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A.C. Koch

Some Kind of Blue

  1. The End

    Lulu never would have talked me into the road trip if she hadnít mentioned the thing about The Doors. "Imagine, ninety miles an hour down a perfectly straight road across the desert, blasting ĎThe Endí." She had a point. I clocked out of the Circle K at midnight, ate my dinner from a bag of Ruffles, and we hit the highway.

    Anyone would have told you it was a terrible idea. Lulu and I had broken up months agoóshe was "lez" nowóbut the end of her Spring Break coincided with the beginning of mine, and driving her back to art school in Arizona seemed like a sure-fire way to spark up what had gone cold between us. We bought batteries for my boombox and set it on top of her bags in the back seat of my í68 Plymouth. Instead of fretting over choosing the best road trip music, I loaded everything I had into the back seat: three fruit crates heaped with unmarked cassettes. Would the car make it a thousand miles from Boulder, Colorado to Tempe, Arizona and back? Who cared! As long as Lulu was with me, I didnít give a damn if we broke down in Truth-or-Consequences and had to clean toilets to pay for a rebuilt engine and a week in a Motel Six (call it a best-case scenario).

    Soundtrack for the road: Buzzcocks, Fugazi, Violent Femmes, all the way along the snow-dusted Front Range until we crossed the border into New Mexico, where we turned off the music and rolled the windows down to let the cool desert night blast our ears in walloping silence. When Lulu spoke, it was about her new girlfriend she called Auto (for Autodidactic), who wrote epic poems, who dropped out of college because she knew more than her professors, and whose tits defied gravity.

    "I donít want to hear this!" I moaned, throwing my hands up, letting the wheel bob on its own for a moment.

    "Come on, since when do guys not want to hear about lesbians with hot tits? And sheís only nineteen. Doesnít that turn you on?"

    I blindly grabbed a tape and fumbled it into the boombox, reaching over the back of the seat to crank the volume. Turned out to be a mix tape some other ex-girlfriend had bequeathed me: Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye, Jackson Five. (Michael Jackson: once cool, now lameójust like Lulu! Funny how things fit together like that.)

    Lulu kept quiet about her girly-girl for the rest of the trip, although I have to admit the idea of her rolling around with some teenage danger queen did have its appeal. I took advantage of the hip-shifting Motown groove to reflect on what had gone wrong between me and Lulu, and if I really wanted to make it right again. Tawdry affairs on both sides, to be honest. Our group of friends was interconnected and incestuous, everyone bedding everyone else, betrayals as casual as small talk. What I needed was something completely new, some uncorrupted sweetheart who Iíd never introduce to anyoneóespecially not to Lulu. But where to find someone like that? I was stuck with my ex in a rattling jalopy in the middle of the desert, carting crates of vintage tapes, trapped between the beginning and the end. You could say that I was at the very farthest point from where I really needed to be, with nowhere to go but straight. Michael Jackson, however, seemed to think it was easy as 1-2-3.

    *

    On the scrub flats between Albuquerque and Gallup, Lulu stripped to her panties and started seizure-dancing in the passenger seat. Crouched on the ribbed vinyl, she thrashed her head in a blur of tangled, dirty blonde, flailing her arms out the window, pounding the dashboard. This was not unusual behavior for Lulu, and the techno-groove sheíd loaded on the boombox made it inevitableóbut still, it was the first time Iíd seen her like this since weíd broken up, and it made me a little blue. There was a time when I wouldíve stripped to my skivvies and gone wild myself, still behind the wheel and barely in control, but I couldnít get up the energy now. Besides, I was briefly shocked at the sight of the bristly sprouts of hair under her arms. Meanwhile, truckers were passing us and slowing down to steal glimpses of The Lulu Show through our bug-spattered windshield. I flipped them off one and all, and they answered with lewd blasts of air horn. This is what the storied American southwest has come to.

