Behind the Viking Lounge
Berg awoke with this weird-ass feeling like he was drifting and didn't know where he was. Then he opened his eyes to see the familiar setting of his room, except that it was as if he was seeing it for the first time.
He saw objects in a way he'd never seen them before like he was studying a Miro at the art museum the tumble of records, books, sheet music and scale studies strewn alongside his mattress on the floor manifested a semblance of order and majesty, all coated with a layer of dust that he hadn't previously perceived; and yet there was no vague sense of emotion attached to his observations just a flat edge of awareness. He looked up at the wall beyond his mattress at the black and white poster of Miles, one arm cradling his horn, the other on his hip, with that famous smirk on his face, and he realized the utter futility of speculating on what was going through Miles' Byzantine mind. The thought that occurred to him was borrowed from a favorite expression of bartender Mel, "It is what it is, baby."
Seeking a clue as to his mysterious state of mind, he recollected that in between sets the night before, Red the bass player had led him downstairs into the basement of the Viking where he was introduced to a guy from Pakistan who was supposed to be some kind of a producer and was wearing an outlandish rust-colored suit with wide lapels and bell-bottoms, a mop of black hair and lamb-chop burns, who also happened to introduce him to some of the most wicked shit he'd ever partaken. Cat named Pan Sardan, but Red liked to call him Alexis de Tocqueville, which seemed appropriate in more ways than one. His Pakistani accent was inflected with English formality, yet he often lapsed into language like he'd been born and raised at 12th and Vine, so it was hard to keep from laughing your ass off, especially after a nip of the omnipotent potion.
"I want you cats to dig this," Pan announced. "Do you know who is in town and has honored us with his presence? I mean right here in the Viking Lounge. I am talking about the baddest motherfucker that ever reigned behind the skins and the cymbals and wielded two sticks."
"Okay, lay it on us brother," said Phil, the drummer, who had just slipped down the creaking staircase into the dim, green-tinted light supplied by a back-lit Schoenling Little Kings Ale wall sign.
"I am telling you with pride and unequivocal authenticity that The Man, I am talking about ... The ... Man, is in the house tonight."
"Right on," Phil said matter of factly. "Must be Elvin."
"Yes, I am talking about that bad-assed man Elvin the supreme."
"Our father who art in heaven," Red said, and Phil cut in, "He's not talking about Art, man. He's talking about Elvin."
"Yeah man" Pan was relishing his role as the bearer of good tidings. "And he's got his doll with him. You know, the Japanese gal, Keiko. Elvin don't go nowhere without her. That's how bad he is."
"I can't blame him for that," Red said.
Phil looked at Berg: "Hey, Ice, man, can you dig that? Elvin's checking us out, man."
Berg had been vaguely following the conversation from the midst of a drifting reverie inspired by the arabesque motions of the pipe held in Pan's left hand as he gesticulated to the dialogue.
"I'm hip, man," Berg said blandly. "Elvin. He's great."
"That's all you can say, Ice?" Red teased.
"Yeah. Right about now ... that's all I can say," and they all broke up laughing when they heard something scuffling amid a maze of broken chairs and tattered cocktail tables. Pan pulled out a lighter from the depths of his jacket pocket, flicked it on and a half-foot flame shot up. One the floor about 10 feet away was a large rat, peering at them with quivering ferocity, inspiring an excited commentary.
"Shit, man, I must be hallucinating."
"Ain't no hallucination if you're seeing what I'm seeing."
"Motherfucker digs us, man. Biggest motherfucker I've ever seen."
"Look at em, thinks he's King Farouk."
Pan chimed in, "You ain't seen nothing. They're much bigger in Pakistan."
Even Berg got into the fray.
"There's always rats in the hull of a ship," he said, inspiring a somber moment, but Phil broke the silence: "Don't nobody call an exterminator around here?"
Pan reflected, "I do not believe it will help. That one you cannot kill."
Thus ended the color analysis and they filed up the stairs, careful to step over the occasional cracked board. Elvin was waiting.
