Copyright 2003 by L. Polisar
Three Measures Rest
by Lisa Polisar
“Yeah, Jimmy,” the bass player says. I recognize those two words as a common gesture of acceptance and approval among the elusive species jazz musicians. I know a total of two things about the man – his name is Byron Fig, a standoffish Brit, and he lives in Lower Haight in San Francisco's beatnik mecca, Haight Ashbury. The fence surrounding his cloggy, round-windowed house is of the Victorian variety – narrow, square-sided posts topped with pointy spires plenty fit for stabbing. Okay, I lied just now. I know more than two things about this Englishman, Byron Fig. Matter of fact, I know everything about him. Though, as far as ‘things’ go, one stands out more prominently in my mind than the others – he’s having an affair with my wife.
The music makes me forget sometimes. I can vanish into Byron’s busy, walking-bass rhythm on the Charlie Parker tunes and, temporarily, escape the reality of what he is and what he’s doing.
Tonight, though, is a little different. Instead of the standard happy hour gig, where we’re expected to play all the jazz standards in sleepy, Paul Desmond drone, it’s Latin night. Doreen, the bar manager, recommended us to the owner, said we could ‘tear it up” in her swankiest NY brogue. So Lester, the bar owner, puts on his luminous, fake Armani suit and says, “Remember the Bossanova.” That means a four hour spread of Brazilian love songs, bossanovas, Cuban, sambas, flamenco, Tito Puente, Sergio Mendes. As long as it makes the hips sway side to side, it’ll fly.
Another reason why tonight is different…by midnight Byron Fig will be dead.
Me, I’m just Jimmy Rickman, a California transplant from the Bronx. I came west ten years ago on a dare by a drunken bar nymph. I dared her to completely unbutton her blouse, and when she did, I knew I’d do whatever she told me.
“Drive to California tomorrow,” she said, and then fell off the bar stool.
I left that same night. Guess I needed a change.
I can’t say I love my wife enough to care that much about her cheating heart. Byron Fig, imagine, with a stupid name like that, looks like a forty year old Zeus – long, curly dark hair with a body like Hercules and eyes that bore through skin and bone. Jocelyn, that spoiled little twit, could barely talk the first time she saw him. This was five years ago.
“Who’s the hottie?” she had said at one of our Lucky’s Liquid Lounge gigs.
“What, that guy?” I acted surprised. Just a man’s way of wrapping words around his pride.
And before I could answer, Byron Fig was walking toward our table. Jocelyn, who’s not much to look at now, wore scandalously short skirts back then. And long, bare legs, no matter what the rest looks like, is an instant score. She jumped to another chair so he could sit down, then they proceeded to mentally violate each other. Jocelyn kept wrapping her tongue around the straw in her Mai Tai and Byron fumbled with a button on his shirt.
Besides his looks, Byron was endowed with the gift of velvet speech. “Really…you don’t say…that’s fascinating…you’ll never believe this but I’ve been thinking the same thing lately.”
I had to sit on my hands to keep from strangling him.
The both of them.
See, aside from his lack of morality and overall pompous behavior, Byron has a big problem.
“Down in New Mexico and Utah they got casinos,” he constantly reminds me. Guess I never realized until now what it meant – to him and myself.
“When’d you ever get down there, Byron?” I ask, knowing he’d never pass up an opportunity to spin a story.
“Oh,” he’d say, “now and again I reckon,” like some washed up old Texas ranger. But there’s nothing washed up about Byron Fig. He’s more than just smart. He can read the music to a new jazz tune, one he’s never laid eyes on before, and have the whole thing memorized in ten seconds. He swears up and down against the idea of a photographic memory, but I don’t buy it. One time, when he asked me for the phone number of some singer we’d been working with for a summer, I rifled it off to him. Ten years later he still remembers that number. Now this might not be the dictionary definition of a photographic memory, but I have no doubt his mind has the ability to see something once and remember it all his life.
When our jazz quartet, Bird’s Thirds, toured one time through southern California, we rented a Greyhound for two weeks and Byron and I sat with our eyes peeled out the window to scope out interesting cars. On the freeway, keep in mind, where the cars go by about seventy miles per hour, he’d spot a vintage orange Karmann Ghia coming up behind us and know everything about it by the time it passed – plate number, year, type of material used on the rag top, everything down to the type of lacquer used in the color of paint.
So his gambling addiction came as no surprise, really. With a mind like that, how could you avoid such things? For Byron, it isn’t the satisfaction of a primal urge or a megalomaniac compulsion to make money. Byron likes the sport of it. The sport of winning, the sport of losing or almost losing, the sport of sleeping with a married woman and slipping out the bedroom window as her husband pulls his truck into the drive. I call him an adrenaline junkie, and that’s what he is more than anything. A thrill seeker – one of those personalities who skydives off a bridge without a reserve parachute.
When you consider his evolved intellect, combined with a madman personality, it just seems right that he ended up owing money to the wrong man. I know the man, too, and the phrase ‘wrong man’ seems a comical understatement. Byron will either pay him tonight at midnight, or his blood will stain the concrete in front of Gino’s Pizza where we meet after our Friday night gig.
