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Scotch and curry.

Wandalyn wears glances like a shawl. And if in the beer and smoke of this place a pair of eyes should slip from her neck and off her shoulders and away from her, she gathers it back, if she wishes, and puts it in place. Hers is a beauty which, even now that it has been made important, I cannot explain.

Curry saw it and in a flash asked who she was. He wasn't the first to ask, for Alvin's response was pat. "Seventeen," Alvin said to him," she'd as soon cut you as look at you." And it began.

Curry, at 17, felt he had mastered childhood.

Children - 16,17,18 - sometimes steal into these places. In this city who would stop them? Their eyes, wide for a foretaste of life, see adventure in the darkness of bars. But Curry worked here. Looked down on them from the elevation of the bandstand.

He had mastered the guitar and so played with us. Men 15 or 20 years older than he, but men who could tell him very little about playing music. Off the bandstand he couldn't help but wonder, who was he to play with?

Wandalyn - if a place like The Lion's Den can be said to have a queen - is that woman. Hers is the stool at the corner of the bar closest to the entrance. Upon entering, you see her first. And no matter where else your eyes may wander, they never really leave her.

Curry, looking at her, thought little of Alvin's advice. He walked over to Wandalyn after the second set, I saw them from a table near the bandstand. She laughing (I thought politely), he cocking his head and making gestures with his hands like an older man in this place would make. I expected the conversation to be over quickly Wandalyn did little more than flirt even with men her age. How much time would she have for Curry who, even in the light of the bandstand, even with his athlete's frame, looked so obviously 17? But they talked and laughed until the break was over.

As I plugged my bass into the amplifier, I saw Curry approaching. He was trying hard not to blush, his face begging for comment from one of us. I refused. Skeet didn't.

"Ah, the sweet bird of youth," Skeet said.

"The sweetest bird there is,' Curry said.

"So you're going to give it a try."

"No try in it," Curry smiled. "No try about it."

The sound of this place - the sound of drinks being poured and jokes being told and lustful courtships being danced to life - is the sound of Alvin "The Boss of the Blues" Jackson. And his sound, electric blues songs of men and women in desperate search of one another, is part of what makes so much so imaginable and even so possible in the darkness of this place and in the lateness of these hours. These songs awaken fantasies. And in no one is that more true than in Alvin himself.

Alvin changes suits after each set. It's an old habit. Years ago, in small country towns where people didn't have many clothes, the idea of having three suits to change into was itself a fantasy. The fantastic life of the traveling blues bard. But in New Orleans, so close to the 21st century, cheap suits, even in great numbers, are not impressive. But these old suits help to explain Alvin. For he sincerely hopes that the train of history will return to a previous stop where he still waits, and pick him up and take his life somewhere else.

Twenty years ago, Alvin had a few minor hits. On the posters that advertise our engagement at the Lion's Den there are photographs of him from that period. Then he opened at larger clubs for big names, and at smaller, less prestigious places he headlined.

There is hope in that. This is what he tries to express to the young white reporters from the newspapers. That with a few words from them he could be discovered. This great diamond could be unearthed.

And he will tell you this: One lucky break and so much could have been different.

He will tell you this at 4 a.m., when the gig is over and he has had a couple of drinks. His small eyes, sunken deeply; his meaty right hand melting the ice in a highball glass.

He seems vulnerable then. For you know that a 60-year-old blues singer who has not had his break is not going to get it. And you know that these are no longer the days when the sight and sound of a sweating man pounding out blues at smoky, crowded dances is going to entice some sultry young brownskin to bring herself to him, naked under her dress, and ready to reward him with herself. And you know that sometimes Alvin sings off key and that his jokes are old.

Which is not to say that he is without out talent.

Which is not to say that these things are determined by talent.

But you know, as he does not, that his voice is not sufficient to defrost and bring to life his particular fantasies.

But you also know that this voice is oh so fitting a soundtrack to the fantastic ruminations of this place.