Fortunately, the fourth floor of the tenement anchored by the Viking and a corner grocery was an entirely other plane of existence and Berg had never seen hide nor hair of a rat up there in that rare altitude, just the usual cucarachas, a thought that led him to further survey his landscape and he exhaled a sincere sigh of relief when he observed just beyond the mattress his horn case. Somehow he'd managed to make it upstairs with his trumpet in tow, though he didn't quite remember how.
He crawled down to the edge of the mattress, popped the case, and viewed the venerable Bach peaceful in golden slumber emanating a soft glow from the light humming through his only window. Oddly, he felt no inclination to pick up the instrument, flutter its keys and put the instrument to his lips, his normal ritual to get the blood flowing, but this morning he was drifting on a pillow of inner peace, which in itself instilled him with a slight edge, or more precisely a twinge of bewilderment enough to propel himself into arising and, being careful not to trip on the scattered debris of his intellectual pursuits, head toward the bathroom.
He flipped on the light and observed several roaches scurry down the sink drain. As usual, his sandy hair was a tangle and his beard could benefit from a rendezvous with some clippers, but he was in no mood for the regimental indoctrination of wielding the brush resting on top of the covered toilet basin. After relieving himself, he did bring himself to pick up his toothbrush and as he worked up a froth, he heard someone calling him and footsteps ascending the last flight of stairs.
"Hey ... Hey ... Mr. Iceman." It was Charles, the 12-year-old son of the Appleton family that ran the store downstairs.
"Mr. Iceman," and Berg heard him rapping on the door. His mouth still full of toothpaste, Berg opened it and Charles was standing there, smiling, in his white T-shirt and jeans.
"Sorry to bother you Mr. Iceman, but you got a caller ..."
"How 'bout taking a message, man," and Berg was wondering why the usual practice of taking a note for him had been abandoned.
"Can't," Charles said, chuckling, apparently at Berg's undomesticated state.
"Is it my mother or what? What's going on?"
"I don't know, Mr. Iceman. It's a lady, says she want to hear your voice and she won't leave a message. She's called two, three times already."
"Okay, okay. Give me a minute, man. Jesus ... Don't people know better than to call on a musician so early in the morning after a gig?" Berg mumbled, heading back to the bathroom.
"You right, Mr. Iceman, 'cept you already missed breakfast and lunch" was his rejoinder before skipping down the stairs.
Berg washed his mouth out and wiped his face off with a wet rag, then threw on some jeans with a hole in one of the knees, and his North Sea Jazz Festival T-shirt. He made sure he had his wallet and locked the door. As he bounded down the steps, he counted them four beats to a bar and he imagined the quarter notes of a bass walking the blues. Sixteen stairs was four bars and with two more flights he had a chorus, and the last stairwell launched a new chorus, like Red walking the blues the night before. When Berg had emerged from the bowels of the Viking Lounge's basement last night, he had at first been assaulted by the din of collective conversation punctuated by bursts of laughter, voices jousting to be heard and the clash of chromium bar accessories and ice clattering against glass. Mel and his crew behind the bar were working furiously to keep up with the full house of revelers.
Saturday night at the Vike featuring the Sam Lee Quintet spelled out in bold black letters against the white-lit backdrop of the marquee out front. Berg lingered just beyond the basement door to take in the scene before him, the clusters of folks in their Saturday night finery illuminated by the flickering lights from the candles on the red-clothed cocktail tables and patches of smoke hovering over them, and it struck him as being like some set out of a nighttime bazaar in Arabian Nights. As he threaded his way through the audience, careful not to trip over feet and legs and chairs, he was struck by the realization of just how privileged he was to be there, to be a musician, and more than that, a jazz musician, and how much gratitude he owed Sam and the guys for taking him in, showing him the ropes and treating him as if he were one of their old hands, even though he was just a couple years removed from school and had a limited amount of experience in bands here and there around town and on the road a bit. It was a rich, sometimes painful experience. Paying the dues, they call it. He shook a few hands and nodded to familiar faces, but moved quickly to get to the bandstand and avoided getting hooked in a conversation, self-consciously awkward in his state of altered awareness.
