Virginia had mostly stopped coming to gigs, unless it was some sort of banquet where the band would get a free meal, and the other guys’ wives were also coming. But he didn’t blame her for not coming to most of his gigs. Blue Sand played the same sets every gig. Who could be expected to listen to the same tunes time and again? And despite the occasional foray into Average White Band or Tower of Power, the band was all jazz standards and jazzed-up Latin folk, not Virginia’s taste. Which had made for gigs with a different kind of alone-time:
She may pass through the Valley once or twice a year, visiting her parents in San Diego. One trip, she’s held up by construction in the Colorado mountains and hits El Centro after dark. The motels beside the interstate cost more. More suited to her bohemian sensibility, the dumpier motels farther up Imperial, with fewer palm and acacia trees, no patches of water-greened lawns, no coffee makers or free breakfast. There are a few close enough to Burgers-n-Beer that, while unlocking her door, she not only can smell the food but hear there’s live music and know that it’s not a garage band or mariachi. It’s jazz. A bebop bass, comping guitar, and lamenting blues licks of a trumpet and saxophone. Saxophone. Cal’s ax. Cal’s voice. Cal’s cry. Dropping a dopp kit into the room, she follows the riffs across an empty parking lot full of tumbleweeds, cans, trash, cigarette butts, and condoms. Burgers-n-Beer’s lot is crowded with jacked-up big-wheeled pickups and lowriders alike. She feels like a shadow floating between them, approaches the building on the side at the service door, where the busboys and waitresses enter for work, where the band hauls in the amps, speakers, stands, stools, and instruments. Right inside is the long hallway with doors to the storage room and restrooms before it hits the entrance to the kitchen, then opens into the bar and eating areas. Since it’s after ten, the family dinner crowd is gone. Sure a few burgers still come out with pitchers of beer, but the lights are lowered and some of the tables pushed aside to make a small area for dancing. It’s not really a dancing kind of bar, and the floor space is almost always empty. When she comes out of the hallway, she’s not an already-seated guest returning from the restroom. She’ll have to work her way around tables full of cowboy-hatted or baseball-capped guys, women and girls with big hair and spaghetti-strapped tops, smoking and draining mugs of beer. It’s not really a jazz crowd. They talk, thump mugs and palms on the tables, even shout and squeal over the music, and seldom clap after a solo or final drum flam breaking off a last shimmering chord. She makes her way to where the pushed-together tables have empty chairs. Or maybe she doesn’t even sit. She’s dressed for travel in the desert, a plain black t-shirt and jeans. Is her hair still short? Yes, exposing her face and neck which catch the dim amber lights. But from where she stands, the sax player is eclipsed by shadows from the speakers mounted on stands. He’s wearing black too. His horn a glowing diagonal slash across his body. His eyes are closed, stay closed through his poignant solo in “The Nearness of You,” through the turnaround, back to the head, and then slowly open during the playout. Open directly into hers.
No need to go farther. Not during the gig, at least. He would replay her arrival and approach through every ballad. Then, later, when he crept into the dark, breathing bedroom at one a.m., undressed and rolled himself carefully onto the bed, stretched out on his back on a two-foot strip at the edge of the king-size mattress, sheets bunched around his feet, eyes once again closed, he watched her move with a pleasure she’s never known all the way through how he expressed to her the magnificence of his feelings, but which he knew were going to end in desolation, after he wiped himself with a washrag and absorbed all over again that she was somewhere else with someone else and he was alone. Or, worse, not alone. The soft snoring on the other far edge of the big mattress often didn’t lose a beat, as though Virginia slept soundly on a rocking boat, or through an earthquake. He might offer to take her to breakfast in the morning, if she wasn’t already frying bacon when he woke. The aroma pouring some kind of life back into him.
