The Lola Quartet

By Emily St. John Mandel


Unbridled Books
May 2012


The Lemon Club had been open for thirty years and in high school Gavin had gone there a few times, trying to be sophisticated, trying to grasp hold of something that he might use to pull himself up toward adulthood, but he could never find it and as a teenager he'd felt uneasy there, pitifully young, out of his depth and unable to swim. The Lemon Club was a stop on the way to Miami and he'd seen a few big names there. The one he remembered best was a trumpet player, Bert Johnston. He'd brought Anna there in his last year of high school. They'd sat together at a round table just big enough for his Pepsi and her ginger ale—he wished he could order wine for both of them but didn't want to risk being laughed at by the bartender in front of her—and they listened to Bert Johnston's trumpet wail and sing. When Anna reached for his hand he didn't notice, only realized later that her hand was in his and he couldn't remember how it had ended up there. It was too warm in the club, the air conditioner laboring and spitting water over the door, and normally this would have bothered him but that night he was transfixed, that night things were becoming clearer. He was watching Bert Johnston and realizing that he wasn't going to be a musician. It wasn't an unpleasant revelation, just an understanding that his life was going to go in one direction and not another.

"I'll never be that good," he told Anna later, not upset, just stating the fact, but she mistook his tone and tried to console him. The thought of the practice it would take to be a professional musician made him weary. He was reading a lot of noir and wearing a fedora, and he'd already developed backup plans. If he couldn't be a jazz musician he was going to be a newspaperman. If he couldn't be a newspaperman he was going to be a private detective.

The Lemon Club was already a little decrepit in his memories, but it had declined further since then and now the strip-mall parking lot was cracked and had a small palm tree growing out of the middle of it. Most of the other tenants were gone, sections of the mall boarded up. The only other tenants were an off-track betting parlor, an evangelical church and a pizza place with a torn awning.

In his memories the interior was glamorous, but all night places are cheaper-looking in daylight and with the curtains opened the light picked up the grit in the upholstery, the swimming galaxies of dust motes in the air.

"Help you?" the bartender asked, and Gavin realized he was the only customer. The bartender wasn't the sullen-looking old man Gavin remembered. He was young and blond and looked somehow like a lifeguard.

"I was hoping to see the listings for the next couple months," Gavin said. "I heard a jazz guitarist I like might be coming through town." He realized that it was stupid to say "jazz" in that sentence—it was after all a club devoted to this and no other kind of music—but the new bartender was more forgiving than the old bartender had been and didn't even smirk or tell him to get lost, just produced a photocopy of a calendar from behind the bar and scanned it for a moment before he passed it to Gavin.

"I think you maybe mean Deval?" he said. "Only guitarist I see here."

The calendar read Deval & Morelli, but Morelli's name had been crossed out.

"Can I keep this?" Gavin asked. The bartender nodded. Deval was scheduled to play in three nights. Gavin went to Jack's house every day after work and sat with him in the backyard under the orange tree, but Liam Deval didn't appear and Jack revealed nothing except his interest in jazz history and the extent of his pill addiction.

On Friday Gavin bought a dark red shirt with gray pinstripes, drove to the Lemon Club an hour before the set and established himself at a small table in the darkest corner, farthest from the stage. He wanted to be invisible. Only a few other people were here at this hour—a couple sitting at a table by the stage, a man at the end of the bar with a tattoo of a goldfish on his neck. Gavin ordered a pint of Guinness. He'd brought his notebook with him, as if he really were either a newspaperman or a detective. His new shirt had cufflinks and he caught himself fiddling with them as he waited.

The club filled slowly. A bass player made his way between the tables and began tuning his instrument. He was followed a few minutes later by a drummer, but there was no sign of Deval. A saxophonist had appeared—a saxophonist? With Deval, who so far as Gavin knew only ever played with Morelli, a bassist, sometimes a drummer?—and he was talking to the bass player while the drummer assembled his kit. At nine twenty the bartender came to the stage and tapped lightly on a microphone. There'd been a substitution, he said. Liam Deval had had to remain in New York at the last minute, a family emergency, but fortunately the great Chicago saxophonist Pedro Lang—who looked too young to be called the great anything, in Gavin's opinion—was in town a day early for his show tomorrow night and had graciously agreed to bless them with his presence two nights in a row and so without further ado, etc., and applause filled the room while Gavin finished his beer.

He thought about leaving but it was nice to be out in the evening for once, away from the quiet of his apartment with the television and the recorded music and his notes, not waiting in his car outside Daniel's house like a stalker. The saxophone player really was great, mesmerizing actually. Everyone who'd arrived to hear Deval stayed to watch him except for the man at the end of the bar whom Gavin had noticed when he came in, who settled up with the bartender and left just before the music began.