Curtis drained the spit valve over a cement planter where a few begonias valiantly held on to life amidst stubbed-out cigarette butts. The saxophone case in front of him had a scant few bills and one quarter. The only other person out at this time of night was the shaved ice vendor across the way. The old man kept up his cry of “ices! Genuine Italian ices!” as his handmade signs swayed from the push-cart. The boardwalk was practically deserted at this hour.
Curtis checked his watch. 8:05. At 8:25 the theater across the way would let out. Crowds. Crowds were good.
The push-cart creaked closer.
“Slow night?” The old man’s accent was unplaceable.
Curis tooted a note. “Not for long, I hope.”
“You stick with it. My son, he has the other cart, he likes to run around a lot. I tell him: ‘stick to one place, they will come to you.’”
“Preach.” Curtis smiled and nodded politely, hoping that was the end of it. He didn’t like talking too much on a job.
The old man decided to take a seat on the lip of the planter instead. He pointed with his chin at the sax case. “So little.”
“Ah.” Curtis shrugged, lighting an unfiltered camel. “Everyone keeps ignoring me.”
“You should come around five. Many people, then.”
Curtis shrugged again. “I’m a night owl myself.”
“Ah.” The old man chuckled and waggled a finger. “You musicians. You drum your own beats. I might give you tip.”
“Oh no, man, that’s really okay.” Curtis held a hand up.
“No, it’s good.” The old man grinned. His dentures were very straight and white. “Tonight will be a good night for me. I must spread fortune around, or it is lost.”
Over Curtis’s protests, the old man undid the brake and went back to lurk around the theater entrance.
Curtis tapped an ash in the cement planter. A girl walking past with her friend tossed her hair and barked a cruel staccato laugh.
“That’s gotta do great things for your lung capacity.”
Curtis worked his hands over the keys, puffing air soundlessly over the reed. Californians. You could be in deep with the mob and still get elected to public office, but smoke and you were persona non grata. He would rather be in New York. Or Chicago. He liked Chicago. His skills never went unappreciated in Chicago.
Curtis took a long drag. Patience. If he did well here, he could write his own ticket. That’s what the other guys didn’t get. They got enthusiastic, jumped the gun. Slumming showed your worth. Showed you could put in the hours, whether the job had glamor or not.
Across the way, the cart man filled a cup and dashed syrup over it. The recipient bounced with a childlike joy as her paramour shelled out bills. The old man held out change, but the young man blocked it with his hand. His date saw, cuddling into him as they walked away. The old man saw Curtis watching and held up the bill with a smile. Curtis shot him a thumbs-up.
The theater door slammed open, and the first of the evening crowd trickled out. Curtis rose and leapt into motion, plunging the reed past his lips and taking a deep breath. He was Coltrane, he was Hawkins, he was Adderly. He eyed the crowds as his fingers danced across the keys. He could pick out some local big players pressing past the crowd to get back to Lincoln town cars and black SUVs. A socialite, three council members. Desmond Morales, the ADA, ascending the steps with the help of his fourth wife.
Curtis fingered a heretofore unused key. There was a puff of air from his saxophone bell and Morales bent double, clapping a hand to his neck. Curtis improvised a series of hard bop trills to accompany the man’s sudden tremors as he fell to the ground, gasping. He only gave up on playing when the ambulance arrived.
The cart man approached the saxophone case, where Curtis was sorting through bills. He clicked his tongue.
“Ah. Not nearly enough for such an artist.”
Curtis shrugged. “A job is a job.”
“Tonight was maybe not your night, then.”
Curtis shrugged, scooping bills into his hand. An ice cup was thrust into his face.
“No, I couldn’t—”
“Take.” The old man pressed it forward until Curtis took the cup. It was Piña Colada with a dash of vodka.
“I had a good night. I can spare.” The old man grunted as he sat on the planter. Curtis forgot the bills and joined him. The ice was really quite good.
“You have off nights and you have good nights.” The old man mopped the back of his neck. “This I know from years of work.”
Curtis swallowed a mouthful. “I count success in more than bills.”
The old man snapped his fingers. “That’s the way to think. Where do you go from here?”
Curtis smiled. He dug out a cigarette, brushing the paper envelope bearing more darts hidden in the back of the pack.
“Chicago. Always call for someone like me over there.”