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Authors: Esi Edugyan

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BOOK: Half-Blood Blues
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‘Leave me alone, Sid. I doing fine.’

I like to have spat out my damned dentures at him. ‘Doing fine, my ass. Jesus. You know what you look like from here? Hell, brother, can you see
anything
?’

‘Go on,’ he scowled. ‘Get lost.’

I shook my old head. ‘You like a damned fool out here.’

His arms all folded up over the steering wheel, his face staring up over the dash. ‘I’m fine,’ he muttered. ‘Hell. I just got to get on the road and I be fine.’

‘Sure you will. You be fine like Tante Cecile was fine.’

He looked at me then with something like hope. I felt suddenly angry again.

‘Don’t look at me like that,’ I said. ‘I ain’t going to help you.’

‘I ain’t asked for you to.’

‘No you ain’t.’

I stood there leaning in at his window, watching him watching me there. I could feel an old knife twisting in my guts. ‘If you asked for it,’ I said. ‘If you asked for it maybe you’d get it.’

‘I ain’t asking for you to help me.’

‘Can you even see over that dash? You need some phonebooks to sit on?’

He said nothing. I watched him struggle to put the stick in reverse.

‘You driving a standard? You even crazier than I thought.’

‘I ain’t crazy, Sid,’ he shouted suddenly. He look he going to start crying on me again.

I stood back then and crossed my arms. ‘Go on. Let’s see you get out of this then.’

He said nothing, just sat blinking ahead of him. An ancient old raisin of a man.

I could see the hotel staff watching through the glass. ‘Son of a bitch,’ I said at last. I came around to the driver’s side. ‘Get out of the damned seat. I mean it. I ain’t helping you but I be damned if you going to ruin a perfectly good automobile.’

I opened the door, the bell chiming from the dash, a fragrance of clean leather like a new saddle wafting out at me. Hell. The porter was still standing at the sidewalk, my suitcase in his red fists. I lowered my window, gestured for him to bring it on over.

Chip was careful not to look at me. I glanced across at the road. Everything seemed to slow right down. The day, bright and cold in that now unknown country. I don’t know. We don’t none of us change, I guess.

PART THREE

 

 

Berlin 1939

 

1

What is luck but something made to run out.

We jogged through the street, Paul and me. Slowly, we swung up into the trolley as it clattered down the boulevard, its brittle bells chiming. Leaning down, Paul hauled me aboard after him. The late evening sun sat like phosphorus on him, lighting up his blue eyes, his pale knuckles where he held me. It was the last week of August, and the light cutting through the trolley windows fell lush and soft as water.

‘You need to do more sport, buck,’ Paul laughed.

I nodded, gasping.

We tottered down the aisle to our seats. The trolley floor rattled and shuddered under us as it gained speed. The mahogany benches was warm from the long sun, and I shielded my eyes, looking past the tied-off curtains, the glass lamps clinking quietly. The city poured past us like something final, something coming to a end.

I sat there catching my breath, feeling a strange, vague sadness hammering at me.

Paul’s mood was entirely different. With a gentle smile, he winked at a jane across the aisle. Blushing, she looked down at her feet. Hell. He was a real cake-eater, our Paul, a great ladies’ man. With his wavy blond hair and his natty moustache, Paul look more like a motion picture star than the out-of-work pianist he was. Watching him brush the street dust off his dapper blue suit, I caught a sudden glimpse of how every damn jane on the trolley seen him: handsome, athletic, with that strong jawline, those eyes bluer than Greek silk. The perfect Aryan man. And he was Jewish.

‘Listen, Sid,’ he said. ‘Were you serious about helping me out tomorrow?’

‘What, with Marta? Or with Inge?’

He shrugged. ‘I don’t know. Marta, I guess.’

‘You got my number if it’s Inge.’

‘Inge then. It doesn’t matter so much.’

The boulevards was all shady, the green lindens dark against the bald sky. The trolley pulled up alongside a stop, emptied, filled up, then rolled back out again. We was on our way to the Hound to practise some numbers with the kid, though I wasn’t sure what the point was. We been banned from playing live. Which meant we was banned from playing, period. In fact, if Ernst ain’t owned the Hound – a sweet little sanctuary of a club bought with his papa’s money – we might’ve give up playing at all. Well, not really, but you get the idea. The club been closed up for months, become more a place to just mess around.

My eyes drifted to the window, watching folks out in the slow summer light, the jacks in their shirtsleeves, the girls on their bicycles. We was passing a crowded square filled with tables, folks drinking coffee, eating pastry, when I caught sight of a face I known.

