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Big Man Real Life & Tall Tales
By Clemons, Clarence
Grand Central Publishing Copyright © 2010 Clemons, Clarence
All right reserved.
Prologue New York City, 2008
I’m not going to make it,” said Clarence.
We were sitting in his hospital room overlooking the East River. He’d had his second knee-replacement surgery two days before. The other knee had been replaced two weeks ago.
“Don’t talk like that,” I said. “You’re going to be fine.”
“I mean the Super Bowl show,” he said. “There’s no way. You can’t imagine the pain.”
For him to say this, the pain must have been off the charts. I’d been with him through surgeries before, including three hip replacements, which are no walk in the park. But I had never seen him like this or heard him talk this way.
“It’s too soon to say that,” I replied. “Give it some time. Take the drugs and rest.”
“They haven’t made a drug that can touch this pain. I feel like I’m made of pain.”
It was the first week of October, and the band was booked to play the half-time show at the Super Bowl in February. That was only four months away. In my heart I agreed with Clarence. I did not think there was any way on God’s earth that he’d be able to make that show.
“Do you want to work on the book?” I asked. “Feel like telling me some stories?”
“Maybe,” he said. “I’ve been having all these crazy dreams. Fever dreams about all the people in my life. My family, Bruce, music, writers I like…” He trailed off momentarily but soon picked up again. “Some truly bizarre stuff. These dreams—they’re full of crazy conversations in weird places. I’ve been thinking about my mother and father a lot. I guess that’s natural in this situation. They’re gone and I feel like I’m moving toward them fast.”
“This doesn’t sound like you, Big Man,” I said.
That was true. Clarence has always been one of the most positive people in the world.
“I know, Don,” he said. “But I don’t feel like me.”
He turned his head away and looked out the window. It was early afternoon, and the FDR was already jammed with traffic. A big barge was being towed upriver just below us.
“I’ve never missed a show in my life,” he said.
He didn’t look at me when he said it, because he wasn’t talking to me.
Norfolk, Virginia, 1950
My mother told me this story, and I love it with all my heart.
The man was drinking Coca-Cola; the woman was drinking ginger ale. All the other people in the club were drinking alcohol in one form or another. Not that it was all that crowded. The small room was about one-third full. All eyes were on the stage and the man playing the horn. His name was Sill Austin and he was great. He played with a soft intensity that was mesmerizing. The man and woman had walked two miles from their home through the cold December evening to see him. They rarely went out these days. Babysitters were a luxury they couldn’t afford. But when the man had seen the ad in the paper saying Sill Austin was booked at Frankie’s Lounge, he knew they had to find a way to go. They’d listened to the recordings over and over.
“You’re going to wear a hole right through that thing,” she’d say to him every time he put one of them on the record player.
“Then I’ll go buy a new one,” he always said in return.
And now here they were in the same room with him, watching him play and create that magic.
Watching Sill Austin play pretty for the people. He reached out and took her hand. She squeezed his hand in response.
After the show they sat at the table for a while and finished their sodas. It felt like the old days when they’d first started going out. Before the war to end all wars.
“If World War Two was the war to end all wars,” he said once, “how come they gave it a number?”
“I think that was World War One,” she’d said, smiling.
“Even worse,” he had replied.
“Did you like the show?” she asked him, even though she knew the answer.
“Yeah,” he said. He was never a big talker.
She thought he looked handsome in his Sunday suit. The shirt was as white as his teeth.
“Why do you think you like him so much?” she asked. “There are plenty of other horn players out there.”
“He plays the music that I hear in my head,” he said.
It was very cold when they stepped outside. The wind had picked up. The weather forecast was calling for snow tomorrow. Christmas lights glowed in a lot of the shop windows. They both pulled up their collars and started to walk. She put her arm through his and they stepped in rhythm, shoulder to shoulder.
“I think that’s him,” she said.
He looked at Sill Austin putting his horn case into the front seat of a new DeSoto.
“Yeah, that’s him, ” he said.
“Wanna say hello?” she asked.
“No,” he replied.
“’Cause right now it’s perfect,” he said.
After the first mile she said, “Clarence wants a train set.”
He didn’t say anything.
“From Santa,” she said. “Electric trains.”
“Yeah,” he said. “Then when he grows up he can become a Pullman porter.”
“I don’t think that’s necessarily true,” she said, smiling. The cold made it hard to feel her face.
“The boy’s going to be nine years old,” he said. “Time he grew up.”
“Meaning what?” she said.
“I’m not getting him trains,” he said.
“He’ll be disappointed,” she said.
“He’ll get over it,” he said.
“So what do you want to get him?” she asked.
He lifted his head and looked at her. He smiled.
“A saxophone,” he said.
Excerpted from Big Man by Clemons, Clarence Copyright © 2010 by Clemons, Clarence. Excerpted by permission.
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