As I’ve mentioned in earlier posts, I’m getting ready to release my second collection of stories soon.
This week’s story was one that I wrote specifically to include in my first collection. It was never published as a single.
It was a story that came from a trip to New Orleans for work. I’m a musician and I was able to hear some of the best jazz musicians around and watch them play for tips in bars along Bourbon Street and beyond.
This tale is included in my short story collection, Random Tales, a collection of unrelated stories.
My next collection, releasing on March 29th, will have four related stories that are essentially novellas. It’s been a long journey in four years.
I hope you enjoy,Play it again, Des, posted here as it exists in the book along with a prelude explaining the origins of the story. Note: If you’ve read my book, Let Me Be Frank, you’ll spot some familiar locations and names.
This story is about the consequences of taking shortcuts. In my career, I have reached heights higher than I thought I would, but it has been a slow and steady climb. I have refused to play politics or to “sell my soul” to get ahead. I don’t golf. I don’t go to cocktail parties. I would rather color with my seven-year-old than hang out with a bunch of “Masters of the Universe” at a country club on a Saturday morning.
The main character of this story, Desmond Brown, takes a shortcut and suffers the consequences. His shortcut is the result of youthful impatience and coercion by an evil entity. In my corporate career, I have seen both of these at work and have somehow failed to succumb to either. My career ascension may have been slow, but I am able to sleep at night.
Note: If you’ve read my novels, you will see other common threads in this work from the “Frank” universe. Pay attention to the location in New Orleans in particular.
Please enjoy “Play it Again Des”.
The pain in Desmond Brown’s back and shoulders was nearly unbearable. His arms, and especially his fingers, were those of a young man. His fingers flew over the keyboard with speed and dexterity unmatched by any other jazz pianist in New Orleans, the United States, and probably the world.
The pain. The pain in the rest of his body made him wish he was dead, but the sound coming out of the Steinway over which his fingers moved expertly almost made him forget the cause of the pain. They say that death and taxes are the only sure things. Apparently the suffering that three quarters of his body was experiencing because of an arrangement long ago added a third item to that list.
Again, the questions came into his mind. Was it worth it? Would he do it again? Did the price match what he received? For the past three decades he had been able to answer yes. The fame, fortune, and fulfillment of his dream outweighed the price he gradually began to pay. As the years flew past, the answers to these questions took longer to frame in the affirmative. Instead, he began to ask himself other questions. What good is fame and fortune when you are too sick and crippled to enjoy them? What good is a dream fulfilled when it cannot be enjoyed or shared with others? These questions became more relevant to him as he descended further into a debilitation that could not be explained by doctors. He came to accept the explanation, but he could not share it with anyone or they would add mental illness to his list of ailments.
He was coming to the end of this triumphant concert at Carnegie Hall in New York. It was time to call it a night and go back to his hotel where his doctor would carefully put him into a sedative induced sleep. The sedatives were the only thing that could get him close to sleep and force the pain and nausea just below the surface of consciousness. He wasn’t sure if it was the drugs or his mind. For the last five years his pseudo-sleep was balanced by the most vivid dream that was a recollection of his past. This was one dream, not dreams. It was the same dream over and over each night on a continuous loop. It reminded him how he got to this point,and each time a new detail seemed to be added to make the recollection more vivid. Whether he was on the road, or at home in New Orleans, he silently prayed that the dream would not come. Each night, as the sedative took him into quasi-sleep, he was disappointed. Somewhere, as he prayed, the person, or whatever he was, that got him to this current state, laughed.
New Orleans is known for music. Just as California is known for beaches and earthquakes, music is an indigenous product of The Big Easy. Everyone knows about the music pouring out of the doors of every smelly bar on Bourbon Street. The list of famous musicians from this area is endless from Pete Fountain and Al Hirt to Harry Connick, Jr. There are entire families of musicians. You can’t throw a stone in New Orleans without hitting a Neville or a Marsalis. Musicians from all over the world traveled to this Mecca to learn from the masters and try to break into the business. There were plenty of places to listen to good music. If you were a good player, you could sit in for a song or two and begin to get some recognition. Recognition led to gigs, money, and in rare cases, stardom and even immortality.
Desmond Brown came to New Orleans in 1970 as a bright-eyed 16 -year old aspiring jazz pianist from a working class family in Pennsylvania. Instead of playing football, he listened to jazz records. Instead of working toward college, coal mining, or the steel plants, he lived and breathed music. His idols included Oscar Peterson, Thelonious Monk, and other notable musicians that the average teenager would not be aware of. His father worked in the steel mill. His mother was a cashier at the local super market. Any aspirations of college would only be acceptable if he got there through athletic or academic ability. There was no recognition of his musical ability even though his parents had been told repeatedly by Desmond’s middle school and high school teachers that he had a gift that should be cultivated. His parents didn’t view music as a viable career and wouldn’t even consider scrimping and scraping to send him to college for a vocation that, in their view, had no future.
Desmond had no intention of either going to school for business, whatever that was, or working at the steel mill like his dad. He wanted to be a musician and nothing would divert him from that dream. That is what caused the argument that drove him away from Pennsylvania to New Orleans.
One Thursday night, his last night in his parents’ home, Desmond came home from school at about 6:30 to find his mother cooking dinner. The garbage was already out by the driveway of their small one-story house. This was not a good sign because putting out the garbage was his job. One of his parents had done it and that he would likely get lectured about responsibility and helping out. To top it off, he was late coming home because he had stayed after school to hang out with the high school band director. His high school had a regional reputation for assembling a decent jazz band each year and the band director, a somewhat accomplished jazz pianist in his own right, had recognized Desmond’s talent and had spent time after school with him providing tutoring. They listened to all of the great jazz piano players and Desmond learned how to emulate their styles. This particular night, after listening to Oscar Peterson, Desmond was later than normal and his father was already home from the mill. This would not be pretty. He cautiously walked into the kitchen.
“Hey mom, sorry I’m late. Mr. Pritchard was showing me some cool new chord inversions.”
“Desi, I’m glad you are learning and enjoying this music stuff, but you’re pretty late. Your dad is watching the news in the living room and he wants to talk to you,” Desmond’s mother said as she gave him a look that warned him to listen and not talk.
Desmond crossed the small kitchen and walked through the archway where his father watched John Chancellor and David Brinkley deliver the NBC Nightly News.
“Hey Dad,” Desmond said cautiously. “Mom said you wanted to talk to me.”
