Read With The Lights Turned Off
If you're feeling like a little no-calorie treat while you're handing out candy, here is a little something to pass the time.
"The Audition" is a spooky-themed short story I wrote a few years ago. It originally appeared in an anthology called "Sadistic Shorts," which you can still buy on Amazon.
Mike Harris grimaced and downed the rest of his Newcastle in one gulp, wishing he could drown out the ridiculous chorus. The piano player, on a raised dais across the bar, stopped playing long enough to raise his hands and conduct the shouting.
“So good! So good! So good!”
Webb, Cooper, and Clark raised their drinks in time to the refrain. Mike shook his head and signaled the bartender for another drink.
“Don’t like Neil Diamond?” asked a voice behind him.
Mike turned and found himself staring into a pair of brown eyes so dark they were almost black. He had to resist the temptation to look her up and down, but if the rest of her body matched her face, it was world class.
She wore light makeup, which complimented her ebony skin. Her hair style was a retro Forties look, a short bob, straightened and then re-curled. One wave brushed her left eye, Veronica Lake-style. The other was held back by a white barrette in the shape of a gardenia. She slid onto the stool next to him.
Her movement gave him a chance to quickly take in the rest of the view. His original assumption had been correct.
She wore a simple red dress, sleeveless, even though it was late fall. The hem was conservative, falling just past her knees, although it rode up enticingly as she hitched herself up onto the seat.
“Well?” she asked. She gave him a smile that told him she knew he was looking, and that it was okay.
Mike shrugged. “I like Neil Diamond fine. But there is now an entire generation that only knows this song as a cheer at a baseball game. I just hate to hear good music trivialized.”
“Then why come here?”
Mike inclined his head toward his co-workers.
“Those knuckleheads thought that just because there was a piano here, I’d be into it.”
“What’s wrong with it? Everyone seems to be having fun.”
“Nothing’s wrong with it,” Mike replied. “It’s just that I only have one night left in St. Louis, one of the great jazz cities in the world. And I’m stuck in the hotel bar, listening to a piano player who only seems to know four chords.”
“So, find a jazz club.”
“Yeah. The concierge said there aren’t any on this side of town.”
Now another smile spread slowly across her face. “The concierge doesn’t always know what he’s talking about.”
The bartender came over, pointing at Mike’s beer. He didn’t look at the woman. Mike turned to her to ask if she wanted a drink, but she had slid to her feet.
“You want to hear some jazz? There’s a place a block away.”
“You afraid this is some kind of scam?” she asked playfully.
“Well… I’m obviously not from around here.”
“Don’t worry. The street is lit up like daytime, and the bicycle cops circle through every ten minutes. You don’t like the look of the place, you don’t have to go in.”
He looked over at Webb, Cooper, and Clark. They were leaned over two young things who were writing requests on little slips of paper.
The piano player said something that included the words “Piano Man.”
“Oh, God. Let’s go. Now.” He tossed some bills on the bar and heaved himself to his feet.
She was standing near him, not moving. She seemed to be waiting for something. Finally, she rolled her eyes and took his arm. Her touch sent a chill from his wrist to his shoulder.
She hadn’t been kidding, it was a short walk. But by the time they reached their destination, she had drawn out just about every detail of his musical avocation.
“What do you play?”
“Who are you listening to?”
“Seamus Blake and J.D. Allen, if you’re talking current guys. But when I really want to woodshed, I put on Cannonball, Sonny Rollins. Or Miles, of course.”
“Oh, you are really going to like this place.”
And suddenly, there they were. She stopped in front of an empty storefront. It still bore the signage of its most recent tenant, a men’s store.
A huge, dark shape materialized out of the shadow of a single wooden door next to the shop window. Mike stiffened, realizing the foolishness of taking off with some random woman to a club his hotel knew nothing about, even if she did seem to know something about music.
The shadow resolved itself into the figure of a black man. He was big. BIG. Wycliffe Gordon big.
Mike looked anxiously around for the bicycle cops the woman said were everywhere.
