Authors: Dorothy Baker
Tags: #General Fiction
Rick was practicing at the Cotton Club the next afternoon and Smoke banged at the back door. He said it as soon as Rick let him in: ‘Ward’s dead.’ Rick was miles away; he’d been working hard. ‘You mean Ward?’ he said when it finally clicked. The two of them stood at the door, Rick looking unintelligent as if he’d just been awakened from a deep sleep, Smoke looking sad.
They stood silent a while, and then Rick’s face lost the fuzzy look he got when music was on him, and he came reasonably back into the world.
‘Gee!’ he said, shoving his hands deep into his pockets and wagging his head back and forth like big business, ‘That’s going to make it bad. Who’ll Jeff get for the traps?’ Then the two-plus-two logic added itself up and Rick turned a bright face up to Smoke as if he’d come independently on something very good. ‘You,’ he said. ‘Gee!’
Smoke confirmed the discovery and looked sadder than ever. ‘Jeff asked me this morning. Poor guy. Here I been playing his drums two nights and wishing he’d stay sick a little while longer, in a way, or take a good rest for a while, and then he just hauled off last night and died.’
Smoke was maybe going to cry; he kept moving the back of his hand back and forth across his forehead and showed his dusty pink palm. ‘Jeff and Davis and I were talking to his old lady this morning,’ he said. ‘She said he came home that first night he got sick, and after he went to bed he started hollering around and she didn’t go in to see him because she thought he was just tight or something, but after while he sounded like he was crying, so she went in and he was rolling around on the floor. She said she thought first maybe he had religion, but then she figured it must be something he ate, so she left and went up to the corner to phone for a doctor, but she didn’t know how to work the nickel phone and lost her nickel and started walking. She found a cop finally clear down on Alameda and he phoned for the ambulance, but old George was pretty bad off when they got to him. They had to take him to the county hospital almost to Pasadena, she said, and write up a lot of papers and the next morning they operated on him, but it didn’t do him no good anyhow. His appendix bust was what happened.’
Rick turned away to avoid the sight of the pink palm moving so constantly back and forth above Smoke’s wide eyes. He walked back to the shell where Ward’s drums were, saying, ‘Sure too bad.’ Then he looked back at Smoke and said, ‘When you going to start?’
Smoke, following slowly, said: ‘You wouldn’t figure a guy all of us knew would haul off and die that way. Everybody knew him. Gives you a kind of a funny feeling for a guy that’s always been around like that to die.’
‘Yeah,’ Rick said, and let it go at that, eyeing the drums.
Smoke, bent on philosophy, discussed death in its narrow aspect and in the large. The large he dealt with very soundly; death comes, he said, to all of us, to the powerful and to the powerless. Take for instance the richest man in the world, he’s got to take it on the same basis as a mill hand. It comes one way or it comes another. What’s the difference, maybe, how you die? Or when? In a hundred years who knows whether you got blasted coming out of a trench with an idea of killing some Germans for your country, or whether you sat it out in an electric chair for knifing somebody you really wanted to knife?
‘They know all right if you’re the Unknown Soldier,’ Rick said, in defense of an honorable death.
Such incontrovertible tribute to honor broke Smoke’s train of thought. He turned back fast to the case in point, to death in the narrow aspect. Here was George Ward dead, and for no reason. Twenty-one years old was all he was. If he could die like that so could anybody, Nathan could, Bud could, you could. A thing like that can make you distrustful, suspicious of the ones you’ve got the very most faith in. Gives you a morbid feeling about every living thing.
‘Old Ward,’ he said.
‘When you going to start?’ Rick said. He didn’t have anything to say about death; the only thing he ever had anything to say about was music. From his own point of view as a pianist and trumpet player he could tell you whether a piece was hard or easy; in a larger sense, as critic, he could say right off whether a thing was good or bad. His instinctive taste was infallible within the bounds of his chosen field. Outside of that he was deaf, dumb, blind, even slightly halt and more or less lame. What was death to him; what was plane geometry; what was Spanish Conversation and Composition? He looked steadily, with appraising eye, at the late George Ward’s drums.
