“One August Morning,” a story by Jeanine DeHoney, was a short-listed entry in our recently concluded 53rd Short Fiction Contest. It is published with the permission of the author
“Johnny Hodges” by James Brewer
One August Morning
…..No one knew why he did it. Why early one August morning, the day after I turned eleven, when stores were just pulling up their metal gates, and delivery trucks were double parked in front of them, when as Mama said the sun was so oppressive you could fry an egg on the sidewalk, Mr. Carmichael left his seventh-floor apartment right above ours in The Bridgeton Apartments, wearing grey pinstripe slacks high at the waist and a white dress shirt with gold plated cuff links and his black wingtip shoes, as if he was going to play another gig at a Harlem jazz club, walked two flights up to the roof of our building, opened the door, passed old man Reynolds slumped near his pigeon coop with his crumpled brown paper bag full of devil’s juice as Mama called it, sat his saxophone down and jumped.
…..No one knew why…not even Mama who had a penchant for knowing everything because she.was an avid watcher of PBS or had her head in the leather-bound set of Encyclopedia Britannica.my Daddy found on his garbage route, quoting to me and my Daddy important worldly facts.
…..But I guess what led Mr. Carmichael to jump from that roof was something no PBS channel.or encyclopedia could explain. And Mama said if we didn’t know the truth behind his jumping.we shouldn’t assume.
…..“We never walked a day in that man’s shoes,” she said. Maybe he had more thorns in his life.than the rest of us, more bitter than blackstrap molasses. I guess we’ll never know but its all around sad, a good-looking talented jazz musician like that deciding life ain’t worth living.”
…..One thing for sure, I’ll remember that day as long as I live, and probably so will Mama.
…..That horrible image of poor Mr. Carmichael’s body splattered on the ground is engraved into my mind like,.“Marcos loves Jamie,” is carved with a nail file or a pocket knife into my desk at.school.
…..To think, the last day Mama and I saw him alive was on my birthday at the A&P Supermarket. We’d gone there to pick up some cake mix for Mama to make her coconut layer cake she made me each year for my birthday.
…..Her coconut cake was heavenly and I dared anyone who had a slice to say differently. It had a.lemon filling, and after she put on the coconut after it was frosted with white buttercream icing,.it looked like a big fluffy cloud.
…..That day when we got to the check-out register at the A&P, Mr. Carmichael was already in line in front of us having set a TV dinner, a container of milk, and a pack of Pall Mall cigarettes on the conveyor belt.
…..I could tell he’d just come back from practicing or from a gig as Mama called it, because he.had his saxophone case in his hand and his white dress shirt on although it wasn’t tucked in his.pinstriped slacks, just open showing a white tee-shirt and a rosary hanging from his neck, along.with his black wingtip shoes on.
…..Although we didn’t know him much except to say, “Good morning,” or “Good evening,”.Mama always offered him a big smile along with her greeting that sent my Daddy into a silent.brooding.
…..But she wasn’t alone. All the women that lived in The Bridgeton Apartments had a thing for Mr. Carmichael.
…..Our next-door neighbor Miss Betty who was always running out of something and needed to.borrow a cup of this or that, would come over and say the same thing over and over like it was a.scratched record on the record player stuck in one spot.
…..“Lord have mercy, if only I had met him before I met my husband Jake.”
…..Mama would always burst out laughing but then add, “And he’s a sharp dresser too in those.Brooks Brothers Suits.”
…..Mama admired anyone, man or woman,.who put their best foot forward when it came to.dressing. She used to work as a tailoress at an alteration shop on Schermerhorn Street in.Downtown Brooklyn. She mended and resized ladies and men’s suits, replaced broken zippers, let out seams and toke them in. She worked there up until two years ago when she started having discomfort in her hands, or as she said feeling like she was being poked by a porcupine, and could hardly grasp a sewing needle. At my Daddy’s urging, she finally went to the doctor and found out she had carpel tunnel syndrome.
…..Mama had to stop working but she never stopped taking note of how people outfitted themselves and how their clothes hung on them. She noticed if a suit jacket was too wide at the shoulders and needed to be taken in, she noticed when someone’s pants didn’t drape right at the thigh, or how a skirt bunched up around a woman’s hips, even loose threads from a badly done hem caught her eye.