“That’s right,” his dad growled. This would not be pleasant. “Where the hell were you tonight?”
“I stayed after to learn some piano chord inversions.”
“Chord what? I don’t even know what you’re talking about. What I do know is that I came home after working a 10 hour day and found your mother heaving those heavy trash cans out to the road. If I wasn’t here to help her, she might’ve thrown out her back or worse. And do you know whose job haulin’ the trash out on a Thursday night is?”
“You mean you’re not sure? That’s probably true because you are only here to do it once or twice a month if we’re lucky.”
Desmond could feel the lecture train starting to pull away from the station.
“When I was your age, I already had a job that I went to before and after school. My parents didn’t give me a free ride like you’re gettin’ from us. I don’t get it Des. You’re 16 years old, almost a man. You need to start acting like one and put this stupid music thing aside. It’s not gonna get you anywhere.”
“But Dad, I’m gonna be a jazz pianist.”
“A what? You mean like Liberace or something? I don’t see no diamond rings on your fingers. You’re chasing somethin’ that just isn’t gonna happen. You need to either get your grades up so you can be a business man or start toughenin’ up so you can work at the mill this summer.”
“I’m not doin’ either one Dad. I’m gonna be a piano player. It’s not up to you what I do with my life.”
“As long as you live under this roof, it certainly is up to me. You’re not going to live here and be some long-haired, filthy musician that can’t carry his own weight.”
Desmond’s temper started to flare up. He knew this day would come, but he didn’t think it would be this soon. Finally, the words he couldn’t take back escaped from his mouth.
“Fine. Then as of right now I don’t live under this roof. I’m outa here.”
Desmond turned to head to his room. His father exploded.
“If you leave this house, there’s no comin’ back. You’re done.”
Desmond’s mother had about enough and she emerged from the kitchen.
“The two of you need to settle down before someone says something they will regret.”
“It’s too late,” Desmond’s father snapped turning toward her. “The boy’s made his choice.”
Desmond came out of his room with a bulging backpack and headed for the door. His mother tried to stop him.
“Desi, this is crazy. You can’t just walk out. What will you do? Where will you go?”
Desmond knew the answer to both of these questions. He had known for quite some time that when this day came, there was only one destination on his mind. He hugged his mother and left his family home for the last time.
Desmond hitchhiked from Scranton to New Orleans in just two days. He had enough cash to get truck stop food along the way and landed in The Big Easy with twenty dollars in his pocket. He only carried a backpack and was not concerned about room and board. He had one thing on his mind, music. He immediately headed for Bourbon Street and into the first bar with live music that he found. The name of the place was The Devil’s Dew and it had a large picture of the dark one himself painted on the sign that hung perpendicular to the street above the door. The evil one was painted as a bright red silhouette complete with horns, a tail, and an ominous looking pitchfork.
The bar had a heavy, seemingly permanent, cloud of cigarette smoke and smelled of stale beer and perspiration. Desmond noticed none of this. His only focus was on the age-worn stage and the musicians that occupied it. He heard magic and was immediately absorbed by it.
He soon learned that the composition of these musical ensembles that played for tips in French Quarter bars consisted of whatever musicians showed up. There was no set instrumentation with a rhythm and horn section and rehearsed arrangements. You might have a piano, banjo, washboard, and tuba backing up various saxophone, trumpet, clarinet, or trombone players that wandered from bar to bar looking to sit in for a couple of songs and score some tips and some connections with other musicians. Everyone seemed to know the standard repertoire of Dixieland, blues, and jazz standards with some Cajun-influenced Zydeco thrown in for variety. Desmond immediately felt at home but also intimidated by what he saw. Of the fifteen to twenty songs Desmond heard, he knew about four well enough to play and could play another four or five by ear. He had some work to do before he could even approach a piano in one of these places. He continued to listen while he moved closer to the grizzled piano player hunched over the ancient Baldwin upright. Desmond watched as his gnarled fingers flew over the yellowed keys with amazing speed. The old man used chord substitutions and inversions of chords that Desmond had never seen before. They were well beyond what Mr. Pritchard had shown him.
Desmond watched for another couple of sets before the realization hit him that he didn’t have a place to sleep and it was getting late. He left ‘The Dew’ as he would come to call it and wandered around Bourbon Street taking in the sights, sounds, and smells of the area. Not all of them were pleasant. After about an hour of wandering, he glanced down an alley and saw a sign that said ‘Rooms – Five Dollars’. That was within his current budget, so he ventured down the dark corridor to see if accommodations were available. He walked past trash and heard the rustling of living things as he made his way to the door near the sign. When he rang the bell, he heard a slow, shuffling movement from inside. After what seemed like an eternity in this dark alley, the door creaked open and a face older than the earth itself peered out.
“Who’s there?” came the question in an ancient Cajun growl.
“My name’s Desmond,” Des said in a voice barely above a whisper.
“What you want?”
“I’d like a room. I’m new in town…”
“You must be. You tell too many people that, you won’t be old in town.”
Desmond then heard a dry cackle that was either a laugh or a lung trying to jump out of the speaker’s throat. Then the chain on the door rattled and it briefly closed before reopening more fully.
“Well Desmond, get yourself in here before you get hurt.”
Desmond cautiously entered and was immediately greeted by the smell of incense and delicious food of a variety that he had never encountered before. It was a saucy, spicy cornucopia of smells that would be amazing if they tasted as good as they smelled.
“Where you from, Mr. Desmond?”
“I’m from Pennsylvania. Desmond’s my first name. My last name’s Brown.”
“Well Mr. Desmond, you’re in the South now and we call everyone Mr. this or Miss that along with their first name. It’s our way.”
“Oh. OK. I’m sorry Miss…um Miss…”
“Ramona Sugar. That’s a nice name.”
Another dry cackle, this one longer and louder than the first, erupted from the old woman’s body which could only be described as a leathery bag of bones.
“My name’s not Ramona Sugar. Sugar’s one of those terms of endearment. My last name is Deveraux, but you can call me Miss Ramona. Now come and sit down so we can decide if I’m gonna take your five dollars or not.”
Des was confused, but did as he was told and followed Miss Ramona into a small, but well-appointed living room that looked like it had been furnished in the 1940’s except that everything looked brand new. As he looked around the room, his eye was drawn to several posters that advertised a band called “The Alley Catz”. A few of them had a tag line after the name of the band. He had to look at it for a while before he realized that the tagline read “Featuring the vocal styling of Ramona Deveraux”.
