An NPR Indulgence / by Sarah Manning

While my focus artistically is as a saxophonist and composer of music, I love words and was inspired by NPR's Three Minute Fiction to try my hand in the latest round at a short story. The only requirements, other than a maximum of 600 words, were that the story involve a US President, real or imagined. Here's my entry!

Listening in the East Wing

With work and worry wending their way through his mind on endless ant-like pilgrimages, sleep ought to have been coveted. But, smiling wryly at the reference to the jazz standard, what he really looked forward to these days was the “wee small hours”. Of course, in his pajamas he should be just as prepared for a knock on the door or a phone call that would pull him right back into it all. He even felt a bit guilty when he put on headphones and turned the volume up, inching the stereo dial to that point where his surroundings started to blur.

In just the first three notes from the horn he was whispering at the radio.

“Paul Gonsalves!” Of course it must be this sinewy saxophonist with Ellington’s band, with the eccentric, bold, and always swinging lines, that never ran out even after twenty choruses on a blues.  That solo at Newport in 1956, where the crowd slowly grew to a riotous shout – this had to be it. Boy, Gonsalves sure did have a signature sound – the holy grail of jazz Nat Hentoff was always talking about in his liners and columns. Unbuttoning his pajama cuffs and rolling up the sleeves, he did his best Sam Woodyard impression, taking care that his air drumming didn’t mar the antique desk.

Silence followed the number, and he waited for the slow and resonant tones of the show host to proclaim him a winner in his little game of name that tune. Instead came a low rumbling of piano, in tandem with a plaintive tenor sax melody. At once arresting and unsettling, he knew again from just this brief intro who it was.

Emitting a small sigh, he kept on listening. Coltrane’s eloquent commentary on the 1963 Church bombings in Birmingham thirty years ago brought him so easily to a place where hatred and sorrow became imbued with a terrible beauty. Somehow, the stark telling of the melody lifted him above the tragedy just enough to inspire forward motion. He knew how to cleverly use words to weave himself a comfortable cloak of obscurity, but he could never hide from music.

His mind grew shadowy with early memories of police and groups of men congregating - encircling and being encircled, pulling and pushing and falling and rising and falling and not rising. Shutting off the radio when the next tune’s warm brass and lively tempo jarred him, he set his head down upon the blotter.

When his wife gently shook him by the shoulders, he rose inelegantly and shuffled off to shower in a daze. There at the desk he’d been fervently looking through attics and instrument shops for the right horn. Old, with the metal softening and teal in places from being kept in a bit too damp a climate. And for a reed, fine bamboo cane he remembered sanding down as a youth to just the right thickness to produce a tone a little fuzzy around the edges, a reed that would taste of smoke after the gig and last but a day or two before he’d have to search all over again.

 As he got ready, he mentally ran scales, allowing the memory of the clacking sound his horn would make when he moved his fingers to give him a bit of rhythm. He imagined that perfect sound he’d always strived for, heard it, formed it, held onto it and took a breath as he stepped to the podium.

“Good Morning, Mr. President!”

He let the first few notes go.