A fifth-grade bully, a blossoming romance, a late-night crash
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“And after the earthquake, a fire; but the Lord was not in the fire: and after the fire, a still small voice.”
— I Kings 19:12
“And after the earthquake, a fire; but the Lord was not in the fire: and after the fire, a still small voice.”
— I Kings 19:12
Howie got his guitar the day the Soviets invaded Czechoslovakia, and he named it Elijah. It made a big impression on him: there he was in his living room tuning this new, magic thing, watching the tanks roll into Prague on television. His best friend Alf already had a guitar, a Gibson named Jezebel, and together they started a band called Rock the Tanks. Alf said if you had a guitar with a good name, you could always get laid. They talked a lot about getting laid, even though they were only in the sixth grade. In eighth grade Alf really did get laid, and it was because of the guitar, and then he got a steady girlfriend in the tenth grade and she got pregnant in the eleventh grade and the band fell apart. That was the year the Soviets invaded Afghanistan. Howie stuck with Elijah and didn’t get laid until graduation night, when Evelyn Rastford pulled his pants off under the bleachers and spread out her big dark graduation gown on the ground. She smelled like a big carnation and beer. It didn’t seem to matter to her whether he had a guitar or not, or what its name was either.
He was playing in bars by then with any kind of band he could hold together, and was always looking for a saxophone player he could move with. But all the saxophone players he had ever met were either jazz snots or classical snots or some other kind of snot. Maybe it was the way they had to blow on a sax; it affected their noses and made them all snots. He had been looking for a good saxophone player for five years when he met Dmitri.
Dmitri was black. There was no apparent reason for him to be called Dmitri; he was from Los Angeles. But he had been born the day the Soviets invaded Hungary, and his mother, impressed, named him that in case they ever invaded Los Angeles. She thought the name might help him get a better deal under the new regime.
He was playing on a street corner in Berkeley when Howie met him, with one shoe on and the other shoe on the sidewalk with quarters and dimes in it. He had a three-foot black snake named Marie Laveau who slept in his jacket near the wall. Marie Laveau lived on hot dogs. Dmitri lived on the quarters out of that shoe; he bought pizza with them. People would listen for a while and drop quarters in the shoe. Dmitri would nod and keep blowing, or more often he would not notice at all, because he often played himself into a sort of trance.
That first day, Howie stood there for an hour and a half, watching Dmitri in a blues trance. Howie’s band had just broken up for the eleventh time, because the bass player had decided to marry the drummer’s ex-girlfriend. They got married in a Lutheran church. Howie was shocked.
People came and went, dropped their quarters or didn’t. Dmitri played and played; Marie Laveau slept. A street person came along and took all the quarters out of the shoe, and still Dmitri just played and played.
At last he came out of the trance. There was Howie, feeling very white and humble. Dmitri wiped his mouth, and looked in his shoe.
“Shit,” he said. “You take my quarters?”
“No. A street person did.”
“And you didn’t try and stop him?”
“He told me he always does that,” Howie said. “He said it’s OK with you.”
“That’s true,” Dmitri conceded. “It’s OK with me. The Lord provides. He giveth, and he taketh away.”
“He gave your snake a hot dog,” Howie said.
“That’s good,” Dmitri said.
Howie bought him pizza. Dmitri carried his saxophone in a case that had blue velvet insides and looked like a small altar. He carried it like an altar, and he carried Marie Laveau around his neck. Howie waited for trouble, but apparently they knew Marie at the pizza place.
It turned out that Dmitri believed he was on a mission from God. He had seen the movie “The Blues Brothers” thirty-six times. Whenever he made any money beyond pizza and hot dogs, he went to see it in a tiny cult movie house just off Telegraph Avenue, where it had been showing continuously for years. The movie house was called Heart of the World, and they always let Marie Laveau in free. It was from this movie that Dmitri had gotten the concept of a mission from God.
“I’m just looking for a saxophone player I can move with,” Howie said.
“Hah,” said Dmitri. “Then why did you name your guitar Elijah?”
Howie shrugged. “I liked the sound of it.”
They were sounding each other out. Dmitri hardly ever told anybody he was on a mission from God, and Howie almost never told anyone his guitar was named Elijah, but they had told each other these things almost immediately.
