PIECES OF DESTINY
Over the next week, there was no question about it: I was officially the coolest guy in school.
Everybody I saw on Monday couldn’t wait to slap the back and shake the hand of “the guy who saved Faith.” I guess that was better than keeping up the faith, but still, it was a weird feeling for me. I always kind of flew under the radar back at school in Seattle. The kids at Garfield High were kind of cliquish: the jocks travelled in herds, grazing in the grass near the main phys-ed building; the geeks milled around with the nerds, loitering in the hall outside the science wing, flocking to the computer servers like gulls on a beach. Meanwhile, the rich kids loitered in the parking lot, comparing Beemers to Mercedes, showing off their hot designer clothes and looking down their noses at anybody with a Prius (or less).
As for me, I was always firmly planted in the twilight zone midway between the chorus building and the school auditorium, part of the small crowd of singers, actors, and musicians — a category that fit me just fine. I had my small circle of friends, but I think a lot of the drama kids were wrapped up into their own little fantasy worlds; some of them I’d only actually spoken to when we did scenes together in class. The singers weren’t much better; I was convinced a lot of the chorus kids were jealous of me. Maybe that sounds a little egotistical, but the truth was, for the last three years, I was always the one singled out for the solos at festivals and school performances. Still, whenever our teacher, Mr. Rawlings, praised my work and said I had the best potential of anyone in Seattle to make it on American Idol, I got a lot of catcalls and boos. Bitches.
Now, in my new life in the St. Louis of 1864, I had the double-whammy of not only rescuing Faith but also having made our much-hated teacher, Mr. Twitly, look like a total ass a few days earlier. Because of my confession to writing the obscene graffiti in his class, now I had the reputation of being an outlaw... even though Travis, Jesse James and I knew the truth: that I was just a poseur. On the other hand, they’d also witnessed my stunning victory a week ago in a fistfight against two older boys at once. So on some level, they knew I wasn’t a pussy.
Fighter... hero... singer... bad boy. Oh, yeah, I thought with a laugh. That’s totally me.
Travis looked on my newfound popularity with some amusement.
“Well, ain’t you somethin’,” he drawled, as we made our way back from the lunchroom. It was too cold outside for our usual noontime hangout, so we’d huddled around the wood stove in the kitchen at the back of the school, escaping the cold drizzle of late October.
“From what I hear tell, you were thrashin’ two boys with one hand an’ rescuin’ Faith with the other... all while singin’ a tune.”
“Yeah, right,” I said, rolling my eyes. “Most of that was just dumb luck.”
“You still got lots ta learn about fisticuffs,” he warned. “But luck is a mighty pow’rful weapon. Pow’rful, indeed.”
“Mr. Thomas!” cried a voice to our right. “Just the young man I’m looking for!”
An overpowering aroma of fragrant flowers hit me, and I knew instantly who it was, even without turning around. Mrs. Weeks, I thought with some alarm. The school principal. Had she finally seen through my fake I.D.? My heart began to beat a little faster, but I willed myself to stay calm.
“Uh... hello ma’m,” I said, struggling up to my feet. “Good to see you.”
“I was absolutely delighted to read about your heroism in the newspaper over the weekend,” the matronly woman said. “Most dramatic! But I’ve come to talk to you about something else. We’re having a Halloween pageant and dance this coming Saturday night at the Harper Farm. They’ve volunteered to host it, since it’s less than a mile from school, and their barn is so much larger than our little auditorium here.”
“Sounds great,” I said, a little confused. “But what do you—”
“We’ve heard so much about your singing ability,” she interrupted, putting her arm around me and leading me down the hall.
I shot Travis a ‘what can I do?’ glance and continued alongside her, watching him disappear behind us as we moved forward into the crowd.
“We were hoping you’d honor us with a little recital,” she continued. “Several of the students from some of the neighboring schools are going to be performing as well. We’ll have a recitation of several poems, and we’ll also have musical entertainment. I have three other students, older boys from our eleventh- and twelfth-grade classes, who will be performing with you, representing all of us at Jefferson High School.”
I shook my head and held my hand up. “Mrs. Weeks, I’m really a solo singer,” I protested. “It’s usually just me and the piano, maybe a little guitar, but I—”
“Nonsense,” she said, waving her hand and ushering me down a new hallway. “I’m sure the four of you will sound wonderful together.”
“The four of us?” I said, completely perplexed, as we stopped at a doorway that led into an empty classroom.
I heard some squawks from a flat-sounding trumpet, and a couple of snare drum riffs, then I looked up to see three older teenagers staring at me. A pock-faced boy in the middle put down his horn and waved. A red-haired boy on the left fidgeted with the tuning pegs on his violin, and a smaller kid on the right gave a little drum roll. An old-fashioned upright piano stood off to the side.
“Hello, boys,” Mrs. Weeks said, leading me into the room and making a fluttery gesture in my direction. “This is Jason Thomas. He’ll be singing with you this coming Saturday night at our recital. I want the four of you to come up with at least two or three songs to perform. Something nice — and not too common,” she admonished. “Make it uplifting and artistic, something to raise our spirits.”
Mrs. Weeks paused and stared at me expectantly.
“Uh, don’t I have to get to class?” I asked, nodding towards the clock. “Mr. Twitly will be angry if I’m late.”
