Authors: Dorothy Baker
Tags: #General Fiction
Rick considered ways and means. What he really wanted to do was to hand Smoke his ten dollars—the six one-dollar bills and one two-dollar bill and four fifty-cent pieces that he’d made at Gandy’s—and tell him to go get himself a bass drum and pay him back when he liked or not at all, just however he felt about it; but he held off with the sense that between men that kind of thing was pretty fancy, and that it certainly was blessed enough to give, but how would the whole thing make Smoke feel? Like a bum, probably. An offhand, quiet gift would go better, but what? And then the next Saturday night after Gandy paid him he walked home by way of a United Cigar Store—he didn’t trust Gandy—and bought two two-bit cigars, and being asked his age, replied that his father, for whom he was doing this purchasing, was about fifty, and it got by fine. He put the two cigars in his hip pocket and walked home with small steps.
Next day he worked until four. Smoke came in about three, sat down behind the bowling alleys, and went into a monologue about how it takes all kinds to make the world. His sister Marie, for instance, got the best report cards in the whole Jordan family (not counting Bluebelle; she wasn’t old enough yet). But she couldn’t play games worth a damn. She’d never even caught a fly in her whole life; whereas Josephine, who did terrible in her studies, had that very afternoon knocked a pitched ball clean over into the grounds of the bakery and they never did find it. Funny thing.
Sooner or later it was four o’clock and Rick was off duty, through for the day. He had the cigars in his sweater pocket in the back room. He said stick around a minute to Smoke, and then he went back and shoved the cigars into his shirt pocket, closest thing he had to an upper vest pocket, and buttoned up his sweater. No matches, though; that part had slipped his mind entirely until that very minute. Hell, no matches. Then he saw Gandy’s coat on a hook. It didn’t take two seconds; there must have been five or six in the first pocket he tried, fine big matches with red and blue heads. He took four of them, put them in his pocket, washed his hands and combed his hair, and went out very smooth on the surface to join Smoke. They left Gandy’s together without anything being said about it. Rick pulled Smoke along by the force of his will, but not far, at that. At the second corner Smoke said he guessed he’d better be pushing along home, and that left it up to Rick to pull things together. ‘Oh, what’s the hurry?’ he said in a mush-mouthed voice he couldn’t do anything about; and then fast, because it was now or never, he stuck out his hand toward Smoke and said have a cigar, Jordan, with the accent on the first syllable.
There it was, exposed to the light of a Sunday afternoon, a fine example of a black cigar. It certainly took Smoke Jordan. He opened his eyes wide to see for sure and then he said, ‘Well, shut me up if it isn’t!’
‘Go ahead, take it, I got it for you; I’ve got another one here for me,’ Rick said with the minimum, now, of savoir-faire. And Smoke rallied, took the bit, so to speak, in his teeth, and said, ‘Anything once.’
They turned, without saying anything about it, into a side street, and halfway down the block they stopped, bit the ends off their cigars, and lighted up, each man for himself. Smoke looked better than Rick with a cigar in his mouth. Rick’s face was too small for it; he looked all out of proportion; but Smoke was to the manner born, that one. He rose, full stature; he attained, on the spot, his majority.
‘First full-length cigar I guess I ever smoked,’ he said, taking it out of his mouth and giving himself a good look at it. ‘Mighty white of you, boy.’
Rick let the adjective slide across his consciousness without going deep enough to nick him. He felt too good to let anything bother him. The whole thing was easy and natural now. Smoke hadn’t had to admit anything; nobody asked him if it was his first cigar; he just volunteered the information. That was the kind of a guy he was. ‘Me, too,’ Rick said; ‘I haven’t smoked since the time I smoked a cigarette I found. I was only a kid then.’
‘Did it make you sick?’ Smoke asked with real interest.
‘No,’ said Rick.
‘Well, I guess you’re just lucky,’ Smoke said. And then he told about the time Nathan, when he was a kid around six, picked up part of a cigar and smoked it practically down to a half-inch and he couldn’t even get home. He came down the alley by degrees and finally got into the back yard and there collapsed. And he didn’t come home for dinner and they were all sitting around pretty well worried, when they thought they heard a cat out in the back yard, but it wasn’t, it was Nathan. His mother carried him in and he was so doggoned sick that she didn’t even lick him after he got well.
