Gillian notices that no one ever closed Mr. Elling’s attic window. A week has passed since the brief swirl of ambulance lights near dawn. Already his house seems decades older.
She’s staring across at it when she hears his voice say, “Lord, child, you about run as far as you can get.” He has a rich and rumbly cadence. There’s a crackle in it, too, faint as a needle at the end of one of his records. Somehow she is not startled, though he might as well be perched right here beside her, on the high sharp peak of her house. That’s how close his words are; she feels them in the shingles under her hands, and in the cups of her ears.
She sees him (for a second she’s sure of it) in his old chair, rocking slowly toward and away from her, in and out of the pool of a hanging bulb. Even from a distance he looks ancient, his skin like dried dates. The silver of his hair glints and fades. She can’t see his eyes, but she pictures them, heavy-lidded, stained the yellow of a smoker’s teeth.
He was the only person she could talk to in her six months here, though most days she’d just listen. Stories about his life in the big jazz towns; who played what with whom before when. He could talk the sun down, tapping the valves of his battle-tarnished trumpet idly in his lap. Betty, he called the old horn, with something in his voice that said she was his one true love. His lungs couldn’t handle her anymore, but sometimes, just to get a smile, he’d lift her up and blow his cheeks out into great globes. Then cough a while after.
For the first time she wonders if maybe he knew that listening would do her more good. Her father had pulled her out of school after the day in the maple trees, and the weeks had grown into one long, opaque strand. Now Mr. Elling’s words carry clear through the space between their houses like the few stray starlings (they’re late flying south) calling to one another above. Faraway cars on the highway sound like the ocean. She can pretend the starlings are gulls and she is somewhere else, a place that, if only for a little while, doesn’t have her father in it.
She calls across asking Mr. Elling if he is a ghost. He breathes a deep sigh. “You just hush,” he says. “No need for you to be yelling. It don’t much matter what I am. I ain’t haunting nobody, that’s for sure. Just lingering. I got a story I kept letting myself not tell you. Before, it was a story about my daddy and me. Now it’s maybe got room for you and yours, and that’s a terrible thing to come to.”
A minute unravels. She listens to the birds. “Look at that sky, Gillian,” he says. She has to grip the shingles, so wide and heavy is the shock of hearing that. To Mr. Elling they’re just words. He says them kindly, like another sigh, but she remembers (she’s always thinking of) the backseat of her father’s convertible after a sudden detour into a clump of maples, her mouth still sticky from ice cream. Her father whispered those words and then sneaked a kiss along her neck, as she peered up between the full trees, into blind blue and clouds like stuffing pulled out of dolls.
Today’s sky is much the same, a little whiter. The clouds hang closer. Someone is burning leaves, but not nearby. She presses her hand to her belly, cold against the tight warmth there.
“I will surely miss this northern sky,” Mr. Elling says, and makes a close-mouthed little “mmhm” sound before he goes on. “But one last story before I move on to wherever it is I’m headed. Betty and me had us some good years, and I’m satisfied.
“See, the best times were bebop, hard bop, all the bops. The birth of the cool. I’m lucky those times were the ones I happened to be in. The greats slipped on more new styles than a woman in a shoe store. They always were looking for the next big groove, the next big rule-breaker. And you might ask how a brokedown young fella from South Carolina with a drunk waste of a daddy could bus hisself down to Louisiana, with just a dream in his head of playing with actual gods. Well, there’s a reason us old folks get to say we were young once.”
The handful of starlings has fallen quiet. Nothing moves through his attic window now, if anything ever did. She can almost pick out the last few patches of red paint on the rocking chair’s pale arms. She can come close to riding the swells of his voice, the pop and hiss of a well-worn tune.
“But piss on all that history lesson talk,” Mr. Elling goes on. “You don’t know the insides of jazz aside from my jawing, but just know that folks like Coltrane and Monk—never Miles, wasn’t nobody blowing trumpet beside that man and not coming off like a bugler in a doomed infantry—they were reason enough to sell your soul.”
And for a moment, just one, she seems to hear her mother singing Billie Holiday under her breath, seems to see her far below (in a yard she never knelt in) stabbing at the soil with her spade. As though both of Gillian’s important ghosts are here. She seems to smell her, too, not the powdered lavender of her hugs but something that traces her mother’s freckled skin further down in her mind: honeysuckle, like the vines that spread wild in the woods behind the old neighborhood, before the hospital, before the house went dusty and full of echoes and she and her father moved away. To here.
And she almost says that, yes, she does know the insides of jazz.
