Pink Chop at the Crossroads
A Fairy Tale
It was raining, but Danny didn’t care. He stood under the freeway overpass blowing for all he was worth, sending note after note soaring into the air where they pinged between the steel beams supporting the highway. The traffic overhead played an accompaniment of resonance that made him wish for a recording device. Saxophone with Traffic. It would make a great debut album. But then he supposed all his concerts would have to be held under freeways. He blew a last note aloft, smiled and looked around, nodding his thanks to a passing car that hadn’t even noticed he was there.
He was packing his sax into its old battered case when he heard the sound of one pair of hands clapping. Looking up, he saw a young man with an old battered instrument case of his own ducking into the freeway shadow out of the rain.
“Sounds good. Mind if I join you? Mine’s an alto.” The stranger raised his case. “She’ll make beautiful music with your tenor.”
Danny hesitated a moment. It was tempting. But he was cold and hungry now, and as much as he hated the idea of going back to the shelter, it was dry and the food was bearable.
“Thanks, but no thanks. I gotta get going or I’ll miss my bus.”
“No, not tonight.” He hoped he sounded as if he might have one tomorrow night. “Almost suppertime for me, though. Gotta go.”
“Oh, gotcha. You at the Army, right? I been there before. Supper’s always on time and you better be there. I been at Bread of Life until a couple of days ago, but a buddy turned me onto this place up the street. It’s a little crazy, but they love musicians. There’s even a guy who cooks. Come on, whaddya say? Play with me for an hour and you can crash there tonight.”
Danny thought it through for about a nanosecond, then took his saxophone back out of its case. His new friend came closer and stuck out a hand. “Names Tim Stevens. Everybody calls me Cosmo.”
“Danny. Danny DeSanto. Just don’t call me Red.”
Cosmo laughed. “Deal. I’ll call you Freckles instead.” He unpacked his case, lifted his horn to his mouth and blew a long moaning note. Then he lowered his horn and grinned at Danny who had taken a wary step back. “Wanna fight? Start blowing, brother.”
So Danny set down his case, brought his horn to his lips, and together they battled the rush hour traffic streaming overhead while even the occasional car rolling through the underpass slowed to listen now and then. The music seemed to fill the spaces between the steel beams and roll down over the concrete pillars before blooming out into the early evening air where it settled down in the rhododendron bushes and rock gardens and echoed around them when they finally left the underpass..
Cosmo led him up the street to a small bungalow set off the street above a retaining wall, up the steps and, without knocking or using a key, into a living room that reeked of cigars and beer and irritation.
“Piping aboard, Captain.” Cosmo nodded to a grossly overweight old man sitting in an ancient overstuffed armchair next to the door. “Brought home another player. You’ll like him.”
The old man turned his head slowly and looked Danny up and down through eyes that squinted under caterpillar brows and over a crusty mustache.
“Another redhead. Redheads are trouble, aren’t they, Jude?” His voice was querulous, childlike. He indicated a wiry man dressed in black who had been pacing back and forth across the room and now stopped in his tracks to take in the newcomers. “Didn’t you tell me redheads were trouble?”
“I was talking about women, Cap,” the man returned. He stared at Danny. “You call yourself a player? Whatcha play?”
“Tenor sax.” Danny held up his case. “Cosmo and I were just playing under …”
The black-clad man stuck out an arm. “They call me Jude.”
Danny took the limp hand at the end of the arm for a brief shake. “Danny DeSanto.” Glad to …”
The man called Jude withdrew his hand and pointed a finger at him. His eyes seemed to burn from his sallow face. “What’s your favorite note?”
Danny cast a side eye at Cosmo, who shrugged back at him. “All of them,” he said finally. “Look, great meeting you all, but I gotta go.” He turned back toward the door.
Cosmo caught his arm. “Hey, Jude don’t mean nuthin’. He asks everybody that. C’mon. Let’s see if there’s any supper left.” He pulled Danny into the room, toward the open door of the kitchen. “I can show you your digs, too. They’re in the basement, right next to mine.” He turned to the old man in the chair. “Little Bob’s not coming back, right?”
“Little Bob has piped ashore,” the old man affirmed.
