The indefatigable Carl Wendt, not quite Charles Baudelaire, not quite Charles Bukowski, poet of all ages, private eye to the gods, lands in the hospital after a violent confrontation with an angry husband. An earlier close call had foreshadowed the eventual ass-kicking by way of illustrating his legendary good luck which apparently had run out. Or had it?
from Ode To Sunset, A Year In The Life Of American Genius
a fiction by Pat Nolan
The biggest surprise was that Roy Banks, the jazz pianist, had dropped by to check on him in the hospital. They had become better acquainted after he’d made a habit of swinging by the piano wine bar adjacent to the cable car turntable at the foot of Powell where Roy held forth for the tourist trade. He had been at loose ends that summer. The poet adrift, it had been his season in hell. Those years of stability as Angie’s roommate had mellowed the intensity of his social hustle. To suddenly have all that taken away, his survival reflexes rusty, mechanical in a digital age. At least he wasn’t walking a lobster on a ribbon like Gerard de Nerval. Some might have preferred a lobster rather than the vehemence of his desperation. But Roy was always good for some Monk on the keyboard and the occasional petite vin rouge on the house.
Over drinks after work one night at Bud’s they had seriously parsed the greats of jazz, ranked their virtuosity, influences, origins, innovations, sublimity, cultural significance, and so on, from Kid Ory to Herbie Hancock. Roy had reel to reel recordings of some loft performances from the 70’s and unreleased sessions by Albert Ayler, and Sonny Red, that he wanted him to hear. It was around midnight and he hadn’t been paying much attention to where they were going since Roy was driving, actually steering with one hand and expressively testifying with the other. His eagerness to insert his own complimentary points had blinkered him.
The blue and red flashing lights ahead had prompted Roy to make a quick detour and steer down a few back streets. They re-entered the boulevard some blocks from the police action, pausing to let an empty 19 Polk trundle past. The next thing he knew they were parking in a fog shrouded bayside neighborhood and clambering up the steps to a classic old Italianate cottage that had been partitioned off into several apartments. Inside the door there was the subtle odor of dust and decay, the ravages of oxidization, no doubt emanating from the wall of floor to ceiling shelves jammed with record sleeves and musty books. An electric keyboard was placed off to one side of the tiny living room that also contained a loveseat couch, a battered armchair rocker, and a coffee table neatly stacked with sheet music.
“I don’t want you to get the wrong idea, but this place is usually a mess,” Roy had called out from the bright lit kitchen. The kitchen was tiny as well, a small white four burner gas stove next to an ancient white refrigerator. A half table was pushed up to one wall beneath a narrow curtained sash window along with two white chairs. Yellowing linoleum of indistinct pattern covered the floor. Roy had produced a couple of short water glasses and a bottle of wine. “But my oldest daughter Ayisha lives in the neighborhood and comes over a couple times a week to straighten up and spy on me.” He smiled holding out the glass of dark red. “Zinfandel, from some brothers up in the Sonoma Valley. Anyway, it started with her offering to do my laundry, and I have to say, I took the bait. Now, it’s ‘where you been out so late’ and things of that nature. I’m a grown man and she thinks she can watch over me like I was a child!”
Taking the bottle back to the living room, he’d set it on the coffee table and gone to the shelves that held the LP’s at the center of which were his turntable, amplifier, and ancient reel to reel tape player. “This is what I wanted you to hear,” holding up the square tape box and then expertly spooling it onto an empty reel, “Cat had a loft down on 12th and C in the East Village. German cat, Fritz or Deidre, some shit, bass player Cecil told me about. Had a baby grand and cats would always be falling by because Ray Ray, the Puerto Rican connection dealt from a pad a couple doors down.” He powered up the amplifier and cued the tape. “I had an old portable Teac that I toted around with me if I was going to do a rehearsal or a jam. So I set up thinking it was just going to be me and the bass player. Then a drummer showed up and I said, ‘hey man, where I know you from?’ Turns out it’s Billy Higgins and I caught him playing with Archie Shepp in a club one time so I knew he had chops. And I’m thinking, now we’re gonna cook and about then this young white dude wanders through, by the shape of his tote I figure he’s a sax man, turns out soprano. Know what his name was? Steve Lacy. Today you know that name. Back then he was just starting out. Now the first thing you going to hear is me intro the tune and then the opening bars of Tempus Fugue It. Well, man, you would have thought I had dinosaur shit on my shoe!” From the speakers the piano stopped followed by nervous laughter, and a voice asking incredulously, “Bud Powell?”
Roy had got a good laugh out of that, and they’d spent the wee hours of the morning listening to tapes and LP’s. Roy had a jazz scholar’s collection of the obscure and the unknown and it was with obvious delight that he shared his treasures with someone who could appreciate them, from Doc Cheatham and Jack Purvis to Anthony Braxton and Henry Threadgill. At one point, after Roy had brought out the port, he also produced a joint. “Care for some ganja?”
“Naw, man, I’m ok, I don’t smoke dope.”
“Ah,” Roy had said with a knowing nod, “You are a white man after all.”
That did not stop them from strutting around the coffee table to Fables Of Faubus from bootleg tapes of the Mingus Paris Concert. It was an ass wagging high stepping finger waving poke in the eye parody of Pomp And Circumstance aimed at segregationist Orval Faubus and the Jim Crow apartheid South, and one that they had taken great pleasure in enacting with all the obscene booty shaking they could muster. When Roy fired up the keyboard and played him some of his own compositions, he’d been duly impressed.
Roy had assembled an old Army cot and provided a pillow and blankets. “You’re welcome to crash here as long as you want, my friend,” he’d offered before they turned in, by then the dark window edges easing to a gray transparency.
