Sonant, Page 2A. Sparrow
“Not quite. You used to stay there, that is true, but you moved out about a month ago when you lost your job performing in their nightclub.”
“Kabukicho! That’s right. I moved to Kabukicho.”
“Very good! You’re obviously improving. Yesterday, you couldn’t even tell me your name. You must remember your name by now, don’t you?”
“Aerie. Aerie Walker.” Things were starting to click. From the dread beginning to creep into her being, she wasn’t sure that was such a good thing. Her gut seemed to recall whatever her brain had forgotten.
“What brought you to Tokyo, Aerie?”
“Hollis. I play upright bass in the Hollis Brooks Quartet. We play jazz at the Hilton.”
“Used to. Not anymore. Not … since Mr. Brooks went to Amsterdam.”
“Hollis went to Amsterdam?”
“Two months ago. It’s been almost a month since you last played any music in public.”
“Holy shit. That’s right!” Aerie sat upright on the mattress, twinging her neck yet again.
“How does this make you feel? Mr. Hollis Brooks going to Amsterdam without you. Are you sad? What do you feel?”
“I don’t feel anything.” That wasn’t true at all and she knew it. She felt plenty. She just didn’t know how to describe it, and even if she did, she wasn’t going to share it with this twerp.
“Did you have a relationship with him? Sexual?”
She sputtered. “With who, Hollis? No way. I mean, I love Hollis, as a friend, as my mentor. He’d make passes at me when he was drunk. But he’d go after anything with breasts and a vagina. He’d get frisky, but it was never anything I couldn’t handle. Christ, he’s almost as old as my father.”
“We were just wondering if there might be cause for extradition. Any abuse or assault, you know, rape that might have led you—”
“No way. Hollis never touched me. Nobody did this to me. This was all my doing.”
“Do you remember why?”
She sank back against her pillows, careful not to jar her neck. “No. My brain is mush.”
“This Tokyo gig was supposed to be practice for New York, isn’t that right? Didn’t Mr. Brooks promise he had connections in Manhattan? That he could book you all a stand at some clubs in Chelsea?”
Her eyes flared wide. “Who told you that?”
“Your ex-drummer. Mr. Koichi Takamura.”
Aerie inhaled long and slow. “Well, maybe I did have reason to kill myself.”
“Nonsense.” Toguchi rose from his chair and went to the window, pulling the curtain open wider. “This is just life. Everyone has setbacks. It made no sense to react the way you did.”
“Don’t tell me how I’m supposed to behave.”
“It’s abnormal. That’s why I’m here, investigating. To see if there was any possibility of hanky-panky. It’s clear to me now, that this is just … if you’ll pardon me … mental illness. But don’t worry; they have pills that can fix you.”
Toguchi closed his notebook. “Well, I suppose my business is done. I should let you know. Your work visa has been revoked. We’ve made arrangements with your mother to fly you home.”
Panic shot through Aerie. “My mother knows about this?”
Toguchi nodded. He came over and patted her arm gently. “Take care. I wish you the best.”
“You wish me pills.”
He smirked and left the room. She watched his head bob down the corridor, loose fitting trousers swaying against skinny legs. She looked out the window. A dust devil spun up atop a tall building, consuming leaves and poly film shopping bags. It whirled and whirled, refusing to die, engulfing more and more un-tethered bits of the city.
She uncurled her right hand. Sharp pains shot through her knuckles. “Jeez, what’s wrong with my hand?” She tugged at the device supporting her neck.
She remembered now, how it was being on stage with Hollis on sax, Frank on piano, Koichi on drums. When things got humming their combo became a unified organism, much more than the sum of its parts. At its core, Aerie’s fingers drove the pulse; her bass strings pumping the very heart of the beast.
Such synergies had arisen with other groups she had played with, but it was always a fragile and fleeting thing. Never did it come as often and or as consistently as with this very special quartet. Its chemistry and alchemy were simply irreplaceable.
The crushing heaviness seeped back, carrying a sense of implacable doom. A full-blown panic attack broke out with cold sweat seeping from her pores, heart galloping as if it were trying to wrench free of her chest.
