Authors: Ace Atkins
Leavin’ Trunk Blues
A Nick Travers Novel
By Ace Atkins
Leavin’ Trunk Blues Digital Edition
Copyright 2011 by Ace Atkins
All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced or distributed in any form without permission.
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are either products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, businesses, companies, events or locales is entirely coincidental.
Cover design by Mark Francis.
For Ian Fleming and Muddy Waters
Well, there's a road that leads to glory, through a valley so far away.
Nobody else can walk it for you, all they can do is point the way.
—Sweet Black Angel, “Lonesome Blues Highway,” King Snake Records, 1957
To become aware of the possibility of the search is to be onto something. Not to be onto something is to be in despair.
So many roads. So many trains.
I stood on the station platform that July of '55 with my suitcase made of paper, and ambition burnin’ in my soul. As I waited for the City of New Orleans to billow black smoke into the eggshell blue sky of a Mississippi summer, I thought back on my past life. About being born the ninth child of a sharecropper in a windowless, clapboard shack outside Clarksdale. About my daddy leavin’ with a whore for Chicago when I was six and the disappointment in my mama’s face.
She was a stout black woman with hands like anvils who kept us all workin’. I rubbed the tips of my fingers together and could still feel the thorns of the cotton piercin’ my skin as the sun wrapped the Delta in a hellish halo. I could still hear the cicadas buzzin’ and boilin’ in the trees as the old fieldhands moaned and hollered to pass time. It was a steady hum of parched voices waitin for mercy and peace. We would leave the fields drained and soaked with sweat. Our muscles knotted in our fingers.
Before I’d cook a supper of salted ham and biscuits, I brought my sacks of cotton to the scale. Mr. Williams, a white man who wore black glasses shaped like cat eyes, would peek at the weight then back at me. Never spoke. Just spit. Then he would tell me to move on.
Yeah, move on.
We were all movin’ on at the time. There wasn’t a soul in the
Delta that didn’t know someone who was goin’ to Chicago. I guess my daddy just got bit by the bug early. Never did see him when I got there.
In Mississippi, everyone was talkin’ about jobs in the meatpackin’ factories and in the steel mills. Payin’ four times what we made in the fields. Course, the ones not replaced by machines only made ‘bout a dollar for every pound of cotton picked.
I knew I was leavin’. When I got old enough, I used to sneak out to juke houses on the weekends. Me and my girlfriends would stay out all night just hopin’ one of them mens would let us sing at Red’s juke. We used to have a time out there. I’d imagine I was Bessie Smith or Memphis Minnie.
I always knew I wanted to be known. Always knew I was born to be somethin’ more. That’s what Chicago was—a chance to become me. So the day after my nineteenth birthday, I stood on that platform, my thin yellow dress flappin’ round my legs, and heard the train whistle blow like a dronin’ harmonica.
It was the sweetest sound.
But Chicago wasn’t my answer. City life engulfed me like fire upon brittle paper.
Five years later, I was given a room in an Illinois state prison. They say I killed Billy Lyons. Some say for love. Others for money. But that wasn’t the truth. Truth is somethin’ I’ve seldom known in the last forty years. I am imitated, duplicated, and faded out of history. My music today is barely recognizable.
I am the blues.
Stagger Lee waited to kill Nick Travers where the old railroad tracks converge in a city of rust and rotting wood. The faded freight cars sat in coupled decay like still ramblers in a forgotten section of Chicago where brittle metal chains and warped springs littered the snowy ground below. In the moonlight, his breath crystallized before him as he gripped the handle of his blue steel .44.
There used to be a time when those old cars moved with hope and promise, he thought, filled with hungry people wanting to be part of it all. But that was before it fell apart, before their dreams drained into a world of shit.
In the distance, the blinking red lights above the skyscrapers pulsed like blood in his veins. Red hot and burning his mind. That hatred pumped through him like acid, making his muscles tight and jaw clench. Just like in the fifties when he was a pro wrestler in Memphis. Black Hercules, they called him. Six-foot-six, three hundred pounds. All man.
A cold wind ripped through the sliding door’s gaping hole but Stagger Lee didn’t try to stomp his feet or rub his hands together. The cold was nothing. A warning signal from the brain. Tonight, he wanted to keep quiet. He was on the hunt. Travers would tramp through the snow any minute and he’d take his ass out.
Stagger Lee felt the torn, bloody flesh at his side and smiled. He was about to give this man Travers a special present in return.
He wiped the red smears from his fingertips and adjusted his black leather trench coat.
Through the boxcar opening, Stagger Lee heard the zoom of cars over the Roosevelt Road bridge and the crunch of granite buried beneath someone’s feet. The steps and slurred singing moved closer. Some kind of Christmas tune. This man Travers really was a fool. Stagger Lee clutched the .44 tighter. He liked the way the cold steel felt. Solid. Strong.
More singing echoed off the old metal cars as the hot blood dripped down his side. The man began to whistle “Silent Night.” Stagger Lee knew Travers had no idea it was his time. He probably never thought this would be the last minute he would breathe or feel a cold night. Stagger Lee liked that power. The grim reaper of Chicago.
