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AS USUAL they were arguing-it was always about money or women or something that had happened in the dim forgotten past, and half the time it was a combination of all three. Hawk was driving, his hands gripped tight around the wheel. Teenochie sat next to him, stiff and erect, a derby perched lightly atop his shaven head. Wheatstraw kept one hand on the doorhandle, and every so often the door itself flew open, prompting cries of "What you doing, you crazy fool, you want to get us all killed?" and a squealing of car brakes.
"What you talking about?" Hawk's voice boomed out unmodulated, filling the automobile as if it were a concert stage. "I been knowing that gal for fifty-two years, and she be doing tricks when I met her. That gal got a cock that's made of whalebone, and your dick better be made of rubber if you want to last the time with her. One time she get a whole orchestra in the studio, and she do 'em all, sometimes two at a time. That's why they call her Ma Grinder. She-it." He chuckled to himself. "That gal keep all the nickels she ever made, she have more money than Rockefeller ever seen."
Wheatstraw giggled, and the door nearly flew open again. He gave his Woody Woodpecker laugh and fished a battered harmonica out of his suitcoat pocket.
"Yeah, yeah, but still and all, she wasn't no whore," Teenochie protested. "She made some good records-"
"Shoot. Just because she whispered sweet nothings in your ear fifty-two years ago!" Hawk rolled down the window and spat contemptuously. "You think every pussy you get has got your name written all over it. You get them little old white gals come up to you at the colleges, say, Mr. Teenochie, play me some blues, and right away you be thinking they gonna suck your dick. Shoot. You couldn't use none of that pussy no more anyway. You better off with a goat." "A goat!" said Teenochie indignantly.
"Yeah, just like that 3-in-1 oil, with a goat you can suck, fuck, or buck, then when you get tired of that you can cook it and eat it up-man, that's where you really getting your money's worth."
Hawk guffawed heavily. Teenochie sent daggers of resentment with a lopsided, gold-toothed grin. Wheatstraw ran his lips over the mouth harp, closed his eyes, and dreamed of Arkansas.
"You think they give you a good count?" said Teenochie, taking a long pull from his bottle and pointedly recapping it without offering Hawk a drink.
Hawk nodded. "Don't make no matter. They got it worked out between them."
"Who? That kid and Jerry?"
Hawk just grunted.
"Well, Jerry ain't so bad, man. Not like some of them managers I had. At least the cat is trying."
"She-it, I wish he try a little harder and just get out of my life," said Hawk. "I get along fine before I ever knowed that boy, and I get along fine after he be long gone. Sometimes he act like he don't even think I been out here before, but I been out here for sixty years, before I knowed him, before I knowed you-"
"I don't like playing in no college gyms," Teenochie cut in, not wanting to hear any more of what Hawk had to say, not wanting to put up with any more of Hawk's emphatic opinions. Ever since they had been out on the road, for nearly a month now, he had had to listen to Hawk's stories, he had had to endure seeing Hawk get the credit which, if there were any justice in the world, would go to Teenochie Slim, he had had to suffer Hawk's impatient correction and practical jokes-and he older than Hawk himself and practically having given him his start in the business! He had pleaded with the boy, he had told Jerry that Teenochie Slim was a solo act, but the boy wouldn't listen, evidently Hawk had taken the boy in, too. He said, "Hawk and I are friends, we've worked together for a long time now." Friends! That motherfucker wouldn't know the meaning of the word "friendship." Well, that was all right, Teenochie thought. He would get his own back in the end. He always did. He twiddled with the radio dial, but the radio, of course, didn't work. "Sound of the piano get lost in them gyms," he said. "Boy didn't have it miked properly tonight."
"You asleep or awake? I can't never tell, cause your eyes be open all the time. You still awake?"
"I must be awake. I can still hear your yammering."
"And another thing. I don't see why you got to go on last all the time. Just as many peoples there to see me as there is to see you. It make more sense, I think, if I be out there playing piano behind you, then I just stays out there and does my little number at the end."
"That's all right," said Hawk imperturbably. "We just call up the boy and tell him. You know, you stomping all over me tonight anyway-I don't think I want to hear no more piano when I be playing." "What you talking about, I be stomping all over you? I couldn't hardly hear myself, your git-tar was turned up so loud. Hey, where you going? You wandering all over that center line."
Hawk said nothing. Wheatstraw woke up and started playing his mouth harp, a sad, lonely, achingly astringent blues that seemed curiously at odds with the franchise-cluttered highway. "That's pretty," said Hawk, nodding his head. "Play some more."
Wheatstraw, who scarcely needed encouragement in the first place, beamed. "Yeah, it be better to play than to talk," he said, in a statement that pretty much summed up his personal philosophy. It was then that Teenochie saw the truck. They seemed to be heading straight for it. "Hey, Hawk, hey, Hawk," he said, not worried at first, thinking it was just another game Hawk was playing. When he looked over, Hawk was still gripping the wheel, still staring fixedly ahead, but seemingly not seeing anything. "Hey, wake up, you crazy motherfucker," Teenochie screamed. "Don't you be doing me this way." Wheatstraw just kept on playing.
Excerpted from Nighthawk Blues by Peter Guralnick Copyright © 1988 by Peter Guralnick. Excerpted by permission.
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