Walking to my car earlier, I passed a retro record shop on Market Street in Akron complete with psychedelic band posters on the walls and the smell of incense in the air. I stood a moment outside the door, listening to the Dave Brubeck Quartet’s Time Out, lost to the rhythms of a gone time. I considered going in and buying the record, but I don’t own a record player, haven’t for years. I came home and listened to it on YouTube. I first heard the album as an undergraduate, when I went to the university record lab to listen to Hamlet for a class assignment.
The library clerk told me to take a headset and turn to channel nine, but when I turned the knob at my cubicle to nine, what I heard was not Shakespeare. As I began to bob my head a fellow at another cubicle smiled and waved, so I figured it was his channel. After listening to Hamlet on channel ten I stopped by a record store and picked up the copy of Time Out with abstract cover art by Neil Fujita that looks like musical variations on Picasso, with the shape of Gene Wright’s bass worked into it.
I had it quite a few years until my wife—I had married along the way—and I moved to Iowa City, where I attended the Writers’ Workshop, where we split up for good. That’s covering a lot of ground in one sentence, but since the break-up of that marriage is not the subject, I will leave it at that. A friend of mine named Steve invited me to rent a room in a house he shared with a couple other guys. My room off the kitchen cost fifty bucks a month, what I could afford on my stipend. I taught Core Literature as a Teaching Assistant, but I had to pay tuition out of it. My wife and I lived in married student housing, and that helped; now she lived in New York with my daughter, so I took this room.
One of the housemates turned out to be a red-haired fellow with an Irish name—Finn—who smoked a great deal of pot and had a large number of ideas. For example, he once said he wanted to attach weather balloons to his shoulders so he could jump down the street like a man on the moon. What he needed to know was size and/or number of balloons and how to attach them, what kind of belts and so on. Steve and I suggested he talk to Dr. James Alfred Van Allen, a physics professor with special knowledge of belts, so Finn headed down to the university on a bright, crisp autumn afternoon. We laughed because the Van Allen Radiation Belt—named after the physicist—is made up of charged particles held in place by Earth’s magnetic field.
When Finn returned with a yellow leaf threaded in his hair, he said Van Allen turned out to be a nice guy and showed us sketches he made for Finn: a backpack setup with dimensions for three small balloons or one larger balloon. He forgot his scheme the next day. When we reminded him, he shook his finger and said he still thought it was a good idea. When I heard of Dr. Van Allen’s death in 2006, this is what I thought of first: hot air balloons.
One afternoon when no one else was home, Steve and I took a long walk through the yellow trees in the graveyard and then sat in the living room talking about a series of short stories Steve was writing. He wanted to keep them moving as a single piece, each new one taking a slightly different tack, featuring a different character, focusing on his or her way of thinking and talking, all moving to the same rhythm. He had a concern with transitions. Everything had to sound natural, like improvisation, even though you know where you’re going. I mentioned Paul Desmond’s “Take Five” from the Dave Brubeck Quartet album. Of all jazz references I could make I thought Steve would know this one, but he didn’t.
I told him this cut always sounded like live performance even though the shape was completely known. It’s all 5/4 time, but it did what Steve wanted to do when each instrument steps out, featured a bit, then returns to the ensemble. I got the record out, put the needle down on “Take Five,” and we were listening as Finn walked in the front door, eyes half open. Cool air blew into the room, and I could see leaves swirling in the street. Finn stood swaying, his lower jaw working back and forth like it did when he was stoned. “Man, you two look so-o-o serious!”
I nodded and pointed at the white bricks of the nonworking fireplace. “We just learned,” I told him, “why the fireplace doesn’t work.”
“Years ago an old couple lived here. There was talk of violence. The husband killed her with an ax and chopped her up. They think he bricked her in the fireplace.”
Finn stared at the fireplace. His eyes grew wide.
“They’re coming tomorrow to pull out the bricks,” Steve said.
“Jesus,” Finn repeated. “No shit?”
“The place will be crawling with cops.”
Finn stared at the fireplace.
“Before noon,” I told him.
“Man, I got some shit in here to get out.”
Steve got up and shut the door as Finn ran upstairs to his bedroom. But he came back down a while later and wagged a finger at us. “You had me going there for a minute.”
The next day, I walked home from class in a thin, cold rain. When I stepped inside, I heard Steve typing in his room, just off the living room, “Time Out” playing softly under the typing. It sounded nice, but I began to notice a putrid smell, strangely familiar, hanging in the air. As I went through the kitchen to get to my room, there stood Finn with a bottle of Irish whiskey in one hand, a shot glass in the other. I had received that bottle as payment for reading a story to fiction writing students in the back room of The Mill Restaurant, but I was distracted by green slime stretching from the faucet to a pan on the stove and smeared across the counter like snot.
“I’m trying to see if I can boil this marijuana down to hashish,” Finn told me as he downed a shot. He offered the bottle and the shot glass. “Want one?”
