Jazz Selections

“By and large, jazz has always been like the kind of a man you wouldn’t want your daughter to associate with.”

The scene looked like something out of a cheap crime novel, as Grainger stood still on the pedestrian overpass above Fifth Avenue and far up from its intense traffic and noise. It was the end of the afternoon and he looked down at the black asphalt. He was also very dark-looking today, dressed in dark clothes, dark hair and dark eyes.

John Grainger was not a bad-looking folk. He had a nice lean figure, his appearance was well kept – maybe his teeth were a bit ugly, yellow because of coffee and cigarettes, Grainger thought when assessing himself – but nothing unbearable to look at. Distinctively English-looking like his father and grandfather he was. He had softer features, of course, because he was from the genuine all-American generation, but his voice even carried a little accent. As he talked out loud to himself, he heard the voice of his father inside his head. In fact, he had being listening to him quite a lot these times – he heard it every time he remembered her.

He used to say “Don’t cry, dear boy. Big boys don’t cry.” Grainger repeated the saying with silent lips. Don’t cry.

Yet, he had been crying. He had cried and moped around for eight weeks. Miles Davis’ “Kind of Blue” had played over and over again, non stop for the whole period: “Jazz Selections”, track 2, to be more exact. This mood of blues would give Grainger’s soul another layer of a somehow enjoyable suffering, of a solitude he learned to prize – the same solitude he had cultivated in rooms filled with dirty empty glasses, full ashtrays and shut curtains; in rooms of everlasting artificial nights.

Ol’ William would tell him over the phone “Come, Johnny-boy, come down to the bar, let’s have a drink, let’s go out for dinner. There is a little new restaurant that serves the most marvelous supper in Manhattan! Bebop! Oh, you are so young, you cannot let such a thing drag you down. Girls are just girls, girls will always be girls, there are plenty out there for you. You are such a pretty young man. Let’s go on a trip to the Hamptons for a couple of weeks, shall we? We’ll go swimming, tanning. You need to relax or else you’ll become neurasthenic. Come, we’ll have a glass of wine. You have money, you have looks… Enjoy life! Carpe diem, John-John! Get out of this God-forsaken-room of yours!” Grainger didn’t. He did not want to see William nor any of the boys. He didn’t want to go see the awfully dull girls at the golf club. After all, to pretend to be happy could only be idiocy… If he was to see someone, it would have to be Elizabeth.

So, after a two month hiatus from life, after lying for such a long time in the open mouth of a hotel bed waiting for a sudden, painless death, he felt the unstoppable urge to call her. But first he pressed play again, delightfully hurt by the blues coming out of the Davis’s trumpet and savored a little bit more of that bleeding heart. It was the same blood, the same taste over and over again: heartbreak. He dialed her number by heart and spoke with a shaky, fainting voice; he arranged an encounter in that exact same spot he was now standing on. And there she came, at 17:17, two minutes later then expected, but nevertheless in a magic hour. Elizabeth climbed the last set of steps in her languid walk and expensive shoes. She stopped by his side, inclining her body towards his and then leaning against the dirty iron railing.

She was such an exquisite petit woman, in her small frame and fragile ivory skin. But she had a temper, the little one, that could win any argument. Yet she was famous for her charms and delights, her breath like peppermint, sweet as she would delightfully talk about her latest aspirations – today it was the beatnik movement.

She was a sweet sight for sore eyes. But Johnny Grainger did not want refreshment for his dry view, so he did not turn his eyes away from the traffic bellow his feet to look at the darling face of her once-beloved. Her angelical appearance, her sanctified image – that to John Grainger cut his heart like a knife. And he wasn’t in the mood for gallantries, for putting to practice his impeccable education. He just reached for the bottle standing next to his feet and drank a long, bitter drink from it. Not a word was spoken from either part. He held the bottle against the sun, a green, dirty glass bottle of cheap wine.