Danny knew he was locked out of the Salvation Army for the night – probably too late for the other shelters, too. He followed Cosmo through the room, avoiding eye contact with Jude, who continued to pace as if no one else was there, and wondering what it meant in this house to “pipe ashore.”
“What’s with that dude?” he asked Cosmo, when he thought they were out of earshot. “Are you sure it’s safe to sleep here?” He had not liked the look of those burning eyes.
“Who, Jude? Oh, Jude’s harmless. He doesn’t even live here. He just comes over to smoke reefer and needle the Cap’n. Oh, look. There’s some chili left.” He indicated a huge skillet half-filled with a meaty mixture sitting on a stove nearly invisible under a coating of matching dried red sauce.
“Reefer? You mean pot?”
“Yeah. Jude and the Cap’n like to talk like they used to hang with Kerouac. For all I know, they did.” Cosmo grabbed a couple of sauce-smeared dishes piled nearby and rinsed them off in the sink before filling them from the skillet. He produced a couple of mismatched spoons from a drawer. “Follow me,” he said. “This place is crazy as fuck, but I’ll fill you in on the basics while we eat.” He led the way to a stairway, stopping along the way to indicate a window in the back door.
“That’s where Corndog – he’s the cook – lives.” A small dome tent was pitched in the yard not far from the house. “He lays around in that tent all day reading some kind of high brow crap. He’ll try to lay it on you sometimes, but he’s a good guy. I just nod along.”
Danny followed Cosmo down the stairs. His arms were itching, and that wasn’t a good sign. A month ago he had decided once and for all that he was going to clean up. That, after all, was why he had come west. In New York, he knew all the dealers in the East Village and he figured that if he moved someplace where he didn’t know anybody, he’d be able to kick the heroin for good. But predators can smell prey a mile away, and no sooner had he stepped off the bus than someone was offering to get him high. It had been a long, tough five days from New York, stretched out on the long back seat when he could, still feeling sick as a dog and trying to hide it. When the bus driver had caught him vomiting behind the bus, he had confessed immediately that he was trying to kick drugs, and that his sister the nurse had paid for his bus ticket to Seattle so he had to get there, please, I won’t be no trouble.
He didn’t have a “sister the nurse” but he did have the address of the local Salvation Army shelter and written directions from the bus depot, given to him by the folks at the rehab clinic, and after dodging the dealer he almost ran there. Jazz legend had made it nearly mandatory for its devotees to chase the dragon with the promise of musical magic, but although Danny had blown some amazing music when he could get a gig, he had ended up doing more chasing than playing. So, Seattle.
Now he sat on the edge of a thin mattress covered with well-worn sheets and a lifeless pillow. It was a step or two down from one of the cots at the Army, but it could be his if he wanted it, a private place he could come back to at any time of day or night. The only problem was … it was a private place he could come back to at any time of day or night. Too much freedom? Probably. Did he want to stay anyway? So far, maybe.
“You okay?” Cosmo asked from the other side of the sheet clothes-pinned to a wire between their spaces.
“Yeah, I’m good. Thanks.”
Cosmo flipped the sheet up and over the wire. He sat on his mattress, scratching lightly at his bare arms. Danny was doing the same. They stared at each other for a moment before Cosmo burst out laughing. “I knew it. I just knew it. Why d’ya think they call me Cosmo? We’re gonna blow some sweet music together, dude. I think I know where I can scare up a couple of hits. You got any money?”
Danny shook his head miserably. He might have known. “I can’t stay here, bro. Trying to shake that shit. I knew this was too damn easy.” He rose heavily to his feet. “Not judging you. Just don’t work for me.”
“Hey, I get it. I’ve tried that. Maybe I’ll try again. But you ain’t gonna get any better place to sleep tonight. I bet you got a bus pass, and that’s no good now. C’mon. I only offered in case you wanted to. I’m good for now. We’ll just hang tonight. Maybe blow a little more tomorrow before you take off?” He rose to his feet as well. “Let’s go on upstairs and see what’s haps with the Caps. Never a dull moment there.”
Upstairs a door opened and closed.
