D.C. al Coda
They liked to call me spic instead of Alejandro. It wasn’t a term of endearment; they did it when I walked out of the club, when they refused to pay me after I played jazz for three hours, when they passed me on the street in the wrong neighborhood. In the ‘fuck you Latin boy, don’t come back’ kind of way. I always just spat back at them, “Think of better insults! You just mad because I can spic two languages, assholes!”
That’s where spic came from you know. It ain’t even that creative.
~ ~ ~
I tell this thing to my jazz class when they first come in. That loses me some of them, those sheepish types that come in with their first trumpet getting rusty. They haven’t played since they got out of those cramped little Tribeca schools and Midtown townhouses. The ones that stay are the ones I care about: the cats growing up in the Bushwick apartments before the rent hike, the East Harlemites, Spanish Harlem.
They’re my kind of cats.
Doesn’t mean they don’t have their issues too. They give me a lotta shit and hellfire when I tell them: ‘That machista attitude?’ It stays outside. You Latin lover boy types can saunter down Madison Avenue in your unbuttoned shirts and your shined shoes, but not here. I know you’re movin’ from your first woman’s place—let’s call her su mujer numero uno, perhaps numero dos if you aren’t feeling it that day—and you’ll be movin’ right along until you get to the second house, or the third, and all your little mujeres would be lining up and shouting down at you to ‘come on up a while, why don’t you?’ You can do that all you want on the street, but not through my door. You better believe I’ll put you on your ass.
~ ~ ~
I had to do that once. This punk came in just like I said, slicked hair, shirt breaking itself into two halves over his fuckin’ chest, it was so tight. He came in holding the most dinged up trumpet I’d seen in my life. He held it by the bell as far away from his perfect shirt as possible. This dude didn’t want to get the spit of the thing on him, cuz’ it wasn’t even his horn, I could tell. He comes in and he sights up his target immediately, little Elise messing with her clarinet in the corner of our dance floor. I call it the dance floor because that is exactly what it fuckin’ is, an old ballet studio that I fill with el ritmo y la música every Tuesday night.
He saunters over to her—they always have to saunter, man, and he starts chatting her up and she can’t play straight with him there. I don’t jump to any conclusions, I can’t have it said that Alejandro (just Ali, actually) doesn’t give nobody the benefit of the doubt. They coulda been talking about that Miles Davis piece she’d been jamming on. Maybe they’d get to talkin’ about the Tijuana Brass, what I played on record, the class piled into my studio.
He didn’t do it though. He put down the trumpet that was his and not his and he puts an arm around her waist and leans in to whisper right in her blonde curls. She knew who he was too, oh, man, did she know him, but she didn’t want to see him so I put down my horn too and walk over to them and I speak in his ear a little too. Elise don’t know Spanish so it makes it easier for the two of us to get to the heart of the matter, de hombre a hombre. I says to him to leave off and he looks back around at me and I can tell he wants nothing more than to mess my ass up right then and there.
He gets tall in that way that men do when they got something to prove, he grows a whole two inches. He says to me that he’s here for a reason; she’s his woman and blah blah blah. I tell him that I had a rule; a real specific one: you leave all that dramatic shit afuera de mi clase. I left the ‘—or I put you on your ass’ unspoken, but it was there.
All the other students had caught on, my cats were smart ones. They learned to watch out for trouble and scamper when it reared its head. They stopped playing and I got real annoyed because no sound in the class was a problem.
He gets up a half-inch higher and he says to me that he ain’t gonna let some fresa faced fag—and then I hit him in the throat. I remember one thing about this type of guy: they strut. They circle each other in big shirts and crocodile shoes but they’re all just peacocks. They don’t ever go in for the kill; they just circle and nip. This ‘pavo real’ (that’s a peacock, chicos) just found out that I don’t nip. He doubles over, and my friend Emmanuel and I shuffle him right out the door.
“I’d dump him,” I say to Elise when I come back up. “He doesn’t appreciate you for your playing, I can tell you that.” She turns cherry red and becomes real fixated on examining the wood of her clarinet.
The class is real quiet so I need to resolve that. I pick up his dropped instrument and hold it up to the class.
