Literature » Short Fiction

Short Fiction Contest-winning story #41 — “You Blows What You Is,” by Ruth Knafo Setton

 

 

 

New Short Fiction Award

Three times a year, we award a writer who submits, in our opinion, the best original, previously unpublished work.

Ruth Knafo Setton of Allentown, Pennsylvania is the winner of the 41st Jerry Jazz Musician New Short Fiction Award, announced and published for the first time on March 2, 2016.

 

 

ruth

Ruth Knafo Setton

 

*

Born in Morocco, Ruth Knafo Setton is the author of the novel, The Road to Fez, and the recipient of fellowships and awards from the National Endowment of the Arts, Pennsylvania Council on the Arts, PEN, and Writer’s Digest. Her story, “The Magic Circle,” was First Runner-up in Saturday Evening Post’s 2016 Great American Fiction contest, and her poetry, fiction and creative nonfiction have appeared in many journals and anthologies, including The Writer’s Digest, The Jerusalem Post, The Literary Traveler, Best Contemporary Jewish Writing, Nimrod, Tiferet, and The North American Review. She teaches Creative Writing at Lehigh University and on Semester at Sea.

 

 

_____

 

 Photo by Jerry Stoll

louia


You Blows What You Is

by Ruth Knafo Setton

 

      The port of Casablanca was crammed with Vichy officers, soldiers, cops, thieves and criminals. Each night I slept behind sand dunes, and each morning, washed in the freezing sea and shook myself dry in the winter wind. My shirt and trousers were stiff with salt and stuck to my chest, arms and legs. I figured it would be easy to steal a sweater or coat, grab it off a café chair while its owner ate and drank. But each time I stuck my head inside a restaurant and started weaving between tables, the owner threatened to call the cops.

      No cops, no officers, no father whipping me, never again. I’d lie low, steal what I needed, and owe no one a damned thing.

      Ten days after I arrived in Casablanca, a shipload of American sailors docked at the port. They’d come from one battle farther down the coast and were preparing to set sail the day after tomorrow. I shadowed them, trying to be invisible. They smelled like sweet, ripe bananas — someone said they’d sailed in on a banana boat — but that only added to their aura. They were haloed with light, as if they’d walked straight off a movie screen onto the streets of North Africa. They blinked at the desert light and smiled with healthy white teeth at the little dark kids begging them for money (not me, I’d never beg for anything). Their faces shone with truth. They walked as if the earth belonged to them, with confidence and grace. Not furiously stomping with the black boots of the French, or shuffling and sliding with the babouches and flat shoes of the Arabs and Jews. These men walked straight and tall, as if they deserved to feel the sun on their faces, as if they’d never kneeled to anyone in their lives.

      I made a vow: that’s going to be me one day.

      As if to mark the moment, one of the Americans saw me. “Hey kid, enjoy!” He winked and tossed me a banana. I caught it in one hand, waited till he turned away and devoured it before he’d taken three steps.

      That night I returned to my dune. As soon as I sat on the sand, two men in white djellabahs hunkered next to me, one on either side. Merde. Putain. They smiled and offered me food and money. All I had to do was go with them. Their oily eyes and voices made it clear that what they wanted would hurt more than the old man’s beatings, more than that day at the fourriere. They knew I was alone. If I ran, they’d catch me. If I screamed, no one would hear over the pounding waves. Even if someone heard, who cared about a Jewish runaway?

      Rabbi Itzik, the Hebrew teacher in Mogador, had told us the story of Rabbi Abraham, a Jewish saint who performed many miracles. One day when Rabbi Abraham was in mortal danger, he drew a magic circle around himself. When God, the Great Father, saw the circle, He protected the saint and saved his life.

      It was stupid, but with one hand I hugged my knees and with the other grabbed the stick I kept near me, and drew a circle around myself. The men watched with strange greasy smiles. Again and again, I drew the circle separating me from them, digging deeper each time. The men talked, their voices dripping like grease. I was too pretty to sleep outside, to be dressed in rags. They promised me a soft bed, warm bath, food, money, whatever I wanted.

      I said nothing. Didn’t look up, move my lips or make a sound, but for the first time in my life, I spoke to God, praying he was nothing like my father: Monsieur le Bon Dieu, it’s me, Danny Elmaleh, the bully and good-for-nothing. The Jew. Please don’t let them take me. Thank you.

      That was when the crazy thing happened.

      The two men leaped to their feet and ran away. I looked around to see who was chasing them. No one. They’d be back. But I’d lost the will to move, to run and hide. Instead I kept drawing the circle around me, over and over, round and round, until I lost track of time.