Gino’s not a real man or anything. He’s the image of an old world, Italian proprietor, the kind with a scar on their cheek, who always wear starched white shirts with the sleeves rolled up to show their muscular, tanned hairy forearms. This Gino’s name is Jeff and he’s all right. With just a mediocre IQ, I get along with Jeff and everybody else most of the time. But Byron Fig is special. A square peg doesn’t fit in anywhere, but Byron’s more than that. He not only doesn’t fit, but sticks out like a whore in church wherever he goes. Hell, the impression he’s made on my family is evidence enough of that.
“Jimmy???” Jocelyn’s voice is pleading, but I know she won’t let herself cry over the man she’s sleeping with, seeing as he is my band mate. Sniffing back the tears lingering in her eyes, she lights her twentieth cigarette of the day.
“What if you were pregnant?” I say, hoping she’ll realize by this that I still care for some distant part of her health.
“Go to hell.”
I watch her as she says this. Looking out the bedroom window, I know she sees me, which causes her to instinctively stretch out her long, bare, shapely legs. Legs are my weakness, and are how I came to notice her in the first place. The Jocelyns of this world, like the Byron Figs, are the Darwinian ideal that evolve constantly by adaptation – learning as they go, picking up new information, passively, actively, and drawing on that expanding database of knowledge for each new situation. Right now, in the cluttered squalor of our bedroom, Jocelyn Rickman spins her web of talents to extract the necessary information.
“Tell-me-about-the-hit,” she says slowly, and I know right now, if she had a shotgun pointed at my head, she could pull the trigger as easily as sweeping an eyelash from her face.
“You just feel responsible,” I say. “You know, seeing as you were the one who gave him the money to go down there.”
“Down where?” she shrieks, and flaps the covers over her lower half. “Utah? I never sent him there. You’re the one who got the band all those stupid gigs in Salt Lake City,” she snorts, “that never paid you a cent!”
I shake my head. “Not there. New Mexico. You gave him the money for that trip to the Indian reservations. Didn’t you?” Jocelyn hangs her head down. “He told you…what…he had some contacts down there who were gonna set you both up in a little ranch on the outskirts of Santa Fe?”
Tears in her eyes now.
“That’s a good one,” I say.
“Drop dead, Jimmy.”
“Right back at ‘cha,” I say with my demonic, toothy grin, cultivated especially for times like this. Jocelyn was my inspiration for it, really, I mean soon as I realized that I’d married a woman who wasn’t fit for normal human contact. Lowland gorillas were a possibility. She did have a weakness for bananas.
Jocelyn’s getting dressed now, and the way she snaps her bra on and yanks up the zipper on her slim, black jeans tells me she’s infuriated that the sensual approach has failed. After all, I am her husband – why shouldn’t I be subjected to her sex-as-a-weapon game? I tell myself, sometimes, that my needs have changed. After all, I’m almost thirty, have some steady gigs with the band and lots of carpentry work as a contractor. And I want something more than great sex. Now no one’s saying that I’m willing to necessarily give up great sex with a woman like Jocelyn, but a deeper hunger nags me now. A desire for human connections deeper than just those of the flesh. And before either of us ever met Byron Fig, I never would have believed Jocelyn capable of such a thing. But the tears in her fiery green eyes right now aren’t for me, or even for her. They’re for Byron and the news of his impending death. They more than deserve each other.
Fully dressed, now, it seems like another approach has come to mind. Black jeans, her sexiest blue v-neck sweater and gold hoop earrings, my wife stands in front of me with a frozen expression. One degree colder and she might just shatter all over the floor.
“I’ll do anything.”
I lie back on the bed and look her over. “You’ve done everything there is to do in life, darlin’, so whatever do you mean?”
The shotgun look again. God help me.
“Do you love him that much?” Funny, really, the sense of detachment I feel when I utter these words. They spill out of my mouth like I were talking about her father or grandfather, or our unborn son or one of the little boys she babysits sometimes on the weekends.
Now she’s standing by the door ogling her keys on the dresser. “It’s worse than that.”
What could be worse, I wonder.
“I need him.”
“I understand,” I say. And they’re not just words either. Jocelyn needs a faster life than the one I can give her, and Byron’s shallow life is light speed. As far as tonight is concerned, light speed for him is going to become too fast.
“Jimmy,” she’s sitting on the edge of the bed now. No tears this time, and no anger either. “Why should I believe you?”
“Because I heard it, that’s why.”
She laughs. “What, like, from who? From one of the losers in your band? Someone you met at the bar? One of the barmaids you’ve been trying to screw for the past six months?”
A glint of recognition flashes in her eyes. Her face tightens and she bites her lip. “Is he the—”
“And so you’re saying Byron’s invo—”
“Uh huh,” I say, like I’m bored with the whole conversation. But I couldn’t be more interested, as it concerns the fate of not just that SOB Byron but the fate of my marriage and my life, at least as I’ve known it.
