Chet Baker's Son
I left Chicago and returned to Dallas when my mother tried to overdose. She’d tried it before, usually with pills, but this time they hospitalized her and put her on different medication. Before, whenever she wasn’t taking her meds, my stepfather, Gene, usually found her wading in Skeleton Creek or harassing old man Skinner at the bait-and-tackle shop down the road from where they lived in the country. I was worried about her more this time, even though we’d been through it before.
I took a taxi from the airport to my sister’s place near downtown Dallas, in Deep Ellum, past the old buildings and neighborhoods with cars parked in yards, wood-frame houses with dirty paint. I was twenty-six. The city felt foreign to me, even though I hadn’t been away that long. I’d been awake for three days, hanging out with all sorts of people. I told the driver to take his time driving.
“I don’t understand,” he said.
My last night in Chicago my friend Santiago took me to a bar where I met a woman who told me the absence of excess and chance is the beginning of failure. Don’t go home, she told me. Don’t fly to a damp wasteland, emptiness, fields. This is the only party. It’s here. There’s nothing down there anymore.
“I mean there’s no hurry,” I told the driver.
To pursue solitude requires some sort of minimal desire, or maybe no desire at all. This is how I see it. To find loneliness, to become a saint. To desire solitude and be with my mother, who’d just had a breakdown and was not well, until I felt safe enough to leave again. In Chicago I lived in an apartment with four other people. I waited tables at a restaurant and worked one night a week playing piano at a retirement home. When my sister, Meg, called me and told me about our mother’s breakdown and suicide attempt, I had to leave.
I went to the apartment on Deep Ellum Alley, a room overlooking warehouses and buildings and the dirty street below. Meg had given me a key after she’d moved in over a year ago. The room was cold and dark. I was surprised the place was neatly picked up and clean, not filled with articles of clothing draped over chairs or all over the floor as I had expected. Her bed was made; I had the feeling she’d been away for a couple of days. There was a bird in a cage, a gray-and-yellow cockatiel. The bird fluttered its wings, cocked its head and looked at me. I put my bag down and opened the refrigerator in the kitchen. There was orange juice and bread. No coffee. On the window ledge there was a patch of old snow, ash-light breaking in.
I needed to go out for cigarettes. I found one of Meg’s coats in the closet and put it on over my hooded sweatshirt. Before I left Chicago I’d given my coat to a kid wearing a Bears t-shirt. He was handing out copies of his own music. “Psychedelic funk,” he told me. “You’ll like it.” I traded him the coat for one of his CDs. “Where you from?” he asked.
“Me too,” he said.
Meg’s coat fit me okay. I had a sore tooth, a bottom one near the back. I stopped to look at myself in her bathroom mirror. I opened my mouth, not knowing what I was looking for. There was a sharp pain in the gum—a cavity maybe, or something else. I looked through the medicine cabinet. There were bottles of aspirin and Ibuprofen, heartburn tablets, allergy capsules, lotions, tubes, gels. I took four Ibuprofen and headed out.
As evening fell, Crowdus Street was dark, and a light snow was falling. Buildings looked small and crooked, deprived of sunlight. Structures in Chicago were proportioned and near exact, buildings of art. Here there was no color anywhere. A grainy film, something out of an old photograph. A man in a long coat and wearing a Dallas Cowboys stocking cap leaned forward and coughed violently, on the verge of sickness. Only his right hand was gloved. A few blocks away I found a 7-11.
Behind the counter, the clerk was talking in Spanish on his cell phone and trying to write something down. An older couple with a miniature bull terrier on a leash was arguing about something. The woman looked at me as I knelt down to scratch the dog behind the ear. I bought a pack of Camels and left.
The last time I was in Deep Ellum there were people all around, but the weather was better then. I made my way down the block, down Malcolm X Boulevard in the cold wind, the same block I had walked down a year earlier, before I left for Chicago. I could imagine myself walking like this for a long time. All around me was narrowness and shadows, brick buildings, the street. The air was heavy and dead. But this was the function of middle American cities in winter. Rank smells, empty streets, narrow alleys and shadows. A woman standing in front of a sushi restaurant told me where the closest liquor store was. It wasn’t too far, a few blocks away. I crossed Main and walked down a dark street until I found it. The guy working at the liquor store had a cat with him. The cat was silent, sleeking around my legs. A man watching me whispered something to the woman with him. I picked up the cat and let it curl against my chest. The couple watched me but I ignored them. I bought a bottle of Popov vodka and headed back to Meg’s place.
When I returned she still wasn’t there. I unpacked in the bedroom, checked my cell phone, looked in all the dressers for pain pills, maybe some pot or even Ecstasy to chew up. I checked all the kitchen cabinets but found nothing. I sat on the bed and watched a light snow come down. In the dim light of the streetlamps, the snow came down slowly, with great precision. Strange, I thought. There was wind, so the snow floated sideways. In Chicago, I could sit at the window forever and watch the snow fall.