Sam was already there warming up his alto, puffs of notes spouting from the bell and upon reaching the bandstand, Berg almost knocked over his microphone stand, but was able to grab it and steady it, provoking a sideways look from Sam, who shrugged his shoulders before looking away.
Berg fiddled with the Bach, drained the fluid, and limbered up his fingers by flicking the valves as the other band members moved into place. When the crew was reasonably settled, Sam said, "Hey Linc," short for "Lanky Linc" as he sometimes called Berg, a nickname inspired by his gangly physique. "Why don't we swing out on that new blues you hipped us to."
Then he addressed the crew with his back to the audience. "I'll get the first chorus, Edgar can get deep into it, like Berg said, a drum solo, then the bass walks us back to the top, and then we'll see what ole Linc here's got for us."
He turned to his mike, "Ladies and gentleman, it's getting late and I want to think you for sticking around and digging our sound. We're going to leave you swinging with a new tune by our prodigious, voracious, if not profligate trumpet player ... Jerome Berg will be stimulating us with his profound composition . . . Hey Linc, whachu call this number?"
Despite all the care he had invested in crafting this tune to make it a compelling investigation of the possibilities of the blues, Berg had neglected to come up with a title, so being put on the spot, he spat out the first thing that jumped into his head . "Stonehenge," and after a slight delay, "mate," with what he thought was a reasonable approximation of a Cockney accent, leading to a round of chortles among his band mates and the audience within hearing distance.
Sam knitted his eyebrows, hamming it up for the audience with the suave demeanor of a game-show host.
"Did I hear you say, Stonehenge ... mate?"
"Yeah," Berg nodded with resignation. "Stonehenge Blues."
"Well, you heard it here first, folks," Sam declared. "Here we go with 'Stonehenge Blues.'"
Berg chuckled at the memory as he entered into the small, cramped market, called for some reason he never understood, "The United People's Market," and he was thinking "Stonehenge. Man, where'd I come up with that?"
"Coffee, Mr. Berg," Mr Appleton said in a voice as deep and dignified as Paul Robeson and set a cup of steaming black liquid on the counter, which came as a surprise because all the times he'd been down there for coffee, cigarettes, snacks, or the phone service, rarely had the proprietor addressed him, let alone served him anything. Most times, when he came in, the chubby, graying store owner unceremoniously put an empty cup on the counter and nodded to the urn set up on top of a glass case, a trip in itself with its myriad paraphernalia: carved ivory and statues of what Berg imagined must be African deities, multicolored ju-ju beads, preserved snake rattles and rabbit feet, various kinds of roots carefully preserved in wax paper, and a jumble of other items.
"Good afternoon, Mr. Berg," said Mrs. Appleton, sweeping a side aisle, as he passed her. Their daughter, a rather well developed high school student with a wide fluffy Afro grinned coyly and handed him the phone. So mystified was Berg by the turn of behavior in the store that he almost forgot that an allegedly very persistent lady was waiting on the other end of the line. But he managed to mutter, "Hello."
"Hello, is this Jerome? ... I just wanted to thank you for last night."
"Well, thanks," Berg said without knowing what she was talking about, but the voice sounded vaguely familiar.
"You're quite a man," she continued. "No one has ever made me feel like that before. It was quite an experience."
Berg was trying to remember if some critical piece of information had somehow gotten lost in the jungly haze of his recollections, but he drew a blank. Last he remembered he had been escorted, in fact helped, in a most dissipated state, upstairs by Penelope, the woman he increasingly thought less of in the possessive sense as the days passed.
"Don't you remember me last night, down in front?"
As she spoke, the mellow, slight rasp of her voice guided him back to his first solo chorus on "Stonehenge Blues" when he had heard someone speaking from very close to the bandstand ...
