The Blue Note

by Jesse Ulmer

They mocked the idea of him and the boy moving into that old church.  The place wasn’t worth a damn thing, and it needed work, lots of it.  The town thought it very queer that a man named Daniel would be the one to do it, to fix up that old church.  Plenty of fine houses in town, they would say, or on small farms that went cheap because nothing small survived anymore.  The diner waitress said that the boy never spoke, even to his father.  How strange not to speak, and how strange for his father, coming from some big city, to this place of places.

Daniel slouched in a wicker chair wearing a red and black flannel shirt, long hair matching an unkempt, grey beard.  A cast iron stove squatted in the middle of the room on top of which sat a black, cast iron pan filled with water. Tendrils of steam spun from the surface, bringing humidity to the cold and dry air exactly as the Calvin preachers did for their congregations and for themselves.  Austere pine bookshelves lined all four walls.  A young boy sat cross-legged on a large woven rug.  A few books scattered behind him, all closed except for a thick copy of Arabian Nights.  The man held a trumpet and stared into the deep golden of a whiskey bottle.  The boy fiddled with crayons and paper on the floor.

The wicker strands bent and creaked as he straightened his posture.  “Pick up the grey and blue ones.”

He raised his trumpet to the air like the chest plume of a proud and regal bird.  His chest filled with air and then he pushed, concentrated, slow and intense. Sound that not so much echoed as filled the suspended ceiling criss-crossed by thick and dark oak beams. The boy scrawled faster and more erratically as the note grew, the tone expanding until the pitch began to fade, directing the scrawling with it until the sound died.  The boy lifted his head from the floor.

“C is the color of ice and sky,” Daniel said.

Daniel rose and propped the shining, golden horn in the corner beside a shotgun.  He threw on a wool jacket hanging from an iron stand and stepped outside.  He trudged through snowdrifts something like three feet high to a wood pile made almost invisible by the blizzard. He stacked a few logs on his cradled arm, coughing from the sharp, icy air.  The snowflakes were falling straight and slow as if gently down strings.

Meanwhile the boy carefully tip-toed around the rug, trying not to step outside its borders.  If Daniel were to look he would see wood floors that needed refinishing, disappointed he could not begin until spring.  The boy looked at the same floor and saw a sky filled with clouds floating rudderless.  Below the clouds an ocean, solid blue if not for the white crests.  Daniel would know that these were called white caps in this part of America but if the boy would have asked Daniel what the white things were rolling in the ocean he would have told him they were white horses. The boy wavered but caught his balance.  The door slammed and the boy returned to his former place.  Daniel stomped snow from his boots then corded the wood inside the door.  He walked to the freezer.  The boy heard creak floor and clink ice cube and when Daniel his father entered the room, the boy watched the clear ice bob in a tumbler filled with fluid the color bullion.

A set of headlights flashed through the east windows, mapping the driveway across the opposite wall.  Daniel walked to the window and squinted in the light.  Soon the front door opened and the boy heard a heavy pair of boots clunk in the entryway.  A full Carhart suit peppered with specks of grease and oil stepped through the kitchen and into the living room.  “He’s shakin’ an’ sweatin’ like hell,” she said, “started this afternoon.”

“Get someone else.”


“Call a doctor.”

“Can’t afford one.”

“I’m not a preacher.”

“The old man asks for you.  I don’t know why.  He just does.”

Daniel turned and disappeared into the back bedroom, returning with a small Scandinavian sweater, thermal socks and a black case.

The woman bent to the boy and put her cold hand under his chin. “You ever gonna’ say somethin’?”

They hurried outside. The snowflakes were getting bigger and they stamped the boy’s forehead, dissolving and slipping into his eyes.  They felt like tears and though he was calm they soon made him feel sad.  Daniel lifted the boy and set him in the pickup.  Daniel followed, slamming the rusty door and locking it.  The truck whipped round.  The air was warm and damp from the defroster, the dashboard smeared with grime.  A pull-down ashtray overflowed with butts and a few fell as the truck bounced along.  The boy saw nothing past the tracing headlights. The snowfall burying the path ended at the abandoned railroad tracks.  Snowflakes darted sideways and over the windshield.  Tracking the white flakes against the black sky made the boy dizzy but he could not stop until, quietly and unnoticed, he fell asleep.

The truck choked and shook after he cut the engine.  His father lifted him under his armpits, shoulders crunching his neck, setting him on the ground where he sunk deep into the snow.  Daniel turned from the boy to the woman.  “He can listen in the hall but don’t let him in.”

They entered a long brown trailer house surrounded by barren fields of white.  They walked up a few concrete blocks and opened a white plastic door that reminded the boy of white plastic picnic spoons.  The living room looked famished except for a dusty TV on a folding stand opposite a faded brown couch with thin, half-smiling cushions.  Daniel entered a narrow hallway, passed a side bedroom, washer, dryer and ended at a door.  He turned the knob.

