Jay was afraid of musical-instrument stores.
They were foreign places to him, technical markets that served the few, people who could perform with their hands, gifted players who could make a trumpet work, or a flute, people who knew what rhythm was, insiders who could sit around over beers and laugh and trade shop talk about the mathematics of scales and complex chord progressions.
Outside Johnny's Music was a red neon treble clef that somehow seemed to mock Jay as he stared up in the dusky late afternoon light, the traffic along Interstate 5 providing a dissonant back beat to his jumbled thoughts. For all he knew, it could have been some Chinese character signifying grace or wisdom or just natural cool, a symbol of a language he knew little about.
In the window hung a sign: "For sale or rent." Renting was what Jay had on his mind. Betty Jean wanted him to play the saxophone, wanted him to play for her on Saturday nights as she sat back on the bed, against cottony, fluffed-up pillows, a candle flickering on the nightstand beside her. She wanted him to express something to her - a passion or submerged emotion - that did not come from words, because, as her eyes and her actions were beginning to tell him, she no longer trusted his words.
But Jay could just as easily wield a saxophone as he could a blow torch or a surgeon's scissors, or one of those screaming power saws he had nightmares about back in seventh-grade shop class.
Like himself, Jay rationalized, there were people out there who just didn't know how to do things with their hands. They weren't the patient craftsmen, people who understood how things worked, who could build a table or repair their cars with only a knowing grunt or a silent nod of their head. Out there as well, Jay knew, were people like him: The bullshit artists, guys who told jokes, who tried to make people laugh. When it came to using their hands as tools, well, they took a quick step back into the crowd and offered to pay someone else to do that for them.
"Jay, you're about as useful around here as tits on a lawnmower," his father used to tell him.
Jay didn't even own a toolbox, not like his friends or the guys at work.
Betty Jean had one, though.
On Christmas mornings or whenever they bought something with assembly required, it was Betty Jean who went for the tools, lay the instructions out on the living room floor. Jay knew his role, in this relationship: He was the helper. He picked up the wrappings from the Christmas gifts or was sent running for a smaller screwdriver.
He walked down the main aisle at Johnny's, past stacks of snare drums and big trampoline-sized drums like the kind overweight kids with wrinkled uniforms and too-tight chin-straps play in high school bands. He passed an entire display of drumsticks and turned the corner to come face to face with several used pianos.
They humbled Jay the most. He had watched one of his sisters play the piano as a small boy and was unnerved at the time she spent in the living room, hunched on the wooden bench over the soft-looking, polished keys. Once, when no one was around, he had tried to make a few sounds, imitating what he had heard her do, reaching with his fingers, hitting several keys at once, but the results came out wrong-sounding and off, and he turned to see his younger sister laughing at him.
"You're hitting the wrong ones," was all she said.
He rarely went near that piano again. And, while he didn't mind listening to his sister play, Jay found himself spelling the word "p-a-i-n-o," for the inadequacy and irritation he felt in the presence of something that required a skill and commitment that, deep inside, he knew he did not have the stamina to achieve.
"Looking for a piano today?" O, pain.
Jay turned to see the red-haired woman in the blue smock with the Johnny's Music name tag. She had a birthmark on the right side of her face that resembled the ring around a raccoon's eyes. He blushed and looked away from her.
"No," he said softly. "I'm looking for the ..."
He paused, suddenly panicked because he could not remember the name of it, the thing he was looking for. His mind went wild, tossing aside words as though it were late for an appointment and rummaging the closet for just the right shoes.
"Saxophones," he said, finally, smiling at her, feeling silly and secretive. "I'm looking for the saxophones."
"Oh," the woman said with a small laugh, motioning past him. "They're over in the brass section."
Hesitating, Jay almost mouthed the foreign words. She touched his shoulder and winked.
"Here," she said, walking past him. "I'll show you."
Repentantly, Jay followed, excusing himself as he slid past the bald-headed man and his brown leather-jacket clad son who stood blocking the aisle. The boy had a guitar in his hands and was silently fingering several chords and looking defiantly at his father, moving his head from side to side.
Jay made eye-contact with the teen, ignoring the older man, who was closer to his own age.
"Wassup," he said, trying to sound street confident.
The boy looked at Jay with eyes that hurried away from his quickly, revealing a smirk he probably would have given to an outsider, perhaps a much older teacher or guidance counselor who had awkwardly tried too hard to make a bond.
