Publisher’s Note: The publication of Arya Jenkins’ “The Bluest Train” is the second of three short stories she has been commissioned to write for Jerry Jazz Musician. For information about her column, please see our September 12 “Letter From the Publisher.” For Ms. Jenkins’ introduction to her work, read “Coming to Jazz.”
“The Bluest Train”
My friend Carl lived in a house full of ghosts with an evil sonofabitch brother who stole his shit, I mean all of it. But Carl himself, man, Carl was good as gold. He would give you the shirt off his back–everything, and did.
I moved in with my ex-old lady across the street from him in the late 80s when I was drying out and desperate for change. Marcy took me in, even after I had been such a dick. She knew it was the booze made me sleep around, and even though she kicked my drunken ass out on the curb, she took me in once she saw I was sober and clean. By then, she was already shacked up with a polite, fat, slob who was everything I wasn’t or would ever be.
Homestead Avenue, where we lived, was a pleasant street in a nice section of Fairfield called Black Rock, near the water. At the time, people were starting to navigate to the hood, although since then real estate prices have dropped due to the many storms–there have been too many storms in the area, man. But because of Black Rock’s proximity to the sound, which is like the sea, artists and strange people gravitate there.
I noticed Carl right off the bat. You couldn’t help but see him sitting on his porch with his supersized feet, head and limbs, a Franken monster. So I crossed the street one day to meet my neighbor, who looked a sorry sight–blackish long hair like somebody’d stuck his big muthafuckin’ pointer in a socket. You smelled the brother, even before you finished crossing the street. I swear he wore the same red, plaid flannel shirt and grimy jeans night and day. I’m not a style maven, you know, but I bathe, man. I like to look neat for the ladies. My dark hair is receding but I comb it and, personally, a clean tee says it all for me. I am tan due to my Mediterranean heritage, but other than that man, I have often been compared to Chet Baker. I look like the man, although my teeth are still good. Once, a chick thought I was Black, and that was cool with me too. I like the fact that due to the way I look, I could belong anywhere.
So I say, “Hey dude, how you doin’. I’m your neighbor, Vance. Just thought I’d introduce myself.” I stretch out my hand, and all I hear is, huh? Huh?
I realize the man is half blind behind those wire rim shades. He has one of those faces that hasn’t seen a straight shave in ages. It’s like a rat gnawed his chin and cheeks in places. Some scary shit. Still, I climb the steps of his porch and shake his hand, “Vance, man. I’m your neighbor. How you doin’? Anything I can do for you?”
“No,” he says, his voice like music. It’s low and so sweet. I’ve never heard a voice like that, that even in a word, no, can tell a whole story. I hear in that no: No, you can’t do anything for me. No, I’m not doing so well. No, I haven’t seen a stranger, much less a friend in ages. No, I’m not available for kicking, if that’s what’s on your mind. That kind of voice, man. Magical.
“I live across the street,” I say, to place him in context.
“Oh,” he says, extending his warm paw of a hand, “Carl. My name’s Carl.” Then, “Marcy lives there,” and you could hear the protectiveness in that.
“I’m her ex, man. Vance. I’m living with her ’til I get my shit together. Can I sit with you a while, man? Wanna chew the fat? Mind if I sit with you?” Truth was, I felt I could have told Carl I was a muthafuckin’ murderer and he would have said, “Oh,” and let me hang with him. I was deriving immediate and great satisfaction from the fact, very clear to me off the bat, that whatever I was, whoever I was and whatever shit had happened to me, was no match for the shit that had happened to him, my new friend, Carl.
So, we got to jawing. I told him about my recent bout with alcoholism and that I was a musician and that seemed to get him a little excited.
“What kind of music,” he says, boots shuffling.
“Jazz,” I say.
“Alto sax,” I say, voice cracking, me doubling over like I’m jonesing, for the fact was I had lost my instrument on a bender and was without music. But the man says, “Are you all right,” with that mellifluous, chocolate voice. “Are you all right,” in a voice that makes everything all right with its craggy kindness.
“Yeah, I’m okay,” I tell him. “I’m just detoxing. You know how it is, your feelings go on a roller coaster.” I was still sniffling and shit.
