The front door blasted open with a bang, shaking the house and squashing Bean Bunny into a pancake. The rabbit groaned and wearily slid to the ground as Zoot stomped in, too uncharacteristically angry to even notice. He was out of his usual attire, instead sporting a once smart set of matching dark blue jacket and trousers, a white shirt, a scarf and a flat cap covering his bald spot. However, muck, wine stains and a rip at his knee ruined the outfit. He marched upstairs, ignoring Dr. Teeth’s distant begging and Pepe and Rizzo’s protests as he knocked them out of the way.
“Zoot! Wait a minute, will ya?” Dr. Teeth called. “C’mon, just talk to me!”
Rizzo scoffed. “With him?! Yeah, good luck with that, Doc!” He and Pepe sniggered, only to be shoved out of the way again.
Teeth reached the band’s room and stood at the threshold. Zoot had his back to him, muttering irritably as he collected a towel from the rail. The Good Doc sighed. A few days ago, he had decided it was high time Zoot got a girl before he got even balder and the sax man reluctantly agreed. However, each night was worse than the last.
“Look, how many times do I have to say I’m sorry? I just wanted to help you out, man!”
“Well I didn’t ask for it, Doc!” Zoot snapped, stalking out of the room and deliberately bumping into his shoulder. Dr. Teeth stared after in shock. This was not most like him! He was never this rough! “Hey, hey! Get outta here penguins! I’m taking a shower! Out! OUT!” A band of penguins squawked in alarm as they flew out of the bathroom presumably kicked out. “You too!”
“WAH!” Sweetums cried, violently stumbling out wearing nothing but a towel round his waist. He gawked and did a double take. “Bu- Hey! I wasn’t done in there!” However, door had slammed in his face and the lock clicked. “Huh! Touchy!” the monster huffed and stormed off to his headquarters, passing a bewildered Floyd who saw the whole scene unfold. After a beat, his lips formed into a snide smirk.
“So, take it that the lesson in the art of ‘ladies’ man’ went swimmingly then! Hah, hah, hah!”
Dr. Teeth glared at him, rubbing the spot where the saxophonist collided with him. He approached the bassist. “It’s not funny. Our sax man really missed his cool tonight, and paying dearly. I haven’t seen him this mad since Woodstock!”
Floyd immediately stopped cackling, his eyebrows furrowing into a worried expression. Nothing was worse than what happened at Woodstock. “No raggin’? That bad, huh?”
Dr. Teeth nodded solemnly. “It was like he permanently lost his rhythm with the sax that he can’t get back! His mellow charm non-existent. He…skipped the groove…on love!”
It was nonsense to anybody else, but Floyd understood what the jazz guru meant, sucking the air through his teeth. “Dude. That’s not hip, man.” He shook he head, shamefully. Then a thought occurred to him.
“Hey, dude. Y’know what I just realised?”
“If he’s so useless with women, how did he get a girl like Janice?”
Inside the bathroom, Zoot paused his undressing and pressed an ear to the door. Did Floyd just say what he thought he just said? He heard Dr. Teeth bark a laugh. “You askin’ that after all these years? You’re talking about your girl, man!””
“I know, I know! Look, I’ve known him since I was a little rocker; I ain’t never seen him with any other girl! It’s kind of a deep, dark mystery!”
“Didn’t she ever tell you herself?”
They paused. “Uh, no. That would be too weird! ‘Hey baby! Your ex is draggin’ at dating lately! Tell me, what you see in him, again?”
“Alright, you’ve made your point!”
“Mm mm! So, tell me, how’d he get all filthy like that?
“Well, my fellow man, I think it may have started with that female bodybuilder at Star’s Place…”
Their footsteps drifted away, along with their voices. Zoot went away from the door and turned on the shower, kicking out some of Lew Zealand’s fish and dropping them in the sink. He stripped and stepped in the cubicle, savouring the cool water spraying on his face. As he cleansed himself of the dirt and grim, his thoughts wandered back to the conversation he just eavesdropped on.
If he’s so useless with women, how did he get a girl like Janice?
Zoot exhaled as he rinsed what was left of his hair. He remembered it many years ago, back when everything seemed possible and things were just beginning. He would never forget it.