“Never you mind,” she said. “This is far more important than your lesson. I want all of you to practice together at least an hour every day until the performance on Saturday night. You boys must present our school in the very best light.”
I shrugged. Why not, I thought. At least this would at least give me a chance to perform for a big audience, which I hadn’t done for months.
“On one condition,” I said, turning to Mrs. Weeks as she began to leave. “If that’s okay with you, that is.”
She frowned and looked at me. “And that would be?”
“Let me sing with Faith Shaw on one song,” I said. I still felt a little guilty about the accident at her house over the weekend, and I figured this might make it up in some small way. And she did have a helluva good voice. “A duet. And we’ll make it upbeat... uh, uplifting.”
Her face brightened. “That’s just what we want!” she enthused. “Something to brighten our spirits while this terrible war goes on.” She glanced at the wall clock. “I want you boys to practice together until 2PM this afternoon. And I want to hear what you’ve come up with tomorrow afternoon at this same time.” She stopped at the doorway and gave us a stern glare. “Don’t disappoint me, Jason! I so dislike being disappointed.”
I turned to the other boys. “Okay,” I said, rubbing my hands together. “You guys got any ideas?”
“I’m Perry Davis,” said the trumpet player in a strong southern drawl. “This here’s Bobby Ellison,” he continued, pointing towards the drummer, who did a little introductory rattle on his snare, then held out his hand.
“Hi,” he said.
I grinned and shook his hand. My smile faded when I glanced down and saw his pant leg ended below the knee and realized he was leaning against a crutch. There was nothing but air where the rest of his leg should be.
He caught my expression. “Got my leg blown clean off at Paducah, nigh on six months ago. I was the drummer boy in the 96th Infantry under Colonel Hicks. Johnny Reb done beat us pretty good. But we got ‘em the next time.”
I gulped. I’d forgotten that in the world of 1864, boys not much older than me were getting killed on the battlefield. Even boys without guns.
“Does it, uh... hurt?” I asked, immediately regretting my question.
Bobby shrugged. “Sure did when it happened. All’s I know is, I was drummin’ away. The fight had only gone on about a half hour, when suddenly, there was a big explosion to my left. Next thing I know, I woke up in a ditch with three dead men and my leg was missin’. I hollered somethin’ fierce that day, I can tell ya! Doctor took care of it pretty quick, though, then they sent me back home. Anyhow, it didn’t affect my drummin’ none.” He did a little paradiddle and added a flourish.
I tried to smile. “Not bad.” I turned to the violinist, a skinny, wide-eyed blond boy with acne. “Hi,” I said, holding out my hand. “I’m Jason.”
The boy stared at me blankly.
“That’s Gunther,” said Perry. “He’s from Germany. He don’t talk much.”
I pointed towards myself. “I’m Jason,” I said, carefully enunciating. “I’m a singer.”
“Ja,” he replied. “Ich freue mich, sie zu treffen! Mein name ist Gunther Heinlein.”
Perry had an enormous mole just to the left of his nose, roughly the size of a quarter. I tried not to stare at it.
I sighed and took in a brief look at our motley crew. This was not going to be easy, I thought. “OK, guys,” I said. “I got a couple of song ideas. You ever heard of jazz?”
They shook their heads.
“It’s the latest thing,” I said, as enthusiastically as I could. “I can come up with an arrangement that’ll work for piano, trumpet, violin, and drums... Let’s make some music.”
§ § § § §
Over the next hour, I came up with a few good song choices. It was harder than I expected since I had to find simple tunes they could learn quickly, without the benefit of hearing the original on an iPod or a boom box. I had to eliminate any songs with modern lyrics — no references to cars, airplanes, or telephones, and I knew better than to include any even remotely sexual lyrics. No way any of those would get by Mrs. Weeks.
“No, no,” I said, turning to my right. “You gotta lighten up, Bobby! It’s gotta be a lot more subtle than that.”
The drummer glared at me. “I always hadta drum loud with the Army,” he snapped. “Ain’t never got a complaint.”
“This isn’t the battlefield,” I said. “C’mon, it’s just a recital! Gimme a second.”
I looked around the empty classroom hoping to find a solution. All the desks had been moved out, and the walls were faded and peeling. Clouds of dust hung in the air, illuminated by rays of the afternoon sun shining through several open windows. To the side were a pile of paint cans lying on a drop cloth with some flat wooden brushes nearby, oozing a faint odor of turpentine.
“Perfect!” I said. I dashed over and grabbed a couple of brushes, then thrust them into his hands.
Bobby stared at them and then looked up at me. “What in the Sam Hill am I s’posed to do with these?”
“Try using the brushes instead of the sticks,” I said, pantomiming a drum roll. “You’ll get a totally different kind of sound out of the snare.”
“Brushes?” he said, perplexed. He stuffed the drumsticks into his waistband, then gave a couple of tentative pats with the brushes. The sound was soft but staccato, very smooth. He continued on, then settled into a regular beat.
I nodded. “Not bad. It’s not exactly Buddy Rich, but it’ll do.”
“It ain’t like what I’m used to. And they’re kinda hard to hold.”
