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Hot Jazz

Michael Czyzniejewski


Carlisle texted to tell me he quit, that he was going to work the club scene, that he was going to blow some hot jazz. I didn’t understand what he was babbling about, our presentation due in two days. Our boss, Davenport, was not the type of man who suffered fools, or mental breakdowns, or whatever this jazz-blowing nonsense was. Get ahold of yourself, Carlisle, I texted. I am, Carlisle texted back, declaring it our final communication because he was tossing his phone into the lake. I replied, Stop messing around. Pres due in 48. He didn’t answer, not for an hour. I began to think he wasn’t coming in to finish the presentation, that he was serious.

I called HR and got Carlisle’s emergency contact, his wife. I had worked with Carlisle eight years and only met Peggy eight times, every December at the company Christmas party. I was suddenly embarrassed to not know her number. When she picked up, she verified what Carlisle had said, that he was going to blow some hot jazz in the club scene. While Carlisle had exuded excitement, Peggy sounded resigned, with a hint of jealousy. “The music is calling him, Ackerman. And when the music calls, you gotta answer.” She told me she was selling the house and filing for divorce. “He’s married to that licorice stick now, and I’m nobody’s mistress.”

If Carlisle had lost his mind, maybe it was contagious. Right when I hung up with Peggy, Davenport called. I was afraid to pick up, but did, anyway—Davenport wasn’t the type of man you sent to voicemail. He told me he was looking forward to our presentation, which terrified me, but not as much as his latest bit of news: International was sending reps from Toyko and London to sit in. “You and Carlisle had better come through,” Davenport said. “Everything’s riding on what happens in that room the day after tomorrow.”

Davenport didn’t know Carlisle had quit—maybe Carlisle hadn’t, I started to think. Just then, some guy with a tool belt appeared in the hallway and started to scrape Carlisle’s name from his glass door. I ran out and asked what he thought he was doing. “Mechanical sent me,” the guy said. “This guy quit. Something about blowing hot jazz.” I found it hard to believe the maintenance people knew about Carlisle before Davenport, but just as I thought it, Davenport’s name lit up on my phone. While he wasn’t the type of man you sent to voicemail, I did just that. The phone rang, then stopped, then a voicemail appeared; this repeated four times before Davenport gave up. I grabbed my topcoat. Davenport just might come looking for me, in person. I had to get out of there.

I made my lunch appointment with this guy in Logistics I knew from B-school, Hodges, who had somehow already heard about Carlisle. After our second martini, he peered over his menu and said, “Carlisle blowing some hot jazz, eh?” I had told him Carlisle was too busy to make lunch; I didn’t expect him to believe that—nobody skips lunch—but it didn’t matter: Hodges knew. He said someone told him a new man was already in Carlisle’s office. I told him I would have noticed because Carlisle’s office was right across from mine. “Don’t you have that big presentation coming up?” Hodges said. I ordered another martini. “The biggest.”

I met Leeds, from Distribution, for our racquetball match after lunch. He knew about Carlisle, too. “Aren’t you guys doubles champs?” Leeds said. I nodded and told him to serve. “With Carlisle blowing hot jazz,” Leeds began, “seems like you might need a new partner.” “Carlisle’s out sick today,” I said. I was hitting the ball hard but still making errors, and before long, Leeds was crushing me. We always played best of three but he didn’t need three. “Play like you did today, I think I might find a different partner.” He reached out for the ball and instead of dropping it in his hand, I slammed it against the far wall, only to have it ricochet and hit me in the eye. “Get ahold of yourself, man,” Leeds said. “You have that presentation coming up.”

While I was on the court, Davenport called another fifteen times, leaving fifteen more messages. The maintenance guy was probably scraping my name off my door now, too. I wandered into a hotel bar eleven blocks from our office. I’d met women there, far enough not to run into anyone from the office, anyone who knew I shouldn’t be there. The bar had ferns and peanuts and a piano, but I never noticed any of that before, always focused on my companions. I ordered a scotch, neat, then another, then another. All I’d had that day was four martinis and three scotches, bracketing the hour playing with Leeds. The time until the presentation was down to forty hours, but it may as well have been forty minutes—without Carlisle, I was garbage. The bartender asked if I wanted another and I pushed my glass forward.

The man playing piano started talking and I turned to listen. He’d been playing some song I recognized but couldn’t name. He said the bar had a special treat for us all that night, that a saucy new musician was on the scene and he was going to blow us some hot jazz. Carlisle emerged, winked at a woman at a nearby table, and put his mouth on what I believed to be a clarinet. He played a few notes, the piano man answered, then they tore into it. It was typical jazz, a lot of notes and a lot of non sequiturs and a lot of … jazz. The piano man was bobbing his head. Some of the drunks in the room inched forward in their seats. Carlisle was good. I still wanted to beat him to death for ruining me, but at least it wasn’t a joke: His jazz was indeed hot.

Against the far back wall, I spied Davenport. He had his arm around a blond who could have been his granddaughter, if not for where his hands were. He was looking like he liked the tune, Carlisle’s hot jazz. Davenport wasn’t the type of man who listened to a lot of jazz, I was guessing, but then again, I didn’t really know him.

I ordered another scotch and stumbled toward Davenport. “Ackerman?” he said. “I’ve been looking for you all day. What happened to your eye?” I sat down next to him, the blond in between us. She shrunk into Davenport; I did not smell good at all. “What do you think?” I said. “What do I think of what?” Davenport said. “Our presentation,” I said, and pointed up at Carlisle. “That’s Carlisle!” Davenport said. “Yes, it is.” I downed my scotch, then finished whatever Davenport and his date were drinking. “Ackerman, you’ve gone mad,” Davenport said. I gave him a salute, stood, and walked up to the stage, grabbing the mic from the piano player. Carlisle looked shocked to see me but kept playing. In my best imitation of scat, I started to chant, “Buy low, lo-bih-dee-doo-doh. Sell high, bi-diddy-diddy-bi-bi.” I peeked back and Carlisle, who had closed his eyes and was really digging deep. I kept going. “Buy low. Sell high, eye-skiddy-mi-mi.” I looked over at Davenport and winked at his date. I think we were really nailing it.


Playlist song: Us3, “Cantaloop”


Michael Czyzniejewski is the author of four collections of stories, most recently The Amnesiac in the Maze (Braddock Avenue Books, 2023). He serves as Editor-in-Chief of Moon City Press and Moon City Review, as well as Interviews Editor of SmokeLong Quarterly. He has received a fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts and two Pushcart Prizes.


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