By Marco Etheridge
For Malcolm John Rebennack, Jr
I understand how you might know I was in town. What I’m curious about is how you knew which hotel I was staying at.
You may be a Mystery Man, but you don’t understand this town you ask me a question like that. Can’t no musician come into the Big Easy without everyone knowing about it in five minutes flat. Using a phony name at your hotel don’t hide you from the player’s grapevine. The desk clerk tells the cocktail waitress. She tells the bartender. Bartender tells the bass player. He tells the sax player. Sax player, he tells me.
The two men were strolling up Burgundy Street. Overhanging balconies shaded the sidewalk from the afternoon sun. Even in the shade, the heat pounded the street like a hammer on an anvil.
The leaner man’s face was half-hidden beneath a white Panama hat and dark sunglasses. He wore a white suit coat over a white shirt. A slate-gray tie was knotted neatly at his throat. A black mustache hovered below a long nose. A small soul patch clung to his lower lip.
His voice was a languid southern drawl. Somewhere behind the accent was a hint of the Old World. His mouth seemed not to move when he spoke.
Okay, Mac, that explains how you found me. But I was just as surprised that you were here. It was my understanding you were out in Los Angeles.
Sure, session work in LA, living in New York. But I try to get back home whenever I can make it happen. Ain’t no town like this town.
The man named Mac shambled down the sidewalk, the brass tip of a cane tapping against the concrete. His face was framed by a black beard. Dark hair fell to his shoulders from under a black Homburg hat. A tangle of chains and amulets hung down over a black shirt. His words flowed out in the thick patois of a native New Orleanian.
See, when I got out the Joint, folks made it clear there wasn’t no more welcome mat for me back here. The money men, they were trying to clean up the French Quarter. Wanted to make it safer for the tourists. So I take the hint and head for LA. Make myself scarce until the heat dies down.
You went west to LA and got famous. Is that your version of hiding out?
A huge smile broke through Mac’s beard. He shook his head, chuckling.
You can’t believe the talent out there, Leon. The Wrecking Crew, they deep, you know what I’m saying? There’s this chick bass player out there so good she bring tears to your eyes. I ain’t lying, Man, she anchors a rhythm section like a holy rock. All of them players, they make those pretty stars look like real musicians, which most of them isn’t. Hell, it weren’t for the session cats, wouldn’t be no gold records, you know?
And now the city fathers have rolled out the welcome mat once more?
Mac’s laugh echoed down the sidewalk.
A Homeboy gets him a hit record, folks do tend to get more forgiving, don’t they.
Yes, the spotlight does seem to smooth over past transgressions. But back to the present, where is this landmark you are taking us to?
Just a couple blocks up here on the left. We going get you some real food, enough to keep you on your feet for a while. It’s gonna be a long night. Can’t let you come to the Big Easy and not take in a plate at Buster Holmes.
The men strolled past on open-air newsstand. A voice called out from behind a sloping cascade of magazines.
Hey Doc-tah, how you keeping?
Mac turned toward the voice, raising the head of his cane in greeting.
Keeping fine, Brother, keeping fine. Blessings to you this bright day.
Thank you, Doc-tah. Who this dapper gentleman you with?
This here is a genuine man of mystery, that’s who he be. But he can do things to a guitar make a strong man weep. You take it easy now, hear?
No other way to take it, Doc-tah.
All right then.
As they continued on their way, Leon turned to his companion.
Your fame precedes you, Mac.
Naw, that comes from twenty years playing every dive club up and down the Quarter. Six, seven nights a week we played them buckets of blood. That was the real schooling, right there. It ain’t like that anymore. But this town has still got some hot music. You’ll see tonight. We going to hit Rosy’s Jazz Hall on Tchoupitoulas Street. Big talent down there. Then we take in a couple of after hour joints and see what the second line folks is blowing.
I appreciate the hospitable welcome, Mac, but I don’t want to take up all your time.
Leon, you don’t understand the plot, Man. We gonna liquor you up tonight, then take you down to the studio tomorrow. It’s over on Governor Nichols Street. You’ll love it. Everybody who’s anybody done recorded there. Once we get you in there, me and the boys gonna steal every last one of your smooth Tin Pan Alley licks. Gonna rob you blind, Man.
It was Leon’s turn to laugh aloud.
