Read Chasing the Devil's Tail Online
Authors: David Fulmer
Valentin walked out of the park and onto the quiet, sultry Sunday streets.
Charles Bolden, Jr.
The names were like stepping stones that wound back to morning-bright avenues that fanned out from the intersection of First and Liberty. That was when they were kids, students at St. Frances de Sales School for Colored on Second Street. They had been best friends all through their childhood and until they were young men, until things changed for both of them.
Even then, in those long ago days, amid the grinding, grating, clanging, banging noise of the city, Buddy heard things. He would stop in the midst of their frantic play and pose suddenly, his ear cocked to the wind. "You hear that?" he'd say. "You hear?"
To Valentin it was just a wash of city noise bursting around his head, but Buddy caught something there. Even when it was quiet, when the darkness had fallen and the streets had gone still and their mothers had not yet stepped out on their galleries to call sweetly for them to come home, he would hold a finger to the night and whisper, "You hear, Tino? You
" Valentin tried, but only Buddy heard.
Later on, he became a family man who attended church socials and a cornetist of no particular distinction. He gave lessons to young boys who would rather have been playing baseball. His horn announced, in stately tones, births and
confirmations and weddings and funerals, all the momentous occasions of life in the Uptown neighborhoods.
But then he got hired for a job with a band that worked a Rampart Street saloon, a dank, sweaty, bucket-of-blood patronized by no-good rounders, cheap whores and assorted minor criminals who didn't give a good goddamn what he played, as long as it was loud. Which suited him just fine; he was sick to death of polite music and polite audiences. And so he began spending long nights in that smoky back-of-town beer hall, turning New Orleans music upside-down.
He left the standard styles in the dust and stumbled onto his own sound, a crazy quilt that was sort of like ragtime, sort of like the gutbucket music that some now called "blues," with touches of the old quadrille and schottische dances, and fat chunks of loud and happy church music thrown in for good measure. All of it blasted out at maximum volume in a frenzy of motion, like a one-man drunken parade.
Within a year, he was filling the Rampart Street saloons every night and people all over the city were talking. A local newspaperman, after venturing a trip back-of-town to witness the spectacle, reported that what Bolden played was musical "chatter," using the French
to dramatize his disdain. It stuck; and soon everybody back-of-town knew what it meant when a band went to jassing a tune.
But nobody jassed like Buddy, especially late at night, when he'd find himself a gutbucket moan, blowing his horn so deep blue it was almost black, and so hot it was like the pit of a burning coal; that, or he'd be in one of his famous rants, rushing up and down the stage like he was about to run right out of his mind, tearing jagged holes in the night, loud enough and rough enough, some swore, to rattle the bones of the most recently deceased in St. Louis Cemetery No. 2.
Though a nickname was an honor reserved for veterans, people started calling him "Kid" Bolden. Then he did what no other New Orleans musician, veteran or otherwise, would dream of doing: he put his own name on his band. No Pickwick or Eagle or Excelsior for him; that wouldn't do at all. It was the "Kid Bolden Band." Then it was "King Bolden," and for the better part of two years, he truly was the king of New Orleans music. And then it began to fall apart.
No one could say for sure whether it was the Raleigh Rye that flowed through the streets like an amber river, or the hop or cocaine they sold at the apothecary, or the sweet, beckoning lips and heavy breasts and wide-spread legs of those low-down whores, or some evil hoodoo woman, or even Satan himself that got to him. But whatever it was, his crazy business went into the street, and people were whispering to Valentin, back after a long time away, telling him how his mulatto boy Buddy Bolden was breaking into frantic pieces in front of uptown New Orleans and that maybe he just ought to look into it.
Valentin did, and discovered that Buddy had just stopped minding his manners altogether and was pushing his insides to the outside, right through the silver bell of his cornet. He did whatever he wanted, drank too much, fucked any woman he could get his hands on and hit the pipe when the yen came upon him. Meanwhile, he remained loving to his wife and daughter and kind to his friends.
But soon the cracks turned into gaping holes and Valentin heard regular reports of his fits and tantrums and blue funks. There were brawls in the music halls, spats with the fellows in his band, shouting fights that erupted from the windows of his house and echoed up and down First Street. The whispered word was that King Bolden was flat losing his mind.