He’d been awakened later that afternoon by the ringing phone. Roy answered it in the kitchen. “Hi honey” and then silence as the person on the other end spoke, interrupted only occasionally by “But, honey,” “It’s my life,” “I don’t care what they said, they can mind their own damn business,” and “He’s a friend of mine,” but mostly the caller did the talking.
Over coffee Roy had explained that the call was from his daughter, Ayisha, who had heard from a neighbor complaining about the loud music and carrying on coming from the apartment. “Nothing to worry about.”
He’d started to barbeque a rack of ribs, and pointing out the open kitchen door to the small kettle grill on the landing to the steps down to the tiny backyard, “You’re in for a real treat. The sauce is an old family recipe from down home.” Down home was some place he’d never heard of in Texas. The red wine that accompanied the meat was a pinot noir from Chile. Roy hadn’t lied. The sauce charred sweet with a piquant aftertaste, and along with the black-eyed peas and greens it was one of the best home cooked meals he’d enjoyed in a month of Sundays.
They had opened an after dinner bottle of red and were listening to and talking over a modal free jazz soundscape that Roy called, somewhat derisively, “LA Jazz,” essentially studio jazz, by musicians the likes of Oliver Lake, Don Byron, Wallace Roney and Ron Blake. Roy was explaining that it was all mood music, well played mood music certainly, but all the same it lacked the edge and originality of golden age bebop so that the lesson, that out of chaos came order, was lost on the current crop of jazz musicians for whom chaos emerged from more chaos, and they hadn’t heard the front door open.
Framed in the doorway to the kitchen a large black woman in an eye shocking tropical pattern full length dashiki with matching head scarf, scowling and pointing her finger at him, repeated something he finally understood to be “Get out, white devil!” It was stated with enough authority to be commanding. “Gather up your narrow white ass and be gone! Stop stealing the souls of our people!” He didn’t think that they were actually gold chicken wishbones she was waving at him with the kind of voodoo gesticulation aimed at banishing him and whatever bad white juju he might have tracked in and about his person. That led to the confrontation between father and daughter during which Roy called his daughter an ignorant superstitious brown medicine ball among other things. Or that was the way he remembered it. While they screamed their insults at each other, he’d donned his jacket and let himself out. No need to be the occasion for that kind of grief in family when they could find it perfectly well without any help from him.
The shadows in the hood had begun to lengthen but the radiant heat from sidewalk and asphalt kept things to a noticeable simmer. He’d made his way to the end of the block and the corner bodega where a number of people had congregated. He was looking for a main drag and the bus line. He had a change of clothes on the boat at Mission Bay, and he could take a shower. He’d become gradually aware that something was amiss by the attention he was getting from passersby and in particular from the now mostly agitated young men on the corner. It was an “oh shit” moment that was clear. Even now he recalled the visceral sink in the pit of his gut.
He’d accepted that he would be toyed with. They were bored and he represented the source of their frustration and anger. He was shoulder bumped as he tried to enter the store with the lotto and booze ads plastered on the iron grilled plywood boarded windows. He’d apologized but the hostility persisted. Someone, a large youngster, he remembered, had blocked access to the door. He turned and ran into a chest towering over him. Either he was shrinking or he’d stumbled onto a hybrid species, homo bigmofo. In a situation like that the only solution was to piss your pants, or shit, or both. Fear won out and he’d starting shaking. That was apparently the result those crowding around had desired. The rest was a cacophonous blur of insults and spit invectives which found him at a loss for words. Just as he’d become aware that the encircling gauntlet was about to escalate into something physical, he heard his name called.
Coralene Purlee, the Richmond Branch no-nonsense librarian, had just exited the bodega wearing her signature light brown pants suit with the gold mule pin on the lapel, holding a brown paper bag by the neck, and which he later learned was a fifth of Stoly. She had given his tormentors the censorious glare that he’d seen her use on rambunctious students in the library before: if you can’t keep your voices down, you will have to leave. It worked every time.
“Remember that time your daughter cast a voodoo spell on me with her gold plated chicken bones and I almost got my ass stomped down on the corner?” he’d asked his old friend seated by the hospital bed. “If it hadn’t been for Coralene Purlee. . . .”
Roy, head bowed in mirth, had replied with a throaty chuckle. “Hee-hee, you sure lead a charmed life, Carl.”
“I’m still trying to figure out which one was scarier.”
“Appreciate the irony of the situation, my man,” the jazz musician had offered sagely, “not many get to choose between an ass-kicking and an ass licking. Yet here you are laid up like you lost the coin toss.”
Whenever he thought back to that night with the lusty librarian, not in the habit of hooking up with a woman that close to his own age, the word “formidable” came to mind.
The hospital rep from accounting had returned his application for medical services. “You won’t need this,” she told him, “You might not think that it’s your lucky day, but someone just paid your hospital bill for you.” When he asked who it was, she’d replied that it was a nonprofit organization, “Artist Rescue.” He’d never heard of it, though it did have a familiar ring, like the name of a Romanian poet.
When Courtney wheelchaired him to the sliding glass doors at the hospital’s entrance upon his discharge, the nurse seeing him out had said, “You may experience headaches for a while.” Wasn’t that what the pills were for?
Pat Nolan’s poems, prose, and translations have appeared in literary magazines and anthologies in North America as well as in Europe and Asia. He is the author of over a dozen books of poetry and three novels. His most recent books of poetry are So Much, Selected Poems Volume II 1990-2010 (Nualláin House, Publishers, 2019) and the thousand marvels of every moment, a tanka collection (Nualláin House, Publishers, 2018). He also maintains Parole, the blog of the New Black Bart Poetry Society. His serial fiction, Ode To Sunset, A Year In The Life Of American Genius, is available for perusal at odetosunset.com. He lives among the redwood wilds along the Russian River in Northern California.
Well done and a treat to read this morning. Thanks.