By Kumar Narayanan
A handprint. On a window.
Still fresh, but fading in the light heat of the Louisiana fall. All that would survive would be the whorls of wispy iridescence left by skin oil where once there had been a small, dark, hand.
"Get to bed kid. I ought to beat the tar out of you. Staying up past your bedtime…"
"Ma, it's only seven thirty. C'mon, Ma-"
"Don't talk back to me. In bed, or I'll knock you out so hard to sleep until tomorrow. Now go-"
The pitter patter of feet and wide eyes charging up the stairs. Then the soft thud of secret steps. Listening. In the distance, outside the front door, a double honk. Short, sweet blasts of air, impatient, impertinent. The dull rumble of a large car decades old.
"I'm coming, Marcus! I'm coming!"
The clatter of keys, handbag. Heels on linoleum.
"Jason, Germaine, good night! Momma'll be back before ten. And I better find you in bed or else I better not find you!"
The slam of a screen door, and throaty moan of a car accelerating away down the street. The boy races down the stairs. Leans around into the kitchen hallway. Heart beating. Searching the kitchen for lingering traces of Mamma. Gone. Bounds back up the stairs to the room where his sister is still feigning sleep.
"Germaine, I'm going out for awhile." The boy whispers harshly.
"Mamma's gonna kill you".
"I'll be back soon. Don't tell, OK?"
"Mamma's still gonna kill you."
"That's fine, just don't you tell."
The boy approaches the open window and looks down. Swings one leg over the sill, and then the other. Lowers himself down to the garage roof below with a thump. A few more quick steps, and a careful jump. Lands on the pavement of the alley below, under the cover of burgeoning night.
Down past the highway. The town bus downtown. Crossing the many fingers of river, brown by day, black by night, made of flowing earth. Walking through houses where the wood is more alive that dead. Catching an old trolley. Riding under the freeway, past steel buildings. The boy reaches deep into his pockets. Retrieves a piece of paper. Folded neatly six times. A handbill, red. On it, letters in big black type:
THE JOHNNY COLLINS BAND.
SATURDAY NIGHT AT THE RED ROOM.
10:00 PM. $5.00 COVER.
21 AND OVER.
A guitar stenciled in the right hand corner. The boy turns over the handbill, and studies a pencil drawn map, with street names. Refolds the handbill, puts it back in his pocket. Pats it once to make sure.
The trolley grinds to a halt. The boy feels himself fall into a couple behind him. Head touching a soft stomach, elbow knocking against bony hips. Looking up into laughing faces. An unnoticed apology. Lost among tittering. The trolley emptying in an overwhelming tide. Swept along with them into the street, down stairs entirely too big, feet landing on cobbled bricks. Catches his breath. The smell of yesterday's beer and of fried fish. A dark fluid oozing between scattered litter.
Around the boy, the spirit of Saturday night rises. People swirling around him, coming and going from every direction. Dressed in bright clothing. Laughter, of those who were entering a world where actions are to live only for a night, and where memory is not welcome.
He heads for the edges of the street, presses himself against a wall, eyes searching for street sign. A white woman suddenly squats in front of him, teeth flashing, red cup drink in one hand, necklace of gaudy, purple beads twinkling in the yellow glow of the street. Looking into his face.
"Hon, you lost? Where are your parents?" She reaches out with her free hand. He catches her dancing eyes, and twists free, begins to run, darting between legs, knocking drinks free. Doesn't turn, doesn't heed the calls and the curses, doesn't slow until he is once again below eye line, again invisible. And when he sees Dumaine Street.
Dumaine is less colored, with shadows yawning and balconies hovering high above. Somehow left behind by the fray. He hurries quickly down this street, passing near wavering knots of people. Breathing rapidly and deep, staying out of the pools of streetlight. Above him the sky, small, distant, and pale, seeped in between the heads of people. There are no stars.
At the next intersection, a throng. Coursing through the cross street. A seething crowd, bathed in yellows and oranges, under a pall of smoke and merriment. Moving slowly along both directions of the street. Their mouths, ears roaring. The boy considers his task and forges on, perpendicular to the crowd, stepping into gaps between people as soon as they open, ducking below arms. As only a smallish boy can.
On the other side, an even darker street. He walks down it, quickly. The sounds and smell of the crowd fade behind him. In an alley, the maroon glow of a sign. Projecting into the street, flashing the letters 'RED ROOM'. The boy pauses, fishing in his pocket for the handbill. Unfolds it quickly, scans it, and shoves it back in his pockets. a crumpled ball. Advancing with measured steps.
At the door, a small crowd. Smoking and talking quietly. From inside, the sounds of the conversation of many people. An older man in a blue coat on a stool, with a sad expression and a fist full of money. Watching the doorway, taking money from those who go in with a nod. Sometimes returning change. Sitting up straighter as the boy approaches.
"What do you want, boy? You can't go in there. Hell, you ain't a third of the age. Go on! Get out of here!"
The boy stands, silent. Neck cranes to see inside. Only darkness and shadow. Regards the older man thoughtfully, calculating. Inside, the beat of drums begins. Then the shudder of the bass. Then the staccato strum of a guitar. In time with the other instruments. Shapes of people, moving, shifting.
A sharp noise slices through the night, turning the air to first electricity and then clean, ringing lines, simultaneously testing the limits of the human ear and heart, dancing between the beats like an acrobat, toying with expectation as much as with frequency.
The older man turns. Attention distracted by the music. The boy makes his move. Plunges into the doorway at full stride. Slams into a wall, bounces, turns into a crowd. Only deep, red light. Swaying people. The boy does not stop, threads his way between the crowd, lost in a small ocean. Dancing in waves. Music sound everywhere. Finally stops to listen, to find his feet. Closes his eyes. Then huge hands, arms close around him. Lift him up high over a shoulder. Squirming and kicking. Unable to break free.
"Gotcha, you little bastard. I told you that you can't come in here. Why'd you try to do that? Alright, kid, we're going outside." The old man. Voice a hoarse shout.
High above the people, he finally sees the stage, awash with yellow lights. Several men with instruments. Crisp sweat flowing. Moving together, as one. Glimpses the lead guitarist. Guitar the color of flames.
And the boy is whisked out, brushing his head on the doorframe of the outer door. Thrown to the ground. Landing on his feet. Catching the angry gaze of the doorman. "Boy, I told you that you can't go in there. I mean it. Now beat it before I thrash you!" The boy looks back blankly, unmoving. Someone behind him clamoring to have his ticket taken.
"Sir, that's my dad…Johnny Collins. On the guitar. I just wanted to see him... play the guitar".
"I don't care who if it's the Lord himself playing tonight, kid. You can't go in there. Hold on sir, I'll take your ticket…boy, if you're still standing there in ten seconds…" He raised his hand "Step right up, sir. Sorry about the wait. That'll be five dollars. Next?"
The boy takes off running. Melts into the darkness. Circles back towards the side of the street, and creeps back towards the red room. In the shadows. Hides behind doorjamb, behind a planter. Puts his face and hand to the window of the club. Looks inside, through the smoky red light.
There they are, the band, in dark suits and ties, moving as one high above the crowd, except for the guitarist, an emotioneer, face frozen in an unyielding grimace, guitar gripped at a frenzied angle, fingers blurring over the frets and strings as he discovers and unfolds a tune latent within him, within the crowd around him, a sort of conduit, a medium, all but possessed but anything by divine energy.
The boy presses his face closer for a second, and his breath flares on the window, obscuring his view, forcing his retreat into the beckoning night.
© Copyright 2004, Kumar Narayanan, All Rights Reserved.