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Thirty in the Hole

by M. Elias Keller

     Saturday evening at the city’s best jazz club cost a $20 cover and an $8 glass of red wine. Call it thirty with the tip, a silly splurge for someone with no income, especially when there was plenty of free live jazz around the city. But this was good jazz, not free jazz—the Strickland brothers, to be precise, saxophonist and drummer. 

     She had come alone and arrived early to stake out a table near the stage. As the band made its final adjustments and tunings, a young man sidled up to the empty seat beside her. “Nice view,” he smiled. “Mind if I join?”

     She tipped her head yes, but remained silent. 

     “I’m Jason.”


     A cheerful waitress came over to take his drink order. He listened as she rattled off the draft beer selection and then asked: “What’s your cheapest beer?”  

     Kara cocked an eyebrow and almost smiled. It was not a question she would ever ask a waitress, but something about his manner made it slightly charming. 

     The waitress brought over the cheapest beer and then the set began. Kara glanced over as Jason took a sip from the pilsner glass. He was not bad-looking; actually he was attractive, in a scruffy way. Dirty blond hair covering his ears and hazel eyes, languid but alert. A thrift-store cardigan. Clearly in some creative industry; you could smell it on him. Not literally, but you could.  

     After the first song ended Jason asked if she went to school. No. She was—between jobs. Her last one was with a nurse staffing agency. 

     The scruffy creative: a filmmaker. Documentaries. 

     Kara asked if she would know of any films he made.

     “Not quite yet,” he answered.

      The next few numbers were more energetic and Kara watched the drumsticks dance on the cymbals. “When Strickland plays that ride, it’s the happiest sound in the world,” her former housemate, Mathias, had once said. He was a drummer, a good one, professional, so she had learned a lot. 

     Kara sipped from her wine, silently reminiscing about the Christian Street house and Mathias. He was on food stamps and got a bit of help from his parents—and still he just barely put together rent and utilities each month. Every once in a while he ended up thirty or so in the hole and Kara would help him out by paying him for a drum “lesson,” which mostly meant watching Mathias play along to her favorite songs or show her a new beat he was practicing. At first this was a gesture of charity, but given his knack for explaining the art of drumming and avoiding esoteric shop-talk, she came to genuinely enjoy the sessions.

     Not that she had been in a much better situation then, moneywise, working as a waitress at a wine and beer bistro. She was cute and flirty enough to earn decent money, but was careless with it, taking home damp wads of cash and spending them before they could even dry. But it was fun. She and Mathias and the downstairs neighbor Kris would smoke on the rooftop and then listen to good jazz on vinyl. It was fun. 

     Then she had fallen into nurse staffing administration. The pay was good and she had had enough of working with no benefits. Plus her father wouldn’t stop reminding her that she had an expensive college degree and should be doing more than serving drinks. For a while it was fine, and she enjoyed the financial comfort. She spent her annual bonus in Paris. 

     But after three years she needed a break. Not a vacation that only led to a horrific backlog of work—a real break from state nursing regulations and dealing with the illiterate slugs at the New Jersey branch who could not comprehend simple instructions. Even when she typed out a sixteen-page document with screenshots and bright yellow arrows. 

     That, in fact, had done it. She had taken one vacation day and was home reading Eugenie Grandet when her phone pinged with an email asking how do you add multiple licenses? Which she had covered in the sixteen-page document. There was a drop-down menu on the top left of the screen that she had pointed to with a huge yellow arrow and had written, in all caps bold: “TO ADD MULTIPLE LICENSES CLICK HERE FOR A DROP DOWN MENU.”

     That was it. The money was nice, the benefits good, but if she could not have even one day to read and relax then what was the point?  

     After a bit of small talk, Jason the documentarian said he lived in South Philly. With a drummer. 

     Kara leaned forward, breaking her reserve. “Is his name Mathias?” 

     No. Rich. Why?

     “I used to live with a drummer, too.” 

     Kara told him she lived in Center City with two med students in a small three-bedroom apartment. She had lived alone in a high-rise building with a gym and doorman but had to sublet out the remainder of the lease when her paychecks stopped.

