Authors: Charlotte Carter
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A Nanette Hayes Mystery
To the Bennys: Carter, Golson, and Green, whose songs I love but sometimes mislabel
And in memory of Robert Holkeboer
“Who said something bad about Charlie Rouse?” I demanded, my voice slow, bullying, vile. “Goddammit, I will kill a motherfucker who says something bad about Charlie Rouse!”
A silence fell in the room.
I yelled, knocking over several drinks. I stood with my hand on my hip. I know I must've looked ferocious, because a couple of women on the sectional sofa started clawing at the coat sleeves of their men.
“Uh â¦ Nan? I think we need to go home now.”
I looked at himâmy little dateâwith supreme scorn. “Your hands off me, yutz. You go home if you want. Ima have another drink.”
“You've had enough, Nan. Let's get your coat.” He sounded like Richard Pryor doing his uptight white guy accent.
I won't recount what I said to him then. It would make me too ashamed. Just know it was filthy and cruel and utterly uncalled for. I didn't know I had that kind of poison in me until I heard it rolling off my tongue.
That guy shrank away from me, gasping like a Sunday school teacher in a Storyville whorehouse. I had humiliated his ass in front of his friendsâwell, I'm guessing they were his friends. Maybe, even worse, they were his colleagues from work, whatever work he did. The truth is, I don't remember what he did for a living; I don't remember what he looked like, except that he was a tall black man who wore nice shoes; and I don't remember whose apartment we were in, because, see, I was drinking pretty heavily then, and had been for months.
And hey, as long as I'm being honest here? To say I was drinking “heavily” is kind of a laughable understatement. The fact is, I was drinking suicidally.
To his credit, my date, whoever he was, turned out not to be such a wimp after all. When my vile, party-killing monologue was over, I began to wend my way back to the table where a gorgeous young sister in dreadlocks and a white apron was serving the drinks. I never made it back there. Before I knew what was happening, my man had a hold of the neck of my shirt. I was thrown out of the front door so hard that I bounced off the back wall of the waiting elevator, landing on my butt. A split second later, my brown suede jacket came sailing in after me, looking for all the world like Rocky the flying squirrel.
I cussed all the way down to the lobby, where I stumbled past the tight-lipped doorman, who had undoubtedly watched the whole episode on his little security monitor.
It was a Saturday night. I remember that because of all the strolling couples. The ones I looked at with such hatred. The ones whose heads I wanted to saw off because they looked so fucking happy together.
How dare they be happy! How dare they! I wished I had my gun.
And a drink. I wished I had a drink, too.
I'm not trying to paint myself as a badass or anythingâthis stuff was nothing to brag about. I was out of control and I knew it.
It had started as a severe post-affair depression last spring, when I returned from Paris. It simmered and deepened over the ugly New York summer, during which I scratched out a living by dayâplaying my sax long hours on the street and picking up tutoring or translation jobs here and thereâand kept to myself at night. I sought the company of no one except for my best friends, Mr. Gin and Ms. Tonic. I kept the answering machine on all the time but rarely returned any calls. Too scattered to read, too listless to write, no hanging with friends, no men, only sporadic contact with my mom and my oldest friend Aubrey to let them know I was still alive.
The cooler weather meant a switch to bourbon. In the month of September I drank, if not a river of whiskey, then certainly a major tributary. I also acquired a weapon.
A neighbor of mine had been raped over the Labor Day weekend. The cops thought the guy was responsible for a string of attacks further uptown as well. In the grip of spiraling nihilism, I purchased an illegal piece, figuring that if he came after me, I'd be the last episode of his series, because I was going to cancel his ass. I fully realized the bastard just might take me with him. But if it came to thatâwell, so be it.
I knew a conga player, Patrice, from Haiti, who had kind of a thing for me. Lovely man, but we never quite got our riddims together, to use his words. He had a cousin who specialized in putting people together with the right weapon. Patrice and I made a night of it. He took me first to a Filipino meal on First Avenue; next, to a new club on Avenue A, where a group with a sensational tenor opened for a rising male singer; and last, working our way steadily east, into the bowels of a red brick building on Avenue D.