    *

    We blew into Tempe in the blazing afternoon. Lulu pointed directions across a vast, unknowable grid of suburban thoroughfares, past franchise restaurants, adobe banks, car lots, dental clinics, the usual. I would just as soon have kept on driving, to Mexico and beyond. I didnít have any more business here than anywhere else. But Lulu bounced on her seat, ecstatic to be home, jabbering about the party she was going to throw to introduce me to all her artsy friends. "You need a girl," she said, hooking me an eye and laughing her husky laugh. "Some kind of girl."

    "Or some kind of something," I said.

    She didnít answer, just rubbed her hands together, scheming.

    "Hey, Lulu," I said, "we never listened to ĎThe End.í Remember? That was the whole reason you talked me into this road trip, blasting the Doors and driving across the desert. But we never listened to it."

    She turned to me, grinning and gorgeous. "This is the end," she crooned, "beautiful friend, the end."

    Of course, it really was the end for her. She was back home, with her girlfriend waiting somewhere, but I was at the nadir of my journey, with nowhere to go but back. It was becoming clear that all of this was a bad idea. If I could have thrown the car into reverse and headed backwards, rewinding to the beginning, I would have.

  1. The Middle

    Tempe may be the least entertaining place on earth. Nowhere to go in the middle of nowhere, and nothing to do except wait for the sun to go down to start drinking. By the second day, I gave up the pretense of daylight sobriety and cracked open an Old Milwaukee as soon as Iíd chewed my morning bagel. After all, I was on spring break. Lulu was back in classes, and I rattled around in her underfurnished bungalow gaping at daytime television and wishing something would turn me on enough to masturbate. I went through her CD collection but was baffled by what I found: dozens of techno dance albums, everything by Madonna, and loads of show tunes and opera. (Apparently she had developed the same musical tastes as gay men.) She didnít have a tape player, so I sat in my car at the curb with my boombox and fruit crates, sipping beer behind the wheel and head-bobbing to The Clash with the doors flung open on the cul-de-sac, desert sun pounding down, rockiní the Casbah!

    Drank all Luluís beer. Buzzed and stumbling, I wandered the neighborhood. Front yards landscaped with rocks and cactus, convertible Jeeps everywhere, lots of pink houses. I came to a boulevard as wide as a football field and walked across parking lots squinting through windshield glare. I was looking for a windowless tavern, someplace dark and cool and reeking where I could belly up and sip whiskey until sundown, then reŽmerge into darkness when the edges had been worn off the day.

    Instead, I spied a music store surrounded by asphalt. I slipped inside to a blast of air-con chill, instantly going goosebumpy. I certainly didnít need more music, but I spotted an aisle of used cassettes and decided to have a look if only to replenish my fruit crates. I was already thinking about the long trip back to Boulder, alone this time, and how it would be good to listen to something fresh to take the taste of Lulu out of my mouth. Maybe some Zeppelin, that monster guitar obliterating the desert like the blast of an atom bomb. Or Bad Brains, for pounding the wheel and howling out the window. Or X, for sheer speed. But I already had these bands, somewhere unlabeled and adrift in my fruit crates. What I needed was something altogether different, something completely un-Luluesque. On instinct, I edged into the jazz section. Miles Davis was the only name I recognized, although I couldnít have told you what he played. On the cover of a cassette he was wearing a tie and pressing his lips to the mouthpiece of a horn with his eyes closed and dark skin gleaming. The album was called "Kind of Blue."

    Now there was something I could relate to: not all the way blue, not completely depressed or brooding, but only kind of. Bummed. Hum-drummy. Beer-drunk at noon. I pictured a stretch of road, dead straight to the horizon, silvery in moonlight and sliding under me in a blur of speed while reedy horns purred and drums whispered and shushed. Instead of balls-out speed burning up the road, Iíd slide across the desert like a bead of mercury along a razorís edge. The music would even sound like the word: jazzzz! I paid the metalhead clerk my three dollars and seven cents, pocketed the tape, and stepped back into the burning world.

