Shelter from the StormbyNigel Debonnaire©
The rain fell in sheets in Little Rock on a bleak late August evening. Betty Atkinson perched on a stool behind the desk of the Hotel Aragon, blankly watching old sitcoms on the flickering TV behind the counter. She poured another cup of coffee and flicked an ash from her Virginia Slim.
A couple of old men sat in the lobby, staring blankly ahead in their well worn padded chairs. The lighting rumbled in the distance, the flourescent lights flickered, Opie pleaded eloquently with Andy, and time wandered by.
The hotel was a memory of a more gracious time. The corners were softened by ornamentation and greasy chandeliers hung from the ceiling, wanly illuminating the lobby. Worn stuffed chairs and couches populated the lobby, with rickety end tables interspersed randomly among them. The daily paper was strewn around casually, the days running together in an inscrutable order: finding a section from that day's paper was an exercise in chance probability. Worn carpet and pitted linoleum underlay the traffic, and the windows were muddied by streaks of Windex and gathering grime. Wisps of cigarette smoke wafted and played in the stray currents from several windows and cracks in the walls: the Hotel Aragon was innocent of air conditioning in the humid Arkansas summer.
The door opened and a thin black man entered wearing a hooded rain slicker. Throwing back the hood revealed a craggy face with high cheekbones, his ebony skin grizzled by three days' stubble and his wild black hair flecked with white. He could be Don King, only his gaunt frame and somber carriage marked him as a very different kind of man. A large nose with impossibly big nostrils dominated his face, giving him a hawkish appearance. He put a small satchel on the floor and looked around to orient himself.
Betty took a deep drag on her cigarette and sized up the stranger. Another old scarecrow, she thought to herself, just like all my tenants. He was shaking slightly and his eyes were very bloodshot; her hand rested close to the phone ready to punch the 911 speeddial in case this was another dope addict ready to go off the deep end. Most of her tenants were this kind of scarecrow: addicts, alcoholics, or on methadone; wasted old men, black and white, who had fought their demons and lost. As long as they paid their rent and didn't cause trouble, she didn't care. She didn't care about a lot of things other that staying warm and that her supply of coffee and cigarettes didn't run out.
The man shook off some of the rain and came over to the counter. He leaned on the desk and asked softly: "Can you help me, ma'am?"
"Maybe," came the short reply flavored with the Ozarks twang.
"I'm looking for a gentleman named Corky, Corky Toussant." The voice was gentle, and there was a hint of Louisiana underlying the unexpectedly dulcet tones.
"Corky Toussant," Betty repeated hollowly as she searched her memory. After a moment, she smiled wickedly and snapped "He's gone back ta school."
The dark, grizzled head shook in disbelief. "I don't understand. How could he go back to school? The man was in his seventies."
She took another drag and blew out a pungent cloud. "He's helping med school students learn what 50-plus years of doing dope does to a black man. Croaked last week, Thursday, no family. You come for his stuff?"
The man sighed and his demeanor sank. Betty noticed that he would not look her in the eyes. "No, ma'am. I've come north to escape the storm. Corky and I went to school together, and toured for many years: he was the only soul I knew in Little Rock."
She paused, taken aback for her sarcasm. There was something about this rough looking man she couldn't put her finger on. "I'm sorry. A lot of men die here, or go to live on the street. If you wanna room, I can give you his. Joyce cleaned it yesterday."
The man took a deep breath, collecting himself. "I guess I do need someplace to stay. It was a long drive getting here. How much is a room?"
"Thirty three dollars a night. In advance. No credit." She took another puff on her cigarette and ground out the stub.
"All right. I'll take a room for three nights." He took out a wad of bills and peeled off five Twenty dollar bills. It reduced the roll dramatically. His hands were lean and strong, an artist's hands, marked with age spots and slight wrinkles.
She reached across and took the money. Putting out an antique guest book, she pointed to an empty line. "Sign here. Oh, and I gotta see your driver's license."
The man fumbled out a Louisiana driver's license. James Wilson, New Orleans, it proclaimed. The picture was close enough. He signed the book and put Betty's pen down beside it.
Betty jotted down the driver's license down, and returned the license to him. "Room 318, third floor. Sorry the elevator ain't workin; no time to get it fixed. Need any help?"
