Michael Coffey

Free Jazz

The earliest freedom, a car. A junior license, allowing unaccompanied driving till dark. I would take the old Chevy Impala, Dad’s wheels, on a Saturday, early evening. First, I’d watch Notre Dame slug it out—and lose, to USC—in a great late autumn game from the West Coast, played in the pouring rain, while my parents were out.

Then I’d moon away at Sheila Marshall up the hill in the house where the beloved Carters used to live—the Holy Family replaced by a chick. I’d set myself out on the front steps with a cool shirt—a pale blue prison shirt Dad had, a little big for me, but something like a painter’s smock—or so I imagined. I’d pour myself a small Canadian Club in a juice glass as the shadows got longer in the Saranac hollow. I’d hope that Sheila might see me. I’d sip along the edge of the bitter liquor, mostly inhaling its fumes and staring into its bronze light.

If she’d just look, she’d see me.

Perhaps she’d walk her swinging stuff down the hill and away toward the grocery store, her face hidden by her long hair which she would loop behind her ear with her finger, giving me a glimpse into the deep sudden heat of the bashful.

It would feel hot to me. If she’d just look, and I’d look back.


Mom and Dad pulled in from Saturday night Mass just in time for me (as arranged) to hop into the Impala and head down to Rick Harpp’s to spend the night.

Life takes over. Life is working. You move on.

I could get to the Harpp house before dark. We’d sit around and call girls on the phone, listen to the hi-fi or the radio and fool around inside their house: Ping-Pong, darts, Rick’s brother Danny’s drum kit. “Wipeout.”

I’d drive home the next day, in daylight.

I changed out of Dad’s shirt before he could see the foolishness and pulled on a wool V-neck sweater over bare skin that I thought was tough-looking and cool but which I immediately regretted when my clavicle seethed into a strawberry rash. Fuck it. Off I went.

On the way to West Plattsburgh, where Rick and Danny lived with their mom (a nurse, like Mom) and their old man (a phone company guy), I came across an accident on the lonely stretch of expressway east of Cadyville. At least it looked like an accident—a stopped car in the oncoming lane, steam from a radiator and something in the road in a huge lump; a skid of what looked like mud and berries. Death, I thought. I turned the radio down and slammed the dash with my right hand as if in anguish, or dismay, or anger, trying on reactions to match the dire complexity of things I read about in Newsweek—the war, Kent State—hungry for the real in any way, this was it: death! death—tin soldiers and Nixon coming / We’re finally on our—bang!—I almost hit a poor state trooper! Standing right there in the road! Waving a large length of flashlight, banging on my hood, banging on my hood. Telling me to pull over. Pull over!

Oh fuck. I told him I was scared. “Of what, son?” “That,” I said, nodding back to the road scene, of which I knew so little. And it wasn’t that, and it wasn’t him. I was scared of myself. He looked at my license, this guy in a cindery gray wool uniform. Huge square fingers tumbled the flimsy sheet of my license round and over as he peered at it, and at me. I told him where I was going. “You got ten minutes a daylight, son.” “Yes, sir.” “No, son,” he said. “Where’re you goin’ in ten minutes?” I told him—Robert Harpp’s house (Rick’s father, whose name just came to me), Banker’s Road, West Plattsburgh. I impressed myself. “Move it,” said the trooper. I noticed he was wearing a tie.

As I began to roll away I looked behind and beyond the trooper and saw that it was one of my teachers whose car had hit a horse in the road—Mr. Santamore, the earth science teacher, a bachelor. Ollie (his name was Oliver, we called him Ollie) looked at me and gave me a sympathetic grin. He looked sad. I appreciated his recognizing me. His car was very fucked, the grill stove in and the thing smoking, but the horse was worse yet, still slowly heaving, its guts escaping its back end onto the road.

Was that real? Was that real? I repeated the question, aloud, with increasing urgency, slamming the dash with my hand again, till tears welled in my eyes. It was the dreamlike in real life that we all wanted so badly—fantasy and history clashing. This is what adulthood seemed to promise.


