I’ve always believed that the combo that rides together dies together.
We’ve been everywhere. We’ve graduated from performing in high school auditoriums to local cafes. When fancy restaurants started inviting us to play for them, we toasted the upgrade with cheap box wine. When we realized we could finally afford to eat at those restaurants, too, we popped champagne and celebrated with backyard drunken karaoke.
I remember the first time we crossed the border to play for a graduation party. None of us knew Spanish, but it didn’t matter, just like it doesn’t matter now. My brother always says music is one of the three universal languages. Love is another. Fear is the third. Anyway, it took us hours to get back home that day because the border patrol thought we were smuggling drugs in our cases. It probably didn’t help that the band wouldn’t stop joking about how much “reed” I do.
One time, this cheap joke of an airline lost Frosty’s bass and doomed us to play a show in New Orleans without a heartbeat. Frosty never let us forget how much we dragged without him.
I wonder if we’re making up for that show now.
I can tell that we’re rushing and I’m sure the others can, too, but it doesn’t really matter. None of us seem to care. Nobody else on the ship is paying attention anymore.
When the audience stood up during our last set, my sister Carla was the one to ask.
“Do we keep playing?”
In a normal group, one of us might have said, “We can just stop, you know. We can pack up, get out of here and escape from all this.” But we weren’t normal. We couldn’t escape our obsession. There was nowhere to go. We wouldn’t pack up, and this was our lives. That was the simplest explanation, and that’s the gospel truth.
Frosty and the rest of us guys rolled up our pant legs, and the girls kicked off their shoes. “I won’t hold it against any of you if you try to leave,” Frosty said, “but I’m staying. We keep playing for them, and screw ‘em all if they don’t listen. It’s what they need.”
That was a lie, and we all knew it. We’d keep playing for us, because it’s what we needed.
We took five and I called my wife. Why should I care about the roaming charge? I told her I was thinking about her, and when she asked about all the screaming in the background, I told her told her something that wasn’t entirely untrue: that the crowd loves us, but not nearly as much as I love her.
So our five minutes are up and we’ve shared our hugs, and we know this is our final encore. We tell each other that it’s been a pleasure, and we just leave our words to drift away. The rest will come out through our music.
Carla’s crooning on top of a table, her dark locks bouncing over her shoulders as she dodges the plates of grilled chicken and asparagus at her feet, and that’s what I’ve always admired about her. Even if there weren’t a tomorrow, she’d go out singing, and she’d do it her way. I think she’s always been the reason we get so many guys at our shows. I still find that a little weird, but I have to admit Carla has stage presence. She’s had it since she first heard our mother play Ella in the car. She demanded that Dad buy her a CD, and then she listened to it every day until she had all the scat solos memorized, and then she sat the family down and put on a concert. She made each of us give her a dollar, and then she sang everything from Ella to Faith Hill to Britney Spears, but mostly Ella. That’s another thing I admire about her. There’s enough room in her heart for every genre of music. That’s because she’s always agreed with Frosty. It’s a universal language.
I count a few bars of rest while Luke bangs away at his drum solo, so I climb up on a table, too. It feels a little rebellious, but at this point, let’s be honest: nobody’s going to tell us to get down. Frosty follows suit, and so do Lindsey and Stormy and Adam, each of us taking our very own table. We dominate the hall now, but still, nobody pays attention to us, and still, we don’t care. In fact, I’m feeling damn good up here. I’ve always been the rule-follower, but things are different now. I’m on a cruise ship, standing on a table with my saxophone, and the adrenaline has never been higher. I do a finger gun at Carla and the others, and then I kick a plate of chicken off the table. The ocean blue china lands somewhere below me with a splish.
We’re all looking at Luke now, wishing he’d stop and get on the table with us, but I already know he’s not going to. He cares too much about his solo. Not saying that’s a bad thing, because he totally owns it. I remember when I lobbed a football at him the day before a show once and he caught it wrong and broke his finger. We were all asking Luke if he could still play, and he looked at us like that was the stupidest question in the world. “Dude, I don’t play drums with my fingers. I drum with my body.”
