It begins to tell
By Jo Salas
Published in Chonogram, March 2004
Helen lay warm and deliciously comfortable as long as she didn’t move a hair. Daylight filtered though her thin eyelids but she wasn’t ready to open her eyes. Dreams flitted like dark shapes below her, their outlines indistinct. In one there was a flavor of escape; in another, guilt. She let them go. A song undulated. Just one of those things, just one of those crazy things…. Someone was playing brushes with it, but the rhythm was all wrong. Her irritation drove the dream-song away. It wasn’t brushes, it was voices, whispering. She listened, her eyes still closed. All she could hear were sh’s. Shsh sh sh.
“She looks so…”
“It’s a shame to …”
Helen opened her eyes to see her daughter’s face above her.
“Shwshwshwsh, why are we whispering?” she whispered.
Billie’s voice changed to its normal tone. “Mother! You’re awake! Merry Christmas!” She stepped back from Helen’s bedside. James stood behind her wearing a silly tie with red reindeer on it. Stiffly he bent down his bald, freckled head. Helen felt his dry kiss on her cheek. “Merry Christmas, dear. We’re taking you to Billie’s. Did you remember?”
Christmas again! Surely a year had not passed since the last one. Helen closed her eyes. The jouncing car ride to Billie’s big house, the endless morning pretending to be interested while the children noisily opened gift after gift, Christmas dinner in her wheelchair at the table where there was laughter and people speaking quickly and too much food, none of it of her choosing or making.
“Yes, of course I remember. I’ve been looking forward to it.”
Florence and Gina shooed James and Billie out of the room so they could get her dressed and ready to go. Helen waited passively as though it was someone else’s nightdress being removed, someone else’s diaper being changed, someone else’s lumpy arthritic legs being swung gently over the side of the bed and then into the wheelchair. Florence put a mirror in her hand. “We’re gonna make you gorgeous today, honey,” she said. Helen held the mirror while Florence brushed her thin white curls. She watched the ancient lady in it with curiosity: the prominent cheekbones and knife-like nose, the nonexistent eyebrows, the toneless skin and mouth framed by enough wrinkles for an elephant. The eyes that looked back at her under draped eyelids were penetrating in their gray stare. Humorous.
“How interesting,” she said.
“What, honey?” asked Florence. “Now let me put just a little lipstick on you.”
How interesting to have transformed into this shocking old relic. Not really a woman at all. She didn’t say it out loud. Too tedious to explain what she meant to Florence, who would be upset and think that she was depressed.
James insisted on helping to get her into the back seat of the car.
“Dad, be careful now, you’ll strain your back,” said Billie. James ignored her. Florence and Gina let him help but it was their skill that got her into the car unscathed and comfortable. Helen smiled at them through the window as Billie drove away. She could read their lips: “Merry Christmas!” “Have a ball!” Beside her James fussed with his seat belt, then reached for her hand. She let it lie in his. So thin, they both were, both of these elderly hands. Bony and scaly. Once there had been a current that passed between their flesh. She could hardly remember. Helen squeezed James’s hand lightly and slid her own back under the soft blanket that Gina had tucked around her.
Helen woke again, disoriented. “Mother, we’re here. Let me help you out.” Billie wheeled her into the house. Young people leaned over to kiss her tenderly. “Grandma, you made it!” said the girl. Fleur. The name took a moment to come into her mind, though her heart had instantly filled with warmth at the sight of her, tall and lovely, her brown hair a shiny cascade over her shoulders.
“Grandma, this is Micky.” A young man smiled beside her, slight and dark haired. “He’s a musician too—clarinet and saxophone.”
“Happy to meet you, Mrs. Ashe,” he said. “I hope you’re going to play for us.”
