f i c t i o n  

l e o n c e   g a i t e r

 

“From Storyville, the voice of Billie Holiday. Good evening everyone, this is John McClellan, speaking to you from George Wein’s Storyville at the Copley Square Hotel in Boston. Tonight we bring you the songs of Lady Day — Billie Holiday, accompanied by Carl Drinkert at the piano, Jimmy Wood on bass, and Peter Lippman at the drums. As usual we try to bring you the artists who appear at Storyville at their natural, relaxed best. In fact, as much as possible, unaware of the broadcast in progress. So there’ll be no fancy introductions or fanfares, just music. Wherever you are with your radio, we hope you’ll imagine that you’ve just stepped into Storyville, you’ve been seated at a table, and now you’re ready to listen to Billie Holiday.”

I hadn’t seen her in a couple of years. I had heard nothing but trouble about her. I didn’t know she’d be playing here.

A spotlight shot down on a microphone, barely throwing light on the other musicians. The stage looked black and empty.

“...And now ladies and gentlemen,” the announcer said, “the very wonderful Lady Day, Miss Billie Holiday.”

I headed to the men’s room. I had already set up the colognes, the towels, the combs. I checked myself in the mirror, and saw what I expected. There were lines on my face from the drinking days and what hair was left was gray. I took my seat. The show had just started. Nobody’d be coming in here for a while. You had to give them time to get some liquor down. When someone good played, I propped the door open, just a bit, so I could listen.

The piano started out alone, some lonesome chords.“Away from the city that hurts and mocks...” I knew this one. She had always had a way with those first words. “I’m standing alone, by the desolate docks.” It was almost as if she spoke them, not really singing, just saying it. She sounded rougher now, but not bad. She’d sounded better a couple of years ago, but hell, I looked better a couple of years ago. I didn’t hear her complaining.

In those first few lines, she still had that girlish sound in her voice, like a little girl who had seen too much and done too much and still couldn’t figure out why so much of it turned out wrong. I wondered what kind of thoughts it took to make sounds like that. I’d done just about everything she had; and I was sitting in a toilet in George Wein’s Storyville. She was on the stage. I wanted to sneak out to see if she looked as bad as I had heard she did.

“In the still and the chill of the night.”

It was so offhand, but you got cold when she said it, like a wind was blowing with no one around. I guessed you had to be innocent, way deep down, to sound like that. Maybe that was it. I sure as hell wasn’t innocent. You had to do what came along, not even think if it was right or wrong. I had always known what I was doing. I had known it was good, or known it was no good; and I’d done it anyway. I had always known.

“I see the horizon

“The great unknown

“My heart has an ache

“It’s as heavy as stone

“Will the dawn comin’ on make it light?”

“Will the dawn comin’ on make it light?” I liked that one. You didn’t know if she was talking about her heart or the sky.

The door creaked open. If they came this early they were probably drunk, drunk enough to leak all over the floor. I’d have to wipe it up. I stood slowly, a bit stooped. I looked older like that. They liked me old. I got bigger tips that way.

“How you doin’, sir?” I said.

“Hm,” the man barely replied.

A lot of them wouldn’t talk, but this one looked mad, like he’d been dragged here. He wore a good suit, the kind you saw in windows but would never be able to buy — blue — bright, like the ones in the big, color movies. He wore fine shoes, too. His hair was a little gray, just enough to show. My gray made me look scraggly. Gray hair made this one look even richer.

The band had kicked in but the door was closed, so I couldn’t hear her sing. When he left I would listen some more.

The man left the stall still tucking himself in. Great big ol’ thing too, wavin’ it around like a whip. I stood ready with a clean white towel.

“Enjoyin’ the show, sir?” Great big white man. Stood about a half a foot taller than me.

The man looked at himself in the mirror as he washed his hands. He made faces, puffing out his cheeks, moving his lips around to look at his teeth, tilting his head back to see the chin. What was he looking for?

He finally noticed my face next to his in the mirror. He stopped making faces.

“Let’s just say,” the man finally answered, taking the towel I offered and drying his hands, “it’s not what I would have wanted to see.”

“Where are you?

“Have you forgotten?

