In the shadows of early afternoon, on a day of breakthroughs, I’m standing with Smitty and Sonya in front of the Kansas Asylum for the Insane in Topeka, where we’ve come to visit Monica. It’s June, 1940. We graduated from high school last week — our ceremony cancelled because of the tragedy — and already we’re feeling old.
I see the afternoon shadows and the sunlight on the sidewalk of the asylum the way I’ve seen everything since age 3, as a jigsaw puzzle with more pieces missing than found. On my right arm is Smitty, jazz mentor, one tight piano string on bennies, and on my left, Sonya, debating class rival and older sister of the patient. We’re best friends and former members of the Philosophers Club, a misguided attempt at truth-seeking that I was fool enough to organize three years ago, when we were fifteen. Up the steps we go in synch, left, right, left, right, and together we push open the heavy oak door. I whistle one cheerful tune after another — Sunny Side of the Street, Sweet Georgia Brown — never letting on that my “look on the bright side” philosophy might be transmuting. If my friends ask me how I’m doing, which they won’t because they never do, assuming I’m my usual happy-go-lucky self, I’ll lie with a new word, “copasetic.”
If you couldn’t make out the shadows at all, how could you know the shapes of the world?
“It’s the last room on the right at the end of the hall,” Sonya says, rushing us past the nurse at the front desk. She’s made this trip daily for a week now, bringing Monica’s favorite lavender soap to wash away the asylum smell; for me and Smitty, it’s the first time.
Arm in arm, we start down the quiet corridor — three graduates of another institution, two totally blind and me with just enough vision to get us where we’re going. My well-attuned ears tell me this menagerie of loonies is empty; just goes to show you how inadequate hearing is for getting to the truth of the matter.
Silence is a negative fact, an absence of noise, the way shadows are an absence of light. We used to talk a lot about shadows in our group, starting at the logical beginning with the dark cave of Socrates, the shadows on the wall, and the obvious question to ask ourselves: was the blackness in the cave perceived differently if you were blind? What about the shadows? If you couldn’t make out the shadows at all, how could you know the shapes of the world? Or even begin to discuss perception?
“Stop whistling, Jimmy,” Sonya says, her voice spiked with the vinegar she likes to drink straight from the bottle. “And don’t bother combing your hair.” You can’t get more declarative than Sonya. Six years together at the School for the Blind, where I was sent after my rescue from the convent, and she knows me better than anyone, even my grandparents. In most situations, my friends depend on me to put a cheerful face on things. They defer to me, the once-president of the Philosophers Club, respecting not only my aggressiveness, but the suffering I went through before I met them.
“Whistle if you want to,” Smitty says, in a voice that’s scratchy and dry like the straw we used in broom class. He is skinny and shy, not the brawny type, but an astoundingly forceful jazz piano player, well known in Kansas City. I have vinegar telling me one thing, and broomsticks another.
Built square like a bear, I’m solider than they are, with broad shoulders, stocky hands and feet, the kind of person you want to lean on, I’m told. Black Irish, my grandparents say, to describe my black hair and blue eyes. My eyes are what throw sighted people for a loop, alert and open; they don’t know how little I see with my wide-open eyes! With some help from Aristotle, I’ve come to believe my body is the perfect vehicle for my soul. That’s about as spiritual as I get. Not just any soul would be in my body, no more than “the art of carpentry would be embodied in flutes.” I love that phrase, “embodied in flutes.” Someday, I want to express it on my guitar, once I find the formula — music, like math, a language of formulas.
“Okay,” I say, putting my comb back in my pocket, stifling the tune, “Sonya Lee.”
“My name isn’t Sonya Lee. It’s plain Sonya.” No lace collars like Monica, no flowing hair to show off ribbons. We’d heard no one praise Sonya’s looks the way they did her younger sister’s. And from what little I can tell — the dull color of her face, a piece of pointed chin, mouse brown hair, the tip of her long ear lobe — she doesn’t have the overt marks of good looks, as I understand them. The Philosophers Club considered the question many times, what a blind person knows of beauty, in both the physical and transcendent ways. It became an ongoing discussion when Monica joined us, and we got more heavily into Plato. In essence, Socrates said, the world that sighted people see is only a poor copy of the real world. This statement, “poor copy of the real world,” became our motto and just saying it made us feel good. Did we need vision to comprehend beauty and know truth? No, we said, over and over, downplaying what we might be missing with our bad eyes. We took our oaths to Plato, who believed that real knowledge is not determined by the senses. Sonya is plain and smells of overcooked onions, but her sharp tongue and deft intelligence, the fierce way she defends her friends, make her beautiful in another way. How can an insane asylum be so quiet?
