Creative Writing Competitions:
Excerpt from The Jazz Garden
Horace Ogletree spoke in that mellow-toned banker’s voice. He wore the gray tie with slanting parallel stripes that I recalled from the bank commercials on TV. “Come see us,” he’d say, looking you right in the eye. “We'll treat you like family.”
He could’ve been poised beside his oversized mahogany desk before an array of framed diplomas and English hunting scenes extending credit to a new customer. Only the president of the Republic Bank and Trust Company was standing on a table with his hands tied behind him and the coarse strands of a noose pressing tight against his neck.
FIVE HOURS EARLIER:
It was a cool Friday night in November. There should have been some warning from the heavens. Some precipitous signal—a lightning bolt, a thunderstorm, anything to change the course of events that lay just ahead. There was only the whisper of a fall breeze that carried the pungent aromas of the Gulf up the Mississippi River through our small town of Oakwood and twenty miles beyond to the city of New Orleans.
The evening had begun with the slightest of whims. Walking home from an hour of jousting with Mendelssohn and Brahms on a piano’s battalion of keys—the curse of a so-called prodigy—I was eager to return to the real world. At fifteen years of age, classical music was my personal albatross. I seldom talked about it and mightily resisted being defined by it, regardless of my innate talent or the lofty ambitions my parents and others harbored for me. I was at that moment hungering for something totally frivolous with no meaning deeper than a beer and a laugh or two.
I was approaching the Ogletree house, actually a mansion by the standards of our town. It was an imposing multi-pillared dwelling, befitting the president of Oakwood’s largest bank. Jeremy Ogletree and I had plans to ride together to a pre-season basketball game, our girlfriends having abandoned us for a slumber party. I’d made a quick stop at Bayou Liquor for a couple of Budweiser six-packs, sold to me by my sister’s longtime boyfriend with a wink at my fake I.D. I carried a six-pack in each hand with my music items pressed under my arms and tight against my ribs.
As I reached the broad lawn, I checked the time. Six-twenty, ten minutes early. I also spotted Jeremy’s dad standing in the front doorway and came to a stumbling halt. Mr. Ogletree, a leading citizen of our community and deacon of the First Baptist Church, was known to exert a strict moral code over his household, taking a particularly keen interest in his son’s social life. I was certain my presence in his driveway with twelve cold beers would send off shock waves of alarm, righteous and uncontrollable as a river flooding its banks. It would be certain to derail our planned evening and possibly extend some distance into the future. I made a quick decision, an immediate about face, and slipped out of sight behind Jeremy’s white Mustang.
I eased open the door on the passenger side, pressed the seat forward, and crawled into the back seat floor to hide the forbidden beer and wait for Jeremy as inconspicuously as possible. I found myself in the midst of a jumble of sports paraphernalia, the Mount Everest of athletic gear. Jerseys, warm-ups, cleats, even a fairly complete set of pads. The total jock. Jeremy’s all-time heroes were Joe Namath and Johnny Unitas. Mine were Hemingway and Faulkner.
I closed the door carefully, making only the slightest thump as the catch engaged. I slid the beer under some of the heap along with my thick folder of sheet music and the tape recorder my instructor always used to record my sessions and settled in to wait.
I shifted positions. A dog in the distance barked a lonely, hoarse series of yelps, as though alerting the world to my presence. I gave my full attention to the Ogletree house. I’d never been inside. I’d peeked through the window once and gawked at a view straight out of “Gone With the Wind”—twin curving staircases, gleaming floors, and chandeliers that seemed to sway and glisten to unseen currents of air.
Mr. Ogletree was standing on the front porch where a light swung from a long chain in the middle of the ceiling like a giant pendant. I watched for Jeremy’s appearance with a creeping anxiety. He was a standout receiver on the football team and a prominent member of our class. Popularity followed him like an obedient shadow. Most of all, he was proud of his prized Mustang, a limited edition Twentieth Anniversary GT 350. Now my cramped refuge.
