A repackage of Ann Patchett's novel Taft, about a middle-aged black man who runs a blues club in Memphis.
- Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
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- Product dimensions:
- 5.20(w) x 7.90(h) x 0.70(d)
Read an Excerpt
A girl walked into the bar. I was hunched over, trying to
open a box of Dewar’s without my knife. I’d bent the blade the
day before prying loose an old metal ice cube tray that had frozen
solid to the side of the freezer. The box was sealed up tight with
strapping tape. She waited there quietly, not asking for anything,
not leaning on the bar. She held her purse with two hands and
stood still. I could see her sort of upside down from where I was.
She was on the small side, pale and average-looking, with a big
puffy winter jacket on over her dress. I watched her look around
at the stuff up on the walls, black-and-white pictures of Muddy
Waters and Howlin’ Wolf in cracked frames, a knocked-off street
sign from Elvis Presley Boulevard, the mounted head of a skinny
deer. She pretended to be interested in things so she didn’t have
to look at anybody. Not that there was much of anybody to look
at. It was February, Wednesday, four in the afternoon. The dead
time of the deadest season, which is why I wasn’t in any rush.
The tape was making me crazy.
Before I even got the box open, Cyndi walked out of the
kitchen and headed right for her. “What can I get you?” Cyndi
said. Then I straightened up because the girl in the puffy coat
wasn’t of a drinking age. She was eighteen, nineteen. Could’ve
been younger. When you’d spent as much of your life in a bar as
I had, you recognized those things right away. Cyndi, she knew
nothing about bars other than getting drunk in them. She was
just a girl herself, and girls were no judge of girls.
“Get her a Coke,” I said, and headed over to them. But the
girl put up her hand and I stopped walking just like that. It was a
“I’m here about a job,” she said.
Well, then I could see it. The way she was overdressed. The
way she didn’t seem to be meeting anybody but didn’t seem like
she was there to pick anybody up either. We got plenty of girls
through there. We got the college girls looking to make money
to pay the bills who wound up trying to read their books by
the little light next to the cash register when things were slow,
and then we got the other kind, older ones who liked the music
and liked to pour themselves shots behind the bar. Those were
the ones who walked out in the middle of their shift with some
strange customer on a Friday night when the place was packed
and then showed up three days later, asking could they have their
job back. Those were the ones the regulars always took to.
“You over at the college?” I said, and Cyndi looked at her
hard because she didn’t like the college girls.
The girl nodded. A piece of her straight hair slipped out from
behind her ear and she tucked it back into place.
“How old are you?” I said.
“Twenty,” she said, so quickly that I figured she’d practiced
saying it in front of a mirror. Twenty. Twenty. Twenty. She
didn’t look twenty, but I would bet money that her ID was fake.
It didn’t so much matter in Tennessee. Seventeen could serve a
drink as long as they kept it clear of their mouths.
“Any restaurant experience?” I looked at her hard, trying to
tell her age from her face. “Ever work in a bar?” I was out of those
employment forms. I made a mental note to order a box.
She nodded again. Quiet girl. “Not around here, though. I’m
not from around here.”
Cyndi and I stood there on the other side of the bar, waiting
for her to say where she was from but she didn’t. “Where?”
“East,” the girl said, even though that could mean anywhere
from Nashville to China. East was the world if you went with
it far enough. I didn’t think she was trying to be difficult on
purpose. The way she stood so straight and kept her voice low
and respectful, it was plain that she needed the job. I liked her,
though I didn’t have a reason. Even when I just saw her standing
there, when she put up her hand and for a second it felt like
something personal. I liked this girl.
“What’s your name?” I asked.
“Fay Taft,” she said.
“Like the president?”
“William Howard Taft.”
“Oh, no,” she said. “My father tried to trace that back once,
but he didn’t come up with anything. I don’t think our Tafts ever
met their Tafts.”
“Only president ever to be chief justice on the Supreme
Court.” I had no idea why I knew this. Some facts stick with you
for no reason.
“He was fat,” she said in a sorry voice, like there could be nothing
sadder than fat. “I always felt kind of bad for him.”
Not very many people who come into bars can talk to you
about dead presidents. I told her she had a job.
