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A RICHARD TODD BOOK
Houghton Mifflin Company
Boston New York
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Copyright © 1994 by Ann Patchett
All rights reserved
For information about permission to reproduce selections from
this book, write to Permissions, Houghton Mifflin Company,
215 Park Avenue South, New York, New York 10003.
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Taft / Ann Patchett.
"A Richard Todd book."
1. Afro-American musicians—Tennessee—Memphis—Fiction.
2. Fathers and sons—Tennessee—Memphis—Fiction. 3. Memphis
(Tenn.)—Race relations—Fiction. I. Title.
813'.54 —dc20 94-9500
Printed in the United States of America
BP 10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3
Book design by Anne Chalmers
Printed on recycled paper
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For Ann and Jerry Wilson
of Carthage, Tennessee
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"Home seemed a heaven and that we were cast out..."
A GIRL WALKED into the bar. I was hunched over, trying to open a box of Dewar's without my knife. I'd bent the blade the day before prying loose an old metal ice cube tray that had frozen solid to the side of the freezer. The box was sealed up tight with strapping tape. She waited there quietly, not asking for anything, not leaning oh the bar. She held her purse with two hands and stood still. I could see her sort of upside down from where I was. She was on the small side, pale and average-looking, with a big puffy winter jacket on over her dress. I watched her look around at the stuff up on the walls, black-and-white pictures of Muddy Waters and Howlin' Wolf in cracked frames, a knocked-off street sign from Elvis Presley Boulevard, the mounted head of a skinny deer. She pretended to be interested in things so she didn't have to look at anybody. Not that there was much of anybody to look at. It was February, Wednesday, four in the afternoon. The dead time of the deadest season, which is why I wasn't in any rush. The tape was making me crazy.
Before I even got the box open, Cyndi walked out of the kitchen and headed right for her. "What can I get you?" Cyndi said. Then I straightened up because the girl in the puffy coat wasn't of a drinking age. She was eighteen, nineteen. Could've been younger. When you'd spent as much of your life in a bar as I had, you recognized those things right away. Cyndi, she knew nothing about bars other than getting drunk in them. She was just a girl herself, and girls were no judge of girls.
"Get her a Coke," I said, and headed over to them. But the girl put up her hand and I stopped walking just like that. It was a funny thing.
"I'm here about a job," she said.
Well, then I could see it. The way she was overdressed. The way she didn't seem to be meeting anybody but didn't seem like she was there to pick anybody up either. We got plenty of girls through there. We got the college girls looking to make money to pay the bills who wound up trying to read their books by the little light next to the cash register when things were slow, and then we got the other kind, older ones who liked the music and liked to pour themselves shots behind the bar. Those were the ones who walked out in the middle of their shift with some strange customer on a Friday night when the place was packed and then showed up three days later, asking could they have their job back. Those were the ones the regulars always took to.
"You over at the college?" I said, and Cyndi looked at her hard because she didn't like the college girls.
The girl nodded. A piece of her straight hair slipped out from behind her ear and she tucked it back into place.
"How old are you?" I said.
"Twenty," she said, so quickly that I figured she'd practiced saying it in front of a mirror. Twenty. Twenty. Twenty. She didn't look twenty, but I would bet money that her ID was fake. It didn't so much matter in Tennessee. Seventeen could serve a drink as long as they kept it clear of their mouths.
"Any restaurant experience?" I looked at her hard, trying to tell her age from her face. "Ever work in a bar?" I was out of those employment forms. I made a mental note to order a box.
She nodded again. Quiet girl. "Not around here, though. I'm not from around here."
Cyndi and I stood there on the other side of the bar, waiting for her to say where she was from but she didn't. "Where?" Cyndi said.
"East," the girl said, even though that could mean anywhere from Nashville to China. East was the world if you went with it far enough. I didn't think she was trying to be difficult on purpose. The way she stood so straight and kept her voice low and respectful, it was plain that she needed the job. I liked her, though I didn't have a reason. Even when I just saw her standing there, when she put up her hand and for a second it felt like something personal. I liked this girl.
"What's your name?" I asked.
"Fay Taft," she said.
"Like the president?"
"William Howard Taft."
"Oh, no," she said. "My father tried to trace that back once, but he didn't come up with anything. I don't think our Tafts ever met their Tafts."
"Only president ever to be chief justice on the Supreme Court." I had no idea why I knew this. Some facts stick with you for no reason.
"He was fat," she said in a sorry voice, like there could be nothing sadder than fat. "I always felt kind of bad for him."
Not very many people who come into bars can talk to you about dead presidents. I told her she had a job.
Cyndi turned on her heel as soon as I'd said it. Cyndi wanted two shifts a day, seven days a week. She wanted every tip from every table in the place. She saw no need in the world for a waitress other than herself.
"Come back tomorrow," I told Fay, not looking over my shoulder at Cyndi, who she was straining to see. "Come in before lunch. We'll get you started."