Mr. Elling’s old voice drifts on. “Like I told you a time or three, I came to the Big Easy late in the game. It was a frying-pan August, 1958, about as humid as humid gets. Beautiful city, crumbling slow and majestic. Green growing on everything. The day I got there my precious mama was in her grave just shy of three weeks and my daddy wasn’t worth the dirt in it.
“I could play a mean trumpet, had been since I was fifteen until my daddy put a stop to it. And I had big plans to travel around, looking up at my name in tall letters on marquees. But I was a beanpole with the lungs to match. I didn’t have the soul of the greats. Betty and me got to perform with some guys exactly twice between then and October of ’59. That night was set to be my third, as I’d just started making some regular friends by then, something like a crew. Strictly small-time, but it was better than no-time, if you catch my drift.
“Except thirty feet outside the back door of the Maison Blue, on Frenchman Street, I met myself four and a half white fellas all liquored up and looking for somebody like me—the biggest one I’m counting as a fella and a half. I didn’t know them from Adam, and they didn’t know me from whoever was the first black boy in the Bible. Well, suffice it to say I never stepped foot in the Blue that night. Later I found out a kid called Rett Wilson sat in for me. Not half bad for a tin ear. He did some session work on a few records.
“Excuse an old-timer, Gillian. I never told this story before, but that’s no excuse for all my other recollections to come seeping in the cracks. Even passed on I may be longwinded, but I mean to get through this quick, so that we can see what we see.”
He laughs and there’s not a drop of wheeze in it. And no humor, either. She watches for the faded bronze of her father’s old Cabriolet. Her hand rubs nervous circles on her belly.
“I don’t know what I had more of on me,” Mr. Elling says, “blood or dirt. I made quite a dust cloud in that back lot, what from hitting the ground over and over. Them fellas left, brushing off their white, white shirts. I could see two of my teeth right in front of my eyes, and judging from the inside of my mouth I figured there were probably a few more scattered around. My Betty, I could just see her down by my feet. She was streaked with some red, too.
“One of my eyes was already swelled shut, but the other one saw something gleaming at me from the crawlspace under the Blue. Flashlight eyes, like a cat. There was a little door dragged open along the dirt, and they were staring out from the black square behind it. I could feel my busted ribs and I was spitting out blood so I didn’t drown in it. That is, I was fine where I was; at some point somebody would step out back for some air and fetch me to the hospital.
“But damned if those eyes didn’t get bigger and yellower. Damned if they weren’t looking at me with something deeper than a cat’s cool regard. Then they pulled back into that dark, lamps trailing off down a mine. Might be the cat’s supposed to be the curious one, but that long evening it was me.
“Most folks wouldn’t have gone hauling themselves through the dirt toward that hole, grinding broken parts inside with every inch. Most folks would’ve passed out from the pain of it, and in that way, I was most folks. But I came to and I crawled some more, and when I made it to that black opening, I peered in, smelling sour dirt and cool dark.”
She almost tells him she’s on the edge of her seat—this would get a laugh out of him, ghost or no—but she keeps quiet. The street is empty and breathless, the sun sliding on its track, closer to the line of coloring trees.
“But I supposed that was no cat. Just like I supposed if I squeezed into that hole, it would be like no dark I ever saw. So I went on ahead and did it. There was a lot inside me that wasn’t doing so hot; them white boys had wanted to beat me within an inch of life, and they measured good. Stands to reason they knocked something loose in the clear thinking part of my head.
“About the second my feet were inside, the door scraped shut behind me. The ceiling wasn’t two feet above my head. I couldn’t hear even a floorboard creak from inside the Blue. It was like climbing into my own grave.
“And I felt something come right up to my face in that pitch dark. It felt bigger than the Maison Blue itself. I went cold all over. I was already in shock, if not from the beating then for sure from dragging my cracked self across the Blue’s lot and through that hole.
“‘What do you want?’ I asked the blackness, and it came right back with a silence that stretched out like a line of mountains way off in the distance. I held my breath and heard my heart.”
His own voice trails off much the same way—Gillian knows the Adirondacks are out there, past her eyes around the curve of the earth—and now she sees the convertible, black canvas top up for the cold season, slide down the street to her left. It pulls into their driveway, earlier than most days. Her father steps out and gazes up at the roof, his head tipped back. The house is tall and skinny, so unlike her; at more than thirty feet up, it’s easy to pretend she doesn’t hear him call her name.
“Well, speak of the devil,” Mr. Elling says, and this time there is some shine to his laugh. Again she almost sees his hands gripping the chair, ticking back and forth in time with her heartbeat. Those hands he would always describe as coffee up top, cream on the bottom.
