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Short Story

BLUES IN THE NIGHT

A Short Story by M. J. Moore

“That’s all right if you want to, but I’d rather you dance with me. Is there something that’s not frantic? Sort of slow but still has a pulse?” She walked to her turntable.

Frederick was setting the needle down. He’d chosen the first song on Side Two of hisEllington at Newport LP. Within ten seconds, she knew that his choice was perfect.

The sound of a crowd’s ovation filled the room. And after a slow pounding downbeat from Sam Woodyard’s drums, the Duke Ellington Orchestra began to wail on the blues.

The tempo was right. The brass was heavy and dripping. The solo saxophone of alto-master Johnny Hodges took center stage and his sensual, soaring tone unleashed them.

They danced to the Jeep’s Blues, a long and deliciously melodious performance from the 1956 Newport Jazz Festival. And their first and last words were quickly spoken.

Always a bit shy and unsure of what to do whenever he danced, Fred Jones debated whether or not to put his right arm around her and to hold her left hand (the way he’d always seen his parents dance; and everyone else of their vintage); or he wondered if he should just hope they’d both put their arms around each other and dance the way he’d seen it done by one and all at his junior high and high school dances. Neither happened.

What happened was: he asked her, “Should we try the old-fashioned way or update it a bit?” She replied: “No steps. Just move with me. Let’s see what we end up doing.”

The sound of Johnny Hodges was enough to wring tears from stone. His teasing, long-winded and big-breath solo style on Jeep’s Blues (along with the pulsating and make-your-body-come-alive percussing of Sam Woodyard, who drummed at this tempo like a man making love to every skin on every head of each drum within his reach), it inspired them to let go of the usual punishment known as self-consciousness; that bizarre species of self-torture that made them as vulnerable as anyone to self-censorship. Now they allowed themselves not just to hear the song or to dance to the music. Instead, they merged withthe music. And minute by minute, as they replayed the same song four or five times, they surrendered to an impulse that was in some ways as old as time. They moved.

Now and then they joined hands, doing a slow twirl or improvising a moment or two of simultaneous footwork, but mostly they just let their arms float about, their heads nod, their hips rotate and their legs stretch. One thing helped more than she’d have imagined:

Frederick naturally snapped along with the music. And he was in sync with the drummer. She was enough of a listener to know the difference. He snapped on the “backbeat,” right when the drummin’ man was laying down the beat on the 2 and the 4; right when Woodyard was himself snapping shut the high-hat cymbals: with precision.

Between the slow-blues to-and-fro of the Ellington rhythm section and the glorious sound of Johnny Hodges, on top of which Fred was snapping his fingers with a sharp poppin’ effect . . . when the whole band blew fully open at the shout chorus, the performance was a study in perfection. Everything worked. The crowd was delirious.

You could tell. They could tell. Hearing the audience cheer on the performance was half the fun. And there was no mistaking how intently the band was responding to that.

What Frederick Jones responded to was Carol Ann’s unabashed joy in movement.

He was mesmerized. Watching her dance was an act of fulfillment. Better than that.

Moving with her was the realization of a hundred classroom daydreams. He’d wondered to himself so many times just what it might be like to get close to her; hang out with her; perhaps hold her hand or caress her in whatever way was possible. Right now, the most obvious possibility was to keep her moving to the music and that was easy: even after hearing Jeep’s Blues four or five times, Carol Ann insisted: “Play that song again! Just one more time!” He did what she asked. In spite of the heat and the very late hour.

The heat was killing him. She seemed strangely oblivious to it; to her, it was just another late-summer’s night, and having grown up in an un-air-conditioned home back in Pittsburgh, the dog days of August didn’t really faze her. Not even the long stifling nights. But Frederick Jones never knew a home without AC. He was baffled by what people were willing to put up with, given that air conditioners could be bought cheaply.

His main concern, though, was that because she had no AC her windows were all open. He assumed that the music was being heard by neighbors. “Won’t you be getting an angry phone call from somebody trying to sleep?” he asked her. She assured him: the neighbor on her left never-ever stayed awake beyond nine PM, and the neighbor on her right was out of town until Labor Day weekend. She did, however, crank up the cooling devices that she did possess: in three of her windows—the living room they were dancing in, her bedroom, and also in her music room adjacent to where they were—she had one of those colossal high-powered window fans that sometimes are preferred to AC units.

Once they were working at full tilt, he felt the effects of a cross-breeze in the making. That was a delight. Even more pleasing was the loud whirring—the relaxing hum—the almost sedative impact of the sound created by the blowing fans. That was a one-way ticket down memory lane for Frederick Jones. One of his fondest childhood memories was of the comfort he felt and the safety he sensed and the cocoon-like security that enveloped him when certain gadgets at home were in use: the dishwasher, the air conditioners, and of course the sound of the furnace in winter. All those mechanical privileges created for him a continuous and always reassuring sound: humming therapy.

