New York City
Ed Phelps was walking north up Seventh Avenue. He’d just come along 50th Street from seeing Rockefeller Center—just the way he remembered it, all spit-shined and brass bright, the great big golden statue above the skating rink where they shot the Today show—and he wandered up the avenue, with no particular direction in mind. This was all after having splurged on a $10 pastrami sandwich at the Carnegie Deli. His buddy Dr. Streeter had told him he would have to get one, and had relayed this information to Ed Phelps the way teenagers speak of sex or the way grandmothers speak of grandchildren. After having attacked the monstrous mount of spicy meat, Ed Phelps understood the good doctor’s worship of said sandwich. And now he knew he too would hold it in high esteem—it was indeed more than the sum of meat and bread and mustard and sour pickles.
He had left the deli happy, and continued in his delight as he walked about. Happy to be back in the metropolis after thirty years—was it thirty years? Had it been that long? Since he came back from Korea? He reckoned it to be true.
Ed stopped at a grocery stand where they displayed a fine selection of tomatoes, oranges, asparagus, apples of three—no, four—varieties, greens of all color and manner, and juices. And gladiolas and carnations—pink, red, white, yellow—and roses and a tall tower of water bottles, sweating and looking so very inviting on a hot summer day, the moisture drip, drip, dripping and condensing upon the bottles white like frost. The idea of actually paying for something that came free out of the tap bothered Ed, but he was sorely tempted to buy a bottle, though he did not, ultimately, succumb.
As Ed stood and took in all the fare, this young fellow, who appeared to be Mexican, eyed Ed steadily. Ed smiled at the man. Of course Ed didn’t know if the man was Mexican or not. But the man said not a word, nor did he blink. Ed continued to make miration at the fruits and vegetables and flowers, surprised to find such a fresh bounty available in the middle of New York. Lickety split, right there on the street. He noticed the prices and shook his head. Well, I reckon they damn well better be the finest apples in creation! Hmph.
Ed walked away, saying, “Afternoon,” to the Mexican fellow, who, again, did not blink.
But Ed was feeling good. Ed was feeling fine. Smack dab in the middle, in the rough and tumble of New York City, and no one paid him any more attention than they did to anybody else, and he was feeling safe and he was watching the people—so many people, stepping fast, on the move.
Ed and his wife, Isaline, were in town for the National Baptist Convention, being held at that very moment in the Javits Convention Center way, way over on 11th Avenue. Isaline was the delegate representing not only First Baptist Church of Tims Creek, but her district of North Carolina. Ed was just tagging along. He was a trustee of the church, but not a deacon; Isaline was the mover and the doer of the family. She liked to call herself a people person. Ed thought it a wonder that she found the time and the energy at all after all the time she spent fixing hair. She had just added a fifth chair to her beauty parlor, and putting in six days a week was a norm for her nowadays. But she said it made her happy to be doing and doing, and he believed her, and he had no intention of getting in her way, even when, from time to time, she took a bad mood and set to fussing about all she had to do, knowing she wasn’t going to stop and just wanted him to rub her feet and acknowledge how much work she did, day in and day out, and tell her that she worked too darn hard and needed to slow down, knowing, of course, that slowing down was her last intention. Besides, every now and again being her husband took him places—for free—places like New York City, where he hadn’t been in thirty? … Twenty-nine? …
The noise worked like a tonic. He didn’t remember the noise. Cars. Trucks. Horses and buggies. Jackhammers. Horns. Shouts. Rumblings coming up from under the ground. Mysterious hisses. Cranes in the sky. Barking dogs. Folk hollering. Crying babies. Horns and more horns.
He saw a woman dressed like the First Lady step over a bum without even hesitating. He saw a man in a fine-looking business suit and fine shoes throwing up in the gutter, right there in the middle of the street. A man walked up to Ed and handed him a pink slip of paper. “You look like you could use the down time,” the dark-skinned man said under his mirror shades, giving Ed a schoolboy grin. On the card was the outline of a woman with bodacious proportions, front and back, and the legend read—in pink—New York’s Most Sophisticated Pussy. Ed dropped this in the next trash can he saw, embarrassed at the prospect that somebody might have seen him handling it.
