Tristan blinks back his thoughts and finds that Pendergast has stopped talking. He is sitting with his legs crossed at the knee, in the manner of all women and the most genteel of men, and his chin is lifted to the stage. The other cavemen, too, have turned toward the narrow bandstand. Two black men in suits are up there now, fiddling with the heights of microphones and cymbal stands and the placements of cords. They squint over the footlights and into the room, making arcane gestures at an unseen technician.
Tristan watches the class watch them, but his curiosity is unfocused. He sears with ambition, feels as if he's dodged the drab doctor/lawyer future with a Joe Louis bob-and-duck and spun out and away toward something else, toward possibility.
Tristan wants to write. The moment he acknowledges this to himself, the world changes. He surveys the room and attempts to think in words, not images, mind sprinting to translate what he sees, hears, feels. He can't do it, not at all. The failure is wonderful, fills him with resolve. Let the rest of them be politicians, shouting at each other, trying to bore their way into men's hearts and minds. Let the lawyers and the doctors and the scientists master their small portions of the world. It is the writer who gets to address life as a whole.
The problem with this firecracker-string of epiphanies is not the rending of expectations or the casting off of everything Tristan has been told about himself. That is its glory. The problem is that the epiphanies have come in the presence of Peter Pendergast and could even be said, by one with a muddled sense of cause and effect, to have come from him. Tristan resolves to borrow Pendergast's novel from the library tomorrow, read it, and despise it.
The professor is banging his hands together for the saxophonist who has now mounted the stage and stands with his back turned, conversing with the bassist. "This cat is going to be famous soon," Pendergast tells the class over his shoulder. Immediately, Tristan doubts it. Cat?
The musician hears, and turns. "Lady Pete," he says, bending at the waist to shake Pendergast's hand.
"Lady Les.Ē The professor clasps the hand in both of his.
"This your class?" Lady Les surveys the table with a dimpled smile, and Tristan grins back like everyone else. Pendergast could not be more pleased at his friend's attention. Tristan wonders whether it is Lady Les's dapper winking charm that the professor is trying to emulate.
"Thanks for making the scene tonight, y'all," Lady Les says, tucking his thin, causally-knotted tie more tightly into the vest of his rumpled charcoal suit. "I'm glad to have you here. You prick up your rabbits at what Lady Pete lays on you, now. This is my main man right here." He tugs the brim of his porkpie hat in punctuation, then straightens and nods to the band. Behind him, the drummer counts off the song, and then a lushness spreads over the room, washing over conversation and eroding it to whispers: soft cymbals and piano, soft chocolatey bass, and then the most intimate, softest sound of all coming from the man's horn, a tone so sweet and warm and light and airy that it feels as if he's breathing in your ear.
Tristan is astounded that such a contraption as Lady Les's saxophone can produce such tender notes. The song makes Tristan want to move very slowly with a woman he loves hard -- makes him want to glide, lie still, or float. What are the words to this song, he wonders, and could there be a voice out there to match this velvety, vibrating horn? Lady Les stands with his eyes closed and his eyebrows prancing, immobile from the neck down except for his strolling fingers on the metal pedals. His arms are rigid, holding the horn away from his body like a first-time dance partner, and the instrument curves up and connects with the corner of his mouth like a forgotten toothpick.
The band does not pause between songs to share the titles, just swings into the next tune as if playing only for themselves. As Tristan listens, he's forced to admit that Pendergast is right to laud this man. Tristan knows only a thimbleful about jazz music, but that only fortifies his certainty. He's heard Benny Goodman on the radio -- a Jew, a Jew, the Bronx jumps to its feet -- and seen Louis Armstrong's impossibly white teeth gleaming from advertisement posters. His high school band played an arrangement of one of Fats Waller's novelty hits once. But this is nothing like any of that.