The breeze generated by her huge living room fan helped him feel even better. The music, as always, made him feel transported. And as they moved in their bluesy duet of an improvised dance to the Jeep’s Blues, yet again enthralled by the outrageously sumptuous tone and the utter soulfulness of Johnny Hodges’ alto-sax playing, she asked him if he’d ever before played this record so many times in a row.

They kept dancing as they talked a bit, and now as he answered her question, they were in a hand-holding pattern where they stepped in time to the music while looking at each other and she loved the way he squeezed her hand right in sync with the drummer’s extra-added push on every 2 and 4; measure for measure, nice and easy, he followed her lead.

“Not always this tune,” he said. “It’s the next one that made such a big scene. With the 27-chorus sax solo and the whole ‘riot at Newport’ frenzy-thing. But I love this one too.”

“What ‘riot at Newport’ thing?” she asked; they were moving as they held both hands.

“Not a real riot,” Frederick explained: “Nothing violent. But at the festival that year, something happened. And this amazing performance of a longer chart turned into a marathon sax solo for this tenor guy named Paul Gonsalves and . . .”

“Not the guy we’re hearing now?” She was arching back and letting her shoulders roll.

“No-no-no,” he said: “Different guy. Different horn. And he started blowing a tenor sax solo and everything fell into place to the tune of a 27-chorus ride. The crowd just went wild. And there was such an uproar that it got to be known as the ‘riot at Newport.’ Mostly because nobody would leave the festival grounds when they were supposed to! Duke had to call out encore after encore. The whole event landed him a TIME cover.”

“Where’d you ever learn about all that?” She was hoping for a somewhat faster dance.

“The album’s liner notes. The whole story is told there. I found the record in my Dad’s collection. And the liner notes almost gave me as much of a buzz as the music does.”

The last full chorus of Jeep’s Blues was playing again. And finally their mostly independent moving about came to a close. The handholding through the first half of the track had been a harbinger. Now they moved as one.

It could not be helped. She moved closer to him in order to initiate some side by side shuffling; for a while they linked arms as he snapped in time with his free left hand and she began to allow her hips and her legs to move more freely. Then he came around in front of her and offered up both his hands, fingers splayed, palms showing, and she reacted by clasping her hands right together with his. After that, everything escalated.

They instinctively finished this last slow dance by welding themselves together. His front to hers. Face to face. And her head rested briefly on his shoulder, just before she tossed her hair back and playfully pinched his cheek, saying: “Let’s hear that other one.”

The other one changed everything. Or allowed for anything. Neither Frederick nor Carol Ann could pretend any longer that this was just about movement or dance or even the music. Yet it was all that which gave them the means they needed; the means to fly.

There’s no other word for it, Fred Jones thought. And he told her: “I feel like I’m up in the air with you. Just flying.” By now they were listening for a second time. She was sitting on her couch, feeling an ache in her right foot after so much moving and turning.

He quickly asked: “Do you have any olive oil in the kitchen?” It was something he’d thought about that night earlier in the summer, when she’d had the all-class get-together, which evolved into a bit of a bash. Even then, his hope was to have everyone else cleared out and then to offer her a massage: Feet? Shoulders? Neck? Whatever. Everywhere.

“Look in the cabinet above the stove,” she answered; knowing what he intended to do.

And he did just that. Just in time for the music to slow down once more. There was a technical glitch in Carol Ann’s turntable system and after any LP was done playing, the arm did not lift off and return to its cradle, followed by the unit shutting itself off; for the longest time, a snafu in the system guaranteed that when an album was done playing, the arm would lift the needle off the vinyl and then revert to the beginning of the record again: starting the same LP playing all over. Again and again and again. Then again.

So now it was Jeep’s Blues one more time, and Carol Ann was winded from all the unexpected swaying and gyrating. Her legs felt heavy and she’d worked up a sweat, but the sheer exuberance of their impromptu dancing had made her more than happy. She was ecstatic. It felt wondrous not to feel so old. Or so stiff. To feel at ease in her body.

And that was intensified as Frederick sat before her and twisted off the cap of the bottle of olive oil he’d found in her kitchen cabinet. He was taking the lead here, verbally too.

While he slathered his hands with some of the oil, he said to her: “The thing about the whole Diminuendo in Blue & Crescendo in Blue performance at Newport was that no one knows if it was the band that caused it, or Paul Gonsalves and his 27-chorus sax solo, or the platinum blonde who wigged out the way she did.” It hadn’t been possible when first they listened to the whole performance for any conversation to really be heard.

