HALF PAST HOLY

By John Thomas Tuft

Big C developed a love for music early in life. His mother played records of Count Basie, Miles Davis, Louis Armstrong, Thelonious Monk, and others ad infinitum. So, it was no big surprise when he took up the saxophone. The surprise was how the two seemed to be made for each other, joined at the soul. He began to tour the jazz clubs in the cities, every night playing as if his life depended on it. Because it did. Music was Big C’s life. And jazz was his love language. Sometimes he would get a gig playing in a recording studio, laying down tracks for famous singers for union scale, then go find a club to play in until near dawn. It’s a lonely life but somewhere along the way he found a three-legged calico cat, named her Bumble, and they became inseparable companions. “I got no hate, I got no pride, I just play music with my buddy by my side,” was how Big C described his life.

Big C and Bumble spent many a night on the road, Big C driving his old Studebaker, eyes drooping, Bumble curled up on the seat next to him, twitching in her sleep as cats do, every so often giving out a small cry as though remembering some past pain that intrudes in dreams like a specter chasing her. Big C noticed this about Bumble, and after settling into their room for the night, and giving the cat a can of tuna and fresh cream, he took out his sax and improvised a song about past pain that returns in dreams, calling it the Bumble Mumble. He thought of his own past–lost loves, great hurts from those whom he never expected to hurt him, disappointments in life, the scat singer who broke his heart, the night his father never returned home—all of it went into his Bumble Mumble. When dawn came, Big C still sat there, cigarette dangling from his lips, unlit, the unopened bottle of jack staring at him, feeling like he had let his soul bleed out on the floor.

The next night he came into the club, took out his sax and cleaned it real good, avoiding looking at the patrons settling into their seats, jostling and jiggling their pretensions and aspirations against each other. Bumble hobbled around the room, doing her best ‘please pity me’ act as only cats can do, as though she knew this was a special night for her human but that he didn’t need or want the attention. Before the night ended, Big C nodded to Spike, the group’s leader, that he was ready to solo riff and the other musicians backed off. Big C stepped into the smoky spotlight and poured out his heart. Those who were there that night say that at first the crowd was noisy, restless, barely paying attention to the old sax player. But by the time he was a few minutes into the Bumble Mumble, the room was still. Big C played the head, all the way through once, came back around several times, and each time changed it enough to articulate each pain crying out to be heard. And the room felt it. Everyone knew that song, lived that music.

When he wrapped and was putting his sax to bed, the owner of the club approached Big C. “That’s a gift you have,” he told the musician. “You didn’t take us to church. No, you took us half past holy!” He shook Big C’s hand, nodded to Bumble, and turned to go. After he’d taken a few steps, he stopped and turned around. “Would you be willing to do me a favor?” Big C shrugged. “Depends. Gotta feed the cat. Trying to teach her to sing scat.” He always laughed at that picture and tonight was no exception. “Would you play for Meredith? Understand, she’s a bit touched now, but your music might reach her.” Big C shrugged again and he and Bumble followed the club owner to his car. On the way he explained, “Meredith lives alone now. She and Bobby had two boys. They were Meredith’s pride and joy. They grew up to become fine men. The war came and they both went off to fight.

“Both of the boys were killed in the war. It broke Meredith and Bobby’s hearts. Bobby just could not accept it. He died soon after and left Meredith all alone.” He grabbed Big C’s arm. “She hasn’t been out of that house ever since. Her spirit is just withering away. She just wanders through that empty place, screaming at no one there.” His eyes showed his own pain. “She’s my sister. Big C, do what you can, please.” So it came to pass that in the wee hours of the morning, Big C and Bumble set up under the windows to Meredith’s parlor. He took a deep breath and began to play the Bumble Mumble. He reached deeper than he’d ever reached and played his very soul into being.

He became aware of movement on the other side of the pane as he played. Each riff took flight and even the hair on Bumble’s back stood up. When he finished, there was silence. Eternity drew a breath. Slowly the front door opened, and Meredith took a tentative step outside. She held Big C’s face in her hands. “Thank you,” she whispered. “Thank you. I was finally able to dance with their ghosts.”

Words are magic and writers are wizards.