Read Leavin' Trunk Blues Online
Authors: Ace Atkins
“Damn, that guy smelled bad, looked like he combed his hair with Crisco,” Nick said, blowing smoke away from JoJo. “Make sure Fats keeps some of this until his gig New Year’s Eve.”
“You got it,” JoJo said. “Thanks.”
JoJo’s eyes grew soft and he gave a pleasant wink. Nick patted his hunched back and flicked the cigarette into an ashtray by his elbow. That’s why he liked JoJo’s place, everything was real convenient. Cold beer to the left and an ashtray to the right. Hard drivin’ blues on stage. What more could a man want?
“Loretta pissed?” Nick asked.
“Hell, I don’t know. I ain’t scared of my woman,” JoJo said. ‘You think I’m one of those pussies who calls their wife ‘the boss’?”
Nick laughed and pulled out a Hohner Chromatic harp. “She mind if I join her?”
“I don’t know,” JoJo said as he let out a long, deep chuckle. “ ‘Fraid to ask.”
Nick had known the Jacksons for almost twenty years. Hard to believe it had been that long. When they met, he’d just come to Tulane and had fallen in love with the old city. Felt like he’d always belonged here, like his old spirit had wandered down those bleak alleys before. One Saturday night, while exploring the Quarter with some teammates, Nick had discovered JoJo’s. They’d been stumbling around and looking for some refuge from the rain.
Months later, a scuffle in the bar’s parking lot forged his lifelong friendship with JoJo. After Nick had tossed two men around like they were blocking dummies, another man had poked a gun into Nick’s ribs. At about the time Nick caught his breath, JoJo had rounded the corner with a couple of cops. Not only did JoJo save Nick from the guy with the gun, but also made sure the cops didn’t haul his ass off to jail. After that night, Nick gave JoJo and Loretta passes to all the football home games. Hell, he didn’t have any family to use them. His mother was dead and his father was too drunk to care.
When his father finally died from a broken heart and a rotted liver a few years later, JoJo and Loretta became his only family. They were the ones who waited for him all night in a rainy parking lot when he returned from his father’s funeral. They were the ones who had him over for dinner twice a week and coaxed him to join their mostly black church.
The Jacksons were his only constants from his time at Tulane, to playing for the Saints, through his pursuit of a doctorate in Southern Studies at Ole Miss, and back to Tulane to teach blues history. Constants.
Nick drained the last drop of beer, snuffed out his cigarette, and smiled. He felt a tingling buzz in his feet as the blues swirled around the old brick room in a sweet blend of notes. Loretta waved him up to the old wooden stage where JoJo had already looped his Shaker microphone around a stand. The guitar player scooted over to give him a little room in the hot lights.
“Well, well, look what the cat dragged in,” Loretta said, placing her hands on her big hips. “Mmm, mmm. Sho’ is fine for some white meat. Say Nicholas, a new woman got you tied up yet? No? Well, let’s get you plugged into the Queen of New Orleans’ blues and wrap yo’ mouth around that ole ‘Key to the Highway.’”
Nick started into Little Walter’s mellow rhythm with Loretta breaking into song:
I got the key
to the highway,
feel loud and bound to go.
I got to leave here runnin’,
cause walkin’ much too slow.”
The hustled evening melted into slow blues burning in the pit of his stomach. Through the fog of a few beers and Loretta’s relaxed vocals, he bonded with the rain tapping against the glass on Conti. The crowd of dock workers and tourists nodded to the music as the world became a warm mix of green, red, and blue in the dark shadows.
At the end of the second set, Nick gave Loretta and JoJo hugs and ambled toward the old twin doors to stumble home to Julia Street. For some reason, he drank in the whole scene. The Christmas lights, the way the juke blared in the corner, the chipped paint on the brick walls, and the way the bags crept over JoJo’s wise, old eyes.
This was the place. Everybody has their X, that sacred spot where you feel most comfortable in the world. To Nick, JoJo’s was that special spot. A darkened cave of happiness. Tonight was a moment. You can’t create a moment. Moments are sporadic. Moments just happen.
