It Skips A Generation

Anthony‘s head nodded gently as he cruised down the street. The slow, soft notes of the piano drifted gently through the air. Before long, the tempo would take off and the pace would become frenetic, but this was the beginning, a time to relax and settle in for the ride to come. Anthony had never thought much of the piano; that was for the kids of obsessive, disciplinarian parents or nerds who actually liked classical music. But this was jazz, working man’s music, and it was being played by a working man that he’d never known, but wished he had.

Shopfronts passed by on either side. The dirty, discolored bricks betrayed their age. Every window was hidden behind bars. Anthony had grown up in a place where bars like that were unnecessary; in fact, they would have earned the immediate censure of the HOA had anyone tried putting them up. Corner stores, barber shops, pawn shops, and dirty dive bars all swept past as his hand-me-down car rumbled over the patched and broken street. There had been no hesitation this morning when he punched in the place’s name in his GPS and pulled out of his parent’s drive. Now he wondered if this wasn’t a mistake.

A saxophone joined the piano, followed by the scratching sound of a brush on a snare drum. “Good evening, folks.” His grandfather’s voice over the speakers. “It’s time to settle down and grab a round. Put on a smile and sit for a while. You’ve earned it. Haven’t you earned it? I know I sure as hell have.” The rhythmic lilt and gentle tone had a music all its own. Anthony had never met the man, but a shadow of that voice lived on in his father, and he couldn’t help but smile when he heard it. The crowd clapped and cheered as the first song started in earnest.

Anthony glanced at his phone. The little blue line mapping out his path came to an end a couple blocks up. Almost there, he thought. With any luck, this would be the end of a month-long quest for answers. He pulled up in front of the place; at this time of day, it wasn’t hard to find parking in front of a bar. The dead neon sign out front read simply “Mac’s Place”. The big picture window was completely dark, as was the aluminum-framed glass door. The internet said the place was open, but it looked to him like it’d been deserted for years. Anthony climbed out of the car, went around to the other side, and wrestled out an old cardboard box. It was faded and dusty and crumbling around the edges, like the neighborhood itself. Locking his doors, Anthony carried the box up to the door and gave it a tentative push.

Anthony had never met the musician, but a shadow of that voice lived on in his father, and he couldn’t help but smile when he heard it.

To his surprise, the door swung open. He was struck immediately by the scent of the place: stale smoke, sweat, and age. Black velvet curtains hung over the windows, blocking out the sunlight. Mac’s Place was much larger on the inside than it was on the out, with rows of small, round tables arranged on an open floor, with all the chairs facing a stage at the back of the room. There were two sources of light, a dim lightbulb hidden under a red shade hanging above the bar, and a little desk lamp down at the far end. There were two patrons at this time of the morning, holding conversation with the grizzled old barkeep in the glow of the lamplight.

The barkeep looked up as Anthony came in. “I’ll be got-damned,” he muttered to himself. “Sit tight, fellas, a ghost jus’ walked in.” He wandered over toward Anthony, who set the box down on a bar stool. “Somethin’ I can help you with, son?” He had a voice that had been hard earned by gallons of whiskey and cigarettes. Gravel would grovel at the grainy quality of that growl.

“Uh, I sure hope so,” said Anthony, looking around nervously. “I’m trying to find someone. Is there a Montgomery Jones here?”

The barkeep threw his head back and laughed, a sort hacking wheeze that was only half there. “Montgomery Jones. Now there’s a name I ain’t heard in a hot minute. Nobody called me that in a loooong damn time. You call me Mac, son, and we’ll get along jus’ fine.”

Anthony climbed his way onto a grimy barstool, then goggled at Mac as he lit a cigarette. “Uh, I don’t think you’re supposed to smoke in here.”

Mac chuckled and shook his head. “Son, this particular establishment, which jus’ happens to carry my name above the door, is primarily a bar. The world seems to have forgotten that a bar is a place for adults to do somethin’ bad.” He took a deep drag, then started to speak again, letting the smoke drift out from between his lips. “Tell you what, you don’ tell no one about my smokin’, and I won’ tell no one about you being underage. Deal?”

“How did you — ”

“How many years you think I been doin’ this, son? You come in here looking like a penny fresh off the mint, with those big ol’ lost puppy dog eyes, and expec’ me not to know you underage?” Mac smiled, a great big one that shone brighter than the bulb over the bar. “Now, what’s the story, morning glory? What brings you and that crummy ol’ box into my establishment asking after Montgomery Jones?”

