Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Billy Saddle, the Baseball Novel, Chapter Sixteen: Sprays of White and Blue

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 David’s on his duneside ledge, watching the sun melt through the marine layer like lemon sorbet. Up in the lounge, Isaiah breaks out a stride rendition of “Makin’ Whoopee.” David is halfway through a clove cigarette and actually enjoying it. Word among the kids is that cloves are the purview of effete intellectuals. He can hang with that.
            It’s an absolutely perfect Fourth of July. Hot, with a slight breeze and a spotless blue sky. Ice cream sales were through the roof, David and Derek scooping the good stuff while Pablo worked the crowd from his cash register. Pablo is still there, running down the chores on his closing list as he serves the late customers. David realizes that this will place Pablo in a too-familiar scenario – alone, late at night, counting large quantities of cash – but perhaps this will fit with Parthenia’s plan.
            His wife is a phantom. She has taken her shame into the evenings: support groups, exercise classes, and the same nighttime constitutionals that once belonged to him. His move to the guest room was predicated on the difference in their sleeping schedules, but is, in fact, a way to banish the question of sex to a day when both of them feel more comfortable with Elena’s body. Perhaps Derek will write a poem about it.
            It appears to be Billy, who has arrived by way of the beach. Perhaps he followed the sand all the way from Point Damon. But why would Billy be addressing him so directly?
            “Got the drums okay?”
            David smiles. “Courtesy of the North Beach music department. If this thing becomes popular, we have until September to assemble our own kit.”
            “Ride cymbal?”
            “Right side, as you asked. I am betting that you do most of your brushwork on ride and snare, which leaves your diaphragm open for singing.”
            Billy makes a smacking sound with his lips. “You are much too smart for a bass player.”
            “Thank you. I think. Are you set for brushes and sticks? The ones I got are a little beat up.”
            Billy pulls a leather pouch from his shoulder and reveals the contents: a pair each of retractable brushes, thin jazz sticks, padded mallets and half-volume “power sticks,” bundles of dowel rods wrapped in rings of tape.
            Having extracted sixteen words from the man, David feels nervous – as if twenty will initiate some subatomic event. Ravel’s Bolero drifts from the room upstairs, followed by a burst of green fireworks from the beach.
            “Whoops! There’s my call. We’re opening with Ramsey Lewis, if you’d like to join us.”
            The rusty beard sprouts a smile. “’Tis a foolish drummer who would pass on ‘The In Crowd.’”
            Twenty-seven words. And yet, life continues.

            David’s guess about Billy’s drumming is dead-on. He uses the brushes to slap eighths on the ride, strikes the one and three on the snare, and places the rest of his focus on the singing. Once they venture into the solos, he throws in fills, crashes, off-beats. But even at minimum force, the drums add a great deal to the sound. Mostly, thinks David, they sound more like a jazz band. Slower tunes bring the crackling soup-stir of brushes on snare. “Fever” comes with its familiar jungle rolls. A stick on the rim supplies the cha-cha claves of “Girl from Ipanema.”
            The big test is “Take Five.” With the bass and piano carrying the 5/4 pattern, the drummer’s job is a bit of a puzzle. Billy’s answer: whatever he wants. Using the power sticks, he variously matches the piano groove, strikes the downbeat alone, or sits back and sends out little rolls and crashes wherever he pleases. The surprise comes at the end of David’s bass solo, when Billy points the sticks at himself. The solo that follows is an expansion of the random approach: long fills and combinations tossed into the stew at a whim, as well as sudden suspenseful pauses.
            After a long train of cymbal crashes, sealed by a roll on the snare, Billy takes a mischievous look around and nods them back to the start. Expecting lyrics, they get a scat, a replica of Paul Desmond’s famed sax line on syllables capped with b’s and d’s. They end with a chaotic rumble, inspiring a raucous response from what is now a packed lounge.
            The time is right for a dance party, so David pulls out his surprise: a white Stratocaster, relic of an old blues band. Their strategy is to attack the new rock repertoire with rhythm guitar, while Isaiah fills in the bass part with his right hand. They’re praying that their singer got the set list from Abbey.
            Billy switches to solid sticks and they roll through “Move It On Over,” “Hey Bartender,” “Boom Boom” and “Mustang Sally,” stretching each song with David’s chordal solos and Isaiah’s usual brilliance. When he’s not freaking out over his rusty rhythm skills and a repertoire that may not last the night, David looks out over a field of oscillating limbs and butts and begins to really enjoy himself. It’s a sensation he has almost forgotten.
            The music doesn’t run out till 1:45, but their tireless tribe is demanding another song before the 2 o’clock closing. Billy utters the phrase “What’d I Say” and Isaiah is off on the intro. David feels majorly lost, but he reads the chords from Isaiah’s handiwork and sends out some funky shots. Billy makes up some new verses, and they keep going until their dancers begin to resemble marathoners at the end of the race. Billy plays a long fill that is clearly headed for an ending, and his cohorts follow him into a final resounding crash. He stands from the drums to confer with his bandmates.
            “Isaiah – give me a long intro for ‘Georgia.’ I’ll make a few announcements while Davey gets his bass.”
            David switches instruments as Isaiah draws out broad gospelly chords and Billy delivers a patter worthy of a pitchman.
            “We want to thank you for making our Independence Day one big slice of Disneyland, and we invite you to drop back in any old Friday night, because we will be here. Please, if you will, produce a few hand-generated percussives for my brilliant piano man, Isaiah Silverstein!” Applause, applause. “And also for our master of all things with strings, David Falter!” Applause, applause. “I am your humble skin-beater and vocalist, Billy Redman, and I would like to sing this last song for Abbey.”
            “Georgia On My Mind” was never Larry’s best. His natural style was so smooth that any attempt to sound like Ray Charles came out as a cartoon. Billy’s voice is just as rich and resonant as Larry’s, but he’s also able to produce a rough New Orleans edge, a little bit of Harry Connick, Jr. As David plays along, he’s guessing at a little South in Billy’s personal geography, and is amazed at the intensity of emotion he’s able to invest in these quiet lines, as if he is relating a series of tragic events from his own life. At the end of the bridge, it finally clicks in. He looks toward Abbey’s booth to find her staring straight ahead, her eyes streaming with tears.
            Billy finishes the vocal, stands from the drums and gives his players a rolling hand gesture. Keep going. He walks to Abbey’s booth and extends a hand. She rises to dance with him in the aisle. Sprays of white and blue fireworks fill the windows. Abbey rests her head on Billy’s shoulder and keeps crying. Billy sways her slowly and strokes her hair. David recognizes the motion: it’s just the way he would console one of his boys, when they were little.

Photo by MJV

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