“Cottonmouth Stomp,” a story by Greg S. Johnson, was a short-listed entry in our recently concluded 58th Short Fiction Contest, and is published with the consent of the author.
by Greg S. Johnson
…..Now when I start telling you about John Jones Sr., I don’t want you to go and get the wrong idea on me. And I don’t want anyone else to hear about it because I’ll deny it sure as I blow hella on this old harp. There are things that he knows about me that only your Pop can know. For that I got to love him. Even though times are when he gives it to me good.
…..“He’s got some hard German in him, son.” That’s how Mom used to put it.
…..One mistake I made a few years back as a kid of ten was keeping my take in a coffee can and holding it by my side for all the world to see while I caned it home; little white blind boy out for a stroll after dark. On the South Side it takes no time at all for some fool to come along and separate you from your hard-earned scratch, the popcorn take we call it.
…..Those boys were so good and slick that I didn’t even know I was being robbed. They sort of sidled up nice and easy, and I could feel them, two of them, one on each side. They relieved me of that can before I could say bang, you’re dead. My money just up and walked away from me. I don’t even think they ran because they knew they didn’t have to; I heard no foot falls or hollering or any of that. Just like a puff of air, here one second, then gone. Just like my eyesight. Just like bebop out the window on a Sunday morning.
…..When I held the box to my lips the world walked right in. Down under the Drive, down below the street, the sound was all that mattered. When the box hit my lips, I started swimming, untouchable, slick as a runaway snake.
…..I lost my sight when I was seven. It gradually went away like the sunlight through the curtains of my old bedroom. They were this sheer, gauzy kind of curtain, and the sunlight always had this unnatural look, not as bright as outside, not as clean, and when the sun was going down that unnatural light kept fading and fading until the bedroom was dark and all I had was my nightlight. I used to stare at that thing late into the night, and I’d start to think about the future and all kinds of different things, and before I knew what hit me Mom would be in waking me up, gently tugging me on the arm. She always smelled like the best part of the day, like peaches and pancakes.
…..When I got to wailing, it all seeped out of me in a rush, the fever and the sweat and the noise from my box, loud enough to drown out the slick Chicago streets, the rumble of the cars going overhead. It all came dripping out. I’m not sure how it happened but when I got to playing like that sometimes there was a bit of light, like way down at the end of a faraway tunnel, and it seemed like my playing was going to make that little peephole explode or something. I could feel it.
…..My favorite underpasses are the ones to the beach, like the one off 57th Street, because it was cool as lemon ice under there. I could smell the wet hair of the girls as they went by, the burgers and the popcorn, the coconut oil. Girls laughed louder when they were going to the beach, louder than any other time. They laughed so loud I got a little angry at them for knocking me off my game. Those high-high laughs were like a crazy alley cat screeching. They echoed off the walls and bounced right into my brain.
So, I get a little angry, and I get a little mean, so help me darlin’ dontcha suck away my dream
…..Now sometimes you had these older dears, these old bags probably with cheeks like rotted peaches, who wanted to take me by the hand and say poor child, you can’t see nothing. But they didn’t know the half of it. There are things that happened with sounds that painted a very clear picture for me. I could tell by how the water sounded dripping down in the underpass just what kind of day it was, just what color the sky was, just how the shadows fell.
…..One day in July, I blew so hard my mouth got feverishly dry. The sweat was pouring off me, and it was a good thing I kept a kerchief with me so I could mop my forehead. I took a bottle of water and dumped it all over the worn cotton, got it soaked through, then wiped my face and forearms and my hands. I sat on an old plastic bucket between sets and laid my knockoff Wayfarers on the pavement. I closed my eyes. I didn’t want any of the passersby to freak on me.
…..I smelled her long before she made a peep: bubble gum and baby’s breath.
…..“What’s your name?” came at me out of the slick, wet viaduct air.
…..I can tell by a girl’s voice what color her hair is. Don’t ask me how. This was a brunette.
I get a little feverish, and I get a little bold; I get a little naughty, won’t do what I’m told
…..“John. But you can call me Jack Smack Heart Attack because I think my heart just skipped a beat.”
…..She laughed. They always laughed. The jokes didn’t have to be good because people felt uncomfortable around the blind, and they wanted to show you their mercy. This was not the high-high laugh of the girls on the way to the beach, though. This was the titter-titter laugh of the girl making her way through a haunted house.
…..“How old are you?” she asked.
…..“Never mind,” I told her. “Give me your hand, I’ll read your fortune.”
