Swing for the Heart

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Blue Brook Bay

The hall was half-empty. From the eleven tables only five were occupied by workers from the nearby farms and construction sites. Even so, with their smoke they were able to fill the room entirely. On the walls of the old bar, Frank McKnight had hung everything he considered stylish. A metal sign advertising Budweisser, between the windows a stuffed head of a mountain goat from the Rocky Mountains with evident marks of time, underneath it the picture of a Canadian Pacific Railways locomotive, and in the window a brightly lit neon sign announcing OPEN. On the small wooden porch stood an antique thrashing machine, on the table next to the door a butter churn, and above the door a poster – a three by four feet aquarelle depiction of a convertible Chevrolet Bel-Air from ’57.

Tuesday, nine o’clock, a comfortable evening of the year two thousand and one. David played light-heartedly, also because he’d finally disclosed to Alice that he was no longer sleeping at Superb. He didn’t say for how long, and Alice knew better than to ask. He explained to her that he spends the night working at the airport and during the day he’s got relatively comfortable conditions in the warehouse. He distributes boxes to palettes according to their different destinations and is also allowed to perform small equipment repairs. In the back of the airport he can enjoy a good sleep, if he doesn’t have to tend to too many planes. With the exception of jazz Tuesdays. Every Tuesday they played, he didn’t work at the airport, and so he slept in the shed behind the warehouse. They raised his pay because he now operated forklifts, and it seemed that the first down-payment for their house was within reach now. A different house than the year before, but maybe even a better one. Surely a better one.

From the stage resounded Carmichael’s classic ‘Stardust Melody’, but nobody really paid attention to the music. The men at the tables drank their beer; from time to time they glanced at one of the TV screens under the ceiling. The wrestling match occasionally captured their attention. In the rink two tattooed giants were fighting roughly and according to loosely set rules. Even though the sound was turned off, it was obvious the spectators in the rink yelled in excitement when one of the wrestlers climbed on the ropes and from high up jumped on his rival lying on the back.

At one of the tables, a lone man with a thick beard was attentively listening to the music. When Stardust finished and all three musicians exchanged glances to decide on their next song, the man stood up. He walked all the way up to the stage.

“I need to speak with you. Who is your leader?”

“Me,” said Kaz. He anticipated this wouldn’t be anything pleasant.

“It’s not a bad sound,” spoke the man. He may have been fifty, similarly to the three members of the band ‘Buzzers’. They expected his ‘but’ to follow.

The man prolonged his questioning. “Is it just the three of you?” They didn’t know who he was and why he was asking. It was unsettling.

“Piano, saxophone and Gibson guitar. That’s enough, no? We used to have a clarinet but he got married. The player, of course.” Kaz was responding and felt the support of David and Sven behind him.

“I’m Fred. Fred Myers,” and offered his hand. Kaz accepted it with trepidation, still not knowing what would follow. Fred continued, “From the first of the next month, this bar belongs to me. Well, me and my brother.” He lit a cigarette and added, “we don’t think we would keep a band. Just so you understand. If I put two slot machines here, I’ll get much more for it than what you’ll bring with your…your…I’m not saying it’s not a good beat. But business is business.”

“The bar is for sale?” asked Kaz.

“I hear you’re from Poland.” Two or three words and the accent exposes anyone.

“Yes.” Kaz smiled and sensed maybe this would be the ticket to softening the bad news.

Fred studied Kazimierz and nodded. “At our farm works one Polish guy. Good fella. So you play the piano? You’re good. No question about it.”

“I studied piano in Wroclaw. You’ve been to Poland?”

“No, I’ve never been to Russia.” Kaz looked at David, who gave a slight wink to signal to Kaz to ignore the lack of knowledge, same as they had so many times before. “I won’t beat around the bush,” continued Fred. “I don’t know why they didn’t tell you that the bar is for sale, but for you it means only one thing. Today, then next Tuesday and then the next, but no more after that. I’m sorry. Slot machines will attract people. Not this.” He dragged from his cigarette, raised his eye-brows, shrugged his shoulders and added. “Pleased to meet you. So play another one. I’ll pay and be on my way.”

