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I Sailed with Magellan
By Stuart Dybek
Farrar, Straus and Giroux Copyright © 2003 Stuart Dybek
All right reserved.
Once I was a great singer. Caruso Junior they called me, and Little der Bingle. Crooners like Bing Crosby and Sinatra were still big in those days. My repertoire included "Clang, Clang, Clang Went the Trolley," the song behind my ambition to become a streetcar conductor. I knew the nameless tune my mother sang when we waited for the El: "Down by the station early in the morning, see the little puffer-billies all in a row"; and my uncle Lefty had taught me a version of "Popeye the Sailor Man" that went, "I'm Popeye the Sailor Man, I live in a garbage can, I eat all the junk and smell like a skunk, I'm Popeye the Sailor Man, I am."
But none of those was the song for which I was famous, the song requested over and over. They'd hoist me onto the bar, where I'd carefully plant my feet among the beer bottles, steins, and shot glasses, and, taking a breath of whiskey air, belt out "Old Man River." I'd learned the song by listening to my father's mournful baritone while he shaved for work. It wasn't a popular song of the time, not one you'd find on the mob-owned jukeboxes in those taverns where "That's Amore" or the "Too Fat Polka" were as likely to be thumping from the speakers as "Hound Dog." But the men drinking there had all toted that barge and lifted that bale and got a little drunk and landed in jail, too, and had the scars to prove it. The noisy bar would quiet, small talk deferring to lyrics.
"He's sure got a deep voice for his age," someone would invariably comment.
When I finished the song, holding the last note as if I dove down to the dark river bottom for it, they cheered and showered me with loose change and sometimes a few dollar bills.
"What's the little man drinking?" they asked Uncle Lefty.
"What'll it be, champ?" Lefty would relay to me.
"Root beer" I'd shout, and root beer it was.
I'd sit with my feet dangling over the bar, slugging from a heavy stein. Singing gave one a thirst. Then Uncle Lefty, who'd also had a few on the house, would comb his nicotine-stained fingers through my hair, straighten my buttons as if tuning me up, and lift me from the bar, gently, like a musical instrument he was packing away, an instrument that he carried with him-one that sometimes rode his shoulders-as he made the rounds from tavern to tavern.
We'd go from Deuces Wild on Twenty-second to the Pulaski Club across from St. Kasmir, and from there we'd hit the Zip Inn, where Zip, who'd lost his right arm in the Big War, tended bar. Zip always kept the empty sleeve of his white shirt neatly folded and clamped with a plastic clothespin-red, blue, yellow, green-he changed the colors the way some guys changed their ties. The walls of his bar were hung with framed photographs of the softball teams he'd sponsored, and there was also a photo of a young Uncle Lefty with his boxing gloves cocked, taken when he fought in the Golden Gloves tournament.
"Ah, my fellow Left-wingers," Zip would greet us.
"Quit trying to pass yourself off as a genuine southpaw," Lefty would tell him. "You ain't fooling nobody."
"I admit it. I'm a convert, but hey, converts are the true believers. Fact is, my right arm is killing me today. Means rain."
"Zip, it's pouring already," Lefty said, peeling a hard-boiled egg he'd helped himself to from the bowl on the bar. "Think we'd stop in a dive like this if we weren't getting soaked?"
Both Zip and I glanced out the door propped open with the doorstop of a brass spittoon. Sunbeams fuming with blue tobacco smoke streamed into the dim tavern. Zip looked at me and shrugged.
Uncle Lefty snatched the checked bar rag from Zip's left shoulder and toweled off my hair as if I was dripping wet. "Phantom pain brings phantom rain," he said by way of explanation.
"Perry," Zip said, "your uncle is a very strange man."
"Zip," Lofty asked, "did I ever mention this kid can sing?"
And later, my pockets jangling with tips, we'd open invisible umbrellas and step from Zip's into the phantom rain, on our way to Red's on Damen, or to the frigid, mint blue bar at Cermak Bowl, where, I believed, air-conditioning was invented, or to Juanita's, a bar that also served tacos, or to the VFW, which had slot machines. There were more taverns in the neighborhood than we could visit in a single afternoon. At every stop it was the same: "Old Man River," applause, bar change, and root beer, until Uncle Lefty, who was downing two boilermakers to every drink of mine, would caution, "You're gonna have a head of foam when you pee. Don't tell your mother how many you've had or we'll both be in Dutch with her."
