“Lips Boudreaux” by James Knipp

The fat guy at the bus stop reminded Leonard of Tug Rooney.  He didn’t especially look like Tug.   The fat guy was tall and white and had the well-fed jowls and loud, bright voice of a suburban Rotarian, while Tug was short and gimpy with ashen skin and an asthmatic wheeze brought on by breathing decades of smoke.  It was more in the way they both could spin into a tale, the way the audience leaned in expectantly, especially the ladies, and how each always ended with a flourish, riding a wave of laughter through the finish.  Leonard had once asked Tug how he did it, how he commanded such attention. 

Tugs had put one hand on the back of Leonard’s neck and drew the younger man closer so he could smell the stale beer and cigar smoke that seeped from his pores.  He pointed at Leonard, the ever-present stub of cigar wedged between his fingers and said in his broken, sibilant croak, “Lips, you believe in what you say, people will follow, understand?”

Leonard, not quite a whisker past twenty at the time, didn’t, but he nodded all the same.  That was just how he was with Tug, when he asked, you nodded.  He had that way of making you agree.

The Rotarian at the bus stop finished his story and the ladies around him cackled laughter.  A bus growled up to the stop, belching diesel, and he strode away.  The ladies watched him leave with bird-like avidity, their eyes bright and admiring.

“He’s so nice,” one of them whispered.  The others nodded approvingly.

More buses came to the stop.  Brakes bellowed mournful whale song.  One by one, the ladies folded behind hissing pneumatic doors to be carried away to kitchens and dinner tables in Cherry Hill and Collingswood and Washington Township.  To husbands and children and houses that would soon grow dark and quiet as the winters night settled slowly around them and their day came to an end.

Leonard pulled his coat tighter and shivered. It wasn’t as cold as it should be, not for January, but it was cold enough.  He should head to the shelter.  They would put him up for the night, make sure he had something warm, but the bench held him fast.  The traffic along Broad Street thinned.  He watched long shadows stretch from the giant paintbrush, a silly and gaudy thing that sat next to the Fine Arts Academy and thought of Tug, and the club, and how he used to make that trumpet say things he never could in his own voice.

“Lips, you wouldn’t say shit even if you had a mouthful,” Tug would holler from his seat by the bar.  And Leonard would nod, and then Buster would start plinking that piano, and Milo tap on that snare, and Leonard would raise that trumpet to his mouth and he would disappear, and Lips Boudreaux would fill his spot. Only then would he speak, the wailing notes letting everyone at The Trap know about pain and loss and redemption.

“Don’t listen to him, hon,” Billie had said.  “That old fool been talking shit so long, he don’t know how to shut up.”  They had been naked when she said that, wrapped together under dingy sheets in his apartment above the club. The flickering neon sign cast them into discordant reds and washed out white.  Tug owned the sign, the club, the apartment Leonard rented.  Hell, he owned Leonard himself, courtesy of the contract Leonard signed the day he arrived in Philly, a battered, all-but-empty valise in his left hand, his trumpet case clutched in his right.  Tug had heard him play, had taken him out to buy a steak, and a new suit, even a woman; and then he had laid the crispy, white contract before him and urged him to sign.

Leonard had read it, or tried to.  The words swam before him, blurred by liquor and obscured by the promise of $50 per week, a king’s ransom back in Holmes County.  “What does ‘perpetuity’ mean?” he had asked.  Tug fixed him with rheumy grin, clapped him on the back, and said, “It means until you don’t want to play no more, son.”  Leonard had nodded and signed.  He had his doubts, his mother didn’t raise a fool, but to not sign meant getting back on that train to Mississippi and he couldn’t do that.  He had failed in New Orleans, he damn well wasn’t going to fail up here.

Bright light pulled him from the past.  A police car pulled to the curb, its searchlight speared the darkness and pinned Leonard to the bench.  He stiffened, and remembered a time when this might lead to billy clubs and beatings, even in the so-called enlightened north.  He never got caught up in that, and when the earnest young men would appear at the club and urge him to lend his voice to a cause, he simply demurred. People were people, and nothing he said could change that. Milo went to the rallies, sometimes came back with blackened eyes he wore as a badge of honor.  “What’s right is right, Lips. And this ain’t right.”  But Leonard would just shrug, and play on.  He supposed the abuse still happened today, at least that what the papers left on his bench said.  The light flicked off and a voice called from the darkness

“You’re not planning on sleeping here?”

Leonard jumped.  The voice that called out from the cruiser was Milo’s.  He’d know it anywhere.  Then he remembered that Milo was in Jersey, buried next to his wife.  He tried to peer through the open window of the vehicle and a face swam out of the void.  Not Milo at all, just a young cop making the rounds.

“Sir, you can’t sleep here.  Snow’s coming.”

Indeed, flakes had already begun to fall, coating the bench in a thin layer of cotton.

“Yes, sir,” Leonard called. His voice cracked in the frozen air.  He pointed towards city hall and the shadowed bus that lumbered around the corner. ‘I’m just waiting on the 400.”

