'Round About Midnight
by Nickolas Cook
Almost six years to the day since they had last seen each other, Benny and Sanchez met to talk about the ghost. Six years felt like an eternity as Benny walked in the daylight lounge and saw his friend. Sanchez looked like a worn-out dishrag of the man he used to know. Benny tried not to show surprise at his old friend's stooped frame, his haggard, pulled-down face. This Sanchez had seen too many years of disappointment, too little money, and too many drinks alone in the dark.
Sanchez stood, came around the table and embraced him. Benny felt his spine through the ragged suit jacket. A memory of mouthwash, toothpaste and Old Spice lingered under the aggressive fumes of whiskey. On the table, a highball glass with defeated ice cubes told the story of Sanchez's morning.
"Siddown, Benny, you old sonuvabitch," Sanchez said with a toothy yellow smile. "Goddam, it's good to see you, my man."
Benny sat on the red plastic bench across the table from his friend. The last half dozen years seemed to sit between them like a grinning gargoyle.
Sanchez opened his mouth to speak—but a wide-hipped waitress in a short leather skirt sauntered wearily to the table. She took their drink orders and finally shuffled away.
Benny shook his head at Sanchez. They grinned at each other. Smiles that remembered. All those crazy nights, they had played music in places that made this dump look like a princely ballroom.
"Goddam, it's good to see you, Benny," Sanchez said.
The waitress was at their elbows again, thumping down watery drinks.
Benny waited until she had gone. "So what's all this shit about him being here?"
There was no need to say his name.
Only one man could draw them together after the years had gotten in the way; after wives, kids and grandkids; too many days of steady work, hot meals, and warm beds to sleep in; too many days of quiet living. There wasn't but one man who could get Benny to come all the way across town, a man he loved and hated, who reminded him of his lost youth.
Sanchez's smile crept away. He looked from one side to the other, as if he feared being overheard. He gazed at Benny with murky eyes, and leaned forward. "I done heard him, Benny." His eyes were wide with superstition. He pointed. Benny looked past the cigarette scarred tables and slumping chairs to the dark stage behind him. "He was standin' there just the other night, playin' so goddam sweet it hurt my ears to hear him, man."
Benny didn't look his friend's half-empty glass; it would have seemed an accusation. "Sanchez... man... you know he's dead." Benny's voice was gentle. "Dead men don't play no horns, man."
Sanchez winced, shook his head, and took another bracing swallow of whiskey.
"Fuck that noise." His words were slurred. "I know what I saw. I know what I heard. You say he dead, and I know that shit, man. Wasn't I right there with you when we found him face down in his own puke? I know what I saw that day..." A shiver passed through him. "—and I know what I saw here the other night. He ain't dead. He right here in this place. And he still playin' his goddam horn." He jabbed a crooked finger at the stage again, lips trembling. "Right there, on that stage."
Benny sipped his drink, just so he wouldn't have to say anything. But Sanchez was watching him, waiting. Needing someone to tell him he wasn't crazy, that he still knew reality from memory.
Benny knew how he felt. Many nights he had awaken from the crowd roaring, clapping, stomping, the colored lights, the sweat and excitement, the sour drinks and stale smoke. All of it. As clearly as if he was twenty again, playing again, living the jazz life again. Those nights came more often as he got older, and he feared the day the memories would mean more than the now life—the life he was still living.
What would he do then?
He was happy, but his quiet life could not hold a candle to the jazz life he had once lived.
And how he had lived it, man... lived every day like it was his last, every night like a celebration. The music they'd played was a fanfare for dark bar corners and half-lit faces, for smoky rooms and steamy streets 'round about midnight.
But what could he say to Sanchez now?
He understood—but it didn't make his friend sound any less crazy. Charlie was dead, overdosed on smack one early October morning after a sizzling gig. Dead for years...
And Benny didn't—couldn't... absolutely refused—to believe in ghosts. Instead of denials and reasoning, he kept looking at the bottom of his glass, waiting for Sanchez to stop staring at him so desperately. He couldn't meet his old friend's bleary need-stare.
After a time Sanchez must have felt his friend's silent refusal. Soon he was looking into his own empty glass. He swirled the noisy ice cubes. Silence crawled across the table.
Sanchez finally broke the quiet. "Hey, you remember that young blood bastard that opened for us in Philly that one night... oh... I think it was back in '64? What was his name...? Hamilton? Was that it?"
Benny smiled at the memory. That kid had been so bad his own backup band had walked off stage. Jesus, anybody with a horn and a white face could get on stage in that place. The owner had told them, as they'd shared a laugh at the kid's noise, that it brought in the locals to see a white boy. Gave them someone to cheer and jeer.