When I got to Rick’s only he and Danny were home—there was supposed to be parental supervision of some sort, and I knew the Harpp house to be strict, that was the word—strict, like a barbed switch. They lived in a nice place on the edge of an apple orchard; it was neat as a motel lobby. They were a funny family—I mean, everyone was funny. There was nothing but putting-on and laughter in the Harpps—at least from Danny and Rick. We’d talk the usual—sports, girls, teacher-bashing. I told them about Ollie Santamore and the accident. “Ollie banged a horse!” said Rick. And these guys were into music, so there was that too—both were in the school band, and one of the older sisters majored in music at some college called Houghton and brother Bobby was a good trumpet player known for playing the hit song “Stormy” at parties, so they had some decent records I wouldn’t usually hear, like Grand Funk Railroad and Chicago Transit Authority and John Mayall.

Nina, their mother, was working nights at the hospital. Mom knew her. Mom liked Nina, though she would often say how homely she was for some reason. It was odd, because all the kids were good looking, especially the sisters, and Nina wasn’t that bad.

“The old man’s out somewhere. He’s on kid duty tonight but he’s out, so . . .” said Rick. “Wish we had a car. . . . Oh look, here’s fuckin’ A.J. Foyt!” He was looking at me.


Once we reached the city of Plattsburgh—about five miles off—Danny asked if he could drive. Why not, I figured. I was scared driving after dark and against the law in a township that had its own police force, so it might as well be Danny, he couldn’t do any worse. Wrong. Sitting at a stoplight on Oak Street he (and we all) saw a city cop car to the left, coming down Broad Street. Danny panicked, pulled through the red light and turned left, toward the cop—and up the one-way Broad Street the wrong way. The cherry top burst into flame and then a blinding strobe and Danny pulled into a driveway that ran along the side of a funeral home and parked it.

“We’ll take three caskets,” said Rick wryly. “Nothing too expensive.”

I just sat there in the passenger seat thinking about that trooper earlier in the night and why hadn’t that been sign enough. I should’ve turned right around after barely managing not to run over a state trooper and gone home and I should now be sitting in the living room while my parents played cards in the kitchen with Sam and Rose. I should be drinking a Pepsi and watching My Three Sons and then Mannix at ten o’clock in my pajamas. Here I was in the hands of the law—soldiers are cutting us down / shoulda been done long ago.


My father arrived at the city jail, with his pinochle buddy Sam. They’d been fetched from their game to come get us. The local constabulary, which Rick kept calling, in what seemed like a test of their patience, “the boys in blue!,” kept us in a cell but as a kind of joke. We were clean—no alcohol, pot, or pills—just joy riders as far as they were concerned. The sergeant (I’ll call him a sergeant) came over to the arresting officer and asked, “Are these individuals a threat to the Republic in any way?” “The Republic is safe, sir,” was the reply.

“Is this the county seat?” Rick deadpanned to the policeman.

Dad was in no great mood when he came in smoking a cigarette, his big belly bulging through his short jacket, Sam trailing. He spoke with the sergeant for a half a minute, then looked at me and nodded toward the exit with his head, and out we went. “This joint’s too small!” said Rick, flexing and then cracking his knuckles. Finally, I shushed him.

Dad drove the Impala with me and the Harpp boys sitting silently in the dark. Sam drove his own car. I squirmed in the front seat, next to Dad. Dad didn’t like trouble any more than the next guy—no, he liked it less than the next guy. He turned on the radio—a high school game from Bailey Avenue. What relief.

I could hear Dan and Rick whispering. More jokes from Rick, I thought. He leaned forward and said to me, “Where we . . . ?”

“Taking you fellas home,” Dad interrupted. “That’s enough for tonight. Boys’re done.”

Rick looked at me; his brother Dan cowered in the shadows as far from the action as he could get and still be in the vehicle. I guess I was supposed to “get” Rick’s look, but I didn’t. We were in trouble; at least I was, that’s all I got.

Rick turned his look up a notch. Now he wasn’t joking. “Dad’s gonna . . . ,” he said. “Dad’s gonna . . .” He looked terrified. He sounded terrified. “Like if things don’t go like we planned, you staying over . . . Dad’s gonna . . .” He looked back at Danny, who’d disappeared almost.

What? I didn’t know what was up but Dad wasn’t so dumb. He knew. He accelerated and pulled up next to Sam at the last stoplight before leaving town. He cranked down the window. “I’m dropping them off at Bob Harpp’s, and leaving the car. Follow me. Banker’s Road.”

