Words and Polaroids by Frank de Blasé
It was late night... or perhaps just too late. Those who had somewhere to go and someone to go there with were long gone, their tables already bussed, with chairs stacked upside down on them. The cocktail waitresses had counted their fortunes and the barkeep had his jacket on. They all had anywhere else to be. Yet we were still honkin’ heavy with a savage swing. It was righteous.
I probably would have wrapped it up sooner if it weren’t for the red-hot redhead sitting ringside. She perched on the edge of her chair, legs crossed, back arched as to present the artillery. She was an ample sample of femininity to say the least. And whoever poured her into that green dress had obviously forgotten to say “when.” Man, she looked righteous.
She had that come-hither sparkle in her eye. That look a musician lives for, gets hooked on and lost in long after life loses its luster. That look that promises thrills. That look that’s so often followed by trouble, jealousy, and fists. But it appeared her date had gone a few extra rounds with Jim Beam. He was face down on the table, out cold, his hand still wrapped around Jim’s last gasp.
She blew me a kiss. I caught it and reciprocated with a wink. She was ready to go and I needed a place to stay. I shot wink number two towards the drummer who wound us down to a finish. I wiped my horn and threw it in its case. I slipped on my jacket as I walked to her table.
“Ready to go?” I asked. No point in being coy; it was late.
“What about him?” she said, looking at the pile slumped next to her.
“Throw him in a cab and meet me out front.”
“A gentleman would offer to help a lady.”
“A gentleman wouldn’t try and make time with another guy’s girlfriend.”
“Wife,” she said. “He’s my husband.”
I chuckled a little. “Whatever you say, toots. You oughta lose the zero and get with a hero.”
Her face went cold. She pursed her lips. She slapped me hard. I slapped her right back. It’s chicks like this that make me glad I travel lIght; just a fresh shirt and socks in my horn case and a stack of girlie pictures that reminded me of the good times when I was facing bad times. These beauties didn’t talk back, they didn’t have another Romeo in the bull pen. Just the very thought of them could keep me warm. I could stare at them for hours. Now, they were righteous, dad.
Suddenly a million pretty little stars appeared everywhere accompanied by the ringing of a loud bell. Hubby had rallied and pulled a Pearl Harbor on me with a chair. Apparently, Jim Beam hadn’t been as thorough as I thought. The stars faded to black… lights out.
The pounding in my head woke me up on the sidewalk. There was blood in my hair and things were a little blurry. My drummer was pacing back and forth in front of me, taking quick, angry drags off his cigarette. He looked steamed.
“I quit,” he said.
“What the hell for?” I tried to sit up.
“The numbers don’t add up.”
My head was really beginning to pound. “Whaddaya talking about?” I said.
“I had to settle up while you took your nap here on the sidewalk and he paid me the 100 bucks a man he says he’s been paying us for the last year-and-a-half. You’ve been paying us 60. He flicked his cigarette at me and spit on the sidewalk.
“You’re a scumbag,” he said and walked off.
“Yeah, well, try and find another cat who plays like me,” I shouted as I struggled to my feet. “I play it righteous.” The words echoed in my head as if it were a cavern; righteous… righteous…
3 am. Nowhere to go. No one to go there with. I needed a drink. I headed toward the Emanon, a dive that made most dives look like the Waldorf. It was situated beneath the bridge where the train galloped on its brief sojourns above ground before snaking back into the bowels of the city. I’d spent a week there one night years ago and hadn’t been back since.
If I were lucky it would still be open. If I were lucky I could still get a drink. If I were lucky, maybe I’d get lucky.
“Righteous… righteous” was getting louder and was now echoing down the street, no longer confined to my skull.
The eyes of the Lord are on the righteous and his ears are attentive to their cry…
The preacher stood atop his suitcase outside the Emanon bellowing, waving his Bible over his head and pointing at all the sinners that weren’t there. He wore a black suit that looked slept in. His hair was slicked back, save for a stray lock across his damp forehead. His eyes burned dark and intense. When his fingers weren’t accusing, they snapped in sort of a sweet Beat kinda way; catechism with a cadence. I had heard these bible-beaters before, but this was kinda swingin.’ I stopped to listen.
…The Lord’s curse is on the house of the wicked, but he blesses the home of the righteous…
He singled me out. It wasn’t hard; I was the only one there.
“Art thou wicked or art thou righteous?” he asked me
“I art righteous, man,” I replied. “You oughta hear me play.”
…The righteous man leads a blameless life, blessed are his children after him…
“Well, I ain’t blameless, that’s for sure,” I said.
The preacher dialed down the volume and looked sadly at me. His fire and anger melted into disappointment.
“Then you are not righteous, son,” he said.
I suppose there ain’t a whole helluva lot of his type of righteousness walking the streets this late at night, but what did he know of my righteousness, this man of God?
He started back in, riffin’ and rollin’ on his whole righteous bit as I headed for my own righteous oblivion.
The neon sign in the window flickered “Ope.” I walked inside.
The place was crowded and smoky. It reeked sweaty and stale. The din of endless hustles, delirious diatribes, junky tantrums, sub rosa one-on-ones, and incoherent rants assailed my ears. This was where the bad times rolled.
The jukebox on the far wall tried its best to be heard above it all but was doing a better job holding up the hooker jamming quarters into it as she shouted obscenities at the floor.