She wasn't saying a word. She looked too scared to take a deep breath.
"That okay?" I asked.
"School," she said softly, like the very word would be the end of it. No bar, no job.
"So come after class. Just be here before happy hour. That starts at five. Things get busy then."
She smiled, her face wide open with relief. For a second that little white face reminded me of Marion, even though Marion's black. This was Marion from way back, when I could read every thought that passed through her like it was typed up on her forehead. Young Fay Taft nodded, made like she might say something and then didn't. She just stood there.
"Okay," she said, nodded again, and headed out the door. I watched her through the window as she went down the sidewalk. She took a stocking cap out of her pocket and pulled it down over her ears. The cap was striped blue and yellow and had one of those fluffy pom-pom things on the top. In it she looked so young I thought I must have made a mistake. One thing's for sure, she never would have gotten a job wearing that hat. It was gray outside and spitting a little bit of snow that wouldn't amount to anything. The girl, Fay, stopped at the corner and looked out carefully at the traffic, trying to decide when to cross. I watched too, watched until she crossed and headed up the hill and I lost sight of her skinny legs trailing out of that big jacket.
"Like we need another waitress," Cyndi called down loudly from the end of the bar.
But Cyndi hadn't been around long enough. She didn't understand about the spring, how waitresses take off for the gulf on the first warm day and leave you with nobody trained. Best to stock a few girls up when it's still cold outside, ones who
"I'll tend to my job and you tend to yours," I said, going back to the Dewar's. Cyndi had a hell of a mouth on her. Maybe that's the way they teach girls over in Hawaii where she came from. "I'm the one that hires people."
Cyndi took up a couple of clean glasses and went back to the kitchen to wash them again, just to let me know it wasn't right.
If it was or it wasn't, I had no one to account to. It was my job. I hired people and got the boxes of scotch open. I counted up the money at two o'clock in the morning and took it to the night deposit box, every night waiting to see if somebody was hopped up enough to crack me over the head for it. I plunged the toilets when they backed up. I used to throw people out when they got drunk and started beating one another with the pool cues, but then that got to be a full-time job so I hired a bouncer, a former Memphis State linebacker named Wallace whose knees had gone bad. He worked the door on Friday and Saturday because no matter how drunk people got on a weeknight they just about never took to beating on one another. This is one of the great mysteries of the world. I was putting Wallace on behind the bar more and more during the week. He made a good mixed drink. The tourists liked him because he was coal black and huge and the sight of him scared them and thrilled them. When he wasn't busy doing his job he was posing for pictures with strangers. One tourist snaps the camera while the other tourist stands next to Wallace. It tickled them to no end to have their picture taken with someone they thought looked so dangerous.
The bar I managed is called Muddy's and is on the water side of Beale down past the Orpheum Theater. It's owned by a doctor in town who holds more deeds in Memphis than anyone knows. He bought it back in the late seventies from Guy Chalfont, a bluesman we all admired. Chalfont swore the bar wasn't named for Muddy Waters or the Mississippi River, but for his dog, a filthy short-haired cur called Muddy that followed him with the kind of devotion that only a dog could muster. It seemed like all the old bluesboys sold out in the late seventies with some sad notion about going to Florida. They thought it would be better to die down there, sitting on lounge chairs near the ocean, wearing sunglasses and big Panama hats. They sold just before the real estate market broke open, a couple of years before their little clubs turned out to be worth a fortune.
The main thing I had to do to keep the job was book the bands and make sure they showed up and didn't plug all their amps into the same socket. In the winter it wasn't so hard because it was pretty much a local thing, the same people playing up and down the street on different nights. But the truth was that good blues were nearly impossible to find. Real music had packed off to Florida with the old boys. I had about decided the problem was that people didn't suffer the way they used to. I was an advocate of greater suffering for anyone who came through my club. Bands these days were always hoping to be what they called crossovers, which meant that white college kids would start buying their records, thinking they'd really tapped into something. People watered themselves down before they even got started. They thought if their blues were too blue there'd be nobody to buy them since nobody, they figured, was interested in being that sad.
When I took this job everybody said I'd be the right man for it. I was a musician so I'd know, run the kind of club a musician would like to be in. But when I started managing I stopped playing. I forgot what all of that was about and people around town forgot I ever was a drummer. I was running a club just like everybody else who was running a club. I was the guy who passed out the money at the end of the night.
I took the job managing Muddy's at a time when things with Marion had come all the way around, from her doing everything to please me to me doing everything to please her. I said I'd stop playing and take on a regular job to show how steady I could be. I thought it was just for a while, like you always think something bad is for just a while. I figured I'd get her settled down and then I could go back to the band. I didn't take into account that I might lose my nerve, all those nights in a bar when I was watching instead of the one up there playing. I didn't imagine how that could undermine a person. Once you thought about a beat instead of playing it you were as good as dead. Nothing came naturally anymore. I could play at home when I was by myself, but as soon as somebody else was there my hands started to sweat. Then I just ditched it altogether. After Marion and Franklin were gone, long past any hope I had of them coming home, I kept my regular job as manager. It was all I knew how to do.