The cop shrugged.  The car pulled away.  Tug, dead these passed forty years, stood beneath the giant paintbrush across the street, nearly obscured by the falling snow.  Leonard shook his head, rubbed his eyes and Tug disappeared, replaced by the plastic dollop of paint that completed the sculpture.  Oldenburg’s Paint Torch they called it.  Milo would have called it a giant pile of Day-Glo dogshit, and laughed that crazy laugh.

Milo had been the one to introduce him to Billie.  She was his wife’s cousin. He brought her in to watch them play, and when their regular singer that summer – some college girl who had run off to get married and left them hanging like forgotten laundry – Billie had stepped in. She stopped the world that night, her voice a huge and living thing that filled every corner and made people forget their drinks, their conversations, to turn their head and just listen.

Tug had been there with the contract before she even finished that first set, that same rheumy grin he laid on Leonard four years earlier.  Billie had taken one look, and laughed that smoky laugh that singed every nerve ending in Leonard’s body.

“Take that thing away, Mr. Rooney.  You want me to sing for you, I’ll sing, but I ain’t signing my name to nothing that don’t involve records.”

The contract disappeared, never mentioned again.  And Billie King became their regular singer.  For seven years she belted out the favorites.  For seven years she brought people in, from Philly, of course, but also from Jersey, and New York, and Baltimore.  Leonard didn’t remember exactly when they became lovers. They got along immediately, fell into each other’s cadences and rhythms.  He instinctively knew when to let the horn fade, to let her voice carry the song, and knew when it was time to step forward and let the horn do the talking.  And then one day they shared a bed.  That simple.  No pronouncements of love or devotion, they just slid into place, like they belonged.

“You know the best thing about you, hon?” She often said, while his head lay on her breast and her fingers traced fiery trails through his scalp.  “You know when to step back and let a girl shine.”

That was of course before the big fight.  Before the record man came with his promises and lured her away to California.

“Come with me,” she urged.  “You can play horn out there, too.”

He had gone to Tugs.   Told him he didn’t want to play for him anymore and was heading to California.  Tugs pulled open the drawer of the decrepit filing cabinet crouched in the corner of the office behind the bar.  Metal scraped against metal in a discordant screech and Leonard winced.  Tug retrieved the contract, slapped it on the desk, and stabbed one stubby finger into the center.

“See this word, ‘perpetuity’, it means ‘till I don’t want you here no more.”

By then Leonard had known what it meant.  Until then, he’d had no reason to care.

 “You can’t stop me from leaving, Tug.”

Tug had grinned, and Leonard knew in that moment he’d lost.

“Sure I can’t stop you, but I can sue you.  No one likes a contract breaker, Lips.”   Tug had paused, clouded eyes fixed to Leonard’s face.  He shook his head.

“Ah, hell, Lips.  I don’t care about the goddamn contract.”  Tug sat back in the chair.  The springs squealed. He blew smoke towards the ceiling.

“Billie’s going to be big.  Too big for you.  She’ll leave you in a year, and then what will you do?”   He turned back toward Leonard, pointed towards him with the cigar.  “And if she don’t, you’ll hold her back.  You gottta see that, right?”

Leonard had nodded.  Of course Tug was right.  Billie King didn’t need a second rate trumpet player to back her up, not when she could have a Kenny Dorham or a Chet Baker, or even a Miles Davis.  Leonard was small time.  He had failed in New Orleans, and had no guarantees he’d do anything good in California.  Philly was where he belonged, and in Philly he had to stay.

A bus stopped.  The woman sitting next to him, a shapeless shadow bundled against the cold, hurried towards the open door.  She paused and looked back, and in the warm inviting light spilling from the bus he saw Billie’s cocoa skin and aquiline nose.  Soft trumpet emanated from within the bus, a little Stella by Starlight. She smiled, stepped onto the bus and disappeared behind the polarized glass.

“I should have gone with you, Billie,” he murmured.  The snow fell harder and he pulled his jacket tighter.  Miles’ trumpet continued from somewhere in the darkness, echoing off silent buildings.  Stella had always been their favorite.

He had brought her few small bags to the car the record company sent.  They looked lost in the cavernous trunk of the new Eldorado.  She had waited for him by the back door, silent, eyes damp, beseeching.  She touched his face.  “It’s not too late.”

He put his head down. “I can’t leave.  This is where I belong.”

 Billie sobbed softly and slid into the back seat of the Cadillac.  The car pulled away and he watched until it disappeared down Broad Street.

Her first record came out a year later.  Then a second and a third.  He had bought them all, filled the apartment with her voice.  Some nights he pulled out his horn and played along.  She never got to play with Miles, but the trumpets that accompanied her were accomplished enough.  He saw her once, briefly, on the television, her hair done up in a style she’d never worn back here, some outlandish fur draped around her shoulders.  She had been sitting with a man he did not recognize and they both laughed uproariously as the camera caught them.  That laughter never touched her eyes though.  In that brief moment, it seemed to Leonard that something essential was missing.