Rick said he guessed the reason he didn’t get sick when he smoked the cigarette was that a cigarette isn’t so strong as a cigar. Nowhere near so strong. If it had been a cigarette that Nathan had picked up, instead of a cigar, it probably wouldn’t have touched him. A cigar’s another thing. He tried to do a lot of talking, but after a while he fell silent and just kept walking. He wasn’t keeping his cigar in his mouth much now, just holding it in his hand and spitting every four or five steps and then every three or four. He didn’t propose, no matter what, to let himself pass out in anybody’s back yard like a six-year-old. All right, then, hang on; breathe deep and don’t swallow for anything; just keep spitting and hold that fuming thing sort of behind you, and breathe deep and don’t for anything swallow because that
throw you. Keep your eyes focused too if you know what’s good for you. Look hard at something or other. There’s a boy.
He kept it up for block after block and finally he knew he had it beat. It was close, though. There was a minute or two in there when he wouldn’t have bet a nickel one way or the other; and now that he was out of danger he couldn’t remember a thing Smoke had been saying, or whether he’d been saying anything. It takes concentration to put yourself down like that. He realized how close it had been when he saw that they had walked almost to Vernon, over a mile, and that Smoke’s cigar was only two inches long. He just let his drop behind him on the sidewalk. No farewell.
After that he felt in pretty good shape, good enough to look Smoke over with comparison in mind. But Smoke was beyond compare, happy as a lark and untouched by weakness of body or spirit, going strong. He might or might not know what Rick had been through, you couldn’t tell from his face. He wouldn’t be one to say anything about it if he did. He was probably kicking himself for having told about Nathan. That kind of story can be all wrong in its effect.
Rick felt even better when Smoke, with obvious regret, had thrown away the remnant of his cigar. It was twilight and the air was undefiled. ‘Where’s this Cotton Club place where this Williams plays?’ Rick said. ‘Let’s go see it.’
Smoke stalled. They didn’t play Sundays, he said; ordinance against it. Time he was getting home anyhow, he said, let’s turn around now. They walked back in silence. The world looked rotten to Rick, and he felt cold around his chest. Finally Smoke said: ‘I’ll turn off at this corner. Thanks for the cigar, boy.’
Then, for the second time that day, Rick wouldn’t be downed. When they got to the corner he said fast: ‘Why don’t we go down some other night, then, Jordan, and hear this guy play? We could just stay outside and hear how it sounds, couldn’t we, and not go in if you don’t want to?’
Smoke looked at him solemnly and waited a minute before he answered. Then he said, ‘All right, Martin.’ And for some reason or other they shook hands before they went their ways, probably the first time either one of them had shaken hands with anybody.
One thing tends to lead to another, and this case is no exception. Within a month after the night when Rick Martin and Smoke Jordan had clasped hands in friendship over the shared, but not identical, experience of a first cigar, Rick became an habitué of the Cotton Club, a back-window customer, but none the less a customer. Once they got started he and Smoke went three or four nights a week to stand or sit under the back window of the Cotton Club and listen to the music of Jeff Williams and his Four Mutts. These five, none of them much older than twenty, were so many gold mines as far as the pure vein of natural music is concerned. They came equipped with their racial heritage despite the fact that they had been put down in Los Angeles, of all places, and not, as Nature must have intended, in New Orleans or Memphis.
Smoke and Rick stayed outside and let the music come to them, and they didn’t strain their ears, either; anybody could have understood that band three blocks away. It wasn’t that they were loud; it was that they were so firm about the way they played, no halfway measures, nothing fuzzy. They knew what they were getting at, singly and as a group.
It didn’t take Rick long to know what they were getting at, right along with them. He had, himself, come equipped with the same equipment as Jeff and his Mutts—the same basic need to make music, the same sharp ear to discover it. And he discovered a great deal, there under the window listening to the band—first time he’d ever really heard a band except for military ones in occasional parades; opportunities to hear music weren’t presenting themselves on every hand in those days as they are now; those were the days of crystal sets for the few. If Rick had grown up in the present scene he’d probably have had his head perpetually inside a walnut radio cabinet listening to this one or that one playing a tea dance. But as it was he had no chance to be led astray; all he ever heard was the pure thing put out fresh by the Cotton Club ensemble.
He went through the stages; first he heard the tunes and they were the whole thing. Those he knew already he recognized with intense pleasure. Beale Street Mamma, he’d say to Smoke at the end of the second bar, and Smoke would say sure enough, as if he’d just had something pointed out to him. He’d never have been caught dead saying how’d you guess or any of the bright things a white connoisseur might have said to a novice.
