Freddy Lee Ain't Got No Horn
This story came to me as I considered anew the lifestyle known as the night shift? Right now I am working a contract job on...you guessed it, the night shift, classic midnight to 8:30 am. Let's think about the question. What if there was no night shift? No all-night diners is one thing that came to my mind. The bossy waitress and the cranky boss working temporarily as the prep cook wouldn’t exist. Cops sipping coffee at the counter are regulars at this time of night. If it’s near an interstate highway, strangers, drifters, truck drivers, people on the move for a host of reasons pull off to visit the diner. That's where this story begins, but it wanders far from that quaint, iconic setting. But to help you not to lose track of the 24 hour diner, here's Tom Waits singing about Nighthawks at the Diner. How about that album cover?
Tom Waits: Nighthawks at the Diner, Tracks One Through Nine
Freddy Lee Ain't Got No Horn
The waitress delivered apple pie to one patrolman and lemon to the other, refilled their coffee, more cream for the short one. Sallyanne they called her, all one word, just like she spelled it. Her hair was bleach blonde, platinum blonde, it didn’t matter. It all came out of the same bottle. A tall man stepped in, head down, hands in the pockets of his grimy, torn trousers. He looked up when Sallyanne asked him if he wanted coffee. He slid the hat off his head and told her yes, ma’am, he reckoned he would.
The taller cop motioned to the stool next to his, and freddy “The Blow” Lee sat down.
“Been playin’ that horn, Freddy Lee?”
“You know I ain’t got no horn no mo’. Don’t tease me. I miss it too much.”
“I know, but you’re too good to just let it go. You can’t just give up.”
“You want me to go out and buy a new horn, Sly? You know how I live. I ain’t got no money.”
“You wait right here, Freddy Lee. I gotta run out to the patrol car and make sure that coke sniffin’, wife beatin’, son-of-a-bitch, ain’t killed himself by bashing his head against the window.”
“Go on now,” said Freddy Lee. “I just walked past your black-n-white an’ there ain’t nobody in there.”
“Damn.” The cop stood up from the red vinyl covered stool. “Guess he already got away. I’ll be right back.”
“What’s that no-good cop up to?” Freddy Lee asked the other officer.
“Like he told you, he’s gotta check up on our prisoner in the car.”
“Ain’t no damn prisoner out there, an’ you know it.”
The door swung open and the officer named Sly entered carrying an old case. It was smaller than a suitcase but built the same, more or less.
Freddy Lee looked at the cop, then at the case. His head swung back sharply, and he nursed his coffee as if trying to ignore the scene. “Don’t do that, Sly. Don’t do it.”
“I’m gonna do it. It’s mine to give, and I’m giving it to you.”
“That belonged to your son, before—”
“That’s right, and he can’t play it now. But you can, Freddy Lee. You can play this horn in memory of my son.”
Freddy took the case and held it by the ends. He looked at it as though he had never seen a trumpet case before. But Freddy Lee was more than just familiar with a trumpet. Even the best in the business had once come to the nearby city to hear Freddy play the club scene.
Freddy Lee was up in lights all over town. People cheered him, tipped him, and some of the ladies let him know in no uncertain terms how much they wanted him.
That’s when somebody introduced Freddy Lee to cocaine and a high that went along with the fame, the money and the women. The craving grew and he practiced less. It was downhill from then on. The nickname, “The Blow” had nothing to do with his trumpet playing. It had everything to do with the drug and the end of his career.
Recording contracts came and went with no response. Gigs that were filled with excited fans emptied out as disillusioned people laughed him to scorn.
Freddy had eventually come to terms with his addiction, but none of the old friends in the music business wanted to gamble on his sobriety.
He set the case on the counter and fumbled with the latches. It was a horn that had been rented several times to hopeful music students at the local public junior high school. The tarnished yellow brass did not change Freddy’s wonder. “I’ll take good care of it, Sly. You bet I will.”
“Play something, Freddy Lee,” said the short cop.
