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Authors: Dorothy Baker

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Young Man With a Horn (9 page)

BOOK: Young Man With a Horn
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Rick arrived at the church somewhat later than the appointed time. He pushed open one of the swinging doors delicately with one hand, while with the other he removed his hat, an old black crusher he’d come on the night before in his uncle’s closet, and which he wore for the single purpose of having something to remove in sign of respect. He’d seem hat-holding men in European funeral cortèges in news reels; that much he knew about funerals, and no more.

There was a stirring in the congregation when he entered. He went to the first aisle seat he saw, walking on his toes and holding black crusher respectfully in hand. It was a hard trip, and through it all he kept his eyes completely out of focus in his attempt to see no one, nothing, at all. He sat down alone in a row of seats, cupped his hat over one knee, grasped the brim firmly in both hands and pulled back on it as if he were trying to stop a horse. Then, when he began to feel anonymous again, he eased up and let his eyes come back into focus.

He saw first the bier on which lay the stilled body of George Ward in its gray, flower-hung box. There it was for all to see, a flower-hung box taking the vain stand of protecting that which was beyond protection; and beside it stood a tall black man, a reverend mister, who was taking this occasion, as is the custom of reverend messrs., to evaluate a departed spirit in terms of his earthly deeds.

Rick spotted Smoke sitting in the first row with Hazard and Jeff and Snowden and Davis. He saw only the close-clipped backs of their five heads and the firm set of their shoulders, but in that sight was all sorrow, all solemnity. Five of them, all young, all still on the up-grade, on the positive side, sitting shoulder to shoulder at the last public appearance of one who had been just like them, young and crazy about his work. And now what? There he was, and there they were. Such a juxtaposition gives one to think, or barring that, to feel.

The black reverend did what he could about it; he constructed out of whole cloth and his own head a glamorous picture of life after death, almost enough to make anybody willing to fly to pleasures he has not here, but not quite enough. In spite of talk, the traditional sentiment will prevail among the living. Rick, for one, had no desire to be in George Ward’s shoes. And finally, possibly because there was no use talking, the minister’s message came to an end, and Jeff and Hazard and Snowden stood up and went to the piano. Jeff apparently had decided that it would be better for the piano to accompany two horns.

The three of them wore dark suits in the cut that was the
dernier cri
of that day: wide-bottomed, narrow-kneed trousers, and jackets with breast-high waistlines—the kind of suit that undiscovered Hollywood extras abandon in Los Angeles pawnshops.

The trumpet and the trombone were on top of the piano. Jimmy Snowden stood by uncertainly for a moment, hunching his shoulders and looking around with the preoccupied air of the selfconscious; then seeing Hazard armed with trumpet and taking his stance, he grabbed the trombone and placed himself so that the bells of the two horns came together at the point of an acute angle. No one in the church heard it, I suppose, except Davis and Smoke and Rick, but Jeff hit his heel twice on the floor, one, two, to start them.

They played the only way they knew how to play, in strict syncopation, but they played softly in deep brass tones, so fluidly blended that they sounded like double stops. Jeff never once came to the front; he felt his way along, didn’t trust the piano an inch, and in the end no one would ever have known that there were any keys that clicked on that piano.

They played two choruses of ‘The Holy City,’ and between them Hazard took the verse as a solo, leaving Jimmy Snowden standing there with nothing to do, like those young leading ladies in the musicals who have to stay in the picture and look like rapture while the star sings his song through twice. But Jimmy hadn’t had any training in how to stand gracefully by; he wouldn’t look out at the mourners and he wouldn’t look at Hazard and he couldn’t look behind him, so there was only one direction left and that was toward the gray box. He went, outwardly, through these choices two or three times, and ended up each time looking at the box, seeing it for what it was, and turning away from it with a jerk. The dilemma lasted during the full twenty bars of Hazard’s solo, and when they went into the second chorus together Jimmy fell into the music with the natural flip of a fish returned to water. ‘Jerusalem, Jerusalem.’

When they had played, Jimmy and Art put the horns on top of the piano, and with Jeff they went back to their places in the first row. The playing had brought them back to everyday things so effectively that when they came down from the platform they looked like musicians leaving the stand between sets, not chief mourners at a funeral.