The Lion's Den does not have a dressing room. Alvin dresses in the men's room and sits at a reserved table in the front row before he is called to the stage. The band plays the first tune alone. A funky blues. Then into "Alvin's Theme." From behind his drum set, Skeet begins the introduction: "Ladies and gentlemen, put your hands together and welcome to the stage The Boss of the Blues, former Del-Ray recording artist, the singer of such hits as [drum roll] 'One Trick Pony,' [cymbal crask, drum roll] |It's Even Raining Inside,' [cymbal crash, drum roll] |Wondering Who's Knocking on My Baby's Door,' [cymbal crash, drum roll] ladies and gentlemen, help me welcome to the stage The Boss of the Blues, and the king of this here thing, Alvin Jackson" [cymbal crash!].

Some people applaud when we begin a song that they know. It is more than recognition. There is catharsis there. We are playing exactly what they would play if they could play and were on the bandstand. The songs break down, lend credence to, that which they have felt in the most private extremities of their own souls.

But what does Wandalyn feel?

Often she doesn't even look at us. Her eyes scan the room, selecting other eyes to play with. When she is in the mood, she may snap her fingers to the music. Even dance! hips still planted firmly on her stool. Or, if she is in a very good mood, she may even dance with one of the men here.

Knowing that it is possible for Wandalyn to snap or dance to our music makes the band play harder. Bands hope too. But Wandalyn doesn't share herself with us even through the music.

When Wandalyn's friends are here they call her Cheeky Red. It is a common nickname. New Orleans is full of Cheeky Reds like Boston is full of Carrot Tops and towns near the Texas border are full of guys called Tex. And perhaps at one point this nickname held meaning. Perhaps it was only given to people with a very specific combination of look and attitude. Now, it is applied to almost anyone with reddish-brown skin. A creole complexion.

But it fits Wandalyn. She has a thin, sharp face framed by a mane of hair that's been dyed auburn. Her nose is small and broad and her eyes are a temperature of tan that can burn. When she smiles the light catches the star-shaped cap on her front tooth so consistently that it seems practiced. How she practices catching light on a gold tooth I can not say. But she never misses, and this is certainly part of what Curry saw.

Alvin didn't let Curry drink between sets. The bartenders knew this. But after the gigs, before everyone packed up to leave, Curry was allowed a beer or two. That night, sitting on the stool, Wandalyn's tooth flashing, he ordered Chivas Regal, her drink. And since the musicians pay half-price, the bartender served him J&B.

Their conversation was quieter this time. I sat with Skeet at a table near Wandalyn's stool. Our conversation was kept sparse so we could hear theirs. But Curry, still cocking his head and gesturing with his hands, spoke in the low, late-night whispers of the men here. From time to time he would put his hand on her hand or on her shoulder as if to make a point. She listened (without seriousness, I thought) to this young boy. When Curry's second scotch came, he put his hand on her knee as he reached to take a sip, and she just looked at him, not moving, watching him take a smooth, long swallow. I shuddered.

Curry finished his drink and quickly got up. We expected that he would come over to our table then, but he didn't. He picked up his guitar and walked along the bar back to Wandalyn's stool. With her cigarette still in her mouth, she got up, and they walked out together.

Looking blankly around the room, I pretended it was nothing.

It is a different world inside The Lion's Den. A different world, far from the world where the man who is the mayor is and the stage is held by whichever municipal or international crisis is current. Those things exist in here and are even discussed. But while these patrons know that politicians and events affect much of what happens on the streets and sidewalks outside of this place and even affect their lives outside these walls, this place doesn't feel as if it itself is impacted.

This is a neighborhood lounge. Almost everyone here grew up together, and they have known this place and each other through dozens of administrations and crises. The world has changed but, really, this place has not.

What mostly happens here is men and women have a good time, make flirtatious remarks, tell lies, sometimes act out on the dance floor what they hope to act out later in the damp warmth of each other's arms.

Thelma Sargeant has known Lamar Morton since high school. He didn't want her then and doesn't now. But she will still take his hand and put it - laughing all the time - into her bra. There are stories of men and women who have fallen in love after hours or even years of flirting here. Men and women like Thelma know this. Know that even the familiar can be discovered.

Wandalyn has hips like a Yoruba fertility doll. Large and round and firm. Her dresses - and she always wears dresses or skirts - are not tight, but they caress her hips, gliding with them. She entered during the first set that next Saturday and Curry lost it. Alvin had hired him, the young guitar wizard, as an added attraction. He was to play fills behind Alvin. But he was also given a feature in each set in which he could really play and show just how good he was.