It was probably one of the only things he’d never forget.
A static, monotone voice interrupted his dreams. “Ladies and Gentleman, we are now arriving in Summerfield City. This our last stop and we sincerely hope you enjoyed your trip with Sunny Days Bus Coach. Thank you.” Zoot blearily opened his eyes, squinting slightly at the sudden light. He looked around as his vision cleared, puzzled. Why was he on such a drag bus? Where is Summerfield? Why was he heading there? He rattled his brains, trying to remember. He knew there was a reason in there somewhere. Sunny Days. Summerfield City. A phone call.
Something clicked in his head. “Oh, yeah,” he mumbled, reaching under his seat for his bag and sax case. Sunny Days was the lousy bus taking him to Summerfield, where his sister, Liza, and her family resided. She phoned him two weeks ago to inform him she had given birth to another child, a boy. He was visiting to see his new nephew. That was it.
The bus lazily pulled in at the station, the engine wheezing from the effort of pushing on for a few more metres. It halted with an unhealthy cough and the doors hissed opened. Slowly, the line of passengers began to descend. Zoot was the last off, grateful to be free from the lumpy, moth-eaten seats and thick dust. He thanked the wizened old driver quietly, who only glowered at him, as some unpleasant way of saying ‘you’re welcome.’ The saxman stepped off, took a second to relish in the fresh air and headed to the station entrance. Liza had told him she would pick him up at the station, but she must have been running late. Realising how hungry he was, Zoot took a seat at the station café and ordered a sandwich.
As he ate in silence, he let his mind wander. He was looking forward to seeing his sister again. Out of him and his siblings, Liza was the only one who ended up with a normal and simple lifestyle. Well, maybe except for Joseph, his youngest brother, but at least she wasn’t a square about it. Zoot hadn’t seen her since his second cousin’s Bar Mitzvah a few months ago. Everyone had been ecstatic to learn she was pregnant again, especially his mother. He grimaced a little, remembering her nagging him and his brothers for grandchildren. Ha! No chance! Not on Charlie Parker’s grave was that gonna happen! His other brother, Ben, was far too busy playing cowboy builder and Jo usually wet himself when he tried to talk to a girl. Zoot was her favourite target though, simply because he was the eldest and getting bald.
Everyone seemed to use that as an excuse for him. You’re getting bald, Zephyr. You should be doing this, you should be doing that. Well, so what? Did it always mean the end is nigh or something? Ben had less hair than he did, yet no one seemed to care.
He was grateful his old friend Floyd didn’t mind. ‘Course he’d still make the odd comment or two, but at least he didn’t expect Zoot to be a family man or something other stupid thing a guy should be doing when he got bald. Besides, he was more preoccupied with Animal’s latest antics and trying to get some decent gigs.
He scowled a little at his glass of water. It was getting harder and harder to get a show these days, even ones on the most possible lowest payroll. All the good places thought their music stank. Then again, at least they gave them a chance to prove it. Others took one look at the trio and left them on the streets in a millisecond. They did get a few recently, but Animal was getting more out of control with his drumming lately, destroying everything in sight and attacking all the women. If he didn’t know how to lay down a really good beat, Floyd might’ve left him in the woods where he found him. How did his mom expect him to settle down with all that?
Zoot stared at the sky, chewing slowly and drifting off the planet. So they weren’t as young as they used to be, but they knew that their dream’ll be real one day. Their names in lights, sold out concerts, screaming fans calling their names…
Piles of sequels and laughter sent Zoot back to earth with a nasty bump, making him jump and choke on his sandwich. Coughing, he took a sip of water and stared daggers at the perpetrators on the table next to him. The gaggle of young women barely acknowledged him, still shrilling unattractively.
“C’mon do it again! Do it again!”
“But I’ve done it, like, ten times now!”
“Oh, just one more time, Jan-jan!”
“It was, like, sooo accurate!”
“Oh, fer sure!”
“Please, please, please, pleeeease!”
