Time: The Not-Too-Distant Future
Billy paid little attention when he saw the old man pull up to the garage one fine spring morning and begin unloading the truck. Nothing about the man’s appearance was unusual. He was black and muscular, with hair beginning to gray, and the truck was showing its age, too. It soon became evident that the man was moving into the apartment over the garage, but handymen came and went. Billy’s father was always complaining about the unreliability of hired help, both at home and at his radio stations. Billy went back to his violin practice.
But a few minutes later, he was drawn to his window again. The old man was still trudging up and down the stairs, hauling boxes, and lugging suitcases and a few clothes on hangers, but apparently he had already rigged up his stereo and turned it on. Music flowed out the open windows of the garage apartment, drifted across the pool and courtyard, and wafted through the open windows of Billy’s bedroom. Billy listened. The music was unfamiliar, but he liked what he heard. It had drive and verve, and the beat seemed to run straight from his ears to his feet. He looked at his violin and put it aside. Then he moved back to the window, cranked it open wider, and sat on the window seat to listen. Now a man was singing in a clear, impassioned voice that seemed to bounce along for a while on top of a strong bass line and then slide into a squeal of – what exactly? Mock anger? Comic frustration?
Whatever it was, it was certainly rhythmic. And strangely happy. Whether truly upset or simply play-acting, the singer obviously was having a very good time even if singing about a bad time. Billy listened more closely, the toes of one tennis-shod foot tapping on the floor, the long fingers of one hand tapping on the window sill.
“. . . bought you a brand new Mustang, a nineteen sixty-five; now you come around signifying, woman, you don’t wanna let me ride. Mustaaaang Sally, now, baby…”
The music was rock ‘n’ roll – Billy knew that much – but he didn’t recognize the tunes – not the one playing now or any of the others that followed. His parents’ taste in music ran to classical, he himself was schooled in band and chamber music – the violin practice was for the octet in which he played – and the radios in the house stayed tuned to WSOF, his father’s soft-music station in Atlanta.
“All that other stuff is so much air pollution,” Mr. Randolph was fond of saying. “Rap? It’s fine – if you happen to be a Ubangi. Country? Music for mental retards. Hard rock? A nervous breakdown set to music.” On and on he went. “New Wave? Mental masturbation for space cadets. Oldies? Look at the demographics: your audience is either dying or going deaf from old age. You’re losing market share with every record you spin, with every day’s newspaper obituaries. No, sir. Soft and soothing – that’s the way to go. We may not lead the parade, but the parade won’t leave us behind, either.”
When his father got going like that, which it seemed was at least three times a week, usually at the supper table, Billy listened politely and said nothing. His mother invariably reminded his father that radio stations didn’t “spin records” anymore, that everything was on tape, and encouraged him to “avoid using obsolete slang – it makes you sound unprofessional,” but Mr. Randolph paid no attention. Or seemed not to. Billy had his doubts about his father’s ideas, but what did a fifteen-year-old know about business? Still he couldn’t help wondering if his father were wrong. Not about format. Billy didn’t listen much to radio and didn’t understand those who did, especially those – some of them his friends – who went around wearing earphones half the time. It was much more fun to hack away at his computer. But WSOF had been drifting lower in the ratings ever since he could remember. Eighteenth in a market of sixty. Was that okay? It didn’t sound so hot. He could remember when the station was Number 3. In a market as big as Atlanta’s, Number 3 sounded pretty good. Not terrific, but solid, respectable. But eighteenth? At best, it sounded so-so, and when you took into account that eighteenth for WSOF meant a slip of fifteen notches in three years, it sounded a lot worse. How far back in a parade could you fall before falling out of it altogether?
But that was no concern of his, he figured. Besides, his mind was on the music the old black man was playing. Now it had shifted almost imperceptibly from rock ‘n’ roll to something more complex, something similar but with a slower beat, and it featured the guitar instead of the saxophone. And what a guitar! Billy had never heard one like it – and he himself played guitar, played well, in fact. All his friends said so. But he didn’t play like that! This guitar had a full, rich, authoritative sound that wailed up and down the scales, sometimes in a strutting bass, other times in cascading melodies, but all the time in a billowing of chords that rolled over the courtyard and into the morning air like joy set to music.
Unable to resist, Billy leaned out the window and spied the old man lifting a large box out of the back of his truck. “Hey, Mister,” he called.
The man stopped and looked up and around until he saw Billy. “Hey,” he called out. “Good morning.”