      Suddenly my head jerked up. The air changed. Not even that. Suddenly there was no air. The waves crashed at my feet. It was growing light, the sky over the sea streaked orange and purple. The men were gone. Truly gone. I was alone on the beach, and it was day.

 

      *

 

      I wandered aimlessly along the sea. My stomach was hollow but I had no energy to scrounge for scraps. A storm broke in the afternoon — wild winds, rain slashing. I kept going, too tired to stop. I didn’t have a cent, my forehead burned and throat ached as if I’d been screaming. The rain didn’t stop till the moon rose. I crossed the sand and found myself in the most dangerous section of the Ain Diab — the street that followed the line of the shore. A small white building pulsed with sound. A sign shone blue in the dark:

      The Hot Club

      Prop. Prosper Beauchamp

      Beneath was another sign:

      It don’t mean a thing if it ain’t got that swing.

      I stood in the doorway. The club was seedy, dim-lit, but the stage was bright. A man wearing a green beret and built like a bear played the trumpet. A pale beautiful woman sang along with a broken voice as a tall black American GI made his guitar wail and crooned, “Summertime,” a song I’d heard on the radio: “Baby, don’t you cry. I said don’t you cry. Daddy’s here, Mama too ….”

      I sank to a crouch and clutched my chest.

      A few minutes later, the two musicians came out for a cigarette break and stood under the awning looking out at the rain. I backed away, but they saw me, wet and shivering. I was crying and hoped they’d think it was the rain. The bear man handed me a hanky, his teeth wobbling in a smile so kind it made me dizzy. He led me inside to a table and told me to sit back and enjoy the music. His name was Prosper, and this was his club.

      He and Private William Borum, better known as Memphis Willie B, returned to the stage. There was a pianist and drummer, too, and the beautiful singer, but I couldn’t look away from the trumpet player and the guitarist. Memphis Willie B sang about the war and about his girl back in Memphis, Tennessee, but it wasn’t about words. I only grasped some of them. It was about the way he ripped into that guitar like his goal was to tear the strings off to get to the heart. And each time Prosper lifted his trumpet and blew, it sounded like a man crying.

      By the time the last set was over, I’d been turned inside out. People were leaving the club. It was time to go back outside and find shelter from the storm. Problem was I couldn’t get my legs to move. My eyes were closing, and I wished I could curl up on the stage and never leave this place. I was still inside the magic circle. It was a place where a black American GI played guitar and sang, a French soldier slid his fingers over the keys of a piano, an Arab musician pounded the dumbak, and a fifteen year-old Jewish boy heard his language for the first time.

      Prosper and Memphis Willie B sat at the table. Both men watched me. Their faces were kind, but you never knew what people would do or when they’d turn on you.

      “You never heard the blues?” asked Prosper.

      The blues. So that’s what this was. I’d been screaming, crying, dreaming it all my life without knowing.

      Memphis said, low, “You don’t hear them a first time. They inside you already, knockin and moanin, waitin on you to remember.”

      “I … I remember.”

      His eyes glowed with dark lights like the sea at night. “The blues is findin’ yourself in North Africa when you’re from Memphis. It’s when shit happens you can’t do nothin about. What you know about that?”

      “Oh, I know.”

      He smiled. “That so? Then get yourself a guitar and start playin’.”

      I held out my empty palms. “Show me. Please.”

      “I’m shippin’ out tomorrow, little brother.”

      He smelled like bananas. He was one of the soldiers who’d come in on the banana ship. I was wide awake again, wanting to kick or punch. It wasn’t fair. How could I hear my language and lose it in the same hour?

      Prosper jerked his chin like he’d just decided something. “The blues are the heart of jazz, and jazz is my country. And in my country we trust our feelings, and mine tell me you are a good person.”

      I gave him a look like he was crazy. You couldn’t be more wrong. Before I could set him right, he smiled that wobbly smile. “I don’t play guitar like Memphis, but I have a trumpet, and I can teach you what I know.”

      He leaned forward and touched my shoulder.

      I bolted to my feet, knocking back my chair. Merde. Merde.

      He held up both hands. “I’m sorry if I scared you.”

      “I’m not scared.” My heart was pounding so loud I could hardly hear.

      The singer approached with a teasing smile. “Of course not, but I bet you’re hungry. When my husband gets involved with music, he forgets about food.”

      I couldn’t meet their eyes. None of them. I picked up the chair and set it upright. I turned to leave, but hesitated. Their eyes were burning through my back.

      Memphis said quietly, “Maybe you do remember the blues, little brother.”

