The summer streets were alive with the roasted smells of cafés and posh breakfast nooks. High frequencies of hope and promise signaled from men and women in businesswear, aprons, autobody jumpsuits. Dopaminergic black brews brimming hot in hand, they blustered to buildings and office quarters, where manifested their heroic ambition. She peeled away from this hustle, toward the parks. With her phone she captured quotidian images through an obverse lens – a homeless man handing over change for a fiver, a small boy pointing sternly at his father, an inverted traffic cone filling a pothole – which she tagged with witty captions and sent her mom. At a park along Denny, past Westlake, the late- August light heated an irradiated gold, she curved along paths lined with flowers. She stopped to watch a grizzled man in a flat cap play the trumpet. Birdlike trills and warbles sounded off his warmup. After a number she couldn’t name, she approached to drop a dollar in his case.
“Don’t quit your day job,” she said, observing the lack of bills in his case.
“It’s a Tuesday, isn’t it?” he said. She laughed. The high sun hit his face, pocked and all the darker for the contrast. He added, “You’d be surprised how much this hustle gets me between gigs.”
“Why aren’t you at the Market? Or somewhere more crowded?”
“Same reason you don’t see your favorite band play at KeyArena.” Julia tilted her head toward agreement, watched a car parallel parking. He said, “Not expecting my fans for another” – checking a watchless wrist – “hour or so. Lunch rush brings me my daily. Which begs the question of what you’re doing here.”
“Summer break,” Julia shrugged.
“Go to that fancy school by the Lake?”
Somewhat ashamed, Julia nodded.
“Seem sad,” he said, using a discolored cloth to clean his trumpet.
“How can you tell?” She brushed a chestnut lock from her face.
“Look like you just got a bad reaction from collagen.”
“Wonderful,” Julia touched her face and looked toward the road, embarrassed.
“Too young to be sad. That’s for old folk like me.”
“I guess that’s kinda the point of me being here.” Julia worried the curled lip of her striped skirt dress, black, white, try, don’t try.
“Ain’t no point in being sad,” the man said.
“Better than trying to distract myself and making it worse.” She felt like a fraud for saying this –for hijacking trite ideas and using them to prove some semblance of maturity. Her unfed stomach growled at her. “I guess it just feels like there’s no point in anything right now. I feel like I wake up for no reason. Go through the motions to reach what? Some point where it then feels okay to die?”
The man, kneeling now to his work, stopped and looked up. “Whoa now, back your bus up. Sounds like you’re distracting yourself right there with all that morbid shit. What do you know about death anyway?”
“More than you think.”
“So that’s why you’re sad,” he drew out, threw the cloth down and wiped his hands. “Tell me about it.”
It took a moment for Julia to realize he wasn’t using the phrase ironically. She twisted around, stubbed out no cigarette with a sneakered toe. “I thought it was a work day.”
“Told you, I got an hour. Call it an early lunch.”
They took up seats at a nearby bench under a willow’s stringy shade. She told him everything, from her father’s passing to meeting Peter, but bowdlerizing the bits about how the latter had happened, her grandfather’s hand in all of it. The trumpeter added guttural flourishes to her story, little grunts and drawn imprecations to show his understanding or commiseration, or both. Time had twisted in on itself within the story’s telling – she couldn’t be sure other than by sun angle when she’d stopped. After a few moments the man loosed a long sigh, and instead of saying something at least mildly encouraging, he simply got up and loaded his trumpet to mouth. During his opening notes, filtering finely through the crystalized summer air, lunchgoers began filling the parkways. With each passerby who dropped a dollar into his case, Julia’s frustration turned to anger, futility, and finally she thought she understood all at once what he’d meant by listening to her and then getting up to play without a word. So she too got up and made to move on. Before she could leave the park, she heard him call after her.
“Hey little lady.” He played a funny series of notes to coax her attention. The lone woman left watching dropped what seemed like a dime into his case. Julia reconnoitered the scene under the pretense of confirming this tender, forehead pinched, looking at the gleaming doubloon as he spoke to her.
“I played with Miles once.”
Now her eyes went to him, his graying muttonchops, lank frame forming to function, stooping to this street music. “Just some club he stopped in at. New York. I was at the end of my rope. I knew it wasn’t no ticket. To get as good as me requires realizing you ain’t as good as him.”
“Wow,” she said, sincere. Growing up, jazz giants had haunted her house. In the car on the way to school, clips from her dad’s study. Major-moded jingles from Thelonious, unkiltered keystrokes from Mingus. Like the sound of life. She’d almost forgotten this sound. “‘Blue in Green’ is like my all-time favorite cut.”
“Well he sure as hell didn’t let me touch any of that,” he chuckled. “We just kicked something in drop-D that moved, shuckin’ and jivin’, feed the animals. But still. Best night of my life. To have the greatest to ever do it sit down second chair and give you that kind of respect. It was my club. Played there almost ten years.”
“Why’d you quit?”
He leaned back to take in this affront. “Quit? Got a horn in my hand don’t I?” he said. “Too cold in New York, man. Plus, rather start as a utility infielder in the minors than ride the bench in the majors.” Julia laughed. “Look uh...”
Instead of offering a hand, eyes popped, he played another comic bounce. “That’s funny. Julian’s my God-given name, but they call me Dr. J. Cause I can loop under a bass backboard like – ”
“The basketball player. I know,” she smiled.
His expression straightened as he turned south toward the sun. “Look, there might not be no point to being sad. But you’re also right. There ain’t a point to anything. And maybe that’s the point.”
But within minutes of walking away, the wise words of this brass-wielding disciple curdled quickly into bromide. Oversimple solutions for existential futility she could’ve found in the checkout aisle at a Barnes & Noble.
But then, judgements that he was a fool, just another has-been nothing of Nazareth, these too inverted: she was judging another man’s entire existence off one interaction.
Then again, was this how prophets were supposed to edify? Through brazen simplicities that made you think they had something you didn’t?
And but yet once more – as if any of this fucking mattered. This useless internal debate, a dialectic trying to synthesize truth between poles of solipsism and ultimate empathy. Within her opened the black rift, between the petty opinion of the trumpet player and the truer sense of profound loss she’d betrayed for it, which she then defected, ad infinitum, so was her major cognitive plight: pendulums of thought, circles of ideation. When really it was simple. Her father was dead. Peter was gone, perhaps dead too. Her mother knew nothing after having dropped her off, last year, at a car rental office near Renton. Her mother only knew that her granddad had softened, somehow forgoing acknowledgment of the specious motives she of course knew had to be under this loam. So, again, Julia felt emptied of anything she’d ever held onto – love, knowledge, things. Again she found herself falling through false ground, landing somewhere in Hades’ playground. For it was in fact scorching – at least for a Bay area girl – and surrendered to what now seemed to be another monthly schedule, this one of bled meaning, she suspended her Non-Escapist Agreement and checked her phone. For anything other than this.
Brian Birnbaum is a recent graduate at Sarah Lawrence's Fiction MFA program. He has been working on a novel for a little over three years, and this is a short story that spawned from such. He thanks you so much for giving it a read, and looks forward to hearing back.