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Joe Burton

Malachi Phonoferous: Soloist

Malachi Phonoferous was a jazzman. He played be-bop trumpet, sitting in on open jam sessions at the jumpingest joints with some of the craziest cats in town. On Tuesdays heíd strut on down to the Blue Bubble Lounge, wide shoulders of his zoot suit thrown back, chin held high. Under his arm he carried his case, inside of which was Malachiís trusty horn.

"Uh-oh," Slick Jimmy the doorman said from his stool one night when he saw Malachi coming.

"Say Jimmy, whatís shakiní?" Malachi liked to say to him, Ďcause Jimmy was all right.

Malachi shuffled on in, signing the play roster on the way, and marched right up to the bar, leaning back on his elbows and resting easy to wait his turn to work his horn. He kept to himself, listening to the other performers go, a confident smile on his face.

"Somethiní to drink, Mal?" Greasy the bartender asked him.

"Usual, Grease," Malachi said.

Greasy moved down the bar, coming back a moment later with a rocks glass full of skim milk with a straw.

After a few more cats had played, Malachiís turn came up and he strode up to the stage, breaking out his trumpet and warming up while the house players started settling back in. When he was finally ready, Malachi turned to the band and called out "Gurgleburger." The house gang picked it back up, got it together, counted it down and started into "Gurgleburger."

Malachi waited, his horn in his hands, bobbing his head calmly through a few measures while the band played behind him, expressionless. A measure later than he probably should have he brought the horn to his lips, and off the beat he fell across the groove, a fractured, uneven shriek from his trumpet shattering the air like a dying bleat from a brass cow. The band kept together while Malachi pushed the keys with gnarled, flailing fingers, his fingertips slipping from place and releasing before he tried to put them back. As the keys rose and fell the sounds from his horn swerved and screeched, they slammed and fell, occasionally interrupted by the rush of futile air flowing emptily through the trumpet.

Malachi salivated much more than normally while he played, a thick gooey saliva resulting from the milk he drank before he went on. His lips oftentimes slid from the mouthpiece, and on a bad night both he and his horn finished up soaked.

Two folks seated near the front gathered their drinks and ran for cover. Faces in the audience turned toward the stage with pained, squinting eyes. Most of the other musicians hanging in the club snuck out through the back to smoke reefer in the alley. A new waitress stood frozen holding a scotch and water extended above a table. Its customer held his hands over his ears. Monkey the junkie, nodded out in a dusky back corner, snapped out of his reverie and briefly contemplated giving up the needle. Orders at the bar picked up suddenly.

"Man," one patron yelled to his companion, "this guyís playing is really bad!" He was speaking literally, not figuratively.

When the band finished up, their faces like passengers in a car that had just hit a skunk, Malachi wiped the drool from his chin on his suit sleeve and tipped his hat to the darkened, near-silent crowd. The bassistís deep voice came over the P.A. announcing a short intermission, and Malachi dried off his horn with a rag from his case and packed it up, stepping down the short stage stairs. Everyone who could stand to listen knew Malachiís playing was terrible. Malachi thought he had sounded great. On his way back to the bar he winked at a foxy mama as she walked past, giggling. Malachi noticed her teeth when she smiled.

"Thatís right," he thought to himself.

At the bar he ordered his usual and leaned back up on his elbows next to Big Benny, the diminutive jazz critic from Free Form magazine. Benny covered the local scene and had heard Malachi perform on many occasions. After trying vainly to identify a hint of avant garde in his playing, Benny had determined that Malachi had no ability whatsoever. Once Benny finally realized that Malachi wasnít innovating, he found he simply didnít have the heart to tell him how bad he actually was.

"So Benny," Malachi asked him after sipping his milk, "howíd I sound tonight?"

"You were there," Benny said. Malachi grinned as he looked to his shoes.

"Thatís right," Malachi said.