"Take your time, baby, take your time," and he glanced down to observe a woman at a table directly in front of him who was wearing a short natural with crescent moon earrings and high cheekbones, facial features reminiscent of Dionne Warwick, wearing a type of African sarong with a leopard-skin print, bobbing her head to the rhythm and shaking her arm, gently rattling a metal bracelet embossed with tiny skulls.
Thankfully, she didn't wait for a response. "Well, I'm the one down in front you made love to with your horn. That was really something, really something special."
Berg didn't know much what to say, but he responded. "Yes, I do remember. You were the one in the leopard-print dress. ... Well, it seemed like you were enjoying yourself."
What else could he say, no one had ever come on to him like this before, so he thanked her and said he'd like very much to meet her, though he couldn't that night because he had a rehearsal in anticipation of an upcoming gig across town, but he'd be glad to take her number and give her a call sometime soon.
Well, ain't this some strange shit, Berg was thinking as he got off the phone on all the attention that was tuning into him. He went up to the counter to pay his tab and Mr. Appleton instead shook his head and not only that, handed him a pack of Camel filters, saying, "I think you need a refill," taking his cup and refilling it up for him.
"What about the cigs?" Berg asked.
"Somebody left 'em behind, so you can have 'em."
"Well, geez, thanks, man. Thanks for everything."
The world seemed to be opening up for him like an oyster on a grill stoked with sizzling palm fronds. He went outside the store, lit a cigarette, and walked across the street to engage in his nearly daily ritual of starting the day with a smoke and coffee at the small park that served as a side entrance to the city zoo. He enjoyed many a drowsy, late morning and early afternoon there, observing the patrons entering, listening to the shrieks and wails of the animals, and watching the peacocks, which zoo officials allowed to roam around near the entrance. Strange, these dudes strut their stuff in what's supposed to be a mating dance, but you never see them fuck, Berg mused.
As he drew on a cigarette, he floated back to the events of the peculiar evening ... the Leopard Lady's encouragement had been a bit of an inspiration to him on the stand, like much of the encouragement he often heard from the audience, but he had really been trying to concentrate on constructing a solo that retained the flavor of his composition while exploring the various tangential pathways implied by the melody.
It was a blues in F with a melodic structure built on a divergent pattern. It started with a pair of F notes, one high and one low, and proceeded with a series of pairs, the first note of which ascended, the second note descending, along a blues scale with the second notes falling on off beats for a kind of a funky, off-kilter effect. The series repeated on the second four bars, and then released on the eighth bar, alternating Cs with a descending chromatic series back to the F octave. It was a Thelonious Monk-inspired piece along the lines of "Misterioso," but the widening intervals gave it a harsher angularity akin to Eric Dolphy.
On the first chorus, they played in unison, then Sam would take the first notes of the pairs while Berg played a response, hitting the second notes. As Berg had suggested, Sam played the first solo and came out ripping as Berg just stood back entranced by the sleek, darting lines, exploiting the jagged rhythm with lacings of Cannonball Adderly here and Sonny Stitt there. Edgar really stretched out on the piano, tearing the melody apart and doing all kinds of modulations from one chorus to the next, a mini-concerto full of surprising lurches with Red playing an engaging counterpoint and Phil sizzling on his kit. The complexity gave Berg pause and he had to bear down to follow where they were in the framework of the piece.
After 12 choruses, Edgar ended his solo with a wild, cascading crescendo, and laid out as did Red, so Phil could display his chops. He returned to the rhythmic structure, actually framing the song's melody from a combination of sounds on his drums, then, after a couple of choruses, he came up with a hip variation of the rhythm, which he used as a vehicle to bring his solo to a climax with a barrage of bass-drum thunderbolts, tom-tom pops and slashing cymbals and then, Whap! he knocked off and Red was right there walking. Red got a good groove going in the lower register, contrasting alternating upper registers trills and glissandos, and getting the crowd clapping and grooving and cheering him on. He brought it back with a big, fat seventh which he held, slapping the string savagely over the course of eight bars, and then ended the chorus with a furious flurry, again returning to a snappy walk that signaled Berg's entrance.
