Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Nature Boy, Chapter One: Backlit by Nostalgia

FREE on Amazon Kindle, June 5.

For Joe Urban

Amaryllis Asphalt

Jacaranda snows are a lovely thing if you can find them, splitting the narrow sea of Highway 5, wondering if your hand will slip from the wheel, if life holds more for you than three-minute eggs and a waitress named Jolene.

The Texas rain does you large favors, curtaining off the horizon before it swallows you up. Western states do not stop for passengers, and morning waits like a dial tone on the rail fences outside Dallas.

The only thing better than being here is being three miles from here, three minutes from now.

And nothing so good as a rest stop blackbird, picking crumbs off the pay phone shelf.

First published in The Montserrat Review

Backlit by Nostalgia

Skye pushes uphill, planting his claws, kicking out asphalt, sweat slick on his temple. He passes a houseboat, a breeze of vacationers laughing over grills.

An hour later, he arrives at a sprawling rental and steals upstairs, rinses off in the shower and puts on some clean clothes. He’s tossing everything into his bags when Rosa appears in the doorframe.

“Are you leaving?”

He pauses to settle his voice. “Yes.”

“Oh.” Her response carries a lift of surprise, but she’s wise enough to continue downstairs.

Skye tosses the bags into his truck, is ready to escape when he remembers.


His head feels tight, overstuffed. He slips back inside, feeling the press of time. He’s in luck – his dad is napping. The book sits on the nightstand: Traitors. Later, he might enjoy the irony. He takes it, gives his father’s face a regretful look, and returns to the driveway.

He heads north, retracing the route of his angry hike. Nearing the restaurant, he extends a middle finger in the general direction of his little sister, and climbs the western edge of the lake. The jailbreak is complete.

Still, his anger presses on his eyelids. He stops at the first casino past the border and slips a five into a slot with Arthurian faeries and nobles. He cashes out with fifteen, and hopes that this is the first notch in a positive trend. He takes a last look at the blue spread of Tahoe and turns toward Carson City.

The long, lazy stretches of 395 feel deliciously otherworldly, the sun drifting low over the barren backsides of the Sierras. His plan takes shape: a first-ever tour of Mono Lake, followed by a drive over Tioga Pass and in through Yosemite’s back door. But first, a place to sleep. He exits a long, lunar canyon and finds a grassy plain peppered with cows. Californians do not expect to see the color green so near to Nevada.

The surprise deepens as he rolls into a town called Bridgeport, a charming strip of old-school storefronts and country homes. Skye spots a motor court – a long white ell nestled around a park of lawns and shade trees. He checks in at the desk, tosses his bags into a comfortably cheesy room (thick floral curtains, paintings of ducks) and takes a shower to scrub away the road.

His last decent outfit includes a button-down shirt featuring a golden eagle and a red sportcoat he bought for a Halloween devil outfit. He passes a stout, historic-looking building: clean white paint, arching doorway, sprawling oak. A library. The day’s gathered warmth magnifies the scent of the flowering hedges. Skye feels his lungs releasing their grip. He sees the word PIZZA and almost gets zinged when the sprinklers come on.

Mae’s Pizza is a boisterous chaos, yard-sale relics nailed to the walls, bunting left over from the 4th of July. The preponderance of truckers’ caps, plaid shirts and three-day beards indicates a hunting crowd. He’s grateful for the barking chatter; despite his clothes, he’d love nothing more than to be swallowed up by the crowd. He orders a sweaty microbrew, a slab of London broil, and a baked potato with every possible condiment.

Finishing a slice of apple pie, Skye notes a redhead with a man-like beer belly, fine-tuning a stack of electronic components. She opens a laptop, presses a button on a nearby television, and reveals herself: Peg o’ My Heart Karaoke. Skye smiles.

He waits until a handful of regulars have sung (bluegrass, country ballad, Southern rocker) and whispers a request to the KJ. He takes the mic and waits for the song screen, feeling a pleasant buzz of adrenaline.

He once talked a voice magazine into a story about yodeling, and arranged an interview with Ranger Doug of the cowboy trio Riders in the Sky. “First,” said Doug, “Drive your truck into a field far from people and small animals and roll up the windows.” The trick was to manipulate the flip-point between normal singing and falsetto. Skye learned a few of Ranger Doug’s solos, and now could apply the yodel-flip to artists like Dwight Yoakam, whose “Guitars, Cadillacs” had become one of his go-to songs. His venture earns a rowdy applause and a few freelance comments (“You sound just like ‘im!”). The approval makes him a little self-conscious, but it’s another notch toward his restoration.