“That’s Corndog. You can’t go without meeting Corndog. You’ll like him.” He headed for the stairs.
Danny shook his head wearily and followed him.
Corndog turned out to be a tall man with reddish brown hair and a face full of freckles that broke into a grin when Cosmo introduced him to Danny.
“Welcome aboard. I hear you blow a mean horn.”
“Nobody’s heard me but Cosmo, here. But yeah, I try. Tenor sax. I was playing under the freeway when this guy turned up.” He cocked a thumb at Cosmo.
“Well, if Cosmo likes you, you gotta have a few chops. Did you get some chili?” He ladled out a helping and looked about as if for a bowl.
“Yeah, yeah. I had some already. Thanks anyway.” Danny couldn’t help liking Corndog. There was no meanness in that friendly freckled face. “Why they call you Corndog?”
The tall redhead grinned. “’Cause I hold the record for eating the most corndogs in an hour down at Morningtown.”
“It’s a little co-op restaurant down in the District. I work there sometimes. Where you from?”
“Hey, me too. There’s a news stand in the District where you can get the Voice. I’ve got a whole stack of ‘em out in the tent.”
“The Village Voice? Out here?”
“Who’s that talking in the kitchen?” The querulous voice rose above the din from the TV and a steady stream of muttering from Jude, still pacing.
“Just us, Caps,” Corndog yelled back. “You watching Perry Mason?” He turned to Danny. “He never misses Perry Mason.”
“Yeah,” the voice answered. “You should come out and join us.”
The three of them filed into the living room, where the old man sat holding court. “Sit down, Jude,” he told the man in black. “I can’t see the TV.” So Jude sat on a single chair under the TV, which sat on top of a bookcase. “Jude doesn’t believe in the TV, do you Jude?”
Jude rose to his feet, but the “Captain” waved him back down. “Nobody wants to hear your lecture now. We’re going to watch Perry Mason, aren’t we, boys?”
The three of them edged toward an empty couch and sat down like dutiful children.
“What’s your friend’s name, again, Cosmo?”
“Uh, oh. Danny. Danny DeSanto. Like I said, he was blowing under the freeway …”
“He got any chops?”
“Oh, Cap. He’s got the chops all right.”
“Well, in that case, we can’t call him Danny. That’s no name for a player. He looks a little pink, with that hair and all those freckles.” Sure enough, a stray beam of sunlight refracted a pinkish-golden light through the transom window, lighting up the men on the couch in a brief moment of glory.
“I got it. Pink Chop. We’ll call him Pink Chop. Welcome to the house, Pink Chop.”
Startled, Danny was on the verge of protesting, but was shushed by the old man putting his finger to his lips. “Perry Mason is starting. Nobody talks when Perry Mason is on. House rule.”
The slice of golden sunlight slid off the couch and disappeared into the kitchen, while Danny, that is Pink Chop, sat pondering his fate while the somber tones of Raymond Burr filled the room.
Over the next couple of weeks, Danny settled into the house as if he’d always been there. He and Cosmo went down to the underpass almost every evening and then stayed up half the night talking music. Cosmo was, apparently, off getting his hit every afternoon, but didn’t say anything to Danny about it. Danny stayed clean, but he was painfully aware of the temptation to ask Cosmo to take him along and resisting only because he was too prideful to admit it. Especially on Saturday afternoons when they would meet to busk at Pike Place Market, where Cosmo, fresh from hitting up and playing like an inspired angel, introduced them to the crowds as “Cosmo and Pink Chop.” Danny sometimes missed the days when he played alone, when he had been his own angel, inspired or not. But tourist season came on strong that year, and the money was good enough that they usually had time and money for a couple of beers and a good meal before heading home.