      Tears burned behind my eyes, in my throat. I couldn’t find words. Not a single one. I stood still until the singer said, “I’m Therese. Come with me, and let’s see what we can rustle up in the kitchen.”

      After a moment I followed her.

 

      *

 

      The next morning I was in Prosper’s studio, a small white cabin behind the Hot Club. It was a single room with an open window through which palm tree leaves swayed and the ocean sparkled. One wall was lined with shelves of record albums. A trumpet solo played on a large record player.

      Prosper, seated at his desk, ran his hands over a silver trumpet, and held it out to me. “A Selmer, just like Louis Armstrong’s. Three notes, that’s all. With these three notes you’ll learn to conquer space and time.”

      I examined the trumpet with my eyes and fingers. When I glanced up, he was watching me with that kind smile. There had to be a catch. People didn’t act like this in real life. I slanted my eyes at him. “You’re giving me this?”

      He gestured to the record player. “That’s Louis Armstrong, the greatest trumpet player in the world. You keep listening to Louis. The man can’t blow a lie. Like he says, ‘You blows what you is.’ And Danny, you is something good.”

      Now I knew he was out of his fucking mind. “You don’t even know me!”

      “I know what I need to know.”

      I sneered. “I can sell it and you’ll never see me again.”

      Instead of grabbing it from me, he looked as if … as if he pitied me. “I’ll understand if you can’t handle the trumpet. It’s brutal, causes heart pain and hernias, kills your lips and lungs. It’s the single instrument man wasn’t meant to play, yet there are always fools who latch onto it as if they found their mother’s nipple and are sucking for dear life.” He nodded. “You’re wise to get rid of it. We’ll find you something easier.”

      Fuck you. “Tu m’fais chier.” Gripping the horn, I stormed out.

      An instant later, I returned. “Tell me the truth, no bullshit. What’s in it for you?”

      That wobbly smile. “You remind me of myself at your age. Dying to be heard, and no one listening. Then I picked up a trumpet and found … what I needed.”

      I stormed out again, but I heard him behind me: “A born trumpeter.”

 

      *

 

      The following morning we sat in his office overlooking the marina. I watched him, slit-eyed, still not sure what his game was. The man was ugly — pockmarked, grizzled eyebrows over sad-dog eyes, bumpy nose, and those teeth. But he was married to Therese, the blonde singer who looked like an angel.

      “You’ll see, Danny,” she had whispered, her arm crooked through mine as though we were already friends. “Prosper is what God had in mind when He created man.”

      In one hand, he held the beat-up silver trumpet as if it contained the secret to the world. “Now Louis is a genius, but he never learned to blow without hurting his lips. In the 30s, I went to see him every night he was in Paris, and sometimes he played till he was bleeding. The sound comes from the lips. So Danny, you have to learn to buzz before you learn to blow.”

      He handed me a small silver mouthpiece. “Press your lips together, tight against the opening, and make noise. Buzz like a bee, make your lips vibrate. It may send a shiver through you. It makes some people feel dizzy.” He laughed at my expression. “Remember, every sound in the trumpet comes from you. All this tubing is simply a means of amplifying the wind. But the sound, the wind, everything starts with your mouth. So my boy, for now, we work on your embouchure. Buzz!”

      I practiced puckering my lips in while blowing out. My chest tightened and contracted. After several tries, a faint sound like a gasping bee emerged.

      “That’s the way. Take the mouthpiece with you and practice buzzing all day, every day, until you vibrate like a bee. Come back day after tomorrow, same time.”

      Determined not to fail, I practiced buzzing like a bee. I buzzed until my head swam, buzzed until I wanted to throw the mouthpiece in the sea, and still Prosper told me, “Not enough. Breathe and buzz. It all starts here.”

      From morning to night I buzzed through the streets of Casablanca, startling men, women, children, dogs and cats, even sea birds. Because Prosper knew I wandered without a coat, he gave me his navy wool cape and wouldn’t take no for an answer, insisting the cape was too warm for him. As I walked through town, the cape swept the ground and rose behind me in the wind. On the Corniche I faced the sea as if I were a figurehead on a ship sailing to the end of the world. Mouthpiece cradled between my palms, I squeezed and covered it so the sounds seemed to come from inside me.

      During the next few weeks I helped out at the Hot Club. In the day I did errands. At night I served food and drinks, but mostly I stood in the shadows of the club and watched the house band, Le Jazz Hot-named after the famous band that played at the original Hot Club in Paris: Prosper’s green beret tilted to one side, his cheeks bulging as he blew his trumpet; Ivo l’Italien’s mouth pressed against the neck of his bass as if he whispered secrets; Bertrand le Beau’s dreamy smile as his long fingers slid across the piano keys; and Mohammed’s eyes closed as he pounded Moroccan tam tams, goatskin-covered cactus drums and clay bongos, and rattled qarqaba. Each man’s voice was different yet contributed to the whole. Every night for a few songs Therese joined them on stage and sang in a delicate, broken voice that reminded me of my mother.

