THE KING OF THE TRUMPET
No, you’ll never succeed, you bastard - not before and not now, either. Sure, you manged quite well: letting that smoke loose in the corridor, putting fire on both sides of the corridor - but had you forgotten that ships have portholes, my boy? And if your only intention was to have some fun, then you could go ahead and bust a gut laughing, but I could still endure it, endure staying here until my ass really catches fire. It wasn’t long at all before I cut loose and hit the water, and the water was 22 degrees Centigrade - you’ve evidently forgotten that in May the waters of the Mediterranean are warm, haven’t you? And I suppose you’ve also forgotten that it was through that very porthole that Fat Mary from Lagos made her visits? You believe you’re young, but obviously you’re already suffering from sclerosis. Maybe you’ve been too busy, or maybe it’s for some other reason, I don’t know, but you always seem to botch your jobs. What prevented you from coming some night when I was stoned and couldn’t even lift my little finger? But now - look, I jumped down and in a second I was already in the water. I can swim, you seem to have forgotten that as well. You’ve missed me, and no matter if my intentions have been bad or good, it’s becoming more and more difficult for me to respect you. Apart from the porthole, you didn’t anticipate that random fishing boat, either. And you really were a bit too hasty with that obituary of mine. I read it with such compassion, when two months later I was back in Bulgaria. I’d never heard such touching words about myself.
You should’ve done me in during that fire on the Frigate. I hadn’t been elated before, but ever since then I’ve begun shouting more and stronger curses at you. I’m sure you agree, I’ve been waiting too long for something nice to happen. I’ve grown fed up with the way you’ve been bullshitting me with random favors - a quiet sea, a friendly port, someone I’d believed was my enemy but who turned out to be a pal, a decent woman among too many cheap ones.
I’ve long since forgotten who had given me my first trumpet as a gift, but only two months afterward I was playing Silence perfectly well. Then, onstage at the restaurants in Bourgas, I electrified the audiences with salvoes of variations on popular songs, such as they never heard normally - ironic and mocking salvoes, because I wanted everybody to realize I wasn’t so entranced by the music I played. It was as if I anticipated that one day you’d deprive me of it.
The end of this story may have been disgusting, but you’d surely like me to thank you for its beginning - thank you, you impudent bastard. When I think what an easy victim I’d been for you, I feel really sorry no one had appeared to smash my overweening mug for me. And what did you think? “Oh, he doesn’t need much effort, this one, he’s really a lightweight”! One Rouslana, known on all the dance floors. Curly haired, lean and dark, she danced wildly, and when I was playing my solos she’d scream, Only you, the band should stop playing!... - The band didn’t stop, and she moved in front of the stage and struck a masculine pose with her feet wide apart, her tight jeans pulling at the hips, and she screamed until the band did in fact stop playing. She was hysterical and hot-tempered, she was crazy and I liked her, not to mention the jazz improvisations we made in the back seats of certain cars, especially speeding along at eighty miles an hour. Pa-bee-rip-pee-ribby-rip... And her answer: pa-reep-pa-ribby-ribby... And then me again: pa-bee... Endless nights. I’d been sure that everything had been too random to be predetermined to end badly. I married Rouslana and when later I saw the twins for the first time at the nursery window, I had really gone nuts. That very first night I awakened the hospital with Silence. For the time being, you left me alone. You didn’t even take it to heart when my mother, who was old and ailing, took to looking after the two boys. I remained on the music scene, Rouslana on the dance floor. During intermissions she ran home to breastfeed the twins, and would hurry back afterward. I kept persuading myself that this was right, that it was perfectly normal. Rouslana had to be beside me, she was part of me, part of my success as a trumpet player. She had to be on the floor, for only then did all those stunning improvisations occur to me.
Perhaps it could have gone on like that for a long time, but as it turned out, you were fed up with looking at me - such an entranced fool! - for such a long period. One night Rouslana stayed in the bar with the guys from the band, and I went home to check on the twins. Everything was OK at home, the boys were asleep. So I decided to take a look at the new floor show at the bar. When I entered, the lights were off and nobody noticed my appearance. But even in the dark I could see that Rouslana was sitting in the drummer’s lap, and wriggling and moaning; with one hand she’d been doing something under the table, while with the other she had raised her glass to sip from her drink. As it happened, they both spotted me at the same time. Rouslana quickly returned to her own seat. The drummer’s eyes were bulging. He spat at me.
“Ninny!” he yelled loudly, so as to be heard over the band. “This isn’t the only thing she’s done with me... and not only with me.”
“Drunken pig!” shrieked Rouslana, and slapped his mouth shut.
“You’ve hit me? You...?” He grabbed her hair, twisted it around his wrist and pulled fiercely.
At first Rouslana screamed, but then she subsided. Obviously she was used to such treatment.
It was all news to me.
Rouslana never came home again. I believe that was the smartest thing she’d ever done in her life.
And so - on to the ocean, to the ships, in order to buy the little twins everything they needed, and to avoid seeing that image of Rouslana and the repugnant mugs of the guys in the band. That was when it first occurred to me that perhaps you’d always been totally indifferent whether I was dead or alive, that you couldn’t care less if I’d preferred to continue living, or if I wanted to end it all. On board the ships I had plenty of time to think about you and to try to unravel your mystery.