Unwrapping the gifts under the tree was a more civilized affair than Helen expected. Of course the children were older now, too old to tear packages limb from limb like lion cubs with a carcass. Still, all this stuff. Didn’t they know that it only piled up into a mountain of possessions that they—or someone else—would have to dispose of one day? She thought of the house she had left three years ago, still filled with the detritus of her life, her and James’s life together. Disgusting. This Christmas Helen had insisted that she didn’t want any gifts. “Whatever could I want? And where on earth would I put it?” she’d said to Billie. But Fleur had disobeyed and presented her with a book, a big illustrated book all about her mother Billie’s namesake and the people in her world.
Helen turned the pages slowly, gazing at each photo as though she could re-enter those long-ago places. Billie Holiday in her glory and her decline, the musicians who had played with her and honored her. They all looked so young. She peered closely at the dimly-lit faces of the audience in some of the photos. Had she really ever been one of those elegantly dressed people, smiling, drinking, at ease? Helen looked across the room at James, snoring lightly on the couch with a half-eaten chocolate croissant on a plate on his lap. He wouldn’t enjoy these photos. He’d always refused to go with her, had objected even to her listening to the music. “You’re a mother and a wife, Helen. You’re Mrs. James Ashe. Music is all well and good. But I don’t want my wife carried away by jazz. Really, Helen.”
He had come home early and found her swaying to Duke Ellington on the phonograph, the baby in her arms. Helen walked quickly to the record player and lifted the needle, hoping only that he would not glance toward the piano where spread out, clear evidence of her corruption, was the sheet music to Satin Doll. James liked it when she played sunny Mozart sonatas. Or nursery rhymes for baby Billie. Whom he mistakenly thought was named after Helen’s father, William. James did not imagine, and she would never tell him, that every moment that she was not cooking, cleaning, amusing the baby, or tending the small, elaborately planted front yard, she was playing the standards, practicing, practicing, singing the songs, carrying herself deeper into the music. Dancing to the Duke was her reward for finally mastering Satin Doll’s chord progression.
No, James would not enjoy the photos in darling Fleur’s book. They would speak to him of danger, of things wrong between them. Of his wife’s disobedience. She turned the pages. There was Billie, the real Billie, singing at Sugarcane’s. It was like seeing her own secret world again. No matter that she felt an outsider there, a visitor from the suburbs.
The blue neon sign swung in the October wind. Sugarcane’s. Dorothy and Helen paused, looking at each other.
“Come on!” said Dorothy, putting her arm through Helen’s. “Too late now.” Inside, the darkness was thick with smoke and music, the sound of saxophone and piano and drums and a slow voice sweetened with something Helen recognized but could not name.
“Follow me, ladies.” A stocky black man led them through the packed room. The low stage was barely arm’s length from the table he pointed to.
“I’ll have a scotch and soda,” said Dorothy, her hand on the man’s shoulder, leaning close to his ear. She glanced at Helen. “A gin and tonic for my friend.” She offered a cigarette to Helen and lit one for herself.
Helen sipped the drink. I’m here, she thought. I did it. I’m downtown, without James, without the baby. In a jazz club. Smoking. Drinking gin.
Some other spring I’ll try to love
Now I just cling to faded blossom
The singer swayed, her eyes closed, fingertips holding the microphone. She was beautiful, her skin a smooth glowing brown, curves held by a white dress, dark hair pulled back. The musicians watched her, weaving a cradle of sound around her and the melody. Oh! I feel it, thought Helen, the pulsing of the music, the calling of the words. She knew every note of the song, though she’d never tried to play it. She’d look for it when she got home, in the sheets of music she kept hidden under Brahms and Beethoven.
Sun shines around me
But deep in my heart it’s cold as ice
Dorothy was staring at her. “Smoke!” mouthed Helen, pointing to her eyes. But it wasn’t the smoke. Nor was it sadness. It was the music, pushing, breaking, stirring her as nothing had for a long time, not since James came back from the war and they danced with all the other young couples in Central Park, drunk on the joy of finding each other again, drunk on peace and promise after the years of separation and fear. Then there had been the house in Queens, and the baby, and then the larger house in White Plains, and James working so hard in the city, and dancing only between courses at dinner dances on the shore on Valentine’s Day or her birthday. Or at home, alone, with Duke Ellington on the phonograph, when baby Billie was sleeping.
