Shenandoah The Washington and Lee University Review FALL 2000
Wim spit up more blood this morning… the second time this week. No big deal, he thought, just the gums. Occupational hazard. More lacerations of the self-taught, for him, the cornet. He had learned his horn by listening. The early recordings of the white bands out of New Orleans, the Original Dixieland Jazz Band and the Rhythm Kings, and the river boats that steamed up the Mississippi in summer blazing with music – Wim had first heard Armstrong and Joe Oliver at the landing at Prairie du Chien. By that time it was too late to unlearn his cockeyed way of fingering – too late to change things once you knew the how of them, Wim knew that for sure.
He swished water around in his mouth, tilted his head back, gargled vigorously, rising to a falsetto and spat in the sink. Pink. He thought of the night he had gone to the fights at the New Garden up on 125th Street. One of the fighters got tagged early and gushed blood into a bucket between each round. The more he rinsed, the worse he got. He was choking on himself and the referee finally stopped it.
Wim grinned at himself – the mirror’s silver backing was almost shot – wider, then hooked his top lip with his index finger. Gums looked healthy enough, pink, not inflamed. Except… there… some puffiness in back, blood filling in. He'd get it checked out. He hadn't had his teeth looked at since he played on the lake boats up in Wisconsin four summers ago. He'd ask one of the boys about a dentist. Doc, or maybe Eddie knew one. Eddie must, him always shooting that cocky look at the crowd, showing teeth, all the time grinning out with that smile that said, Don't you wish you could?... Don't you just wish? Eddie always was so easy about things. Wim envied that.
He rummaged around behind a mess of towels under the sink, found the blue bottle, Milk of Magnesia, unstuck the cork and took a pull. He swirled it from side to side, popping one cheek, then the other. Immediately the gin numbed his tongue. And it went down so easy now, so early, too. He thought of that long ago poem again... it had been in his head all week. How do you like to go up the air... no, wait. How do you like to go up in a swing, up in the air so blue – that's it, up in a swing – Oh I do think it the pleasantest thing ever a child can do. Yeah, and he took one more pull, feeling the fuzz come in behind his eyes. Yippy-doo.
Sunny summer mornings. His mother, the crackle-clean aroma of starch, her white dress, pleats like razors. Blue velvet bow. Enormous. Wim's eyes teared, reddened, the smell of alcohol rising to him. Jesus, it could make him gag if he thought about it. He fingered his chin. Clean shave, hand steady. He leaned closer to the mirror. Noted his eyes, the red meandering into the corners. A quavering in the lid of his… left, no right. He pressed the lid with a finger, harder now, released it. Still it trembled. One more yank at the blue bottle, this’ll be the last. Ah, better. He looked again in the mirror – the lid seemed steadier now. The clock on the bed table against the far wall: ten after twelve. Plenty of time. Ten after twelve? He turned around. Jesus! Two o'clock. Late again.
PHIL TILTON'S CHASERS were scheduled to meet in front of the Cinderella Ballroom on 48th Street just west of Broadway. At two PM sharp, said Phil, and he emphasized the sharp. The band played at the Cinderella three nights a week and the way they were going, they'd probably soon get the weekends as well. But today, a Saturday in late June, they were on the road to Orienta, a swanky beach club up in Mamaroneck. It was only about two hours away by car. A friend of Phil's, a bass sax player named Clarke, got the date. Clarke's old man was on the entertainment committee at the club and they needed a band for the opening dance of the summer. It would be a high-tone crowd, but Clarke, who came from dough, said that he was sure that they could handle some lowdown, gutbucket stuff. After all, his father owned records of King Oliver and the New Orleans Rhythm Kings.
Phil searched the crowd impatiently. Six of the boys had already arrived. They stowed their gear in the bus and were relaxing under the Cinderella's marquee, leaning in, smoking, skylarking. Phil paced the sidewalk next to the pea-green bus. A visor like a half-shut eyelid spanned the width of the windshield. The bus looked more like an elongated taxi. Low roofed, it had three doors that opened along each side, like the English passenger trains. The roof rack was crammed with valises. The driver, a pointy-chinned mick with a hooch-shattered nose, leaned against the front fender, stabbing a cigarette at his mouth. He fingered the rope tie-down, anxious to throw the tarp over the luggage and get going. Driving a band bus gave him the willies. Too much hooch.
“Gotcha tux? Make sure you gotcha tux?” Phil asked each of the boys as they approached the bus. “And the black shoes, too, gotta have all the glad rags. We're not dealing with the usual cheese tonight.”