And then she was gone.  Stolen by a demon that lived in a needle. Ruined by men that drained every last drop of spirit from her and cast her empty shell aside. That night at the club he launched into the solo they had worked into Stella by Starlight and kept going, his horn shouting over that year’s singer.  She muttered “Lips, Christ” but he continued.  One by one they stopped playing around him.  Buster’s piano tinkled to a stop, Milo gave one last hissing tap on a cymbal.  Silence fell over the club and he felt the weight of four dozen eyes fall upon him. He kept blowing, pouring everything into the horn, lamenting promises broken, wailing into an indifferent world for everything lost and forgotten.  And when he was finally spent, when the last note faded into the smoke-tinged darkness he had stood, panting on the stage, and thought that one is for you, Billie.  Always for you.

“You played beautifully that night,” Billie said from beside him.  Leonard started, snow sliding from his shoulders.

“Best I ever did,” he answered to the empty bench beside him.

Tug died the following spring, the cancer that had sprung from his throat spread through his body like the kudzu back in Holmes County.  Leonard sat by his hospital bed and watched captor and friend disappear beneath a confusing array of tubes and wires.  Milo came by several times and together they talked about twenty years of shouts from the corner of the bar, of singers come and gone (After Billie, Juanita had been their agreed upon favorite), of the places the music had taken them.  Tug’s sons, sober young men without a note in their soul stopped by, checked in, and left, often without saying a word to the two old musicians sitting bedside.  Leonard often wondered if they even saw him.

The boys sold the building and The Trap joined the parade of jazz clubs that disappeared from Broad Street –  Zanzibars,  Checkies, Suede – all buried under concrete and glass monstrosities that urged people to buy, buy, buy.  Drugstore chains and clothing stores piping ersatz music that spoke to no one, and concert halls that no one could afford.

He sometimes stopped on the corner, using his trumpet to tempt loose change into the old case, until someone – a manager or a cop – told him to leave.  He found jobs, especially in the nineties when the Jazz scene began to make a comeback and the clubs sprung up in the North East, but work was sparse now.  No one really wanted a tired, old horn player.

A flourish of trumpet and light flared from the empty convention center behind him.  He turned, amazed at the crowd of people, sitting in twos and threes around tiny tables that had sprung out of nothing.

“I hope you ain’t sitting here feeling sorry for yourself, sugar,” Billie said.  She grabbed his hand and placed it against her warm cheek.  “You’ve had a lot of good, too.”

“That’s right, Billie,” he whispered.  “And you was the best part of it.”

“Hey now,” Milo laughed from beside him.  “You and me had some times together too.”

Leonard whirled.  Milo leaned casually on a column, cigarette tucked beneath his lip, a spare drumstick wedged behind his ear.  Tug stood next to him, a trumpet case in his hand.  The convention center doors stood open. A quartet stage set up and waited for the music to start. Buster already sat at the piano.  Milo flicked his cigarette and sauntered inside, his long hands beating a rhythm against his narrow chest.  Billie gave him a lingering kiss and slid away.

“Don’t keep me waiting, Sugar.”

Tug remained outside, his head cocked, cigar clenched in the corner of his mouth.  He raised the trumpet case towards him.

“What do you say, Lips.  You gonna honor that contract?”

“That was never a fair contract, Tug.  You know that.”

Tug grinned and shrugged. Leonard took the trumpet.  The old club owner waddled away in an acrid cloud of cigar smoke.  Leonard unclasped the case and found his old horn, the good one with the pearl-inlaid buttons that Billie had bought him before she left.  He had sold it for rent money.

Inside the convention center, Buster plinked on the keyboard.  Milo beat a light staccato on the snare.  Billie scatted some scales, something she loved to tease the crowd with before each set.  The audience murmured its approval, and Leonard felt sudden warmth blaze in his chest.  His heart pounded, his lungs filled with air and he felt it, the music, coursing through him, waiting for release.   He placed the trumpet to his lips, let the horn wail, his fingers jumping nimbly through notes, making them dance like fireflies in the Mississippi twilight.  Billie gave a primal shout and opened her arms and Lips Boudreaux strode up to the stage.  It was time for him to do some talking, and he had a lot to say. The snow fell and grew into a shroud, covering Leonard in white that would remain undisturbed until morning.  Somewhere from the darkness, a horn wailed, and for a moment the few remaining souls who wandered Broad Street stopped and marveled as the note spoke to them of love and hope and the knowledge that all things lost will someday be found again.

James Knipp is a graduate of Rutgers College with a BA in English. He is the creator of the humor blog KnippKnopp and a frequent contributor to the pop culture site Biff Bam Pop He has had work published in Crypt-GnatsPhilly Flash Inferno and the anthologies Long Tales and Short Stories from South Jersey and In a Flash.  Jim’s first book, Everything you Need to Know About Being a Grandfather (Quirk Books) was published in 2019.

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