‘I guess I start regular tonight,’ Smoke said. ‘I been playing for him three nights, counting part of the night he got sick, and he only died this morning at four o’clock. I don’t feel so good about it either. Playing a dead man’s drums; I don’t know. I feel like I don’t know how to play a drum, like I never saw one of the things until right now. I could tell Jeff to get Mort Fricke. He’d do it.’
Rick got a gleam in his eye. First time he’d ever seen anything wrong with Smoke.
‘My gosh!’ he said with a flash of real anger. ‘You mean you might not take the job when Jeff asked you and everything? My gosh, you big horse’s tail, something must be wrong with your brains.’
The way he said them they were harsh words. Smoke looked up, shocked; he couldn’t believe he’d heard it right. He sank slowly to the piano bench, laid his head on the black and white keys, and began to cry; no noise, but he was crying all right. Rick looked at the ceiling, then at the floor, and finally at Smoke. His tension broke at the sight of the black head bowed in grief for a dead friend and in pain from the words of a live one. He dropped to the bench beside Smoke, threw an arm around his neck, and with his face on the keys close beside Smoke’s he made a decent confession:
‘I didn’t mean to call you a horse’s tail, Dan. All I meant was you’re a good man on drums and now Jeff needs one, and you’re really good. Why I said it is I like you better than anybody. Damn it, honey, don’t cry any more or I’ll have to too. I’m sorry I said it, and I didn’t mean it. Honest to Christ, I didn’t
He did the best he could, considering that this was the first time he’d ever handled any tenderness directly. His knowledge of the jargon was limited to the lyrics of popular songs. He made it work, though, well enough to make Smoke stop crying. Both of them rose from the piano bench recovered, the one reassured and the other exculpated and neither one embarrassed, though the one had certainly wept like a nervous woman and the other had fallen into the wrong terminology.
Here, Rick said, let’s smoke a cigarette. And they did. And after a moment Rick laid his cigarette in a groove above the keyboard where another cigarette had been laid sometime, sat down again, and said, ‘What do you think of this?’ And he played through the fast part of a piece called ‘Dog on the Piano,’ a tone poem of a sort, sequel to another one called ‘Kitten on the Keys’ which was very popular with that day’s virtuosi. Rick hit right into it and when he’d finished it Smoke said, ‘If I couldn’t see it was you I’d know it was Jeff.’ The extreme compliment. ‘How long you been practicing up on that?’ he said.
‘Oh, about a week,’ Rick said. A lie, a clear-cut lie. He’d spent two hours a day on it for a good three weeks.
‘Play that part again,’ Smoke said. His eyes had lost their beagle look. The whites were once more white. Rick played again, and halfway through Smoke sat down at Ward’s drums, and then it was just a question of time. He and Rick played until the cook was busy in the kitchen and the hall was almost dark. They left together.
‘George’s mother’s getting him up a funeral for tomorrow afternoon,’ Smoke said outside. ‘You could come if you wanted to; it’s just for friends. She asked Jeff to play, and old Jeff don’t know what to do. He can’t think what to play, because it’s got to be—oh, you know how it’d have to be, and he says the piano at the church has got at least six or eight keys on it that won’t do nothing but click, and he’s scared it won’t sound so good. He’s going to see if Art will play “The Holy City” and let him just play the piano part soft, if it’s all right with Mrs. Ward. It’s a pretty good tune. It goes “Jerusalem, Jerusalem.” Sounds good on a trumpet.’
Smoke sang ‘Jerusalem, Jerusalem’ all the way down the block, making his voice ring out clear like a military horn. At the corner where the ways parted he stopped singing and said, ‘You coming to the funeral or not?’
Rick couldn’t say. It was another one of those questions which, faced one way, require careful consideration, and faced the other way, require equally careful consideration. ‘What do
say?’ he said.
Smoke took it slowly. ‘Well,’ he said, ‘it’s for his friends, and you’re one of his friends; but it will be mostly people you don’t know.’
There it was, faced this way and faced that way. ‘Oh, I’ll think it over,’ Rick said with the air of one who doesn’t want to do any more facing. Then, shifting his ground, he gave out a question to Smoke: ‘You going to play tonight?’
‘I guess it’s about all I can do,’ Smoke answered, and like a good poem, the words meant more than they said.
‘I guess I won’t come down tonight,’ Rick yelled from a half-block away. ‘I got some work to do.’
