Author's note: Written for The Clinic's Kickstarters Challenge, using the prompt: "Shut up and listen. I'm only saying this once."
Blame it on the Rolling Stones. It begins there. House sees that now, like they were some kind of gateway drug to something bigger. Something he never saw coming.
The Stones led to Robert Johnson and Robert Johnson to Son House and Son House to Muddy Waters.
During that spring break when he and Crandall drove through the day and through the night into the Mississippi Delta, House made him stop at Clarksdale, then at the crossroads where Johnson was rumored to stop. Crandall fell asleep stretched out on the back seat of his car, using House's duffle bag as a pillow.
House didn't believe the legend. He never expected to see the old black man from the story, the one who'd offer up a trade -- your soul for the skills that would make you famous. Still, he sat there in the red dirt and gravel at the edge of the road, his back against the fender, listening to the sounds of the night, turning his head each time he heard the screech of an owl, trying to catch a glimpse of its shape in the light of the nearly full moon.
The blues led him down the Delta and into New Orleans, where the it blended with ragtime to create jazz. And jazz relied more on piano than Johnson's version of the blues. House could play a decent guitar, but when he heard music in his head, it came from black and white keys.
He studied Jelly Roll Morton like he was one of his medical texts, trying to pull out every nuance from every note. One of the few things left from the purge after Stacy left was the CD she'd given him of the complete Lomax recordings of Jelly Roll.
He and Crandall had bounced in and out of bands for a few years. Even into med school House picked up spare cash playing at bars and filling in whenever someone needed a piano player. He knew he was good. Better than anyone else in the crap student bands playing around town.
After Von Leiberman, he'd headed north. He didn't believe in signs, but if Johns Hopkins didn't want him -- if medicine didn't want him -- he figured he didn't want it either.
The Jazz Messengers' annual open auditions were just beginning in New York and he joined the line.
He made the first cut, then the second.
The third time he played, Art Blakey called out to him.
"You in school?"
House almost said yes. "Not any more," he said. House looked down from the stage at Blakey in the audience, taking in the hunched back, picturing the old man when he was a young man, sitting behind the drums when he backed up men like Monk and Miles.
"Listen up," Blakey said. "I'm only saying this once. Go back to school. Go learn how to sell cars or whatever."
House took a step back, as if he was dodging a physical blow.
"You've got a few skills, I'll give you that," the man continued. "But you're not good enough. Not for this. I'm not trying to be mean, son, I'm just trying to save you years of poverty and heartache. I'm telling you the truth because maybe no one else ever has. Go back to school."
With that Blakey turned away from him and called out for the next musician to step up. House stood staring at Blakey for a moment longer, then walked off the stage.
The next week he found himself a spot at Michigan.
But he couldn't give up music. He tried. For six months he tried to set it aside. Tried to just listen, not play. But it was there, in his head, always -- notes circling through his skull, demanding release.
Early one morning after a long shift on the psych rotation he moved the boxes from where he'd stacked them in the corner of his room until he could reach his guitar case. He flipped it open and reached inside, tuned it up and wrapped his fingers around the neck -- index finger, middle finger and ring finger forming a G, then a D, then an A minor. Just a progression of chords at first, then stringing them together.
It was two hours before he looked up at the clock, the ends of his fingers sore, with dark grooves dug down deep into them from the dusty strings.
The next day he went to Herb's and picked up a new set of strings.
He'd replaced that guitar years ago with a better one, a used Fender. Once he settled down in Princeton, he used all his savings on the baby grand.
Whenever he is at the piano, everything seems to make more sense, as if Morrison's doors of perception are thrown open, and he briefly senses reality. Or maybe it's just that nothing else matters.
Days when he can't think, days when nothing seems to work, days when he's got a case that doesn't add up, he'll play and everything begins to flow. It is as if the notes lead the way out of the traffic jam in his mind, past the congestion of names and dates and places -- of symptoms and complications -- and into daylight. Suddenly everything seems clear.
