What you want most in life is to make music but all you’ve got in your repertoire is words. You want to make the hep-cats dance, but how? The heat of their high-stepping feet will turn your words to baby mush, even through Ella’s velvet tones or Billie’s cornet whisper.
You sit at your desk watching your cigarillo burn down in the cut-glass ashtray and tap at the typewriter with your crooked fingers. You can almost hear melody in the rise and fall of the clattering keys and even this wipes out your words like a felt brush on chalkboard. You might as well compose a sonnet to Sunlight soap.
The suits look in on you, nod you into the booth and play you a spool the scout recorded on the road.
“We need a lyric to this dance hall stomp,” they say.
You strain to hear the music as they jabber on. They need a little something folks can listen to on their living room RCA Victors and get just a little excited. Not enough to turn red-faced and slap it off. Just enough to make them look at the missus and remember why they married her.
“In the bag by Monday,” you say and pull the chain on your office light on your way out. You limp to where your Buick sits, in the faint shade of the one tree in the long, hot, asphalt lot and roll your shoulders, left, and then right before settling in behind the wheel.
You ride over to Torrance Street, where Sammie is standing on the sidewalk, a big straw basket hung on the crook of her arm. She rolls into the front seat beside you and settles in. You take the interstate south and then exit onto a two-lane blacktop that turns back on itself like a snake ready to spring.
Sooner than you’d think, you’re breathing in dust and the miasma of creosote as the Buick hops from one rut to another on the pot-holed road. The interstate is five miles and thirty years behind you. Sammie passes you a leg of fried chicken from the basket then nibbles it herself when you shake your head “no thank you”.
This road is made for carts and foot traffic, although as the red-gold sun drops behind the dry horizon it’s only you and Sammie and your big tan sedan a-travelling. The hep-cats and jivers know better than to walk by night. They’d sleep at the dance hall ’til dawn if they had to, the better not to meet Ol’ Nick at the crossroads like the vanished Robert Johnson had, so they say.
You look down at your ink-stained fingers and think about your own curse, hands too stiff to play any manner of piano or guitar, scarred lungs too shallow to fill any kind of horn. You think about stopping at the crossroads in the dark and waiting. But Sammie is jittery as a fly in her seat. She drank down two slick bottles of beer with her chicken supper, and she won’t squat at the side of the road, so you keep on driving.
The sky is purple and the air is almost cool when you pull over at the Junction. Belinda’s Roadhouse seems to sit on its heels, like an old auntie on her porch swing.
“Come on in,” the place seems to say, “wipe your shoes, but keep ‘em on.” And you walk together from the warm twilight into the dark.
Someone flicks a match into a lantern. Orange globes glow on the bar and on the rickety little tables scattered at the perimeter of the dance floor. There’s an electric murmur in the air as the musicians mill onto the bandstand. They look like they just wandered in off the street, then you hear the snap of the bandleader’s fingers and realize he’s bringing them in on time, first the saxes… no… the drummer has been there for a
while, tapping his sticks on the rim of the snares. Halfway through a bar, as you listen to the low sax intro, the horns arrive one by one and pick it up. Like a sleight of hand the band is here, the time is now.
You remember Sammie all of a sudden. Where did she get to? Then you forget her again.
A figure in peach chiffon moves in front of the band, her black hair pomaded and held with rhinestone combs in an up-do, red painted lips taking up space in a broad, coffee-colored face. She smiles into the microphone and the murmur moves onto the dance floor.
The Negro couples outnumber the whites three to one by your calculation. The white couples outdress the Negroes like Saks to Woolworths, but all of them can move. They bang elbows and buttocks as they fling their partners back and forth across the smooth worn planks. A girl in satin slips and falls on her bottom, takes the dark hand proffered to her and comes up jiving.
Sammie appears at your side with a jar in her hand. Her eyes dance and the boys on the floor look her over. You slip your heavy arm around her waist.
The horns stand and blow a ragged fanfare. A man your age, loose limbed as a doll, slides on his knees toward his partner, who catches him in her long, muscled arms.
Your fingers scrabble for the pen in your pocket as Sammie leans her chin on your shoulder, breathing bourbon and warm fog past your ear.
“Satin strings,” you scribble in your chicken scratch letters, then you cross it out and start again.
“Satin heart, you wear a satin heart, I see your satin heart, you wear it on your sleeve…”
Sammie slips away, into the crowd.
Your pulse throbs in your eye sockets, making pin-dots or commas join the jivers in your line of vision. You follow the edge of the bar with one hand until you reach the man taking orders. He pulls an open Crown Cola out of the ice chest and you slide a dollar bill across the damp counter. You make it outside still on your feet.
The air is sweet and dusty out in the lot, like the sweet syrup you tip down your throat. The night is empty and still. Only a sliver of moon winks between the leafy branches of an ancient tree that spread out over the roadhouse roof. Maybe you should do Sammie a favor and leave her here.
“You want those hands to dance the strings?”
You think the voice must be inside your head until the darkness moves a foot or two in front of you and a cold breeze kisses your burning eyes. His yellow teeth are neon in the velvet dark and he cradles the battered guitar in his arms like the body of a woman. He grunts an invitation and passes it over. You can feel its life vibrate, its steel strings sizzle against the pads of your fingertips. His yellow teeth eat you up, until you don’t quite know where you end and he begins. Your hands, his hands travel up and down the frets, slap the bridge and pinch the strings. You know the tag on this is going to be high and wonder if you already gave up the price to the suits back in Chicago. But the deal never does go down; he seems happy enough to open his mouth, your mouth, and holler to the wisp of moon.
“I’m goin’ bird-huntin’, set my snare in the hollow tree…but all I trap is shadows, my pretty bird won’t come to me…” It pours out of your throat and through your hands like a pounding tide, music and words all relating the same dark poetry of pain and love.
The orange glare of a brawl pours out the roadhouse doors and the music is gone. Your hands clutch your pen and notebook. Its pages are crisscrossed with chord charts and verses, printed out in a careful, impeccable hand. You feel the old fever filling up your chest and just make it to the Buick, haul open the driver’s door and slump across the seat.
Your forehead bumps up against something firm and warm and Sammie sits up and rubs her hip where you slammed up against her. She picks up your notebook where you dropped it in her lap and smooths out the curling pages. By the light of a match she reads what is written there. She links her long warm fingers, still a little slippery with chicken grease, with yours and you very nearly believe she will never let you go.