In a lush river basin where lazy currents form a crescent around the center of commerce, constant downpours subdue all life, and leave the populace to routinely trudge through blankets of stifling humidity. My city, my home, where year after year I return in search of my past.
Once I’ve settled with the cabbie, I gaze down the steamy streets of the projects in the direction of the Quarter, where small boys tap dance for coins to the sounds of jazz wafting from smoke-filled bistros and bawdy joints late into the night. This is where I grew up, where homeless people and drunks can lie undisturbed in the shadows of recessed doorways and alleyways. And street crack is sold like penny candy, and the value of life is often measured by the number of tricks turned before dawn.
Around this city, replete with beautiful edifices of varied faiths, a keen ear may sometimes hear twilight whispers of satanic rites and Voodoo rituals and witchcraft. And here children learn early that live chickens bought or bartered at outdoor markets are not all destined for restaurants or humble dinner tables, some are for queens who rule over true believers in the blue shadows of the evening.
On the sidewalk, blocking my path, a small boy with a big smile stares at my feet and says, “Mister, I bet you a dollar I can tell you where you got them shoes.”
I smile, scratch my head, and attempt to look puzzled, knowing well this game I played on tourists when I was a kid. Some would scoff and walk away, but others would play along in fun and unknowingly help support Momma and me.
“Well, I cannot imagine how you could know, so I’ll take that dollar bet.”
“You got ’em on your feet,” he says, grinning, and holds out his hand. I shake my head like I’ve been taken and hand him a dollar just as another urchin across the street shouts to my new colleague, “Darwin, that there be the horn man.”
He looks up at me wide-eyed, “Are you the horn man for real?”
“Yeah, Darwin, I suppose I am.”
He pauses to study the dollar in his hand, unsure of what to do next.
“But you can keep the money, my friend, you earned it.”
He squeals and in a flash he’s off to join his friend, his hand waving the currency about in the morning air.
No doubt Momma has told my story to every generation in the neighborhood, and anyone else who’d pause to listen. Here where shanty houses of prostitution once stood, a sprinkle of modest dwellings flank the projects, an area ruled by drug lords, pimps, and fire-and-brimstone preachers, take your pick.
Walking up the steps I see Miss Ruth on her front porch next door, looking my way.
“Mornin’, Miss Ruth, how’re you feelin’ this fine day?”
The old woman sits in her glider and continues to stare, mouth agape.
“It’s me, Miss Ruth, Josh. How’re you doin’?”
Still no response. Years ago with others at her feet and me in her lap, she’d weave just the best ghost stories the city had to offer. And she’d hold court with us any time she wasn’t busy. Miss Ruth is a seer, a palm reader, an astrologist, a tarot card reader, or anything else esoteric she can think of to draw in paying customers. And, in a sense, she does what everyone else around here does—whatever it takes to “make do,” as we say in our culture.
The screen door to Momma’s house is unlatched and the door wide open. When will she listen to me? It ain’t safe no more, Momma, I’ll say. But then, I’m just her son and her only child, and she’s set in her ways, no doubt about that.
“Momma, I’m home. It’s me, Josh.”
She’s in the kitchen, I know, where she stays except when visiting neighbors from the porch or reading the Good Book in her small bedroom.
“Josh, honey, come in here and give your Momma a big hug. Lord, what a fine sight you are for these old eyes.”
Momma looks the same, yet I see a bit more silver in her hair, a few new lines about her face, and hands that grip me tight but then quiver a bit, something new that disturbs me. She rises from her rocker beside the stove, opens a cabinet, and reaches for a bowl.
“Sit, eat, gumbo’s been on the stove awaitin’ for your arrival.” She turns and pinches my cheek. “My, my, all handsome and grown up and a big success.”
Though I’m not hungry and would prefer just to talk, I know this tact is futile. This is Momma’s table, Momma’s kitchen, and she’ll brook no sass or refusals from the likes of me. T’is something I love about her, and the primary reason I survived the streets here. And nobody makes gumbo like hers, a fact. Crusty French bread, butter, and hot sauce are beside a steaming bowl of rich, red aromas set before me.
“Momma, I spoke to Miss Ruth, and she stared at me, but never acknowledged my presence. Looked like she wanted to say something, but couldn’t.”
“Hmm, that’s not like Ruth. She speaks of you almost in reverent tones now. Can’t imagine what’s come over her. You sure she saw you?”
“Yes ‘am, spoke to her twice.”
“Lord help me, can’t imagine.”
A pause ensues as Momma studies my face just as she’d done every other trip I’ve made home. I taste the soup and make noises I know she expects to hear, and it’s from the heart, genuine.
“You gonna go see him?”
“Yes’m, plan to stop by there when I leave here.”