Rick had been sitting with his ears cocked, listening to the music and trying to figure the intervals. When it was over he looked around to see how the audience had taken it and he couldn’t tell much about it, because almost everyone was crying. One woman down in front was crying harder than the others; she was wailing. That one, Rick guessed, would be George Ward’s mother. He looked at her to see if she looked like George, but he’d forgotten what George looked like. And so he tried to figure out which one of them would be Smoke’s mother, and again he couldn’t form an opinion. For him, Jeff and Smoke and the rest of the band were very separate fellows; each one had his special face, his particular voice and manner, his distinguishing marks, his singleness. But when he looked at the crowd of negro women and tried to pick out, on the basis of family resemblance, the mother of Smoke Jordan, he had nothing to go on. Offhand it was like trying to classify turtles. For one who is no turtle fancier differences don’t go beyond differences in size. Mrs. Jordan might have been almost any one of them now forming a line on the right to view, as they say, the remains.

Rick sat where he was. He didn’t want to form on the right. He had never seen a dead man and he didn’t want to start then. He was not without his normal share of morbid curiosity—in fact he’d been seriously speculating on the problem of whether a negro changes color when he dies—but he had a greater share of squeamishness than is allotted to most male beings, and his stomach in times of stress was hair-trigger. When he saw Smoke coming toward him he knew he was safe.

Smoke said he guessed he’d heard him when he came in, but he didn’t want to turn around on account of being right in the front row. Look kind of funny to give a guy a high sign at a funeral.

‘That’s a good tune Jeff picked, just like you said,’ Rick said.

He needed very much to be talking about something, because a woman holding a little girl by the hand was coming up the aisle behind Smoke, and she had the air of being headed toward them on purpose. She was, too. When she came even with Smoke she stopped and said in a low voice:

‘Are you going to go on out to the Cimitary with the boys, or would you like to go along out in the car with Mr. and Mizz Rauson? They got room for you if you want to go with us. Me and Bluebelle going along out with them in the car.’

She was a good big woman. Standing beside her Smoke looked narrow to the breaking point. She was wearing a blue woolen coat with a narrow band of yellowish fur around the collar. Her hat was a black satin turban with a single pearl, or mother-of-same, dangling on the front for decoration. She was largesse itself. It was nice the way she talked to Smoke. The little girl kept a firm hold on her hand. She was busy doing her hopping; she hopped around in front of her mother as far as the arm would let her go, and then she hopped in the other direction, around to the back. She was wearing pink cotton half socks and black patent leather Mary-Janes and a white dress with a pink ribbon tied around the middle. She was amazingly tiny and perfect, like a two-day-old black lamb that has just found out how to run and kick and can’t do enough of it.

Smoke was ill at ease; he ignored his mother’s question and made himself say mamma, this is Rick Martin, my friend that used to work at Gandy’s.

The woman had been waiting for it. She smiled a warm white-and-gold smile at Rick and said that she had heard a lot about him from Dan and that, as far as she was concerned, she was glad to set eyes on him finally. Rick blushed from the scalp down and said, ‘I’m pleased to meet you.’ He was pleased, all right, but he felt his face burning, and so he turned to action. He went down on his heels, saying to Smoke, ‘Is this your little sister?’ And down there he came eye to eye with Bluebelle Jordan, the old drum breaker, who gave him a shy, white-toothed grin and then hid her face in the hem of her mother’s coat.

‘Yeah,’ said Smoke, ‘that’s her; she’s awful cute when she gets to know you, but she always acts like this with strangers. She won’t make up easy.’ He went down too and pinched her lightly on the leg and said, ‘Where’s Bud?’ She turned her head very slowly away from the coat until the white of one eye flashed out at her brother; then she said in a very little voice that broke with the start of a laugh, ‘He was naughty,’ and turned in fast to the coat.

‘Why, Bluebelle Jordan!’ said the mamma, as firmly as she could at a funeral, ‘Bud was not either naughty.’

Bluebelle looked out sidewise just barely long enough to say, ‘I know it.’

Smoke said with some pride that Bluebelle was a great kidder; tell you anything, you never could tell whether there was anything to what she said unless she had to laugh right while she was telling it; then you knew there wasn’t. He stood up and looked around, pulled back to the reality of the occasion. Rick stood up too. Little groups of people were gathered here and there talking quietly or just standing in the aisles waiting for the last act to begin.

‘Gotta go,’ Smoke said nervously. ‘I’m sposed to be one of the pole bears.’

