Kenneth Levine

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FICTION

Life Beats

In the labor, delivery, and recovery room (LDR), twenty-five-year-old Steve cradles Tom’s tooshie with his left hand and the infant’s head with his right. Face to face for the first time, Steve sees a dimple in front of his son’s left ear and white bumps that look like little pimples on his forehead that have sprouted through fine, soft hair that also covers his scalp and cheeks. Nevertheless, what he enfolds in his arms is the essence of beauty. Stirred by an explosion of tenderness, a tightening bond of love, Steve blinks away a tear of happiness.

Steve’s right hand discovers and caresses a diamond-shaped, soft area at the top of Tom’s head. His hand lingers there, absorbing the pulsing of blood that corresponds to the baby’s heartbeat, the pitter patter of their first communication. His heart rate accelerates, synchronizing to the rapid rhythm of the boy’s, at 136 BPM he figures, and their hearts begin to beat as one.

Steve lifts Tom skyward. It’s effortless; a five-pound dumbbell weighs more. He holds his ear against Tom’s chest and listens. Lub dub, lub dub, lub dub, lub dub. So clear. Persistent. Beautiful. Music. The music of life. Lub dub, lub dub, lub dub, lub dub. He will always recollect and play this song. Tom’s song.

Steve returns Tom to Helen. There in the LDR bed, in her patient gown, her hair disheveled, sweat drying on her forehead, and her eyelids heavy with exhaustion, his wife is the most beautiful woman he has ever seen. But her eyes study him, and in them he sees anger. Or is it distrust? Doubt? Inside his head he plays Tom’s song, lub dub, lub dub, lub dub, lub dub, while he watches them together. It’s a song of love. Innocence. Hope. Lub dub, lub dub, lub dub, lub dub. It beats away all his sins. It’s a song of redemption.

***

Fifty-year-old Steve is part of a jazz quartet, which will start its performance in one hour. The performing art center’s doors haven’t opened yet, and he sits behind his drum set, alone on the stage, on Tom’s twenty-fifth birthday and the twenty-fifth anniversary of the day Steve became drug and alcohol free. It’s a milestone: twenty-five years of life with a constant, steady tempo; a good life abundant with family, community, and faith, not the erratic, rushing rhythms of his drug-and-alcohol-addled past.

Steve’s bandmates are probably finishing their drinks at some local bar, but their piano, saxophone, and bass stand in front of him. He doubts they use their instruments as a medium for prayer, like he uses his, but wonders if their instruments are stand-in family members to them, like his drum set is to him. Steve considers his drum set a part of his being, an extension of himself, like the music he makes with it. Each of the bass drum, floor tom, tom-toms, snare drum, and crash, ride, and hi-hat cymbals is his partner, irreplaceable and with its own unique personality, and when played individually, or in any combination, gives rise to Steve’s musical voice. When Steve performs at different venues throughout New England, his relationship with his drum set and the music it creates makes the absence of Helen, Tom, and Marge—Steve and Helen’s daughter, two years younger than Tom—almost bearable.

Tonight, like every other time he’s seated behind his tuned and polished drum set, cymbals shining, he hears, lub dub, lub dub, lub dub, lub dub, inside his head. Tom’s song, an ostinato in the form of a motif with a persistent rhythmic pattern: four-four time, four beats per bar, at a tempo of 136 BPM, meaning one beat every .4412 second and each bar lasting 1.7647 seconds. When the beat resounds in his bones, from skull to phalanges, he picks up the drum sticks and chooses to play Tom’s song as a jazz ostinato. On each beat, he hits the ride cymbal, and, with heel up, a soft bass drum, so quietly that he feels the drum sound as a whisper against his skin more than he hears it. On each even beat, he steps on the hi-hat pedal, closing the cymbals together and creating a “chick” sound, which, if his bandmates were beside him, would keep them in time. Now he hears Miles Davis’ song, So What, in his head, at the song’s tempo of 136 BPM, the same as Tom’s song, and plays along with it, taking the place of Davis’ drummer, Jimmy Cobb, and adding the snare and the floor and other toms and the ride and crash cymbals to create its rhythm, with Tom’s song still beating in his head and on the ride cymbal, bass drum, and hi-hat.