“Yeah, said Sallyanne, play somethin’ for us.”
“No, not now. I got to practice. My lips and fingers need lots of practice before I can play in public.” Freddy lay the horn back in its case with the tenderness of a mother placing her infant in a crib. “But when I’m ready to play, I’ll do it here. Maybe some of your friends and family would like to come too.” He walked to the door and spoke without turning. “I feel like I just got my soul back.”
No one saw Freddy Lee for weeks. Sly was ready to go out to the shack that was hidden away on state land until one night, while eating pie in the diner, Freddy had walked through the door.
“I can still play, Sly. I always thought my talent would probably just run off like a beat dog.” Freddy wore the same tattered rags, but somehow, he looked younger, healthier. His smile beamed across the room. “I’m gonna play a whole concert right here on Friday night. I got some old friends to join me. It took some talkin’, but when they heard me play, they was up for it.”
“Who’d you get to join you, Freddy?” Officer Sly stood up from the red vinyl stool.
“I got Curly on the drums, Lightnin’ on the piano. He’s got one of them ‘lectric keyboards. I got Wheezer on the sax, an’ Bubba on the bull fiddle.”
“That’s quite a lineup, Freddy. If the recording companies get wind of this, they might just show up too.”
“I don’t care ‘bout recordin’. I’m just happy to be playin’ the horn again.”
The first thing the diner owner did on Friday was to move the concert outside. His establishment wasn’t large enough to hold even a quarter of the crowd that had gathered, and people were still arriving.
Someone pulled a flatbed truck in front of the crowd to be used as a stage. Another person ran an electric cord for the keyboard from the diner. But where were Freddy Lee and the band? A few skeptics chanted, “Blow—Blow—Blow”, but few joined in.
The music was subtle, mixing with the ambient sounds of the crowd and the nearby freeway. At first it was a low plunking, with rhythm. A drum beat joined in, and the two mesmerized the crowd. A keyboard picked up and jazz filled the air when the saxophone began to moan and whine.
People were dancing in the parking lot.
The music paused.
The trumpet sounded, crisp, shrill, a high note that made the crowd go wild. Then the band joined in. They finished the first piece on the ground, mixing with the people. After that, they climbed up on the flatbed and proceeded to thrill everyone with a sound that most had thought was gone forever.
The band played for an hour without anyone saying a word. Finally, Freddy stepped forward and raised his hand to quiet the crowd. Everyone waited. Many had seen Freddy in his glory days. They had also witnessed his fall. The man that stood before them was like the resurrected friend of Jesus named Lazarus.
“You all know my friend, and yours too, unless you’re speedin’ through town when he’s on duty...Officer, Sly Richardson.”
The crowd applauded politely.
“Many of you also knew Sly’s wife, Jamika.” Freddy held the horn high. “This horn belonged to their seven year old son, Jamere. Mother and son died in a tragic mass shooting in the city three years ago today. This song is for them, the whole family.”
The sad jazz ballad swept the crowd away in emotion and wonder. At the end, when the people had quieted down, Freddy and the band were gone.
Officer Sly sat at the diner’s counter sipping his coffee. His partner sat next to him.
“Sly, you gotta go out there and see what’s going on. I know you want to respect his privacy, but he may need help.”
Sly drove alone out to the state land where Freddy lived. The shack was dark. He picked up his flashlight and climbed out of the car. He called several times, but there was no answer. He didn’t want to enter, but duty and his love for this man drove him through the dirty curtains that served as a door.
The place looked and smelled cleaner than when he had last been here. It looked like Freddy had begun to care more about things.
There was a mattress in the corner, and Sly could see, even in the darkness, that it was occupied. He moved closer. “Freddy,” he called. “Freddy, it’s me, Sly.” The form did not move. Finally, Sly raised the flashlight.
The smile on Freddy’s face spoke of joy and peace. His hands and arms clutched and held the trumpet close to his chest. His eyes were open, and did not blink.
Freddy had gotten his soul back just in time to use it.