“What’s that music you’re playing?” Billy said.
“Oh, so you like the blues, do you? That’s Stevie Ray Vaughan on the guitar and vocal, ‘You Better Leave My Little Girl Alone.’ Sucker can sho nuff play, cain’t he?” Under his breath, he added, “‘Specially for a white boy.” The man carried the box a few steps toward the garage apartment. Stopping for a breather at the foot of the stairs, he called to Billy again. “You live here?”
“I’m your new maintenance man, John Henry Jones.”
“I’m Billy. Billy Randolph.”
“Pleased to meet you,” John Henry said, starting up the stairs. “Say, why ain’t you in school?”
“School’s out. Last Friday was the last day. Need help with that?”
John Henry stopped and put down the box. “Don’t mind if I do.”
“Be right down.”
A minute later, Billy Randolph burst out the back door of the house, nearly taking the screen door off its hinges. On the run, he crossed the forty yards between the house and the garage in seconds. “Let me help with that, Mr. Jones.” He pointed to the box beside John Henry.
“Just John Henry.” He stuck out his hand for Billy to shake. “You don’t call me Mister Jones and I won’t call you Mr. Randolph.”
Billy laughed and shook hands on it. Peering into the box, which was filled to overflowing with phonograph records, he said, “What’re those?”
“They’re called records. They don’t make ‘em anymore. CD’s replaced them.”
“Oh. Is that where the music’s coming from?”
“Yeah. You must like music.”
“Rock ‘n’ roll.” It was a statement, not a question.
“Never heard much of it till now.”
John Henry did a double take. “Where you been?”
“Right here,” Billy said, waving an arm to indicate the immediate environs, but meaning Atlanta.
“You a prisoner here?” John Henry smiled and jerked his head toward the big house. “Cut off from civilization or something?”
Billy laughed. “No! What made you think that?”
“How old are you?”
“Sixteen. Well, soon, anyhow.”
John Henry shook his head. “I never before met a boy your age who didn’t know rock ‘n’ roll.”
Billy’s smile faded. “My father’s in radio,” he explained. “Station WSOF, soft music around the clock. In our house, we can either listen to WSOF or find something else to do.” He brightened. “I’m in the school band, though. And I belong to a chamber music group.”
“Yep,” Billy said. “Violin. Guitar, too, on some numbers we do. English airs, mostly.” He frowned.
John Henry pointed to the box of records. “No classical music in there. No English airs, either. Sorry.”
“What is in there?”
“Oh, a little Ray Charles, for instance. Know him?”
Billy shook his head no.
“Hmm. How ‘bout the Godfather of Soul, James Brown? Or the Shirelles?”
“Aretha Franklin? Gladys Knight? B. B. King? Otis Redding? The Supremes?”
“This is serious, man. Wilson Pickett? Mary Wells, Ben E. King?” He broke into song as if to spur Billy’s memory: “‘There is a rose in Spanish Harlem…’ No? How ‘bout Marvin Gaye?”
No, no, no, no.
John Henry beamed. “I got you now! The Beatles.”
“This is way past serious. You know that, don’t you?”
Billy looked as if he had just learned that he flunked an algebra test.
John Henry put a consoling hand on his shoulder. “Hear that?” he asked. From the stereo in the apartment overhead came the strains of “Stubborn Kind of Fellow.” The infectious rhythm had reached Billy’s brain before it reached his consciousness, and he was already tapping a foot to the tune: “. . . but every time I reach for you, Baby, you just jump clean out of sight . . . Guess I’m just a stubborn kinda fellow, got my mind made up to love you.”
“Now, Brother, that cat could sing,” John Henry said. “Marvin Gaye.”
“Could? Did something happen to him?”
“Dead now. Shot by his own father. Tragic.” John Henry flashed a big smile. “But it’s also tragic that a young fellow like you don’t know who he was.”
“Don’t look so sad. Fortunately for you, Billy boy, all the material for Remedial Rock ‘n’ Roll is right here in this box.” He stabbed at the box with a toe. “Not to mention a few more boxes I already hauled in. Reckon your daddy will let you listen?”
“He’s never said not to. Just not on the radios in the house. Besides, lately he’s hardly ever around.”
“Well, I wouldn’t want to go against his word. That wouldn’t be right. Besides, I need the job. So if he tells you not to do it, be sure to let me know.”
