“Peter Wallace, what kind of a gig is this?”
The cemetery had to be over a hundred years old, maybe more. It stank of marsh gas and rotten vegetable and half of the stone were sunk or broken. I fiddled with my Fender, going away present from the parents, and looked out at the desolation of death.
“Come, Rocco, I told you. It’s Shadow-man Dan when we’re in costume.” Peter pulled at the wide lapels of his suit. He’d had one of his girlfriends make matching costumes for the three of us. Fitted jackets, black and purple striped, like some cheap Halloween costume. They were itchy since the materials wasn’t the best quality and didn’t do jack-shit against the chilly dampness of a Louisianan March.
Peter was a tall, lean man. Just a couple months ago, when we come to New Orleans from Jersey his eyes been full of ambition and hope. We’d watched as that sparkle leaned more toward desperation with each passing gig. And through the layers of white face paint we wore when we were in costume, his eyes were starting to look crazy.
I frowned at him. “Fine. What the hell kind of a gig is this, Shadow-man Dan?”
Kelly drifted in and out behind him, near the workman’s shed where she was running the electric chords. Her keyboard was already set up on a tarp, though the mud looked like it was sucking the tarp and the stand in to the earth. Her skull-face looked almost natural, since her hair was done up in a sloppy bun and her eyes were naturally sunken. She nodded when she saw me.
“It’s Saint Joseph’s Day, right?” Peter said. “There’s a tradition about playing in graveyards on that day.”
“I never heard of it.” I had a feeling that tradition was usually followed in cemeteries with dance halls or cafes across the street. “There’s no one here.”
“I got a feeling about this one. This gig turns our luck.”
I’d heard that before. Peter Wallace was always getting feelings about gigs, especially when they were low-paying gigs in dark and dirty places. Though I think a half-drowned cemetery was a new low for us.
“Did anyone hire us to come out here?”
Peter rolled his eyes and fingered the Bach 37 around his neck and waited to see it I would let him dodge the question. When I waited, he said defiantly. “Yeah, I did.”
“Jesus,” Kelly muttered.
I looked over at her. The keyboard hummed so it was not the electricity that was causing her grief. She caught my eye and didn’t look pleased. Still she shrugged at sat on her stool to warm up her fingers. She deserved better than this. She had won scholarships that she’d put aside for this crazy New Orleans dream.
“I told Liz Claire from WWL.”
Listening to him explain made me feel like I was kicking a puppy. “The one who covers stories about three legged puppies adopted to one legged veterans and senior citizens going to barbecue festivals?”
“Hey, that festival got a huge boost because she talked to Fred.”
Kelly plugged in my bass and shrugged. “Jammin’ is jammin’, Rocco.”
“Yeah. It’s just creepy.” I felt creepy, wearing that weird jacket with my face done up like a day of the dead mask. “Oh well, let’s do it.”
We ran through our repertoire. Some sweet slinky tunes where Kelly took lead and if I listened hard enough sang in her tinny soprano. Some harder old ones where we just had to keep up with Pete and his horn. Some of our own weird mixes where we gutted the pop we’d been raised with and bled it into dance hall jazz.
We played our souls out in the middle of that damp old cemetery to no audience but the dead. Just jammin’. No pressure when people started showing up.
Well, not people.
Liz Claire looked bored and annoyed when she got out of the car, not even a news van. Pete — sorry, Shadow-man Dan — waved over at her and she smiled, the kind of “God, did I really go through all this trouble for this guy?” smile he got a lot from his girlfriends.
“Don’t mind us, just keep going while we do our thing,” Liz Claire said.
Their thing was to set up a couple cameras and umbrellas with lights aimed at them, where she was going to stand. They were as efficient as a well-rehearsed band and the whole rig was up in a couple minutes.
She touched up her make-up in the car while the camera man prowled around the cemetery capturing the sunken stones with the lens and our sound with his boom. Even when the camera panned over to us, I got the feeling he never really saw us. It didn’t matter to him if Shadow-man Dan and his band made it out of the swamp of jazz musicians in New Orleans or not.
