Authors: Louis Maistros
Tags: #Literature, #U.S.A., #American Literature, #21st Century, #Amazon.com, #Retail
He’d heard strange stories from reliable sources about an abortion doctor in the red-light district who went by the name of Doctor Jack. As the stories went, Doctor Jack was a medical doctor of the lowest possible esteem; not only was he a negro who made his living snuffing the hapless unborn from the wombs of whores, he was also a known witch doctor, catering to the superstitious needs of the city’s voodoo-worshipping African population. Trumbo considered himself a good Christian who never took stock in such things, but what he had seen today was not possible. A witch doctor, he conceded to himself, may be this poor family’s last hope.
Convinced it would be wrong not to help—by any means—an innocent mother and child victimized by matters so clearly beyond the reach of scientific or Christian methods, Trumbo resolved to risk damnation. Perhaps, he thought, it is not wrong to fly in the face of a God who would allow such an abomination to occur on this earth. Perhaps, he nearly concluded, God is not at all the benevolent being that his well-meaning parents had taught him to believe in so unquestioningly as a child.
Marshall Trumbo lowered to his knees. He wanted desperately to pray. He found that he could not.
Instead, he wept.
Furnished with crates meant for produce and one square table salvaged from a junked riverboat and bought with a dollar, Charley’s gin joint always managed an empty feeling about it, even on weekends when the crowds pushed in. Wooden crates filled with barber supplies (along with others containing cheap booze) pressed tight and high against the back wall near a pump, basin, and pail; the three purposefully grouped together at the ready. The air was hot and hazy from home-rolled cigars, eight flickering oil lamps giving smoke an appearance of impossible weight.
A fourteen-year-old boy played cornet every night of the week at Charley’s, the sound of it being mostly sour, unrefined, crazy in pitch. The kind of noise people don’t get paid to make.
Real musicians played for real dollar bills in a section of town centering approximately around and gravitating towards the point where Customhouse Street met Basin. Played for real dollar bills while pretty girls danced with little or no clothes on, enticing rich white men from out-of-town to put paper money in a hat, make their choice, bring a girl up the stairs for an hour or a night. This boy was not a real musician—and too young to be a part of that scene, anyway. So he blew for nothing at Charley Hall’s every night, infringing on the ears and sensibilities of card players who were just drunk enough not to care.
A girl about the same age as the boy but three inches shorter sat cross-legged near his feet; the only female in New Orleans in-love-enough to venture into a joint like Charley’s. The whites of her eyes: nearly as yellow as her dress. Her hair: long, straight, black. Her skin: the color of coffee with a generous splash of cow’s milk. Sucking on a cigar butt and looking sick, she appeared utterly lost in the god-awful noise of the boy’s horn.
Being payday, the players were betting real money. Some pulled up ahead and some kept losing, but even on payday there’s never enough money to make anyone significantly richer or poorer in Orleans Parish. This was one of the few blessings of being poor in the Parish; not enough money to get mad about.
Marcus Nobody Special rarely had the cash to pay for his swallows, and so was fussing with Charley again. “This damn rotgut liquor ain’t worth more than a gravedigger’s bad credit anyhow.”
If ya don’t like it ya can drink and not pay some-other-damn-where,” countered Charley, who poured Marcus a fresh snort just the same.
Bap. Bap-bap. Buh-bap, bap, buh-bap.
A knock on the back door. A secret knock, a passcode for members. Gin joints like this were not strictly legal and faced away from the street for a reason. Charley unbarred the backdoor to reveal the imposing figure of Beauregard Church.
Pre-liquored up for reasons of economy and grinning like a skull, Beauregard carried with him an old leather sack containing a few odd items meant for luck, ready for a few hands with the boys.
Damn, Buddy—cain’t you play that thing any quieter? Have a little respect for the dyin’, wouldja?” Beauregard pointed to a large bandage covering the left side of his head. The kid, Buddy Bolden, stopped blowing momentarily, and the sudden absence of sound turned the girl’s face tragic.