Then the man takes out a handkerchief, perfectly folded, but so fucking filthy that just to look at it would make a hobo cringe. I didn’t know what else to say but, “No thanks, man. I’m okay.” So we creaked back and forth for a little while on our rockers, getting adjusted to one another.
There were three rockers on the porch of the yellow house. Carl explained that in the afternoons, he usually sat with his elderly mother, who was recently deceased, and that on weekends, sometimes his brother, who lived in the house with him and worked as a supervisor at a nearby factory, would sit with him for a little while. Otherwise, he sat alone.
Carl told me he had collected and transcribed the notes of Charles Fort from The New York Public Library. The notes contained data about unexplained phenomena, blood rains, ghosts and shit, that couldn’t be explained by science and that had been ignored or discarded by the establishment and scientific journals of the day, real gold, man. He told me he had done little else but work on this motherfucking transcription for the last 18 years. Every morning he rose at five, downed a can of kippers, walked down to the store for the paper, came back and sat with coffee before his Remington typewriter, his face glued to the cartridge, while he alternately fingered the notecards on which the original notes were, and typed what he saw. The pile of pages grew alongside him, and the days passed into years. Around eight o’clock in the evening, his mother would make him a meal of chicken or ham and rice or potatoes and canned beans and afterwards he would listen to the radio, then climb the steps to sleep, his six foot six frame curled and cramped in the boy’s bed in which he had slept the last 40-odd years.
I sat back and closed my eyes, listening to him and to the creaking of rockers and to the breeze, smelling wafts of pine and something almost sweet floating from the distance through the trees. I thought, I could do this a while, sit like this in the middle of nothing. There was something about Carl that cut the bullshit out of any conversation. He was so truth-based, so himself, raw and broken, fucked up, alone and pure, all that. You didn’t dare bullshit him or yourself when you were with him. It would have been blasphemy.
So then in the middle of a bluesy silence he says, like he’s talking about a secret stash of pot or something, “Do you want to hear some music?” So, I’m thinking he’s talking about the radio, which I don’t listen to much because you know most of it is shit, and I don’t care much about news, man. Only news I care about is on the street, and I don’t even care about that anymore. You dig? So I say, “No, Carl. I’d rather sit here and talk with you, brother.”
Then I hear him get up with some difficulty, shuffling and shit back into his house, creaking the screen door open then letting it slam. All that was left in his wake was a stinky breeze and his wobbling rocker. I wondered how old the cat was. It seemed to me when I looked close, he wasn’t so old, maybe 40 or so, my age. But when he walked, he was like an old man.
I kept my eyes shut until I heard the door open and close, he shutting it nicely then and walking like a regular guy back to his seat at which time he planted this album in my hands, John Coltrane, “Blue Train.”
“You shittin’ right? You telling me, Carl, you own a muthafuckin’ record player and albums like this and you’re only just telling me now?”
He smiled then or almost did and said, “Yes.” I wanted to scream and howl, have him say, yes, yes, yes, again and again. I wanted to pull out my hair and run up and down the street in my manic state. Really, it was like that, like god himself had come down and said, you have done a good thing Vance, crossing the street, and I am rewarding you.
So Carl and I became real buddies then. The man had Parkinson’s disease, only recently then, and was nearly blind from cataracts. I spent the next few months in which I was doing all I could to stay sober myself, doing service with him because it was very clear to me at that point how Carl was indeed a train wreck. And believe it or not, that wasn’t the worst of it. I had yet to find out the worst thing that had happened to my kind friend.
I drove him to Marcy’s eye doctor, who performed the cataract operations so he could see and to a barber, so he could get some human contact and get himself looking like a human being again. Once I had him sit in his ratty bathrobe at the Formica kitchen table while I did his laundry and dishes, which did not appear as if they had ever been done, the cups and plates crusted, and dusty, even. I figured, without a woman, Carl’s mother, the house had deteriorated, not that it had always been like that.