When Pete sang to the lens, the camera man lifted away from the eye-piece and shook his head and Pete, looking unfazed but deeply humiliated, turned to sing at me. I’d support his mugging.
We played something safe, a zippy version of Misty, while Liz Claire delivered her piece about us over and over again. I couldn’t really tell the difference in delivery, but she knew her stuff. She’s gone from exhausted by covering little shit stories like us to on fire with enthusiasm as soon as the camera was on her. I even got a little interested as she talked about this award-winning group of kids from Philly, and recounted a local tradition of playing in cemeteries to soothe the dead. She said we’d been out here doing this every year for five years, since we landed in New Orleans, which we hadn’t.
When she talked to Pete, he unleashed the full force of his charm on her and the audience at home. That was Shadow-man Dan. Even I couldn’t contradict his enthusiasm when he got like that. Kelly dialed it back and I did a nice melody, playing the bass in a creepy slow way, riffing off one of the classical guitar songs my Dad used to play in the house.
Shadow-man Dan talked about the importance of honoring the dead and the past, the influence the greats of New Orleans had on music, and where to find us in the up-coming Mardi Gras festival. Which was cool. Our Mardi Gras gigs were all unpaid, opening-for-publicity, but maybe we’d sell some CDs because of this little publicity stunt.
“Besides Shadow-man Dan and his band never miss a change to jam.” Pete grinned.
Liz Claire did that thing she always did when it was cut young artists on her segments, she wrinkled her nose and flirted a little. “How brave of you all to come out here and risk raising the dead.”
Shadow-man Dan threw back his head and laughed. “The dead don’t bother us.”
“Why don’t you play us an original?”
“We wanna a do one song in particular that’s been near and dear to our hearts,” Shadow-man Dan grinned over at us. We knew right away which he meant, the song we’d all first melded on, the sound that made us feel like a real band.
I grinned back and Kelly cackled, “Dancin’ Bones!”
Kelly opened the song, fingers like spiders hitting the keys. Pete got the mute on his horn and I strummed out a beat and got ready to sing the story of the dancin’ bones. It was a kid’s song we’d all learned in elementary school about the dead rattling around, but we’d had enough fun with it that it sounded dark and dreamy, an homage to New Orleans dance halls, and something totally new.
Liz Claire did a thing I’d never seen her do in the segments. She stepped out of the shot. The camera man worked in close on Kelly’s hands, on my bass, on Pete and I as we leaned in to sing together, cheerfully about the dead rising to get down.
When all the pieces lined up like that I felt good. It made the graveyard disappear. It made the shit-storm that was trying to break in to the New Orleans Jazz scene disappear. It was just our trio, our talent, our music.
Nothing could kill that buzz.
“What is that?” The camera man pointed behind us.
Except maybe that.
My immediate thought was, what’d Pete do now? But the camera man stumbled away from us aiming his equipment something behind us.
I looked over my shoulder still playing Dancin’ Bones on my bass. About eight feet behind Kelly, there was a towering cross. We’d picked the spot because of how creepy and old it looked looming in the background. But peaking out from the base of the cross, peeling away from the earth were some sharp, white things.
They wiggled along with the music, almost like… fingers.
Ten long white bones, sharp and covered in mud, braced themselves on the cross. Two wrists emerged. Four long bones, radia and ulna, slipped out of the swampy earth and then…
“Holy Shit…” Liz Claire forgot to be age appropriate for the audience at home.
The skull. Empty sockets seemed focused on the three of us. It’s jaw clacked open and shut silently. Pete drew a breath like he was about to scream, but instead his breath poured into the horn and he kept playing. My fingers strummed along unceasing as the thing pulled it’s neck, collarbone, shoulder sockets out of the earth.
“Kelly…” She was the closest. “Behind you.”
Kelly stared forward her eyes glazed with horror. “You too.”
I whipped my head around and there was a second… and a third. All bare bones and empty eye sockets staring at us. I could see the marsh through their chests, through their mouths as the jaws opened and shut.