He opened with a loose approximation of the composition and then began playing around with the line, propelled by the swoosh of Phil's cymbals, and the piano acting like a pillow cushioning his trumpet bellows and that's when he heard her voice at the edge of the bandstand, "Take your time, baby. That's it, man. Talk to me, talk to me," and upon seeing her in that leopard-skin-print, he quoted the first line from Miles' version of "Filles de Kilimanjaro."
Red picked up on the allusion immediately and laid down a bass ostinato, one note basically repeated in a march-like pattern. Berg drove forward, playing lines with more insistence, adding more legato runs and taking it farther out from the center, accompanied by the Leopard Lady's exhortations "Blow it man, c'mon man, get it on."
Sensing his direction, the band cut out to let him pursue his ideas unfettered and Berg was gliding through space, the notes flying out of his horn, yet without his asserting any sort of mental contrivance. An unknown force gripped him and seemed to be propelling bolts of sound through the horn, and it was as if an aspect of his consciousness had stepped away from his body and was just hanging on the side observing what was going on. He was getting into ideas he'd never opened up before as if he were a glass blower flinging geometric shapes from the bell of his horn, shapes that arced through the smoke-laden atmosphere of the Vike into the nether-lands. He was blowing rectangles, triangles, pentagons, octagons. He blew rhomboids and trapezoids and all kinds of shapes that as far as he knew didn't have no names and before he knew it he was hitting on the Tetragrammaton, man, that's right, Jorge, the Tetragrammaton.
The crowd was on its feet screaming and the Leopard Lady, whose voice he could hear seemingly wrapped in a cocoon of its own, was saying "Take me there, baby, Come on man, do it to me," her head tilted back, her eyes closed and she ran a hand up the outside of her dress, letting her fingers linger on her left breast, like Wayne glossing the "Nefertiti" melody on "Mademoiselle Mabry," and the mademoiselle was reaching for the sky shaking her head, as Edgar, Red and Phil came roaring back in. Berg gathered himself for one last thrust, sailing into the gonosphere, rider on the heliocentric storm and the horn was singing a love supreme, the rites of spring, and I have a dream, of thee I sing. Sing, Sing, Sing. I Sing the Body, I SING THE BODY ELECTRIC, to a collective roar from the crowd, and somebody jumped on a chair and shouted, "SOMEBODY CALL THE POLICE!"
But he couldn't let it die on the vine there, so he did the only thing left for him to do; he began stomping his left foot hard on the beat and began playing the nastiest, most gutbucket blues he could summon and glanced over at Sam, but the leader was already ahead of the game, and the alto cut through the room like a sickle moon, riffing off Berg and then the two of them were blowing simultaneously, their blues riffs entertwined, with the band locked in a wicked groove, and that's how they took it out to raucous applause. They immediately launched into The Theme and ran through a ferocious chorus with Sam calling out everybody's name, and calling him the "phantasmagorical Jerome Berg."
Berg bent down to put his horn on its vertical stand before embarking on the post-gig ritual of heading to the bar when he noticed the Leopard Lady's seat was vacant.
He pushed through the crowd, slapping fives all the way, and as he got there, the patrons parted and Mel popped the top on a Heineken and shoved it at him, saying, "Don't worry 'bout the tab, baby," with an authoritative nod.
There was a tap on his shoulder and he turned to find himself enveloped in the gaze of Penelope, eyes gleaming like Burmese jade, and wearing the Indonesian batik gown he'd given her.
"Hey, you made it." They kissed and she shook her head with that smile that came so easily when she wasn't all hung up about passing the bar exam.
"That was wonderful ... I've never heard you play like that ... ever. You must be exhausted."
"Must be that Matzo ball soup you made for me," and he was delighted by her attention though he knew their detente was on the denouement. But Berg was comforted by her presence and grateful she'd braved the late-night streets to give him some support, because oddly enough, among a crush of well-wishers who had descended upon him he felt oddly alone and unsteady. Penelope embraced him for a moment and from her cigarette case pulled out a Sherman, which he gladly accepted. And already folks were streaming up to him, praising his performance, buying drinks for him.
