Volume II, Issue III Autumn 2003

Torch Songs

This article originally published in THE BRIDGE Illustrated.

The Loma Alta Brass Band – a balding and beer-gutted middle-aged quartet beset by high cholesterol and elevated blood-pressure and various other mature years maladies – veered their repertoire away from the strictly instrumental and into the direction of vocalization, with each of the four blowers taking turns laying their instruments down to belt out old torch songs ...

It was a rare paying gig, and the band members were excited as they set up their folding chairs in a small area of cleared floor space in front of the lingerie department in the Wal-Mart Store – at that massive retailer's one-year anniversary celebration in its mesa-top, ocean-view site – and as they wet their mouthpieces and began to tune up, their women, who had accompanied them to the job, grabbed grocery carts and wheeled off in search of bargains.

Then Clete Johnson, on clarinet, trilled into the opening notes of Mercer and Van Heusen's "I Thought About You" as Ellis Leahy – with his abandoned tuba shining behind him on his chair – stood up in front of his bandmates and crooned the words, envisioning, as he vocalized, his wife of twenty-nine years, the lovely Ruth, as she – out of his line of sight in a far corner of the store – snatched a pack of bargain-priced corn cushions off a high shelf and dropped it in her cart.

The band played on, and the shoppers milled around them, ignoring the performance, as Butch Jones took a solo on trombone, working the plunger mute, coaxing behind-doors sounds from his horn – squeaks and moans and soft-tufted ecstatic little cries that evoked images of sweet and tender carnal writhings.

Passing women shoppers glanced over quickly, sporting sudden flushes on their cheeks, but they moved right on, to denude the pyramids of competing on-sale name-brand colas, and at the song's end there was no applause, just the sounds of shuffling feet and sharp remonstrances to wayward children, and the rumble of the wheels of the shopping carts.

The band played on – drawing very little attention other than the occasional derisive smile, and they finally wrapped up the set and packed up their instruments and folded up their chairs. Then they elbowed through the shopping throng, pushed their way back to the manager's office to collect their check. The manager seemed displeased with the performance, scowled as he scribbled out his signature. "You guys," he said as he handed over the check, "really ought to liven up your repertoire a little, come on and join us in the nineteen-nineties, dudes. I mean, what the fuck was that shit you were playing, from the thirties or what?"

"Oh yeah," Ellis sputtered, "Well your greeter seemed to like it."

The manager snorted and smirked."Elwood?" he said. "Yeah, right. He ought to; that guy's older'n the hills."

The band members shook their heads, shuffled out of the office, and went off in search of their mates. When they found them and reigned them in, and when they had paid for all the bargain-priced booty the women had obtained, they – each and every one of them – found themselves in the red for their afternoon's work.

On the way to their cars, out in the middle of the sprawling, sun-baked parking lot, they were assaulted by the sound of another Wal-Mart-hired entertainment, a smash and clash rock band that was nurturing an ongoing electronic explosion on a plywood stage, an emission of sonic energy (that was actually a song with a theme of spurned love, rendered indecipherable by the volume level) that made migrating waterfowl alter their overhead courses and eventually miss their designated lagoons.

Ellis, lugging his tuba, grabbed Clete's arm and shouted into his bandmate's ear, "MAYBE THAT'S WHAT WE NEED, PARTNER, A LITTLE ELECTRIFICATION, A LITTLE VOLUME!"

For, unlike the Loma Alta Brass Band, these three bare-chested young men – The Scum Monkeys was the name printed on the big bass drum – in their low-slung jeans and much-pierced flesh, had drawn a crowd of several hundred, a congregation that pressed in at the stage and undulated in the purposeful manner of an insect colony hell-bent on some necessary communal task, and when a pair of women's underpants shot out of the crowd and sailed toward the stage, Clete replied to his tuba-playing friend's musing with: "YEAH, AND WE COULD TAKE OFF OUR SHIRTS, TOO," as the young guitar player shuffled to the his right and snapped the panties – Tyranosurus Rex-style – out of the air with his teeth.

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