Phil was concerned about the band's appearance. For good reason. It all started after they had played that prom date out at Princeton last year. Wim left his suitcase on the train, tux and all. Phil had to sit him behind the grand piano, out of sight except for face and horn. During one number, Blue River, a piece that required much solo work, Wim crawled along the wall behind the tables all the time blowing those soft broken chords that he loved to play to punctuate the melody. They were like quick left jabs setting up the bigger rhythm, the real punch, and Wim always made it sound so far away and sad. He was playing great that night – loaded, of course, but that never seemed to affect his music. When his solo came, he popped up from behind a table and stuck his cornet through the fronds of a potted palm. Well that did it! All along the dancers had been craning and gawking trying to figure where that sweet punctuation was coming from, so when he let loose through the branches, they all went nuts. It was grand. Phil loved it but he had a big “but” about it. We’re a band, he told them afterwards, we do music, not comedy.
PHIL SPIED EDDIE on the far side of Broadway, a block north. That leaves Wim, he thought, that always leaves Wim. Phil hoped that Wim bore some resemblance to a human this morning. That boy, he thought, there’s going to be a train wreck for that boy.
Stepping fine down Broadway, Eddie passed Lindy’s with its wheel of fresh cheesecake in the window and made a bold attempt to cross. He feinted straight ahead – brakes screeched. Then, limp-legging a taxi, he faded gracefully behind a trolley and emerged in the middle of the street. He saw the bus, noticed Phil giving him the come-on-hurry-up, and waved back.
“Okay, that about does it.” Phil gestured toward the lineup under the marquee and they clambered into the bus. As they stepped onto the running board, again he asked each of them the tuxedo question. Yes, yes, yes, they nodded, and slid across the double seats.
“Tux! Tux!” Eddie cawed from the middle of Broadway. He was familiar with Phil’s ritual.
They settled in. Three of them – Dan, Steve and Al – clarinet, piano, and drums – spread across the back, made pillows of their jackets and were promptly dozing.
Another taxi and another whizzed past Eddie. A streetcar stopped to pick up two young girls in white middie blouses. An interruption enough for him to trot across. He hopped the curb. “Dah!” he sang.
“Got ‘em Philly boy! Tops, bottoms and black shoes, too.”
“Suitcase up there.” Phil tossed his head skyward. “Everything else inside.”
Eddie pitched his suitcase topside, stepped over the running board and ducked inside. “Hey Doctor! What's cookin’?”
Doc Charles, C-melody sax, was reading the sports page of the New York Graphic. “Morning Eddie, you’re steppin’ well today. Very deft terpsichore wending your way across.”
“Indeed, Doctor Cee, indeed. How’s the practice?”
“Seeking perfection… as always, Edward.”
Charles was a University of Chicago grad with a year of medical school to boot. But his priorities got in the way. Playing his sax at Red Callahan's on Clark Street then heading out afterwards to listen to The Rhythm Kings jam at The Friars' Inn hadn’t left much time for bones-and-bugs. Besides, Chicago was too alive to waste time. So the medical texts lay on their shelves, spines uncracked. And while he said that he didn't know a vena cava from a buccinator muscle, he knew harmonics and phrasing and had a tone like syrup-and-butter. And he knew Wim was showing the signs of an early exit. And that troubled him greatly.
Eddie slid into one of the single seats, shoved his guitar underneath and opened a satchel the size of a doctor’s bag. “Medication anyone?” He removed a Mason jar, unscrewed the lid and, eyes narrowed in circumspection, sniffed grandly.
“Ah, let’s see… vintage: yesterday. But bouquet: immense.” Eddie rolled his eyes in a broad burlesque making yum-yum with his tongue. “Has the quality of la petrole, I believe.”
Phil smiled, then remembered Princeton. Oh Jesus! “Not so soon, Eddie. We can’t be playing with a package tonight.”
“Just a nip for purposes of bon voyage.” Eddie handed the jar to Doc.
Doc inhaled across the jar mouth, wizening his face. “The preliminary essence of... anatomy lab.” He demurred and passed it over his shoulder. “Don't get any of this on your fingers, Stevie, or you've tickled your last tusk.”
