January 6, 2012 at 7:10 pm 2 comments

For those that are new to visiting my blog, and those that come here regularly, I am offering you a story once again that is one of my favorites.
It was published in the literary journal, Toasted Cheese. I hope you enjoy it.

The Gig of a Lifetime

Sweats Connelly was having the time of his life. He nodded to the rest of the band; a band made in heaven, and played his heart out. A glowing fog obscured the audience, but he knew they were there listening as he gave them his sweet music.
* * *
Jerome Connelly grew up under the care of his unwed mother on the hard streets of an unforgiving city. His skin was rich ebony, and from the time of his birth, he was rail-thin with the delicate features of a father he never knew. His nickname was Sweats, a direct result of the mean streets he called home. His friends gave him the name because, even on the coldest winter’s day, Jerome would arrive at school drenched in sweat.
His friends would ask, “Hey man, why you always sweating?”
He would mumble something about running late, wipe his face, and head for class. He couldn’t tell his friends that he was sweating from fear. The walk to school was through streets where drugs were dealt, where people were shot for no reason, where life was cheap and held no promise.
First his friends, then everyone he knew began to call him Sweats Connelly. It wasn’t long before there wasn’t anyone who called him Jerome, except for his mother.
Sweats began playing sax in his middle school band. He continued to play into his high school years, but alone for his own pleasure. With money earned doing odd jobs, he managed to buy a used alto sax, which quickly became his most prized possession and his only close friend. Hours spent playing in the safe solitude of his bedroom sharpened his skills. He was good, and with time to focus on his playing, he knew he could be a lot better. Now sixteen, Sweats felt he was wasting his time in class. He had discovered the meaning of his life and none of the classes he took furthered that purpose.
Sweats returned to the small apartment he called home one day after school and carefully closed and locked the door. His mother, Martha, suspecting that something was bothering her son for some time now, asked him, “What’s wrong Jerome? You just not yourself lately.”
“Mom, I can’t take this shit anymore.”
“You watch your tongue,” his mother warned.
“Okay, I can’t take school anymore. I ain’t learnin’ nothin’. I want to play my sax, that’s all. I’m good Mom, and someday I could make some real money.”
Jerome’s mother bristled when he talked about dropping out of school. “I want you to do something with your life, Jerome. Not be like the bums you see everywhere on these streets.”
Martha said to her son, “It’s against my better judgment, school is important…
“I know mom, but playing my sax is important to me. I promise to get my GED, but I need time to practice.
“Oh, Baby,” cooed Martha.
Sweats knew he had her.
* * *
Sweats dropped out of high school with his mother’s reluctant permission. He still poured sweat, but now it was the perspiration of passion and emotion while playing his sax, not from fear of his surroundings.
One day, while darting through the neighborhood on an errand, Sweats saw a sign hanging in the window of one of the local run down clubs. JAZZ MUSICIAN WANTED, proclaimed the placard. Sweats went inside.
It was eleven o’clock in the morning and the place was mostly empty. There were a few customers sitting at the bar nursing their drinks, behavior born from hopeless lives. About a dozen tables were set up, and across from the bar, was a small stage. Behind the bar stood a man washing glasses and preparing for the day’s business. His name was Mac Shorter, a tough looking man who had evidently led an equally tough life. He was the bartender and owner.
Sweats approached him and said, “I’m here about the musician’s job.”
Mac looked up at Sweats, and asked, “How old are you, boy?”
Because of his height Sweats looked older than his sixteen years. “I’m eighteen,” he replied. Eighteen was the minimum age to work in a place that served liquor.
Mac was a keen observer. He rubbed his whiskered chin in disbelief. “What instrument you play?” he asked.
“Alto sax sir, and pretty damn good,” was Sweats response.
“I’ll be the judge of that. Come back with your instrument tonight, about nine o’clock, while the band’s here. We’ll see if you have anything.”
Sweats knew his mother would be working the night shift at the café.
