You’d think getting acclimated to the jungle would be easier on me, but it still takes a few days. Sweltering doesn’t even begin to cover a tropical journey. You choke on the humidity until it covers you, then you reconcile yourself to being moist all the time, then your body gets over its panting, and gradually everything starts regulating itself. Not that I felt comfortable running a race or anything, but getting a tan and hydrating all the time helps.
Not that I wasn’t thinking of drowning myself in caipirinhas by day three when I wandered up to The Red Leaf, since no one was willing to trek down the Amazon with some mixed-looking dude in search of annoying-at-best gringo scientists and do-gooders.
But, as soon as I stepped across the dim threshold, breathed the slightly less damp, fan-blown air, I heard the jukebox change and noticed a new face at the bar. I know now that he wasn’t that new and probably had chosen to sit in the open that day, but Graham (as I came to call him, whether he preferred it or not) was the first thing I noticed that day. The second, as mentioned, was the music.
Graham was the sort of bigger, older white guy ex-pat you might expect to see cruising a beach, partly-retired, family gone or disinterested in anything he had to say or give, but there was something else about him that drew attention.
It probably had to do with the fact that he used to be a cop. He never told me for sure. Maybe a military police. But the way he held himself, took everything in, always reading the outs, he definitely knew what he was doing. Sharp eyes, in shape, a refreshingly non-asshole haircut.
And of course, the music had changed, from the usual mindless beach-hop dance mix stylings that the tourists and kids loved, to the cooler, frenetic-but-controlled masterful sax changes of Charlie Parker himself. How the hell they even had an old bebop record in that place, I do not know.
So naturally, I sat next to him, saw him tapping his left index finger very slightly, chewing a toothpick into a pulpy death.
Let me guess, I said, Ontario, but like Kingston or thereabouts. It was the terrible game that got played in these places sometimes. He just grunted, back resting against the bar, surveyed the room again and kept tapping. He wasn’t tense, just ready.
I ordered up and said, you picked the tune, eh. The Birdman himself. He stopped tapping.
A bit young for the Bird, aren’t you, he finally said, voice not at all what I expected.
Just listen to those notes, I said.
Didn’t have any Mingus or anything, he continued. Oh well.
The thinking-man’s pop, Mingus Dew, I said, chuckling. He only stared at that, and I can’t blame him.
Despite that, I started in with my limited jazz, talking to him about those changes, man.
An hour later I was offering him the job, even though he could barely speak the language, and even though he looked like he might collapse out on the open trail. The way he carried himself though, I knew he’d do it or die trying. Perfect.