…..Each and every time we saw Mr. Carmichael, her eyes would give him a quick once over from head to toe and I know she compared him to my Daddy who came home smelly from garbage and whose work boots she demanded be left outside the door.
…..Anyway, that day at the check-out register Mama worked up the nerve to say a few more words to Mr. Carmichael. She wasn’t flirting with him either, just being neighborly.
…..“I never formerly introduced myself and my daughter and husband to you,” she said holding out her hand. “I’m Ella, this is my daughter Millicent, we call her Millie for short, and my husband James is at work. I just wanted to tell you that you live right over us and we love hearing you play your saxophone.”
…..Mama was stretching the truth for that one because every Friday night or weekend morning when Mr. Carmichael opened up his window and serenaded not just us but the whole Bridgeton Apartments with his saxophone, my Daddy threatened to go knock on his door and tell him all that noise was disturbing him, but Mama always convinced him to calm down.
…..She was right though about how much she and I loved listening to him play. It wasn’t like the R&B music Mama played when her friends came over for a game of Bridge or the bluesy music my Daddy played when he was relaxing from working hard picking up everybody’s trash.
…..Mr. Carmichael’s music, the music Mama said was called jazz was different. It was brassy and upbeat at times and beautiful and sad at other times as it flowed from his apartment to our ears.
…..“My name is Cole…Cole Carmichael,” he said, setting down his saxophone case and shaking mama’s hand and then mine. “And thank-you for the compliment, I was hoping no one complained and just enjoyed a free concert,” he said with a wide smile that showed his perfect white teeth.
…..“Well today is Millicent’s birthday,” Mama said. “She turned eleven and I’m going to fry a batch of buttermilk chicken with all the fixin’s and have cake and ice-cream with a few neighbors and you’re welcome to come down and join us and if you up to it even play that saxophone of yours. It will be around seven.”
…..“Thank you again for that invite,” Mr. Carmichael said. “Maybe I will come on down.”
…..He paid for his grocery items and then grabbed the paper bag they were in before turning back towards me and Mama and handing me a crisp ten-dollar bill.
…..“Happy eleventh birthday,” he said. “Buy something nice for yourself.”
…..“Thank-you Mr. Carmichael,” I shouted with a smile from ear-to-ear.
…..I worried for a second that Mama would tell him I couldn’t accept his money gift since we didn’t know him that well, but for whatever reason she didn’t. Maybe because she would send him home when the party was over with a Tupperware container of enough food to last him for a day or two so he wouldn’t have the need to eat those TV dinners and that was repayment enough for his kind gesture.
…..Before he was out of the A&P’s revolving doors, I had already spent that ten-dollar bill in my head. I knew I would ask Mama to take me to Woolworth’s to buy another paint by number kit which I had taken a liking to doing after getting a set for Christmas.
…..I promised myself to look for a paint by number kit of musical instruments so I could find a picture of a saxophone to paint and give to Mr. Carmichael.
…..When we got home, Mama told my Daddy she invited Mr. Carmichael to my birthday dinner because that was what good neighbors do before she set out to making all of the food she was making and my birthday cake. My Daddy wasn’t the bit pleased to hear that but after a long grumble started waxing the floors like he did whenever we were having company over for a celebration. If I was sitting on the sofa while he waxed the floors, I had to stay put until they dried so I stayed in my bedroom getting ready.
…..I was excited about seeing our neighbors and my friends that evening but I was more excited about seeing Mr. Carmichael and crossed my fingers he’d play his saxophone for us all. I knew that would be the talk of the whole Bridgeton Apartments if he did…maybe even the whole neighborhood. I crossed my fingers hoping he’d be our first guest.
…..When seven o’clock came I stood by the door waiting for the doorbell to ring so I could answer it. When it was seven-thirty, and everyone was there except Mr. Carmichael, Mama said, “I guess he’s not coming so let’s eat and enjoy this party.”
…..She put on Aretha Franklin and her and Daddy and our neighbors started what Mama said was “cutting a rug” while me and my friends started giggling at the way they danced. I was happy but I sure would have been happier having Mr. Carmichael there, right in Apartment 6B blowing his saxophone through the roof.
…..The next morning, I got up when the sun peeked through my bedroom window blinds. After breakfast, I asked Mama if I could go outside. She said yes as long as I stayed in the front where she could see me.