…..But she handed it over. My fingertips touched her smooth palm. I worked around the fleshy bulbs below her fingers. This girl had some girth to her. I made like I was reading the lines of her hands, moving two light fingertips all around the lines of her palm.
…..“How long you been writing?” I asked.
…..“What!? How’d you know that?” She tried to tug her hand away, but I held it firm as a fresh dime.
…..“You keep a journal, something like that, right?”
…..“Got a favorite song?”
…..This is when a hush fell all around and time slowed to a drip. Each little plink of water was alive with her next breath. The drummer took up his sticks and started a rat-a-tat-tatting on those beaten old snares.
…..The name of the artist dropped from her mouth like dirt from a dead pigeon. It was someone everyone knew, someone popular but unnecessary, a flea in the dustbin, a speck in the ocean, a soon-to-be has-been who would wash up on the shores of pop in a raft of sticky cotton only to choke on his own jellied tongue.
…..“What’s your name, dearest?”
…..“It’s alright, I guess. They really call you that?”
…..“Most people call me Little Jack on account of my old man. My Mom used to call me J.J.”
…..“What can I call you?”
…..“Any time you want.”
…..“What. What can I call you?”
…..“Let me see your hand.”
…..“Are you really blind?” she asked.
…..“Sure I am. How many fingers am I holding up?”
…..She laughed. But she surrendered her hand.
…..I wrote my number there with a felt-tip pen from my back pocket.
…..“Don’t worry, it’ll wash right off. Don’t forget to call me.”
She whispers in my ear and takes a holda my life, dontcha slip away now, you’ll rip me like a knife
…..Amanda and me, we started hanging out after my sessions. We’d go for a coffee at the Valois and talk. I put about four creams and one sugar in my coffee. That’s the only way I could stand it. She told me she never drank coffee. She liked jasmine tea.
…..“Are you a sister?”
…..“You know, you black?”
…..“Why do you say that?”
…..“Dunno. Just sounds like it, that’s all. Don’t get me wrong, I like black people.”
…..She took my hand. “Jack, hon, I’m as white as they come.”
…..We walked together back to my place. I told her something about the maid’s day off, place was a mess or I’d have her up. Truth was, I didn’t bring people around anymore. Big Jack was a lot of man to explain in a short amount of time.
…..I remember seeing him in the morning light back before my sight left me. He had a nose like a fire plug, so big I liked to pull on it, push it, squeeze it. Honk, honk. Deep red lines the color of strawberry licorice vines twisted along the sides of it. He was always pushing on me when I was little. He tried to get a rise out of me. This was our game; he pushed on me, on my arm, on my shoulder, on my ribs. He tickled and poked, and I was such fair game. He blew on my face when I grabbed his nose. His breathing was raspy and strained, but it always smelled good, like spearmint. The kind made by Wrigley’s. He wouldn’t chew another gum if you put a .45 to his head.
…..Back then I could almost get my arms around him but not these days, not for a long time now. He was a lot heftier since he stopped working. These days Pop did nothing but sit on his fat butt all day. He had an old leather reclining chair that he sat in so much that I could feel where the leathery skin had chalked away on the armrests.
…..I stood next to the recliner when I got upstairs, handed him the take. When he moved, I heard the old leather struggle beneath him. Between chews of his gum, he said: “Not much here, Jack-o.”
…..“Yeah, it was a tough one today, Pop. Too hot, I think.” I went straight to the kitchen. Nine steps until my cane touched the lamp table, then six steps into our galley kitchen.
…..“You’re not holding out on me?” His voice followed me around the corner and hung there like a witch on a broom.
…..“I know you’d have my hide,” I said. “Macaroni okay?” I reached up and opened the cupboard with one bean taped to the door.
…..“Gonna have to start calling you Jack Scratch if this keeps up.”
…..“Too hot today. Had to be it. Everyone scurrying off to the beach, you know how that goes.”
…..I heard the squeak of the recliner, the springs resetting, the leg rest coming down hard on the floor. His foot falls and the squeak of the loose board near the bathroom. A few seconds later I heard his piss splash in the toilet. He only closed the door when he was taking a dump. I couldn’t figure that one out for the life of me. Either way I was just as blind.
…..Truth was, I did hold back on him most of the time. No way I was going to blow all day out there on the hot streets and then hand over every dime I made to the old man. I went by the raw take—the number of bills—since I had no idea how big they were. Most people only gave singles anyways. If I had a nice, fat wad, I would pinch five or ten off for myself. That was my popcorn take.
