by Christopher Bacas
We weren't out too long before a brief break and another personnel change. After a pre-dawn departure, I arrived at a Midwestern airport and staggered toward baggage claim. A man paced back and forth between carousels; long black hair hanging over the collar of a wide-open trench coat. Head down, he puffed aggressively on a cigarette. It was Doc, a saxophone player from college days. I hadn't seen him in 7 years. He was now the other tenor and my roomie. The manager thought, as schoolmates, we'd be a good match.
Well trained in the requisite skills, Doc had no problem with his book. In the room, he slept long and hard; really hard. I asked if he could smoke outside and he agreed. I tried not to wake him with my 5am yoga and bubbling saucepans. The hot plate got constant use with the winter squash, kombu (seaweed), carrots and burdock stored in my overhead. Lentils came out particularly tasty.
In the bathroom, early morning, soaking, waiting for my oatmeal, I heard the phone ring. Fully expecting Doc to pick it up, ten, twenty, then thirty rings passed. Annoyed, I rushed out with a towel on and snatched up the receiver. The preset wake up call was silent. I hung up. Standing over roomie, his face a mask, I got a hot flash of fear. No one sleeps with a ringing phone six inches away. He was dead. I started to prod him, gingerly, awkwardly holding my towel, still dripping water. Soon, I was shoving the rubbery body. His face never moved. Then, a mythical princess, he slowly opened his eyes. I felt tears spill over my eyelids.
"Didn't you hear the phone?"
"That's crazy, man, it rang so many times. I was worried, I thought you were dead."
"I was tired."
I pushed my anguish down.
"You take something?"
"You got high?"
His voice was dreamy.
"That's fuckin' weird, man. Seriously, take care of yourself. I was scared."
"Sorry…. sorry, sorry"
"Fucked up, man"
"Sorry, sorry, I'm sorry"
He was a junkie; deep in it. Days later, I plead with him to stop, to seek help. Five years before, different bus, different band, a colleague OD'ed. Larded with some spiritual hoo-ha, I told Doc I wanted him to live. No tears, though. He reacted with tittering denials and digressions. I was making organic stews while he was snorting heroin to get straight. His scene became obvious. Other cats asked me a lot of questions. I referred them to him. That felt really weird. Doc stuck it out in the band and even took a cruise with us, bringing his Mom as plus-one. She died not too long after. He'd take a while to hit bottom and finally choose life. It would take more years for my compulsive behaviors to surface. I wouldn't have any better response than Doc, despite my earlier wise counsel.
Doc's replacement hailed from the Twin Cities. Whitey personified "Minnesota nice"; quiet, courteous,emotionally bland, and his skin was really pale. He'd done a stint in a brokerage, but managing other folks' money didn't pay off. An excellent musician and a doting father with his absent kids, he joined a bunch of hometown pals on the gig. I don't remember much friction with him. Lead Alto infuriated him daily, though. Our section leader followed the dictum "never play anything the same way, once". He phrased differently every night: long, short, scooped, head-on, ricky-tic, swung like mad; interpretation while you wait. He owned up, so I didn't resent it; but following him was like catching fish with bare hands. Soloist offered guidance to the saxophones on a few specific passages; his own preferences and A's. Otherwise, he gave Lead plenty of musical freedom. Whitey grumbled about music, but their conflict was cultural; two diametrically opposed humans.
Whitey's lean face glowed pink with cobalt eyes. His mouth opened asymmetrically; upper lip forming an elongated fish hook while the jaw chomped out words. Lead had a pudgy face, deeply tanned and often unshaven. On day drives, he got stir-crazy. He'd long been on ships and hated confinement. Now, two seats behind Whitey, Lead lit up. Whitey folded his paperback onto the seat and turned around, mouth working.
"Whutch ya doin? Doncha know smoking marijuana's illegal? I got kids and a family. I don't wanna go ta jail!"
"No fuckin' cop's gonna stop us. Fuck off!"
Lead hunched forward in his seat and inhaled deeply, a hissing sound followed by a lip smack.
Whitey raced front and confronted the manager; asking if he was prepared for the legal ramifications of arrest. The manger suggested Whitey sit up front. Lead and crew guffawed. He stood, wiggled his hips and bent to the window, blowing clouds of smoke at the cars below.
"Arrest me! Arrest me! Arrest me! Lookit! No one can even see us up here, you fuckin idiot!"
Whitey steamed toward Lead, his face a keloid of rage.
" STOP IT! How do you know? Someone could see it and report us. I could be held culpable!"
Lead hesitated. He had a Master's degree…in music.
"Culpable? What the fuck is that?
Lead looked around the bus for affirmation.
"Culpable? What the fuck does that mean, pussyass motherfucker?"
"Culpable. Cul-pa-bull. You don't know what that means?"
Spray flew out of his gobbing mouth onto Lead's shirt.
"You're spitting now?"
Lead pushed his chest out and Whitey shoved it; a 9 year-old's move, delivered spastically with head down and knees scissoring. Bari man moved on his buddy. Simultaneously, Road Manager grabbed Whitey. Lead sat down heavily. Whitey rocked side to side, shading plum, trying to free himself. The manager subdued and turned him around, walking him away. I looked at Bari man.
"Someone didn't have enough sleep last night" he said and grinned sweetly, patting Lead's shoulder.
After gigs, Lead wore work clothes to wherever they hung out. The next day, his suit slept on the bus; smoky, smudged, jacket around the damp shirt. Lead worked the outfit this way many nights running. No laundry service ever had a go at it. Eventually, even without his body heat, it spewed noxious vapors. His boys were horrified. They went out together. What woman would sit with them? The piano player approached me. In my overhead, I carried a pump bottle of orange oil, potent and pure citrus, used as a freshener and diluted for cleaning. Piano thought it could "freshen" the suit. We got keys from the driver, opened the bus and approached the offending body. Piano man spread the lapels apart and I sprayed the inner armpits of the jacket, then jacket sleeves, then back, then front. Smelling the suit delicately, piano man asked for more. I sprayed the shirt. We giggled throughout. I'd gotten the undiluted oil on my hands and was shocked that it severely irritated skin. Of course, the label contained a warning and it was too late to remove the caustic liquid. That night, he put on the suit. Burning with guilt, I watched carefully for signs of discomfort. Lead did his job just fine. He maintained his usual trippy persona and had a dozen or more cigarettes and a couple scotches, too. The suit consumed its daily allowance of perspiration, tar and ash. I watched Piano man talk to him on the break. Making eye contact, I touched a finger to my nose. He nodded, eyes gleaming. In the end, all we saved Lead was a dry cleaning bill.