      I followed the musicians with my eyes. One stopped playing, drifted to the side of the small stage, lowered his head and listened to the others. When it was time — how did he know? — he returned and found his place. So a musician might be silent for a while, but it didn’t mean he was gone. He was still part of the song, still here, still present. You didn’t always have to make music to be part of the song. I wasn’t sure why, but this felt like an important discovery I needed to remember.

      I still slept on the beach, but I’d found a sand dune closer to the Hot Club. Each night I drew the magic circle around myself. It protected me from outside enemies, but not from my nightmares. You blows what you is, said Louis, but what if you hate what you is? You wake up in the middle of the night, the black howl roaring in your belly. Your father’s in you, the bastard will never die. Look at your hands — fucking paws. You can run, you can hide, but you is him.

      I was also scared he’d come after me. One day I warned Prosper. I owed it to him. If the old man showed up, Prosper needed to be prepared. Or he could just kick me out. That would be the easiest thing all around.

      He had this strange glint in his eyes. “Trumpeters never do the easiest thing, do we?”

      After a minute I shook my head.

      “It’s because we’re used to fighting beasts, inside and outside of us. You have to blow back your beast, Danny.”

      “I don’t know if I have enough breath.” For some reason, it was okay to admit things to him.

      He smiled. “You have more than enough. Blow him back. Remember: only one of you can survive. Make sure it’s you.”

      When he found out where I spent my nights, he dragged me into his office, shook his fist and shouted. It was the first time I saw him angry, the veins on his forehead swelling purple.

      I ducked and covered my face. He’d caught me by surprise. I’d gotten soft.

      Prosper paled and immediately lowered his arm. “I’m sorry, my boy. There’s a curfew. You’re a Jew. I don’t want you to make it easy for them.”

      So I began sleeping on the cot in the musicians’ dressing room, and in the morning Therese brought me café au lait and half a baguette slathered with butter and honey.

 

      *

 

      After a couple of weeks, I thought I was doing well with the horn, but when I lowered it, Prosper rummaged through his records.

      “You can’t bully the trumpet,” he said. “It’ll fight back. Destroy your lips. Wheeze instead of sing.”

      “But you told me to blow back the beast.”

      “You’re right, but now I’m going to tell you something else. You’re going to learn to blow back the beast with love. You’re going to kill him with love.” He grinned at my look of disbelief. “Believe me, only love works. Louis knows.”

      He placed a vinyl record and set the needle down. The song opened with a trumpet solo that soared, dipped, and soared again, higher than a bird. The trumpet player blew his horn effortlessly, higher than seemed humanly possible. Then a man began to sing without words, a growly moan that echoed the horn solo. The trumpet returned, lighting the room with its glow.

      “‘West End Blues.’ That’s Louis Armstrong on both trumpet and vocals in 1928, before the world knew what jazz is. That man fought his own beasts, his own demons, and conquered them and came out on top. Listen to him until you know every one of his solos by heart. There’s no better teacher.”

      When I learned my first song Prosper let me go on stage and play. I blew my heart out on a stripped-to-the-basics version of “Summertime.” Women drenched in jewels and men sucking on cigarettes clapped, and Le Jazz Hot cheered behind me. Therese’s eyes blinked wet, and Prosper ruffled my hair.

      Blinking wildly myself, I clutched my trumpet and ran off-stage and through the door. I didn’t stop until I reached the sea. I blew my song to the moon and waves. My mother cried as my father whipped me, one long whipping, and with each gust of my horn, I blew back the sound of Vichy officers’ boots pounding, the sneers of high-ranking Nazis we weren’t supposed to know were in Morocco. I blew and blew until I had no breath left, blew until I was sure Louis himself heard me across the seas. I lowered the horn finally, my heart crashing as hard as the waves, lips and fingers numb. I knew I’d entered a new country, clean and spacious, where all men, even a Memphis Willie B and a Danny Elmaleh, had an equal voice.

      A shadow waited, watched me. A familiar green beret glinted in the silver light.

      “I’m going to Louisland,” I told Prosper. “Where every man is free, even a Jew.”

      “Don’t see yourself with their eyes,” he said. “Don’t let them define you. You decide who you are, not them. Devenir humain. Becoming human is the greatest war we have to fight — against ourselves, first of all. And it’s our only hope.”