“That’s you,” Des blurted out.
Ramona saw him eyeing the posters.
“That’s me alright. Only 40 years ago. That was another lifetime.”
Desmond settled into an ancient leather wingback chair that was remarkably comfortable. Ramona settled into an identical chair across from him. She seemed to disappear into it due to her diminutive size.
“What brings a young man such as yourself to a scary place like Nawlins?”
Desmond struggled with the question at first and then realized she had said New Orleans.
“I’m a musician. I’ve wanted to be here since I learned how to play.”
“Well I figured you was a musician. Nobody else shows up at my place unless they play. My question is what made you run away from home to be here, of all places? You look like you come from a good family. You got clean clothes that are not bad quality. You must be a runaway.”
“My dad won’t let me play music. I had to get away. This was the only place I wanted to be.”
“It’s a big step to come here from family life. Lots of people come here to play, but only some got the skills. You got the skills, Mr. Desmond?”
“I thought I did, but after hearing those guys at The Devil’s Dew, I’m not so sure.”
“You must have seen old Horace Boudreaux. He’s known as HoBo. He’s been playin’ there since I was a little girl. I’m not sure how he gets those old crooked fingers to move like they do. He played out on the road a lot in his younger days with a lot of big names, but always ended up back here when the money ran out. I think his road days are over now. He’s ninety if he’s a day.”
“Well, he can sure play.”
“What about you, Mr. Desmond? Can you play?”
Ramona pointed to the ancient Steinway upright against one of her walls.
“Right now? I’m not sure…I mean; it’s been a long day.”
“Oh, Mr. Desmond. One thing you gotta learn quick is when the chance comes, you gotta take it no matter how tired or sick you are. The chance might not come again. Besides, it’s just me, a harmless old lady.”
The smile that crossed her face was the opposite of harmless and somehow made her look younger. This had been a crazy day and Desmond was where he wanted to be, so he decided to take the chance. He got up slowly from the ancient chair and tentatively walked to the piano. It was an old model and he expected it to be out of tune and difficult to play. What he found was that the keys and innards of the piano were in premium shape and it sounded both well-worn and brand new simultaneously if that were possible. He warmed up a little bit and then went into a stride piano version of All of Me. He could feel Ramona’s eyes on his back as he played and he was more nervous playing for her than he had been for anyone in his life. After the first time through, he relaxed a bit and did some improvising over the second time. As he jumped back into the melody for the third and final time through the song, he heard a quiet, but confident voice singing the lyrics. It was Ramona. Her voice was in tune and played with the melody just enough to reveal the considerable talent that she once had and, to a good degree, still possessed. As they got to the last four bars, Desmond did a standard turnaround and Ramona followed him flawlessly. When they finished, she put her hands on his shoulders and stood silently for a minute that seemed endless to Des as he waited for a reaction.
“Well Mr. Desmond, the potential is there. You’ve got the rhythm and the chops. What you lack is the soul. You have to live the music.”
“That sounds like a long process. Is there any hope?”
“Maybe. Maybe there is. Why don’t you settle in for the night? Tomorrow we’ll go see HoBo. That’s one man who’s lived the music enough for two people. Maybe he’ll show you a thing or two.”
Desmond’s face lit up.
“You’d do that for me? You just met me. That’s great.”
“Settle down now. I told you we’d go see HoBo. The rest is up to you. He may tell you to get lost. I can’t control what that man thinks. You need to understand that goin’ in.”
“I understand. Thank you for doing this.”
“Don’t thank me. You got music in you. That makes you family. I always believe in helpin’ family. But then you got to help yourself.”
“I will. So, can I have a room here tonight?”
“You can. First you need to eat. You got to put some food in that skinny body so you don’t keel over.”
Ramona brought Desmond into her kitchen and dished him out some of the best food that he had ever tasted. He assumed it was traditional New Orleans fare, but was so hungry, he didn’t ask what any of it was. He discovered later that he had eaten shrimp gumbo and muffuletta sandwiches. Ramona then directed him to one of the two empty rooms she currently had. She had four others that were occupied by musicians that had not come home yet. She always made sure she had food ready for their arrival as they often came home hungry or full of enough alcohol that they needed some heavy food to soak it up.
The room was furnished with sturdy furniture from the same time period of what was downstairs. It was also in pristine shape and the linens were of good quality and felt as if they were freshly laundered. He shared a bathroom with the room next to his, which was vacant, so he decided to take a shower before he crawled into bed. It was only when he stretched out in bed that he realized just how tired he was and fell quickly into a dreamless sleep.
The next morning Desmond awoke feeling refreshed. He was apparently the first one in the house awake so he got dressed and ventured out into the bright New Orleans early morning. He walked around a bit and then decided to return to Ramona’s. He entered to the sound of loud conversation coming from the kitchen. He found Ramona serving breakfast to four men of various ages and races sitting around the table. The smell, like dinner the night before, was incredible. Ramona introduced him to the four others. They were Stu, Moses, Gabriel, and Paolo. They played trumpet, alto sax, drums and guitar. They were from Chicago, Detroit, Italy, and South America, respectively. They all greeted Des and he sat down and was given a plate of grits, eggs, and sausage and a cup of strong coffee with chicory. The coffee was bitter and only slightly less so with cream and sugar. Ramona saw his face and told him it was an acquired taste.
They sat around and talked about who and what they saw the night before, who they played with, who had played well, and who had an off night. They also talked about the talent they saw, meaning the attractive women. That was when Ramona jumped in and reminded them that this was a reputable house and that they couldn’t bring any of those hussies back to their rooms. If they broke her rules, they were out. Stu asked Des where he was from and where he played the night before.
“I’m from Pennsylvania. I just got in yesterday and I haven’t played anywhere yet except for Miss Ramona. I only had time to listen to three sets at The Devil’s Dew last night.”
“What did you think of HoBo?” Moses asked.
“He’s amazing for someone his age, or any age for that matter.”
“He can play,” Stu agreed and the others nodded their heads in agreement around the table.
“Ramona is going to take me to meet him today.”
Eyebrows around the table were immediately raised with this revelation from Des.
“What?” Desmond asked wondering if he said something wrong.
“It’s just that you must play pretty good. Ms. Ramona doesn’t take just anybody to meet HoBo,” Stu said. “He’s the one that gave her a start when she was a struggling singer. You must have made quite an impression on her.”