He passed the bottle to the side, without ever once looking at her. She obviously didn’t accept a sip. He remembered the color of her eyes, as green as the wine bottle, he remembered the frightening magnetism that came from them and lingered on, how he sunk in that green eyes every single time. “I had a nightmare, honey, where the storm got heavier, the water level kept rising and rising…. Our heads were already barely above the surface. We both drowned.” he had said to her one morning, over breakfast, while staring at her eyes. She didn’t answer for a while, just looked over the window glass. In the sunlight she sat, holding a cup of tea, in perfect, comfortable silence.

And now once again they shared silence. Not the comfortable silence couples share when they also share what is commonly called love – a silence that would be ruined if interrupted by words, a silence of peace where two lovebirds speak with hands and eyes – they had only heavy, unspoken war. They shared a renegade silence. And the timing wouldn’t be more right to remember her answer to his nightmare, back in that sunny Saturday morning (that he just now realized that was a little uncomfortable after all): “A nightmare, hu? And what is this, my dear Johnny? What about this terrible nightmare that has come between us?”

And she then broke his inner monologue by cracking a joke in her dry humor, to break the ice. A cryptic joke, like her nightmare comment; yet, this one was about drinking yourself to death, a pun with Poe and John Doe – something so unfunny he had to laugh. Elizabeth then opened her purse and grabbed her delicate golden cigarette case and passed one smoke to him, as a sort of informal peace offering. He finally looked at her when lighting it up. She dragged on her fag for a long smoke, and seemed to take a devilish pleasure from it while he observed. The smoke rose to the sky slowly, like that Jazz Selection’s sensual high notes rose to the ears of heaven…

And trivial conversation went on, and only those mundane talks would be ok for now. They were not ready for much more.

“How are you?”

She said she was fine, that she was now working, going on with her life. But he already knew she was working. Elizabeth was working down at Miller’s office. Miller. That was the name that devoured a piece of his soul every time he heard it; it was the sound of sin on itself, the name of all devils that burned Grainger’s insides. He would scream Miller in his sleep, in his moments of anger and drunkenness; he would call that devil’s name between his teeth for 30 seconds while he had his random moment of rage of the day. In fact, Grainger was sure he spent 75% of his day thinking of Miller, or more exactly, thinking of ways of killing that Miller bastard.

J.P. Miller and his good looks, his lawyer looks, and his suits and car. Jason Patrick Miller, Elizabeth Burroughs’ lover, public attorney for the state of New York. He could see Miller in that tarnished memory that hid itself in the back of his mind: Miller at the dinner party held at the Fitzgerald’s – the first time he and Elizabeth shared a conversation – his smooth talking, his delicate moves, his white teeth. Then suddenly Miller was everywhere, every party, every hotel, every jazz club. Miller was even in his ‘Jazz Selections’; Miller was in Miles Davis somehow – Miller had tarnished his jazz, ruined his blues, made his heart bleed in a sad, horrible way.

Then Grainger told Elizabeth he didn’t think of her anymore. She inquired him of the motives of his call then, of their present meting. John opened his mouth then closed it again, without letting a word escape. In fact, he didn’t think of Elizabeth so much anymore – he only thought of her on the remaining 25% of the time he wasn’t thinking of Miller, or fantasizing about punching his skinny frame, breaking his jaw and ribs, dragging his face through 15 miles of horse manure, and then kicking his perfect bureaucratic white teeth until he died. This Miller guy was such a douche.

“You know Miller isn’t worth a penny, right? I heard it through the grapevine that he used to sleep with his previous secretary and that he could not please a lady by all means. Does he please, my dear? Does he please you like I did?”

Elizabeth could not do her best at suppressing an offended, embarrassed expression. Her frown revealed something that gave Grainger a moment of sheer pleasure: knowing that the great, adored, immaculate grand-stupide Miller had a flaw made John more of a man, gave him a primal rush of power and adrenaline that started in the tip of his tongue and spread all the way down his spine. Like an addict, he wanted another fix but, before he had the chance, Elizabeth disarmed his attack.