The boy sat cross-legged in the middle of the hall and shut his eyes.  The hallway walls disappeared; the ceiling vanished.  The floor fell away and he saw the old man in the next room, saw into his eyes.  Black pupils that sizzled tiny corpuscles in all directions like spring lightning charged by something the boy tried but could not know.

Daniel nearly tripped over a tilted ceramic heater supported by small bricks.  Dreamcatchers hung from the ceiling, from the inside handle of the door, and from the bed itself, as well as feathers with various colored beads, long, Blackhawk feathers with red stained ends.  Daniel pulled up a chair.  The old man lay face up, buried under layers of sheets and cloth, his black hair splayed on a pillow with some thin strands stuck across his brown, sweaty and swollen cheeks. His eyes were countersunk into a sick and swollen face.  Daniel opened the black case and slid the mouthpiece on the trumpet, then reached for a small notebook and pen from his back pocket.  At first there was no talk.  Daniel cared for the old man, but he hoped this was the last time.

“Well?” Daniel said.

“What did I say yesterday?” the old man said.

Daniel flipped the notebook to the one of the last pages and read aloud, “More Light.”  Daniel slid the pen in the spiral of the notebook and set it on his lap.  “I looked it up. Those were Goethe’s words.  Good thing you didn’t kick it yesterday or your last words would not have been your own.”

“I don’t care if they’re somebody else’s words.  Who cares?  I didn’t know they were Goethe’s words.  I came up with them myself.”

“You probably read them somewhere and don’t remember.  You don’t want to imitate somebody’s….”

“Shit,” the old man chuckled, “it’s imitation to speak dying words.  It’s imitation to die, too.”  The old man grinned and the chapped corners of his mouth cracked, white spittle filling the red splits.  “I’m not sure what I want to say today.  Play for awhile.  I suppose last words are inspired.  Something will come.”

The boy sat in the hallway while the woman stretched on the couch and smoked.  He had heard the mumbling, then the silence and now the trumpet.  One note at a time.  That was how his father began his sessions.  The boy dreamed of long afternoons listening to him play one note, then scribble something, the same note again, then again to paper, holding notes in what seemed like space and not time until the notes began to form lines and the lines began to form some kind of strange melody.  The boy saw color after color and felt them too.  With each separate sound he felt flashes of green and white,  waves of purple and blue and then, abruptly, the colors merged.  The old man spoke and the trumpet cut.  “Play that thing again.”  The old man’s breathing became impatient and his forehead rained sweat, looking furiously at the paneled ceiling.  Daniel drew deep and blew again until again the old man interrupted.  “What’s that?”

“Whats what?”

“I don’t know!  It went up and down at the same time!”

Daniel held the trumpet in front of his lips and stared at the bell.  “You mean the pitch?”

“What the hell’s pitch?”

Daniel set the trumpet on his lap and ran his hand through his beard.  “I think what you’re hearing is the blue note.”

“What the hell’s a blue note?”

“A flatted seventh.  It hides between the major and minor notes.  It slurs, sort of connects the two modes but has no set relationship with anything before or after.”

“Give me the horn.”

Daniel did not respond.

“Who cares if I can’t play,” the old man said, “Push the keys and I’ll blow.”

He gave the trumpet to the old man, who slid his old and crooked fingers into the valves.       He inhaled then seemed to push with his cheeks and his stomach. The tone hesitated and faltered, sustaining till his lips unpursed, making a spitting noise and then just air.  The old man let go and turned away, and did not move except for his breathing, lying on his side, looking out a window where in a yard light he watched the snow fall in droves.  He thought of what his grandfather had told him when he was very young, that before the leveling of the great glaciers the land was all forest, full of strange and massive beasts.  Daniel waited for the old man to say something, to say his last words for the day.  Getting nothing, Daniel packed his trumpet and left the room.

The boy stood up when the door opened.  His father walked toward him with the black case.  The woman was crying.  Her head in her hands and her shoulders quivering, making the smoke from the cigarette shiver in the air and the ash fall on the carpet. His father, not knowing how to feel, watched her while the boy walked toward the door.  They left the woman on the couch and walked outside.  The boy loved the sound and feel of his boots crunching on freshly fallen snow.  So crisp and clean and especially at night, where the silence seemed more silent, and the snow more white.

Jesse Ulmer graduated from VCU with a M.A. degree in English Literature in 2007.  In the spring of 2008, he began teaching as an Assistant Professor of English at VCUQatar, a branch campus of the School of the Arts in Doha, Qatar, which is where he remains.  He regularly teaches composition, literature, and film as part of the Liberal Arts & Sciences Program, and is currently pursuing a Ph.D. in Literature & Criticism from Indiana University of Pennsylvania (IUP).

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