By: Antwan Crump
< I >
I was just a boy when she thrust me into manhood. I had no business traversing her sumptuous curves -yet -somehow I was chosen. I’d seen men fall to their knees – weakened at the thought of her disrobed silhouette. Her dresses never left much to the imagination. Even at sixteen, barely accustomed to my own erection, I knew she was more than just another piece of trouser candy. I had to have her.
I wasn’t allowed in the jazz clubs. “Stay away young man, go home and study”. Oh, I studied. All it would take is some facial hair and swagger. Luckily, my brother knew how to stencil in a phony beard. Looking back, it was pitiful – a testament to my young desire. The bouncer knew, but I think even he could appreciate my determination. We were still friends until his death – mostly, because I think he enjoyed hearing the stories.
Follow the music, I thought to myself, as I checked my tweed coat. Okay, okay, it was my father’s. Don’t judge, my ambition knew no bounds. Smoke filled the room – a combination of tobacco and it’s pine-cone smelling counterpart. I miss it. The band played the smoothest melody-one that could even crack a Nazi’s demeanor. How could you not sway as they play the gay of humanity? The old meaning of gay, not the slur. Foolish children.
I sat alone in a booth in the back of the night-club. My face itched from my stenciled in “beard”. The piano helped distract me from scratching. The keys man , the keys. And the chords man, the chords. Strung together like a blanket of dove feathers. It enveloped me. Encapsulated me. It, screw it man – just play.
I ordered a glass of champagne to keep up the illusion. Of course I got some stares, but I was well-behaved -so they let me be. I just sat in my booth and listen to the masters play. Damn, how they played. I had almost forgotten my mission. The muses, they would call it. A dimly lit stage filled with hope and pain, manifested in a swirl of smoke that danced along with the pull of the bass strings – the soundtrack to my wanting, my waiting, the inevitable.
Two glasses of champagne later, I became flustered and impatient. As I pondered leaving, absent of achieving my goal –it happened- she approached like a seductress, her hips swaying with the sensuality of a serpent stalking prey.
“You new around here?” she asked.
I shuttered at the thought of responding. I believe I said “I am.” She smiled and sat beside me. I nearly released at the smell of her perfume, the warmth of her body so close to mine. It still makes me quiver. She continued her attempt to speak to me -in a tone even angels would envy-, I listened – trying my best not to get too lost in the fullness of her lips.
“Got a light?”, she asked, attempting to break me out of my racing imagination.
“Got a light?”, I was still gone.
The band had distracted me. It was like a dream. The woman of my heart, the music of my soul – playing in tandem. I was just a boy. How would you have handled it?
“I guess a girl’s gotta’ fend for herself?” she joked.
I forced myself to re-enter the moment. In the smoothest transition from my fantasy, I answered “Yes.” – reaching into my pocket I felt around for the matches I had stolen from my brother. Hey, he wasn’t using them.
“Tisk, tisk honey.”
They had been hanging out of my shirt pocket. She had no issue pointing this out. A class act, she giggled and tipped her flapper toward them. I giggled back and retrieved them. Lucky for me, I had a fascination with fire. I guess that’s why she attracted me as well. I had no problem lighting her up. Jesus! Even the way she puffed from that thin tube – further proved her yearning…. her insatiability.
“Thank you darling”
We sat for a time and enjoyed some wine, I shouldn’t be mixing drinks – but I had to impress her. She swayed with such sexual fluidity – as the band played the theme of our union. I stole every glance I could, until she noticed.
“Can I help you with something dear?”
She had no idea how much she could. I had to play it cool. “No, no sweety. You’ve done enough.” I’ve heard too many of these machismo stories. Each line I said, more plagiarized than the last – but it seemed to keep her attention.
“You some kind of hustler or something?”
I should’ve said no. In my only original response of the night, I said “If it’s working”. I’m pretty sure she was charmed by the sheer naivety of my answer. We laughed. She placed her hand on my leg, ever so gently. Thank god I was wearing dark pants.
“You’re sweet.” she said.