The sound of whistling and crunching feet moved down the aisle of cars. Stagger Lee’s heart raced and he felt his nails dig into his palm around the gun. He waited and readied every muscle. His breathing came in low, ragged gasps. The blood boiled in his ears like a man trapped below the water’s surface about to break through. His exhaling breath clouded his eyes.
He couldn’t wait.
Stagger Lee lunged from the car. He grasped the man by his red coat and thrust him against the old railcar. He could see the fear in the black bum’s eyes. The man’s eyes bulged from under his Santa hat as his feet dangled below. Stagger Lee held him for a few moments before he set him down and smiled.
The bum smiled back.
Stagger Lee slid his gun in his overcoat pocket and grabbed the ice pick that hung from his belt.
The man’s smile dropped as Stagger Lee thrust the pick into the man’s ear and let him slump to the ground. He reached down with one hand and held the man’s quivering body like he would a mechanical doll. The man moved in some kind of convulsions. Dead, but the body just catching on to the idea. He tossed the writhing body into the boxcar. Shit.
Stagger Lee hopped back in and closed the sliding door. The rusted wheels screeched. He put another few holes in the man’s head, blood misting his face, until the man stopped flopping around.
The last thing he needed to do was scare off Travers. Everything was a mess, everyone was dead, and this was the last chore left undone. Heard Travers was a real tough southern boy. But this wasn’t the South Travers knew.
In Chicago, every corner was a crossroad.
Five nights earlier,
New Orleans, Louisiana
JoJo’s Blues Bar was a warm shot of whiskey, a cold Dixie on the side, and blues that could exorcise demons like a voodoo priestess. The bar stood in a narrow brick-and-stucco building off Conti Street where a blue neon sign spilled light onto beer- stained asphalt. As Nick Travers walked through its beaten Creole doors, he could feel the music under his buckskin boots and deep into his bones. The last of the New Orleans blues joints put a good hum in his heart.
Gold tinsel and plastic holly hung across the bar and jukebox. Fat red pepper lights winked on stage as Loretta Jackson growled her deep holiday blues like a lioness on the prowl:
Merry Christmas, baby, you sho’ did treat me right.
Bought me a diamond ring for Christmas, now I’m livin’ in paradise.”
JoJo’s wife had the whole smoky bar flowing with the music. Whistling. A few yells. She had just started her first set and already had the crowd working, her red sequin dress wrapping her large brown body.
Nick wandered through a mass of dancers by the jukebox as Felix flitted behind the deeply scarred mahogany bar to fill orders. His bald head and the multicolored liquor bottles glowed in the blinking blue lights. At JoJo’s, there was heat, there was whiskey, and there was music. Felix didn’t even look Nick in the eyes as he popped the top from a Dixie and slid it down the bar.
Nick removed both gloves with his teeth and tucked them into the side pocket of his jacket. Some of the foam spilled on his hand. Cold, but warmed the soul.
He leaned forward, placing his elbows on the bar, and stared at the black-and-white photographs of the long-dead greats: Guitar Slim, Huey “Piano” Smith, Professor Longhair, Babe Stovall, and Little Walter. Nick glanced at the photo by the end of the bar and raised his beer. Underneath sat an empty bar stool. A seat once reserved for a man they called Henry.
“Nick, you would fuck up yore own funeral,” JoJo said in a rich baritone voice from the darkness behind him. “Yore an hour late.”
“It’s all the fashion now,” Nick said, as he lit a cigarette.
“Oh ... yore late for fashion ... well, goddamn, I feel much better.”
JoJo had on a suit tonight. Black and creased to perfection. He was a sharp black man in his sixties with white hair and a trimmed mustache. His hands and fingers were thick from years of manual labor, and he wore scars on his knuckles from fighting in jukes all around Mississippi.
He was a great musician who never quite made it. He’d played backup on some of Loretta’s recordings, but for the most part he was the man in the shadows. JoJo started the bar back in the early sixties, something for him to do while he waited for fame that would never come. But today there wasn’t a blues musician alive who didn’t know about the man’s juke. A little Delta on the Bayou, JoJo always said.
“You been down at the peep show, haven’t you?” JoJo asked as he frowned. “Down on Bourbon watchin’ young girls havin’ sex wit’ goats.”
“Donkeys,” Nick said, sipping on the cold Dixie. A Blackened Voodoo with a nice beaded label. “That and finding a little religion.”
“Oh shit.” JoJo raised his eyebrows. “You kicked Jesus’ ass, didn’t you?”
“Let’s just say he’s been saved,” he said.
“You can’t do that. Beat up Jesus, man. Ain’t that sacrilegious or somethin’? I mean, you kicked Jesus’ ass.”
Jesus was a street grifter who worked the park benches by St. Louis Cathedral at night, dragging a cross on his back and asking for tips. An old sax player Nick knew gave the jackass his rent money to pray for his dead mother. The old man was drunk and lonely and the grifter had used him.
“I got Fats’s money back,” Nick said, pulling the wad of cash from his pocket and placing it into JoJo’s palm. “The only Christian thing to do.”
“Guess that man deserve it then. Gettin’ his ass kicked like that.”