“I’ll get you some better brushes from McBillin’s store later on today,” I promised. “I’m sure I can find some thinner ones that’ll be perfect. Maybe even some stiffer metal bristles so you can get a little louder.”
I turned to Gunther. “OK, so the countermelody is more like this.” I sang the first couple of bars, then gestured for him to play. He nodded and picked it up. “Too fast,” I cautioned, making a stretching sound. “Slower — adagio.”
“Ja, ja. Langsam. Slow.”
He played the notes perfectly, right on the beat. I grinned. “That’s it! OK, let’s take it again from the top.”
This time, we got halfway through before Perry let out a meager squawk on his trumpet.
“What’d ya do that for?” snapped Bobby. “Cain’t ya hit the right notes on that thing?”
“You shut up!” he retorted. “I ain’t tellin’ you what to do, like singer-boy over there.”
Just then, the school’s bell tower chimed. It was already 2PM. An hour had passed by in what felt like only a few minutes.
“Hey, lighten up, guys,” I said. “You all sound really good, and we’re gonna be great together on Saturday. We just need some more rehearsal time. I’ll tell you what: I’ve got some errands to take care of this afternoon, but I should be back home at the Colt farm tonight by 8PM. Meet me out in the barn, and we’ll try this again.”
“I dunno,” Bobby muttered.
“I’ll get us some free food,” I offered. “We’ll only be there for an hour or so. Sound like a plan?”
The two boys mulled it over. Gunther looked confused. I made a mental note to get my hands on an English-to-German dictionary, if one existed in this century.
“Alright,” Perry said at last. “I think my folks’ll let me pay a visit. Gunther’s place is out in your direction, so I’ll fetch him, too.”
“Great. See you then.”
As I rushed back down the hall to Twitly’s classroom, I ran down the list of chores I had to do that day. I still had to make it to McBillin’s General Store — excuse me, McBillin’s Supermarket — for that afternoon’s chores. I’d promised Rufus I’d help tune the piano at the black church. Now, I had to rehearse our little quartet. Oh, this is gonna be a fun day, I thought, feeling the beginnings of a solid headache.
§ § § § §
The general store’s remodeling was coming along well. McBillin was just directing the carpenter where to position the last sign when I jogged through the front doors.
“That’s it, Bill. The dried meats sign will go here, and the produce over there.” He looked up and grinned. “Ah, Jason! Good to have another hand aboard to help, son. Put on your apron, and help Mrs. McBillin at the counter. We’re almost done here.”
There was already a line of customers waiting.
“I’ll take you over here,” I said, helping an older woman lug a large bag of potatoes onto the counter. I made a mental note to tell McBillin we should look into making some shopping carts. Man, I thought. If I could patent those, I could be a millionaire by 1870.
“‘Bout dang time,” the woman sniffed haughtily. “Seems like you need more clerks around here.”
“It’s been like this every day for over a week, since that advertisement went in the paper,” said Mrs. McBillin with a sigh, as she snapped the cash register shut with a clang. “Not that I’m complainin’, mind you.”
I grinned. “Better to have too much business than not enough,” I quipped, remembering a line my father used to say. I did some quick mental arithmetic, adding up the purchases and handing the customer her change. “Did Mr. McBillin agree to move the counter up to the front?”
She nodded. “We’ve got to close the store on Saturday and Sunday to bring the carpenters in, but it should all be done by Monday morning.” She lightly touched my shoulder. “You sure this is the right thing to do?”
“I swear, that’s the way every store back home does it, and it works. We just have to make sure people know which way to go once they’re inside the store. It’s all about signage.”
“Put up signs that show ‘Entrance’ and ‘Exit,’ plus ones for the merchandise areas, and people will get it.”
She let out an ‘oof’ as she gathered together a large pile of cans from the next customer. “I just hope we can afford it.”
“Trust me, Mrs. McBillin,” I said confidently. “In another couple of months, you might have to take over the tannery shop next door and the druggist’s place, too. You might wind up with the whole city block — maybe even open up another store on the other side of town. A whole chain of supermarkets.”
She looked confused. “A chain?”
“I heered tell o’ that,” said a middle-aged man, who was my next customer. “That Macy store in New York City. They’ve got a couple of different places. But St. Louis ain’t New York.”
“Damn Yankees,” muttered the young man behind him.
“North or South, they still need to spend money,” Mr. McBillin remarked, stepping up beside me.
“As long as it’s Union currency, you mean,” corrected his wife. “Backed by real gold.”
I knew from previous conversations that, even in late 1864, the Confederate dollars were looked down upon in town. By next year, they’d be as worthless as Monopoly money, once the war ended.
“I’ll take over from here,” my boss said, tossing the goods into a bag. “Go help Rufus in the back room with the dried meats that just came in, boy. We’ll need to store ‘em all down in the basement so they’ll keep proper.”
I scurried through the curtains that led to the storeroom and out the back door to the alley, and caught up with the black man, who was tying his wagon’s donkey to a wooden post. The flat-bed carriage was almost overflowing with cans and boxes and creaking with the heavy load.
Rufus wiped a hand across his sweaty forehead. “Afternoon, mas’ Jason. This is my third trip today. I’d be much obliged if’n you could help with these boxes of dried goods, and we’ll take ‘em down the cellar.”