The cousin, whose name was never mentioned, was one scary fella. But when I emerged onto the street again, I was the proud owner of an only slightly used little Beretta, which, I was told, a former policewoman had traded for heroin. It fit neatly into my hand but was guaranteed to have the punch of a much meaner piece. And, as a bonus, seeing as how I was Patrice's bitch, I was fixed up with regular as well as hollow-point ammo.
Luckily for the both of us, they caught the rapist.
I was walking around in perpetual gloom or hostility or sourness, no gratitude for life and no taste for living. Nothing moved me. And I mean nothingânot the most beautiful tenor solo I heard on the radio, not the heavenly gold and flame that anointed the parks and gardens, not even a good hamburger. My impersonation of Lady Hardass went on. Tough Nan and her beat-up saxophone. She didn't like the way things were, but she bit down on the loneliness and took it like a man.
I had three or four lovers in October. But there I go again, understating. Four men in one month and you never see any of them againâthose are tricks, not lovers. And the drinking went on unabated, and the isolation, and the just feeling shitty and not knowing when, or if, the clouds would ever lift.
My friend Aubrey had not given up on me completely; of course not. But she was damned tired of my self-destructive nonsense. We spoke on the phone but seldom got together for dinner or going out to visit my motherâor anything. Things had not been right between us for months nowâever since my return from Paris and the affair that I was mourning. On the rare occasions when we did meet we just seemed to get on each other's nerves.
And so November rolled around. I was still depressed, and more evil than ever. What could I do? I knew my Lady Hardass act was sheer self-indulgence. But I hurt; I hurt so bad. And then, one night, I met this guy at a jazz clubâI think that's where I met himâand tried to take some solace in a fling with him.
Cut to: that jive party in that deluxe hi-rise building, that Saturday night when I went
over the top.
Understand, Mr. and Mrs. Hayes did not raise any heathen daughters, and as a person of some refinement, I was unaccustomed to being asked to leave people's homes, let alone being hauled out by the scruff of my neck and tossed into an elevator like I was a crate of lettuce that had gone bad.
Yet I knew I deserved what that guy did to meâand worse. I had behaved abominably.
I got out into the brisk November air, a hint of winter in the wind, and I saw those couples in their big sweaters strolling with their arms around each other. And laughingâthat's what really got to meâtheir sweet, exclusionary laughter. They were done with their little dinners in their little trattorias. They were coming home from the movies. Stopping off for fucking decaf espresso. Going to hear music somewhere where the lights were low. I wanted to kill somebody.
But of course that isn't what I wanted at all. Just the opposite. To be precise, I wanted Andre, the man I had found and then parted from in Paris.
I zipped up my jacket and crossed the street, hurrying up the block and out of the sight of the doorman, now regarding me as if I belonged in a zoo. I barely made it into the doorway of the shuttered cigar store before the dam burst. I broke down and began to sob helplessly. I cried in the way I'd been trying to cry for months, but somehow had not been able to. Mouth wide open, screaming almost, testifying. Snot on my chin. The whole nine yards. I cried so hard and so long that I gave myself a nosebleed.
Scenes like this were regular occurrences in the city: some poor soul, usually a woman, crying her heart out, publicly, past all embarrassment. The pain is almost tangible. You get a sharp, sudden pang of empathy in your throat. You want to cry too. You start hurting too. But you don't stop, you don't interfere, you keep walking. And now the poor soul was me; I was the one on display.
Nobody paid me any mind. New York, right?
At last the storm was over. I was exhausted. I was ravenous. And I was still very sad. But, oddly, I felt a whole lot better. I walked a couple of blocks north and found a no-name diner. While my BLT was being made, I went into the ladies' and cleaned myself up as best I could.
I polished off my sandwich in no time and had a stale cookie with my third cup of coffee. Lord, I thought, I
this is rock bottomâSaturday night, alone in a Greek coffee shop where the most attractive man in sight was gumming a roll that he kept dipping in his watery chicken soup, and me with bloody snot on my good coat and my face looking like a hot air balloon in the Macy's parade. I hope there's nowhere to go but up from here.
It was nearly 2
. when I left the diner. For a brief moment I thought of going back to the party to apologize for my behavior. I quickly scotched that idea. I just knew I didn't want to go home yet. The thought of walking into my empty apartment just then was unbearable. Besides, I owed apologies to somebody else.