WIM, A PAPER bag tucked securely under his arm, cornet inside, made the turn into 48th Street late, last. The legs of his unpressed pants ballooned at the knees, falling in a drape to tumble-down cuffs, scruffy and too long. His white shirt missed both the collar button and the one directly beneath it, the detachable collar hung to one side. The shirtfront was speckled, mostly pink, like the side of a rainbow trout. His smile was the thing though, and he was losing it. One time, not at all long ago, he had a kid's smile, crinkled, eager, open. Now his face was puffy, the eyes slits from the cigarette smoke, particularly dense in the late-night speaks. He was aware of none of this. His smile had an aftertaste, more accurately, an afterimage. It filled the air about him, like a cocoon, a life vanishing, a suffusion of worsening breath, the subtle redolence of alcohol. Twenty-five years old, in his way impossibly talented, smiling into oblivion. Doc knew. Phil suspected. Wim, nothing.
“Jesus Christ! You’re the cross of my young life.” Phil shook his head and looked at Wim disgustedly. “We’re supposed to be going way upscale tonight. Spence Clarke’s old man got us this date with the landed gentry and you look like a goddamn ditch digger.”
“Sorry, Phil, everything’s hanging right behind my door. I got a late start and rushing around and all...”
A collective groan, punctuated with a faint arpeggio of bird whistles, arose from inside the bus. Wim again. Downhill.
“Goddamn boy, you’ll be hanging behind your door someday...” Phil waved off his words, sighed. “Sorry...Okay, Wim. We’ll be here, go on back...”
Wim turned about hang-dog, shrugging at the boys in the bus.
“Wim! Wait!…Have a fresh collar home?”
Wim screwed up his face in slow reflection. “Gosh, I think so, Phil. I sent a bunch out last week.”
Means nothing, thought Phil, out could mean they went out with the garbage pail. “If you do, take one. And if you have a clean shirt, take that too.”
The driver shot Wim a look, shook his head, jerked the butt from his mouth and flicked it far out into the street, well beyond the trolley tracks.
“Make it back here in ten, Wim.”
“Gee, I'm sorry, Phil...” Again, he turned to leave.
“Wim.” Phil calmer now. “Leave your horn here.”
“Sure. Watch this for me, will you Eddie?”
Wim shoved the paper bag through the bus window. Then, turning, teetering only a bit, he strode back east. He hit rhythm halfway down the block.
“Look at him,” said Eddie, “he’s walking in time.”
Wim's right arm swung an arc that ended every stride with a sharp, finger-snapping pop. They couldn’t see his face, but they knew he was working his mouth. A deep down rhythm bubbling up... boh-boh-buh-doh...boh-boh-buh-doh.
“He lives in his head. His life’s one big head arrangement,” said Phil.
“It's all up there,” agreed Eddie, tapping his head with a fresh cigarette. He lit up. “But he needs to be out there, too.” He blew a coil of smoke through the open window. “Methinks our boy needs a woman, Phil, tragic as that might be.”
“Hmmph,” agreed Phil, convinced that Eddie, saved for now by his glibness, was heading down the same street. Why can’t they just play?
Phil already had one – make that two – women. His wife and three-year-old daughter lived in the Bronx on 144th Street, right off Third Avenue. A solid life. That? For Wim? Never.
The bus would go right past his house. Sure, he could have deputized someone to get the band on the bus but everything was such an adventure with these guys. Trips like this one, in particular. Just because they got on the bus, didn't mean they'd stay on. So his day began three hours earlier than it had to. These warm days were particularly iffy with the boys and through the windshield he could see Eddie Connor inside, already passing around his Mason jar with the juice.
But overall Phil was happy. And he had good reason, even though at times he felt that he had struck a bargain with Old Scratch. For the first time in his life he had a hot band. And The Chasers were cheap-pistol hot. It all started when Wim came in from Wisconsin two summers ago. He could play. It didn't matter whether he was behind a melody or rode out wild on his own solo. He just plain carried the band. Made everybody else better, too. They all knew it. Except for Wim. He just played. Sweet, oblivious Wim.
It helped that the world was jumping with dance. That kind of energy was perfect for The Chasers with their strong rhythm section, particularly Eddie’s guitar. He was a helluva stroker. And with Wim, they could ride out a song better than any group in the city. They’d go way down soft on a tune keeping all the instruments emphasizing all four beats instead of just the rhythm section. They’d build and build and build, and at the end break and travel out wild. It drove the crowd crazy to the point that they’d even stop dancing and just pack around the stage to try to see the sound, a pulsating drive that not even Fletcher Henderson over in Roseland could match. And with Wim leading, his cornet shooting sparks, well, they had gone from being the best white band in Manhattan to maybe being the best band, period. The Charleston crowd loved them and the dance floor at The Cinderella was a hazard of feet, knees and flying elbows. Jesus, it was a goddamn brawl! They'd take a song, even one that Fletcher himself wrote, like Goose Pimples, and bear down on the dancers so hard they’d shout out like a freight train was heading for them. And it was mostly because of the way Wim played, and the way Phil arranged. Phil, while he was only an ordinary bass sax player, was a great arranger. He had to be. Wim couldn't read a note.