They reached the place. Jay looked at the rows of shiny, copper-colored instruments - some with snaking necks and large gaping bells, others shorter and slender, simple and straight in the most direct way, like exclamation marks. Jay thought the collection resembled a family reunion of sorts, far-flung people with different faces and body types but all with something, enough, in common to show they were from the same clan, went by the same last name.
"What kind of saxophone were you looking for?" she asked.
Jay blushed and felt his clothes drop from his body. He looked again down the aisle of silent instruments. What did she mean what *kind* of sax, he scoffed to himself. *One that made music.
"The least expensive one you got," he faked.
The woman laughed." There are several types to choose from," she offered helpfully, looking over her shoulder as though searching for the store manager. Or a bouncer.
Jay felt like the butt of some cruel comedian's monologue. He winced inwardly as a trickle of sweat rushed down his forehead. He wanted to turn and run for the door. He couldn't think of anything half-way funny to say. There was nothing to do with his hands but reach out and strangle this woman and then dispose of the body, burying the evidence of his music store faux pas.
He had neglected to study for the test and was failing the exam, committing the worst sin of all, showing panic as he crashed. Jay didn't know a soprano saxophone from an alto from a baritone. He had heard the instrument family's smooth, waterfall sound before and responded to it, especially the low croon of the tenor, but he had never ever looked closely enough to distinguish the several varieties of the instrument. He admired them and the players at the clubs he went to. But he just didn't pay the right amount of attention. How many kinds could there be? Ten thousand? "Think screwdrivers," he half-heard Betty say. "Think purpose, think need." He swallowed just in time.
"The kind Dexter plays," he blurted out, finally.
"Dexter," she said, eyeing him. "You mean Dexter Gordon?"
"That's him," Jay said, gaining confidence. "The man."
"Then you'll want a tenor." She walked over and pointed to the instrument and Jay stood there staring helplessly, as he would a pretty girl on the street, suddenly alone with this thing.
It was beautiful, couched there on its stand. Jay reached out to feel the smooth roundness of the bell, reached his hand inside, and then gripped the sensuous curve of the neck. He lightly brushed one of the ivory-colored buttons and watched the corresponding lever slowly open and close at his command, like a heart valve, a perfectly working piece of machinery.
"I'll take this one," he said.
He picked up the tenor and held it with both hands, gauging its weight, pressing the body of the instrument against his and feeling a near perfect fit. Then, awkwardly, he tried to bring the mouthpiece to his lips.
"There's a neckstrap that comes with that. And a reed, " the woman said, pausing as though knowing the answer to her next question. "Have you ever played one of these things before?"
Jay glanced over at her. He wasn't sweating anymore. For the first time, he looked directly at the birthmark. He didn't care what this woman thought, or the guitar player, or his sister, or anyone else. He didn't mind the fact that he was a novice in a melodic world of knowing musical experts.
Right there in aisle six, something inside him had been struck over the sheer elegance of this tenor saxophone. It was like seeing for the first time a painting that moves you, made you realize the possibilities of the art form, or like driving past a house you immediately know you could live in forever.
"No," Jay said, drawing a long breath. "I haven't ever played before. But I'm gonna learn." Play for Betty Jean, time to do that, there ought to be time some left.
Betty Jean and Darlene aren't saying anything.
They sit in Betty Jean's car looking at the low-slung brownstone building not two blocks from Darlene's place in Hillcrest, gaping at the "Apartment For Rent" sign posted out front.
Darlene looks at her best friend, at the reverse crescent-moon frown on her face and feels a sudden crush of protection. She reaches out and gently takes her hand, just like she always did when her little sister Dale-Annette got dumped by some two-timing athlete in high school and came home in tears.
"C'mon, darlin'," she says softly. "Let's just go take a look at the place. You don't have to rent it if you don't want to. We're just window shopping here today, remember?"
"I should be shopping now. With Jay," Betty Jean says, letting loose a large sniffle. It seems as though she has been crying since she arrived at Darlene's apartment the previous afternoon.
She catches herself. "I'm sorry, Darlene. I can't imagine what a baby I must sound like, blubbering like this. My heart is pounding. I feel like I'm gonna throw up. I feel so weak."
"You're not weak," Darlene says immediately. "Nowhere near weak. How many others at Frank's do you see doing what you're doing? God knows, a lot of those girls have gotten themselves hooked up with some real doozies."
