James David Cohn

He was done with the lottery. He had told himself this before, but this time he meant it. He had even told himself before, “This time I mean it.” But this time he meant it “for real,” as his granddaughter had liked to say in her early years. As long as he lived, as long as he continued to draw breath on this infuriatingly unjust third-rate-planet circling a second-rate star, he would never again buy a lottery ticket for the rest of his life until later tonight.

Same deal with the Baby Ruths, he thought.

There were so many things he was never going to do again.

“I’ll never go back to Georgia.” One of the first jazz records he ever bought was a Dizzy Gillespie album, the Carnegie Hall live concert arranged by Lalo Schifrin. Schifrin was already a name to him in these untutored jazz explorations of his, conducted at record stores with only guesswork and the liner notes to guide him. One of the tracks, Manteca, began with nothing more than a bump of the drums and a bass line as Gillespie sang the only lyric in the whole song, “I’ll never go back to Georgia,” and then the song rocketed off into something called “Afro-Cuban jazz” that was utterly novel to him with its competing elements of contrapuntal guajeos and be-bop overlaying a classic mambo bell pattern. Life wrote that co-writer Chano Pozo was a “frenzied drummer,” “shouting incoherently” in what Life called “bop transport.”

Did Diz ever go back to Georgia? The song was written in 1947 and Diz lived another 46 years. It seemed improbable to him that the master never returned to Georgia in all those years, it seemed likely that he had and if so, that he had played Manteca and included the signature pronouncement at the beginning as was his custom.

But maybe not. His explorations of the Internet in later years never resolved the matter, though he learned a lot about Diz that he hadn’t known back in 1969 when he bought the album: how Diz’s trumpet had gotten bent, creating a unique sight and sound; how Pozo was shot and killed in a Harlem bar a year after the 1947 recording; how the word manteca meant marijuana.

Never say “never.” He often said he would never marry again and he hoped to God it was true. In the great Lottery of Life as in so many gambles including marriage, there comes a time when one must collect one’s winnings and call it a life.

Perhaps, he thought, “never” was one of those words that could only be used in the service of truth if the tense was past, as in “I’ve never been to Georgia.” The future tense could never be true as long as one lived, as long as one continued to draw breath on this infuriatingly unjust third-rate-planet circling a second-rate star, because when it came to “never,” one never knew.

That the future was by definition a lie was something he had known for some while.

“I will never leave you.”

And because he lived so very much in the future tense, then exactly that very much of his life was a lie.

He had been intrigued to learn in grad school how some ancient languages had no subjunctive mood, which meant they had no way to express the idea of could, would, or should. He tried to absorb what this meant, knowing that if a people couldn’t express these things in language then they couldn’t think them, a whole universe of human life and discourse with no reference to what could have been, would have been, should have been. A life without regret, and a life also without hope: nothing could be, would be, or should be. Is it possible that people really thought and lived this way?


He adored grammar, the beauty of its structure and the linguistic explanations of its deviations from form. If you looked hard enough, there were often explanations for the “exceptions,” for these too had their own regularity. He adored the fact that the past tense was called “perfect,” a word that in grammar meant not free from flaw but completed and therefore complete. So too in philosophy: things were perfect not because they were meritorious but because they were exactly what they were, no more, no less. And how fitting, how perfect, that the future tense was called the imperfect.

His own future was imperfect, this he knew from both experiment and observation. This was an imperfection that he had perfected. This truth was accessible to all. Anyone could confirm the imperfection of the future simply by living it into the past, simply by not dying.

He had an upstairs neighbor who worked at a convenience store, a young man who began his shift at 4:00 a.m. He would hear this neighbor wake every morning a little before 4:00 or sometimes after because it was not unusual for him to run a little late. It was a happy coincidence that his own hours ran parallel, not because of work but because at his age it was hard to sleep much past 4:00 anyway.

He had, if the past were any indication, the perfect neighbor.

He knew his life was both perfect and imperfect, the unchangeable past and the unformed future. He suspected but could not know for certain that this was true for everyone. He could not be sure, he could never be sure, never.

Sometimes he caught glimpses that suggested that others thought and felt what he did, which made him feel marginally less crazy, made him feel that their hearts and minds were tuned to the same key, as when Joni sang, “He saw my complications / And he mirrored me back simplified / And we laughed how our perfection / Would always be denied.”

He longed for that simplification but he knew this was only possible in mathematics. The only time he had been able to simplify was when his grade-school teacher, Mrs. Kelly, had given the class fractions to work with. It was the only time in his life when he had been able to see the whole as well as the part before it was too late.

He wanted someone to mirror him back simplified or even just to mirror him back. But he also didn’t want that because he had managed to shatter all the mirrors in his perfect labyrinthine life and he’d had enough, never again.

In 1989, Dizzy Gillespie did a concert tour in Nigeria. During the trip he was awarded a chieftaincy. The Chief himself later described it as “a once in ten-lifetimes' occasion.”

Ten lifetimes, he thought. I too have had that many at least, and every last one of them was perfect.

© 2018 James David Cohn