The New York Times Book Review
Half-Blood Bluesby Esi Edugyan
Berlin, 1939. A young, brilliant trumpet-player, Hieronymus, is arrested in a Paris cafe. The star musician was never heard from again. He was twenty years old. He was a German citizen. And he was black.
Fifty years later, Sidney Griffiths, the only witness that day, still refuses to speak of what he saw. When Chip Jones, his friend and fellow band member, comes to… See more details below
Berlin, 1939. A young, brilliant trumpet-player, Hieronymus, is arrested in a Paris cafe. The star musician was never heard from again. He was twenty years old. He was a German citizen. And he was black.
Fifty years later, Sidney Griffiths, the only witness that day, still refuses to speak of what he saw. When Chip Jones, his friend and fellow band member, comes to visit, recounting the discovery of a strange letter, Sid begins a slow journey towards redemption.
From the smoky bars of pre-war Berlin to the salons of Paris, Sid leads the reader through a fascinating, little-known world, and into the heart of his own guilty conscience.
Half-Blood Blues is an electric, heart-breaking story about music, race, love and loyalty, and the sacrifices we ask of ourselves, and demand of others, in the name of art.
The New York Times Book Review
“Unforgettable…Brilliantly conceived, gorgeously executed. It's a work that promises to lead black literature in a whole new direction.” The Globe and Mail (Toronto)
“A superbly atmospheric prologue kick-starts a thrilling story about truth and betrayal…[A] brilliantly fast-moving novel.” The Times (London)
“Shines with knowledge, emotional insight, and historical revisionism…Truly extraordinary in its evocation of time and place, its shimmering jazz vernacular, its pitch-perfect male banter and its period slang.” The Independent (London)
“Ingenious.” The Daily Telegraph (London)
“Destined to win a wide audience…Deftly paced in incident and tone, moving from scenes of snappy dialogue, in which band members squabble and banter humorously, to tense, atmospheric passages of description…Edugyan makes fresh tracks in this richly-imagined story…Half-Blood Blues itself represent a kind of flowering--that of a gifted storyteller.” The Toronto Star
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Read an Excerpt
Chip told us not to go out. Said, don't you boys tempt the devil. But it been one brawl of a night, I tell you, all of us still reeling from the rot--rot was cheap, see, the drink of French peasants, but it stayed like nails in you gut. Didn't even look right, all mossy and black in the bottle. Like drinking swamp water.
See, we lay exhausted in the flat, sheets nailed over the windows. The sunrise so fierce it seeped through the gaps, dropped like cloth on our skin. Couple hours before, we was playing in some back-alley studio, trying to cut a record. A grim little room, more like a closet of ghosts than any joint for music, the cracked heaters lisping steam, empty bottles rolling all over the warped floor. Our cigarettes glowed like small holes in the dark, and that's how I known we wasn't buzzing, Hiero's smoke not moving or nothing. The cig just sitting there in his mouth like he couldn't hear his way clear. Everyone pacing about, listening between takes to the scrabble of rats in the wall. Restless as hell. Could be we wasn't so rotten, but I at least felt off. Too nervous, too crazed, too busy watching the door. Forget the rot. Forget the studio's seclusion. Nothingtore me out of myself. Take after take, I'd play sweating to the end of it only to have Hiero scratch the damn disc, tossing it in the trash.
"Just a damn braid of mistakes," Hiero kept muttering. "A damn braid of mistakes."
"We sound like royalty--after the mob got done with em," said Chip.
Coleman and I ain't said nothing, our heads hanging tiredly.
But Hiero, wiping his horn with a blacked-up handkerchief, he turn and give Chip a look of pure spite. "Yeah, but, hell. Even at our worst we genius."
Did that ever stun me, him saying this. For weeks the kid been going on and on about how dreadful we sound. He kept snatching up the discs, scratching the lacquer with a pocket knife, wrecking them. Yelling how there wasn't nothing there. But there was something. Some seed of twisted beauty.
I didn't mean to. But somehow when the kid turned his back I was sliding off my vest, taking the last disc--still delicate, the grooves still new--and folding the fabric round it. I glanced around, nervous, then tucked it into my bass case. The others was packing up their axes.
"Where's that last record at?" said Hiero, frowning. He peered at the trash bin, at the damaged discs all in there.
"It's in there, buck," I said. "You didn't want it, did you?"
He give me a sour look. "Ain't no damn point. We ain't never goin get this right."
"What you sayin, kid?" said Chip, slurring his words. "You sayin we should give it up?"
The kid just shrugged.
We lined up the empty bottles along the wall, locked up real quiet, gone our separate routes back to Delilah's flat. Curfew was on and Paris was grim, all clotted shadows and stale air. I made my quiet way along the alleys, dreading the sound of footsteps, till we met up again at the flat. Everyone butColeman, of course, Coleman who was staying with his lady. We collapsed onto dirty couches under blackout curtains.
I'd set my axe against the wall and it was like I could feel the damn disc just sitting in there, still warm. I felt its presence so intensely it seemed strange the others ain't sensed it too. Its wax holding all that heat like a altar candle.
It was the four of us living here. Delilah, Hieronymus, Chip and me. Couple months before we'd spent the day nailing black sheets across the flat's windows, but damn if that grim sun didn't flood through anyway. The rooms felt too stale to sober up in. We needed to sweat it out in the fresh air, get our heads about us. Ain't been no breeze in weeks.
Hiero was draped in his chair, his scrawny legs dangling, when all a sudden he turn to me. His face dark and smooth as an eggplant. "Christ I feel green. My guts are pure gravy, man."
"Amen," I said.
"Man, I got to get me some milk."
"Amen," I said again.
We talked like mongrels, see--half German, half Baltimore bar slang. Just a few scraps of French between us. Only real language I spoke aside from English was Hochdeutsch. But once I started messing up the words I couldn't straighten nothing out again. Besides, I known Hiero preferred it this way. Kid hailed from the Rhineland, sure, but he got old Baltimore in the blood. Or talked like he did.
He was still young that way. Mimicking.
Something had changed in him lately, though. He ain't hardly et nothing since the Boots descended on the city, been laid up feverish and slack for days on end. And when he come to, there was this new darkness in him I ain't never seen before.
I gave my old axe a quick glance, thinking of the record tucked away in there. It wasn't guilt I felt. Not that exactly.
Hiero sort of half rolled onto the patchy rug. "Aw, Sid," he groaned. "I need milk."
"In the cupboard, I reckon. We got milk? Chip?"
But Chip, he just open one brown eye like a man half-drowned. His face dark as cinder in this light.
Hiero coughed. "I'm tryin to clean my stomach, not rough it up." His left eye twitched all high up in the lid, the way you sometimes see the heart of a thin woman beating through her blouse. "It's milk I need, brother. Cream. That powdered stuff'll rip right through you. Like you shittin sand. Like you a damn hourglass."
"Aw, it ain't that bad," I said. "Ain't nothin open at this hour anyway, kid. You know that. Except maybe the Coup. But that's too damn far." We lay on in silence a minute. I tossed my arm up over my mouth and man if my skin didn't stink of rancid vinegar--that was the rot, it did that to you.
In the bad light I could just make out the room's last few chairs huddled by the fireplace. They looked absurd, like a flock of geese hiding from the hatchet. Cause they was the last of it, see. This been a grand old flat once, to go by Lilah's stories. All Louis XIV chairs, Murano chandeliers, Aubusson tapestries, ceilings high as a damn train station. But the count who lent Delilah the place, he done urge her sell what she could before the Krauts come in. Seemed less bleak to him. And now, the flat being so empty, you felt only its depths, like you stranded at sea. Whole place nothing but darkness.