“Smitty, relax,” I whisper, feeling his tense grip on my left arm.
As far as I can tell, we’re alone in the long corridor, our dress shoes click-clacking on recently polished floors, until we find ourselves in the room at the end, which holds a bed, where someone with Monica’s school-girl voice is asking to go home and the smell of flowery soap reaches us from across the room. She is recovering from what Sonya and the doctors (like nuns and teachers, afraid to tell us the truth) call her “accident.”
“How in the world…” the bedside nurse asks, and I can feel her eyes on us, insinuating her amazement that we made it this far into the asylum unattended. “You have fifteen minutes. Don’t upset her.” She speaks too loudly, projects her words right past us, out the door and down the hall.
“It’s our eyes that don’t work, honey. We can hear perfectly well,” Sonya says, the first of our threesome to reach Monica’s bedside. The radio is playing “One O’Clock Jump,” and I imagine Monica is paying careful attention to Count Basie on the piano, making her own delicate hands behave in octaves despite the sheets drawn tight to still them.
“Hello, sweetheart,” we announce in unplanned unison, a philosophers’ habit from the old days, before graduation night when Monica hurt herself, and we left the Philosophers Club for the cacophony of life outside the School for the Blind. I want to sing to steady myself, but hearing Sonya cooing like an overwrought pigeon, decide to remain silent. Monica whimpers in soprano, Sonya fusses in alto, Monica whimpers back in the same key, the close-timbred voices of siblings, whispers rustling like sheet music. Next to me, Smitty hums the notes of a familiar hymn much too fast, a church organist on speed, not a mellow jazz musician. We need slowing down and cheering up. Not one of us is able to converse on important topics right now, having been shocked out of our talent for rhetoric.
“Suppose we sing for you, Monica Lou?” I rock on my heels and think of tunes to save us from this discomfort.
“That’s not her name, Jimmy! You’re hopeless!” Sonya says.
“It’s a jazz thing, Sonya,” Smitty explains in his haystack monotone, calmer now, heading toward a valley, I suppose. “Jimmy adds that extra name to give it an upbeat feel. You dig?”
“The nurse told me some famous musicians are coming here this afternoon,” Monica says, sounding far away, over a horizon that none of us but her has ever seen, a situation — not being able to gaze out to the beyond, to the endless — that some say deprives the blind of any contemplation of infinity. “I want to meet them, whoever they are, but the nurses won’t let me out of bed.” Her voice is weaker, but still reminds me of canary song.
“It might be Walter Page and company,” Smitty says, mostly to me. He played once in a while with Page, a big deal bass player, from the Blue Devils and now Count Basie’s band. “I heard a rumor someone in the Basie band flipped out.”
“Shhh,” Sonya hisses.
“I won’t see him. He’s coming to the colored wing to see a close friend,” Monica tells us, her voice thin like institutional pudding. When she played piano on her visits to the school, she sang along, sometimes scatting on demand. “Smitty, what about my piano lessons?”
“We’ll pick up where we, uh, left off.”
“And this time around, I’ll be playing intricate melodies with both hands!” No one says a word. “Jimmy, could you call us to order, just for old times?”
“This meeting of the Philosophers Club will now come to order,” I say in a smoky baritone, an elocution class voice, Jimmy Rushing. At her bedside, with Monica sitting up and breathing a steady beat, I play puppeteer and pull our right hands together for the secret philosopher’s handshake, thumbs intertwined, twelve fingers fluttering together, a once-hopeful pledge that wherever we flew after graduation we’d fly together. Sonya doesn’t join in, but clears her throat.
“Jimmy?” Smitty says, as if asking, what next?
“Last night I dreamed about Benny Tyce, the trumpeter. I was sitting in his car talking, and a little dog jumped up on my lap.”
“The Philosophers united against the world, Jimmy,” Smitty sighs, and I think I see movement: his hand to his vest pocket to his mouth, swallowing. “Life sure got complicated in a hurry.”
“Did you hear about Alex?” Sonya asks, and the edge of disapproval in her voice puts us on alert. Monica smells of lavender soap, Sonya of onions and paprika, and Smitty of musky sweat, animal-like, as if he’s been at the piano for days and hasn’t slept or showered. Does he notice, as I do, that the room exhales ambient noise in B-flat?