Malachi not only lacked ability, he had no understanding of his instrument and not the slightest grasp of music theory. He didnít know a single note. He rarely practiced, except for his gigging only picking up the horn when the urge overcame him, when he felt swept up by the spirit of the music he loved to hear, Bird and Diz, Miles and Monk and ĎTrane, Johnny Carter and Hokie Mokie all welled up inside him all at once and then heíd whisk up his horn and let it fly. His chest would swell and his cheeks would tense and heíd raise the trumpet to his lips, heíd close his eyes and his fingers would get going all by themselves and heíd be gone, like an unpiloted rocket out through the cosmos. Heíd squeak and skwonk, oblivious to the pounding on the ceiling, the clanging of a boot on the radiator pipes, the neighborhood dogs howling outside his apartment window.

A few days later Malachi moseyed on into Uncle Nemoís Razz-Ma-Tazz and Jazz, trumpet in tow. When his turn came up, Malachi worked the horn like usual, burning down "Episcopalianistrophy." Toward the end of the song, without any prior plan or intention, rather than blowing through the mouthpiece he began pulling air back through the horn; it was a completely improvised technique Malachi spontaneously added into his playing that night. Unfortunately the tinny, quack-like sounds the manuever produced did little to alter the result of his sound. Before he was through half the crowd had filed out the door, going across the street to catch the late performance of a touring mime troupe. Scabby Tom the local alley cat wandered in, searching for the source of the noise. The lights in the building dimmed, only coming back to full power after Malachi finished up. When the room got brighter, Malachi could see the sparse crowd smiling, laughing, having a good olí time.

"Thatís right," Malachi thought to himself.

"Man," a bewildered patron said to the coat check girl, "that guy really blows!" He was speaking figuratively, not literally.

Uncle Nemo, his eyes brimming with tears of rage and disbelief, ran out from behind the bar and over to Big Benny.

"Benny, you gotta keep this nutcase outta my club! If he keeps showing up, Iím going out of business. You tell him never to come back, or no more whiskeys on the house!"

Big Benny froze with fear. He didnít want to tell Malachi he couldnít come back, but his slim income as a jazz writer made the thought of buying his own drinks unbearable. Malachi settled back against the bar, soaking it all in, and Benny pulled up a stool next to him.

"So Benny," Malachi asked him, "howíd I sound tonight?" He wore a sly grin on his face.

"Hey Mal," Benny started, "let me buy you a drink. Can I get you a whiskey?"

"Oh no," Malachi replied, "got to keep it together," he said, tapping his temple. Then he raised his arm, finger extended. "Hey Nemo, the usual." Nemo disappeared and came back a moment later, pouring Malachi a milk, an angry scowl on his face. Benny waited until Nemo had finished and wandered off, muttering as he went down the bar, before he started up again.

"Malachi, youíre self-taught, that right?" he asked.

"Thatís right," Malachi replied.

Benny continued cautiously. "DidÖ Malachi did you ever think about taking a lesson?" He winced.

"Lesson? What you driviní at?" Malachi stared at Benny with genuine confusion.

"Well, you seeÖ" Benny wasnít sure how to proceed. He slugged down the rest of his whiskey and raised the glass, shaking it for Nemo to see. "Another one, Nemo. Malachi?" he said, pointing to Malachiís glass. Nemo poured a fresh whiskey.

"Iím straight," Malachi said, still looking at Benny searchingly.

"Thatíll be seven-fifty," Nemo told Benny, a determined look on Nemoís face. After a pause Benny paid for the drink, then took a large swig off his whiskey and continued.

"You see Mal, the thing is, youíre really not very good."

Malachiís face fell into an embarrassed smile.

"No," Benny said, taking another strong pull, like a drowning man gasping for air. "Really. With all due respect Mal, you might be the worst player Iíve ever heard." He looked away from Malachiís blank face. "And Iíve heard a lot."

For an uncomfortable moment Malachi didnít say anything, only stared at his milk as he stirred it slowly with the straw. "But, the feeling?" he finally said.