There were none, of course.
Mike took a deep breath, preparing for the worst. Buth then he saw a small neon sign above the big man’s head.
It buzzed softly in the night, cursive letters glowing in green.
If this was a scam, at least they'd picked a proper jazz name. Mike let himself breathe again, starting to believe that maybe this would be okay after all.
As the big man approached, Mike could see now he was dressed in an exquisitely-tailored dark suit. Fine pinstripes glowed slightly green from the reflection of the sign. The suit hung perfectly on his Hulk-like frame, but the material still would have yielded three suits for Mike. The man’s hair was cut so close to his scalp, a comb wouldn’t stir a single strand. A thin line simulating a part was shaved into the right side.
He smiled pleasantly at the two of them. If he noticed Mike had been two seconds from running for his life, he gave no indication.
“Evening, miss,” the big man rumbled. His eyes flicked to Mike. “He with you?”
“We gonna hear you sing tonight?”
She laughed. Unlike her speaking voice, which was a bright contralto, her laugh bubbled up from the back of her throat, deep and rich.
“Tonight? Not with these cats. You ever hear them with a singer?”
The doorman smiled. “They would for you.”
“Bring your sax and join us, and maybe I will.”
The big man shook his head. “Not my scene.”
“Too bad. For both of us.” The big man sighed and opened the door for them.
Before Mike could ask what this odd exchange was about, the woman had taken his hand and led him down a narrow stairway, lit by two red light bulbs spaced evenly along the sloped ceiling.
As soon as the door behind them shut, Mike could hear the sounds of a band tuning up.
His eyes soon adjusted to the gloom, and he could make out a number of yellowed posters which lined the walls. The names on them were a roll call of jazz royalty. Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker, Milt Jackson.
Mike wasn’t even aware he had stopped to look at them until he felt the woman tugging on this hand.
“C’mon, I don’t want to miss this set.”
“These guys all really played here?” he asked.
“Honey,” she replied with a small smile, “sooner or later, everybody plays here.”
Mike let her pull him back into motion and they descended the rest of the stairs.
There were exactly seven.
Mike was expecting a cramped dive to go with the narrow stairs, but Seven Steps was surprisingly spacious. It wasn’t huge, but the ceilings were higher than you’d expect in a basement room. The lights were low, except for the stage, which was well-lit by six can lights hanging from a truss.
There was something strange about the scene, and at first Mike couldn’t identify it, but then he noticed a haze in the beams of light streaming from the cans and his brain identified what his nose had been trying to tell him.
“Doesn’t Missouri have an indoor smoking law?”
He was sure he had seen the usual knots of people loitering outside the hotel and convention center.
She frowned. “I don’t know. No one bothers anybody about it here.”
Mike inhaled again. The smell made him crave a smoke himself, even though he hadn’t had a cigarette since college.
Still holding his hand, she led him to a table near the stage.
The bar was about two-thirds full. The bright stage lights cast the tables into darkness, so he couldn’t pick out faces, although the crowd seemed to be about evenly split between male and female, mainly couples, and an even distribution of black and white.
He pulled out a chair for her. She smoothed the skirt sheathing her nicely-formed rump and sat.
“You know,” he said as he sat down, “you never told me your name.”
“Eleanor. Now, hush. They’re starting.”
Mike looked around for a waitress, but before he could say anything, one appeared at his elbow, setting a glass of wine down for Eleanor, and a Newcastle for him.
“How did you know what I’d been drinking?”
He looked from the waitress to Eleanor, but she held a finger to her lips, and inclined her head toward the stage.
Before he could reach for his wallet, the waitress waved him off, mouthing, Later.
Mike shrugged and angled his chair so he had a more comfortable viewing angle.
The stage was raised about eighteen inches, just enough to give most of the house a decent view.
Five men were onstage. Piano, bass, drums, tenor sax and trumpet. Two microphones on stands stood near the horn players, whose backs were to the audience as they conferred over a piece of paper that was probably the set list.
