The jazz cats call him Saint Sullivan, but he’s far from pious. Musician Barry Sullivan drinks too much, can’t keep a job, and fights with his fiery Mexican wife. Ceci, their young daughter, witnesses their fury from the shadows. The child finds comfort with plaster saints and the spirits of her ancestors—until a tragic accident threatens her body and soul.
Great-aunt Pilar fears the Evil Eye and decides to intervene, taking Ceci and her family to a traditional Mexican healer, a curandera. Even in the ultra-modern Los Angeles of 1960, ancient ways survive in the barrio. The curandera prescribes an unconventional pharmacopeia of folk remedies, compassion, humor, and stories, which charm the ailing child.
Barry is caught between two worlds—the jazz scene, where he speaks the lingo, and the barrio, where he is a clueless foreigner stumbling into a dangerous feud. He teeters on the brink of peril, while the curandera asks of him a sacrifice few men of the era know how to make, even for the sake of love.
Sullivan faced a hell of a fight. He hankered for a drink - anything to put off telling Dora he’d quit his job. Again. Time was their quarrels were sexy, and led straight to bed. Afterwards, she’d lounge, wrapped in the bedsheets, her black hair tangled and damp - her olive skin pink with pleasure. Those crazy nights he’d riff on his clarinet, and she’d hum along, lit with the joy of reconciliation. Any virtuosity he lacked in love, he made up for as a musician. “Guess I’ll have to keep you, Barry Sullivan,” she used to say, forgiving everything for a song.
That was before the kid, little Ceci came into their world, big green eyes so like his own. His own gaze had darkened to an army green of late. He winced, wondering how long Ceci’s sparkle could last, with a father offering so much disappointment, and a barbed-tongue mother to nail it in. When angry, Dora could curl the snakes on Medusa’s forehead. She didn’t care if Ceci stood in the crossfire. Poor macushla, only six years old, and the things she witnessed when the Sullivans fought!
Anything not fastened down Dora threw, swearing in Spanish fit to embarrass a San Pedro stevedore. In the aftermath, exiled to the sagging sofa, Barry would lie awake, worrying what Ceci might have overheard. Even to get up for a piss, he’d have to navigate a minefield of broken bric-a-brac. Sure as clockwork, he’d step onto a shard, and bleed all over the carpet on the way to the john. Come the morning, Dora would see his bloodstains, and the yelling would begin anew.
Still, he hoped they might recapture something of their former joy. He wasn’t sure what had changed. Dora remained the tempestuous Fiesta Princess she’d been at nineteen. From the moment he had clapped eyes on her, Barry had fallen in love. She flashed like an opal. Unlucky jewels, opals, unless you’re born under the right sign. He’d been taking a chance marrying Dora - his closest friends had warned him so, and he had known it deep down. Still, he’d hoped against hope she’d bring him luck, and he’d make her proud. To win her, Barry had promised the moon; Dora expected the sun as a chaser. All he’d given her so far was the kid.
Dora’s ounce of patience was waning, just as her infatuation had already done. What she wanted now was glamour, and security. Her convent school friends from Santa Barbara had married into mink coats, alligator purses, and diamond tennis bracelets - even the ugly ones who didn’t deserve their good fortune, pranced around in Paris fashion. Given half the chance she’d put them all to shame. Barry was no help at all.
Music gigs didn’t earn enough for chicken scratch, so she insisted he teach music on the side. He’d landed a higher-paying job at a ritzy music school, but lost patience with tin-eared brats, and spoilt geniuses. To satisfy Dora, he’d taken this ill-fated job selling band instruments. So far that month, he’d sold one set of drumsticks, and a book of Souza marches. Quitting was the manly way out. How to get that through to her?
Just that morning, she’d read aloud to him from Photoplay about Liz Taylor’s Mexican divorce. He’d better start making some money, or she’d put on her high heels, and walk out. She’d sighed, “I have to make the most of my looks, before I’m too old.”
Before he faced her again, he’d have to find a job. After he quit American Band Supply Company, he called around for gigs, determined never to moonlight again. Like he told Dora that very morning, he’d be a pro musician, or nothing.
“Nothing, we’ve got!” She shrieked, and threw her coffee cup, staining the faded wallpaper behind Barry Maxwell House brown.
“Quit my job today!” Barry plunked himself down on a barstool, and breathed a sigh. How good to complain without being pelted with crockery! “What a bum racket! Couldn’t sell a goddamn piccolo, Mac, not if my life depended on it. Man’s got to do what he’s got to do: what he’s good at.”
What Barry was good at was jazz; namely bebop. Los Angeles just wasn’t hep to his style. West Coast jazz was too white, too heavily arranged, and too predictable these days. The surprise in jazz made it art; Barry told anyone who’d listen to him. Listeners were few. So Barry had begun to rely on bartenders, the best listeners a troubled man can find - reluctant to give advice, and always refilling one’s glass.
“I’m good at one thing - music! But will they give me a break? Like Ma always said, ‘The tall nail gets hammered.’ Well, I’ve been hammered, all right! Got the bruises to prove it.”
Compromise? Not this cat! His one, big break as studio musician, he’d overstepped by suggesting changes to a mediocre film soundtrack. The assistant music director admitted Barry’s jazz arrangement might’ve won them an Oscar, but the producer fired him. Hollywood did not want him again.
A martyr to the unexpected blue note: a flattened third or seventh that could pick a man up and toss him heavenwards, Barry would stand for music, if for nothing else - jazz played right from the soul.
He ordered another whiskey, neat, with no chaser, Irish. “Macushla!” He sang to the amber fluid. “Your dear voice is calling.” With these words, he remembered Ceci. He had promised he’d pick her up at two o’clock! It was already quarter to four.
Born a fifth-generation Californian, Claire Germain Nail now lives in Oregon with her husband Jim and cat Xochi. She has two grown sons. An alumna of Marylhurst University, Claire is a spiritual director, multimedia artist, and award-winning poet.
Contact Claire at firstname.lastname@example.org