Ah, Wim... playing in his head. Phil could see Wim bobbing down 48th Street, the swinging tempo arms, the punctuating fingers. When Phil drew up arrangements, he left the cornet part blank. He'd run the melody through just once on a piano so Wim could get the gist and notate it in his head. Never a lesson, in anything.
Not bad for a white boy, and, for Phil, a white band. Some said The Chasers were better than Henderson, even after Fletcher took on Armstrong. They said it didn't matter. Those that heard him said nobody, not even Louis, could blow like Wim. The problem was, they said, Wim was locked in a white-boy band playing music that was just too genteel. The black bands could play polite too. The “dicty” stuff they'd put out downtown was nothing like they played up in Harlem at Connie's Inn or the Savoy. And that was absolutely pale compared to what you could hear at Happy Rhone's up at 143rd Street near the river. The early colored players had started out in the red light houses or dime-a-dance rub joints where the low-down stuff was more than appreciated, it was demanded. They just passed it on. Osmosis, Doc called it. The white bands had a lot of college boys in them – that's the difference, or so they said.
Wim went with Phil and Doc to Rhone’s one night and sat in with a couple of Fletcher's sidemen. Louis sat at a table in the corner grinning and tapping his finger on the rim of his glass. Afterwards, he went up to Phil and with that big ivory smile, said, Your deah boy, he plays for real; he plays like a nigger from another planet.
Yeah, good old oblivious Wim. You couldn’t write down what he did. It was all just there, inside his head and then, suddenly, poof!, a breath, and there it was, out, all around.
By the time Wim returned, Eddie was noodling chords with his guitar. The back row was still asleep. Phil patted Wim on the shoulder as he swung into the bus. “Yes?”
Wim smiled. “Yes,” he said.
AND OFF THEY went, directly up Broadway, past the mansarded Beaux-Arts buildings of the west seventies, then farther up, along the rows of brownstones, the side streets with the tucked-away downstairs joints that served up bootleg and after-hours jazz. They swung east on 110th, down the hill, and on the left, the enormous cathedral with the angel on the roof taking a chorus in the sun. “Look, Wim! Up there!” But Wim was on the wrong side of the bus.
They ran right along the top of Central Park, the gateway to the Uptown, the grand boulevards of Harlem, the merging tree-lined avenues – Lenox and Saint Nicholas – and all around the glints of harness brass, the brash traffic, here, there, the flash of white blouses, the cries of children, the passing ring of a horseshoe against a silver track.
Now a left onto Third Avenue and straight ahead, the bridge. The guy up at Orienta said to just stay on Third Avenue... it’ll take you all the way to Boston if you let it. Eddie sat in the outside seat across the aisle from Wim. He strummed chords in tempo with the speed of the bus. When the bus slowed, so did Eddie. Wim’s paper bag was under Eddie’s seat.
“You should work down at Biograph, Eddie.” Doc was reading a book, as usual. “Sennett needs a good sideman.”
“And give up all this? Why with the money we’ll be soon making, I’ll be nearly able to starve to death.”
They accelerated down the ramp of the Third Avenue Bridge. In front of them, the panorama of The Bronx. It was three o’clock and the day was still full of sun, the Harlem River shining like green ink.
“Dah!” sang Eddie, briskly fanning his guitar. “Welcome home, Philly!”
To the left spread the remains of the ironworks, once a hundred acres all along the river bank. Now factories, a solid front of commerce staring at Manhattan. Straight ahead, red brick tenements made ruddier yet by the reflections from the river. Ice cream parlors, butchers, and grocery stores lined Third Avenue. The streets were full here too. Buses, trolleys, lorries, horse-drawn carts, all of them swerved among the pedestrians. Traffic policemen made attempts, but on this bright June Saturday…hopeless.
There! Music! The air was full of it. Piano factories with their names painted on the brick walls: Pease, Waters, Newby, Evans. All of them nestled by the river at 138th Street.
“Music must be in the genes up here,” said Eddie, ‘I never saw so many piano companies.”
“These are just the holdouts,” said Phil. “The radio and the Victrola’ll bury these guys before too long. Do for them what the war and prohibition did to the beergardens.”