"No, thank you, ma'am." He picked up his satchel, and after looking around a moment, started toward the stairs.
"You all right, Mr. Wilson?" she asked, "You look like you've had a hard day."
"Drove all night and all day. Awful traffic all the way to Baton Rouge. Looked around town, but the clubs are all different since the last time I was here. Finally got a lead on where Corky was and came here."
"Oh. If you want any o' Corky's stuff, just lemme know. He don't need it no more."
He gave her a grim smile and walked off. Betty ran the driver's license on the Internet and found out James Wilson had no criminal record. Good, she said to herself, at least the cops won't be coming around to kick down another door. She lit another cigarette and looked at the flickering tube again, but her eyes wandered toward the stairwell from time to time.
He found the room without any trouble, and after opening the door, he laid his satchel on the nightstand and turned back the sheets. I'm lucky this time, he thought to himself, there don't seem to be any bedbugs here. There was liquid soap in the bathroom, and although he was exhausted from the trip, he stripped and washed his clothes out by hand, hanging them on the two wooden hangers on the rack and the lone chair. Club owners were more open to clean smelling piano players than ones who smelt of urine, vomit and old sweat. Finally, he stretched his dark, lean frame on the bed and allowed himself to unwind from the journey.
As his consciousness swirled toward grey, the memory of his departure replayed in his mind. He shared his house with Red Foster, an old trumpet player he'd toured with when he was younger. Red got him started in jazz, and the repayment was caring from Red in his old age. His body had failed in his mid 80's; he lost most of his sight and his legs to diabetes, and acid flashbacks would make him difficult to manage from time to time. One Sunday mid-morning, after playing in his usual club, then jamming after hours until well past sunup, he found Red very agitated in front to the television.
"Puddin'head, Puddin'head, you gots to get outta here."
"What are you talking about, Red?"
"Days a storm a comin'. Dat big hurricaine they sayd wuld drown us someday. It's a comin'. De shit's gonna hit de fan. You gotta go." The old man's arms waved about dramatically as he sounded his prophecy. "De mayor sayd evrybodies gotta go. Get outta here, Puddin'head get outta here."
"All right, Red, all right." Puddin'head looked at the forecast and knew Red was right. Folks had been leaving town for the past day or so; business at the club was awful that night. "Let me get you ready and we'll go."
"Bullshit, you stupid nigger. I ain't goin', I ain't goin'. I cain't leave. Nawlins is my home: I cain't live widout it anymore. I gotta stay. I'm a used up ol' man, and I ain't afraid of nuttin."
"But Red, I've got to get you someplace safe."
"No. Leave me be. I been a daid man fer years. Never thunk I'd live to see eightie-seben, and don't wanna see any more. Ever since my Lucy went, I been jus' goin' thru de motions."
Lucy had been Red's common law wife; they had lived together for forty years. They had several children who had all moved away and lost touch with their parents. "We've got to get you to your daughter's house in Baton Rouge. We can still make it, Red."
The old man swatted Puddin'head's arms away with unusual force. "Little Lucy's got enough ta worry 'bout widout 'nother useless man 'round de house. De storm's a comin', you gotta go, NOW dammit!"
Red continued to flail away, and rain fell on the roof of the bungalow in the Ninth Ward of New Orleans. Finally, Puddin'head put a few things in his satchel, gathered what money he had, and took it out to the car. The sky looked awful and things were only going to get worse. He went back in and confronted the old man. "This is a bad storm, and your chances here aren't good. I'm not ready to let go of you yet. Are you sure you won't let me take you away from here?"
"Listen to de wind, you stupid nigger. Time's a waistin'. Get outta my sight." Red started throwing closed fisted punches when Puddin'head tried to approach him with surprising force. "Look, you gotta future, you only sebenty and you still got de magic in ya fingers. You's the best pianner player I knowed, best since Nat King Cole. Your music ain't done yet, mine is gawn." The ancient eyes grew sad and tired. "My chops is busted an' my fingers is stiff. Le' me go, James, le'me go." The old man sagged, and stared at him with leaden eyes.
His heart was thumping and threatened to choke him, but Puddin'head went out, started his car, and began navigating the maze to escape New Orleans. His car was rattling badly he thought it would shake apart at time, but it gamely held together. He had to stop every couple of hours or so to check the oil and let it rest, gassing up twice on his way North, taking even more time. As he reached the Arkansas border, reports that the leavees had breached and the Ninth Ward was under water warbled faintly on the radio from a distant station. The long drive through the hills to Little Rock was a damp purgatory of desolation.