…..Neither one of us got the life we wanted, so we were playing our way through it, faking it a lot, improvising, you could say. Like some days you don’t feel like blowing. And it doesn’t matter what you do to try and convince yourself otherwise, you can’t make it at all. So, you sit there and wait on it like a lonely dog in a big old empty house.
…..He could have been one of the great ones. That’s what kills me. When Mom was alive, he used to wail every Thursday night over at Callaghan’s Pub down in Beverly. Bebop, that was the old man’s gig. I’d polish his Getzen trumpet for him, polish it until that silver gleamed like a minty new dime.
…..It was fifteen straight steps to the stereo in the front room next to the recliner. There were as many steps as years I had in my life. It was one of those furniture jobs, the ones they used to make that opened on top like a cabinet. We put brail tape on all the albums, so I could make out what they were. I thumbed through all his favorites, the bebop trumpeters: Booker Little and Fats Navarro. These were his boys from the block. He had all of Freddie Hubbard, not to mention Roy Eldridge, King Oliver, Hot Lips Page, Dizzy and Louis, of course.
…..“Don’t you take shit off nobody, hear me? And don’t ever trust a South Side girl.” He chewed his macaroni. I sat next to him. I felt his big hand fall on my forearm. He squeezed it.
…..“What’d you put in this?”
…..“You must’ve put something in it.”
…..“Honest, Pop, I didn’t, just the noodles and the mix.”
…..“It tastes pretty good. Must’ve put something.” His hand lifted away and then a few seconds later it cupped my cheek.
…..He patted it. “Good boy. You’re my best boy, you know that?”
…..“I’m your only boy.”
…..“Do you think that matters, Jack-o? I don’t care if I had a dozen, you’d be my fav-o.”
…..“Sure thing, Pop.”
…..Now, you better believe when I start stomping around, I tend to attract a crowd. I had this one stomp where I kept one foot planted and stomped around in a circle, and I knew that brought the crowds around because I heard them start to clap, and I’d hear a low murmur of voices and questions: Who is that kid? or Man, that kid’s pretty good. And all the while I was thinking son, you don’t know the half of it.
…..There was a time not too long ago, back when Mom was alive that I used to feel like everything would be okay. Now I played to make it through the day. Some people didn’t understand how a kid like me could wail on a harmonica all day but most of them never played one. Most of them didn’t know what one of those little metal boxes could do; most of them hadn’t ever lost their sight either. See, they didn’t have to feel the music through their insides and down in their toes then suck it up through their whole body, right up to their lips. Right above my lips where all the sweat collected against the hot silver and I bent those notes over as far as they would go. That’s when I had to start moving, and you better believe those people moved with me.
…..“Let’s go to the beach,” Amanda said.
…..I was sweating up a storm. It was the thickest part of August, and I was a sticky mess. I was tired of smelling the popcorn and the coconut oil from a distance.
…..On concrete my cane went click-click-click until it found something: there’s a curb, there’s a newspaper box, there’s the body of a dead-beat. But when we got to the sand, I had nothing but an ocean of swish-swish-swish. I was blind as a booby.
…..“Here, take my hand,” she said.
…..We found a nice spot in the sand with some shade. I took out my box and played for a bit.
…..“A little tune I’ve been messing with.”
…..“Not as pretty as you.”
…..“You are so corny. You can’t even see me.”
…..I touched her arm, the soft inside part. I let my two fingers slide up to her shoulder, then her cheek.
…..“No, but I can feel you.”
Ohhh, she takes me by the lips and bites me in the whisk-ee; movin so fast it’s feelin kinda risk-ee
…..I got home late, and the old man was in a foul mood. He was like a low storm moving in with sharp bursts of thunder and whip snaps of lightning.
…..“Where you been, Jack-o? Let me see your take.” He called from his recliner. He was working that gum good and hard.
…..Mugsy Spanier’s Sugar Foot Stomp was playing on the stereo cabinet. I walked over and handed it to him.
…..“Sorry, Pop, I got hung up.”
…..“I was worried about you. Go fix your old Pop an egg for once while I count it.”
…..In the kitchen, I cracked the eggs in a hot skillet and a little grease jumped out and bit me on the arm.
…..“Where’ve you been, anyway?”
…..“Just the usual.”
…..“Your hair smells like the lake. You been swimming?”
…..“It was a real hot one today, you know, Pop, I was just gonna—”
…..“I was just gonna, I was just gonna, what?…”
…..“That take is solid, Pop. Honest.”