Across the room, Chip started snoring, faint like.
I glanced over at Hiero, now all knotted up in his chair. "Kid," I said thickly. "Hey, kid." I put a hand to my head. "You ain't serious bout givin up on the record. We close, buck. You know that."
Hiero opened his mouth, belched.
"Good mornin right back at you," I said.
He didn't seem to have heard me. I watched him heave hisself up on his feet, the chair moaning like a old mule. Then he sort of staggered on over to the door. Least I reckon that was his idea. Looked more like he heading for the fireplace, stumbling all about. His shoulder smacked a wall.
Then he was on the floor, on all fours.
"What you doin?" I said. "Hiero, what you doin, kid?"
"What you mean, what my doin? You ain't never seen a man put on his shoes before? Well, stick around, cause it's bout to get excitin. I'm gonna put my damn coat on next."
Hiero was wrestling his old houndstooth coat. It'd gone all twisted in the sleeves. He still ain't stood up. "I need me some daylight right bout now."
I pulled on my fob, stared at my watch till it made damn sense. "This ain't no kind of hour, kid. You ain't youself."
He ain't said nothing.
"Least just wait till Lilah wake up. She take you."
"I ain't waitin till my foot wake up, never mind Lilah."
"You got to at least tell her what you doin."
"I ain't got to do nought."
A soft moan drifted over from the window, and then Chip lifted up onto one dark elbow, like he posing for a sculpture. His eyes looking all glassy, the lids flickering like moths. Then his head sunk right back on his shoulders so that, throat exposed, it like he talking to the ceiling. "Don't you damn well go out," he told that ceiling. "Lie youself down, get some sleep. I mean it."
"You tell it, buck," said Hiero, grinning. "You stick it to that ceilin."
"Put that old cracked plaster in its place," I said.
But Chip, he fallen back and was snoring along already.
"Go on into Lilah's room and wake her," I said to Hiero.
Hiero's thin, leonine face stared me down from the doorway. "What kind of life you livin you can't even go into the street for a cup of milk, you got to have a nanny?" He stood under the hat rack, leaning like a brisk wind done come up. "Hell, Sid, just what you expect Lilah to do, you get in real trouble? She got a special lipstick I don't know bout, it shoot bullets?"
"You bein a damn fool, buck." Pausing, I glanced away. "You know you don't got any damn papers. What you goin do you get stopped?"
He shrugged. "I just goin down the Bug's. It ain't far." He yanked open the door and slid out onto the landing, swaying in the half-dark.
Staring into the shadows there, I felt sort of uneasy. Don't know why. Well. The Bug was our name for the tobacconist a few blocks away. It wasn't far.
"Alright, alright," I muttered. "Hold up, I'm comin."
He slapped one slender hand on the doorknob like it alone would hold him up. I thought, This kid goin be the death of you, Sid.
The kid grimaced. "You waitin for a mailed invitation? Let's ankle."
I stumbled up, fumbling for my other shoe.
"There won't be no trouble anyhow," he added. "It be fine. Ain't no one go down the Bug's at this hour."
"He so sure," I said. "Listen to how sure he is."
Hiero smiled. "Aw, I'm livin a charmed life, Sid. You just stick close."
But by then we was slipping down those wide marble stairs in the dark and pushing out into the grey street. See, thing about the kid--he so majestically bony and so damn grave that with his look of a starving child, it felt well nigh impossible to deny him anything. Take Chip. Used to be the kid annoyed him something awful. Now he so protective of him he become like a second mother. So watching the kid slip into his raggedy old tramp's hat and step out, I thought, What I done got myselfinto. I supposed to be the older responsible one. But here I was trotting after the kid like a little purse dog. Hell. Delilah was going to cut my head off.
We usually went all of nowhere in the daytime. Never without Delilah, never the same route twice, and not ever into Rue des Saussaies or Avenue Foch. But Hiero, he grown reckless as the occupation deepened. He was a Mischling, a half-breed, but so dark no soul ever like to guess his mama a white Rhinelander. Hell, his skin glistened like pure oil. But he German-born, sure. And if his face wasn't of the Fatherland, just bout everything else bout him rooted him there right good. And add to this the fact that he didn't have no identity papers right now--well, let's just say wasn't no cakewalk for him.
Me? I was American, and so light-skinned folks often took me for white. Son of two Baltimore quadroons, I come out straight-haired, green-eyed, a right little Spaniard. In Baltimore this given me a softer ride than some. I be lying if I said it ain't back in Berlin, too. When we gone out together in that city, any Kraut approaching us always come straight to me. When Hiero'd cut in with his native German, well, the gent would damn near die of surprise. Most ain't liked it, though. A savage talking like he civilized. You'd see that old glint in their eye, like a knife turning.
We fled to Paris to outrun all that. But we known Lilah's gutted flat wouldn't fend off the chaos forever. Ain't no man can outrun his fate. Sometimes when I looked out through the curtains, staring onto the emptiness of Rue de Veron, I'd see our old Berlin, I'd see that night when all the glass on our street shattered. We'd been in Ernst's flat on Fasanenstrasse, messing it up, and when we drifted over to the curtains it was like looking down on a carnival. Crowds in the firelight, broken bottles. We gone down after a minute, and it was like walking agravel path, all them shards crunching at each step. The synagogue up the block was on fire. We watched firemen standing with their backs to the flames, spraying water on all the other buildings. To keep the fire from spreading, see.
I remember the crowd been real quiet. Firelight was shining on the wet streets, the hose water running into the drains. Here and there, I seen teeth glowing like opals on the black cobblestones.
Hiero and me threaded through Montmartre's grey streets not talking. Once the home of jazz so fresh it wouldn't take no for a answer, the clubs had all gone Boot now. Nearly overnight the cafés filled with well-fed broads in torn stockings crooning awful songs to Gestapo. We took the side roads to avoid these joints, noise bleeding from them even at this hour. The air was cool, and Hiero, he shove his hands up so deep in his pits it like he got wings. Dawn was breaking strangely, the sky leathery and brown. Everything stunk of mud. I trailed a few steps behind, checking my watch as we walked cause it seemed, I don't know, slow.
"Listen. This sound slow to you?" I yanked the fob up and held the watch to the kid's ear.
He just leaned back and looked at me like I was off my nut.
As we walked, tall apartments loomed dark on either side of the street. Shadows was long in the gutters. I was feeling more and more uneasy. "Nothin's open this hour, man. What we doin, Hiero? What we doin?"
"Bug's open," said the kid. "Bug's always open."
I wasn't listening. I stared all round me, wondering what we'd do if a Boot turned the corner. "Hey--remember that gorgeous jane in Club Noiseuse that night? That dame in a man's suit?"
"You bringin that leslie up again?" Hiero was walking all brisk withthem skinny legs of his. "You know, every time you drink the rot you go on bout that jack."
"She wasn't no leslie, brother--she was a woman. Bona fide."
"You talkin bout the one in the green suit? Nearest the stage?"
"She was a Venus, man, real prime rib."
Hiero chortled. "I done told you already, that been a leslie, brother. A man. It was writ plain as day all over his hairy ass."
"I guess you'd know. You the man to see bout hairy asses."
"Keep confusin the two, Sid, and see what happens. You end up in bed with a Boot."
We come round the corner, onto the wide square, when all a sudden my stomach lurched. I been expecting it--you need guts of iron to ride out what all we drunk last night. Iron guts I ain't got, but don't let that fool you bout other parts of my anatomy. My strength, I tell you, is of another stripe. I shuffled on over to a linden tree and leaned up under it, retching.