I went to my room and shut the door behind me.
“I got brownies in the oven,” Finn called.
Fifty bucks a month was nice, but Finn started bringing strange people to the house at all hours, some who had done time. Coming home the coldest evening of fall, I smelled marijuana from the street and saw the cloud of smoke in the window. When I stepped in, guys of all shades and shapes looked up from a blueprint spread on the coffee table. Several joints sparked. An unbroken block of marijuana sat on the floor beside them, and Time Out had wandered back to the turntable in the living room. Someone had just then put it on because “Blue Rondo a la Turk” floated through the room. The abstract cover leaned against the dope like a still life.
“Hey, man,” said Finn. He had been the last to look up.
“Hey, Finn,” I said, all bloodshot eyes on me. “What you guys up to?”
Finn’s jaw went back and forth. He sounded dazed, but he was always open and frank. “We’re planning a robbery,” he said with a smile.
I nodded my head. I went back to my room, folded my blankets, threw clothes and books and records in boxes, and carried them past the guys in the living room. It took several trips to load my van. That’s when it started snowing, the first snow of the year. When I came back in, I had snow on my* hair and shoulders. “Hey, man,” said Finn, “what you doin’?”
“Moving out,” I said. I carried my typewriter in my arms, last thing.
By this time the record had moved on to “Time Out,” skipping on Joe Morello’s drum solo. No one seemed to notice—my signal to leave the album behind.
“Why, man? Great house—can’t beat the rent,” Finn said. Those eyes were following my every move. I jerked my head toward the fireplace.
“Can’t stand the thought of her walled up in there,” I told him. “My room’s right off the kitchen. I hear her moaning late at night.”
They all turned slowly to the fireplace. I shut the door behind me with my foot, trying to imagine anywhere to sleep but the couch in the office I shared with two other Teaching Assistants. That’s where I slept a few nights, until I found the apartment on Iowa Avenue where I lived a couple of years, as long as I stayed in Iowa City. The place cost me a hundred bucks each month. I have never been through a lonelier period in my life, but I wrote the best stories I had yet written, and that’s what I really wanted out of life. I didn’t have a record player or television or a phone, though my mother sent a radio for Christmas, a nice one with a wooden case, and I listened to jazz and classical on public radio.
By spring, I had lost nearly forty pounds—a cold winter.
When snow started melting for good, my boots leaked, my coat had a torn place under the arm. In the last couple of weeks each month I bought another bag of apples and a jar of peanut butter, but at the end of February, when I had only four of the worst looking apples left and only side-scrapings at the bottom of the peanut butter jar, fortune smiled on me. Walking to the university, two blocks up from the red brick buildings, I saw a green fleck on the sidewalk, under a porous, melting clump of snow. My heart beat rapidly: a greenback, one end flapping in the breeze, a five dollar bill clinging to the sidewalk.
As I bent to pick it up, it took flight. My eye never left the bill as it jumped like a flea to the curb. I lunged for it. I couldn’t believe it flew again, but it did. I narrowly escaped being hit by an undergraduate in a beat-up car as I ran across the street and stomped on it the next time it touched down, in front of Best Steak House. I plucked it from beneath my foot with thumb and finger. I had a panic it would blow away again so I shoved it in my coat pocket and held onto it as I opened the door and stepped into the restaurant. I took a tray and went to the counter to admire the fare, picking out salad and pecan pie. I poured a cup of coffee, ordered steak and baked potato, and sat at a table in the front corner, beside a window, my back to the street.
The salad I devoured. When hot food came, the first thing I did was cut the steak in half and wrap it in part of the foil that came around the potato, then in a napkin. I did the same with half of the potato and stored it in my pocket, the pie as well. I set to eating happily. If I thought, I don’t remember what. I felt restored. I didn’t think sad thoughts about my condition.
I took the pocketed half home to my little refrigerator and set out once more for the university, where I had been bound before good fortune intervened. All afternoon the goodness of the food coursed through my veins. Before I went to teach my class—Idea of Comedy, a core literature elective—I described how I chased the money down to an office mate. Me, a bearded man of twenty-nine, chasing down five dollars! It seemed capricious of the wind, just as it does when the wind blows someone’s hat away. I always loved stock comic situations—a woman beating a man’s head with an umbrella. I got worked up about the scene. I laughed until tears came into my eyes. I had plenty to talk about in class.
Later, at home in my two rooms, studying by kitchen light, I ate the rest of my supper in a more solemn mood. I tried not to think about next morning, when I would cut a lumpy apple for breakfast and flavor it with scrapings of an empty peanut butter jar. I had to focus on my writing while I had strength. Tomorrow I’d be jittery, I knew that well enough. I had a cup of coffee with the half-piece of pie and set to work. I turned on the radio—Take Five. Nice, I thought, and lost myself inside a story I’d been working on.