New York didn’t like Eddie MacMurragh, and neither did Massachusetts, New Jersey, or Pennsylvania. This wasn’t the fifties anymore; the blues were just a color, and nobody wanted another black saxophone player. He’d played the streets, mostly, pounding out emotions into music and watching people walk right on by. An uptown restaurant had offered him a gig for a few months, and that had been all right. He’d gotten to play every night, and people didn’t really listen, but at least they heard. Sometimes, on slow nights when the Jets weren’t playing and the song was a real doozy, they’d even applaud. He liked that.
The only problem was that he wasn’t allowed to play any blues, just jazz. The showy kind. It wasn’t his style; it lacked the blues’ soul, the part that touched you. He quit after a few months.
He went looking for a place where people still appreciated the blues and still loved to hear that soul. A place where people would really hear him play. It wasn’t long before he put all his worldly belongings into a couple of packs and started to make his way back home. Back to the South. Back to a place where music is as much a part of life as breathing. Which led him here.
Here, walking along some highway, his back curved with the weight of what he carried, sweat dripping from his nose and dust clogging his spit.
He was not old, but by no means was Eddie young, and the sun beat on him like a hammer on its anvil. He’d been doing all right, really. He’d been making good time, playing when he couldn’t pay, sleeping under the stars when there wasn’t anywhere else. That was up until he’d been abandoned. Some farmer had left him at a fork in the road three miles from the closest town with nothing but an apology and an old baseball cap. It was a Yankee cap, but it was too hot to complain. It seemed like Eddie had been walking for years, but it could have been just an hour, he wasn’t sure.
He thought about his mamma while he walked, and oh, lordy, was she a sweet one. He remembered her telling him things to help him get through, the kind of things every mother tells her children when they’re little and getting bullied or think they’re nothing.
“Now, honey, you got dreams? ’Cause, honey, let me tell you, you gonna get ’em. All of ’em. If you want something, you smart enough, you fast enough, and you good enough to go get ’em. That’s right, and I know it.”
Then she’d hand him a cookie and brush his cheek with the back of her hand, her skin slick with sweat from working in the kitchen. At those moments he’d feel good, right down to his bones, like he really could do whatever he dreamed up.
He stumbled, and his feet took him back to the place he was. He glanced up. The sun’s heat poured back into him, banishing the last tendrils of memory. A man was standing in the road, which was strange on an unused road such as this – longer and flatter, it seemed, than it had been a moment before. Dustier, too.
All Eddie wanted right then was for a car to come along, pick him up, and take him away from this place. But none came, and the man didn’t move. So Eddie adjusted the pack on his shoulders, bent his head to the dust, and kept walking.
The man was a strange one, that was to be sure. Stranger than the man himself, though, was his suit: Italian, silk, freshly ironed and pressed, immaculate. The man looked like he was born to wear it.
“Do you have dreams, boy?” the man asked, his voice a whisper even across the space between them. The words were Eddie’s mamma’s, but the voice was surely not.
“I asked if you could play, boy. Can you?” The distance between them seemed to close with increasing speed. Eddie stepped forward and the ground wrinkled until they were standing just a pace apart.
“Well, boy, is that case on your back rattling or not?” the man asked, half a smile curving his face, just the hint of a chuckle in his voice. Dark black wraparound sunglasses covered his eyes, and he relaxed languidly on the side of the road as though he was in an upscale hotel or at a cocktail party. The suit was pinstriped and seemed to repel the dust; his loafers gleamed with polish.
“Excuse me, sir?” Eddie asked again. His throat was parched, and his voice cracked on the second syllable. Eyes darting, feet shifting, Eddie kept his head down but couldn’t help looking toward the sun as it set.
“Well, I’m something of a musician myself. I … well, you could say I … dabble in the performing arts. I recognize a fellow musician when I see one. And you are one, aren’t you, boy?”
“Yessir. I play the sax.”
“Well, isn’t that just wonderful,” the man said, all but clapping his hands with excitement. “Can I see it?”
A soft voice – his mamma’s voice – whispered in the back of Eddie’s mind, telling him that the man was going to steal his saxophone. Telling him to run while he still could. Maybe it was the man’s perfect suit or his very white face, or maybe the heat was finally getting to poor Eddie’s head, but he shook off the feeling. There was no harm in showing his precious sax to a man on the side of the road, especially a well-dressed man. If he could afford a suit like that, he didn’t need Eddie’s sax.
Eddie unlatched the clasps slowly, especially the top one with the missing screw. He remembered his father’s voice when he got the sax: “Ed, you’re gonna go far with this, chil’. You gonna play like no one’s ever played before. Like them greats, Armstrong and King, you gonna play. And we’s gonna dance.”
It was his tenth birthday, and the saxophone was as tall as he was. His lungs were too small to play a note and his fingers too weak to depress the keys, but he practiced and he played in his head. He wrote symphonies in his mind and gave concerts in his imagination. He made music with his brain, and when he grew older and pumped out his first screeching trill, it was the closest thing to ecstasy he’d ever experienced. Music. Or something like it.