"You get to know this here corner a bit better," said Hiero, smirking. "I be right back." He stumbled off the sidewalk, hopped the far curb to the Bug's.
"Don't you be takin no fake change!" I hollered after him. "With you eyesight, the Bug like to cheat you out of you own skin." A white sun, tender as early fruit, stirred in the windows of the dark buildings. But the air, it still felt stale, filled with a grime that burned hot in you nostrils. I stamped my feet, then doubled over again, heaving. The goddamn rot.
A real racket started up across the street. I looked up to see Hieronymus yanking on the Bug's door like he meant to break in. Like he reckoned he got the power to pop every damn lock in this city. When it didn't open, what do he do but press his fool face up to the glass like a child. Hell, though, he was a child. Stupid young for what all he could do on a horn. You heard a lifetime in one brutal note.
He run on back over to me. "Closed," he said, breathing hard. "You reckon all these stores be closed? What time is it?"
"Half nine or so."
"Check you watch."
"Don't make no sense." Frowning, he looked all around. A white car passed through the shady street like a block of ice skimming a river, its pale driver turning to us as we turned to him. I shivered, feeling all a sudden very exposed. That gent looked dressed for a funeral, all that black and white plumage.
"Hell, it's Sunday, fool," I said, hitting Hiero's arm. "Won't nothin be open. You got to go to Café Coup you want milk." On Sundays, the streets belonged to the Boots.
Hiero gripped his gut, giving me a miserable look. "Aw, man, the Coup's so far."
"You right," I said. "We got to go back."
He got to moaning.
"I ain't goin listen to that," I said. "I mean it. Aw, where you goin now? Hiero?"
I got a hard knot in my gullet, watching the kid wander off. I just stood there in the road. Then I swore, and went after him.
"You goin get us both pinched," I hissed at him when I caught up. I could feel my face flushing, my shoes slipping on the slick black cobblestones. "Kid?"
He shrugged. "Let's just get to the Coup."
"Coup's halfway to hell from here. You serious?"
He give me a sort a sick grin, and all a sudden I got to thinking bout that disc I'd took and hid in my case. I was thinking of it feeling something real close to guilt. But it wasn't guilt. I give him a quick look.
"Tell me somethin," I said. "You serious bout quittin that record?"
He didn't answer. But at least this time he look like he taking it in, his eyes dry and hard with thought, two black rocks.
Lucky for us, Café Coup de Foudre done just open. The kid slunk in gripping his gut like he bout to spew his fuel right there. Me, I paused on the threshold, looking. I had a strange feeling, not sickness no more, but something like it. The low wood tables inside was nearly empty. But the few jacks and janes here made such a haze with their cigarettes it was like wading through cobwebs. Stink of raw tobacco and last night's hooch. Radio murmuring in the background. At the bar it smelled, gloriously, of milk, of cafés au lait and chocolats chauds. The kid, he climbed up onto a flaking red stool and cradled his head in his hands. The barkeep come over.
"A glass of milk," I said in English, with a nod at Hiero.
"Milk," Hiero muttered, not lifting his head.
The barkeep propped his thick forearms on the counter, leaned down low. We known him, though, it wasn't menacing. He spoke broken German into the kid's ear: "Milk only? You are a cat?"
Hiero's muffled voice drifted up. He still hadn't lifted his face. "Ain't you a laugh factory. Bout near as funny as Sid here. You two ought to get together. Take that show on the road."
The barkeep smirked, mumbled something more into Hiero's ear. Something I ain't caught. Then I seen the kid stiffen in silence, lift up his face, his lips clenching.
"Hiero," I said. "Come on, man, he kiddin."
Going over to the icebox, the barkeep stare at me a second, then glance on up at the clock. I check my own watch. Five to ten. He wandered on back with a glass of milk, his voice cracking against the silence like snooker balls hitting each other. "But I warn you," he said. "You drink all the milk in France, you still not turn white." He laughed his strange, high, feathery laugh.
Hiero brought the glass to his lips, his left eye shutting as he drank.A sad, hot feeling well up in me. I cleared my throat.
The kid, he suddenly reached back and touched my shoulder. "Might as well do another take," he said. "The disc ain't all bad. And my damn visas ain't come yet. What else I got to do?"
I swallowed nervously.
Then he give me a long, clear look. "We goin get it right. Just be patient, buck."
"Sure," I said. "Sure we will. But wasn't that last one any good, kid? Good good? Would it make us?"
The kid set the glass down on the counter, and pointing at it, hollered, "Encore!"
My stomach lurched, and just holding it together, I said, "I be right back. You ain't goin leave without me?"
In the basement john, I got down to business. I felt sick as hell, the bile rising in me. For a second I stood there clutching the filthy basin, yellow grime all caked up on its porcelain. Head down, just breathing. I ran the faucet and splashed my face with cold water. It smelled of hot iron, the water, making my face feel alien to me, like I ain't even in my own skin.
Then I could hear something through the ceiling, sudden, loud. I paused, holding my breath. Hell. Sounded like Hiero and the damn barkeep. The kid was prone to it these days, wired for a fight. I dragged in a long breath, walked over to the dented door.
I ain't gone out though. I just stood there, listening to the air like a hound. After a minute I reached for the knob.
The talk got softer. Then the whole place seemed to shudder with the sound of something crashing. Hell. I couldn't hear the barkeep's voice. My hand, it was shaking so bad the knob rattled softly. I forced myself to turn it, take a step into the stuffy corridor. I made it up three steps before stalling. The stairs, they was shaded by a brick wall, giving me a glimpse of the café without betraying my shadow.
All the lights was up. I ain't never seen all the lights up in the Coup, ever. I never known till that moment how nightmarish so much light can be.
The place went dead quiet. Everything, everyone, felt distinct, pillowed by silence. One gent turned to me, slow. He got creases like knife wounds in his face. I glanced under his table--only one leg. His hands gnarled like something dredged from a lake, they was both shaking like crazy. He was holding dirty papers. I watched ash from his cigarette fall onto his pants.
I looked around sharply. On every occupied table sat identity papers. A few crisp as fall leaves, others almost thumbed to powder. A young brunette slapped hers down so nervously she set it in a puddle of coffee. I stared at the bloating paper. She was chewing a loose thread on the collar of her heavy tweed coat, her jaw working softly. I remember thinking, ain't she warm in that.
The barkeep begun cleaning quietly, rubbing down the bar with a gingham towel.
There was this other chap, though. Sitting in the window's starched light, his expression too bright. A coldness crept over me.
Then the talking started again, and I glanced up.
Two Boots, in pale uniforms. Used to be just plain black: at night you seen nothing but a ghostly white face and an armband the colour of blood coming at you over the cobblestones. But Boots was Boots.
One was tall and thin, a tree branch of a man. The other, he short and thickset. With his back turned to me, I could see a fat roll of muscle at his neck.
I dropped my eyes, and like I was letting it occur to me for the first time, I looked for Hiero. He standing on over at the front door, staring at the Boots. Another kid stood at his side, Jewish I reckon, a look of terrified defiance on his face. The taller Boot was making a real show of thumbing slow through his papers, not saying nothing. Just licking histhumb, turning a page, licking his thumb, turning a page. Like that Boot could pass a summer's day doing it. I looked at his quiet grey face. Was a face like anyone's. Just going bout his business.
"Foreign," the shorter Boot was saying, his voice so calm and soft I almost ain't heard it. "Stateless person of Negro descent."
Hiero and that Jewish kid, they stood there with their hands dangling at their sides, defiant schoolboys. It ached to watch, the both of them so helpless, their hearts going hard. With the broad pane of glass shining bright behind them I couldn't see too clear. But even from here I could hear them. Their breathing.
