Jan/Feb 1999 Fiction

Miles Off Track

by Kevin McGowin

And so I made it through October, which wasn't altogether easy-things had been rough at work, the money'd been strained, and I'd had to deal with all these other, little things: those pesky inconveniences that drive you crazy. But I'd gotten through them. I'd paid the rent and the rent for November, too, and we had groceries and the phone and the lights and the cable were still on. And things at work were finally settling down a bit, and edgy as I'd been I still showed up on time and didn't go ballistic at anyone. Now it was a Sunday and my wife was at work and I just called up this friend of mine, an older man for whom I have tremendous respect, and told him all about it: how hard it'd been for me, but I was fine, all that.

He listened to me awhile and said, you're being way too hard on yourself. You need to relax-you're all caught up inside your own head, and hey, you got through it and what's more, you did a good job. So do something nice for yourself, he told me. Get up right now and go buy yourself a present.

I told him that part of what had been so hard for me was managing money, which I'd never been especially good at. It had taken all my energy just to get everything paid on time and put a little away to save, which was really something for me. I'd feel guilty, was the long and short of it. I just didn't think I could do it, I told him.

Hey, he said, you deserve it. You want to give yourself a present? Give yourself a damn present, then! It's like patting yourself on the back, or making yourself say, yeah, I did good. I tried hard and I did right. And plus, he told me, just think about all the money you used to spend on the ka-ka. Just think about all the money and time you wasted then. Hey, doing something nice for yourself, that's nothing, man.

He had a point, I told him. He had a point and I promised him I'd shut the hell up and quit worrying and just go buy myself a present, something reasonable that I'd enjoy, and not feel guilty about it. And we hung up and I felt better than I had in quite some time. That's the ticket, I told myself. That'll work, I said.


I don't know if I had anything in particular in mind to go out and get, y'know, I'd pretty much turned that side of myself off since I got in tune with my responsibilities and got off the ka-ka and all, and just like I'm not the type of man who's gonna go out and buy himself a tool belt I'm not about to buy myself flowers, either, y'know. But I'd taken to listening to music in the evenings to unwind after work, and we had this jazz compilation album with a couple of Miles Davis tunes on it I really enjoyed, so I thought hey, why don't I go out and get a whole album? That would be nice. Sure would.

So I hit the neighborhood music store and bought a Miles Davis CD (actually it was a double CD, so I guess that counts as two, whatever) and went home and started listening to it. I'd gotten this particular one because I liked the artwork on the cover and because the little sticker on it said something like This album shows Miles' genius at its fullest fruition or something like that and it got five stars from some magazine when it came out, it said. But to me, it sounded really raucous or something, not at all like those two tracks on the compilation CD I have. It's not that I didn't like it, per say, it was fine, but it just wasn't the type of jazz I could kick back and unwind to after a long day at work and a really nice dinner with my wife, see? Actually, (I don't mean to be disrespectful or anything), but it sounded a little like Miles might have been a little wired when he was playing this stuff. I mean, I don't know, but like I said, that makes me a little nervous.

So I looked on the back of the compilation CD and saw that the tracks of his on it were from a different album, one he'd dome a decade earlier for a label called Blue Note. The one I'd bought was recorded for Columbia in the late sixties, if it matters. But anyway, I went on back down to the store to get the other one-what the hell, it's just a CD, I thought-and discovered it was in a boxed set with two of his other albums from the same period, (both of which had gotten five stars from the magazine too), and I could get all three for about the price of one and half another one. Now I'd turned into a real bargain shopper, buying the big, big jugs of Tide to save money and all, and even though I knew this wasn't exactly like that I thought, well, I'll have quite a collection. This'll be great. So I bought the set.

And back at the apartment about halfway into one of those CDs, I thought, yeah, this is the STUFF. THIS is what it's about, now, and I lay there on the floor reading the liner notes about how this represented only one of at least four major periods in Miles' cutting-edge musical development, and I thought (I'm sorry to say it, but it's true) I'm nothing more than a damn dilettante at jazz unless I go out and buy another one. Not worth shit as a jazz fan. Or as a man, either.