We worked for a solid half-hour, huffing and puffing the large crates. The meats were packed in rock salt, which was apparently the 1864 method for keeping the food from spoiling. I started to ask Rufus if they had a way of storing ice for long periods of time, but he went off on a different subject.
“You still comin’ by the church to help tune the pi-ana?” he asked.
I nodded. “I’ve got to be here until 5:30, but I’ll stop by on my way home. I already told Travis to tell Mr. and Mrs. Colt I’d probably be late for dinner.” I looked around. “Can you get some tools? A wrench? Maybe some small pliers?”
His face brightened. “Ain’t no problem. We’ll get what ya need. You need a ride there this evenin’?”
I thought for a moment, then gestured towards the donkey. “Seems to me you need a bigger delivery wagon. At the rate we’re selling this merchandise, you might need an assistant. And another donkey.”
Rufus laughed and rubbed his chin. “We do at that. Maybe you kin suggest that to Mr. McBillin. By the way, this here’s a mule. Ain’t no use gettin’ a donkey to pull a wagon. They ain’t much for work.”
“Mules and donkeys aren’t the same?” I asked, as we hefted a 50-pound barrel of flour down to the street and onto a wheelbarrow.
“No sir,” he said, as we bumped down the rickety staircase. “No sirreee. Mules are born of a horse and a donkey. That gives ‘em the strength of one and the brains of th’ other. Good for workin’ and haulin’, but they ain’t much for ridin’.”
“So they’re bred for that,” I mused.
“Why, I thought ever’body knew that,” he exclaimed, as we reached the bottom step. He eyed me curiously. “Mules been ‘round for thousands o’ years... since the time of Jesus, even ‘afore that.”
I shrugged. “I gotta tell you, Rufus,” I said, as we stacked the boxes, “I’m just a city kid. Pretty much everything I know about farm animals has been from talking to Travis and Lem at the Colt’s place over the last few weeks.”
“Where you from again?” he asked, as we trudged back up the cellar steps.
“Seatt... uh, Vancouver. That is, Canada.”
Rufus stopped and raised an eyebrow. “Miz Olivia did say she had some kinfolk out West somewhere,” he said thoughtfully. “Didn’t say nothin’ about Canada. Not that I’m doubtin’ you none.” His eyes momentarily bore into mine.
I felt my face redden. “Alright, I’m really from Seattle, Washington,” I admitted, steeling myself for the half-truths to follow. “Olivia’s my aunt — on my father’s side. I didn’t know her that well, but my mom sent me out here to St. Louis for the summer.”
The black man gave me a long stare, then nodded. “I do b’lieve you’re telling’ the truth,” he said at last. “I kin see somethin’ of Miz Olivia in your eyes.”
He started to move towards the wagon to get the last of the supplies, but I touched his shoulder to stop him.
“Hey, Rufus,” I said, “I’d appreciate it if you could keep this between us. Kind of a secret. I, uh... I don’t exactly fit in with people around here, and so I kinda made up the story about Vancouver just as an excuse. Sorta ‘cause I talk a little differently than most people.”
He gave me an odd look. “We all got our share of secrets ‘round here,” he said. He gave a couple of glances around, then took a step closer. “You knew ‘bout your Aunt Olivia?”
Now it was my turn to be surprised. “Well, I know she was stubborn and opinionated, and she had a heckuva temper.”
He let out a loud snort. “That she did, that she did. But she helped a lot of folks like me.” Rufus mopped his face, then lowered his voice. “You ever hear tell of the underground railroad?”
I nodded. “Sure. I saw a...” I stopped myself from blurting out that I’d seen a PBS documentary on the Civil War. “I mean, I read a book about it. The underground railroad helped escaped slaves escape from the south and across the Mason-Dixon line.” That’d been worth five points on my last American History exam.
“You got the gist of it. Miz Olivia... she helped folks from Arkansas, Mississippi, and Kentucky get through Missouri and points north. Some of ‘em went all the way up to Canada, one step ahead of the slave traders.”
I was momentarily stunned. “I thought there wasn’t any slavery in Missouri.”
“Gov’ner Fletcher promised that back in July. But that ain’t gonna be a law until January. ‘Til then, we got ‘mancipated slaves, and reg’lar slaves. I got this paper that says I’m free.” He reached inside his shirt pocket and pulled out a weathered document, dated February 12th, 1862. “I can’t read all of it, but I know my name.”
“Certificate of Freedom,” I read. “Rufus Whittington Jones.”
The man nodded. “Took me ten whole years to pay for that — fifteen hundred dollars. Miz Olivia loaned me some of it, and I helped her at her ranch, after her husband died five years ago.” He gave me a sad stare. “She got all fired up after Dred Scott tried to go to court to get free, back in ‘57. That jes’ got everybody here in town pow’rful angry ‘bout slavery. After Mas’ Thomas died, she spent most of her time helpin’ slaves get to safety.”
“Why didn’t you leave?”
He smiled sadly. “I still got more work to do here. Lord won’t let me rest until all my people are free.”
I nodded sympathetically. “Back where I come from, people still have prejudice. It’s getting better, but people like you and me — not everybody wants to accept who we are.”
“A respectable white boy like you? Ain’t nothin’ to accept.”