The tall Boot done soften his voice, too. It was odder than odd: these Boots was so courteous, so upstage in their behaviour, they might've been talking bout the weather. Nothing like how they'd behaved in Berlin. There was even a weak apology in their gestures, like they was gentlemen at heart, and only rough times forced them to act this way. And this politeness, this quiet civility, it scared me more than outright violence. It seemed a newer kind of brutality.
"Foreigners," said the short Boot calmly. "Hottentot."
"Stateless," said the other. "Foreigner," he said. Jew, he said. Negro, he said.
I wanted to close my eyes. My legs was shaking softly, I couldn't feel nothing in my feet. Don't you drop, boy, I told myself, don't you damn well drop. Get you wits together, for god's sake, and go out there.
I stood there, rooted to the spot.
Hieronymus, he stared down them Boots. When their hard gazes forced his away, he look at the tiled floor. He never once look in the direction of the toilets, and I understood. Hell. He, of all people, protecting me. I couldn't let him do it.
But just then the Boots yanked wide the Coup's door, its chain singing. Taking Hiero's arm, they led him and the other boy out into thestreet. I stood there. Stood there with my hands hanging like strange weights against my thighs, my chest full of something like water. Stood there watching Hiero go.
The front door shut with a clatter. The lights was all still up in the café. Silence, no one talking at all.
Then that gent, the one I seen before almost smiling, he got up and walked to the bar. Counting out his francs, he stacked them on the mahogany bar. He said something in French to the barkeep.
The barkeep just swept up the damp francs and turned to put them into the register. The man skirted the tables, his heels scraping the worn floor. No one spoke, all of us watching. And then the door jangled cheerfully shut behind him.
What is luck but something made to run out.
We jogged through the street, Paul and me. Slowly, we swung up into the trolley as it clattered down the boulevard, its brittle bells chiming. Leaning down, Paul hauled me aboard after him. The late evening sun sat like phosphorus on him, lighting up his blue eyes, his pale knuckles where he held me. It was the last week of August, and the light cutting through the trolley windows fell lush and soft as water.
"You need to do more sport, buck," Paul laughed.
I nodded, gasping.
We tottered down the aisle to our seats. The trolley floor rattled and shuddered under us as it gained speed. The mahogany benches was warm from the long sun, and I shielded my eyes, looking past the tied-off curtains, the glass lamps clinking quietly. The city poured past us like something final, something coming to a end.
I sat there catching my breath, feeling a strange, vague sadness hammering at me.
Paul's mood was entirely different. With a gentle smile, he winkedat a jane across the aisle. Blushing, she looked down at her feet. Hell. He was a real cake-eater, our Paul, a great ladies' man. With his wavy blond hair and his natty moustache, Paul look more like a motion-picture star than the out-of-work pianist he was. Watching him brush the street dust off his dapper blue suit, I caught a sudden glimpse of how every damn jane on the trolley seen him: handsome, athletic, with that strong jawline, those eyes bluer than Greek silk. The perfect Aryan man. And he was Jewish.
"Listen, Sid," he said. "Were you serious about helping me out tomorrow?"
"What, with Marta? Or with Inge?"
He shrugged. "I don't know. Marta, I guess."
"You got my number if it's Inge."
"Inge then. It doesn't matter so much."
The boulevards was all shady, the green lindens dark against the bald sky. The trolley pulled up alongside a stop, emptied, filled up, then rolled back out again. We was on our way to the Hound to practice some numbers with the kid, though I wasn't sure what the point was. We been banned from playing live. Which meant we was banned from playing, period. In fact, if Ernst ain't owned the Hound--a sweet little sanctuary of a club bought with his papa's money--we might've give up playing at all. Well, not really, but you get the idea. The club been closed up for months, become more a place to just mess around.
My eyes drifted to the window, watching folks out in the slow summer light, the jacks in their shirtsleeves, the girls on their bicycles. We was passing a crowded square filled with tables, folks drinking coffee, eating pastry, when I caught sight of a face I known.
"Ain't that Ernst?" I said, sitting up in my seat.
Certainly looked like him--his jet-black hair, his skin so pale it near translucent, the veins standing out like etchings under the flesh.He was gesturing to a woman, a cigarette burning down in his fingers. I ain't recognized the woman.
"What, there?" said Paul. "No, that's not him."
"The hell it ain't. Look again, brother." We was coming abreast of them now, their small table set out on the pavement in the sunshine. The woman he was sitting with wore a huge grey headwrap, fastened with some sort of ugly brass brooch. She was thin as a garden rake, and when she smiled I seen real clear a row of very small, very crooked teeth. We clattered past on the tracks.
"Where?" Paul said, frowning.
"Over there. With that jane with the cloaked birdcage on her head. You ain't seen him?"
Paul twisted round on the mahogany bench, squinting out the window till we was long past. "It wasn't him," he said firmly. "What would he be doing with a jane like that?"
"A jane like what?"
Paul jutted out his lower teeth, gestured with one hand like he wrapping a turban round his skull.
I smiled. "You get what you pay for, brother."
"Ernst must be on damned poor footing with his pa, if he's paying for that."
The trolley stopped, its bell chiming before starting back up. A older jack got on, short, narrow-shouldered and wearing a party badge. We fell silent. Seeing me, his face gone grim, but then his eyes settled on Paul, and he started smiling. Good old Aryan Paul. The jack glanced at his pocket watch as he neared us.
He sat down across from us, his mottled hands resting on his knees. The sun slanted in through the windows behind him so I couldn't no longer see his face.
"If this weather persists, we'll have summer right into November," he said pleasantly.
I ain't said nothing.
After a moment, Paul smiled. "We can only hope so." I could feel him gearing up, gathering his charm. He flashed one of his startling smiles.
"You're not in uniform, son," the jack said.
"Not yet," He give the jack a knowing look.
The man seemed to think about this for a moment. Then he lowered his voice. "What do you know?"
"What have you heard?" Paul asked back.
"It's coming, isn't it?" The man leaned forward, across the aisle. "The horses are gone from the markets. My wife thinks it's nothing. But it's really starting, isn't it?"
"It's always starting," said Paul. "We always have to be prepared."
"The British won't stop it."
"The British are impotent," said Paul.
"Yes," the man said. "Yes."
There was a fleck of parsley in the man's teeth and I stared at it, feeling sort of sick. "We don't start wars," he muttered, "but by the Führer's grace, we finish them."
My mouth had gone dry. I reached up and flagged the next stop. We stood, gripping the brass railing for support. The trolley shook, shuddered to a halt.
"Heil Hitler," the jack said.
"Heil Hitler," said Paul, smiling.
Then we got off and walked the rest of the way to the Hound. Paul was shaking. I thought it must be nerves, but then I glanced at his face. He was furious.
I didn't say nothing. Ernst had secured us brown Aryan identity cards months ago, but we still wasn't comfortable. "Just don't do anything foolish," he done told us. "Don't draw any attention to yourselves. They're good forgeries, but they're not perfect."
So we passed, sure. But there was passing, and there was passing. Sometimes it seemed we'd passed right out of our own skins.
Ernst's club, the Hound, been shut down for its degenerate sympathies a long time ago. And by "degenerate sympathies," I mean us. It wasn't no dive, not exactly, not yet. Still got running water backstage, tiled floors, grand lighting. Jacks walked up red velvet stairs into a gallery of brass and mirrors. Or used to, when the carpet was still down, before Ernst sold it to keep us in fuel. We didn't care that rats lived in the walls, that the water come out brown some days. For us, for Ernst's Hot-Time Swingers, its stage was our home.
