Read Leavin' Trunk Blues Online
Authors: Ace Atkins
“Five hundred?” Fannie asked.
“C’mon, we can do it.”
“How much we have now?”
“Bout seventy-five,” Annie said.
“How ‘bout the Hyatt? Good rooms. Maybe we can find a convention.”
“Got to be quick.”
“We always quick,” Fannie said.
Annie smiled and brushed her fingers over Fannies hardened face. The city lights glowed all around them in the darkening twilight. Point zero. The center of the city.
Behind them, Annie heard a cough and turned to see a dark shape coming down the concrete steps from Michigan Avenue. It was Peetie in some jive-ass purple suit and hat. He smoked a long, thin cigar that smelled like burnt cherries.
“Peetie, we was about to leave,” Fannie said.
“Yeah, Peetie. See ya.”
“Hold on. Hold on,” he said, walking down the last few steps and keeping his hand on the wall. The tires against the metal grate on the bridge made roaring sounds.
“We ain’t got time for this shit,” Annie said. “And we ain’t payin’ you no money for some lousy fool who owes Stagger Lee again. He finds who he wants to find.”
“Would you shut up, woman,” Peetie said, spewing the smoke from the side of his mouth. “This ain’t nothin’ ‘bout that. Face to face.”
Annie snorted. “Bye.”
Some bum had built a fire down by the river and the smoke had just begun to rise. Barely alive but not quite dead.
“This ain’t for public consumption,” he said. “This for Stagger Lee only.”
‘You tell us and we’ll see about that,” Annie said.
“No, no, no,” he said. “You two bitches ain’t part of this.”
Annie sprung from her concrete perch and kicked Peetie to the slushy ground. The blood roared in her head as she pulled Willie from her back pocket and stood over the quivering old man. Her foot was stuck on his chest and she could hear her own ragged gasps of air.
Peetie had curled into a little ball and covered his head with his hands. His hat rolled and spun on the ground like a quarter.
Fannie grabbed Annie’s arm and soothed around her neck. “Annie? Annie? C’mon. You okay. You okay. C’mon, let him just tell us what he have to say. Let him just tell us what he have to say. Everythin’ gonna be just fine. All right. C’mon Annie. Be my sweet little girl. C’mon.”
Annie made a primal grunt and removed her foot from his brittle chest.
“What is it? What is it?” Annie screamed. “We’re not going to give you a fucking cent. But we will tell Stagger Lee you were jerking our dicks around.”
Peetie rolled onto his knees, his suit covered in black slush. He shook the slush from his hat, smoothed the feather, and put the hat back on at a crazy angle.
“You tell Stagger Lee,” Peetie said, brushing his knees. “You tell him there’s a man named Travers askin’ all ‘bout Billy Lyons. You tell him that, cain’t you? Y’all need to be cool about this. This ain’t some street crack deal. This is serious. Real serious. Stagger Lee gonna want to—”
“Who’s Billy Lyons?” Fannie asked, wiping the frozen crap from Peetie’s shoulders.
“Old friend of Stagger Lee’s,” Peetie said. He was getting cocky now, trying to act like his pride was filled back up. “Just tell him. He knows where to find me. Cain’t believe you ruined my suit. Man, this thing gonna cost me plenty. Now I cain’t even put it back on the rack. I cain’t believe it.”
Peetie began to walk back up the staircase to Michigan Avenue and away from the deep tunnels and sludge below. His eyes looked red and he limped on each step. Fannie followed and slipped something in his pocket. She helped him get to the top and gave him a hug. Annie lit a cigarette and shook her head. That woman needed to toughen her heart. Peetie was a real piece of shit.
When Fannie skipped down the stairs, Annie asked her: “Why in the fuck did you do that?” She tucked Willie back into her coat. “Don’t even think I didn’t see you.”
“Just some cab fare. That man so broke he can’t even spend the night.”
“That’s funny,” Annie said, snorting smoke from her nose. “Real funny. You think we need to see Stagger Lee?”