A door slammed. All my senses snapped alert, my nerve endings at full attention. Footsteps on the porch tiles. A more hollow sound on the flagstone walk to the driveway. A pause. A quick cough. It was Mr. Ogletree. Probably headed for his own car in the driveway next to Jeremy’s. I slid low, under a stadium blanket I’d discovered on the floor. It was not my only option, maybe not the wisest, but it would be awkward to make my appearance at that time, bearing all the indicia of a person with something to hide. Better to wait until he leaves, then go to the door for Jeremy and get the hell on our way.
The next sound was a creak of the car’s front door—Jeremy’s car, this car. I remained dead still. I felt the seat push backward with the pressure of human weight. Slam of the door. There was a brief moment of fumbling in the glove compartment. A straightening in the seat. He wasn’t leaving the vehicle. I had two choices—materialize from my little makeshift hovel, stumble awkwardly through some lame excuse for why I was studiously avoiding being seen, and hope it’s all dropped with a chuckle and a handshake—or ride it out, so to speak. I then knew full well the meaning of the term “lead in the pants.” No matter how logical it might seem to come clean, my body was anchored in place and having none of it.
From that point forward every second became one more brick in the rising wall of inertia, carrying me with more certainty toward whatever unknown fate I’d set in motion.
I heard the ignition and the smooth hum of the engine. The clutch and shift into reverse. I felt the vibration of the motor. As we pulled into the street and shifted into gear, I heard the baritone growl of automotive power. The clutch again. Second gear. Third gear.
Mr. Ogletree turned on the radio. A blast of rock music struck hard and loud. He flicked it off with a grunt. I curled tighter under the blanket. My head was hard against the interior wall behind the driver, my feet against the opposite side, with my body folded into an elongated “S” and my knees bent in the middle.
We were accelerating, leaving the neighborhood. I drew the blanket back enough to gain some visual perspective. My range of vision was limited to the roof of the car. I could make out a steady progression of streetlights and a few overhanging limbs that were raggedly backlit. I could gain no sense of where we were. After two stoplights and three turns, I felt a significant—and disheartening—increase in speed.
Eventually, we were without a doubt on the open road. There were brief flashes as cars met and passed us from the opposite direction. I started to panic. We were somewhere in the countryside and increasing the distance from anywhere I might want to be at a speed of at least a mile a minute. I decided I couldn’t make myself known on the open highway and risk a swerving collision. I cursed my irredeemable self for this predicament.
I remained still and quiet. The blanket seemed to be absorbing weight, as though it were some living organism pressing down on me and determined to squeeze all life and feeling from my curled body.
Finally, I sensed a reduction in speed. A reflected light from the rear flashed bright, dimmed, then bright and dim again. We slowed, and I felt the bump and crunch of the highway shoulder. We stopped. Mr. Ogletree got out. I heard his footsteps as he walked alongside the car, apparently to a vehicle stopped behind us.
A minute passed. I raised the blanket slowly and tried to shove myself up from my prone state. All was deathly quiet. I craned my neck to see out the rear window.
Another car was parked on the shoulder about ten feet behind us. Mr. Ogletree stood on the driver’s side near the window. He was leaning down, hands on his hips. His head was moving. But the scene was indistinct with the headlights shining in my eyes. As if in response to my silent wish, the lights extinguished and a man I’d never seen before emerged from the car. Fully illuminated in the light of an emerging moon, he was heavyset and walked purposefully, with a pronounced swagger.
I could only lie in place and gape openmouthed at the two men, the stranger and, beside him, the person with whom I’d been secretly riding for the last thirty minutes to an hour—Jeremy’s father, the president of the Republic Bank and Trust Company, and my dad’s boss. I saw mouths moving, words being said. I was alert to the faintest sound. So vigilant I could hear the swish of stars in their orbits, feel the shift of cells in my body.
They turned and walked directly toward me.