Just then there was a series of screams from the table next to them. Marie Laveau had crawled over to the jukebox and was lying near it, while a young woman who did not like snakes was kneeling on top of the table with her knees in her pepperoni pizza. The young woman’s date, a clean-cut, huge young man who looked like a college football player, was about to smash Marie with a chair. The snake, for her part, appeared unperturbed.
Howie and Dmitri leaped up to prevent a tragedy. The woman continued to scream until Dmitri picked Marie up and put her inside his shirt. The manager came out and helped the woman off the table, wiped off her knees with a towel, and sent a waiter off to get her a fresh pizza. He acted as if things like this happened all the time.
Howie persuaded the football player to put the chair down. He did, but he kept his hand on it, warily eyeing the bulge in Dmitri’s shirt.
“Marie, she always go to the jukebox,” Dmitri was explaining to the young woman, who nodded uneasily. “She love that rock and roll.”
“I didn’t know snakes could hear,” Howie said.
Dmitri gave him a look that said plainly, Shut up. Howie shut up.
“What kinds of songs does she like?” the woman asked, fascinated in spite of herself and beginning to recover.
“Chuck Berry, Buddy Holly,” Dmitri said. “She like Buddy Holly a lot. She like Elvis Presley. She like the Stones.”
“Oh, I love Elvis!” the woman said.
“Well, there you go,” Dmitri said. “You and Marie got something in common.”
“Elvis makes me throb,” the woman said. Her face had lit up. Her date looked on uneasily. Maybe he made her throb, maybe he didn’t. “Elvis just makes me want to move.”
“He make Marie gyrate,” Dmitri said. “Elvis, he make Marie Laveau thump and pop.”
“Here’s your pizza, ma’am,” the manager said just then. “I’m very sorry for the inconvenience.”
“Oh, it’s all right,” the woman said. She was actually rather pretty when she wasn’t screaming. “Does the snake really like Elvis?”
“Marie like Elvis so much,” Dmitri said. “Oh, Lord, Elvis make Marie wish she had hips.”
The woman laughed. Just then Marie Laveau poked her black head out of Dmitri’s shirt front. The woman jumped back instinctively in alarm. The football player picked up the chair again.
“Easy, easy, it’s OK,” Dmitri said. “She just saying hi. Say hi, Marie, to this nice woman. She like Elvis, too.”
Marie looked around placidly, and her tongue flickered.
“Marie, she say, ‘Hi there, pleased ta meetcha,’ ” Dmitri told the woman.
She hesitated, then said tentatively, “Um, hi, Marie.”
“This is ridiculous,” the football player said.
“Oh, take it easy, Gary,” the woman said. “And for God’s sake, put that chair down.” As he did, she turned back to the snake and said with renewed confidence, “Marie, it’s true — I just love Elvis.”
Marie appeared fascinated.
“Marie, she say, ‘That’s cool,’ ” Dmitri translated. “She say, ‘It was very nice meeting y’all, very nice to make your acquaintance,’ and she hope our paths cross again.”
“Nice meeting you, too, Marie,” the woman said. Her date rolled his eyes. The two of them sat down again and started on the fresh pizza.
Dmitri put two quarters in the jukebox and rapidly punched in some songs. “Blue Suede Shoes” started playing first, and he, Howie, and Marie waved and went back to their table. Their pizza by now was cold, and their beer was warm.
“I didn’t know snakes could talk, either,” Howie said.
“Son,” Dmitri said, “there’s a lot you don’t know about snakes.”
Dmitri’s sax was named Damballah Joe and he treated it with great respect. He said Please before he picked it up and Excuse me if he bumped it, and Thank you when he set it down. He said Oh Mama to it after a good riff. They went back to Howie’s place that night and played until dawn, and by the end of the night Howie, who didn’t know quite what to make of it all, was saying to Elijah after a good riff, Thank you, and Please, and Excuse me.
Elijah and Damballah Joe got along fine.
“Be black now,” Dmitri told Howie as they played. “Be just a little black here. Let Elijah do some work here. Elijah, he be smarter than you. You just be a little black here.”
Howie had never felt whiter. He had begun to feel white on the street, watching Dmitri in his blues trance. He had felt whiter and whiter over pizza. He had felt so white when Dmitri told him there was a lot he didn’t know about snakes that he wondered if he could stand it; and now that he was actually playing with Dmitri and Damballah Joe he felt too white for words.
