The only name he still knew was Jericho Jones. As if his very existence had vaporized into the ether, his identity bent to just what his listeners willed. He no longer mattered in anything but what they heard, and what he could hear – that gathered by his ears and that hidden within his head. He wove a tapestry of sound, trailing through melodies and rhythms nobody else dreamed of, but they bled out of his veins without a thought. Sometimes accompanied by pounding feet, and other times just uncomprehending stares, his music flowed through the stratosphere and into worlds unknown. He could not keep a job, he could not afford a roof over his head, he could not read nor write nor count his change. But, man, could he play that trumpet, could he wail. The way he could blow, they said, he could bring down the walls of Jericho.
Every street corner served as his stage, every lamp overhead his spotlight. He leaned back upon the mojo, his breath steaming from the trumpet’s bell, moisture dripping from the spit valve. A fellow drumming on the bottom of a bucket might join in, or another with a pair of spoons. Bouncing off his brick backdrop, his songs reached into every corner before rising to every star. The gullet of his battered porkpie might beg for spare coins, but the music existed for its own sake, and Jericho Jones existed for the music.
Thin as a pencil, he meandered through a maze of streets, pulsing with the rhythm of the city, his horn hung over his shoulder by a rope. His mouthpiece, lovingly wrapped in a white handkerchief – the only truly clean piece of cloth on him – nestled carefully in his left pants pocket. Sidewalks and gutters, gravel roads and grassy shoulders, he walked them all, casting the seeds of his art upon whatever soil he found. Did he eat? Perhaps he might pick an apple from a tree, or find a sandwich tossed into the upturned hat, but the question seldom even arose. The thrills of his instrument fed his heart, and sometimes he had to smile so big he could not play for a moment.
He was the Pied Piper of joy, leading it around by enchantment. The gift was offered to all within earshot, listening the only price asked. He was master of his talent, passing along his work at no cost, thereby loosing the bonds of owners, sellers and critics. For those with no money, there was no fee; for those with no interest, there was no refund. The music took on life, like the air it rode upon, free to alight upon the sensibilities of any who rose to it. Like a caress upon a sleeping child, its touch might never be acknowledged, but was known of itself.
There came a day when a couple men of obvious means hung at the edge of the crowd, sort of hiding around the corner of a building, as Jericho Jones tore it up. Head to toe in sharp, three-piece suits, spats and hats, pins and baubles, the two nodded and laughed to the trumpet’s siren song. A new inspiration filled his lungs, and his tones pealed through the urban landscape. Under a midday sun, the gleaming instrument could shine no brighter than its own notes, hanging like stars in the sky. They danced a respectably slight jig to the jitter-bugging jazz, whooped in appreciative praise, with “yes!” and “uh-huh!” and “play it!” The meager audience dissipated, a couple of small silver discs fell into the porkpie, and the two lingered.
“Son, you’ve got no business playing on this street corner,” one said. A gold watch chain drooped across his ample stomach.
“I’ve got no place else,” he replied. “One corner’s as good as another for me to stand on.”
“Let us help you. We can set you up in clubs, in theaters,” said the other. “You’ve got no business playing that music for free.”
“Can anything make the music better?” asked Jericho Jones.
“Maybe, maybe not. Won’t be able to tell until we put a price on it.”
The gigs began small, in church basements and restaurant patios. Soon those venues became cramped, as his audience – the wide world – tried to fit within brick walls. Then he graduated to music halls and nightspots, and the fans poured in. With prosperity came a change of clothes, and a velvet bag to carry his trumpet. Its golden voice continued to cry out his muse, the inner workings of his heart and soul, as he poured a libation of emotion and empathy upon his willing proselytes. The gospel of music flowed over the land, even three hundred tables alert to its call, worshipping at its altar, prepared to rise in answer as it beckoned the people to its screaming refrains.
Rafters shook off dust, glittering a shower of magic upon eager audiences. Walls seemed to tremble with every stomping beat as the tempo had its way. Metallic echoes of gleeful celebration rang within the halls – joined by lights spinning and flashing quick glimpses of glad faces – a carnival of unhindered bliss. He bent to the notes, his body dancing interpretation to the pain and rapture of each new strain. Fingertips coaxed colors through the valves never before heard, the slide finessing an arc of passion, and within his closed eyes he could see the tones and phrases painting a canvas of melody. A covering of grace flowed from the instrument and over every spirit within the tabernacle.
The moon, round and silver, sent jealous beams from the early morning darkness as the three men walked away along the deserted street. They fairly glowed from the evening’s bash, stepping to the beat as it rang within their memories.
“Man, were you hot tonight!” said one.
“You sure can play that trumpet. Enough to bring down the walls of Jericho.”
They did not notice the half-dozen or so men appear from an alley’s deep shadows. Burly and ragged, they carried bats and ropes, hitching their jeans as they hurried to catch up.
