By Justus E. Taylor
Copyright © 1990 by Justus E. Taylor
A young soldier awaiting a stateside transfer and discharge at the end of the Vietnam War, received
the last letter his deceased father had written to him. It included a copy of the following story.
It was frigid and snowy outside the "Z-Bop", the jazz club in New York's West Village, on a Friday night in December of 1945. The Percy Cummings quintet was on the tiny bandstand, caressing and entwining itself in "Little Girl Blue," one of the few ballads that the band featured because it gave Percy the opportunity to improvise delicate and multi-colored mosaics with his well-worn Selmer tenor sax. Smoke hung low and dense in the small room that accommodated fifty tables only because they were all dime-sized and squeezed intimately together. They left only three or four feet of walking space
between their high rounded-back chairs and the stand-up bar, which faced the bandstand from the back of the room. The waiters had to bend in half when serving the tables near the musicians because the spotlight came in from very gentle angles that were all the low ceiling would allow. Overwhelmingly
blue carpets and walls were quiet backdrops for the frequently notable bold stripes of the extra long jackets of many of the Be-Bop fans. The eyes of the men in the zoot suits were glazed over and almost hidden by hats with double-wide brims that sported brightly colored chicken feathers in each hat band.
The women, in showy dresses blessed the air with a delicious sweetness rising from their intermingled perfumes.
Percy's horn tickled and teased, made countless small journeys into melodies which were simultaneously strange and familiar; told little stories that lasted for only seven or eight notes, then flowed back into the theme which was so moving that many of the listeners involuntarily reached to embrace each other for reassurance.
Staff sergeant Charlie Everson and his buddy, Corporal Bob Mason, both discharged from the U.S.Army's First Division three months earlier, stood at the bar, each wishing at that moment that he had left a girl behind, back in 1943, when he was drafted into World War Two. They wore little gold colored lapel pins with an eagle intertwined with a circle, evidencing their military service, but already the pins' nickname of "ruptured duck" made them ambivalent about their being noticed. The pins seemed to be everywhere you looked, so the small special courtesies for veterans were fast disappearing. The music from the bandstand was fighting a war of attrition with the persistent images in their minds of friends being cut in half by machine gun fire from advancing German panzer armor in the early stages of the Battle of the Bulge. While listening they struggled heroically to find ways to force their anxieties to change to appropriate civilian costumes, such as where to find jobs, but the war did not easily relinquish center stage.
Percy Cumming's solo circled its way in with chromatic runs which clung to each other and then slowed and broadened into a final repeat of the bridge and last chorus of "Little Girl Blue," that closed with quietly sustained chords on the piano and a long tingling of the cymbals by the drummer 's wire brushes. "Thank you. Thank you," Percy's low pitched voice formed the undercurrent for the energetic applause of his fans as he bowed slightly while holding the tenor with the mouthpiece over his shoulder and his hand under the bell, tenderly. He addressed the audience in the confidence of his popularity.
"That was one of our favorites and we're glad all you frantic ones out there could dig it. We're gonna get a little hip now with another favorite that's real gone and takes us up-tempo; 'Out of Nowhere.'"
The drummer set up a frenetic four-four beat leading to a unison attack on the melody by Percy's tenor and the trumpet player. Charlie saw the standees at the bar begin to tap their toes and rock side to side in time. Several others kept time by snapping their fingers or drumming on the bar. At the tables, couples darted their heads and dipped their shoulders in rhythm, smiling at each other as the just right tempo resonated in the energy tides of their bodies. Suddenly the spell was threatened, then broken as one cat who was high leaped to his feet and began to writhe in front of the musicians, blocking the view of the audience. He battled his intoxicated muscles but still failed to keep time to the music. He accompanied himself with slurred screams of "gooo...go...gooo Daddy-O, you're cooking...with gas." His tightly pegged pants began to ride up from his ankles and stick on the lower part of his calf as he forlornly tried waist-high kicks of the jitterbug, spotlighting his "knobs" which extended several inches beyond the end of his big toe and were as highly polished as shoe leather ever aspired to be. His extra long gold key chain waved in the air as he moved, appearing to look for a way to trap one of his feet. His hat eventually tumbled to the floor and received one of his erratic stomps. The two ex-soldiers pictured the pest on the far ends of their gun sights and wished they could simply eliminate him.
