Now, with the holidays out of the way, I finally have time to write again because my work schedule is more forgiving. I now get Tuesday-Friday off every week.
In anycase, here is what I WOULD have submitted to the writing contest (at least, conceptually) had I been able to. I have had the idea for this story since last summer and it is only now coming to fruition. Bear in mind, this first chapter seems like a standalone story, but it is merely a test to gauge reactions. If people seem to like it I shall continue.
And, yes. I do have plenty of ideas for this.
My father once told me that music is the language of the soul. If that’s true, I’ve wasted my entire life telling everyone what a failure I am. The corners of my eyes burn as I halt my progress down this deserted street and I am unsure if it is because of my certainty in this, or the fact that the streetlights above are unusually bright tonight.
Oh well, no use complaining. It’s never fixed anything before so why waste the effort? There are more important things to attend to.
Up ahead, a drunken man stumbles blindly out of a decrepit old bar and instinctively I cringe. Predictably, the drunk cannot stop his forward motion and falls flat on his face, completely missing the drop at the curb. Should I help him? Given that he appears unconcerned with his own thoroughly intoxicated state, I decide to agree and begin walking down the alley to my left. It’s none of my business, if life has taught me nothing else.
Compared to Capital City, where I grew up, this grungy little town called Springfield has little to offer a man of my tastes, which is probably why I like it so much. I am a musician by trade, if you haven’t already guessed as much. My own dreams extend first and foremost to becoming a great jazz saxophonist. At least I achieved part of that goal. I do own a sax.
You call me modest, I say I’m realistic. I’ve had my share of successes in the past, but I’ll never be on par with the true greats. Miles Davis. John Coltrane. Ray Charles, and countless others.
Not now anyway.
But perhaps I am being too critical of myself. I did publish an album, though the money from that is long gone. Damn Fabergé eggs. The events of my life bleed constantly into my awareness and make it hard to sleep. That’s why I’m out here, alone, on the streets of an unfamiliar town with the weekday drunks and other lowlifes. I have to make amends for the things I’ve done or allowed to happen.
I suppose I should start from the beginning. My name is Nero Murphy. My friends call me Bleeding Gums, so obviously I haven’t heard it in quite a while. I was born in 1953 on a Sunday, in the bathroom of a tiny apartment on the lower east side of Capital City to Emanuel and Sarah Murphy. Sarah was a stay-at-home wife who was, to all outwards appearances, happy with her lot in life. My father worked heavy construction and was commonly gone for a week or longer on a job that could take him over one hundred miles away. They couldn’t afford a car, so when he was home they frequented the mass transit systems that crisscrossed the city in order to run the various errands that make up life in the big city. While my father was away, my mother spent all her time raising me until I was three years old and my brother Julius came along. My very earliest memories are of playing with my little brother. His carefree shrieks of joy seemed to infect the whole building and we were never yelled at by the other adults when our games overflowed out into the halls.
Everything changed, though, when I turned eight years old.
“Nero!” Julius ran, arms first, into his older brother’s bedroom. “Mom says you... w-”
He stopped and burst out laughing at Nero’s predicament.
“Wow... that’s gotta be the worst sweater you ever wore!”
Nero growled and eyed the purple, blue and yellow monstrosity his mother had laid out for him to wear on his birthday. They were going out to eat and mama always said you had to look your ‘Sunday best’ around proper folk. So he was being forced to dress for the occasion. If he’d had a choice in the matter they would all be eating cake and then gone downstairs to watch Mr. Henderson’s new 12-inch Radiation King television set. He swore he could watch that thing all day long if they would let him.
Instead, he was stuck going out into public looking like something out of one of his nightmares, among what his father refereed to as ‘some ignorant crackers’. Nero didn’t know if they were going to church or for soup, so he figured it was best to keep quiet and try not to embarrass himself like he always did.
“Shut’cho mouth, Joo-li-us, or next year I may let it slip to her how much you like the color pink.”