Rick let himself into the dark apartment, went immediately to the kitchen cooler, found butter, cheese, and peanut butter. Then he sliced some bread, precisely, and built himself two sandwiches, one of cheese, one of peanut butter, washed the knife, wiped up the crumbs, and taking the sandwiches with him retired to his studio, the storeroom where he slept.
It was as stern a cell as any devout worker could ask for. A naked electric light bulb hung from a tannish braided cord in the exact center of the room, and directly beneath it stood the one piece of furniture, an iron hospital cot. The walls were lightly hung with flaking blue calcimine which did not look its cheeriest in artificial light, but which, on the other hand, did not look its best in the full light of day either. Rick’s personal effects took up one corner of the room. Three pairs of trousers hung by their heels, full length, from a spike driven into the wall, and from another spike there hung two shirts and a sweater. There was an orange packing box, the two-compartment kind, fitted into the corner; on the top of it, diagonally placed, lay a comb, a military hairbrush, a civilian shoebrush, a tin of shoe polish, and a nail file; on the first shelf there was a pile of things, socks, ties, underwear, and handkerchiefs, all laid straight; and on the bottom shelf there was a pile of sheet music weighted down by an oblong, fake-leather trumpet case.
Rick held the two sandwiches in one hand, stood on the cot, and twisted the electric light bulb until the light came on; then he jumped down and went straightway to the lower shelf of the orange box and got his trumpet and his music. He sat cross-legged in the middle of the cot, under the light, and ate his supper while he looked through the sheet music. He narrowed the choice down to two and finally to one, which he propped up against a pillow at the head of the cot. Then he opened the trumpet case, took the trumpet respectfully in hand, and fitted the mouthpiece into place. He held it away from him, in profile, to admire its lines, polite preliminary to the act of making music. This had become tradition with him, and it never changed. He always felt a mystical relationship between himself and the medium of his music, a kind of personal, conscious communion, like love, only surer. It was a sense that whatever he put into it, it would give him back in equal measure up to a certain point, and beyond that, anything could happen; if he did his utmost the horn might even come back with a bonus, such was the heightened trust between them.
He held it so, in profile, for a good long time, and let himself be flooded with the knowledge that this was his trumpet, it was for this that he had set up tenpins at Gandy’s, and therefore had met Daniel Jordan, and had therefore met Jeffrey Williams, who had taught him to play the piano, and thereafter had met Arthur Hazard, who had taught him to play the trumpet. There in his hand was the silverplated symbol of a chain of scarcely credible events. He put the symbol to his mouth, stiffened his lip, and blew a minor blast. The blast came out the bell-shaped end of the trumpet and brought with it a tone that it had picked up inside somewhere. Very satisfactory. In you blow and out it comes. Blast, blast.
Rick narrowed his eyes and looked hard at the sheet of music propped up against the pillow. ‘Wang Wang Blues,’ one flat. He began to play with a sure, firm drive, and played it through to the end without one false move. He put the trumpet in his lap then, pulled his sleeve across his mouth, and thought it over. Then he started it again, slower this time and with embellishments, the very embellishments that Art Hazard had written into the score for him to try. It was jerky, and he tried to smooth it out. Then he went on to the second choice in the pile of music, and then the next and then the next. When he got cramped sitting cross-legged on the cot, he would stand up for a while, and when he got tired standing up, he’d sit down in the middle of the cot again.
He went back to ‘Wang Wang Blues’ finally, and played the bar of triplets that bothered him the first time over and over and over until there came a knocking on the floor above in sign that some fellow man on the floor above was sick to death of the continued triplets or possibly of the whole performance. Rick told time that way. The knocking never came until at least nine-fifteen. He shook the trumpet, removed the mouthpiece, and clipped it into place in the case; then he put the trumpet itself away for the night, tenderly and with regret. Before he returned music and trumpet to the bottom shelf of the orange box, he lay for a time stretched out on his stomach above the music and sang the triplets, quietly and with faultless phrasing, precisely the way he’d been trying for the last fifteen minutes to play them.
He went back to the apartment. Still no one there. He lighted the water-heater and attached the cord to the iron. Embellishment went on apace, but in another field; he pressed his blue bell-bottomed trousers, shined his shoes, bathed, washed his hair, and shaved. He was going to a funeral the next day.