The Rhythm Man
by James Beamon
Pennies. On the bar, they're the clearest display of my current lack of plenty. The sight hits me
more than silence, the grave quiet the non-applause made after my thirty minutes on stage.
Pennies is hard metal, the kind of weight that pulls down Icarus. Six dollars seventeen cents: a
mean grip of pennies, dimes, some nickels, no bills in the midst.
"That it?" I ask Red.
Red wipes his already clean bar down. There's comfort found in the familiar. A dim room
surrounds us, full of dark faces with dark countenances sitting around the tables talking, sulking,
playing cards, cheating, lying, selling fables.
"They not feeling the blues tonight, Horace."
Of course it's polite, what Red's saying. Better than declaring the blues all but died and
left the bluesmen. The better of us, the smarter, have already gone to playing faster tunes. I tell
people the blues is in my blood while wishing I could speed the groove.
"Charlie Pepper's coming through," Red says. "Another two bucks to close after him?"
Two bucks to warn people through my tired horn that their party's over. Two dollars to sit
through Charlie Pepper and his bopping, caterwauling, machine-gunning trumpet for hours on
hours. Enough bread to see a bit of meat on me and Pop's plates. Two more dollars I could earn
simply by not holding onto whatever my pride and time are worth.
"Keep me lubricated?" I ask.
Red nods. "Not promising to turn you into a well-oiled machine, but I'll make sure you
won't completely rust out."
"All I ask, Boss. Not even the Rhythm Man got that much oil." My lip agrees quick as if I
directly asked it, spasms around the glass my second sip.
Charlie Pepper comes in as I nurse bourbon, with a horn like my horn. Only it ain't my
horn. The crowd's cheering before he even touches the stage, before the horn touches his lips.
Then it does and then, boy . . . Then the jazz notes, the fast notes, start to pour. It's like the lights
brighten 'cause the faces brighten and everybody's standing, moving furniture, moving
themselves to the floor, pulled and pushed by the horn that ain't my horn.
The crowd dances, they want to dance, to get down with that fast, new sound called
bebop. They don't wanna stop and pause and feel the blues, but zing-zing, step, and groove,
swinging as if their trouble ain't really trouble but just a fever dream gone for good.
I'm mad but not mad. Easy enough to tell yourself it's the crowd's fault. Crowd's caught
up in a fad and can't hear the bad cause they don't wanna listen. They don't understand music,
know music, love music. They only use it. Then my lip twitches.
Ain't no fault in them listening.