When we pulled in under the apple trees that ran along the Harpp house, Dad looked at me. He put his open hand on the seat between us. It was the kindest gesture and I don’t know what it meant, exactly. I wanted to squeeze it. He got out. We got out. He handed me the keys. “Be careful. See you tomorrow.”


The Harpp boys were like happy puppies. I could see Dan had been crying heavily, and Rick’s face was pink, but they were back to goofing. Ten minutes later Bob Harpp pulled in, and Rick and Dan froze. We were in the living room, and they stared into space, listening.

I listened too, and what I heard was a car running, a car spilling its merry frantic sounds of transit interrupted—the ding ding ding of the open door alarm, the throb of music from deep within the dash, the heave-slap of wipers (had it started raining?)—followed by the footsteps of Mr. Harpp coming up his own walk, mincing, quick. He rang his own doorbell. Rick answered.

“Boys, come on,” said Mr. Harpp. “Who’s this?” he asked, looking at me. He was a handsome guy, stockier than his willowy sons, shorter, but with the hard square face of a fighter or a ball player. His hands, however, flew about, fingers liquid, as he pointed at me or toward my ear. “John Coffey’s son, ya? Say hello to John for me, will ya?”

Then suddenly—“Move it, asshole!” And he kicked Danny hard in the ass with his lineman boots. I remember the lineman boots because after he kicked Danny and we all tumbled out the front door and sat in the car—all of us in the back seat—Mr. Harpp came out a few minutes later with tasseled loafers on and the smell of cologne. He swung himself behind the wheel, slammed the heavy door to stop the maddening dinging, messed with the wipers (it wasn’t raining), and angrily switched off the radio. He turned to us.

“I’m at the Skylight with some friends. I gotta watch you little fuckers tonight so enjoy yourselves. Won’t be long. Have a soda, work on your pool game. Dig?”

So this was Bob Harpp. I’d only heard he was mean and a career telephone man. But as we fooled around in the back room with our sodas in highball glasses, with cherries, and shot some shuffleboard, I kept an eye on the bar, which was basically pitch black with only a few little Christmas lights strung through the liquor bottles on the back bar. If you squinted, it could look like a cruise ship woozily sliding through the harbor at night. Somewhere in there was Bob Harpp. “Into his tunes,” said Rick, by way of explanation, as he slid a puck down the long length of board. “And his Black Label.” But I didn’t follow. “He used to play . . . trumpet,” Danny added, nervously, like he might be contradicted: “He played in New York City.”

When I went for a cola refill, I looked but didn’t see him at first. There were only a couple of figures hunched at the bar, hunched like jewelers working on something other than a red straw in a rocks glass. Then a flash of light came from the left and a shadow moved and the unmistakable glow of a jukebox shone. I could see a silhouette turn through the light and then position itself on a stool with the jukebox as backlight. It was Mr. Harpp. I went over to him.

I had to break through a seal of some sort. He was looking down, as if at his right elbow or forearm, then I could see his right hand keeping a beat and his head, in a rhythm, making quick nods. He was listening to the music. It was jazz.

“C’mere kid. C’mere John Coffey’s kid.” I shuffled over. The bartender, a woman, had my soda now and placed it down near Bob Harpp. “Listen,” he said. I stepped closer. His eyes were glassy and bright black. “No, listen.” And he stared into the jukebox, lights as bright as a city kept under a glass hood. “That right there,” he said. All I could hear was a screeching of brass instruments, saxophones maybe—what was that? “Mr. Donald Cherry,” he said. “That right there, man.”

I couldn’t see Bob Harpp’s face directly; his back was to me. He’d turned to gaze into the source of the sound like it was some fascinating fire. He was moving a little, in time, with short, quick, repetitive juts of his chin—yes yes yes yes yes yes yes yes yes. He held a glass of booze delicately in his left hand. He stared into the deep gemstone reaches of the Wurlitzer. I tilted my head a bit and saw his face reflected in the glass. His eyes were clenched, reaching for something, like prayer.

I thought I’d sit there with him, for some songs, or go there someday, wherever that was, on my own.