An ugly winter rain fell the next morning as Nick studied the graystone buildings of Tulane University. Through the leaden glass of the Jazz and Blues Archives, he watched students under a rainbow of umbrellas bring color to the darkening day. Next to him, a portable cassette deck played Charley Patton singing “High Water Everywhere.” His croaking voice told the story of the 1927 flood when the Mississippi River broke the levees around the Delta. The flood left farmers stranded on telephone poles and Indian mounds as everything they knew washed away. Must’ve seemed like the mean side of the Bible.
“Does anyone need the song played again or have any questions about the final?” Nick asked, his feet rocking like a pendulum below the desk. No one answered as the students shuffled paper and clicked their pens.
Today, Nick’s knees and joints felt stiff with the rain. He’d taken a morning jog along the Riverwalk to sweat out the alcohol and did a few sets of weights in the bottom floor of his warehouse. Didn’t help. The music he loved so much rattled like tin in his injured mind.
After Patton, Nick played one of his favorite Robert Johnson songs, “Love in Vain,” for his Delta blues class. Johnson sang about a man with a suitcase in hand watching his woman leave the train station—the red and blue lights of the caboose trailing off into a Mississippi night. A great poetic moment.
“Remember, Johnson’s role in the development of blues may have been a little overstated,” Nick said as the cold rain sluiced down the windows. “Like any other great artist, he took a sampling of others from his era. Kind of like making a good jambalaya. Only add the best meat. . . . We’ve compared pieces of Lonnie Johnson to Johnson’s ‘Malted Milk.’ He obviously borrowed some of the supernatural themes.”
“What about Sonny Boy Williamson?” a student asked. “Was he there the night Johnson was poisoned?”
“No,” Nick said, in a tired, cigarette-damaged voice.
“How can you be sure?” the student asked. “I thought Sonny Boy said Johnson died in his arms.”
Nick liked the kid. He always wanted more than the scraps Nick threw him.
“Rice Miller, Sonny Boy Williamson II, was a great harmonica player,” Nick said, scratching the stubble on his chin. “Man spanned the prewar period to Chicago. Love his music. Even wrote my dissertation on his life. But Sonny Boy was a known liar. Hell, he stole the real Sonny Boy Williamson’s name to make himself famous. He traveled with Johnson. But no, he wasn’t there the night Johnson died. Trust me.”
Through the window, Nick could see the dead grass in Tulane’s mall area, leafless oaks, and more students ready to get their ass out of Dodge. The vibe of expectation was absolutely palpable. Or maybe it was just self-serving.
“You said maybe he wasn’t murdered by a jealous husband?” the student asked again. “That’s not what I read.”
“You won’t find it in any books … it’s just a theory,” Nick said as his students turned back to their tests.
Nick loved teaching, but he longed to get back to his research. He tried to schedule the classes for fall and winter, so he could spend the spring and summer crisscrossing the Delta, knocking on doors and running down thousands of leads. Good field research was about patience. About hours and hours of interviews to find arcane details about blues singers’ influences and personalities. He’d spend almost the entire summer running down relatives and old friends of Eddie Jones, aka Guitar Slim, in the Mississippi Delta. The research was for a book on Slim he’d been working on for the last five years.
He knew so many professors were content with obsessing over details of the original blues singers from before World War II that they didn’t focus on the players of the fifties and sixties. If those lives weren’t recorded while their contemporaries were still around, so much would be lost. That’s why he roamed Chicago, the Delta, Memphis, and parts of Texas searching for their faded moments. Armed with little more than a good cassette recorder and a notebook, Nick wanted to make sure extraordinary lives were not forgotten.
It was a tradition started by the early blues trackers like Alan Lomax, Sam Charters, and Gayle Dean Wardlow. White men whose love of the music sent them knocking on the doors of blacks in a segregated South. The work often gained suspicion from both races. But trouble from Klan members or redneck sheriffs was now something out of tracker’s lore. Today, the danger came from canvassing shithole neighborhoods. Sometimes a gun wasn’t a bad addition to the notebooks and recorders. Gangs and guns sometimes interfered with getting a good oral history.