I think it’s beautiful,” she said, with eyes wet and dreamy.
Man, that’s what I call true love!” one of the card players piped up. A round of wheezy snickers filled the room.
Let the boy practice, Beauregard,” said Charley, still smiling. “If he don’t, he won’t get no better—then we’ll all be hurtin’ for a much longer section of time.”
Snickers blossomed into full out laughter as Buddy stabbed thick air with the loudest, most annoying note his skinny body could push clear of the horn. The girl smiled triumphantly and Beauregard winced mightily.
Like most in his profession, Charley the Barber possessed some basic doctoring skills and so walked over to Beauregard with a look of mild concern. “Let me have a look at that, old man.” Beauregard sat low on a crate near the basin so Charley could remove his bandages and clean the wound, dabbing away dried bits of blood and skin with a dampened cloth. Marcus looked away—he saw dead folk everyday, but the sight of real human suffering always made him uneasy. Charley applied fresh cotton and cloth to Beauregard’s head and Marcus sighed with relief.
Before an hour could pass, Beauregard found himself down to his last four nickels and dozing off with a jack, two tens, a five, and a four held loosely in his right hand.
BAP! BAP! BAP! BAP! BAP! BAP! BAP!
A knock on glass, hard and fast and not in code. Beauregard’s droopy eyes propped open, wide and quick. Buddy stopped playing; everyone instantly quiet without need of being shushed. Though it wasn’t in code, the knock was familiar. A cop knock.
The girl jumped to her feet as a lone mosquito broke the silence; flying too near an oil lamp, crackling into oblivion.
Goddamn,” whispered Charlie, pressing extra hard on the “damn.”
Marcus scratched thoughtfully at the hole where his nose used to be. “Prob’ly nothin’, cap’n,” he offered quietly to no one in particular, attracting a handful of irritated, nose-wrinkled glares.
Damn their noses
, thought Marcus.
Spell of quiet.
BAP! BAP! BAP! BAP! BAP! BAP! BAP!
This time accompanied by unintelligible, muffled shouting.
Lord, Lord.” Charley shook his head with casual dread before snuffing all but one of the hanging oil lamps. “C’mon, boy,” he said, looking at Buddy. The usual drill was to march Buddy out, explain to the copper that Charley was giving the boy a horn lesson, that the time had slipped away and he hadn’t realized the hour. Charley opened the door leading from the backroom to the barbershop, just enough for himself and Buddy to pass through.
The man outside was no cop. White fella; dressed nice, built thin.
Charley’s mood dropped from nervous to put-out.
What’s this dumb cracker want this time of night?
“Closed!” yelled Charley towards the assaulted but so-far-unbroken pane of glass positioned decoratively across the door’s upper third—as if this fancy white cat might be looking for a haircut in the dead of night from a black barber who doesn’t even cut white people’s hair.
BAP! BAP! BAP! BAP!
Louder than before this time, near to breaking glass.
Son of a
Charley spat, barely under breath. Then, louder; “Don’t be breaking my damn glass, now! I’m comin’, I’m comin’!” He walked to the door quickly, turned the key, cracked it.
Turned on the Uncle Tom way of talking that grumpy white folks seemed to like so much: “Sir, if we’s makin’ too much noise, I’s shore sorry. I’s just giving some music lessons to the boy.” Charley motioned to Buddy who stood by the back door, smiling and waving his horn perfectly on cue, “and I guess we just—”
Are you the one they call Doctor Jack?”
Am I the…? Well, no sir. No, I ain’t—”
I was told he would be here. It’s very important that I—”
No one here by that name, sir. Just me and the boy—I’s just giving him a lesson and we went a little late is all—”
I swear to you that I’m not a police officer. It’s very important that I talk to Doctor Jack. Please.” The man’s voice was fake-calm, panic leaking through at the edges.