“I’ll be back tonight, sir,” Sweats responded as he made for the door. He knew that tonight he would have to play like he never played before.
As he was leaving, Mac yelled, “What’s your name, boy?”
“Sweats Connelly, sir.”
Sweats went home and practiced more intensely than ever. By the time he was done his fingers were stiff, but he knew he was right on for the audition. He left a note for his mother saying he would be out late and headed for the club.
* * *
The four band members began filtering in at eight o’clock, nodded to their boss, and began setting up the stage.
Mac walked up to the stage.
“What’s up, boss?” asked Joe the piano player.
“Might have a sax player for y’all.”
Frank, the drummer, said, “That’s great! About time somebody saw your damn sign.” The other band members laughed as they nodded in agreement.
“Don’t get too worked up,” said Mac. “He’s just a kid. I’m sure he lied about his age. But there aren’t many musicians in this part of the city, and those that are wouldn’t work in a dive like this. Hell, by this time of night, there ain’t many sober folks of any sort in this part of the city. He’ll be here at nine. We’ll see if he has anything.”
At nine sharp the door to the club opened and Sweats walked in carrying his sax in a beat-up case.
Joe took one look at Sweats and muttered, “Shit.”
Sweats walked to the stage.
“So they call you Sweats,” Joe said. “Does your mom know you’re here, little boy?”
Sweats’ forehead instantly grew a glistening sheen.
After studying Sweats’ face, Joe said, “I take that to be a no. Well boy, I’m sure it’s going to be a waste of our good time, but we’ll give you a try.”
Sweats hurriedly took out his sax and scanned the sheet music handed to him, while Joe introduced the band. Pointing to each member, he said, “This here is Frank. He plays drums. Leroy, over there, plays brass and Fats plays bass.” The musicians looked Sweats up and down. He could see the ridicule in their eyes.
The band began to play the first set. Sweats was nervous at first and made some mistakes, causing Joe to wince. But halfway through the second piece, Sweats fell into his groove and took off. The rest of the band had to work to keep up with him. One by one, the band members stopped playing and listened. The conversation in the club died down. Only the sweet sound of Sweats playing his sax filled the club. Sweats was lost in the music. He was at a level the band members tried for but never attained. At that moment, his entire world consisted of his sax and the notes it produced. When Sweats was done, he was drenched; the club was silent. Slowly, the audience began to clap. The enthusiasm of the crowd picked up with shouts for more.
Joe handed Sweats more music and the band played until one. As they were packing up, Joe said, “See you at eight tomorrow night, kid. We play Thursdays, Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays. That okay with you?”
“That’s fine sir.” Sweats was getting ready to leave when Mac called out his name and motioned him to the bar. “Look’s like you got yourself a job, kid. I got to tell ya’, kid, you fooled me big time.” He handed Sweats two, twenty-dollar bills.
He had totally forgotten that he would be getting paid to play. However, his euphoria ended when he thought about going home and facing his mother. He knew she would be home before him, probably waiting for him now.
Sweats made his way home on the darkened streets to the apartment he shared with his mother. Entering quietly, he locked the door behind him. He put down his instrument in the hallway and walked into the tiny kitchen. His mother sat at the beat up table drinking coffee.
“Where in the hell you been, boy?”
“I got the job, Mom,” Sweats said as he laid his pay on the table and pushed it across to her.
“What kind of job, and where you working?” she said as she looked down at the money.
“Playing my sax, Mom. I’m getting paid to play. Shit, I’d play for nothing if I had to, but they’re paying me.”
“Watch your mouth, boy”
“Sorry, Mom.”
“Listen, Jerome, the streets around here aren’t safe during the day, never mind at night.”
“I’ll be careful Mom. I’m playing with a band and I love it.” As he said this, Sweats pushed the money closer to his mom. She looked at the money. Sweats knew they were barely making it.
“Oh, Baby,” said his mom.
Sweats knew he had her, again.
* * *
Sweats had been playing with the band for a few weeks when Joe approached him, as he was getting ready to head for home. “Hey, Sweats. Good session, man.”