Red cut through the lingerers and yelled at Mel, "You know what I want, baby, and make it the same for Ice here, and another one for the lady too."
Berg already had a line of drinks on the bar from well-meaning patrons and he handed one of his extra beers to Red, who took a big gulp, hoisted up the green bottle and clanked it against Berg's.
"Yeah, baby, you was getting it on, man. What got into you? That was as eloquent and as profound a trumpet solo as I've ever heard. That, my friend, is what we're here for. That was fit for the plateau, as my man Duke would say." Three snifters of cognac arrived and Red handed one to Penelope and one to Berg and they all toasted, with Penelope in the most celebratory mood he'd seen her in since she'd started law school.
Pan Sardan materialized before them and Berg handed him a beer from his collection, told Penelope to give him a cigarette and introduced her.
"Congratulations, my friend, that was simply wonderful and now I want to tell you, I think you're very lucky, because Elvin was down with your shit, man. Not no. Yes, Mr. Berg, I saw with my own eyes the reaction and, dig this man ... Keiko told me, 'The trumpet player's a bitch, man.'"
Berg was looking around to see if he could catch a glimpse of the legend but Pan said, "Sorry, Berg, they had to split. Elvin's got a studio date in the morning and then he's back on the road, but listen I think we should have a talk together . . . I think we can work something out. Have you recorded before? I'm thinking of a recording, maybe a tour. That was some hip shit."
"Well, you're going to have to talk to Sam about that," Berg said.
Pan asked for a card, but Berg said, "You can reach me here, man, or next door at the market. Pan gave him his card and said he'd talk to him soon, and the partying continued until it was only the staff, Red and a few regulars and he and Penelope, and by that time Berg was really shot and they had to help him up and out, with Penelope at his side.
He was trying to recall if Penelope had actually come into the room with him or not when he saw ole Gish walking into the park being more or less pulled by his Doberman pinscher and the peacocks scattered. Upon spying Berg, he tied the dog to a tree and walked toward the bench.
Berg wasn't really in the mood to socialize, but he realized his presence as perhaps the palest shade in this part of the neighborhood carried with it a degree of social responsibility, so he got up to go through the handshake ritual. As they clasped, Gish stumbled and fell backwards, saying, "Don't let me down, brother," and Berg pulled him up playing along with the old-school hipster shtick, saying, "No way, man, ain't never going to happen."
He pulled out his pack of cigs and flicked the pack with the intention of slinging one out for Gish's selection, but nothing came out so he had to fiddle with the pack to free up a stick to offer Gish.
"Don't let the task force see that, brother, or they'll be hauling your ass off," he said, then accepting a cigarette that Berg finally managed to proffer. "Thanks, man. And I didn't have to walk a goddamn mile for no Camel."
"There's a camel or two in there."
"Not the kind of hump I'm playing for. And neither are you," Gish said. "Cause right now, man, you in a world of trouble, world of trouble."
Gish cackled and slapped five with Berg: "Alright man. Whachu talkin bout?"
"Word up and down, all over the street. Everybody talkin' about how you was all up in there last night."
Berg figured he was getting jived as usual by the old man, but at the same time he felt maybe the man might be trying to convey a serious message.
"Of course, my man, let me tell you, you got up in there so deep, you done scared some folks. Didn't know a white boy could lay it down like that. Look here, man, let me show you something."
Gish reached into his pocket and pulled out an object that looked like some kind of a polished bone with some sort of a strange, Asiatic female face and some weird symbols carved on it, and handing it to Berg: "You probably gonna need this."
He turned around, walked back to the tree and untied the Doberman, who lunged and jerked at the chain trying to get at one of the peacocks just out of his reach.
"Hey, Gish, thanks man, but you know, I'm not trying to piss nobody off. I'm just trying to learn something and hopefully make some people happy," but Gish was already moving on down the street on his daily round.
