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Set in Chicago during the late 1970s, Record Palace is an eccentric debut novel about jazz, art, race, and identity.
In hazed heat, mid-September, walking north from Chicago?s Loop, telling myself I was exploring the new life, I dogged as much for tonic, gin. A sign swung beside a basement door, in, out, mirage: Record Palace: J ZZ. Inside I found Acie.
Cindy, a lean, lonely white girl, has come to Chicago to study art history, to be anywhere ...
Set in Chicago during the late 1970s, Record Palace is an eccentric debut novel about jazz, art, race, and identity.
In hazed heat, mid-September, walking north from Chicago’s Loop, telling myself I was exploring the new life, I dogged as much for tonic, gin. A sign swung beside a basement door, in, out, mirage: Record Palace: J ZZ. Inside I found Acie.
Cindy, a lean, lonely white girl, has come to Chicago to study art history, to be anywhere but where she came from—tract housing in Thousand Oaks, California; mock-stucco buildings; “incessant sun and incessant sunniness of every blonde girl.”
Record Palace, littered with cans of malt liquor and remnants of past meals, also has boxes upon boxes of records—all jazz. And it has Acie, “big on all sides, top included. A hairnet, the hair below the net long and limp with oil. Green stretch pants, flip-flops, a thin black U-tank taut across Sumo folds.” Cindy knows she doesn’t belong, and this is why she stays.
Cindy’s determination leads to a tentative friendship with Acie, and she becomes a familiar, if not fully understood, presence in the store. But it is through her chance meeting with Acie’s son that she becomes embroiled in an unusual crime.
With prose that resembles the syncopated rhythms of jazz, Susan Wheeler offers a stunning portrait of a woman searching for an identity.
Emerald City, 1979. Graduate school on student loans. Jazz.
I come from alternative FM. Not the vanity of folk singers like Tom Rush or Judy Collins, of electronic rockers like Santana or Pink Floyd. I come from the gentlest voice, optimism breathed, over one acoustic guitar, in Nick Drake. I come from the trance-like intensity of Tim Buckley's sung improvisations, from the sense of dark room, dark night in Laura Nyro's diminuendos or in Leonard Cohen's rolling guitar strings beneath a baritone incantation. Jazz only in "Twisted" by Joni Mitchell, in Tim Buckley's slippery wails in "Gypsy Woman," or through the walls: my dad's big-band 78s and, on occasion, glissandos on his own clarinet.
Mainly I come from alone. Thousand Oaks, San Fernando Valley. I come from the tract house and the Lay's potato chips in a jumbo Folger's can, its red plastic lid. I come from materials made to resemble leather. A spice rack, gutted by the prior tenants, with which we "made do." A tetherball hole in the ten-foot driveway. I come from waiting in the car while Mom did errands on Saturday morning or on late, hot afternoons with the car windows down. In front of the mock-stucco post office. In the shopping-center parking lot with her pug's tongue spittling the finish on the car door as it drooled. I come from lockers where the Allman Brothers albums my boyfriend brought to school had to be inserted at a slant, from corner to far corner. From mistaking color sugar dots on paper for LSD. I come from swallowing one toke only and then pretending to be more stoned than I was, but bellying up to the Boone's Farm as it was passed about. From stealing Slickers at Sav-On. Jean Shrimpton, Lady Jane Grey. Op-art poster in the living room.
I come from wanting, from the annual broadcast of The Wizard of Oz certain as daylight savings, from Boiled Frozen Brick of Vegetables Late of Cardboard with Frankfurters and Beans, from the advent of Familia cereal on our shores. The incessant sun and incessant sunniness of every blond girl. The "beach," Zuma Beach, where, embarrassed by the stick figure I made in my bikini, every other girl's breasts an indictment, I watched the complicated configurations of my classmates from my box ten years deep of not belonging.