“Don’t be so downbeat, Phil.” Eddie picked out shave-and-a-haircut.
Phil shook his head solemnly. “Edward, when you were sitting in your favorite cornfield in Indiana tweaking those wires, the Bronx was the piano center of the country, maybe the world. Now...”
“Well it sure looks like a bustling place, right Wim?” said Eddie.
“My friend… my friend comes from here,” replied Wim. “We should come up sometime… see him fight.”
“What’s his name, Wim?” asked Phil.
“Tommy… aah…Muldoon.” Wim’s head bumped against the window.
“Tommy Muldoon!” said Phil, “he’s a helluva banger. My wife knows his grandmother, Julianna Kehl. She's a corker, that grandmother. A colleen like her running a junkyard. I can see where Muldoon gets it from. I don't think he’ll be doing much fighting in the clubs anymore. He's the real goods. It’ll be the Garden for him.”
“I’d like to see Tommy soon. He likes music. Says my playing reminds him of fighting.” Wim tapped his fingers on the seat back. “Not sure what he means… but…”
“Hey, this is my corner.” Phil hung out the window, trying to look through storefront windows. “No dice, she must be over at the park.”
At 147th Street, just before they reached The Hub and its confluence of trolley, bus and train, they heard a German oompah band. Four men – bass drum, tuba, trumpet and trombone. They wore black felt shakos, the brass crests tarnished orange, their red plumes bent and rat-tailed with wear, the red-striped trousers hanging well over their heels.
“Look Wim! Your guys are here!” cracked Eddie, “this could be your big break!”
They stood outside a pork store playing Let Me Call You Sweetheart. The tuba player splatted out the tempo, red-faced, monotonous.
“Look at that puffer!” Eddie strummed a driving four-beat rhythm, shaking his head in mock sympathy. “I thought the war finished off these guys.”
He stood up in the aisle swaying with the bus. “Gentlemen...” He doubled his tempo. “Observe the demise of a ... ahem!... fartform... too bad, tuba. Can’t keep up.” He ran his left hand all the way down to the sound hole, the right brushing the scale higher and higher. “Look Ma, no breath!”
A trolley clanged for right-of-way. The German band paahed its way into another chorus as the bus swerved over to the right.
“... I'm in love with you...” sang Dan and Al: two of the back seat boys had awakened. They hung out the open window, waggling imaginary boaters behind their heads, showing broad cheesy smiles. A woman pushing a pram eyed the bus, dropped a coin into a cigar box on the sidewalk. The trombonist bobbed his plume in gratitude.
“Payday!” yelled Eddie, “it's more than we'll get up in Mackanacka.”
“Mamaroneck,” said Phil, then smiled. Every trip’s an adventure.
Wim coughed and brought up a oyster, tore off a page from a newspaper, and spit into a picture of Babe Ruth. Wadding it, he tucked it under his seat. Again he coughed, then, pressing back into the seat, breathed slowly, deeply, lips pursed as in an embouchure.
Eddie, suddenly serious, looked at him. “Get yourself checked out, Wim, you sound like you’re dying.” Then as quickly, winked, “we need a cornetist, not a harpist.”
JUST BEYOND WESTCHESTER Square they passed a horse-drawn coal wagon that had backed onto the sidewalk. The coal tumbled down a chute that was diagonaled into the basement of an apartment house. The horse, its head hooked dumbly into its feed bag, worked its mouth metronomically.
“Coal deliveries in June?” yelled Eddie. “How the hell far north are we?”
“Gather ye rosebuds while ye may.” Doc removed his spectacles, huffed on them and slowly rubbed them with his handkerchief.
“College boys!” sniffed Eddie. He looked at Wim, winked again, and handed him a Mason jar. “Here, try the potion.”
Wim took another pull on the jar, screwed the lid tight, then swallowed. His eyes disappeared in an exaggerated wince. He grabbed at his chest, right over his heart, bugged his eyes, smacked his lips, a slow smile coming on... “Damn that's good!”
He gave Eddie a thumbs-up, and his hand trembled. He rested his head on the seat back and closed his eyes, wondering for an instant if he could have gone to college… oh the pleasantest thing…
“Hear that? A testimonial from the cultured palate of Wim Wahner...Anybody hungry?” Eddie was now picking out the melody to Jazz Me Blues.
