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Start at the Low Point

An excerpt from Blue Summer by Jim Nichols

Tampa, 1995

We’ll start at that low point: a trailer park in Tampa, Florida. It’s early in the morning, still dark outside, and the phone has startled me awake. I’m lying on my little fold-out bed waiting for it to stop. I’m not in the greatest of moods, because good sleep has been hard to come by. For once I was there, and now someone’s trying to ruin it. The longer the phone rings, the more pissed off I get, and in no time I want to rip it out of the wall and smash it on the floor.

But then I remember what I’ve pretty much decided.

I remember that it likely makes no real difference anymore how much sleep I get, or whether I drag my sorry ass out of bed and answer the phone. None of it matters, because it’s become only a matter of time. (Which isn’t to say that I have to be in any big hurry, either. It’s like deciding to rob a bank: just because you’ve made up your mind doesn’t mean you have to run right out and buy a ski mask, right?)

So I take a deep breath and let the irritation bleed off. And when the ringing finally stops I stretch out and let my arms fall back. I feel the indifferent old world reconstruct itself around me. It’s the same world as yesterday: I’m alone in a trailer park, and pretty soon I’ll smell empanadas and coffee, and I’ll hear radios playing, and maybe a rough-running car or two warming up.

I can already hear traffic on Dearborne Street.

There’s always traffic on Dearborne, and there’s always somebody blowing his horn. Like the guy I hear now, really leaning on it, running on down the road.

When he’s gone I wonder if that blast was meant for anyone in particular. It’s easy to imagine some other poor soul lying awake, listening. Maybe like me: pushing middle age, stretched out in their skivvies under a dingy old army surplus blanket in a beat-up old trailer. But not exactly like me, unless there’s a brand-new melody playing sotto voce in his head.

You remember about the melody, right? Well, this is exactly when it arrives, slipping in as if to fill the vacuum left by my unconsummated little fit of anger about the phone.

At first it’s barely present, like a leftover piece of dream. It doesn’t flicker and fade, though, and then it takes on enough shape that I can hear it clearly. There’s an intricate run of pure-sounding notes. It’s different and interesting, a bit gloomy, and my right foot starts to slowly tap, and the next thing I know, a piece of lyric joins the party, which for me always means things are moving along. (The words themselves aren’t important. Most of them won’t even survive. They’re just place-holders, rhythm-makers.)

They drive fast and blow their horns a lot on Dearborne.

That’s what plays in my head, but it changes almost immediately into something better: They speed and honk their horns a lot in Tampa.

I ponder that melody and rhythm for a few minutes.

But thinking about traffic reminds me suddenly of counting cars on the River Road with my sister Julie and her best friend Becky O’Dell (who was red-haired and nice, but who lurched when she walked for no good reason; more on that later), and all at once it’s not about Dearborne or Tampa at all anymore.

Now it’s about Julie and me, about our brother Alvin (yeah, Calvin and Alvin—it wasn’t my idea) and my parents and Becky and that POS Randy Pike and everybody else connected to where I grew up in Baxter, Maine; which means it’s also about all the tragedy that started during that bluest of summers. (Which I’ll get to, but for now, back to the trailer.)

I tap out the rhythm against my chest, and then whistle it softly, on the intake (to be quiet), and to fix it in my mind I snap open the beat-up cornet case that’s always on the floor nearby. I want to feel what it’s like to play it. I take out this sweet little Olds that I picked up in a pawnshop in NYC, touch the smooth mother-of-pearl caps and flutter the valves, liking the silky action and the plupetty-plup sound that I always imagine is a soft little musical engine trying to start.

I mute the horn with my hand and tease my new tune out, and I mark that it’s coming out in D minor, which suits its rather serious and melancholy feeling.

After a bit I walk down to my little tin box of a bathroom, still playing, and I stop long enough to do my business and then, coming back, I try and draw the melody out a little more, hoping to coax it into something that might resolve.

