This is why I like night: they can’t see your face unless you want them to see your face. I don’t like people to see my face. See this–this cleft in my lip right here? Took a hammer to the mouth a few years ago. See any teeth, do you? No, because they ain’t there. Except the two that are all side-like. That’s why they call me Jack-O-Lantern Man. If you’ve seen my face lit up in an alley, you know why.
The hell of it is I used to be a looker. You wouldn’t know it, but dames used to come down weekends all gussied up in expensive dresses just to see me at The Prescott Club over on Roosevelt Lane. Johnny Orlean: the man in the five-hundred dollar suit with a preacher’s smile. The boys used to tell me if I kept it up, some lady’s jealous husband would go off the deep on me. Who would’ve guessed a ball-peen hammer would do the trick?
Shoot. I could really tickle the ivories back then. Don’t play much now, of course; performing ain’t dirt without a clean face. Ladies don’t swoon anymore, they gag. Walking down the street, they catch my permanent snarl a mile away and cleave to their lovers. Those fellas don’t look me in the eye neither. They sure don’t talk to me. Nobody does.
Being a henchman isn’t like tickling the ivories. Takes some surgical skill to make beautiful music. Don’t take much to rattle somebody’s skull with a lead popsicle. Just: Click! Two in the brainpan. You see in movies all these tough guys talking about how it’s hard to kill a man. That’s a fib, my friend. To kill a man is the easiest thing there is. It’s much harder to kill an animal. Animals don’t got it coming. They don’t know. I once had to strangle a dog. That I took no pleasure in. I was just following orders. That’s the only thing I hate about being a henchman. At least when I was a pianist, the owner let me play what I wanted to play. That don’t fly in my current line of work.
Take this guy I’m waiting for. You see that snazzy apartment up there? No, the other window. Yeah, the one with frilly curtains. If I had my way, I’d be up there now checking his name off my list. The big man told me to wait though, so here I am. That’s what I mean. No creative freedom. Details, details, details. No room for improvisation.
Pays the bills though. Pays for my records, at least. As long as I have my records in the afternoon. Fats Waller. Jelly Roll Morton. Thelonious Monk. Count Basie. And the Duke, of course, the Duke! Who has time for loneliness when you got music? I sure―
Shhh. He’s coming out now.
(See, here’s how I play it. There’s nothing to it. You wait until they get good and close, and you psst them over to you. Have your cigarette ready, like this. Then, just say the magic words: ‘Hey, got a light?’ That’s it, that’s all. You’d be surprised how trusting people are. Would you stop to converse with a guy like me on a night like tonight? I wouldn’t. But many people will and have. When they see my face, though, they always wish they hadn’t.)
Time to put out the bait. I ready the cigarette and wag my lip. Sorry, sir, I don’t smoke. Of course he don’t. He’s got a kid. The kid wants to tag along with him. That paints the situation a different color, now don’t it? Well, that happens, too. Sometimes you don’t got no choice but to improvise. Even the boss can’t deny that.
* * *
I’ve walked here too many times at night. Most of the lamps are busted this side of town, so it’s easy enough to hang back, slide right through the shadows. The poor sap and his kid don’t know I’ve been with ’em for three blocks. Still can’t figure out where they’re headed yet.
Coming up on the right, there’s a Chinese joint I take my lunch at some days. The waitress don’t never look at me. Always with her eyes on her feet. I’m told that’s their way, but I’ve seen her snappy and happy with other fellas. I always leave her a big tip anyways. I don’t blame her. I’m a scary-looking guy. When you’re ugly, you got no choice but to live an ugly life. The pretty people know it. They smell it on you. All that ugliness you’ve done. Ain’t no bath for that.
The mark has finally stopped up ahead, but I’m pretty sure there ain’t nothing around here. That doesn’t stop him from walking into that building, leaving his kid sitting there on the steps. What kind of daddy leaves their kid sitting on the steps of a building like that in a neighborhood like this at a time like this? Some kind of daddy.
He’ll be safe though. Because in a minute I’ll be inside that building, and wherever I ain’t is pretty safe. This’ll give me the chance I need to handle my affairs.
But just as I’m about to hang the corner and look for a roundabout way to the daddy, that kid looks up at me from the steps. Not just at me, through me. The little bastard in the cap actually waves. I haven’t been waved at since that hammer French-kissed me. So I wave back. What am I supposed to do? I have to say it feels good. Then I can’t believe it, he actually skips over to me, like I’m a real person.
“Hey Mister,” he greets me. He’s got something silver in his hand that he keeps fumbling with. “You the Sandman?”
“Yeah. You live in the shadows and bring people nightmares, right?”
By now, I’ve recognized it’s a harmonica in his small hands. “Sometimes.”
“Well, I won’t tell people I saw you,” he says. He doesn’t move away though. He tries blowing into his harmonica but ends up just spitting a lot.
“Say, you don’t know how to play that thing?” I put it to him. Anybody with an instrument better damn well know how to use it. Same as a gun. Except them instruments are deadlier.
He hands me the harmonica without me even asking for it. “You’ll show me how?”
I can’t believe anyone would want my mangled mouth near anything of theirs. He doesn’t seem to mind though. He’s got a big dopey smile on his face.
I press the harmonica to one side of my mouth (the only side I can get air in and out of), and let out a blow. The boy lights up. He must’ve never heard it played properly before.
“How long have you had that thing without knowing how to play it?” I ask, tossing it back to him.
“My daddy gave it to me last year for my birthday. I could play it pretty well when I first got it. Sometimes you just forget, I guess.”
“Yeah. Yeah you do,” I say.
“Thanks for reminding me, Mister. Say, you don’t have any nightmares to steal tonight?”
I notice he doesn’t even bother to wipe off the harmonica. Something about that means a lot to me. “No, I don’t think I do. Not tonight.”
The thing about jazz is that you can sink to those real low notes and just live there a while, I’m talking scraping the bottom of the sea low–so low you become convinced that’s the only song there is in the world, and then, some little thing sparks in your fingers and there’s a new song. You’re high again, and you don’t know where all that music in you came from, but it’s there, and it’s alive, and it’s jumping. That’s the beauty of improvisation. You don’t get pinned down with just one song. You don’t gotta be just one song.
“Looks like it might rain. You have a good night, kid,” I say. Somewhere down the street, I can hear a juke joint heating up with music. I wonder if they could use a piano player?
“Hey Mister. One more thing―”
The bastard in the cap looks down at his shoes as the phantom presence behind me clicks his trigger. “Got a light?” daddy’s voice says. I go deaf as the white blast fills my ears and drives home the lead.
That’s the other thing about improvisation. It can sneak up on you.
As the rain drops start to splat down on us, the boy puts the harmonica in my hand. I drag it up to my lip and struggle to make use of it, but all that comes out is bloody spittle. My crippled cough turns into a laugh, and I grope for the air to say something through a throatful of wet death. Time for my bath, fellas. Here she comes! As I make a pillow out of the curb, at least the man has the decency to look me in the eyes like a human being.
Matthew Burnside’s work has appeared or is forthcoming in Concho River Review, Ginosko, PANK, Barrier Islands Review, The Cynic Online, Revolution House, and Neon Magazine in the UK, among others.. He is an editor for Mixed Fruit, an online literary magazine (http://mixedfruitmag.com/).