You’d started with me when I’d been a kid, grumbling that I’d been born by accident, that I didn’t lift a finger for that to happen and that everything I would subsequently experience would be as random as the fact of my birth. I shouldn’t dream for a second that I - the worm - could change anything, so I should just lie low and wait. Well, done! I did lie low, and lower, until I reached the bottom here - to be tossed and hurled and thrown on board the ships, and to plan how to drain you out. I decided not to wait for your random appearances, which always ended badly. I decided to challenge them myself, and after that fire on the Frigate, not to let anything stop me. To jeer at you and pretend to lick your boots - to open the door for you with a bow, and slam it behind you - to drive you like a sports car at a hundred miles an hour - to strip you naked and show you to everyone - to tease you that you’re not worth a red cent, and [only from time to time to listen to you like one listens to music? - not clear], always to embarrass you. Until one day you’d be at a loss, and you’d ask yourself: “What kind of a guy is he, for God’s sake!” Well, then I could give you the finger. Because you’d never understand what kind of a guy I am.
And what did you think? You nailed me down on those disintegrating old washtubs, and you’d decided you’d finished me off. That’s the end of Satchmo, that’s the end - so all my acquaintances alleged. No! I wanted you to realize that you weren’t through with me. That’s why at midnight I climbed to the top deck and awakened the whole ship with my trumpet. On the Lagos pier I attracted crowds of blacks, who’d come to listen to black music. And did you see how I made those two American girls cry in San Francisco, and how they came to my cabin for my feigned birthday party? Yeah, you’d surely seen it all, and that’s why you set the Frigate on fire. You really did scare me then. For a whole week I couldn’t speak a single word, my jaw had been twisted to one side and my head had been shaking all the time. It took me three months to recover - and then it was back to sea, again on the Frigate - the ship had been repaired and had recovered as well.
I don’t know why - whether it was due to your feeling impotent, or something else - but you ran amok. I can’t imagine how hard you must have strained to invent something new and diabolical - and then when you couldn’t think of anything, you turned back to your old tricks again. In forty years you’ve managed to realize that old tricks are always the best tricks, I suppose.
My face is somewhat funny looking, and there isn’t a woman who won’t smile when she first sees me. I knew that perfectly well - that cocktail of indulgence and sympathy, which I never could make use of. Lilly didn’t smile. The girl simply minded her own business. She only raised a charming eyebrow and asked: “What would you like?”
“Two packs of aspirin, please.”
It became a daily routine. Two packs of aspirin, please - until she couldn’t resist any longer, and she asked:
“Why do you need so much aspirin, please?”
“I use it for canning food,” I replied humbly, and she laughed.
I knew I’d make her laugh, and I made her laugh afterwards too, although I wasn’t very happy when Lilly insisted I not drink too much, and complained about my dragging her around to pubs and bars every night. I suppose that she, with her good-natured soul, had recognized that there had been something good and worthy in me, something you would never understand. I was ready to subjugate myself, to obey her - and besides, I even enjoyed it.
Lilly married me - me with my two little boys. I couldn’t believe it, and day after day I smiled smugly and inanely - at home, in the streets, in pubs, on board the ship, everywhere. I felt like lying on my back and pumping my legs like a baby who’s just been undressed.
“One more hoodlum,” I said to Lilly after I had brought her home from the maternity hospital.
“He’s very handsome.”
“Another burden on my shoulders.”
“He looks like you.”
“If it could only have been a girl.”
“Hey, just take him,” said Lilly in a businesslike tone. “You know perfectly well that you can’t make me angry.”
And she went into the next drugstore to buy something for the hoodlum kid. Don’t do it, my boy, I said, trying to calm him down - if you ask me, I feel like crying myself. It will probably turn out that I’ll have to spend the rest of my life at sea - there’s no other way to support this commune of a family.
I did manage, however, and whenever I came home from a voyage it was great fun with the three hoodlum kids. We had terrific wrestling matches on the carpet, on sofas and beds. We turned the house upside down until Lilly, trying fruitlessly to establish some sort order, finally wound up yelling at us. Then all four of us lined up and listened to her reprimands with heads bowed. But before long we ran out of patience and at a signal from me, we recited in chorus: “Why do you need so much aspirin, please?”
I very much hoped that at last you’d leave me alone. But no! Lilly was diagnosed with cancer. In spite of my spending all my foreign-currency wages for treatments, in just a year she became smaller and smaller, wasting away until she finally died.
I was sure nothing else could happen to me after Lilly’s death. I thought of myself as invincible, as a hunk of cold charcoal - no use either trying to light it or to extinguish it, it’s all just the same. But it seems that with some effort, you could be quite ingenious. You didn’t want to exterminate me just yet - you still had several unused cards up your sleeve. OK! I just want to tell you: slow down, take it easier, because no matter who has jeered at whom, who has seduced or tempted whom, who has set fires and who has put out fires, it is perfectly clear that we’ll perish together - you and me. But you’ve decided to keep on going, and at last you’ve outdone yourself. I can congratulate you for that disease which in a very short time has turned me into a human balloon - one hundred and twenty kilos of a man. Satchmo, once one of the best-built guys in Bourgas, now a hundred and twenty kilos, with arms and legs like mighty loaves of bread. And you make me drag all that flesh at least ten kilometers a day, if I want to live a little longer. And I drag it. You’ve forbidden me to eat and drink. I don’t eat, that’s not very difficult, and I don’t drink - but I’m dying for a sip of alcohol.
And here I am, soaked in sweat, on the stage again, trumpet in hand, sitting in that enormous armchair. And here is that asshole of a drummer who announces:
“And now, ladies and gentlemen, here’s the King of the Trumpet, the unforgettable Satchmo!”
Although I know perfectly well that you - my own life - have always been deaf, tonight I’ll make you hear me, even if I have to collapse on stage. Come, old man, sit at the farthest table, order a glass of wine and listen. You’ve also been beaten, so don’t make a fuss. Just listen! Satchmo will play Silence. Listen!
© Atanas Stoychev