But gigs that offered any kind of reverie were becoming fewer when Virginia started going to gigs again. As well as popping into the music store in the afternoons. Did it have anything to do with her son, Angel, getting home from the Army six months earlier? However it had come to pass, Cal had given him a job, of sorts, gathering and delivering instruments needing repair from far-flung schools. While the arrangement did allow Cal to expand the reach of his repair shop to fifty, seventy-five, ninety miles away, Niland, Blythe, even Yuma, Cal had to let Angel use his car (Angel’s beater wouldn’t have been able to make those trips), and Cal frequently didn’t have time to check the mileage before and after. If no deliveries or pick-ups were imminent, Angel sometimes hung around the music store that housed Cal’s repair shop, but Cliff, the store owner, asked Cal to please keep Angel’s time in the store to a minimum. Angel had had his lower lip pierced and wore a stud between his mouth and chin. His military hair had grown out and he used gel to make it look as greasy as possible. The jeans he wore everyday had more frayed holes than material, and he usually stank. Once he’d been lurking by the CD rack when Cal came out from a private lesson and spoke to the student’s mother who was waiting. Cal immediately sent Angel to Brawley with two flutes that could have waited until Cal finished the clarinets, trumpets, and a trombone that had also come from Brawley.
Not a half hour later, Virginia came into the store. “Can you take a break, Babe?”
He didn’t have another student, so Cal took her to the burrito shop at the end of the strip mall and bought two sodas. While walking there, a car out on Imperial beeped, and Virginia waved. Cal didn’t need to ask who it was, the daughter, but Virginia said, “That’s Trin, so glad she’s getting out again.”
“Did what’s his name get paroled?”
“She couldn’t be waiting forever. She’s young. She met Cedric up there, he was visiting his brother.”
There was a single table outside the burrito shop, between the storefront and the cars pulled into the first row of the parking lot. Virginia waited there while Cal bought the sodas.
“You should get diet coke, Cal, you’re getting a little pot there.”
Cal turned his chair so he was at least halfway into a strip of shade and lit a cigarette.
“I’m glad the job for Angel is working out,” Virginia said.
“Well, we’ll see. I haven’t run any numbers to see if it’s losing me money.”
“Losing you money, that’s all you care about?”
“I imagine you enjoy having electricity and water, a house, groceries, nail salon—”
“All right, you can stop.” She adjusted her huge barely-tinted sunglasses and sipped her soda. “But you can’t even try to help a young man get his leg up without making sure there’s a profit.”
Cal puffed his cheeks as he blew out smoke, then kept blowing, tightening his stomach and facial muscles into an embouchure until he had no more air and felt his eyes popping. Only then did he inhale and say, “As I was saying, that so-called profit…well, a little prophet is telling me we’re going to have to cut down expenditures somewhere.”
“You could bring your whole gig pay home if you don’t drink so much beer.” She wiped at sweat beginning to trickle at her temples.
Wigs were hot, he knew, and with the sun pushing west there wasn’t much shade at the front of the strip mall. “Did you want to talk about something in particular, or just craving a watered-down soda?”
“We don’t spend enough time together.”
He waited until a loud motorcycle passed. “Let’s talk about it over dinner. Not on the glaring pavement.”
“I wanted to see what keeps you at the store so late.”
“But you get here at seven, sometimes six, and don’t come home till six. Then go back after dinner.” She used both palms on her forehead to wipe moisture. “Who’s coming here to meet you?”
“I work here, Virginia. I’m trying to keep my—our heads above water.” He crushed his cigarette on the bottom of his shoe. “Now, I’ve got to get back.”
“You think I don’t know what’s going on? I know how young they are, those mothers whose spoiled babies lug violins and flutes in and out of this store. I’ve seen them. Think I haven’t seen them? So I’m old in the tooth, and you’ve got a steady never-ending supply—”
“What are you talking about?”
“You tell me, Cal!”
“I have no idea.”
“You have plenty of ideas when they show up at your gigs.”
“You know who.” She stood and stood and threw her soda and ice, hitting him in the chest.
In the valley, by at least May, weddings and quinceañeras moved indoors to air-conditioning. The last outdoor party to secure Blue Sand that year had hired them at end of April. It wasn’t as though Cal had failed to notice (or reflect on with the guys via either a few code words or exchanged facial expressions) that fifteen-year-old birthday-girls and twenty-something brides had lots of friends their age who dressed to conquer for the parties. So why should he be surprised when Virginia started wanting to come to that kind of gig as well, when previously the gigs she had been attending were at least holiday banquets or fundraisers, where not having been invited didn’t matter as much.
He kept his sax in his mouth and his eyes on his charts—or closed, but wouldn’t have been able to run his nightclub chimera anyway, what with it being sunny and in the nineties, plus Virginia seated at a pirated table just off the band’s right flank. Between sets, he sat at the table with her and smoked, sometimes two cigarettes, sucking in and blowing out, telling her he needed to veg-out (a term Virginia had started using recently) when she asked him if he wanted to dance to the tunes played by a DJ hired to provide music during the band’s breaks. More people danced during the band’s breaks because the recorded music wasn’t jazz.