It sounds like I will be singing for my supper. You’re going to steal the old tunes that I’ve already stolen and then add some funk?
Yes, Sir, we gonna fonkify everything; fonkify the whole world, that’s the plan. And here we are, Leon. Welcome to Buster Holmes, the home of red beans and rice.
The storefront bar stood on the corner of Orleans and Burgundy. A sign hung over the sidewalk: Holmes’ Rest. & Bar — Pabst — Good Old-Time Flavor. Mac held open the door and Leon stepped into the dim interior. The door swung closed behind Mac as he followed.
The men found themselves in a dingy bar room. The air was heavy with the heat of the day and the smell of stale beer. A collection of old men were propped on stools along the length of the bar. A wobbling ceiling fan was fighting a losing battle against the smoke from the old men’s cigarettes.
The bartender nodded at the newcomers. Mac raised his cane response, making circles in the air.
Greetings and blessings to you all, Gentlemen.
The bartender smiled. One old patron murmured something unintelligible, then turned back to his beer.
Back here, Leon, the kitchen’s back this way.
Leon followed as Mac led the way.
A short passageway brought the two men to a long open kitchen. A battered plywood counter bisected the length of the room, separating the diners from the busy kitchen space. The countertop was covered in a worn skin of formica. Generations of elbows had worked through the surface, exposing the rough plywood beneath it.
There were two open stools at the counter, one on either side of a skinny white kid. A beat-up guitar case was wedged in under his stool. A black woman in a spattered apron stood behind the lunch counter. Her face broke into a wide smile when she saw Mac standing there.
All right, Doc.
How you keeping, Darla?
Keeping just fine, Doc, this heat don’t kill me off. Two of you today? Give me a second, hear?
The woman turned to the kid.
Sugar, you mind sliding down one so these gentlemen can have a spot?
The Kid seemed startled at being spoken to. He looked over his shoulder, saw the two men standing behind him.
Uh, yes Ma’am, sure thing.
He moved onto the next stool, wrestling with the guitar case. The Kid pulled the heavy case as tight to his leg as he could get it.
The woman nodded to the young man, moving a small bottle of beer in front of him.
Your food be right up, Sugar.
Mac smiled and took a seat next to the Kid. Leon unbuttoned his suit coat and settled in on Mac’s right.
Thank you for making room for us, Son.
You’re welcome, Sir.
Mac smiled up at the woman.
He a polite string-bean, ain’t he? This one of your regulars, Darla?
He come in from time to time, Doc. Me and the girls, we trying to fatten him up a bit. I’ll be right back.
Darla sauntered towards a long bank of industrial stoves, her ample backside swaying as she went. Clouds of steam rose from huge pots simmering in a row.
Mac watched her go, nodding his head in time.
Must be jelly cause jam don’t shake like that. You okay with me doing the ordering, Leon?
I am at your mercy, Mac.
Mercy, Mercy, Mercy. Now there was a song. I saw Cannonball blowing that tune, almost knocked me out.
Ah, yes, a Joe Zawinul composition I believe. But what is this I see our good woman carrying?
That, My Friend, is Buster’s famous red rice and beans. Looks like the Kid knows his food.
The plate slapped the counter as she set in down in front of the young man.
Brought you an extra hunk of cornbread, Hon. It looks to me like you might could use it.
She smiled at Mac and threw him a wink. Laugh lines crinkled around her eyes.
What’re you and your friend having, Doc?
Give us two plates of red beans and rice, cornbread, and a couple of Blue Ribbons.
You want ham hocks with those?
Does the Pope wear a pointy hat?
I never met no Pope, Doc, but ham hocks we got.
Thank you, Darla. Say, what is it our young friend here is drinking?
That’s a Miller Pony, Doc, as you know well enough.
Those little bottles always looked like piss samples to me. What do you think, Leon?
I have to agree, Mac, it does look a bit like a urine specimen. No offense meant, of course.
The Kid was frozen over his food, a fork poised in mid-air. He looked like a cat caught in an unwelcome spotlight.
Tell you what, Gorgeous, throw another Blue Ribbon on my tab so our friend here can have a proper beer.
The woman nodded her head, laughing as she walked away.
Mac turned back to the Kid.
You don’t mind my asking, how old is you?
I’m eighteen, Sir.
