Chris has written more than 300 flash fiction/short stories. Working Vacation was 21st out of 6,700 in the 2016 Writer's Digest competition.
The waitress delivered apple pie to one patrolman and lemon to the other. She 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 playing that horn, Freddy Lee?”
“You know I ain’t got no horn no more’. Don’t tease me. I miss it too much.”
“I know, but you’re too good to 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.”
Sallyanne brought the coffee. “No charge, Freddy Lee.”
“I thank you, Miss Sallyanne.”
“You wait right here, Freddy Lee,” said Sly. “I gotta run out to the patrol car and make sure that wife beating, son-of-a-bitch, hasn’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.”
Tom Waits: Nighthawks at the Diner, Tracks One Through Nine
The door swung open and 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 snapped back sharply, and he nursed his coffee as if trying to ignore the scene. “Don’t do that, Sly. Don’t you 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.”
He took the fabric covered case and looked at it as though he had never seen a trumpet case before. But he was more than just familiar with a trumpet. Even the best in the business had once come to the nearby city to hear him 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 loved 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 less to do with his trumpet playing than it did with the drug and the end of his career.
Recording contracts came and expired with no response. Gigs that were filled with excited fans emptied out as disillusioned people laughed him to scorn.
Freddy Lee 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 Lee’s wonder. “I’ll take good care of it, Sly. You bet I will.”
“Play something,” 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 Lee laid 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 him for weeks. Sly was ready to go out to the shack that was hidden away on state land until one night, while he was eating pie in the diner, Freddy Lee walked through the door.
“I can still play. I always thought my talent would probably just run off like a beat dog.” Freddy Lee wore the same tattered rags, but somehow, he looked younger, healthier. A 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 Lee?” Officer Sly stood up from the red vinyl stool.
“I got Curly on the drums, Lightnin on the electric keyboard. I got Wheezer on the sax, an’ Bubba on the bull fiddle.”
“That’s quite a lineup. If the recording companies get wind of this, they might just show up too.”
“I don’t care about 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.
On by one, the band members walked into the crowd. The music was subtle, mixing with the ambient sounds of the people and the nearby freeway. At first it was a low, rhythmic plunking of the big bass fiddle. Brushes on the drumhead joined in, and the two musicians mesmerized the crowd. The keyboard picked up and jazz filled the air when the saxophone began to moan and whine. People danced in the parking lot.
The music paused. Someone started to clap, but then—
The sound was crisp and shrill, a high note that made the crowd go wild. Freddy Lee was back. The band 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 Lee stepped forward and raised his hand to quiet the crowd. Everyone waited. Many had seen Freddy Lee in his glory days. They had also witnessed his fall. The man stood before them like 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 Lee 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 Lee and the band ventured into the crowd to show their appreciation.
Wynton Marsalis - The Ballad of the Sad Young Men
Officer Sly sat at the diner’s counter sipping 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 Lee lived. It was 3 a.m., and the shack was dark. He picked up his flashlight and climbed out of the car. Several times he called, but there was no answer. He didn’t want to enter, but his compassion for this man drove him through the dirty curtains that served as a door. Inside, the place looked and smelled cleaner than when he had last been here.
A mattress lay on the floor in the corner. Sly could see by the light of the moon shining through the window that it was occupied. He moved closer. “Freddy Lee,” he called. “Freddy Lee, it’s me, Sly.” The form did not move. Finally, Sly raised the flashlight.
The smile on Freddy Lee’s face spoke of joy and peace. His hands clutched the trumpet and held it close to his chest. Sly touched his friend’s wrist to check for a pulse.
“If you don’t find it, feel free to pull the sheet up over my face.”
Sly jumped, and Freddy Lee started laughing so hard he couldn’t sit up.
“You thought I was dead?” said Freddy Lee, still laughing. He rolled onto his side and pulled his knees to his chest.
“Well, you looked so peaceful—and that smile—”
Freddy Lee finally was able to sit up with his feet over the edge of the mattress. “Tonight, like almost every night, I did two things in the city. I played at one of the clubs where I hang out with the old crowd. Some of them are still doin the blow, you know. So before I even went to rehearsal, me and a few of the old gang got together for one of them meetins where you sit around and talk about how you stay sober.”
“So you aren’t just alive, you’re living it up,” said Sly.
“Alive and well because of a good deed done by a good friend.” He held up the trumpet that shined in the light of the moon.
© 2019 Chris Mills