There were plenty of rock, country, Latin pop, and mariachi bands in the valley, why did people hire the only jazz combo? Cliff was a businessman, active in the Chamber of Commerce, and well-off parents of brides and fifteen-year-olds were frequently businessmen too. Plus, of course, jazz was classy. An assumption based on elitism as well as a history of white land owners, even in a town on the professional rodeo circuit and twenty miles from a huge cosmopolitan state capitol city in Mexico. That was part of a conversation he imagined having with someone, if that someone had asked him why a quinceañera would want jazz for music, or why people didn’t dance to “How High the Moon,” “On the Sunny Side of the Street,” or “Ain’t Misbehavin’.”
But Virginia didn’t ask that, she just asked Cal if he wanted to dance to “Ladies Night” or worse, “Can’t Touch This.”
Admittedly, Cal was bushwhacked by uncharacteristic optimism when Angel—during the few minutes he was allowed by necessity to wait in the shop for the instruments he would be delivering that day—started asking questions about what made a particular instrument worth the cost of the repair. With private instruments, Cal would telephone the owner to let them know the estimate before he started the repair. Is this worth fixing? and why? then became recurrent questions. And Cal answered. “That’s only a four or five hundred dollar clarinet—I’m about to put at least a hundred-fifty bucks into it. They might want to sell it as is and upgrade to a better instrument.”
It hadn’t gotten to the point where he broached an upbeat conversation with Virginia about Angel taking an interest in instrument repair or running one’s own business. Perhaps if he had, and if he’d been lucky enough that Trinity overheard it, he’d have gotten the wake-up call from that unlikely source instead of where it eventually came from.
Trinity had been furious that Angel had been given “such an easy” job but she hadn’t. There’d been a shrieking scene. “I think the shit he did to get kicked out of the army should be worse than making my own decision to just quit something that was totally useless,” was one of only two complete and coherent sentences he’d heard. Maybe the reason Virginia hadn’t backed Trinity up and come to Cal to give Trinity a job was the screaming, plus the trademark flinging and shredding of objects, and this time in the kitchen so the “objects” were Virginia’s cooking tools, even her new electric griddle set up on a counter and cooking hamburgers—wrecked, as were the burgers, when it crashed off the front of the stove and ricocheted against the floor.
Afterward, Virginia, crying, had washed off the burgers and put them in a frypan. Then Cal had brought the griddle to the shop to try to repair it. The second sentence he remembered from the fight was also from Trinity: “It’s so bogus, how can you totally favor someone who either fucks or steals from anything in range?” But most of why he remembered it was that Virginia had said, as she washed and re-cooked the burgers, “I just don’t like how she uses the fuck-word,” and he’d told Cliff because, well, maybe it was easier to share the humor in Virginia’s speech-stumbles than to actually think about what Trinity had said. He realized that, but a little too late.
The cops who stopped Angel for DUI between two and three a.m. found musical instruments in the trunk. The two trumpets, two trombones, and a baritone weren’t in cases, but each had a sticker indicating it belonged to the Calexico School District. Cal didn’t hear that part until a band teacher from Calexico called the shop to tell him that the police had contacted the school about the instruments. The band director had declined to press charges because he needed the instruments back right away, but told Cal he’d been about to call anyway because the repaired instruments delivered just a day or two before had included empty cases. “Thought you’d had a brain fart and forgot to put the horns back in the cases, but I guess you’ve got bigger problems than memory,” the guy chuckled.
The license suspension alone meant the instrument-repair pick-up and delivery was also suspended. Cal dropped Angel from the car insurance policy he’d had to maintain because of the delivery service. Cliff had already advised and helped Cal make his repair shop an LLC, to protect his personal assets from liability. But the blow came when private customers came looking for their instruments, and Cal couldn’t find either the instrument or the invoice saying it had been there in the first place. Those complaints were still trickling in weeks, even months later, as people found their copy of the repair order lying somewhere and realized they’d never heard from the shop that the horn was ready. It came to about eight or nine instruments that had seemingly walked off in the night. Or, more likely, while Cal was teaching private lessons in the afternoons.