This time it was my turn to smile sadly. “Anytime people are different, there are jerks out there that want to make your life miserable. It’s happened to me sometimes, too.”
A loud voice bellowed from inside the storeroom. “Rufus! Jason! I need ya both back here in the store! Got more’n me and the missus can handle! Come along, now!”
Rufus’ eyes widened. “You ain’t gonna say nothin’ ‘bout this, right?”
I held my hand out and shook his hand. Rufus was a big man, well over two hundred pounds, and I felt like I was shaking hands with a catcher’s mitt. “We Thomases know how to keep a secret. Especially for friends.”
§ § § § §
Just after sundown, I clucked and gently brushed the reins behind the mule’s backside as we clattered down Walnut Street and towards the general direction of Old Country Road. Rufus had given me ten minutes of instruction on how to handle the mule, whom he called “Dandy.” McBillin had agreed to loan me the wagon each evening, provided I got it back to the store by 8AM, and he said he’d think about making me a deal to buy the mule and wagon outright once Rufus bought a bigger replacement wagon on Tuesday.
The mule clip-clopped down Walnut Street, then we made a turn down Cherokee Avenue on the outskirts of town, heading towards the woods. The setting sun burned a deep red over the horizon, and I could smell the faint odor of kerosene in the air as the town merchants lit the lights along the wooden sidewalk. The fall air made me shiver slightly as I buttoned my coat up to my neck.
Less than twenty minutes later, we pulled up to the Gospel Hall All-Faith Church. I tied Dandy’s reins to the hitching post to the side of the ramshackle wooden building and yanked the brake up tight, then grabbed my tools, hopped off and walked up to the mule.
“Give me a few minutes, Dandy,” I said, scratching him behind the ears. “I promise, you’ll have dinner at the barn by 7PM, maybe sooner.”
The mule snorted and looked away. I dragged over a nearby bucket of water, and he gratefully slurped some down.
“Don’t bother to thank me,” I called over my shoulder. “Be right back.”
The door was unlocked, and the main chapel was empty.
“Hello?” I called. “Anybody here? It’s me, Jason Thomas! I’m uh... here to fix the piano! Rufus sent me... okay?”
Nobody here but us crickets.
My boots clomped loudly on the wooden floor as I crossed the room towards the piano, which stood against the far right wall. I carefully set my tools down on the bench, lit a nearby lantern, and opened up the top of the piano, letting it rest against the wall, revealing the wires and soundboard. Surprisingly, the felt hammers were in pretty good shape, and none of the strings were broken. I started with middle C, remembering my lessons from Mrs. Rawlings, and worked my way up — first whistling the note’s exact pitch, then gradually tightening the pins until each set of string perfectly matched my note. The lower keys were harder to reach, and some of notes were woefully flat, but twenty minutes later, I managed to get through all 88 keys. I closed the lid, then played a couple of trial chords and checked the sustain and soft pedals: perfect!
“That’s more like it,” I said with some satisfaction, and did a quick glissando riff. “Dead nuts on!”
Suddenly, I noticed a flicker of light in the distance to my left. It was a little girl, maybe nine or ten, wearing a grey dress and a sweater, bathed in the yellow glow of a candle in her hands as she walked down the church aisle. “What ya doin’ here? You ain’t s’posed to be in my daddy’s church, ‘ceptin’ on Sunday.”
“Sorry!” I said, quickly standing and holding up my hands. “I told Rufus I’d tune the piano for you guys.”
She came closer and gave me a suspicious stare. “Ain’t nothin’ in here for ya to take. That’s unless you’re just tryin’ ta ‘cause trouble.”
I shook my head and sat back down on the bench and gave her a sincere grin. “Trouble’s the last thing on my mind.” I skittered my fingers across a few keys, then hit a couple of minor chords and added a little jazzy riff. “I’m Jason, and I’m the piano man.”
She was immediately fascinated. “Why, I ain’t never heard that before. Play that again!” She sat beside me on the bench. “Please, sir!”
“This is blues,” I said, dropping in a couple minor chords with a little flourish. “Very big where I come from.” I played the first couple of bars of B.B. King’s “How Blue Can You Get.”
“I ain’t downhearted baby...
I ain’t downhearted baby...
Ever since the day...
Ever since the day we met...”
The little girl frowned. “Sounds too sad to me. Reminds me when I got the influenza last year. Reckon my mama ‘bout cried herself sick.”
“That’s the point. Here’s something a little happier.” I launched into a little boogy-woogie, kind of a 1950s thing.
“I wanna jump but I’m afraid I’ll fall...
I wanna holler but the joint’s too small...
Young man rhythm’s got a hold of me, too
I got the rockin’ pneumonia and the boogie woogie flu...”
She laughed and clapped her hands. “I ain’t never heard of a happy song about bein’ sick before! Do some more!”
“Rose! What are you doin’ in here?”
We turned just as Pastor Meacham came up to our side of the hall, joined by an attractive middle-aged black woman.
“Mr. Meacham,” I said, momentarily flustered. “Uh, Pastor. I fixed your piano, just as I promised Rufus.”
The large man raised an eyebrow, then slid the little girl another foot away from me on the bench. An awkward silence passed.