Zoot rolled his eyes as tore off another bite. Valley girls. Of course, what else? Back when they were in high school, Floyd loved ‘em, like a mouth to a flame. Zoot couldn’t stand them and today wasn’t any different. He focused his attention to the salt and peppershakers, but he could still hear them begging this Jan-Jan girl to do whatever the heck it was. Finally, she gave in and cleared her throat. When she spoke again, it was deep, slow, smoky and somewhat mock sexy.
“Janice, daaarling! Could you be and absolute dear and fetch my purse!”
Zoot protected his ears just as the oncoming shrieking attacked his hearing. Jeez, it like sitting next to a cage of parrots!
“Ohmigosh, that is sooo your mother, Jan!”
“Like I totally said! Sooo accurate!”
“Do it again! Do it again!”
He glared at his half-eaten sandwich and threw it on the plate. He suddenly lost his appetite. He stood up and went to leave, but firm grip on his shoulder thought otherwise.
“Hey, where’d you think you’re going punk?
Zoot raised his brows at the short, nasal voiced Whatnot waiter with bad skin complexion. “What?”
The waiter pointed an accusing finger at him. “Oh, no! Don’t play dumb with me, pal!” he said. “I saw you, trying to run away without paying!”
For a moment, Zoot lost his voice. He completely forgot to ask for the check. Mentally kicking himself, he tried to come up with a composed reply. “Sorry, man,” he said, reaching for his back pocket. “I just-”
“Oh, a hippy guy, are ya?” the waiter sneered. “Well look, man! I don’t know what kinda crazy government protest you’re trying to pull here, but I don’t care! You pay like everyone else here, got it?”
Zoot glanced away a little, seeing if neighbouring tables had noticed. Unfortunately, the Valley girls had fallen silent and stared intensely as he tried again to explain. “I’m sorry, I forgot. I’m meeting someone and I was just-”
“Oh, you forgot! Oh, that’s original!” the waiter exclaimed, sarcastically. “That’s one I’ve never heard before! You don’t think I’m stupid! You don’t think I encounter bums like you, always running off like that! You don’t think I have to call the police at least once a week! They’ve started ignoring me because they never believe me! Say that lil’ ol’ Francis is doing it for attention!” He grinned, evilly. “Oh, but not today! Now that I’ve caught you, I’m gonna prove to them I’m tellin’ the truth and you are not leaving my-”
“Will you just get me the check!” Zoot growled through gritted teeth. It was all he could do to stop himself from smacking the guy.
Amazingly, the waiter shrugged. “Okay” he said, casually. As he went to the counter, Zoot gaped at him, feeling a mixture of humiliation and disgust until something tugged at his sleeve. He looked up, surprised to see it was one of the valley girls. She was the same species as him, blonde, skinny with fair orange skin, and lips to rival Mick Jagger’s. Her eyes weren’t totally visible behind a mess of thick lashes and make-up, but her voice was apologetic.
“Hey, man. Like, I’m rully sorry you had to encounter that. That’s a real bummer.”
He didn’t know what to say. “Uh…”
“Yeah, I tried that last week!” piped up a redhead human with ridiculous make-up. “Catches me every time! But the prices here are soooo ridiculous! Like, you have a better chance at the hotels!”
The brunette next to her gasped in shock. “Bethany! You should be doing things like that! That’s like totally breaking the law!”
“But fifteen dollars for a soda? That should be against the law!”
“Does anyone have any gum?”
The troop began gossiping again, forgetting about the incident rather quickly. Zoot paid the waiter and gave them all a final glare before going outside. Thankfully, Liza was waiting for him in her car.
Liza was about six years younger than he was. She also had blue hair but it much longer and straighter. Her skin was usually a light purple colour, but it was now red from laughing at Zoot’s story.
“It’s not funny!” he barked
She stifled her giggles. “It’s a kinda funny.”
“If it weren’t for those broads…”
“Language, Zeph!” Liza said, suddenly turning stern. “Remember, you’re going to be around my children for a few days! Besides, that was technically your fault. If you paid more close attention…”
“Argh, whatever.” Zoot rested his elbow on the car windowsill, watching the world wiz by. He calmed down a little just as Liza began some small talk.
“So last I heard from you, you had a performance somewhere in New York! How did that go?”