Mike looked the players over. All were black, except for the piano player, who looked more like one of the NASA guys from the movie Apollo 13 than a musician. Dark crew cut, Buddy Holly glasses, skinny black tie with a short-sleeved shirt.
The drummer wore a white shirt, open at the collar. He had a mustache, and wore a black newsboy cap, backwards, in the approved jazz-guy fashion.
The bass player, in a black turtleneck, sported a soul patch in addition to his own mustache.
The sax player turned from his conference with the trumpeter and walked toward the center of the stage, pulling the mouthpiece cover from his horn and dropping it into the jacket pocket of his own dark suit. He was a good-sized man, although not nearly as big as the doorman. He looked familiar, and Mike was trying to place him, when the trumpet player turned around and Mike nearly spit out his drink.
The man had long wavy hair, combed straight back to emphasize his improbably high forehead. His eyes were covered by an enormous pair of mirrored sunglasses, which were closer to the size and shape of welder’s goggles than anything you could buy at Sunglass Hut. He wore a black tank top and gold chains under his suit coat.
Mike didn’t even have to look at the trumpet to know there would be a metallic Harmon mute sticking out of it.
He turned to Eleanor. “What the hell is going on here?”
She held a finger to her lips.
“What is this place?” Mike demanded.
“Shh,” she hissed. “Sit back and enjoy. If you want to stay, you have to be quiet.”
The trumpet player with the amazing resemblance to Miles Davis put his horn to his lips, and nodded to the drummer, who softly counted off. The band launched into “Now’s The Time.”
Mike sat back in his chair. He knew it was ridiculous, but for all the world it looked and sounded like he was listening to one of the greatest jazz musicians the world had ever known, surrounded by some of his most legendary sidemen, John Coltrane, Bill Evans, Philly Jo Jones and Paul Chambers.
As the tune progressed, Mike grew more and more impressed. He didn’t know where these guys had come from, but they played their roles, as well as the tunes, perfectly.
Evans stroking the keys almost timidly, coaxing out soft but intriguing chord voicings. Jones and Chambers sitting stock still, only their hands in motion on the drum set and bass strings.
And Trane and Miles, stalking each other on the small stage, making music that was as much battle as collaboration.
The quintet swung smoothly through several standards. “I Fall in Love too Easily,” “Bye, Bye Blackbird,” even “Basin Street Blues;” but staying away from Miles’ own compositions.
Finally, there was a pause, and Miles took a swig from a bottle. He stepped up to the mic.
“Shorter’s taking his sweet time getting here. Anyone want to sit in?”
Mike was so busy marveling that this guy had even nailed Miles’ voice, halfway between a whisper and a growl, that what he had said did not sink in until Eleanor nudged him.
“You up for it?”
“What? Me? You’re kidding, right?”
She didn’t reply, just stared at him with a raised eyebrow.
“I don’t have my horn.”
“What’s that?” She pointed underneath their table.
A rectangular black case was stuck in between the table legs.
Mike frowned and picked it up.
It was his alto. No question about it. There were a couple of dozen stickers, bearing the names of different clubs and tours that dated back to his college days.
“Where did you get this? I didn’t bring it on this trip.”
“I don’t get it,” he murmured. Then, a thought occurred to him. “Wait. What is this, some Jazz Fantasy Baseball Camp? Did Michelle set this up?”
His girlfriend had hinted she had something special planned for his birthday.
“Is she here?” Mike craned his neck to look around the room, but he was interrupted by a rasp from the bandstand.
“You gonna play that thing or just keep it in yo’ lap?”
Mike looked at Eleanor again. She didn’t say anything, but her expression was clear. Up to you.
He shrugged, took his neck strap out of the case, and put the two pieces of the horn together. He stuck a reed into his mouth to get it moist.
The band watched in silence as he took the stage. He inserted the reed into the mouthpiece, and asked “Bill Evans” for an E. He tuned, then determined to play it cool, flicked his eyes toward Miles.
“You dig Monk?” the trumpeter asked.