Me and Paul gone in to find the kid already up on the boards, trilling out his scales. Always felt spooky, playing a stripped-down session without Chip. Sure you can be brilliant without the skins, but still, never felt right. It was like waking to find someone had cut you open and yanked out you damn appendix while you was sleeping. Something was missing.
Half a hour later we was still up onstage, the kid and me staring over the piano's back at Paul. All three of us in our shirtsleeves, smoking and drinking the czech. The kid kept stopping, gesturing softly at me, counting me in. I finally just stopped, folding my arms over my axe with a sour look.
"Hell, brother, quit that." I wiped a handkerchief along my neck. It was hot. "What is you damn problem?"
Hiero looked at Paul, like he half frightened.
"Well, say it," I said. "What the trouble?"
The kid shrugged.
"Hiero," said Paul. "What's the problem? Sid's five minutes away from just packing up."
"I'm sorry," he mumbled. "I just tryin to get this line to go underneath him."
Paul smiled tiredly. "Sid, this kid's going to be your death."
He punched a few low ivories for emphasis.
The kid just stood there, waiting. He snuck a quick look at me.
"Alright, alright," I said. "We goin back to the bridge. You happy?"
The kid looked sheepish.
"You boys go on back," Paul said, lighting a cigarette. "I'll wait for you here."
Son of a bitch. We gone back into it alone, me and Hiero. And this time I felt it, I felt the kid sort of getting between my strings and pushing back against them as I walked across. He fixed his eyes hard on me. Then he pursed his lips and blasted back into his end of the song, and we played through the bridge. Paul started tickling his way back in.
But it was a damn strange feeling, the kid making me start again. I didn't like it.
We played on through into the change. Then suddenly the kid lowered his horn again, looking nervous-like out at the darkness.
"What the trouble now?" I barked. But then I fell silent.
Someone was clapping out there, the applause slow and loud.
"Ernst?" Paul called out. He pushed back his stool, leaned an elbow on the corner of his upright, shielding his eyes. "That you?"
Ernst come out of the shadows, his cigarette burning so low it like to scorch his fingers. His sleepy eyes look hooded and soft. "Gents, break for a minute. There's someone I'd like you to meet."
A figure come out from behind him and begun snaking between the tables. Man, it was her. That jane with the tiny teeth. She was wearing a tall headwrap, a sleek blue dress that poured off her like water. Hell. Tottering on heels high as dinner forks, she look tall and stiff as a birch. Something happened to my breath then, it sort of snagged in my chest. Not that she was beautiful. Her skin was a odd tawny colour, like oats. And she was rope-thin, with one a them stark bodies, like she built ofplanks nailed together. I could see the bones in her wrists sticking out when she lift up one hand to adjust that thick headwrap.
"You boys don't sound so bad," she said in English. "For a trio of Germans."
"Sid's from the States," Ernst murmured.
"Mmm. Of course he is."
Man oh man. That voice. It was low-pitched, cozy, full of the dark tones of my old life in Baltimore. I found myself giving her a harder look. That small, high chest. Those plum lips that turned playfully up at the edges. Even her boyish hips. She smiled, and her crooked teeth seemed suddenly sensual.
Ernst put a elegant hand on her elbow, like to guide her forward. "Gents, this is Delilah Brown. She's up from Paris. You'll have to excuse her, she doesn't speak German, but she has a few things she'd like to discuss with us."
Paul run a finger along his thin moustache, watching me. "I bet Sid here could discuss a few things with her."
"In what language?" Hiero smiled slyly.
"In the language of love."
"You both asses. Both of you." I cleared my throat, stepped down from the stage. "Miss Brown?" I said. "Sid Griffiths. This is Paul Butterstein. And--"
"Hieronymus Falk," she said. "Yes, I know." She was staring at the kid with this wolfish look. Her eyes was amazing--a weird pale green, translucent almost.
"She likes you, buck," said Paul, smiling at the kid.
Hiero dropped his gaze.
She give Ernst a quick glance. "Where are the others? The Hot-Time Swingers had six, didn't it? This isn't all of you?"
I sort of flushed, hearing that. Like we was the stuff.
"Where're Chip and Fritz?" said Ernst.
Paul shrugged. "Fritz said he had a meeting. Chip, hell. He's probably sleeping it off somewhere. What's she want, Ernst? Who is she?"
"They said they'd meet us later," said the kid, his voice shaking a little. "At the baths."
"First, sit," said Ernst. And then in English, "Please sit, sit." He pulled out a chair, and the jane sat at one of the blue-clothed tables under the stage. "What can we offer you? I'm afraid all we have is the czech."
She glanced across at Paul, who was rummaging at the bar. "The czech?"
Paul was already returning with a cloudy bottle gripped in one fist, five shot glasses pinched in the fingers of his other hand. He held the czech up to the light, shook it. Then he poured out a finger for each of us, set our thimbles down with a soft click. He poured one for her, too.
She held the liquid up to the dim light, her brow wrinkling. "You're kidding. You drink this stuff?"
Ernst smiled. "Chip sometimes inhales it. But generally, yes."
I smiled, took a sour swipe of it. Felt like gasoline scraping out my throat.
The kid turned his thimble in his long fingers.
"It ain't really Czechoslovakian," I said, coughing. "We used to call it the Cheque. Like, you drink it up now, you pay for it later."
"When the cheque comes, you pay," Ernst smiled. He put his shot back with a elegant shiver. "Go on." He gestured at her thimble.
"Hieronymus hasn't touched his," she said suspiciously.
"She says you drink like a girl," I said.
The kid ain't reacted, just looked at her.
"Go on," Ernst said again.
She lifted her thimble, give a sly little nod at the kid, punched it back.
We all watched her face.
She opened her eyes. "Jesus," she croaked. Her lips twist up, and shegive a soft little shudder. We all started laughing. "That's even worse than it looks. No wonder Hitler's so angry, if he's drinking this."
There was water coming from her eyes.
It was damn wretched, that czech. I bet it ain't even legal in half the states back home. The kid, he start laughing that high, broken, hiccuping laugh of his. Then he give her a startled look from under his hat brim.
But that jane just leaned forward, the low lights catching the ghostly rye of her skin, and all at once I seen it clearly. This girl was high yella, like me. A Mischling, a half-blood. She got the kind of mixed-race face only a keen eye can see.
"Boys," she said, crossing one long leg over the other. I watched that blue hemline inch up, felt myself flush. "Boys, I'd like to invite you to Paris. To cut a record. We're looking for exactly what you've got."
Ernst said in German, "She wants us to go to Paris. To cut the wax."
"Paris," Paul repeated, frowning.
I was still staring at her slash of pale thigh when, glancing at her face, I seen she was watching me. I blushed. "You in the business?" I said. But it come out sounding sort of lewd.
There was a flash of impatience in her eyes. "I'm Delilah Brown."
"Oh," I said. "Of course."
"The singer," she said after a moment. "Black-eyed Blues? Dark Train Song?"
I was nodding hard. "Sure. Of course. Delilah Brown."
But I glanced over at Ernst, like to see if she was joking. Ain't no singer I ever heard of.
"She represents Louis Armstrong," said Ernst.
Hell. Now that we understood. Our whole table fell silent.
"What she want?" the kid said at last. His voice was real soft. "She a agent?"
"You his agent?" I said to her.
Paul brushed a golden lock back from his forehead, fixed his clear blue eyes on Ernst. "What are we talking about? She means Armstrong the horn blower? For real?"
I shook my head. "No. She mean Armstrong the court jester."
"That was Archy Armstrong," Ernst said distractedly. "And yes. It seems she's for real."
I looked at him. "There a jester named Armstrong? Really?"
He nodded. "King James the First."
