I wrote this on my Minneapolis-to-Atlanta flight, so there’s lots to change. This is the rough draft.
The air was yellow, but the soil was brown— a dusty charcoal sandlot. Sal stalked across the gravel until he breeched the brown, and he squatted, observing his lot.
“How’s it lookin’?”
Sal sat up, put his hands in his pockets, closed his eyes, and he imagined yellow behind his eyelids—he could smell the pollen beneath the veil of an early-coming chill.
“It’s lookin’ bad, but it smells right.”
He heard feet shuffle, and then a sigh.
“Look, Dean… I know what you’re thinkin’, but hold out, it’ll come. Mustard ain’t picky.”
Inside, the air was brown but full of sweetness as coffee brew into an empty kitchen. Helen had just laid down on her living room chair after pressing the Mr. Coffee’s ON, exhausted after months of waiting. The coffee brewed all day long, and though it was dusk, she made sure her husband and son had what kept them going.
Dean swung open the silver screen door, and Helen sat up from her slouch and picked up her novel.
Sal went to his wife and patted down loose strands from her whitened-grey hair. He lightly kissed it, but so light, that she didn’t notice and began to sit up, knocking each other, playfully.
Dean was pouring himself two cups of coffee in the other room, dreaming of island summers. He had just come back from Jamaica where he taught little boys and girls how to love Jesus through banjo playing and kickball. He felt he learned more from them than they did from him, but everyone always says that. He knew Sal and Helen didn’t get his going abroad, it seems that nothing made sense to them outside their side of the mountains, and Dean wondered if they believed Jesus died on the cross right there on their farm. He wanted to believe the lies he told them every night he went out, but he was really playing saxophone on top of the mountains in a little bar in The Town On Top of the World. It was a long name, sure, but it was true, and everyone who lived there believed in fairies and make-believe, even the older ones who shouldn’t. Dean was twenty-five, and his mind wasn’t on the farm, it was in the world, the way Russia and the Philippines felt like make-believe, places he’ll probably never see. They could be fairy tales for all he knew—full of forgotten spacemen and women who dream of fairness.
“I’ll be back, ma,” Dean called out.
“Alright, you be careful, ya here?”
Dean stumbled out clumsily into the drought that taught his kinfolk more faith than Preacher Tom could ever try to do. He was careful, always, cause he wasn’t in the lumberyard catching a few extra bucks but a neon-lit bar with a handful of folks that sipped whisky with their bluesy jazz. He wasn’t sure why he didn’t tell them, it’s not as if they would kick him out even if they were inclined to do that sort of thing, they needed their boy. He was rough around the edges in just the kindest way that you could be—his skin white in the winter and pink when the cicadas hummed. Handsome even in his beige coat, the girls he grew up with were always around, saying they were there to pick up their daddy’s mustard and veggies, but Sal always ended up taking them to Dean, cause he knew they weren’t really there for tomatoes. Dean wasn’t interested, though. He picked his daddy’s peaches for him, but he imagined mangoes. When he bit into the strawberries, he could almost taste grapes fresh off the vine in Southern Italy. What brought him to these places wasn’t anything the farm taught him specifically but what it bred into his heart. The solitude and hard work dug dirt underneath his nails that calloused his hands and deepened his soul for growth, and the best growth he could see for himself was to dig up his roots.
The bar was dim, very few people were there yet, as it was only eight o’ clock. The sun was setting, too, and the twilight took some people inside and stirred others until the darkness welcomed them into the night.
Dean started to set up, taking out his sax as he did every night, wetting his reed, and cleaning out the grooves.
“Hey, Dean, my man, what you going to play tonight?”
Dean looked up and saw the bar’s proprietor, Big Al. He was a portly black man, and the only man in town Dean felt like he could trust besides his father.
“Whatever you have for me to play, Big Al,” Dean grinned at him, slapped his hand. Big Al looked around the small stage. Four music stands, three stools, and five mics squished together on the rounded stage lined with a velvet-colored plush rug. Dean would often follow the paisleys with his eyes outlined in the rug when the music started to drag, dreaming of New Orleans or Kansas City. He’d only read about these places or heard about them through Coltrane songs, but he could almost smell new air while he was dreaming. It made his horn playing croon sadly that made Big Al clap his fat, old hands too, saying “mm-mm.” Big Al thinks there ain’t no better place to be, one of those that hope to make his city the next one instead of moving to the ones that already are something. Dean didn’t have what that took, and he had already dug out his heels. It was a different generation, he’d always say, but only to himself when his folks or others of their age would look at him kindly but with their own thoughts thinking, he’ll find out soon.