On his way out the door, Myers glanced one last time at one of the TV screens. He was captivated by a wrestling move where one giant was lying on his stomach, while the other one was kneeling on his back. He was pummeling him in the face from the side, one punch after another.

Up on the stage David set the rhythm for ‘Sentimental Journey’. Without any prior signals, they all played in such a way so as to keep Myers in the room. Maybe he would change his mind and let them play. Live music is something that can’t be matched. It touches more than just the senses. It belongs in the depths of every human being and shapes one’s emotional completeness. Kaz occasionally looked up from his keyboard to glimpse Fred’s reaction. David, though facing Sven, also stared at the man in the center of the room who was fixated on the screen. Sven had his eyes closed and kept himself composed. He was comforted by their shared joy of playing music.

Myers’ gaze shortly fell on the three-member band, then he turned around and walked out the door. A breeze of fresh cold air came in from the outside.

When they finished the song, David called out into the dimmed bar, towards the occupied tables: “Do you have any requests? Does anyone have a specific song they’d like to hear?” Silence. Two or three men lazily turned to face the stage and said nothing. Someone may have mumbled something, but then they turned back around.

David suggested ‘When the Saints’, licked his reed and tapped the rhythm with his foot. In front of the small stage – which was really only a raised section of the floor – stood the current owner of the bar Frank McKnight. Sven, usually a man as calm as a lagoon, played several dissonant tones and a short moving solo. Everyone froze and guests turned away from their tables. For a moment the room was dead-silent.

“You could’ve said something.” Sven didn’t talk much but his voice had the weight of cast-iron.

“Please don’t be upset. It was quite sudden. I didn’t want to sell, but….”

“Let’s pack it in,” decided David.

“…so you won’t even come next time?”

“Frank,” David turned towards him, “I think that you haven’t heard a single false note from us. But what you’re saying right now sounds a bit off to us. And we don’t have the ears for that. Sorry.”

Now even men from the surrounding tables turned to face the stage, expecting a spectacle. The air above the stage became an explosive before detonation. On the screen above them, wrestlers were beating each other and jumping all over.

“I’m allowed to sell my bar, or nooo?”

“Yes. And we can leave when we want to. Or nooo?” mimicked his voice Sven. Frank McKnight felt the strength of the gazes of his bar’s regular visitors in his back. They were waiting for drama. The guitar-player mocked him? He was making fun of him? Here? In his own bar? In front of witnesses?

“Listen, you ‘musician’…,” Frank was advancing slowly toward the stage. Neither of the three men paid attention to him, but felt that time and the confined space of the bar were against them. McKnight had been irritated for several days now. He knew he was selling his bar at a loss. But he didn’t have a choice. Farmers from Blue Brook Bay experienced losses after the news of ‘mad cow disease’ – though exaggerated – and after the last destructive drought; as a chain-reaction the bar was affected too. Now Frank McKnight felt power in his fists and a right to let it all out on these fiddlers. He only had to wave and six or seven shadows of men would surely get up from the tables.

Kizimierz softly slid his fingers over the old piano and gently closed the lid, Sven shut his black guitar case and David put away his saxophone. Casually they passed all the tables in silence. Several red and resolved faces watched them. One man heavily stood up as the trio passed him but his neighbor pulled him back down by his elbow. He sat down with his jaws clenched, evidently unhappy that the trio was leaving. The bar echoed with their steps, one, two, three, four, heading towards the door and knowing they couldn’t as much as turn around. As if they were passing through high-voltage wires. They heard their crackling and felt it seeping into their skin. Only five steps to the door. Four, three, two, David is grabbing the door knob, opens, and he’s out along with Kaz. Sven is still inside. They sensed he wanted to yell out something at Frank McKnight. David recognized the dangerous fraction of a second, reached out into the darkness of the bar and mercilessly pulled Sven out.

It all fell right off them like a great weight. They exhaled, and even though they’d unexpectedly lost their income, they had to laugh. They made about three steps, laughing like fools, when someone said behind them:

“Do you have a minute?”

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