‘Well,’ said Mrs. Jordan, ‘you want to go along out with the Rausons and Bluebelle and I? I imagine they would just as leave take your little friend out too.’ She looked at Rick, making an invitation of it.

‘What do you say, Rick?’ Smoke asked, neither hot nor cold.

‘I don’t know,’ said Rick. ‘What should I do?’ He looked miserable with indecision. Smoke’s mother took it for loneliness, and was two-thirds right about it. It stirred up her motherhood.

‘I know Mr. and Mizz Rauson be pleased to have you go along out with them,’ she said. ‘You don’t need to worry yourself.’

‘Well, then,’ Rick began, looking at Smoke for approval, ‘thank you, I guess I will.’

‘You stay with Mamma then,’ Smoke said, ‘and I’ll find you at the car.’ He left them, and Rick immediately felt easier. He and Mrs. Jordan and Bluebelle went out to the street, and there he made a lot of fancy dents in the crown of his uncle’s hat and put it on, while Mrs. Jordan forced Bluebelle into a sweater she didn’t want to be forced into. She set up something of a noise about it, and in the end Mrs. Jordan concluded that the best thing all around would be for them to go get into the car.

‘You’re the naughty one,’ she said, as they started down the street. ‘And you saying Bud was naughty. Wait till I tell Bud how naughty
you
were.’

Bluebelle still had tears on her cheeks from the sweater struggle, but she looked up at Rick while her mother was talking and laughed out loud. The mother shook her head and told Rick how it was with her children. They seemed to take turns. Henry, the oldest, was a wild one when he was a youngster. No use trying to do anything with him, you couldn’t do it. And then came Daniel, and he was just as easy a boy to manage as you ever saw, stay right around home and mind just like a soldier. She was intending to go right on through them, but Bluebelle, who would have been the climax of the story in any event, climaxed it unaided by looking up at Rick and saying emphatically, ‘I’m in the first grade.’ Rick took the right tack instinctively: ‘How do you like it in the first grade?’ ‘Oh, fine,’ she said, and she was going to say more, but she couldn’t do it. She had to stop and laugh. She simply couldn’t control it.

‘Seems like she takes her pleasure out of out-and-out lyin’,’ Mrs. Jordan said, by way of apology. ‘She only just started recently; a year ago she was just beginning to talk. We better get her going to Sunday School pretty soon now.’

They stopped in front of a blue touring car, a big, outmoded Cadillac, and Mrs. Jordan said this here’s Rauson’s, let’s get on in. Rick opened the door for her and she boosted Bluebelle into the back seat with her knee, and then followed her in.

‘Come on, get in,’ she said to Rick, who seemed to be wavering again. ‘Rausons be along soon as all the boys come out of the church. We might as well be ready.’

Rick got in and sat down. Bluebelle was standing on the seat backwards and jumping up and down, trying to see out of the rear window and chanting over and over, ‘We going for a wide, we going for a wide.’

‘Set down, now, Bluebelle, and take it easy, can’t you, honey? You been so lively all afternoon I haven’t harly been able to keep my mind on the funeral.’ Mrs. Jordan pushed her turban up an inch or so on her brow, as if to be at greater ease, as if to relax a bit after the strain of steering Bluebelle through a funeral. Then she looked across at Rick and said, ‘Was you well acquainted with George Ward, Mr. Martin?’

And that was the beginning of a long, friendly talk which was interrupted by the arrival of Smoke and the Rausons. Mrs. Jordan herself made the introductions this time. ‘This is Mr. Martin,’ she said. ‘He’s a musician like the rest of the boys.’ And that seemed to explain everything admirably. The conversation continued uninterrupted except for the final words of the black reverend at the side of George Ward’s grave. By the time the Rausons’ Cadillac drew up in front of the Jordans’ house, Smoke’s mother knew everything about Rick that he knew about himself, and one or two things besides. And Rick knew much more about the Jordans than he had ever learned from Smoke. He knew that Mrs. Jordan,
née
Adams, had been the only girl in a family of ten with two sets of twins; that her oldest daughter, Marie, wanted to be a librarian, but that Josephine, the fifteen-year-old one, felt more of a call to be an actress on the stage, a profession of which Mr. Jordan could not bring himself to approve, because he had traveled with a circus when he was a boy.

BOOK: Young Man With a Horn
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