He made a face. “Uh, yeah, not really good.”
“Animal?” she guessed
“That and we didn’t have a place to stay after they threw us out.”
“You mean you spent the night on the streets?!”
“Nah, ‘course not. It was several nights.”
“Zephyr! How can you live like that?!”
“Calm down, it was all okay in the end. We just did some buskin’ and hitched a ride home. It paid the rent…”
His words trailed off, watching Liza’s face glower. “I worry about you sometimes…”
“So…uh…how is everyone?”
“Yeah, good,” Liza replied, glad the subject had changed. “Andrew has the day off so he’s taking over the kids for today.” She smiled. “You should see your nephew! He’s such a perfect angel! So beautiful and hardly cries at night. Lily adores him, always wanting to carry him all the time-”
“What’d you call ‘im?”
“Now who’s not paying attention?”
“Very funny. What did you say again?”
“Hmm? Oh, yeah. What’s the little guy’s name?” Liza didn’t say anything, biting her lip. “Liza?”
“Daniel,” she finally said. “We called him Daniel. Y’know, after Dad…”
The pause that followed was a lot more awkward as Zoot figured out what to say.
“Okay,” he finally said, leaning back into his seat. Liza glimpsed his way, surprised.
“You don’t mind?”
“No, not really. Why? Doesn’t Mom like it?”
“Like it?! She hates it! When she visited the hospital and saw the name on his crib, the nurses had to drag her out ‘cause her ranting woke all the babies up. And don’t get me started on Ben and Jo!”
Zoot looked up at the mention of their brothers’ names. “They were there too?!”
“No. Jo arrived the next day and Ben just saw him last Monday. Ben took it about as well as Mom did and Jo kinda said, ‘Oh’ and was uncomfortable for the rest of the day.” The car stopped at traffic lights and Liza turned to face him properly. Her expression was hard to read. “Look, Zeph, I know he wasn’t World’s Greatest Dad and I don’t have good memories of him either, but I kinda felt like I had to, well, honour him in some way. He’s still our dad and if it wasn’t for him, we- I mean- well-”
She cut herself off with a sigh and cast her eyes away. Zoot rested his hand on hers on the gear stick. “I know what you mean,” he said, softly. “Sometimes I don’t know what to feel about the old man either. But he’s your kid, not mine, and if you want to honour Dad by giving him his name, then I won’t judge you.” Liza met his eyes and Zoot smiled at her. “Besides, Mom and Ben’ll get over it. In about five years.” She laughed lightly then squeezed his fingers.
“That’s what I like about you most, Zeph. You’re always so accepting.”
The day after Zoot settled in Liza’s residence, she invited him to go on a family picnic to the park. Zoot only agreed on the condition that he could bring his sax, much to his niece Lily’s delight. But he wasn’t so sure if he’d get a chance to play it, what with his in law, Andrew, insisting he’d hold the baby.
“No, not like that. Try and hold him like you would hold a football.”
“Uh, this is how I would hold a football.”
Andrew, an orange man with tussled brown hair, bit his lip, watching his brother-in-law hold his son by the armpits away from him like it was a time bomb. The child was beginning to squirm uncomfortably. He looked at Liza desperately.
“Help me out here, will you?”
She shook her head and took over.
“Here, I’ll take him. Calm down, he’ll know that you’re upset. Now, hold your left arm out. No your other left, Zeph. That’s it, now I’m going to put his head on your elbow…like this…annnnd your hand should be supporting his backside. Loosen up a bit. There you go! Keep your other hand on his head just in case.”
After getting over the embarrassment of being talked down to by his younger sister, Zoot stared at the infant in both fear and wonderment. “He’s so…uhhh…small.”
It was true. Next to a normal sized human newborn, Daniel appeared positively premature, but he was healthy for his type. He had his mother’s skin and a tuff of brown hair. Chubby, as was to be expected and still yet to open his eyes. He slept most of the time, so Zoot knew they were going to get along just fine.
“Mommy! I wanna hold the baby! Uncle Zoot gets to!” A green kid with strawberry blonde hair, Lily reached out with grabbing hands and pleading in her voice.