"What about him?" he asked with a wince.
"Can you believe that sonuvabitch got hisself a recordin' contract with Sony?" Sanchez shook his head. "Swear to God, he was on the radio the other day."
Benny gave a rueful snort.
Even the record companies had changed. In the old days, jazz was like fine bubbly champagne. Now it was all 'smooth-jazz' and 'acid-jazz'. Soulless shit. It was a goddamned travesty of music. Benny didn't own one record past what Miles had done in the seventies. It was all Kenny-G and John Tesh now, guys that couldn't play their way out of a wet paper sack; guys not fit to wipe Charlie's ass. Shouldn't even have instruments in their hands.
Jazz—real jazz—was about the blues, the pain and joy of life. People like them had never known the frustration of losing a chance because of their color, the heartache of not having enough food to eat, and no place to sleep at night. And how many, he wondered, had seen their friends die as the easy bliss of drugs took hold of their souls and ate away any desire to live past the moment of the high? Kenny-G had probably never even seen a heroin addict, let alone been like a brother with one, watching him dying, knowing that there wasn't a goddam thing he could do to stop it.
His thoughts went to Charlie, the man with the golden horn.
Shit... Charlie... weren't we enough for you, man? What was it that you weren't getting from the ones who loved you best? That you had to go and throw your life away?
How could something so long in the past hurt so much? Benny felt a tear in his eye. After all this time, the pain was still as bright and sharp as a steel blade. It had been hiding in his soul, and once dragged back under the spotlight, it was still bigger than him.
He and Sanchez had loved Charlie like blood. Together they had done great things, had created beauty from nothing, and thrown it into the air like singing angels for apostles and acolytes.
All that was gone now.
Was it any wonder Sanchez was hearing Charlie's music on every stage? Hell, half the cats playing today were just cribbing his stuff anyway. Maybe ghosts didn't have to be specters; maybe they could just be half-heard, stolen notes and used up faces.
The two old men sat together for a time longer; they didn't talk about Charlie again. They were just two friends remembering stories from the lost days and the now days, stories of smoky bars and cold nights on the city streets, half hidden by neon and steam, and of grown kids and grandkids. But, as all things must, the time came for them to part once more, to go back to the quiet now-life.
Benny stood up with a crack! pop! in each knee. They were all worn out from years of drumming, and his shoulders ached from the hours of keeping time. He wondered if Sanchez's fingers had gone crooked from playing bass. They sure looked as crooked as a country road. Maybe arthritis...
Sanchez was disappointed; Benny could see it in his face, hear it in his tired voice. But what was there left to say?
"Let's get together real soon," Benny said. It was an apology for his avoidance. "We'll hit a club or two, check out the new talent."
Sanchez gave him a lopsided, sad smile. "That'd be great... if there was any new talent to hear."
Laughing, Benny gave his withered friend one last pat on his stooped shoulder, then turned and walked away, leaving behind the stale stink of the empty lounge.
As he passed the dark stage, Benny swore he heard someone tooting sweetly on a trumpet, a kind of fare-thee-well played just over his shoulder. He turned so suddenly he almost fell over.
But the stage was all dead lights and dusty floor. No shadows danced across its surface, and no music sounded from its still-curtain corners.
Suspiciously, and maybe a little afraid, he glanced back at his friend. Sanchez was still staring at the scarred table top, an empty glass in one crooked hand.
Benny left quickly.
Back on the street, he convinced himself it had only been a car horn that he'd heard. It was not a ghost. It was not the past coming back up again like some half-digested meal.
It was not Charlie, he told himself.
The old man hurried home, where his real life—the now life—waited to pull him back into quiet again, to put away his memories of his dead Charlie, to silence a sweet horn, and a wasted life.
All the way home, every car horn, every jack hammer, every laugh on the sidewalk, became Charlie talking, Charlie laughing, Charlie singing off-key, Charlie whispering to him about the lost years and the empty gray silence of his now life.
Nickolas Cook lives in the beautiful Southwestern desert with his wife and three pugs. He is the Fiction Moderator for the Shocklines Writing Group, the Chat Host for The Lost and The Damned Message Board and the Writers' Forum Moderator at ARWZ. His fiction and non-fiction have appeared in several magazines. He collects jazz and blues, and is still trying to learn how to play the trumpet like his hero, Miles Davis. Visit Nickolas at his web site at The Horror and Jazz-Blues Review, his Myspace page, his blog, where you can read his free ongoing serial novella A Kind of Blue.