“No! I shouldn’t have to deal with this. I had ended it! It was done with.”
An elderly woman visiting the lady across the curtain ducked her head into Aerie’s half of the room.
“Seppuku. You know? Except no swords, just a scarf.” She swung her legs off the bed, disconnected the IV and pulled off the wires monitoring her heart rate, setting off the alarm.
She went and opened the window. She was three stories up. Plenty of height, except the window only tilted out a few inches.
The little speaker on the wall crackled to life with words of Japanese, aborted, and then: “Is everything okay?”
“Fine. Just fine.” She bolted out of the room and down the corridor, past elevator doors just closing on Toguchi. Startled to see her, he reached forward as the doors sealed.
A nurse came running down the hall after her. Aerie flung open the fire door to the stairwell and pounded down the steps. She kept going down past the main floor and its waiting rooms, to the basement. She burst out into a hallway of unfinished concrete, passing a laundry room and then a morgue, emerging onto a loading dock crowded with orange biohazard bags of medical waste destined for the incinerator.
“Yameru!” bellowed a blue-uniformed guard in a white helmet. He lunged and grabbed her gown, tearing its straps. Aerie spun free and ran naked up the ramp. She saw daylight, heard trucks careening down a busy road. She saw a chance rectify her mistake, to restore her wish, finish what she had botched. She would close her eyes, and dash in front of a couple of tons of hurtling steel.
Atop the ramp, a suited man ran in front of the opening and crouched, blocking her way. Toguchi! Aerie tried to dodge him. He sidestepped and caught her, tackling her to the sidewalk, pinning her down like a fox claiming a rabbit. He pulled off his jacket and draped it over her nakedness.
“Don’t worry. I’ll make sure they take care of you. No one should have to feel the way you do. They can help you. I’ll make certain of that.”
Aerie just panted and glared, her senses consumed by searing pain.
Chapter 2: Ithaca
Aerie’s little white Sentra shredded the 50 mph speed limit, coasting down the long straightaways, straining and sputtering up the opposite slopes. On both sides of the road, ranks of trellises marched into a valley carved by glaciers to the gleaming waters of Seneca Lake.
Cool, crisp Canadian air had replaced the sultry, myopic haze she had left behind that morning in Maryland. Puffy, white clouds shuttled across a cobalt sky. The trees etching the horizon seemed carved of glass.
The unexpected chill forced her to shut the windows. It was still only late July, but in Upstate New York, summer was already in headlong retreat.
She had survived Tokyo, only to be whisked to Baltimore and her mother’s stifling presence. Samantha had been bad enough before Aerie’s failed suicide. Now she was insufferable. Before she had made good her escape to Ithaca, the constant doting and interrogations had almost dragged Aerie back into the abyss.
“Why are you looking down at the floor?” her mother had said as they sat at the kitchen table of her condo, having tea. “Is something wrong?”
“I’m fine,” said Aerie. “Looking at the floor doesn’t mean I’m depressed,” said Aerie. “Sometimes it just means … I’m looking at the floor.”
“Well, how am I supposed to know that? You n
ever share your feelings.”
“What do you want? A play by play of my inner thoughts?”
“A smile would be nice once in a while. You’re so much prettier when you smile.”
“Am I ugly when I don’t?”
“Aerie! Your face is all I have to go on sometimes. You never communicate. You tell me you’re fine, when it’s obvious you’re not.”
Aerie sighed. “You have a cracked tile.”
“That tile … it’s cracked.”
Samantha pursed her lips. “I do my best. I’m on a fixed income, you realize. I’m sorry if I don’t—”
“Mom, it’s okay. It just … caught my eye. I wasn’t criticizing. Just … let me be me. Let me mope if I feel like moping. I’ll let you know if I plan to shoot myself in the head.”
“Don't talk like that!”
“Don’t worry about me, mom. Worry about yourself.”
Only now that she had made clean her escape to her home town of Ithaca, was Aerie able to breathe freely and see the possibility of a life beyond Effexor and Cognitive Behavioral Therapy. Ithaca, the site of the first twelve years of her life, the best years, before her domestic situation soured and Samantha whisked her away to live with her mother in Baltimore in the throes of a divorce.