It doesn't always work. He used to spread Esther's case notes out across the top of his piano while he played, hoping to find something new, something he'd never thought of before. But the only thing that ever came to his mind was that night on the side of the road in Mississippi, and wondering if he should have called down the devil to bargain his soul for better medical insight.
In the days after the infarction, when he was trapped in bed, too weak to go anywhere, too angry to even think about what Stacy had done, too scared to think about anything except whether he'd ever walk again, Wilson brought him a harmonica.
"I know it's against your nature, but try not to piss off the nurses," Wilson said when he handed it over.
He didn't play it for Wilson, just ran his fingers over the polished metal and wood.
That night, after Wilson left, after Stacy had gone home and when the nurses were at the far end of the floor, he put the harmonica up to his lips. He thought about Sonny Boy Williamson, tried to remember the harmonica breaks in "Jivin' the Blues" rather than the piano, and began to play.
His mother reminds him of Chopin's nocturnes -- emotion and poetry spread across the range of piano keys. His father is Sousa marches with an undercurrent of Wagner.
Wilson is Brubeck's West Coast jazz, the way it sounds all smooth and cool on the surface, but beneath it filled with twisted and complicated time signatures that leaves his fingers and thinking in knots.
House thinks of Brubeck when he hears the sound of his steps echoing off the empty hallways late at night. More than five years after the infarction, the rhythm still seems off to him -- one solid step, then the sound of his cane hitting the floor shortly before his right foot makes contact. The cane seems loud, harsh and foreign to his ears. He remembers Brubeck's syncopation, and how he claimed to develop it by the uneven loping of the horses on his father's ranch, of the bangs and thuds of machines.
All House can think is that his walk is not natural. The rhythm is off. It's not right. And yet Wilson somehow falls into step with him, adapting to it without even seeming to make an adjustment to his own natural stride.
House stands on his balcony and looks down at the people coming and going. There's the rushed walk of a nurse late for her shift, moving with a speed Joplin would have used. Simpson moves with a steady 4/4 beat, as sure of himself as every surgeon House has ever met.
He catches a glimpse of Cuddy on her way back from a business lunch. She somehow always manages to move in the 3/4 time of a waltz even in a business suit and while carrying a briefcase.
House hears the door open to his left, and Wilson steps outside.
"What's up?" Wilson is peeling an orange, trying to look casual, but there's a slight worried tone to his voice.
House glances at him, then back at the parking lot. "Trying to figure out if Kevin Federline is the next Vanilla Ice or the next Eminem."
"Right." Wilson stops at the low wall that separates their balconies and leans against it. "And pondering the future of Mr. Britney Spears takes two hours."
"Why Jimmy, you're keeping closer track of my hours than Cuddy." House takes the few steps over toward Wilson. He takes a section of the orange. "Am I being stalked?" House pops the orange slice into his mouth and bites down.
"I've been doing paperwork, and saw you out here," Wilson says. "I had this sudden image pop into my head that you were plotting something."
"Would that be so bad? Spicing up this daily humdrum existence of ours?"
"You can do whatever you want. It's just that you somehow always manage to drag me into whatever you're up to."
"Again I ask, would that be so bad?"
Wilson looks up, shakes his head slightly. "Depends on what you're planning." He tears apart the remaining orange into two pieces and hands half to House. "It helps if I have time to clear my schedule."
"Your schedule and your conscience can remain untainted. No plans for world domination this weekend."
House turns back toward the parking lot. He spots a med student rushing between the cars, running and dodging as he makes his way to the building. Gene Krupa, he thinks. Big band swing and jive.
"Well in that case, you want to catch a game or something?"
House shrugs. Maybe it's time to pull some of the CDs from the back of the rack, give them a listen again.
"I'll cook," Wilson says.
House looks over at him. Wilson would get a kick out of Jelly Roll's Storeyville songs on the Lomax sessions. It might be fun to see which ones make him laugh, and which make him turn red.
"Sure," House says. "Do you know how to make gumbo?"