When Wandalyn walked over to her stool, the slit in her skirt showing enough thigh to make the mounting of the chair an event in itself, Curry began playing fills that took up more musical space than Alvin's melodies. It was as if he were the leader and we were accompanying him. Sometimes this happens with young musicians who are good. It takes time to learn that being good is demonstrated as much by what you don't play as by what you do play. He played like that on every tune until Alvin glared at him and finally walked over and said something to him during a piano solo.

During the break I wanted to speak to Curry. I moved near his side of the stage so that we could talk as we put our instruments in their cases.

"You need to check out some of the older guys," I said to him. "A lot of times they don't play a note and it's the sweetest note you never heard."

"Right," he said.

"Be careful," I told him. "You don't want to step all over what Alvin's singing."

"If he sounded better I wouldn't."

"That's not the point," I said.

"I'll tell you what the point," is he said." Wandalyn is the point."

"What does Wandalyn have to do with what happens on the bandstand?"

"Alvin's just pissed because I'm doing what he isn't man enough to do."

"What can't he do?"

"Wandalyn." "Wandalyn," he said.

And he told me how it felt to kiss her and watch her kick off her shoes. The way she looked as her bra was unsnapped and how it felt to run your hands up her legs and to palm her ass and to smell the slick wetness between her thighs. And he almost lost it, he said. Sitting on that big brass bed, she standing, the window and the moon behind her, her hips writhing as he pulled down those panties, over those same hips and down those legs, he almost lost it.

She's kind of quiet, he said, when she's just sitting over there at the bar; she starts off quiet. But when you start working and plunging and grabbing that ass, she will first lick your ear and then put her whole mouth on it, plunging her tongue into your skull. Then talk to you. Telling you how it is to be done. Exactly how this is to be accomplished.

And it's so sweet, he said. Her talking so much shit, you working so much harder, he said. Working, grabbing the bedposts and digging your feet into the sheets like they were hind paws in search of traction.

And when it is right, he said, when it is truly righteous and can get no better, she screams. Screams and claws you and thrusts as if she were moving inside of you and not you inside her. As if she was in control of the whole thing.

"Bruh," he whispered beaming," I never had it like that!"

And at least that much I believed.

I tried to imagine this scene. To see Wandalyn's apartment as a place with a big brass bed and a window that caressed the moon, perhaps with soft music, champagne, and satin sheets. And I tried to see Curry as an actor in this movie, lifting this starlet into his arms and onto these sheets, but I couldn't.

As if to prove my suspicions wrong he walked over to her. Approaching her from behind he kissed the back of her neck and seemed to be groping for her breasts. She stopped him firmly, I thought, but then she smiled and he sat down on the stool next to her. She ordered another scotch and he drank the one she already had. She ordered two more. Then two more.

Putting his glass down, Curry's hand moved to her knee. She moved it off and went to the ladies'room. Without a word she left him sitting there, trying to act natural. She didn't return until we had started the second set.

Curry didn't know Larry Wilkes. While we were playing "As the Years Go Passing By," a slow, grinding minor blues that Albert King used to play, Larry walked up to Wandalyn's stool.

Larry is a lot of fun. He will sometimes get into the middle of the dance floor, pushing everyone back with large gestures, and put on a show. He knows the movements of other dancers and parodies them with finesse. Li'l Brother, who hurt his leg, so he says, in some war, dances with a limp. And Larry will dance over to Li'l Brother doing what he calls the Li'l Brother One-Legged Two-Step.

Then somebody like Thelma Sargeant will start laughing loud and say something like "Ooh, Li'l Brother, he got you good." And Larry will stick his hips out in one direction and his chest way out in the one and start dancing like Thelma. Perhaps too much like Thelma for many to suspect that Larry is not all man. But, regardless, it is understood that this is Larry and it is fun.

Larry danced over to Wandalyn and grabbed her hand as if deciding for her that she wanted to dance. When she didn't move he put his left arm in the air and his right to his breast as if embracing an imaginary partner. Dipping and grinding. Then he motioned to her again to join him. When she didn't he repeated his gyrations with more force and suggestion, then grabbed Wandalyn off of her stool, pulled her close to him, and began doing with her that which he had done with his imaginary partner.