“You stop that drama Mr. Stu. The boy’s got something and I think HoBo can help him bring it out. It’s up to him to convince that old man to spend some of the little time he has left on him,” Ramona said sternly.
The conversation continued and Des felt right at home with these strangers who had all arrived on a pilgrimage to this mecca of jazz just as the religious traveled to the Holy Land. Breakfast then stretched into a jam session in Ramona’s living room. Des discovered this was a frequent event, especially when a new guest arrived. It was a great way of getting to know someone new and helped to establish the pecking order in the house. Des was impressed with the caliber of all of the musicians, especially Moses on the alto sax. He had command of his instrument and played a rousing recreation of Charlie Parker’s Donna Lee that capped off the jam session and took them up to the time when Des and Ramona had to venture over to The Devil’s Dew to see HoBo.
The Devil’s Dew had been around since the early 1900s in different incarnations. During prohibition it was a combination restaurant and speak-easy. Many things about the place had not changed since that time. One of the remaining fixtures was Horace Boudreaux. He had played piano in The Dew since the early 20s. His actual age was always a subject of debate. Not many people knew that he was part owner of the place. He lived in an apartment over the bar.
Ramona and Des walked in at about one in the afternoon. The place was empty if you didn’t count the few locals that came in for a simple lunch or to start their drinking early. They found HoBo at a table in the back eating a bowl of gumbo and drinking some strong coffee.
“Well, if it ain’t the prettiest magnolia in all of Nawlins,” HoBo said as Ramona and Desmond approached.
“Your eyesight must be failin’ you, you old buzzard,” Ramona said with a smile in her voice.
Desmond could swear that the each looked younger by 20 years as they joked with each other with a deeply comfortable familiarity.
“Who’s this young man you brought in here? Your new boy toy?”
“Come on now, you ole goat. He’s just a baby. I brought him here to meet you. He’s got the gift, but he needs some refinin’. I thought you could show him some of your tricks.”
HoBo seemed to consider this for a while as he spooned some gumbo into his ancient mouth and wiped his snow white goatee with a napkin.
“Comin’ from you, that’s somethin’, Ramona. I’m too old to be a music teacher, though.”
“He don’t need no teacher. He just needs some guidance.”
“Well, before we talk about what he needs, how about we hear him play?”
Desmond suddenly became nervous. Here he was, living out his dream, but he felt like he was going to revisit today’s breakfast.
“Go play him what you played for me last night, Mr. Desmond. Remember the things I told you.”
Desmond slowly walked over to the ancient piano and sat down. He felt like he was driving a classic car or sitting on a valuable piece of furniture in a museum. The piano cabinet was as old as The Dew. The insides, however, were pristine and the old thing sounded like a concert grand. Des played a stride piano version of “On the Sunny Side of the Street” and after a couple of times through went to more of a Dixieland Jazz version of “All of Me”. When he finished, the silence in the old bar was daunting. Finally HoBo spoke.
“Not too bad for a white Yankee boy. You need to relax and let the music take you. You don’t drive the song; the song needs to drive you.”
The confusion Des felt must have shown on his face. HoBo suddenly got up from his chair and motioned for Des to give up the old circular piano bench. HoBo sat down and started playing the same rendition of the same songs, but they sounded different to Des. When HoBo finished, he turned to Des.
“What did you hear, Mr. Desmond?”
Desmond hesitated at first.
“I heard the same songs, in the same key, and the same style, but they sounded totally different.”
HoBo cackled with what Desmond guessed was a laugh, but sounded like ancient gears that were stripped and badly in need of oil.
“What was different besides mine was right and yours was wrong?”
“Well…for one thing, your baseline was stronger and just a little bit behind the beat. For another, you were able to make the melody stand out more. Those were the two biggest things I noticed.”
HoBo looked at Ramona.
“The boy has a fine ear. Now we’ve got to get what’s in his ear to travel to his fingers.”
“How can we do that?” Des asked.
“It takes two things, listenin’ and time.”
“Where do I start?”
“You start by takin’ a bus boy job here at The Dew. You can listen while you work. Your payment will be food, board at Ms. Ramona’s, and gettin’ to listen for free. After a while, when you sit in and play, you will get some tip money.”
Des couldn’t believe his ears. On his second day in New Orleans, he had a job, a place to live, and a chance to listen to, and eventually, play the music he loved.
Des worked at the Dew every night and on Sunday mornings when they had the gospel brunch. He was amazed at the array of talented musicians that stopped in to play a set each night. They were local legends, and even some national names trying out new techniques before recording them or taking them on the road.
After about a month, HoBo came up to him before a set that was midway through the night.
“Des, I need a break for a little while. Why don’t you sit in for me? The band is hot tonight and even you can’t screw up the sound,” HoBo said with a devilish smile.
“Do you think I’m ready?”
“You’re as ready as you’re gonna be. It’s time for you to give it a shot and let the people tell you if they like it.”
Des felt a mix of excitement and anxiety. He strolled over to the piano and sat down. Tonight’s lineup was a frequent one in the Dew. Tom Taylor, from the Midwest, was on acoustic bass, Bob Davidson, from Atlanta, was on drums, Slim Boudreaux, a local and distant cousin to Horace, was on the washboard, jelly jars, and other homemade percussion. Phil “Mad Man” Miller was on the trombone. They looked at Des as he sat down. It was the piano player’s call what they would play in the Dew.
Des decided to start out with the “Basin Street Blues” to get warmed up. Each of the musicians took a verse and chorus as a solo and then ended with the melody and Miller’s tasteful tailgate trombone licks. The growing crowd applauded each of the solos, including the one that Des played, and they ended the tune to strong, but polite applause.
They played their way through a number of other standards and the crowd seemed engaged, if not overwhelmed. Des played everything flawlessly, but as he listened to his own playing as it blended with the more seasoned musicians, he felt like something was off. It was almost time to end the set and he looked forward to HoBo’s take on his playing.
Des decided they needed to end on something upbeat, but he also wanted something comfortable. He decided that “All of Me” would be the last tune. Bob Davidson started the tune with a marching band street cadence on his snare and bass drums followed by a roll off to launch the tune. They flew along at breakneck speed and Des felt like he was in heaven as he played the familiar melody and chord changes. After extended and four bar traded solos, they launched back into the melody and played the song out. The applause at the end of this tune was significantly stronger. Des felt a sense of accomplishment that he had made it through, but he still felt that something was missing.
As the group took a break, Des made his way to the back of the bar where HoBo sat holding court.