“Will you return?

“You don’t like jazz music?”

“Some. Not this.”

“She’s almost a legend.”

“That’s what my wife says. She’s been reading about her. I say she just can’t sing anymore.”

“Had a hard life, I hear.”

“I’m not paying good money to hear her hard life.”

He handed back the towel, then dropped some change in the tip glass.

“Thank you, sir. Have a good evening.”

I put the towel in the hamper. Two quarters in the tip jar. Not bad. I walked into the stall. That man could have been wearing dollar bills, but his eyes were just too red. And yep, he had sprayed all over the place.

I wiped it up, went back to the sink, wiped it clean, wiped the splashed water drops from the shiny white tiles.

I put my prop back in the door and took a seat. I sat still to listen.

“I cover the waterfront

“I’m watching the sea...”

She sounded so different now. Two years ago she had been here. Just two years ago.

^^^^^^

Lester Young and Ben Webster, those guys were swing, mellow, like they had some hurt way deep down, but they didn’t think too much about it. It was just living to them. When I got back from the war, though, it had all changed.

Back in ‘41, a friend of mine in Chicago was glad they’d bombed Pearl Harbor. He thought black folks needed a war. “Good for the colored man,” he said. “If the whites’ve got to fight wid ‘im, can’t look down his nose if he wanna keep on livin’.” That sounded fine and dandy but I didn’t want to fight next to anyone. I didn’t want to fight, and I didn’t want to die.

I joined up though, right in ‘42. That was all anyone was doing. I had been working since I was 16, nothing big, no plans. The jobs just kept a roof over my head and food in my mouth. This, this war, fighting off the Germans and the Japs, I really thought it might get the whole world somewhere if it came out right. I figured the only way I’d get a piece of it, a piece of the good — when it was over — was if I joined up. Leaving wouldn’t matter. The only thing I’d miss would be the music. Me? No one would miss me.

^^^^^^

I was young and alone, working when I could, lining up for food in ‘30 like everyone else. I used to walk by this bright shiny club and saw all these fine colored folks going inside. Pretty women. I had never seen jewels before, but these women had them, and I knew they were real. I could just tell. The men’s hair was shiny as their shoes. Some drove up in big, long cars. I started hanging around, just to watch the shining people come and go, just to know that there were folks as pretty as all that.

The big, mean-looking man at the door kept me at a distance. One night he yelled, “Come here, boy.” I was scared, but I went. “There’s a man inside,” he said. “He’s right by the curtains in a white jacket and black bow tie. Go run this paper to him.”

I took the folded note and backed into the club, keeping an eye on the doorman, just in case. Once inside, I turned around and got struck blind by the lights. It was like a room full of Christmas trees. The music was loud. Musicians sat on the stage holding bright horns and big fiddles, and one man stood in a pool of light and played sounds so big and round and sweet you knew that if you tasted ‘em, you’d never go hungry again.

I just stood there and listened to that great big sound and saw all the shining lights and knew that this was as close to home as I would ever come. When the song ended, a yellow-skinned man in a big white suit walked up to the microphone and thanked Johnny Hodges on the saxophone.

I remembered the paper in my hand. I found the man in a bow tie. He looked at me funny, so I held the paper way out toward him to let him know I had a reason to be there. The man opened the paper and read it and then looked at me.

“You eat today?” the man asked.

I shook my head up and down. Then side to side. I was still hungry. I had stood in line that afternoon and got a little before they ran out, but I was still hungry.

“Go on straight back there. Lenny.” He called to a man passing by. “Tell Ellis to get this boy some food and then get him doin’ somethin’.”

They needed someone to bus tables and double up on the washing. That’s how I started back in 1930. All through the depression I worked that club — door, bouncer, waiter, maitre d’. Soon, those fine people treated me like I was one of them. The same ones came night after night. The place was like home and they treated me like family. Mostly we talked about the music — who was on the stand and how the sounds compared to the last time they came through — who had the sweetest horn or the most thumpin’ bass. Often, we just stood and listened. Duke Ellington played there. Count Basie came through. Art Tatum played the piano late one night and scooted over and taught me how to pluck a little tune. I had a drink with Louis Armstrong. Billie Holiday.

