by Christopher Bacas
After any commercial job, I was a whirling particle; negatively charged. I wanted to appear simultaneously in a distant vector of the universe (preferably, garage level). Spooky action proved impossible. Quantum properties aren't conferred at loading docks. A single sound launched our universe, though. I wonder who was on that gig…
One band leader, obsessively germ-phobic, always brought food; peanut-butter and jelly sandwiches held tightly between layers of crinkled foil, fingers never touching bread. His musicianship so secure, he'd simultaneously walk impeccable left-hand bass, comp and go over details with the party planner. Preoccupied with himself, he never requested dinner service for sidemen, even when available. We usually got squashed sandwiches in clear folding trays. The potato chips inside, moistened by a pickle, bent a full 360 degrees without breaking. Once, a maitre'd bypassed him and asked the horn section if we wanted surf and turf. At break time, our boss fumed while staff uncovered our glistening plates and poured bubbly into elegant flutes.
We worked exclusively for a suburban Maryland office. They had high-end bar-mitzvah work sewn up. The chief drove a Porsche. He required us to make a new video at least once a year. The sound stage and audio/video team were part of his business; a club date version of the company store. Shoots dragged for needless hours as the "crew" struggled to properly mic and mix instruments and music they saw and heard weekly. While the smoke machine wafted saccharine clouds through skronking feedback and buzzing amps, grown-up high-school AV nerds, pocket protectors and cluttered tool belts included, scuttled around jabbering into wireless headsets.
"That was audio perfect" a pimply guy announced after take thirty-seven of a ninety-second medley.
"I know it was, asshole" the bandleader whispered into a long pause.
"Wait..there's a problem with the video"
Eyes darting, the kid listened for a response from the control room, its window obscured in fog.
" Yeah, he said there's a problem"
"What's the problem"
"Can you just do it again?"
We groaned and carried on. Four or five hours in, the chef d'oeuvre arrived: a six-foot sub. They always made a big deal about the food, as if the band got something special for free. While we played and sugary smoke circled, the crew picked first at its gummy partitions, leaving clumps of lettuce and discarded cheese slices on the wax paper. Tubs of mayonnaise and mustard, which looked more like bodily fluids, bookended the sandwich. Once we broke, eating more than one or two chunks produced a creeping nausea smoke only intensified. The crew, proud to show off their work, invited the bandleader to hear what his five-grand bought. In the control-room, the usurious Porsche owner, nearly 300 pounds, sat Buddha-like on the only couch, offering wisdom. Our boss emerged stone-faced.
The drummer, a great singer and meticulous player, called out:
"How's the drum sound?"
"Well, the bass drum is an oatmeal box; snare sounds like a cereal box; toms, a crackerjack box. There's no hi-hat at all. What else you want to know?"
Back on stage, starving, sick or both, we finished recording, knowing the tunes would be out of date next month. In possession of their videos, band leaders often worked part time in the office, trying to snag the best dates and clients. Big boss hoarded the goodies for his favorites, of course. The entire staff minutely scrutinized videos, reserving the nastiest comments for female singers' posteriors and mammaries. To work off the video cost, a band leader took whatever crumbs they could; sixteen tons in a tux.
During speeches at a religious convention, the band dined; deep in the red-carpeted Hilton catacomb. The banquet crew shared our table, eyeing one TV with college gridiron, and another, Mexican Soccer. At most events, band leader and maitre'd are partners; coordinating courses, speakers, introductions, dances and finale. The clients' once-in-a-lifetime is their second-of-the-day. An experienced duo can deftly choreograph guests, staff, crabby musicians and still have time to crack jokes or reminisce about disasters past. Our maitre'd sat across the cafeteria table. A large man, swarthy-faced, with long sideburns and thick mustache. A pleated white shirt, freshly starched and pressed, strained across his belly. He overheard my conversation.
"York? Pennsylvania? Who's from York?
"I used to live there"
"Oh, yeah? Where?"
"Near the fairgrounds. That was a long time ago"
"You know Grace __________?"
"How do YOU know her?"