She felt like a woodchuck caught in a Havahart trap and released in the middle of the woods some impossible distance from her cozy burrow and abundant gardens. The friendships she had nurtured in Ithaca were never replaced, nor could they be. She found the culture in her new high school inscrutable. The kids might have spoken English but might as well have been aliens sent to colonize the Earth. No one listened to reggae or bebop. No one else seemed to notice Firefly’s brilliant but meteoric stand on Fox. Aerie came to wonder if maybe she was the alien.
Social isolation did wonders for her music. She had plenty of time to practice, though, to her mother’s consternation, she never hooked up with any of the school bands. She was a free agent, self-taught apart from a brief series of unhelpful lessons, dragging her upright to any bluegrass or jazz jam that would have her.
Old men used to laugh at her dinky half-sized rental instrument. She had to pluck till her fingers bled to make herself heard among the booming Martins and howling Selmers. But one day, as she was perusing an estate sale on her way home from school, she made a discovery that turned the tables.
The sight of the behemoth lurking in the corner nearly knocked her over. Two hundred dollars for a dusty, old bass with cloudy varnish, popped-open seams and a peeled-off fingerboard. She pulled her keychain light out of her handbag and shined it into the f-hole. A paper tag was pasted to the wood inside: ‘Abraham Prescott, 1820.’
She couldn’t believe her luck! Prescott was a American luthier, famous for carving ballsy three string basses intended for church choirs. Not every congregation could afford an organ. His tubs of spruce and rock maple provided affordable accompaniment for their hymns.
His basses were legendary, the tonal equal of the very best Italian and English instruments. She turned over the entire thirteen dollars she had to hold it, and ran home.
“But you already have a bass,” her mom had said.
“A rental,” said Aerie. “This one, I would own. It’s a full size and it’s only two hundred dollars. It’s a steal, mom. An investment.”
“Hmm, I’ll need to see it. I don’t want you to get gypped.”
So Aerie had taken her back to the estate sale at an upscale row house on the edge of Canton. Samantha, distracted by the china on sale, had to be led by the elbow to the room harboring the bass. She took one look at the thing and gagged.
“Why Aerie, it’s a piece of junk.”
“Mom! It’s a Prescott,” said Aerie, whispering so the folks running the sale wouldn’t hear.
“Look at that thing. It’s not nearly as pretty as the one you rent. I mean the wood’s almost black. Look at those cracks. It doesn’t even have any strings.”
“But it’s a Prescott, mom. A genuine Prescott for the asking price of a good set of strings. It’s a steal.”
“Your bass strings cost that much? Really?”
Her mom waggled her head. “Why couldn’t my girl play a flute or a fiddle?”
Samantha wrote out a check and together they lugged the thing home, setting in motion a tide of events that nearly consumed Aerie in Tokyo. But in retrospect, she pondered, as the lake rippled its teeth at her, it had all been worth it.
She had come back to Ithaca because that’s where it had all started, even though the people who mattered to her the most didn’t live here anymore or had never lived here. Whenever, wherever she dreamed—Vegas, Tokyo—the setting was always Ithaca.
She rented a one bedroom place downtown for five hundred a month, by Tokyo standards, ridiculously cheap. The next morning, before she had even unpacked, she loaded her bass into the car and come up between the lakes to pay homage to someone long deceased, not a relative, someone she had never met in the flesh, who died decades before she was even born, but meant more to her than any living relative.
His name was Scotty—Scott LaFaro.
Aerie drove alone, in a little white Sentra, scabbed with rust, patched with duct tape, chosen for its cheapness and its ability to hold her Juzek double bass in the fully reclined front passenger seat. Behind her, in the only space a passenger could have sat, a beach bucket bearing a bouquet of purple loosestrife, cattails and water lilies—the best she could improvise on the drive up from Ithaca via Watkins Glen.