That jane just watched us, not understanding a word. I guess she must have thought we was discussing her proposal, by the severe set of her jaw. "Well? What is it?"
At last Ernst give her a long, slow look. "You're asking us to leave our lives, Miss Brown. It's a difficult choice. If we go to Paris, we won't be coming back."
Her face tightened. "With all due respect, Mr. von Haselberg. If you don't go now, you won't have lives to leave. You're drowning here, we both can see it." She give a faint smile, like to soften her words.
Ernst brushed a fleck from his trousers. "We're surviving."
"But not living. You know the difference. You don't need to decide now, of course. But I'm offering you a chance to live again, to play your music. To walk the streets of a city not afraid of being arrested. Or worse, for god's sake. Berlin is like a locked room to you boys. I'm offering you a way out."
I barely caught all that. I was still looking at her thigh.
Jazz. Here in Germany it become something worse than a virus. We was all of us damn fleas, us Negroes and Jews and low-life hoodlums, set on playing that vulgar racket, seducing sweet blond kids into corruptionand sex. It wasn't a music, it wasn't a fad. It was a plague sent out by the dread black hordes, engineered by the Jews. Us Negroes, see, we was only half to blame--we just can't help it. Savages just got a natural feel for filthy rhythms, no self-control to speak of. But the Jews, brother, now they cooked up this jungle music on purpose. All part of their master plan to weaken Aryan youth, corrupt its janes, dilute its bloodlines.
We lived with that for ten damn years. Through the establishment of old Joe Goebbel's Reichsmusikkamer, his insistence that all musicians "register." Through that ugly Düsseldorf exhibit last spring. Hell, let me help you picture it. Take '37's Degenerate Art soiree in Munich, replace the paintings with posters of jungle minstrels squawking on their saxes, and flood the rooms with beautiful music, and you got the idea. We was officially degenerate.
And like a shadow running beneath all that, there was gates scrubbing cobblestones with rags, gates getting truncheoned just for sitting in a damn café, gates reduced to eating from backstreet garbage bins. And the poor damn Jews, clubbed to a pulp in the streets, their shopfronts smashed up, their axes ripped from their hands. Hell. When that old ivory-tickler Volker Schramm denounced his manager Martin Miller as a false Aryan, we known Berlin wasn't Berlin no more. It been a damn savage decade.
So, yes, Paris sounded pretty tempting.
Problem was the papers. Wasn't no way folks like us was getting the right papers to go to Paris. It ain't been possible for years now.
Don't get me wrong--I loved Berlin. I ain't saying otherwise. And for a while the Housepainter didn't even seem as bad as old Jim Crow. Least here in Europe a jack felt a little loved for his art--even if it was a secret love, a quick grope in the shadows when no one was looking. I ain't took it personal. Truth was, I didn't look all that black, and to those who suspected the truth, well, congratulations. Pour youself a drink.
Cause blacks just wasn't no kind of priority back in those years. I guess there just wasn't enough of us.
The Jewish baths was half falling down, half broken, most of the pools already closed to the public. But it was the only baths some of us still legally allowed to use, and sometimes a jack just ache for the fragrance of boiled stones, for the hot and freezing waters. The clear green pools sunken like craters in the earth. We'd just put our heads back and glide, naked as the day we was born.
Chip and Fritz was waiting for us in the changing room. Chip had his shoes off, stood wriggling his damn toes on the stone floor.
"You ain't gone in yet?" I called. "We reckoned we smelled you from the street."
"You smellin Fritz, maybe," said Chip. He lift up his chin, waft the air from under it. "Unless you smellin Dr McMorran's Special No. 9."
Paul sniffed the air. "What is that? A cough syrup?"
"It medicine alright," I said. "For head cases."
"It's the scent drive the ladies wild," said Chip.
"It the scent drive the ladies out the room," I whispered to the kid.
Hiero grinned, thrilled to be in on the teasing.
Big Fritz sat slumped on the hard wooden bench, huge, flushed and tired-looking. He was a massive Bavarian, with thick fingers, straw-like hair, and a strong, hawkish nose. He was broad as a damn trolley to boot. He lumbered upright, breathing heavily in that hot change room.
"You alright, Fritz?" said Ernst, coming over. He set his hat down gentle on the bench, begun untying his laces.
Fritz waved one hairy hand. "I'm fine. Just worn out." His low voice boomed throughout the room--you almost felt the rafters shuddering. He blinked his slow lids, the sweat shining on his hairline.
"Old Fritz ain't built for the heat," said Chip, smiling.
"Not like you jungle monkeys," said Fritz.
Hiero give him a uneasy look.
I grimaced, even though I known he only joking. It was just his way. Fritz was rough at times, sure, but he ain't meant nothing by it.
Chip asked Paul bout his two janes. Paul been running with two ladies for a month now, sometimes slipping away from one to be with the other in the same damn night. One evening, he was even on a date with both of them in the same restaurant. And neither found it out. Chip said it was his piano hands--one ain't never doing the same thing as the other. Hell. I thought Paul got to be near exhaustion. Chip thought he was a beautiful son of a bitch. The kid, well, I think he was just a little frightened by it all.
"You're going to have to choose sooner or later," said Ernst. "If only to keep yourself from collapsing."
"Chip doesn't think so," Paul smiled. "He thinks I should introduce Marta and Inge to each other. See what comes of it."
I laughed. "Marta's a tasty little dish alright. But you be a damn fool you risk losin Inge. Girl got a chassis like, well, hell." I held out my arms like to measure a iron boiler. "Brother, you got to pull back you own eyelids just to get it all in view."
"I still ain't clear on why you got to choose, buck," Chip said.
Fritz chuckled, his enormous red cheeks juddering away. But it seem to me his eyes looked small, hard.
"What you think, kid?" said Chip. "Inge?"
Hiero shrugged shyly.
"Speak up, brother."
"Marta," the kid said, reluctant. Then he blushed. "Or Inge. Aw, they both nice."
Chip peeled off his trousers. He stood with one foot propped on the bench, his hairy bits swaying like a bell. "Marta!" he laughed. "Hell,brother, there ain't nothin on the front, and too much in the back."
"She got a nice smile," said the kid, trying not to look Chip's way.
"Old Inge, though." Chip grinned. "She get you hot behind the ears just by takin a breath. She make you motor smoke."
"You're making my motor smoke, buck," Paul called across. "Put on a towel, or come on over here and give us a kiss."
"The towel, please," said Fritz.
Chip ignored them. "Nice smile won't pick the locks, brother." He was leaning forward and I swear he liked his old calabash clapping there. "A nice smile won't get you any nearer the treasure at all. Less it's one hell of a smile. Like old Mona Lisa. Now there's a attractive jane--she got mystery."
Ernst hung his tie over the door of the locker. He turned, give old Chip a long appraising look. "Charles C. Jones," he said with a slow smile. He unfastened his cufflinks. "Every so often you say something absolutely astonishing."
Chip chuckled. "Sure. Wouldn't kick old Mona out of bed. She ain't got no eyebrows--ain't you curious where else the hair's missin?"
Ernst blinked. "Every so often," he said, shaking his old head. "And then you just keep on talking."
I twisted out my shirt without even bothering with the buttons, kicked free my damn drawers. I looked up to find Hiero staring at me.
"You just ain't my plate of steak, buck," I said. "Don't you get no ideas now."
Chip looked up, smiled. "Hell, Sid, you got to do more sport. I seen better legs on a Georgia chicken."
