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AN AUTHENTIC SOUND

by

Catherine O'Sullivan



Time: 9:01 am, suspect: LaVonne Charles. Black female, age 37. Arrested on suspicion of first degree murder on 23 March, 2,000. Detective Sergeant Wendell McNab interviewing. Suspect was found standing over the body of her husband, Roland "Hambone" Charles at seven o'clock in the morning after a neighbor hearing a disturbance, called 911.

"You've been advised of your right to have an attorney present?" McNab's wearing a gray, single breasted Nordstrom's suit, best one he's got and he looks sharp in it, when he holds his gut in.

"Yeah." Weary, cold. She tries to scoot her chair forward but it's bolted to the floor. Clutching her blood-spattered bathrobe she works her feet further into fuzzy slippers.

"Mrs. Charles, you're a law abiding citizen, no prior police record."

"I stay as far away from the police as possible. And my kids do too. Even Hambone, he mostly manages to stay away," says Mrs Charles.

"Mostly?" Says McNab, undoing the button on his jacket. The hell with it.

"'Till now anyway. And leave it to him make it look like my fault, laying there bleedin' all over the floor." Her tone is accusatory, as if miffed by a child who won't clean his room.

"Mrs Charles, we're here to determine if his death was your fault. All outward appearances indicate he didn't have much choice in the matter," says McNab.

"Which matter's that?" Mrs Charles, gone bye bye for a moment, behind brown oval eyes, looking at McNab like she's genuinely confused when she returns.

"The one of his survival," says McNab.

Trying to look normal, as normal as she can in a police station, in her nightgown, having just killed the man she loved. "Well, that's where you wrong. Man had plenty of choice, always did, every day."

"Mrs Charles..."

She denies him a chance to finish. "You ever read that short Frenchman: white, look like a frog? Man's always got a choice. Even with a gun to his head he's still got a choice." She crosses her arms, the matter's settled. If you can't trust JP Sartre, who can you trust?

"Mrs Charles?" McNab alters the position of his head trying to get a better look inside hers. Even if they're responsible for it, people-- especially women, zone-out when it comes to death. "You understand you're being charged with murdering your husband?"

"It surprises you, huh? A woman like me quoting French intellectuals. I went to college. And yes, I understand exactly what you're charging me with. The point I'm tryin' to make is that the man had a choice whether to get hit with my plunger or not."

"The club used in the attack?" McNab rifling papers and jotting something on his yellow pad.

"Only club I got. You got some other club around here you want to talk about?" She looks at him like he's stupid, possesses an eerie ability to make him feel that way.

"No, only one."

"It didn't used to be a club, used to be a perfectly good plunger. Got plenty of mileage on it too. Damn low-water use toilets."

"You getting me distracted, talking about plumbing." She continues. "What were we talking about, choice? Ham had plenty of that. Wasn't the first time he chose wrong either. Guess it will be the last though," she sighs. The inevitability of it all caught up with her a long time ago.

"Maybe we should talk about the sequence of events, Mrs. Charles." McNab, always ready to try an alternate way in. "You laid in wait, and when your husband came home you...what?"

"At seven in the morning he came home. We ought to add that to the charges against him. Married man comin' home at seven in the morning."

"He's dead. There are no charges against him." McNab's exasperated, though trying not to show it. "You're being charged with..."

"I know. Murder." Tiredly. "You married, Detective McNab?"

"My personal life isn't important."

"Too bad. Personal life should be important."

"That isn't..."

"You ever come home at seven in the morning?" She says.

"If the job requires it."

"That's what Hambone said too. Said he was workin'. Let me ask you one more thing. You know any jazz clubs open until seven in the morning?"

"I don't listen to much jazz."

"Hmmmm. And what are you talkin' about, laying in wait. I never laid in wait for anybody. Wasn't no place else to sit, except by the front door."

"Why?"

"Only high ground in the place."

"What's high ground got to do with it?"

"Only that I never hit anybody my whole life. Only that I lived with that horn player for fifteen years and I have never been driven to violence until now."

Mrs Charles' gown falls open, McNab can't keep his eyes off her cleavage, thinking about the last time he heard music, about his unimportant personal life.

"You want to stop lookin' down my nightie long enough so I can tell you this story?"

Shit, he's only human; but can't stop the blush from rising up the sides of his razor-burned neck. Sometimes he wishes he was black-- makes it harder to see-- but not very often.

"You know what I do for a living?" Says Mrs Charles

"What does this have to do with..."

"Oh it's got plenty to do with it. You gonna throw me in jail anyway; least you can do is listen."

McNab nods. He's a fair guy. Burned out, overworked, quietly desperate just like everybody else.