^^^^^^

Shipping out in 1942, there were all these guys with wives and kids, or mothers, fathers, sisters, cousins, dogs — all these folks crying and carrying on, seeing them off.

I wanted the music there. I wanted Lester out there and Duke and Cootie Williams in their fine suits with their shiny gold horns or at the piano, saying goodbye to me. That’s the way it should have been.

They shipped me off to the Pacific. I knew there would be real fighting. I had heard of soft duty where you clipped newspaper stories or stapled things all day. I knew this wasn’t one of those. Some of the guys I knew looked forward to it. They sounded like they wanted to kill something — anything. Others kept their mouths shut. That’s what I did.

I never would have imagined it. I didn’t know anyplace could be that green, or that thick, or wet, or hot. I had never seen someplace I didn’t belong to so much. There weren’t even paths to walk on. The dirt and the bugs owned the whole thing. The thick trees and bushes grew up from the ground and different ones hung down from the trees to meet them, so thick they were like green air that you couldn’t breathe.

It was so wet, everything gave off steam. The air was so thick you felt yourself moving through it, like you should push it aside to make the going easier. They told me in school about prehistoric times, and how all the animals and dinosaurs ruled the earth before any men set foot on it. They were here. There were things I had never seen before, bugs and such flying around that got in your mouth and your eyes, like they attacked you ‘cause they wanted you out, or just wanted to touch you and find out what you were.

I was wet from the day I set foot on that island until the day I left. You dripped sweat in your eyes and couldn’t see. Nothing ever dried. Everyone smelled. The clothes on you, your hair, sometimes even your skin, mildewed, the smell so bad it made you sick. But you couldn’t get away, not from yourself, not from your own flesh. The stench went with you everywhere.

Some of them almost killed each other before they ever saw a Japanese. Early on, two men got picked off by snipers, and everyone got scared, and tense. People barely spoke to each other. Mean fights broke out. They had been marching along, and one man just fell, like a puppet that had its strings cut. Then another. I hadn’t heard a thing. No gunshots. Nothing. Those men died.

After you watch a couple of folks die, you get scared. You think you know what’s going to happen. They tell you what will happen. You think you can imagine what it’s like, but you can’t. You don’t know what it’s like. To see a hole in a person, something just rip through his body like it was paper. You expect him to keep on walking, like he ripped a shirt or something. Then you see the blood, and if the hole’s big enough, you see what’s inside him start leaking out. Sometimes they just look surprised, like it didn’t even hurt. They look down at themselves like they were looking at someone elses’ blood and bones. Then it hits them, like they’re gasping for air all of a sudden.

I had seen some of them start screaming. Not screaming at anything or anyone, just sounds, screaming, so loud and so hard you didn’t think they would ever stop, like they would just stand there with blood pouring out of them, eyes as big as suns, screaming. When they get that bad, they don’t stop until some guys wrestle them to the ground and a medic shoots them full of something.

Some start running, leaking blood behind them like a hose, an arm half dangling off, running and running and you have to chase them down because they’d run until they just couldn’t run anymore, or until they died. And, like those first with the sniper, some just die. Quickly, looking like something blew up right inside them, tearing them apart and throwing little pieces all over.

When you’ve seen that, when you have gotten their blood on you, when you can still smell it or hear the screaming in your head even though it’s stopped, when you stumble on a body that blew up in that heat, like someone pumped air into it until it busted open, and you watch the plants and the bugs crawling all over it, eating it, living on it, then you get scared. When people get scared they act crazy. I saw men ready to kill each other over shoelaces. I thought some of them just went plumb crazy. Like the ones who climbed up on a pile of Jap bodies, all smelling up to high heaven in that heat, things already eating them to the bone. They crawled up on that pile and opened up the dead bodies’ mouths and used their knives to knock the gold fillings out. They cut off fingers to take gold rings, and I knew they’d just lost their minds.