“You remember me — I’m Jason Thomas, Olivia’s nephew. Rufus Jones and I work together at McBillin’s General Store in town.”
“This better not cost me nothin’,” he warned.
“On the house,” I said, raising my hands palms up. “Totally free. And it’s dead-nnn... uh, I mean — the piano’s now perfectly in tune, guaranteed. Well, at least until the weather changes. I think the high-D string will have to be replaced in a few weeks, but I’ll see if I can order one for you.”
He seemed to relax. “What was that you were playin’ just then?” he said, somewhat curious.
“That was a little boogie-woogie, an old song. I know all kinds of tunes — I’m actually kinda self-taught on the piano.”
“That’s not Jesus’ music,” the woman beside him muttered.
“This is my mama,” said the little girl. “This is Jason. I like his songs!”
“Pleased to meet you, ma’am,” I said, momentarily standing, then I gently shook her hand. Her mouth dropped open with surprise, and I was again conscious of the racial problems of this crazy world.
“You know any gospel music?” she asked, recovering quickly.
I thought for a moment. “Well, the closest thing I can think of is this one.” I sat back down, cleared my throat, and played a few introductory chords.
There’s too many of you crying
Brother, brother, brother
There’s far too many of you dying
You know we’ve got to find a way
To bring some lovin’ here today... yeah...
We don’t need to escalate
You see, war is not the answer
For only love can conquer hate
You know we’ve got to find a way
To bring some lovin’ here today.
“Picket lines and picket signs
Don’t punish me with brutality
Talk to me, so you can see
Oh, what’s going on
What’s going on
Yeah, what’s going on
Tell me, what’s going on...”
I sang with all the feeling I had, hitting the keys with a little countermelody I improvised on the spot, picking up on the string and horn arrangement from Marvin Gaye’s original. I sang loud and true, remembering how it’d been one of my father’s favorites, and I filled my voice with emotion — not just because I was surrounded by a black family, but also knowing all too well how much real war and hate would still be going on years from now in my own time.
Finally, I got to the last verse and finished with another riff and a final chord, which reverberated throughout the hall. I looked up at them and they were smiling. “That’s as close as I can get to a gospel song,” I said.
“Only love can conquer hate,” the reverend mused. “I know that’s from the scriptures somewhere.”
“Ecclesiastes 3:8,” said Mrs. Meacham. “There’s a time to love and a time to hate.”
“Ah,” I said, recognizing the lyric. “That’s a different song, but the message is pretty close.” With that, I launched into an impromptu version of The Byrds’ “Turn, Turn, Turn.”
The woman seemed impressed. “That’s wonderful,” she enthused. “We also pray it’s not too late for peace.”
I sighed, remembering we were in the last week of October. “I’m afraid you’ve still got almost another six months of war left,” I said, doing some quick math. I idly glanced at my wristwatch and froze. “Oh, man... I’ve gotta get out of here, or Mrs. Colt will declare war on me.” I tossed the tools back into my bag and hopped off the bench and started for the door.
“Jason!” the minister called. “Thanks very much for helping our church, son. Those songs of yours were fine — very fine, indeed.”
I stopped and turned. “If you want, I can stop by and teach your choir a few more. Maybe bring them up to speed with a little soul and R&B.”
Mrs. Meacham was trying out some of my melodies at the keyboard.
“Watch that diminished fifth on that chord,” I called. “It’s tricky. I’ll try to come by again on Friday after work. 5 o’clock okay for you?”
She got the chords right and smiled. “Yes — that would be very nice. Thank you most kindly, Mr. Thomas.”
I grinned. “Please, call me Jason. G’night, folks.”
As I trotted away on the wagon, with Dandy leading the way, I heard some tentative bluesy chords from an open window. Alright, I thought. Hopefully she’ll bump into W.C. Handy someday in a few years and invent jazz. I marked that down on the mental list of how I was changing the past. Or, more likely, maybe I was just knocking over the dominoes to make things happen the way they were always meant to.
“Either way,” I said out loud as the mule and I continued bumping down the darkness of Old Country Road, “it’s all destiny. It was bound to happen anyway, whether I was here or not.” And hopefully all the changes would be for the better.
§ § § § §
After a quick dinner in the Colt’s kitchen, I made my way out to the barn. Travis and I had stashed McBillin’s wagon just outside the chicken coop and left the mule tied to a feeding post, where it was happily chowing down on a wooden bucket of oats. Mr. Colt had admonished me to clean up after the mule, on the threat of tanning my hide. After nearly three weeks on the farm, I was already an expert at getting rid of cow shit — or “taking out the barn trash,” as Mrs. Colt delicately put it, if only to keep the odors under control in my sleeping quarters.
“Hey, Jason!” Lem called from the side of the farmhouse. “Your friends from school are here. Said you boys would be singin’ out in the main barn, so that’s where I sent ‘em.”
Damn! I’d almost forgotten our rehearsal. “Thanks, Lem.” I started to turn away but he ran up to me and held out a glass jar.
“Lookie what I got here!” he said excitedly.
The jar glowed with a faint yellow flicker, and something was dancing inside of it. Tinker Bell, I thought. The kid has caught Tinker Bell!
“It’s a firefly,” he said breathlessly. “Ain’t it somethin’?”