Fred Jones embraced one of her feet with both his hands, and he pushed upward with his thumbs and instantly felt the almost electrical response generated by his touch. She let her head fall backward, and sank a bit more into the sofa. “That feels soooooooooo good!” she exclaimed. “Just keep using your thumbs up and down like that. It’s great.”

He let the music help him on his way. The track of Jeep’s Blues was five minutes; he knew that. So, chorus by chorus, back and forth, he took turns rubbing one of her feet; then the other. It was so simple. He poured his affection and admiration into the act. The music made a tantalizing soundtrack to work with. Her love for gentle touch had been a matter of deprivation for all of 1982 (she hadn’t had a fling since the fall of ’81; and that one, with a married colleague—a hack poet named Michael Van Windsor, whose pomposity was exceeded only by his penchant for gin and his poor taste in clothes—was mortifying; she vowed never to drink at faculty parties again).

As the music played on, she felt more and more how her whole body was being affected by this act of pampering. Up and down her legs, the tension relaxed; all the way up to her belly, she could feel the circuits of pleasure; there was a soothing effect that she felt even in her facial muscles and she slowly began to roll her head in a side-to-side motion. Maybe the Chinese are right, she thought: maybe the foot is the conduit to all body parts.

Frederick Jones had other thoughts. He was feeling a sense of his own power for the first time in a long time; and he exulted in that feeling. From where he sat, directly in front of the couch, looking up at Carol Ann was a joy supreme. Her feet were soft, soft like suede is soft, and once she relaxed even more she allowed her arms to fall beside her. Such posture caused her back to arch up a bit and that made her breasts more prominent.

The sight of her on the couch compelled him to suggest a bolder idea. It was also due to her tight blue jeans. One newer sign of the times was that flairs and bells had gone the way of all styles: into the trash. Jeans were again being made with not just a hip-hugging sexiness, but also with a peg-pant sort of tightness down below. There was no way that he could go from massaging her feet to rubbing oil on her calves and massaging there. The jeans were too tight. So he decided on a new idea as he experimented with a form.

The form he made up on the spot was like a magic potion. What he did was: throughout the last long, slow, bluesy chorus of Jeep’s Blues, he wrapped each one of his hands around one of Carol Ann’s feet, both hands newly lacquered with olive oil. Then: in time to the music, he began stroking upwards and then right down in time with the music, he pushed downward: he squeezed hard as he pulled upward, and then squeezed repeatedly as he pushed back down. Her circulation must have been galvanized. Her mood soared.

“Jesus, Mary and Joseph! You are an artist at this! You could make a fortune at it!” Moment by moment, beat by beat, stroke after stroke, he indulged her; massaging with as much kindness and patience and adoration as he could muster. Her approbation spurred him on. It wasn’t just that he thought her brilliant or beautiful; it was more than that.

She exuded appreciation. And his own need to be needed fed right into that. Not just because all his life he had wanted so badly to be somebody else’s much-needed somebody. But also because in the few efforts he’d made at having real relationships with the young women he had been involved with, there was no affirmation like this. The shallowness of those callow boyfriend-girlfriend fiascos—they were awful to think about. Stupid McNamara with her obsessing and fretting about her make-up and her weight; then that loony Catholic zealot, Kathy, with her chronic talk of marriage and a battalion of children. “At least six!”

Looking now at Carol Ann, whose eyes were closed as Johnny Hodges once again put the last finishing touches on his saxophone solo, Frederick Jones realized that this was the first time he had ever touched a woman in such an intimate way, with no “instant analysis” of what he “wanted to get” or how “far to go.” None of the usual craziness. That’s what gave him the confidence to suggest that they trade places. Nice and easy.

He said: “How’s ‘bout you sit here on the floor. Right in front of the couch. I’ll give the same treatment to your shoulders and neck. You’ll sleep like a newborn if I do.”

She made the move. He stood and pushed the hassock aside. No more need of that. Now he sat on the couch with his legs spread apart and she sat in front of him, shoulders up and straight back, and with one hand she gathered her hair and pushed it to the side.

It was still too bountiful. “Go to my room for me, will you? There’s a big plastic barrette-thingy on the table next to my bed. Bring it out here for my hair, okay?”

He did as he was asked. And now the faster, longer, highly energized Diminuendo in Blue & Crescendo in Blue was again playing on her stereo. It never ceased to amaze him: just how perfect that performance was. Everything was “in the pocket” as jazz players liked to say. Or “in the zone” as athletes put it. It just worked on every level.

He paused on the way out of her room, looking at her bed. His breathing was hard.

Back in her living room, his shock was complete. She must have moved like greased lightening. In less than a minute, she had retrieved the bottle of wine from the kitchen counter and was opening it on the living room floor. Wearing her blood-red brassiere.

Fred Jones almost dropped the barrette. Her audacity floored him. “It must be 99 degrees in here,” she said. “Just pretend we’re at the beach and I’m wearing a bikini top with jeans.” She used that corkscrew like a handyman uses pliers. Fast and loose.