As I smiled, she licked the thumb of her glove, and wiped some of the stencil off of my cheek. I was caught in my childish attempt at deception. The color flushed out of my face. My erection ran into hiding. Before I could come up with an excuse she laughed, and told me to – “Get that mess off of your face.”
Embarrassed, I panicked and thought of running. She grabbed my belt and pulled me back into my seat.
“Stay and enjoy the show honey.” she said -staring directly into my eyes. She would later tell me she saw past the boy – she saw the man I would become. She was full of it, but papa always said “Never fold when the cards are in your favor.” He probably meant something else. The lesson applied either way. She tamped out her cigarette and approached the stage.
“Ladies and gentlemen please put your hands together, and give a warm welcome to the lovely, the beautiful, the talented, Miss Esperanza.”
The crowd gave a subtle applause. I joined, (along with some obnoxious hooting), then to returned to clearing my face of the stencil. She sang – as beautifully as one could imagine.
It took me.
It took all of us.
Had I been more experienced, I’d have been ashamed. She knew what she doing. To her I was a trophy. The actualization of an innocence she’d sought in the world. An innocence that she now owned – for eternity. I’m glad she has that. I’m glad I gave her something -especially since satisfaction was not yet my specialty. Needless to say, the door was now open and I’d never be the same.
< II >
She left me stiff, yet limp in that bathroom stall -the kind of thing only a man could understand. I’m not sure how long I sat -inebriated via dissemination (I think that’s the polite way to say that I came). A few songs at least. The first thing that I vividly recalled was the melting of the saxophone into the melody of the other instruments. I tucked my manhood back into my pants and adjusted my clothes the best I could – knowing my next move would be to rush out of the club.
I snuck out out amidst a sea of drunken patrons, they all looked the same as I had, just moments before -when I was still in heat. It was easy enough. I even stole a bottle of champagne as I left. I doubt that anyone ever missed it.
The bouncer stopped me just outside of the door. He had to have noticed my darting eyes, and guiltily satisfied grin.
“You enjoy yourself young man?” he asked as if he’d seen the whole thing.He’d never admit it – but I’d convinced myself he’d known. To be polite I smiled and nodded. He returned the grin and punched me lightly on the shoulder. “Get outta here.” He was right, it was time for me to go. I’d be in trouble when I got home – but as you could imagine- I didn’t care much. Not after that night.
I caught a beating less than five minutes after returning home. Momma’ must’ve been particularly pissed – she could barely string together a sentence as she swung the steel pan against my backside. My brother, of course, found the whooping amusing. Once she tired, she resigned to her room -instructing me to clean up the blood once I was able to move. I still remember thinking -”that’s a puddle of MAN’S blood”. My concerns may have been misplaced. But I was a MAN now. Men don’t quibble over their deserved beatings
“Where the hell were you?” my brother asked through his relentless laughter.
I didn’t want to tell him that our plan had worked, way better than expected. Besides, I didn’t need him squealing to ma. As much of a man as I was, I didn’t think that I could take another beating (men know when they’ve had their fill). He helped me to my feet, and retrieved the mop and some soap from the kitchen.
“You gonna’ be alright?”
I just smiled. Before he too returned to bed, he made a point to inform me that I smelled funny. I guess I never expected Esperanza’s scent to stay with me as long as it did. It became one of her defining attributes in my mind. A little gift that I would leave with, every time we were intimate. Looking back they had to know, or at least have an idea. I never did wash those trousers.
Some, time went by this way. Though she would never admit it – I knew that she had fallen in love with me, as much as I had with her. How could she not have? I no longer had to sneak into the club. By then they had all known who I was, and what I was there for. Well, I also enjoyed the music.
I was eighteen, when my perfect little world was turned upside down. I remember having a smoke with the bouncer -Johnny- who had since our first encounter become one of my dearest friends. We were talking sports I believe. He was really into the idea that he could go pro. I took to calling him the water-boy. As much as he hated it, that was the only time he’d ever spent on the field. Waterboy Johnny, I miss that guy.
