“This ain’t no shortcut, Zoot”. Tyrone was leaning out the passenger side window, trying to see roadsigns. “I thought you were born and bred in this area, I thought you know the backroads of Missouri like you know the chord changes to ‘Round Midnight’.
Zoot was concentrating on his driving. A rain was slamming into the windshield so fiercely that the wipers were inadequate to push it aside. He slowed the Continental to ten miles an hour as its tires geysered water in big fans to either side of the road.
“Close the goddam window,” Zoot said testily, “I know where I am. I just didn’t see the Steelville Road, must have passed bout five miles back.” He slung the vehicle into a slow turn, so that he was facing in the opposite direction. A bolt of lightning slashed into the ground nearby and the clap of thunder brought Aaron awake in the backseat.
“Holy Shit!” he said, blinking. “That was loud! We in Lawrence yet?”
The trio had played a gig in Champagne the previous night, for the university crowd. Somewhat injudiciously, Zoot had booked another campus gig the next night at the University of Kansas. They had packed up their stuff after the gig, got into the car and started driving. Sleeping and driving in turns, they had crossed Illinois and had encountered a furious traffic jam near East St. Louis. Zoot turned north and crossed the Missippi at Alton, then looped south towards Jefferson City. A ‘short cut’, he called it.
At one oclock in the afternoon it was dark as twilight. The rain stopped, suddenly, the wind died down. Tyrone rolled the window up until it was just an open crack at the top. He lit a cigarette and blew the smoke towards the crack.
“We need a PissnGas,” Aaron announced. He pointed at the gauge. “You’re almost on empty and I’m almost on full.”
“There’s one at the Steelville turnoff, if I can find it.” Zoot was unusually moody and terse. He felt stupid booking two gigs so far apart on succeeding nights, but he had a lot of people to support and the money was good. After all these years, he had learned how to pace himself, but now and then one of his wives called or one of his kids needed school money and he was forced to push himself and his musicians.
Aaron leaned forward and put his face near Zoot’s shoulder. “You’re kinda gloomy, man. What’s goin’ on?”
Zoot steered with one hand and rubbed his left-side bursitis with the other. “I don ‘t know. It ain’t the weather and it ain’t really the drive, we done this a hundred times. Somethin’ spooky in the air, I can feel it.”
“Yeah? Well what is that thing?” Tyrone was pointing across a landscape of ripening soybeans, toward the lowering sky in the southwest.
Zoot braked suddenly and stopped in the middle of the narrow deserted back road.
“That,” he said emphatically, “Is about to become a twister, it ain’t quite touched the ground yet.” Transfixed, the three musicians watched the sky writhe as it made jagged blades of dark moisture. The blades seemed to fence with one another, dancing around a central core of towering black cloud. Its beauty was at once staggering, menacing and inspiring. After a few moments, the dueling blades were sucked into this central darkness and they became a single stabbing dagger that connected with the earth. A skirt of debris rose from its intersection and surrounded its lower trunk with the red-brown and green of wet fields of soybean plants.
Zoot gunned the car and started racing down the road as fast as he dared. The twister reached out towards them with a seemingly personal and purposive malevolence.
It knows we’re here, Aaron thought. It wants us.
The road was narrow but straight, and Zoot was able to get up to about fifty but the deep puddles in the ruts and potholes slowed the car down as it bounced and shimmied and slid.
“Motherfucker’s getting closer,” Tyrone said. His voice was loud but indistinct in the sudden roaring of wind.
Zoot looked for some protective feature in the landscape. He knew he had only seconds. They came to a wooden bridge fording a small creek, a deep notch in the otherwise flat terrain.
Zoot stopped the car and opened the door. “Come on!” He bailed out and headed for the side of the bridge, finding a path down towards the creek bed. Aaron and Tyrone followed, clothes flapping, hats flying.
“Down this way!” Zoot instructed, “get away from the bridge!”
