On Black Friday, I waited by the window for my brother. I’d just taken off my jacket and begun unbuttoning my shirt, shoes off, belt unbuckled. My book on common law was waiting for me on the nightstand across from my wife who had her scrubs on and the television turned down low. That was our agreement when I studied in the living room and she watched her medical dramas.
She bit her nails. The clicking sound it made imbued an element of time to my waiting. I checked my watch again and pulled back the blinds to see if he was here yet.
“Is this about the mashed potatoes?” my wife asked.
“I’m sure he knows you didn’t mean anything by it.”
“Do you really think he’s taking you to a jazz club?”
Her eyes were fixed on the screen; this was the part of the show where the doctors misdiagnosed the patient. I wondered if my wife absorbed anything from this. Would she arrive at her shift and feign shock when the doctor declared it brain cancer and not bone?
“I don’t know. Where else would he be taking me?” I asked her.
“I don’t like jazz, really, I never have.”
She shook her head, her focus on the drama hypnotic. Blurry lights glimmered on the wet surface of her eyes. She was on her left thumb now, another loud click.
“It won’t be long,” I said. “Just a few beers and a show.”
“Never heard of them before. I’m not sure Riley has, either.”
“Like I said, I don’t think your brother listens to jazz. He’s not the type.”
From the living room table, my phone vibrated. It slid across the wood and nearly dropped off when my wife caught it and handed it to me.
“It’s him,” she said.
I took the phone.
I’m here, the message read.
I told my wife I’d be back.
Riley was parked across the street from our apartment complex, the engine running. He had the heater on and the basketball game playing in the background. I got in and just as the silence settled over us, Riley reached out and turned the volume up a little more.
“Whose car is this?” I asked.
“My neighbor, Ms. Brooks,” he said. “Nice lady.”
“Sheray thinks this is about the mashed potatoes.” I shifted my weight.
Riley tried to smirk.
“I had dinner at Mom’s earlier.”
“I heard. Leftovers.”
“That’s right.” He nodded.
We rode under the streetlights and over wet roads. The ground glimmered in little golden flakes like a lake of wet stars in the darkness. Riley drove slowly, hesitantly. His eyes darted from the volume control, to the navigation system, at the street signs, and then all over again. Once I saw a full cycle, the pattern emerged, and I knew Riley was going through mental motions, one movement after another, back to the beginning. His lips moved. It was involuntary. He was mouthing thoughts, things that couldn’t be put into words. It was a metaphysical valve. The same way that Riley used to poke holes in our mother’s oak tree out back and whisper his secrets into them.
I worried when he got like that.
There was a single empty parking spot outside the club. I’d never been on this street before, an array of small shops and restaurants, a dreamy reflection of Main Street. False gas lamps illuminated the walkways, and cobble stoned streets ran west to east. Small crowds walked between the bars and clubs, all of them laughing.
Orange light fell through the windshield, scattered in, and distorted the texture of Riley’s skin. His eyes were wide, following the people outside. I waited with him. The game still played on the radio and we were comfortably up.
“Are your buddies waiting for us inside?” I asked.
Riley shook his head and pulled the emergency brake, snapped out of his trance. “No. No, this is the first time I’ve been, to be honest.”
A purple and green glow hung over the front door like a plume of steam from a manhole cover. I looked up at the neon sign above the entrance. The Spanish Moss. You could already hear the music inside, faint, but there. I wasn’t sure until that moment that Riley was really taking me to a jazz club. For some reason, that reassurance failed to calm me.
I’d known Riley since he was a nameless child in my mother’s arms, but I’d never known him to be a jazz person. I assumed he was into whatever was on the radio. Even when we were kids, he never struck me as the type to look backwards for any kind of inspiration or lesson, only forward, if he was looking at all. And with a nervous twitch. Perhaps, it was my fault for never stopping to listen.
The inside was dimly lit, only a few scarce candles, and iron casted framework with yellow burning lamplight over the bar. The air was humid and thick, the smell of fast-moving sweat.
Past the bar and lounge areas, towards the back, there was a velvet curtain hanging over a doorway to another, deeper room. The music rose from that place, getting clearer in my mind. Like a pitcher of sangria, it had a substance to it, a flavor that made me want to know where it was coming from and how it was made. I smacked my lips, curious to see behind the curtain.
The price posted just outside read this second room read, $30 each.
Riley absently checked each of his pockets before finding his wallet in the back left of his jeans. There wasn’t much between the leather flaps. I could have paid. In fact, I had enough for the both of us, but I was in a frugal state of mind. Especially after Thanksgiving and the impending fear of Christmas just around the corner. With law school and Sheray’s 12-hour shifts, I couldn’t afford to spend money on things like this. Just life and what we needed to hold onto it.
My brother looked around nervously.
“Let’s sit at the bar,” I said. “I can watch the game and you can still listen.”
He nodded. Music was music after all, for the ears and not the eyes. But I knew listening from the bar somehow wouldn’t be the same, that we were missing a crucial element that would lessen the effect of coming here. I remained curious. As we sat down, my eyes stayed on the velvet curtains. I barely heard the bartender speak. Riley ordered a stout and I mumbled that I’d have the same. From time to time, I could hear the song melt and rebuild, some things remained, but others had changed. A different instrument took over, and I sensed a wave crash over the crowd inside.