      “Easy to say when you’re not a Jew.”

      Prosper sighed. “Never easy. Harder now, for Jews, but the challenge is to remember who you are inside, no matter what they try to make you believe. That’s true freedom. Now let’s go home, my boy.”

      I smiled. I couldn’t help it.

 

      *

 

      Prosper insisted the Hot Club was a demilitarized zone, like jazz itself. But he wanted the club to stay open so he set up a series of signals with Jacques, the doorman. When Jacques saw high-level German and Vichy officers, he blew his harmonica, Prosper tipped his green beret at a different angle, and Le Jazz Hot burst into a marching band variation of the song they’d been playing. Jacques was never wrong: he sniffed the Nazis hiding behind the broad-shouldered overcoats and pale faces. The band spent a tense night following Mohammed’s percussion and Prosper’s trumpet down one brash parade after another while the officers sat at the Nazi table and surveyed the crowd.

      One winter night in ’44, when I scurried to the dressing room — the hiding place for the Jew — I took a bottle of whiskey, closed my eyes and swallowed and didn’t come up for air until I was choking. A flame roared down my throat, chest, lungs into my groin. My thighs, legs, feet. Even my arms. Every part of me burned. Behind my eyes blazed a red-hot glare: the blinding noon sun. I opened the door and stuck my head out. Prosper’s trumpet speared me with its unrelenting parade of martial cheer.

      I shut the door to the dressing room behind me and stepped into the main room of the club. I moved with the exaggerated care of a drunk, but my mind was clear.

      Ahead of me loomed the granite fortress — two officers, a Vichy and a Nazi. Stepping with care across the dance floor, one foot before the other, I advanced to their table.

      Extending the tip of my index finger, I touched the German officer’s thickly padded wool shoulder. Pressed harder. Hollow beneath the padding. Just as I’d thought.

      He turned his head, and I stopped thinking.

      Khaki demon eyes, djinn eyes. Dead-pale. Topped by hair as brittle as stalks of dried wheat. Husks of hair, husks of eyes. A shaving nick on his chin. “Another drink, garcon,” he growled.

      I let out a harsh, hot breath as if I’d been smoking. Why was I standing next to the Nazi table? Why was this night different from all other nights?

      The officer’s lips thinned. “Garcon, a drink. Another absinthe.”

      Inside my chest, a laugh exploded, a gunshot. Funny, the blood scab on the officer’s pointed chin. As if the man were real, not a stuffed scarecrow.

      The Nazi’s eyes were slits. “Identify yourself.”

      The Vichy officer spat. “He’s a Jew.”

      Instantly I was scared sober. I lifted one foot, lowered it. For an excruciating moment I forgot how to walk.

      A large hand pressed my shoulder, and I whirled around.

      Prosper, face dripping wet like the steam baths, fury in his dark eyes, but he spoke smoothly. “My son, go do your homework.”

      The Vichy sneered. “Your son?”

      I managed a breathless, “Oui, Papa.”

      I forced myself not to run, knowing they watched.

      Therese yanked me inside the dressing room and shut the door. I fell on the cot, and she hugged me. “How many times has Prosper told you that jazz is dangerous, and Jews playing jazz is twice as dangerous? When they come, we stay in back.”

      “We? Why are you here?”

      “Prosper saved my life. My real name is Rachel Bensussan.”

      I should have known. The sad dark eyes, the broken voice.

      The door opened, and Prosper burst in. He removed his beret and ran a hand through damp strands of hair. “The boy is going to give me a heart attack. He walked right into the hands of the Nazis.”

      The world was cracking around me. I still didn’t get it. “Why did you say I was your son? You’re not even a Jew.”

      He bent over and embraced us both. “We are a family.” His voice was muffled. “If you are Jews, then I am, too.”

 

      *

 

      Prosper died of a heart attack before the war ended. The Hot Club closed down, and Therese moved to Paris. It took me a couple of years to save enough money to sail to America.

      When I arrived, I went directly to The Street. Legendary 52nd Street, the center of jazz, home of the Three Deuces, Club Carousel, Famous Door, Onyx, Down Beat, Spotlite Club, clubs Prosper and I had dreamed about. Neon lights blurred. Marquees headlined legendary musicians. Blistering jazz exploded and splashed like gold light over the concrete.

      I stood on the corner of Broadway and 52nd, trumpet case in hand. A Supplicant at the Temple of Jazz. When I caught my breath, I told Prosper, “We made it to Louisland. Free at last.”

      A large, warm hand pressed on my shoulder.

      Standing tall, I walked into the light.