Benny found that the whiskey was barely helping hide the heartbreak he was feeling. He took another slug, then got angry.

"Damn it Malachi, you stink! Do you hear what Iím saying? Stink!" His bloodshot eyes flared. He drained his glass and brought it down firmly on the bar. "Nemo!" Benny hollered. "Gimme another!"

Nemo made his way back over to where they sat, watching Malachiís face warily. Then he poured it up and walked off, charging it to the house.

Malachi had a lonely walk to the subway, shoulders slumped, chin almost touching his chest. The trumpet case he usually carried under his arm hung down from his arm. Could it be true? It didnít seem possible to him. All the years heíd spent blowiní, and to hear now that the music that came so naturally to him, that brought him such joy, was it true that it all was for nothing?

He went through the turnstile, peering meekly at the bored station attendant. She sat behind her bulletproof glass, hand on her chin, eyes drooping toward sleep. Malachi sighed and lumbered down the stairs to the empty platform.

Underground Malachi walked slowly down the platform, kicking at a piece of newspaper on his way to a bench. He sat down and rubbed a hand across his face. His mind was filled with the smiling faces, the hot mamas and cool daddies heíd encountered in all the clubs over the years. Was it true? All the while heíd been baring his soul, reaching down inside himself and letting it flow. Heíd been true to it, letting it all hang out. Had he been jiviní himself for all these years?

Malachi laid the trumpet case on his knees, snapping open the clasps and pulling out the horn. He held it in his hand, running his eyes over the shiny, golden brass that winked in the dull light of the subway.

"Man," he thought to himself, "all these years I been true to you horn. Damn."

Malachi looked at the dingy trash can a few feet up the platform.

"Man," he said now under his breath. "You ainít nothiní but junk now." He pushed the case onto the bench beside him and stood up, walking to the trash. "Well," he said to the horn, "itís been real."

But Malachi was stopped short of the can by a noise.

"Lemme go! Help!" It was a voice from somewhere he couldnít see. He walked on past the trash, further down the platform and slowly around a stairwell.

On the other side, under the sloping stairs, Malachi saw a pair struggling. A raggedy clothed man with a beard had his mangy arms wrapped around a young girl. She fought against the mangy manís grasp, but he was beginning to overpower her.

"Somebody help!" she screamed.

"Rape," Malachi thought quickly. "That ainít right."

And with the same automatic motion that his fingers pushed at and mangled the trumpet keys, Malachi approached the pair. With the same smooth effortlessness that his slobbery lips slipped from the mouthpiece, Malachi brought the horn up high above his head. And with the same instinctive force that his lungs shoved and tugged air through the horn, he brought that trumpet down on the assailantís head, hard. And any hep cat in the know, any fool with half an ear could tell you, baby when Malachi brought that horn down, when the brass hit the skull, the sound it made was a pure, perfect, unwavering C sharp minor that rang out, reverberating off the cavernous walls and filling the subway tunnel with its echoes.

A week later Malachi was on stage at the Horny Toad tearing apart "Your Ugly Cousin." Horrified audience members watched as his fingers danced all over the trumpet like a spider on benzedrine, his toe tapping the stage like a clam at a hootenanny. The crown of his horn was bent, now pointed slightly upward and to the right. The lip had crumpled, and a dent was clear on the underside. As a result the sound that came out was altered. His fingers still missed their proper positions on the keys, his lips still slipped and slid from the mouthpiece, and his lungs still alternated haphazardly between sucking and blowing through the damaged horn. But the broken notes, ugly sounds and unexpected rushes of air that came from the horn now were accentuated by a new croakiness, you dig, a flavoring that suggested a weak-throated frog at the bottom of an aluminum well.

Those in the crowd that night whoíd heard Malachi before thought he sounded worse than he ever had. Deep down, Malachi knew heíd never played better. Malachi Phonoferous was a jazzman.

Joe is a freelance writer in Chicago, MFA candidate at Roosevelt University, and a contributing editor for Oyez Review.

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