I got scared, too. But I took the music with me. I’d sit there smelling myself and dripping sweat that wouldn’t dry, still as a stone and just as quiet, holding a gun in my hand that always seemed like it was just plopped there, like magic, one second ago it wasn’t there and now it was and I didn’t know what I was supposed to do with it. I sat there in that jungle with the music. “Creole Love Call,” Cootie Williams’ horn riding over all the brass, like a wily drunk walking on velvet, the beat in my head like Jimmy Blanton sat right there thumping it. I didn’t face guns I couldn’t see. If I walked through that tangle of green I would see a clearing with a bandstand and a full brass orchestra playing just for me, Duke Ellington in a white suit in front of it, his whole body bouncing up and down, his toe tapping to the music he coaxed out of them. That got me through a couple of months out there.

Over time, though, the music changed. There wasn’t the full band any more. It was just one. Ben Webster maybe, playing that big horn so pretty it made you sigh. Ben Webster out there like he was lost. Marching along, staring at some man’s sweat-stained back, I tried to bring the whole band back again. Only one or two made it. Duke for a minute, at the piano, but like a ghost, not all there. Then he would disappear.

Soon, the music stopped altogether. Some guys carried crosses around their necks. They rubbed them for luck. One guy had a baseball card in his pocket all the time. He almost killed some joker he thought had taken it. He died. Shrapnel got him. No one said it but they all thought it was because of the card. After that, no one told anyone else about their charms. They kept them secret. I felt safe because mine was in my head. No one could take that away. I never dreamt it would leave me — lost — like I dropped it somewhere in that jungle and couldn’t find it again.

When that stuff chewed through me I wished it was there. I wanted it more than I wanted the pain to go away. It wasn’t even pain any more, it hurt so bad. It was like my legs were on fire. I didn’t want to be like those others. I didn’t want to be a screamer, and I couldn’t be a runner. I wanted the music so I wouldn’t have to hear the ringing in my ears. I heard the blood rushing through my veins as clearly as water through a faucet. I didn’t want to hear the dirt and leaves and sticks crack underfoot as soldiers ran toward me. I couldn’t really hear their voices. It was just the little things I heard, the blood in my ears, and fatigues rustling, scissors cutting the cloth from me, the clanking and jangling of canteens and guns.

I passed out then, and had no dreams.

^^^^^^

Waking up, I didn’t open my eyes. They felt like they had been glued shut, like it would take all my strength to raise my eyelids. So I just lay there, staring at the nothing in my head. My hands tingled. I was lying down. I knew that. The last thing I remembered was walking in that jungle. Now I was lying down with my eyes shut. When I finally forced them open, I didn’t see much more than I had with them closed.

It was night, dark out. I saw little lights here and there. I was inside and I wasn’t hot. I wasn’t wet like I had been for months. It smelled clean here.

Light streamed from a doorway, and I knew I had to be in a hospital. I knew a nurse when I saw one. I hadn’t seen a woman in a long time, but I hadn’t forgotten what one looked like. And this was one, wearing a little white hat. She said something to me. I didn’t understand. I heard the words, sort of, but it was muddled. I could hear her, but it was as if she spoke the words backwards, and I had to make them straight again.

I was tired. I wanted to go to sleep and not sit here and figure out what this nurse was saying. That’s what I did. I closed my eyes and slept.

When I woke up again it was day. I remembered I was in a hospital. I moved my head without even thinking about it and saw a bunch of other beds to my right and left, and in front. Another nurse came up to me. It might have been the same one.

“Lie still,” she said, and felt my wrist and wrapped something around my arm. Later, I thought I should have asked why I was there, but I didn’t. I was just glad to be cool, and I knew I could sleep if I wanted to. No one would kill me if I slept.

A man came by and lifted up my eyelids and shone a light in my eyes. They pulled and tugged at me for a while and then they left me alone. I was glad. I didn’t want anyone bothering me. I wanted to lie still, like I was, like I was half-asleep and nothing could bother me. I breathed deeply, and closed my eyes.

Next time I woke up someone was poking at me. A nurse and a doctor stood over me, talking at me.

“We want you to swallow this.”

They put something in my mouth. One of them held my head up while they put a glass to my mouth. I drank the water, and felt some of it spill on my chin and neck. Then they laid my head back down.

“Are you hungry?” the man asked.