Was it possible that something magical was happening in there?
The trance took over. My imagination ran wild speculating what kind of marvelous thing was taking place just beyond that thin curtain. I saw flurry of colors spraying the room; greens, reds, yellows, blues, all flying about chaotically, but if you paid attention, if you knew what to look for, there was reason in the chaos.
A woman pulled the curtain back and went to the bar to fix a cocktail. I studied her, sure that she was somehow different than us. Maybe it was the lighting.
I looked over and saw that Riley had a similar distraction on his face, only more comfortable with it, familiar. The dim colors of the bar fell onto his skin and blended.
“What kind of jazz do you like?” I had to yell.
He shrugged. “I don’t really know much about it.”
“You just listen to it.”
“Yeah. It’s very meditative.”
Meditative. What an interesting word for it. Sheray liked to mediate. She had an app on her phone for it and I would come home late from studying to find her sitting on the living room floor with her head phones in. Her back was straight, her brows furrowed. Her whole body was perfectly still, and then she was out of it. And yet, when Riley spoke of jazz being meditative, I knew he meant something else. Sheray’s knowledge of meditation, like mine, was derived solely from things properly labeled as such.
There was a tired inevitability about jazz, a tragedy stuck in a loop. It was beautiful, though. I was beginning to feel that. The music pricked my mind, but with that curtain, I knew I would never understand it. Fire clinging to the end of a wick.
“Really, I thought the mashed potatoes were good,” I said over the saxophone.
Riley finished his beer and held his hand up for another. When the woman brought it back, he held his fingers over the mouth of the glass like a spider over a frothy pond. He watched the neon lights dance in and out of the still shadows. He looked like he might be waiting for something to happen, something to emerge from the reflection in the dark amber pool.
“I did,” I said.
“If I had known it was thirty bucks I wouldn’t have brought you.” He nodded towards the velvet curtains. “I don’t know a lot about jazz, but I know it’s something worth seeing for yourself. And it’s not like I wanted to learn to play, or study it, or even know who I’m listening to when it’s on. I just wanted to come here and see it.”
“I would have liked to see it too,” I said.
Riley hunched over like a sigh.
“I was going to come here alone. I always planned to, but then I thought about you and I didn’t want you worrying about me. Next time, though, I’ll come by myself and I’ll get a table in there and watch the whole show, beginning to end.”
“Mom appreciates the potatoes. The special ones you made her.”
“It’s really not that hard to do them that way.”
I set my glass down and watched Riley as he took another sip, so calm.
Suddenly I was young again, with Riley and my Mother, at a restaurant downtown celebrating my latest report card. The waiter came by to take out orders and my mother told him that she was lactose intolerant. Riley’s nose flared and he set his menu down. When the waiter left, he asked, “Mom, what’s so special about being tolerant of lactose?”
Lactose and tolerant.
He’d misunderstood. My mother howled for what seemed like hours. Neither of us knew what to do. We hadn’t seen her laugh like that since before our dad had died and we didn’t want to interrupt the moment, so we waited. She eventually pressed her hand on her chest to catch her breath; her face was flushed bright red in the candlelight.
Our mother never corrected Riley. She let him go on thinking that was the way the world worked. To him, lactose was something our mother was, and she needed to tell people that she was tolerant, that she was aware of her affliction. That’s right, bukcko, you heard me, I’m lactose and I’m damn proud of it. I think she liked her son thinking of her that way. The affliction of being lactose, according to Riley, was that our mother was completely useless outside of a kitchen. So when she went out to eat, being the kind woman that she was, she told the waiters that she was lactose and tolerant, and what she meant was, I understand you pain, I’m the same way. It gets better.
There was always so much more love in Riley’s version of things.
Just like Santa or the Easter Bunny, it was hard to say when he finally realized that it was a simple weakness to dairy, but even then, he never seemed to shake off the truth he’d made in his own head.
I don’t know why I mentioned the potatoes at that moment as the jazz swelled from the other room. The potatoes kept coming up to the surface and I felt outside of myself in the thick, dark trance of that place. Riley was watching the basketball game now. The lead had grown and we were running out the clock. He was on his third beer and every time he brought the glass up to his mouth, I saw him glance at the velvet curtains. He was calm and in control, a look I’d seen on him more and more lately and it bothered me. Like something about all of this was just a TV show to him.
My wife used to say we were just two different kinds of people.
The show inside was almost over, so we had a few more beers and stayed to the end of the game just to watch the celebration. I picked up the tab. It was my way of thanking Riley for bringing me here, whatever reason that was, and because for the first time in my life, I thought I understood why people might crowd together in the dark and watch a bunch of people bang, poke, prod, and blow things until something good happened.
“To be honest, I didn’t really care what they said about the potatoes,” Riley said as he started the car.
I waited for the heat to come on.
“They were good, Riley. Sheray didn’t mean anything by it.”
