New York City – 1950
By the time Joe stepped into the automat that night, the only remaining band member was Doc Calhoun. Doc was a virtuoso on trumpet, a local legend, and the only Negro in the band. Joe took a seat across from him and helped himself to a partial slice of pumpkin pie. “You’re through with this, ain’tcha, Doc?”
“Shit, I am now,” Doc said, lighting a cigarette. “Actually, I was waiting for you so we could talk privately.”
Joe looked up. “About what?”
“The way you’ve been lookin’ at my wife.” Doc blew a mist of smoke into Joe’s face.
“Don’t get any ideas, boy.”
“Come on, Doc! I would never make a pass at your wife. I was just a little jealous of what you two have together.”
Doc groaned. “Damn. I forgot how naïve you are, Junior. You think everything’s a goddamn Frank Sinatra musical in glorious Technicolor.”
“Stop talkin’ to me like I’m some dumb kid!”
“Stop lying then. What is this fascination you have with my wife, man?”
Joe sighed. “Okay… You know my girl Elsie? Well, she told me she saw—needle marks on Pearl’s arms.”
Doc’s expression took a slow turn from anger to pain. “Look,” he said, “Pearl’s a real good woman.” He stared at Joe and slowly rubbed off the burning end of his cigarette with his bare fingertip, then dropped the butt in the ashtray. “Okay, boy. What I’m gonna tell you now is strictly between us. And goddammit, I mean strictly.”
Joe gazed at Doc’s scorched fingertip and felt a strong urge to run away. The curiosity had been rattled out of him, but he didn’t move. Lighting a new cigarette, Doc exhaled and stared into the smoke as if it were a vision of his past.
“Pearl…” He said her name in a low, sustained E-flat and then stopped, as if it hurt.
Finally: “Pearl was married to another cat before me—a musician name’a Melvin Fulsome. Her and Melvin were in this band together, and he hired me for the gig when their regular horn man quit. Damn. Ain’t thought about Melvin in a long time. Cat blew a hot sax, man, but he was a mainlinin’ dope fiend. And he’s the one that got Pearl hooked.”
Joe thought of something Doc had once told him: Stories, Junior. Jazz tells stories. Joe could almost hear the melody that went with this one. It was slow and blue, and Doc was about to solo…
“She was a real classy blues singer,” he said. “She couldn’t read music or play any instruments, but she had instinct, man. All that feeling… I could tell she’d been through some shit in her life just by the way she sang. That’s what I was tellin’ you before, Junior. About the difference between technique and feeling.”
Joe nodded quietly.
“Anyway, she already had my attention with her singing, and she was pretty easy on the eyes too. Maaan, you should’a seen her on that stage. She didn’t have much money or anything. Shit, none of us did. But she had this one black dress and a pair of stockings she washed out every night ’cause that’s all she had to wear onstage, and black high heels that looked so good on those long legs. But anyway… Melvin treated her pretty bad. She was just so young. Only about eighteen—and already usin’.”
“Well, how’d they split up?”
“I stopped by their apartment to drop off some charts one night, and Pearl opens the door with a shiner ’bout the size’a Melvin’s fist. I had a hard time keepin’ my cool, but I did. I just asked where Melvin was, she told me, and I said goodnight… Then I went to kill him.”
“So wait—you killed him?”
“Naw. Fucked him up pretty good, though. But eventually, Melvin O.D.’d, and Pearl was the one who found him. Needle hangin’ out his arm and rigor mortis—the typical ugly, sordid scene, man. But one good thing came out of it. It scared her off the needle—for a while.”
Joe shifted in his chair. “Listen, can I ask you sump’m?”
Doc grimaced. “Shit. Can I stop you?”
“Did you ever try it? The—the needle?”
“Rude question, but I’ll answer it. Yeah, I tried it. Long time before I met Pearl.”
“What was it like?”
“Another rude question, but it’s the same thing I wanted to know when I was young. I asked an expert—and I am not givin’ you his name, in case that was your next rude question. He told me how it liberated his playing and how heavenly it felt. And that he’d beat my ass if he ever caught me tryin’ it. So, of course, I tried it. But not for long.”
“Well, how’d you quit?”
“Weird experience, man. All I’d heard was how junk would take your playing to new heights. So I’d hit that needle right before going onstage, and go to revolutionizing the art form. Or I thought I was. Then one night I was playing ‘Body and Soul.’ I went for my solo and it was like suddenly there was nothin’ new to play. I just couldn’t feel it. It was like—death, man. So I stopped—cold kicked—and that’s the worst kind’a sick you ever want to be. I never touched it again.”
“But what about Pearl? Why’d she start up again?”
“My fault,” Doc said softly. “See, after we got married, we got a gig with this band—lot’a one-nighters, but we were together. She never complained. Fell asleep with her head on my shoulder and a smile on her face every night. Then she got pregnant with Edward, and she said she was ready to quit singing and be a Mama.”
Joe gazed at him and saw a searing pain that rarely showed in those enigmatic black eyes.
Doc murmured a seemingly incongruous word—Hartford—followed by a heavy sigh.
“After our second baby, Shay, was born, I hooked up with a bebop band. We were playin this dump outside Hartford, and it was my birthday. I got drunk and took this chick back to my room. Not something I normally did, but… Anyway, Pearl shows up at my door. She caught a bus to Hartford to surprise me with a goddamn birthday cake.”