Dorothy waved to the waiter and signaled him to bring more drinks. “You need it, kid.”
“Bottoms up!” called Helen, holding her glass out to Dorothy, then to the musicians, toasting them. The saxophonist saw her and winked.
My life’s yours, love
The singer bowed her head low. From the half-dark came applause, whistles. She held up one hand, smiling. “We’ll take a short break and be right back. Now don’t you go away.”
Voices rose to fill the space where the music had been. Helen was bereft. The musicians stood chatting together. Astonished, she found herself on her feet, walking carefully toward them. The saxophonist who had winked at her watched her coming. He was thin and tall, like James, but blond, his hair in a boyish crewcut. Something in the deep lines around his mouth moved her.
“Can I buy you a drink?” I had no idea I could say that, she thought. I sound just like Dorothy.
He sat at their table drinking beer. His name was Drew. Dorothy chatted with him. Helen couldn’t find a thing to say. She listened to their banter, witty like some of the songs the band had played.
“Helen, is it?” he asked, turning to her. “So you like jazz. Have you come to Sugarcane’s before?”
“No, but…” She sipped her drink. Her third! Or was it her fourth? “I love jazz. I listen at home, when my husband isn’t there.” She blushed, glad that it was too dark for him to see. His smile encouraged her. His mouth …she stopped herself. “But I’ve always loved music, I took piano lessons for years. When I was younger I even thought I might go professional, but that was crazy. Me a musician! Dreaming! Oh no, life came along and showed me what was real. I play piano with my little girl sometimes.”
Drew leaned forward. “Could be a song.” He put his hand over hers and sang her words, his eyes almost closed.
Life came along, showed me what was real
Life came along, told me what to feel
Music is only a dream
He paused and smiled at her. Helen couldn’t look away. I would go to bed with this man, right now, no questions asked.
The drummer touched his arm. “OK, man?” Drew lifted Helen’s hand to his lips, kissed it, and went back to the stage.
The music started up again. Helen felt as if she was bodiless, swirling through the room like smoke, like the singer’s caressing voice. She jumped when Dorothy shook her shoulder. “Hey, doll! Snap out of it! We’d better get going.”
They wove their way to the door. The club was crowded now with bodies swaying, talking, laughing, all joined by the music. I don’t want to go, Helen thought. I don’t want to leave all this.
Outside the air was cold. Dorothy and Helen paused to pull their wraps around them. An arm encircled her from behind and pulled her in. Drew’s voice warmed her ear. “Good night to you, lovely lady.” She turned into his arms. Drew bent his head and kissed her. His open mouth tasted of cigarettes. Helen had missed that taste since James gave up smoking. Drew’s long body in her arms felt wiry, strong, strange. His thick brush of hair under her hand. Her body pressed itself against his while a tiny, wide-awake part of her mind marveled.
“Helen, you wicked little thing!” Dorothy’s laugh jolted her. Helen pulled away from Drew. He held her hand a moment, turned it, kissed the palm. “Gotta get back.”
Dorothy stopped the engine and coasted down the hill to the Ashes’ house. “Shh!” she whispered, holding a finger up to her lips. “Shh!” answered Helen, her eyes dancing. She twisted down awkwardly to take off her high heels, her head bumping Dorothy’s lap, both of them giggling. “Thanks for a wonderful evening, kid!” She blew a kiss to Dorothy through the car window and tiptoed in her nylons up the path to the front door. She could still hear the singer’s voice and Drew’s saxophone winding around it. Her mouth tasted of his.
The door was locked. She hadn’t thought to bring a key with her. Why would James lock the door?
Suddenly it was flung open. James stood there, towering, furious. Helen froze.