Carl told me the craziest shit about Fort’s notes. Sometimes I couldn’t help break out laughing. I didn’t know how else to react. He told me the ghosts in Charles Fort’s notes, which contained information about phenomena like falling frogs and disappearances and shit were popping out of the pages and invading his house. But I laughed too soon. His house did have ghosts. Carl said he was sure his father was still hanging out too.
One day, I was talking to Carl about music, how I got into it when I was a kid, punished for my big mouth, forced to stay after school to learn to read it, to learn discipline. Carl had just read me some of the notes, his face practically on top of the page, you know, because even without the cataracts, the man was just blind. I had heard some wild stories and so was telling him my truth, you know, my religion of rebellion. We were two men talking out their souls when suddenly this wad of paper comes flying at me out of nowhere. “Woah,” I say, “What the fuck was that?” Carl calmly says, “That’s my father.”
“No shit. Why would he do that?”
“He was an angry man who never wanted anybody in his house,” said Carl.
Another time, I was stirring up Campbell soups, mushroom and clam chowder, into a pot in his kitchen and suddenly felt somebody shove me. Carl was in the next room. Nobody was there, man, not even his creepy brother, who was this small, skinny dude with a clump of keys hanging on his bony hip who had god delusions. We hated each other, man. One look was all it took to establish ourselves as enemies because he knew I liked his brother and would help him, and all he wanted to do was put Carl down. In the winter when he went out, he switched the heat off on his own brother, man.
Carl was the keeper to my entire spiritual world for almost a year. Every day, soon as I could, I would head across the street and make us both a cup of java, but what with those ghosts and shit, pretty soon I avoided going into the house at all. We mostly sat on the front porch. Carl would crank up the stereo and let the swirl of horns steer into the greenery and sky, while I read liner notes on the albums, smiling now and then to myself about what I was reading that I also knew.
Why those ghosts played helter skelter with my poor friend, I could not understand. Only later, did it make a little sense, and then I didn’t think those ghosts were goblins at all, but actual motherfucking monsters from his past, men who had been blown to bits or gone to jail and in any case were rotting somewhere.
I had great respect for the unique way Carl had of looking at things and once in a while he could even deal me a spin. One day he says, “Where would jazz be without the women?”
“You mean, Ella and Sarah?”
“No. Nellie and Alice and the Baroness.” He paused, stroking his chin mysteriously. “And Zita.”
“Zita Carno. A concert pianist who wrote about Coltrane, who knew what he was doing before anyone else did.”
“So, maybe every great jazz musician has a woman inside him dying to come out.” I thought that line was a gas and laughed, but Carl didn’t. He just stared straight ahead and kept rocking.
In the days when he could see better and was younger, Carl had bought jazz records to keep himself happy and alive. He had all the tunes by Trane, Miles, Monk, Dizzy. We could have spent eternity with that music, in each other’s company, but eventually things change as they do. I collected enough on my unemployment benefits to get myself an instrument, a beautiful, incredibly sweet and direct Martin Alto, as clean as I’d felt I’d gotten. Once I got that instrument, I was off and running. The gigs came, and I left Marcy’s, Homestead Avenue and my buddy. I was back in the game, only not drinking.
Five or six years passed. Gigs were going better than ever and life was sweet. Then I got a call from Marcy about her boy overdosing. Chip had been her only child from her first marriage and now he was gone. I came back to Homestead for the funeral. Marcy had saved my life, giving me a roof over my head, so I needed to be there for her, to return the favor. I also wanted to see how my buddy Carl was doing. He didn’t use the phone and couldn’t get to it fast enough when it did ring. In all the years I’d been gone, we hadn’t exchanged more than a few words by phone. Once, through Marcy, I’d gotten a Christmas card with one of his cryptic messages–a quote by Fort, I presumed.
A couple of days after the funeral, Marcy took off with her couch potato Al to see his parents in Vermont and I crossed the street to hang with my buddy. The rockers sat empty on the porch, so I tried the doorbell, and, when, after a few minutes, nobody came, I went indoors, the mustiness catching me short, bringing me back. I was carrying in all the freshness and verve of the world into this hole of sadness and neglect.