She turns to Betty Jean. "It takes a lot to leave a man when he's not making you happy, sweetie. Otherwise, it'd happen a hell of a lot more often. There'd be whole neighborhoods filled with newly single women, women finally eating right again, who no longer have to put up with Sunday afternoon football games and a greasy ole fork wandering over to dinner plate like some predator every time they turn their backs at dinner.
She bangs on the dash, like she's just thought of something.
"Because you know what they say about what women do to their assholes every morning?"
Betty Jean winces at the lewd punchline she knows is coming.
"They kiss `em and send `em off to work!"
Both women laugh and Darlene holds up her hand for a high-five. Betty Jean looks tenderly at her friend.
"Thanks, Dar," she says, wiping a tear from her chin.
Then she pauses. "Let's do it."
In the late afternoon drizzle, they hurry up the wide front sidewalk of the 6th Avenue apartment building and Darlene raps on the wooden door. Betty Jean finds the bell for the manager's apartment and rings it.
Waiting, they peer in at the strip of lush red carpet that runs through the foyer, at the polished wooden floors, two period straight-backed chairs and at the huge twin mirrors facing one another on either wall.
"Nice place," Darlene says. "Honey, if you can get an efficiency for $400 in this building, I'd take it on sight. Hell, if you don't, maybe I will."
Inside, they see the thick-haired head of a man in his early 60s peer around the corner from the first apartment to the right. The forehead is furrowed and framed by eyebrows so thick and unruly they appear to have merged into one big-ugly brow.
The look is anything but welcoming.
Betty Jean takes Darlene's hand.
Then, shoulders stooped, wearing a red satin robe and slippers, Albert Nunziati walks toward them down the hall, looking skinny and sickly, like some modern-day Ichabod Crane transplanted to the West Coast, or a living, lower-case "r" with hairy legs.
He struggles with the locked front door and finally, awkwardly, yanks it open, nearly banging himself in the forehead. Betty Jean and Darlene stand frozen, their eyes glued to the bad toupee that sits cockeyed now on the side of the head from the brush with the door. Looking down, they see the tufts of grey and black chest hairs that spill from the front of the robe.
"Well, come on in!" he says snappishly, stepping back, giving them room to pass. "But don't step off the plastic. I don't want you leaking any water in here. You'll ruin my hardwood floors!"
The women step inside to hear the throaty shriek from somewhere deep inside the open apartment door.
"Albert!" comes the scream. "Who is it? We're not buying the afternoon newspaper and we're not giving to any charities! If it's that salesman from Sears and Roebuck, tell him to go away."
"Gertrude, will you please shut up?" Albert yells back in a low growl. "They're not salesmen!"
He turns to the two women. "At least I don't think you're salesmen. You aren't, are you?"
"No, sir, we're not," Betty Jean says politely, clearing her throat. "We've come to look at the apartment." She motions at the sign on the lawn.
Nunziati follows her finger out into the rain.
"The apartment? Oh, yes, the apartment! I'd almost forgotten about that. We so rarely have vacancies around here."
He pushes the large glass and wooden door closed behind them, until the heavy metal lock clicks into place.
"Well, you two certainly are fast. I just put that sign up yesterday afternoon. You're my first customers."
The three jump in fright as the shrill blast of another scream comes billowing at them, this time from the threshold of the door, not ten feet away.
"Albert!" comes the voice. "Why didn't you answer me?"
"Gertrude," the elderly man says, fake-smiling through clenched teeth in a failed effort to control his temper. "Will you please STOP yelling! Good God to Christ woman, can't you see we're standing right here."
Betty Jean and Darlene turn to see Gertrude Nunziati standing there in the doorway, wearing a white satin robe with a dozen drooping curlers in her hair, inspecting them as she strokes a slack-brown panting Pomeraniun clutched in her arms. Two thick black streaks of eyeliner make her appear clownlike, giving her face an expression of perpetual surprise.
"Well, what the hell do they want, Albert? Whatever it is, we're not interested, do you hear me?"
The old man turns quickly to her, like a short-tempered circus trainer to an uncooperative animal performer. "They've come for the apartment, dear," he says in a monotone of mock-politeness. "You do remember the apartment, don't you?"