Fannie raised her eyebrows.
“Peetie’s nothing but an ole fool with a broken dick,” Annie said.
“What if he got somethin’?” Fannie asked. “One thing I will not do is mess with Stagger Lee. You know what he’ll do. Beat us till we bleed on the inside. Our pride ain’t worth it. Nothin’ worth Stagger Lee shittin’ a brick.”
“We see him tonight?”
Jordan’s downstairs office was littered with black memorabilia. For some reason, the man chose to surround himself with reminders of the segregated South. Advertisements featuring coal-black Sambos eating watermelons and big fat mammies with huge grins. He had a complete shelf full of figurines of black boys playing and even a black iron lawn jockey holding a lantern at the foot of his desk. Jordan took a seat and leaned back in his creaking chair.
He watched Nick’s eyes trail around the room and simply said: “It’s a good way not to forget.”
Jordan slid his Ben Franklin-style glasses onto his wide face and used his thick, bulging stomach as an armrest. Nick sat in a folding chair that Jordan had grabbed from the hallway. The room smelled of stale cigars and floral air fresheners.
“Billy Lyons, Billy Lyons. You know I did all the damn work? Wrote all the songs and ran all the equipment?”
Nick nodded. “Ruby told me a little.”
“You talked to Ruby?” Jordan asked. His face filled with disbelief and questions.
“Yeah, met her this morning.”
“You must be something,” Jordan said. “After the killin’ she shut us all out. Didn’t want to talk to nobody. What’d she say?”
“Said she’s innocent.”
Jordan grunted. His stomach shook with internal laughter. “I think Ruby’s more full of shit than a Christmas turkey.”
“She kill him?” Nick asked.
“Without a doubt.”
“You see anything?”
“I just know it,” Jordan said, pounding his fist on the desk. “Maybe she really doesn’t remember stabbing him and dropping him in the lake. She used to have blackouts. You’d have a conversation with her at a bar. Like one night me and her sat down and had a real heart to heart. Talked about music and the Lord. The next day, I mentioned something about it and she said she wasn’t even there.”
Jordan took a deep breath and looked at the wall clock. Beautiful old thing. Dark black surrounded by green neon. Looked like it had hung on the wall for decades.
“Were you and Billy friends?”
“We were,” Jordan said. “In spite of his huge ego, he was a good friend.”
“I’m going to start recording now,” Nick said, punching the button. “Go ahead. Billy Lyons.”
“I met Billy back in the fifties,” Jordan said, obviously used to being interviewed. “Of course I didn’t know who he was. He was an older man, I guess about forty. He came to a club where I was setting up with a little jazz combo. I had a big bass drum with me and he asked me about it. Wanted to know about my music and I told him everything I did for the brothers at Diamond.”
“You didn’t like them?”
“Not then. Not with what they were paying me. Back then, producer meant money man, songwriter, arranger, and talent scout.”
Jordan counted the list on his fingers. “I traveled all around the South looking for Chicago-size talent. New Orleans. Memphis. Man, I even went deep in Alabama to try folks out. You ever seen a bunch of crackers stare at a black man driving a car worth more than their homes?”
“Well, anyway, I met Billy one spring night. I think about fifty-five. I remember women in flowered dresses smelling of roses. Billy was there dressed up in some fine clothes. White suit. White Stetson hat. So you knew the brother had money. He lit my cigar with this silver cigarette lighter with a snake on it. Rings on every finger. He bought drinks for me and the band and talked about this label he wanted to start.”
Jordan looked over the end of his glasses at Nick. “Are you following me?”
“I talked to him like he was just any guy off the street,” Jordan said. “When he left, the bartender leaned over and told me. I knew the name Lyons but I never put the two together. You see, Lyons ran the South Side.”
“So I’ve heard.”