My mother was Lefty's older sister. It was from her that I'd heard how Lefty had wanted to be a musician ever since he was a kid. As a child, Lefty had chronic bronchitis, and my mother remembered him spending his sick days home from school devising instruments from vacuum-cleaner attachments. He'd give the family a concert at night, humming through his homemade horns while moving his fingers as if tootling up and down the scale. My mother said that Lefty could perfectly imitate the sound of any wind instrument so long as he had a vacuum-cleaner nozzle or a cardboard tube that he could pretend to blow.
When he was thirteen, Lefty saved enough money from his paper route to buy a trumpet, but a week after buying it, he had a front tooth broken in a school-yard fight, which ruined his embouchure. So he traded in the trumpet for a tenor saxophone, and took the precaution of signing up for boxing lessons at St. Vitus, where Father Herm, a priest who was an ex-heavyweight, trained boys to fight in Catholic Youth Organization bouts. For months, Lefty monopolized the full-length mirror on my mother's bedroom door, shadowboxing himself into a sweat. The opponent in the mirror was Bobby Vachata, the kid who'd broken Lefty's tooth, though no one suspected Lefty's boxing obsession was fueled by revenge until he gave Vachata a beating and brought a furious Father Herm to the house. Lefty was expelled from the St. Vitus CYO, and for the next year the proceeds from his paper route went to pay Vachata's dental bills.
When he wasn't shadowboxing, Lefty was in the basement "practicing his sax." That's what he called it, my mother said, though he wasn't actually playing the horn any more than he'd played the vacuum-cleaner attachments. The family could hear the sound rising through the heating ducts as he slurred and honked and wailed-a mimicry so convincing that, if you didn't know, you'd think there was a virtuoso down there, who could play any song at will. But my mother knew his fingers were still moving along imaginary scales, and his pretend playing no longer seemed cute to her as it had back when Lefty would give them concerts after dinner. Something about all that music at once unexpressed and yet erupting from her younger brother, all that sound swirling nonstop in his head, made her afraid for him. Then, one evening, she heard Lefty suddenly stop improvising on "How High the Moon." There was silence followed by a metallic squawk and then another squawk and another, notes croaked haltingly, the way lyrics might be sounded out by a deaf person learning to sing: "some ... where there's mu ... sic how high the moon?" She realized that Lefty had finally fit a reed into the mouthpiece and was teaching himself to play.
By high school Lefty had grown into a welterweight and was training for the Golden Gloves at Gonzo's Gym on Kedzie, where the mostly lighter-division Mexican fighters boxed. He'd taught himself to play the sax almost as proficiently as he'd once faked playing it. With a few buddies from Farragut High, he started the Bluebirds, which Lefty described as a bebop polka band. They played taverns for parties and weddings with Lefty on sax and vocals. It was difficult to imagine him singing because of the raspy whisper he spoke in, but my mother said when he was young, Lefty could croon like Mel Tormé, a singer known as the Velvet Fog. Lefty had returned from a Korean POW camp and a subsequent yearlong detour at a VFW mental hospital in California with a chronically hoarse, worn-away voice. It was a voice a rock singer might have envied, but rock and roll wasn't the music Lefty grew up playing. When he shipped out for Korea, the music from World War II had still hung in the air. His war didn't have its own music, and years later, when he stepped back into America, the country's allegiance had shifted to another beat. The raspy voice was the only voice of his I heard live, but I once listened to a scratchy 45 rpm record he'd sent to my mother from San Diego while on leave before his troopship sailed for Japan. Lefty crooned an a cappella "I'll Be Seeing You," and even on that disk of flimsy acetate, when he hit the words "I'll be looking at the moon, but I'll be seeing you," I could hear the velvet foggy vibrato of his voice and turned to say so to my mother, but she'd left the room. It was the last I ever saw of that record.
My mother had made me promise never to ask Uncle Lefty about the war-a promise I kept-not that I wasn't curious, but I didn't want to do anything that would jeopardize our outings together. Now that he'd finally returned home from Korea, everyone expected he'd resume playing in a band, but the only thing Lefty seemed interested in playing anymore were the ponies. My parents would never have allowed him to take me to the track, so sometimes on Saturday afternoons Uncle Lefty would tell them we were going across town to a Cubs game. Instead, we'd head for Cicero, where the sulkies were running at Sportsman's Park. And after Sportsman's we'd celebrate our winnings, whether there were any or not, by taking our singing routine to the taverns of Cicero.
Later, we'd empty our pockets on the drumskin-tight army blanket of the neatly made bed in Lefty's bare, rented room with its marbled blue linoleum floor. We'd count our take, and Lefty would say, "We're in the peanuts and caramel now, champ," the same phrase he used when he'd hit a long shot.