Edgar was supposed to pick Berg up for rehearsal around 6 at the Vike. Berg sat at the bar and got a Heinie, sipping it slowly, watching Mel and the staff prepare for the night ahead. He was halfway through the bottle by 10 minutes after six and by 6:15 he finished it, and Edgar still hadn't shown up. He smoked a cigarette and drank a club soda with lime until 6:30 when he borrowed the phone and called Phil's pad. Nobody answered.
Mel hit him with another beer and he waited some more. This sure wasn't like Edgar, the punctilious, meticulous piano player who had always been on time. At 7, Berg called for a cab. The cabbie dropped him off about 15 minutes later in front of Sam's place at dusk, the streets still alive with the shrieks of children playing games. He went up to the red-brick three-story building and skipped up the steps to a small porch in front of Sam's apartment and rang the bell. Edgar's car wasn't out front. The door opened a crack, and Millie, Sam's wife, reacted with surprise, opening the door wider. "Hey, why aren't you with the band?"
"I thought they were here. Edgar was supposed to pick me up, but never showed."
"So they didn't tell you about tonight? All's I know is somebody called Sam, and he told me they had a gig up in Yellow Springs. He left about 4. He didn't leave a message?"
Berg stood there wondering what the hell was going on and Millie reached out to clasp his hand: "Why don't you come in and sit down until you feel better."
He fled without saying anything, just split, strode down to the bus stop because he didn't have any more cash to blow on cabs and he didn't really know what to do except stand there, deflated, with the realization that most likely, he had been, in the immortal words of Lord Buckley, degigged.
He rode in a daze, the trumpet case beside him, wondering what he had done to deserve this fate, or could it be that he had simply forgotten something Sam had told him at the bar, or had someone at the store forgotten to relay a note? He had the urge to fling the case out the window, or better yet, just abandon it there, so some kid could find it and take his new prize home. Get rid of the thing and maybe he would be free. What good was it? What was he doing here ... Pointless. He'd made a fool of himself ... a goddamn fool.
As the bus crawled along past all the familiar places, Guilford's Shoes, Henry's Bar-B-Q, the Busy Bee, Fast Eddie's Autos, Marty's Appliances, McGuillicuddy's Music Mart ... he just wished he could get out of town, as far away as possible and do something entirely different, trade camels in the Gobi Desert, maybe.
The bus left him off and not knowing what else to do, Berg went inside the Vike instead of going to the nothingness that awaited him upstairs. A few folks were starting to drift in to hear Freddie Blake's trio that played there every Sunday night. Mel glanced up at him, with a perplexed expression from underneath the prescription glasses, framing his wide, brown face.
"Hey, why aren't you with Sam?," he said, serving Berg a beer.
"Hell, I don't know. They went and got another gig I guess. Maybe got another horn player. I don't know." Mel walked away to serve a customer at the other end of the bar and to consult with a waitress and then came back to Berg, who was examining the odd bone Gish had given him. Mel polished a glass. "Jerome don't you worry about it, man. You sure he didn't just give you the night off? After last night, man, he probably figured you could probably use the rest. But don't you worry about it, man. You don't need those guys.
"Let me tell you, Sam and those boys, they're all right, real fine musicians. But you got something else going on. Something greater, and maybe they don't even know what it is. These guys ain't going nowhere. They got families, kids, dogs, day jobs, girl friends, habits, booze, dope. You need to get out of here, man. Get off your ass and go to the Apple where you're going to learn something. You know what I mean. It is what it is, baby."
The phone rang and Berg drained his bottle, sat it on the edge of the bar, waiting for another.
"Oh yeah, he's here," Mel said to the caller, glancing at Berg. "Hold on." He put his hand over the receiver.
"Cat named Sardan wants to talk to you."
Mel handed him the phone.
"Hello, Berg? I just talked with Keiko, man. Pack your bags. Elvin's waiting."
Mel picked up Gish's memento from the bar.
"You won't be needing this anymore," he told Berg and stuck it in a drawer.