Fourth in a series of tales about talking old soldiers at the VA Hospital in Manhattan back when I worked there as an occupational therapist.
The drummer is a jazzman who has seen it all. He’s got this old-time jive way of talking that you trust. Like when he says he’s sucked ribs with Louis Armstrong then pauses to lick his own lips in revery and recalls how sweet women would squeal just to touch a lacquered finger to Armstrong’s leathery embouchure. Claims to have once stolen a jar of coconut oil from Chano Pozo, the Cuban conga drummer who was pure sex pounding out jungle rhythms shirtless in Gillespie’s band, that oil making his ebony torso glisten and shimmer under the stage lights. Says he had game, too, once stopped the show at Condon’s in counterpoint to Monk, who actually deigned to nod what he took to be approval. But in this lesser age he picks up gigs at weddings and bar mitzvah’s, sometimes in Broadway or off-Broadway pit crews, keeps his hand in, his chops up, his groove on. His old hands ache from the work, but after 50 years in the business, he’s just glad the phone still rings.
Because by all rights, like many of the old jazzmen, he can’t see how he’s still breathing. I mean, heroin, speed balls, loved the stuff. Then those scuffles with Uptown New York’s Finest adding up to broken ribs, a cracked jaw, a glass eye and a limp. Miraculously, no shattered hands, as if the brutes understood how that would have been a bridge too far. The jazzman appreciates the power of his drums. He would have it known that spirits hover and are drawn like children to rhythm. Especially rhythm and sweat, rhythm made prayer by hands available to possession, by a man willed and willing to roll with it.
If you listen, if you can travel with him that far, then he stops and seems to sniff the air, gauging how much these next words will travel in the busy clinic. Then he leans in, as if crouched above his traps, and dares to speak of those things that lead in this place straight to the shrink: Devils. You see, demons with hot breath and dagger teeth have swarmed into his house, have risen to his 20th floor apartment in the artist’s complex on the West Side, the one that overlooks the river, you know it. To take his young daughter. Called by the drums. So yes, he has wrestled more than one naked onyx-black tar creature with rubber muscles and flashing red eyes, has shoved them out the window, off the balcony, down roughly and gone into the icy river below, in order to save his daughter’s innocent soul, because she too weak to bar the door left open by the sins of her father in a land so far away that people there have different shapes and speak in tongues.
Korea. He was a kid then, like everybody else. Like everybody else, could not get warm. But the demons remind him that he cut his captives with the lids of tin cans, dropped candle wax into their wounds just to hear them whimper. As if their foreign noise somehow explained how they all ended up in such a dark corner of hades. He did that. And other things. Or says he did. Which is why, when the Boys in Blue caved in his ribs, kicked him so blood spouted out of his mouth and nose, smashed his jaw up into his eye, pummeled him in the back room of the station house as if they wished to flatten him like a cartoon character into the messy tiled floor on a Saturday night not two blocks from the club where his wife sat waiting, as they stomped and jabbed and clubbed him beyond their own dumb rage to the point of simple butt-ugly fatigue, as he went down and knew it all as some pain-dream happening both to him and out beyond him somewhere, right on the verge of death, even then as he coughed his own blood (and they lifted him like a sack and still they measured their punches and swung), he swore in his spirit-heart to the ghosts of his ancestors that he would remember this night and haunt the last days of each one of these thugs in sweaty disgusting patrolman blue.
“This is how,” he whispers now (that glass eye always watching the corner), “this is why I survived. Because the old ones, the ancestors, told me, ‘No. You cannot come. You must settle this on your side of the grave.’ They told me, ‘Live and heal.’” Then they gathered in a counsel about him, above the fray, and threw him back to the wolves. But this he kept from them, held deep in his wounded heart, a heart made black by all he had done, a heart that could not atone, except in this way. He would awaken broken and one-eyed and limp all the rest of his days, but hoped as the beating wore down that they would do their worst.
“You see,” he says, “I swore to them, ‘I curse you. You will never rest another night undisturbed or know another season of good health. All your loved ones will fade to smoke in horrible ways that will break your soul until you die alone to be buried in a grave without flowers on a bleak plot entirely unmarked and forgotten. You will walk the spirit world as one shunned across eternity, scorned even by the shades that are most despised on the other side. At the same time I plead for each of your beastly, race-hating, meat packer strong, bullying blows. I tell you my fathers, this is what I have lived for, walked the edge of, craved without ever knowing that I did. And here it is, the answer, my teeth like loose corn in my mouth.’”
He says they did him a favor and to this day believes they knew it. Says that something wild and beastly came unleashed in them that night, that even though they had beaten down Hispanics and blacks and Eyetalians every weekend shift of their brief careers and would again until their shoulders gave way from years of pounding, that this was the lost pinnacle they would seek across all the whippings to come, that one night when it really got good to them. “See,” he explains, “that was the night they walked with me into a place I inhabited alone, that I knew as I know my drums. I held the door for them, helped them down in the hole, and brutes that they were, how could they resist? Which, of course, is when I had them. And now they too will never rest.”
I don’t really know what to say to all that, so I just do my job. I unwrap the towels and peel the gummy paraffin from his aging, powerful hands. His perfectly manicured fingernails gleam as he wriggles his fingers in pleasure. “Ah, good as getting a nut,” he sighs. I drop the balls of wax back in their vats, toss the towels in the bin and turn back to him. I have to ask, “Did it help? This penance of yours, when the cops almost killed you. Have things been different since then?”
The jazzman stretches out his thick fingers and flattens his hands on the table, as if to examine their sheen. “Ah, young man, you have never been to war. How can I tell you this? You see, what I learned that night, you will not understand, but think on this if you will. I was mistaken. The living thing they beat, it was not me. My penance is elsewhere. It waits for me in an icy trench with candles that throw shadows on the wall. All these years, I’ve been waiting in line. And when my time comes, then I will go.”