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THE BREATHLESS PRESENT: A Memoir in Four Movements
At once a writer’s autobiography and a road book, with vivid portraits of an unusual group of people—ranging from an early mentor and one-time neighbor, the late poet Archibald MacLeish, to world renowned jazz great Wynton Marsalis (with whose bands Carl Vigeland traveled for many years) and the author’s charismatic, tormented father, also a musician--THE BREATHLESS PRESENT tells several intersecting stories in a variety of voices that mirror music’s power to transmute memory and affirm life.
"If I were going to read a story, Maren said as we walked Jack on a cold, gray November afternoon, “I wouldn’t want to read it if you could explain the story in a couple of sentences. I would only want to read a story if you had to read all of it to understand it.” Maren had been sick much of the fall, with mono her doctor thought, but the test results kept coming back negative. She’d missed a lot of school. We had just been to her school to get work she was supposed to make up. Now we were walking Jack in the gathering dusk, with a brisk wind whipping the chilly air against our faces. The soccer field next to the football stadium was littered with cups and food wrappings from a football function the previous weekend. Jack sniffed at the stuff as he looked for a place to pee.
What would I need to say if I were going to write the story my daughter described, a story you could read late at night in a quiet corner of the city somewhere? What words would find the feeling of that summer day when I took off—went on the road—certain this was something I had to do as I kissed my children goodbye, Maren the youngest still sleeping with the calendar I’d bought her on the wall by her bed, the days I would be gone marked off so she could see? Little did I imagine then how many more days, weeks, months…years until the Boston performances later the next month of a piece called All Rise: the accelerating energy of those men and women as they came on stage for the final rehearsal, their different lives, where they might have been the night before and with whom they had made love. And then, slowly making his way across the stage, the architect of that day’s musical activity, Wynton Marsalis, whom I first met more than a decade earlier, the year Maren was born, and who repeatedly said his ambition was “to be part of something great,” by which he meant jazz, Wynton who once told me that if he had to he could live happily in his old Louisiana neighborhood, passing the time on the stoop of his house, listening to the music of his neighbors’ voices while watching the passage of an old couple and a pretty girl down a dusty, unpaved street.
I was four or five years old then and my father— “a keyboard musician, just like my daddy,” Wynton would sometimes say by way of explaining to others one of the things he said we had in common—long tormented by competing forces of guilt and pleasure and dead now more than twenty years, played the hall’s new pipe organ on a sunlit day I would remember more for the ride we took later on one of Boston’s famous swan boats and the smile I can still sense on my father’s deeply expressive face because his family was young, his career ascendant.
What would Maren make of my memory of a man who died seven years before her birth, the grandfather she never knew?
And what would she think about the old lady from the audience in Lincoln, Nebraska who accepted Wynton’s invitation there to sit on stage with the band and when Wynton named the musicians at the end of the gig he introduced her as well and she proudly stood and accepting the applause took a bow. Or Harold Russell in his tee shirt with the Marlboros in a tucked sleeve and Darleen sitting in the seat behind the driver’s, behind Harold, when she came out one week—we were in Colorado and Wyoming that week—it was her vacation, and also her birthday, and one quiet morning in Laramie, the air still as an arrow ready to be pulled, we walked the town, along Main Street over to the deserted old train station, Darleen and Harold holding hands and talking animatedly, “Look at that, Harold, that store selling cowboy hats. Wouldn’t you look handsome in one.”
Wyoming was vast and made me feel small, fearful that I might never understand the complex of relationships that bound me by then to a trumpet player from New Orleans and a chain-smoking pit bull—Wynton’s words—from Tennessee who used to drive for Guns N’ Roses and wore a John Mellencamp leather jacket that girls, he said, had propositioned him for, Harold who spoke to me with tears in his eyes after the road life caught up to him, a doctor told him he had to quit driving, and I asked Harold following lunch in a barbecue place as we talked in his rented retirement condo—he and Darleen had moved to Colorado Springs—what was it about music that mattered?