“Okay, let us take the example of Alex Malko, an intelligent and talented individual, able to read Grade Three Braille with one hand, speak fluent Russian and German, earn straight A’s at the Kansas School for the Blind. Can’t you see Alex as a lawyer, working in Chicago, his abilities a perfect fit with his employment?” I pose the question, slipping easily into my former habit of speaking like Socrates. During those years as Philosophers Club president, I developed the talent of persuasion, could convince anyone of any position, and then switch sides, using the Socratic method to sow doubt. What do you really believe, Monica used to ask me. I never told her, never once, because I didn’t know. How could I have imagined that our playful use of words, like mathematical symbols, like musical notes, would end up hurting one of us? We were turning over oyster shells, not turning around souls. I never thought anyone would listen so intently, take things so much to heart, take them the wrong way. Why would a girl with 20-20 vision delve so seriously into “blinddom?”
It comes over me, a strong urge to examine her myself, see what damage she’s done. If I look now, up close, with my square callused fingers and unreliable, kaleidoscopic vision, and see a woman with only one eye, will Monica become in truth just a woman with one eye? Or will she be the sum of herself, before and after, all her eyes, and my memories, and her memories of sight?
“He eloped with a sighted woman!” Sonya says, and in the slits of light available to me, I see her back straighten with outrage. Monica gasps, and Smitty, well, Smitty is back to working on that hymn. “A prostitute with three children! They went to New York to beg on the streets.” She deflates, I hear it in her voice, and see it in the slope of her back in the light from the window. “I have such high hopes for Alex.” Such high hopes we all have, for ourselves and each other, against the odds, that somehow we will go on to study law, medicine, and music. This is not the day for us to hear about Alex Malko, with all his brainpower, begging in Times Square. “We’re the cream of the crop, our graduating class. Why couldn’t he go for a nice blind woman?”
“Sonya, you need to stop harping on that,” Smitty interrupts his humming, talking staccato, and I know what he’s thinking. The emphasis on blind with blind gave Monica one more reason.
“You are the promised kiss of springtime, that makes the lonely winter seem long,” I sing to the 16-year-old girl in the hospital bed. Smitty adds a spirited harmony and I wonder if the drug is kicking back in already. When Sonya clears her throat this time, it’s a gravelly C-sharp.
“You sing too loud, James,” Monica pipes up, in a perfect imitation of me imitating Grace Wertz, the singing teacher, to the Philosophers Club. Everyone laughs and we’re reminded of who we are: old friends who happen to be blind, who are not expected to go far or to have lives of the mind, but who nevertheless found entertainment and solace discussing Philosophy. And now we’re studiously avoiding the subject of Monica’s injury. But what a fruitful subject for discussion! Consulting our philosopher-heroes, we could weigh in on the beliefs we think prompted her act, describe what plane she might be operating on now, and what relation it has to Socrates’ cave. Despite her injury, would Monica sit up in bed to ask her favorite question: through what senses do we get the most intimate experiences of the world? If we come to any conclusions, though, what good would it do her now? She groans as I’m remembering.
“I got a great new guitar, Monica. For graduation.” I bring it up, nuts and bolts reality. “It’s a Gibson Super400, and the action is real easy. My grandparents cashed in some gold mine stocks to buy it for me.”
“You’ll knock us dead with that guitar, Jimmy.” Smitty says. “I can’t wait to hear you.”
Ahead of his time and strung out, Smitty is brilliant. There are guys who might give him a try-out to go on tour with their bands: Buddy Rich and Artie Shaw, to name two. But he doesn’t even ask, because he can’t read the charts. You have to be in a small group if you’re blind; it’s easier to learn the parts.
“Are you still on drugs, Smitty?” Sonya asks. “Are you a drug addict?” She has no tact.
“The jury’s out,” Smitty answers. I know from the tone of his voice that he would appreciate me changing the subject. She’ll keep at him if I don’t. Sonya’s the one who dreams of being a doctor, who loves chemistry, anatomy and now, Richard Moon, her fiancé. Nicknamed (by me) “Enema” Moon, Richard needed almost daily enemas at the infirmary at the School for the Blind. It’s his medical woes that draw Sonya to him.
“How’s old Enema?” I ask. “Still eating raw eggs?”
“Oh, Jimmy,” Sonya sniffs. “You remember the strangest things.” She doesn’t know, because she can’t see him, that her husband-to-be still looks up at the sky when he talks to people, that the teachers at the school, even my own coaxing (“look down, Richard, look down”), didn’t teach him to look people in the eye. Lots of blind people are like that, always looking up at the sky. We aren’t straining to see the stars. No sir. We make as if the stars aren’t important to us. Monica, and maybe others, who knows, said she thought blind people saw something in the sky that she didn’t. And then she did a turn-about, like a good philosophy student, opining that the blind were lucky not to see the heavens after all.
“Do you see infinity in the sky, Monica?” Smitty asked.
“Yes, little sister, tell us about infinity,” Alex seconded, sounding playful.
“It’s terrifying,” Monica said. “The sky goes on forever. And the stars won’t stay still. I wish I couldn’t see them.”