Mike nodded, and just like that, they were tearing through “Straight, No Chaser.”
After they finished each song, Mike held his breath, waiting for Miles to call the next, afraid it would be one he didn’t know and he would have to sit down. But the entire first set could have been culled from the “favorites” playlist on his phone. He knew every one down to the last note.
And he was playing better than he had for a long time, even though he hadn’t picked up his horn in months.
After they finished “Surrey with the Fringe on Top,” Miles reached for his drink and took a swig.
“Gotta tell you man, this is pretty impressive,” Mike said.
“All of this,” Mike replied. He waved a hand to encompass the bar as well as the band. “These guys are all perfect. They look like the real dudes, and they’re monster players.”
The other man looked amused. “You don’t say.”
“And you’ve got Miles totally down, man. I can’t believe I haven’t heard of you before.”
“I gotta lot of practice.”
Miles put his horn back to his lips. Time to go back to work.
Whatever reluctance bandleader had to the music of the real Miles Davis apparently evaporated, or maybe he was satisfied after testing Mike’s bona fides. Because in the second set, it was one Miles tune after another. “So What,” “Freddie Freeloader,” “All Blues,” “Nefertiti.” And, apparently just to show the band was not embarrassed by Miles’s fusion phase, they closed with an ethereal, twenty-five minute take on “Miles Runs The Voodoo Down” that encompassed just about every musical trend from the last forty years.
As Miles softly faded out the closing, mournful notes, the audience leapt to its feet.
Miles looked at Mike, tilted his sunglasses down. He nodded, and the barest hint of smile twitched across his lips.
The other sax player, whose resemblance to John Coltrane was even more uncanny close up, leaned over to Mike and held out his hand. Mike shook it.
“Looks like they want one more,” Trane said, inclining his head toward the audience.
“What do you want to play, whitey?” Miles asked. But he smiled as he said it.
Mike thought for a minute. “Place is called ‘Seven Steps.’ How about that?”
Miles nodded. The drummer smiled. Drummers love “Seven Steps to Heaven.”
“Double time,” Miles said.
Mike almost choked on his beer for the second time. But, he’d been able to hang with these cats up to now, he wasn’t going to say no.
Miles counted off an impossibly fast tempo and they were off.
At first, Mike thought they were going to leave him in the dust, but he hung in there, even playing a pretty fair solo in the third chorus. He and Miles traded fours with the drummer after that, each trying to top the other in a joyful cacophony.
They galloped to the end of the tune, and the audience erupted again.
Now, both Miles and Trane had hands on Mike’s shoulders, and they were joined by the other three to take a group bow.
The house lights came up. Eleanor brought Mike’s horn case up to the stage.
“We’re back here tomorrow,” Miles said as Mike packed up. “You in?”
“Can’t. This is my last night. I will definitely come back the next time I’m in town, though. Hope to see you again.” Mike put out his hand.
“Right,” the other man drawled. He shook Mike’s hand. “See you tomorrow.”
He ducked into a back room before Mike could set him straight. The other guys had left as well.
In fact, Eleanor had also disappeared.
The bar emptied out quickly. Mike half expected Michelle or one of his other friends to turn up and let him in on the gag, but the few faces left were unfamiliar.
Automatically, Mike’s hand went to his back pocket. Nope, wallet still there. The waitress hadn’t even charged him for the drinks. If this was a scam, it was a weird one.
He grabbed his horn case, and headed for the stairs.
The big doorman was still on station outside the door.
“See you tomorrow,” he rumbled.
“Probably not,” Mike replied.
Mike was puzzling over how the doorman’s answer was exactly the same as Miles’ as he crossed the street.
In his preoccupation, he didn’t see the panel truck that ran a red light and sped toward him. His head jerked up just in time to see headlights fill his entire field of vision. As the truck bore down on him, the driver frantically laying on the horn, he stood frozen in the middle of the street.
And as the sound of the horn transposed from a one-note blast into the duet he and Miles had played, Mike realized he would in fact, be playing at Seven Steps tomorrow.