The three men slapped through muddy creek bed and found a big rock thirty feet from the bridge. They crouched under it like little children hanging onto a mother’s skirts. Looking up, Aaron saw the base of the twister lashing back and froth, saw the sky whirling, saw leaves and limbs circling. The wind howled and he put his face into his arms and held the rock. His breath was sucked from his body. He had a moment of panic as he struggled for air.
The wooden frame of the bridge exploded in the din and boards went up into the sky, disappearing into blackness. The air came rushing back into Aaron’s lungs, and his breath returned. He heard voices in the wind, evil genies laughing, mocking, capricious in their power.
The twister went down the road and across the fields and disappeared back into the sky.
The musicians climbed back to the road, fearing for the Continental and their musical instruments.
The car was in the exact center of the road, pointed in the opposite direction in which it had been parked. Gingerly, Zoot opened the door. Nothing seemed to have changed. Tyrone’s cigarette butt still rested at the lip of the ashtray. The organist reached in and took the cigarette reverently, drew a puff and blew smoke into the still air. Aaron’s copy of Downbeat Magazine was still open to the record reviews. On the road, piles of junk lay everywhere, clods of earth, wooden beams, uprooted plants. Trees were cracked a third the way up their trunks, all of their branches laying on the ground, pointing northeast.
Zoot shook his arms and hands as if to disperse some unwelcome insect. “Man, I thought that twister was after me, personally.”
His voice shook.
“So did I,” Aaron agreed. His throat was dry. His heart was pounding.
Tyrone nodded. He wa so thrilled to be alive he was hopping from foot to foot. “It was saying ‘Tyrone, I’m comin’ to git you’. I thought I’d open my eyes and be in Oz, with a bunch of little people dancin’ round my feet.”
Zoot walked to the now topless bridge. He looked at the steel superstructure, bounced around on it. “Looks okay. I ain’t going back forty miles to get across this creek.”
The men got into the car and Zoot steered it carefully onto, and across, the bridge. “Still need a Pissngas?” Zoot inquired mockingly.
Aaron checked his clothing. “Somehow I held my water. I forgot I had to pee. Now I got to pee really really bad.”
“Well shit, get out and pee, we about fifteen minutes from the Steelville turnoff.”
Aaron went out behind a bush and relieved himself. He heard the sound of his own stream against a world that had gone supernally silent. There was no wind, no bird song. The sky was a weird shade of pink. As soon as he was finished the rain began to fall again. The drops were huge, heavy, laden with silt. Covering his head, Aaron raced back to the car.
After driving for ten minutes in silence, a black and white road sign appeared. The warped rectangle shape of the state of Missouri enclosed a number four. Fifteen yards past this sign there was a green board with white letters and an arrow pointing to the right. Steelville, eight miles, it indicated. At this one-sided intersection was a little gas station and a tiny grocery store skirted by a wooden plank walkway. Zoot pulled into the station. He gestured to Aaron to stay in the car. This part of Missouri wasn’t explicitly segregated, but it had the taint of old rebellion. Zoot asked a black attendant to fill the tank, and Tyrone jumped through the rain towards the store, looking for another pack of cigarettes. Aaron watched the Schlitz Beer sign flicker, rolled the window down to smell the storm -soaked earth. He knew this country, too. He had come here for vacations with his family. They had gone to Bagnell Dam, Lake of the Ozarks, Wildwood Resort. In a childhood with a paucity of happy memories, this country meant peace, relief, respite, jumping from a pier into the lake, riding horses, mom on her best behavior, dad relaxed and having fun.
Zoot chatted with the station attendant about the twister, informed him that the Willens Creek Bridge was no longer covered.
“Be damned,” the man said, “twister blew the top the bridge away? No shit?”
“No shit, almost blew us away too, turned this here Lincoln Continental hundred eighty degrees backward.” Zoot’s dialects always reflected his circumstances. He pronounced “this here” as “thissheer”.
Hurriedly finishing the transaction to get out of the rain, the attendant took Zoot’s money and rushed back into the shelter of the store.