I swiped at him with my towel. And then we was running through the long corridor where the older gents lounged on benches, wrapped in sheets like they ready for burial. Wet stones slapping under our feet. We run howling past two wrinkled old jacks leaning in robes over a chess set, the mulchy smell of their wet skin,their damp towels coming off them. And then we was out, running in the dimly-lit caverns of the bathhouse, its cathedral ceilings vanishing overhead in shadows and steam. Huge and vaulted like a opera house, with its haunting acoustics, its crumbling arched galleries along the walls.
Old Chip run straight for the far pool and leapt, smacking the water with his belly.
"Hell, brother," I said, laughing. "You must have a stomach of stone."
"Man, that hurt," said Chip, grinning. He shot a long stream of water through his foreteeth.
I crouched down, slipped in. Our voices echoed back to us off the walls. Around us the steam rose in panes, distorting everything, making it shimmer. Felt like you was standing in a autumn field, trying to see through thick fog.
The others come out slow like, Ernst dropping his towel from his soft waist and wading in, gleaming pale and waxy. Paul, he stood like a crane on one leg before putting both feet down. Fritz's enormous gut, already red from the heat, just grown pinker and pinker, and he heaved it in both his hands as he come down into the water, his cock like a red slug under it.
Ernst splashed across to the wall. "Where's Hiero?" He wiped the water from his face.
"Aw, he just bein shy," I said.
"He all anyone care bout?" said Chip.
"He's probably going through Chip's wallet for his middle name," called Paul through the steam.
"I'll give you a middle name," said Chip. "And by middle name I mean a kick in the teeth."
Big Fritz coughed, his grunts rumbling off the walls.
And then the kid come in, clutching his towel against him. His skinlook real dark against the white cloth, his skinny chest heaving a little with his breathing. Kid seemed nervous as hell, but wasn't no reason for it. I felt bad, seeing him like that.
"We just talkin bout you, kid," called Chip.
Hiero waded in, looking alarmed.
"We was wonderin if you black all the way down."
"You need to learn which hole the shit's supposed to come out of, Chip," Paul called across.
Hiero glanced over at Paul. All a sudden he laughed.
"Aw, you think he funny?" said Chip, smiling. He splashed on over to the kid, set both muscular arms over his narrow head, dunked the kid in a single violent thrashing of foam. Kid's body look like windblown ashes under that water. "Keep on laughin, buck," Chip hollered. "You still laughin?"
"Chip," I called. "Stop that."
"That's enough," said Fritz. He reached across, and gripping Chip's underarms, dragged him off the kid like he lifting nothing heavier than a sandwich. Chip squirmed against Fritz's belly. "Leave him alone, now. You're too rough with him."
I swear, the damn rafters shuddered, Fritz's low voice echoing.
A rise of water surged back, and the kid shot up, coughing and spitting snot. He shook his head to clear the water. Smiling in a way supposed to be casual, he looked embarrassed, terrified and angry.
Chip was struggling in that massive grip, making a disgusted face. "Hell, I can feel how happy you is to see me," he hollered. "Get off, get off."
"You sure that what you want, buck?" I laughed.
But Fritz let him go, and he splashed out of reach at once. "You be careful, brother," he called. "I like to slap you face, if I could just figure out which side of you to start climbing."
Ernst stood abruptly at the edge of the pool, a great wave of waterslapping his pale chest. His deep black hair was slicked back. "So let's talk about it. Do we go or not?"
"To Paris?" Paul called out. "Of course we go. Why wouldn't we?"
Chip and Fritz both glanced from Paul to Ernst and back to Paul.
"Do you know what they're talking about?" said Fritz.
"We have an offer, gentlemen," said Ernst. "A lady came by today to ask if we're interested in cutting a record with Louis Armstrong."
Chip give a low whistle.
"What did you tell her?" said Fritz.
"That we needed to discuss it. What else would I tell her?"
Chip grunted, splashed in the steam. "I can't believe you even askin."
"Is that a no, Jones?"
"It a yes," he said. "And I addin a hell yes on top of it. Paris? Armstrong?"
Big Fritz frowned. He loomed up out of the steam like a dark boulder. "How do we know this is real? Who is she? She could be anybody."
I chuckled. "What you think, brother. You think Boots goin take the trouble to trick us into goin to Paris? You thinkin that more likely?"
Fritz ain't said nothing, just shifted massively in the water.
"She's with Armstrong, Fritz," said Ernst. With his slicked hair lifting up, spiking in all that steam, he looked like a fiercer version of hisself. He stretched out his long blue arms along the wall, let his ghostly legs drift up, tilting his face back to stare at the ceiling. "I have no doubts that she is who she says she is. That's not the question here."
Fritz was still frowning. "She came down here to find us? She came to Berlin for us? With the Führer going on the way he is?"
"You mean the Housepainter," I said.
Fritz give me a look.
"She's not here for us," said Ernst. "She's down here to collect some money owing to Armstrong. We're just the butter."
"I think you mean the cream," said Paul. He floated lazily over toward Fritz. "Listen, Fritz, Armstrong's a fan. He's got our records."
"Do it matter?" I said.
"We didn't ask," said Paul. "She said Arthur Briggs caught some of our shows a few years ago. And Bechet told Louis how fine we sounded when we opened for him back at Vaterland."
"Bechet?" Chip grimaced. "Hell. He still owe me fifty bucks."
"She sort of acts as Armstrong's manager in Paris," said Ernst. "I don't know. Sorts out his affairs, I guess."
"Affairs," whispered Chip.
Paul grinned, the tip of his tongue peeking between his teeth.
"What are you, ten years old?" Ernst frowned. "I guess Armstrong's been following us for years. When he heard we were still here, and not playing live anymore, I guess he thought maybe there'd be some incentive for us to come on over."
"What Ernst ain't tellin you," I said, "is what all she said bout the kid. Armstrong wants to play with the kid especially. Rumour is he the best damn horn blower this side the Atlantic. Some sayin he even better than Briggs. Henry Crowder said that. Crowder told Armstrong Hiero reminded him of King Oliver in his prime."
I don't know, I guess I reckoned we'd all start to joke about that. But ain't nobody smile at all.
"So do he even want us?" said Chip. "Or it just the kid he want?"
"She said he wanted to play with the Hot-Time Swingers," Hiero said nervously. "She said all of us."
Fritz looked over at me.
I shrugged. "She said that, sure."
"She called us iconoclasts," said Paul.
"And you ain't slapped her?" Chip smiled. "Usin language like that in front of the kid?"
"What does it pay?" said Fritz in his blunt way.
Ernst lift up his head. "What does it pay?"
"Hell, brother, ain't no way it goin pay less than what we makin now."
"Sid's got a point," said Paul.
"A little one, maybe," said Chip, splashing water my way. "At least, that what all the ladies say."
"Haw haw," I said.
We was silent then, all of us adrift in the warm blue light. The water sloshed against the stone walls, the soft murmur echoing high up in the ceiling.
There was a thin cough. Then the kid stood, water streaming off his bony chest. "I think we should go," he said softly. His upper lip was trembling.
"We just got here," said Paul.
"I think he means to Paris," said Ernst.
Hiero looked embarrassed, dipped back into the water.
"You think we should go?" said Chip. "You think we should go to Paris, get away from the Housepainter? You think Armstrong enough of a reason? You reckon walkin about the streets of you own damn city without bein afraid you goin get killed or disappeared be worth it? You think so?"
Hiero looked direct at Chip. "Yes," he said simply.
"Aw, kid." Chip laughed. "You priceless. Course it is."
"The problem," said Ernst, "is how, exactly."
"Slow down," said Fritz. He sounded almost angry. "I'm not convinced. I'm sorry, gents." He waded over to the shallow end, sat on the low steps, the water spilling over the walls of his thighs as he leaned on his knees. The hairs on his chest was plastered in a thick gluey rug. "I'msorry," he said again. "But I won't jump just because she says it's time to jump."
