(This story originally appeared in the Apr/May 2006 issue of Eclectica magazine.)
The old black man, well into his nineties, waited for his cue. He wore a dark suit that bagged at the knees, white shirt, and a string tie. In his arms, he held a battered guitar case to his chest as if it were a lover.
He looked out at the black and white faces drinking and eating. It still surprised him to see the races joined together, especially to hear him. He felt proud, but he also understood that a similar crowd would be there next week to hear another performer.
The MC was finishing his introduction. “And now, put your hands together and give a big Blues Café welcome to a music legend, Mr. Willie Fast Fingers Jackson.”
Willie walked slowly and deliberately to the plain wooden bench he had requested, dragging his feet along the stage. He shook the man’s hand and bowed slightly to the nearly one hundred people jammed into the small café. As intently as a doctor preparing for open-heart surgery, he lowered himself to the bench, placed the guitar case next to him, and adjusted one of the two microphones to his mouth level. “How y’all tonight?” Willie asked, pleased at how loud and clear his gravel voice boomed across the stage and to the audience. Not like the sound systems of his day.
“That be some introduction,” he said, undoing the snaps on his guitar case. “I guess he figure I’m ’bout ready to cash in, the way he got my eulogy worded so pretty. But I’m here to say, don’t stop dealing me those cards yet, ’cause I’m still in the game.”
Willie waited and, as he expected, the crowd applauded, some whistled, and a few actually stood up. It’s a good crowd, he thought.
“Those of you ’spect a big band with dancing girls and what not, you in for a disappointment ’cause it just me and Eloise tonight. At my age, I can’t handle much more’n Eloise.”
While the crowd laughed, he opened the guitar case and, as if uncovering the Holy Grail, took out a dark mahogany guitar that had lost its luster years ago. The name “Eloise” was implanted in gold lettering across the top of the instrument. A hush passed over the crowd as he adjusted a second microphone to Eloise, tuning the instrument.
“Thank the Lord for Eloise here, ’cause I heard screech owls what had better voices than I got left. But I can sure enough still play the gee-tar,” he shouted to the audience’s applause. He picked and plucked and tweaked his instrument. “I can make Eloise here sound sweet like a mama whispering to her baby, or angry like she just caught her man with one of them dancing girls.” Willie smiled as he listened to his guitar switch from a plaintive, high-pitched wail to loud, violent coughs of bass notes. “Eloise can laugh like she ain’t got a care in the world, and she can cry like tomorrow ain’t worth living.” He showed off his fast fingers, scratching and plucking the frets of his guitar. Willie never liked this part of his act, but the audience loved it. And after all these years, he played audiences about as well as he strummed Eloise.
“I’ll do my best to sing you some of my songs. But it’s Eloise y’all should be listening to.” The audience responded as Willie once again demonstrated his “fast fingers” nickname.
“When I was young and thought I was smart, I used to hang around the honkytonks and listen to songs like, ‘Good Time Sally’ and ‘Old Lady Blues.’ And I thought I was something when I made up a few of my own.
“For a colored boy come up from Pascagoula, I thought playing for white folk in Mobile was like hittin’ the numbers every day. Let me sing you this here song I made up back when I was just fourteen, ‘I Can Boogie All Night Long.’”
As he sang, Willie looked over the crowd of mostly young and middle-aged faces. They had no idea what it was like back then. And that was a good thing. He recalled singing this particular song to a crowd of drunken white people as they hooted and hollered and slapped each other on the back. He played along by gyrating like a fool and sticking out his tongue and rolling his eyes back in his head. The audience loved it and threw change on the stage. Willie remembered crawling on all fours for the pieces of silver as the white audience cheered.
“But times got rough with the stock market crashing and all. Not being what you’d call an invested man, I didn’t pay it no mind at first. But what it come to mean for me was white folk didn’t have the money to be entertained by black folk no mo’. So I hit the road and sung tunes like this, ‘You Got No Money, You Don’t Get To Play.’”
As he sang, Willie watched a man move his head up and down to the beat and saw a woman toe-tapping to the music. Most of the crowd, though, were drinking and smoking like they were somewhere else. They need some jokes, he thought, and some pick-me-up music.