“I got a free trumpet here for whoever wants it. Lovingly used,” I say, “Not by him but that’s not important,” I add, before telling the students to get back to that coda in the music.
~ ~ ~
That horn’s got a better home that it had before, that’s for sure. I look out for the instruments as much as I look out for the people. I take the people into the studio because they’d be running up and down Hell’s Kitchen with all this emotion and nowhere to put it. I take the instruments because they speak to me. There’s a universal language to them, they wanna be somewhere loved. That’s true for the people too but I don’t ever come right out and say it. I take in those instruments I find in pawnshops and broken homes, and I put them in the studio so they can be played, and I take the people from the same places so that they can play. It’s a sort of group therapy.
~ ~ ~
I used to talk a lot to Emmanuel about what I was doing, about what it meant. In a cosmic sense, ya’ know? Shitfire, he deserved to be the big man in Manhattan. If all the Bohemians and immigrants ever sat down and picked a leader then it would’ve been him, man. I know it would’ve. I never called him Emmanuel cuz’ that wasn’t the right word to describe the guy. I called him Chivo—that’s goat, on account of his beard, long and curly, dusting off his chin like a smoke trail. He played sax, and you know how they say the trumpets and the saxophones can’t be friends because they never play in tune? Chivo, he always played in tune with me.
Chivo had the magic in him in a way that made the whole class swoon. I’m not one for letting greased-up sharks out on the street swipe up my class, but I see Chivo work the moves it’s different. You win over a girl with your style then you’re a peacock: you win her with your song then you’re a poet, one who doesn’t speak in Spanish, not in English, just Jazz. Relationships, they’re where the blues come from. We talk, we kiss, we fuck, we break up and then we play the blues and it’s why we all have something to say. I’ve had the experience. She catches me on the street somewhere y hablamos, besamos, jodimos, separamos...
But I was talking about Chivo. Chivo believed what I believed, man. We were in tune. We had apartments that faced each other so we’d jam while crouching on the fire escapes when it was too damn hot inside. When it was all jodido, he was there.
Until I wasn’t there.
This was the spring of around ’96 or ’97. People finally started cruising around without parkas and high boots. I was snowed into my studio for so long that winter I forgot what it was like to be outside. That was a fuckin’ blizzard, man. They shut down the busses to the barrio so we couldn’t even get out and catch a Broadway show. Jokes on the rest of them though because Broadway got shut down for a week too.
This was the springtime that all of Spanish Harlem ran away. I say ran away but it was really like they got summoned home. The New York winter sank into their bones and all of a sudden the only thing they could do was fly back to the DR or Puerto Rico or wherever they came from before they hopped over to the good old U S of A.
Hogar. Home, it called to us. The planes got jammed full of reverse tourists. Nobody was visiting. Not one dude livin’ in the boroughs didn’t have a full welcome home party back in the land of sun and palm trees.
I fuckin’ hated it, man.
Chivo wasn’t immune either. He wanted to go back to San Juan, more than anything. He sat me down and he says to me that I should come too, and didn’t I feel that tug towards home? I says to him that the only tug I was feeling was the one to club Saliente cuz’ I was playing a trio there on Saturday. I had things going on here, not there. There I had a father who died with sweat on his brow, a mother and all her extended family who despised me, brothers who stopped writing when they joined the clergy. I didn’t mind all that, but it didn’t bode well for Chivo, hunched over some plane tickets he’d scalped on my coffee table.
Chivo was talking to me about his viejo San Juan, thinking it was mine too. Memories of the soul, some mine, some his, childhood nights, facing the sea. I may have grown up with Chivo in San Juan, didn’t mean I wanted back in now. One afternoon I left, and I didn’t look back. San Juan was the foreign nation to me and the grand nation of New York is what I’d miss when my hair was white and I was gone. For every single time I got called spic on the street, there was a time that I played in the right club and with the right people and the right music and everything was all right.
So after awhile Chivo really starts getting to me, I mean he’s going for the absolute world fucking record for gran dolor en mi culo. Talking at me saying that I don’t got no obligation to family that I cared about, he knew that, but he’d be maldito, condenado and generally fucked if I ditched out on him with the excuse of playing a trio at some back alley gin joint.