I know we just met and all, but why you want to lie to me like that?
The Kid looked over at Mac, his fork still hovering.
I’m sixteen. But I don’t want to get thrown out of here, you know?
Go on, eat your food Kid. You ain’t got no worries, I wouldn’t rat out nobody.
Yes, Sir, thank you.
The big woman reappeared holding two heavy plates. A ham hock was perched on the edge of each plate, fat glistening over red-brown skin. The ham hocks were floating in a thick layer of red beans. The white rice under it all was just visible at the edges of the chipped porcelain.
She slid the plates in front of the two men. Three bottles of beer and two dishes of cornbread followed.
You need anything else, Doc?
No, thank you Ma’am. If things were any finer, I’d be frog hair.
Leon and Mac tucked into their food. The Kid kept his eyes down, eating slowly. He chewed each forkful as if his life depended on it. Drinking off the smaller beer, he pushed the offensive bottle to the back edge of the counter.
After a time, Leon shoved away his plate and leaned back. He peered around Mac to the guitar case at the Kid’s feet.
Pardon my curiosity, Son, but is there a Gibson guitar lurking in that case of yours?
Yessir, it’s a Gibson J-50. It was my granddaddy’s. She’s pretty beat-up, but she plays sweet.
Ah, so it’s a family heirloom. I take it your grandfather played it before it came down to you?
Yessir, he played it. He played and sang. Mostly hillbilly stuff he picked up around Kansas City. That’s where he was from. Me too, not that it matters. He was born in 1901, so he mostly knew songs from the depression years.
Tell me Son, did your grandfather teach you any of those old tunes.
Sure he did. That’s what I learned on. It’s still what I play, mostly. I got sorta stuck with the hillbilly stuff, the country blues, that sort of thing. They’re good songs for a solo guitar.
You don’t say? I am very invested in music from that era. It has a certain style to it, a sweetness that seems lacking today. No offense meant to any funkology, Mac.
Mac laughed, looking back and forth between Leon and the Kid. He wiped his mouth with a stained paper napkin and dropped it to his empty plate.
No offense taken, Leon.
Kid, you might not know it to look at him, but this fella here is a bona-fide time traveler, a man of mystery from the past.
Yessir, I know who he is.
Do you now? Listen to that, Leon. You ain’t as mysterious as you think you are. The Kid recognized you right off.
Sure, I knew you both the minute I turned and saw you standing there.
Is that a fact?
Yessir, it is.
Mac spread his left hand on the countertop. He pointed to the ring finger.
You see that finger? See how crooked it is? When I was about nineteen, some fella shot that damn finger near clean off. He was pistol whipping my pal Ronnie. I stepped in, the gun went off, there goes my finger. It healed up, but it healed up crooked. I switched over to bass guitar after that, then to the piano. Stuck with the piano until now.
Was that hard, switching like that? I don’t know what I’d do if I couldn’t play.
Mac nodded his head, turned to look at Leon. Leon was smiling as well. Mac pulled his left hand from the countertop and poked the Kid in the shoulder.
You all right, Kid. Look here, bout the only thing could make this shindig better is some pie. We need pecan pie all around. What do you say, Kid?
I can’t, Sir.
Mac turned to look at the Kid. He held up two fingers.
Okay, two things Kid. First, you can call me Mac, or Doc, but you gots to knock off this Sir thing. I’m starting to feel old as my daddy. Second, why in the hell can’t you have a piece of pie? You as skinny as a scarecrow. Don’t tell me you don’t like pie, cause that’s a sacrilege.
No Sir, I mean Mac, I love pie. But I can’t afford it. I wouldn’t have enough money for the tip.
Mac turned to Leon, as if looking for an explanation. A broad grin broke out under Leon’s black mustache. He looked past Mac’s face to meet the Kid’s eyes.
The young man has principles, Mac. That is a fine thing. It shows character. So, if I understand things correctly, if you order a piece of pie, it will push you past your financial limits, correct?
The Kid was nodding his head vigorously, glad to be understood. His words came tumbling out as he nodded.
I was busking over in Jackson Square, hitting the noon crowd. I only had seventy cents, but then some tourist guy dropped two dollars in my case. I could hardly believe it. He wanted me to sing a song for his kid, so I did. Two-seventy, that’s enough for a plate of beans, a beer and a pack of smokes. But I have to save some money for the tip. My Gramps always told me that if a fella can’t afford the tip, he better order something cheaper. Then I got to pay for the night at the mission and…
Mac held up his hand to stop the flow of talk. He was chuckling and shaking his head.
