Monday, April 11, 2016

# 99 Easy Street, Part Seventeen. Louis Shalako.






Louis Shalako


He was just going up the front steps of the building when trouble reared its ugly head again.

There were two uniformed officers just coming out the front door. The shorter one looked up and his face lit up.

“There he is.”

Shit. He stopped, raising his hands.

Officers Lang and Stubbs—again.

“Hey. Uh, hi. What can I do for you—”

Shit.

Lang stepped forwards smartly, baton at the ready as Mark froze in place, hands halfway up, as much a knee-jerk reaction to that baton as anything else.

“Shut up.”

“Yes, sir.”

Stubbs grabbed him and spun him around, pulling down hard on his left hand and giving him a quick rap on the head.

“Ah—ah.” Involuntary tears sprang from Mark’s eyes at the unexpected pain.

The hat wasn’t much protection and he would have a goose-egg for sure. Designed to provoke as much as intimidate, Mark struggled with his reactions to a short, sharp blow to the skull. Two cops, with guns, and batons, and it just wasn’t worth it.

There was absolutely nothing he could do that wouldn’t make it worse.

“Ah.” Oh, Jesus, oh, fuck...

“I said shut up.”

Tears flowed.

“Are you Mark Jones?”

They were going through his pockets. Lang had a look in the wallet.

“Yeah, it’s the same guy.”

“I’m Mark Jones.” He stood there, breath ragged, sagging in their grasp, and half the neighbourhood was watching. “Yes, officers.”

Again, he’d been so intent on his own problems that he’d failed to notice their sedan.

There was always somebody illegally parking there, so much so that you tended to ignore it after a while.

What was he supposed to do, anyways? If they really wanted him, sooner or later they would have come back. Mark had nowhere else to go. You could only run so far and for so long. It was a big city and a real small town, when it came down to that sort of thing.

It was the only home he had, although the thoughts of a bus ticket to St. Louis crossed his mind as they marched him across the sidewalk. They each had an elbow, and Stubbs the baton at the ready.

Home…where the fuck is my home?

They shoved his head down and forced him into the back seat. The two of them got in up front and Lang talked on the radio for a while. Mark’s head was really smarting and it was hard to staunch the tears, as angry as he was.

They didn’t seem in any hurry to go, but, as he was learning, they never did. Cops took their sweet fucking time about everything. What was scary as hell for the suspect was simple, everyday routine for them. They would not be rushed. Standard operating procedure would be followed.

Protocols would be fucking observed…

Accurate notes would be taken at all times… 

Stubbs, in the passenger seat, found his notebook and a pencil on the centre of the front seat.

“Where were you about an hour…” He checked his watch. “…and fifteen minutes ago?”

Hah!

Hah.

“I was at the library.” He grinned at the looks on their faces, his own face still wet. “Why? Whatcha got for me this time, boys?”

Fucking pigs.

***

Stubbs made a radio call downtown, where presumably they would check it out by phone, or send a couple of officers who happened to be in the area. Mark prayed that Burt would be in.

“So anyways, Mark, what we got is another dead hooker.”

“What? Ha, big deal. Where?”

“Oh, a couple of blocks away. It’s probably nothing, really.”

“Hmn.” And the first person you thought of was me…

You son of a bitch.

The radio crackled, the voice came and Mark wondered how anyone ever understood anything on that thing. It didn’t sound much like O’Hara.

They seemed to get it though.

Stubbs uttered a deep and heartfelt sigh.

Mark’s bowels were about to explode, and he had been just about to mention that fact.

“Well, well, well.”

“What? Well, what?”

Lang turned and gave him a look. He and his partner exchanged another kind of look.

“Yeah. Well. It seems, as if your story checks out.”

Seems. What kind of a word was that.

Still they sat there. They had some form of unspoken communication. Mark had little choice but to try and keep it in perspective. He clenched down hard, on the sphincter.

Argh.

No, that ain’t right.

This just isn’t right.

“You know what, guys?”

“What?”

“I’m out on parole for the next three years. I’m a convicted felon, and a mental case, and it’s true that I’m not working. This sure is a bad neighbourhood. But I’m not a killer. Boys, I give you my word of honour, as a gentleman and a scholar. I am on my best fucking behaviour. Take it or leave it. Now, can you please let me out of here?”

“All right, Mister Jones. No need to get your panties in knot.”