Valentin saw it happening, but there was nothing he could
do. Buddy, always headstrong, was a fast train careening down the track, all engine and no engineer, and God help anyone who got in the way. Anyway, Valentin had been gone too long, and things just weren't the same anymore.
The evening found him on the narrow balcony outside the rooms he let over Gaspare's Tobacco Store at the bottom of Magazine Street, a few blocks from the river. He sipped lemonade laced with rye whiskey as the darkness fell, bringing a cooling breeze. The Mississippi flowed by in the twilight, but he was conjuring the image of Annie Robie laid out on that divan. It was one of those things he should have gotten used to in his line of work, but never had. Maybe someone would write one of those mournful songs about her, he mused, a "blues" like all the guitar players were making up. Eddie McTier might have done it, but his singing days were over; Valentin had seen to that; and what an odd happenstance that he should be called to the scene of Annie's death just months after sending her man McTier down that last lonely road.
Now she was gone, and she'd soon be forgotten. Once the hoodoo woman cleared the haunted air, Cassie Maples would have no trouble finding someone to take the room. Come next Saturday night, the rounders would fill the lamp-lit parlor, drinking Raleigh Rye, listening to the Victrola, playing cards or dice, and waiting for a turn at whatever new dark-skinned girl lay across the divan with the faded silk shawl.
He looked south down Magazine, and as he watched the moonbeams flicker off the surface of the river, something familiar began to take shape, rising like an unformed ghost into the New Orleans night. For a moment, his gaze was fixed on nothing. Then he took a step back and shook his head and the shape fluttered away as if chased by a gust of wind off the water.
He poured what was left in his glass over the railing and heard it splash into the gutter below. He went inside, through his front room to the bedroom in the back. He unbuckled the stiletto in its sheath from his ankle, took his whalebone sap from his back pocket, and put both atop the dresser, then drew his pistol from the pocket of his jacket and slipped it under his pillow. He stripped down to his undershirt and drawers and crawled beneath a cotton sheet worn soft and thin. The window overlooking the tiny back lot and the alleyway was open, and mosquitoes buzzed around the electric lamp overhead, but he left the baire folded up over the headboard. He reached under the mattress for a volume of O. Henry that he kept hidden there. He had read only a few lines before his thoughts turned back to Annie.
He wondered if she had made plans for her Sunday, to go to church, to walk along the river, to sit with her face to a hazy Louisiana sun. He wondered if, in her last minutes, she had lost herself in wistful homesick thoughts of her kin back on the Delta. Did she recall Eddie McTier, her first sly corrupter? Or did she think about Buddy Bolden, her last man, with his black eyes full of a wild, white light?
Valentin rose up on one elbow.
Miss Maples had mentioned the late Mr. McTier, whom she hadn't seen in months, but not Bolden, a regular visitor. That news had been whispered by the homely girl in the filthy maid's outfit. He lay back, staring at the cracks in the ceiling plaster. Why not volunteer that bit of information? Because it pointed to King Bolden, of course, and Cassie Maples and all the others would want to protect him. Crazy or sane, he belonged to them.
They would have little regard for a history winding back to sun-dappled mornings on the corner of First and Liberty. Maybe Valentin and Buddy were friends once, but all the madams and the rounders and the sporting girls saw was a
Creole fancy man who talked like a professor and passed so easily for white that he remained in the employ of Tom Anderson himself.
Valentin still knew Buddy better than any of them, but it didn't signify; it wouldn't matter at all that his first instinct would be to protect him, too.
I also want to call your attention to the enclosed clipping in reference to the restricted district: "They have begun this work as a result of the experience they have had in rescuing girls at the station. Who, it is said, have been on the point of one of the immoral houses, deceived into thinking they were respectable boarding houses.
This I believe is a lie and I believe they should be called down. Hoping you are well and are enjoying the best of health, I am,
Valentin woke to the clatter of hack wheels on the cobbles of Magazine Street and the whistles of steamboats rolling up the river. He went into his toilet and washed and shaved, dressed in a round-collared white shirt and light trousers and visited the outhouse under the back stairs.