“But once you have, and have come back to the underground, and become accustomed to seeing in the dark, you will see many times better than before,” I said, almost a direct quote from The Republic.
“Are your visitors ready to go, Monica? I’ll escort them out now.” The nurse is back and speaking only to Monica, ignoring us blind folks — an annoying practice of the sighted.
When she herds Sonya and Smitty out, I stay behind and stroke Monica’s arm, humming more lines from “All the Things You Are.” I get to the bridge, sit down on the edge of the bed, and reach up to feel her face. Shouting “no,” Monica pushes me away.
“I’m sorry.” I kiss her hand like a gentleman, straighten the collar of my good blue shirt and whistle myself out, suddenly shaking and, like Smitty, on edge.
“Well, I wish you guys were still on the radio,” Sonya says when I catch up to them. Having ditched the nurse, they’re guiding themselves along the wall with their hands. We link arms again and walk past rooms where patients are now making noise — groaning, banging, some patients even screaming. “Drugs wearing off,” Sonya, our faux medic, explains.
“Let’s depart this scene,” I say. Arms still entwined, we walk out as several folks are entering. One of them calls out to us.
“Hey, Smitty,” he says, and when he pumps my friend’s left hand I feel it. “It’s Walter. Listen, we’re off tonight, and a few of us are jamming at the Chez Paree. We need a piano player. Can you help us out?”
“Sure thing, Walter,” Smitty answers, and without hesitating, he adds, “If my buddy here, a fine guitarist, can sit in, too.”
“No problem, Smitty. Come early, so I can fix you up.” He has a relaxed manner, an easy going cadence to his voice, as he gives Smitty directions to the club in downtown Kansas City. “I’m with this crazy sax player. I’ll try to bring him in, too. Name’s Charlie Parker.”
“Charlie Parker?” Smitty elbows me and I remember. It was just Smitty and me late one night, listening to the Philco console radio and picking up a monstrously inventive alto player named Charlie Parker, a local guy, playing live from the Hi-Hat. We’ve been interested in him ever since, and now here he is!
We’re approaching the redlight district — gambling, prostitution, drugs…
“Charlie, wait up!” Walter calls out, and I hear the low-pitched laughter of several men walking away from us as we navigate the steps and sidewalk. When the Kansas City bus pulls into the bus stop — we’ve timed it perfectly, thanks to Sonya — we scramble aboard like elephants, trunk to trunk. I’m so anxious to get back to the rooming house and my new guitar, meaning to practice mightily before tonight, that Monica’s plight fades from my mind.
Hours later, scrubbed and nattily dressed, we’re standing on Main Street in Kansas City, hearing melodic emanations from the nightclubs all around us. I want to open my ears wider, create new auditory paths to unravel and analyze the tangled soundstorm of music — beginnings, endings, phrases, finished songs, half-written melodies — of vaudeville, sweet dance bands, and blues-based jazz combos. I’m not complaining. Picking out the various tunes, instruments, and players is taking all of our energy. The two of us haven’t said one word about Monica since we left the asylum, so wrapped up we are in this club gig, my first.
“The Chez Paree?” I ask Smitty.
“Righto. A Negro-only club. I should have mentioned it sooner.”
We walk in silence. I want to tell Smitty something I’m beginning to sense deep inside, but I don’t know how to put it into words. More than its code of notes and joyful philosophy, there’s a weight and depth to jazz, to the things that I can’t help but think about, I mean feel, when my favorite musicians play.
“Do you smell lavender soap, Smitty?”
We’re approaching the redlight district — gambling, prostitution, drugs. I have no interest in any of it, especially the drugs. My perception is altered quite enough already! I worry about Smitty in that area, but we’ve always kept our noses out of each other’s business. I keep quiet about the uppers and he doesn’t comment on my physical education with Miss Eldridge, the piano teacher.
“How do our brains remember smell, anyway? All those years talking about the senses, and we didn’t give smell its due.” I stride forward with Smitty, arm in arm down the middle of the sidewalk, counting the blocks. We’re being obvious — two blind fellows to be stepped around — as we pass the sleazier clubs, following the directions Walter gave to Smitty, who’s now twitching at my side.
“You okay, buddy?” We stop outside a shuttered storefront and wait for someone to answer his knock.
“If only we hadn’t lost the radio show,” he answers. “We’d be pros by now.”
It’s still light out, but dimming rapidly like right before a thunderstorm. I feel blinder now than during the day, and the humidity makes my eyes sticky.
