Still working on the working title, so for right now let's just call this one "Close Enough for Jazz"
Prime Minister Hadi al Amhad was usually a hearty eater, so when he sent away his cucumber with laban salad practically untouched, pushed the pigeons in wine sauce around his plate with an absentminded fork and then turned his nose up at rice pudding with dates, his wife knew something was troubling him.
“Darling, something is troubling you.”
“Nonsense,” the prime minister said moodily. “Where is my coffee? Dilawar! My coffee!”
“Don't you shout at Dilawar,” the prime minister's wife reprimanded sharply but with an underlying tone of concern. “It was that visitor you had today, wasn't it? Mr. Bladderson.”
“Balderson, my love.”
“He is the new American envoy, isn’t he? What happened? Are they threatening to close the airbase again?”
Dilawar appeared with the brass coffee pot and deftly poured the thick, black liquid into the Prime Minister's cup.
“Thank you, Dilawar,” said the prime minister's wife as her husband picked up his coffee cup, put it down then picked it up once more only to stare into it, as if looking for the answer to some dilemma to spell itself out on the dark, oily surface.
Dilawar nodded without expression and retreated back in the direction of the kitchen.
“The airbase is fine,” said Ahmad, although whether he was speaking to his wife or his coffee was not clear. It was his wife who responded.
“Then what could he have said that is troubling you so?”
The prime minister took a sip of coffee. It was good. Dilawar’s coffee was always good. It helped, just a bit.
“It seems the new American president,” he said. “Is keen on having our two countries engage in a cultural exchange.”
“And that is upsetting you so? It sounds like a wonderful idea to me. I do hope they send us David Hasselhoff. Such a talented man. I have all of his recordings.”
“Yes, I know,” said Prime Minister Ahmad. somewhat testily. “But we did not go into such details. And for that I am grateful.”
“Why? America might be, or rather quite definitely is, in great and perilous moral and financial decline, but she has an abundance of cultural treasures. First rate artists of every sort; poets, dancers, singers, marvelous orchestras, world renowned authors, artists who are constantly redefining the boundaries of painting, sculpture, sidewalk chalk art. The city of Las Vegas alone could supply an entire nation with an embarrassment of cultural riches.”
“And for that I should think you would be quite happy to receive such an invitation. You were saying just the other day what a shame it is that our new arts center with its beautiful five thousand seat theater is so seldom used. Why would you not be overjoyed at the prospect of having such wonderfully talented people come here?”
“Because it is an exchange they want, my dear. An exchange. Reciprocity to build understanding and global harmony. That is all well and good; the pursuit of global harmony is a noble enterprise. Destined to fail, but noble, and I would like to leave a legacy including something beyond the quarterly thank you notes and automobiles I receive from British Petroleum and Exxon/Mobil. But how can we possibly reciprocate? They have Beyoncé, Zack Efron, Celine Dion.”
“Ms. Dion is Canadian, my beloved.”
“Fine. Mariah Carey then. The point is the United States is awash in cultural exchange material, but what can we send in return? We are a nation created barely forty years ago, a sliver of land sitting atop an immense quantity of crude petroleum. We are a little bit of this and a little bit of that with nothing we can call our own. Our very existence is the product of the final bit of effective meddling the United States and Great Britain got away with in the Arab world. The nation of Bohdran is a commodity, not a country with a proud and enriching history of artistic achievement. Half of our population consists of transient, work permit residents who go back home as soon as their savings allow. And the entire population spends its time engaged entirely in either making money or spending it. We have no art. We have no culture. What can I possibly send to the United States in exchange for a Kelly Ripa, an Olivia Newton John?”
“Australian, my beloved. And I think you are forgetting that in our own family we have one of the finest musicians in the entire Arab world.”
“Rimtan?” The Prime Minister looked horrified at the idea. “I think not. The boy may know a tune or two on the oud, but he is no fitting representative for any nation, even Bodhran.”
“Our son is no longer a boy. He is thirty-seven years old and a very talented oud artist.”
“He is a menace and an embarrassment. Staying out till all hours making a nuisance of himself, accosting strange, foreign women, inviting trouble wherever he goes.”
“Aren’t you being a bit harsh, my dear?”
“Harsh? If anything I am being kind. Where our son goes trouble follows. I will not be able to protect him forever. One of these days the law will deal with him and then you will see who is harsh. Yes, what is it Dilawar?”
Dilawar was holding a cordless telephone.
“A call for you, Prime Minister.”
“Not now. I am at dinner.”
“Yes, Prime Minister.” Dilawar did not retreat.
“It is the police chief, Prime Minister.”
“Tell him I will call him back.”
“He wishes to discuss with you your son?”
“Rimtan?” Ahmad shot a “what did I tell you?” look at his wife. “As if I didn't have enough problems!” He took the phone. “Yes, Ibrahim, what have my son and his cursed oud been up to now?”