I tried to call my mother’s house. She was severely depressed, immobile, staying in bed all the time. My stepfather, Gene, rarely returned my calls. We never got along, not even when I was a kid. He worked his whole life in a foundry, where he dragged giant buckets of hot white metal across an overhead track and poured the buckets into molds. My mother told him he was lucky to be alive, breathing in all that aluminum and iron and asbestos. At some point he’d developed the shakes. By looking at him you’d think he was a methhead, the way he twitches around all the time.
I called my mother’s house and left her a message: “It’s Gideon, I’m back in Dallas. I’m at Meg’s. I hope you’re feeling better. Give me a call so I can come see you.”
In the kitchen I toasted some bagels and used a knife to spread on the last of the strawberry jam. I ate standing, listening to the sound of pipes knocking. The sink was partly full of used water. Things there were vaguely familiar. I’ve always lived struggling to adjust to the solitude of winter nights, but everyone handles loneliness differently. I handled things badly. That’s what Meg always told me. I opened the bottle of vodka and poured a glass. I sat at the window and watched the snow for a while, mostly until I started feeling drunk. I wanted an unexpected peace. Happiness. I wanted to feel dizzy with pleasure. There was no street noise outside and I welcomed the silence. I worked to pursue silence, become a saint, skilled in visions. I was freezing. I put on Meg’s coat and fell asleep in a chair.
I have little memory of my father. He died when I was four. My mother found him unresponsive one morning. He was a drug addict. We were living in a suburb at the time. Meg has a much better memory of him than I do. Meg was the oldest and says he was funny and that he played the piano for us and took us out to eat with his friends. My only memory of him is vague: I was sitting on a divan in someone’s crummy apartment and looking up at him while he smoked and laughed and moved his hands around as he talked. He didn’t have any teeth from the drug use. He talked loudly and sometimes broke into fits of abandoned laughter. My mother said she fell in love with him because he looked like Chet Baker. He struggled with his drug problem most of his adult life. In photos his hands look bony and aged, his face pale and sunken.
We used to tell people Chet Baker was our father. Mom always listened to his records. On warm nights we sat in the living room, listening to "Live in Montmartre," "Night Bird," "Conception," "I Remember You."
Late in the night Gene called to tell me my mother was doing fine but didn’t want to talk on the phone.
“She’s really down,” he said. “She’s tired. Can’t get out of bed. You’re back in town?”
“I’m at Meg’s. We’ll head that way tomorrow, probably.”
“Just make sure to be careful when you’re there,” he said. “I’m driving over to Mark and Juanita’s right now for a break while your mother sleeps. She needs rest. It’s exhausting, all of it.”
“Who’s there with her?”
“Your brother’s staying the night. I needed a break.”
After we got off the phone I drank some vodka but couldn’t fall back asleep. My mother was sick, and now I felt helpless until Meg would come home. I tried to call Basille but got his voicemail. I left him a message: “Just checking on Mom,” I said. “Give me a call.” I sat in the chair by the window and started reading a book about Chet Baker that I took from Meg’s shelf. Mostly, I looked at the photos, black-and-whites of a man born in Yale, Oklahoma, thin and pale, losing teeth, sick from shooting drugs.
I thought, this must be what my father looked like before he died.
In silence I ate some soup, head down, face in the bowl. Then I sat in a chair by a lamp, next to bookshelves. There were no other books worth reading. I moved back to the chair by the window and saw a dog crossing Crowdus Street. The dog stopped and pawed at something at a fence across the street.
I was cold and kept Meg’s coat on. I may have drifted off for a while. Around eleven I heard a noise at the door, keys jingling, and then the door opened and Meg was standing there. She held two sacks of groceries, put them down on the table and came over and hugged me for a long time. She rested her head on my shoulder.
“I’m so glad to see you,” she said. “Why are you wearing my coat?”
“I gave mine away.”
“It’s winter here,” she said. “It’s too cold. Sorry you were here by yourself.”
“Maybe I told you the wrong time, I don’t know.”
“Are you hungry? Do you want to go out and eat?”
“I ate soup.”
“How much do you weigh? We should go see Mom tomorrow. Have you talked to her?”
“I talked to Gene,” I said. “I’m worried about her. So who’s this guy you’ve been with?”
“Nobody. Just a friend. So drinks, then? It’s Thursday, Gideon. There’s a jazz place I want to show you.”
Her hair was now shorter and dyed darker. I helped her put up groceries, then we drank some of her wine and talked for a while. She looked tired but somehow still seemed energetic. Fatigue and tension made her eager to talk. She avoided eye-contact with me, but when her eyes met mine something filled the space between us. “I remember when you texted me your first night in Chicago,” she said. “You wrote: ‘Chicago feels like an invention of people from lost places. People seeking themselves.’”