Home was something else again. Cosmo had been right about it – always something going on. There was a flautist named Mike who claimed to be the great nephew of Sonny Rollins, and it might have been true, since it was the Captain who claimed it for him and all Mike did was nod humbly. Doctor Huddlestone lived on the streets and apparently liked it, coming over occasionally on especially rainy nights to huddle into a corner of the couch and roll cigarette after cigarette. Billy was a lanky man who moved as if his limbs were made of jello, flopping down on the nearest seat as if standing a minute more would be just that much too much. And then there was Big Ben and the sausage dog, as Corndog dubbed the little dachshund who came with him. Big Ben had once been a dentist (per the Captain), but now had grown so big that he could no longer reach his feet to cut his own toenails, so he came over once a month or so to bandy words with the Captain while Jude cut away the yellow, horny growths that protruded over the edge of a pair of ancient Birkenstocks. Danny had found Big Ben’s visits to be a perfect time for blowing under the freeway, and he and Cosmo would make a synchronized escape.
He liked Corndog and wished there was more time to spend with him, reminiscing about favorite places in New York and recognizing names or events in The Village Voice, but Corndog seemed to spend as much time as possible at Morningtown. Danny and Cosmo met there on occasion before hitting the Market. It was a homey place with omelets and burgers and shakes made to order. At the house, Corndog spent most of his time in his tent or cooking big pots of stew or spaghetti and sometimes a lasagna, all of it meant to feed the house for two or three days and none of it lasting that long. Corndog was the sanest man in the house.
The Captain ruled the roost like a two-year-old. He sat all day in an ancient overstuffed armchair, wearing nothing but a filthy bathrobe that might once have been tan, smoking cigars or reefer, as he insisted on calling pot. He only moved for expeditions to the bathroom which he always announced as if it were an occasion, before heaving his overstuffed bulk out of his chair to lumber across the room. Danny had shot Cosmo a questioning look the first time he had heard the rumble of groaning floorboards from his basement retreat. “Cap’n’s gotta pee,” was all Cosmo had to say.
Danny never got his story. Had he been in the Navy? No one knew. Had he ever owned a boat? No one knew. He didn’t tell stories about himself. Not stories that anybody believed, anyway. He had to be on some kind of subsistence – the only times he got dressed and left the house was when Corndog called a cab and accompanied him to the bank to deposit his check. If anyone pressed him too hard about anything, he would, in great dudgeon, remind the room that he was a “Phophee.” Nobody knew what that was, either, but it seemed to be, in the Captain’s mind, a creature of great spiritual strength, greatly respected in the East. Danny was fairly certain he didn’t mean New York.
Jude, though. On the one hand, the man was just another of the queer ducks who splashed through Seattle’s rainy streets at all hours of the day or night and any given day in the year. He was a stringy-looking man, with black stringy hair tied back in a ponytail that hung to his collar. Besides a penchant for turning suddenly on a musician and asking, “What’s your favorite note?” – which Danny soon discovered was demanded of Cosmo and Mike as well as himself – he also had a habit of pacing back and forth through the living room lecturing everyone on the sorry state of American manhood and their cumulative lack of balls and how television would be the death of civilization.
On the other hand, there was something menacing about him. It was hard to call “menacing” somebody who might stop in mid-harangue to declaim, “I’m fifty years old, goddammit, and I’ve still got all my own teeth,” which he offered to prove if anyone cared to look. Danny could only be grateful that he didn’t feel obligated to prove his current ownership of balls. But then there was his cold, hard stare when he quieted down enough to sit beneath the TV set during Perry Mason, damning everyone in the room for their bourgeoise worship of the god perched on its shelf above his head. Still, even Danny laughed when, at the conclusion of every show, he jumped to his feet in a sort of joyous acclamation of Perry Mason for once again letting another murderer go free while condemning the obviously innocent to a wholly undeserved fate at the hands of the state. “Watch out!” he would warn the room. “You’re next.” Then he would take his seat, black eyes glittering with malice, and the grins would fade.
What was obvious to everybody else in the house was that both the Captain and Jude were crazy as they came, and the price for a bed and sometimes board was to go along with the gag.
Danny never lost the impulse he had had upon first coming through the door, which had been to turn around and leave. There was something unhealthy about the place. A tinge of wickedness.
“Why does the Captain put up with Jude?” Danny asked Cosmo one morning, when the echoes of the latest argument still rang in his head. Danny had been in the kitchen heating a cup of coffee in the microwave, when the Captain’s voice percolated through his morning fog.