“Is this… some kind of stunt?” Liz Claire asked. She was trembling and had a half-crazed look about her. “How are you doing this?”
Then she met my eyes and read something there that told her the truth. This was happening. The dead were climbing out of their graves around us.
Her fear broke into delight and she called to the cameraman. “Are you getting this, Carl?”
The trumpet solo ended and some of the dead clapped bony hands. Pete stared breathlessly at them. I picked up the melody he had dropped, guided more on instinct than any real thought.
“Keep playing,” Liz Claire shouted to us. “This is the story of a lifetime. Dead rising.”
Then suddenly Shadow-man Dan was back. He jumped right back onto the melody singing strong and sweet. Kelly and I joined on the harmony. Our voices rose over the swampy cemetery, cooling air, harmonizing with the breeze.
“Dancin’ bones, Dancin’ Bones. How’d you come to be dancin’ alone?”
Two of the skeletons pulled entirely free from the ground and danced. Of course, they did. Why the hell not?
Two became four. Four because eight. Eight became a crowd as every sunken rock surrendered its dead. The bones clattered in the breezes, jaws wagging, fingers snapping, knees and tail-bones jigging one way, jagging the other. The muddy ground squelched under their feet and I breathed in air that smelled too much like the trash and booze from the main street and sent it back out to them in song.
“We’re seeing history.” Liz Clair trolled closer to the dead carrying her microphone like she expected them to talk to her. “This is real, folks. These are the dead and they are… dancing. Oh my God.”
She was legitimately crying, though I imagine it was less the miracle of the dancing dead and more the fact that she had just realized she’d never tell another story about a cat stuck up a tree. Liz Claire was the journalist who broke the story about the dead rising.
I don’t know how a native of New Orleans didn’t know the dead wanted blood. Maybe in her thirst for glory she forgot. I hear real journalists sometimes forget they are part of the story.
Finger bones sharpened from scrapping against coffin wood and stone gouged into her round cheeks. She screamed. We kept singing.
“Liz!” The cameraman, I guess his name was Carl, ran towards her to try to pry the skeleton away from her.
But another one’s claws were already at her throat, puncturing the soft tanned flesh. They did not strangle. They cut. They clawed. They gored.
The camera man’s blood flowed as fast as hers and when they had both fallen, the dead fell over them. They licked at the puddles of blood without tongues, bringing their faces close and wetting their bare white teeth.
Maybe we ought to have stopped playing. Maybe the sight of those two getting shredded and drained should have killed the song. But something bigger than us was at work. Something wouldn’t let us stop.
So we kept played.
And the dead didn’t bother us.
We moved on from Dancin’ Bones to older standards, to newer songs made old, to songs I hadn’t known I’d known and wouldn’t believe I’d played except that cameraman Carl’s footage kept rolling through the night.
It recorded the music, the slaughter, and the dancing bones. It recorded them dancing, swaying to the slow, rolling with the rock, jiving with the jazz. We kept on for ten hours without break, without sitting, without sleeping. It passed in a nightmare and when the sun rose, we played Morning Has Broken as a dirge.
The bones crawled back into the earth, sinking into their holes, under their stones.
And we finished the set.
Kelly shrugged and heaved a long sigh, as if pressing her soul out of her tiny body. Pete dropped to the ground and sat with his horn in the muck.
I stared dully at the corpses of Liz Claire and the cameraman. I didn’t know what else to do so I said, “let’s get breakfast guys.”
The band broke up after that.
Kelly went back North and joined a punk folk band in Portland, Oregon. Pete went back to Jersey, back to school, and became a chef in Philly.
I stuck it out New Orleans. It’s easy for a good bassist to step in and I figure it doesn’t matter how far I get from that cemetery. Every St. Joseph’s day, we all end up back there, standing on that tarp. Kelly shrugging over the keys. Me strumming on the bass. Pete with his horn around his neck which he swears he never touches anymore.
We’ve got a standing gig with the dead and Shadow-man Dan and his band never miss a chance to jam.