“Not bad Mr. Desmond,” HoBo’s scratchy voice said as Desmond approached him.
“Not bad, but not quite there either,” he continued. “You sounded like an actor doing a play for the first time. The lines were all there, but you don’t feel the story yet.”
Desmond understood what HoBo meant.
“So how do I get there?”
“Keep listenin’ and keep playin’. It ain’t gonna happen overnight. It’s gonna take years.”
That’s when it began to sink in for Des. He didn’t want it to take years. He wanted to reach his dream now while he was young enough to enjoy it. For now, though, he had no choice but to follow HoBo’s advice. And he did. For the next five years he bussed tables and sat in for HoBo. He became more confident and began playing more sets. There were even nights when HoBo took the night off and let Des play when his health began to falter.
Des was 21 now and he had been patient, but inside he wanted to fast-forward and reach his dream, but that didn’t seem to be in the cards…until one cold New Year’s Eve.
The Sugar Bowl always brought rowdy college crowds to New Orleans which
only multiplied the craziness from the usual New Year’s Eve crowd. The Dew was crowded to overflowing with Alabama and Penn State fans and a larger group of musicians gathered to play. New Year’s Eve was a great night for tips from the large drunken crowd, and the musicians knew it. This particular night would be one that would change Desmond’s life forever. HoBo was suffering from the unusually cold weather and told Des he would be playing the whole night. Des had never played a big holiday like this on his own before, but his repertoire and confidence had grown to a level that would meet the challenge. The usual suspects were playing with the group along with some familiar additions on saxophone and guitar. Just as the group was about to start their first set, an unfamiliar musician walked into the Dew. He wore a dark suit and a fedora and carried a trumpet case under his arm. A trumpet would round out the group nicely, but taking a gamble on an unfamiliar musician on a night like this was risky. This musician, however, had the bearing and look of confidence that dispelled all doubt. When he took out his flawless silver horn with mother-of-pearl valve caps and began to play, all doubt vanished. He had the ability to mimic famous trumpet players or play with a confident style of his own. His improvised riffs and extended solos were exact replicas of complicated solos by Miles Davis, Al Hirt, Louis Armstrong and others. He appeared to have no difficulties with keys and obscure tunes. He could make his standard trumpet sound like a flugelhorn, cornet, or piccolo trumpet. The members of the group were blown away by his abilities and by the fact that they had never heard of him before. When he introduced himself, he said his name was Lou. He also said his last name was too intimidating for most, so he just went by Lou. Des thought this was pretentious, but after hearing him play, the pretentiousness was well earned.
As is often the case with superior performers, they can raise the performance level of those around them. This is true in music, sports, and many other professions. This was definitely true when Lou joined the regular musicians at the Dew for that New Year’s Eve. The crowd felt it as well and reflected it through their applause and tips. As with all great performances, the time flew by and the crowd was left wanting more. Lou the trumpet player elevated and enhanced the talents of each member of the group, Des included, and they didn’t want this to be a one-time thing. Des approached Lou at the end of the night as their unofficial spokesman.
“Lou, I just wanted to tell you how much we enjoyed playing with you tonight. Where do you usually play?”
Lou laughed to himself and turned to face Desmond. In the harsh, closing time light, Desmond couldn’t help noticing the intensity and unusual color of Lou’s eyes. They seemed to alternate between hazel, brown, and an intense shade of burnt orange with bright flecks of light that almost looked like burning coals.
“I don’t usually play in any one place. I travel all over the world and play where I’m needed.”
Desmond bristled at the unusual response and felt uneasy for some reason.
“What do you mean, where you’re needed?”
Lou’s face broke into a disconcerting smile.
“You’re group needed a trumpet tonight, so I showed up.”
Again, Lou’s response did little to answer Desmond’s questions. But it didn’t matter, because Lou took over the conversation.
“So, you’ve got some talent and some potential on the piano. Right now you’re ten years away from being extremely competent to play in this lovely bar. Is that what your dream is?”
Desmond was a bit flustered by the backhanded compliment and the fact that Lou had mirrored his thoughts and his frustration. He didn’t say anything in reply. Lou continued.
“If I were a young man with potential like yours, I would want some kind of shortcut. Is that something you’re interested in?”
Desmond knew in his heart he should say no and end this conversation, but something about Lou’s eyes and the hypnotic tone of his voice had Desmond’s full attention.
“You can make it happen, Desmond; all you have to do is want it bad enough. Do you want it bad enough, Desmond?”
All Desmond could do was stare blankly and nod. Lou just had to reel him in.
“Desmond, it can happen if you want it bad enough. You just need to tell me what that dream is.”
Internal warnings were going off like a five-alarm fire, but Desmond could not protest. He was too far gone.
“Tell me your dream.”
Desmond mumbled something that sounded like a phrase in a foreign language.
“What was that Desmond?”
“To have the best hands.”
“Hmm, that’s an interesting way to put it, but I think I understand exactly what you’re saying. You want the best hands on the piano. You want to match that great technique that you already have with the missing ingredient to set you apart. Is that right Desmond?”
Again, Desmond could only stupidly nod his head.
“I’ll take that as a yes. All it takes, Desmond, is soul. Do you know what I mean? That’s what will provide the missing piece.”
Desmond thought this made sense in his current state. “Soul” was the missing ingredient that HoBo was talking about. Lou was saying the same thing, he thought to himself.
“It will come to you Desmond. You will have the best hands. Of course, you will pay a small price now and a larger price over time. It’s like buying a house; a down payment now and gradual payment of the larger price over time.”
“But I don’t have any money,” Desmond was able to blurt out.
Lou laughed at this.
“And I don’t need money. The price will be automatically exacted over time. In fact, you will not see me or need to pay in person. It’s that easy. All you have to do is say that you agree.”
Desmond again felt that internal turmoil, but he could also see his dream within his grasp. He also had the feeling that he was about to do something he would regret. Still, he looked into Lou’s molten orange-brown eyes and said, “I agree”. And he felt…nothing. Had he been the butt of a joke? Was he being exploited as a fool by this slick operator? He watched Lou turn and go out the door and said nothing. Desmond sulked his way back to Ramona’s and went to bed.
Desmond slept late into New Year’s Day. The Dew was closed and he didn’t roll out of bed until 1PM. He felt hung-over even though he didn’t take a single drink. He slunk down the stairs and immediately smelled Ramona’s jambalaya cooking in the kitchen. Instead of making him hungry as it usually did, he felt sick to his stomach. He went into the kitchen long enough to pour a glass of sugary sweet iced tea hoping it would settle his stomach and reduce his headache. He trudged back up the stairs and fell into bed. He didn’t wake up until the early morning hours of the following day.