…..I walked a few steps toward him. I was stuck halfway between the eggs and the old man. I heard him rifling the bills.
…..“This is nothing but kernels, Jack-o. Nothing but old maids here.”
…..Mugsy gave into some good jamming on this part of the tune. That trumpet tore through the sticky apartment like a man on fire. The old air conditioner tried to keep up.
…..“How many times have I told you about hiding scratch from me?” he said.
…..“If you know so much why’d you do it?”
…..The eggs snapped and spit in the old cast iron skillet.
…..“I have to get the eggs, Pop.”
…..“Don’t you worry about those eggs. Come over here and turn the music up a bit, if you’d please.” Always he said it with the same patient words, the same tone.
…..I turned the music up and stood next to his recliner. I felt his big mitt tug on my arm. He used me to get his balance when he stood up, and the old chair sighed in relief as he got to his feet. He spun me around and told me to put my hands on the recliner. I could feel where the leather was rubbed away. Then came the loose clank of the buckle on his pants coming undone, and the whistle of his belt through the loops.
…..When I was five, I saw the light come crackling through my window with a vengeance. That light was dying on me only I didn’t know it back then. I would look out my window and see gaps where there should have been alley. There were spots in the bricks that didn’t look right, like some of those bricks had been poked out, like in the cartoons when somebody came busting out of prison with their fists. I asked my Mom if she could see where the bricks popped out. She got so nervous that she went to a knee and put her hand at the back of my head. She pulled me close. I miss that smell of her hair every single day.
…..At the Valois everybody knew me. I went in so often I hardly had to use my cane to find my table. Mine was one of those by the windows where I could feel the sunshine when it was a nice day out.
…..“You got my table for me, Freddie?”
…..“Heya, Little Jack, how you doin? Where’s your girl?”
…..“She’ll be here soon. Table for two?”
…..“You know it, son.”
…..“Hey Freddie, my girl, Amanda, she’s cute, right?”
…..“Course she is, dude. Of course.”
…..“No bullshit, Freddie. What does she look like?”
…..“I mean, she’s, well, you know she’s one of them real white girls.”
…..“You know, Jack…albino like.”
…..The clouds must have been playing hide and seek with the sun so I’d get a little bit of sunshine on my face, then it would disappear; big warm sun then cool as shade. August was slipping away as sure as those clouds were stealing my sunshine.
…..There was a squeak of chair on tiles as Amanda sat down. She ordered her jasmine tea and a cheeseburger.
…..The thing about the take was, I always knew how much to leave in there, even on days that weren’t so hot. So, when a take is as low as it was the other day, there’s only one explanation. We sat for a while not saying much. I let her finish her burger.
…..“Just tell me why you did it,” I said, finally.
…..“That take and my old man’s worker’s comp is all we got. I can’t have people thieving off me.”
…..“I didn’t thieve off you, boy, you better take that back.”
…..“How can I take back what is already done. I can’t trust you.”
…..“Oh, you can’t trust me? That is some silly shit.”
…..“I actually really like you. But you know, there are a lot of people I like…just not too many I can trust.”
…..“You can’t trust me? You really need to get your head examined. Who put all this nonsense in there anyway?”
…..“I can’t see much but I can listen. If a dime doesn’t sound like a dime when it hits the pavement, it’s not a dime. It’s a nickel or a penny.”
…..“Well, maybe I’m a quarter.”
…..“You might be at that. I guess it’s a risk I’ll have to take.”
…..Her chair squawked against the tiles. “I’m not sure what I was even thinking. You’ve got a lot of growing up to do, little boy.”
…..“I know I’m not quite a man yet, but I also know when I have to lose some change to gain a dollar.”
…..“Good luck, Little Jack. Maybe I’ll see you around.”
…..I heard her footfalls on the tile and knew she was wearing heels. I’d never heard her wear heels before.
…..“Hey Amanda, hold up.”
…..Her feet stopped clipping along the tiles.
…..“Okay, I’m listening,” she said.
…..“There’s something I never asked you. What color is your hair?”
…..“Blonde, Jackie…Blonde as a bombshell.”
First time I ever got it wrong. I sat there for a while waiting for the sun to come back from its stay behind a cloud, but the warmth didn’t return. I reached across the table and found her tea saucer. I dipped my finger in her tea. It was only the slightest bit cool. I took a sip. Tasted like mold.