He sat down on the couch again, right behind her. She poured out two glasses of wine, right there on the floor. And the sight of her in a crimson bra, now fixing her hair up so that it was stacked atop her head, with wine flowing and Ellington playing: it was heaven.

He’d never seen such a glorious cleavage. Not in the flesh. And magazines and porno films didn’t count. This was real. All too real. And she was still asking about the music they were listening to. It occurred to him that she was now allowing him to play teacher.

Her abandoned shirt had been tossed on the couch; he used it like a towel, wiping off his forehead and neck. He’d been perspiring before; now he was sweating. Almost panting.

The first part of Diminuendo in Blue & Crescendo in Blue was ending, and there was an interlude of piano solo. It was soft enough to allow for conversation, and as Fred began to massage her bare shoulders, she asked him about the performance’s evolution.

He had a hard time paying attention to her question because he could barely concentrate on squeezing her shoulders. Looking down at her breasts, so gorgeously enclosed in a finely crafted, hand-stitched lacy brassiere that packed her in and pushed her up at the same time, it was damn near enough to make him scream. He wanted to devour her.

“What was that again?” he had to ask. He began making wide circular movements with his thumbs. And then he started ‘playing the piano’ on top of her shoulders: using all his fingers in a heavy pressing fashion, causing her to sigh and giggle a bit at the same time.

“I said: Can you tell me when the blonde started her free dancing?” Carol Ann asked.

She was referring back to Fred’s anecdote earlier. He’d told her what was known about how after a few choruses of the swinging tenor sax solo, something snapped in a woman at the festival. A platinum blonde in a boxed-seat rose up on her own and started “wigging out,” as they said back in the day. She had no partner. And didn’t need one.

As Paul Gonsalves played on and on and on, blowing up a storm as the Ellington rhythm section laid down a masterly rhythm-and-blues foundation, off which Gonsalves just wailed and played and soared and flew and with no honking or squeaking on and on he played the blues, at a precise point which a careful listener can hear on the record because the sound of the crowd starts taking on the screaming-shouting-hollering excitement of Beatlemania (on a smaller scale), the unidentified platinum blonde was caught by the roving spotlight. The guy at the light was smart: he let the spotlight stay on the woman as she cut loose, dancing in her boxed-seat with total abandon: she flailed about, kicked out, swung high, let herself go. And she caused the crowd to get wilder.

“That just made the band even hotter,” Fred explained. “By the time the crowd was reacting not just to Gonsalves’ sax solo but also to the woman dancing her head off like that, the whole thing became transcendent. It’s here—coming up now—listen: just as Paul finishes this chorus there’s a cheering going on—it’s for the dancing woman!”

She heard it too. Especially now. It was subtle at first, but soon enough the roar of the audience was unmistakable. The music was feeding the woman and her dancing fired up the crowd and the people in all of their fabulous yelling and bellowing were about to lift the band into the stratosphere. Meantime, the sax solo went on and on. It was amazing.

Not just how fluidly and fluently Paul Gonsalves played for 27 choruses, a non-stop flight. Equally amazing was how exquisite Carol Ann now felt, as Frederick worked his oily hands along the back of her neck, pressing in, all her tension dissolving; then giving her a gentle scratch that induced instant gooseflesh. And now her nipples were engorged.

He’d known that for more than a minute. It was the eighth wonder of the world to him. He’d always been aware of her heavy bosom. But now it seemed like thumbs were pushing out the front of her brassiere. Go ahead and ask him, she thought to herself.

“Did you ever see any pictures of the dancing woman?” Carol Ann wanted to know.

“There’s a head-shot on the back of the album jacket. Nothing special. Just a . . .”

She interrupted him, leaving him flabbergasted: “When she danced out wildly like she did, do you think her tits were shaking?” Not using the word breasts is what got to him.

He stopped. He couldn’t think. He was speechless. The sax solo was still going on and on; the sound of the crowd was indescribably exciting. And he couldn’t think straight.

From the floor Carol Ann turned slightly around. “Well, what do you think?” She had a look on her face: a teasing expression. She knew he was flustered. She loved it.

“You’re a documentarian at heart,” she said. “So c’mon now: document this! If you were piecing together a chronicle of this so-called ‘riot at Newport,’ would you assume that the wild woman’s tits were shaking as she danced out all over the place?”

“They must have been!” Fred said, exasperated and tickled and embarrassed all at once.

“Would you like to touch them?”

She wanted one answer. Fast. The last chorus of the sax solo was now blazing away. And he did as she ordered.

It was like waking up in a dream . . . as though anything and everything could be. Now.

(M. J. Moore is a frequent contributor to the Neworld Review.)



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