No one else would have mistaken this gesture. But Curry, seeing this, all but slammed his guitar down. Loudly, the strings sounded wrong notes, terribly wrong notes. I walked over to the other side of the stage to silence this noise and salvage the song, but as I looked up I realized that the song was the smallest of problems.

Curry had grabbed a beer bottle from the bar, its contents running down his sleeve as he turned it bottom up. Large for his age and powerfully built, Curry pulled Wandalyn roughly from Larry's arms. I saw him raise his arm to hit Larry with the bottle.

To say that violence in places like The Lion's Den is uncommon would be incorrect. To say that violence in places like The Lion's Den is common would also be incorrect.

Years ago, after the First World War, there was a place the proper name of which no one can ever remember because it was known simply as Animule Hall. It was the place where religiously the longshoremen and the bootblacks would go with their women to drink and to dance and to, if necessary (and who is to define necessary? it can really mean so many things), defend their honor with the quickness of their tongues or the sharpness of their razors. This is the type of place from which, if we can call it evolution, The Lion's Den has evolved. When people refer to Cut 'Ems and Shoot 'Ems, they are referring to places like this. Like The Lion's Den.

I have seen razors go from steel blue to blood crimson on dance floors in less time than it takes to think of it. I have seen best friends stab and shoot each other in disputes that by the light of day and sober deliberation would seem minor even to the combatants.

But these are infrequent occurrences. To say these things and say nothing of the kindnesses that I have algo seen would be a disservice to places like this. Victims of fires being clothed. Victims of unemployment being fed free or by the kindness of acquaintances. There is present here humanity in all its forms, high and low.

So when Curry lifted his arm to hit Larry, we were prepared. We kept playing, because you learn from experience that if the band keeps playing fights sometimes can be curtailed. Onlookers can convince combatants to rejoin the party. In a flash he had brought the bottle down, but someone had grabbed his arm and stopped him.

Larry, effeminate but no less proud, struggled to free himself from the men who had grabbed him. I could not hear his voice, but I could see his mouth moving rapidly, angrily.

Curry struggled as well, trying to get to Larry. They were kept apart, and finally some of Larry's friends took him outside. Curry rejoined us on the bandstand, all the time looking around the room for Wandalyn. Before we started the next tune he called to me, "Where's Wandalyn?' But I had seen her leaving.

Long before the fight had been settled, I had seen her leave.

By the end of the night little was said of the incident. Just Alvin telling Curry, "Man, you got to pay to get your band jacket cleaned. That comes out of your money."

And how did I come into the beer and smoke of this place? To know characters like Alvin and Wandalyn and Curry?

Well, their lives are as the stuff of my dreams. And if it is true that we are ourselves each of the actors in our dreams, the pursuers and the pursued, the virtuous and the blemished, then I am each of these men and women. In fact, in speaking so freely of them I may be ascribing to them some of the motivations and frailties of my own character. For that I would ask to be indulged.

But when I speak of Alvin's waiting for a train long gone to make him a star I know that wait. I have been playing with bands like Alvin's, some bigger and better, some smaller and lesser, for almost 20 years. I'm not stupid. I know the odds against success and I, unlike so many of these musicians, never take the prospect of success too seriously. Playing this music is fun for me, even with all that goes wrong here. I never expect nights of playing in clubs like this to ever be more than nights like this. Yet I would be lying if I said that I have not hoped that they would be transformed into something else. I have imagined myself on the road in distant places seeing in life what I now see only in books. So when I say Alvin hopes for a train to deliver him, I know.

And I know, to whatever extent anyone can know, what it is like to be Wandalyn. If she went to New York to model, or to Los Angeles to be a movie star, hers would be another pretty face. Perhaps not even a very pretty face when entered in competition in those places. But here in this place she is truly a queen.

I teach English to high school students. And I teach English because I like books and because I need the money and because I think it is a good thing to do. But I also teach to feel the excitement of being at the center of the stage. To have an audience to control. Those young faces are my audience as these old faces are Wandalyn's. Sometimes a small audience is all it takes to make you feel the special way you wish to feel.