“What can I say?” I say to him, “Jazz is jazz,”
Man he didn’t even have to say anything to that; he just gave me the look he gives. It’s the same one he gives when you’re playing in an ensemble and someone doesn’t know jack shit about the music. I mean they’re trying, but, man, are they struggling, out of key, out of tune, out of sync. The director knows who it is but he can’t do anything about it, so he just looks at the sweaty bastard. That’s the kind of look Chivo gave me.
“Ali. Ali, Ali, man. Do this,” he says, “don’t do it for San Juan.”—He stops there for a second, he’s not sure what reaction he’ll get when he says—“Do it for me.”
I had to suck it up, had to say that goddammit I’ll go to San Juan. I’ll go.
~ ~ ~
We had another day I could teach on the dance floor and you know damn well I did. I may have been getting on a plane at five that evening but I sure as sin needed to see those dudes before I left. I needed to hear my very own American Dream played on a pawnshop Gramophone.
So I went and welcomed the crowd in and we picked up our horns and we soloed, round robin style. I’d point and we’d pass the tune on over to the person I was pointing and they’d wail on it, man. I’d fiddle on the horn with my right hand and point with my left. I’d suddenly change the key, blast the tempo up into a blazing swing and then back down into a St. Louis dirge. We had an upright bass man in there with us that day, dude cruised all the way over from Long Island just to play with us. I shoulda felt so lucky.
I passed and passed the melody to each of them in turn, to the big, the small, the black and the white and the not quite either. I passed it over to Elise on her clarinet and tried not to stare at her black eye. I failed.
She never said next to nothing to us but when she played on the dance floor… Joder. Fuck, could she talk. She was talking then, and what she was saying was, ‘I’m not where I wanna be right now.’
I kept looking at my old silver wristwatch I’d replaced half a hundred times and watching the hours crawl by. It was 12, then it was 1:30, then 2, then it wormed its way over to 3:45. I could still make the flight, but I was seeing Elise pack up her things to leave and I knew I couldn’t just sit there and do nothing. Chingado, no fuckin’ way.
I caught her almost tripping down the stairs and held her steady. I knew she should’ve dumped the hijo de la gran puta, but I couldn’t let that get to me. I just had to go over to her and tell her I’d make it all better. So that’s just what I did, not in quite so many words. What really happened was I went up to her and I just kept asking her where he, that guy, the dude I’d kicked outta my class before, lived until she decided to tell me. I hopped back up to the studio and grabbed a jacket. It was 4:00.
~ ~ ~
I was turning the corner to 114th street when I decided to start running. Nobody in NYC gives a flying fuck what you look like when you walk down the street anyways. It wasn’t that I was getting real hyper-aware of a certain flight leaving from John F. Kennedy in less than an hour. I was becoming less and less aware of that fact as I went on. All I wanted was to get to the gray set of flats at the end of the block, just as fast as I could go.
~ ~ ~
I didn’t really enter his place so much as I exploded in there. Dude had a three-bedroom apartment on the fourth floor all to himself. Where he kicked out the rest of his family, I have no idea, but I didn’t much care. I broke the door going inside and this guy was shaving his chest in front of a mirror across the room from the doorway. He looks up at me like god himself had just waltzed in to piss on his carpet.
I didn’t piss on his carpet. I did break his jaw though, and with my left hand, not my playing hand. He looked up at me with glassy eyes from his sink. He didn’t fight me back; dude didn’t even know what to do with himself, what with his jaw and all. He looked like he was constantly surprised at something. I guess he was. He looked up and tried to gurgle out a why, so I says to him that I’m here because he didn’t have any right to hurt someone like Elise.
He looked at me and said the smartest thing he ever said. Well, he didn’t say it, but his eyes… his eyes sure said it right there. They said to me by what right did I have to defend her. I thought about it for a second, with this sack of shit gurgling into his hardwood floor.
I turned his head towards me and I asked him if he knew who I was. He just moaned at me but I looked him even deeper in the eyes just to make sure. I don’t think the chulo even knew what day of the week it was. I let his head back down and then I let myself back out the busted door. Not before picking up his little red phone, dialing 9-1-1 and letting the thing hang by the cord as I walked down the hall.