Each time he had to pay someone for a lost horn, he came home, told Virginia, then walked away before she could reply. He still watched Home Improvement with her, still said “thank you” after eating dinner and lunch before going back to the shop. Still said “good night” if they went to bed at the same time, or when she went in before him. Still gave her the ATM card when she went to the grocery store, still asked if she wanted coffee when he made a pot in the evening, still answered when she asked what time he might be home or when was his next gig, even if the answer was I don’t know.
It was October when he paid for what he hoped was the last of the stolen horns, three months after Angel’s DUI. “Another one came in today. Another five hundred.” He didn’t know why, maybe the smell of the oil starting to warm for tacos dorados, but he stayed in the kitchen instead of immediately withdrawing. Although he did keep moving, pacing a five-foot span behind Virginia, toward the kitchen doorway and back. “So far, I’ve had to reimburse over five thousand for those missing horns.”
She pushed the pan off the burner and turned. “Can’t you check the pawn shops?”
“A little late for that.”
“I’ve been trying to suggest it, you wouldn’t listen.”
“When do you think I’m going to have time do that? Every pawn shop in a hundred mile radius? You want to help out and do it? Be my guest. Who knows, maybe a few will turn up.”
“Well…” she was tapping something on the counter, a spoon or knife. “I don’t really have time either.”
“I see.” Cal’s pacing left him at a point between the kitchen doorway leading to the foyer and the hallway toward the bedrooms. He could’ve kept going and would have been out of the kitchen. But he turned and continued the back-and-forth route.
Virginia replaced the pan on the glowing burner. “It’s Angel’s community service. You want him driving himself there with no license?”
“I hear his car come and go at night while you’re sleeping. Who’s driving him then?”
The oil in the pan was muttering. “He has to get to his new job.”
Cal stopped pacing again. “No, Virginia, I’m not biting.” He pulled a chair out from the table as though to sit, but didn’t sit. “Quit the lying and covering. He doesn’t have any job. Unless he’s selling drugs.”
“Don’t you accuse him—” The pan rattled when she pushed it off the burner again. “You’re so selfish. Not everyone was born biting a silver bullet like you. Just because he makes a mistake time and time again?”
“I’ll say. And this mistake was a doozie. You should thank me for not pressing charges.”
“Thank you? After you fired him and didn’t even pay his bail—”
“And he’s got a month to find some other place to live.”
“You can’t do that. Where’s he gonna go, what’s he gonna do?”
Cal reached for a bag of tortilla chips on the table and ripped it open, splitting the bag down the side. “Shit.” Chips exploded onto the table, but he kept the torn bag in his hand. “Don’t you realize when I have to repay customers to the tune of five thousand dollars, or more, that it’s money from our income?” The chip bag crackled as he gestured with it. “Our food, our mortgage, our cars…he would do that—steal from his own mother. He’s willing to fuck his mother, you know that? Know what that makes him? He’s a motherfucker is what he is, a motherfucker.”
She made some kind of sound, there was some kind of clatter, he flinched, more chips spewed into the air, and the frypan whizzed past him nearly noiselessly before landing upside-down on the rug in the foyer without hitting anything else, even the kitchen doorway. A shiny spattered path of oil splotched the linoleum.
“You made me do that—you can clean it up.”
But Cal was already leaving. He paused only a second before stepping over the pan, then veered toward the front door instead of the bedrooms. Usually when he left, he left in silence, even if walking away from a tempest. But this time, the storm continued blowing at his back, and since he hadn’t bothered to close the solid door, it continued through the screen door as he got into the searing furnace inside his car. “Son of a bitch! Come back here! Don’t you dare walk away from me, asshole! Bastard! Get back here—” The seal of the car door snuffed the rest. The neighbor, across the street, was sitting in the shade of a tattered tarp. Cal could often smell carne asada, eggs, beans, and tortillas wafting over when that neighbor cooked breakfast outside early Sunday mornings. The neighbor waved as Cal pulled out of his driveway.
Cris Mazza’s latest book is Charlatan: New and Selected Stories. Mazza has seventeen other titles of fiction and literary nonfiction including her last book, Something Wrong With Her, a real-time memoir; her first novel How to Leave a Country, which won the PEN/Nelson Algren Award for book-length fiction; and the critically acclaimed Is It Sexual Harassment Yet? She is a native of Southern California and is a professor in and director of the Program for Writers at the University of Illinois at Chicago. “Cliché Alert” is an excerpt from her forthcoming novel, Yet to Come.