Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to Club Riff, one of the -- few -- places around where you can still hear jazz the way it’s meant to be heard, intimately, played the way it’s meant to be played, right before your very ears.” The audience applauds, a little more enthusiastically than usual; most of the time it’s just polite, least till they get warmed up, lost in the music like the players do. “Thank you” Harp says and arpeggios.
“My name is Harper Howell, and tonight we got Mr. Alan Towson on the drums” -- Alan riffs; the applause is polite -- “Mr. Cole Amber on acoustic bass” -- Cole plunks a couple bars; more polite applause -- “and, on the alto saxophone, Mister, Sonny, Curtis” he says with a flourish. Sonny blows up and down a scale, nods as the applause rises. He thinks about his stomach: So far, so good.
“We’re gonna be here till three o’clock, so you just sit back, drink up so the owner’ll think you love us and he’ll pay us better” -- there’s a small laugh; Harp smiles his widest smile -- “and listen up, ’cause you gonna hear some great music tonight.
“We’re gonna start with a tune that features Sonny Curtis, written by another Sonny -- Sonny Rollins. It’s called: Sonnymoon for Two.” He moves the mike away, says “Two, three, four” and they’re off. Sonny wets the reed again, slips it between his teeth and lips, closes his eyes and blows; and there it is: a great skein of notes woven into a crazy quilt of such otherwise-inexpressible beauty that it can only exist because he weaves it. It wraps him and he feels warm within it. Like Norma’s hands when she loved him, like his Mama’s when he was a little boy. Like Harp’s when he put the bear-hug on this afternoon. Yeah, there’s some pain -- in his gut, in his memory -- but it don’t matter. He thinks of something somebody read him once, that he never forgot: The dying dream of ecstasy like the living dream of love.
Well, he’s dying. He’s entitled to dream of anything he wants.
By the end of the second set he knows he’s gonna need another pill. Breathin’ deep, like he needs to, is hard. At the break he asks Harp to change the song list, pick pieces that have fewer solos for him, and shorter ones. Harp looks at him and says sure, Sonny, and you keep it to eight bars no matter what; and offers to buy him a drink. Sonny shakes his head.
“You turnin’ down a drink?” Harp asks. He looks worried.
“I’m takin’ some med’cine,” Sonny says. “Doc says I ain’t supposed to drink while I’m takin’ it.”
“Mmm,” murmurs Harper. “It for...?” and he taps Sonny’s gut, not hard, just a little tap, but Sonny jumps back. “Sonny?” says Harper, “hey, what---.”
“Yeah,” Sonny concedes. “It’s for my stomach. Look, I’m gonna go sit a while, you come get me when break’s over. Okay?”
“Yeah,” says Harp, and Sonny heads for the dressing room.
It’s only a quarter after eleven, he can’t take another pill yet. He pours a glass of water, drinks it, closes his eyes, tries to breathe slow, even. Behind his eyes he can see patterns, shapes shifting, like paisley, all shades of blue and purple, floating around images: his sax, the bedroom he slept in as a boy, ’Nita’s body the time he glimpsed her comin’ out the shower with the bathroom door open, when he was 12. Paris, first time he saw it: huge cathedrals, narrow streets, lights flashing like Vegas’ did now. Man, he was happy there, at first anyway. Music everywhere: Everything a man could want.
He hears footsteps and a hand touches his shoulder. “You ’bout ready?” Harp says softly. Sonny nods and opens his eyes. “Yeah,” he says. “Let me piss and I’ll be out.”
“Sonny” Harp says, “you sure you can play?”
Sonny laughs; it hurts. “Now, Harper,” he says, “when’d you ever know me not be able to play?”
“Okay,” says Harp, with raised eyebrows.
“Two minutes,” Sonny says and goes into the bathroom. He fills a paper cup with water, takes a breath and swallows it with a pill. He looks at his watch: 11:31.
By the last break the pain is blinding and he’s gasping between notes. Harper tries to convince him to go home, they’ll play the last set as a trio, and even Cole, who, like Sonny, usually sees nothing but the music, has noticed and commented. But Sonny’s determined: He can finish out the night. He’ll go home and rest, that’ll make him okay.
Harper shakes his head. “You one stubborn son of a bitch, Sonny Curtis,” he says. “And, sick or not?, you one hell of a horn man.”