“He was ‘the boss.’ But he treated me like a man and I treated him the same. Later on, we met for a few more drinks. He owned a restaurant and paid for my dinner. Even took me to some of his establishments.” Jordan leaned close and whispered, “Cathouses. Well, we became friends. He loved blues. Loved just being in the same room with blues singers. To Billy, they were the tops.”
“Was he a badass?”
“Billy? Not to his friends. But to folks who crossed him he was a leg breaker. I just remember him taking publicity shots for the label with his little daughter. He dedicated songs to her and treated that girl like a princess. He wasn’t married, I think his wife died back in Mississippi, but he loved that little girl.”
“You know what happened to her?”
Jordan shook his head.
“Oh, man … if you hadn’t asked. Oh … I think it was Nat.”
“What about money problems?” Nick asked. “I heard Billy had run out of cash before he died.”
“He had. He’d win it, then lose it. But I think Chicago was starting to change. Billy didn’t deal drugs. Had to respect him for that. You dealt on Billy’s turf and man, he’d hurt you. But some, in the end, were already picking off his territory.”
“He’d rather go broke than deal?”
“Yeah, like I said, Billy was an unusual cat.”
“When did you guys start King Snake?” Nick asked, stretching out his legs and crossing his boots at the ankles. The snow had melted a wet ring around the bottom of his jeans.
“Well,” Jordan began, “I was with Billy one night and started talking again about having to chase the brothers down for money they owed me. I was having a rough day. My match wouldn’t even light my cigar. Well, Billy just reached out with that cigarette lighter and told me, ‘How you like to help a brother out?’”
Nick smiled and pulled out a pack of cigarettes. He showed him the pack and Jordan nodded his approval.
“Just like that. Help a brother out,” Jordan said. “He said we were nothing but slaves playin’ blues for white men to sell back to blacks. And I started thinkin’ about that and the way I was treated and what I was paid. And then he said that golden word: partner. Two weeks later, I told the brothers to kiss my hole and we started King Snake.”
Jordan shook his head.
“What about Ruby?” Nick asked.
He shook his head again.
“Ruby and Billy fought like you ain’t never seen,” Jordan said, picking up a porcelain mammie from his desk and twirling it in his hands. “They were always throwin’ things and she was callin’ him an ole so-and-so, this and that. But you know, we didn’t think nothin’ of it. That’s just the way it was.”
“Any one night stick out?”
“I remember one time Billy brought this skinny, young white girl to a session. I’m talkin’ about a real hillbilly. She was crawlin’ all over Billy and calling him baby doll and such. Well, here comes Ruby. She wasn’t supposed to be there. It was one of Elmore’s first sessions when he come up from Alabama. Well, Ruby bust in drunk and stoned with a gun. Man.”
Jordan started chuckling as he put down the figure. “We ducked like we were soldiers. She was drunk and waved the gun around all crazy. Well, let’s just say that stringy-haired hillbilly never ran so fast in her life.”
“Maybe she had brothers.”
Jordan laughed hard at that one. He chuckled for about thirty seconds, his eyes watering, and leaned back into his seat.
“Was that the day Lyons was killed?” Nick asked.
“Oh no, this was about a year before that.”
“You remember her hanging out at the Palm Tavern?”
“No more than any other bar. Why?”
“I heard it was her place.”
Jordan shrugged and looked at the wall clock.
“Did you see their last fight?”
“No, no. I’d left King Snake by that time.”
“Let’s leave it at creative differences.” Jordan’s face folded in disappointment at Nick’s lack of etiquette. Fuck Emily Post.
“You know anyone who was at King Snake to the end? Still living?”
Jordan shook his head and tucked his hands under his biceps. His black tie looked uncomfortably tight.
Jordan shook his head again.
“Elmore King?” Nick asked. “How long did he stay?”
He squeezed his eyes tight and shrugged. “Really not sure, man.”
“1 saw King down in New Orleans last year,” Nick said, uncrossing his legs and standing.
He walked over to the trashcan and ashed the smoldering end of his cigarette. “He told me Ruby got a raw deal with her conviction. You know why he would say that?”