“You wouldn’t...” Julius looked scandalized but fear began to flicker in the back of his large dark eyes. Nero grinned and shrugged before pulling the ugly sweater over his head.
“Guess you’ll never know unless you keep pushing it.”
“Moooooooom!” Julius turned, wide-eyed and fled the room.
Five minutes later, Nero stood rigidly in the center of the kitchen, cursing his lack of socks this early in the afternoon. The bare linoleum floor made the unprotected soles of his feet numb due to the lack of proper heating anywhere in the building. Mid-November was not a forgiving time of year around here, he reflected as his mother painstakingly inspected his appearance.
“Your father will be home in ten minutes, Nero! Just look at your hair! It’s like you got into a fight with a pair of wild alley cats.”
“Sorry mum...” he monotoned. Why does she always do this? It was his birthday, after all. But she always got this way when dad got back from a long job. “Please, it’s cold... could I-”
“That’s just too bad, young man! Ah! Forgot your socks as well? What am I going to do with you, Nero?” She continued to fuss, much to Julius’ increasing amusement, until a slight jingling of keys was heard from the direction of the living room, catching everyone’s attention.
“Emanuel? Is that you honey?” she called out, beaming already.
“Sarah. You in the kitchen?” a tall, lanky but handsome black man strode into the room, froze briefly at the sight of what his son was wearing, and sat down heavily at the small, square wooden table in the middle of the room. Sarah rushed over and threw her arms around her husband’s neck, covering him in kisses. He hardly moved, despite the overbearing welcome, instead staring at the roughly hewn surface of the table. From what Nero had observed of other families, his was unique. His mother had soft, pale, almost cream colored skin, while his father was about the shade of the strong cups of coffee Sarah made every morning. Most other families had adults who were closer in skin color, but it didn’t bother Nero. It gave him the impression that his family was, in fact, special and he wouldn’t change a thing about them.
“Daddy!” both children cried out when their mother stopped and stepped back. Emanuel started and turned in his seat to accept the flying forms of his sons into his arms.
“How’s my birthday boy?” He asked calmly, then added at the incredulous look he got from Julius. “Yes, little J. You too.”
They began talking excitedly over each other, each passing second getting louder and louder to outbid the other for their father’s attention, before Emanuel held up one large hand and grimaced.
“Sorry I asked.” he sighed heavily, then added, “Kids, could I speak with your mother alone for a moment?”
The pleasant smile on Sarah’s face faltered slightly and she shooed both boys out of the room. Curiosity got the better of him and Nero crouched down, slowly making his way back to the entrance of the kitchen. Behind him, Julius turned back momentarily, then thought better of it and left his brother to do whatever it was he had set himself to do.
“What do you mean laid off? I thought those years were behind us. What happened, Manny?” Sarah’s voice shook slightly and without seeing her, Nero could tell she was on the verge of tears.
“The foreman said he couldn’t afford to keep us all on anymore. I’ll give you two guesses which part of his crew he got rid of first.” Nero hated hearing that tone of voice from his father. Things never went right when the conversation started involving colors.
“Oh, honey. You know it’s not your fault. Not everyone has such a hard time accepting others. You’ll find something and we’ll be alright. Just like always.”
“I know you’re right, baby. You usually are. It’s just not making things any easier in the meantime. Old man Henderson glares at me every time I come home and I think he’s looking for an excuse to get us out of here.”
“Just stop thinking about it. Look, for now lets just take things one day at a time, and today is Nero’s birthday. We should be celebrating, not worrying. At least for right now.”
“Could we just stay in tonight? I know you had your heart set on that nice restaurant uptown but we really shouldn’t be spending that much right now. Tell you what, how about I run up to that bakery a few blocks over, get a nice chocolate cake and we all spend the evening here?”
Nero’s heart soared despite his parent’s tone of voice and he immediately began pulling the sweater off. The loud sigh from the other room signaled his mother’s reluctant acceptance, but as far as he was concerned he got everything he wanted this year. No stupid outfit, no public embarrassment and best of all , his dad home on his birthday!