“I don’t remember,” I said.
She sat at the window, looking outside. “Have you talked to Basille?”
“Basille’s with Mom,” I told her.
“Good,” she said. “Then I won’t feel guilty. It kills me to go see her. Now that you’re here, though. We’ll go tomorrow.”
We finished our wine and took her car to a jazz club. It wasn’t too far, just down Elm. Meg drove under the freeway and turned into the parking lot. We parked in the back and found a table inside. The guy playing piano was a black guy with an afro and beard, an older man. He wore jeans and an old shirt with his sleeves rolled up. There were empty beer bottles on the piano. The guy hunched over the keys as he played. He really got into it. The music was soulful, melancholy at times, intense. Meg and I smoked and had a couple of drinks as we listened to him. Maybe she found in him a way to connect to our father. Whenever she talked about our father, she always mentioned her memories of him sitting at the piano. Sometimes he would play, but mostly he just sat there.
When we got back to the apartment, Meg ran bathwater and got undressed. With a knife I sliced an apple and sat on the floor in the bathroom while she got into the tub. I pulled my knees to my chest and watched her.
“I’m sad and I don’t know why,” she said.
In the morning we headed out of the city in Meg’s car. Outside, there were patches of ice and dirty snow on the ground. My mother and Gene lived 50 miles west, in a different county. I grew up there, in a strange little town with a ghostly longing to feel important. A town of blue collar workers, welders and farmers, machinists and retired railroad workers.
When we pulled into the drive, Basille came out to meet us. He was unshaven, ragged, wearing an old torn coat and jeans. He hugged us when we got out of the car. “She’s in bed,” he said. “She wanted to be left alone, but we told her you were only in town for a few days.”
“What did she say?” I asked.
“Nothing, really. She’s wants to be left alone.”
“We won’t stay long,” Meg said.
We went inside where Gene was standing in the kitchen. There was a hole in the neck of his thermal undershirt. He came over and put his hand on my shoulder. “Good to see you, Gideon. Your mother’s in our bedroom.”
We followed him and I stood in the doorway. My mother lay in bed on her side, eyes barely open. Basille and Gene sat in chairs at the foot of the bed. Meg sat in a chair beside her. I took her hand and leaned down and kissed her on the cheek. Her sadness filled the area between us. It struck me when I saw her. This sadness was somehow everywhere in the room. She wanted the light off, so there was only a small lamp on in the corner of the room. I asked if we could open the drapes, but she wanted them closed.
“Your mother is depressed,” Gene said, shifting in his chair. He blinked rapidly. “She’s on new medication with side effects. There’s been some nausea and dry mouth, but for the most part she’s doing well. I’ve been worried, but I believe she’s doing better. I believe she’s healing.”
Gene could never sit still. His hands trembled from breathing aluminum and asbestos after years of working at the foundry. He also had a nervous habit of fidgeting in his chair, talking constantly. He was almost always moving, walking from room to room, somehow being everywhere at once. He got up and went to the kitchen and almost instantly returned with a glass of water. He talked as he brought the glass of water to her mouth. “Her doctor thinks she might need to go inpatient at St. Francis if things don’t get better. I told him we’re all here to make sure she stays safe, and I’ll be good and goddamned if she gets admitted to any mental hospital. She’s getting better. Look at her. She’s healing.”
She tried to smile. She licked her lips, which were dry and cracked. Gene brought the glass to her mouth again. She leaned her head forward and sipped. He sat across from her, next to Basille, who sat with his hands behind his head, staring distantly into the wall behind me.
My mother said, “I want to be left alone, please.”
“This is stressful work,” Gene said. “This is not easy work. I’d like to see anyone who thinks this is easy work.”
“Nobody said it was easy,” Meg said.
Everyone was quiet.
“I need to be alone,” my mother said again, closing her eyes.
We left the room and sat in the living room for a while. Gene left, telling us he needed to go for a drive.
Basille was looking at my mother’s old record collection. He pulled out old Chet Baker records and was looking at them. He turned on the old turntable and put the needle on a record. We listened to “Imagination” and “Long Ago and Far Away.” The songs were scratchy but strange and beautiful. I went into the bedroom to check on my mother and sat in the chair next to the bed. She was lying on her side, looking at me. We heard the music and I looked to the window. Outside, ice was hanging everywhere, from tree branches and fence posts, from the roof and from the telephone poles. Some of it was melting.
Photo by Kay Lynn Hobson
Brandon Hobson's fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in NOON, Forty Stories:New Writing from Harper Perennial, Web Conjunctions, Puerto del Sol, New York Tyrant, Narrative Magazine, and elsewhere. His book reviews have appeared in The Believer, The Collagist, and The Faster Times."Chet Baker's Son"—which was a finalist in our first Literarian short story contest—is excerpted from a novel he recently completed. He lives in Oklahoma with his wife and son.