Billy smiled. “Okay.” He paused. “Then there’s Mr. Montrose, my music teacher. He hates everything modern.” Billy smiled. “But he’s not around much either. His real job, general manager of Dad’s radio station, keeps him pretty busy.” He leaned down to pick up the box and was surprised to find it so heavy. His face turned red from the strain and he stood up puffing.
“Here,” said John Henry. “Let’s tackle this together. A job like this calls for teamwork.”
(For a limited time, this novel is available exclusively on Amazon.com. See: http://www.amazon.com/Tell-Tchaikovsky-News-Robert-Lamb-ebook/dp/B00OJ9M15A/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1421261700&sr=1-1&keywords=and+tell+tchaikovsky+the+news)
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Striking Out (from ch. 8)
I lay in bed that night thinking it was over and telling myself to forget Cherry and move on. I even went to sleep and got up the next morning thinking it was all settled. But when the city bus that I often rode to school left the stop at Riverside High, heading up the Hill, I was still on it.
I didn’t know what I was going to do. A part of me that I barely recognized seemed to be running the show, with the rest of me just along for the ride. But I got off at the stop closest to Cherry’s house and walked straight to it, barely noticing what an absolutely beautiful day it was: clean, bright, fresh.
Mrs. Ashford looked very surprised when she answered the door, but she recovered quickly and called back into the house, “Billings.” Telling me to wait there, she pushed the door nearly closed and turned away, saying as she went, “It’s that boy.”
Next thing I knew, Mr. Ashford, wearing a coat and tie, and smelling of aftershave lotion, loomed in the doorway. “What do you want?” he said. He sounded short and looked put out, but I had the impression that he thought he’d overdone it. At any rate, he repeated in a softer voice, “What do you want?”
I felt like saying, “Gee, I don’t know. I’m just as surprised to find myself here as you are.” But I blurted out the simple truth instead: “I want to know about Cherry — the truth.”
The last, the part about the truth, stung him, I thought, but he looked at me as if gauging how much he should tell and said, “All right.” He stepped out onto the porch, pulling the door to behind him. “The truth is that Cherry can’t see you anymore.”
“Where is she?” My tone of voice, demanding, surprised me.
But it didn’t faze him. “To tell you where Cherry is would defeat our purpose in sending her away.”
I couldn’t argue with that. “What did we do that was so terrible?”
“It wasn’t so much what you did as what you might have done. We felt that certain precautions were in order. You understand.”
I did, but I didn’t want to accept it. Feeling cornered, I said the first thing I could think of that might make him see things my way. “Cherry’s in love with me. Doesn’t that matter to you?”
He smiled. “It matters more than you know. But Cherry’s young — young and inexperienced.”
“And I love her.” I was snapping at him now and feeling foolish because of it, but I couldn’t seem to stop.
He smiled again, making me feel more foolish. He had the upper hand and he knew it. “And what can you offer her?”
That surprised me. Hell, I wasn’t talking about marriage, just love. “Sir?” I said.
“Let me be frank, Benny. You asked for the truth and you’re old enough to hear it. You have nothing to offer my daughter. She’s young and, I admit, spoiled, and doesn’t understand these things, so we must protect her until she does.”
What the hell was he talking about, I wondered. “But we love each other,” I said. Why couldn’t he understand that?
“Let me finish,” he prompted. “I don’t want to hurt your feelings, Benny, but I’ve found out some things about you since Sunday. I don’t enjoy prying; it was my duty to Cherry.”
He stopped there, hoping, I guessed, that I would see what he was getting at. But I didn’t. “Found out what? Where?”
“I had a long talk with the principal about you.”
I was thrown. “Mr. Thompson?”
He nodded. “I also talked to the good priests at St. Jude.”
I still didn’t see it coming, and it must have shown on my face.
He acted a bit awkward and said, “Benny,” as if I were a keen disappointment to him. “Must I say it? Can’t you see? Girls like Cherry don’t marry boys like you. Oh, once in a blue moon it happens, but even then–”
“You mean I’m not good enough for her.” Suddenly I felt helpless, defeated, angry, and I silently cursed a world in which roses could bloom, birds could sing, and the air smell so fresh while a rich man stood on the porch of his fine home and told me I was nothing.
He seemed self-conscious and looked away. “I’m sure you’re a nice enough boy, Benny. Nobody I talked to said you were bad — a little mixed up, maybe, but not bad.”
“Just poor–was that it?” I couldn’t help myself; I wanted him to say the worst so I could hate him that much more.
“Well,” he said, looking about, hedging.