But Ed’s spirits were still high, and he looked all about him, and most people—white, brown, yellow—were just stepping. He liked that. He liked to see the haste and the fast movements, people on their way somewhere. Where were they going? Lord knows, but they were aiming to get there. In a hurry.
And Ed was feeling good. He was stepping. He was happy and dandy and fine.
Plumbing was Ed Phelps’s trade and he had done well. After he came back from overseas at twenty-seven he settled on pipes. His daddy had said, Folk always gone need somebody to fix they pipes. He got a job working for old man Yancey Carter for a while, who was a white fellow, but a fair fellow. He next took a job down at Camp Lejeune. When he found out that the government would pay for courses, he took classes in plumbing at Owen Cross Community College in the ’70s, and, by and by, he was working for himself. Today he had three people working for him, and he had no complaints. No sir. Put two girls through college. Was prepared to put a boy through, too, but Edmund wound up going to the Air Force Academy, which made Ed proud.
Ed walked up Seventh Avenue to Central Park South and strolled over to Columbus Circle, where he beheld the statue at the entrance to the park, a monument to the Maine—he had seen that on the Discovery Channel—all doused in pigeon doo-doo, but that didn’t stop the young folk from sitting all around its base. He stood for a spell watching the scruffy teenagers on their skates—the kinds that look like ice skates with wheels—and it made him smile. He watched one woman for a particularly long while—she must have been Puerto Rican with her light caramel skin and long, jet-black hair and a body that brought to mind a fawn—her movements were a thing of beauty to Ed Phelps, and he didn’t want to look away, but he didn’t want to stare either, so he walked on.
Ed Phelps was two years shy of his sixtieth birthday, and he could say in all honesty that he had no notion of retiring. Ed’s own daddy had worked—out in the hot fields—till he was eighty-eight, and Ed planned to go at least that long. Besides, he was in good health. He’d given up the cigarettes now on ten years. Isaline watched his diet like a hawk. Doctor said his cholesterol was low. And his heart was as strong as a buffalo’s.
Ed thought about walking up into the park, to see that bridge over that pond that’s in every other movie about New York, along with the Sheep Meadow, and that pond where little toy children play with little toy boats, but he looked at the time and figured he should begin to make his way back to the convention center. All day, the day before, he had sat around with Isaline, attended the opening ceremony and a few panels, but today Isaline was in meetings, and Ed really didn’t want to just sit around. He didn’t feel like going back to his hotel either—they were staying at the Milford Plaza—so he continued walking.
He wore that day the suit Isaline had bought him for his fifty-fifth birthday—and it still fit—along with a red tie his son Edmund had given him for Christmas. And though it seemed most men these days didn’t bother with hats, he fancied his black wide brim and kept it on his head.
At 53rd Street, for no particular reason, Ed decided to turn west again. He was feeling fine. Adventuresome even. Enjoying his walk. Enjoying the way the air in New York smelled, all full of car exhaust, cooking food, sewer gas, garbage, and perfume.
Ahead of him—about mid-block—he saw a large group of young people, mostly white folk, gathering. Why, he did not know. Part of him knew he should go across the street, but—feeling adventuresome as he did—he kept on toward the group to investigate.
Boys and girls mostly they were, dressed casually in their T-shirts and jeans. He did, however, notice a lot of the T-shirts bore the same likeness of a man with spiky hair and the word Billy and something else he couldn’t quite decipher, but Ed Phelps had no idea who or what he was, and decided right away that he didn’t care. This was fun. This was a lark. In a few days he’d be back in Tims Creek snaking out septic lines.
As he waded through the throng—which he now saw was only about twenty or thirty people, and saw they were waiting for somebody, obviously, to show, probably coming out of that door there, he set his mind—“Excuse me, please. ’Scuse me. Pardon me.”—to getting through to the other side of the crowd.
A white stretch limousine pulled up at that moment (a Lincoln, Ed Phelps took note), and the crowd of which Ed was now plum in the middle began to buzz like a hive of hornets. A door flung open and two leggy white women dressed—barely—in one-piece black outfits that left not one thing to the imagination except the color of their pubic hair, emerged from the car. Following them was a much shorter man—the one with the hair standing straight up in the air, all blond like hoar frost and needle-looking, like a porcupine, or like a man who had stuck his finger into a light socket and saw God all at the same time.