Change is good, though. Better for some than others. After all, seven hours from now I’ll still be Jimmy-the-drummer and Byron, well, fertilizer comes to mind.
I endure a few more minutes of Jocelyn’s conniving, effectual manipulation and then the smallness of the apartment gets to me.
“We’ve got to warn him,” she whines. “Tell me where he is.” I say I don’t know, but I do know. I hop the streetcar and I’m ringing his doorbell twenty minutes later.
I’m not certain what I’ll say to him yet, but when he answers his door wearing a towel, I get my answer. A towel on with dry hair means one thing.
“Hey man,” he says looking back toward his bedroom.
God. Jocelyn’s not enough for him? He’s got to cheat on her as well as me? Bastard. And in this moment, I’d love nothing better than to see his ghoulishly-steroid body shot up with holes.
“Come on in.” He nods and I follow him. “I just turned on the shower. Can you wait? There’s coffee.”
So I was wrong – no woman. Doesn’t change a thing.
I pour coffee and brazenly help myself to an unopened package of cinnamon rolls on the counter. He emerges, long wet hair flapping behind him like a twisted joke of a mermaid. He glances at the cinnamon roll package like he caught me naked with his little sister.
“Figured I’m entitled.” I smile with my mouth full, for maximum effect.
Byron sits opposite me and puts his thick elbows on the table. “I tried to break it off, Jimmy. Twice.”
“What are you, too irresistible? Not to me you’re not.”
“Love is blind, man.” He pours a cup of coffee. “Do we have to talk about Jocelyn?” I can tell by the way he says her name that he doesn’t love her. And I know some sense of satisfaction should accompany this realization, but it only makes me feel sorry for her. My wife. The same wife who loves this other man. What a world we live in.
We arrive separately at the gig, like always. Jocelyn’s with me tonight, stoic and frozen in her lathered veneer. I watch her watching him, sometimes peripherally, sometimes directly. Jocelyn’s got her eyes glued to the old clock behind the bar.
Nine o’clock downbeat. Nan, the lead singer, is sitting at the bar while the band warms up. She’s dressed all in black, like Byron. Fitting. He calls John Coltrane’s “Moment’s Notice” as the first tune. He indulges his every urge – what could he possibly be pent up about?
Nine fifteen. Nan comes up for the second tune – “Stormy Weather.” Byron, who hates that tune, rolls his eyes at me, desperate for what few human connections he has left. I wonder if some part of him knows what’s coming, but I don’t feel for him. Any guy borrowing money from someone like Ray Bergosi deserves the consequences of that mistake.
Ray struts in with Eddie Lorenz through the bar’s back entrance. This fact is more than just symbolic of his business practices. Ray’s got a business license for RME Dry Cleaning on Sharon Street, which naturally has nothing to do with laundering clothes. And when three of his “insubordinate employees” wound up as shark chum in the Bay, no one wondered about it. Those three men worked for Ray Bergosi, after all, and should have known the risks.
By ten o’clock, we’ve played all of Nan’s favorites, three Bebop tunes and five or six bossanovas. I feel a constant sway in my hips, like I’ve just deboarded a ferry.
Ray Bergosi keeps disappearing into the hallway that leads to the men’s room. People smoke back there, congregate, talk and laugh, drink too much, and the ones that get too rowdy get booted out the back alley door by the bouncer. No bouncer in his right mind would come within ten feet of Ray Bergosi and tonight is no exception. On the band’s second break, I’m sitting at the end of the bar with Nan, listening to stories about her drug-addicted son and her daughter in medical school. Her life is full of contradictions like this.
Ray walks by us a few too many times, and I go looking for Byron. He isn’t anywhere in the bar, and neither is Jocelyn. Now when I go looking for Ray, I can’t find him either. Nan winks at me and orders another vodka tonic.
My watch read ten thirty-five – clearly no time to commit a murder. There had to be a law published somewhere that murders could only be committed at midnight, three a.m. and, if on a boat, any time of day or night. That was just the etiquette of the San Francisco underworld. I stand up tall and scan the backs of heads. Still, the only one I could see now was Byron making his way toward me from where Nan had been sitting.
He gave a half smile and had two drinks in his hand. Friendliness as a last ditch effort? Give me a break.
“Hey,” he said. “Some damn nice playing up there.” Yeah, yeah, I thought. Byron liked my drumming from the beginning, and was the one who actually hired me to play in the band. He handed me one of the drinks and clinked his glass on mine.
“Where my wife?” I asked in a husky voice.
“Haven’t seen her.”
“Weren’t you and her together just now in the back room?”
He laughed, slightly. “Nope.” His face is emotionless. “Saw her come in with you but haven’t talked to her.” And at the same second that the realization hits me, I saw Jocelyn emerge from the back hallway – hair tousled and wild-eyed. She walks slowly to me. Nan touches her arm as she passed but it doesn’t slow her stride. When she gets closer, Byron disappears and I see tears in her eyes. I’m distracted from those eyes, though, by a commotion in the back of the bar. Someone’s screaming about a dead man in the men’s room.