“Was it ‘poor as a church-mouse’? Or just ‘dirt poor’?” Bitterness had made my anger ice cold.
He turned a shade cold himself. “Just that you’re a Milltown boy. And that your parents are mill workers.”
“You sure they didn’t say lint-heads?”
He looked at me again. “I’m sorry if I hurt your feelings. But I had to put Cherry first. And now . . .”
He motioned toward the door with one hand and stuck out his other for a handshake.
I looked at the hand and then at him. I wanted to spit on it. Then I turned and walked away.
# # #
The Midtown Manor Hotel, located in the heart of The Strip, had given up all pretense of being a real hotel. The carpeting had been ripped up, rolled up, stacked here and there against the walls, and a cigarette machine was the lobby’s only piece of decor, its only furnishing. People in need of a place to sit sat out front on the steps or simply went on needing a place to sit. No doorman guarded the entrance, no bellboys hustled about, no fleet of registration clerks stood uniformed and ready to be of service. But the Midtown Manor was open for business and obviously getting some. People milled around out front, and came and went in the lobby, and I could tell from the noise of the elevators that they stayed busy.
“Oh, this p-p-place m-m-makes m-money,” the night clerk said, smiling. Tall and black, he sat in a small cubicle about halfway down the narrow lobby, near the elevators. He stuttered worse than anybody I’d ever heard. “You’ll have t-to excuse m-m-me,” he said. “I have this s-s-silly s-s-s-speech im-im-pediment. It’ll g-get b-better once I g-g-get u-u-used to you.”
A buzzer sounded and a red light lit up on the switchboard. He put down the book he had been reading, plugged into the switchboard and said, “D-d-desk.”
I stood at the front counter and could easily see the title of the book, a paperback. It was Bertrand Russell’s Wisdom of the West. When he pulled the plug on the switchboard, I said with raised eyebrows, “A hotel desk clerk who reads Bertrand Russell?”
He smiled sheepishly. “You’ll r-read anything on a j-j-job like this.”
I introduced myself, told him why I was there, and we chatted a few more minutes. His name was Jerry Chatham, he was 30, lived there in the hotel with his wife and little girl — and had a college degree in mathematics.
“Pretty far from your field, aren’t you?” I didn’t want to throw off on his line of work, but surely a man with a college degree could do better than he appeared to be doing.
He tried to act matter-of-fact, but sadness lurked behind his eyes. “M-my d-d-dream was to be a t-t-teacher. But have you ever s-seen a s-s-s-stuttering t-teacher?”
I hadn’t. Had never even thought of it. I shook my head. “I’m sorry.”
He raised his hands, palms up. “I th-thought I c-could l-l-lick this th-thing, b-but I haven’t. N-n-no-b-body else w-wants a s-stuttering m-m-mathematician either. I g-got this job ‘c-cause I work cheap.” He waved a hand to indicate his surroundings.
It seemed a good time to change the subject, so I showed him the pictures of Connie and Sims. “My main interest is the girl. The guy seems to like boys.”
Jerry nodded and studied the pictures, and then shook his head. “No. N-never s-seen either one.” He added, however, that if Connie were anywhere on The Strip he might be able to help me. “Th-this hotel is f-full of p-prostitutes and p-pimps, and if s-she’s out th-there, there’s a g-good ch-chance they’ve s-seen her.”
Just then, a short brunette wearing a skirt and blouse easily a size too small for her passed the desk on her way out. Jerry hailed her and she sauntered over to the desk.
“Ever s-seen this g-girl, S-Sherri? He showed her Connie’s picture.
The girl, about 20, looked at the picture and then at me, and finally at Jerry. “No. Kinda young, ain’t she? Big boobs, though.” She looked up at me, giving me the once-over. “You looking for young stuff?”
“No,” I said. I almost added a ridiculous “thank-you,” but caught myself before saying it.
“He’s n-n-not a j-john,” Jerry said,
She looked me up and down again. “Too bad,” she said. Then she glanced again at the photo. “Nice tits, though. Like to have a pair like that, myself.” She strolled on out the door.
Jerry turned to me. “S-stay here awhile and I’ll ask a f-few m-more. B-But your b-best b-bet would be a p-pimp.”
“Can you direct me to one?”
He laughed. “They ain’t exactly l-listed in the y-y-yellow p-pages, you know. Besides, n-no pimp gonna g-give you the t-time of day.”
“Surely there are some around here, some you know.”