Big Al gave him a sheet of music, same as two months before. It was one he played so much he could probably sleep through his own set and make Al smile from ear to big ole ear, but he didn’t say a thing, and every night, they did the same thing. What you going to play for me? He’d ask, but he was the one who set the stage, who really put on the show.
At a quarter to ten, the rest of the band showed up. Dean was always earliest, he had no reason to stick around at home and wait. Plus, this gave him plenty of time to be alone in the whole bar, and when he practiced the room filled with only his sound, and it was as if he controlled his fate instead of something else.
The singer, a wild-eyed redhead who put her hair into an Afro came in laughing with the bassist, trombone player, and trumpeter. They always stuck around together, and she talked just like them though she was whiter than the moon on its fullest night. She was just 21 and she thought Dean’s idea was just marvelous, and when he headed down to Louisiana he just had to take her along. She’d split the gas and snacks. Besides her dreaming, he rarely spoke to the rest of them, and he didn’t fairly want to, either. He didn’t want to make connections since his roots weren’t planted.
He tipped his cap at her, and she curtsied him with a wink and wave of her hips.
“Hey, Big Al! What you have the lights off for? We gotta get some light on us if we openin’ up in just a few minutes!” Hannah called out to him through the mic, her own way of checking the sound.
“Well, you know our man likes his peace and quiet, now,” he bellowed through the intercom. This happened almost the same way every night, and he just grinned at them. It was like they felt they were in Vegas or New York if they kept up an act, but he didn’t understand it. Yeah, they were the hotspot in town, but only cause they were the only place in town. Dean figured he kept it from his parents cause this joint goes back, way into the speak easy days, and it has a reputation. It was almost as if they were all stuck in time and they all kept alive with the heat of stolen shots, hiding away and nestled by towering trees that kept our secrets out, but that wasn’t Dean’s fantasy. He wanted a spotlight, a way to show the world he had just as much in him as Charlie Parker, though not as much personality. You’d think years of labor would make him restless and rowdy like his band mates, but it just grew him more and more silent like the fields of rustling mustard plants.
People started coming in, and we purposefully put off the set until 30 minutes after. Folks like to hear the band warm up. They feel rushed when they feel like they’ve missed something. Hannah’s alto bravado vibrated off the walls, and regulars were waving at her and pointing at her, probably whispering to their pals how much energy she had, so much spunk. She truly belonged here, but I wanted the world hear her hold out those long low notes until goosebumps came to you without even willing them. It seemed unfair, her stuck in what felt like the wilderness when she had enough in her to take her voice on the road, but no one around here ever thought about such things. Even her, her dreams, you could tell they were all talk. It’s easy to tell when someone says “oh, I’m dying to go to Paris,” and as they say it you’ll know they’ll never even try to go. After Jamaica, Dean saw just how easy it was to splurge just a little on a flight that he easily gained back just a month and a half after being back. He couldn’t comprehend their groundwork. He felt ripened, ready to pluck, but he had to remind himself always that he was plucked, uprooted, ready to eat—ready for whatever was next, whatever that was.
After the set, the twenty or so that always stuck around did just that smoking with the rest of them. They all crowded out back, close together in the unforgivable early autumn, right next to the dumpsters and the alley that brought you down to Rick’s hardware store.
“Hey, Dean, why don’t ya come join us? I think we’re going to Mickey’s for some burgers.”
Dean was walking to his truck, his sax in his hand, and Thomas the bassist called from the huddle. You’d think they could see their breath the way they were shaking and keeping together, but it was still only about 40 degrees. Still cold for early October.
He thought about it, seeing as he always turned them down. He went out with them once, last year before he went to Jamaica. It was his first night, and he was on fire. He got the gig through a connection with his old band teacher from high school who came by for some vegetables from the farm. He hadn’t seen him in years and he asked him if he still played. Dean played a lot, down in the basement, but only cause his parents didn’t want to pay for cable and they didn’t get good enough reception for basic television. Sometimes they’d all watch Who Wants to be a Millionaire when they could get the ears just right, but even tin foil didn’t seem to do the trick. He told him a spot opened up, and luckily since his mom and daddy were out at the store distributing their produce, he took the offer, but told him not to say anything. The teacher seemed to get it, but only in a friendly way, a passing “I understand” you say on instinct to strangers that tell you their personal business without wanting to really hear it. He picked it back up when he got back, the gig, but not the keeping in touch. He felt displaced, he had nothing to say.
“Not tonight, but thanks for the offer.”
“Don’t sweat it, man,” Thomas replied, and Hannah wiggled her fingers goodbye.
Dean felt like a child, the one who needs looking after, and he wished they didn’t feel that way. He was fine, just not rooted.