“She is a beauty, isn’t she?” The man cooed as though speaking to an infant. He leaned in to touch the neck of the instrument.
“Don’t touch it,” Eddie barked. The words had slipped out before he could stop them. He dipped his head lower, but the man seemed to take it as a matter of course, moving on smoothly.
“Of course, of course.” The voice was pudding, silk on soft down. “Boy, I have a wager for you. I’ll wager my silver fiddle for your precious sax, eh? I’ll wager my silver against your brass that I can outplay you, boy.”
In the man’s hand there appeared a fiddle where there hadn’t been one a moment before. Eddie, however, still bristling from the man’s patronizing tone, barely noticed. Perhaps if he’d outright refused, packed his instrument away and hurried off, never glancing even once over his shoulder, he might have made it. But he didn’t. Eddie licked his lips at that silver fiddle and imagined never playing jazz again. Spending his time in a cabin singing the blues, not a care in the world, money taken care of. A silver fiddle, real silver. Like any poor boy from the South, he knew silver when he saw it, and oh, did he want it.
The man’s face split into a smile, sharp white canines peeking out. Without waiting for an answer, he said, “All right, boy, let’s see what you’ve got.”
Eddie took out that old saxophone as he’d done a hundred times. The white man smiled. For a moment, his face seemed to become black – but not black. Devoid. Empty of all things, all emotion, all purpose, all reason. Oblivion. Eddie took a breath, deep and true. And they played.
The saxophone’s deep baritone set the stage, thrumming in and filling the great near-Southern air. Then the man snuck under the deep chord with a chilling note, sharp as a knife. They hesitated then, waiting for some great conductor to drop his hand, staring each other down over that patch of sand. The baton dropped. The man’s bow seemed to become liquid silver as it flourished beneath his chin, and Eddie’s lungs heaved like the bellows of a forge. His cheeks puffed with air.
Eddie played the blues just like he was meant to, played his whole life’s story out. The man’s music seemed to float and twist, merging harmony and melody into some bastard kind of beauty, and Eddie’s notes held tight against them, losing ground when they could not gain. The great blue sky took their notes and flung them into the heavens. A single butterfly, caught in a swirling tempest, was buffeted by hurricane winds and flew on to fall as rain, lifeblood for the crops. Eddie grew and pounded back with his saxophone, raging against the man with every breath.
He knew, oh, Eddie knew, that he was fighting for much more than his father’s saxophone. He thought he saw them then, his mother and father, standing outside the storm but cheering him forward, onward. “You can get ’em. Go get ’em, honey!” His father with his hands on his knees, his big black eyes twinkling with mirth. “Play, Ed, my boy, my man. Play!”
And he did like never before. That music would’ve been ineffable in the light of day and in retrospect, but then and there it fit like a jigsaw piece into a puzzle. They almost danced around each other, instruments held tightly in their grasps, knuckles white with exertion. Circling like boxers or predators around prey, their shuffling feet sending dust motes into the air. Until – with one final bellowing crescendo marred only by the fiddle’s quick wit – it ended. The notes fell softly along the great road, which seemed not quite so long nor as flat as a moment before.
The man smiled shakily and wiped sweat from his brow. “Well, boy, they told me you could play, and you can. But it doesn’t matter now, does it? Hand over that saxophone. No reason to fret. I’ll take good care of it.”
He’d lost. Like so many before him. Eddie, his chest still rising and falling from his great billowing breaths, felt despair. He’d failed, and the Devil knew.
Then, like an angel rising from the setting sun, a dust cloud billowed toward the pair. Detroit rolling iron, a pickup truck, built and operated by American hands, red like the bleeding sun it seemed to have been born from.
The man whirled around, whatever magic he had now broken. Eddie darted forward before he could think, grasped at something around the man’s neck, and yanked. Even he wasn’t sure why he did what he did, but he felt resistance and pulled until it snapped like an overworked rubber band. Then he ran off toward the truck. He left behind his bags, his case, everything but his saxophone.
He ran as he heard the man yell after him, “The Devil take you, boy! The Devil himself! Get gone, but you’ll never find what you’re looking for!”
The man didn’t follow though, and when Eddie collapsed gratefully against the truck, he wasn’t behind him anymore.
The driver, a true Southerner, with eyebrows that sunk over his eyes and cuffs rolled up to his elbows, laughed at Eddie’s fraught expression. “Why, you look like the Devil himself is chasing you! Need a ride? Where you going?”
Eddie’s lungs heaved. He turned around, looking for a black suit in the middle of the road, and found nothing but the shifting sand. A smile touched his face as he glanced at the chain in his hand: silver, with a little pendant in the likeness of a fiddle.
“Me? Well, I guess I’m going South. South for a long time. Yessir. South.”
This piece has been published in Teen Ink’s monthly print magazine.