“Back then, I washed dishes so me and Eloise could play at night. For tips mostly. We rode the trains and stayed at Colored Only boarding houses. ‘Bed and Breakfasts’ we call ’em now, ‘flophouses’ we called ’em then.”
That got them laughing, Willie thought.
“I remember a flophouse in Little Rock for colored entertainers and prostitutes. It got so full, I shared a room with a big old gal named Maylene. I had to wake up and sit in the hallway whenever Maylene had a customer. But when she finish for the night, she come back and give me some free loving. She really be warmed up by then.” The audience was with him now. Nothing like a little sex talk.
Willie also recalled trying to stay at more respectable colored homes in Atlanta, but when they saw his guitar case and his old clothes, they turned up their noses and told him they had no vacancies. He felt his face turn hot, remembering the looks of his own people who wouldn’t accept him into their homes.
“But me and Eloise still found time to make music. This here tune, ‘Git Up and Sing!’ was something I done with Reverend Jackie Jacks when we traveled to churches all around the South doing revivals.”
That song got the crowd a’tapping. Always did. Willie loved the music he made with Reverend Jacks. He just didn’t care for the time he had to spend in church.
“But when I wasn’t playing with the good Reverend, me and Eloise found bars we was more at home in, if you know what I’m saying. The crowd laughed and so did Willie as the old days flashed by so fast he could hardly make out the faces.
“I moved around a lot, me and Eloise, that is. I got to know a lot of strangers who were still strangers after I knew them. I had me one special gal, Lulu Townsend. I stayed with her whenever I was in one place long enough to call for her. But she couldn’t put up with my wandering ways and finally she say good-bye. Sometimes I wish I would a went to her on my knees, but a young man do what he gotta do.”
He met Lulu again years after she left him. She had two children and was married to a good man, she said. He worked as a doorman at a big Macon hotel. Willie was glad for her and he told her so.
“I made up songs like this one, ‘Loose Women Make Me Lose My Mind.’” He played a few bars, and then stopped as if unable to continue. “But they was sad times mostly. Lonesome times. This song, ‘Nobody to Come Home To,’ was me being honest.” Willie played the full song low and slow, and the audience quieted to listen.
“I traveled back home to Pascagoula now and then, but there wasn’t nothing there for me. My mama and daddy lost they land and they passed when I was on the road. I left home so young I hardly knew my kin but by name. They all long gone now. I met some of they children and they mostly gone, too. ‘I Never Knew I’d Miss Them,’ sort of sums up this part of my life.”
Willie played Eloise soft and tender, barely touching the strings. He tried getting his voice to almost whisper the words.
If it weren’t for a black-and-white photograph his mother had given him when he left home, Willie knew he wouldn’t even remember what his parents looked like by now. Most of the memories he had of them had to do with his music. His mother was happy when he took to making music, but she hoped he would play in church. His father always acted like music was foolishness, but one night as Willie played his guitar under the stars on a sticky-hot, South Mississippi night, Willie recalled his father saying, “That gee-tar’s your ticket outta here, boy.” Soon after that, Willie left for Mobile. He remembered his mama crying while his daddy just nodded his head real slow. On the train, Willie found a ten-dollar bill stuffed in his jacket pocket.
“I was already too old for soldiering by the time World War II broke out, but I wrote some war songs. Some of my tunes even made it onto the radio, like this one, ‘You Got To Be Proud.’
“I never got paid for them, though. They done told me it were my patriotic duty. I remember hearing one a them big band crooners singing one of my songs. I sure enough bet he got paid.”
The audience laughed uncomfortably. Some shouted, “Tell it, brother!”
“I got me some regular gigs doing studio work in New York and Nashville in the fifties and sixties. I never liked it, but the pay was good. I was the guitar for some pretty white boys that had one or two hits and then vanished like a mole down a hole. For the next twenty years or so, I played mostly blues in small clubs for mainly colored folk. And for the white folk I played what they called folk-rock. For a little while, in the ’60s when folk music and blues and jazz come back, I had me a comeback, too. And I never even knew I was gone.”
The audience laughed and applauded.
“I even taped a song for a movie, a documentary, they called it. But they only played part of what I taped in the background of one scene. So for you, tonight, I’ll sing the whole song that got cut from the movie—a old one I made up a long time ago, ‘I Can’t Dance with My Pants On.’”