“Would you mind asking for me?” I heard the lobby doors swing open and turned to see a short, wiry young man coming toward us. He sported a Little-Richard hairdo and wore clothes that looked flashy but cheap.
“How about him? He a pimp?”
Jerry watched the man as he stopped at the cigarette machine, just out of hearing range. “He’s n-no pimp; he’s a shrimp.” He laughed and explained. “A s-shrimp is someb-body tryin’ to be a p-pimp.” He turned thoughtful for a moment, and when the young man got his cigarettes and left, he said, “L-look, p-pimps wouldn’t give m-me the time of day, either. B-but there’re a couple here in th-the hotel who owe me a f-favor. Hold on.”
He went to the switchboard and rang one of the rooms. I moved away to a discreet distance so he could make his pitch in private, and soon he came back to the desk front. “He d-didn’t like it much, b-but he said to s-send you up. Room 412.”
“J-just call him Ray — and d-don’t ask for a last n-name to g-go with it.”
I thanked him and went to the elevators.
When I knocked on the door of 412, a surly male voice came from within. “It’s open.”
I entered the room and saw a tall, thin man standing at the window, looking out through blinds onto Peachtree Street. “Jerry sent me,” I said.
He went on peering out the window for a minute and then turned to face me. “You a cop?”
“Got any I.D.?”
I took out my billfold and showed him my Phoenix identification card. My picture was on it. He looked at it carefully and handed it back. “I don’t like this,” he said, obviously meaning the situation.
“I’m just trying to help somebody.”
“Ain’t nobody ever help me.” He eased down into a chair and lifted his feet onto the bed, crossing them at the ankles. “What she look like, this chick you lookin’ for?”
I took out Connie’s picture and handed it to him.
He looked at it. “They a reward out for her?”
“No. Her parents are just plain, everyday people.”
“I ain’t seen her.” He leaned over to peer through the blinds again. “How long she been gone?”
Still looking out the window, he said, “What make you think she ’round here?”
“Just a guess. We’ve looked everywhere else. Figured we’d try here.”
He looked quickly around at me. “Who’s we?”
To cover my slip-up, I said, “Other reporters.”
He looked at the picture of Connie again, still in his hand, and then gave me a scrutinizing look. “This chick must be somethin’ special.”
“Only to her mother and father. And to me, I guess.”
“What she to you?”
I squirmed a bit. “I lost somebody special one time. I know how it feels.”
He looked at me for a long moment, his face flat and expressionless, and then looked at the picture of Connie again. Then he called out, “Maxine, get in here!”
Through a door I hadn’t noticed, a door into another room, a short, very curvaceous, peroxided blonde entered. “You call, Ray?”
He snorted. “If I didn’t call, what you doin’ here?”
She dropped her gaze to the floor and said nothing.
“Come over here,” he said.
She walked by me and around the foot of the bed. He handed her the picture of Connie and pointed at me. “This man’s lookin’ for that chick. Tell him did you ever see her before.”
Maxine looked at the picture and then at Ray. He said pointedly, “Tell him the truth.”
She glanced at the picture again and then at me. “I’ve never seen her before.”
“Give him back the picture and get out,” Ray said.
She handed it to me as she started back to the other room. When she got near the door, the pimp snapped, “That ain’t out. Out is on the street. And this time you better put yo’ money-maker to makin’ money. I catch you sittin’ on it again, you be one sorry little mama.”
Looking flustered, she motioned toward the door. “I need my lipstick.”
“You need what I say you need, and you need to get yo’ ass out on the street.”
When she closed the door, the pimp yawned and stretched. “She good, but lazy,” he said.
I folded Connie’s picture, put it away and started to leave, but I had a question I couldn’t resist asking. It might help me find Connie. “What makes a girl become a prostitute?”
He looked at me as if he could not believe I didn’t know. “Money,” he said. “M-o-n-e-y.”
“No offense, but Maxine didn’t seem all that eager to get out there and make money.”
He eased his feet off the bed and began to slip on shoes. “Maxine think small. She done made $300 today and she think that enough. He stood up and smoothed his pants. “When she was waitressin’, she done good to turn $150 a week. Maxine got a million-dollar ass and a five-dollar brain. She need me to tell her what’s enough.”
He turned to look out the window again. I thanked him and left.
Jerry was away from the desk when I got back to the lobby. When he hadn’t returned in a couple of minutes, I scribbled a note saying, “No luck, but thanks,” and left it where he’d see it.
(Atlanta Blues is available at Amazon.com and other book-selling sites.)
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