Three weeks later
Ted Hogwood ignored the honking as he slowly pedaled his heavy-framed, wide-seated cruiser bicycle across the busy intersection of Main Street and Mesa Drive. The honking came from what looked like an attempt to make a station wagon appear both fiercely sexy and reassuringly utilitarian. Apparently the driver, a woman, was on her way Somewhere Important, and had not included in her itinerary the inconvenience of even a temporary obstacle to her right-on-red-light privileges. When he reached the opposite sidewalk Ted did turn, briefly, to look back and shake his head, for the honking had stopped from the SUV/crossover/sports coupe mash-up, only to be taken up by several cars behind it. The light was now green and the crosswalk clear, but the woman seemed to be transfixed, staring at Ted in a slackjawed sort of way. A slight roll of his eyes and he proceeded down the sidewalk, leaving the cacophony on the corner behind him.
The woman’s reaction was not a novelty, for Ted was not just any bicyclist. He was a forty-seven year old, six-foot eight-inch, three hundred and forty pound mountain of a man possessed of a constant expression that could be just as easily read as melancholy or menacing. Over two decades removed from his brief career in the NBA as a foul collecting power forward “enforcer”, his physical presence still spoke of barely restrained violence, precariously balanced against an air of weary resignation. He pedaled west on Main Street, past a motorcycle parts store, antique mall and photo studio, then around the corner to a paved alley that ran behind a bank, art gallery, restaurant and finally a music store. He eased off his bike, taking care not to twist his bad knee, and shackled the bike to a rusty conduit that ran down the outside wall just to the side of the back door of Arpeggio Music.
“There he is!” Marty Bingham exclaimed as Ted entered the store. The owner of Arpeggio Music, and as such Ted's employer, was in every apparent way Ted's opposite. Just over five feet tall and thin as a rail, he wore a constant smile, through which poured constant chatter. Marty was no musician, he couldn't carry a tune in a wheelbarrow and he didn't play a single musical instrument, not even the plastic kazoos his store had displayed next to the floating keyboard neckties and Mozart bust keychains. But he had the gift of being a natural born salesman and for people like that it doesn't matter what the product happens to be. Automobiles, real estate, custom closets or clarinet reeds, Marty Bingham would have been happy, or at any rate, successful, selling any of them.
“Speak of the devil!” exclaimed Marty. “Ted, I'd like you to meet Randy.” He reached up and put a hand on the shoulder of the man standing next to him. The man looked to be in his mid-forties or so. Not heavy and not trim, but solid and with a ramrod posture. His attire and grooming spoke to Ted of some sort of office or sales job. Short cropped hair, dark blue pleated worsted wool slacks, white button-down shirt and highly polished oxblood loafers with tassels. A pharmaceutical rep with a gym membership perhaps. He was holding a brand new looking guitar case, slim and rectangular and emblazoned with the backward F signifying the iconic Fender brand.
“Nice to meet you, Randy,” said Ted, sounding not at all like he found anything nice about it. “Excuse me.” He tried to ease past the two men on his way to the opposite wall, on which hung dozens of guitars of all sorts: acoustics, solid body electrics, hollow body electrics, even a few classical models. “I'm going to use the Ibanez today, okay?” he said, reaching for a George Benson signature model.
“I think you'll want to grab yourself a Strat, Ted,” Marty beamed. “Randy here just signed up for lessons and he's all primed to put some Van Halen in his life. Aren't you Randy?”
“Absolutely,” said Randy evenly. “Van Halen is god.” He held up the guitar case and gave Ted a look and nod that Ted wasn't quite sure how to interpret.
“Actually that would be Wes Montgomery,” said Ted. “Although somewhere in this sad, stupid world I’m sure Mr. Halen has his own altars and acolytes.” Randy looked puzzled, which was fine with Ted. “Ah, would you excuse us for a moment? I need to ask Marty something.”
“Of course,” said Randy. “Sure.”
“Well?” Marty stopped and turned to Ted when they were halfway down the hall that fed all of the lesson rooms. “We don't keep customers waiting. It's a bad business practice and...”
“I know, I know,” said Ted. “'At Arpeggio Music we practice beautiful music and bountiful business'.”
“That's right,” said Marty. An erratic rhythm beat out on a snare drum in need of maintenance was coming out of the room they had stopped by. The sound was muffled but not silenced by the foam lining the walls and ceiling of all of the lesson rooms. “This Randy fellow’s a live one so don't you go screwing it up. I couldn't sell him a guitar because he came in with that damned Fender, but you teach him some powder chords or something and we’ll get him on a nice big amplifier and maybe some pedals and one of those straps that just came in. The ones with the naked chrome ladies on them.”
“That would be power chords,” said Ted. “And those straps properly belong hanging behind the rear tires of a pickup truck owned by the product of generations of inbreeding. I think you can find somebody else to teach Randy how to abuse his instrument. You know what I mean. Give him to Chris. He’s a better match for a midlife crisis case like that.”
“Chris has got a waiting list of kids who want him for their teacher,” said Marty. “You, on the other hand, have a schedule with lots of blank spaces. So you’ve got plenty of time to teach him that crap he wants to learn.”
“Which is exactly why I’m not interested. I don’t teach crap.”
“You mean you don’t teach worth crap.” Ted looked slightly aggrieved and Marty backpedaled a bit. “Okay, maybe not crap. But you’re not exactly mister personality either. Look Ted, all I’m saying is we want to make Randy happy. Happy students turn into customers who actually buy stuff. Sheet music, strings, cables, PA systems. And that’s how we keep the lights on here, selling stuff.”
