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Where It Comes From, Where It Goes


by Todd Robert Petersen

Previously unpublished, this story appears in Petersen’s collection “Long After Dark” available from Zarahemla Books.

Six months ago I called John Medeski and told him I’d come across some pretty amazing players in Denver, and I was going to stay here with them until we hit big or busted. The guitarist was this crazy Mormon kid from Salt Lake, the bass player some unknown East Indian guy from Vancouver named Shumish. They needed a drummer. It was that simple.

Before I left Manhattan, Medeski told me that quitting New York would cripple my career. I told him I was getting pulled apart, music dragging me one way, the city another. I told him one side was going to lose, music most likely if I didn’t do something pretty quick. So I blew town and drove west, smoking cigars in cheap motels, trying to “grow up with the country,” et cetera.

I caught these guys playing in this little club to a crowd of eight. Their drummer had just gone to L.A. They played the gig without drums, and man, could they swing. I was spellbound. In a week I was renting an apartment, and by the end of the month we were gigging together, and the crowd had jumped to thirteen. I suppose settling down in Denver will keep me from being first rate, but first rate means nothing if all you want to do is eat the barrel of a shotgun.

The Mormon kid really freaks me out. He goes by Ammon—just Ammon, no last name. He’s tall and skinny, wears black pants and a white shirt buttoned to the neck. No tie. There’s nothing in his apartment but a few pillows, a tube amp, a pristine ES-295, and a refrigerator full of San Pellegrino and bean sprouts. There’s maybe a half-dozen books in the place; he doesn’t have a phone, doesn’t talk to anyone, really. The band calls him Harpo, which infuriates him, but he plays best when he’s a little bit angry.

The kid listens to horn players mostly—Sonny Rollins, Coltrane, Adderly. He’s going so many directions it’s hard to keep pace with him, but it keeps us honest. When the kid takes a solo, it’s like the notes have been stitched into his guts and then ripped back out. He’s so good I’ve seen guys in the audience hang their heads like they’re going to sulk home, set their axes on fire, and take up needle point. I’ve asked the kid about it, and he swears he doesn’t know where it comes from.

You know, I’ve met a few Mormons here and there, and I’ll tell you what—I don’t know either. Whatever it is he’s doing, he didn’t pick it up in Sunday school. Medeski said the kid sounds like he’s the kind of nuts that can teach you something.

The other day the kid and I were grabbing some lunch downtown. He was saying grace over avocado and sprouts on wheat. I’ve never seen a musician say grace in public—come to think of it, I’ve never seen anybody say grace in front of people like that. When he was done, I asked the kid if he had some kind of girlfriend—you know, just making small talk. He stared down at his sandwich and shook his head. He looked like he was about to say something, but he didn’t, not right away. I started to get really uncomfortable, and I apologized, but he waved me off. After another couple seconds, he swallowed and then looked up and said, “Mormon girls don’t like jazz. They’re not supposed to like things that aren’t uplifting.”

“Having ten kids is supposed to be uplifitng?” I said. I thought he would laugh at that, but he smiled, barely, and took another bite, poking the sprouts back into the bread.

“No,” he said, finally. “But if they don’t understand jazz, they won’t, you know . . .” He gestured the end of the sentence, which I immediately understood to mean that these girls from his church were never going to understand him. He looked around the joint, sighed, and then slumped a little in his seat and scratched his head. “It’s hard to get that point across, you know.”

Pages: 1 2

10 Responses to Where It Comes From, Where It Goes

  1. Steve Evans

    Wonderful stuff, Todd. Your writing had a great voice to it and some real grit. I enjoyed it immensely, even if at times I was wondering where it was going.

  2. amri

    Nice work Todd, I really like this idea.

    I don’t feel enough of why this boy is angry or crazy because Mormons girls don’t like jazz. I mean, who cares? So Mormon girls don’t like jazz or him. Cry me a river. Plus he eats avocado and sprout sandwiches. That may be the real reason girls don’t like him.

