Friday, August 12, 2011

FICTION: The One Armed Blues by Chip O’Brien

That was it. I was done with romance, resigned to a solitary existence. I had my records, mostly 78s from the 1920s. You know, Louis, Bix, Bessie Smith, some early Duke. I had my books, all from the same period, Fitzgerald, S.J. Perleman, Langston Hughes, that crank Mencken. I was a freak about that stuff, had been collecting it for years, and it was all I needed. It’d been the same with Rachel as it had been with all the others. We’d had nothing in common. I was an anachronism, obsolete, born too late. I was serious. No more girlfriends. Nothing ever lasted, so why bother?

Now that I was permanently single, I was going to live where I wanted and spend my money how I wanted. I’d seen an apartment for rent in the old Delmonico building. The Delmonico was this hotel built in the early 1920s in Chicago, one of those high rises they were building all over the country back then. It’d had a reputation for musicians, gangsters, bootleggers, writers, politicians, and prostitutes living and hanging out there. Back in the twenties there were all night parties and jam sessions galore, bootleg gin, the works. Even a couple of murders.

So the second night I’m there I’m in the kitchen heating up a can of soup and I hear, real faint, strains of “The Charleston.” Just a piano. No band or anything. And I bust into the dance right there in the kitchen. It scares the hell out of me because I’d never actually done “The Charleston” before, and I’m doing this thing like mad, the music playing in my head or the ether or wherever. I’m not in the best shape, so soon my heart’s pumping like crazy, and I realize I can’t stop. So I scream out “Stop!” and the music stops and I drop to the floor, just like that. I’m sweating and shaking and it’s the weirdest thing that’s ever happened to me.

I sit on the couch and just shake for a while. When I finally start to calm down I get this image in my head of this dingy little shop and this sign, J.J.’s Used Records. Before I know it I’m on my way downstairs and out on the street. I walk three blocks, turn left and walk another two, and end up at this little used record shop. It’s closed. I try to leave but something’s keeping me there. Not really physically keeping me there. It’s like I can leave but I won’t until I get what it is I came for. I start banging on the glass door but stop because I’m afraid I’ll break it. But then I give in and rattle the hell out of it. A little bald guy opens the inside door, looks me up and down, all ticked off, and asks what the hell I want. I tell him I don’t know and he starts to shut the door. Then I shout out “Frankie James’s ‘One Armed Blues’,” which I’d never even heard of. He opens the door and gets all squinty-eyed. “Collector?” He says. I just nod and I’m in like Flynn. He gets all chatty, tells me how he’s got the original recording of James’s “One Armed Blues,” and how he’s a got a boatload of Louis Armstrong and his Hot Fives and Sevens, all originals. I start to get all pumped because I hadn’t known about this place and I’m starting to think about all the old records he might have. But then I get all obsessed with the Frankie James record, so he digs it out for me. He’s got two copies and says he’s willing to part with one. “How much?” I ask. He tells me to make him an offer. I figure it’s pretty valuable to him and offer him fifty bucks. He just shakes his head and slips the record back into the sleeve. “Hundred,” I say, which I totally can’t afford. But he just shakes his head again and tells me he won’t take a dime less than five hundred bucks. I laugh at how ridiculous the price is for a record I’ve never even heard of – and I’m a fan of the era – but at the same time I’m pulling out my wallet and handing him my credit card.

Back in the apartment I get out my Victrola, one of those deals with the big horn. Honestly, records sound like hell on those things but the look kills me. I love it. Frankie James’s cornet starts moaning these sad, sad blues, and then this black woman starts to sing this ballad – sounds like Sippy Wallace but her name’s nowhere on the record, so I can’t be sure. The song’s about this prostitute, Jo’s her name, whose gangster boyfriend gets jealous and ties her to a train track one night to teach her a lesson. She loses her arm and then he nurses her back to health. But he’s this jealous guy so eventually he kills her by throwing her out a window, and he gets the chair. I’m sitting there listening to this stuff, bawling my eyes out, as if it’s me that got thrown out a window and lost an arm, or like it’s someone I know. After I torture myself with this stuff like ten more times, until I know all the words by heart, I stand up, go into the bathroom and rummage around until I find this old tube of lipstick Rachel must’ve left that I hadn’t even known I’d had. With my left hand, which I can’t write with, I try to scrawl some letters on the mirror. Finally, I realize what I’m trying to write on the mirror is someone’s name. I try to sound it out. “Jo,” I say. And then I get real scared and think maybe I’m losing my freaking mind. I run back into the living room, sit down on the couch again and resist all urges to go back in the bathroom. In fact, when I have to go to the bathroom I go next door and use my neighbor’s who I know is out of town for the weekend.

But I keep getting all these urges to go write on the mirror and to do “The Charleston” and to listen to that stupid ballad again. And I start cursing out Rachel because she’s the one who’s pushed me over the edge. She’s the one that’s made me go nuts. I think about calling my brother and having him come over to take me to the hospital so I can check myself in. I’m really freaking out. I start to cry. Then it hits me that maybe if I say the name aloud, the name I was trying to write, I’ll sort of exorcise the demon, if you will. You know, get it out of my system. So I go into the bathroom, pick up the tube of lipstick with my left hand and finish writing the name. “Josephine,” I say aloud. And that’s it, she’s got me. I’m no longer me. Well, I’m still me but Josephine’s got the steering wheel. Except for, I realize, my right arm. I’ve still got control of my right arm.

With my right hand I start to wipe the lipstick off the mirror hoping if I wipe away the name I’ll reverse what’s happened and get back control of the rest of my body. It’s a stupid idea, I know, but I got nothing else. What I want real bad is a gin and maybe to hear some good hot jazz or to do “The Charleston.” My left hand slaps my right hand away from the mirror and I start Charlestoning my way into the living room where I put on that damn record and start bawling again, like it’s me the song is about, like I’m the damn hooker on the train track. I’m so torn up about it all I want to be is dead. With my right hand I slap the needle off the record and there’s the damn “Charleston” playing in the air again. I just let go and let Josephine do her thing until she dances back behind the couch. I see my chance and grab hold of the curtain with my right hand. It’s a struggle but finally I got my head out the window. I can feel her fear, taste it in the back of my mouth like blood and my heart’s racing like a damn rabbit’s. She’s kicking and kicking and gets my foot hooked around the leg of the couch. But I get hold of some kind of iron post outside the window and pull with every bit of strength I’ve got left and finally my foot gives way.

After falling six floors I stand up and I’m face to face with the most beautiful, one-armed flapper chick I could ever imagine. She’s got these black eyes and this straight black shiny hair, cut short, and this feather tiara. She grins at me like she’s finally got me where she wants me and starts doing “The Charleston” right there on the sidewalk. I just start laughing and she takes my hand and leads me across the street, through traffic, to this club where there’re couples walking arm in arm and guys in hats and there’s this music, this incredible, vibrant, music, just pouring out of this joint and it’s as if the musicians, horn players, banjo, piano, drums, are playing for their lives, like they’re playing for everyone’s lives, like this is the last chance, the last shot, the last hurrah, and they’re going to make it count, make it stick no matter what. It’s a part of the air and earth and everything and I think of sound waves and how all this crazy music is just air particles moving in crazy patterns and I wonder if the music’s really out there or just inside my head and realize it doesn’t matter, it doesn’t matter one bit where it is. And as we’re about to go in, Josephine looks back at me and she winks. And soon we’re dancing, floating across the floor, and I’ve got this feeling we’ve got all the time in the world.

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