Over ninety modest row homes occupied the two and three-hundred blocks of East Sheldon Street. Situated between C Street and Rising Sun Avenue, the homes formed a continuous line on either side of the street. The houses across from us were older, taller, and had a small flowerbed in front, whereas our homes, newer and smaller, had a small lawn in the front and back. Our block was flanked by C Street to the north and Rising Sun Avenue to the south.
Before we moved to Sheldon Street, we lived a few miles away on a block of even smaller row homes. It was there that Mom began to send me on errands. So, around five years of age, I started riding to the corner grocery store on my tricycle. Holding my little sister, Mom stood in the doorway with her red bandanna, light cardigan, and dark-colored slacks and watched me. I would ride my bike in my rolled-up dungarees and tee shirt and return with the goods in a basket secured behind me.
As I grew older, I graduated to the next level of independence and responsibility. So, when it was time for me to get a haircut when I turned eight, I could walk to the shop by myself. Nevertheless, there would be an impediment to reaching the barber shop — Rising Sun Avenue. John’s Barber Shop occupied a small storefront on Albanus Street near the other side of the Avenue. Albanus was not very wide, and its one-way traffic emptied onto Rising Sun, which was three times as wide as Sheldon with heavier and faster traffic. Driving it proved challenging to all because two sets of trolley tracks dominated its center lanes. Mom didn’t drive, so walking was my only option.
At one time, John cut hair at a hotel, but now, he was on his own in our neighborhood. An ebonite ashtray with the hotel name, a memento from times past, graced the ledge of his shop along with the instruments of his profession. He posted his motto on a small sign on the store-length mirror: “It Takes Your Head to Run My Business.”
The day of the haircut, the plan was for Mom to call John and tell him that I was on my way. Mom and I would then walk along Sheldon Street until we came to Rising Sun Avenue where she’d make sure that I crossed safely to the other side. When we finished, John would briefly leave his shop and customers to watch me safely scamper to the other side of the avenue. I’d then head back to Sheldon Street.
Our plan didn’t unfold as we’d expected.
To find John’s number, Mom pulled out the phone book, which in Philadelphia was about two and a half inches thick at the time. Those White Pages were the go-to listing for telephone numbers and addresses. Mom proceeded to look for John’s, eventually coming to the right page and gliding her finger to the listing for what she thought was John’s Barber Shop. Mom was not wearing her reading glasses when her finger landed on John’s.
She called the number, and John answered.
“Hi, John, how are you doing?” Mom asked.
“I’m fine, thank you,” he said.
“I’d like to send my son over in a few minutes,” Mom said.
“Ok,” he said.
“And when he’s finished, could you help him across the street?” Mom asked.
After a brief moment of silence, John responded, “Huh?”
“Is this John the Barber?” Mom asked confused.
“No, this is John’s Bar!” John answered.
Both had a hearty laugh when they realized what had happened.
Mom then called John’s Barber Shop, made the proper arrangements, and proceeded to walk me toward Rising Sun Avenue. I safely crossed the busy thoroughfare and was on my way to getting my haircut by myself.
Mom guided me in those early years when I needed her most. Years later, we laughed as we remembered Mom calling the wrong John that day. That day was part of the process of many steps to maturity. I would eventually cross Rising Sun Avenue on my own, and years later, drive the family car along its embedded rails. When I became a parent and helped our daughter cross her own avenues, I fondly recalled the times when Mom was there to see me cross my own.
Ken Romanowski is a person of many and varied interests. Capping off a 45-year career in the business world, he is on the adjunct finance faculty at Rosemont College. Here he has found fertile ground to develop his teaching and writing skills. His love of the arts has been nurtured since childhood, and more recently, his inspiration is his wife, Linda, who recently completed her MFA in Creative Non-Fiction at Rosemont. He concentrates on non-fiction, especially as it relates to early American finance and lifestyle. He is also a regular contributor to online finance publications MoneyGeek and WalletHub.
Kevin O’Rourke had been a fixture in the bookstore for longer than anyone in the neighborhood could remember. At one time, the famous poet and owner of Left Bank Books had stood behind the counter, mostly chatting with up-and-coming writers, but occasionally working the register. When the store closed at ten o’clock, or even later on nights there had been a reading in the dark cramped space at the back, O’Rourke climbed the stairs to his spacious flat, where he’d lived going on five decades.