“No, seriously.” Mark did his best to keep a level, even friendly tone. “Officers. I’m doing everything in my power to stay out of trouble. And just so you know—I was in your grade ten class, Stubbsy—and you, too Lang. You were a fucking moron at the best of times, also a substitute on the volleyball team. It’s because you weren’t any good, but you got lucky—no one really cool, no one really athletic goes out for volleyball. Not if they stand a chance of making the football or the basketball team—which clearly none of us ever did. You were in grade eleven and twelve together. I know, because I was too. Barry Kazcinski’s phys-ed class, as I recall. He was a stern disciplinarian, as I recall. See, I left St. Louis and came to New York. I stayed with my aunt, went to school here and studied music in my off-time. Both of you guys, ass-wipes as you are, got the strap once or twice, and so did I. You can’t lie to me on that one. So it’s not like you don’t know me, because you do.”

Two heads cranked around as if set on gimbals and they stared at him.

“Fuck, yeah! Now, I know where I seen you before.” Stubbs had the grace to look impressed, although not particularly sorry, when Mark told him he had kept up with the music and had even played in a few bands.

Slowly, the clouds cleared from Lang’s face as he listened and then he had him too.


There was a stab of regret for his Aunt Myra, dead a few years now. What a nice lady—and how she had fussed and bothered over him in a way that his own parents sort of hadn’t. His mother and father had been going through a rough spot in their marriage, and everyone, even him, had leapt at the opportunity to get rid of Mark for a while. Mark had the chance to go to New York and live there, the jazz capital of the world. Young and stupid, he’d acted out once or twice, then realized what he was risking and had to quit. That must have been the first real onset of maturity—the possibility that he could be sent home might have carried some weight. He owed his aunt a lot, and had tried once or twice to say it.

Mark, at least, was where he had wanted to be—away from home and in the big city. Not that he hadn’t hated school—everyone did, but at least he had something to compare it to. Middle America, the Corn Belt and unspeakable conformity even among the would-be rebels…or the Big Apple. Where the whole world met in one place, and everything was possible.

They sat there grinning like fiends, enjoying or enduring, a brief trip down memory lane.

As he recalled, Stubbs had the kettle-drum from grade nine on and the fact was, he wasn’t even very good at that. They laughed when he told them that.

Also, Lang might have played the triangle at some point.

***

At some point, they realized they were letting him go.

“Sorry about that, Buddy. Maybe next time, eh—” Stubbsy grinned amiably, but he might very well half-mean it. “Mark Jones. Whoever would have thought?”

Maybe next time, Mr. Jones.
“Ah, yeah. Well. It’s really been good seeing you guys again.”

Lang got out and opened the door, removing the cuffs. He gave him a polite nod and clambered back in. That lunk-head hadn’t changed much in all the years.

Mark watched the unmarked police car pull out into traffic. Turning, there were still people sitting on the steps.

“What was that all about, Mister?”

They knew him, now. They’d seen him come and go. Somehow, he had become one of them.

“Oh, nothing, really. Just a dead hooker.” He cleared his throat. “Her throat was cut from ear-to-ear.”

They broke up in a fit of laughter and he went on.

“It’s okay. They’ll never pin nothing on me.” Squeezing past them on the stairs, he nipped up to his apartment.

The babble of excited talk died away down below as he ran up the stairs. Just this once, he didn’t care how much noise be made.

Fuck them.

There was no sign of Amy. Duke didn’t show up on his door in the first minute and he grabbed his horn after taking a quick shit. A quick leak, a quick splash of water on the face.

If Karpov was still playing, or even just still alive, the place to go looking for him would be the Flamingo.

***


One of the larger jazz clubs on the lower East Side, the Flamingo was one of the legendary birthplaces of New York jazz, blues and some other musical genres and movements.

Some of the biggest names had played there and some had gotten their start. Over the years the place hadn’t changed much. Jazz was fading, and other clubs had closed or switched to a more popular genre. There was still that core audience. The fact that Karpov was a legend himself probably helped to keep the doors open. He was there every working night, or so it was said, holding court with his cronies. Karpov knew everybody, or so it was said. Whether player, singer, band-leader, or merely well-heeled and well-behaved fans, they were all welcome at his table.

Mark’s only real advantage was that he’d met Benny Karpov and Benny had heard him play.

That was years ago. The thing was to control your breathing.