I had to admit, it was. From my world of Playstations, Blu-ray players, and widescreen TVs, maybe catching a firefly in a jar wasn’t exactly high-tech. But it was charming in an old-fashioned, low-tech way, and you couldn’t beat it for the price.
I tapped the side of the jar and the luminous insect momentarily darted and danced, making minute tink-tink noises against the glass while shimmering a pale yellow light in our faces.
“That is cool,” I said, handing it back to him. “What’re you gonna do with it? Keep it?”
“Naw,” he said. “Wouldn’t seem right. I’ll show it to the other boys at school tomorrow, then maybe let it go ‘round sunset.” He looked up at me, his face bathed in the soft glow of the firefly. “Things as beautiful as this deserve to be free, don’tcha think?”
I nodded. And people, too, I thought. I turned to head back to the barn, but Lem stopped me.
“You gonna tell me any more o’ those Star Wars stories?” he asked. “I ain’t never heard anything like that before. Why, maybe you could write ‘em down and put ‘em in books, like that man Dickens.”
I laughed. “Yeah, and this is 1864. I can sue Lucas.”
Lem gave me a quizzical look, but I continued. “Seriously, it isn’t my story, so it wouldn’t be right. Maybe someday I’ll write my own stories. Even better, write some songs. That’s what I really want to do: sing my own stuff for people.”
“You like doin’ that?”
I let out a sigh. “Yeah. I think it’s the greatest job in the whole world. Maybe after I finish school, I can even make a living at it.”
“You’ll be good at it someday — I know ya will. G’night, Jason.”
“Night, Lem. Sleep tight. Don’t let the, uh, fireflies bite.”
He seemed to get a kick out of that, and hooted as he headed to the back door.
The other boys were waiting for me. “’Bout damn time ya got here,” Perry snapped as he hopped off a bale of hay. “Cain’t see why we can’t rehearse at school.”
I shook my head. “I’ve gotta work at the general store three days a week — I promised the McBillins. But we can do it at school tomorrow and on Thursday. Alright?”
They seemed to agree. I leaned against the cow stall’s railing and pulled my spiral notebook out of my back pocket. “OK, here’s some more songs we can try for the show Saturday night. We don’t have a piano, so I’ll just have to improvise.”
“Impro-what?” Bobby asked, giving his drum a little roll.
“I mean I’ll have to fake it. Make it up on the spot. We’ll work out the keyboard arrangements after lunch tomorrow.” I winced when he slammed his sticks particularly loudly, then I remembered my bag. I pulled out some hand-made paintbrushes I’d grabbed at the general store (“two for just five cents, the best in town,” Mrs. Billin had promised).
“Now, I’m no drummer...” I started.
“That’s for damned sure,” he snapped.
“...but I still know a few things about rhythm,” I continued. “Let me show you. You ever hear of a rim-shot?”
Bobby shook his head. I took the sticks and gave him a demonstration. “See, you can vary the sound, half on the head, half on the rim. Or maybe more on the rim, like this.”
“I ain’t never seen that before,” he said, momentarily impressed. “I know all kindsa military beats. I know a dozen different marches, and I know what to do when we charge.”
“How ‘bout when ya retreat?” muttered Perry.
“Dude, come on,” I admonished him, as the drummer waved a stick close to the trumpet player’s face. “The kid’s a war hero — he lost a leg. Give him a break.”
I took the sticks and tried another move, gently rapping on the drum head. “Here’s a flam. You hit the second stick just a fraction of a second after the first. It works real well on the first beat. Check this out.”
I played a simple rhythm, then varied it with an added off-beat, almost kind of a reggae/shuffle thing. “Now, you try.”
Bobby began rattling the snare head, but after about fifteen seconds, I stopped him.
“Okay. Now, try it with the brushes.”
He reluctantly shoved the sticks into his back pocket, then gave the brushes a try. The difference was instantly obvious, and I relieved to see the brushes were the perfect size.
“Warum, das ist sehr gut!” said Gunther, who’d been idly plucking his violin. “Good, ja?”
We spent the next few minutes going over some other moves. “That’s it,” I said, as encouragingly as I could. “Swirl it around and then give it an accent on the off beat. Now, you gots jazz.”
Over the next hour, we went over the set list I’d prepared earlier in Twitly’s afternoon class. It was a struggle, since most of the songs I knew were crammed with references to the modern world I came from; you’d be amazed how little is left once you eliminate every lyric about telephones, airplanes, modern slang... and let’s not forget sex. I was certain that Mrs. Weeks would want our musical program to be rated G, all very politically correct.
Perry still had a tendency to play a little flat, but Gunther — despite the language barrier — was clearly a very talented violinist. A little too classical for my taste, but he started loosening up as the evening progressed. Finally, by 9PM, we’d managed to struggle through three entire songs without a single wrong note. The band members relaxed and snacked on some leftovers that Mrs. Colt had brought out to us in the barn.
“That was great,” I said, clapping my hands together. “I think we might just make it all the way to Hollywood.”
“What about that passage in the middle of that last song?” Bobby asked, his mouth partly full of a sandwich. “Ain’t nothin’ much happening there.”
I waved him off. “Not to worry. I’ve got a piano solo that’ll drop right in there. You’ll hear it tomorrow at school. Trust me, it’ll knock ‘em out Saturday night.”