…..I hurriedly put on my new pair of white Ked sneakers that she and my Daddy got for my birthday and tucked the ten-dollar bill Mr. Carmichael had given me in the pocket of my seersucker shorts just in case Mama took me to Woolworth’s later on.
…..She stood by the stairwell door as I ran downstairs as she always did until I yelled I was down. I knew when I got outside and looked up to our sixth-floor window she’d be there watching me like a mother bird watches over her hatchlings.
…..My Daddy told Mama more times than she cared to listen to, that she needed to stop hovering over me and let me do things more on my own.
…..“Ella, you can’t hold her hand all the time,” he’d say, “she’s got to grow up and learn to do things without you hovering over her.”
…..“Millie will have plenty of time to be on her own when she’s grown,” Mama would say. “Right now, I’m going to keep a close eye on her. Didn’t you hear what happened to Miss Erma’s daughter last year? That girl is all of fourteen and got on the L train to go to the main library branch on her own and aint been seen since. Our daughter is not going to be a face on a milk cartoon as long as I’m breathing,” she’d say heatedly.
…..My father would let out a long sigh knowing he wasn’t going to win that battle with Mama and go sit on his old plaid recliner, another refurbished trash item he picked up along his garbage route. Of course, before he and a buddy even brought it in the house Mama made him fumigate it in our hallway.
…..When I got to the lobby door, I pushed it open and ran outside and that’s when I stopped dead in my tracks and froze. There on the ground bent like an accordion was Mr. Carmichael. My mouth opened to scream but nothing could come out.
…..I tried to move…walk back towards the lobby door to go race upstairs to Mama but it felt like my feet were trapped in cement. Mr. Carmichael’s crimson red blood pooled around me like an ocean. My legs grew wobbly. I thought I was sinking, that the ground was going to open up and swallow both me and Mr. Carmichael in some dark hole.
…..I locked my eyes shut to keep from staring at him, to keep from seeing the glutinous blood I was stuck in. I heard the sound of footsteps running towards me; people talking around me with muffled voices as I went in and out of consciousness. Suddenly I heard Mama’s voice too.
…..She sounded like a human fire-engine as she shrieked from our sixth-floor window, calling me by my full name Millicent instead of Millie.
…..“Millicent baby… Millicent…hold on I’m coming to get you! Hold on!”
…..But before I blacked out and Mama got downstairs someone had swooped me up in their arms. Mr. Jones, our building janitor, strong arms lifted me to a nearby bench and sat me down. I released the breath I’d been holding in since I saw Mr. Carmichael’s bloodied body as Mr. Jones took off my new white Ked sneakers whose soles were now red and after another neighbor came and held me in her arms, he placed my sneakers in the grass under the spigot and turned on the water to clean them. By then Mama was downstairs.
…..Mama ran to me and pulled me to her bosom and held me so tight I could hardly breathe. She smelled like Tiger Balm from rubbing it into her fingers that morning but her smell, her protective encircling was what I needed to come back alive.
…..She swiped at the tears falling from her eyes and thanked Mr. Jones and the neighbor for taking care of me. I worked up enough nerve to turn my head and look at poor Mr. Carmichael. Someone had covered his body with a sheet and I heard the sound of ambulance and police sirens.
…..Mama clutched my hand and led me with just my socks on to our blue station wagon in the parking lot, ignoring everyone’s pitying eyes, leaving my new sneakers now pink in some spots and drenching wet and that tragic scene behind us. She strapped me in the passenger seat next to her, put the key in the ignition and we drove off without her saying where we were going.
…..I never asked either. I just looked out my rolled down window and let the slight breeze baptize me as Mama drove.
…..“We’re going to stay at Aunt Thelma’s house for a few days,” Mama finally said. Aunt Thelma was Mama’s oldest sister. She lived in Willingboro, New Jersey.
….. When we got on the New Jersey Turnpike Mama intertwined her fingers into mine with her free driving hand. She let her tears roll freely down her cheeks and told me, “You’re going to be okay Millie. I’ll make sure you are.”
…..I closed my eyes and drifted in and out of sleep during our drive to Willingboro with the radio playing softly on some jazz station Mama had found. The traffic seemed as if it was moving in slow motion like a funeral procession and I thought about Mr. Carmichael and about who would be there to give him a good sendoff as Mama called it.