"I'm the district manager for the South County Educational Transportation system. I'm the one who makes sure your children get to school. Well, maybe not your children." She looks at him accusingly; he's guilty just being white. "I'm the one responsible for all the school buses in the county. Sounds like a cushy desk job but it isn't. Schools got no money, buses always breaking down. Here I've got a college degree and I spent last Friday, my ass sticking out from under a hood, wiring an electrical assembly together so a bunch of children can get home on time. That's what I do. Five days a week, make sure the buses go, make sure the children get to school on time. Half those buses ought to be in the junkyard but no sir. Fucking tight-fisted voters don't want to pay for school buses. Excuse me and pardon my French."

"It's alright," says McNab.

"That reminds me of Sartre again. He used to get mad, everybody always blamin' their bad language on the French."

"Could we get back to last night?"

"I'm gettin' there. What do you think I make, wiring school buses together?"

"I don't know."

"Thirty-six thousand dollars a year. After ten years, I make thirty-six thousand dollars a year. And last week I come home, Ham's been spending my money on hats. He's got five hats spread out on the couch, every one with a price tag of over thirty dollars. He says he's got to get a hat like The Duke had. That's Ellington, not the cowboy actor."

"Gotcha."

"Says he's lookin' for a sound. He works those hats over the end of his horn, muffles it down. He's got a regular hat, uses it every night, but he says it ain't the right sound. He has got to have the right sound."

"The right sound."

McNab's following, but just barely. He's discovered there is an internal, though sometimes not obvious logic to the way almost everybody tells a story.

"So he's squashing those hats every which way. I said, you keep doing that, you ain't even going to be able to take the ones you don't want back to the store. He looks at me like I'm about as thick as this table and you know what he said? Do you know what he said to me, Officer McNab?"

"What, Mrs Charles?"

"He says it don't matter. He says it's all for the sake of art, and money don't matter. He's standing in my living room, squashing more than a hundred and fifty dollars worth of hats, about half a week's take home for me, and tellin' me it don't matter. Now tell me something Detective McVee. How many children you say you have?"

"McNab, name's McNab. Three. I've got three children." McNab sits up straight, leans back in his chair, disengages just a little bit. He doesn't like talking about his personal life at work.

"Well I've got five. Only reason I haven't got ten is I got my tubes tied, but that man does not like condoms. He's an artist, says he's got to feel everything to the utmost." She over pronounces the "t" in utmost.

"Uh huh," says McNab.

"I've got five children and that man's spendin' my money on hats." She starts crying, sobbing uncontrollably. McNab's used to people crying, but has never liked the idea of making a woman cry.

He searches his pockets for a Kleenex, hands it to her. She unfolds it, giving it the once over before dabbing her eyes. "You probably think I'm pretty dumb for marrying him."

"Not my job to judge people, just to get the story."

"You've got to see it from where I'm sitting. Nothing makes me feel as good as fine music, it's always been that way. I was a young girl and heard him play, make that horn sing and wail, it was like he was talkin' to my own heart, only mine. Nothing's ever make me feel like that before or since. He finished his set and comes over, asks can he buy me a drink. What am I going to say? There he is standing in front of me, tall, black as night; and when he talks he's got a voice makes the strings of my soul vibrate all the way down to my... You hear what I'm sayin', Detective McVey?"

"What, huh?" Says McNab. He vaguely considers correcting her again on his name, but what's the use?

"So all the sudden we're married. I couldn't understand why, why he chose me, could have had any woman in the place. I didn't even mind when I found out he didn't have money. Man makes you feel that way, who cares? But then I had Michael."

"Michael."

"Then Shaetrell."

"Uh huh," says McNab.

"Joline."

"Nice name."

"Thank you," says Mrs Charles. "Then Renee. White women say Rene, we call her ReeNee. Then Anthony comes and he's got something I've never heard of called Cystic Fibrosis. Can't breathe like he's supposed to. I've got to pound him on the back all the time, knock the snot out of his lungs and he still probably isn't going to live past teenage."

"I'm sorry," says McNab.

"And there's the father of them all squashing a hundred-fifty dollars worth of hats. I never did finish that part of the story. He finally found the right hat. I moulded, steamed as best I could all the others, but the store would not take one of them back. Can't say I blame them. But Hambone? He was happy. Said he finally found his authentic sound."

"His what?" Says McNab.

"That's what he was after-- an authentic sound. If he came home every once in a while he'd hear it, sound of his own child sucking air. Sound don't get more authentic than that; but that's not the kind of "authentic" he was after." Thinking, trying to remember if she's left anything important out. "Which brings us up to last night."

McNab breathes a sigh of relief.

"You wouldn't know it to look at me, Detective, but I am an expert on snot."

"No, I wouldn't have guessed that."