Cyndi turned on her heel as soon as I’d said it. Cyndi wanted
two shifts a day, seven days a week. She wanted every tip from every
table in the place. She saw no need in the world for a waitress
other than herself.
“Come back tomorrow,” I told Fay, not looking over my
shoulder at Cyndi, who she was straining to see. “Come in before
lunch. We’ll get you started.”
She wasn’t saying a word. She looked too scared to take a deep
“That okay?” I asked.
“School,” she said softly, like the very word would be the end
of it. No bar, no job.
“So come after class. Just be here before happy hour. That
starts at five. Things get busy then.”
She smiled, her face wide open with relief. For a second that
little white face reminded me of Marion, even though Marion’s
black. This was Marion from way back, when I could read every
thought that passed through her like it was typed up on her
forehead. Young Fay Taft nodded, made like she might say something
and then didn’t. She just stood there.
“Okay,” she said, nodded again, and headed out the door. I
watched her through the window as she went down the sidewalk.
She took a stocking cap out of her pocket and pulled it
down over her ears. The cap was striped blue and yellow and had
one of those fluffy pom-pom things on the top. In it she looked
so young I thought I must have made a mistake. One thing’s
for sure, she never would have gotten a job wearing that hat. It
was gray outside and spitting a little bit of snow that wouldn’t
amount to anything. The girl, Fay, stopped at the corner and
looked out carefully at the traffic, trying to decide when to cross.
I watched too, watched until she crossed and headed up the hill
and I lost sight of her skinny legs trailing out of that big jacket.
“Like we need another waitress,” Cyndi called down loudly
from the end of the bar.
But Cyndi hadn’t been around long enough. She didn’t understand
about the spring, how waitresses take off for the gulf
on the first warm day and leave you with nobody trained. Best to
stock a few girls up when it’s still cold outside, ones who look reliable
enough to last you past seventy degrees.
“I’ll tend to my job and you tend to yours,” I said, going back
to the Dewar’s. Cyndi had a hell of a mouth on her. Maybe that’s
the way they teach girls over in Hawaii where she came from.
“I’m the one that hires people.”
Cyndi took up a couple of clean glasses and went back to the
kitchen to wash them again, just to let me know it wasn’t right.
If it was or it wasn’t, I had no one to account to. It was my job.
I hired people and got the boxes of scotch open. I counted up
the money at two o’clock in the morning and took it to the night
deposit box, every night waiting to see if somebody was hopped
up enough to crack me over the head for it. I plunged the toilets
when they backed up. I used to throw people out when they
got drunk and started beating one another with the pool cues,
but then that got to be a full-time job so I hired a bouncer, a former
Memphis State linebacker named Wallace whose knees had
gone bad. He worked the door on Friday and Saturday because
no matter how drunk people got on a weeknight they just about
never took to beating on one another. This is one of the great
mysteries of the world. I was putting Wallace on behind the bar
more and more during the week. He made a good mixed drink.
The tourists liked him because he was coal black and huge and
the sight of him scared them and thrilled them. When he wasn’t
busy doing his job he was posing for pictures with strangers. One
tourist snaps the camera while the other tourist stands next to
Wallace. It tickled them to no end to have their picture taken
with someone they thought looked so dangerous.
The bar I managed is called Muddy’s and is on the water side
of Beale down past the Orpheum Theater. It’s owned by a doctor
in town who holds more deeds in Memphis than anyone knows.
He bought it back in the late seventies from Guy Chalfont, a
bluesman we all admired. Chalfont swore the bar wasn’t named
for Muddy Waters or the Mississippi River, but for his dog, a
filthy short-haired cur called Muddy that followed him with the
kind of devotion that only a dog could muster. It seemed like all
the old bluesboys sold out in the late seventies with some sad notion
about going to Florida, They thought it would be better to
die down there, sitting on lounge chairs near the ocean, wearing
sunglasses and big Panama hats. They sold just before the real estate
market broke open, a couple of years before their little clubs
turned out to be worth a fortune.
The main thing I had to do to keep the job was book the
bands and make sure they showed up and didn’t plug all their
amps into the same socket. In the winter it wasn’t so hard because
it was pretty much a local thing, the same people playing up and
down the street on different nights. But the truth was that good
blues were nearly impossible to find. Real music had packed off
to Florida with the old boys. I had about decided the problem
was that people didn’t suffer the way they used to. I was an advocate
of greater suffering for anyone who came through my
club. Bands these days were always hoping to be what they called
crossovers, which meant that white college kids would start buying
their records, thinking they’d really tapped into something.