Heads sunk into seatbacks, lolled against shoulders, pressed the window glass. The bus slowed and Wim's head dipped, then sagged against the half-raised window. The glass felt cool against his forehead, the breeze fresh on his chin and his mouth opened to it. An empty jar chinked against the metal leg of a seat. Wim straightened. For an instant, he was alert. He looked across the aisle, blinked slowly at Eddie, then settled back into himself once again – ...up on a swing, up in the air so blue. The wheels of the bus strummed a dull, steady vibrato on the cobblestone road.
“We’ll wait until we get farther up, Eddie. We’ll stop at Adrian’s roadhouse.” Phil checked his watch… plenty of time.
Adrian owned the Rambler's Inn up on Pelham Parkway, about fifteen minutes away, right off the Post Road. Adrian's band, the California Ramblers, were the headliners there. He made good money from the swells coming down from Westchester. They'd motor down from coast towns like Rye or Larchmont. Big money folk tasting the new stuff without having to come all the way down to the city. It wasn't gutbucket music like downtown but The Ramblers could jump, particularly on Vo-Do-Do-De-O Blues and Clarinet Marmalade. But word was they were a little stiff, had too much formula in their music, or maybe college in their players. Yet it was the hottest spot in the Bronx, and the food was passable, the bootleg non-lethal.
OH I DO think it the pleasantest thing ever a...
Wim grabbed Eddie’s arm and gaped. His face glistened with sweat, the eyes, red, running with tears.
“Its okay, Wim, you’re just having a dream.”
He stared at Eddie, then all around the inside of the bus. “Where the hell am I?”
“We’re on the bus, heading for Mamaroneck, Wim. We got a date there tonight.”
“Relax, kid. We’ll soon be up on Pelham Parkway. And we’re gonna get something to eat at Adrian’s. You really have to stop with the juice, you know. Sorry, I…”
“I don't know...” Wim, in a dim scrutiny, trying to remember. “Eddie?... you're Eddie, right?”
“Of course, I’m Eddie. Who else would I be, kid?”
Wim opened the window wider. He leaned out and felt again the full breeze on his face. Eddie slid across the seat to him and put his hand on the blade of Wim’s shoulder.
“Relax, kid it’s okay. It’s me, Eddie.”
Five minutes later Wim had a slight nose bleed, both nostrils. Doc checked him. Nothing serious. It stopped almost right away.
BY THE TIME the bus reached Fordham Road everyone had to take a leak. It was only a little farther on to the Rambler's Inn.
“NOW!” they yelled.
“We have to be discrete,” reminded Phil.
Fordham Road is the dividing road of Bronx Park that keeps the animals from the Zoo away from the plants in the Botanical Gardens. “Figuratively speaking,” said Phil, “trying to change the subject.”
Beyond the park, the road turns into Pelham Parkway then runs east all the way to the water.
“Don't mention water!” they yelled.
By now the bus had turned east on Fordham Road and the crowds on the Zoo side of the street were enormous. June sunshine and animals, combined, they made for a big day in the Bronx. The Botanical Garden side was even less promising, the sidewalk filled with strollers and prams, women carrying parasols. No relief there either.
“Driver, play the rest of this trip accelerando!” yelled Eddie over the chorus of groans, “or your bus’ll be shipping water!”
And so they arrived in front of the Rambler's Inn in a swirling dust cloud that engulfed them as they poured out of the bus, the doors hanging open. Evacuation on the fly, a track meet, the sprint through the entrance portico, around the side of the building, past the parking lot behind the Inn, the band disappeared into the woods beyond, Phil shooing them into the weeds.
Except for Wim. He had wet himself in the bus. “Cover up, kid.” Eddie handed him his own jacket, then told him to wait for him, right there, then caught up with the rest. As if Wim were going somewhere.
THEY ATE HAM sandwiches, pig’s feet and tomatoes from the kitchen, drank cold beer from Adrian's bootleg stash. Wim took a bath and changed into his tuxedo trousers. No one said anything about it. Wim thought perhaps Eddie was the only one who noticed.
They only stayed long enough to eat their fill and incur the debt to sit in with The Ramblers if any of Adrian’s boys got sick and The Chasers had a night off. Not likely the way things were heading.
On the road once again, the air seemed lighter, the sun shone in a soft, more muted slant. There were gulls in the air and along the road, boating-supply shops for the yacht trade. But eyes closed and inhaling the breeze that poured through the right-side windows, they could tell they were near the water.
There, a sign: Larchmont. Are there larches in Larchmont, someone wondered. Larches? Never mind.
“Jesus, you guys, it's a tree,” murmured Doc.