The man chewed gum and had a sneer about his face, and quickly slipped on a pair of dark shades. He certainly didn’t dress like a man who rides around in limousines. He wore a black leather jacket over a T-shirt that was shredded, showing his pale underbelly, and his pants were like vinyl—but Ed quickly thought better and figured they had to be leather, and next reckoned that those pants had to be mighty hot on a day like today, even if you were riding around in the back of a limousine. And though the man did not in the least look happy to see this score and more of eager young people, they certainly were—without a doubt—happy to see him—“Billy! Billy!”
The doors to the building swung wide and three gorilla-sized men rushed out to push the crowd back, creating a path between this Billy man and the door. It just so happened that Ed Phelps stood at that path, just like the adoring fans. Ed couldn’t remember the last time he had felt so aware of his own presence, and so embarrassed to be somewhere. Though he had to admit it was a little exciting. Something to report on when he got back home.
As the Billy man and the four legs attached to two women walked through the path the three men had created, the crowd grew louder, reaching out with posters of this Billy and compact discs and albums and little books and pens.
At this point, almost by design, Ed and Billy were standing face to face—it was a mere flash of a second, a moment in time, before one of the human oxen came to push Ed Phelps to the side and sweep Billy into the brick building.
Billy snatched off his sunglasses, stuck his arms up and out wide and hollered: “Deacon!”
This ejaculation caused nearly everyone to pause—the two long-legged women, the three grizzly bear security men, a quantity of the nearby crowd—Ed Phelps. And before Ed could say—What?—Billy made a kingly motion to the Three Muscle-teers, and everyone—Billy, the women, and Ed—were swept into the back of the building.
Oh hell, Ed thought, what am I going to do now?
The hallway itself was dim and dingy and narrow, and Ed had no choice but to follow along with the pack, as he was in their midst. Directly they came to a larger room. The door was open and several people, some in suits and some in nice dresses, lolled about, but perked up when Billy walked through the door. The back wall was one long mirror above a long table full of bottles and jars and brushes and tubes. Goose-egg light bulbs ran all along the top.
“Francesca!” Billy said to a woman dressed all in black. He kissed her on both her cheeks and gave her a third peck as if for good measure.
She said, “Billy,” once, and kissed at his cheek—not touching it—only once. She did not smile. Her eyes had a fish-like flatness that made Ed Phelps uneasy.
“This,” Billy said, and made an extravagant flourish with his hand, “This is the Deacon.” He had an accent like one of those Beatles, or some of those British people on those PBS shows Isaline liked to watch sometimes, and not the rich and fancy kind, more like the kind who drove trucks and worked in butcher shops. And at that very moment it was quite clear to Ed Phelps that Billy was winking at him, his back turned to the Francesca lady. To be sure, this Billy fella was up to something and wanted Ed to be in on it. But the question was: Was he up to good or to no good? Ed Phelps would just have to hang out to find out.
“Francesca Eberhardt here, Deacon, is my A & R person. She’s an executive with my label. She gives things the ups and the downs, the green lights, the red lights, the yellow lights, the black lights—d’you know what I mean?—I mean she’s a real, real, real powerful bitch. And my fate in her hands, innit?”
Francesca said not a word. She simply stared at Billy with her rattlesnake eyes. She was dressed in a black dress that could have been spray-painted on her swamp-weed frame. Her long, inky hair was pulled back, making her face look even more gaunt and pale against all that black.
“You see, Francesca here has a BA in economics from Stanford, an MBA from Harvard—was it Harvard, love? Yes, Harvard—and a Ph.D. from the London School of Economics, but, funny thing—she don’t know nothing about no music. It’s a riot, innit?”
“Billy,” Francesca finally said, her voice a bit warmer than Ed Phelps would have expected, but chilly nonetheless. “If this is about your contract, I assure you—”
“Me contract? Me contract? Fuck the bloody contract.”
Francesca pointed a long and well-sculptured finger at Billy: “Look, my friend, I can put up with a lot of your crap, but there will be no fucking of any contracts. Thanks to you and your little come-back album, I own your little British ass. So don’t you fuck with me. Capisce?”
