THE MUTED CORNET - STEVEN GULVEZAN
Late that night, Leon Tufts, the muted cornet player, slowly lifted his old bones off the hard bunk and quietly traversed the short distance between himself and his cellmate. Leon’s cellmate was fast asleep, the moonlight from the high-barred window, street level, painting white stripes across his face. Leon’s face, tears rolling into the crevices between his eyes and his chin, was hidden in blackness.
Earlier that evening, when Leon was sitting on his bunk holding his pounding head in his hands, the deputy had noisily brought a new inmate down the stairs and into the basement lockup.
“John-Ray,” the deputy said to the new arrival, “if you don’t leave off using that little girl for a punching bag – and the child, too – you’re going to end up doing serious jail time. This is the third time she’s called us, and your Uncle Bobby cannot protect you forever.”
The deputy had his hand on John-Ray’s arm and John-Ray pulled it fiercely away.
“Listen, don’t you tell me what to do. I assure you this will be the last time she calls you. I told that little bitch if she ever dared do that again, I would...”
“Get in the cell,” the deputy said. When John-Ray just stood and looked at him, the deputy said, “Get in there!”
John-Ray smiled at the deputy. “I told Faye that the next time she called the police, I would learn my lesson and become a reformed man. And I would give her and that screaming bastard she insists is my child a gift, a token of my esteem, to show how highly I regard them.”
John-Ray sauntered into the cell. The deputy slammed the cell door behind him.
“Maybe there’s a reason you’re so worried about Faye. Maybe that baby is yours, Byron. He looks just like you.”
“Sober up,” the deputy said, and turned to go upstairs.
“Don’t you forget to answer the telephone when Uncle Bobby calls,” John-Ray said. When he noticed Leon sitting there on his bunk in the far corner of the cell, he shouted after the deputy, “Byron, what the fuck are you doing putting me in with one of these for? Trying to teach me a lesson, are you? Well, fuck you.” John-Ray snapped around and glared at Leon and said, “What are you looking at, old man?” Leon, his elbows on his knees, coldly returned John-Ray’s glare, but did not speak.
“Put me in with a fucking wino,” John-Ray kicked at the wall and scuffed his boot. “Damn,” he said, putting his foot up on his bunk and looking at the scuffed leather. “See these, old man, genuine alligator, and that’s real hand-carved lettering on the toes—my family insignia. If you’re lucky, I may let you apply your trade and give them a spit-shine before the night is over.”
The only movement Leon made was to shift his big hands to his knees and move his weight slightly forward, as if he was ready to spring off the bunk at any given moment. His eyes shone hard white in the gloom at the back of the cell.
“Fuck you,” John-Ray said, and making a fist, tapped the bars in a small rhythm.
And so it was until, both men settled uneasily onto their bunks for the night, John-Ray said, “Quit farting, you old bastard,” and closed his eyes and went to sleep.
Leon, sobering up fast, lay there and thought about his hands. They were still limber enough to work the keys of his cornet, but the arthritis was settling in and the day – not that far off – would arrive when he could no longer perform to his own standards. That would be one goddamned day – when he could no longer do the one thing on this Earth that he was good at. That was one reason he’d taken to the liquor. With his personal life having taken the turn it had, he didn’t see anything for himself in this world without the cornet playing. He wished he could think of a way for a man such as him – a man who had tried to live by certain principles and who had a certain standing in the world of music – to make a graceful exit.
As Leon lay there, flexing the stiff joints of his fingers, he pondered whether working the keys with his right hand instead of his left hand would make any difference. So far, he’d decided against the notion. Though he was naturally right-handed, he had always used his left hand on the keys because he was slower with the left hand and he felt it gave him more time to blow emotion rather than speed through the horn. Now, emotion was all he had left. And he didn’t lean towards changing his technique at this late stage in his career.
Leon looked up at the barred window. There was a tiny hint of breeze, free air, wafting into the cell, and also the moonlight. Somewhere out there, far away, were also his sweet wife, Marie, and his son, Leon Junior.
Leon saw a picture in his mind...from when? Thirty years ago? It was a picture of a night very much like this night, only under very different circumstances. He tried to push it out of his mind, because it hurt too much, but could not. On a hot summer night, in a bungalow that Leon had purchased with money earned touring with the great Mercer Ellington, Leon saw a youthful Marie sitting in the rocking chair by the window in the moonlight, cuddling Leon Junior upon her bosom and singing softly to the infant child. Oh, it was a beautiful sight! Leon was lying on the soft bed, pretending to be asleep, trying not to breathe because he did not want to unsettle to the slightest degree the absolute perfection of the beautiful mother and child tableau.
Leon remembered the softness he felt in his heart when he had observed this scene and had realized, perhaps for the first time in his life, that the world of human beings outside of making music – at least for moments, precious moments – could be transformed into a place as tender as a sad blue melody blown gently by Coleman Hawkins in a club at 4 A.M. after everybody but the musicians has gone home.
Now, Marie and Leon Junior were forever departed. Leon tried not to think about their departure, tried not to dwell on the cruel ways he had sometimes treated them both, but found it difficult not to think about these things and also not to hate himself for doing some of the things in his life which he had done.
Leon heard John-Ray softly snoring across the cell. He turned his head in John-Ray’s direction, and recalled the conversation between John-Ray and the deputy upon the occasion of John-Ray’s admittance to the cell. When John-Ray was released, Leon considered, it would be a dark day for the unfortunate young woman he would return to, and also for her innocent child.
Leon looked across the cell, and hated John-Ray, and decided that, as soon as the little jail had settled in nice and quiet for the long night, he would initiate a gesture that might possibly bring him a sort of redemption.
Now, in the shadow of the moonlight, Leon looked at John-Ray’s sleeping face—John-Ray, sleeping peacefully as a child.
Leon placed the strong cornet-player’s fingers of his left-hand above John-Ray’s throat and, with a sudden downward clench, caught the man in a sound-stifling grip.
John-Ray’s startled eyes opened and he tried to speak but, finding himself unable to do so, he choked on his fear and stared wildly at the grizzled face of Leon Tufts.
Leon ground his strong fingers into John-Ray’s throat. He peered into John-Ray’s eyes. “You are a fool,” Leon whispered to John-Ray, “an absolute, total fool. You are the destroyer of innocence, the crusher of hopes and dreams. I had a wife and child, once, but they are gone and I will never feel the warmth of their lives again.”
John-Ray tried to kick free, tried to get his hands up into Leon’s face, but Leon, now using both hands, had his hard thumbs pressed deeply into John-Ray’s windpipe.
“I will kill you with my hands, but that is too easy for a pissant woman and child beater like you,” Leon said to John-Ray. “I wish they hadn’t confiscated my instrument. I would prefer to take you out in the musical fashion and shove my muted cornet down your throat.”
BIO: Born in Detroit, Steven Gulvezan has worked as a journalist and a librarian. His writing has or will appear in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, Scythe, Red Fez, Heavy Bear, Gutter Eloquence, The Absent Willow Review, and many other literary publications.
Irish Times Crime Fiction column, February 2018
13 hours ago