“Thanks,” Sonny mutters. He heads for the bathroom and takes another pill. I got to last one more hour, he whispers to the mirror; not even a hour, just three-quarters a one. He drinks more water. I can do that he thinks. I can do that.
When they finish the last set Sonny sits on stage, eyes closed, breathing in and out slowly and shallowly. In his whole life he has never hurt this bad. Harp comes up to him, asks if he can do anything and Sonny, unable to speak, shakes his head. He sits that way five, maybe ten minutes, he doesn’t know how long. Harp sits beside him, pretending conversation so that when Mr. Orrin, Club Riff’s owner, comes up and asks if everything’s okay, Harp can say, “Yeah, we just talking while Sonny catches his breath. He’s just tired.” He grins. “Late night with his girl, know what I mean?”
Mr. Orrin is sympathetic and goes away. Harp gently lays a hand on Sonny’s shoulder. “C’mon, man,” he says, “let’s get you home.” Sonny nods.
Usually he takes the bus but tonight he can’t handle the slow lurching ride so he gets a cab. Harp shares it -- too cold tonight to walk, he says -- and they drop Sonny off first though it’s really out of Harper’s way. “You want me to walk you up?” he asks; Sonny says no, he can make it. “Okay,” says Harp. “See you tomorrow. Now you take care.” “Yeah,” says Sonny. “I will. You too.” Harp nods, and Sonny baby-steps from the curb to the door, unlocks it and goes in. While he waits for the elevator he looks out; the cab is still sitting there. He waves as the elevator door opens. It drives away.
Inside, he puts down the sax, takes off his shoes, gets water and takes a pill. He looks at his watch: 3:40 on Saturday morning. It’s been less than two hours since the last one and he’s feeling dizzy and tired as well as being stabbed again and again from the inside. Still dressed, he lies down in the dark and breathes: in, out. In, out. Slow, slower. In, out.
He does fall asleep but the pain jabs him and wakes him up; the clock says 4:32. He waits and the pain goes away, mostly. He can just feel the little jigger of the knot twisting his innards.
He hasn’t eaten in a day and half, but he’s not hungry. He does have a headache. Maybe he can keep something down: a slice of bread, some soup. He warms a can of beef consommé on the stove, dips bread into it and swallows a couple bites. His stomach doesn’t like it; he stops so he won’t throw up.
Sonny drinks more water, and goes into the living room. He sits on the sofa, looks out the window at the flashing neon sign. “You broke like me,” he murmurs to it. The sign keeps flashing.
He sits that way, listening to the silence, a long time, thinking, deciding. Finally, he shakes his head. Then he gets up, gets the sax case and brings it back to the sofa. He opens the case, takes out the sax, wets the reed, blows: Long, legato lines rise from the bell: Smile, in a slow, lilting plaint that sounds like all the tears in the world. It’s hard and it hurts, but he plays through the verse, the chorus, the verse, modulates and plays the chorus one last time. Then he removes the reed, holds the sax in front of him, looks at its bright and curving beauty, replaces it in the case and takes out the gun. He lays that on the arm of the sofa, beside the reed.
The Jack is still on the side table and he takes a long swallow -- ’bout half of what’s left in the bottle; it burns goin’ down and like hell in his stomach, but, though it takes a long time, it settles. He sits and waits for it, breathing shallowly so the pain won’t expand with each breath. Sonny grins. Stomach don’t mind good whiskey; that’s good. Once he’s sure it’s all right, he goes to the record player, kneels and withdraws Bird: Now’s the Time. No blues tonight, he thinks. He puts the album on, then he goes back to the sofa and sits through the tracks, listening in the darkness to each one carefully and letting the memories flow with the music -- Norma, his Mama, Maryjane, Paris, Los Angeles, Harper and the feeling of standing with his horn, eyes closed and his breath coming furious and easy, the reed soft on his palate, the keys moving magically under his fingers, Norma again -- The Song is You, Lairnd Bairnd, both takes of Kim and Cosmic Rays; he turns the record over; all three Chi Chis, I Remember You. When that ends, his stomach doesn’t hurt anymore. He smiles -- sofa needs replacin’ anyway -- and drinks the rest of the bourbon. Now’s the Time begins. Sonny listens, long and hard. He picks up the gun. He brings it to his temple. He closes his eyes.