“I thought I was messing with something bad under there, something biblical, but I was a long way off from being too old to make a boy’s mistakes, if ever a man is. To go looking for trouble. So I told the dark, ‘I want to be one of the greats.’ I was flat on my stomach from having to worm inside that thin space, so can you blame me? I had already assumed a worshipping position. ‘I want Betty and me to travel the world and sit in with the giants and to see their eyes like dinner plates when they hear me play.’
“Back then most folks, myself included, hadn’t ever heard the story of Robert Johnson, him cradling his old guitar at the crossroads, the devil holding out a heap of genius in exchange for his soul. He’d been dead going on twenty years, but his brand of fire and blues hadn’t caught on yet. I hadn’t ever heard of Faust and his bargain, neither, so mercy knows what got that idea in my head that night, that old Satan was crouched up in the dirt looking to add one more soul to Hell. I suppose I just wanted to play the trumpet that bad. I laid there in that crawlspace, waiting for fire to light it up, and I knew I’d see a hole gaping in the world, and an oily goat-skinned man. Big perfect square teeth and eyes blacker in the flaming light than I’d ever be. He’d drip all colors on the ground and I’d choke on musk thick in my nose.
“But that quiet just went on and that dark kept pressing against me. I had no business still being conscious so I slept a while.”
Mr. Elling falls silent, waiting and watching. Gillian’s father climbs out the attic window and sits beside her, still in his suit, checkered tie loosened at his throat. One hand is full of wildflowers tied with string. She stares at his other hand, the one that wastes no time dropping onto her thigh, then peeks over at the sculpted beard on his cheeks, the wiry eyebrows, the hair turning winter at his temples.
A fresh sheet of wind carries again the scent of honeysuckles. A summer smell in the fade of November, a smell from before she came here and she was still allowed to be just a girl with scabbed knees and tangled hair, ranging the woods behind the house she was born in. A girl who had friends at school and a living mother whose arms she could tuck herself beneath.
“I wish you wouldn’t come out here, sweetheart,” he says. His fingers squeeze, relax.
Her father does not smell of the grave, or the dark under Mr. Elling’s jazz club. He is cinnamon gum and aftershave curling through the sweetness of the honeysuckle. The man beside her is calm and king of his world. The one in her memory, just five months younger, panted as he pushed her dress up around her waist.
Since that day in the backseat, she can’t run through the woods, trying to keep ahead of her beating, squishing heart. There are no woods anymore. Behind the new house are only more houses, boxing her in at each turn. She can’t bury her face in a wild flush of honeysuckle vines like she used to, before, when her mother’s chemo was at its worst and her father began coming into her bedroom in the evenings. When it was still just his callused hands, his thin lips emerging from the nest of beard, wanting to be fed.
“You’re in a delicate condition,” her father says, and gives her the flowers. They smell of nothing.
She looks at him again. Fear and love like the two halves of the gold heart hanging around her neck.
“Some places in the light,” Mr. Elling says, “are worse, Gillian.” Her father doesn’t hear. His face remains soft and his hand kneads and slides. “You’re up in the sky but you’d be better off in the dirt under the Blue with the devil you don’t know. Fortunately for you, child, I got a tune that was never pressed on no wax.”
And now she does see the old man. She sees him lift the trumpet up, the sun flashing off the brass as he brings it to his lips. The chair rocks once, twice, then comes to a stop, the lined face in shadow. And she hears him play, really play, for the first time.
Her father’s head turns toward the sound, eyes squinting. The horn comes wafting across, clean and bright, and it’s hardly music, she’s never heard anything that serves as a point of reference. There are many-petaled syllables, there are quick snaps like sheets on a clothesline in the wind.
“Pretty, isn’t it?” she says, and pats the slim space between her and her father. “Here, scooch closer to me.” He grins and shifts over, the tacky grit pulling at his slacks. His hip touches hers; his hand drops back down, higher this time, at the crook where her legs join in reluctant heat. And the horn slips into an impossible key, slow notes clouding the air. The two of them gasp as one, only this time he does not gasp in release; nor is her own in tearing pain.
Maybe the atoms of the fall day tremble. They seem to. Briefly, everything is more, the roof slanting up to her like vast, brooding hands, the distant ocean cars full of unwritten stories.
Except her father. He looks so small up here.
For the first time in shameful weeks she aches to have her mother back. She aches even for the glances she’d catch toward the end, as though his fingerprints stood out on her skin like brands. She aches for another chance to sit by her hospital bed, to drape the sheaves of her hair across her mother’s (their neighboring shades of rusty orange) and translate the emotion that turned her head away on the pillow.
Her father leans close and breathes into her ear, “It’s beautiful. Just like our new family.”