The woman looks at them drop-jawed, then back at her husband. With a quick swoosh, she pulls a lighter from the pocket of her robe and lights a cigarette. An expression crosses her face like that of a foraging animal suddenly coming across something edible.
"Well, then, take them down to look at it!" she snaps to her husband, who stands primping after noticing in his mirrored reflection that his toupee is half off.
Then, her voice rising: "What on earth are you waiting for?"
Betty Jean looks at Darlene, then over at the couple.
"Down?" she says.
"Why, yes," the old woman says. "It's a basement apartment. Hasn't he at least told you that much?"
She reaches into her other pocket and produces a clutch of keys.
"Well, go ahead, take them down, Albert. And be quick about it. You've still got to make dinner and I've got no time to help you. I don't want to miss my shows."
The old man takes the keys and slouches toward the elevator, turning toward the two women like some mad scientist's assistant, like his name is Igor or Marty and he speaks with an accent.
Neither Betty Jean nor Darlene makes a move. Finally, Darlene gives Betty Jean a little shove and they follow him into the two-person elevator.
Downstairs at the apartment, Nunziati opens the door with a flourish, as though he's some bellboy at a five-star hotel and he's just taken his guests to the honeymoon suite.
Betty Jean steps inside first. Her first sensation is being in her Grandmama's bedroom as a little girl, wiggling her nose at the smell of the musty bedspread. The smell of a room left to its own devices is powerful.
In the failing afternoon light she can make out the smothering forms of slipcovers thrown over all over the furniture. She sees a stack of old magazines and newspapers falling over on the floor. Looking up, she sees a clatter of pipes running this way and that across the ceiling. A thin single mattress hides in a corner.
When Nunziati switches on a light, things get worse.
Betty Jean stops in the door's threshold and the old man gives her a little push as though to introduce her to a blind date. He walks over to the tiny table and brushes it with his hands, stirring up a cloud of dust.
"It's been vacant for little awhile," he says, adding a fake cheeriness to his voice.
"Like, how long a little while, like 20 years?" Darlene says from behind. Betty Jean elbows her gently.
All the while, Betty Jean can't take her eyes from the tangle of pipes overhead. She thinks of some old mother ship in a science fiction space thriller she once saw, a ship that's been away for a few centuries and comes back with a case of galactic, sentimental cobwebs.
"What are those?" she says, pointing up.
Ninziati is licking his right index finger, trying to rub out of black stain on the dusty table.
"Oh, those! Those are the water pipes and heating ducts for the first-floor apartments. They'll keep you warm this winter, I can assure you that. Hissing and steaming. The rhythms will put you right to sleep at night."
He walks over to a corner of the apartment and opens a small wall compartment holding what looks like a bunch of fuses and switches. "The brain trust for the entire building is right here," he says.
Darlene looks at Betty Jean, raising her eyebrows in disbelief.
"Wait a minute," she says. "You mean you come barging in here anytime you have to adjust the heat in this building?"
"Oh, it's no trouble at all," Nunziati says defensively. "I've done if for years. One winter a few years back we had this young g-girl living here and I had a little adjustment I had to make in the middle of the night."
He looks over at the door and his voice falls into a whisper.
"I let myself in over there while she slept. Well, I shot my beam over there toward the bed and I saw she was plumb naked. Legs sprawled this way and that. Naked as a goddamned newborn. But I didn't have to look twice. I just went about my business and let myself out, same way I came in." A good guy.
Betty Jean starts to walk to the door. Darlene is at her heels.
"Well, thanks whole bunches Mr. Nunziati. I think I've seen enough. I've got a few more places to look at. I'll give you a call if I'm interested."
"Wait!" The old man starts to talk faster, as though taken by surprise, an unpracticed hunter who has raised the fowl from the bush well before he intended.
"It's really a nice, cozy place. I c-can even give it to you at a discount. I can tell you really like it!"
Back in the car, Betty Jean throws the engine into gear with such force the tires squeal from the parking lot. She drives down to the corner stop sign and suddenly pulls the car curbside.
She turns to Darlene. "My husband may be a monster, girl. But at least he's got his own hair!"
Darlene laughs a high-pitched laugh, imitating Mrs. Nunziati.
"Whatever it is, Albert, we're not interested!" she shrieks, convulsing into laughter, offering her hand for the second high-five of the afternoon.
Write "Ellavon" at email@example.com.
Released: June 12, 1998