Someone tapped on the classroom’s heavy oak door.
Out in the hall, Randy Sexton grinned at him like a fool. Real shit-eating smile like he’d heard some nasty joke about a weasel and a monkey. Short guy with a curly head of brown hair and the face of a cherub. He wore a frayed brown sweater and black jeans, the size of his eyes enhanced by thick glasses.
Randy was the head of the Tulane Jazz and Blues Archives and a genius writer on the history of jazz. The man could tell you anecdotes about Louis Armstrong and Rampart Street in such incredible detail you could smell the sweat on the dancers’ bodies and taste the bootleg whiskey. A wonderful historian and storyteller.
“Fuck off,” Nick whispered out in the hall. “My students are deep in thought.”
“You have a package downstairs.”
“Don’t you want to know who it’s from?”
“My letter from Santa returned again?”
“Miss March Ninety-one? She got the tickets to Jamaica and the thongs?”
“Keep guessin’, smart ass, I signed for it.”
“Easy there, partner. How about your prison pen pal.”
“How ‘bout her?”
“Package is from Illinois. Maybe she agreed to the interview.”
Nick was silent. He could hear his students moving in their creaking seats. Someone coughed. Another sighed. The rain drummed on the windows of the old building.
“Come down after you’re finished,” Randy said, raising his eyebrows. “I’ll start drinking the Jack you keep in your bottom drawer. Maybe Christmas came early.”
The rain stopped about the time the last student turned in his final. The cold water hung in beads off the oak trees like forming buds. Nick grabbed the tests and stopped in the hall to talk with a few students. He said he might make it over to The Boot for a few rounds to celebrate the quarter’s end.
Then he headed downstairs to his office.
The archive building was built during World War II and still had that great architecture you seem to only find in a Frank Capra movie. Rounded hallways and big oak doors with frosted glass. Inside his office, Randy sat next to Nick’s sagging metal bookshelves filled with almost every work ever published on the blues, along with unfiled photos and interviews that would eventually be cataloged into the collection.
“Drinking on campus?” Nick asked, hanging his brown corduroy jacket on an old oak hat rack and finding a seat in a brittle office chair.
“It’s the last day of classes before Christmas . . . who gives a shit,” Randy said, taking a big swig from a coffee mug stamped with the Dixie beer logo. “What happened to the days when a midday drink wasn’t frowned upon? The martini lunch? A nice glass of wine with your meal?”
“When Americans began taking life too seriously,” Nick said as he propped his boots up on his desk and poured himself a thick measure in another mug. He exhaled a long breath and picked up the legal size package and shook it.
“Would you open the fucking thing?” Randy asked.
Nick slid his thumb along the back of the letter and pulled out a couple sheets of paper, as thin as onion skin, along with two black-and-white photographs. The letter was filled with careful cursive lettering. Just like all the others.
Nick set aside the photographs and read the letter. He pulled out the bottle of whiskey in his desk and poured another shot into his mug. He read the letter again and leafed through the pages.
“She said she’ll do it,” Nick said.
“No shit. Ruby Walker? That’s like DiMaggio and Salinger rolled into one.”
Ruby was a blues songstress who’d spent the last forty years in an Illinois state prison for murder. Nick knew the story all too well. They called her the Sweet Black Angel when she performed in the late fifties. Made a few recordings for King Snake Records and had a big hit with a song called “Lonesome Blues Highway.” Beautiful song with great lyrics about leaving the country for the city. About forgotten friends and family. About starting over and taking new chances and leaving behind what was familiar. But her career was cut short when she was convicted of murdering her lover, the owner and producer of King Snake. Guy named Billy Lyons. She stabbed him while drunk out of her mind and dumped the body in Lake Michigan.
‘Take off, man. Do it. Not many of these stories roll around.”