The music was doing things he didn’t understand. It was changing the color of the air; it was changing the shape of the room. Dmitri went on one sax riff that turned the bare west wall into a sheet of liquid flame, and then into a crystal shaped like a tiny teardrop; he went on another that opened a window onto a moon filled with flowers. The place smelled now like cinnamon, now like pine wood fire, now like a breath of tangerine. Even Elijah seemed strange to him. Elijah was doing new things. Elijah did something that put clouds over the sink. Elijah did a white bird briefly. Elijah did something that turned the kitchen chairs into deer for a moment, and then somebody with a rifle came in and shot one of the deer, and Howie stopped playing. It was just too much.
Dmitri instantly stopped, too. “It’s OK,” he said.
“The hell it’s OK,” Howie said, and went to the window. The moon was gone; the flowers were gone. It was plain dawn-gray and if he leaned out a little he could see the water, just like always. Down the street the garbage truck was inching along.
“What did you see?” Dmitri said.
“The water,” Howie said. “The garbage truck.”
“Don’t bullshit me.”
Howie turned. Dmitri was looking at him very calmly, as if he truly expected Howie to tell him about the moon and the flowers and the deer. “Nothing,” Howie said.
“Don’t worry about that shit,” Dmitri said. “That’s nothing, all right. You got that right.”
“I think I fell asleep while I was playing,” Howie said. “I think I started dreaming.”
“I see angels sometimes,” Dmitri said. “Big ones. I tell them, ‘Please be careful now, me and Damballah Joe’s trying to play some music here. Walk light now, angel, don’t fuck with this music.’ I tell the same thing to devils. I saw a devil once that was 6-foot-6 in his stocking feet, and I told him real polite, but real firm, ‘Walk light there, Mr. Devil. Don’t fuck with this tune.’ ”
“And they listen?” Howie said.
Dmitri shrugged. “Naturally the angels is somewhat more polite. But they generally mind. You just gotta be clear and put it to them right, that you won’t take nobody fucking with the music.”
“I saw a bunch of deer around the kitchen table,” Howie said. “And then someone shot one.”
“Well,” Dmitri said, “It’s a hard world. Me, I wouldn’t stop playing for something like that. You gonna see worse shit than that, if you stick with Elijah.”
“Oh yeah?” Howie said, more sharply than he had intended.
“Oh yeah,” Dmitri said.
“Like, you gonna see them deer turn back into chairs in a world where there’s people go to bed every night hungry and sad. You gonna see them deer turn into chairs in a world where a man gets put in jail for what he thinks about God, or what he thinks about the government, and where people give a person shit about the color they happened to be born or what their momma’s name was, and maybe they kill them for it. Them chairs gonna be sitting in a world where people keep other people down, and use them, and abuse them — shit, man, where a few people keep whole fucking countries down. And you gonna sit there and tell me you can’t even keep playing when some pissant dream deer chair gets shot ’cause you played yourself out into the twilight a little? Well, I tell you now, it’s a good thing you found that out right away. It’s a good thing you found out you can’t even handle a bad dream, much less what them chairs really is.”
“Why is it a good thing?” Howie said.
“Because now I know I don’t got to pay you no mind. You are like one of them dream angels come stumbling around with no sense of what music’s really playing, flapping your pretty wings. You are not a serious person, son, and that’s useful knowledge, indeed it is.”
It was mid-afternoon when he woke. Elijah was still leaning on the couch where he had set it, the empty wine bottles from the night before were still on the floor, and the sun was pouring through the window onto his feet. Dmitri was gone, Marie Laveau was gone. Someone was knocking at the door, quietly but insistently. Howie struggled to his feet. The inside of his mouth felt like an airplane crash after the fire had gone out.
He was half-expecting Dmitri and the snake, but when he opened the door it was Mrs. McCroi, his landlady.
“Oh,” he said. “Hello, Mrs. McCroi.”
“Hello yourself,” said Mrs. McCroi. She was a tough, sprightly woman in her eighties. She lived directly downstairs, and when Howie and his friends played late at night she would bang on her ceiling with a broom. Lately, Howie had noticed that her thumps were on the beat; he wondered if she was starting to get it.