“Well, should I hide my reefer or shouldn’t I? I know who steals my reefer. I know who’s addicted to reefer and can’t stand to be without it. I know who doesn’t have the balls to ask me for reefer.”
The challenge had set Jude off on another diatribe on the state of America’s balls, and Danny fled to the basement.
“I don’t know. The Captain, I think he must have gotten kicked in the head or something. He’s like a two-year old. Barely potty-trained. But he’s a good guy at heart. I mean, Perry Mason is his hero. The guy who saves the innocent from the system. And Jude – Jude is the one who gets up after every show and trashes Mason. You can almost see the light in the Captain’s eyes go out, but we all sit there and laugh like hyenas anyway. I get the impression that they go way back.”
“Maybe we’re all coming in somewhere in the middle of a cosmic debate.” Danny sipped at his lukewarm coffee and grimaced.
“Whoa! Heavy, man.” Cosmo stood up and reached for his jacket. “Gotta go. Meet you later at the pig?” A big bronze pig was an icon of Pike Place Market.
Danny nodded absent-mindedly. In his head, a horn was blowing.
That afternoon at Pike Place, Danny tried to play the horn that he heard in his head, but it wasn’t coming out right.
“What are you blowing, Pink?” asked Cosmo.
“I’m not sure. Something’s been cooking in my head ever since this morning, but I can’t quite get it.”
“Sounded like somebody crying there, for a minute.”
Danny laughed. “Close, but not quite. I’m thinking about the Captain, how he whines for everything.” He blew again, a long wavering note that ended in a screech. “See what I mean? That’s not really it, either.”
“You need a counterpoint,” Cosmo said. He picked up his horn, thought a minute, then blue a series of nattering notes over and over. It was Jude, pacing through the room droning on about nothing. Danny caught it and played a wavering wail that wove through them.
“More!” someone in the small crowd shouted when they stopped.
Cosmo glanced at Danny, and then answered. “Sorry, folks. It’s a little something new we’re working on. We’ll be back when it’s finished.” Whereupon he lifted his sax to his lips and blew the opening notes of “Ain’t No Sunshine When She’s Gone.”
They spent the next few nights under the freeway working out variations on the interplay between the Captain and Jude, but even when they got something that felt right, something felt wrong.
“I know what it is,” said Cosmo one night as they were packing up. The wind had picked up and the rain blew in beneath the freeway. “I know what’s missing”
“What?” Danny’s teeth were chattering. It was only the effort to blow that had kept him warm.
“We are. Me and you and Corndog and Huddlestone and Doctor Paul and Billy and Mike. Even the sausage dog.” He strode out into the slanting rain and lifted his instrument case to the sky. “The smell of spaghetti sauce burning on the stove. Can you play that, Pink Chop?” He turned with a manic grin.
Danny glowered at him. He had not been, he felt, sufficiently warned about Seattle weather, but he hunched his shoulders and followed his friend up the street.
The house was in one of its nastier moods. Jude was there, pacing up and down, snapping at Mike. “You calling me peculiar? You trying to chump me or something?” Danny found out, when Mike came downstairs, that Jude had asked for a cigarette. “They were Chesterfields,” he told them. “I said they were for peculiar people.” He shrugged. “I meant it as a compliment.”
“So that’s why you’re hiding out down here with us.”
“Oh, you missed the worst of it. The Captain and Jude both piled on poor Billy when he came in with a sackful of canned food from the Food Bank. He brought the Cap a six-pack of Beer Beer too, and when they asked him how he got the money for it, he said he’d been at the Plasma Center all afternoon. They both got down on him then, called him trash for selling his blood and getting free food instead of getting a job. Like these two have room to talk. They gave him so much shit, Billy just up and left. Then those two assholes sat there drinking the beer he brought and talking more shit about him and everybody else they knew. I’d have left too, if I wasn’t sitting in on a gig tonight. Too far to go home first. Matter of fact, I should get going right about now.”
“You should come down and play with us sometime,” Cosmo called after him, as Mike started up the stairs. “We’re working on a composition of sorts. Might be we could use a flute.”
“Thanks, I’ll think about it,” Mike called down. “But we’re heading into the Dark Wet now, and I catch cold easily.”