“Sweetie, you held Daniel yesterday and this morning. You can’t have him all the time.” Liza said.
“I know how to do it properly! Please!”
Zoot carefully leaned back on the tree base, taking in the summer scenery and the interactions between his family. He could hear a bee buzzing by his ear and smell the freshly cut grass. The day was beautiful, relaxed, calm…
Kinda boring, he thought with a yawn.
The heat making him sleepy, Zoot drifted off, an empty bench about twenty feet away being the last thing he saw. It was perfect for playing the blues and earning a few pennies.
Zoot started awake. “Huh?”
Everyone else was suddenly standing, the basket packed and Daniel out of his arms and in his buggy. Wait, when did that happen?
Liza crossed her arms. “I said do you want to come on a walk with us?”
Zoot blinked. “Oh, er…” He glanced over at the bench. Walk meant exercise. Exercise was not his thing. And that bench looked so inviting…
“No thanks.” He patted his case. “I think I’ll go over there and play this for a while.”
“Are you sure?”
Zoot stood up. “Yeah, I’m sure. I meet up with you later.”
Liza gave him a slightly disapproving look, but she nodded. “Okay.”
“Oo, can I hold the saxa-thingy?”
“Lily, I thought you wanted Daniel?”
“I changed my mind!”
“Come on, little miss! Let’s give Uncle Zeph some space! It’s not like he’s here with anyone important or anything, like his family!”
“I like Zoot better!”
They disappeared from sight as the turned on the path, Lily still babbling excitedly. Zoot approached the bench and pushed himself up. A disadvantage of being short meant seating was a climbing challenge every day.
He tried pushing his sister’s sarcastic comments out of his head as he replaced the reed, but it wasn’t much use. He liked being alone, could he help that? It meant no chatty individuals wanting to talk to him all the time, wasting precious saxophone time. No noise and a chance to do whatever he liked. ‘Course, zoning out was optional but that always made him look stupid. It wasn’t that he didn’t want to spend time with his family, he really did love them. There were just…too much, man. Still, it’s not as bad as it was, long time ago…
Reed clicked into place, Zoot set down his hat in front of his dangling feet, allowing the bald part of his head to breathe. He set his fingers to the right keys and played the first few bars of an old Billie Holiday song called ‘Time on my Hands’.
For some time, the music lifted him and he was lost from all time and space, not even aware of the change dropped into his hat by passing strangers. It was just him and his one true love, the sax.
Something made him twitch, causing him to blow an ugly parp instead of B-flat. He spluttered, horrified with himself, though wondering what the heck it was that distracted him. Zoot scanned the area. All he could see was clean cut grass, trees, people being happy, the sunshine and more stinkin’ trees. The saxophonist scratched his head. Weird. He could’ve sworn…
The thing that scared him made itself almost clear. Behind him, he could hear several things move and a high-pitched noised that sounded like monkeys chattering. He turned sharply behind him, but the noise was gone and there was nothing but a tree. Zoot inspected it briefly, then shook his head and turned his back to it again. That was silly. Trees don’t giggle-
“Like, hi there!”
He swore loudly, flinching back away from the redhead who seemed to pop out of nowhere, blinking at him from up close. “Sheesh, mister, do you, like, kiss your mom with that mouth?”
Zoot clutched his pounding heart, stammering uncontrollably in his spasm. “How’d you-where’d you-don’t you-what the-wrong with-can’t breathe-holy-”
The redhead looked a little annoyed “Whoa, like calm down. I just said hi! Seriously not cool!”
He somehow managed to chill himself out, though he turned a little pink. The screeches of laughter behind him didn’t help much either.
“So anyway, like hi! I’m Bethany and, like, yeah, I’m totally sorry I scared you and all. It’s just, y’know, Me and my friends were just walking around and we saw our other friend, Janice, sitting behind that tree there. We really surprised her and stuff, and she was totally digging your, erm, cello music, or something. And I remembered you from yesterday, when you nearly escaped from that total nerd. Really, I mean, he’s soooo annoying! Like I’m going back there again! Hmph as if-”
The rest of her words merged into a long line of endless babble of stuffy nosed nonsense, making Zoot cross his eyes. It felt like days until Bethany’s fingers snapped in his face.