A moment later, Tyrone came walking out, holding a newspaper limply in his hand. His mouth was hanging open, his eyes had a staring and shocked quality, as if he had just survived a terrible battle. He opened the passenger’s side , threw the newspaper towards Aaron in the back seat and slumped abruptly on the plush leather, one leg hanging out the door.
“You look like you just got terrible news,” Zoot observed with concern.
Tyrone nodded and pointed towards the newspaper.
“Coltrane’s dead,” he said mournfully. “It’s in the paper. He died yesterday.”
There was a stunned silence. Aaron felt as if he had just taken the first plunge on a roller coaster ride, his stomach went up through his chest.
“No,” Zoot said. “No.”
Tyrone had the paper folded out to the entertainment section. It was the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. There was a big article about Barbara Streisand, a review of the new James Bond movie, a review of the Led Zeppelin Concert at Kiel Auditorium. Down in the far right corner of the page was a two paragraph squib. ‘Jazz Musician John Coltrane Dies,” it said. There was sketchy information about the jazz giant succumbing suddenly to liver cancer.
Aaron put his face in the paper and squeezed himself with it, crumbling it around his cheeks. “He was forty years old!” He wailed. “Forty years old! What is happening? Why are jazz musicians dying? Why Coltrane, of all people, Trane? “
Desperately, he clawed at Zoot’s shoulder. “We’re all professional jazz musicians, Zoot. Is this my future? Is this Tyrone’s? Are you going to die on us, too? Why can’t we survive? What are we doing to ourselves?”
Zoot stared straight ahead, seeing nothing. He reached across his shoulder and patted Aaron’s hand, squeezing it.
“You’re just beginning to see what it’s like,” the old musician said. “It’s dangerous to be a genius. That’s why I stay in this chitlin circuit groove, play the college campuses, keep my mid-stream profile. And this is hard enough. You think Coltrane could be inspired every night? You think he could get up there and reach down into his guts and deliver a brilliant set five nights a week, be a genius?”
A core of bitter reflection stained Zoot’s voice. These were thoughts he generally kept to himself. As he spoke, his anger grew and his voice scraped with frustration and old pain.
“You have to use something, like Bird, like Lester, you have to use something to get to that place where you even feel like playing at all, let alone be great. Then you raise the standard, people turn out and expect to be transformed, to hear an oracular performance, night after night. I smoke my weed, that’s how I do it. And I don’t ask too much of myself. That’s why I’m sixty three and still playing. I know how much I can give. Men like Coltrane, they don’t know moderation, they can’t know moderation, they have to keep pushing the limits or the critics jump on their ass, the fickle fans get restless, the talk on the street starts goin’ ‘round, ‘Trane’s lost it, Bird’s lost it, Jackie’s lost it, Prez’s lost it, Bud’s lost it! You have a couple bad nights and all these assholes can’t play a note go talking, he’s lost it, lost it, getting’ tired, man, runnin’ out of steam, his great days are behind him, what a shame, used to be a great musician.”
Zoot paused for a moment, looking at his sidemen, at his disciples in the mystic art of music. Then he spat a long gobbet out the window and said, with a lengthy and contemptuous drawl, “Sheee-it! Son of a fucking bitch!”
He turned backward to look at Aaron. Cobra-like, he shifted his body, glancing at Tyrone beside him. He was seething, indignant. “That’s why geniuses die. They have to die! Ain’t no choice! Once they get a reputation as a genius, they have to be a geniuse every night. They use it up! Then they’re gone!”
He turned on the engine and drove about a hundred yards down the road. He pulled onto the shoulder and scrunched the emergency brake with his foot. He put his large hands in front of his face, then leaned into them and began to weep.
It was contagious. These three friends, of different ages, races, different backgrounds, were not afraid to show their feelings to one another. The three jazz musicians, on their way to a gig, taking a short cut through the back roads of Missouri, pulled onto the side of the country lane and wept for John Coltrane.