“Shit! What did you do?”
“All I remember is Pearl pitching that birthday cake across the room like Satchell Paige and hittin’ that chick upside her head. Sounds funny, but it sure wasn’t funny when it was just me and Pearl left in the room. She crumpled down on that floor and cried like somebody’d just cut her heart out.”
“Then the day after we got back home her Mama died. Unexpected. Just dropped dead one day hangin’ up a line’a laundry. Which brings me to Ronnie, Pearl’s brother, and they were real close.” Doc gave Joe a long probing look. “He was a nice cat—and he was a homosexual.”
Joe showed his teeth in a grimace.
Doc sighed. “Come on, Junior! You have no idea how many homosexuals you get along just fine with. Musicians, relatives of the band— A lot of your favorite records were cut by those cats who you seem to have no use for.”
“You make it sound like there’s millions of ’em.”
The corners of Doc’s mouth twitched with amusement. “Never mind. Guess Ronnie was the only one. Anyway, Ronnie was real cool cat—in a philosophical sort of way. But he fell apart when their Mama died. Callin’ the house cryin’ all hours of the night, and I was pretty rough on him—told him to stop callin’ and we’d see him at the funeral.” Doc fell silent and rubbed the bridge of his nose. “If only I’d let him talk to Pearl that night.”
“Why? What happened?”
“He checked out, man… Razor blades with a whiskey chaser.”
Joe leaned back hard in his chair. “What?”
“Look, man. Ronnie was a Negro and a homosexual. Shit, that was two strikes against him. He was the loneliest person I ever met, but I have some good memories of him.” Doc smiled. “On the night my son was born, it was Ronnie who came by to celebrate with me. We stayed up all night gettin’ blasted on Thunderbird. And sump’m he said that night I never forgot—especially later on when he died like he did. He asked me—if I ever felt like a shadow.”
“What the hell’s that supposed to mean?”
“He told me that his whole life he felt like he was nothin’ but a shadow. Still keeps me up at night, Junior, thinking about Ronnie and all those folks who live like shadows…. Anyway, after I laid up with that tramp, Pearl loses her Mama, and her baby brother eats up a pack of goddamn razor blades. That was just too many nails in the cross.”
“Well, why can’t she quit again, like the first time?”
“Goddamn, Junior, hit the pedal. It damn near killed her that time.”
“But there must be some kind’a way. I mean, you quit. Can’t she try that—cold kick thing?”
“It’s a different grade, Junior. Real addictive.”
Joe stared at him. “Sorry I asked about Pearl,” he said softly.
“I guess you’re wonderin’ why I told you all that, huh? And that brings me back to my original subject, which would be you, Junior.”
Joe felt his heart thumping. Something was off, out of place. Then it hit him. Doc had told that long story without smoking a cigarette.
Doc leaned forward. “You aren’t white. Are you.”
It was a statement, not a question. It took Joe a moment to recover.
“You suck me in with that story and then ask me sump’m like that?”
“Aww, lounge, Junior,” Doc said, lighting a cigarette. “I ain’t blowin’ the whistle on you. And don’t worry. You look Caucasian, except a little shade around the eyes and nose—”
“What’s wrong with my eyes and nose?”
Doc laughed. “What’s wrong? See, now that’s sump’m colored folks’ll pick up on even if white folks don’t.”
“You got this all wrong, man.”
“Stop it, boy,” Doc said sharply. “I saw the look on your face when you first saw Harlem.
Oh, and that Robert Johnson slip was a dead giveaway, man.”
“What are you talkin’ about now?”
“‘Crossroads.’ That night at King’s you told me your Daddy loved that song.”
“You don’t know what I said. You and King were high as two kites on all that reefer.”
“I wasn’t as high as you thought I was, Junior. I remember exactly what you said.”
“So what if my Daddy liked that song? He—he used to go to these places—”
“Your white Daddy dug some gutbucket nigga blues and hung out in juke joints?”
“Why are you doing this to me? You planning on telling everybody this shit?”
“Stop lyin’, Junior! I’ve seen your type before. Bright faces and pretty-boy hair—can’t wait to cross that color line.”
“I don’t even know what you’re talking about!”
“Passing, Junior. I’m talkin’ about you passing. The oldest trick in the goddamn book and you ain’t even good at it! I bet you don’t even know why it’s called passing.”
“Passing under the radar! Passing for white! Which I’m not doing!”
“Wrong!” Doc shouted. “You can’t be that simple! It ain’t passin’ under some damn radar!
It’s passing away! You’re dying, man. You got a mother somewhere who’s probably worryin’ herself to the grave! Some families even have funerals for sorry cowards like you! Dyin’ just so they could be white. But you’re still stickin’ with that story, huh? Your family’s all dead?”
“I don’t know how to make you believe me. They’re all dead.”
Doc shook his head slowly. “No. It ain’t them that’s dead, Junior. It’s you.”
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About the Author
Walker Smith breathes life into long-buried Black history in an atmospheric, character-driven style. After the publication of her Harlem Renaissance epic titled The Color Line, she completed two additional novels, Bluestone Rondo and Letters from Rome. Mello Yello is the biographical result of a two-year collaboration with black music pioneer Jack the Rapper Gibson.
For more information visit www.walkersmithbooks.com