I only wish I’d had more of something else.
That was what Sheray said over Thanksgiving.
It was the night before, and as it neared an end, most of us around the table were leaning back and letting our stomachs pop out. Riley was towards the back, smiling the way he did when he was younger, serving himself another helping of his potatoes. He must have had three of four that night.
My Uncle Todd was at the head of the table, a big guy with rough hair carpeting his forearms. He twirled his fork around in his mashed potatoes, and then he’d scoop up a mouthful, turn the fork over, and watch it plop back down on his plate. Then his eyes fell on Riley.
“Say, Sheray,” he said.
My wife looked up, nervously. She was normally quiet during dinner.
“What did you think of Riley’s potatoes?” he asked her, grinning. A few of my other uncles perked their heads up with similar grins, their eyes darting around at each other.
I should have known what was happening, but I’d been lulled into a false sense of peace. It was too late. Riley’s posture was already sinking. He hadn’t been to a family dinner in years and I’d thought they would have gone easy on him that night, maybe leave him alone. That was my mistake. I found myself longing for the days when we were younger and we ate at a cousin’s table far away from the adults, a barrier between Riley and my uncles, one my mother had made right around the time Riley dropped out of college.
“I only wish I’d had more of something else,” she said.
That sent my uncle into a fit of howling laughter, pounding the table. So loud and violent that the candle in the center almost went out. The others joined in. Riley chuckled a little, but he ignored them for the most part and kept eating. My mother insisted the potatoes were good and Sheray did her best to retrace her steps and explain. But the damage was done.
I watched Riley later that night, sitting by himself in the living room watching the football game. He was calm, almost smiling to himself. His mind was somewhere else and I felt awful.
“I’m not upset about the potatoes. They were a little dry, but I thought they tasted fine,” he said in the car.
We were driving on the backroads that snaked through the hillside. It was darker here on the other side. The streetlights came less frequently and the hollow streets between them grew longer and longer. Riley barely slowed at the stop signs.
“It’s not about that, really. I mean, it’s not like I threw a bunch of things together and presto, there it is. I followed a recipe.”
“I know that,” I said.
“I followed the instructions like you’re supposed to. What did I do wrong?”
“Nothing. Sheray was only making a joke.”
“I know. But,” he frowned. “She must have known, and they’re only potatoes. It’s everything after. I mean, look at us, we’re talking about potatoes. Why do we have to be talking about potatoes?”
We were nearing home. I was beginning to recognize our old neighborhood, even at night, as inebriated as I was. I turned the postgame off and let the silence fill the empty spaces of the car.
“They weren’t even potaoes,” Riley said.
I sat up. “What do you mean?”
“It was cauliflower. I found them when I was looking for a dairy-free recipe for mom.”
“And no one noticed?”
He shook his head.
That time I really laughed. I slapped the dashboard, warm tears streaming down my cheeks, my stomach ripping apart as the world outside blurred. Riley only smiled. He was always like that. No matter how funny something was, he only sat back and smiled. He enjoyed the laughter more than anything else. And in was in those moments, when he made other people laugh, and I saw him smiling to himself, that I let the haunting fear creep in. The fear that he was a better person that I’d ever be. He knew something about life I couldn’t get my head around.
“You know,” I said, catching my breath, “I had no idea. I’m thinking back and I can’t remember how they tasted.”
“They were good. The leftovers are at mom’s.”
“So then let’s go.”
Riley headed to the kitchen and I stumbled down the pitch black hallway to Mom’s room. She was sitting up in her bed watching the highlights from the game. I kissed her cheek and told her I’d been out with Riley. She told me to brush my teeth and get some sleep.
I thanked her and she said, “Riley is so sweet, isn’t he? Making special mashed potatoes just for us.”
I could smell the roasted garlic from the microwave. Riley was setting our bowls down across from each other on the table. I grabbed us some spoons from the drawer and poured myself a glass of water. Riley turned the radio on. He flipped the dial though the channels, Spanish, static, rap, jazz, rock, static, postgame.
“Stop,” I said.
He paused on the postgame.
“No,” I said. “A few more back.”
He went back to the jazz station just as a piano solo came on.
“Yeah, leave it there.”
We didn’t speak. All you could hear was the florescent lights humming overhead and the jazz playing softly on our dad’s old radio. I slopped spoonfuls of Riley’ mashed cauliflower into my mouth. It burned at first, but it got better. I mixed it around as runny chucks dripped down the sides of my mouth. I was ravenous, like I hadn’t eaten all day. It brought me back to the empty hunger I had as a child. In those days Riley and I would make a pact to starve ourselves until Thanksgiving dinner.
I kept shoveling the mashed cauliflower down my mouth trying to feed the appetite, to feel that way again, but I couldn’t.
The song on the radio faded out as I licked the spoon.
Riley leaned back and patted his stomach with a happy sigh.
I’d have to go back to my apartment soon, to Sheray, to my studying, and as Riley sat back with that smile, I knew he’d be going back to that jazz club, as many times as he wanted.
“I’m going to have some more,” he said. “What about you?”
“I think just the one was enough for me.”