    *

    After sundown, I wandered back to Luluís bungalow to find a dozen people sitting in a cloud of smoke in the living room, beer bottles in fists, cigarettes dangling from lips, everyone a-chatter and a-buzz. I was already half-lit myself, having spent the late afternoon in a Hawaiian-themed college bar downing frosty mugs of Coors and staring at ESPN. Now, like a fish to water, I slipped into the party. Lulu flitted about in a short skirt and Harley-Davidson lace top, ringing with laughter and wiggling her hips to an old Donna Summer disco number. Heads bobbed. The crowd was all female save for two guys passing a joint on the love seat. I briefly scanned for clues to determine who was gay, who wasnít, and who might be available, but my circuits overloaded. There was just no way to tell, not with art majors. I swung by the fridge, snagged a bottle of Newcaste Ale and sunk into a corner of the couch. This couch was my ad-hoc bed, after all, and I wouldnít be sleeping anytime soon. I concentrated on the pattern of the bass line, flexing my sore leg muscles with the rhythm, sipping beer, staring half-focused through the smoke at the blurs of strangersí faces. I felt a long ways from home, all the hours between here and there, so many thousands of dash marks on the road. "Got a smoke?" chirped a girlish voice.

    She tugged on my jeans. Pale and petite, with black shaggy hair, a ripped up concert tee and fishnets under holey jeans. She sat crosslegged on the floor with her army boots tucked beneath her and a bottle of Johnny Walker Red between her legs. Her face was white as paper, her eyes blue, her lips round and red like tiny candies. Hot tamales. Couldnít have been more than twenty, if that. Somebodyís little sister.

    "No," I said, "nothing."

    "Liar!" Her hand shot out, reaching for my shirt pocket and snagging the cassette Iíd stowed there. Her eyes went large as she looked at the tape in her palm. "Whoa!"

    "Told you. No cigarettes."

    She turned the tape over, studying the song list, then staring into the cover where Miles blew his horn in half-light, eyes closed. "Cool," she breathed, like a long slow sigh. She fixed me with her pale eyes. "Did you know that Miles Davis invented Ďcool?í I donít mean just the word, I mean the whole concept of it, as this indefinable measure of something being fresh and right and dangerous."

    I blinked. Her eyes sparkled, her smile stretched. "Really," I said, and sipped my beer. In a flash, she was squeezing in next to me on the sofa, grazing my knee with the treads of her boots as she tucked her legs under and set the tape on her threadbare denim-and-fishnets thigh. She unfolded the tape cover and glanced through the liner notes in tiny print, interspersed with black and white photos of Miles and the musicians in the studio. "See?" she said, fingering a shot of Miles wearing a scarf around his neck in the open collar of a dress shirt, like an English dandy. "Look how heís dressed. On a white guy, that ascot would look conservative, but on Miles, itís dangerous. See?"

    I peered at the pictures, but I was thinking about the girl. Her punk rock outfit struck me as weirdly contrived, just like Milesí. But what I said was this: "Cool." And we both laughed.

    She swigged from the whiskey bottle and passed it to me. "But itís in the music, too," she said, narrowing her eyes at me. "That sense of effortless cool. The nature of the improvisation, the collective creativityóitís all direct deed, not deliberation, like the gesture of a brushstroke. See?" She flourished a hand, painting a phantom calligraphy in the air. "Thatís the real meaning of cool." Then she pulled a crumpled pack of unfiltered Camels from the pocket of her jeans and lit up with a Zippo.

    "I thought you didnít have any cigarettes," I said dreamily, but what I was wondering was why this punk rock girl was talking like a jazz encyclopedia all of a sudden.

    "I never said that," she said, blowing twin jets of smoke through her nose. She stared at me, a challenge, and I felt myself tingling in the ears. She was gorgeous, after all. With brushed hair and a change of clothes, she could pass for a cover girl, a television actress, a law student. Someone you could bring home to impress your parents.

    "How do you know so much about jazz? Are you a musician?"

    She shrugged. "Iíve heard some stuff, here and there."

    Meanwhile, Lulu crawled up to us on her hands and knees, grinning and bleary-eyed. "Auto," she said, "I want you to meet my ride."