Mr. Elling’s cheeks go on blowing a mournful joy between his house and hers. The sun rubs the trees and Betty sours, her tone darkening. Her father leans his head against her face; his eyelashes are wet. The halves of her heart gain dreadful weight.
The trumpet dips and rises and cuts out. Mr. Elling says to her, not even having to catch his breath, “That next morning I came out from under the Blue streaked with dirt, Betty tucked beneath my arm. And you know what came traipsing out of that hole with me? A mangy old tabby cat, ordinary as daylight. She glanced at me, licked herself a minute, and went off to find breakfast.
“Later on I’d wonder if the devil had been anywhere near New Orleans that night. And I ain’t saying God Himself came down from on high and slithered into that grave beneath the Blue, getting dirt under His fingernails just for me. I haven’t ever been able to say that. But it sure feels closer to the truth, somehow. I was all mended up, you see. My back popped as I bent and touched my toes. I ran my tongue across every single one of my teeth.
“And right then I felt I’d given up my soul. I could feel that empty space in me, all hollowed out. Even so, I didn’t go seeking fortune and fame, no, not then. I didn’t even touch lips to Betty quite yet. I never would go white fella hunting, neither. I put myself on a bus back to South Carolina, and I went to see my own daddy.”
She wishes her father would jump. She waits for it, her fingers clenched tight upon the peak of the roof.
“You need to realize,” Mr. Elling says, “that your daddy ain’t going nowhere on his own. Folks like him never do, and I can’t help you there. Betty had something special in her, but she never had no magic, bless her heart. For a minute, though, riding on that bus, I just knew she did.”
Her father kisses the hinge of her jaw. She feels his mouth smile.
“Now my mama was a proud, good woman,” Mr. Elling says, and there are rough edges in his voice. “The kindest mother a boy could want. She was in the ground hardly a year by then, and my daddy’s fists was mostly the reason she was there. And he still walked his little patch of earth, or he did those rare days he wasn’t curled up in drink.
“It was surprising cool in Greer when I stepped off that Greyhound. I found him snoring in his bed. I stood over him and me and Betty played him something awful. And we played him something sweet. By the time the sun set on us, he was hanging from the big oak behind the house. I sat on a patch of dirt and watched him twitch and swing. That patch had been scrubbed clean from years of my feet scuffing it, the times I’d sit listless on my old tire swing, hearing my mama cry through the kitchen window. The light painted my daddy in blood and I wasn’t happy, but I wasn’t sad, neither, no ma’am.”
She waits (look at that sky) but her father does nothing. The horn cries out again, only for a beat, and then bleeds into silence. In the distance she expects a wet coughing to start up in its place, but of course Mr. Elling’s lungs aren’t clogged with age anymore. They are reborn.
And under her palm, Gillian feels the baby kick. The strangeness of it pulls the air from her.
“Now here’s where the deal gets sweet,” Mr. Elling says. “There is no deal. All a child’s got to do is pick up the telephone, and your daddy will face the music, same as mine. I didn’t do nothing except pass on and play you a tune. You were a good friend to an old man these last months. But you don’t have to be in that story I told. What you want to do is yours to want, and you ain’t got to give me or God a thing. Being happy sure would be nice, though.”
She turns to her father for a long moment. “Do I look pretty from down there?” she asks, and points down to the lawn, as perfectly trimmed as his beard. Her face is full of heat. The baby kicks again, demanding to be known.
“Of course you do, honey.” He smiles inside the beard. “You look just like your mother.”
Gillian places her hand against his side. He leans over and kisses her ear, breathes cinnamon fog into her hair. She gently digs her fingers into the meat of him. He giggles for a bare second, twisting away, and then he’s gone. By the time she hears the mundane thump on the ground, she’s already watching the sky stain at the edges. The air is still flushed with that misplaced summer sweetness. The tree line, the sinking sun, the starlings blur in her eyes.
There’s a wink of light across the way, the silver of close-cropped hair and the battered gold of Betty. Mr. Elling lifts her in a wave, says, “Thing about music is in the end, all we can do is face our own. I hope yours has some bop to it.” He steps away into his dark. The chair slows and stills.
She raises her own hand for a second. Below her is silence. She knows she should get inside. There’s a bundle of shingles she saw once in the garage. They’ll need to be dragged up to the attic and opened up. There’s a pouched belt heavy with hammer and nails that will buckle around her father’s waist. A tearful phone call to make, a swirl of ambulance lights, before she can at last return to her own narrow bed in her own narrow room.
She knows she should get inside. But she goes back to rubbing the curve of her belly in quiet, calming circles.