It’s still not a huge deal, but it’s gaining weight. I’m playing around, almost out of habit, but at the same time getting more involved, even becoming a little wary about where it might be going, what it might have to say about my family, and especially, my father and Julie.

See, it’s taking me somewhere I wasn’t expecting.

Which happens sometimes: You have a direction in mind and you’re trying to fulfill it, and you’re rolling along fine, and then there’s an association of some kind and a change of direction, maybe darker, and you’re pulled down another path. (Which isn’t different from life itself, now that I think about it—at least, my messed-up life.)

Anyway, I sit back down on the bed and fiddle until I’m pretty sure it’s not going to show itself entirely at this moment—it’s holding back, as if the time isn’t right—and then I’m all the way awake, so I put the cornet away and go into my little tin box of a kitchen and pour myself a heaping bowl of Cheerios.

I turn on the box radio for the traffic report. This is routine, because I’ve been driving taxi, which is what I do when music gigs are hard to come by, which they have been lately. People get out of the habit of thinking of you when you go to jail, even if it’s only for a couple of months. I haven’t exactly been out there knocking on doors since I was released, either.

The traffic reporter is talking about a slowdown caused by an overturned potato truck. I chew the cereal and wonder what a potato truck was doing in Tampa, Florida. For all I know they drive potatoes down here all the time, but it’s odd, because I’ve just been thinking about Maine.

Then I think, For all I know, they’re Idaho spuds.

Anyway, the reporter goes on about cars skidding on the squashed potatoes. His voice is shaky. He guesses it’ll be mid-morning before traffic is back to normal, which means all the usual routes into town will be clogged.

I say, “Well, fuck the mother-fucking duck,” as if that traffic report actually matters, and snap the radio off. (I got that catchy little phrase from my Pinellas cellmate, Rocky Kincaid, who was a decent sax man, known as Skinny-Ass One around the yard. I was Skinny-Ass Two, but I’ve put on a few pounds since I got out. Our stays had overlapped for close to thirty days—me, for what they called Disorderly Intoxication plus Assault on a Police Officer, Rocky, for Attempting to Purchase a Controlled Substance).

I put my bowl in the sink, yank open the sticky door, and go outside for a Lucky Strike. It’s my first of the day, which always makes me feel guilty, but you can’t give up everything. (I quit drinking when I went to jail, and that’s an accomplishment I don’t want to ruin, even if it wasn’t of my own volition, but I don’t feel that way about smoking.)

Not that any of it matters, I remind myself.

I sit on the stoop, looking around the trailer park. It’s not quite dawn, warm and humid already. Cars and trucks are running by on Dearborne and nighthawks are blowing their horns. I can see the traffic light flashing red (the only light around, because all the streetlights have been busted out).

There are little birds chirping from the bushes behind me.

The phone rings again, and I don’t move. I cross my ankles and smoke with no hands. The ash falls on my shirt and I brush it off. Maybe it’s somebody with a gig, but I don’t really care. I can take it or leave it, now.

After a while the ringing stops. I scratch my stubble and wait for my ride to show. Yeah, I’m still going to work. I thought about quitting, but it makes more sense to have a few bucks coming in while I’m playing out the string. Giving up seems to have lifted my spirits in some contrary way, and I figure I might as well enjoy it while I can.

Which is a perfect mood for what happens next.

I’ve just lit a second cigarette off the stub of the first and I’m watching the red sun edge up over the horizon when the door of this rattletrap trailer across the lane pops open and these three little urchins come out and stand on the step.

This excerpt serves as the first chapter of Jim Nichols's third novel Blue Summer, a riveting coming-of-age novel told in retrospect by a washed-out taxi-driving musician from Baxter, who comes to terms with his past by returning to Maine and confronting family secrets. The novel is both a Maine Literary Award Winner for Literary Fiction and an IPPY Award Winner for Best Regional Fiction.

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