“You fellas been doing pretty well, haven’t you? You’re looking mighty fancy,” one ruffian said behind them.
They turned, three men in all their finery, and the dim lamplight revealed the teeming menace.
“You fellas seem to have forgotten your place.”
“What are you talking about?” said the man with the watch chain.
“You fellas think you’re coming up in the world,” he patted his bat against an open hand. “Thought you might need a reminder of where you belong.”
“We’re on our way home now,” the man said.
“Not yet you’re not,” he said, and the bat sent a fine fedora flying through the air with a sickening crack. Down went the man, his blood seeping onto the pavement, but nobody could see in the blackness. Scuffling blows and kicking resistance made mockery of beautiful suits and shoes, and hatred overcame hope. An incoherent mix of muffled groans followed, and hefty cords gracefully arched over the high arm of the streetlight. Ugly nooses hung limply until fitted over swollen and bloodied heads, and two ropes drew taut under the weight of helpless bodies.
A bat fell sharply upon his shoulder, knocking the trumpet bag loose. As he stumbled upon his knees, he felt his fist tighten around the mouthpiece in his pocket. No, he thought, nothing from you but beauty.
“You really think you can live white, nigger-boy?” a man leaned into him to jeer.
He raised his face to the light, prepared to witness death.
“Hey! Hey, man, wait,” one attacker lifted a hand and checked his mates. “You – you’re Jericho Jones, aren’t you?”
“Jericho Jones!” arose a murmur.
“Yeah,” he spat out a little blood.
“Oh, man, you’re great! I saw you years ago, playing on a street corner! And that’s your axe, right there!”
“Jericho Jones!” a whisper floated over the scene.
He fell to the sidewalk, propped upon one arm, reconciled to fate.
“This here is the greatest musical genius of our time! Man, you should hear him jam!”
A fine feather in someone’s cap, he thought, and hung his head.
“Man – we met Jericho Jones! I’ll never forget this day! He’s the best of all time!”
The band of men had turned suddenly jovial – an inexplicable mix of magnificence and atrocity – and walked off into the darkness. “What a night! Jericho Jones! Man, can he play!”
He sat in stunned silence upon the curb, his legs straight out, his friends dangling above him in awful silhouette.
The voice turned somber. The beat slowed, and tones sank and mellowed into thoughtfulness. A mournful wail lifted itself from the trumpet’s bell and called out to the heavens. No more clubs, no more halls. Back on the streets, back on the road, only open skies and solitude would suffice. He hunkered down in dark corners, destitute parts of town left to wilderness, and played out his anguish. Pushing the frustrated notes from his heart and out through the instrument, he sifted his mourning with charity and resolve.
His voice would not allow hatred. Determination, yes, and perseverance, even anger, but the bitter wickedness of hatred had no home there. The phrases drooped under their new burden, lines repeated two and three times, because there was nothing more to say. Smooth and velvety, a darker timbre flavored his accusation. A slow vibrato shook his cry, and his knees supported the horn as sobbing tones fell muted by the sidewalks. Still he played, refusing the silence that might also mean safety.
Over bridges and through woods he trudged, seeking something that he didn’t know, but what he thought might bring peace. The travels returned his clothing to the rags he remembered so well, and wore his shoes down to paper-thin shreds. These things mattered little, as he searched the sun and sky for new reasons to hope, dappled light cutting through the waving shade of leaves overhead. Invisible song fell like rain, birds well-hidden within the branches, not caring what had passed and what might come. They left no trace of existence except their song, and he could hear it and know them to be birds, though he could not see they were birds. “I am a man,” he said, “though they don’t see me.” He raised his trumpet again, from the back end of a caboose tearing around a curve, and a brilliant blast of defiant joy echoed off purple mountains.
His art could not be stilled, nor either his humanity. Stirred again within, the grace of his muse returned, the supernatural inspiration that makes more of one than what he is returned, as he weighed the vain valuations of the world. Brassy melodies again flowed from him like a rushing stream, bumping smoothly over unexpected nuances, forever bubbling along with glad anticipation. The music spoke with new authority, with new purpose toward not just accommodation but enlightenment as well, a new light to shine upon a forlorn land. And on one day he found his audience again, the audience that would truly listen, and he lifted his voice before an immense crowd gathered around still waters, gathered to hear Jericho Jones preach.
Stones, cold stones laid one upon another make a wall, as do hearts of stone. And he played before the giant stone image of a white man, on an early April Sunday morning, he played before the temple, and his song rang out over the people.
* * * * *
Craig Davis was born and bred in Memphis, the land of Elvis and pork barbecue, though neither ever did him any good. After earning journalism degrees at the University of Missouri, he worked in newsrooms for 20 years, then turned his attention to writing fiction in 2004. Davis has written five books available for Kindle, including “A Time for Poncey – And other Stories out of Skullbone.” He has two grown daughters and a dog who refuses to grow up. His contributions to Snake-Oil Cure can be found here.