This brief lecture seemed to achieve the desired effect upon everyone in the room, all of whom were looking at their feet, to windows, to doors, away from eyes—all, that is, except for Billy.
“Own? Did you say own? I mean how insensitive can you be?” Billy thrust his hands toward Ed. “I mean, really—OWN? I think this gentleman can tell you volumes about what an injustice that is, innit?”
It came upon Ed that he would be expected to hold forth on this development, and the idea sat with him not at all well, and he began to look for a way out of this prickly situation.
“I bet you don’t even know the Deacon’s music, do you, Francesca?”
“Well,” she said, “to be honest, I—”
“Well, of course you don’t. I mean, how old are you? Sixteen? Miss Stanford, Miss Harvard MBA, Miss I-actually-prefer-Mahler—Jesus Christ! Can you fucking believe she actually said that to me?”
“Mussorgsky, actually. I said, Mussorgsky, not Mahler.”
Billy began to close in on Francesca, and in turn wagged his finger at her: “The Deacon is a legend, young lady. The Deacon and his Hounds of Hell. From Hell. They were fantastic—I saw them in Berlin in 1972 …”
After turning to one of his long-legged assistants (“Give us a fag, eh, darling?”), and lighting up, he launched into a long, detailed story about how Ed/the Deacon had grown up on a plantation in Mississippi, and had run away to Memphis at the age of twelve, and how he had run into a great big chicken at the same crossroads as had Robert Johnson (“You do know who Robert Johnson is, don’t you, darling? Yeah, I thought you might not.”), and how he got a recording contract with Sam Phillips and then Chess Records—and Ed Phelps couldn’t keep up with the story, but found it so very compelling that he wanted to hear this man’s music until it hit him—making him laugh—that he was, indeed, this very man. Lord, this boy could tell a good lie. Ed more than halfway admired that.
His cigarette almost done, Billy took a long draft followed by a long pause. His eyes seemed even darker and more impish. Francesca let out a big sigh and looked at her watch. Billy walked over to a corner, smoke flowing like fog from his nostrils, and picked up a case and put it on a table. He undid the latch and the top gave a slight creak open. A guitar. Of course. Just wood and wire. Billy ran a finger over it and looked directly at Ed Phelps. Ed Phelps beheld the guitar and he beheld Billy. He wanted to shake his head, No, but something about the entire situation tickled him, and he grinned despite himself. Billy himself grinned right back at him. It might have looked as if the two of them were drunk.
“Deacon,” he said, with a rather studied deference: “Would you be so kind as to play for us?”
Oh hell. Ed Phelps wondered how things had come to this particular pass.
At that moment, between them, something odd and familiar occurred: Two boys who together and without words recognize and acknowledge the Dangerous Thing, and, being like-minded, imagine assaying said Thing, and with each passing moment feel the Thing exert greater gravitational force upon the two, each to each, and along with the weight comes glee, anticipation, heat, so much so that the Dangerous Thing becomes the Irresistible Thing, the Inevitable Thing.
Ed Phelps picked up the guitar and began to strum. As he tuned the instrument a look of quietness and acute observation overtook Billy’s face, very like a cat.
The tuning did not take too terribly long, and, truth to tell, though Ed Phelps had not picked up a guitar in over fifteen years, and had probably forgotten more than he had ever known, as he strummed and hummed to himself, doorways in the back of his mind began to slowly open, then more and more, one by one, two by two, four by four, and he remembered his grandfather and how he played and how he taught Ed to play, and he remembered playing on the back porch with Mr. Moses Rascoe who drove a truck, but who was so good he played sometimes for money, and like a silverfish under a sink, a song jumped up into Ed Phelps’s head and he commenced to sing and play:
You get a line and I’ll get a pole, Honey.
You get a line and I’ll get a pole, Babe.
You get a line and I’ll get a pole,
We’ll go fishin’ in the crawdad hole.
Honey, Baby mine.
Ed Phelps looked all about and Billy’s face was no longer cat-like, but all Christmas, and all the young people in the room were beaming and tapping their feet—with the logical exception of Francesca who looked as if she might bite him at any second.
He remembered a verse that Mr. Moses had taught him:
What did the catfish say to the eel, Honey?
What did the catfish say to the eel, Babe?
