AND THE BASND PLAYED ON
He didn't know what they were doing to the cat. In fact he wasn't sure how many cats they were doing it to. From the sounds of it, the Jazzmasters and Courthouse Racketeers had rounded up every stray cat for a ten block radius and hooked them up to some strange torture device which caused them to screech in an unholy melody which masqueraded as music.
Long night after long night they played. Evidentially, the only song they knew which he guessed, though he wasn't sure, was 'When the Saints Go Marching In'. But if it that was that song, it wasn't a calling to a holy denizen to a heavenly retreat. It could only be a rallying song for when the fallen saint Lucifer called up his demonic forces to wreak havoc on the world by destroying mankind's ability to sleep.
He had tried reason, anger, sympathy, quoted the law, appealed to Hardcase's better nature (what a mistake that was), and even temporary surrender. But still they played. It was time to try something new. It was time to get allies.
The next day McCormick decided he would be a new man; a driven man with a mission. He would be a portrait of passivity at breakfast. He wouldn't smolder, seethe, or complain. He would accept his list of chores without a word of complaint. He would be polite to the unreasonable comments of the judge. Even to the point of giving non-binding grunts if Hardcastle would comment on the length of his hair or the cleanliness of the gatehouse. Thus lull the judge into a false sense of security. All in preparation for the moment when he would shut down the Jazzmasters and Racketeers for good and save Dixieland music from a slow fate worse than death. He grinned, even if this attempt would be unsuccessful, he would have the satisfaction of proving his maturity in the face of adversity.
"You're looking a little peeked there, McCormick," observed Hardcastle as they ate breakfast. "Burning both end of the candle, are ya?"
"No judge," answered McCormick, "I've just been having some trouble sleeping lately. Did you ever have a tune running through your head and no matter how hard you tried you couldn't get it out of your head."
"Okay so I'm complaining but only a little," he thought.
"That can happen with good music."
"But this isn't good music. I'm not even sure you could call it a tune, more like a herd of mating moose have hijacked a music truck and are crushing the instruments."
"Okay," thought McCormick, "a little sarcastic but mostly polite."
"Humph," said Hardcastle as he rustled his paper, "your problem is you don't know good music when you hear it."
"And your problem is you don't know bad music when you play it."
"Well, the band will be coming over here tonight."
"Again," exclaimed McCormick. "Don't they have lives or is their sole purpose in life to deafen the neighborhood."
"Okay, so I 'm complaining," he thought.
"Well they're coming over tonight and every night this week if need be. And I don't want a repeat of the police having to get called over here for your loud stereo."
"I wasn't the only one that got a ticket."
"And that was your fault too. You're lucky I didn't make you pay for it."
"I'm not even going to dignify that with an answer."
"Good because I got my eye on you."
"I wouldn't be worried about me. I'd be worried about Louis Armstrong."
"Yeah, because the way you play his music, he might come out of the grave for revenge."
"Okay, so maybe I'm not a total portrait of passivity," thought McCormick as he got up from the table and stormed out of the kitchen. "But God, that man can push my buttons."
McCormick decided that part one of his master plan would begin midmorning. He worked through his chores until he had an excuse to leave the estate and escape the watchful eye of the judge.
"Hey, boss man," yelled McCormick as he entered the house slamming the door.
"McCormick!" yelled Hardcastle as he came out of the den. "Do you have to make all of that noise when you come in?"
"I thought you liked noise."
"When did I ever say I liked noise?"
"Well if last night is anything to go by."
"That's not noise, its music."
"Not by any dictionary or music critic definition. Anyway, I'm going to town. Do you need anything other than what's on the list?"
"I might have to go to a few stores to pick all of this stuff up. Should I get something for lunch?"
"Nah, we can have sandwiches when you get back."
"Okay, see you later, boss man,"
"And don't slam the…" the rest of the judge's sentence was cut off by the reverberations of the door slamming shut.
"door," he finished. "God, that man can push my buttons," grumbled Hardcastle as he returned to the den.
McCormick went to the neighborhood hardware store and quickly made his purchases. After he had stored the items in the truck, he pulled out a clipboard with paper and approached his first potential ally.
"Hello, sir," McCormick said with a friendly smile. "I'm with the Neighborhood Betterment Society and I'm wondering if I can get you to sign this petition to address the recent high level of noise in the neighborhood. Specifically those neighbors that insist on playing loud music all night."
You got my support, buddy," the man said as he signed the paper. "If I have to hear that horrible caterwauling one more night, I'm going to go crazy. I don't know who in their right mind would mistake that for music."
"I agree, sir. Thank you for your support."