Tuesday afternoon was the day Betty went to the store to lay in supplies for the week. She didn't sleep much: her son would stagger in after an long night's drunk to watch the desk for a few hours while she napped and did a few necessary things for herself. She would be at her post from mid-afternoon all the way through the night, living on Maxwell House, Virginia Slims and TBN until just after dawn, when her drunk son would stagger in again. Her grotesque daughter-in-law would clean the rooms three times a week, at least the rooms that were empty and the ones the tenants were sober enough to let the cleaning lady in.
As she passed an alley between the hotel and the grocery store, she saw a familiar figure rooting around the trashcans. The man who checked in last night, James Wilson of New Orleans, was rummaging through the garbage behind Pete's Diner. She increased her pace, laden with sacks, her lip curled in disgust. Another bum, she thought, in three days he's going to be living under a bridge.
Getting back to the Hotel, she put her groceries away and went to the bathroom. After relieving herself, she washed her hands and looked at herself in the mirror as she lit another cigarette. Her face was never beautiful, her nose squashed in and her lips oddly full for a small mouth, the bottom lip larger than the upper. Her brown eyes, one lid drooping, rested beneath large, dark eyebrows that met in the middle. She had always been thin, with small breasts, and she touched one that held a dark memory. Grey had invaded her mousy brown hair, and she usually left it to its own devices in an anarchic nest.
Her son Johnny was sitting at the desk, a plump, scruffy man in his mid-thirties with half a head of brown hair, and a half-full bottle of bourbon on the shelf underneath the counter. Two old men were sitting in the lobby, staring into space as usual. She whacked him on the shoulder and screamed: "I tol' you not to drink when you're here, stupid. My God, I wish I aborted you when I had the chance. Git outta here, you idiot. Crawl in your bottle somewhere else." The young man sulked off with his bottle, and Betty mounted her throne.
It was a quiet evening. A couple of scruffy old men inquired about rooms, but they didn't have cash, so she shooed them back into the night. A bald man in a trenchcoat with a huge suitcase and a thin black headed woman obviously naked under her raincoat with several piercings and tattoos checked in: she was shooting him constant adoration, to which he responded with practiced disdain. They were regulars, young people who came by twice a week, to spent a few hours in perverted sex before leaving around midnight. Their neighbors had complained about shouting, groans, and the sound of leather hitting flesh coming from their room, but the couple always paid double rates, so Betty left them alone.
After nine, a few limpid, sour notes came from the lobby piano. It hadn't been tuned for years, and the right weather and good fortune made it bearable this particular night. Betty started to get up off her stool to chase the pianist away, but the exploratory notes soon became a melody, accompanied by sparse chords, and she stopped short of chasing the pianist away. It was James Wilson of New Orleans, sitting with his eyes shut at the piano, and his stark face contorted as the music wandered into shades of blue. How he'd snuck in without her noticing scared her momentarily, but her program was reaching a climax and she could get very absorbed in lives that weren't her own.
She drifted out from behind the counter to look at the man from New Orleans: he was sitting peacefully, his eyes closed, his hands moving effortlessly with an economy of motion. Betty's eyes closed and she stood there for a few moments, while unfamiliar feelings washed through her. The piano was significantly out of tune, but the music embraced the burr of bad intonation and made it part of its language. The sound he wove seemed to pull in a bass player and drummer with the spell it wove, even though those players weren't there. Betty sighed and turned on her heel back to her desk, where she turned off the television and sat there, smoking cigarettes. The old men blinked and cocked their heads to rally their ancient failing ears toward the music.
Gunther came in an hour later. His sparse grey hair was plastered to his head over a dark brown overcoat; the weaving of his step indicated that he'd had a better evening than usual soliciting dollars for unaccompanied opera arias. A lean, profusely lined face of Teutonic origin still stood proudly above his frail frame, his back beginning to bend with the years. He wobbled to the counter where Betty sat and leaned over: "I think that chu may be Jewish, fraulein," he whispered menancingly.