Skye orders another beer and spots a newspaper at the next table. He reads up on the Giants – who are mired in a slump – and is surprised when he hears his name. He approaches the station.

“Quick rotation.”

“Classic drunky-oke,” says Peg. “Most of ‘em won’t sing until beer number four.”

“How ‘bout Nature Boy, Nat King Cole?”

Peg punches a few keys and smiles, revealing a missing tooth. “You’re on.”

It doesn’t make much sense to sing such a quiet song in such a loud room, but Skye is playing a hunch. By the end of the first verse the ringing debates have cut back to scattered comments. He notes an old man at the bar, a smile backlit by nostalgia. Skye applies the magical coda and returns to his table, massaged by applause.

It’s tempting to stay for more, but he’s wary of pressing his luck. He downs his beer, folds the comics into his pocket and finds the old guy hovering over his table.

“I can’t believe that someone sang that song in this bar.”

Skye smiles. “I suspect you have some history with that one.”

He spins a chair and sits on it backward. “Possibly my all-time favorite. How’d a youngster like you come to know it?”

“I was doing a story on Harry Connick and I heard his recording. I tracked it back to Nat King’s version, and that was a revelation.”

“Do you know about the guy who wrote it?”

Skye has a passing thought of his cozy motel room, but it’s clear that this old dog has latched on to a bone. He doesn’t have the heart to spoil his fun.

eden ahbez (who felt that upper-case letters should be reserved for God and Infinity) was a former bandleader who moved to Los Angeles and founded the Nature Boys, a group of vegetarian proto-hippies who wore robes, beards and sandals. In 1947, at the prompting of songwriter Johnny Mercer, ahbez found Cole’s manager backstage and offered him the music to “Nature Boy.” Cole performed the song to great acclaim, but couldn’t record it until he located the man who wrote it. They finally found ahbez camping beneath the first L in the Hollywood sign, and his song was number one for eight weeks in the summer of ’48.

“What’s interesting to note,” says the old dude, “is that eden may have obtained that haunting melody from a piano quintet by Dvoràk, or a song by a Yiddish composer who sued him and settled out-of-court for $25,000. A settlement, of course, is not an admission of guilt, and ahbez insisted he heard the song ‘in the mist of the California mountains.’”

His name is Sarge McCollum, and his passion for jazz is profound. Sarge has a thatch of silver hair that flies around as he talks, and sharp brown eyes behind small-framed spectacles. He’s also a master of gesticulation, as if he’s conducting his sentences.

“Bobby Darin was so talented it was hard to believe. I saw him once at the Copa. Keely Smith was in the audience, and Darin needled her mercilessly. Finally he waved his band into one of those jumpy Louis Prima vamps and sang a whole song in phony Italian. Y’know, Prima was that close to creating rock and roll. I’ve got this recording of ‘Buona Sera’ that could have been done by Little Richard.”

Skye slaps the table. “Yes! That sax solo where the drummer kicks it double-time.”

“Sam Butera. What a sound he had. Like roast beef.”

The bartender interrupts them. “Okay, Letterman and Leno. Time to break it up.”

“Sorry, Mae. We profoundly apologize.”

They walk outside as Sarge fishes for adjectives for Nat King Cole’s voice. “Velvety, but pure. Rich but clear. Like a cigar with no smoke. No! Like a kiwi fruit. Ah, crap. You’re the writer.”

They stop at the corner.

“Sarge, it’s been vastly entertaining talking to you.”

“Or listening to me. Honestly, I don’t usually go on like this. But jazz, for me, it’s like meth. Hey, I don’t know how long you’ll be in town, but I have an enormous collection of LPs, and I’d be thrilled to show it off.”

“Sure,” says Skye. “That sounds great.” It’s a phony answer; he has every intention of seeing Yosemite and going the hell home.

Sarge hands him a card. “Give me a call if you’d like to come by. I’ll send someone to pick you up. It’s a hell of a drive, and I wouldn’t want you to mess up your car.”

“Wow. Thanks.”

“Take care.”


Skye sets off toward the motel. A breeze ruffles his hair.

Photo by MJV

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