"and once you take care of that awful rock n' roll, maybe you can do something about that Dixieland band."
"Philistine," thought McCormick as watched the obviously tone deaf man walk away.
Within a few minutes, Mark had collected seven signatures of neighbors who were tired of the late night band practice. It was like that everywhere he went. Neighbors, his neighbors, were fed up with the noise and wanted it stopped. It gave him a real sense of community, except for the few that didn't seem to realize that the music of Iron Butterfly was a classic at any volume.
By the end of the shopping trip, he had collected about thirty-four signatures and the telephone number of a pretty co-ed whose study session had been disturbed by the 'Great Music Wars of Gull's Way'.
"Step one completed," thought McCormick. "Now to get some of the racket makers on my side."
That night, McCormick crouched silently behind the bushes; his black clothes blending perfectly with the night. He had waited for the practice before he stealthily snuck out to the bush and began his wait. It was a long wait. Finally his patience was finally rewarded when horrific din from the house halted as Hardcastle called for a break.
McCormick watched as one of the band members approached with his cigarette already in hand. He recognized the man as Harold Pritchard, a possible weak link. A chain smoker who frequently needed to take a break from band practice (that fact alone making him a great guy) to smoke and catch his breath. As Harold lit his cigarette, McCormick made his move.
"Harold," McCormick said in a loud whisper.
The result was almost comical. Harold started at the sound and dropped his cigarette to the ground. He looked nervously around then shrugged his shoulders as he pulled another cigarette from his pack and attempted to light it.
"Harold," McCormick repeated in a slightly louder voice.
"Mark," Harold said nervously as he tried to peer into the bushes. "Is that you?"
"Don't look," warned McCormick, "the judge might see us. Go sit on the bench. I'll be right behind you."
Harold laughed anxiously as he moved to the nearby stone bench. "What's going on?" he asked.
"Light your cigarette," instructed McCormick still crouched behind the bushes. "That way you'll look natural if anyone comes back here."
Harold lit the cigarette and tried to look nonchalant in this strange interlude. "What do you want?"
"You guys have been playing for nearly three hours, aren't you tired?"
"A little," admitted Harold.
"And it's just not tonight. It was last night, and tomorrow night and nearly every day after tomorrow."
"I know," sighed Harold. "Milt can be very driven at times."
"Don't I know it," agreed McCormick. "But it doesn't have to be that way. We can stop this. We can bring peace to the neighborhood and you guys can start spending a night a home."
"What? You mean break up the band."
"Yes!" Mark's voice rejoiced in his head.
"No," he said out loud. "But you and the others could tell Hardcastle that you want to cut back on the practice and confine to reasonable hours. I mean don't you have anything else you'd rather be doing?"
"Well, yes," admitted Harold. "But Henrietta…"
"My wife. She'd have my guts for garters if I wasn't ready for the rededication."
"The rededication of the Castle Peaks Park. Didn't Milt tell you about it?"
"No. What's so important about it?"
Harold's eyes got a far-away glow in them. "It was over fifteen years ago. Our wives, Mrs. Hardcastle was alive back then, decided we needed to have a local park; a place for the children, to walk and enjoy the flowers. They formed the Castle Peaks committee and worked hard to get the whole thing set up. It took them a few years but they finally did it. Nancy, that's Mrs. Hardcastle, oversaw the planting of the flowers. She always had a good eye for that. We husbands wanted to do something special so we surprised them by starting the band and played on opening day. They were so surprised and so happy. That was a wonderful day," he sighed.
"Let me guess," sighed McCormick, "you played 'When the Saints Go Marching In'".
"Yes, but that was a long time ago. We never really played much after that. When we heard that the city was planning a rededication, Milt wanted to start the band up again and play at the rededication. Henrietta says she's really looking forward to seeing me in my old band costume. I had to let a few inches out but she says I still look pretty good in it."
Stunned, McCormick rocked back on his heels. He hadn't been expecting anything sentimental. His conflicting emotions raged inside of him. He needed time to think.
"Harold," McCormick whispered pulling Harold away from his memories. "We never had this conversation, understand."
"Um, yes, but…" Harold peered once again in to the bush, his eyes adjusted to the darkness. He was stunned into silence as he got a good look at Hardcastle's gatehouse resident.
"I wonder of the camouflage paint was too much," wondered McCormick as he made his escape.
"Harold," Hardcastle yelled from the door of the den. "Finish up that cigarette and get back in here. Break's over. We got to keep at it if we want to get it right."
"Coming, Milt," answered Harold sensing that he was alone in the dark. "Strange, boy," he thought as he shook his head.