Esperanza walked out of the club, as beautiful as ever, except she had this unnerving twitch – as if she’d just gotten the worst news of her life. I asked her what was wrong. She snatched the cigarette from my mouth, and took a long draw. The water-boy and I laughed, until she very seriously asked me to come to her dressing room. I knew this wouldn’t be sex. Something was wrong.
I sat down, she gently shut the door behind her, as not to attract too much attention. I poured myself some wine, before I could even take swig – she burst out a phrase that I could tell had been fighting it’s way to the surface –
The words hit me like a dozen rounds from a Tommy-gun -followed by comforting thoughts of having an infinite future with the love of my life. I tried to hug her – she refused to be touched, instead preferring the warm embrace of the wine I had poured for myself. I was too young to know what this all meant. Luckily -or unluckily – she wasted no time filling in the gaps.
“We can’t do this!” she screeched. Trembling as tears made their way down her light ebony cheeks.
I did the best I could to comfort her. Too young, I was just too young. Staring at the lipstick print that she had left on the glass, I meditated on what to say to convince her that we’d be okay. She babbled -I ignored her rambling and assured her that we could make it work.
Gently rubbing her head with her index finger and thumb, she continued-
“ I got an offer today. They want me to tour the country with them. You have to understand, this is my dream. I can’t stop now. Not when I’m so close.”
As devastating as it was-I understood- but the heart has a way of turning off your rationality. I did my best not to scream. I offered to join her. Why not? I thought. I’d be graduating in a month any how. She smiled. We kissed and made love for the final time that night. She promised me that we could talk about it more the next day.
I was all too happy to tell Waterboy, he was excited as well at the prospect of being an Pruncle (i.e. pretend uncle) to the child -he knew would be family to him as well. I didn’t sleep that night, instead I stayed awake and drew out a plan for my future family. When I returned to the club the following night, Waterboy stopped me at the door.
“We’re closed tonight.”
I knew that he was of shit. I heard the music.
“You don’t want to go in there.”
I asked him why, he fell silent. I pushed my way in. He tried to stop me at first, but he knew better than to come between me and Esperanza. I barely noticed that the band playing was not the usual crew. Asking around for her, no one would give me a straight answer. That is, until the owner escorted me to her dressing room.
“You’re not gonna like it kid, but it’s wrong to keep it from you.”
I made my way into the room. All of her things were gone. Holding back tears as I surveyed the empty room, he continued-
“Esperanza left with the band earlier today. I’m not sure where exactly they’re heading – they just picked up and left me with the B team out there. I’ll give you a minute.”
He closed the door behind him, I fell apart seconds after. I blamed myself, I blamed the world, I blamed god. I’m not certain how long I was in there. I do know that Waterboy had to come in for me. I suppose it would have been easier, if she said goodbye. Maybe not. I don’t know. On our way out the bartender called to me –
“Hey kid, you’ve got a package.”
I didn’t think about it, I just took it. Waterboy and I walked down to the docks. In retrospect, I know I’d gone there, with my last shred of fleeting hope, that she’d have changed her mind. We sat in silence for a while, and smoked until our lungs couldn’t take anymore. Breaking the silence Waterboy asked –
“Well, what’s in the box?”
I had completely forgotten about it, though it had been sitting next to me this entire time. I opened it expecting – anything. For a moment, I hoped it was a gun with single bullet. I wouldn’t be so lucky. It was the wine glass from the night before, and half a bottle of her favorite wine. Instinctively I poured a glass – hoping that tasting her lips one last time would offer me some reprieve. It didn’t. We watched the sun come up, and went home. I spent the next few weeks isolated -in and out of a drunken daze – mostly crying.
< III >
I think it was about a month, before I gathered the strength to leave the house. I wasn’t so much afraid of socializing, as much as I was afraid of seeing her. It’s amazing what a broken heart can do to your psyche. Just the thought of what “may have been” – can dismantle a person. I’ll admit, the liquor probably didn’t help – but to be honest- there are few better alleviations from pain, than the disconnect that alcohol gifts to you. I returned to my emotional ground zero – likely smelling like an old distillery. At least I was out of the house.