When Marion took our boy to Miami last year she stopped calling him Franklin and started calling him Lin, like she was in a hurry and there was no time to say his whole name. Sometimes she called him Linny, like Lenny. It was her way of saying I didn't know him anymore, that anything that had come before was no good, even his name. Sometimes I called him Frank, but Marion didn't like that one bit. If I called down there and asked to speak to Frank she'd act like she didn't know who I was talking about. No Frank here, she'd say, and make like she was going to hang up.
That was when I'd want to tell her that Lin was a pretty name for a daughter but I'd called to talk to my son. I never said that. Marion had been known to hang up on me and when I called back she didn't answer. She had a million ways of keeping me from him that had nothing to do with me and Franklin and everything to do with me and her. Marion was pissed off at me for winding up how I did, which is to say, winding up like myself.
When I pressed too hard for visits or a school year back in Memphis, she'd say that maybe Franklin isn't my son. Nowhere on paper did it say he was mine, since she was mad at me the day she delivered and left the father slot on the birth certificate blank, like maybe so many people had been down that road there was just no way of knowing. Franklin was my son. Marion was eighteen when he was born and for all her tough talk nine years later, I knew who she was then. Her face was wide open. Marion used to wait around for me while I was playing. She'd smile at me and turn her eyes away and laugh when I looked at her for too long. She wasn't screwing around and I wasn't screwing around. We were good to each other back then.
She liked me because I played drums in a band. One of the many reasons she didn't like me later on. I wasn't a centerpiece, no Max Roach, no showy genius like Buddy Rich, but I was as solid a drummer as you were going to find and everybody wanted me. I made the other people look good. That's what a good drummer does. He keeps everybody steady and paced. He shines his light at just the right time. That was me.
I was born drumming. My parents admit to that even though they were never happy about it. I was asking to hold two spoons from the time I knew how to hold one. I heard beats in everything, not just music, but traffic and barking dogs and my mother washing dishes. I heard it. That was who I was, big arms and loose wrists. Getting a set of drums just made things easier. Getting a band made them easier still. Twelve years old, I was sitting in with a bunch of high school boys. I knew, right from the start.
The band I was in when I took up with Marion was called Break Neck, now one hundred percent scattered. We played mostly in Handy Park and when we couldn't get in there we played down by the water until the cops ran us off. It was all hat passing then, decent money if you were on your own but a joke once you carved it up in six directions. By the time we were getting real jobs with real covers, we were already falling apart, changing out the bass player one week, going through three singers in a year. I left before the whole thing evaporated. I got another band and then another one. As soon as I could outplay them I was gone.
If I had to narrow myself down to one mistake I've made in my life, it would be that I didn't marry Marion as soon as I found out she was pregnant. She was eighteen and I was twenty-five. She was still pretty much under the impression that I had hung the moon. She'd gone down to the drugstore and bought herself one of those kits that tell you yes or no. You didn't have to wait around very long, not like the old days of girls going down to the doctor's office. Back then when the test came back yes, everybody would go around saying the rabbit died. But someon
Marion didn't say one word to me about it before she knew for sure. She was brave like that. There are a lot of things you have to give Marion credit for. When she told me, she was happy. Her face was always very pretty when she was happy. She has a high forehead that slopes back. She has big eyes and wide, flat cheeks and a mouth that always looked like it was about a second from telling you everything but it didn't have to since it was all right there. We were sitting on the back steps of her parents' house, splitting a Coke because there was only one left. She was wearing cutoffs and a yellow halter top and she looked as good as any girl I'd ever seen. She hadn't gotten all dressed up or taken me away someplace secret to tell me. There was nothing to be ashamed about. Marion's face didn't have a worry on it. It said, I love you and you love me and all of this is going to be fine.
And that was the thing that made me turn on her.
It wasn't the news itself. It was something about the way she looked at me, like she knew I would never disappoint her, that made me want to disappoint her badly. This is called being stupid and cruel. This is being twenty-five and a drummer in a band when there are plenty of pretty girls who aren't pregnant asking for your time. I had been faithful to Marion because she was right, I loved her. But I didn't need her. It was her need of me that made me turn cruel.
So what would have happened if I had acted like the people on television? Picked her up and kissed her. Set her down in an old lawn chair all nervous and put a pillow up under her feet. What if I had rested the side of my face against the yellow halter top that barely covered her stomach and just held it there for a minute. Where would we be now? Marion and I keep no secret store of love for each other, I will promise you that. Everything that was kind between us we killed with years of dedication and hard work. When I hang up the phone with her now it's hard to imagine that one tender word has ever passed between us. I find myself thinking that we must have been drunk or stoned during any minute we were happy together.
Taft by Ann Patchett / History & Fiction have rating 3 out of 5 / Based on18 votes