I just looked at him. Hunger never crossed my mind. I felt like all that was behind me, like I didn’t get hungry any more. All I did was lie here. I opened my mouth and it felt like it had been shut for a long time. I swallowed and licked my lips.

“No..,” I said.

“You should try to eat something,” the man said. “We’ll bring you some soup.”

“Where is this hospital?” I asked.

“Hawaii,” the nurse answered.

“How’d I get all the way here,” I said, not expecting an answer.

“How’s the leg feel?” the doctor asked.

I hadn’t thought about it since the pain stopped. I turned my attention down there for the first time. “Kinda tingles,” I answered.

“Just rest,” the doctor said. “We’ll bring you some soup.” He left. The nurse fluffed some pillows under my head.

“What am I in here for?” I looked right at her. She looked surprised. She stopped what she was doing. She was surprised for a minute and looked me in the eye. Then, as if she remembered she couldn’t do that, that it wasn’t allowed, she went on with what she was doing.

“They had to take your leg,” she said, still tucking in my sheets, not looking at me.

“You rest now,” she said, and walked away.

She had said “They had to take your leg.” Take it where? I could feel it down there. It was sort of numb like the rest of me, but I could feel it.

I smiled. “They had to take your leg,” she said.

“Well bring it back goddammit. I’ll have a hell of a time tryin’ to walk without it.” I smiled. I wondered how much of one I had left. I wondered what happened to it. I should have asked them what day it was and what had happened. It got shot off, or blown off, but I didn’t remember. That was good. It must have hurt like hell and I didn’t remember. I’d have a little less leg. Maybe it was a small price to pay for not remembering them blowing it off, or sawing it off in the middle of a jungle. I wondered if I screamed. Probably screamed my head off. I had never even broken a bone, not even a little finger. I had never been in the hospital, no operation, nothing. I had never had any real pain. I wondered what it felt like.

They worried about me at that hospital. They kept waiting for me to react, to cry or yell, because they had to “take my leg.” I never did. I never wanted to. They had me thinking I would. I even waited for it. I watched myself, just like they watched me. But it never happened. Even when I could sit up, and look down and see that the knee wasn’t there anymore, just a stump with bandages on it, it still didn’t hit me. The music had returned.

Lying there in that quiet room, like from a distance I heard “Diminuendo and Crescendo in Blue.” And ever since then, it had been there. I asked them for a radio but I had to be quiet in the ward. Most of the guys in there were missing something, arms or legs. A white boy near me always wanted to talk. He had the damndest way of talking when the music was just hitting its stride, when I could hear Duke’s little “Ha!” prodding the rhythm section and Harry Carney wailing. I ignored him.

“You always look like you’re thinkin’ about somethin.’ What you thinkin’?”

The boy couldn’t have been more than 18. They had cut off his arm. Not just his arm. They took most of the shoulder with it. It was like his neck went straight down into his side. “You thinkin’ about your girl or somethin’?”

He had this great big smile on his face, like some puppydog. If he had had a tail, it would have been wagging.

My first thought was, what the fuck business is it of yours? I looked at that great big grin and couldn’t say it.

“Music,” I said. “Thinkin’ about music.”

OH WOW!” he said. “I knew it was like that. What kind? What kinda music?”

“Jazz music.”

He pounded his fist on the bed and threw his head. This boy was crazy.

“I LOVE jazz,” he shouted. He started wiggling his feet to some beat in his head and thumping his hand on the pillow.

“Bix and Benny.”

Just like I’d thought. White guys. “No man. I’m talking Ellington, Billie Holiday, Art Tatum.”

“Yeah, I heard some o’ that. But Bix man...”

White folks cracked me up. They wanted everything. “You ain’t heard enough of it,” I told him. “I’ve heard things that’ll put your stuff to shame.”

“Like what!?” the boy said, like a challenge.

It was a simple question. I spent the next three years answering.

They let me get up pretty soon for physical therapy. It turned out this boy hadn’t cried for his arm either. Doctors had us both talk to other doctors about it, about missing something, about knowing you would never get it back. We knew all that. It didn’t matter. It was gone.