I come from a small room with a door with a large desk with a large drawer for candles and matches, with a stack of odd 45s, careful 33s, with a stereo of gray plastic with attached speakers that folded up for carrying, set on a floor once wall-to-wall blue and now splotched with wax, with Tang, walls papered with small blue and purple flowers on small green stalks. A pitch-eaved, square window.
I come from a father who came from playing the clarinet in what he called "jazz clubs" but he was an asshole and the clubs were lounges. From a mother (alleged) who worked as a pole climber for DWP for two years after he left and who then wrenched her back one day and went on disability. From her getting migraines by sitting on Naugahyde and so switching those upholsteries for a masculine plaid soon rutted with cigarette holes, and from "your father was a sap" I come from Dacron, from stereo headphones with the telephone ringer on LOUD. Trying to prove it to them with grades.
I come from what had to be my father sleeping with his dog, figuring this out in retrospect. From his excitement over his first Shell Oil card, his scraping it along the length of my thigh to demonstrate its sharp edge and then drawing back, shook up. From Mom smoking, from my own trying to give my dolls to any kid who said they wanted them.
I come from despair at ever getting out, from one mulberry tree per lot, pine bark littering a patchy ground, and the neighbors at hand with their sprinklers. To the southeast, just past Universal Studios, a glittering Hollywood, Sharon Tate and TM(tm). Elliott Gould, private eye in a sad-sack rental. More sun and blonds. More cars. I come from driving my mother's, the Ford Fairlane, ancient then, I come from burning out its engine on the macadam of the Ventura Freeway and crying for the state I was in, no money, no resources, my mother hiding her mysterious few, my car windows rolled up against a mist, more of a spitting really, crying until the highway patrolman knocked on the fly window and although I told a boyfriend later that the patrolman had said Well Miss Thang he really said License please. And registration.
I come from circle-sitting with other kids who pulled their mothers off of floors at night, from commuting to Pierce College and then to UCLA, falling that year for a boy with sandy, curly hair, an Adam's apple and a Boston accent, poly-sci and a year on me, no beach culture to judge me by. From wanting to do well as he did well, from redeeming myself by serious purpose. From wanting his friends to be my friends, especially the woman Bobbi, wanting to be her-her fine features, her halo of Afro, her intactness, her skepticism, her laugh; to do what she could do-paint, paint big figural still lives; to understand painting as she did, to be able to talk about it in such an interesting way, to know what Clement Greenberg had written, and to know the music she listened to-jazz, jazz filling her apartment off-campus, jazz some secret code that would render me an initiate to her own hip world. From sweetening up and clamming up on the outside, trying to fit in, but also to be smart, so not forgoing wit: I wanted blend not bland, wishing I knew what she knew: choir practice, Chicago, the smell of her mother processing her hair.
And I come from that one night's outing with my boyfriend, with Bobbi and with others, to a hall in East L.A. to hear the Art Ensemble of Chicago, the length of the hall filled with clumps of gongs and horns and drums, what I took to be bongo drums and drum sets; stands holding miniature straight saxophones and outsized baritone horns; children's trumpets and bugles and stringed uprights. Musicians wearing tribal paint, or the reeds of an African dancer, or a doctor's getup, white coat over tie and slacks, or a suit, the one in front waving a stick from which sprouted limp, fall-over strings from its tip; all of them humming, the hum growing, five of them altogether. The doctor raising a cornet and playing the first line of "When the saints," then a bleat, triangles pulled from the others' pockets tinkling underneath, then a chorus of "Devil May Care," something my dad would have denied was jazz, his music, but I knew it was. Their reaching the area, a good tenth mile, the bastion or installation of their instruments, and moving in deliberate fashion to their quarters, one by one notes emerging and then a melody, "3-he Great Pretender" springing from the doctor's trumpet, their amusement and seriousness of purpose palpable in the hall.
And then, having come, it was I, here, deciding to major in art history, reading Harold Rosenberg and thinking what advances style, buying new LPs of a music new to me, an I-don't-care jazz and not the pandering slop my father served up, learning and listening with Bobbi my coach, setting my Laura Nyros in the back of the crate, learning to come from anywhere but home.