And I know Curry as well. I know what it feels like to wish to be older. To want to extinguish the candle that is one's own youth before the time is appropriate. And I know the stirrings and ambitions within men of which women like Wandalyn are the authors. In fact, it would not be untrue to say that I have acted on these same ambitions with this same woman.

It was a brief affair. Perhaps much too brief; perhaps much longer than it should have been. But that is truly another story. Another story which is not our story here.

Skeet did not necessarily see all of what I saw in this place, but he could see the danger with which Curry was flirting. And since I teach school and am therefore assumed to be able to explain such things to teenagers, Skeet suggested that I speak to Curry. I knew it would be useless, but what could I do?

We talked, but it was a strange conversation. Knowing that it was futile before I opened my mouth meant that there was a half-heartedness with which I approached it, and that was probably inappropriate. But there was a half-heartedness with which Curry approached the listening as well. I explained to him that he should be careful. That the incident with Larry could have been worse and not just worse for Larry. I explained to him that his future lay not with women like Wandalyn, but with his music. A second before the abrupt end of the conversation he said, "Sounds to me like you have a crush on her too."

I have seen Mack Taylor many time since, but that third Saturday was the first time I saw him. We were playing, but as he walked in people paid more attention to him than to the music. He went from table to table shaking hands and kissing cheeks. People yelled out, "Mack! Mack!" but he himself, wearing a wide brim hat and smoking a black cigarette, was quiet. He waved at Alvin, and from the stage, Alvin nodded back.

Wandalyn did not look up when he walked in. She stared at her drink and at the stage as if she didn't notice that something had changed. Mack sat down at two or three tables for a few minutes each. The waitress brought him a drink and pointed to the man that had sent it. Mack stood up as if at attention and saluted the man. He sat down again at the table. When he had finished his drink he got up and went to the bar.

He seemed surprised to see Wandalyn there, sitting on her stool. As he waited for his drink, he said something to her. She looked up with apparent indifference and responded. When the bartender returned, Mack pointed to Wandalyn's glass. Pulling out a money clip, he paid for both drinks and sat down on the stool next to Wandalyn,s.

From the bandstand I could not hear their words, but it seemed to me that they were making a dance of conversation. Each giving the shortest possible responses. I still don't know whether they knew each other before, or if they met only that night.

Shortly before the band took its break Mack walked outside. So when Curry walked over to the stool next to Wandalyn's, it was empty. He sat and they talked. She ordered two scotches and he drank one. Mack returned before the break was over but walked straight to the men's room. By the time he came out we had started playing again. Mack sat next to Wandalyn again and ordered two more drinks. They talked and even laughed a little during the set.

When we finished for the night Mack was still on the stool next to Wandalyn's. Curry slowly put his guitar in the case, then walked over to Skeet. They talked about nothing for a few minutes. Then he walked over to me and asked how he had sounded. I told him that he sounded much better, that as long as he didn't overplay he always sounded good. We talked, but our eyes never met. The whole time, he was looking behind me.

Finally, he walked over to Mack and said to him, "You're in my seat." It sounded like something a kid would say in a high school lunch room, and I'm sure that Mack was surprised by it.

He turned around slowly and said in the tone of voice with which he would shoo a fly, "No names on the seats."

"No names on the women either, but that one's mine."

Mack looked at Wandalyn as if telling a joke, "You know him?" Wandalyn didn't say anything.

Curry put his hand on Mack's shoulder to bring his attention back to their conversation. Mack slapped it off and warned Curry to leave him alone. I got up from my seat to calm Curry down, but even then it was too late. He said something to Mack and Mack replied. I clasped Curry's shoulders and told him to calm down.

Mack stood up. He was about three inches shorter than Curry and so had to look up to talk to him. But it wasn't like he was shorter. It was like a sergeant in the army talking to a private that's taller than him. It's the rank, not the height, that is important.

They were talking loudly by that point, Mack telling Curry that he was getting himself into something that children should be kept out of. Curry told Mack that, if he saw a child, then he should kick that child's ass.