He walked six blocks north to find the District moving in slow eddies on this Monday morning. Doors were locked and shutters drawn at every address and only a handful of pedestrians and the occasional delivery boy were about. It was
sedate; take away the bleats and rattles and rumbles of the trains moving in and out of Union Station and he might have been strolling to early morning market in some sleepy Louisiana hamlet.
But this was no backwoods village; it was the main thoroughfare of one of the world's most notorious red-light quarters. As he waited to let a streetcar pass, Valentin gazed at the familiar scape "down the line." In the distance, he could make out the white walls and iron gates of St. Louis Cemetery No. 1, the somber keystone between the District and the French Quarter, occupied mostly by former residents of those neighborhoods. Across Conti Street, Storyville proper began with five of the grander bordellos in a stately row, divided only by a small firehouse. On the next closest corner, at Bienville, was Toro's Saloon, a popular watering hole for the District's musicians, rounders, and sporting girls. Then came the heart of the District, eight grand mansions leading down to Mahogany Hall. Finally, directly across the street from where he stood, taking up nearly half the block, was Anderson's CafÃ©.
All was quiet at this hour, but, of course, the calm wouldn't last. Around midday, a train would pull into the station and an eager out-of-towner would step off with a gleam in his eye and a strut in his gait. Up and down the street, doors and windows would be opening, gay notes would tinkle from a piano or Victrola, painted faces would offer up the first artificial smiles of the day. Our gentleman would pick a likely address from the copy of
The Blue Book
that a ragged kid had pushed into his hand back at the station. Stepping over a threshold, he would be greeted like an old friend by the madam and directed to pick from the bevy of ladies, all skilled, he was assured, in the most exotic arts of Eros. A small glass of Raleigh Ryeâgood for easing a new sport's jittersâbrought a Liberty dollar, four
times the price of any saloon. But it was no matter, why worry with the mood so merry?
The girl (schooled in Paris, the madam testified, though the girl's voice had an East Texas twang) led him up the stairwell and down the hall to her room. Once inside, the business moved along briskly. The girl undid his drawers and examined him frankly for telltale signs of the gleet. Then she reached for the washcloth that had been soaking in the bedside pan of potassium permanganate. She washed his member thoroughly, with motions that suggested more the cleaning of a kitchen vegetable than a prelude to amours. In what seemed a bare second, she settled herself on the narrow bed, pulled up her bloomers and spread her thighs wide. He threw himself on her, his heart pounding like a hammer, and in what seemed another second, it was all over. The girl bustled him out of her room and into the hands of the madam, who just as brusquely shepherded him downstairs and out the front door. Unless of course, he had more money to spend. The chicken had been plucked and sent packing, and the whole matter hadn't taken ten minutes, start to finish.
So the gears turned and the noise and motion cascaded through the week to a Saturday night crescendo of rye whiskey, loud music, rough laughter and fevered loins. There was always a bit of trouble, of course: fights would erupt, knives and pistols would flash and a corpse or two might be carried off. Later, the take was split. Sunday would be peaceful. Another calm Monday morning would come around and it would start all over again.
Valentin crossed Basin Street and passed beneath the colonnade of the largest building on the line and the grandest in twenty city blocks. He knocked on one of the double doors
and momentarily an eye peered out from a clear spot in the frosted glass. He heard the bolt slide back and the right-side door opened wide. He slipped inside. The door closed and a colored man in waiter garb nodded blankly and walked away.
He had stepped across the threshold from the grime of the street into a mirage. Along one wall of the wide, high-ceilinged room, a marble-topped bar boasted copper fittings that looked like they'd come from The Maine. The floor was white tile, crisscrossed by runners of rich red carpeting. Spittoons of burnished brass gleamed at every six feet of bar space. Chandeliers like those in the opera house hung from gold-plated chains and a mirror ran the length of the wall along the back of the bar. There were mountain ranges of bottles in all shapes and all colors of the rainbow, and the bottles of Raleigh Rye, the District's common elixir, were lined up in brown regiments. Tall windows with shutters opened a crack allowed the morning sun to tint the room with a pale yellow light.