"It's alright," said Ernst. "We're only discussing here."
"It's Paris, buck," said Chip. "Hell."
"Where would we stay?" said Fritz. "How long would we go for?"
Ernst shook his head. "I don't know. I don't have all the answers. I don't even know that we could go right away. We'd need visas."
"Give him a hour or so," said Chip. "Ernst always come up with something."
"Louis' jane goin be here through the week," I said. "We ain't got to decide nothin now."
Ernst cleared his throat. "Alright, then?"
But something in Fritz's hesitation given us all pause, darkened the very waters we was floating in. Hell. We grown quiet then, and just splashed softly for a time. Finally Ernst cleared his throat, and with a old sadness in him, said, "Well, gents. I suppose I'll be getting back to the Hound."
"Working late again? I can't understand why you still write those articles, buck," said Paul. "No one gives a damn about jazz anymore."
Ernst paused. "I do." He climbed gleaming white from that water like it done leeched all the blood from him.
We ain't stayed long after that.
Outside, under the gas lamps, the square in front of the baths glowed like talcum. Folks strode dumb through the gloom. Back of my neck was still wet and I could feel the cool air across it. Chip give me a soft punch on the shoulder.
"Let's ankle, buck." He sounded gloomy.
I felt it too. I nodded.
The roads was dark. We kept our heads down, shoved our hands all up in our pockets, our hair damp in the night air. We walked slow, like we dreaded getting back. We could see Fritz, the kid and Paul some feet ahead in the darkness, and then they vanished in the shadows and we couldn't see them no more.
I always adored Berlin at this hour--the stillness, the way the shadows crowded the shop windows. We passed a toy store with swastika balls in the window, a butcher's with the iron gate dragged down. There was a thin silt on the air, a taste like dirt, and I snorted to get it out my nose. Then we heard the clatter of sharp voices, and down one hazy road we seen street crews at work in the dim light. Young urchins clutching steaming black pitchers, pouring tar between the uneven cobblestones. Vapour rising from the lines. Men in thick coveralls wiping the grime from their faces.
We slipped back into shadow, took another route.
I got to thinking how small we come to be these last months, me and Chip. Even two years ago, we like to holler through these damn streets like we on parade. Now we slunk in the shadows, squeamish of the light. I thought of the two of us listening to Armstrong's records back in Baltimore when we was kids. And I thought of my ma's family back in Virginia, fair as Frenchmen and floating like ghosts through a white world. Afraid of being seen for what they truly was.
Then we heard it. A sort of high-pitched screech. It come gusting past us like a dark wind.
Chip gripped my sleeve. "That wasn't Hiero?"
I listened for something more. Nothing.
"Hell," Chip hissed.
And then we was both running.
We come round the corner breathing hard, and I stopped. Everything slowed right down. Under the faint lamps of our building, in themiddle of that alley, three Boots got the kid by his hair, like they hauling a steer by the horns. Trying to drag him off his feet. But somehow the kid ain't gone down, he just flung about like trash in the wind. A fourth bastard, tall and thick through the neck, was holding Paul by the throat. My stomach lurched, the sick inching up. Felt like a light was going out in me.
"Chip," I hissed. "Holy hell."
He already taken off his hat, was wriggling out of his jacket. He strode right on up to the nearest Boot, and leaning down low, kicked the bastard's left knee in. There was a curious crunching sound, then a high ugly squeal. And then Chip start to kicking him in the throat where he lay writhing. A second Boot turned, swung back, cracked a bottle over Chip's head. Old Jones gone down clutching his skull.
"Goddamnit," I hissed.
"Jewkikes!" the Boot start hollering. "Jewfuckers! Nigger kikes!"
I waded on in. In a flash I seen the shadows under the far building stir, begin to heave, and it was like the whole damn doorway just shuddered on out: Big Fritz. He seized the Boot brawling with Paul by the back of the neck. Lifting him clean off his feet, he thrown him down on the cobblestones like a sack of meat. Started stomping him shitless.
I was punching that son of a bitch with the bottle hard in the teeth, his face twisting up. I kept trying to get hold of his collar but he kept slipping away from me, spitting blood, clawing at my damn cheeks, at my ears. "Where's your racial pride," he screamed. His mouth was like a torn hole, filling with blood. "Niggerfucker! Niggerfucker niggerfucker niggerfucker!"
His eyes was jagged glass in the weak light.
I hit him again. And again. Then something struck me sharp in the ribs and I fell in a rush, trying to twist away from the damn boot heels I known was coming. I could hear the kid screaming, just screaming andscreaming. No kicks come. I winced, glanced up. Big Fritz was standing over me, shuddering.
"Fritz you sweet son of a bitch," I shouted. "You fightin like a bastard."
But when he turned his face I seen he was crying.
Footsteps echoed from far off in the dark alley. I stumbled up, groaning. I wasn't thinking clear. Three more Boots was coming hard at us, all plain-dressed but for the damn jackboots under their long pants.
I was moving slow now. I swung clumsily and missed. Got slammed in the gut once, then again. But I got a good knuckle up under the jaw and that damn Boot fell to a knee. Hell. But now the first bastard was back up and I hit him hard as I could in his face, feeling something crack wetly under my fist.
When I turned round I seen Fritz lurching after two of them, as they gone running back down into darkness. There was two Boots just writhing on the cobblestones, whimpering horribly. I just wasn't able to catch my breath, and kept bending low, gasping, spitting up some of what I et earlier. Wheezing and wheezing.
There was a low scuffling in the doorway to our building and when I lift up my head I seen the glint of it first. That broken bottle. Held to the kid's throat. "I know this Jewfucker," the Boot yelled. "You're the fuck who fronts that jazz band, that fucking nigger music. I'm going to gut you. I'm going to gut you."
But he was looking at Chip, weaving unsteadily in front of him. There was blood all down the back of Chip's shirt, like a sticky black apron. Then old Jones was crouching, like to find his balance. I blinked, wiped blood from my eyes. Then the kid was crawling away, and Chip and that Boot was punching each other against the walls of the doorway, and then all a sudden Chip was standing over the Boot and the Boot was lying across the stoop, his head lolling in the gutter.
Something black seeped from the Boot's chest, a long wet stain on the stones.
"Chip," I hissed. "We got to go."
Chip ain't moved.
Fritz was holding Paul under one arm, pulling the kid to his feet with the other. He give me a sharp look. "Sid," he called out. "Let's go."
"I know. Chip," I said quietly. I gone over to him. "We got to go now."
He was still holding the neck of that bottle in his fist. I watched the blood ooze out from under the Boot's body, glowing blacker than pitch, like some terrible dark maw been opened in the pavement, a portal going down.
"Chip," I said again.
He finally turned. We run.
HALF-BLOOD BLUES. Copyright © 2011 by Esi Edugyan. All rights reserved.For information, address Picador, 175 Fifth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10010.
Meet the Author
Esi Edugyan has a Masters in Writing from Johns Hopkins Writing Seminars. Her work has appeared in several anthologies, including Best New American Voices 2003, ed. Joyce Carol Oates, and Revival: An Anthology of Black Canadian Writing (2006).
Her debut novel, The Second Life of Samuel Tyne, was published internationally. It was nominated for the Hurston/Wright Legacy Award, was a More Book Lust selection, and was chosen by the New York Public Library as one of 2004's Books to Remember.
Edugyan has held fellowships in the US, Scotland, Iceland, Germany, Hungary, Finland, Spain and Belgium. She has taught creative writing at both Johns Hopkins University and the University of Victoria.
She currently lives in Victoria, British Columbia.
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