The quintet continued playing in studied ignorance of the performing clown in front of them, so as not to let him break their rhythm. But Percy's fans knew that he had been knocked out of his groove because he was taking his ride with deftly moving fingers but with his eyes open. The audience stopped listening and began to loudly ask each other why somebody didn't throw that cat out. Percy was very relieved when finally he saw the hep-cat attempt a split but land so amateurishly as to traumatize his private parts and pass out cold on the floor. A smattering of applause rippled through the room as a bouncer bundled up the drunk and hurried him to a side door exit.
Sensing the breaking of the spell of the tune they were playing, the band wound down quickly and Percy immediately leaned toward the mike and advised. "How High The Moon," which then became a new up-tempo study in his Be-Bop improvisations. Charlie and Bob sipped their recently freshened drinks of bourbon and ginger ale and eased forward, directly behind the last row of tables, intent on losing their tensions in the quick flights, rhythmic punches and cool arcing entries and exits of Percy's tenor sax. But at the table directly in front of them two women persisted in a conversation that relentlessly intruded on their dreams.
"I'm telling you Rosetta, I made up my mind that I wasn't going to say anything to her for at least two or three weeks. Let her wait. So I just ignored her for awhile, let her figure it out. I don't trust people 'till they give me a reason to trust them. If I had said something right away she probably would have thought I didn't have thanksgiving recipes of my own. O.K., so she slipped this recipe booklet under my apartment door. So What? Her door is right next to mine. I'm no fool. I remember the woman who lived in that apartment before. I sent her a Christmas card one year and she never said a mumbling word about it 'till way into March sometime. I keep looking for a new place, because I'd surely like to move some place where I'd meet a better class of people."
Charlie and Bob had been eyeing the two chicks for some time, since they appeared to be alone, but they had been reluctant to risk approaching them since they were wearing their pre-service suits and looking definitely square. On the other hand, the two girls were dressed as if they had spent every dime they had earned in a war plant for the latest rayon dresses, coordinated with new hats and shoes. But the gabbing all during the time that Percy was wailing marked them as really square; two Mamas who couldn't get with it and be cool. So the two men backed away, to their places near the bar, angry that they had lost another chance to let their spirits be captured and carried away from all caring by Percy's music. They were mad at the women for crushing their fantasies without even knowing they had done it. They retaliated by picturing the women as some of the half-starved peasants who had lined the roads
of Europe, begging for C-rations. When the quintet also decided to take its break Charlie began to figure that it was going to be a ding-dong dump of a night, with no women no reefers, and no chance to dig the gonest music they had heard in more than two years.
Deciding that since the band was taking its break it was a good time to hook himself onto the line that always formed in front of the men's room, Charlie gave Bob the high sign and slipped through a doorway to the right of the bar. He descended a flight of stairs to a small vestibule that provided access to the male and female rest rooms, and also contained a wall pay phone. The lines for both conveniences were typically long, with the men being in greater trouble because the musicians were crowded into the men's room to share some reefers.
Dawdling on the end of the line, Charlie's attention was eventually captured by one side of a conversation being carried on by a sharply dressed cat cuddled up to the wall phone, seeking unavailable privacy for his thoughts. "You damn straight I did it to her," he bragged. "You know me, Daddy-O, if I get as far as riding home with a tender on the subway, you know I'm as good as in, Jim, can you dig it? And while we were doing it, she was saying she loved me and all that jive, saying that I just killed her like nobody she ever met before. But she couldn't jive me! I did my business as fast as I could and got my rags back on. I bet I wasn't in her pad more than twenty minutes altogether. And what really knocked me out, man, was that she had a ring on the dresser. You know I got it. I' m hip, don 't nothing get by me, nothing!"
Having gone from casual overhearing to intense eavesdropping, Charlie had found himself jumping salty by the middle of the story. His mind seized upon the remedy which had become so natural to him,when he could line up Germans in the sights of his Ml rifle and then release his frustration and hatred. But now he was empty handed and he had to push the old patriotic violence from his thoughts if he would ever adjust to being home again. Fortunately, the line moved at that instant, allowing him to leave the scene by entering the men's room.
When he had relieved himself and acquired a contact high in the process, from the thick marijuana smoke that dominated the toilet, he found the wall phone free and decided to, once again, try to wangle himself an invitation to his brother's apartment for Christmas dinner on the following Tuesday. He crossed his fingers that he wouldn't get his sister-in-law, Constance, on the phone, because he knew she'd even complain about cooking Christmas dinner for his brother, Jason, and the two children. He felt encouraged when Jason answered the phone, seeming to be in a good mood.