So I drove across town to the other large music store to get it (actually there were two I had in mind) and it was closed. I was so mad it almost scared me. It was Sunday and the damn place was closed and there was just one other store in town that might have these albums-one from the later, fusion period, and one from the earlier quartet with Coltrane. And I was speeding across town for it to get to this particular little music store before it closed at six. I hate to admit it, I'd have run over my own grandmother with a back-hoe right then, to get my hands on one of those albums.

And then I felt a little silly when I got there with fifteen minutes to spare-I mean, I was sweating, and it couldn't have been over 65 outside. But I got the CDs I wanted, both of them. I didn't have any more cash on me so I wrote a check. What the hell, it was less money than I used to spend on the ka-ka and all, and before you can say Momma Goose I was back in the apartment half-listening to one of them and reading the liner notes, with the other ones I hadn't opened yet sitting there in a little pile in front of me on the floor. And then it occurred to me I'd better stash them in a good place like behind the stereo or something, 'cause my wife would be home soon and it just wouldn't do, for her to see how much of our money I'd spent on the remastered analog recordings a dead trumpet player, no sir.


And then she was home cooking chicken a la king in the kitchen and I don't mind telling you, I felt guilty as hell. I felt really nervous, too, had another one of the CDs on and all of a sudden thought, maybe Miles wasn't so great after all. Maybe it was that piano player Bill Evans that brought it all together. Or Wayne Shorter, the guy on tenor sax. (I'd been reading the liner notes some more). And one of the CDs had a booklet inside it with pictures of all the other CDs they had out by Miles and the particular quartet with Wayne Shorter and that drummer, I forget his name, and I started thinking I really like this vibe of this phase, Black Beauty, Dark Magus, that 70's stuff, and while I was at it I might as well do it right and get those too, and the big store where I'd been second that day to buy Kind of Blue was open 'till nine on Sunday and it was just 8:30 now and they had the stuff shore 'nuff, I remembered the art on the covers, I hadn't known what they were then but by heck I sure as hell did now. I was looking for my checkbook and was shaking and trying not to show it. I need some Pepto, I told my wife. I think I'm fin' to be sick. I didn't even really listen to what she had to say. I was out the door like a King snake. Man, I'm not proud of it now, but it's true. I realize now that I was ill, but that's what happened.


I got back to the apartment just after nine after I stopped at the Handy Way for some Pepto I didn't need and thought, I'd better leave these in the car under the seat, the two CDs I'd mentioned plus a live album from the 80s and The Birth of the Cool (stylistic of the phenomenal influence of Dizzy Gillespie in '49, how could I have forgotten that one)? But I was going to hear then to-NIGHT and consequences be damned, so I put them in my pants under my belt like I used to put my cigarettes when I was fourteen and coming home to my mama. Except four CDs, that's considerably more weight and volume than a pack of Merits, and when my wife asked me what was I hiding or was I suddenly happy to see her, I just fell on the floor and burst into tears.

I slowly took the CDs out from their hiding place and I looked down at then and she looked down at them and I was crying like I'd done gone off and took to the ka-ka again, and I started telling her about my phone call. And all of a sudden she just started laughing. I was telling her about how I'd gone out to buy myself a present and I was crying the Chickamauga out my eyes and she just touched me on the shoulder and said, it'll be alright, Bill, it's okay.

And I said no, no, it's not okay and baby I'm so, so sorry. I'm sorry I did it and I'll take them back and not buy myself no more presents. And the whole time I was saying it, I was scared. Not because of my conscience or my marriage or my soon-to-be-bounced checks-I was scared because I knew that somewhere, in another city maybe and far down the road, there was another store, a big one, with aisles of discs that stretched for miles and filled with horns just waiting to blow.


For Axel and Kathy: 10/29/98.

Check out vintage McGowin in this issue's Spotlight section!


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