I set my guitar case down, secure it between my feet, and light a cigarette, ready to attend more closely to the sounds of the street: car radios, screeching brakes, sirens with four strands of notes, strains of Dixieland and solo piano, the give and take of loud jive talk. Hey there! Whazzup! Nothinmuch. It is the closest Smitty and I come to scanning our environment, and it will never equal the defining sweep of visual perception. For us to know that something exists, it has to make noise. And then we have to use our imaginations. The little that I see — patches of color, shadowy shapes, disconnected movements — must be explained by my imagination, and despite the fact that we philosophers talked so confidently about the powers of our imaginations, I have to admit the non-visual scene is incomplete. What am I to do but make the best of it? For instance, I see enough tonight to know that we’re the only whites in our immediate area — helpful knowledge, I suppose.
“I know how you feel, Smitty. About the show.”
Just last year, when Smitty and I were on the radio together, everything was working in our favor. Each week we got the sheet music from the station and brought it to the School for the Blind to Miss Eldridge, who took special care with both of us, me especially. Take “Willow Weep for Me.” After Miss Eldridge played the tune for us once, Smitty sat down and played it perfectly. She read the words over a few times, and we memorized it. Then we went to the station and practiced the song for an hour before air time, becoming so sympatico that we knew, split second by split second, without having to see each other, what to play.
“You sure this is the place?”
“Walter said the first door on the corner of Fifth and Main, about twenty-five feet from the corner,” Smitty answered. “It wasn’t our fault, Jimmy.” He paused. “We got sick.”
“I’ll tell the world we got sick!”
The show was called “Happy Hollow,” a rural drama, and we had one tune to do each week. Ezra, the manager, would tell us how long the song had to be. If he said two minutes ten seconds, we had to work it out. Smitty and I would be there all ready to go, and Ezra would say, “let’s have a tune from the Melodeers,” and we’d say, “Okay, Ezra,” and start. We came up with new arrangements on standards, and changed the rhythm on tunes like “Lady Be Good,” and were always in synch. What really flipped those people at the radio station was that two blind guys were able to do that, week after week.
Then we both got sick with bronchial pneumonia on a god-awful day, snow and wind and all, and ended up in the infirmary for two weeks. The station had to drop us; Ezra hated to do it, but he had no choice.
The door opens, and a gruff voice tells us to come in.
“Hey Smitty, man, you’re right on time. Walter, here.”
“You both blind?” another guy asks when we’re in full light, me hanging on to Smitty with one hand and my guitar with the other.
“We have some limitations of vision, let’s put it that way,” I answer.
“It’s okay, man. They’re good players,” Walter Page says. “I’ve jammed with Smitty,
and Smitty vouches for his sidekick here. Make yourselves at home.” He pushes us down by our shoulders onto two wooden chairs. “We gonna give you some color.” Our hosts laugh and we laugh, too, and then I feel something rough, a piece of wood maybe, being rubbed over the bare skin on my arms. I don’t move. Will Smitty sit still for this?
“Charcoal, man,” Walter’s buddy says, chuckling in a warm bass voice. “Ordinary fireplace charcoal.” When they’re done with our arms, necks and faces, they ask Smitty and me to move our heads from side to side. “Your noses ain’t right. And your hair’s too damn straight. But in the dark club, you ought to pass. Just don’t call attention to yourself.”
As we amble together over to the Chez Paree, Smitty on my arm and me touching the elbow of Walter Page — a real player — I’m tempted to swagger, let down my guard, stop concentrating so hard on my surroundings. In my new skin, I’m one of the majority for a change. If I am perceived as a Negro, and treated as a Negro, will I feel like a Negro, even when the charcoal washes off? Plato haunts me, and so do our discussions in front of Monica. I was lofty, arrogant, foolhardy.
“… a young fellow, about your age. He’s been getting some attention around here lately. Blows fast and crazy,” and I realize Walter is talking about Charlie Parker again and that it can’t get any better than this. I’m a confident guy, not easily awed, and we walk into the club, even Smitty outwardly calm, our whiteness unnoticed, and on to the bandstand like seasoned pros. Just as I’m carefully taking my guitar out of its velvet-lined case, the side door bangs loudly, and Walter announces, “Hey everybody, here’s our sax player for tonight,” stilling the easy banter of club patrons and musicians, “Charlie Parker.”
“Charlie Parker,” I repeat to Smitty. My hands relax their grip on my Gibson Super400, and I feel dizzy, as if my body is tipped to one side, but I don’t know which side, or how to straighten up.
