“This well established poet makes a brilliant debut in fiction with these complex, poetically detailed, interrelated stories of Blacks from Africa, the Caribbean and the USA who converge and form an artistic community in the early 1960s in the most easterly regions of Alphabet City .” –David Henderson, author of ‘Scuse Me While I Kiss the Sky
There is blood on the street. His blood trails from the saw-dusted floors of a smoky jazz club. Soaked red clumps of him and his trumpet shinning on the floor in death-like patterns. Drip. Drip. And the piercing sirens of an ambulance and police cars break the silence of February streets. In such weather there are no children running around or mothers screaming and chasing them. Just the icy fingers of lonely winter winds whipping from the East River slapping the faces of those who venture out.
There are frozen faces staring in disbelief. Less than five minutes ago they all thrilled to the beauty, brilliance of this young man and his horn. Sweat pouring in rivulets down his dark brown skin. His eyes squeezed tight shutting them out. His raised eyebrows as music soared from his trumpet. All his cohorts straining, are pulled along with him in a maelstrom of musical fire; ah, the agony, the exquisite agony of it all.
Then it ends and he stands for a few moments silent reining in the vibrations from his sounds. No one moves at first. They just look at him as the drummer signals end, finis. That’s all. A tremor shakes him ever so slightly. His long fingers reach inside and find a stark white handkerchief. He mops his face and delicately touches his neck, front, back and then his ears. The lights glisten on his slick backed hair. He shakes himself and then bows.
“Thank you, thank you very much.” His voice rasps. “Let me introduce my partners; Billy Higgins on drums, George Merritt on bass, Gilly Collins on piano and Booker Little on sax.” He pauses and a mischievous grin paints his face. His name drowns in a swell of applause and smoke. Finally, a shift of the guards… Waiters rush to collect tabs. Those who can afford it and, who really can’t bear to leave remain in their seats. A few get up. Some go to the tiny toilets in the back—between the ‘stage’ and kitchen. Tables are cleared when patrons get up.
The ‘partners’ shake hands, pat each other on the back. Towels are pulled out of bags stashed behind the drummer. The bass player has his next to the stool he sits and he wipes down. He gently lowers his wooden instrument on the floor. The piano player collects his charts and puts them in his case, a flat leather brief case. He wipes his face and stretches his long arms and flexes his fingers. He is taller than the other members of the quintet. His head revolves right and left.
He turns his back as he gives last words to his fellow musicians. They huddle, smiling, shaking their heads in agreement. It is a conspiracy, the coming and final set. New music, pieces unexposed before. They are launching into new artistic territory. Someone has taped the two earlier sets, but this next one—ah, that will be the one.
He walks over to the bar and orders. “Hey man, you cats were smoking!” He smiles, accepts his drink and feels the sting of whiskey float down his throat It opens his nasal passages and his eyes water. He takes the frosted glass of water and gulps three times. Put it back on the counter. Feeling a presence at his back he glances around, shrew.
A discordant pitch in a red-too-tight sheath stares unappreciative. She demands a last night kiss, a missed meal two weeks ago and an unfilled bed. There are no answers to suffice. Placation is out of the realm of thinking. The time for thinking has passed. The present dangers of this time, this moment are real and standing on his toes. His head, still revolving around the last note of a new song he composed two days ago is unable to comprehend the questions of; Who? What? Where?
He shrugs and takes another pull on his cigarette. The atonality will not be denied His voice is lost in the cacophony of being a discarded tune, thrown onto a pile of old songs and charts no longer played. The urgency to plug his ears is overwhelming. He makes a move to go. Takes on step—stops—falls.
His blood splashes her face. Only then is her own blood cooled. She stands feeling her rage explode, orgiastic. The slow subsiding ooze calms her There is something sticking to her hands. Her fingers are glued to something. She looks and sees him at her feet. His blood out pouring is soaked up the dry saw-dust on the floor. The bar stool and counter are smeared and drips.
Her scream is a pitch that shatters ear drums and her heart. She falls on his dying form and buries her face in his chest. Cradling his head in her arms she calls his name. Her tears mix with his blood.
A rough pair of hands snatches her up. She claws the air. A slap across her face and her nose bleeds. The blood falls onto the man at her feet. Snot and red streaks of hers, his, mark her face. Another slap and she sinks on her knees.
The door is wide open. Cold air meets unbearable heat—angry heat. His partners rush out from behind the stage. They stare at the scene. His immaculate shirt is soaked and discolored Non-musicians lift him onto an inadequate palanquin. A tie-on staunches his life force. A drab cover over his body, exits the club.
Blood on E 5th Street freezes immediately. Some curious souls stand by watching. They are cloaked in quickly assembled coats, caps, shawls, shivering and questioning. What? Who? Where? They stand staring. And the wind bites their faces. They are immobilized
Then she, disheveled and gazing, stumbles out. A coat thrown over her dress cakes to her full body. She recoils against the lash of a brutal gust of wind on her exposed arms. Her countenance is a mess of make-up and congealed blood and mucous. In the clutches of the arms of the law, she walks on elegant hand-sewn boots. A purse is carried by a beefy officer bringing up the rear.
The crowd stares and heads ensemble move back and forth. Not knowing what to do or where to look, they turn back to watch the fading lights of the two police cars trailing an ambulance wailing. Eastwards to the Drive and over north to Bellevue; ah, the irony of words.
Inside the bartender is frozen behind the counter framed by bottles and glasses. His partners stand over the remains of him, blood on the floor. They come back through the gaping doors. Patrons waiting for the next set sit, not knowing whether to stay or leave. What to do?
His blood is left out on the street and people walk around it on their way back to their beds. Heads shake. Shoulders shrug. All ponder the meaning of life and its partner, death. How, in the blink of an eye, thirty-four years end and none can bring back the smile, the body, the sound of a horn at the mouth of a man reaching for the next tune.
Rashidah Ismaili is an internationally-known poet and dramatist. Her poetry collections include Cantata for Jimmy (2004) and Missing in Action and Presumed Dead (1992). Ismaili coedited the anthology Womanrise (1978). Her work is included in The Heinemann Book of African Women’s Poetry (1995). A reading of her play Rice Keepers was staged in 2006 at the American Museum. She conducts soirees at her Harlem apartment, Salon d’Afrique, and has taught or presented at St. Peter’s College, Rutgers University, Hunter College, Pratt Institute, and Wilkes University in African, African American and African Caribbean Literature and Creative Writing. Ismaili’s awards include the Puffin Travel Award, PEN, Dramatist League, Kennedy Center for the Arts, STARS, Miami International Book Fair, Zimbabwe International Book Fair, National Association of Negro Business and Professional Women’s Club, Inc., and the Sojourner Truth Meritorious Award. She lives in Harlem.