Okay, I got it, Kid. Thanks for the math lesson. Busking is a hard way to go, that’s sure. You’d best watch your ass. These coon-ass cops, they won’t hesitate to throw you in Orleans Parrish. And they’ll steal that fine guitar while they’re at it.
Leon rested his elbows on the worn countertop, smiling as he did.
Mac, before we go any further, why don’t we order some pie and explain to our friend that lunch is on us.
You got that right, Leon. Darla honey, can we get three pecan pies over here? Thank you.
Kid, I’m liking your granddaddy more and more. Don’t fret over the tip, we got yours covered.
The Kid started to speak and got the hand again. Mac gave him a stern look and pointed to the counter. The Kid looked up to find the big black woman smiling at him.
Here’s you pie, Hon. You enjoy that, hear?
Conversation lagged as the three men forked up the sticky-sweet pecan pie. The Kid didn’t stop until he had chased every crumb off of the plate and into his mouth.
Leon laid his fork on his empty pie plate and leaned over to whisper in Mac’s ear. Mac cocked his head to listen, then began nodding and smiling. When Leon was done speaking, Mac raised his hand to catch Darla’s eye.
What you need, Doctor, another slice of pie?
Even if I wanted to Darla, I’m full as a tick on a fresh-shaved hound dog. I was wondering could you set me up with a pen and a scrap of paper?
Sure thing, Doc, as long as you don’t go making off with my pen. Customers is always borrowing pens and tucking them in they pockets.
Word of honor, Darla. We’ll be leaving that pen right here with your massive gratuity, right Kid?
The Kid nodded, his face serious.
Darla tore an order slip from her book and handed it over, along with a ballpoint pen and a stern look. The look fell into a grin as she walked away.
Mac pushed his pie plate aside and flipped the order slip to the blank side. The pen scratched against the rough surface. When he was done writing, he looked over at the Kid.
You gigging down to the square tomorrow?
Sure, Doc, I’m gotta play everyday.
Well, if you can squeeze some time out of your busy schedule, me and Leon gonna be in the studio tomorrow afternoon. You ever been in a recording studio?
The Kid shook his head no.
That’s how I started out, way back in the long ago. I was bout sixteen when I started at Ace Records, same as you are now. Anyway, you come by the studio around two o’clock, hear? It’s right here in the Quarter, easy to find. You can’t miss it. You show the fella at the door this note, he let you in.
Mac pushed the slip of paper across the countertop. The Kid stared down at it, reading the freshly inked words. Mac signaled to Darla, rubbing his thumb and forefinger together in the air.
Leon reached a hand inside his suit coat.
I believe this one is one me, Mac. A most enlightening lunch.
I ain’t gonna bark if you set on paying the tab. I’ll make it up later in drinks.
That is more than fair, Mac.
Darla appeared, setting a scribbled check in front of Doc. Leon slid it over, eyed it, and peeled two bills from his wallet. When he handed the bills to Darla, she tried to hand one back. Leon held up his palm.
This is courtesy of the young man’s grandfather. What did you say his name was, Son?
Uh… Homer, my granddaddy’s name was Homer.
There you are, Darla, courtesy of Mr. Homer.
Well, I can’t say no twice, no to such high-rollers. Y’all come back soon, hear?
Shall we roll on, Mac?
We damn sure shall, and never stop rolling. I ready for a night of it now.
Thank you Darla.
The big woman smiled at him.
Kid, we’ll be seeing you tomorrow, right?
The Kid looked up from the slip of paper, nodding his head.
Thanks, Doc. Thanks, Mr. Leon. I’ll be there.
The two men rose from their stools. Darla and the Kid watched them go. Without turning, Doc raised his cane and scribed a circle in the air. Then he disappeared into the passageway, the brass tip of the cane rapping against the floor.
Darla picked up the young man’s empty plate, smiling down at him.
You gone make damn sure you at that studio tomorrow, isn’t you?
Yes, Ma’am, I am.
Don’t you show your face in here you don’t go, you hear?
That’s good. Next time you come in, your lunch covered Sugar.