We got our hands on a radio, and listened. I hadn’t heard new sounds in quite a while. The music was harder, faster. We got in trouble for playing it loud. I made the boy listen to Billie sing, and Ella. Oh, what Ella could do. We listened to broadcasts of “Jazz at the Philharmonic.” Jazz at the Philharmonic. Wasn’t that something. At the Philharmonic! They played symphonies there. And now they played jazz.

I taught that boy to listen. Taught him to listen to every note, and then to listen again to hear everything the drummer did, and then the bass, and then what the background horns played. They had to teach the boy to use his left hand. He had always been right handed. He didn’t have much strength in his left hand. They taught him to move again since so much of him was missing. He was just a kid. He got mad, didn’t stick with things, didn’t have a lot of patience.

I told the boy to think about the music when he got mad. We heard Ben Webster’s horn on the radio. You couldn’t be mad when you heard Ben Webster’s horn. That helped a little. Crutches were nothing. Crutches were easy. I could dance on them pretty soon. The one thing I couldn’t get used to was looking at it. The other leg looked worse really. It was chewed up, full of scars. That didn’t bother me. But looking at that stump, feeling the scarred skin on it, smooth, like brown glass, that bothered me. I always kept it covered. I put something like a sock on it and only took it off when I had to, and then I never looked at it.

They treated us well, war wounded and all. They gave us money when it was time to go, and helped us find some jobs. Everyone just thought of me and the boy together now. He had gotten pretty good with his other hand. He had learned a lot from the music. He started moving differently. He didn’t talk so fast. It sunk in. The slow swing saxophone sunk in. He still got crazy when he wanted to; but there was something else now, that the music taught him, about not taking it all too hard. Knowing it was just living. Maybe he just got a few years older in a couple months; I don’t know.

Since we were always together, they asked us both where we wanted to live. The boy looked at me. I let him say it. You could see he was just busting to say it. “New York!” He yelled it. “New York! New York! NEW YORK!” He was bouncing up and down. When he was like that, he drained everything out of you. He was so excited, you just smiled a little. He took all your excitement and spread it around like you would never have dared. I didn’t mind, though. He did it for the both of us.

We got jobs in a factory outside Manhattan. We hit town, and put our stuff in a bus station locker. We didn’t even think about a place to stay. The first thing we did was check out some clubs. We got on the subway to Harlem and started hopping from club to club — one black man without a leg and a white one missing his arm and some of his side. We must have looked the pair.

We heard all kinds of stuff up there, not the clean stuff, like on the records, but real blowing, real blues, people yelling back up at the stage, urging the players on. The boy was right up there with them too, pumping his one arm up in the air, pounding it on the tables. We had good times.

We found ourselves a little apartment near the job site. The work wasn’t bad, in a shipping department, a lot of numbers and counts; things got lost or delayed, rush orders came in. I didn’t mind it.

The boy worked on the scheduling, but it wasn’t working out. He didn’t pay enough attention to it. He got all excited when someone complained or something didn’t go right, or someone asked for something special. He shouldn’t have been working with details and people.

He kept saying we should move to Manhattan and work in clubs. No club was going to hire us, though. One leg and one arm? People didn’t want to see that. They came to forget about all that.

I thought it might have been worth losing that leg for the one night in 1943. Carnegie Hall. I thought jazz at the Philharmonic was something. This was Duke Ellington at Carnegie Hall. I had been working a lot, not keeping up with what was going on, and by the time I knew, the show was sold out. Me and the boy went down there that night anyway. I told the girl at the window that we were veterans. I poured it on. We had lost our limbs, and all we wanted was to be inside there and hear Duke Ellington at Carnegie Hall. That would make it better.

She let us in. We had to stand, but she let us in. Didn’t charge us a dime either. And inside, there he was again, in that big suit, and all of the players sitting there, just like I had pictured them back in that foul jungle, only this time it was for real. I would finally hear the concert that disappeared when I had needed it so badly. It was as if all of this was just for me, so I could take the music back inside myself. Yes, I heard it again, it played in my head when I needed it, but it hadn’t been the same since before the war. Everything outside looked so different that the music didn’t sound the same. This would bring back the pretty people I saw in that bright, shiny club. The drinks with Louis Armstrong.