As he packed up his instrument, Sweats said, “Thanks, Joe. I love playing with you guys. The best time I have is when I’m up here on the stage.”
Joe said, “I’ve got to tell you, kid. When I first laid eyes on you, I had my doubts. Shit, they were more than doubts, but you proved me wrong. Telling you honest, we all play better since you joined the group. Hell, Mac hired us to provide background music while folks sit out there and drown their sorrows. But you notice something about the people now?”
“No, sir,” Sweats said. “Can’t say I do.”
“They’re listening to us play, Sweats. When we start up, the room quiets down. You’re good and playing with you is making us better.”
Sweats responded, “Thanks, sir. I appreciate that.” But he was embarrassed by the praise, and deep inside, knew he still had a ways to go.
He made for the door, then turned and said, “Thanks, Joe, for the encouragement.”
As soon as he left the club, he broke into a heavy sweat. The excitement of playing with the band initially blocked out the fact that he would still have to walk the same dangerous streets he walked to school, but now at night. His mother’s words came back to him. He felt a new level of terror as he walked the streets past midnight. On the way home, men he knew by reputation had approached him. During the day, they were around but kept a low profile. Nighttime was the time they owned the streets, when the fears that gave Sweats his name became reality. The only time Sweats felt alive and safe was when he played his music. Feeling the frustration of his life, he shouted into the night, “I just want to play!” He was tired of his life bouncing between the deepest fear and greatest ecstasy.
What Sweats didn’t know was that his plea was heard.
* * *
The following Friday night, the band was setting up when Joe turned to Sweats and said, “Can you feel it, Sweats? The air is electric. We’re going to be right on tonight.”
Sweats looked at Frank, Fats and Leroy, who nodded in agreement. As soon as he walked into the club that night, he had felt it too. He just didn’t know what “it” was.
As soon as the band began to play, Sweats knew that Joe was right. All five members of the band found their groove and inhabited their own musical heaven. During Frank’s drum solo, Sweats looked out at the audience. They were clearly enjoying the band. His eyes drifted to a table in front. There, sitting alone was a man he recognized. The man smiled broadly as his head bobbed back and forth and his hands rapped on the table, keeping time with the music.
After the performance was finished, backs were slapped and high-fives passed around the band. Frank said to Joe, “Man, were we on tonight, or what?”
Joe said, “Shit, man. We were beyond on. We were on holy ground!”
Frank, Fats and Leroy walked to the bar to celebrate. After they left, Sweats approached Joe and asked, “Say Joe, did you happen to get a good look at the audience tonight?”
“Sure, kid. I gave them a look. There were some sweet women out there. That what you talking about?”
“No,” answered Sweats. “There was a man sitting out front. I recognized him. I can’t believe he came to hear us play.”
Joe asked, “You mean a friend of yours came to give us a listen. He sure caught us on a good night.”
“No, Joe. It wasn’t a friend of mine. Sitting there in the front row was Miles Davis.”
“Shit, kid, you must be crazy.”
Sweats insisted, “No, Joe. I’m sure it was Miles Davis. I recognized him from his CD cover.”
Joe stepped back and looked at Sweats, then said, “I don’t know who you saw, but it wasn’t my man Miles. He passed away about two years ago.”
“But, Joe, I’m sure…”
“Go home and get some rest. And next week, if you see Satchmo in the crowd, let me know.”
* * *
When Sweats arrived home, his mother was waiting for him. She waited every night he worked with a hot meal. As he sat eating, she said, “You know, honey. I was reluctant to let you quit high school, but then you got your job, and the extra money is helping out. And you seem to be happier than I’ve ever seen you. You’re a man now, and I’m proud of you.”
Sweats sat quietly eating, thinking. How could he tell his mother that his life was still a nightmare while he lived in this neighborhood? How could he tell her that all he wanted was to play his music? Nothing else mattered.