“What brings you and that crummy ol’ box into my establishment asking after Montgomery Jones?”

“I was hoping you could answer some questions for me.” Anthony opened the box and pulled out a CD case. Underneath the scratched and cracked plastic was a black and white photo of his granddad seated at a piano. Even in the digital age, the album had been hard to find. It had been out of print for over a decade, and he’d had to drive around to countless niche record stores just to find a copy buried in a discount bin. Mac reached over and took it from him, looking at the picture on the front. A look crept over him that Anthony couldn’t quite place. “There he is,” Mac said. “The man himself. You’re Donny’s boy, ain’cha?”

“Donald is my dad, yeah.” He couldn’t imagine anyone referring to his high-powered executive father as “Donny”. “The liner notes say the album was recorded here. Did you know my granddad?”

“Son,” Mac said, “your granddaddy was the single-best friend I have ever had, and quite possibly the best human being ever put down on God’s green Earth.”

“Really?”

“That’s the God’s honest truth.” As he spoke, he pulled down a pair of snifters, poured a finger of whiskey in each, and passed one to Anthony. “If we gonna take a walk down memory lane, I’m gonna need a little encouragement. Cheers.” Mac finished his in a gulp. Anthony lifted the snifter and took a whiff. The sharp, acrid tang opened his eyes wide, and he put it back down, untasted. “It burns a little at firs’, but you get used to it. You can’t chase pleasure without a taste of pain, that’s what I always say. Now, what else you got in that box of yours?”

Anthony reached in and pulled a trophy from the box, a brass gramophone. The name plate had “Best Original Jazz Composition” engraved on it, followed by the name Martin Freedman. “There you are, you old sonuva bitch,” said Mac. “The award that ended Marty’s career.”

Anthony pulled a trophy out of the box, a brass gramophone. The name plate had “Best Original Jazz Composition” engraved on it, followed by the name Martin Freedman. “There you are, you old sonuva bitch,” said Mac. “The award that ended Marty’s career.”

“But, that’s a Grammy. Shouldn’t that have been the start of his career?”

Mac fixed the trophy with an evil glare, then said. “Come on over this way, I wanna show you something.” He walked toward the other end of the bar, pausing to twist a dial on a switchboard behind the counter. The lights over the stage came to life, illuminating a piano. Mac walked over toward it, motioning for Anthony to follow. “Music has a vitality to it, a life force all its own. It’s a living, breathing thing that hides somewhere beyond our empty material world. It takes a special type of person to draw it out from wherever it lives and make itself known. Your granddaddy used to sit at this piano, working that magic, night after night, to crowds of people who just wanted to feel good for a while. Then I talked him into cutting that record. He hated it. Said the recordings drained all the life out of the music. But I knew some people who knew some people, and I told Marty that if he could sell a record, he could go on tour and show folks all aroun’ the country what real music sounded like, and he believed me.”

Mac lifted the cover that hid the keys. They looked dull and used under the lights, the polish scuffed by decades of fingers performing their magic. “By that time jazz was already on its way out, but he sold some records, went on some tours. Then one day his agent gets a letter, informing Marty that he’d been nominated for an award. He didn’t even go to the ceremony. Said that was it. He hadn’t gotten into this business to make it big or win silly trophies. Called his agent and gave it all up.”

Anthony reached out and touched the keys, lightly. Suddenly everything made sense. His father, not Donny but Donald, was always going on about the hard life he’d had growing up. Living paycheck to paycheck, never enough to go around, blaming his own father for their poverty. He saw what granddad could have been, and couldn’t understand why he’d turned it down. Anthony saw it, though. He may not understand the piano, but he knew music. He knew exactly what Mac was saying.

“I tell ya what, son,” Mac said. “You really wanna know what yo’ granddaddy was like, you come on back here tonight. The guys I got on can’t hold a candle to Marty, but they’re good. You’ll feel it, I know you will. Whaddya say?”

Doubt crept up on Anthony. Coming back to Mac’s Place could get him in trouble in a lot of ways: his parents, street criminals, the law. But he had to know. Hell, he was nearly an adult; maybe he should do something bad. It might even feel good.

With a smile, he looked up at his granddad’s best friend and said, “I’ll see you tonight, Mac.”

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