THEY SAW ANOTHER sign at the foot of a gentle descent, just before the Mamaroneck harbor. Orienta Beach Club, and an arrow, a right turn, east, toward the water.
The harbor was blowing. Sailboats puffed full-sailed, the illusion of motion in their stillness. The water was brilliant, the glare intense. Beyond the boats, low, interfering Long Island lay in the middle distance. The bus turned onto a side road. Limbs of tall elms arched overhead, a tunnel of green shadows, brightly fractured here and there by blasts of sunlight. On to open land and tennis courts where men and women, long and billowing in their whites, swung with studied, rhythmic strokes. All around the aroma of grass, freshly mown.
Beyond the tennis courts lay the main house, its foundation and first floor of imposing brown stone. Two enormous chimneys, so large their flues split to encircle second floor windows, bracketed the porte cochere that shielded the massive front door. The first floor windows were of the casement style, filigreed by slender lead mullions that formed a series of concentric rectangles, lathings of colored glass: yellow, sienna, ochre, and in the middle, a crimson bull’s-eye. The windows, backlit by the reflected water from the Sound, shone as if an enormous topaz bracelet had wrapped about the mansion, its smoky yellow and brown veins bearing the slightest hint of tastefully placed rubies.
Jesus, Phil, someone said from the rear, now this is the real goods.
THEY PARKED THE bus at the far end of the parking lot and Phil went inside to see about the arrangements. Five minutes later, he returned. Everything’s set up, he said. We’ll be playing outside after dinner. We can change upstairs, a room has been provided. If we’d like, we can eat in an hour, before the regular dinner gets under way. We start playing at eight o’clock, sharp… and no more drinking!
THE FRENCH DOORS leading from the dining room stared directly onto Long Island Sound. They had been flung open as soon as the afternoon sun sunk behind the three tall Norfolk pines. The green sailcloth awning that shielded the dining room windows in the heat of the day was furled. Two rows of tables stretched across the flagstone verandah all the way to the sea wall. Two young men in denim shirts, sweat-splotched – they spoke with brogues and lugged unwieldy wooden squares, some dark, some light, to then set them in an alternating parquetry. A third man, older, turned a screwdriver and secured them, one to the other, and that was the dance floor. The sea wall fell to a cove of gently lapping water. There, mergansers swam. Along the top of the wall, rectangular planters were regularly spaced. Sprays of geraniums burst in the fading light, radiant crimson against the shimmer of the Sound. A raised plank stage abutted the wall. Next to it, the men had pushed an upright piano, a Pease, a Bronx piano, Phil later noted. Still-folded chairs sloped against the back of the piano, a few music stands nearby. Six-o'clock and all seemed in place, the air gentle with soft wet murmurs from below. Inside, beginnings, the clink and buzz of dinner.
The air held no music. The band had set up by seven and spent the next hour in a room upstairs changing clothes, assembling their instruments, themselves, and smoking. They finished off Eddie's medicine on the sly. Eddie slept in a Morris chair, head tipped back, mouth open like a nestling, snoring. The others sprawled, well-settled in divans. Any talk was easy, not the wisecrack chatter on the bus. Wim felt a little better, although his mouth was dry from the hooch and he was having trouble finding a good embouchure on his cornet. He sat on a folding chair by a window and noodled soft triplets with his horn, aiming it through his knees to the floor. He felt embarrassed by his accident, even though none of the boys had mentioned it. Before they went downstairs to play, he used the bathroom. There was a red stain in the seat of his fresh white shorts. Jesus, he wondered, what the heck’s up?
THE CROWD BEGAN to build at eight. Phil started them off on some polite stuff: Bright Eyes and Do You Ever Think of Me – just to make some noise and get their attention. Other chestnuts followed. The early dancers were enthusiastic – they had already heard of The Chasers and were excited to hear this city band. Ladies, sleek as sea lions, danced with serious measured step, the short dresses showing their well-turned knees. A few even wore cloches made of fine straw and trimmed with bright shocks of grosgrain. Their composed faces shone in the night, floating as soft as planets. There was the intermittent flash of thigh, a swoosh of silk, a pert chin invitingly cocked. The men, in perfect foil, wore blue blazers and ties of primary colors.
Phil called it digestible, settling-in music. Gradually he added some hotter syncopation. A sliver of light still lay across the sea wall. The geraniums had taken on deeper values – goya red, perhaps vermillion. They seemed set in caskets of brushed gold. Dusk was settling, too. The remaining light was well out on the water. On shore, the air held casts of sepia. It was that hour that convinced those who took time to notice that perhaps they might live forever. Quiet corners hinted at seduction. A few gulls floated off the crescent beach, bobbing in the gentle swell. To the right, halfway between the beach and the diving floats, a lone sea swallow dove for shiners. It hit the water like a stone, only to surface with a shuddering, practiced nonchalance. And beyond all this, across the water, the North Shore lay low, soaking in amber.
