Tearing Up Sidewalks
by Frank Symons
In hospital the black man in the bed next to me talks about himself. There is a violin under his bedside table. His name is Johnny. It is Christmas Eve. The low sky is a giant mink, the trees raking its furry underbelly. I write down the names of five nightclubs. We sneak a smoke from my hidden stash.
In the late 1940’s I’m a gifted kid from Nova Scotia (Johnny is saying). Grade twelve violin, perfect pitch. Five feet eleven, on the heavy side, I get a scholarship to the McGill University School of Music. I live rent-free in the storage room of the Montreal Dance Pavilion. I love jazz and I need to eat so I audition for a jazz band at Rockhead’s Paradise nightclub. Metcalf the leader plays a bebop tune. I never heard it before. I listen. They play. I concentrate, listen some more, lift my bow, play and tease them a little. Caress the catgut a little more. Five choruses later Metcalf’s face explodes with pleasure. I’m in.
Our pianist Steep gives me lessons in jazz (Johnny continues). "I play, you watch," he says. That’s how Steep likes to teach. Steep plays a polycord: he plays an F7 in his left hand and a G Major triad in his right hand – a very modern sound at that time. He hit it, and I say, "Wow! What’s that?!"
"That’s an F7," he says.
"What’s the G cord doing on top?"
"It sounds good," Steep says
Steep is a legend. Fat voicings, rich with dissonant color and scattered with rhythmic ingenuity suggest new directions for soloists. Johnny Hodges, Cozy Cole, Dizzy Gillespie, and Fats Waller blow in from New York like moths to a flame to jam with Steep on bare floors beside pot-bellied stoves. One session we tape "Embraceable You" and "Now’s the Time" with Charlie Parker. So hometown boys do a bootleg Charlie Parker record issued in New York. Steep is on the Heavy (heroin), and I try some and soon I’m hooked.
We do the El Morocco Club. Patrons sip Singapore Slings sparkling in vast expanses of mirror. Float with the glitter, and greedily slice into their filet mignons. Second night there I hear shots. Third night I hear shots. You never know where the next shot is coming from, where it’s going. The Mob owns the nightclubs, and the police. You obey the rule, "Be blind, be deaf, and don’t talk".
One night a mobster walks in with a machine gun on his shoulder. He slaps hundred dollar bills on the piano. He keeps drinking, and requests sentimental tunes, and moans "Ramona, Ramona, oh Sweet Jesus, what am I going to do about my rapture, my Ramona . . ." The waterworks get going, crocodile tears rolling down his cheeks. His tears blind him. His finger pulls on the trigger and holds it there. The gun swings wildly, bullets spit out non-stop. Glass shards lift and swarm into a dazzling cloud that flies around the room, whoosh!! Glass embeds itself in your clothes, your faces, and your eyes if you look.
I pitch my body over the stage to the floor. A bullet tears through the fat around my waist, another scratches my right hand. Lying there, I feel like a combat casualty. The brothers drag me down the alley to the hospital. What would happen to my playing, to me, if that bullet had gone clean through my hand?
Every night, right after El Morocco, we do the Bucket of Blood tavern. At six in the morning we stagger out and the sun lasers a blinding beam into our eyes. Starving, we eat toast and beans at Harmony Lunch, Peel and St. Catherine Streets. Eight a.m. we head home south across the tracks, and sleep a few hours in our cold water flat behind the coal yards and abattoirs along the Lachine Canal. Heat comes from a kitchen toaster. Its cord trails overhead from a light socket, tiny coils glow red in the gray dawn. We get up, smoke joints, and put tea bags into a lab beaker of boiling water.
As long as I cop with the Man (the pusher) I’m okay. I sell my second suit for twenty-five bucks. Those shylocks are charging me fifteen percent a month. I bleed money like a nosebleed. It’s like tearing up sidewalks with your bare hands.
I’m left with one rule. I’m hired to play, because if I don’t play, I don’t live. I don’t see anything when I play, except those keys. Like Steep, I got a habit. You eat, sleep jazz, your entire life consumed by jazz, and the Heavy. Maybe I’m like a hamster on a treadmill in a cage all day, no escape, but you know what? We’re ecstatic when we get an ovation, which is often. Bliss is on people’s faces when we play.
We go to Toronto. The local union calls us and they say, what’s this crap? You don’t arrange your Toronto gig through us. Why? So we talk. No, the union guys talk to us. They allow us to play out our two-week contract but after that we’re shut out of Toronto forever.
We get a gig at the Silver Slipper in Detroit. We cop there okay. We do another two weeks. We manage to cop. Then the supply stops. The Man disappears. Maybe the FBI get him, we don’t know.
No heroin means no euphoria, and no pleasant drowsiness. They’re gone. One night I’m shaving and I nick my finger, unspooling a ribbon of blood in the water, which distracts me from the fact I live in a pool of pain. The pain unzippers my body, peels me. Can’t sleep, not hungry. Runny nose, cramps, chills and sweats reduce me to a writhing bag of jelly. I force my body to crawl onto the bandstand and finish the gig because we need the money. Crawl back to Montreal, back to the routine, and the Man.
One morning I wake up trying hard to take in huge breaths but nothing’s happening. My brain tells me I’m choking, my air passage is blocked. The heart’s blood won’t supply oxygen to my brain. I heard that’s what causes a stroke. My God, a stroke!! Panic escalates to terror. A tail of terror brushes the inside of my skull.
Over the years I end up in hospital dozens of times. Here I lie today, stretched out on a cantilevered bed, a man on a rack, each of my bones aching like a separate sore tooth. Cancer drives the marrow from them, and spreads in its place. My bones glow like red embers. Morphine distances me from the pain, throwing up a shimmering, transparent veil. Through the veil I watch myself die a slow death in a darkened room. I feel light, blown, like a milkweed pod on Calumet Beach, a pod teetering on its stalk, tugged by the breeze. When the stalk breaks, down will I tumble, end over end to the river, which will carry me away. Never to return to the joy of playing jazz.
After leaving the hospital I visit Johnny every day, and confess to him that I too was a child prodigy, at six playing and composing violin ditties to accompany nursery rimes. He bequeaths me his violin. While he dies I live, a slave to my own addictions, alcohol and smoking. I play his violin, the first time I play in over ten years. Its sound sneaks up on me, tugs at me. My yellow-brown stained fingers and teeth thrust their sorrowful image at me when I shave, mirroring my dark emotional state. Shall I quit my habit? Johnny’s cancer inflicts a final punishment that is pitiless. The red glow of his bones switches off, finally. Those five clubs - Rockhead’s Paradise, El Morocco, Bucket of Blood, Café St. Michel, and the Silver Slipper - were the fugitive pieces of his history, almost lost, until I wrote them down. The events in Johnny’s past changed his life, decided how and when he died. Will the fugitive pieces in my history decide how I die?
About the author:
Frank Stewart Symons' fiction first appeared in Opium Magazine and Void Magazine. He grew up in Montreal and studied at the Sorbonne's Institute of Comparative Literature and the Gotham Writing Workshop. Formerly on UN projects and a foreign correspondent, he now writes at his lakeside homestead near the Canadian border.