“It’s very gratifying to meet you two,” Charlie says to me and Smitty, his voice sweet butter and molasses, shaking our hands. “Hey, man, didn’t our paths cross this afternoon, at the Asylum? Bad place, very bad place.” We can only nod, star-struck. “Anyway, we’re here now, in the land of the sane, hah!” as if he’s told a joke. “Mr. Page and his associates gave you a nice hue.” He pauses, says, “Beautiful guitar,” and hands me a large paper sack. “Look inside.” With my free hand, I feel the cool metal of an alto saxophone. “I carry my horn in this sack wherever I go, and I don’t care if I look like a bum. I even sleep with it under my pillow. You see, man, I’m ready for the muse any time, any place.” Then Charlie says something for my ears only. “Maybe you have a story, from the loony bin. You can tell me. I learned a little about loony bins today. And what I don’t know, I can imagine.” Charlie leans heavily on me, and I push back. “You’re solid, man.”
“Evidence points to the fact that I stay in shape,” I say. “And I stay cool,” hoping that’s how I appear to him.
“Me, I’m on a panic. Always on a panic,” Charlie says. From the audience buzz in front of us, a woman’s light laughter emerges — a girl laughing at a game of words — and glasses clink like upper register piano keys. On the sax, Charlie blows his version of the laughter and clinking, with no dark side, no complexity, warming up with chit chat. As the air in the club grows denser, Charlie’s warm up notes get louder. The Chez Paree is full, I gather, and will soon be standing room only. On a weeknight, no less! Members of the Count Basie and Jay McShann bands are known to wander the clubs on off nights. That’s how come Walter is available, Smitty said. Word gets around, expectation roams the streets. Walter Page is the draw, but Charlie Parker’s known, too, even though he’s only eighteen or nineteen.
“Charlie, you call the tunes,” Walter offers.
“Honeysuckle Rose,” Charlie announces. “Then “I Got Rhythm.” We know both tunes from our radio days and are poised to play when the drummer, Billy, arriving late, slips in behind his drum set, in back of me. He gives us an easy rhythm to begin.
Sailing through the first number, Smitty is cool, rolling along on those keys of his, and my strong practiced fingers find the right frets and strings, the neck of this guitar wide enough for my ample fingers to dance around the familiar chords of Fats Waller’s song — Gmin7, C7, F. I feel as if I am auditioning, not as myself but as a brand new player on a brand new guitar, a new blind Negro man.
“Boocoop piano,” Charlie shouts in my buddy’s direction, and he opens up the simple song with his horn, great facility, new and surprising patterns of notes. Joining Walter and Billy, I keep a powerful beat going, then try out some melody notes and chords. A breeze, I think.
But, hold on, we’re barely into Rhythm — I’m ranging my fingers wide over the guitar’s possibilities, into Gershwin — when Charlie goes off on us, playing extra notes clean and pretty like no one else in Kansas City, and new complications, notes from never-before-imagined chords that work. He’s not just being, but becoming. Everything in constant flux, Heraclitus said; all is change and you never step into the same river twice. It’s now Charlie Parker’s show.
I’m shaky, I admit it, as shaky as on graduation night when I found out about Monica. I have to concentrate hard just to keep up, relieved when Charlie and Smitty return to the comfort of D7, G7, C7, and F7. Soon, Charlie launches another improvisation, and Walter whispers at me to sit out a few measures and listen.
“Asyling at the asylum,” Charlie plays. “White coats hushing you, feeding you elephant pills, their soft voices with questions meant for a child.” I know those voices, institutional voices, voices of the sighted. “Sleeping away days, and nights not differentiated. It’s punishment for feeling too much, and you want to feel nothing and yet feel more and they say that proves you’re really off your wig. Friends die of neglect in fields and on back roads, or drown in deep water, mothers find sons hanging from trees at daybreak, and bodies burst from the chemical substances that replace dreams. But, oh, the rain at sundown, and country wildflowers, and I’m dancing with a girl in a blue frock. Hear me! I shy away from none of it!” Charlie speaks directly to me, his openness demanding more than a Socratic riddle in return.
So I strum a reply, weaving the tale of the Philosophers Club, about us meeting in the basement of the School for the Blind, in a room we named The Cave. Sitting there at night with the lights out, pressed close together on two sofas, we examined theories of perception, reality, and knowledge, courtesy of me, trying to explain ourselves out of the predicament of blindness. We swore allegiance to each other, built ourselves up as high functioning blind people, tried to knock the sighted off their pedestals, agreed with Socrates that they indeed lived in “prison houses of sight.” Monica was there by virtue of Sonya and Alex, at almost every meeting, “ex officio,” we said.
I make some musical color with my gleaming, sunburst guitar — F7 followed by B-flat, followed by B-flat7 — sounds that transport me back to The Cave, to the obvious clues I missed.