People watered themselves down before they even got started.
They thought if their blues were too blue there’d be nobody to
buy them since nobody, they figured, was interested in being
When I took this job everybody said I’d be the right man for
it. I was a musician so I’d know, run the kind of club a musician
would like to be in. But when I started managing I stopped playing.
I forgot what all of that was about and people around town
forgot I ever was a drummer. I was running a club just like everybody
else who was running a club. I was the guy who passed out
the money at the end of the night.
I took the job managing Muddy’s at a time when things with
Marion had come all the way around, from her doing everything
to please me to me doing everything to please her. I said I’d stop
playing and take on a regular job to show how steady I could
be. I thought it was just for a while, like you always think something
bad is for just a while. I figured I’d get her settled down
and then I could go back to the band. I didn’t take into account
that I might lose my nerve, all those nights in a bar when I was
watching instead of the one up there playing. I didn’t imagine
how that could undermine a person. Once you thought about
a beat instead of playing it you were as good as dead. Nothing
came naturally anymore. I could play at home when I was by myself,
but as soon as somebody else was there my hands started to
sweat. Then I just ditched it altogether. After Marion and Franklin
were gone, long past any hope I had of them coming home, I
kept my regular job as manager. It was all I knew how to do.
When Marion took our boy to Miami last year she stopped calling
him Franklin and started calling him Lin, like she was in a
hurry and there was no time to say his whole name. Sometimes
she called him Linny, like Lenny. It was her way of saying I didn’t
know him anymore, that anything that had come before was no
good, even his name. Sometimes I called him Frank, but Marion
didn’t like that one bit. If I called down there and asked to speak
to Frank she’d act like she didn’t know who I was talking about.
No Frank here, she’d say, and make like she was going to hang up.
That was when I’d want to tell her that Lin was a pretty name
for a daughter but I’d called to talk to my son. I never said that.
Marion had been known to hang up on me and when I called
back she didn’t answer. She had a million ways of keeping me
from him that had nothing to do with me and Franklin and everything
to do with me and her. Marion was pissed off at me for
winding up how I did, which is to say, winding up like myself.
When I pressed too hard for visits or a school year back in
Memphis, she’d say that maybe Franklin isn’t my son. Nowhere
on paper did it say he was mine, since she was mad at me the
day she delivered and left the father slot on the birth certificate
blank, like maybe so many people had been down that road there
was just no way of knowing. Franklin was my son. Marion was
eighteen when he was born and for all her tough talk nine years
later, I knew who she was then. Her face was wide open. Marion
used to wait around for me while I was playing. She’d smile at me
and turn her eyes away and laugh when I looked at her for too
long. She wasn’t screwing around and I wasn’t screwing around.
We were good to each other back then.
She liked me because I played drums in a band. One of the
many reasons she didn’t like me later on. I wasn’t a centerpiece,
no Max Roach, no showy genius like Buddy Rich, but I was
as solid a drummer as you were going to find and everybody
wanted me. I made the other people look good. That’s what a
good drummer does. He keeps everybody steady and paced. He
shines his light at just the right time. That was me.
I was born drumming. My parents admit to that even though
they were never happy about it. I was asking to hold two spoons
from the time I knew how to hold one. I heard beats in everything,
not just music, but traffic and barking dogs and my
mother washing dishes. I heard it. That was who I was, big arms
and loose wrists. Getting a set of drums just made things easier.
Getting a band made them easier still. Twelve years old, I was sitting
in with a bunch of high school boys. I knew, right from the
The band I was in when I took up with Marion was called
Break Neck, now one hundred percent scattered. We played
mostly in Handy Park and when we couldn’t get in there we
played down by the water until the cops ran us off. It was all
hat passing then, decent money if you were on your own but a
joke once you carved it up in six directions. By the time we were
getting real jobs with real covers, we were already falling apart,
changing out the bass player one week, going through three singers
in a year. I left before the whole thing evaporated. I got another
band and then another one. As soon as I could outplay
them I was gone.
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