“Sounds pretty good already, if’n ya ask me,” said a voice.
We turned to see Travis leaving up against the barn door, grinning ear to ear. “Why, I ain’t never heard anythin’ as good, and that’s a fact.”
I smiled back as Travis walked over. “I just hope the audience at the Halloween Recital feels the same way,” I said, yawning from the exhausting events of the day.
“Best hope Mrs. Weeks likes it,” Perry muttered as he and the others shuffled out the door to their horses. “She can get mighty ornery.”
“We can handle her. See you guys tomorrow!” I called, as Travis closed the door after them. “So,” I said. “You liked our little rehearsal?”
Travis grinned his crooked smile and hopped up on a hay bale. “Is that the sorta music you sing back home? In Can-a-da or Seattle or wherever tell you’re from?”
“Seattle,” I said, scooting close beside him. “It’s not quite what I’d call the latest hits, but it’s passable. So, uh... you ever been to one of these Halloween dances before?” I asked, wondering how audiences of 1864 would react to our upcoming performance.
Travis shrugged. “I ain’t much for dancin’.”
I pulled him closer. “You know... dancing is just making love, only standing up. Or so they say.”
He guffawed. “You mean like wrasslin’? Hardly.”
I snuggled closer and gave him a quick nibble on his earlobe. “It’s kinda similar,” I said in a low voice, “only without the fireworks at the end. If you know what I mean.”
Travis gave a little shudder, then hopped off the hay bale and stood up. “I probably oughta be gettin’ back to my room. Colt don’t want me spendin’ any more time out here than I need to.”
“So, you really liked our music?” I asked casually, twisting some strands of hay between my fingers.
“Yeah,” he said with a shrug. “But I think maybe you’re gettin’ a little too fancy with your singin’. Just a touch.”
“Well... whatever ya call it. That up-and-down thing you do with your voice — you sorta do it a lot.”
I harrumphed. “Hey, I worked about a year with a singing coach to get that right. It’s called melisma. I’m just adding some vocal runs to the basic melody. Makes the song a little more interesting. Everybody does it.” On the radio, I almost added.
Travis winced and shook his head. “You don’t really need it. You don’t have ta make your voice any fancier. It’s good as is.”
“Just sing it straight, you’re saying,” I said, my temper starting to flare.
“Yeah, sort of,” he said. “Otherwise, it sounds like you’re kinda goin’ all over tarnation. ‘Specially at the end of that last one. Sounded a little crazy, if ya ask me.”
“What the hell do you know?” I exploded. “It’s called style, asshole! Every pop singer in the world does it! It sounds cool!”
Travis took a step back. “I’m just sayin’, it sounds like... I dunno, like some kinda trick or somethin’.”
“A TRICK?” I cried. “That’s part of my technique! At least I’m not using Auto-Tune, like half the singers out there. This is all real, coming from me!” I said, pounding my chest for emphasis. “My vibrato, my pitch control, the melisma, all that stuff — that’s what I do!”
“Melisma... sounds like some kinda disease,” he retorted. “Anyway, you asked me what I thought, and I told ya.”
I rolled my eyes. “Everybody’s a goddamned critic!” I snapped. “Who do you think are — the St. Louis version of an American Idol judge?”
“I ain’t never heard of no American Idol,” he said, anger creeping into his voice. “I’m just tellin’ ya how I felt. If you can’t take it, that’s your problem. But that’s how I heard it.”
My face began to redden and I clenched my fists. “You know what? Fuck you, Travis! And get outta my barn! I don’t need some jerk pecking me to death with criticisms.” I shook with anger, incredulous that my best friend — my only real friend in this world — could be so hurtful and insensitive about the most important thing in my life: my singing.
He glowered at me. “Fine — if that’s what you want.” With that, he left, slamming the door behind him.
Matilda the cow let out a mournful sound. “And no cracks from you,” I muttered, “or I’ll grind you up into hamburger.”
I dimmed the kerosene lanterns, pulled myself up to the hayloft, then plunked down in my makeshift bed and stared at the ceiling. Fucking asshole, I thought. Some country bumpkin criticizing my vocal technique!
I was already nervous enough about having to perform for Mrs. Weeks the next day. The last thing I needed was for somebody to start slamming me, eating away at my self-confidence.
“What does he know about music anyway?” I muttered, pulling the bed covers up to my chin. “Jerk.”
Despite my anger, tears began to form in my eyes. I’m not gonna let this bother me, I thought. Just relax and get to sleep. And try to forget what Travis said.
“Damn you anyway, Travis Colt,” I whispered, as the exhaustion of the day wrapped around me like a thick fog.
excerpt from “How Blue Can You Get”
words and music by Jack Clement
©1965 Universal Songs/Polygram Int’l. (BMI)
All rights reserved.
excerpt from “Rockin’ Pneumonia and the Boogie Woogie Flu”
by Huey ‘Piano’ Smith
©1957 Cotillion Music, Inc. (BMI)
All rights reserved.
excerpt from “What’s Going On”
words and music by Marvin Gaye, Alfred Cleveland, Renaldo ‘Obie’ Benson
©1971 Stone Agate Music, Inc. (BMI)
All rights reserved.
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