Sal heard Dean pull in, a bit earlier than usual. It was almost midnight, and they were to get up at five to start watering the soil. They had double the work to do than usual. He knew Dean was playing his sax, but he wasn’t sure why he lied about it. It was an odd lie, one that must have hidden secrets, but he wasn’t sure even Dean knew them, so he kept it going. Sal believed Helen knew, but she kept oblivious and only once said, “I wonder if he’s really doing extra work in the lumberyard… I hate to see him push himself so much.”
“He’s definitely not in the lumberyard. He’s out playing that sax. He hasn’t played here in a year, and it’s not dusty,” Sal told her, but she only sat there and looked out the window watching a canary float by back and forth like it only fit inside the box of the windowpane, like it knew it was putting on a show. She finally said, “I don’t like you looking at his things,” and went to make a delicious pot roast that both her boys enjoyed so much they slept so soundly that night.
Sal sat up in bed, heard the door creak open slowly and then a few moments later, the handle clicked. Sal slowly crawled out of bed, and Helen lay quietly, her head resting on her hands instead of her pillow, the quilt she made for Dean when he was a baby seemingly wrapped around her, a security seeped in through years of coddling and infant love.
“Hey, son,” Sal walked into the kitchen where Dean was catching a snack. He was startled behind the glowing refrigerator door. He looked at the case on the kitchen table, and Sal caught a glimpse with him.
“How long’s it been since you played this old thing? You used to keep up with it more.”
Dean grabbed the milk and then the cereal from the shelf and sat in front of his dad at the table. He looked into his father’s eyes.
“How long have you known?” Dean asked.
“Oh, I guess since about the time you said you were doing work in the lumber yard.”
Dean grinned up at his father through bites of crunchy granola.
Sal grinned back. “You always loved diggin’ in the weeds, but if I ever got you to cut up some wood you’d be outta there quicker than I could count to ten.”
Dean snickered and nodded in agreement. It was silent, the only sounds were his crunching and the clock ticking. He knew he was expected to explain, but he didn’t know how.
“Sorry I didn’t tell you, pop.”
He tapped the table with his hands, “It’s alright, son. Just not sure why ya didn’t.”
He looked back up at his father, into those eyes again, the best way to figure out his mood, what he was thinking, how he felt. Maybe they had answers, Dean thought.
“I really don’t know,” he said, quiet but loud enough.
“I know,” Sal said. He scratched his whiskers, shaven from the day before but growing back already. “Hey, why don’t we go to town tomorrow.”
Dean stopped chewing and looked up, “But we have so much to do.”
Sal waved his hand at him, “Oh, it ain’t going nowhere. Plus I need to sell a few things at the store.”
“But I thought you and momma went last week?”
“Well, do you wanna spend time with your old man or not?” Sal leaned his arm at the table moving closer to him.
“Well, sure! I’m… Well, yes, that sounds quite nice.” What Dean wanted to say is that he’s not falling off the deep end just cause he told a little white lie about his whereabouts and he’s honestly tired of the forty-five minute recruit every night as it was, but he could use the sleeping in.
Sal stood up and slapped Dean on the back. “I’ll see ya in the morning, kid. Get some rest.” And then he disappeared.
“I just don’t understand, Sal. We don’t have the extra cash for y’all to spend that gas money going into town, is all,” Helen submissively suggested as she stood in the door way watching Sal put on shaving cream. It was nine a.m., and she woke up in a fury when she didn’t hear the alarm go off. “I have to make your biscuits and eggs!” she cried, but Sal told her the plan.
“It’ll be alright, Helen, I think this will be good for us. For the boy, too.”
Helen slumped. “He ain’t no boy, you know.”
Sal slid the last bit of shaving cream from his face with his razor and and patted it with a towel. He turned around and put his hand on her shoulder, grinning. “I know.” And he disappeared.
“Where exactly are we going?” Dean asked his father once they passed the grocery. Sal didn’t answer, but let the gospel station hum dimly among them.
Dean studied the way the hills moved up and down as they drove past them, the blur of the trees turning orange too quickly. Cows grazed across land that stretched for acres, and once and awhile a donkey would see him sitting in his passenger seat, the mare standing along the fence post as if he too was uprooted.
All of a sudden, they pulled up to what looked like an amusement park or maybe an old intricate jungle gym. As they got closer, Dean noticed rusty railroad lines and fair swings and a barn opened up to reveal what looked like bumper cars. There were booths and tilt-a-whirls, and yes, that was definitely a cotton candy machine. It looked identical to the one at their county fair.
“Can you explain, now?”