As he knew they would, the audience hooted and enjoyed the song. Willie felt a little uncomfortable. He wanted to sing his more serious tunes, but the audience was happy and having fun. This was no time to get all artistic. Besides, he was near ready to bring the crowd home.
“I made mistakes along the way. Sure did. I loved a lot of women too much and didn’t love one woman enough. I drunk like I was fearing prohibition was coming back. And I let opportunity knock while I was too doped up to answer the damn door. One time, in a bar near Memphis, in the fifties, a white boy with a young white girl come to me after a set and say how he liked my songs and wanted me to teach him some. Now back then, I weren’t too comfortable with white boys. And white girls, especially young ones, scared me half to death. So I just give him my autograph. Later, I come to find out the white boy was Elvis Presley.”
Audiences always loved that story. He had told it so many times, he wondered himself if it were true. They laughed and applauded, as if they were trying to make up for the lost opportunity. When the laughter died down, Willie added, “But that the way it be. Fact is, I’m still going strong. And they tell me that Elvis fella, he didn’t end up so good.”
The audience cheered, but Willie felt sad. He knew if his doctors were right, he didn’t have many performances left. He sensed he had wasted his life singing happy music instead of just letting Eloise sing. Willie always wanted to play the guitar instrumentals he had fooled with through the years, but he was afraid he’d lose his audience. So he drowned out Eloise’s haunting cries with his Black Sambo voice. And if things got too serious, he’d sing a good time song.
“Strange how things work out. Now I play at colleges and I stay at nice hotels and call up room service. Last year, one of them colleges give me a honorary doctorate in what they call musicology. Now ain’t that something?”
The audience applauded.
“It getting late, and me and Eloise got to rest. So I’ll sing you one more song: ‘Sleep Tight, Everything’s Gonna Be All Right.’”
“Sleep Tight” was Willie’s signature number. He had ended performances with it since he wrote it in the mid-sixties as an upbeat response to the civil rights changes in America. But this time, something within him felt different, unsettled.
When he finished, the crowd cheered Willie like a conquering hero. They even stood up and applauded. They didn’t quiet down until he caressed Eloise and picked a few chords. But this time, his usual encore number—“That’s Right!”—didn’t seem appropriate. Instead, he decided to let Eloise have her say.
At first, she chatted and squealed like a schoolgirl after her first kiss. The crowd applauded while they paid their bills and searched their pockets for car keys. Willie got the nickname “Fast Fingers” because of the flashy way he used to show off, making Eloise screech like a drunk. But now it was as if she had sobered up and her voice, still tentative, rose from the frenetic energy Willie’s fingers supplied. The crowd hushed as Eloise’s voice slowed down and deepened.
As he played, a life of jive gave way to a melancholy that brought honest tears to Willie’s eyes. Willie looked out at his audience and saw the faces of real people who weren’t there just to have a good time. They were there to hear him and Eloise.
He let Eloise sing for almost fifteen minutes. The crowd stopped searching for their keys and listened attentively. Exhausted, Eloise finally let out one last cry into the night. In silence, before the audience even realized it was over, Willie placed Eloise into her case. One at a time, his fans rose and applauded as if thanking him individually.
With tears rolling down his dark, leathery cheeks, Willie walked slowly off stage, taking care to lift his feet with each step.
Wayne Scheer has been nominated for four Pushcart Prizes and a Best of the Net. He’s published numerous stories, poems and essays in print and online, including Revealing Moments, a collection of flash stories.
His short story, “Zen and the Art of House Painting” has been made into a short film.
(http://vimeo.com/18491827) Wayne lives in Atlanta with his wife.
WHY WE CHOSE TO PUBLISH “A Life Story”
We ran across this story while looking up another piece in Eclectica magazine and recognized the author as one whose work we had previously published. Given that this was originally published eleven years ago, and since it was such a well-told story, we felt it deserved to be put into the spotlight again.
Author Wayne Scheer does a superb job of showing Willie’s entire life in not only a short space, but he does it in a very interesting manner, which is precisely what we look for in the stories we choose to publish.
EDITOR’S NOTE: In re-publishing this piece we also retained the author’s original words, some of which had been changed in the previously published version.