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One man band


Moses lays his big Caribbean hands on the piano, the place shakes. The gas jets jump with the bass run and your spine seems to want to snake out of your very asshole. The sawdust floor would be muddy even if Opel didn’t serve a drop. But there is whiskey, yes. Women in these little snakeskin slippers, too- small and tight like a baby boa scarfing an ostrich egg. Fat Fava bean lips hiking up coyly violent smiles. Did I expect to survive?

The week Willa and I didn’t sleep, beginning that Sunday with the first rain of well it seems like that whole summer. I remember all of the pigeonshit dust finally washing off windshields on Canal, down the sides of shop windows, even off Willa’s burnt purple slightly moldy eyeshadow when we went out on the fire escape to stand in the rain and smell the reconstituted city. It seemed things might at last be a little cool and clean, at least for an evening. Presumptively beautiful. Willa had found “work”, had a crisp new twenty dollar bill. I remember that twenty very well. It didn’t last long. But I can still feel the temperature and grit of the paper. Bills were bigger then, more ornate.  The paper held a crease like calico. Had more gravity, seemed more immediate, less detached, less sociopathic than modern money.

I could stay up for a week then. From Sunday to Sunday. I was seventeen. I can’t imagine. At the time my mother was in Paris doing a record, some old Fats Waller and King Oliver fakes, I think in French, but I’ve never actually listened to it. She wouldn’t come back for a long time. She got married again even though Dean was still alive and married as well , flaking around the west coast, no place to receive a summons.  Dean was nuts, Ginny wrote me all the time, if for no other reason than to remind me of stuff like this. But I never read her letters either.

But Dean was somewhat fucked-up. He taught music at UNC when we lived there then he got into inventing all these strange instruments–I remember this rice paper thing, a cross between a banjo and an erhu with a rice paper resonator, it sounded pretty cool, but he started to insist that proficiency on these instruments be necessary for a passing grade and he was fired. Then we moved all over while he followed tours, Kid Ory, Sidney Bechet, and he would play their material in the white clubs even as they played across town. I think, I hope, he believed he was getting the word out about this music, but he pissed people off. No one so much as Ginny. He’d [laughs] he’d get the crap kicked out of him outside clubs then he’d stagger home and get the crap kicked out of him at home. Today, well, I don’t know. Once he sat at breakfast in his little Noel Coward robe, smoking Chesterfields with fingers swollen up like kielbasa and suddenly fold over the paper and say:  Bugle to buttocks, toe castanets, and a voice to crack cement: this one-man band is some grand ham. Really, I should just roll up my dick and go home.

You are home, Pop.
He looked around the apartment, but not at Ginny. He reopened and rattled the paper vigorously. Yeah no offense pally, but this isn’t home.
Then where’s home?  We going back to Chapel Hill?
He looked at me.
Ginny said We’re building a suit of windowless rooms, just for your father.
Shit. The belly of any whale will do.

I could live in anything then, among anyone. Not anything planned, not anything avoided. Was it from excitement about being out of that house, or about the new situations? I can no longer remember. Willa, Wilma, Vilma, Villa, Villian, her many aliases like the conjugation of dead verbs. She was certainly exciting, at least to a seventeen year old. Living away from home was exciting, although there was a mysterious familial connection to her that I never asked questions about that made it all peripherally a little nauseating. I never completely respected her. But she had scars that I could find out absolutely nothing about, which titled things back towards sympathy, intrigue. She wore nothing but silk shifts, like a sheath, like a low-friction covering in which to move through the night and pluck children from first-story windows. Low-heels to de-emphasize her height, spare her from her own clumsiness, jewelry and rings to distract from her absolutely fucked-up hands, but I always thought this achieved the opposite. She moved in oblique starts, tilting backwards, not so much in recoil, but like someone was pushing a 7′ Gaillard wardrobe across the room.