Benny and his current lady friend had been upstate, and Mark had been playing with a small group that quite frankly wasn’t even as good as him—collectively or individually, however one wanted to look at it. Karpov had come up beside him in the men’s room. As they stood side by side at the urinals, he’d even said as much.

“You’re better than them guys, buddy.”

Mark would never forget that so long as he lived. He’d been so tongue-tied at the time that he couldn’t speak, or tell Karpov his name or anything. Mark couldn’t even pee—he stood there with his pecker in his hand, wishing, as Benny finished, washed his hands and then exited the men’s room.

The horn had always been a kind of substitute, a way of expressing himself in a man for whom words were sometimes hard. Even then he’d learned to write them down and really pare them down. Each word had its own unique combination of notes and tones. Music was just a different form of language, or so it seemed to Mark, and that was when he began writing his own music.

Song lyrics were something else, but even then he’d managed to write a few that, at least in his own mind, might not sound too bad with the right voice and arrangement.

Mark got off the bus, found the club a half a block away and after one bad moment, marched up the front steps.

There was no hesitation. He was going to do this. He had nothing to lose.

Not any more—with the possible exception of Amy. He had no real rights with her—it was all hopes and dreams. It was all wondering what was going to happen next, with that one. 

Sooner or later they would have to figure things out.

If they didn’t like it, he’d turn around, walk out and they’d never see him again.

He walked in through the inner lobby and there were people there. No one gave him a second look.

It was early afternoon and the hall was dim and cool after the glare and heat of the busy streets outside. The lights were all the way up in the club.

There were a few musicians onstage, ready with bass and trombone, drums and piano. 

Band-master Doc Sokolovich was tuning them up and putting them through a few numbers. 

Benny had developed Parkinson’s disease and so his own career was over.

It was a big story at the time. Mark reviewed it as he walked down the sloping aisle to the front.

He’d bought the place a few years ago, back around 1965 as Mark recalled. Karpov sat at his habitual corner banquette, with the latest of a long string of statuesque redheads looking bored and sulky beside him. You’d have to be selling a lot of booze to keep up the mortgage on a place like this. The same was probably true of the lady. Mark had only been in there once or twice, as a customer rather than a performer.

“Hi, Benny.”

He didn’t even look up.

“Hello, stranger.” The lady gave Mark an assessing look, taking in the battered horn case and his shabby coat.

Seventh chord, Maple Leaf Rag, Scott Joplin. (Wiki.)

Mark was still wearing the jeans and smudged Adidas, but he was wearing his best shirt. He hadn’t shaved, and all of his facial scars, relics of a pugnacious nature and some boyhood experiences of the little-league hockey variety, stood out in pale relief among the dark stubble.

Not taking her eyes from Mark, she nudged Benny in the ribs with her right elbow. Benny was reading music sheets. They were blanks, filled in by hand by whoever was composing some new number. You could get them in any music store. Benny’s hand made a characteristic jerk and he cussed under his breath.

Sighing, he looked up and threw the pencil down.

“Ah, yes, young man. Can I help you?”

“My name is Mark Jones. I play the trumpet…”

“Yeah, well. We’re not really looking for anyone right now.”

“Oh, come on, Benny.” For some reason, maybe she just liked him, but the lady was clearly on Mark’s side.

“Doc.”

Benny spoke in a low tone, but Doc must have seen Mark come in and he turned on a dime.

“Yes. Benny?”

Benny sat up, and leaned back, and put his arm around the girl.

“All right, Mister Jones. Show us what you got.” Benny’s eyes took him in, carefully, head to toe.

It was intimidating enough. There was the urge to flee.

Do not waste this man’s time.

Richard Kaby, (Wiki.)

With a nod, Mark turned and headed down through the pit and then up the short flight of stairs to where Doc stood waiting. One or two of the others looked up, noting the case in his right hand as a matter of course. He removed the coat and hung it on an unused microphone stand off to one side, then came back to the centre stage mic.

He tapped on it, a concussive note in the stillness. They looked at each other.

Ah.

A horn man.

Benny says to give him a chance.

Who knows, maybe we’ll get lucky.

Whisper, whisper, whisper…

Mark could read their attitudes like a book.

And now, he would proceed to kick their asses.

Where did all this contempt come from, anyways.

Fuck you.


(End of Part Seventeen.)






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