Like a broad river, Seneca Lake flanked Route 14 for mile after mile. In Geneva, she turned left onto Route 20 towards Canandaigua. About halfway there, near Flint Road she slowed the car, looking for a special place that she imagined would be marked with a cross, a plaque, a monument. Her idol among idols had died here. Not Jimmy Blanton or Paul Chambers, not Ray Brown but Scott Lafaro. In 1961, only 25 years old, the same age as Aerie, he had run his car off the road into a tree and died in the resulting conflagration, his Prescott bass badly burned, but not as badly as his flesh.
Aerie put on her flashers and crawled along the shoulder, scanning both sides of the road a mile to the east and west of Flint Road, finding nothing but vineyards and corn fields and copses of oaks and maples. On the outskirts of Canandaigua, she turned the car around and went back the other way.
Was she merely blind, or could the world really be this disrespectful of Scott LaFaro’s genius? Why was there no marker for the man whose playing loosened the bonds of servitude of jazz bass players, the prodigy who in 1961 formed the third limb of the symbiotic organism known as the Bill Evans Trio?
The album ‘Sunday at the Village Vanguard’ was to some of her snootier hipster friends as tired a trope as Miles Davis’ ‘Kind of Blue’, but it was the primal force that had initiated Aerie to her first real jazz and she had come to pay respects. Funny, that when she was growing up in Ithaca, she had not even been aware of Scott LaFaro’s existence. Now that she had gone halfway around the world in service of his muse, she had come back to play for Scotty.
Back at Flint Road, she stopped the car, determined to find the site of Scotty’s last moment on earth. She hopped a ditch and inspected every tree along the roadside until she found a big, old rock maple with a healed-over scar at right about the height a car bumper might have smashed it. She touched her fingers to the bulge of callus ringing a socket of dead, grey wood like a dead eye.
This was it. She squinted down the road in the direction from which he had been driving. Such a straight road. No dead man’s curve. No visual obstructions. He must have fallen asleep, exhausted perhaps from the vastness of the possibilities opening up before him, giddy with his burgeoning mastery and fame.
Then again, maybe all that hoopla had frightened him. Maybe some existential crisis had seized him as he drove and he had twitched the wheel to the right, just enough to send him flying into martyrdom. She envied the kid
for flowering into his skill so young, for exiting the stage just he glimpsed the peak of what life would offer him.
She went back to the car and retrieved the bucket of flowers. Swamp water and duckweed had sloshed all over the back seat. A thick musk of decay penetrated the fabric.
She carried it over to the base of the tree, arranging the cattails into the most pleasing configuration she could manage, though it came out looking like an inartful child’s first stab at ikebana.
Again, she crossed the ditch and with the ghosts of Bill Evans’ piano and Paul Motian’s drums ringing in her head, she hauled out her bass, tuned it by ear and started into Scotty’s best known composition: ‘Gloria’s Step,’ its moody chords cycling with a startling and unbound logic before halting in a most unexpected place, as unresolved as own, short life.
A grinning truck driver stopped for a spell to gawk. A hawk landed on a fence post. But Aerie was not present in their world. Many trucks and birds later, she was still there playing, improvising over the chord changes until her fingers burned and the sun cast long shadows across the meadows. She ended with a flourish—a bowed glissando and double stop—milking the drone until it was swallowed by the wind.
Aerie lounged in a sourdough and prosciutto-induced stupor on the overstuffed couch she had rescued from a curb in Cayuga Heights. She curled and uncurled her right hand. It had been over a month since she had returned from Japan, and while the rest of her had healed slowly but steadily, her hand still ached like the devil’s claw, the consequence of playing unamplified all those years and aggravated on that mother of an E string, a Spirocore Stark stout enough to anchor a yacht. But what a glorious noise it had made. Those Starks made it growl like a grizzly bear.
The phone rang. No caller ID, but it had to be mother again. No one else in her life even knew she was back in Ithaca.
“Aerie, that’s not how you answer a phone,” said her mom.
“Why not? I sorta knew it was you.”
“You sound all … drugged. Have you been—?”
“I just woke up.”
“You were sleeping? It’s the middle of the afternoon. I hope you’re not overdoing those pills again.”