Skeet had joined me at Curry's side by that time. He was also trying to calm Curry down, telling him that there was nothing to get excited about. That really, he should not get upset. But Curry wouldn't listen. He turned around and faced both of us and told us that he didn't need our help. Then he turned to Mack and said that he was getting tired of talking. And Mack told him to shut up. But Curry was determined. He told Mack that this thing should be settled like men and started to walk outside.

Somebody said, "Mack, you wanna to leave your hat, man? You wan' leave your hat?"

But Mack, steady walking, said no. "I don't take off my hat," he said. " I don't take off my hat."

I would have stopped him. Curry was foolish and arrogant, but I would have stopped him. But so much was happening so quickly, Curry and Mack yelling at each other, the juke box playing. And all the time Alvin in the background saying that Curry was going to have to learn, that it was about time Curry learned. I know that Skeet would have stopped him too, but Mack was following Curry outside, all the time talking to him, and it seemed already too late then. Too late like it was over and had already happened. For a moment, we heard them outside the door, threatening each other. Apparently they moved from in front of the door because after a moment no one heard them talking anymore and there was silence. Silence except for Alvin, talking vaguely to everyone and no one and to himself - "That boy's got to learn."

Even now, it is difficult to look at Wandalyn. Knowing that whatever else she is she is dangerous makes it hard to even glance her way.

We sat there like we were paralyzed, waiting for whatever was going to happen just to be over with. Eveybody went back to their conversations and to their drinks, because not to act natural was to be reminded that we should have acted differently. It was quiet above the sound of words and drinks. The juke box had stopped. Everyone was pretending that nothing was happening, but at the same time listening for evidence of an event. Wandalyn, who had said nothing through the whole thing, just sat, smoking a cigarette. Not nervous, not ill at ease.

Skeet couldn't take it. He was standing between me and Wandalyn, and he started fidgeting nervously. His eyes grew wide and be glared at her, "What the d-d-d-damn hell are you going to do?" he stuttered. "What the hell are you going to do? That boy is about to be killed and you're just sitting there!" He grabbed the cigarette out of ber mouth and threw it at her. I stopped him from doing worse. But as I heard Alvin in the background saying," It ain't her fault; that boy's got to learn," I wished I hadn't stopped him. Skeet calmed down and Wandalyn, not saying a word, lit another cigarette.

It wasn't long then. The door opened slightly. The whole room stared to see who was coming back in. Mack, his hat still on, didn't even come in all the way. With one foot in the door he beckoned to Wandalyn.

Coolly, she put out her cigarette and finished her drink. Opening her purse, she took out a minor and some lipstick, and watched herself put it on. Then one by one she put the lipstick, the mirror, the cigarettes, and the lighter back into her purse and walked toward the door obediently. Not even looking at us.

After she left, we walked out to find Curry. Me and Skeet and the piano player. The air was wet and thick. I was suprised by the sounds of cars' passing by and the feeling of being out of the air conditioning and onto the street.

There is an empty lot on the corner near The Lion's Den. In the darkness of that lot, one of us saw a mound. We walked over to it. Moving closer, we heard crying. Still closer, we saw Curry on his side, queitly sobbing. I bent down to help him. The fingers of both his hands were spread over his face. Between them there was blood. I pried the fingers away. The piano player gave me the silk handkerchief from the pocket of his band jacket and I wiped the blood from Curry's face.

On each cheek there were two gashes. Had they been shorter and vertical, they might have passed for Mandinka tribal markings. But they were too long for that. To Mack's credit, though, he could have done more harm. There were no cuts anywhere else. We kept wiping Curry's face and his hands, but the blood kept flowing. Skeet said we should take him to the hospital that he would probably need stitches or surgery. But the piano player disagreed, saying they were only minor cuts.

I kept expecting Curry to say something, to ask to be taken to a hospital or to go home or something. He looked up at us, saying nothing. Then, quietly, he spoke. He just kept repeating as if it were really all that mattered, "Wandalyn. Where's Wandalyn? Where's..."
COPYRIGHT 1993 African American Review
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Copyright 1993, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Title Annotation:Black South Fiction, Art, Culture; short story
Author:Elie, Lolis Eric
Publication:African American Review
Date:Jun 22, 1993
Words:5641
Previous Article:"Da-da!" (short story) (Black South Fiction, Art, Culture)
Next Article:Mississippi Red.
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