    It took me a beat to figure that out. The ride was me, but Otto? Oughta? Auto? Autodidactic. The girlfriend, who had taken Lulu from meóthe enemy! Both of them watched me for signs of explosion, but I didnít have the energy. "Auto," I said, holding a hand out, "Iím the ride."

    "Hello, Ride." We shook. Lulu craned her neck up to kiss her on the lips but Auto pulled away, taking a slug of scotch. "Not in front of the children," she drawled.

    Lulu watched her, deadpan, and said, "What a great ideaóletís have kids! Iíll get the turkey baster, and weíll make all the guys jerk off into it, then pow! Weíre moms!"

    Auto cackled at the ceiling. Lulu sprang to her feet, threw her arms up in a ĎVí and started hip-shaking like a voodoo priestess to the disco beat, shouting, "Come to mama! Come to mama!" Vintage Lulu. You had to admire her energy. It was what I onced loved about her, but now it only exhausted me to be around her.

    Auto pulled on my arm and whispered in my ear, close enough to feel her lips, "Sorry about your girlfriend."

    "I donít have a girlfriend."

    "Thatís what I mean."

    "Doesnít matter. Iím fine."

    "Can we listen to this?" She tapped the cassette case on her knee.

    "I donít think it would go over with this crowd."

    "I mean in your car."

    I admit, the idea of stealing away with Luluís hot young girlfriend to hang out in my car, just the two of us, struck me as deliciously vengeful. Or, as Auto might have said: fresh, right and dangerous. "Bring Johnny," I said, flicking the whiskey bottle with my fingernail, and she said, "Johnny and Miles," and we slipped out the back door.

    *

    At least one thing had become clear: I didnít want Lulu back. Whatever had existed between us was spent now. I was The Ride, nothing else. And another idea was surfacing: this Auto girl, whoever she might be, was using me to make Lulu jealous or to rile her in some way. I didnít mind at all. Why would I? I was a thousand miles from home, sloppy drunk on spring break, untethered to anything. We sat on the bench seat of my Plymouth in the cul-de-sac, Auto and I, smoking and drinking and talking jazz. Well, Auto talked, and I listened. She was riffing on Miles again. "To think that these tunes were never played before they were recorded, that it all crystalized there in the studio as the tape rolled. Pure improvisation. Itís astounding."

    I didnít know how she knew that, or if any of it was true, but it was pretty to think so. The first song played on my boombox, a tune called "So What." Just as Iíd suspected, it was smooth and whispery with brilliant flashes of horns in harmony, surging bass, a sheen of sound. And then Autoís voice, narrating. "Think of the challenge of group improvisation," she was saying, "of coherent collective thinking. Itís a very human problem, the social need for sympathy and acceptance from all members to bend for the common good. Thatís what this music is about."

    "Cool," I said, blowing smoke. I didnít usually smoke, but the occasion seemed to demand it. I wasnít going to ask again how she knew so much about jazz. She was Autodidactic, after all, and probably read encyclopedias in her spare time so she could sound cool at art school parties. At least it was an improvement on the typical Arizona vernacular: like, totally, ohmygod!

    Auto crumpled her cigarette pack and tossed it out the window into the street. "Letís go get some more," she said, putting her boots up on the dashboard like she was strapping in for a carnival ride. I keyed the engine. She directed me through the residential streets, past one convenience store after another until we turned onto a vast commercial boulevard awash in street lights. "Keep going," she said. I didnít know where she was taking us, but I didnít give a damn. I was expected nowhere, and could have wandered off naked into the desert to live in a sandstone cave for six months before anybody would start to wonder what might have happened to me. She turned to me with lights shifting across her face. "Do you have enough gas?"

    "For what?"

    "To keep going."

    "Sure."