Betty blinked and snarled at him. "I'm not and it don't matter, you old Nazi. The war's over, and you ain't huntin' Jews in Poland anymore. Let me get Wiesenthal on the speeddail." A pair of sneers completed their ritual greeting. "Get lucky tonight?"
"Nein, mein' Schatzi, but a nice man gave me a hundred dollars to shtop singing outside a very nice restaurant on the rich side of town. So I vent to a favorite shpot for some schnapps."
"Good for you, Gunther."
He noticed the music and did a double take. "I see ve have a black Orpheus with us tonight. Were's he from?"
"Ah, what a pity. The shtorm has been so bad there, lots of people fled all around the country. Vas he on a bus?"
"No, he drove in. Storm?"
Gunther nodded. "Ja, a hurricane. Katrina, they is calling it. New Orleans is completely under vater. This man must be from a Jass club there. Did he have any suitcase or luggage?"
"Ah, left in a hurry. Doesn't have more than the clothes on his back, I tink. Maybe he left his lady love there."
Another sneer. "Why should you care, Gunther? Your bread is buttered on the other side."
"But it would be such a tragic love story." Gunther took a deep breath and began to sing as sweetly as his gravelly voice could:
"Che farò senza Euridice!
Dove andrò senza il mio ben?"
As he tottered across the lobby, he continued to sing in harsh counterpoint to the genteel piano in Italian until he reached the hallway and wobbled off into the distance. The shrill aria faded off and was cut off by a closing door. Betty smirked at the incongruous counterpoint until she heard the melody assimilated and transformed by the piano. Opening her browser, she looked put the text she heard into Google and found the aria from Gluck's Orfeo.
Che farò senza Euridice!
Dove andrò senza il mio ben?
Euridice, Oh Dio! Respondi!
Io son pure il tuo fedel.
Ah! Non m'avenza, più soccorso,
più speranza, nè dal mondo nè dal ciel!
What shall I do without Euridice?
Where shall I go without my treasure?
Euridice! Oh god, answer me!
I am your true, faithful slave.
Alas, no salvation, no further hope,
neither from earth, nor from heaven!
A tear crept from her normally arid eye and ran down her cheek. The music wove around the classical melody for forty five minutes, caressing it, softening it and transforming it, taking her from sorrow to agony to redemption as she smoked and wept. Then the pianist paused for a few minutes before taking up Some Enchanted Evening, causing a tingling that she hadn't felt in decades.
Little Rock was very different from the one Puddin'head remembered. He'd played with Red and Corky for three months at a club fifteen years ago, but the building had been demolished and the club wasn't in the phone book at another location. There weren't many jazz places in walking distance of the Hotel Aragon. Not one gave him a chance to audition for them, and the best he could get was an offer to take part in an open jam session the following Tuesday. He treated himself to breakfast at a Denny's, but his wad of bills was dwindling. If he stayed much longer, he wouldn't be able to afford the gas to get to Fayetteville, much less Kansas City. He'd heard about Branson, but didn't think they would be interested in a jazz player.
He went around to some of the posher hotels to see if any were looking for a cocktail pianist, but there were no leads there, either. It was nightfall when he returned to the Hotel Aragon to make lemonade out of the sour lobby piano there. Playing was like breathing, even in an awful place like that, and he had to play.
Coming back in, he spotted the same lady at the counter that was there when he came to town. Her look toward him changed over the past couple of days. "Mr. Wilson," she began, "how's yer day been?"
"Not good. There's no work, can't find a place to play. Do you mind if I play here tonight?"
"Absolutely not, Mr. Wilson. Please, help yourself. Is there anythin' I kin get ya?"
"No, thank you. I'll be fine." Seating himself at the piano and assaying a few chords, he noticed it had been tuned that day. The lady must like the love songs, he said to himself. All right, let's keep it up, who knows? So for the next hour he explored Hello, Young Lovers and found her entranced when he stopped to take a break.
He went over to the counter. "Excuse me, ma'am."
"Betty. Ma name is Betty Atkinson. Please, call me Betty."
"Betty. Nice to meet you. Please call me Puddin'head."
"Yes. It's a nickname that I picked up over the years. It's the title of a Mark Twain novel, Puddin'head Wilson, and the guys in my first band started calling me that, because there were three other Jimmys in the group. I've never gotten away from it."
"Oh. Never heard of the book. What kin I help ya with, sir?"