“He wants to learn Van Halen,” said Ted. “That’s shred and I don't do shred. Besides, I already have a student scheduled for this time slot.”
“No, you don't,” said Marty.
“Sure I do. The fat kid with the freckles. Steven.”
“The student’s name is Kevin,” said Marty “and his mother called this morning. She pulled him outta here and she's going with some schmo who comes to peoples’ houses and teaches the kids out in the living room where mommy can keep an eye on things.”
“Why? I don't know. No, wait, she did mention something about the lack of confidence you are instilling in her dear son. Oh, and you make him cry.”
“Give me a break. I've never made Steven cry.”
“Fine, Kevin. When have you ever seen anybody come out of my room crying?'
“Apparently the brave little soldier waits until he gets home and feels safe. He comes here for a nice music lesson and then he goes home, buries his head in his mommy’s soft bosom and weeps. Well, if I was him, that’s where I’d do my weeping.” Marty waved that image away. “Never mind about that. The point here is what the hell do you do to these kids anyway?”
“I make them pay attention and practice. Most of them are bouncing all over the place. Stephen, Kevin, is one of the worst. One week he wants to play like some doofus in a grunge band, the next he's got to learn heavy metal and the next time he's dying for emo.”
“And you couldn't adapt your teaching methods? What the hell is emo?”
“Whining over major seventh chords as far as I could tell. And yes, I can adapt, but that kid, whatever his name is, can't be bothered to learn the names of the strings, much less a C scale. The house calls guy can have him.”
“Well, he’s got him and you've got Randy.”
“I don't want Randy.”
“Ted, come to me.” Marty motioned for the big man to tilt enough so the two of them could be approximately face to face. “That's good, don't strain anything,” he said when Ted had bent within a foot or so of level. “You know I like you, right? You're a good man, and a really good guitar player. No, really, I've heard you and even I can tell you’re good. But here’s the thing; I don't employ really good guitar players, I employ teachers and salespeople, As a teacher you’ve got a ways to go, mostly having to do with not scaring little kids. As a salesperson, you suck. I mean we won't even go there, 'cause I've never seen anybody so frickin' bad at it.”
Ted began to object to this appraisal but Marty shook his head warningly. “My turn. So here's the deal. You go back out there, you shake Randy's hand, gently, like you're not going to crush his knuckles, and then you welcome him to the Arpeggio Music family, okay? Then you and Randy go back to your room and you teach him how to play whatever goddamned kind of guitar he wants. Shredded, pureed, diced, chopped, I don't give a shit. You make him happy. Eh-eh-eh.” Marty held up an admonishing finger, for again it looked as if Ted was about to contribute to the conversation. “Still my turn. At the end of this lesson Randy’s so happy he signs up for a whole year, first three months prepaid. And then, and then you introduce him to the fabulous array of merchandise Arpeggio Music offers that he is going to require in order to make his music making life complete. Now, it’s your turn.”
“You want me to give him a lesson, sucker him into a contract and then take him on a guided tour.”
“That’s what a salesperson does, Ted. They give tours. They give information. They give confidence. They give frickin’ head if they have to, but they close the sale.”
“That is disgusting, Marty.”
“That is life, my very large friend.”
“Fine. I’ll teach Randy whatever he wants to learn.”
“And you’ll sell him something.”
“Sure. Then will you get off my back?”
“If Mr. Randy signs up for more lessons and he buys something. And just to make it easy on you I mean anything. A tuner, a capo, a freakin' pick. You do that and you can keep your job." He paused to let this sink in. "Your turn again.”
“This is not right, Marty and you know it.”
“Losing customers is not right. It's bad business. We don’t do bad business at Arpeggio Music. You want to keep your job, I want a reason why that should happen. Now go teach Randy how to do Van Whatsisname.”
Thirty seconds later, most of which had been taken up by a silent staring contest that Marty easily won, Ted plucked an Angus Young signature SG model off the showroom wall and nodded to his new student.
“Follow me,” he said.
About a minute after that an unearthly confusion of screeching, scraping and explosive noises began to come from lesson room four. Three minutes later, more or less, the noise stopped and within seconds Randy stormed out of the room, the Fender case smacking into the wall on the opposite side of the hallway, doing no damage to the case but leaving an apple sized divot in the wallboard. He marched past Marty, who had retreated from standing right by number four’s door to the end of the hallway in order to distance himself from the electronic banshee wailing. Randy paused in front of an expensive electronic keyboard, switched it on, cranked the volume, set a Beethoven paperweight on the highest grouping of black keys and slammed out the front door.
“Hogwood!” Marty yelled as he tried to turn off the keyboard with his elbow while plugging his ears. “Hogwood!!”
A massive hand reached over Marty’s shoulder and switched off the keyboard.
“You,” Marty began but was interrupted by Ted’s massive hand coming down on his head and turning him, quite gently, so that the five-foot Marty and six-eight Ted were, in a manner of speaking, face to face.
“I know,” said Ted. “I’m fired.”
Back to writing!
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