And when I look back, this anywhere had to be Chicago, clueless as I was. Bobbi was from Chicago, her father a South-Side minister, so I thought then that she would visit if I went there for graduate school. I imagined its jazz-this jazz I was absorbing, Bobbi's, legion and homegrown, boisterous, sly-and going to Chicago's jazz clubs with my boyfriend and Bobbi. The university took me, the only one to admit me. I thought I'd learn how to look at a painting as Bobbi could look at a painting; I imagined becoming new, different, whole in Chicago. Packed, arrived, began. The university was a swipe of gray at the base of the city's canvas, and I, alone.
In hazed heat, mid-September, walking north from Chicago's Loop, telling myself I was exploring the new life, I dogged as much for tonic, gin. A sign swung beside a basement door, in, out, mirage: RECORD PALACE: JZZ. Inside I found Acie.
Knuckles scraping rutted paint as the door opened; inside, a form on a stool blocked most of the store, and I spooked. Don't let on. Only two front bins of records beneath a low, bare bulb; I'd click through them, leave. Then-Acie's voice. Indifferent.
"They are standing on end so as the men do not have to pull them out to look at the covers. Men get distracted on account some gal has got herself big headlights or big taillights, and then they end up with some shit music for some wrong reasons." My own chest flat as rain.
He paused and I looked at him then.
"You in the market for anything special?" I saw his right eye staring off the side of his face while the left fixed on me. He was big on all sides, top included. A hairnet, the hair below the net long and limp with oil. Green stretch pants, flip-flops, a thin black U-tank taut across Sumo folds. Maybe a hundred bins were blocked by the wall of him.
I was alone, in that sea a new city is, using my flippers to feel out the surf. Most white girls would leave, I thought. Not me. My new brave life.
"Have any Featherweight Garnell?"
His left eye, squinting. "LPs or 45s?"
He moved and when he scissored a ladder and stepped up on it, quickly, I saw a mat of black hair in the pit of his arm as he reached for a shelf. Cardboard box, size of a book box and one among many, swung onto the bin in front of me.
The 45s were stacked, manifold, all by Featherweight Garnell.
Came the next week, and the next, and the one after that. Knowing I couldn't keep up an LP a week on my school-loan stipend.
"You again" Teddy Edwards (Teddy's Ready!) on the turntable beside Acie-I only knew by the cover splayed out on a bin. October, Chicago cold already, damp. In the store, still rank, smelly.
"You got a name?" Wiping his hands with a towel. Chicken skin wedged in his top teeth.
"Cindy. Not many women I know name of Cindy."
"It's a white name." The store sucked the flip from the phrase.
"Oh yeah?" He raised an eyebrow and his left eye clicked. "You got a job?"
I weighed this. I'd gotten a job in the department's slide library, putting new slides into glass squares and affixing them with strips of gluey paper. "Yes."
"Part-time." Sonny Rollins in a Mohawk on a cover loomed before a bridge. Maybe the alarm in my head-don't reveal a thing-was wrongheaded, racist. "I'm a student."
He held a hand down beside his stool, and from the shadow a dog's head, tiny, poked and lapped at the grease on his fingers. "French." He said it like a statement.
"No. Art history."
"The fine arts?"
I processed, nodded, it ended his interest. I was forgetting the hue and pitch of Bobbi's paintings, razor-edged colors abutting others. I wanted more than anything for her to call, to hear too from my boyfriend, but she didn't and I hadn't.
"You will be wanting to hear the Brothers Brecker."
What I'd heard of the Brecker Brothers was pop-jazz, a "sound for today" as my dad's was for his, so I wasn't wanting, but that was ungracious. I stood by the bins in front, filled mostly of cutouts and recent releases, he on his stool not four feet away, lifting the arm from the Teddy Edwards, lifting the spinning disc off its perch and then sliding the Brecker album from its cover to the turntable in a feint quick as a card shark's. For a moment I pretended to listen.