There was an uneasy quiet as his mother watched him eat. Sweats decided to tell her what happened at the club. “Mom, tonight I thought I saw Miles Davis in the audience. Joe said that he’s dead. Is that true?” He knew his mother loved jazz, had been to the club a couple of times to hear the band play. Then she would walk him home, talking about his music and how proud she was of him.
“That’s true, baby. Miles died a few years ago. It had to be someone who just looked like him.”
Sweats just nodded and went on eating. He was sure it was Miles.
* * *
The following Friday night the air was the same – electric. Everyone in the band was smiling, joking and having the time of their lives. They were “on” again, their boss, Mac, knew it and the audience knew it. Half way through the evening, during a piano solo, Sweats once again scanned the crowd. He blinked his eyes in disbelief. There sat Miles Davis again, out in front. Beside him was someone Sweats also recognized. The man wiped his brow with a white handkerchief. Sweats could easily hear his gravely voice. It was Satchmo. Louis Armstrong was watching Jerome Connelly play. Sweats was numb with excitement and fear. He had no doubt that he was looking at two dead men. They were his idols, but they were dead. When it came time for Sweats’ sax solo, he flubbed the piece. His playing was terrible. There was no way he could concentrate on playing his sax with Miles Davis and Louis Armstrong in the crowd.
When the night’s work was over, Leroy walked over to Sweats and said, “Don’t worry kid. No one is on all the time.”
There was no way he could tell Leroy why he was off. He avoided all contact with Joe. Sweats walked home doubting his sanity.
Another Friday night and Sweats was living up to his name. He usually calmed down after he arrived at the club. But now, even the club wasn’t his sanctuary. There were dead men watching him play and he couldn’t tell anyone about it. He always found solace in his music. Now even that was gone. If dead men kept showing up to hear him, his only sanctuary would be destroyed.
The band began to play. Sweats didn’t dare look to the front of the audience but couldn’t help himself. There, at Miles’ table, sat Louis Armstrong, along with Duke Ellington and one of the greatest jazz drummers of all time, Gene Krupa. Sweats could tell they were enjoying the music. He didn’t understand what was happening, but he played his heart out. They were part of the audience and deserved to be entertained. He never mentioned the patrons of the ghost table again. He just played as well as he could for them.
The next Friday was the last Sweats ever played with the band. The ghost table had a new member. It was John Coltrane. He sat deathly still, just staring at Sweats, his gaze never wavering. When the band was done for the night, the ghost crew was still there. Sweats was totally unnerved. John Coltrane was motioning him to the table.
As Sweats left the stage, the lights of the club dimmed and a milk-white haze enveloped all but the ghost table. Sweats sat down in the only empty seat.
In a quiet voice, no more than a whisper, Coltrane said, “We’ve been following you Sweats, not only your music, but also your life. We want you to join our group. It will be the gig of a lifetime. We have an audience that spent their whole existence loving jazz, living it. Say yes, and the fears, the streets you dread will be gone forever.
Sweats agreed, and was never seen again.
* * *
The band missed Sweats. Joe said to the group, “I guess Sweats got himself a better gig. He deserved it. I think we were holding him back. With the right group, no telling what he could do.”
* * *
It was late Friday night, actually early Saturday morning, and Mac was closing up his club. Lately, he always made sure he was alone when he locked up Friday nights. Friday nights were special. Just before he turned the key in the door he would stand there, with the door slightly ajar, and listen. From afar, he could hear the sweet sound of Sweats playing his sax. But it wasn’t just Sweats playing. There was also a tenor sax, drums and more. The music was the sweetest Mac had ever heard.
Mac lived for closing up on Friday nights.


Entry filed under: free science fiction and horror stories, free stories, Walt Trizna, Walt Trizna's Stories. Tags: .


2 Comments Add your own

  • 1. slpmartin  |  January 7, 2012 at 3:27 am

    Really loved this story…a bit magical!

    • 2. walttriznastories  |  January 7, 2012 at 6:22 pm

      Thank you, my friend.
      I enjoyed writing this story, and was pleased when it found a good home.

      Walt Trizna


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