“Jimmy, Smitty, Sonya, Alex, Enema.” Monica would recite our names whenever she spoke, in a formal way. “I envy all of you. Your most detached sense, vision, isn’t working, so the other more intimate senses, touch in particular, give your experience of life an intimacy and gratitude we sighted don’t feel. We see everything, and nothing.”
Why didn’t we tell her how wrong she was? That we would trade our inconclusive clues: the direction of the wind blowing on our faces, the varying pitches of sound that met our ears, the soft or hard under our fingertips, for just one chance to view the world through good eyes? I can barely find the music to express how I feel, but manage to finish up the song with some gently plucked notes, for the times I found Monica’s lips in the dark and they tasted like cherry lifesavers. I wipe my eyes and acknowledge the more-than-polite applause with a nod of my head.
I answer with a simple mathematical combination in C and D, that quickly becomes a riff of loaded notes.
Wasting no time, Charlie blows an E-flat and calls for “Cherokee,” a song Smitty and I were learning when we came down with pneumonia.
“Cherokee, sweet Indian maiden,” I hear the words in my head and get a good rhythm going on the guitar, playing chords as we’d learned them, Smitty, Walter, and Billy right there with me, setting it up for Charlie, sounding like we spent all afternoon practicing together. I feel Negro, more black than blind, more musician than blind, more free than chained. I understand in a flash someone wanting to take on another identity. Monica wanted to be a jazz pianist. That’s why she idolized me and Smitty. And she wanted to be different, like the blind — thinking that the blind by their very nature had something profound and tragic to say. She was enamored of Art Tatum, who was out of reach and blind, too. It all kept coming back to blindness.
When we first heard Art Tatum at the school, on the Philco, Monica was with me and Smitty, and when Tatum made his piano sing like the mockingbirds in the Chinese elms at the Texas convent it ignited her expectations. She must be very bright, I remember thinking, to get Tatum so fast.
“Can you hear the intricacy of what he’s playing with his left hand, the little talk he’s having with his right? He creates an entire world with his playing. It’s a world I want to enter. He has no distractions.”
Charlie comes in now, playing his horn with a sharp knife’s edge that cuts through the Lucky Strike air, as if he’s just met the maiden of the song, not over by the bar, but on his way to the meadow, walking barefoot. Charlie Parker is barefoot, in a loose white shirt, strolling. Strolling, he emphasizes. Cherokee is innocent and vulnerable and looking to him for wisdom as if he were the professor of the horn, of life, the way I was the professor of tweedledum philosophy. Charlie is setting up the melody to charm her, to bring her into his fold. Watch out, Charlie, I strum a C-7-sharp-11th, for the complication of her innocence. Do you know exactly what she’s hearing, and what she’s likely to do next? Observe her, really observe her, with your eyes, man!
Unheeding, Charlie launches note bouquets, to impress and win the maiden. As we stroll, shoeless, further from the melody, I feel the panic he talked about and worry there’s no going back. It’s a fiasco, I think, with me in black face, a fiasco. We’re going out on a limb. We’re dizzy, we’ll fall.
Moments later, recognizing where we are in the tune thanks to Smitty, l hear a new and yet familiar melody from the saxophone, a formal composition, almost atonal, with the same changes as the Cherokee I know, but in a higher register. The drummer’s beats are soft and heavy where they should be heavy and soft; Charlie’s playing across the bars and we’re doing the best we can, adjusting to his improvisations. Walter, in great spirits, is trying to sing along.
On my slippery new strings, I slow down the notes he’s laying on us, only to find an emotional ballad, very personal, about the mother I lost when I was two, the brothers and sisters l never had, my abandonment to the convent, the temper l decided to tame when I got to the School for the Blind because the brawling was getting me nowhere fast.
Ach! I stumble. The bridge is too difficult. The chords are…unimaginable! But there, Smitty gets in and I grab hold. He’s in. I’m in. He’s out. I’m out. So I stop, listen, try to pick it up again. Smitty is okay. In fact, I hear him laughing out loud! He has talent to burn. Charlie is blowing thirty-second notes at sixteen notes a second. It’s a wild man’s heartbeat, but he’s in control, able to play his notes over and under the traditional melody, around the corner from the chords I know but never out of the neighborhood, never unable to find his way back. So why is he “on a panic?” Is it because of what he’s saying with his music, what it means to him? Is it his fear that no one’s listening, or that those who are, don’t comprehend?
Charlie comes right up next to me with his horn in my face, and I feel his breath when he says “Tatum,” between blows, “one supreme harmonic being.” He’s encouraging the blind man in me!
