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by Harry Buschman
Someone was playing the piano in the sitting room. They weren’t playing very well, they knew the music but the piano was not their instrument. It didn’t matter… no one was listening.
Outside on the porch that wrapped around the west side of the house, Jerry was too preoccupied to listen. He kept his knees tight together and he rocked back and forth, his hands gripped the arms of his chair and he fought the urge to struggle to his feet. “Damn,” he said… “ain’t that the damndest thing?” He stared intently into the mulberry trees that separated the lawn of the old house from the highway. then he turned and looked at Rudy in the rocking chair next to him.
His roommate Rudy had fallen asleep in his rocker hours ago. Both men chose to avoid the heat of the sitting room in the retired musician’s home this stifling late August day.
“Rudy,” he asked. “You awake, Rudy?”
Rudy and Jerry spent a lot of time on the porch together this summer. “The Musician’s Home” was not air-conditioned and the tall French windows in the sitting room facing south made it unbearably hot in the afternoon. The two men spent their afternoons watching the traffic on the State highway. Rudy couldn’t see very well even with the thick glasses he wore and he got bored quickly. He often dropped off to sleep leaving Jerry to watch alone.
Rudy was pretty near deaf also. Fifty years ago he was a drummer with the Fats Waller band. Drumming does not necessarily deafen a person, but Rudy’s drum set was always set up next to the trumpets and Rudy still took a dim view of most trumpeters and tended to avoid them, even the retired ones in the home, except for Jerry who played trumpet with the Jimmie Lunceford band. Rudy never played with Jimmie Lunceford so he had no reason to blame Jerry for being hard of hearing.The two men rarely had a coherent thought between them, and It was often impossible to tell if they were thinking at all.
Jerry and Rudy were not senile, they were artists, retired members of long forgotten bands, but artists none the less. Their memories were mired in the popular songs of the thirties and forties of the last century. They found it difficult to recall the past except through the music and lyrics of the songs they once played. Jerry often thought of the tragedy of World War II in terms of the song... “The Boogie-Woogie Bugle Boy from Company “B.”
Like everyone else in the retired musician’s home, Jerry and Rudy thought life was a simple passage of events, and the answer to remembering each stop along the way could be found in the lyrics of the music they once played with Jimmy Lunceford, “Fats” Waller or dozens of other bands in a lifetime of dance halls across the country. Even though they played instruments they remembered the lyrics of the music they played. The words made the music easier to remember and a passing phrase or a headline in the newspaper could trigger a song and rekindle the memory of a moment in their life.
The two old band men spend their endless afternoons humming the blues and watching the trucks roar by on the State highway. As old men occasionally do, they relate their past successes to each other. They will not discuss the failures. Their failures have been forgotten long ago, and if one of them remembers one by accident, the other doesn’t want to hear about it.
When one of them drops off to sleep, the other usually has the good sense not to bother him, so when Jerry asked Rudy if he was asleep Rudy knew something was wrong.
“Kinda. Yeah, I think I was... why, what’s up Jerry?”
“The funniest damn thing.”
Rudy shifted his weight on the cane seat of the rocking chair, “Tell me what’s so funny about wakin’ me up.”
“I thought for a minute I was dead.”
“I don’t getch’a.”
“Just now. Lookin’ off into the trees, I lost track of where I was and who I was and it was like walkin’ into a movie in the middle.” He began to feel silly and a little guilty for waking Rudy. “Ever go to a movie in the middle? I mean, like y’don’t know what’s happenin’ or who the people are?”
“Well, I think that’s the way bein’ dead must be.”
Rudy thought for a minute, then shook his head in disagreement. I think maybe you dropped off to sleep y’self, Jerry. We went to Fletcher’s funeral last week – it was probably on your mind.”
“No, I had my eyes wide open. Watchin’ the traffic comin’ and goin’. I was thinkin’ all the time how funny it was for us to be livin’ in a place where nobody ever stops.”
“I don’t getcha.”
“They keep passin’ by. Nobody ever stops here. Just whiz by... and I figger there must be some place better’n this that they’re goin’ to. Maybe I got a little look-see at it when I thought I was dead.” He leaned back in the rocker and shoved his feet straight out in front of him. “Y’know Rudy – what I’d like t’do sometime?”