It took Rick only the minimum time to get out of this sort of thing, to take the tune for granted and forget it in favor of what was being done for it. They always did plenty for it at the Cotton Club. The variations were the real matter, not the theme. What happened was that Rick, the amateur’s apprentice, sat beside the amateur himself and developed his ear to ten times normal capacity by the simple process of listening with it. They sat on a couple of upturned boxes, leaned their backs against the very Cotton Club, and listened. Smoke sometimes beat very softly with the flat of his hand against a garbage-can lid that had got out of place somehow; he just held the thing on his lap and let his hands fall against it, and got, as he invariably did whenever he let his hands or feet fall against anything, some very effective effects. He didn’t intrude his drumming. He just kept the lid on his lap, so that if he had to do something about it he could. No more than that; you couldn’t expect less from so serious a drummer.
Los Angeles weather is all right. Autumn nights stay relatively on the balmy side, and it was no great test of physical courage for Messrs. Jordan and Martin to sit night after night behind the Cotton Club exposed to the Los Angeles elements. It was, as a matter of fact, really very pleasant out there. A beam of light slanted out of the window above them and made a sort of lean-to for them to sit behind. There they could see each other perfectly and smoke cigarettes, not cigars, without having the not-quite-convinced feeling you get from smoking in complete darkness. And yet everything was nicely toned down. For their purpose they were much better off outside than they would have been inside. Inside, the air was enough to befuddle you, and the dancing—the clientèle being mostly negro with a light mixture of Mexicans and Filipinos—was distracting, a whole show in itself. Inseparable as music and dancing fundamentally must be, it is only the layman who prefers to dance to, rather than listen to, really good jazz. Good jazz has so much going on inside it than dancing to it, for anybody who likes the music, is a kind of dissipation. Bach’s Brandenburgs would make good dance music, but nobody dances to them; they make too-good dance music. The improvisations of Jeff Williams and his band weren’t anybody’s Brandenburgs, but they had something in common with them, a kind of hard, finished brilliance.
Smoke and Rick made the walk to the Cotton Club three or four nights a week, after Gandy let Rick go for the night. Good stiff walk too; it must have been a mile and a quarter each way, that makes two miles and a half. They walked down quiet streets lined with two-story frame houses with a date palm apiece in the front yard—reminders that the tree-planting middle class had lived in these houses in another day. They stayed on the streets as long as they could and then sprinted on the stretch up the boulevard. No side-walks there, and one out of ten cars doing its best to sideswipe them. No car ever got them, though; they both had experience on the business end of bowling alleys.
You could tell that it was the Cotton Club when you got there, if you were any good at guessing and spelling, because the management had spelled it out in alternating blue and red lights across the front of the building, and then one thing and another had worked against some of the most important letters. A good two thirds of the N, for instance, was gone, and the upright line of the L, and the lower curve of the B. Kids with twenty-two’s, I suppose, had picked off some of the lights, or maybe cops with pistols and nothing else to do; and a good share of them had gone out, as lights will, of their own accord.
But if the management didn’t care to keep up the spelling, certainly nobody else cared whether the blue and red lights spelled anything or not. What mattered to one, and what mattered to all, was whether or not Jeff Williams was in there pitching. The people came to dance, and there was nothing stopping them; some of them came to listen, and they were well rewarded. Smoke and Rick came to learn, and they got proper teaching. They learned the playing style of Jeff’s band so well that they should have been known as members-at-large.
This playing style is worth some going into. Jeff’s band didn’t play from music, though they could all read music. They had two styles of playing, known to the present trade as Memphis style and New Orleans style. The difference between the two is something like the difference between the two styles of chow mein: in one you get the noodles and the sauce served separately, and in the other sauce and noodles are mixed before they are served. Likewise, Memphis style is sometimes called ‘take your turn,’ and New Orleans has everybody in at the same time. In Memphis the theme is established in the first chorus, and then each man takes a separate crack at a variation on it. This system has the advantage of encouraging competition in virtuosity. It was a point of honor in Jeff’s band for each man to get more into his chorus than his predecessor had in his. It made for a terrific heightening of interest on the part of the players themselves, and it left Smoke and Rick, the impartial unseen judges, choking with the excitement of the chase.