A short story by T.C. Barrera
Windshield wipers raced left and right as rain battered his old Honda Civic. It was a cold and rainy day as Pete drove from Georgia to New York. He took just a few key things with him that day: a medium sized luggage full of clothes, all the money he had in the world, (saved from three jobs worked for two years), and a black trumpet case, his most prized possession. On the radio, “Blue Horizon,” by Sidney Bechet rang true through the speakers. A classic, beautiful, and calming piece to contrast the less than calming storm raging outside Pete’s rattling rustbucket of a car. In the passenger seat of said car sat a companion that would not shut up.
His phone rang consistently throughout his long drive. Notifications for thirteen missed calls from Mom, eight from Dad and a myriad of other texts and calls from Pete’s five brothers and sisters along with many of his lifelong friends sat ever presently, (the numbers growing every hour) on his phone. Pete never looked down. He was tired. He had been driving for eleven hours straight but was tired long before that. He was tired of twenty-two straight years of the same old bullshit. As he began to think about how much he wouldn’t miss his old life, he noticed in the distance a sight so unfamiliar to him he creased his brow in near disbelief.
A skyline. New York City’s skyline to be exact.
For a moment, it was like a scene out of a fuckin’ movie. Small town kid sees big city for the first time. Heart grows three times bigger. He shrugs the thought off. Too clichè. If his new life was going to be anything, it wasn’t going to be clichè.
It was around 2:30 PM when Pete entered New York City.
The cars. The people. The sheer number of both would have shaken any other small town raised young man. Pete was different. Again, if he was going to be anything, he wasn’t going to be clichè. He was determined to do two things: to become a great jazz musician and to build a successful life surrounding that, maybe even open a club. He wanted to do these things in spite of the dissuading words of his loved ones. That was what drove him; that is, “the dissuading words of his loved ones.” He took it as a challenge; and, upon entering and seeing the city, he picked up his phone and called his mother; as if begging to hear what he perceived as much needed negative reinforcement. Upon tapping “call back,” he pressed the phone to his ear.
It only took one ring.
Pete’s mother answered. She wasn’t crying; but, her voice was ragged, as if she had just finished an episode of hysterics, the cause of which being the subject of her lost lamb—her wayward son.
“Are you safe?” She asks, sniffling; her voice ready to break in an instant.
“I am. I’m sorry for not picking up. I couldn’t risk being convinced to turn around.” He replied, not sheepish, but stern, sure of himself.
“If you were really sorry you would have turned around on your own.” Pete’s mother’s voice began to harden, ready to lovingly rip her kid apart.
“Why are you doing this? Your father and I, we—we fought so hard to give a life you could be grateful for. How was that not enough?”
“Give me the phone,” a gruff voice next to his mother commands.
“This isn’t the 80s, Peter. Young men don’t move to New York on the promise of riches and glory anymore, especially not for music and especially not for jazz.” Pete’s father could be described most justly as a traditionalist. A traditionalist in the most traditional ways.
“You always told me to work hard.” Pete retorted. “I always wondered: ‘Work hard towards what?’ A life just like everyone else’s? A life that’s mediocre?”
“Mediocre? This life built you, son. There’s nothing wrong with it.”
“I want more. There’s nothing wrong with our life, sure, but I want more.”
“Peter—“ His father replied, primed for more protest.
“Put me on speaker, Dad. I want Mom to hear this.” He waited for a moment, unsure of if he was ready to say what he was to say next. “Give me a year. If I haven’t made any progress, I’ll come home. I’ll even try to stay in touch.”
“What if we say no?” Pete’s mother inquired in a serious tone.
“Then you’ll have to come get me. Good luck finding me in a city of eight million.” Pete said, in an equally serious tone.
A brief pause.
“And you’ll stay in touch? You promise?” Pete’s mother asks, miles away from being convinced.
“Yeah. Now I have to go. I just got here. Can’t waste anymore time.”
Pete’s phone was already in his pocket. With earbuds in and a playlist playing some of the greatest jazz artists of all time, he started to walk. He knew he couldn’t go home. There was no turning back.
People talk about different things when it comes to New York City; the amount of people, the traffic, how mean said people are, how cramped it is, how loud it is, et cetera, et cetera. Sometimes, however, they forget to talk about the scale. To look up and to be overwhelmed by such monoliths is intimidating to say the least. Again, however, Pete saw it as a challenge. With every building that towered over him, he remembered that every inhabitant of each building was in the same hustle as he was, regardless of career field. He was going to be the best at what he did. He was sure of it.
“I’m gonna knock this place on it’s fucking ass.”
He’d been walking for an hour and a half. He knew where he was going, sort of. He’d heard and researched of the legends of New York City’s jazz district. Birdland, Blue Note, Iridium, and the like were the jazz spots where the greats played. He wasn’t looking to get into those—yet. As he crossed 44th Street, pushing through traffic composed of both people and vehicles; he saw a small, hole-in-the-wall bar—CAL’S JOINT, JAZZ NIGHTLY. On the windows of the bar, a custom made sign with a black silhouette playing a minimalist saxophone shone, with light reflecting against some dirty water, on the city sidewalk; a testament to the dirtiness and contrasting class of this crazy fucking city.
A bartender stood inside cleaning the countertop, presumably preparing for that night’s wave of customers.
“What can I get you?”
“The owner.” Pete replied quickly, as if he had rehearsed this exchange in his head. He had, after all.
“Shit. What’d we do?”
Pete laughed. That was definitely not the response he had been anticipating.
“Nothing. I just want a job. You guys have any openings? ”
“A job? You a musician?”
“Well. . . yes, but I’ll take anything.”
It took a moment for the bartender to respond; he was assessing if this dude was serious or not.
“Owner only comes in when the music starts, kid.”
“‘Round seven. You can try to come back around then.”
Pete contemplated going back and kicking it on his “couch,” known only to him as the back seat of his car, for the next three hours. “I don’t really have anywhere else to go,” Pete answered truthfully. “You mind if I say here?”
“Buy a drink and you can stay as long as you want. You realize it’s only four right?”
“I’ll take a PBR,” Pete replied, he figured that was what all the hipster city kids drank.
As he sat and sipped on his beer he marveled at how far he’d come; not in a deep, personal advancement aspect, no, he hadn’t done shit yet; but rather in a literal sense. He was a ways from Georgia. A fourteen hour drive and a hour and a half walk was as far as he’d ever traveled in his life.
He was tired. As he remembered how far he had traveled he put his head down and closed his eyes.
Pete woke up in his tiny studio apartment above CAL’S JOINT. It had been four months since Cal Dupre agreed to let him move in, scrub bathrooms, and bartend. After his shifts, around 2 or 3 in the morning after the last of the faithful patrons had gone, Pete would hop onto the stage with his trumpet and play until Cal would make Jude, his trusted bartender, turn off all the lights but one, the main stage light.
“You better be ready to work in the morning, kid!” Cal would yell as he would walk out, locking the door behind him. He was hard on him, but Pete was sure he was close to convincing Cal to let him play in between sets of each of the club’s regular performers. He was progressing every day; and, though the 60 year old New Orleans native would only listen to Pete’s playing for a short amount of time after closing, Pete felt like Cal had been staying just a bit longer each passing night. He was getting better, both Cal and Jude knew it. Pete was happy. A musician living in the heart of New York City above a jazz club where he bartended was about as clichè as clichè could get; but maybe that wasn’t so bad.
Hell, there was even a girl.
A girl named Lila.
She worked at the coffee shop down the street.
END OF PART 1