He stayed in bed until the sun came up. Then he got up, took a shower, and went down to Ramona’s kitchen for some breakfast and strong coffee. He felt only marginally better but decided he better eat something. Ramona poured herself some coffee and sat down across from Desmond.
“That musta been some New Year’s Eve. If I didn’t hear you movin’ around yesterday, I might’ve thought you were dead.”
“I just felt awful. I came home from the Dew and felt like I had been up for two days straight. Guess I needed the sleep.”
“Well it sure wasn’t beauty sleep.”
“Why do you say that?”
“You look like you’ve been up for four days straight. What happened? Did someone give you some bad drug to take?”
“No. I didn’t even drink. Maybe I’ve got the flu.”
“Maybe. You might want to call in sick today and get some more sleep.”
“No. I need to go in. I need to play tonight. HoBo might not be up to it yet.”
“That old cat has at least nine lives. He’ll be fine.”
“Well I’m not sick. I’ll be better once I get there.”
“Whatever you say Mr. Desmond. There’s just something about you today.”
“What do you mean?”
“You look…different. Not in a good way.”
Desmond helped Ramona clean up the kitchen and then left for the short walk to the Dew. He had to admit that he felt a little achy, but he didn’t feel ill. When he got to the Dew, he saw HoBo sitting at the piano looking much better. He was playing some old rag time style tunes and Desmond went over to listen.
“Hey HoBo,” Desmond said as he finished up. “How are you feeling?”
“Mr. Desmond, I feel so much better. The rest did me some good. I’ll be back playin’ tonight, but only for a set or two. I don’t want to end up in bed again for a while.”
“Why is that?”
“A man my age doesn’t need to be alone with his thoughts. It gives me too much time to think about what I didn’t do with this life.”
“Well, I’m glad you’re feeling better.”
“It sounds like I wasn’t missed too much. It was a profitable New Year’s Eve without me. That Sugar Bowl crowd filled this place up.”
“Well, you were missed. We had a great crowd and the group sounded hot.”
“So I hear. Sounds like you had a great horn player sitting in, although I must admit, I thought I knew everyone that plays in this town, but I can’t place this guy from his description.”
“He was good. Really good. It made the rest of us sound better than usual.”
Desmond helped the kitchen crew get ready for the night’s dinner rush. It took longer than usual because of the day off. Before he knew it, dinner was over and the combo out in the bar was starting their first set. It was the same core group that had played New Year’s Eve, minus the trumpeter, of course. Although the band didn’t reach the heights of the sound from New Year’s Eve, they did sound good, especially HoBo on the piano. He was back with a vengeance. He went on to play a second set with the band and sounded better than he had in a very long time. Desmond thought that the rest had rejuvenated HoBo. When the second set was over, he went to compliment HoBo and found the ancient pianist smiling from ear-to-ear.
“You sound great tonight. That rest did wonders for you.”
“It’s not just the rest. My fingers feel like they belong to a young man tonight. I hate to stop.”
“You don’t have to. I don’t need to play tonight.”
“No. One thing I’ve learned with this old body, if I push too hard when I feel good, I pay the price later. You take the next set. I’ll get some dinner.”
“It’s going to be hard to follow you, but I’ll play if that’s what you want.”
“It’s not what I want,” HoBo said with a twinkle in his eye. “It’s what I need.”
Desmond sat at the piano for the third set thinking about what they were going to play. They had an alto sax player from New York sitting in who was itching to play some Charlie Parker tunes. To shut him up, Desmond decided they would start with Donna Lee, which was essentially an improvised solo that Parker had played over the old song, Back Home in Indiana. It was a challenging melody that Des and the group would make more challenging by kicking up the tempo. Des decided to warm up a little bit since he hadn’t touched the piano since New Year’s Eve. All thoughts of that bizarre night and his encounter with Lou the trumpeter were out of his head…until he put his fingers on the keys. It was a sensation like touching a live wire. He felt voltage pass up through his fingertips and through his whole body but could not remove his fingers from the keys. The sensation lasted for about five scary seconds and then was gone. Desmond felt fine.
The other members of the group had assembled and they kicked off the song by playing Back Home in Indiana as a slow dirge. When they finished, Des nodded to Bob Davidson on the drums and he kicked into a very fast street roll off and Donna Lee began with reckless abandon. The alto sax player held on for dear life and made it through the melody and a breakneck solo without any casualties. Then it was the guitarist’s turn. Finally, the solo came to Desmond. That was the moment when everything changed. The solo that came from the piano was being played by his fingers, but the technique, speed, and musicality was unbelievably foreign to his brain. He felt the music rather than thought it. When he made it through the chord changes for one turn, everyone nodded to him to take another. He flew around the changes again making complex substitutions with his left hand and playing runs with his right that seemed to flow like electricity from his fingers as they blurred across the keys. After this run through the changes, they were back into the melody and ended the song, keeping up the high speed with which it started.
When they finished, the silence in the bar was eerie. Then, one by one, bar patrons jumped to their feet and began applauding and shouting Desmond’s name. Tips began filling the bucket on the stage like never before. Desmond looked to the band members who also were standing, applauding, and pointing at him. The situation was surreal. The rest of the set was similar. Desmond played one amazing solo after another taking familiar tunes to places they had never been before. It was like a repeat of the New Year’s Eve performance only Desmond was the star instead of the mysterious trumpeter that no one had seen before. When the set was over, Desmond found himself mobbed by the patrons in the bar, slapping his back, shaking his hand, and even asking for autographs. There was only one person in the Dew whose opinion mattered to Desmond at that moment and that was HoBo. He made his way back to the old man’s usual table and found him asleep. The two sets must have worn him out. Even though he was not conscious, a slight smile seemed to be frozen on his face. Desmond went to gently wake him up so that he could help him to bed in his apartment above the bar. He gently nudged HoBo’s shoulder and the old man slumped to the table. He was not asleep. He had died sitting in the place that was his life. Desmond’s first thought was whether or not he had heard Desmond play this amazing set. His second thought went back to the words that Lou had told him regarding a “down payment” for realizing his dream. He quickly dismissed the thought. He then snapped back to reality. Other Dew employees were ushering patrons out of the bar so they could deal with HoBo’s death discreetly without causing a panic. The local undertaker had already been dispatched and, within thirty minutes, HoBo’s body was taken away. The bar was closed for the night and Desmond decided to walk around and clear his head. After about an hour, he returned to Miss Ramona’s place and found her and a group of current boarding musicians solemnly sitting around the table. Desmond poured a cup of strong coffee and joined them. They were sitting around reminiscing about HoBo. Most of the stories that Miss Ramona was telling were about his younger days when she was a singer in his band. HoBo was a mentor and a father figure to her just as he was to many other musicians, Desmond included. Eventually, the stories turned to how well HoBo had played earlier that evening and how full of life he was. Miss Ramona addressed this.