Carl was sitting in the kitchen, nodded off. “Carl, buddy, hey, it’s me, your friend, Vance. What’s up?” He was like an old tree nobody had pruned in my absence, and had started to droop and rot. He had a graying beard now and his hands were filthy. I had time, so without thinking too much about it, I just got to work, trimming his hair right then and there and giving him a good shave and a manicure and pedicure, as if that in itself would bring him back to life.
I did all that for him because I was sure nobody else would and I knew he was a human being, a great human being inside the train wreck of what you saw on the outside. Later that week, I hosed him down in his backyard, giving him the first bath he had probably had in months and took him out for some joe, because it wasn’t enough anymore to hang with him on that porch. He hadn’t spoken to anybody but the man at the newspaper store since I’d last seen him. So, when finally he looked like a human being, I took him out in my ’90 red Mustang GT, showing off what life had given me just for staying sober.
But it turned out to be a sad day, a really sad one. We caught the headlines in the store that Princess Diana had been killed in an accident, and Carl cried about it. I remember it was the same day he told me the other story too. I was getting ready to drop him off, and when I got to his place, I leaned over to open the door for him and he flinched. I said, “Carl man, I’m not going to do anything to you, I’m just helping you with the door, man. Why are you flinching?”
“Because. Because of what happened to me,” he said. So I sat back and lit up, ready for another story. Carl’s stories were usually made up of no more than a few words, but the way he went from one to the other, slowly and directly but with so much feeling, you were right there with him.
So, the man tells me that when he was young, he was drafted into the army and even though he wore coke bottle glasses then and had only held a job for a minute at a gas station that had fired him, even though he was, even then, scared as shit of the world, he had to go. He got his uniform and went into training, this gangly, nerdy giant, and one rainy day, when the men in his barracks got drunk and bored, they found him and figured the best way to pass the time would be to rape him. I nearly swallowed my entire cigarette when he told me that. I tossed the butt out my window and sat up then.
“Man,” I said after a while, after I had wiped away some of my own tears, the first I remembered in ages. “Man,” I said, “And what did you do about that?”
“Nothing,” he said.
“Does your brother know?”
“Nobody knows. Except you.”
I reached over and patted him on his big shoulder then, just patted and patted. I wanted to hug the man and bawl. That news just broke something in me. There was nothing more to say about it. I guess Carl had been high from all the attentions and joe and then brought down by Princess Di’s death and this had caused him to share the awful truth he had borne alone all these years.
“That’s why. That’s why,” he said.
“Why what,” I said.
“Why I’ve always understood what it feels like to be a woman. Inside, I feel like a woman.” I was to learn through my own research that indeed men who have been raped often feel vulnerable, and like women themselves, although not necessarily gay.
I didn’t know what to do for the man and knew that in a short while I would be hitting the road again, so I went to sit on his porch again the next day. “Carl, tell me about your brother, man. What kind of a man steals his brother’s things?” His brother had been jealous of his mother’s preference for him. It was some crazy Oedipal thing. After their father died, the angry son of a bitch left his gold coin collection to his first born, Carl. But, when the mother passed, as Carl couldn’t see and was helpless, his brother appropriated the gold collection.
“Do you know where it is?” I asked him.
“In the attic, where he keeps his Nazi memorabilia.”
“His what? That’s one screwed up motherfucker. Carl, listen,” I said, because I knew then what I would do for him. “You tell me where that attic is and if those gold coins are there, I’m getting them for you, brother. You dig?”
So, sure enough, against my better instincts even, because I knew the place was haunted with all kinds of beings, I climbed the steps and went into the room across from Carl’s that was his brother’s. The shades were drawn, as they were throughout the house, and there were mysterious, unopened boxes and shit. I had to know what was in them. So I lifted the lid of one and saw old precious rocks. Then I lifted the lid of another and saw a small human skull. Then I stopped looking. I crept to the attic door at the end of the crazy motherfucker’s room. I opened the creaking door, and Carl, who was standing in the doorway, said, “There should be a string to a light on the right,” and there was, but no bulb. So, I got my ass out of there and went into Carl’s room, where there was a flashlight with dead batteries. We still had time before his brother got home from work, so I skipped down the street for some batteries and came back and got Carl’s flashlight working and crept back into that dank box of cobwebs that was the attic. I found the coins in a small box within a brown box. Sure enough, 10 gold coins that were going to be worth something. We went to the nearest gold dealer and Carl got a few thousand for that. So the next day we went and bought him new trousers, shirts and shoes, making him look like a million bucks, so he even felt good enough to go with me to an AA meeting. After the meeting, some chick came up to him, all oohs and aahs and where do you live and all that, and I swear he gave her his phone number.