    The tape played on a repeating loop on my boombox. Three songs on one side, two on the other, a seamless gig, five elaborations on one finger-snapping idea. Auto kept talking but I only half listened to her. It seemed unnecessary to talk about music while it played, like reading restaurant reviews while dining. We entered the freeway and picked up speed with the desert unrolling in the night. I turned up the volume to compensate for the whining of the tires on the road, and Auto eventually fell silent and watched the horizon where tall saguaros wheeled past in moonlight. Skirting Phoenix, we stopped for cigarettes and a fill up and a gigantic coffee. I half-expected Auto to pull a gun at the register and heist the place, but instead she clicked a Visa onto the counter. "My treat," she said with a wink and a grin. My road trip was turning into a movie, and an undeniably weird one. Would the guy get the girl? Would the jilted lover catch up with them? Would they drive off a cliff in a surge of sexy nihilsm? The coffee hit my saucey blood like a buzzsaw and I came alive as we burst onto the freeway in a blast of trumpets and saxophones.

    Another hour down the road and Auto had slid over next to me on the ribbed vinyl, laying her head on my shoulder and pressing her face against my neck. Her lips, those hot tamales, puckered on my jugular and her warm breath seeped into my collar. I kept my hands on the wheel, at ten oíclock and two oíclock, arms straight, watching the dash marks shoot out of darkness into the spill of headlights and disappear underneath. The engine droned. She nuzzled my ear, brushed her lips across my cheek, flicked her tongue over the corner of my mouth. Her lips were waxy with lipstick, her breath hot, with the tang of smoke on her tongue. We kissed for twenty miles at a steady seventy-five. Was this what I needed, sucking face with Luluís lover? Hadnít I said something about wanting an uncorrupted sweetheart? Auto was pretty much as corrupted as they cameóbut it felt good, it felt all right. Direct deed, not deliberation. "I thought you were a lesbian," I said when sheíd fallen away to catch her breath and light a cigarette, the soles of her boots flat against the passenger window, her head in my lap.

    "Nobodyís anything," she said, sucking the ember alive and spilling smoke from her mouth. "Everybodyís everything."

    I laughed, sure Iíd remember that line for the rest of my life. The tape clicked over, repeating again. To tell the truth, Iíd never felt better in all my days on earth. This Miles Davis tape, I thought, was a damn good idea. But I didnít say that out loud, because how could I hope to compete with Autodidactic on the topic of Miles Davis? She was the expert, I was the novice. We sped through the night, the middle of nowhere, unconnected from everything.

    *

    Midnight dinner at a truckstop outside Flagstaff. Under the cafeteria lights she looked tired, her makeup crumbly, her lips naked and puffy. Still, she radiated an edgy beauty, if only because she didnít seem to care how she looked. I thought I could see a smattering of freckles under the make-up across the bridge of her nose, and that suggested all kinds of hidden things about the young Auto: a suburban ranch home, doll houses and plastic horses, peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, playing in the sprinklers all summer long. "Whatís your real name?" I asked, but she grinned and looked away and forked blueberry pancakes into her mouth leaving a dab of whipped cream on her lips, flicking it away with the tip of her tongue. Then she said, astoundingly, "Matilda," and narrowed her eyes at me, chewing.

    "Matilda!" Probably a lie, but a good one. "That," I said, "is a very cool name. Very cool."

    "Fuck you."

    "Iím not kidding. No one is named Matilda. It sounds dangerous. Is it real?"

    "Lulu calls me Auto. Everyone else calls me Mattie."

    "Iím calling you Matilda."

    She shrugged. "Call me what you like."

    She didnít ask for my name, and I didnít volunteer it. She could think of me as The Ride, because that was what I was. We sped across the northern stretch of Arizona and into New Mexico on a deserted freeway, three in the morning, the running lights of distant semis like ships on the horizon. Miles never stopped. Heíd have to wear down the batteries, and then weíd just buy more and keep the tape looping. It was the perfect music, Ďbending to the common good,í as Matilda put it. My vision began to get blurry, my foot on the gas tinkling and jittery, but I had no intention of stopping. I slowed down a little, the needle hovering at sixty, just to play it safer, but I didnít want to break the spell of the road. I was The Ride, after all. She fell asleep against my shoulder, breathing softly, shifting when the tape clicked over.