“What’s the ‘Dark Wet,’?” Danny asked, as they listened to Mike’s footsteps retreat through the kitchen.
“Winter in Seattle,” Cosmo answered.
“Now you tell me,” Danny grumbled, as he settled down on his cot for the night. He felt angry at Jude and the Captain for their treatment of Mike, not to mention Billy, but once again found that leaving this shelter at this time was unthinkable. Warm and dry beat out all the other alternatives. At least he couldn’t be called trash for visiting the Plasma Center. That avenue to easy cash had been closed for him since his first taste of heroin.
To make matters worse, he was beginning to dream about using again. He had, since the very beginning of his abstinence, dreamt about using. Dreams in which he could picture the powder, the solution in the spoon, the needle. See the needle drawing the mixture. See it puncturing the vein below the tie-off. Feel …
He would wake up then, with his arms feeling hungry, as if they themselves longed for the needle, for the slow, sweet flow of the dragon into his body. He felt like a dead man trying to rise again.
Now not only had those night dreams returned, but the daydreams as well. When Cosmo left to pick up his daily, staying behind in the house felt like a physical effort, his hands white-knuckled on whatever he could find to hold onto as if a mighty wind would suck him out the door and back into the maelstrom of addiction.
There were days when the house itself, its atmosphere clouded with cheap cigar smoke and rancor, seemed to urge him back out into a more comfortable world, a world where nothing mattered but the fix and the music. But always first the fix. Then, if there was time and energy, the music. Eventually there might be music of a sort in his head, but the air around him remained empty, and by the time he came down enough to play, the music was gone and his arms begged to be filled. It was remembering the days when he got the fix but the sax never left its case that kept him in the house, clutching the back of a chair or a door frame for dear life.
There did come a day when the house won. When no sooner had Cosmo left than the daily ritual of peevish spite turned malevolent and sent Danny spinning out into the darkness of a late November day to join his friend in an old familiar ritual of their own.
Danny had been sitting at the end of the sofa, clutching the arm to keep himself situated, when the Captain piped up.
“Are you all right, Danny? You don’t look right.”
“I’m fine, Cap,” Danny told him, and got up to go to the kitchen to do dishes. It was a morning ritual he had made for himself, a way to earn his keep, so to speak, even though no one ever asked for it. Nor did anyone thank him for it. That was all right with Danny. He’d heard people get thanked around here, and it never sounded like a good thing.
Jude blocked his way. “Cap’n’s right,” he challenged. “You in pain?” The grin on Jude’s face belied any trace of concern.
“I’m fine,” Danny insisted. “Excuse me.”
Jude stepped aside, then followed him into the kitchen.
“I know what’s the matter with you. I seen it all before. You want to go with Cosmo, doncha? In the worst way, you want to go. You want to go so bad it hurts. Pain is oozing out of your pores. I can smell it.” Jude stepped up close to Danny, who was trying to run hot water into the sink of day-old dishes, and sniffed at his neck. “Smells like … Teen Spirit!” He backed away, chortling at his own joke.
Danny spritzed detergent into the sink and bit back the “fuck you” that nearly escaped. He had picked up a bowl to wash but put it back when he realized that no one had emptied the drainer. He took a deep breath, reached for the first thing that came to hand, a clean and dry saucepan, and surprised himself by holding it above his head when he turned to confront Jude, standing behind him.
“Do you mind?” Danny asked him.
“Be my guest,” Jude responded, stepping aside with a mocking sweep of his arm.
Danny stepped across the kitchen as if looking for a place to put the pan, but turned, on a whim, with it still raised.
Jude ducked, his arms up to protect his head, then danced back through the door and across the living room.
“You see that, Cap? Ol’ Pink Chop here wants to hit me.”
“I’m not going to hit you,” Danny said, and put the pan on the stove. “Just stay away from me.”
“Don’t bother him, Jude,” the Captain wheezed out behind a cloud of cigar smoke. “Can’t you see the man’s in pain?”
“Any fool can see that,” Jude snapped, but stood closer to the front door apparently making certain of a fast escape.
“And what do you always tell me about pain?”