And that’s what’s happening right now: the guy’s putting his whole entire soul into his drum set. The bass pedal is pretty much useless now, but he’s slamming down on it and I can see him thrusting his back into the cymbals and the snare. I don’t understand how he’s not soaked, or at least glistening, with all his fills and splashes. So much of his energy comes out in the music that he probably doesn’t save any for sweat.
Or maybe it’s just getting too cold in here.
Lindsey, our other string aficionado and Luke’s girlfriend, kisses the neck of her guitar before Luke’s solo ends, and I think I might see a tear in the corner of her eye. Do I detect one in Adam’s, too? I don’t know, but even Carla’s voice just cracked, and I can’t judge them because my face is soaked, and everyone else in the hall is crying, too. You don’t pour your being into your final performance like that without seriously affecting some people.
And man, he really affected some people. There are a ton of others on the table with me now, and some with Carla, Frosty, Stormy, Lindsey, and Adam. Stormy has the fewest because her trombone is sliding all over the place. I can even see one guy trying to climb a huge red curtain, like a monkey. Most are on the phone or just trying to leave, and I’m not too mad. These people just want to seize the day, just like us. They’re trying to speak a universal language. To be honest, I’m not quite sure which one it is anymore.
Adam’s the first to lose his balance, but his trumpet is pressed firmly to his lips even as he topples over with his table. Any other day, we’d all probably be laughing at him, but this time it’s not funny because we know Adam can’t swim. We figured that out the first time we toured LA and a huge tide knocked him on his butt and pulled him away from us at Santa Monica. It was Luke who saved him… Luke, whom I can’t even hear anymore.
The rest of us start the next song anyway, and it’s one of my favorites: Beyond the Sea. It’s slow and nostalgic and has this flowing movement to it, like water. I feel it more than I ever have right now when the table rises a few inches.
I know this is going to be my last solo, so I’m going to do my best to get this right.
I close my eyes and language flows through this beautiful wood and brass contraption of myself, the one that’s been an extension of my being for all these years. When I want to play a great solo, I call upon the muses. Charlie Parker. Sonny Rollins. My ruthless instructor from college, Ken Matsushino. Tonight, I call upon the others.
My mom reading novels on her couch and sipping Cherry Cokes from a straw with the oven on 375.
“Happy birthday, Michael!”
“White cake with fish sprinkles? Again, Mom?”
“Is that not your favorite anymore?”
My dad teaching me how to drive stick and not disowning me when I chose art over sports.
“Alright, Mikey, now shift gears.”
“Dad… I kinda don’t think I wanna play baseball anymore. I wanna make music like Frosty does.”
“I see. You really want to do that?”
“Okay, well, put her in third and let’s drive on over to the music store. What do you want to play?”
My wife back home.
Our barefoot wedding in Hawaii last year.
Her homemade Florentine pizzas on rainy days.
Our Lost marathons and coffee dates in college.
“Babe, help me understand the ending. Is it really that they’ve been dead the whole time?”
“You know, I’m really not sure… I think they all survived, but then after they died they went back to the most important part of their lives or something.”
“I hope I come back to these moments some day.”
My band mates.
Every rehearsal where Stormy “accidentally” clubbed me with her trombone.
All the times we didn’t smuggle drugs in from Mexico.
The day we all saw Uma Thurman at the gas station and Adam didn’t even know who she was.
“Really, man? No Pulp Fiction? No Kill Bill?”
“Why watch a movie where the title tells you how it ends?”
“Fine, you’re taking the picture. You can’t be in it.”
“She’s gone, bro.”
They’re all going into my solo, along with my first car wreck on the way to Sonic and the time my high school girlfriend cheated on me. The time I hiked the Grand Canyon and the New Years Eve I spent in Times Square. My high school graduation party. The drunken night of karaoke before my college graduation. Every high and low becomes another note, another golden quaver in my final solo.
Before the table topples beneath me and I lose my grip on the keys, I look at Frosty and he’s smiling. He’s always been a class act. We’ve all been that way. Our families said it. Twitter said it. However-many years of playing together showed it. We aimed to please our fans. That’s what we always said, at least.
I’m completely submerged in blues now, quite numb from the cold. My saxophone grows heavier around my neck, anchoring me to the ground. My lungs feel like iron and the world takes on a fuzzy quality, like television static, but in my head, the music goes on clearer than ever.
That pervasive, universal, and titanic force that governed our lives and bound us all as one.