It grew darker and a breeze came in from the water and swept across the verandah and through the French doors. The tempo of the music increased. Hurricane lanterns, their yellow flames sinuous and beckoning, lit each table. By nine, the band had launched into a "sock-time" version of Fidgety Feet, the horns playing solidly into the rhythm rather than skimming along on top with the melody. Next, Oh Baby, with Wim playing the lead-in using a highball glass for a mute. Now there was a surge from the dining room and, outside, the parquet floor was suddenly full.
The band hit their stride with Royal Garden Blues and stretched it out even more with a rousing, I Need Some Pettin’. Wim hung back a bit on the former but shot darts on the last, ending it with a moaning, bluesy, hip-shaking rag that worked up the better of the baser instincts.
Come to me baby!
A silver bracelet, shaken and shimmying, glinted as it fell along a raised suntanned arm.
Men removed jackets.
“Okay folks,” Phil raised his arms in surrender. “Give us time to reload. Be back in twenty.”
More whistles, hands-over-head applause. The dance floor cleared. Eyes wide, the women repaired to the powder room, thighs and buttocks snug pressed against the short, hopeful dresses.
AT THE BREAK Wim did not go with the rest of them. Instead, he walked away from the dance floor toward the water. He followed a row of boulevard lamps along a path that led to a narrow pier. It jutted into the water and was lined with gracefully whorled wrought iron fencing. There was a covered pavilion at the far end. Halfway across, a ramp lead away to a float with diving boards. The ramp was articulated and rose and fell with the tide. Now the tide was up and the wooden walkway was nearly level.
This reminded him of the lake. It had been grand playing at the Casino during those two summers. He remembered the pavilion, the bandstand facing the water, the smiles on the perspiring faces of the dancers, the smoky haze rippled by music. He saw again the blue and orange lights strung overhead. Not so long ago, really. Not so long.
He walked out to the end of the pier. It was much darker out there. He lit a Cubeb cigarette. Supposed to be medicinal, clear out the lungs but it was probably a stupid thing to do, with what’s coming up lately. My blowing’s still good, though. No problems.
The night sky was clear, the moon a waning crescent, and Wim could recognize some stars: Deneb, in the tail of the swan constellation, Cygnus, and bright Vega in Lyra, the harp. Wim felt a chill run at him from across the black water. A little astronomy was about all he remembered from high school. Wasted years, except for the music. Straight ahead he saw the red flash of a channel buoy. And beyond that, another wink, deeper, crimson this time. This one seemed far away – perhaps all the way over to Long Island – and it flashed at a slower tempo, a slow, fox trot tempo, he estimated. He flicked the butt of his cigarette into the water, thought, Jesus, I shouldn't have, Ah what-the-hell, and walked back to the bandstand.
PHIL CALLED THE number but Wim wasn't sure what it was. He picked the rhythm up right away and began to punctuate the gaps in the melody with soft chord progressions. When it was time for him to take his first chorus he blew the early lines clear, clean and full of light. When he felt the sadness bubble up, he grasped for it, and muted it with the glass. The empty glass was practically opaque – finger smudges, the inside fuzzy with pulp and the remnants of his increasingly ragged pink breath. Now he played with a sigh, the glass well up into the bell of the cornet, muffling the tone. His left hand manipulated the glass in fluid articulation and he cried out. The cornet seemed in conversation with itself. Then, with a waggle, he enunciated a blue note, bending it, making his horn moan long and sad and choking. So, so blue, oh, up in the air so blue, so the blue note bent. The inside of the cornet swirled vaguely, its reflection from the bottom of the glass appeared to him as a maelstrom. And with it came more sound, and with the sound came a faint red flash blinking from far away, over there, up there, perhaps as far away as Lyra. But now another sound rose from somewhere deep down, way beyond where he could ever hope to see. He embraced it with his lips, holding the note, then blowing it far off, up there, away. His oddly fingered valves dropped tones that, at the end, were captured by the glass, caroming back into the cornet’s bell, overflowing the flared end, spilling wave after ever shorter wave, growling low-down, moaning, fading... until, now at the end, mute.
The next morning, Wim spit up even more blood. The third time that week.