“Pain is a privilege,” Captain. “Pain is a privilege.”
Danny put the sauce-encrusted bowl he was scrubbing back into the dishwater and escaped to the basement. When he emerged a few minutes later he was carrying his duffle and instrument case.
“You piping ashore, Pink Chop? Don’t. Don’t leave us, Pink Chop.” The Captain wheezed out his plea as Danny reached the front door.
“Tell Cosmo I’m joining the Army. He’ll know what I mean,” Danny shot back, and left the house.
Danny had no intention of going back to the Salvation Army just yet. He hunched against the drizzle on the way to the bus stop. He knew how to get to the Central District and he was pretty sure he could pick out a dealer with his eyes closed. Maybe he’d even run into Cosmo. They’d blow some sweet music at the Market this afternoon. Sweet enough to keep them both in dope for days, maybe.
“Damn!” Danny squinted up into the rain just in time to see his bus pull away and lumber under the viaduct heading for the southbound onramp. He started running, but a car splashed through the intersection in front of him, leaving him wet and cold and fighting back tears. He looked back at the house, shook his head, and plodded on across the street to shelter under the highway. His instrument case banged against his thigh insistently, but this time Danny ignored the invitation. Instead, he climbed the concrete embankment until he felt he was out of sight from anyone driving by, slung his duffle down for a pillow, and slumped back against it, the case snugged behind it to keep it from sliding down. He wanted nothing more than to sleep, but his thoughts wandered like the sparrows flicking in and out among the girders.
“Hey, there! Danny?”
The voice pierced the white noise of traffic and rain that had finally lulled Danny to sleep. He started awake.
“Yeah? Who?” Danny propped himself on his elbows and squinted down the dusky concrete slope at a figure wearing a sweater that looked as if a bag of M&M’s had been left in the sun and melted together.
“’S me, Corndog. Mind if I join you?”
“C’mon up. Plenty of room.”
Corndog made his way up and settled in beside Danny, hugging his arms around his knees. “Jude get on your last nerve?”
Danny laughed. “How did you know.”
“Been here before.”
“He used to bug you?” Now that he thought of it, Danny couldn’t remember Jude needling Corndog.
“Oh, yeah. He used to rant about redheads. Redheaded women were all trouble, and redheaded men would cut your throat without blinking. I figured out later – probably sitting about where you are – that he was jealous because the Captain liked me, because I had a job and could cook and could help the Captain in ways he never could. I can’t prove it, but I think he was ripping him off, too. Cap’n would give Jude money to get groceries or pay for delivery or call a cab to take him to the bank. With me around, it was harder to get away with all of that.”
“How did you get past that shit?” Danny felt better just looking at his cheery grin and ridiculous sweater.
“Well, for one thing, the Captain always stood up for me. See, I’d met them both at Morningtown a couple of years back. Was lucky enough to land there on my first night in Seattle. I was cooking there – still am – eating and sleeping there, too. Good people over there. Life was easy.” Corndog sighed, his grin fading into the growing dark. “Simple and easy.” He paused, as if remembering.
“And then? Jude and the Captain?”
“Yeah. They came in one night – it was raining. The Captain was having a hard time, giving Jude shit about getting the wrong bus, Jude blaming the entire transportation system. Neither of ‘em had any money. So I offered them a free cup of coffee. Jude immediately starts in on the evil capitalist system where poor people couldn’t even get a bite to eat on a cold night and the Captain accuses Jude of wanting to kill him, saying he took the wrong bus on purpose and now he’s just going to leave him here with no way to get home and Jude, he goes off on another rant about pain being a privilege whereon the Captain orders him out of the house – seems he thought he had gotten back home or something – and Jude, well, he just calls the Captain a crazy old shit who can’t even put his pants on by himself and leaves. Took the cup of coffee with him. Porcelain cup and all.” Corndog leaned back on his elbows. “Never came into Morningtown again.”
“And then?” Danny prompted.
“Oh, and then I made an omelet for the Captain and brought him home on the bus and that was that. Until Jude got on my last nerve one night.”
“Why’d you go back?”
“The Captain, of course. He’s a sorry old fool, and a foul-mouthed drunk, but he’s all alone. You know what they say about saving a life?”