Even my mother had never been to his one-room, third-floor flat on Blue Island Avenue-a street that failed to live up to its name. I'd imagined the lake visible at the end of the block, gulls mewing, and water lapping the wooden back porches as if they were docks. It was a vision Lefty had prompted when he told me the street was named for a ghostly island that sometimes still rose on the horizon of the lake, an island once inhabited by the Blue Island Indians that sank from sight when the last warrior died. Maybe my lifelong longing for islands came from the promise of that street name.
Pigeons, not gulls, paced the window ledges. One of Lefty's Mexican neighbors kept a pigeon coop on the roof, and the birds' constant cooing seemed like a cool windless breeze wafting through Lefty's room. A few times, Lefty took me up through the trapdoor to see the pigeons. "Welcome to Dreamsville," he'd say and pull me up onto the hot, pebbled tar roof that looked over Blue Island and beyond to a city of holy spires. I recalled overhearing my mother talking in a worried way to my father about Lefty drunkenly staggering up to the roof at night to play his sax. The cops had been called to get him down.
"You can't feel guilty about not taking care of your nutcase brother," my father said. "He's living his own life and won't listen to nobody anyway." I didn't understand what was so crazy; it made perfect sense to me that he'd go up to Dreamsville to play a duet with the pigeons.
Except for an audience of pigeons and neighbors whom he woke from a sound sleep at three in the morning, Lefty no longer played in public. His old combo, the Bluebirds, had broken up when he'd left for Korea. Lefty's best buddy from the Bluebirds, a guy we called the Bruiser, still drummed in a local band that played for weddings. You could hear the Bruiser from a block away, his bass beat a sonic boom, his rimshots carrying like gunfire. We'd follow the beat to the open side door of a tavern hall and stand watching the dancers whoop around the dance floor while the Bruiser thundered behind a wheezy, sad-sack polka band.
"See that drummer," Lefty told me, "his god was Gene Krupa."
There was an amazing recording of the Benny Goodman band's "Sing, Sing, Sing" on the jukebox at the Zip Inn, with Krupa exploding on tom-toms. Lefty, played it whenever the Bruiser joined us there for a drink. They always set a shot of Jim Beam on the bar for Deke, the Bluebirds' guitar player who'd been killed in Korea. I wondered who drank it after we left.
It was one of those Saturdays in summer when we'd gone to Sportsman's-I'd hit a winner with a horse named You Bet Your Dupa-and we were in Lefty's room on Blue Island, listening to the Cubs lose to the Giants so I could report on the game, when he told me he was thinking of moving back to California. I'm glad we weren't at a tavern, because before I could stop myself, I began to cry.
"Hey, come on, champ, don't feel that way. I'll be back. Look, I got something special I been meaning to show you. Check it out." He slid a beat-up case from under the bed and let me pop the latches. It opened with a whiff of brass and another scent, one that later in life I'd recognize as a mingling of cork grease, bamboo, and dried saliva. There was a note of perfume from a black slip stuffed in the bell of the horn. The bell was engraved with cursive I couldn't read, the keys were capped in mother-of-pearl. The saxophone gleamed from the plush emerald lining like pirate treasure in an encrusted chest. Like a piano on an empty stage, it seemed to emit silence. I pressed the keys, and the felt pads resonated against the holes. Just thumping the keys made a kind of music.
"Try it on." Lefty fit the neck strap over my head and attached the sax to the little hook. The weight of the horn pulled me forward.
"Too big for you," he said. "Here's one more your size." He reached beneath the bed and came up with a compact little case and snapped it open to reveal a disassembled clarinet cushioned in ruby velvet. "Learn to play this and the sax will come easy. You like that Benny Goodman's 'Sing, Sing, Sing,' don't you?"
I shook my head yes, afraid I'd blubber if I tried to talk.
"Know why this has your name on it?"
"Why?" I wasn't sure if he was really giving me the clarinet.
"Because you can hear it, right?" He held up a finger like a conductor raising a baton.
I listened. All I heard were pigeons. "What?" I asked.
"The phantom music, you know, like Zip's right arm. It's there even if no one else hears it."
I had no idea what he was talking about, but I nodded yes. I wanted that clarinet.
"I can hear you feel it when you sing. Who taught you to whistle so good?"
"I taught myself," I told him, which was true.
Excerpted from I Sailed with Magellan by Stuart Dybek Copyright ©2003 by Stuart Dybek. Excerpted by permission.
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