She bites me like a demon and shoots me full of venom, she’s takin what I’m givin, and I’m bleedin through my denims
…..I walked around that night, up and down 53rd Street, over to the Drive where I heard the cars buzzing by like bees to a hive. I walked to the front of the museum and smelled the diesel fumes of the buses idling. I walked through the park and thought it might rain soon because the birds were all chirping and carrying on so much. I walked under the viaduct as an El rumbled by, and it shook right through me. I walked for so long that I lost track of the time, but I knew it must have been late by the time I got home.
…..I tried to creep into the apartment on little cat feet. I walked to the kitchen without letting my cane touch the floor. I opened the refrigerator and took out a bottle of water.
…..“What’d I tell you about coming home late.”
…..I drank the whole thing and then tossed the empty bottle in the sink. It popped emptily against the stainless-steel sides. Two points.
…..“You’ve got nothing to say for yourself yet again. Boy, oh, boy but you wear me out.”
…..I walked to the stereo cabinet and switched it off. The jump in Pharoah Sanders’ saxophone went mwerrrrrr. The room went silent except for the old air conditioner in the window chugging away like a barge up a river.
…..“What the devil has gotten into you? I’ve had just about enough of this.”
…..He used my arm to help himself up. When he was on his feet and standing next to me, I could hear his breathing. His gut bumped against me, and I swung into his recliner.
…..“Get the hell out of my chair, son!”
…..“I’ve been doing some thinking, Pop. I’ve been thinking long and hard about it so give yourself a minute here. Thing is, we can’t go on like this.”
…..“You don’t decide how things go around here.
…..“In this case, I’m afraid I know what’s best for you.”
…..“Goddammit, Jack-o, I’m gonna—”
…..“No. You’re not,” I told him. My voice strained to stay calm. “Go to the wardrobe cabinet over there, the one where we keep the extra sheets. I have a surprise for you.”
…..I could hear his eyes on me, leveling me. “You’re telling me what to do?”
…..“Yes. It’s for your own good.”
…..He snorted when he laughed. That was a good snort. I heard him heavy across the floor. That one creaking board. The antique cabinet opened with a squeak.
…..“I think it’s time you started getting some reps in,” I said. “If we’re gonna play together.”
…..A few days ago, I removed that silver trumpet from its home in the crushed green velvet of its case. I polished it again for the first time in a long time. That polishing cloth was soft as a summer breeze. The case smelled of whiskey and cigars and old disinfectant. I took it out and settled it on some of the extra sheets and fuzzy old blankets in the wardrobe.
…..I didn’t say anything for some time. The old air conditioner made time up the river between us.
…..“You’re too young to realize it,” he said, finally. “You’re too young to know what it’s like to lose it.”
…..“Lose it? You want to talk about losing it? How about growing up without Mom around? How about growing up with no sight? You think you’ve lost something?”
…..I sat up close to the edge of the recliner and pulled out my harp. I started slow but worked it in long slow bends. I stretched those notes for all they were worth, all that was in me. I played it strong and sweet for him, I played it like Mom was alive and sitting there with us. I played that tune I’d been working for the first time all together: Cottonmouth Stomp by Lightnin’ Jack Jones.
…..I let it pour out of me. I played like my butt was on the line because you better believe it was. I played for the man who was as lost as a little boy. I played for him, and I played for us both, the man and the boy.
She comes a cruisin on a night of glass, bruisin that water, Lord, flyin so fast
…..There was that old stomp. He picked it up on the twos. He was a little tentative at first. I had to draw it out of the old man a bit. But you better believe he came alive as I went swinging. I knew he could still blow.
She rips through me on tea-like wings, sucks away my voice and sings…
…..Here came the soul of the man, the simple and the sweet; the raw and the reckless. Here was the Fats Jones I wanted to remember, wailing away on that trumpet instead of wailing on my hide. High and bright he kicked it. He went high and I went low. Oh, man, did we know how to work that tune. We worked it together like we knew it was always there.
Now I feel a little feverish, and I feel a little bold; I feel a little naughty, won’t do what I’m told.
A Chicago native, Greg S. Johnson now lives in Las Vegas. More than anything, travel and experiences overseas inform his writing. He taught English for several years in Southeast Asia, and he is currently at work on a novel set in Laos during the 1960s. You can find some of his other published fiction on his website: www.gregsjohnson.net.
Click here to read “Mouth Organ” by Emily Jon Tobias, the winning story in the 58th Jerry Jazz Musician Short Fiction Contest
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