The book I published, The Newspaper Boy, was a memoir. I have written very little fiction, and the only short story of mine that has been published can be found in The Louisville Review, Volume 75, Spring 2014.
The title is “The Saddest Note, New Orleans 2004.” The editorial staff at The Louisville Review nominated the story for a Pushcart Prize for the year 2014. The heroic character in the story is Martha. Though my own wife is Martha, this is a work of fiction, and no event such as this actually occurred for us. I do hope you enjoy this story.
THE SADDEST Note
NEW ORLEANS, 2004
By Chervis Isom
The streetcar screeched to a halt on the slick tracks, windows all afog. The doors swung open and we leaped aboard, relieved to get out of the rain. I dropped coins in the slot and, as the car jolted into motion, we lurched down the aisle.
Exhausted, my wife, Martha, dropped onto the bench seat, rivulets from her raincoat soaking into the tweedy fabric, scummy from dozens of wet riders through the day. A long walk in the rain on Magazine Street had worn us down as we visited shop after shop, even though we had stopped once for coffee and pastries and again for lunch. We had made our way over to St. Charles and caught the trolley toward downtown and our hotel. It was only the second day of our short vacation and already the rain had dampened not only our clothes but our spirits as well.
It was then that we heard the sound, a protracted, mournful note, rising in intensity, then falling, sad and lonely as Taps when lights go out, but this was not Taps and though we were tired the day was not yet done.
A few seats behind us, a thin, young, black man sat, trumpet to his lips, head bowed, eyes closed against the world.
The note hung in the air, slowly intensified, then, dropping into a lower register, it withered into a ragged, lifeless plea, flickering weakly like a candle as it gutters out….then after a breath, began again a similar litany – a never ending cry of pain.
It was the sound an inarticulate child might have made if separated from its mother, the sound of despair as deep as a moonless night.
Was he stoned? Was he going home after having been fired from his job? Had his wife told him he was worthless and thrown him out? Did he have hungry children at home, and the banker had turned him down for a loan? It had been years before, but I too had felt that kind of despair.
As the note hovered around me, drawing me into myself, reminding me of the despair I too had felt, Miles Davis and his “Sketches of Spain” came to mind, the saddest sound I thought I’d ever heard drawn from a musical instrument.
The hair on my neck sprang up and a shiver vibrated down my spine. I hunched my shoulders, drawing my elbows into my ribs, against the autumn chill and the wilting note.
“Knock if off, you weirdo!”
The words snapped me to attention. A beefy middle aged man from the back of the car bolted to his feet, his face red and enraged.
One hand gripping the pole, the other clenched into a fist, crouching, legs spread, spoiling for a fight, he towered over the trumpeter.
“I said, knock it off. You got no right to blow that horn in here, disturbing the peace like this!!”
The trumpet never wavered, though the wailing ceased for only a moment. The trumpeter lifted his eyes, but they were fearless and flat and far away, lifeless and opaque. Then his eyelids slowly sank against the assailant as he resumed in a lower range his anguished moan.
I have never been one to leap into action. My nature has always been to think it through. I think humanity is made up of two kinds of folks –the Thinkers and the Doers. Whenever on those occasions I’ve decided that action was justified, the need had usually by then been met by someone else. So in that moment, as I dithered, my Martha leaped from her seat, brandishing her dripping umbrella like a sword.
“Get back to your seat, you idiot!”
She nailed him menacingly with her eyes, her umbrella cocked for action.
He glared as he retreated, but could not meet the unwavering gaze of the resolute school teacher.
Muttering, the beefy man dissolved into his seat, and pulled his hat low over his eyes in embarrassment.
She abandoned the attacker to his own humiliation, then planted herself beside the young man, the personification of primitive maternal instinct. I took my position beside her, to show my full support. The lightning coruscating from her golden warrior eyes challenged everyone…even me…as I dug deeper and deeper within myself.
I said nothing as we lurched along, our stop having long passed by.
Unperturbed, the trumpeteer’s single note wailed and bent and broke and wailed again in unceasing pain…
In tandem with the screeching of the trolley on the tracks…
In tandem with the screeching in my heart.