“The Lord wanted him to have one more moment of joy on this Earth before he called him home. From what I hear, it almost sounds like HoBo passed his gift on to you somehow Mr. Desmond. These gentlemen just got done talking about how your playing was amazing tonight. Maybe HoBo figured his work with you was done and he passed fulfilled.”
“I don’t know about that,” Desmond said, looking down at the floor. I just wish he was around to hear it and tell me what he thought.
The stories went on for a bit longer and the musicians began to leave one by one. Finally it was just Desmond and Ramona that remained.
“You look like something heavy is weighin’ on you, Mr. Desmond. What is it?”
“I’m just sad about HoBo’s death.”
“That man had a long and happy life. There’s no reason to sulk. In New Orleans, we celebrate the life a whole lot more than we mourn the death. I think there’s more to it than that.”
Desmond decided to tell Ramona about what happened on New Year’s Eve. When he was through, she had an amused look on her face.
“You sure you weren’t drinkin’ some of the special moonshine that night?”
“I didn’t drink at all. Why do you say that?”
“Well, for one thing, the Devil’s Dew was founded by a trumpet player named Lou who used to hang out with King Oliver and Jelly Roll Morton back in the early 1920’s. He’s been dead for nearly 50 years. His picture is hangin’ in the back of the bar at the Dew. Somebody’s been messin’ with you.”
Desmond described Lou and Ramona opened her eyes wide.
“That sure sounds like somebody who looks like him, but they could have seen the picture and dressed up like him for the holiday.”
“You’re sure about that?” Desmond asked. “How did he die?”
“There was a terrible fire at the Dew. The upstairs burned out totally. He lived in the apartment HoBo lived in. All they found was some burned up bones. The place got rebuilt with bootleg whiskey money.”
Desmond didn’t know what to think. He knew he saw ‘his’ Lou and he knew what happened when he sat down to play. It was a strange night.
The Devil’s Dew was shut down for a few days out of respect to HoBo. In pure New Orleans style, his death would be marked by a funeral procession beginning at the undertakers and passing by the Dew to the cemetery where HoBo would be laid to rest in a mausoleum. Underground burials were not possible in New Orleans due to the elevation of the city which was actually below sea level. The water table was so high, that digging a hole to bury a body would result in a hole filled with water.
A marching band of all types of instruments formed along and marched down Bourbon Street to accompany HoBo’s body. Musicians and other mourners came from far and wide to celebrate his life. The band played a mournful rendition of “Just a Closer Walk with Thee” as the body was carried toward the cemetery. Once HoBo was laid to rest, the procession went back the way it came to finish it’s parade at the Devil’s Dew for a reception/celebration. As was the custom, the trip back started with a lively drum cadence and then a roll off that began a true Dixieland version of the same old Christian spiritual, but with a beat that encouraged those not playing instruments to dance and strut toward the bar. It was not disrespectful, quite the opposite was true. They were honoring HoBo in true New Orleans style.
Once back at the Dew, a who’s-who of musicians assembled to play HoBo’s favorite tunes. Food was put out in a buffet, and a party like no other was thrown to honor him. Other piano players sat down and played for the first couple of sets while Desmond helped manage the party and greeted guests. As the band assembled to play the third and final set, one of the trombone players, Phil Miller, stepped up to the microphone to make an announcement.
“You know, HoBo was a legend in this bar. He played here for nearly 70 years and taught many of us to appreciate the music and culture of this great city. To show that his teaching spirit was there to the end, we want to call up his latest, and last, protégé, Desmond Brown, to play the next set. Desmond, come on up here and show us what you learned.”
Desmond walked up to the piano. His legs and back seemed a bit sore for someone in his 20’s, but he figured the parade had taken its toll on him. He sat down and the band launched into a medley of classic Dixieland jazz standards. Like the last time he played, minus the electric shock, Desmond’s fingers danced across the keys with reckless abandon as he redefined the chord changes and melodies of each tune. The band and the crowd were awestruck by his technique and his fusion of old and modern jazz textures. The crowd was on their feet applauding and shouting after every solo in every song. Desmond had never felt so alive while playing the piano. When he finished, the applause, back slaps, handshakes, and requests for autographs were numerous. He made his way to the back and slid into the booth where HoBo had sat and passed away so recently. As he sat there, the admirers continued to approach him and shower him with compliments. He simultaneously felt uneasy, but he was also enjoying it. As the crowd thinned, a man in a very expensive suit approached him. He asked Desmond if he could sit down.
“Sure. I’m about to go help in the kitchen,” Desmond responded.
“Well, actually I’d like to talk to you first, if you don’t mind.”
“OK. What do you want?”
The man folded his well-manicured hands.
“My name is Howard Ballantine. I represent Blue Note and I have a proposition for you.”
“Blue Note, as in The Blue Note record label?” Desmond asked in disbelief.
“The very same. I’ll get right to it. I don’t know where you came from, or where you’ve been, but I want to sign you to an exclusive deal with our label. I’m prepared to give you $25,000 up front to sign you to a three album deal and then cut you in for a substantial piece of the profit. I have the contract with me. You can have your agent and your lawyer look it over and then sign it. I’m not leaving New Orleans until I have your signature.”
“What? A lawyer? I don’t have a lawyer or an agent.”
“Well I suggest that you get both. You’re going to need them. Here’s my card. If I don’t hear from you within three days, I’ll come and find you to get your signature. Blue Note wants your talent on its label.”
“This is unbelievable. Thank you. I’ll call you.”
“I’m counting on it,” Ballantine said as he got up to leave.
“Mr. Ballantine,” Desmond said as the man turned to go. He turned back and looked at Desmond.
“Please call me Howard.”
“OK. Howard. How did you know to come here? Were you a friend of HoBo’s?”