“It’s two o’clock in the morning!” he hissed. He reached out and pulled her into the hallway. “I said I’d expect you back by eleven. I nearly called the police. What the hell were you doing? I knew I shouldn’t have let you go anywhere with Dorothy goddamn Driscoll.”
The music vanished from her ear, leaving an echoing cold silence. The hissing voice hurt her head. She was tired. She wanted to lie down in her bed, to sink into quietness and the dark.
“Daddy?” Billie in her little pink nightdress stood on the landing above them rubbing her eyes. “Mommy? Is it morning?”
James ran up the stairs and picked her up. “It’s OK, sweetheart, everything’s OK.” His voice was all tenderness. “It’s still nighttime, what do you think of that! I’ll take you back to bed.” He disappeared with the child in his arms, humming softly into her curly hair.
Helen tiptoed upstairs and lay on her bed. In the darkness the room spun gently. She felt Drew in her arms. Her body surged and melted. She heard music and voices and Dorothy’s laugh and saw the burly man with the drinks.
The light was switched on. James stood over her. Helen felt afraid.
“Oh no, you don’t.” His voice was snarling but quiet, so that Billie wouldn’t hear. “You’d better tell me exactly what happened.”
Helen shaded her eyes against the bright light and the angry face above her. The treasures of the evening were turning into dust. She needed to sleep. “James…Nothing happened, we just didn’t realize the time.” She wished she could tell him how wonderful it was. Not the Drew part, of course. But the music. How it stirred her. How it irrigated something deep inside her that had been parched like a desert. Why couldn’t she talk to him about that? “James, I’m so sorry I worried you. Everything’s all right, really it is.” She waited, her heart thumping. “Please don’t be angry.”
James was silent. “You have to promise me never to do this again,” he said at last.
Helen breathed. “I promise.” She sat up and touched his arm lightly. “But maybe sometime we could go together.”
James looked down at her with scorn, but the rage was ebbing from him. “You know I hate that primitive stuff.” He turned abruptly and began to undress for bed. Helen didn’t watch.
“Mrs. Ashe!” Micky, the young man, was gently lifting the heavy book out of her hands. “Mrs. Ashe, how about some music? Got my axe tuned up and ready to go.”
Helen laughed. “Oh, no, dear. These silly feet can’t manage the pedals anymore.” But Micky put his clarinet to his lips, his eyes twinkling. He played a plaintive, familiar arpeggio. Helen closed her eyes in pleasure, hearing the words in her mind. It begins to tell ‘round midnight, ‘round midnight… Fleur pushed her wheelchair over to the piano. Micky paused for a moment. “Key of E flat minor.” Helen’s fingers were already finding the soft chords. Fleur swayed between them, humming the tune. Out of the corner of her eye Helen saw Billie sit down on the couch next to her father, talking to him. Good girl. Keep him busy, so he won’t notice what his dreadful old wife is doing.
The music found its last note. Helen leant back from the piano. Micky bowed. “Thank you!”
“Thank you, Micky,” said Helen. “That was a pleasure.”
“Likewise, ma’am, likewise.”
Fleur clapped her hands. “Wow, Grandma, you’re terrific!”
“Billie, I think we should be getting your mother home, don’t you? We don’t want to overtire her.” James’ voice had a twinge of its old authority.
“No, Grandpa,” protested Fleur. “They’re going to play another one.”
But it was true, Helen was tired. A sweet tiredness. She patted Micky’s arm. “We’ll play again sometime.” She wanted to go back to her own quiet room with her head full of the Monk tune, and rest, and savor her new book. And say goodbye to James.
They packed her carefully into the car again like a crate of ancient eggs. Helen watched the bleak winterscape slide by as they drove.
James cleared his throat. “Now, Helen,” he said. “I was a little surprised to see you playing that kind of music with your granddaughter’s boyfriend.”
She smiled without turning and did not answer. His disapproval was like a door slamming in another house, nothing to do with her. The brick nursing home appeared. Florence was waiting for her at the front door.