~ ~ ~
I was halfway through my first set at Saliente when I realized what I was doing. I checked my dinky watch and then I hit it against the brick wall after reading the time on it. 5:35. Chivo, man. He was gone. Gone gone gone. Volado, adios, bye-bye. The bass player was looking at me like I was about to dash him against a brick wall too, and shit I might just have done it. I was broken in two, half of me was on that plane with Chivo, and half of me knew I’d never see Chivo again. I let myself out the back door of the club while the manager cursed me out. ‘Spic this, spic that.’
“Doesn’t this mean anything to you?” He was calling out to me. “It means everything to me,” I said when I turned the corner. I could hear him telling me not to come back as I got farther off.
~ ~ ~
I was halfway home when Elise caught me. I had such a thousand-yard stare that I never saw the tiny blonde push me to the ground. She said more to me on that street than she ever had during my class. I was still split in half, though. Half of me was listening to Elise scream at me about what right I had to beat her man. The other half of me was thirteen years old, sitting with Chivo on a beach in San Juan. The stars were out, it was blissfully quiet, right up until my brothers caught us, and told. They all told. We moved to New York and we never talked about what happened again. My brothers never wrote me again. I never saw the stars again.
Elise told me she was never coming back. She told me I just proved that I was just as bad as the worst of the machistas I’d kicked out of that goddamned studio. I couldn’t tell her why she was wrong.
~ ~ ~
I didn’t really even feel anything after the phone call the next day. It was all nada nada nada. It was the most expensive use of silence I’d ever had. Long distance call from him, from mi viejo San Juan. I picked it up and I just heard the ocean. He was there on that beach where we’d been, but he didn’t say nothing to me over that phone. Nada, nada, nada. And I just had to listen to the ocean and know that he wasn’t gonna come back, and it was because of me. I felt the most terrible nostalgia at that moment. The sound of the sea didn’t ever leave.
The students came to the dance floor like normal. The days passed, the weeks, meses y años. I passed the melody of a blues piece around to them all in turn. It could’ve been by Blind Willie Johnson, or Bill Withers, or Aretha Franklin, or anything under the sun. It was by me though, all me. The melody passed and they all played hard, so hard the cars outside paused to listen. They played for their lives; I played for Chivo.
I’d bring the melody up and up and pass it around and around over and over again until we all got dizzy before winding it down and down until it was just me playing. Holding a note as high and true and real as the waves of the ocean. Then I’d take them all right back to the beginning of the song and make them play it again. Straight from the Capo to the Coda. Full repeat. Over and over, D.C. al Coda until I felt all right again.
Richard Morrissette is a native of Columbus Ohio. He spends his time working on film and commercial sets and writes in order to stave off existential dread. Richard’s goal is to never have to work a job that requires a nametag. Second to that would be to become an author fulltime. He enjoys writing flash fiction and short stories of all genres.
I’ve always been a student of Spanish (apparently I liked it enough to want to have it as one of my majors in college so that must mean something). At the same time I absolutely adore the prose and themes of Junot Diaz. This story came a little bit out as a love letter to his work, his particular style, though I don’t know how much it stacks up. New York’s Latin side is something flavored and varied in its presentation and I wanted to do it justice.
With what fictional character would you most love to spend the day?
It might have to be Faramir, from The Lord of the Rings. He was one of those characters that I always admired, and I quite think he was Tolkien’s favorite as well. The bookish ones are always the best aren’t they?
What is your favorite day of the week?
It’s most assuredly Wednesday. People always say they like to work for the weekend but I say that it’s stupid to organize your life like that. Take your weekends where you want them. Wednesday just feels right.
Which movie have you seen over and over again? What keeps you coming back?
The Empire Strikes Back, hands down. As a kid it was just the same as all Star Wars movies so I loved it for that. Then as I got older I started to look at it for its other merits and I’ve since realized that it might be my perfect story. I have no part of it that doesn’t make me feel something, the looks, the sounds, how it all comes together. To me, it’s flawless.