I answer with a simple mathematical combination in C and D, that quickly becomes a riff of loaded notes, saying, “I care.” I care that my best friend, Smitty, is on bennies, Enema looks up at the sky, and Alex Malko demeans himself and all of us by begging. I care that Sonya’s medical career might be limited to giving enemas to her constipated husband, and that I might end up a piano tuner, not a jazz musician. Slowing down for emphasis, hearing the band ease up with me, I’m ready to tell, out loud, how much I care about Monica, the genuine seeker among us. I care too much. There’s more, Charlie says with his horn, can you take it? Come back. And I do.
Climbing my ladder of chords, I’m on the last measure of my solo when I hear Charlie say to me, “Tell us more. Tell us everything. And don’t tell a lie, because we’ll know.”
“Dear girl.” I sweep the palm and fingers of my right hand expansively over the strings with the ease that used to be me and Monica. Sounding, yes, like Art Tatum — taking chances with C#m7, F#7, Bmaj7, Bmaj9 — Smitty tells me to go on. I strike three bare chords for Monica’s innocence, revolutionary in the musical milieu Charlie has given us. “I didn’t mean to take you to such a terrible place.” Into the lower octaves, the deep water of the Philosophers Club, I dive, almost destroying my new guitar to tell about the unintended destruction of our sweet philosopher novice. I bang on the strings, and make powerful downward strokes, frightening strokes no longer pretend-happy, facing the cold hard truth that our sighted friend, an impressionable girl, doused her eyes with lye in an attempt to make herself blind like us.
“When you have to touch something to understand it, or bring it close to your bad eyes to ‘see’ it,” Monica said in a dreamy voice, graduation afternoon, “your relationship with the world is so much more intimate than mine, don’t you think?” And then we blind folks adjourned to the auditorium to rehearse the graduation ceremony, leaving Monica to wait near the infirmary and the cleaning supplies.
Smitty pounds along with me, both of us saying, no, no, it isn’t more intimate! Billy backs us up, his drumming and my heartbeat indistinguishable. Immersed in our conversation, in our playing, I realize I don’t know how to get out, how to end the story. Blowing the same note that opened Cherokee, Charlie comes to the rescue, closing the number quietly in a sustained E-flat, with the dignity befitting a eulogy.
“Walter, Charlie, the white guys gotta go!” A voice shouts to us over the applause.
“It’s the manager,” Walter says.
“Them two white guys gotta go! You know them’s the rules.”
“If they go, we go,” Charlie says in a no-nonsense voice, over the agitated rumbling of the crowd. He doesn’t consult Walter, or give the manager time to change his mind, just turns around and tells us to pack up and leave as if we’re all on equal footing, professional musicians. The audience yells complaints; the manager tries to coax them, and the Negro players, to stay, but the chairs screech on the floor and the doors whoosh open, and everyone leaves for other clubs. Charlie leads Smitty and me out the side door, and Walter and Billy bid us goodnight, heading down the street to Piney Brown’s to join another off-night jam session.
“I read somewhere that light doesn’t get into the brains of blind people, because it can’t get in through the eyes. Ain’t that peculiar? If anybody’s brain is full of light, it’s Tatum’s.” He crinkles the paper bag under his arm. “And yours, man, you two, tonight.” ”
“We have a friend who thought she could be like Art Tatum, if she…” I say to Charlie.
“You told me, man! Not in so many words. And I say there ain’t but one Art Tatum,” Charlie says. I feel Smitty’s fingers gripping my right elbow. “You oughtta clean yourselves up, before you do anything else. Never know what trouble you’ll get into otherwise. Maybe end up in jail, or worse. ”
“I guess you’re right,” we say together, me thinking the unspeakable, that I might just prefer being black. Charlie reads my mind.
“Knucklehead! You can’t be serious! A white person does not want to be black.”
When I glance at him, streetlights illuminating his disconnected shape, he’s shaking his head. Charlie watches me and Smitty take out our handkerchiefs and carefully wipe the charcoal off our faces, waiting to see that the job is done before he saunters back to the carnival.
It’s still early, and both of us are wound up, so Smitty and I decide to walk the two miles back to the rooming house where we’ve been sharing a room since graduation night. By the time we get there, Smitty’s bennies have worn off and he crashes immediately on the bed.
I lie awake and clothed on the couch, with a small towel over my eyes. I think it over, starting with the blind man who looks up at the sky and the sighted woman who, beyond all reason, envies him what she thinks he sees, as well as what he doesn’t. On the wet undersides of my closed eyelids, I see moving colors that make me think of shooting stars, the way they’ve been described to me. I never let on how much I’ve always wanted to see shooting stars, how it eats at me that I never will. But tonight, it hits me: I’ve seen something better, a man creating shooting stars with his horn and sharing them with anyone who will listen, really listen. Listening, that’s the price of admission.