    *

    Sunrise in Santa Fe. We staggered out of the car at a gas station on the outskirts, stretching in the chilly dawn, yawning into the wind, stomping on the tarmac. Matilda made a phone call while I bought microwave burritos and more scalding coffee. I sat in the car with the door propped open, eating from the wrapper and squinting out at the crumple of mountains on the horizon, north, towards home. Miles still played, but Iíd turned it down. Jazz didnít mix so well with a sober morning.

    Matilda stood before me, tying the raggedy fringe of her tee shirt in a knot above her belly button. "This is where I get off," she said. "I got some friends here."

    I kept chewing my hot-and-cold burrito. I shrugged. "Thatís cool."

    She grinned. "Yeah." She twisted around to look out at the horizon, then stretched some more, fingers laced behind her back, arching. She tossed her chin. "Hey, you should look me up next time youíre in town."

    "Which town? Santa Fe? I thought you lived in Tempe."

    She shrugged, as if it couldnít have been more trivial. She may as well have said, "Nobody lives anywhere. Everybody lives everywhere." I would have swallowed that, and remembered it forever.

    She kissed me, but only on the corner of the mouth. Then she walked, arms swinging, across the gas station tarmac to a bus stop on the edge of the avenue where she perched on the back of the bench in the sunlight. Maybe this hadnít been about making Lulu jealous; maybe sheíd only needed a ride. I was Mr. Right when it came to getting you from Point A to Point B. I waved to her as I pulled away, and she held her hand upóbeautiful friendóand twinkled her fingers at me. She receded to a speck in the rear view mirror, then gone, although I probably should have been watching the road.

     

  2. The Beginning

I didnít make it much further. My vision swam with speckled light, spots dancing across the freeway lanes. I detoured onto a two lane highway that crossed the pine forest to Taos, winding through canyons where the dregs of night pooled in long shadows. Weaving like a drunk, I finally stopped at a scenic overlook to lie on the warm hood of the car with cool wind sweeping over me, boombox on the roof and Miles cranked. I rewound the tape to the beginning, to really focus now that the music was burned into my mind and The Matilda Show was off the air.

Listen: the first note is from the bass, so low you feel it more than hear it. Then a piano chord in the treble clef, and three answering notes from the bass. They chatter on for a few measures, a conversation, small talk, until the bass works up the nerve to make a proposition: a rising arpeggio, with a question mark at the end. The answer comes from a pair of saxophones in harmony, an affirmation in two notes. Then a rustle of toms, a splash from a cymbol, and a trumpet speaks loud and clear over all the others, pointing the way.

I pulled open the accordeoned tape cover and checked out the photos, Miles in his dangerous ascot. Skimming through the liner notes, phrases jumped out: "direct deed, not deliberation," and "coherent collective thinking," and "to bend for the common good." A smile pulled at my lips. Here was Matildaís primary source material. Reading through the text was like visiting the Cliffís Notes of her conversation. Sheíd soaked it all up, apparently, when sheíd glanced through the tape cover at the party. She was, after all, famously Autodidactic. As for the inventing-the-cool thing, I didnít know where that came from; the liner notes mentioned nothing about it. Maybe sheíd read it elsewhere, or simply made it up. Either way, I didnít doubt it was true, or at least should be. But did that make her a fraud? Like Miles, she was clearly a master of improv: sheíd created this adventure of ours out of nothing. Direct deed, not deliberation, had led me here across the midnight desert to lie under the sunrise with the taste of Matilda in my mouth.

I must have fallen asleep because the sun was high over the hills when I came to my senses. I didnít know what day it was, or why I was here, or how far I had to get home, and whether or not home was really where I was headed. None of that seemed to matter a bit. My kind-of blues were gone. The next move would depend on only one thing: whatever felt fresh, right and dangerous. I turned off the music and let the silence speak. Wind in the trees. Then I keyed the engine and drove.


A.C. lives in Zacatecas, Mexico where he teaches college English and edits fiction for Zacatecas (www.zacatecas.org). His work has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize, and recently won first place in The Stickman Review fiction contest. Other stories have appeared in Blip Magazine Archive, Blithe House Quarterly, Exquisite Corpse, The Best of Carve Anthology, River City, and Oysterboy Review. He moonlights as a jazzman.

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