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Friday, September 10, 2010

An Excerpt from "Speaking of Michelangelo"

Prologue

The Death of Basie

Dinsdale Carruthers was in a particularly foul mood. It was hot, as it was every day in July and for that matter, most of the Goddamned year, and Dinsdale hated the heat. He hated the heat only slightly less than he hated his wife, Doreen, and that was a pocketful. He sat on the porch, even though it was cooler inside the trailer, because at least out on the porch he wasn’t badgered by his wife’s constant yammering.
Dinsdale watched as Basie sniffed around the gazanias, as he always did when he searched for a suitable place to piss. It wasn’t a big yard, but it was fenced in and over the years, Dinsdale was certain that Basie, even though he weighed only three and a half pounds, had probably pissed on every square inch of it at least once, more than likely twice. The dog was nearly ten years old and his eyes were going bad and his legs were stiff—but he sure could piss.
Basie went about his business—the gazanias had proved unsuitable—and Dinsdale wiped his forehead with a handkerchief. He looked at the trailers that surrounded him. Most of the residents didn’t come out much in the heat of the day. Mountain Palms was a retirement “village” located on the outskirts of Mesa, Arizona, and not many of the old folks could stomach the heat. Dinsdale didn’t care much for it, but by all rights watching a dog piss in the heat still beat Doreen’s yammering. He didn’t talk much to his neighbors and didn’t much care what they thought about him sitting outside in the heat. In a village full of senile, grumpy, overheated retirees, Dinsdale was among the most obstinate of them all—a “King Prick”, as Harry Collins used to say, back in the days when Dinsdale blew lead alto sax in the Collins band during the war.
Now, nearing sixty-eight, he was afflicted with rheumatoid arthritis and cataracts—he had more in common with his surly little dog than Doreen—and saddled with a wife he couldn’t stand and hadn’t been able to stand for most of the years they had been married. Dinsdale, or Denny as his pals used to call him back when he was a hepcat, had given up life on the road, living out of a smelly trailer with twelve other men, to settle down and marry. The Collins band had been based out of Lincoln, Nebraska and the travel had been brutal and the pay meager, but those years on the road had been the happiest in Dinsdale’s life. That’s how it had been. Playing dance halls at night, then grabbing a post-gig meal at a local greasy spoon—if they could find one that was still open, before piling into the trailer and sleeping the miles away. If you were lucky, maybe some Betty would come back to the bus with you for a few minutes of the Cha Cha Cha while the other musicians ate.
Basie pissed on the hibiscus and Dinsdale smiled as he thought of the signal used by the bandmates—hanging a white towel on the doorknob of the band’s bus let the others know to clear off for a bit while the Cha Cha Cha was danced in the bunks inside.
Dinsdale often thought of the good times. Blowing sax in the Collins band for $9.00 a night and travelling around the Midwest—it beat trimming back the honeysuckle and picking up dog shit while Doreen sat in the trailer reading her trashy romance novels. His world had come crashing down on him that day in 1950 when Doreen had tracked him down at a barn dance in Omaha to tell him that she was “in the family way”. Then a pleasant, mousy old maid of twenty-seven, she had matured into a hateful, cold woman as the years went by, no doubt spurred by Dinsdale’s indifference to her and their daughter. Doing the honorable thing, Dinsdale had quit the band, married Doreen went to work for her father at his farm-supply store, selling tractors and plows and settled down for a life of Midwestern convention.
The years went by slowly at first, as Doreen raised their colicky, irritable baby and Dinsdale worked seventeen hours a day to try and make ends meet. Eventually, Dinsdale became the store manager, and when the old man died, Dinsdale took over completely. The child grew up, went to school and moved away, as children sometimes do. Without their daughter to raise, Doreen had become sullen and mean-tempered. She had constantly badgered Dinsdale about the long hours he put in at the store, and he reminded her often that he had given up the only thing he had truly loved—his music—to run the Goddamned store in the first place. She had driven him to the arms and beds of other women and he was sure she had done the same, the hateful bitch.
Glen Miller. When Dinsdale needed peace, he would pull out his hi-fi albums and play the music of the big bands. Miller’s “Moonlight Serenade” was his favorite and he wore the record out. It drove his wife and daughter nuts over the years, and that in itself made it worth the price of a new record. The years gained steam as Dinsdale approached his fifties—he battled a drinking problem and tried to gain a handle on his extra-marital dalliances, all the while attempting to keep the store in the black. Every problem had seemed so important then, and even thoughts of forming his own swing band had eventually evaporated. Eventually, his hi-fi records were his only link to the past, his glory days.
His fifties had come and gone, then his sixties and suddenly, it was all over. All the work, all the troubles. His drinking, the affairs, the countless hours worrying over money all seemed like a bad dream, someone else’s life. Now there was only arthritis and bad eyes. And the dog. He sold the store, invested the profits and moved with his wife to the endless sunshine of the great West—Arizona. He lived in a hot little tin can in the middle of the desert, surrounded by other bad-tempered retirees, all waiting to get in the box. For Dinsdale, given the hibiscus, the dogshit and Doreen’s sour disposition, the outlook was bleak. But there was Basie—a Yorkshire terrier and the pride of Dinsdale’s baleful existence.
Named after Count Basie, the little dog had been given to Dinsdale by Doreen on his fifty-eighth birthday and Dinsdale had taken immediately to the little critter. At times it seemed that he and Basie were soulmates. The dog had little use for humans in general and barely tolerated Doreen. Dinsdale felt much the same way. When Basie felt like it, he would hop into Dinsdale’s lap and breathe a heavy sigh before lying down in the comfortable hollow between Dinsdale’s legs. But more often than not, he preferred to prowl the yard, peering through the chain link fence that surrounded it and barking at the passersby.
This day was hotter than most and Dinsdale regretted, as he often did, the decision to move to Mesa year-round. It was a hot, dry, miserable desert populated by snotty-assed, horn-blowing nincompoops for whom Dinsdale had no use. It’s not that he had any desire to return to the muggy, mosquito haven of the Midwest, he just didn’t particularly care for Arizona, or its people.
Basie moved slowly about the yard, his stiff, ten year-old legs shuffling beneath him, his tongue hanging from his mouth, nose to the sky, searching the airstream for strangers at whom to yap. Dinsdale, still grumpy and hot, saw the mailman approaching and got up to fetch the stack of bills he had prepared for mailing the previous evening. He shook his head as he turned the doorknob, once again briefly thinking of the old white towel signal of the Cha Cha Cha. How things had turned out, he thought. Sixty-eight and still paying a stack of bills every two weeks, trying to stretch every penny to it’s fullest. The screen door slammed behind him and he heard Doreen stir in the living room—the hateful bitch.

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