Booths along the wall were filled with those employed by the various industries that open their doors after midnight; shifty, shady, shameless characters. A pimp speaking in a loud whisper as the girl he was with tried to twist her arm free, a he/she pretending to check his/her lipstick as he/she spied on the room in a broken compact mirror, and three greasy degenerates making plans. It was clear none of them trusted one another enough to pull off whatever caper they had in mind. They’d all be in jail or dead by the end of the week, the lot of ’em.’
You don’t look anybody in the eye here. I made my way across the sticky floor toward the bar and collided head on with five feet of too much makeup and not enough dress. The dress and its contents said woman, but the cigarette, the heels, the spatula’d makeup all said too young and trying too hard.
“Looking for company?” she slurred.
“Isn’t this a school night?” I asked. “How old are you?”
“15,” she shot back as if that’s what she thought I wanted to hear.
“Really? 15 year-olds who can do what a guy like me wants the way I want it done have been doing it with a funny uncle or brother or step-dad since they were 10 and are a one-way ticket to jail and/or the clinic.”
She didn’t give up that easy.
“I can do things to you that you’ve only read about,” she said.
“I don’t read. Scram.”
I copped a squat at the bar.
This is where you roosted if you flew solo. Inevitably some gal would try to make friends or some hustler had something to sell, but for the most part you could sit there and vanish.
I ordered a scotch with a beer chaser. I gunned them both and snapped my fingers for the bartender.
“Encore,” I said.
He slid round two in front of me.
“Howsabout you, chum?” he asked the guy wearing pajamas next to me. “The first one was on the house. You want another?”
“I ain’t got any money,” he said almost choking on the words.
I was beginning to feel better but the preacher’s words were still dancing in my head. …And Jesus said: I desire mercy, not sacrifice. For I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners…
“What the hell,” I said. “This one’s on me, pal. I’ve had a rough night, too.”
He grabbed the dirty mug and began lapping at it before it barely had a chance to leave the bartender’s hand. He clutched it close like a dog with a bone. He was shaking and sweating profusely.
“What’s your story, pal?” I asked. “Why the evening wear?”
He didn’t answer. The hag to my left spoke up.
“The Emanon’s customer appreciation policy,” she said througeeth that looked like a skyline.
“I don’t follow…”
“He just come from St. Vincent’s,” she said. “The Franciscan Fathers run St. Vincent’s hospital downtown. Drunks get sent there as a last ditch effort to sober up. If not, their next stop is the morgue.”
She cackled some more as she pulled money out of a wallet and stuffed it in her blouse. She gave the pictures inside a quick once-over before tossing it on the floor. I instinctively felt for my billfold.
“What’s with this customer appreciation policy?” I asked.
“You come to the Emanon with your release papers or show up in St. Vincent pajamas and your first drink is on the house.”
I looked back over at ol’ PJs. His glass was empty and he was sobbing. I looked back to the hag but she was gone. So was the change I had left on the bar. Two drunks behind me were singing loudly, the degenerate meeting in the booth had degenerated into a fistfight, the he/she was making out with a clueless collegiate as his buddies looked on in hysterics, and everything --- the smell, the noise, the desperation --- seemed to be turned all the way up. This whole scene was righteously low down.
I ordered another drink. Righteous. I got to thinking. Righteous. I ordered another drink I got mad. Righteously mad.
30 years of petty crimin,’ two-timin,’ moochin,’ smoochin,’ usin,’ abusin,’ scammin,’ shammin,’ with a general lack of responsibility or concern for anyone, I was anything but righteous myself.
I got up a little unsteady from the booze and my dead-end epiphany. Righteous. The jukebox honked more honky tonk.
I made it down the narrow hall past the couple doing their vertical interpretation of the horizontal mambo to the men’s room. The jailbait who gave me the come-on was out on the floor next to the urinal. Knocked out? Passed out? Who knows? Just out.
I turned on the sink and puked in it. I immediately felt better. I splashed rusty water on my face. I lit a cigarette and looked in the mirror, searching for a righteous man.
I lit another cigarette and threw them both in the garbage along with a big handful of paper towels. I leaned it against the stall where the chipped paint immediately lit up. I straightened my tie and headed back to the bar.
“C’mon,” I said to PJs. “We’re getting outta here.”
I took him by the arm and we both stumbled out. PJs helped me drag the heavy steel newspaper rack towards the Emanon. We jammed it up against the door where it wedged under the doorknob. I could still hear the preacher in full orchestration. We followed the sound of his voice. …The name of the lord is a strong tower; the righteous run to it and are safe…
He recognized me as I pulled out my horn. PJs leaned against the wall and slowly began to slide to the ground as if he were melting. I could smell smoke.
…For Christ died for our sins once for all the righteous, for the unrighteous, to bring you to God…
“I dig you, preacher,” I said. “You’re a righteous cat.”
The preacher’s fingers stopped snapping and he pointed at me.
“Have you ever done one righteous deed?”
I looked at him and smiled. “Dig this,” I said, And I began to play.
Flames began licking out of the Emanon’s barred windows. The faint sound of screaming inside was drowned out by a beautiful symphony of the preacher, PJs’ uncontrollable laughter, the passing train, the approaching sirens, and my horn.
“Have you ever done one righteous deed?” he repeated.
“I just did, preacher,” I said. “I just did.”