     Jason asked how she ended up here tonight and Kara said she loved jazz and knew of the Strickland twins. She did not say that Strickland the drummer was one of Mathias’s favorites, and she thought he might be here. But it was two years since they had been in touch and she had no idea where he was or what he was doing. Recently she had called, but his number had changed, or maybe he didn’t have a phone. Perhaps he was scrounging his way through New York or New Orleans, sneaking into college dining halls to eat, thirty in the hole. 

     The next tune was slow and mellow, and Kara basked in Strickland’s whispering brushwork. Beautiful, she marveled, almost sensual. She took note of his compact movements and how he barely lifted his shoulders. He didn’t even hit the cymbals. He just touched them.    

     She and Mathias had kissed a few times, usually when they had had a bit more to drink than usual, but it never went anywhere. Much as she respected his scrappy independence, being attached to food stamps and thirty in the hole was just not romantically appealing to her. And once she started her nurse staffing job, her life at the Christian Street house changed quickly. The job was stressful and when she came home she did not really want to hear Mathias banging around or talking about populating space with drumbeats. And she did not want to stay up late getting high and listening to Grover Washington when she had an eight o’clock webinar the next morning. 

     “We have one more for you,” Strickland the saxophonist announced to the crowd, discretely emptying the instrument’s spit-valve.    

     “Short set,” said the documentarian, glancing at his watch. 

     Kara agreed and leaned down to check on her purse and glanced at his shoes. Beat-up canvas. Of course.

     The plan had been to get some part-time work so as not to decimate her savings. But waitressing was not for her anymore and she didn’t know anyone who could get her in the door anyway. She had gotten a job at a small gourmet food market, but the pay was insulting and she felt out of place with the other employees, all artsy-poor twenty-three year-olds who lived with drummers in South Philly. She had quit and then applied for a few nurse staffing positions, hating herself for it and hating even more when she didn’t get any of them. 

     The jazz ended and the crowd began to filter out. 

     “It’s still early,” Jason said, rising to his feet. He shrugged on a distressed leather jacket and flopped an army surplus messenger bag over his shoulder. “Do you have to go home now?”

     Kara lingered in her seat, watching Strickland disassemble his drum kit and swirling her finger around the rim of her glass, which still contained a mouthful of wine. Her father had been right. It had been foolish to quit with nothing else lined up. And now at thirty years old her savings were wiped out and her résumé blemished—like her skin, now that she couldn’t afford those fancy creams and exfoliants. But she had insisted that she wanted her life back, that she could buy the very same designer clothes at thrift shops for a tenth of the price.

     “We could take a walk,” Jason continued, when Kara still had not replied. “Looks like the rain stopped.”

     A walk. Which was free. Of course. But she would not have wanted to go to another bar anyway and hear blaring bad music that would muddle Strickland’s wonderful caresses. 

     For two blocks Kara and the filmmaker strolled along narrow Sansom Street, dodging the clumps of exiled smokers, before she asked him whether he had a day job.

     Yes. With a caterer. The pay wasn’t anything to brag about, but it got him by and he got lots of free food. Kara listened with supersonic radar but there was no shame in his voice, no regret.

     They began talking about ambitions and Jason surprised her by saying that although he did not really care about money, he wanted to become a millionaire through his documentaries. “I think I’m telling an important story and I want as many people as possible to hear it. The money indicates that’s happening.”

     Kara praised the sentiment and voiced her neglected ambition to be a literary critic. A good one, professional.   

     “What’s stopping you?” Jason replied. “Doesn’t cost anything to write.”

     “I don’t know.”   

      Jason and his canvas shoes stopped abruptly and asked why not start right now? His house had a nice workspace. She could read or write or do whatever. And he could show her some footage, if she was interested. “No cover charge or drink minimum.”

     Kara smiled, just a little, remembering the tiny drum room on Christian Street. The broken overhead lighting. Oatmeal dinners and diluted juice. Late-night jam sessions with the cheapest beer. Good jazz on vinyl.

     Then she thought of sixteen-page documents with screenshots and followed the catering employee home.


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