by Terry Sanville
People liked his trimmed white beard, pegged him as someone who knew all the right tunes. They liked his price: seventy-five an hour with a two-hour minimum. They liked his silence: he never chatted up the attendees. But that day, they detested everything.
Elliot had arrived at 10 AM, the church empty, the hearses nowhere in sight—just the way he liked it. The minister nodded to him as he lugged his amplifier down the center aisle and shoved it against a wing wall, close to the lectern where the bereaved would speak. Funerals had become a big part of his gig book, three so far that month. And they often wanted him to play something special: some damn Leonard Cohen tune, an obscure hymn that not even Google could find, or, for the aging hippies, the overplayed “Free Bird”, impossible for Elliot to perform on his ’37 Epiphone DeLuxe.
The pain in his back burned like a hot iron. He’d unpacked his equipment and did a quick sound check, then hurried out a side door into the empty parking lot. Removing a pill bottle from his coat pocket, he downed two capsules with a swig from his flask.
“Hitting it a bit early, aren’t you?”
He whirled to find the minister standing at the door. “Not really, Reverend. This is my fourth gig this week—and I was up until three last night.”
“I’ll pray for you.” The Rev grinned and slipped inside.
Ministers always seemed consoling. They treated him as the quintessential sinner who took a break from the devil’s lounge lizard scene to do God’s work. Elliot massaged his temples and turned away from the bright spring sun. The New Jersey heat had already sweated out some of the booze. And it didn’t help that he dressed in black, everything, including the beret that hid his bald pate and stringy gray hair. People would ask him to play Johnny Cash songs. But he loathed country, and thought their requests belittled his music degree from Boston’s Berklee College. His love for jazz had blossomed at a time when the rest of America seemed to be smoking doobies and grooving to psychedelic rock and roll.
A Cadillac limousine nosed into the parking lot and pulled up to the front entrance. Elliot retreated inside and sat on his padded stool. Cradling the guitar in his arms, he tuned it, then flicked the amplifier’s power switch. While waiting for the tubes to warm on the old Fender, he stared at his music list, all respectful pieces meant to sooth nerves, yet with a hint of sadness, especially the ones with minor chords.
The first notes always sounded so precious, pure, and soulful. He bowed his head and focused on playing, blocking out the noise of the mourners entering the hall, the hubbub of whispered conversations, the occasional squeak from a young child. He smiled to himself. If I’m lucky, I’ll get lost in the music…wake up on the other side…of this gig.
He played the obligatory tunes for the old timers: “Amazing Grace,” “Over the Rainbow,” “What a Wonderful World,” added a few more contemporary pieces, “Wind Beneath My Wings” and “In My Life” by the Beatles, then swung into his favorites, the old dirges. Half way through “Saint James Infirmary” the background noise finally got to him. He scowled, stopped playing and looked up for the first time.
The young man who stood before him wore a tux with a yellow rose boutonniere pinned to a lapel. Who the hell wears a tux to a funeral? And a yellow rose?
The man cleared his throat. “Could you lighten up a bit on the sad songs? You’ve got my Mother crying in the back row.”
“Sorry, but…” He scanned the crowded church. He’d never seen so many young women attend a funeral, all dressed in spring fashions. Those mourners not glaring at him with daggers in their eyes carried on animated conversations with their neighbors.
The man went back to his seat. Elliot studied his tune list, looking for something more upbeat to play. He almost fell off his stool when the church’s organ laid down an all-too-familiar thundering intro. The doors of the vestibule flew open and a procession of young people escorting older adults entered the hall. Finally, the bride arrived, hanging on her father’s arm.
Fortunately, all heads were turned toward the rear of the church. So few people saw Elliot’s face. It burned like the sun. Not even the two Vicodin he’d downed could stop that burn. As the procession continued Elliot dug his dog-eared and much scribbled-in gig book out of an inside coat pocket. And there it was: Johnson Funeral, Saturday May 16th at First Presbyterian. His neck went numb. The notation for the following day read, Johnston Wedding at First Presbyterian. He was a day—and hopefully for the newlyweds—several decades too early to be playing a funeral.
The ceremony continued, the recessional played, and the crowd trooped outside to throw rice, or maybe bird seed. The Reverend moved to Elliot’s side.
“What were you thinking? Playing ‘Over the Rainbow,’ maybe. But ‘Saint James Infirmary?’”
Elliot handed his gig book to the minister and pointed. The Rev raised his bifocals and stared at the scribbling, a frown pulling the corners of his mouth downward. But in a minute, the burble of his laughter filled the sanctuary. “Oh my, oh my. You need to get a better booking secretary.”
“You’re right. But they’re not free.”
“I’ll pray for you, my son. Just don’t show up tomorrow and play wedding songs for my funeral.” The Rev continued to chuckle and shake his head as he left the church to join the chattering crowd.
Elliot didn’t wait around to get paid.
Terry Sanville lives in San Luis Obispo, California with his artist-poet wife (his in-house editor) and one skittery cat (his in-house critic). He writes full time, producing short stories, essays, poems, and novels. Since 2005, his short stories have been accepted by more than 230 literary and commercial journals, magazines, and anthologies including The Potomac Review, The Bitter Oleander, Shenandoah, and Conclave: A Journal of Character. He was nominated twice for a Pushcart Prize for his stories “The Sweeper,” and “The Garage.” Terry is a retired urban planner and an accomplished jazz and blues guitarist—who once played with a symphony orchestra backing up jazz legend George Shearing.