O’Rourke had never married. He was rumored to have been involved with many women, some famous and some not. On the list of his lovers were writers, as well as artists, actresses, and even a handful of models. As a younger man, O’Rourke’s hair had been thick, wavy and black. He wore it stylishly long. His blue eyes were the first thing women noticed, and then his smile.
He no longer stood behind the counter, but some days could be found in a worn upholstered green chair, situated in a quiet corner of the shop. The chair rested in front of a scratched oak coffee table, with other once-comfortable seats that had long ago lost their support. The chairs were meant to encourage customers to linger.
Everyone of a certain age had read O’Rourke’s poems in high school, which put the bookstore on a list of places to visit when in San Francisco. Since Left Bank Books was located in an area far from tourist attractions like Pier 39, Fisherman’s Wharf, and the cable car line, a trip to the bookstore was considered daring, even a step on the wild side. Usually referred to as Upper Market, the neighborhood sat halfway between the predominantly gay Castro and the once mostly Latino, but changing, Mission District, filled with low-rise apartment buildings and some scattered Victorians, restaurants, and a few small stores.
As far as most people knew, O’Rourke didn’t write much anymore. He had taken up painting sometime after turning sixty. Every so often, he exhibited his paintings, all acrylics, in shows. Past eighty now, he didn’t have the energy to do a lot, other than come downstairs and walk around the store. At some point during the day, though, he usually stepped outside for a walk.
In recent years, his six-foot-two frame had shrunk. Miraculously, his hair remained thick, but had turned white. The eyes were still a deep, almost unsettling, blue, even though the skin surrounding them had become wrinkled and dry.
The neighborhood had changed in O’Rourke’s time living above the bookstore. When the shop first opened, working-class Irish-Americans and their families filled the flats and Victorians, including in the neighboring Castro. Gay men started moving in, painting the outsides of the homes’ elaborately carved facades scores of bright colors. Longtime residents decided it was time to head for the suburbs.
Inexpensive places for working-class families to live had vanished over the decades O’Rourke lived and worked in the neighborhood. Even when young people crowded into flats, turning dining and living rooms into bedrooms for more ways to split the rent, it still took high-tech salaries to live there. O’Rourke used to run across an occasional panhandler sitting with a sign alongside the sidewalk, asking for spare change. Now, entire tent cities existed, sheltering people who had nowhere else to live.
On his walk this day, O’Rourke found himself writing verses in his mind, about the unjust nature of life. Feet from the encampments, people were sitting in restaurants, sipping ten-dollar glasses of wine and eating dishes ordinary folks couldn’t pronounce. O’Rourke mentally scribbled words, tapping out a rhythm with the cane he’d started to use.
Instead of continuing to walk at least thirty minutes, which would mean he’d gone over a mile, O’Rourke was tempted to stop into a café down the street, where the Mission District started. He hadn’t been there for years, he realized. No, the more he thought about it, decades had passed since he’d been inside. Now that a vision of the place, La Roca, had come into his mind, O’Rourke pictured the air smoky and dark. Yes, at that time, the poets, artists and musicians, and the political activists, would still puff away in there, something the city banned ages ago.
O’Rourke was in his forties then, younger, though he’d felt old. There were all those poets and painters from Latin America, their hair long, smoking and talking, arguing about politics and writing and life. Some of them seemed to live in the café, each in his special seat. The memory brought tears to O’Rourke’s eyes.
In that moment, O’Rourke almost forgot his way, as he debated with himself whether or not to stop into the place. Was the cafe even there, after all these years? If it was, who might possibly still be sitting inside? No one he knew, he felt sure. With all that smoking, many of them had probably died.
O’Rourke spotted the sign, a white background with red lettering, after he passed the corner. “The alley,” he muttered quietly, spotting the dark narrow passageway to the left and recalling how the café appeared outside. As he got closer, he could see that someone had painted a brightly-colored mural on the alley wall. Unconsciously, he quickened his steps.
“Well, what do you know?” he said, his gaze fixed on the mural as he smiled.
It was, he could see, a picture of the café’s interior, with some of the regular crowd seated at their usual spots. Before this moment, he’d forgotten some of their names. But seeing the perfect likenesses, the names came back now. Daniel, the poet from El Salvador, sitting in the back corner by himself. And there was Alejandro, the singer with the sweet voice, holding his guitar.