The sun was blaring. It was one of those long summer days, the ones that drunks -like me- hate. Pushing around ten at night – it still seemed like dusk. Too hurt to care, I returned to the club with emboldened confidence. I had heard through the grapevine that a new band was playing that night. As I used to, I walked in -with no words to Waterboy, or any of my other past associates. They didn’t seem to take too much offense to my reclusivity.
I sat in the same booth, where we first met- and just drifted away with smooth bellowing of the bass, hoping- maybe to recapture some of that old innocence. The drinks flowed non-stop. Sad to say, I may have hit a plateau, anything past the first few shots, may have well had been water. I kept going anyway. I stand by what I would tell Waterboy that night – when he became overly concerned. It wasn’t sadness. I was trying to die, in the place where the only life I’d ever cared for had begun.
I stuck around for the whole night. After a while, of marinating in the alcohol and cigarette smoke – the hallucinations began. It’s funny how the worst things in life – always manage to be the things that stay with you. I saw her in every corner, more often than not, I envisioned her with another man. A better man. I took pride in the fact that I’d never reacted -at least not outwardly. The visions would eventually swirl together with the memories – perhaps I’d deserved this punishment
A few seasons went by like this. Momma’ passed. My brother had joined the army. We lost the house. To keep myself fed, I took up a job as a busboy at the club. They shouldn’t have hired me. In reality, they probably just wanted to keep an eye on me -just in case I croaked one night. I had caught some of the musicians betting on which way I’d die. Whether by “accident” or on purpose. Once Waterboy caught wind of the gamble, he made sure to beat their sax-player within an inch of his life. Soon enough I had company in that sad booth. Million Dollar Miles. I don’t remember if I ever thanked Waterboy for that.
Miles had been the backup sax-player for the club’s newest musical attraction. Nobody really liked him. But we were smack dab in the middle of a drug epidemic. Miles was undoubtedly the epicenter , at least for us. Just before closing time he could always be found in the alley next to the club. Shooting dice, talking shit, and selling “H” – man could that guy sell. We always told him he should have been an entrepreneur. His response was usually – “I am.”
I specifically remember the day that we became friends. Well as friendly as a junkie can be with his dealer. He had been lecturing me about the dangers of alcohol – ironic I know. Miles’ father had died when Miles was barely seven- years-old, via consumption, of course. One of his first, and most vivid memories – was his father on the floor choking on his own vomit, and going into shock. Needless to say he took particular offense to how I chose to drown my sorrow.
‘Why you putting that in your body man?” he would say, in attempt to embarrass me. With a cigarette dangling from his lip, he would often continue –
‘That’s poison in that bottle there. And for what? Some fleeting high? A hangover? A limp dick? No, no no – my brother try this.”
It wasn’t the first time that Miles had offered me heroin. Thinking about it now, it may have been the last. I would normally say no, but this particular week had special meaning. The club was closing, and I was about to be unemployed and homeless. So the thought of “Fuck it!”, ran through my veins almost as swiftly as the H. My first time nodding was a paradise.
Every other time was hell.
“Man I’m telling you! You and me we can rule this world. We just need the opportunity!” -Miles always became a prophet when he was high. I hated it, but he was my dealer.
“We hit the road, we do some freelance work. We both work the same job, on different days. Pile up enough dough to buy – like a ton of this stuff. We sell it across state lines for twice it’s worth, and bang! Millionaires.” – he always waved that fucking gun when he was trying to make a point.
“What you think man, what you think?”
I thought he was drugged up out of his fucking mind. I’m not sure what fleeting thought made me think that this was a good plan. Then again, the bar had just closed for the final time. What else was I going to do?
Luckily enough, Miles still had an in with the band. He was their dealer too. When he got wind that they were going to hit the road and tour the country, he jumped at the opportunity to volunteer the two of us to be their roadies.