Even the Benny Goodman stuff, nobodyís all that affected by it. Music isn't so important, unless it's the cantor singing in shul. Such a voice, the women say, touching their fingertips to sternums. Only about three fellows in the whole neighborhood play instruments, guitars and bugles. Whenever the bugler tries to practice he is shouted into silence within minutes, from four simultaneous directions. Tristan imagines living in a neighborhood where music thrives, where men like these emerge from their apartments at night and stand on the corners playing songs instead of craps.
The whole room flares into applause when the band calls it quits, and Lady Les and his partners bow and step offstage, still unintroduced. Pendergast cautions his brood that class is far from over, that they will resume in five minutes and discuss the aims of fiction, and he leaps up from his chair to follow Lady Les backstage and wring his hand some more.
Tristan, too, would like to speak to Lady Les, or any one of the musicians, if only so he doesn't have to sit there like a member of the audience. The drummer is onstage still, packing his trap set into its cases. Tristan stands up, pockets his hands, and ambles over to the edge of the stage.
"Thank you," he says.
The drummer glances up from the nylon strap he's pulling tight around the top of the bass drum's box. "Our pleasure, daddy." He is a small, lithe-limbed fellow, with skin the color of teak and a long scar over his left eye.
"They make you pack the drums?" Tristan asks, bracing to be indignant. Such a man should not be treated like a stagehand.
The drummer laughs. "They're my drums," he explains, to Tristan's chagrin. "I gotta haul 'em uptown now, to play a rent party."
"Y'all" -- Tristan tries to say the word sharp and quick like Lady Les did, but he hasnít the dexterity -- "y'all are playing again?"
"Sure, man. This was just to warm up. If you really want to hear some music, got to make that Uptown scene. It's like they say, Uptown is where the cats get down."
"What's the name of the place?"
"Ain't no name. It's a rent party. We play and the cat who owns the pad charges some bread at the door so he can pay his house note. We jam all night, or as long as folks wanna dance. His wife be cookin' up a hurricane, too, man. Plenty of food, plenty of liquor, plenty of women."
"Sounds good to me," Tristan says, not quite sure that it does. But he is determined to go. "Are you leaving right now?"
"Soon as I can. Matter fact, if you want to tag along, we can split a taxi. The cats always stiff me 'cause with these drums there's only room for one more in the car. So they split a cab three ways and leave me dangling. Iím telling you, man, Iím gonna do like Lester did and switch over to horn -- never no girls left neither by the time I pack up. I already got a tenor I been practicing on. So what do you say?Ē
"I'm with you," says Tristan, and the drummer flashes him a smile and hands over a case. The cavemen gaze at Tristan as he walks past them, as though he is carrying not a snare drum but the choicest slab of mastodon steak on which they have ever laid eyes. The troll holds open the front door and Tristan walks through it and stands on the corner guarding the drum. The name stenciled in white on the black case reads Albert Van Horn.
"So why is the saxophone player called Lady Les?" Tristan asks Albert when they're both wedged into the cab, drum cases atop and between their knees.
Albert shrugs. "Man, that's just Lesterese. He calls everybody Lady. Reefer is ettuce, like lettuce without the L, cops are Bob Crosbys, the bridge to a tune is a George Washington, anything depressing is a Von Hangman. Just keeping up with his jive is a job in itself. Sometimes I be figuring junk out weeks late. Like, Les always used to talk about his people after a gig, like 'man, my people were smooth tonight.' One time I said to Paul, 'I didn't see Les talking to anybody, what's all this about his people?' Paul told me, 'Man, his people is what Lester calls his horn pedals.'"
Albert leans back and shakes his head. Tristan stares out the window. He's only been in a cab once before, the time his brother broke a wrist playing street football and had to be rushed to the hospital. Medical bills are a luxury this family cannot afford, Jacob had lectured the kids afterward, pacing back and forth before the dinner table with the hospital release form rolled in his hand like a diploma. From now on, I expect all you kids to be more careful.
Harlem is sliding by, outside the dirty windows, and to Tristan it glows hot with mystery.
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