O’Rourke was not expecting to find himself on the wall. Instead, he searched for patrons he hadn’t seen or thought about in decades. As he stood there picking out one after the other, recalling their names and certain qualities, he began to feel as if he’d stepped right back into the past, enjoying the feeling washing over him, a quiet contentment, being with the familiar crowd, but never sure what might happen. Yes, Rodrigo could suddenly climb atop his table and recite a verse he’d just scribbled there in the dark corner and everyone in the place would applaud. Or Alejandro would strum a new song and sing the words in that sweet tenor voice.
Or, and this only happened once in a while, a beautiful woman O’Rourke had never seen until that moment could walk in the door. She would stand there, waiting for her eyes to adjust, after the bright sunlight outside. O’Rourke would will her to come and sit at his table, close to the front door. Sure enough, a minute after he turned away, she would be standing there saying, “Is anyone sitting here,” her fingers resting on the back of a chair across from him.
As he faced the mural, O’Rourke lost all sense of time. By now, he’d forgotten about going into the café. Instead, the old poet returned to the years when so much seemed possible.
He was writing early in the morning then, before leaving the flat for the bookstore. If a woman was in his bed, he slipped out while she slept, brewed a cup of espresso in the small silver pot on the stove, and sipped it black, while sitting in the living room with the door closed. Words formed so quickly in his mind, he had trouble keeping up with his pen.
Of course, he wanted to know what had happened to the whole La Roca crowd. He moved his gaze from the mural to the café’s front door, debating again whether to go inside or not. What if none of the old crowd was there? What if the place was all spiffed up, as so much in the city had become? Wouldn’t that ruin the memories he’d unearthed, looking at the mural and its depiction of all the regulars?
The woman had come to stand next to O’Rourke at least ten minutes before. She hadn’t said a word, as she didn’t want to startle him or interrupt. She often came by the café, checking on the mural’s condition, to make sure none of the neighborhood kids had tagged it with graffiti. Interestingly, the taggers seemed to respect the art, even though they probably knew nothing about the café’s history or the people depicted on the wall.
Sometimes when Miranda, the artist who’d painted the mural, came by here, she ran into tourists admiring the wall. More often than not, they were foreigners, usually young, and often European, though she’d met Australians and occasionally visitors from Brazil or Argentina.
This old man did not look like a tourist. He must live nearby, she thought, probably out for a walk. It suddenly occurred to her that he might have been part of the crowd that hung out in the café, in the old days when the neighborhood was filled with writers and artists, and revolutionaries, whose lives weren’t dedicated to making gobs of money, because they didn’t need much to get by.
Miranda cleared her throat, to let the old man know she was standing there and avoid startling him. Lately, there had been attacks on the elderly, robbing them of anything valuable – a watch, a cell phone, a purse or wallet. The man suddenly turned to her. She could tell by the look on his face that he was a bit confused.
At the moment O’Rourke heard a sound that caused him to turn his head, he was sitting in his usual spot by the café’s front door, and a woman he’d never met had taken a seat across from him. She had long, straight dark brown hair, with a trace of red. Her eyes were green and he wondered if she might be Irish. O’Rourke enjoyed looking at her, and in his imagination now, he thought how much he would enjoy painting her. Maybe if things went well, he could make a suggestion for her to come back to his flat. Right before he turned his head, that thought had made him smile.
“Do you like the mural?” Miranda asked, a question she usually reserved for tourists.
“Oh,” O’Rourke said, surprised, as he hadn’t considered whether he liked it or not.
He didn’t answer at first, but instead thought about what he wanted to say. The pretty woman with the long dark hair was looking at him, waiting for a response.
O’Rourke wanted to say that he’d like to paint her. He would capture the light in her eyes, the shadows below her high cheekbones, and the slight space between her two top front teeth. Before inviting her to his flat, though, he knew he ought to ask something about her.
So, rather than respond to the woman’s question, O’Rourke posed a question of his own.
“Do you come here often?” he asked.
On hearing the question, Miranda realized the man seemed a bit senile, perhaps suffering from dementia. He might have wandered away from a caregiver. Someone could be frantically searching for him now. She wanted to help, so, instead of answering his question, she asked, “Do you live around here?”
Hearing the question, O’Rourke smiled.