“When the weather gets a little cooler I’d like t’get down off the porch of this damn place and walk on over to that highway and hitch me a ride outta here.”
“Where would’ja go, Jerry?”
“Don’t matter much. Somewhere away from here, wherever the traffic is goin’.”
“They’ll ask you where y’goin’, Jerry. Nobody’s gonna pick you up if you don’t know where you’re goin’.”
Jerry hadn’t thought about that. “I’ll tell ‘em I’m goin’ north. That highway out there runs north and south, see, we’re facin’ west, so the lane nearest to us is headin’ north.”
It was all too much for Rudy. He watched Jerry run his fingers through his slicked down hair and decided that this might be a good time to go back inside and see if it had cooled off any. He got as far as both hands on the arms of the chair and gathered himself together to stand when the screen door banged open and there was Dixie Robinson.
Fifty years ago Dixie sang with Andy Kirk and Chick Webb. Upbeat. Blues, a slip of a girl with a bar room voice and a memory for lyrics like a slip and fall lawyer. Now she was a boneless, inflated woman, unsteady on her spike heels. She walked in a rocking rhythm, pirouetting and dipping at times as though she were dancing with a partner. At times she would spin on one heel and the rug would twist under it, but someone was always there to catch her before she fell. It was almost always an elderly band man, as unsteady on his feet as Dixie was, and the two would struggle to stay upright.
She painted her eyelids blue to match her eyes and the effect was to make it appear that her eyes were never shut. Her once brassy hair was pink now, and the consistency of candy floss. Dixie knew the lyrics to every song she ever sang just as Jerry and Rudy did, they ran through her head from morning to night. She would mouth them silently as she walked in a trance-like rhythm from room to room. She never walked into a room without making an entrance, nor would she ever exit one without a bow or a curtsy, therefore her sudden appearance on the porch before Jerry and Rudy, although neither man paid much attention, was noisy, tumultuous and worthy of applause.
Before the screen door had fully closed, Dixie passed in front of Jerry and Rudy and pirouetted on her heel. She looked them over carefully and snapped her fingers. “How come you good lookin’ strangers are out here alone? You should be inside with the rest of us talkin’ over the old days.” She began to hum and closed her eyes half-way. The blue of her eyes and the blue of her lids giving the impression she had two eyes in each socket.
“Love was just a glance away,
A warm embracing dance away.”
“Strangers in the night, remember?”
“Why don’t you sit down, Dixie,” Jerry said. “You’re makin’ me dizzy.”
“I can’t sit, I’m too worked up.” She bent over, snapped her fingers and, stepping up on her toes, she did a shuffle backwards until the porch railing stopped her. “You will volunteer for the new band, won’t you boys?”
Neither Jerry nor Rudy knew what she was talking about, nor did either of them care enough to ask.
“The home’s gonna have its own band. You knew that didn’t you? Both men looked at her blankly. “What’s the matter with you two?”
“I haven’t blown a horn in twenty-five years, Dixie. It ain’t like ridin’ a bicycle you know. You lose your lip.”
She was irrepressible, and while she swayed and hummed her way through... \"Fill my heart with song, and let me sing forever more” she went on to explain how they were to be known as ‘The Elderly Band’. “I love the name, don’t you? I used to love Bob Eberle.”
“I sold my drum set when I quit,” Rudy said.
Jerry said he couldn’t play the trumpet any more... “the nerves in my upper lip are all shot,” he said. Y’can’t play a trumpet when your lip is dead.”
Dixie was both unquenchable and adamant. She insisted they go inside and look over the new arrangements that old Sachs had made. “You can’t tell ‘em from Glen Miller and Jimmy Dorsey,” she said. “C’mon it’s gonna be a great band and we’re gonna play every Saturday night. The home says they’ll arrange to sell tickets... imagine... it’ll be like being on the road again!”
Rudy struggled to his feet, but Jerry hung back. “Let’s go check it out,” Rudy said. “Can’t be any worse than what we’re doin’ out here on the porch.”
