I’m on a mission. I’m on a mission to save the soul of my friend Jill Brown. I’m just not sure how to do that.
With her average height and average build and, yes I’ll say it, average face, you might overlook my friend Jill but for three things:
- She’s 22 years old. You have to try pretty hard to look BAD at 22.
- Her smile. While her face, as I said, is quite average, Jill’s smile is something else. Easily earned, a full-on Jill-Brown-smile still makes you feel important, special, a little better than you suspect, deep down in the darkest corners of your heart, you actually are. And the best thing about her smile? Jill has no idea of the effect it has on people.
- Her voice. Even when she’s just speaking, her voice makes you think of words like “chocolatey”, “sensual” and “soothing”. She’s not doing it on purpose, but I know people who call Jill up when they’re down, just to hear her voice on the other end of the line. It’s like therapy. And when she sings? Well. Rooms fall silent; birds pause in mid-air. I’ve even seen crusty old jazz-men nod their heads and break into awed applause, and that is saying something, believe me.
Jill loves all that “Stormy Weather”, “It Had To Be You”, Harry Connick, Frank Sinatra stuff. And that’s where I come in.
I’m Annie, the good-looking friend. I’m the one who tags along and looks after Jill while she’s tracking all over the dodgiest parts of the city, searching for a jazz session. She doesn’t care if people look at her sideways as she wanders through their neighborhood. She doesn’t care about groups of guys huddled on the corner. She doesn’t even care, when we get to some hole-in-the-wall bar or other, if she gets to sing. She just wants to hang with the jazzmen and listen. She’s got this big corporate career starting up, but she’s here in a dive at 1 AM, listening to mean old men play ancient music.
The old jazz guys, crusty and cynical as can be, love her. And why not? She’s into them. She’s the youngest woman in 40 years to say anything to them other than “Want me to warm up your coffee, hun?”
It cracks me up, it really does. Anywhere else in the known universe and I’m the one the guys are swarming over. The smarter ones, of course, catch a few rays of the Jill-Brown smile and drift into her orbit, but I’m usually the big star. But not in those jazz clubs. There, I’m invisible. It’s all about the music and really, I can take it or leave it. I’m more about something electronic, with a crazy heart-beat pounding beneath it, and the guys in the jazz clubs? They can see it on my face: I’m just there to remember descriptions for the police report, if need be.
Luckily with all my years behind a bar, I’m good at picking out the trouble makers and I already keep jazz club hours, not like those drones at Jill’s fancy big pharma company. Oh, did I mention Jill’s smart? Always has been, ever since I was copying her answers in First Grade maths tests. And that’s where the trouble started.
All the way through school they brought in ‘successful’ and famous people to talk to us about how lucky we were, about how we could do anything with our lives. But what they meant by ‘anything’ was “this thing”: work hard, study hard, go to college, meet a suitable spouse, get a well-paid job – who cares what – buy a big house on a piece of land that used to be a farm, employ the farmer’s daughter to clean your big house, have two children and raise them in a day-care, join the country club, join the Kiwanis, do acts of charity so you think you won’t go to hell. Be wealthy. Be fabulous. But don’t do anything less.
As her friend I’m sad to report that Jill swallowed it all. She worked hard, she went to college, she even got the ‘suitable’ boyfriend who looks like a politician. (How does a guy manage to look like a politician at 23 years old?)
I, on the other hand, worked in bars while she worked on her schoolwork. She went off to college, I went off on a bus, worked to earn my fare, traveled, slept on train station benches, worked some more, traveled further, attended the mighty School of Life, learned to be the person I’m supposed to be and eventually found my way back here, where I discovered Jill again. She thinks she’s done everything right. She thinks she’s On Her Way. She’s going to have a productive, worthwhile life, she thinks, by discovering a drug, saving a few lives, settling down, raising some kids, doing Good Works.
For a smart girl, she sure can be dumb.
I tell her she’s kidding herself. I tell her there’s more than one way to save a life. I tell her…but who am I? Just the irresponsible friend — the only one of her friends, you’ll note, who will stay up past 9 PM and come to the seedy section of town to help keep her safe while she secretly feeds her soul with music and the ‘low’ life. Yup, they’ve brainwashed her, but good.
Tonight, though? Tonight I’m feeling good. Tonight I’m willing to bet, is going to be one of those, what do you call it? Pivot-points. Tonight I’m betting, is the night when my friend Jill starts to understand her place in this universe.
Because tonight the good Lord has listened to my prayers and sent an angel into this basement bar to lead Jill Brown to glory (hallelujah!). And if she won’t listen to me, I have to believe she’ll listen to an angel.
Especially one who’s six feet tall with a slow, shy, brilliant smile of his own.
Especially one who plays the piano like that.
Pardon me, but I’ve got to run….I think Jill’s going to find her way home just fine, without me, tonight.