Later that night, once the festivities had ended and he was in bed, Nero cracked open an eye when he heard the door to the hallway open quietly. Silhouetted against the hallway light he saw his father standing absolutely still. After several minutes Emanuel entered the room and stood next to his oldest son’s bed, watching him.
“Nero? You awake boy?” Emanuel knelt down and gently brushed the tight brown curls that covered Nero’s head with the tips of his fingers.
“Yeah, dad. I’m still up. That cake sure was good. Why didn’t you eat any?” Nero pushed the thick blanket off of himself and sat up, gazing up into his father’s tightly drawn face.
“Just an upset stomach, that’s all. Never you mind, little captain.” That was his father’s nickname for him. The summer before they had read a book one night called ‘20,000 Leagues Under the Sea’ by a man named Jules Verne. Since the captain, Nemo, of the giant submarine, the Nautilus, shared a very similar name with him the two of them had made a game of acting out scenes from the story with Nero always being the hero. Emanuel made a perfect squid because his arms were so long and difficult to see in the dark. They often joked that Julius would make a good Conseil.
“Do you want to stay up a little later, son?” asked the older man. Nero nodded enthusiastically, glad to be a part of whatever his father had planned for the evening. “Get dressed and come to the living room.”
With that, Emanuel left his son’s bedroom and woke up Julius in the next room over. Minutes later, both boys entered the living room to find their father seated comfortably in his favorite armchair. In the corner of the room stood a large, hickory faced old radio. From the speakers came the melancholy bars of a lone saxophone.
“Come over here and sit with your old dad, boys.” Emanuel intoned in his deep baritone voice. “Listen to some music.”
They crossed the room and each took a leg to sit on. Several minutes passed and finally the song came to a drawn out end. As the final wavering note faded a single tear fell from Emanuel’s eye.
“That, my boys, is Miles Davis. If ever you think you are alone in this world, or can’t go on, I want you to listen to a song of his because then you’ll know what real loneliness is and you won’t feel so bad. That’s called blues.” he looked kindly into each of their faces and sighed deeply.
“Is something the matter, papa? Why are you so sad?” Julius asked innocently.
“That’s not something I want you two to worry about. Just promise me you’ll be the best man you can be and I’ll be happy.”
Nero stared hard into his father’s eyes, not liking what he found there. A deep sadness seemed to be hiding in the edges of his face, as if he were wearing a mask that was only slightly too small to hide what he was really feeling. He looked over at the radio and a thought occurred to him.
“I wanna be a jazzman when I grow up.” he grinned, pleased with the look of surprise on his father’s face.
“What makes you say that?”
“Because I want to play on the radio just like that man. So I can help to make you feel better. I don’t want you to feel any sadder than you have to. I want to play the blues. I want to be famous to make you proud, daddy.”
A hardened look came into Emanuel’s eyes then, and Nero thought he had said something wrong.
“You don’t have to do that for me, little captain. Perhaps it’s best if you just forgot about this old man all together.”
“I couldn’t even if I wanted to.” Nero drew his face up into a grin again, trying to infect his father’s stoic demeanor.
“You’re just too much sometimes, kid.” he finally smiled and ruffled his son’s hair before motioning for them to get off. “Alright, that’s late enough. Time for you two to go to bed.”
Back then, me and Julius were the best of buddies. He always had a laugh or a corny joke to try out on you. Together we were unstoppable. No one could oppose us and hope to last long. All Julius had to do was laugh and it wasn’t long before everyone in the room followed suit.
Three days after my eighth birthday, my father left on another job and that was the last time any of us ever saw him. He never wrote, he never called, he just disappeared.
From that day forward, Julius’ laugh acquired a sharp edge to it that I couldn’t stand. A bitter recrimination of life that cut into me deeper than any knife ever could.
God, how I miss that laugh.
When I get a moment, I will add a downloadable version, but for now it isn't really long enough to validate such effort.
I will be adding more later, obviously. So... what do you guys think?