A word to the wise, never be a roadie. The job is essentially babysitting the scum of the human race – helping them get high and laid, while you wash their shitty underwear, and carry their shittier instruments.
I said my goodbyes to Waterboy, and got on the bus to nowhere. The next few months were kind of choppy but we got high, we got paid, and for a small bit of time – life seemed like more than a poor-man’s snow-globe.
< IV >
It was fun. Though I’d be lying if I didn’t admit that it had been a rather tangled affair. It felt as if we had to replace a member of the crew in every city we went to. A couple died. A few of them fell in love. Other’s just sort of vanished. Once we got to the middle of the country, only four of the original nine of us remained. Me, Miles, Pistol Pete, and our driver – Damn it, Doug.
Funny story about Doug. We called him Damn it, Doug, because for some reason, anytime we had lent him a needle – he’d find some spectacular way to lose it or break it. Once , he even bit the needle off of the syringe when the cap got stuck -that was a shaky night. Aside from that he was a good guy, and fairly competent driver – we just couldn’t trust him with much else.
We stopped at a bar in the deep south. We didn’t have any planned gigs. The lead singer had just overdosed as well – so we were mostly there to mourn anyway. Our presence wasn’t very well received – nor should it have been. A bunch of junkies, searching for a fix, bargaining for cheap vodka. I’d hate us too. Fuck, I hate us now.
Doug and I ran up a tab – in an attempt to stall while Miles made some money to cover it outside. Had we been sober, we likely would have just cut and ran. But man, when you’re that strung out, you have the confidence of a freakin’ army. It wasn’t until about five drinks in, that I heard it.
“Ladies and Gentlemen, please give a warm welcome to – Esperanza!”
It was a different Esperanza.
My gun didn’t know the difference. A lot of people died that night. Doug and I fled the club – when the cops showed up. We barely noticed Miles’ body swinging from a nearby tree. We drove until our bus ran out of gas. We sobered up, in the time it took for the tank to empty -then we walked.
We made our way on foot down the the highways of America’s lesser states. We lost track of the days, though I’d blame that mostly on the drugs. Doug and I got down to a final dose and a single needle. We shared it. I was never proud of that. It was disgusting. Invasive. I’ll have to live my life, knowing that man and I had run through each others veins. This addiction. A gamble whose results lay in the dead eyes and deader veins of its’ hosts. But, say what you will it can make a poet out of a simpleton.
I was never certain of what killed Doug that night. The drugs, I’d thought – but I’d taken them too. In my opinion it was the shame that killed him. The shame of that moment and of all of the others that we’d allowed to create that predicament. In either case – he never woke up. I’m not happy to have left his body behind. Even a junkie deserves a proper burial. But Doug was two-hundred some odd pounds – and I was in withdrawal.
I wandered this way from town to town. I usually got work in stables and kitchens. The grunt work – that the owners could get away with paying under the table for. Most nights, I was able to negotiate a place to sleep -in the cases when I couldn’t, I would have to share my needle. I hated those nights more than the dozen or so spent on the curbside. A funny trick about sleeping on the streets, as long as you’re up before five, no one notices.
Eventually I’d made good with enough people to properly settle down. I knew all of the prostitutes, druggies, dealers, gangsters – you name it – I’d interacted lovingly with them, and I’d like to think they view me the same.
Soon enough, landed this gig. I still shoot-up every now and again, but an old man like me much prefers whiskey – easier on the bowels. Besides, I’m where I belong. Right next to the jazz.
< V >
I apologize for talking your ear off. Sometimes it does an old man good to hear his own story out loud. Though, I suppose that for you – the young people- still wet behind the ears; this could be your heroin. The thing that changes your life forever. But what do I know is that I’m an old man. All I can say for sure, is that some stories, just deserve tellin’. Excuse me.
“Ladies and gentlemen, please welcome our very special guest – All the way from Harlem, New York. Esperanza!”
Sorry about that, I’m trying to keep this singer around.
She doesn’t recognize me. I almost prefer it that way. She can still sing the hell out of a tune.