Like I said, mister, we was just—”
I’m not a police officer, damn you, but if you try my patience I can be provoked into providing one.” Getting that all too familiar I’m-white-and-you’re-black-so-do-as-you’re-told kind of huffiness—but there was also a cold desperation in the man’s eyes, and this fact rang a bell of sympathy in Charley’s cautious heart. “Now, please,” the intruder continued, “understand that I mean you no harm. This is very important business.”
Charley the Barber looked the man up and down, then asked, sans Uncle Tom, “What sorta business?”
The man let out a breath of relief, measured his tone, “Medical business. Emergency medical business. The kind that most doctors don’t do. It has to be Doctor Jack. Please.” He placed a hand on the door as if to push it open.
Charley softened his eyes, but held the door firm. Said:
No. Absolutely not. No police. I swear it.” The man offered Charley his hand, but Charley only looked at it—pretty, soft, white, spidery little thing; not telling of a single day’s hard work. Charley couldn’t bring himself to shake it—afraid he might scuff it up. But he did open the door.
Marshall Trumbo followed Charley through the darkened barbershop towards the backroom entrance where young Buddy Bolden stood, horn in hand. “I could hear you playing from outside,” said Trumbo.
Sir?” Buddy’s voice sounded nervous. Wasn’t accustomed to white folks talking directly at him in soft tones.
I heard you playing. Sounded nice.”
Catching the compliment as he opened the gin joint door, Charlie broke into gentle laughter. “You really
need a doctor. Lord, Lord! Sounded
Buddy Bolden grinned.
The door to the adjoining card room opened wide, and the first set of eyes to meet Trumbo’s were the ones closest to the surviving lit lamp; pale brown eyes pounding like cool sun into his own. Trumbo found himself staring at a weathered, coffee-colored face framed with white blotchy hair, a terrible scar where a nose used to be. The urge to shudder came and went quickly, Trumbo fighting it off through force of will and sheer good manners. Charley lit a thin stick from the remaining lamp before making the rounds again, relighting the seven lamps he’d snuffed only moments ago. The flames caught quickly, and the lamps illuminated just fine. The girl refocused on Buddy with loving eyes; still looking sick, still smiling.
Charley made a move towards breaking ice: “This nice gentleman wants to know where he can find a person called Doctor Jack. Any of you fellas know what he may be talkin’ ’bout?”
A beat. Then: Heads turned down, card game resumed. Beauregard pulled some cards from his lousy hand, slapped them down, said, “Hit me three times,” when he should’ve just folded.
Gentlemen,” Trumbo started, a crack in his voice, “I’m not here to cause any trouble. I only—”
And who might you be, sir?” The question came from the dealer, a middle-aged dark brown man with peculiarly straight hair that just touched his shoulders. The dealer laid down three cards for Beauregard without looking up.
My name is Marshall Trumbo. I’m a news reporter by trade, but that isn’t why I’m here. It’s about the Carolla child—maybe you’ve heard—”
Newspaper man, eh?” the dealer said, still not looking up. “You fellas did a helluva job crucifying those Sicilians. Shameful stuff, that.”
Trumbo paused, decided on honesty: “Actually, I agree with you. That whole ugly business made me reconsider what I do for a living.” Trumbo got the impression no one was buying that line of talk, however true it might be. No matter. “But I’m here about the child of one of the Sicilians—the man’s name was Carolla…”
Beauregard, now wide awake and stone sober, laid down his losing hand with a grunt, “I’m done.” Gave the reporter a hard stare.
I’ve heard about the child,” said the dealer, making a mental note of Beauregard’s reaction. “What interest would newspaper folk have with that sort of trouble—other than for a good ol’ eye-poppin’ story? Sell some papers, a story like that, I guess.”
I was there today—at the Carolla house—looking for a story, like you said. But the doctors left. The priest called Morningstar—he was there, too—but also left.”
The girl broke her gaze from Buddy momentarily to throw Trumbo a suspicious glance.
No one wants to help—and I promised the mother I would try. The boy—he’s…well, he’s in a desperate state. You wouldn’t believe me if I told—”