"No, no, no!" fumed Mark's mind. "I don't want to do the right thing! I want to be selfish. I want to get a good night sleep! I don't care why they're doing it. I don't care that a hundred years ago they played for their wives and family. I don't care if his wife planted all the flowers in the park by hand. I don't care if he's doing this for her. I just don't care."
His emotions drained out, McCormick dropped to the couch. "Damn it!" muttered McCormick, "I care. I got to do the right thing."
McCormick sat in the gatehouse with his head in his hands as the first few notes of the mangled version of the Dixieland tune floated through the air and invaded his ears. He had hoped that knowing why they insisted on the late night practice would make it easier to listen to. But no amount of sentimentality was ever going to change that into good music. If he wasn't going to try to stop it then he needed to find some, any, escape from it. His eyes lingered over the junk mail strewn on coffee table including a catalogue from the local community college.
It was a couple of days later when the door to the gatehouse was slammed open and Hardcastle stormed in.
"McCormick," Hardcastle shouted.
"I let a Judas into my home," Hardcastle fumed as he searched through the house, frustrated to discover the young man gone. "Okay, he's not really in my home. But he's a Judas all the same and he's in my gatehouse. Turning my neighbors against me. Okay, he didn't turn them against me; they were already a little annoyed about music. But to start up a petition against me."
Stopping to take an unsuccessful calming breath, he eyes lit on the desk. He remembered the day before he had seen McCormick shove some loose papers into the drawer.
"Aha, the evidence," Hardcastle thought as he yanked open the drawer and pulled out papers. But they weren't a list of neighbor's names instead it was class schedules and numbers.
"College? He's thinking about college. Probably some easy classes so he can meet girls." But instead the list included refresher English, and math. Hardcastle noted the considered classes were scheduled for the same time as his band practice. He couldn't understand why McCormick wouldn't have said anything about going to college. "Cause he thought you'd think he was only doing to meet girls or trying to scam some money or because he wanted some privacy."
Hardcastle didn't need a refresher math course to see that even cut to the bare bones, McCormick's budget fell slightly short of paying for the classes. As he widened his search, he found a couple of scholarship and loan applications wadded up and thrown in the trash. The words 'As If' written forcibly across them.
"Probably didn't think the school would help an ex-con with no credit," Hardcastle mused. He briefly noted the torn up petition lying towards the bottom of the trash, along with the notice of the rededication ceremony of the Castle Peaks Park. "I wonder how he found out. He didn't say anything." One thing he really appreciated about McCormick was his discretion. Once he told him something was off-limits, McCormick wouldn't pry or ask a bunch of stupid questions.
"Judge, are you in there?" McCormick yelled tentatively as he entered his home. It was true that the house and all of the land belonged to the judge, but he considered the gatehouse his home. As his landlord and parole officer, the judge could and did barge in whenever he wanted. It always made him feel uncomfortable; a reminder of his status. He knew it was silly because he barged into the main house all of the time. It just felt different when the judge did it to him.
Hardcastle had managed to sweep all of the papers back into the drawer and strike a casual pose as McCormick approached; his eyes looking for clues to the Hardcastle's mission.
"There you are, McCormick. I've been looking all over for you," Hardcastle said aware of the unease which filled the room and feeling a little guilty for nearly being caught snooping through personal papers.
"I've been out mowing the back forty. Did you need something?"
"Yes. It's time for your…employee review."
"My what?" asked McCormick amused. "Is there a checklist for how smooth the fertilizer is spread out or does this cover how well I duck a punch."
"It's a common business practice, wise guy. And I'd say your performance has been good. Not great but not bad. Anyway, it's good enough that you're getting a raise."
"A raise?" McCormick said as his eyebrow arched up skeptically. "As in more money?"
"Not a big raise," qualified Hardcastle, "but something to help with your expenses and stuff."
"How much?" McCormick asked.
"We can talk about that later. You've, also, been here long enough that that you've earned more free time. You don't have to tell me where you're going but I expect to know when you're going to be back and no overnights. I still expect a full day's work out of you when you're here."
"He knows," McCormick realized with sudden clarity. "I don't know how but he knows about school. But he won't force me to tell him." It would feel good to have a part of his life that would be his, and his alone.
"Sounds fair, boss man."
"Okay," said Hardcastle as he walked out and pleased at the changes he had seen in McCormick over the past few months.
"College would do him a world of good," the judge thought as he entered his home and reminisced of his own glory days of school. "I can't let him know that I know. I hope he'll go through with it. I wonder if I can get him to visit a campus so I show him how he could make something of himself."
As Hardcastle sat at the desk and reviewed the mail, he saw an invitation from his Alma Mata inviting him to give a guest lecture.
"Perfect," he thought.