…..I wondered if Mama and my Daddy would go, Daddy pulling out the only suit he had in his closet that he wore for both weddings and funerals. I wondered if they’d let me go after what I witnessed. I wondered who would be there crying over his casket because Miss Betty said he wasn’t married and had no family. I wondered who would pack up his belongings in boxes and eat those leftover TV dinners he probably still had in his freezer. And I wondered who would get his golden saxophone, wrap their fingers around it and close their eyes like I imagined he did, and play. And if no one claimed it, would it end up on the side of the curb to be collected with the garbage my Daddy picked up along his garbage route which my Daddy would no doubt not flinch about getting rid of.
…..I felt the deep blue’s flow through every part of my being right then in our station wagon and I knew a trip to Willingboro New Jersey wasn’t going to be a cure-all to make them go away.
…..When we finally got to Aunt Thelma’s house, she was waiting on her porch for us like she knew we were coming although I didn’t remember Mama calling her.
…..She had lemonade and bologna sandwiches on her kitchen table but I wasn’t hungry even though I hadn’t eaten since breakfast and neither was Mama. She only took a few sips from her glass of lemonade and stared off into space while Aunt Thelma talked.
…..Aunt Thelma had a spacious house on the end of what Mama bragged to my Daddy was a cul-de-sac, her wanting us to move out of The Bridgeton Apartments and live in the same exact cul-de-sac in a house that was a replica of hers.
…..Mama and I stayed in one of her spare bedrooms. It had a queen-sized bed so there was enough room for both of us because I didn’t want to sleep in the room with my cousins.
…..We didn’t bring any clothes with us and I didn’t even have any sandals or sneakers to wear so I borrowed my cousin’s clothes until Mama and Aunt Thelma went shopping the next day.
…..My Daddy called every day to check on me to see if I was okay. After the fourth day of us being there he pleaded with Mama to come back home. I could hear his frustration over the phone when he talked to her that evening.
…..“Ella, I know what Millie saw is nothing no child should see but I want you all to come back home. They hosed down the pavement real good and people are comin’ and goin’ regular like they used to. It’s sad what happened to Mr. Carmichael but you can’t run and hide under a bush when something bad happens.”
…..“We’ll come home in due time,” she told him as she stroked my hair. “When Millie’s ready.”
…..When we lay in bed at night Mama would ask me if I wanted to talk about it and I would shake my head no. One day my words would tumble out like water from a busted water pipe and Mama would catch every word that poured from the pain in my heart and know what to do with them so I could heal.
…..A few days later Mama and I went home. We didn’t make it back in time to go to the funeral but Miss Betty went and so did my Daddy in me and Mama’s place.
…..“It was a good sendoff. A lot of musicians came from all over the city and some from out of state to pay their respects. From what all those musicians said when they got up to speak about him,he was one of the best saxophonists around,” my Daddy said.
…..But it was later on that night I overheard my Daddy tell Mama that he overheard one of the mourners say that Mr. Carmichael had a lot of demons he was running from; things from his growing up days when he lived in Mississippi at the hands of his alcoholic father, and a broken heart from a woman he thought he was going to marry.
…..I’m in my thirties now, thirty-two to be exact. My parents still live in The Bridgeton Apartments in Apartment 6B, and families have come and gone in Apartment 7B, the apartment Mr. Carmichael lived in.
…..My Daddy retired from the Sanitation Department with a good enough pension to move them to a cul-de-sac in Willingboro New Jersey but Mama made peace with staying put and never brought up them moving again.
…..I live in a studio apartment in Queens now. I work at an office job during the day and paint at night hoping to have a gallery showing soon of saxophonists in mixed media. It’s my way of creating something beautiful for Mr. Carmichael, a better ending than the one he chose.
…..Every time I visit my parents, I envision him still above us. I close my eyes and ask God to grant me a miracle. I ask to hear the rich emotive melody of his golden saxophone. And for a moment in time, I do, and the gloom of that blistering August morning, the day after I turned eleven, disappears like dust swept under the rug.
Jeanine DeHoney is a freelance writer and has had her writing published online, and in several anthologies and magazines. She has also been published in two Chicken Soup For The Soul Anthologies. Her love of jazz began as a child in the presence of her father who played the saxophone and introduced her to the music of jazz legends at the age of seven.