I left Carl looking like a million bucks, with me feeling hopeful and practically buoyant with my good deeds for my buddy. A few months after that, I called and got his brother and heard Carl was now in a nursing home. I felt very depressed about that because Carl was still in his 40s, and everybody knows a nursing home is end of life. Soon as I could, I hopped over there, prepared for the worst, but wow man, what a surprise. It turns out the people in the place had done him good. He had not only needed care from day to day, which he was now getting, but many friends, and now he had them too. Man, he had a chick with a cane, a red-head, not bad looking either, with Parkinson’s too, around his age. They were sleeping together! I couldn’t believe it. Carl finally found a relationship in a nursing home! That man’s life was some crazy shit. A few months after that, I visited him one other time before going on tour and because I was flying high not just from my life, but the fact that the train wreck of a friend I had known seemed to be coming into some good. But at the desk I got another surprise. I told the receptionist the room number, and spelled out Carl’s name, and she repeated it with a question mark, then said, I’m afraid he is deceased. He had been hospitalized with pneumonia a few weeks before and never made it back.
I called his brother to confirm. It took a while to get hold of the motherfucker, but he said yes, Carl had died. He said the last words Carl had spoken to him were, “I want to go home.” I wanted to say, Clearly not to the home/jail that was living with you, motherfucker. Clearly not that. Maybe, home meaning to this bro, listening to music on the front porch. Maybe home, meaning Coltrane and Miles, Dizzy and Monk, swinging in the rain. Maybe, home meaning safety from the violence of this motherfucking world with its wicked lack of care. But I didn’t say anything. I just hung up the motherfucking phone.
Carl never said, “I want to go home,” to me. Sometimes we’d be out, drinking joe, enjoying dessert at the diner, and he’d get stuck in his seat, due to the Parkinson’s meds, which his doctors never could get right. We’d sit maybe 20 minutes or half an hour, him frozen as a stone, me joking to lighten up the situation. Eventually, I’d get him to stand, and he would be cramped, hunched, frozen like that, only gradually able to lift himself a little and walk. Eventually, he could speak too, and when he was back in the car, and I had the engine going, what he always said to me was, “Let’s go somewhere. Let’s go. Take me somewhere.”
Whenever I think about drinking or about how far down a man can go, or how much he can suffer and still go on, or whenever I see some poor decrepit person on the street, it’s Carl I think of. But in spite of all this, and all these memories I’ve shared, I never once thought Carl was poor of soul. He was the richest man I ever knew, with a heart of gold only a few of us are lucky enough to know.
I thought of those motherfuckers taking turns at molesting that poor sonofabitch child man, helpless and passive as they knew he’d be. I wanted to go back in time and cut their heads off with a righteous sword, every one. I wanted to take my friend by his lapels and shake him up. “You’re a man, fight for your place. Fight for your place. If you don’t fight for your place, you’re nothing in this world.”
It took me a long time to understand, Carl had no fight in him at all. He was in a class all his own. A gentle giant, but more. Although some part of him had let it go, the memory of that horrific attack had remained in his body, freezing him, separating him permanently from all.
For me, for a time at least, Carl had been a kind of home. We didn’t talk about our sexploits and shit, like other men do. No man, we were beyond all that, into questions of the universe. We’d be sitting outside, taking in the day, and Carl would say, “What do you think?”
“About what, brother?”
“I mean, what do you think is possible?”
“Do you mean cosmologically? Or in a human sense, man?”
He would pause for a second. “Cosmologically, of course.”
“I can tell you what’s humanly possible, according to my own experience. But cosmology?–Man, that’s your business.”
“That’s right,” he would smile to himself, then rock back and forth as if we’d come upon something big in our conversation instead of just gotten started.