Always it’s the same, home first, then to pay homage to the man who, next to Momma, was most responsible for where I am now. Some were in school by choice, most by edicts from home, and most found ways to slip out to the streets. Mules, runners, shills, lures for hookers, anything for a buck…you name it. And he knew. Somehow he knew what every student under his purview at St. Katherine’s was doing. But he sensed something in me I’d yet to see. And no matter how I schemed, he showed up at every exit I tried, ignored every feint I’d learned and found a way to block or plead with me each time I attempted to descend into ruin.
Every year I pay him a visit and reminiscence over good times past and recall scars faded, almost forgotten, but remembered now with awe rather than pain. And today will be no different. I’ll go over there after attempting to refuse a second bowl of gumbo, realizing my pleas will be futile. And I’ll eat it all. Not that it isn’t good, it’s wonderful, but this is a ritual we follow, hallowed and full of expectation.
“Momma, I swear I’m gonna pop if I eat another spoonful.”
“Don’t swear, Josh, Lord don’t like that. Now finish up your gumbo.”
Same as always, a face of goodness stares me down.
* * * * *
Thomas Jefferson Lanier, an unlikely name for a wizard, much less a high school band leader and superb musician. But he was. All of these. And as I look down at his name and dates, it begins as always.
“Poppy, it’s good to be in your presence again.”
“You’re lookin’ mighty good, Josh.”
He’s not really speaking to me, I know. It’s my mind conjuring up what I think he’d say, or is it? Guess I’ll never really know.
“I’m playing at the Blue Note Thursdays through Saturdays now, the Village Vanguard on Sunday afternoons.”
“Told you you’d be there someday.”
“I know, Poppy, but it was always hard to imagine, still seems like some kind of dream.”
“No dream, Josh, you earned it, you belong there.”
“Well, I owe it all to you and Momma. You know I’ll never be able to…”
“No, I mean it. You taught me the trills, the runs, syncopation…said it’d be mechanical at first then flow—like floating down a lazy river, effortless. Just the nature of music, you said. Remember?”
“Uh, huh. And I told you it’d someday be in your soul. And it is, isn’t it?”
“Course it is, you know it is.”
And so it ends. Much like every year. Other than the song of a cardinal in a tree nearby and a fickle breeze in the afternoon sun, it’s quiet now.
Once I’d made the big time, he asked me to call him Poppy. Never said why. But I suspect it was because he was the closest I ever had to a father. Funny, some people said I favored him, but I could never see it.
The sun is bearing down and a taxi is waiting for me nearby so I turn up the path toward the street just as a voice interrupts the silence.
“Folks, I’m about to open a new world to you, unknown to most, but revered by the people of our city. Welcome to one of our cities of the dead, an experience I promise you’ll never forget.” A few yards from me in red shorts and a red billed cap is a local guide escorting tourists through one of our famous cemeteries. He looks up and sees me standing with my hands in my pockets.
“Folks, I’ve got a special treat for you today. Directly in front of us is Josh Whitmire, also known as the horn man around here, and one of America’s great trumpet players.” I hear soft oohs and ahs in the crowd, and I try to avert my eyes.
“Hello, Josh, good to see you. What brings you to our fine city today?”
“Hi, Sam. I’m visiting my mom and a few old friends.” I don’t mention why I’m in the cemetery…he knows.
“Well, don’t be a stranger, Josh.”
I try to ease around the crowd, but I’m stopped to autograph a few tourist guides. Back at the taxi I turn back and glance at Sam, a fellow I’ve known since childhood. Sammy was in my class and tried to play the trumpet, then the trombone, and the tuba. Music isn’t for everyone, Poppy said, you don’t choose music, it chooses you. So true. Sammy left high school, found a local sales job, and ended up deep into the sauce. After losing one job after another and wrecking two marriages, he finally woke up to his problem and found AA. Now he’s making a meager living doing this and that. Going straight as far as I know.
After brief stops downtown so I may honor Skitter, Hebert, and Redbone, jazz musicians who allowed me in neon joints to listen to them play even though they knew better. And Poppy knew where I was, too, but he never let on that he did. And out of nowhere he began encouraging me to play jazz and introduced me to the nuances that made this music come alive for me.
One last stop today before I return to Momma’s. Out on the boulevard the cabbie zips toward St. Katherine’s so I can call on the Sisters, and to recall the aura of their presence to a small boy, and to be reminded of ruler slaps to my palms and knuckles, a rite of passage for all youngsters who pass through here.
The faces I see are the same but older, and the eyes I see appear strangely sad. I ask Sister Beatrice if anything is wrong, but she attempts to shrug it off. Eerily, each one I encounter reflects some hesitation, something held back, but perhaps it’s my weariness from the morning flight from New York and the schedule I’ve created for myself today.