“Yes. Just up the street and around the corner. Would you like to see my place?”
Miranda smiled now too.
“Yes, I would,” she said.
So, threading her right arm through the old man’s left, she let him take the lead, as O’Rourke began to fantasize the wonderful time he and this woman were soon going to have.
Patty Somlo’s most recent book, Hairway to Heaven Stories, was published by Cherry Castle Publishing, a Black-owned press committed to literary activism. Hairway was a Finalist in the American Fiction Awards and Best Book Awards. Two of Somlo’s previous books, The First to Disappear (Spuyten Duyvil) and Even When Trapped Behind Clouds: A Memoir of Quiet Grace (WiDo Publishing), were Finalists in several book contests. Her work has appeared in Guernica, Gravel, Sheepshead Review, Under the Sun, the Los Angeles Review, and The Nassau Review, among others, and in over 30 anthologies. She received Honorable Mention for Fiction in the Women’s National Book Association Contest, was a Finalist in the Parks and Points Essay Contest, had an essay selected as Notable for Best American Essays, and has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize multiple times, as well as to Best of the Net.
Many a Philadelphia area college student spent those post-Thanksgiving/Pre-Christmas days working at one of the “Big Three” department stores in Center City: Strawbridge & Clothier, Lit Brothers, or John Wanamaker’s. Due to my mother’s influence, I thought working at Wanamaker’s was the best of all worlds. After all, who could resist the classy interior and exterior window displays, the jagged mountain range stroke of the owner’s signature on the side of the building, and the transportation proximity?
Two other striking figures claimed the store’s signature distinction: the Wanamaker eagle and the annual Christmas fountain and light show. The serene and imposing gilded bronze aviary statue was the focal point for gathering, for claiming “lost parents,” and for bon voyages until next time.
Lifting one’s eyes to the sights, sounds, and waving fountain streams of the hourly Christmas performance stopped shoppers in their tracks and delighted the minds of wide-eyed youngsters who rarely cried during those few minutes of awe. My first recollection of seeing the aqua wonder made me fearful, thinking at any moment, the fountains would fall from their upper stage perch and drown the audience below, extinguishing the prancing lights in the process.
Not every pair of eyes welcomed this holiday diversion. My first Christmas working season in the children’s department in 1972 provided a novel view of the saleswomen employed at the makeup counters. The daily music grinding of “Frosty the Snowman” did nothing for their business. No cash registers rung in harmony with “O, Christmas Tree.” Gazers leaned on their pristine cosmetic display cases; their backs turned away from the porcelain faces of Estee Lauderettes, who resorted to makeup remover to erase the handprints and elbow marks on their precious encasements of promised beauty and glamour. No allure of scented bottled blossoms could overpower the lofty sounds and scenery above the audience. It must have been the bane of their existence, their dreams of pocket money ruined by lit-up distraction. One year, I counted viewing thirty-six performances of Rudolph’s very shiny unpowdered nose glowing across the ceiling.
Every college student on Wanamaker’s holiday payroll hoped to work for the main floor supervisor, Mrs. B., known for her kindness. She was a smartly dressed, middle-aged Jewish lady, brownish-black hair coiffed to perfection, with no-nonsense eyeglasses attached to a pearl chain that hung elegantly around her neck. Her high-heeled pumps that coordinated with every outfit gave her an acceptable height, appearing taller than she was. Her trim figure clicked in tandem with her stride. Mrs. B. took the time to acquaint herself with several of us. One afternoon, during the height of the Christmas rush, she announced that she would retain us for the week after Christmas. We were delighted, as it meant money for next semester’s textbooks would be less of an issue. All we needed to do was follow her instructions without variation.
When we punched in on the time clock on December 26th, Mrs. B. led us to an unfamiliar store area, one at a time. We were placed separately in obscure areas of dressing rooms and stock areas, out of the view of the “suits” who might sniff through the aisles looking for post-holiday imperfections. There were close calls, but none of us were spotted. Had we been “caught,” we would say we were Christmas shopping to maintain our ruse. During that week, Mrs. B. was ubiquitous, her eagle eyes surpassing that stony sculpture’s glance on the first floor. We functioned seamlessly as the suits paraded the aisles, praising Mrs. B. for her diligence and attention to detail. I’ll always wonder if the Wanamaker eagle suspected her and kept the secret, among all the others, under its ornate-clad feathers.