“The people,” he said, and Darleen, looking up from the coffee she was making us, shook her head and softly said, “Harold.” His treasure, he called her, with the cute smile and the Harlequin romance in her lap when she used to come out on the road and in her eyes a deep longing that Harold returned after parking the bus and locking it for the night and started talking about the petite woman who worked in Tennessee back when Harold was on the road, so that they often went weeks without seeing one another. How did Harold sleep I sometimes wondered, alone, with his cigarette cough and the hours on the road, often driving all night and then through much of the next day, crisscrossing America so many times he knew the whole country like a map— “After three million miles,” he wrote me, “I was the best damn driver I have ever met! During that three million I kept looking for him. I was it all along!”—knew every shortcut around every downtown and where the cops were waiting to ticket and how the weather changed in the mountains, knew the way from Laramie to Cheyenne, which is where we were headed that time on Darleen’s birthday, buffalo grazing in a pasture and the sky low over the hills with clouds and an ominous sense of enclosure, like a curtain coming down, that whole vast place a stage.
And there’s Wess Anderson in the bus putting on some music, getting his horn out too, Wess with the sweet voice and the sweeter sound, and in those days still the cigarettes, so he always sat in the front of the bus as if that made a difference with his smoking, Wess with the very dark oval face with its soft features and the way his eyebrows furrowed as he listened and you felt underneath the cheerfulness the hollow hurt of his sister’s death—he was in a nightclub playing when his wife Desi came in to tell him she had been shot— and also the little catch in his voice when he was maybe sitting at a bar, laughing, listening to you, how he always asked me by name how each person in my family was and when I said the same to him he always said Des is fine, Quad is fine, but as we locked one another in our eyes I sometimes wondered, “Should you really trust me, do I deserve your affection?” And how might I answer my own question, by what right could I answer, the noble Norseman, Wynton jokingly referred to me once from the stage at a club in Monterrey, California, Mass, as in Massa, he often called me when he had his plantation vibe going in the bus or on the ride from hotel to venue, and afterwards I might think, as I stood off to the side in the dressing room: the token cracker.
In this story I would put how the April air smells on the Dakota plains, how I once walked down a dirt road to the edge of a huge manmade reservoir there on the Missouri River and placed my hand in the water which was cold because winter lasts so long on the prairie, the ground was still frozen in places, the grass brown, and in my head I heard a Wyntonian tune, Superb Starling, which I felt certain could be played at either a wedding or a funeral, same song, because it was both happy and sad, not just one emotion but many, integrated in their improvisation. How I loved the prairie grass in summer, with the music a kind of backdrop, or maybe literally a soundtrack, just as it was in Boston for that December All Rise.
Over Thanksgiving, we had just visited with my mother, sick since summer with one ailment leading to another, now bedridden in a Bronxville, New York hospital. Would I put that in my story, too? In her hospital room she and I had watched part of American Beauty on DVD and I’d given her some jazz I knew she probably would not listen to (“Why can’t he just stick with the melody?” she would ask when I played her one of Wynton’s many versions of his favorite song, Gershwin’s Embraceable You). She was frail but alert. As I left her in the hospital the day after Thanksgiving, the late afternoon light already disappearing into dusk, I had bumped into her doctor, a woman not much younger than my mother. Reviewing my mother’s charts in the hallway near my mother’s room, she had removed her glasses before speaking to me in a highly inflected English with the trace of an Austrian or German accent, shaking her head as if to emphasize the element of mystery in any prognosis, and then without any prompting on my part had said, looking directly into my eyes, “You have to seize life.”
Walking outside then in the chilly, leaf-scented November air, I had looked for the cafe we’d all been to on an earlier visit, when my mom had still been able to walk. Couldn’t find it so I’d continued past the stucco train station and down a block where the lights were on in the marquee of the old movie theater near Bronxville’s Starbucks.
The traffic that had made it difficult to park in Bronxville before visiting my mother had subsided, but the sidewalk by Starbucks was still bustling. An old man walking his poodle reminded me of Jack; it was just a week since Maren and I had stopped with Jack that afternoon at the football field and talked about books while he peed. Maren had asked on this visit to go into the city to see Wynton but had happily settled for an afternoon of food shopping in the Bronx’s Little Italy with my brother, who knew many of the shopkeepers, greeting them by name as he bought bread at a bakery that sold only bread and ravioli at a pasta shop that had been run by the same family since the 1930s and carried only ravioli made in the back room.
Not knowing if I would find my mother alive the next morning, I had looked for her room’s window in the hospital as I walked from Starbucks to my car. Breathing quietly, she had been asleep already when I kissed her forehead and departed. I pictured that breathing as I stared momentarily at her window, a sense of the space she still occupied on the earth, everywhere people breathing, all the while the earth spinning, and then I left.