Mrs. McCroi was about to die. She had been about to die for more than thirty years. Every time Howie saw her, she informed him that she was about to die.
“I’m about to die,” she told Howie now.
“I know,” he said. “What can I do for you, Mrs. McCroi?”
“Not a thing, not a thing,” she said, in her lilting brogue. “There is no recourse to mortality. Just don’t call a priest when I go.”
“I won’t,” Howie promised for the fiftieth time.
“Promise,” she said. “Swear by your poor dead mother’s grave.”
“I swear,” said Howie, whose mother was alive and well and living in Baltimore.
Mrs. McCroi shook her head. “Any day now,” she aid. “Any minute, really.” She looked at her watch.
“What can I do for you, Mrs. McCroi?” Howie said again.
“Pay your rent on time. Be kind to children and small animals.”
“Now about last night . . .” Mrs. McCroi said.
Howie groaned. He could barely remember anything from the night before. He had a vague recollection of a deer getting blasted in the kitchen.
“I’ve spoken with Brigit,” Mrs. McCroi went on. “And she says to tell you the music is fine.”
“Brigit says that?” Howie said. Brigit was recent. No one had seen Brigit but Mrs. McCroi.
“Yes,” Mrs. McCroi said. “That saxophone was hot. And Brigit says, ‘More drum.’ ”
“More drum,” Mrs. McCroi said. “Boom shucka boom shucka. Boom boom boom.”
“Maybe you could just bang on your ceiling with your broom,” Howie said. “I’ve noticed you have a strong beat.”
“No, I’m on the brink of death,” Mrs. McCroi said seriously. “Get yourself a real drummer.”
“I’ll do that,” Howie said. “I —”
“I’ll be going now,” Mrs. McCroi said abruptly. “I’ll be saying goodbye. It’s doubtful we’ll meet again, as I’m about to die.”
“Goodbye, then, Mrs. McCroi,” Howie said.
She peered at him suspiciously. “What’s the rush?”
“I’m sorry, I —”
“Is your rent paid this month?”
“On the first.”
“Good, then,” she said. “Well, goodbye, lad.”
“Goodbye, Mrs. McCroi.”
“No priest. Promise.”
“No priest. I promise.”
“I can’t abide these meddling priests,” Mrs. McCroi said. “A body has a right to pass on in peace, without their muttering and smoke. More drum,” she said. “Goodbye.”
“Goodbye,” Howie said carefully.
Mrs. McCroi went back down the stairs. Howie rubbed his eyes. His head ached. He was just going to stagger toward the bathroom when the television came on. It did that sometimes when the man next door, a former professor of philosophy exiled from the Ukraine, turned on his microwave oven. It was one of those strange side effects of wavelengths that no one understood. Howie wondered whether it worked in reverse as well, whether when he turned on his television the man’s food began to cook.
The announcer on the mid-afternoon news was gravely intoning that all the money the Western countries had raised and sent to Ethiopia to fight the famine was being diverted by the government and used to buy Soviet tanks. It showed yet another picture of a little black child with huge eyes and a distended belly, who would be dead in two weeks. It showed a picture of some people eating dust. It showed a picture of rows of tanks.
Howie turned the television off but it came right back on. The guy next door was probably cooking potatoes. Potatoes took practically forever to cook.
Meanwhile, a very skinny man in Ethiopia was steadily working a pump. Two children were squatting nearby, watching him. He pumped and pumped but no water came out.
Howie began to cry. He cried for a while, but by then the television was showing a woman dealing with ring-around-the-collar. It looked like she was going to be able to handle it, and save her marriage, so Howie turned the sound down. He sat down on the couch and began to tune up Elijah, who had taken a real beating the night before.
Dmitri was not on the same corner as the day before. After a few hours, it became clear that he was not on any corner in Berkeley. Howie asked the street people and the cops, but no one knew where Dmitri had gone.
Finally, he ran into the street person who had emptied Dmitri’s shoe the day before. He told Howie that Dmitri often migrated to San Francisco, where he would go to the bandstand shell in Golden Gate Park, and play his saxophone beside the west pole, while Marie Laveau slept in the sun.
So Howie packed up Elijah and went across the bay. What else? He’d been looking for a long time for a saxophone player he could move with.