Duke played something called “Black, Brown and Beige,” and it was about colored people, about all different kinds of them and how they came here and how they lived. There was one part that Ben Webster played. I had never heard anything like it. God, what he played. It was so beautiful it hurt to hear it. The kind of hurt you want to remember. That day was like an end for me. I read a review in the paper the next morning and it made me think the writer had been somewhere else. The paper said it didn’t work, that it didn’t hold together, that Ellington should play dance tunes. It made me mad. It was as if they were talking about me, like they were saying bad things about something I had done. That music was all of me, and they were saying bad things about it.

I never heard that song again. Duke never played it. I listened for it, waited for a record, but it never came. I thought that song took all the music that had come before and rolled into one long, lovely thing. No one could do more with it. They didn’t understand.

^^^^^^

After about a year, they fired the boy. They finally got sick of him and didn’t care that he was a wounded veteran. He started working hotels, little dives. He moved out. He said it was easier if he lived at the places he worked in.

I still went to Manhattan with him on weekends. We heard different sounds now. The music seemed like nothing but notes, just sounds put together. Little blurps and blasts on a fast beat. The boy went crazy for that stuff. We hit a club on 42nd street. These guys played like they were crazy. They didn’t try to sound like voices at all. It wasn’t like Ben Webster singing a song. These guys wrote stuff you couldn’t figure. It didn’t have the sass anymore. It didn’t have the swing. It wasn’t stuff that taught you how to move and how to live. This was more like they had given up on all that. If it hadn’t worked, if all the swing and joy hadn’t kept people from getting their arms and legs blown off, well, so be it. They would just take things as they were. They would go from there and see what came next. Since I wasn’t too crazy about that music, the boy would go out by himself. We stopped seeing so much of each other. I didn’t know why. It just happened.

The boy started looking bad. He had dark circles under his eyes. He lost weight. There were stories that those Be-Bop musicians, that they all shot dope, that the dope made them play like that. I didn’t believe it. That stuff had always been around, and nobody played like that before. Folks who knew the boy brought back stories. They said he took a lot of stuff. I didn’t want to know about it. They said I should talk to him, straighten him out. I never did. It was none of my business. The boy was grown. He could do what he wanted.

We hadn’t seen each other in a couple of months when I got a call from the Army. It didn’t surprise me. It didn’t surprise me any more than when they said I didn’t have a leg. I took to wondering what would surprise me. I wanted to get mad, or sad or something but like the other times, I just couldn’t. It was just something else. It just happened.

It was just living.

The Army took care of the arrangements. They said the boy didn’t have any family. I didn’t know. We’d never talked about it. Mainly we talked about the music.

They buried him at Arlington National Cemetery. I didn’t go. I knew the Army would give it the works, even if no one was there. The guys in their uniforms with the shiny buttons and swords would stand at attention. They would parade. They’d put up a little white stone, with a little American flag next to it. I had seen it in pictures. That was all you could want.

In 1950, I got myself a fake leg. I didn’t even limp that much on it. Most people never knew about it. After I got the leg, I got more work in clubs. It was all different now. The music was different, and you didn’t have the regulars like you did before. You didn’t have the same people around you all the time. It wasn’t like it used to be.

First I moved from the door to waiting tables, but still, there were too many people, and I didn’t want to deal with all those people. I went back to the kitchen but I didn’t want to wash dishes all the time either. I had my benefits. I didn’t need much. I came up to Boston and took this job in George Wein’s Storyville.

^^^^^^

Two years ago she would have sung the song playfully. “Too Marvelous For Words.” All those words just tripped off her tongue back then and she made you smile. Now, she sounded old. That voice cracked and she seemed to have a hard time getting the words out. There was nothing playful left in her; she was just going through the motions. She only did a few songs. Right before one song she talked to the piano player. You could barely make it out. The words were drawled. She was probably messed up. You could hear a death rattle in her. And you know, she sounded like that was just fine with her. Like there was nothing left to live for anyhow.

^^^^^^

She died a couple of years later.

 

“I Cover the Waterfront” (Heyman, Green) 1933 Warner Bros. Inc.

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