The sound fills the stage and reverberates throughout the building. It rises to the heavens, like a dove in ascendant flight. Whether he plays Tom’s song on the drums in his garage or in a music hall, or it taps inside him, the venue transforms into a cathedral, and he’s transported back to the moment he lost himself in the matching rhythm of his and Tom’s hearts, only to find himself remade and in communion with his son and God the Father of our mercies.

***

Seventy-five-year-old Steve lies bedbound in hospice. Cancer was discovered in his pancreas and liver and metastasized to his lungs, bones, and other organs. Tom and Marge sit in bedside vigil, observing and awaiting the inevitable, in a room very much like the room in which Steve first held newborn Tom. Both had a bed, a nightstand, a cabinet, several chairs, and an aura of expectation, the notion that the lives of the occupants who leave the room would be markedly different from those they led before they entered it. It’s late afternoon, and Tom and Marge have been watching and waiting since early morning when the priest performed last rites.

Steve has spent the day in and out of consciousness under heavy sedation. When sentient, he yearns for his own demise; he had hoped to spare his children a lengthy, agonizing death watch. With mounting impatience, he longs to soothe his teary-eyed son and daughter, but the words he forms, “You’ve been wonderful children. I couldn’t have asked for a better life than to spend it with you and your mother. Don’t be sad. I’m ready to go now, whenever Christ is ready to receive me,” can’t find his tongue. He aches to reach out, to heal their pain with the touch of his hands, but his limbs defy his commands. He tries to arch his lips and eyebrows and narrow the upside-down crescent moons of his eyes, to change his face into a mask of comedy that conceals the visage of tragedy he thinks must be on display. He wants to demonstrate to his children that he isn’t in pain, or even uncomfortable, that he’s accepted his circumstance in good humor, but the paralysis that has stilled his limbs exists in his face and every other part of his body. He can’t even dam the tears that begin to slide down the creases in his face. Then for the fifth time his breathing stops involuntarily, and again the shrill cry of Marge crushes the silence that fills the room, followed by his sudden gasp of air and the aftermath of rapid and deep breathing accompanied by the guttural noise of the death rattle.

Tom lays his hand on Steve’s arm, and Tom’s wrist at the base of his thumb comes in contact with Steve’s flesh. When Steve feels the rhythm of Tom’s radial pulse, he hears Tom’s song, lub dub, lub dub, lub dub, lub dub, inside his head at the tempo of 136 BPM, not the slower pulse of his adult son. Tom’s song finds Steve’s heart, which races to catch up, running at full throttle, lagging behind, but gaining, reaching for that final moment of synchronicity, of becoming one again with the newborn who made him whole and brought him to God.

Steve enjoys a sudden surge of energy. He fantasizes he might be strong enough to get out of bed and leave the hospice. But what would be gained? Helen died ten years ago, and he can’t play the drums anymore because his fingers are too gnarled to hold the drumsticks. Helen and the drums—without them he’s certain she wouldn’t have married him, there would have been no Tom or Marge, and he wouldn’t have found God. He had been inarticulate in the spoken language of love, but had wooed and charmed her, and, even before their physical consummation, entered and made love to her with the beats, tones, and cadences of his music. Now she and the drums illuminate the past, and in the present, all that matters to him, Tom and Marge, sit in the room beside him.

Tom sobs. Marge, crying too, sidles next to Tom and rests her hand on Tom’s shoulder. Then she lays the side of her head on Steve’s chest.

When Steve feels Marge’s temporal pulse, it’s an accelerant to the fire already lit in Steve’s heart. Steve’s heart rages, running faster, a sixteenth, then thirty-second, note behind the beat of Tom’s song, lub dub, lub dub, lub dub, lub dub, then finally catching and running beside it, his heart opening, reaching out to newborn Tom’s, and finding and luxuriating in the presence of Christ and His open arms, his heart soaring, lub dub, lub dub, lub.


Kenneth Levine’s short stories have been published in New Plains Review, Maryland Literary Review, Crooked Teeth Literary Magazine, Anak Sastra, Thuglit, Imaginaire, Skewed Lit, Angry Old Man MagazineJerry Jazz Musician, and anthologies titled Fresh and Twisted. He’s the winner of a Jerry Jazz Musician short story contest.


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