My boyfriend won't call me back. This was what I heard in my head all day. Chicago, cut off from the rest of the world by a time warp, by continental drift, by a wrinkle in space. One night when I called Bobbi she was home; "fresh milk" she'd answered, and when I balked she said cows were the way of the future, cows were going to put a canvas in every studio and make a loss leader for every activist.
"How is the new Betty Carter?" Hinting, showing off, knowing she had played in Chicago. He looked at and past me with his glass eye.
"If I want to hear a horn I listen to the Dizz." Betty Carter: belled voice, vocalese, an instrument's scat-but these were assets I thought, I'd read.
I tried another. World Saxophone Quartet? Smart adept men; baritone, tenor, alto, soprano, and a swing side of squawk:
"What the Hebrews call shtick."
Muhal Richard Abrams? He'd founded the Association for the Advancement of Colored Musicians, the AACM, Chicago-based, making a magnet of Chicago, and his own piano-
"The Muhal is another purveyor of cacophony." Acie fussed with a soft vinyl square in a sleeve like a version of a single by Salvador Dali.
And now I knew what he'd think of the Art Ensemble of Chicago, of their bells, car horns, painted faces-but I asked anyway, and when he said, "Mishmash of tribalese. This all you know?", I wouldn't answer.
The door beside me clanged behind a man, a handsome face under a pageboy cap, old army-issue parka. He spread his hands and then cupped them, blowing his warm breath across his fingers.
"Wyans." Acie addressed the man but didn't look at him, bent to toss a goldfish cracker to the dog under the stool and said, to neither of us, "Ma and me can't get enough of these things."
The man began to sift through one of the front bins and I backed into the door well. I didn't care if it did feel private, I an intruder; I wanted to stay. I'd go back to California able to call Julius Hemphill Jule; I'd know each take of every Coltrane number ever pressed on vinyl.
The first cold day, the air cutting through the jam of the door. When I went west again, I'd be inside.
The dog Ma was hairless. "I tell you, Wyans, she picked up the mange from Roy Haynes's mother's cat?"
The customer did not look up. "That right? All the way from California?"
The night of the day I'd found Acie's I'd gone to hear Roy Haynes's band at the Jazz Lounge on Rush Street, swollen in the high of possibility, newfound city, antidote to study, slides, iconography. The beat from the discotheque upstairs from the Lounge thrummed above peeling banquettes, album covers bannering the stage below "August is Charlie Parker Month," a smattering crowd. Bobbi kissed musicians after concerts she liked and everything about Roy Haynes's set was buoying but I was afraid to kiss him, alone.
"So why do you call her Ma?"
The man Wyans glanced up when I asked this, moved a bin over, Acie raising his head at me and then back, bent, to the dog. Wyans wore a green wool shirt under his parka.
"The ghost of that woman I condensed in this dog. If she is around still, I want to be watching her."
"And controlling her food supply," the man said, low chuckle. "What's that you got on?"
"This?" Acie picked up the record jacket, handed it across me to the man, a double album, opening out into a fanning sleeve, with no photographs of the musicians in informal session moments, just two posed photographs of them on a bench.
"You need something, Wyans?"
Acie shifted on his stool. "Would you get me some Colt? Wish I could leave the store, I do."
"Your assistant tired?"
"I do not have women doing my shit for me." They meant me.
"Just your men," the man said. Acie counted four dollars and some change into the man's hand from a pleather change purse, brown and cracked, the metal of its frame corroded.
"I will take two."
The man left; through the basement window his feet crossed the street until he disappeared down the opposite sidewalk. Acie said, "Keep your eye on things for me. Your eye only." Spun off the stool, lumbering to the back of the store, clear view now of the bins, the dog Ma looking up. She looked up again when he returned with a thin plastic cup, water dripping, and he held it under the stool while she lapped her tongue like a pimento.
Excerpted from Record Palace by Susan Wheeler Copyright © 2005 by Susan Wheeler. Excerpted by permission.
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