Sister Mary, the principal, will shoot straight with me, always does. But she’s absent and no one can or will tell me where she is or why she isn’t here. Perhaps the bishop has sent down a new edict they’re not happy about. It’s happened before, and it couldn’t be anything less, I tell myself.
On the way back to Momma’s, I see signs of the great storms that hit here five years past. Some folks, I recall, refused to leave and died here. Other left reluctantly, then later vowed never to return. Life can be like that, I guess. Some survive, some don’t. And some scars fade, others become nightmares that haunt us forever. I know. Perhaps there’s a delicate balance few ever understand or achieve.
Momma’s yard is full of people I know, friends and extended family. Can’t be a party, Momma’d never allow it. After paying the cabbie, I turn to find Momma’s brother, Don, eyeing me with a long face.
“What’s up Uncle Don?”
“Better come in the house, Josh.”
I follow him up the steps and the crowd around me becomes hushed. And I see Miss Ruth on her porch staring at me as before, her mouth open still.
Sister Mary is waiting for me in the front room, her hands now firmly on my shoulders, and before I can take a breath to speak, she says, “It’s your Momma, Josh. She’s gone.”
My heart sinks and my knees start to buckle, and I open my mouth, but nothing comes out.
“It was her heart, Josh, just gave out on her. Now, you must be strong, my child, you must.”
This cannot be. Momma was fine when I left this morning. My uncle puts his arm across my shoulder, and I turn toward him. “Who found her, Uncle Don?”
“Miss Ruth asked one of her visitors to use their cell phone to call the police.”
“How’d she know?”
“Can’t answer that one. The police spoke with her, but can make little sense of how she knew. No foul play discovered. She was sitting in her kitchen chair, her arms folded on her lap, her head bowed.”
My eyes are full and somehow I cannot look at anyone. Now I need to step outside for air, my breathing less than steady. How Miss Ruth could have known continues to carom about in my head. How on earth…Now my uncle is between me and the door.
“Can I take you anywhere, Josh?”
“No, I just need air. My hotel in the Quarter is not far, and I need the walk.”
“You want company?”
“No, but thanks. I just need to sort out a few things alone. You understand.”
“Sure, Josh. And, oh yes, prayer service for your Momma at seven at the church.”
“I’ll be there.”
A half-block away I hear the banter resume behind me, but t’is no matter, air and circulation are what I need, something to clear my head.
Crossing the boulevard into the Quarter I see a familiar scene. She’s accused of holding out money, and he’s not buying her story. She pleads and he shouts and maybe a slapping will follow even if she’s relinquished all the cash she’s made from her afternoon tricks. He’ll give her an ultimatum, and she’ll promise to do better no matter what. Little changes down here, souls trapped in routines from wrong turns in life neither can remember.
Tripping along on an uneven sidewalk I’m assailed by stale beer and dumpster smells that accumulate in this paved-over swale. A late night shower will wash this away, and tomorrow it’ll be back again.
Coming out of a beer joint just ahead I see a childhood pal I remember. He’s counting cash, his jaunty cap over his brow, oblivious to what’s around him now. Lenny discovered the numbers racket in the tenth grade and disappeared into the streets. And his momma had so many kids and so little cash, I suspect he was hardly missed. He’s still the skinny kid I recall, now taller, but not necessarily wiser. He scoots up the street toward his next drop, and sooner or later he’ll get caught and do time. But once out, he’ll be back at it, confessing that the money’s too good to walk away. And the machinery of that world will continue to spin, luring the unsuspecting down a one-way street.
Neon lights are coming on around me even though the sun is yet to set, and those who exist between twilight and dawn, including a few blessed by music will emerge to satisfy inborn ambitions and sometimes discover subtle variations within their art that will astonish their audiences as well as themselves, a nuance we secretly covet.
And soon, in the sanctuary of my small hotel room, I’ll allow my emotions to pour forth. Then in a clean shirt and tie, I’ll splash my face with water and descend to the lobby to hail a cab for the church, and begin my good-byes.
Odd, I spot a lone dandelion growing from a small crack in the sidewalk and bend to pick it. And pause to gaze at its perfect spherical structure, a host waiting for an errant breeze to launch its harbingers of new life. With a gentle puff I watch these airborne messengers intent in their mission, and realize few if any will find the path that seeks nurture and care, renews the cycle, and stirs all life toward those elements of perfection that fill our dreams.
Fred Miller, a retired Wall Street executive, grew up in Jackson, Mississippi, lived in Texas for a number of years, and now resides in Columbia, SC. His stories have appeared in Dew on The Kudzu, Muscadine Lines: A Southern Journal, Oxford Town, Puckerbrush Review, Skive Magazine [print], Static Movement, Troubadour 21, The Houston Literary Review, The Cynic Online Magazine, and Scarlett Rosebud. Short stories have also been accepted for publication this year by Cataraville and Front Porch Review.