"I worked with her. She's a singer. I lived…"
"She's my daughter." He said, eyelids fluttering.
"Your daughter is a beautiful woman; talented, very bright and so sweet. She.."
Cue chalked, he ran the table. Each shot quicker than the last; voice rising as he called the pockets.
"Her Mother wouldn't let me near her"
"Called the cops"
"Always hung up on me"
"Wouldn't let me talk to her"
"Returned all my gifts."
I thought about rehearsing with Grace in her living room. Solemn, dark-eyed like her father, she took music and our little gigs very seriously. I didn't remember hearing about dad. Her mother, tough and protective, never mentioned him. Without posing the awkward question, I assumed he was dead.
Years of ache enveloped his fleshy face. In front of his staff, servers and busboys on a well-earned break, he broke down. A tough guy, a boss, puffy neck squishing his bow tie, shoulders bucking. He waved a hand, then pincered thumb and fingers across his temples. On the TVs overhead, banners swirled, plumed bandsmen marched and men in shorts, points of light, flashed over a lime pitch. Behind him, two swinging doors creaked intermittently.
We finished our meals in silence and walked zigzag to the stage. At a high lectern, the honoree, a Christian layman, deplored the denomination's loss of membership. In his speech's climax, he promised a resurgence:
"Our doctrine is BETTER than their doctrine." He said, jabbing a finger skyward.
"Our doctrine will WIN!" His arms rose high and wide, face upturned.
The vast crowd cheered. I thought of Lenny Bruce's "Religions Inc" bit. We slowed to look at each other with lifted eyebrows. Oblivious, our leader hustled us onstage, calling a couple tunes from his list.
On the banquet floor, our maitre'd reappeared, composed, his bulk seemingly aerated by grief. He glided between tables, making quick diagonals to give orders or consult with guests. When he approached the bandstand, I was blasting horn parts for a dance set. After conferring with our boss, he walked close by the stage, dodging dancers, a sheaf of papers at his side. I saw his legs. His thighs rubbed and feet clopped heavily. Every step under his advancing bulk jolted like a punch. Absorbing shocks with his midsection, he held back and neck continuously taut, torso maintaining the illusion of a liquid gait. I searched his face for some echo of the staff room. We dove into "Beyond the Sea" and "Sea Cruise", then shucked a half-dozen Motown oysters. The hall emptied; a tide ebbing past the crackle and hum of our PA.
It's customary to play to the last minute of a job. Give them what they paid for. Leave no room for complaint. The crew started clearing and upending tables even as we cranked out hits. Afterwards, in the hall behind us, the slippery floor teemed with moving bodies bent to rolling carts. Grace's father, tall in their midst. I dug through a thicket of padded black bags for my saxophone case and coat.
"Good job, guys" he called out as we retrieved our stuff. When I walked by, he asked,
"When's the last time you saw Grace?"
"Man,years ago.Ten years, maybe?"
He fished a locket chain out of his shirt. Finely woven links gather knots. This chain swung free, burnished and silky. Its cargo vibrated delicately. He opened the case. Inside its gold cover, young Grace, Catholic school uniform, smiling meekly. I shook my head. He clicked the oval, tucked it back, then extended his hand and name. I told him mine. We shook hands. In club date universe, Maitre'd's never introduce themselves to sidemen.
"Ok, good night"
"Good job, tonite"
Hotel exit: artificial atmosphere, silence clamped over ringing ears. In one night, I had poured harmonics into the void, seen the nuclear furnace of a grieving heart and escaped black holes of ignorance and greed.
My mission: break the massive gravity of our guests and their local group. Leave an icy vacuum silencing every request, complaint and drunken hoot. Guided by glowing red signs, I slalomed through nested rooms with ceiling-high origami doors. In one, hundreds of ghostly place settings spiraled into darkness. I dove gratefully through a nearby wormhole.
Our universe is accelerating in all directions. From unimaginable density, outward flight launched by a solitary wave. Flying with creation, from no central point, toward no known limit, galaxies of empty space coiled inside, we await return to deepest sleep and the proximate, inevitable sound.