“That you’re responsible for that life? You buy into that?”
“Well, I don’t want to, but I guess I do. That’s what drove me back in there after my night in these digs.” He gestured around at the shadowy concrete and girders, lit only by distant streetlamps and passing cars. “Where were you going? You aren’t thinking of staying here, are you? Weather won’t be much better for months.”
“No,” Danny admitted. “Actually, I was going to try to find Cosmo, but I missed the bus. So I crawled up here and went to sleep. Don’t know where to go now. Cosmo would have been waiting for me at the Market. Is he at the house?”
“Nah. Haven’t seen him.”
“Well, I overslept the time to get into the Salvation Army. This rain, all the shelters probably filled up. Looks like this is home for tonight.” Danny put his hands behind his head and leaned back on his duffle. “A bit chilly, though. Should have brought a blanket.”
“You don’t have to do that. Come on back to the house. The Captain likes you. I like you. Don’t let Jude chase you away. Do what I do.”
“What do you do?”
“I ignore him. Smile and nod when I have to. I know he doesn’t give a rat’s ass about me, so it isn’t even me he’s talking about. Probably all self-referential. Jude thinks the stuff he says – ‘What’s your favorite note?’ and ‘pain is privilege’ – stuff like that, are deep. Like, Beat, ya dig?” Corndog chuckled. “But it’s just pseudo-intellectual bullshit, and I refuse to play. So he mostly leaves me alone. Try it. You’ll see.”
Corndog rose to his haunches. “I better be getting on home. If Cosmo is there, want me to send him down?”
Danny thought about that. Thought about getting Cosmo to take him on a run for dope. Thought about where he had been going when he left the house. He shook his head, then realized Corndog couldn’t see him in the dark.
“No, that’s all right. I’ll think about what you said, though. Maybe I’ll come back in the morning. Got some stuff I need to think about.”
“Gotcha. I got an extra blanket in the tent if you want it. Come on up. I’ll leave it just inside the flap.”
“No problem. See ya.” And Corndog hunched his way down the concrete slope until at last he stood and strode up the street to the house.
Danny watched him go. He had no idea what he was going to do now. His original thought – to take the bus to Capitol Hill and track down Cosmo and score some dope – felt foolish. Or at least tracking down Cosmo felt foolish. He was long gone. Finding a dealer was still an option, he realized. Thinking about spending the rest of this chilly rainy night under the freeway, it felt like the best idea since sliced bread. If Cosmo could get by with one or two scores a day and still play, why couldn’t he? And if he was going to slink back into the Captain’s house, how the hell else was he going to survive? How do you live in crazy town without a little something for the nerves?
He pulled his windbreaker from his duffle, put it on, and with his duffle in one hand and instrument case in the other, he began shuffling down the embankment. The hiss of the bus pulling into the stop at the crossroads brought him fully to his feet, but the slope was still too steep for running. By the time he reached the pavement, the bus was already rumbling by him on its way to the on-ramp, and nothing Danny could do – dance, shout, wave, jump up and down – rendered him visible to the driver. It was almost more than he could bear. Up the street, the lights from the Captain’s house were visible, a warm yellow glow from a window behind which lay shelter, if no comfort.
Almost without thinking, Danny reached for his instrument case, opened it, and lifted the saxophone to his lips. It was the only comfort at hand.
A wail streamed across the roadway and climbed the further slope until it finally faded in the shadows beneath the highway. A low moan tried to follow but remained mired in the oily sheen of the wet pavement. Then came a cacophony of childish whines and nagging notes, a balloon of sound surrounded by excited yips, with a snaky tendril that looped in and out sagging here and slithering there. And now and then a piece of melody could be heard, as if from a distance, giving a sense of coherence, kindness even. Melody that at last overshadowed everything in a coda, as if folding all that preceded it into something that suggested acceptance. That promised peace.
Danny packed his saxophone away, crossed the street and headed back to the house. He wanted to get the piece charted while it was still fresh. The melody of the coda played in his head. Corndog’s Song. That’s what he would call it. His signature piece. Corndog’s Song. He was going to be all right.