“You guys go ahead, I’m gonna sit here awhile... watch the sun go down.”
Dixie figured she roused one of them to come along with her and that was a beginning. She took Rudy’s arm and steered him to the screen door, her buoyant step was in sharp contrast to Rudy’s arthritic tread.
Jerry was in no mood for music. He watched the sky turn pink slowly above him. The orange sun was low in the west now but the state highway was still in sunlight and the low hills that formed the horizon in front of him stood out sharply against the sky.
He hated the past and thinking back to the band days always made him feel guilty. When he was alone there was nothing he could find in his memory to comfort him, nothing to look forward to in his future, certainly not here in the retired musician’s home. He pulled himself out of his rocking chair and stood at the top of the steps that led down to the ragged lawn that stretched all the way to the Mulberry trees lining the State Highway. The grass was dry. There were brown spots and patches of dandelions had taken over. Inside someone started playing the old piano with their foot on the sustaining pedal. Through it all he recognized, “On the Sunny Side of the Street.” Dixie’s voice was on top of it. “She’s a pro,” he thought, “Don’t matter how much noise there is, you can always hear the girl.”
He gripped the handrail tightly and took the steps slowly, one at a time. He stepped out on the dry grass and stood there looking westward, thinking of the lonely towns he played in. “Empty, more than lonely,” he corrected himself. “Unfriendly to people passing through.” He remembered Natchez, Twin Citiesno, not actually remembered, no, the names he remembered, but none of the places or the people. “I never walked a street in a strange town where I heard somebody say, ‘Hello Jerry. Good to see you back Jerry’, no, not in any town, not ever. I was a stranger wherever I went. No wonder we played the blues.”
... and still Dixie sang,
“No one here can love or understand me,
Oh, what hard luck stories they all hand me,
Make my bed light the light,
I\'ll arrive late tonight,
blackbird bye, bye.”
As he slowly made his way across the lawn, the music from the home grew fainter. The piano could barely be heard now, but Dixie’s voice still hung in the air... “Isn’t it a lovely day to be caught in the rain? She was really reaching back. The mulberry trees were just ahead and the cicadas finally out-sang Dixie Robinson.
He thought back to his wife and daughter, Joanna was his daughter’s name, “She’d be in her thirties now.” His wife? “Well, as old as me,” he guessed. “I just walked off. That’s what I did. Never looked back. Never wrote. Never sent any money home. I left her sitting there feeding the baby. Packed my precious horn and a two-suiter and off I went with Lunceford, never looked back. It was the Goddam music... plain and simple. Playin’ music was all that ever mattered.”
He reached the line of mulberry trees, they were higher than they looked back on the porch. The traffic noise from the highway was louder and the cars and trucks traveled faster than he realized. Back on the porch they took forever to pass his field of view as he sat in the rocking chair. It was more leisurely back there. Here it was noisy and frightening, they passed him by with a roar, like projectiles, and after they’d gone by they set up a gust of polluted air that almost swept him off his feet. He realized what a crazy idea it was to think somebody would stop here to pick him up. Cars and trucks were passing him at breakneck speed, far in excess of the limit. No one would ever stop to give an old man a ride.
The sun dipped below the rim of the western hills now and it began to grow dark under the mulberry trees. Most of the cars and trucks had turned their headlights on, the glare and noise was more than Jerry could take. He backed under the trees for protection, tangling his feet in the leathery vines that grew at their bases. He felt he had made a terrible mistake by coming here, and turned back to see if the home was still there. The lights were on now and he wanted above all to be back there with his friends again, singing the old songs and telling his stories of life on the road.
He stumbled across the field in the darkness until he could hear the music again. The traffic noise faded and as it did he heard the voice of Dixie Robinson again ...
“No one ever tells you how it feels to walk alone,
Listening for those footsteps through the echo of your own.
Suddenly it hits you all those dreams weren’t worth a dime,
But no one ever tells you in time.”
“They’ll be glad to see me, I know they will. It’ll be like old times again.”
©Harry Buschman 2005
The art of art, the glory of expression and the sunshine of the light of letters, is simplicity.