"Well I am. Because of Anthony. Clear snot, yellow snot, green snot, gray snot. Clear snot is the best."

"Didn't know that," says McNab.

"When a child's coughing up snot, clear's the best. Means no infection. Anthony mostly brings up gray snot. I'm happy he brings up anything. Anyway, last night he's coughing, I'm pounding, bring him into the bathroom, let him breathe the steam. But he can't breathe at all and I figure that's it, time to say goodbye to my baby. Finally, something big comes loose and he starts hocking up. Some of it he spits out, some of it he swallows. Not good for a child to swallow too much. Can't digest it; just has to pass it. Sometimes he throws it up, sometimes he gets diarrhoea. Saturday night Anthony, after he was finally able to breathe, got both.

Detective O'Reilly?"

"McNab." Wiping sweat from his forehead with the back of his wrist.

"Sorry. I'm a little distraught. Usually I've got a good memory," says Mrs Charles.

"Go on."

"You were in my apartment, right?"

"Yes. Second on the scene, after the officers who took the call," he says.

"Not too big?"

"Your apartment?" Says McNab.

"Yeah. Not too big, is it?"

"Didn't seem to be, no."

"Only got one bathroom. You remember that?" Says Mrs Charles.

"Yes."

"Last night Anthony comes running out the bathroom, Niagara Falls following right behind him. I have never seen so much water in my life as what was rushing after that boy. Flooding into the hall, makes it all the way into the kitchen before I hear him yelling. See, I was asleep. That day at work, some ignorant sons-of-bitches, pardon my French again, took the distributors off three buses. Just ran off with them for a joke. Not a very funny joke, you ask me. I got a hundred and eighty children need to get home from school and no buses. They're standing there in the rain, parents calling, chewing my ass. We finally get some more buses from across the district about five-thirty. So I get home around eight, pound Anthony on the back for fifteen minutes, seems like I'm asleep ten minutes before he comes running."

"You still with me, Detective?" Says Mrs Charles.

"Right here."

"I get up off the couch, Anthony's running for the door, other children climbing up on top of their bunk beds. I'm looking everywhere for the toilet plunger: under the kitchen sink, hanging with the broom and mop by the refrigerator. Can't find it anywhere. I ask the children, every one of them-- and by this time I'm standing up on the couch, water swirling around the living room until I feel like I'm on the damn Titanic. Shaetrell yells from the bedroom the last time he saw it, Daddy had it. So I tucked my night gown up into my underpants and headed for the bedroom where Hambone's got all his music shit-- mutes, sheet music, records, CD's. Underneath it all's, the plunger. Only the workin' end's gone. All that's left is a stick."

"That's when I heard Hambone's voice," says Mrs Charles.

"That's when he came home?"

"No, no. That's when I heard him in my head, talking about an authentic sound. Early jazz musicians didn't have money. Black people in this country never had money until now. Musicians were worse than everybody else though. One of them old timey jazz men wanted a new sound, he used whatever he had: hat, rag stuck down a trombone. Toilet plunger works good for a mute. Course these days you go to a music store, get something better-- plastic, fibreglass or something, fits a horn just perfectly. You can even get 'em custom made. But that wasn't good enough for Ham. Like I told you before, he wanted it to sound just like it did fifty years ago. That's when I knew what had happened to my plunger."

McNab, confused.

"I got to spell it out for you?"

He rubs his face then his forehead, running his fingers through graying hair. "He took the working end off the plunger to use as a mute for his horn."

"You win the prize. Next thing I know I'm standin' over him with you putting handcuffs on me."

LaVonne's arms, long and elegantly muscled, the color of whisky in coffee, hang lazily through jail cell bars clutching a newspaper, the only sign of emotion a slight whitening of the first and second knuckles of her right hand. Smoke curls up from an unsmoked cigarette casually held in her left. She'd smoke it; there's nothing else to do in jail, but every time she tries, she gets it to her lips, thinks about Anthony, and holds it away again.

Hambone's picture and obituary take up nearly a quarter of a page of the South Central supplement to the Los Angeles Times. It reads, "Hambone Charles, renowned for his ceaseless and enduring dedication to the pursuit of the authentic jazz sound."

LaVonne crumples the paper, lights it afire and tosses it burning to the ground. Sure, in her captivity and grief, that she was the last, and certainly the loudest sound Hambone ever heard.







ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Catherine O'Sullivan (AKA Mad Mom Newtopia) writes whatever she wants to because she's lucky enough to have a man with a regular pay check. She is a font of wisdom and wit as long as she's well medicated, and her philosophy of life is that all your really need is love, a sense of humor, and a warm place to go to the bathroom. She's an ex-catholic with a philosophy degree, which about says it all.




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