“No. I never knew the man. I’m here, strangely enough, because of a phone call that came in to my private office line. No one has that number except for our company executives and the agents of certain artists or the artists themselves. The voice on the phone told me I needed to get to New Orleans with a contract and sign up one of the best new talents on piano since Thelonious Monk or Oscar Peterson. I was about to hang up, but the voice on the phone was very convincing and I felt compelled to come here. I sat through the first two sets and was about to leave when they called you up to play. You are a unique talent and you need to be heard. I want you on Blue Note so that your gift can be shared on a large scale.”
Desmond was feeling strange as he heard Ballantine’s story. He knew he had to ask the next question, but also knew the answer beforehand.
“What was his name? The guy who called you, did he say his name?”
“He didn’t tell me his full name. He just said to tell you that Lou said good luck. Does that mean anything to you?”
Desmond hesitated and then said “No it doesn’t.” He wanted to avoid more questions. When Ballantine left, Desmond got up from his seat and left the Devil’s Dew for the last time. He could not resist a look over the bar at the pictures that hung there. Among the pictures of notables that had visited the bar was a previously unnoticed black and white photo in a dusty frame. The picture was of Lou. It was the same man from the New Year’s Eve party and, as Desmond started to look away, he could swear that the eyes of the man in the picture flashed a brief brownish-orange at him.
Now, as a nearly sixty year old Desmond Brown lay in his luxury suite in the Waldorf Astoria in New York City, he was a mass of pain. The pain had started in his legs and spine in his 20’s. As he progressed through his 30’s and 40’s, the pain got progressively worse and spread to his chest. He had been to the top orthopedists, neurologists, internists, and, later, acupuncturists, chiropractors, and holistic healers. No one could explain the pain. He began to take pain medication in ever increasing amounts. They would just dull the pain, but could not make it stop.
Amazingly, as the rest of Desmond’s body withered away from the effects of the pain and lack of use, his arms, from his shoulders to the tips of his fingers, remained pain free and toned as if he were in his 20’s. The doctors were baffled that these appendages that he used to create classic jazz piano music had been spared while the rest of his body had been so cruelly punished. Desmond knew the reason, however, he just couldn’t share it with anyone or insanity would be added to his list of afflictions. So now, on this night after a triumphant concert at New York’s Carnegie Hall, Desmond Brown lay in his luxury suite wondering if the price he had paid for his gift was truly worth it. He wondered if the suffering that he experienced was worth the fame, adulation, and immortality of the music he had created. He used to answer ‘yes’ unequivocally to this question, but now, he wasn’t so sure. He had taken the short cut. He had skipped paying his dues for the easy way. But he also knew that, even with several years of hard work, the alternate path may not have landed him here. He might still be playing at The Devil’s Dew and bussing tables. At this low point in his life, he would gladly trade his health for his abilities. After all, the fame he had achieved and the body of work he had produced was enough to fill several lifetimes. He had plenty of money. He was still relatively young. He wondered to himself if there was a way out. As he drifted into another wave of sedative induced pseudo-sleep, Desmond thought about this as he was suddenly brought back from the edge of sleep by a presence in his room.
“Ron, is that you?”
Desmond’s doctor was Ron Perrino, and he, as always, had the adjoining room so that he could monitor Desmond’s condition through the night and take action as needed. No one answered, however, but Desmond could still feel a presence.
“Who’s there? What do you want?”
Desmond wondered if he was hallucinating or hearing voices as new symptoms. But finally, a voice spoke quietly.
“Well hello old friend.”
A face emerged from the shadows and Desmond wondered if he was dreaming.
“No you’re not dreaming. It’s me, your old pal.”
“Lou. How did you get in here? Why are you here?”
“One question at a time. The first question is silly, don’t you think. I have been alive for a very long time. I gave you the talent needed to become the greatest jazz piano player of all time, and you question how I could get into your hotel room.”
Lou let out a laugh that was chilling yet made the temperature of the room increase noticeably. He was wearing the same outfit that he wore that New Year’s Eve so long ago. It also was the same outfit he wore in the photo behind the bar at the Devil’s Dew. His face had not changed and his intense eyes seemed to glow like the ends of twin cigarettes in Desmond’s darkened room.
“As for the second question, you asked for me?”
“No. I didn’t. I’d never ask for you.”
“I’m sorry Desmond, but you’re mistaken. I clearly heard you ask for an amendment to our agreement. If nothing else, I am a forthright businessman and when a customer is unhappy with an arrangement, I like to find a way to give them what they ask for, or ‘wish’ for. You distinctly expressed the desire to make your body whole again. To have the same feeling throughout your body at the expense of your piano playing, am I correct?”
“I was only thinking about it. I didn’t ask for your help.”
“Well I am here to offer help if you want it, Desmond. All you have to do is agree that you want this to come to pass. Your body will be whole. The rest of your body will match your arms and hands.”
Lou moved his face close to Desmond’s as he continued.
“Is this what you want, Desmond?”
Desmond squeezed his eyes shut and said, “It is”.
When he opened his eyes, Lou was gone. Desmond was suddenly exhausted and concluded that the whole episode was just another dream and a result of the chemicals circulating through his body. He drifted off to a dreamless sleep for the first time in many years.
He was awoken by the sound of voices and activity in his room.
“He’s opening his eyes.”
It was Dr. Perrino that Desmond saw first as he began to wake up.
“Desmond can you hear me? Blink if you can. Desmond tried to speak, but his vocal chords would not respond. He then realized there was an intubation tube in his throat that prevented speech. He blinked.
“Good. You’re responsive. Something happened during the night. Your condition has changed. Can you squeeze my hand?”
Desmond tried to squeeze with both hands but found no feeling in his body at all. The pain was gone, but with it, so was his ability to move. He was paralyzed.
“Desmond, we think you might have had a stroke that is affecting your movement. You are having trouble breathing on your own as well. We’re going to have to move you to a hospital.”
Desmond’s next memory was of more activity and of somber faces surrounding his bed. They were the faces of people accepting that the end was near for him. Desmond’s immediate reaction was anger. He was angry at himself. He was angry at Lou. Lou, in his dream (or was it a dream) had promised to make his body whole at the price. Suddenly, Desmond’s anger turned to amusement and understanding. Lou had delivered on his promise. His body was whole again. None of it functioned. Instead of amazing hands that flew across the keyboard with unreal dexterity, his arms and hands now matched the rest of his body. His lungs and heart were catching up as well. His final thought as his body finally gave up was, “be careful what you wish for”.