Linda M. Romanowski is a graduate of Rosemont College, in 1975 with a BA in Psychology and Elementary Education, and this past May as an MFA graduate in Creative Non-fiction. She was assistant editor of Non-fiction for Rathalla magazine, Rosemont’s literary publication. Her Italian heritage-based thesis, “Final Touchstones”, earned with distinction, is scheduled for publication by Sunbury Press within the coming months. Several of the essays from her pending book were published on City Key, Ovunque Siamo and the Mario Lanza Institute Facebook page. She recently reviewed Ellen Stone’s poetry book “What is in the Blood” for the online Philadelphia Stories 2021 Fall issue. Her poem, “Seen In Translation” was selected for inclusion in the Moonstone Arts Center Protest 2021-100 Thousand Poets for Change.
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-Gnats, Philly 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.
In 1952, ten men assembled in a modest two-story building, in the Spring Garden Section of Philadelphia at Ridge and Callowhill Streets. They worked as technicians for Remington Rand Inc., founded by University of Pennsylvania graduates, J. Presper Eckert and John Mauchly. One of these technicians was my father.
That night, the group set out to do what had never been done before – with six Univac computers spread out on their test floor, they’d predict the results of the 1952 Presidential election. It worked out according to plan – they determined early on that evening that Eisenhower would win the election.
A quest in the present can help us to access eras, events, and people who are meant to live on forever. My pilgrimage to the Mario Lanza Museum was such a quest, evoking memories of one of the greatest tenors of all time. It would include visiting the museum, the Mario Lanza mural, Lanza’s birthplace, the Italian Market, and St. Mary Magdalen de Pazzi Church.
The most recent South Philadelphia location of the Mario Lanza Museum at 7th and Montrose Streets was sold to a developer. The new location at 12th and Reed Streets was scheduled to open during the late spring of 2019. My cousin lived across the street from the now “former” museum, and I called her and excitedly told her about my upcoming pilgrimage. She would join my husband Ken and I on our visit to the church.
In the early 1960s we were a young, row home family. Dad was employed while Mom was a homemaker. My parents saved enough money to take the four of us, including my younger sister and me, to a Big Five college basketball game in West Philadelphia. For us, this was huge.
Our destination was the Palestra, located on the campus of the University of Pennsylvania (Penn). This 8,700-seat arena was the hub of the Big Five, which included LaSalle, Temple, Penn, Saint Joseph’s (St. Joe’s), and Villanova.
Swimming, my arms slice through the water, one arm, and then the next. Over and over. My fingers are held firmly together, and pointed, like the head of a spear. My shoulders swivel from side to side, twisting my torso. My muscles are like pulled taffy, pliable, twisting, elastic. A continuous flow of power – an electric current of physical, bodily, energy – courses through my legs. They are scissors cutting the water. My feet are fins, paddles, webbed-like, kicking and churning up the water, leaving a continuous splashed trail of bubbles in my wake. The water is cool. It slides over the smoothness of my flesh. I shed it like ever-changing layers of liquid skin.
It was one of those houses that had been dumped on the side of the street, meticulously equidistant from the houses on either side. It was one of those houses where the hot water never ran out in the winter and the air conditioner never broke down in the summer. The neighbours in the similarly-shaped houses shared gossip and borrowed cups of flour and pretended to like each other until the door closed and the lock clicked and their sincere thoughts came to light. It was a neighbourhood with the level of superficiality typically found in the suburbs.
One of my Grandfather’s greatest pleasures and talents was his green thumb, which, because he was so tanned, I’d jokingly refer to as his “Italian Brown Thumb.” In the mid-seventies, when he came to live with us in Roxborough, my father and uncles made a small garden patch for him at the side of the house, and every inch yielded vegetables, plants, and flowers – there wasn’t a seed which wouldn’t grow for him. Grandpop’s favorites included the Italian herbs, oregano, parsley, basil, and rosemary. His summer harvest yielded far more than we and our neighbors needed, so he decided to dry the herbs and bottle them for use during winter months. He’d methodically cut the herbs, wash them gently, and then string each leaf with needle and thread in a long strand, hanging them on the clothesline, rigged up from our garage door to the end of our driveway. The herbs which dried best were oregano and basil.