"Say, Ace, what's the word? Jason chuckled into Charlie's ear. "How's civilian life treating you so far?"
"About the same. Still trying to find a decent slave that'll pay enough for me to get off Uncle Sam's fifty-two-twenty. My room is O.K., most of the time that is, except when the Wino upstairs passes out and hits the floor. But I'm cool, what are you doing Christmas day?"
"Charlie, I'm tired of you bringing up the job and the apartment, like I owe you something. You dig? It wasn't my fault that I was younger than you, and Four-F. That hardware store clerking that I took over for you is no picnic! And if it hadn't been me it would have been some stranger. I know veterans are supposed to get their jobs back, but would you hurt my family like that? The boss knows that I'm much better at the job than you were anyway. And two years off couldn't have helped you any! Why don't you, just as easy, take up something else? You've got no responsibilities. You can go anywhere in the country to find work. I'm tied down with a wife and kids, in this tiny apartment Momma left when she died. You're lucky you have a furnished room instead of having to live with all this old crap she had for furniture."
"But I wasn't..." Land mines exploded inside Charlie's head, scattering soldiers' body parts in all directions. Jason cut him off and continued: "Charlie, the kids have been sick lately. I expect they won't be any better by next Tuesday. Why don't you pick something up in a restaurant., that way you can order anything you want, see?"
Charlie had the enemies in his sights again, so he held the phone away from his ear while Jason went on talking. He could feel the muscles tensing all over his body and his scalp temperature seemed to skyrocket, so he broke in on Jason to get himself off the line, "Say, Daddy, I've got to split the scene, you dig? Whatever you want, I'll straighten it for you. Bye!"
The upstairs lights were low again, with the spotlight on Percy Cummings who was riding a very fast Cummings original called "Bumpy Falls By", showing off his incredible fingering speed in between seemingly disjointed and surprising phrases crowded around snippets of melody. His devoted fans were bopping along with him; heads bobbed as if for tiny apples while others sat simply mesmerized by the gone sounds. Charlie was weaving through tables and standees, to find his way back to Bob, when he tripped over the feet of a woman seated at a table with two friends. He fell forward slightly and he was shocked to see the woman almost leap from her seat to help him regain his balance.
"I'm sorry Daddy, "she whispered into his ear, only loud enough to make herself heard above the music. Looking into her face, even in the dim light, Charlie could see that she was so fine that he found it unbelievable. He then instinctively checked whether his wallet was still where he had left it. "I'm cool Mamma, I'm cool," he whispered back, as he then squatted to chair height to avoid obstructing the view of the people behind him. She leaned forward again and further surprised him by offering," if you're alone you can sit with us." Charlie glanced quickly at her two companions, and seeing that they were also very attractive, was delighted to accept the offer.
"My Ace, over there at the bar, would like to come over too, if you Mammas can dig that," he immediately took the risk in favor of his buddy, hoping they'd agree so he wouldn't have to leave the table. "1'm Charlie and he's Bob."
"He's welcome too," they assured him.
As Bob joined the group the women introduced themselves as Faith, Felice and Amanda, while smiling congenially. Charlie, still vibrating between pleasure and suspicion, started to wonder if they had asked him and Bob to sit with them because they had run up a big tab and expected men to politely pick up the check..But glancing over the small table he realized that there was no check in view, so he concluded that the chicks had been paying for each round when it was served. To make certain that he played the manly role, even though his bread wasn't very long, he ordered a round of drinks for all five of them and settled back and enjoyed Percy's next several renditions, while hardly noticing the several
additional drinks he downed while enjoying his painless reverie.
"We have to be going," coming from the three chicks, it startled Charlie and caught his attention. As he looked around the three were already standing so he became immediately anxious about the amount of the check. Again scrutinizing the tiny table he was amazed to see the check with a pile of bills lying on top of it. Faith beamed at him and in a sincere tone gave him his greatest shock of the night when she said; "we can see you cats are wearing those ruptured ducks, welcome back to the main drag! The drinks are on us!"
Percy Cummings was skipping around in major and minor scales and dissecting surprising chords before slowing to a measured, deep and richly toned opening to "Lover Man" as Charlie watched the backs of the three women moving away through the crowd. He grasped his bourbon and ginger ale drink and leaned way back in his seat, taking a full breath of the air that the three ladies had perfumed. He was very grateful that he and Bob had just received a little help in surviving the killers, at home.
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