She said she was in love with Miller, truly in love, like she had never been before. It was time for Grainger to let go. She said they could still be friends, yet Grainger could not be friends with her. John Grainger wasn’t ready to let go, he wasn’t ready to be friends. He had in him that old hate that brought him back to the drunk, angry moment he had repeated during the course of his whole life. Like when his mother died in 1950, John got drunk alone with looted wine, tripped over every sidewalk in this city. He felt back then the same terrible rusty taste in the back of his throat he was now feeling – like a mixture of alcohol, smoke, tears and blood, disillusion and disenchantment: like eating glass.

And his father told him not to cry! How could one not cry over the death of a loved one and other dreadful feelings? “Don’t cry”, in the funeral and everywhere else, in the exact same voice since his childhood, when John was only 5 years old, after hurting his knees in the yard. “Big boys don’t cry” in that concerned yet unkind tone. His father was unable to cry. Maybe that’s why he was such a sad man, so unreachable. Work-driven, self-centered – after he got fired, he was never the same. If only he had cried…

Spit. Sour, rusty spit. A big ball of spit came out of Grainger’s mouth in an attempt of cleaning his throat, of letting the vile sensations go. Grainger knew that this taste was symptom of a feeling he had been cultivating in his heart for a very long time, knew it was the hand that sows an evil he would sooner or later have to reap: hate.

Hate was still the hand, only the seed it planted was now different. In the past, hate had bred other kinds of low thoughts in John’s mind, but this time it was Jealousy being inserted in the fertile ground of Grainger’s brain, this terrible disease that made John Grainger’s life a dry, rotten tree of black fruits… But then, he thought, even if that jealousy was an eagle pecking at his heart slowly, devouring him little by little, what choice had him apart from mutilation? None.

John Grainger could not be friends with Elizabeth anymore. He had been everything to her for so long. He had seen her world hit the rocks, her life wrecking as a ship with no lifejacket or rescue boat and he had been the only thing for her, always. True, they have had a terrible relationship at times, but John made efforts to fill gaps, to change. And now he had failed.

He could not be friends with her, nor hate her. It would be easier to hate her, to put the blame on her, he had done that before: cutting the bounds that tie completely, throwing away every memory (good or bad), the gifts and the stories. Garbage! All had gone to waste. Hate always tainted the remaining few things, the fond and the kept, and, in disdain, there would be some name calling, some physical fight. Then silence. Then distance would be all that is left of what was once called ‘us’.

But he couldn’t. He wanted to be attached to her by something, yet neither by love nor hate. Not by friendship either. He wanted to be a stranger, like back in the time before they had met. He wanted to retreat to that dusty afternoon, where the sun died slowly over the hills, and they stepped outside the vicious environment of Emmett’s bachelor pad to catch some fresh air. Grainger bummed a cigarette today like he had bummed one in that very afternoon – and that sunset was a powerful memory that made everything worse.

And clinging to memories was a paradox to John. Thinking about forgetting them was already an act of remembrance, and remembering made the memory thicker, solid. It was an endless back-firing effort; forgetting lighted flames that burned more holes in his heart then ever, drilling with inhuman efficiency…
Grainger at last concluded he would forever be bound to her by an indissoluble sadness. He looked up and met her eyes, her iris colored too by small dots of sadness. The fact that she is in love with Miller, the word ‘love’ coming out of her cherry-red lips ricocheted like a bullet in his skull. He looked at the green bottle and felt an envy as green as the glass, then a sadness as blue as the sky. In the end, the anger that came was as rouge as her lips.

At least they would be stuck together by something, he thought. And Elizabeth, feeling that her time to go had come, left without saying goodbye. She put her cigarette out on the floor by stepping on it, put away the golden case back in her purse and went down, away from his sight. Her footsteps could not be heard because of the dazzling sound of the traffic down at the asphalt, her shadow was lost among the buildings, her legs – like any other legs – were mixed with the ones that passed by.

And John, in his scarlet anger started seeing everything black, his rage burning in his stomach. He then grabbed the bottle by the neck and strangled it, wishing it was Elizabeth’s neck. Then, he lifted the bottle and let it fall on the asphalt bellow. It broke in a thousand little pieces among the cars. The piercing noise of the breaking resembled the sound of broken bones and Grainger, for a moment, wished that those puddles of wine and crushed pieces of glass, underneath the furious tires, were his own skin and bones.

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