“Hey, like, pay attention! I’m totally making you an offer, man!”
He shook his head, bewildered. “What offer?” he asked. The redhead huffed.
“Urgh, just, like, wait here, okay?” She stormed off behind the tree. There were noises of urgent whispers, a hush voice protesting and more obnoxious giggling. Taking the chance, Zoot picked up his case and instrument, slipped off the bench and tiptoed a few inches before breaking into a run. He didn’t stopped until he almost collided with a skipping Lily.
“Uncle Zoot!” she cried, happily. “Where’d you go?”
Gasping for breath, he scouted over his shoulder nervously. “Um, busking. And...erm, exercise. Yeah, totally-Uh, I mean, yeah.”
Lily paid no heed, reaching for the saxophone again. “Can I just hold it? I promise I’ll be careful! Pleeeease?”
“Oh, uh, yeah sure.”
He handed her the instrument, oblivious to the fact that it was too heavy for a child like her. She lost her balance and landed with an ‘oof’ on her backside. Still, she looked up at him, grinning from ear to ear. After a pause, Zoot grinned back and let out a genuine chuckle, forgetting about possible chasing valley girls. He knelt down to her level, helping her up. “Uh, maybe that a little too big for you. Should get you a smaller one.” He took back his sax. “Yeah.”
At this, Lily’s face brightened. “Really?! I can have a sax of my own?!”
Zoot hesitated, clicking his case open. For a moment, he thought there was something missing, but pushed it aside. “Uh, ask you mother about that. Maybe for Purim or Hanukkah. Right.”
It was only meant to be a few days, away from the guys to spend time with the family. Then he’d be back just in time for the gig Floyd had promised when he returned. However, fate had other ideas…
Or, more specifically, a broken alarm clock, a deep sleeper and a very lost bus ticket.
Andrew screeched to a halt by the bus station, with only minutes to spare. Zoot fumbled for his seat belt as Lily clapped happily next to him. “Again, again!”
“There’s your bus!” Liza exclaimed, pointing at one where a small line of people ascended on quite quickly. “Hurry!”
Zoot stumbled through the door and slammed it shut, ready to sprint. He wheeled back and gratefully took his sax case from Liza in the front window. She kissed his cheek. “See you at Hanukah, Zephyr!”
Hasty goodbyes were made before Zoot reached the bus and handed his ticket to the surprised driver. He slumped on the first seat he saw, not caring it was lumpy. Exhausted, he fell into another deep slumber as the bus roared to live.
When he woke up with a disgruntled snort, the bus was pulling up in a different town. Not thinking straight and still half-asleep, Zoot grabbed his things, hopped off the bus and started walking, just as the first droplets of rain began to fall. He adjusted his coat at the fifth or fourth street he passed. But by that time, he was fully awake and realizing something wasn’t right. He didn’t recognise this street at all. Wasn’t this supposed to be Turner Road? Where was the broken fire hydrant that was always on the corner?
The rain was pouring as Zoot did a double take on a sign outside a small church.
St. Mary Catholic Church of Georgetown.
Georgetown?! He was in the wrong town! Zoot stood stiffly for a moment, thinking about the possibilities and trying not to give into the rising panic inside him. Obviously, it would be stupid to go back. The bus would have already left by then. Maybe find a place to stay for the night? Yeah, that would work! He was sure the money from the park would-
He slapped his bare head, suddenly remembering what he left behind that day. Annoyed that he would lose such an obvious object, Zoot pulled out his wallet. Well, at least there was change for the pay phone. The only options now were to call Floyd, tell him where he was and probably hitch a ride back or find a place to sleep for the night. He hoped the booth wasn’t too tight.
The rain was pounding by now. Zoot protected his head the best he could as he waited for the woman inside the booth to finish, bitter and longing for his beloved hat. After a long while, the rain died away and the sun peaked from behind the clouds. Just as the woman stepped out.
“Phew! Like, it’s finally stopped raining! I hope my hair didn’t get, like, too fizzy, fer sure!” She stopped, surprised to see Zoot standing there, shivering and utterly drenched. She gasped. “Oh! It’s you!”