“Hold on to your horses, now.” Sal pulled into a long gravel parking lot that looked like it could hold hundreds of cars, but they were the only ones. They got out and crossed the railroad track, heading towards a cabin with smoke billowing out of it. There was definitely life going on inside, but from the lack of upkeep outside, one wouldn’t be able to tell.
Sal knocked on the door. A portly man opened the door, and then came a shout.
“Well if it isn’t my man, Sal!”
Dean felt tricked, confused by their connection, but not so much since they were all connected around here, but this was stranger. His boss for over a year and his dad, they felt like two different worlds, a light toward a dream and the stable man that kept him fed and sheltered.
“Dean, my boy, why don’t you two come inside and make yourselves comfortable,” Big Al sauntered into the living room and rattled dishes while they stepped inside. He never called him boy, only man, and he felt doubly-blindsided. But he didn’t say a word.
Sal and Dean sat on his couch, sunken in from use, a brown cushion with a purple throw across it. The inside of the cabin seemed to match the bar, dark shades of blue and purple and red all around, framed pictures from times past that Dean never bothered to look at until now. Now, they were new, a different place, though they looked lcopies of the same photographs.
There were children around Big Al, and he was standing in front of a train. There were children on spinning swings. There were children on log flumes. There were jazz singers, blues guitarists, and a man with a saxophone. The man with the saxophone looked happy, thriving. Every snapshot belonged here, in this world. They felt purposeful, important. The saxophone player was Sal.
Dean knew his father played the saxophone, that’s where he got his, of course. It looked so new in the photograph, shining, sparkling brass so young and full of life just like its owner. Sal walked up behind Dean.
“Feels like no time has passed.”
“Shoo-wee, I’m telling you,” Big Al came in behind him, three glasses of lemonade on a platter in his hand. “Did ya see this one?” He pointed above the mantel where the doorway slipped into the kitchen. It was of a group of guys, one was Al, much less heavy, but still his portly self, and right next to him is Sal. Sal’s wearing suspenders, and so’s the rest of them. But Sal’s the only one with his arms over Big Al’s shoulder.
“Yeah, I have a copy of that one tucked away somewheres in that house of mine.”
“How come I’ve never seen any of this?” Dean finally spoke up, the first since he’d stepped into the cabin. He was heated, hurt, but not surprised, yet again. Their house was quiet, guarded. Secrets marinated the air. He barely knew his extended family, barely knew a thing at all he felt now.
Big Al set the tray of lemonades on the coffee table. “Your son never heard about Big Country days? Now how come Sal?”
Sal turned around, his arms steady on his hips, “Now, hear me out. I was always going to tell you, but I wanted it to be at the right time.”
Big Al got a little closer to Sal. “Does this have anything to do with me, Sal? I thought yous was different?”
“Now you know it ain’t got nothing to do with you, Big Al. I ain’t ever gave you one inkling that I was like them, but he had to be ready.”
“Ready for what?” Dean asked.
Sal looked at Big Al, and then Dean. Dean couldn’t tell what was in his father’s eyes, but he knew they were full of thinking, recollecting.
“Well, alright, how about we head to the porch with those lemonades?”
In the chill of a coming winter, Sal told his son about Big Country, a carnival that Big Al rooted right along the rail line. It was the perfect spot to cut up after hours of work on the line, and it brought in the railmen and the families in town. It was an instant hit. As its popularity grew, so did crowds from other counties, and then from other states bordering. Then, word got out it was being run by a black man, and within months it was shut down. Many tried to buy it from Big Al, offering big sums, but he would do no such thing. Sal was part of Big Al’s rocking, root-tooting band that played every Friday and Saturday night, and some of them left for other gigs, but Sal stayed put. He kept his sax down in the basement until one day his son found it and didn’t give it up.
“What I don’t understand is why it was such a secret? And how come I’ve never heard of this place if it was such a big hit?”
Dean asked after Sal explained.
“Boy, don’t you know where yous from? This is a hush-hush world we live in, and if you think you living in secrets, you don’t even know the half of it,” Big Al laughed and laughed, though it didn’t seem to Dean like something he should laugh at.
“I don’t get why they shut you down,” Dean finally said right before they were about to leave.
Sal smacked his son on his back, “Exactly why I never told ya.” And Dean felt even smaller, but he knew.
Riding back with Sal, Dean felt like his father was a new man, and when they did go to the grocery and sell some of their produce, it felt more important than before.
When they got back home, Sal headed to his bedroom door, and Dean called out to him and told him thanks. Sal just smiled, waved goodnight. The next morning they waited on those mustard plants, and though Dean was still uprooted, he now understood just how important those roots were.