What did the catfish say to the eel?
The more you wiggle, mama, the better I feel,
Honey, Baby mine.
Ed Phelps put an end to the song with a sweet ping and a run that brought back blueberry-pie memories. Billy rose, and was full of whoops and hollers and hot praise, and his friends and folk were clapping, and Billy set in straight away figuring how he could get Ed up on stage with him.
“Oh hell, no,” Francesca said.
“Seriously, it’ll be a riot,” Billy said.
“Well,” Ed said, “I have to meet the wife in a little bit anyway.”
“Oh,” Billy said, “she won’t mind. We can invite her. It’ll be a riot.”
“I. I would mind, Billy.” Francesca was now standing in front of Billy, towering over him, upon her face the expression of the school teacher who has finally reached her limit: “He can stay. He can watch the show. He can even bring little Mrs. Deacon and his hellhounds for all I care. But he is not going up on that stage with you, bubba. You dig? Fuck not with me, kiddo. Now—I believe you have a show to do, and I promised you’d be on time. For a change.” Francesca walked out the door.
As soon as Francesca left the room, Billy embraced Ed Phelps, kissed him on the cheek, and said, “Thank you, mate. You’re a real trooper.” He introduced Ed to his two assistants, saying they would take care of all his needs and that he’d see him after the show.
Ed did not realize that all this time he was in a theater called the Ritz, and he was ushered up into a VIP box to overlook the standing crowd and the stage. One of Billy’s assistants led him to a phone where he left a message for Isaline, that he wouldn’t be able to join her for Les Miserables but he was all right and he’d see her after the show.
After a long, long time, the lights went down and the music finally began. Ed Phelps was at once excited and deflated. He was happy to be here, happy to be a VIP, but he did not particularly care for the music, which made him a little sad. It was silly music, it was loud music, it was all catchy phrases and easy beats, stuff he heard on the radio, and he figured he might have had to have heard some of this music on the radio in the past, but, to tell the truth, it all kinda sounded the same these days. But the young people seemed to enjoy the music, and they seemed to enjoy Billy, and this made him happy.
Billy himself came off as a rough boy, a rude boy, a loud boy, a dirty boy, a tough boy. All of which made Ed Phelps laugh. He wondered how Billy would have done in the Navy. There were some mighty tough men there, and a lot of them were even smaller than Billy, and they did not wear leather.
During the intermission, Francesca came up to him and shook his hand. She did not have a smile on her face, but she did seem more pleasant. “You never played guitar professionally a day in your life, did you?”
“Ah, well, no, ma’am. You are correct.”
“He thinks I’m an idiot, but you don’t get to be senior executive vice president at thirty for not knowing music. I know music.”
After the concert, he found his way back to the green room, and to the assistants. He wanted to thank Billy, but didn’t want to take up any more of his time. So he asked the assistants to thank Billy for him, and he donned his hat and headed for the door, on his way back to the Milford Plaza and to Isaline.
Just as he reached the outside door, he heard Billy calling, his boots tapping against the floor.
“Deacon, my friend, a bunch of us are going down to Bobby De Niro’s new place. Would you please be my guest? You’ll love it. It’ll be a riot!”
Ed Phelps thought on it, thought about what he would say to Billy and these young people, thought about the senior executive vice president and music he didn’t respect.
“Thank you kindly. And you have been awful kind. But I need to get back with my wife. She may think I’m laying dead in a gutter somewhere.”
“All right, my friend. I can dig it. At least let me drop you off. Where are you staying?”
Just Billy and Ed in the backseat, and as soon as they sat down Billy launched into a long discussion of his career and the music business these days, and how he was once on top, and then the bitch hit him, sent him in a spiral, how you always need to look out for the bitch because the bitch is jealous … and Ed was beginning to have a difficult time following him, and couldn’t figure if the bitch was the music industry, a woman, or just life, and he didn’t really care. The leather seats were deep and plush, and he couldn’t help but admire the scenery as the large car glided through the streets of Manhattan, and his mind wandered as Billy carried on …
The men, the women, the girls, the boys, all well lit in the night time, but accompanied now by long shadows, the bikes weaving in and out of traffic, the hot-dog carts, the ambulances and flashing police cars, the subway entrances issuing forth human after human like ants from a mound, the street lamps and the blinking colored lights, above stores and offices, the giant words crawling across buildings that told the world news, and the giant head twenty storeys high or more, saying, obviously, something of grand importance, but at the same time nothing nowhere could be as important as being there right there, right then in all that color and size and flash …
By and by the car came to a stop, and the driver got out and opened the door for Ed. He turned to Billy and said, “Can I ask you something?”