    I think you could make me care though. You could beef it up, explain why to him it’s devasting to not be loved by a Mormon girl (because he can’t go to the temple? because he get the eternity?) Make me feel his angst and hurt. Also you can establish more why Jazz isn’t uplifting and hence not likeable to Mormon girls.

    I like the taking care of the dead line a lot.

    I don’t like: It was that simple in the first paragraph. The etc in the 2nd. I think you use the kid to describe him too often. Use it for sure but add some other things too.

  3. annegb

    What I thought this conveyed so well is that sense of other-ness people who are not traditional Mormons feel. I feel this way a lot. I’m not a lonely person, I enjoy being alone. But being different can be hard. I feel this was very well done.

    Lines I liked: “God wants us to stick with people”–I’ve never heard it put that way before
    “the way I sat kaddish” although isn’t it “shiva?”

    There was a whole paragraph in page one where you describe how he plays and how he doesn’t know where it comes from, and that paragraph on page two “the kid was boiling.”

    I liked this.

  4. Marie Brian

    Ah, the conflicted heart of a Mormon artist. I loved this piece, and I loved “Sunday School” as well. Both stories are very beautiful. And sad ( in a good way).

  5. Todd Petersen

    These comments are pretty moving to me. I wrote this story when I was teaching in a summer fellowship at BYU, and I kept coming across kids who loved the gospel but felt like the culture didn’t give them a place to be. Some were so-cal punks; some were newly-baptized; many felt a little concerned that they weren’t going to find someone to marry, at least that they wouldn’t find someone who shared their passions.

    As a convert, I have felt that dread. When I wrote this story I was just starting to date the woman who would, in a few years, become my wife. I felt extremely lucky to have found someone who liked what I liked. She felt the same way about me.

    Our first date was to the library, our second was to see Medeski, Martin, and Wood (that’s why the shout out to John Medeski) in St. Louis, our third was to see a Picasso/Matisse exhibit in Ft. Worth, Texas. I knew I had to marry this woman when I was in the National Gallery looking at one of Cezane’s apple and peach stilllifes, and I thought to myself, “This would be more fun with Alisa.”

    All of these concerns collided when we saw this crazy jazz show in Provo. It was a kid named Josh Payne (their show was out of this world — and his drummer was in one of my classes). Their music was wonderful and dissonant and just plain crazy, and I found a vessel into which I could pour all this strange whirl of thinking.

    Good catch with the kaddish. Maybe it’s too much, but I wanted this narrator to be the kind of person who didn’t really have control or memory of his own traditions, so he confuses “sitting shiv’ah” with “saying kaddish.” Maybe that was too much thinking. That’s always possible.

    In any case, this is a cool forum.

  6. annegb

    Again, Todd, I think this was very well done. I totally related.

  7. liz

    i get it. this reminds me so much of rob. it is so hard for him to relate to church folks. in fact, i think you may be the only one he has ever truly felt comfortable with.

  8. j

    This was so beautifully written. Great voice. Touching.

  9. Stephen Carter

    From my self-absorbed point of view which has no claim on anybody here, especially since Todd has published far more than I have and actually has a job teaching writing, which I don’t, the way this story goes is: author introduces two characters really brilliantly, gives one the motivation to do something, and then, just as the story is about to start, it ends.

    Is that what you intended, Todd, or have you done something structurally that I just didn’t get?

  10. Todd Petersen

    I did a lot of these really short stories, or fictionettes, for my dissertation. I found that there are lots of modes in really brief fictions: parables, lyrical passages with no narrative at all, and monologues. This is one in the monologue mode.

    I didn’t take this to a conflict, development, and resolution model because I was thinking — this isn’t going to be resolved. This Ammon kid is going to go on being sad. I wanted the story to show that, to show that he’s just going to retreat and be sad for a long time until something happens, and this narrator isn’t going to be the one to see what happens.

    That said, there’s 300 miles between what I mean and what happened.

    I did try to brace people for way this would be when I gave the narrator the line, “there was nothing I could have said that he didn’t already know a hundred times over.” Maybe that’s a cop out.

    I’d be interested in hearing where Stephen or others think it could have gone. What’s next for Ammon and his buddy?