“How did you know I could play a little guitar?”
“I didn’t, mate. I had this feeling though. Call it me intuition. I figured if you couldn’t you’d just tell me to fuck off, or something like that, innit? Just having a laugh.”
They shared a chuckle. As he was getting out Billy asked his name.
“Ed. Ed Phelps of Tims Creek, York County, North Carolina.”
“Ed.” Billy stuck out his hand and shook Ed’s. “Very pleased to make your acquaintance, Ed Phelps of North Carolina.”
The walk to his hotel room was long, the hall of the Milford Plaza being long and skinny and harshly bright.
When he got to the room he found Isaline in the tub—he called to her, and opened the bathroom door, and saw nothing but mist and was hit in the face by a wall of heat so thick and by the scent of pomegranate and strawberry and God-knows-what, all of which quickly took his breath away—
“Close that door, man! Don’t you let out my heat!”
I will never understand, he thought, why this woman insists on turning her nightly bath into a sauna, but left her to her devices, glad to finally be home. He’d tell her all about his day when she got out, which could be in thirty minutes, which could be an hour.
He put on his pajamas—the fancy silk paisley pair Edmund had given him for Christmas—much too fancy for his tastes and much, much too fancy to wear every day, but this trip seemed appropriate. He got into bed and waited for Isaline. Thev TV was on, the sound cut down, playing some Lifetime TV drama she was forever watching. Ed took hold of the remote and commenced to flip through the channels, hoping to find the Hitler Channel or Discovery.
Something caught his eye and Ed Phelps paused and there he was. He looked tiny there on the screen and much younger than he had just awhile ago, and so very white, all that white hair against such glowing white skin. He looked downright sick and pitiful. He looked like he needed to go home to his mama and get something good to eat.
He was singing one of the songs he had sung earlier that very evening, the song about dancing with himself, and Ed Phelps still couldn’t make heads nor tails of it, and figured it meant something dirty, but just didn’t care to know, nor did he care for the beat, which was monotonous and straightforward and boring—and oh my Lord …
In the music video—which made even less sense than the song—all these white folk who were supposed to be zombies or homeless people or such, in either event scary looking, he supposed—though they couldn’t have scared a baby goldfish even if they tried hard—were climbing up this tall, tall, tall skyscraper to get at Billy who was singing about masturbation or whatever up on the roof of this building. There are puppets and all kind of random foolishness thrown in … and at the very end, Billy grabs ahold of some electrode-looking thing and becomes electricity and shoots bolts of lightning at the pretty zombies and they all fall down to earth, from the super-tall building, and Billy continues to go on about how he wants to dance with himself, and Ed Phelps is left to wonder about so many things. And the day makes more sense and the day makes less sense, and he is happy to be in bed, and have it all to think about, all to tell about, to Isaline, to Dr. Streeter, and he must remember to tell Isaline about the pastrami sandwich at the Carnegie Deli …
The day weighed down upon him, but the day was feather-soft, the day was sweating bottles of water, the day was loud like cigars and smelled of truck horns, the day was a golden giant flying among the skyscrapers delivering fire to a beautiful Latina—Oye mama! Oye mama-sa!—hot day, long day, sweet day, music day, and the day turned to a guitar and the guitar strings turned to worms and the worms turned into cucumbers and the cucumbers turned into his mother’s fingers, and she gave them to him peeled white with salt and pepper and a little vinegar, and the taste was childhood, and the taste was still new, and the sun was high in the sky, and it was 1946 and he was fourteen, and he was in the tobacco field, and deep in the lugs, and the day was hot, but he was happy—BACCOOO! BACCOOO! AIN’T NO BACCO IN HEAVEN I KNOW!—and he heard his grandfather’s voice, and his grandfather was singing, and he heard his grandfather’s voice and his grandfather was singing.