‘Ain’t that Ernst?’ I said, sitting up in my seat.

Certainly looked like him – his jet-black hair, his skin so pale it near translucent, the veins standing out like etchings under the flesh. He was gesturing to a woman, a cigarette burning down in his fingers. I ain’t recognized the woman.

‘What, there?’ said Paul. ‘No, that’s not him.’

‘The hell it ain’t. Look again, brother.’ We was coming abreast of them now, their small table set out on the pavement in the sunshine. The woman he was sitting with wore a huge grey headwrap, fastened with some sort of ugly brass brooch. She was thin as a garden rake, and when she smiled I seen real clear a row of very small, very crooked teeth. We clattered past on the tracks.

‘Where?’ Paul said, frowning.

‘Over there. With that jane with the cloaked birdcage on her head. You ain’t seen him?’

Paul twisted round on the mahogany bench, squinting out the window till we was long past. ‘It wasn’t him,’ he said firmly. ‘What would he be doing with a jane like that?’

‘A jane like what?’

Paul jutted out his lower teeth, gestured with one hand like he wrapping a turban round his skull.

I smiled. ‘You get what you pay for, brother.’

‘Ernst must be on damned poor footing with his pa, if he’s paying for
that
.’

The trolley stopped, its bell chiming before starting back up. A older jack got on, short, narrow-shouldered, and wearing a party badge. We fell silent. Seeing me, his face gone grim, but then his eyes settled on Paul, and he started smiling. Good old Aryan Paul. The jack glanced at his pocket watch as he neared us.

He sat down across from us, his mottled hands resting on his knees. The sun slanted in through the windows behind him so I couldn’t no longer see his face.

‘If this weather persists, we’ll have summer right into November,’ he said pleasantly.

I ain’t said nothing.

After a moment, Paul smiled. ‘We can only hope so.’ I could feel him gearing up, gathering his charm. He flashed one of his startling smiles.

‘You’re not in uniform, son,’ the jack said.

‘Not yet.’ He give the jack a knowing look.

The man seemed to think about this for a moment. Then he lowered his voice. ‘What do you know?’

‘What have you heard?’ Paul asked back.

‘It’s coming, isn’t it?’ The man leaned forward, across the aisle. ‘The horses are gone from the markets. My wife thinks it’s nothing. But it’s really starting, isn’t it?’

‘It’s always starting,’ said Paul. ‘We always have to be prepared.’

‘The British won’t stop it.’

‘The British are impotent,’ said Paul.

‘Yes,’ the man said. ‘Yes.’

There was a fleck of parsley in the man’s teeth and I stared at it, feeling sort of sick. ‘We don’t start wars,’ he muttered, ‘but by the Führer’s grace, we finish them.’

My mouth had gone dry. I reached up and flagged the next stop. We stood, gripping the brass railing for support. The trolley shook, shuddered to a halt.

‘Heil Hitler,’ the jack said.

‘Heil Hitler,’ said Paul, smiling.

Then we got off and walked the rest of the way to the Hound. Paul was shaking. I thought it must be nerves, but then I glanced at his face. He was furious.

I didn’t say nothing. Ernst had secured us brown Aryan identity cards months ago, but we still wasn’t comfortable. ‘Just don’t do anything foolish,’ he done told us. ‘Don’t draw any attention to yourselves. They’re good forgeries, but they’re not perfect.’

So we passed, sure. But there was passing, and there was passing. Sometimes it seemed we’d passed right out of our own skins.

Ernst’s club, the Hound, been shut down for its degenerate sympathies a long time ago. And by ‘degenerate sympathies’, I mean us. It wasn’t no dive, not exactly, not yet. Still got running water backstage, tiled floors, grand lighting. Jacks walked up red velvet stairs into a gallery of brass and mirrors. Or used to, when the carpet was still down, before Ernst sold it to keep us in fuel. We didn’t care that rats lived in the walls, that the water come out brown some days. For us, for Ernst’s Hot-Time Swingers, its stage was our home.

Me and Paul gone in to find the kid already up on the boards, trilling out his scales. Always felt spooky, playing a stripped-down session without Chip. Sure you can be brilliant without the skins, but still, never felt right. It was like waking to find someone had cut you open and yanked out you damn appendix while you was sleeping. Something was
missing
.

Half a hour later we was still up onstage, the kid and me staring over the piano’s back at Paul. All three of us in our shirtsleeves, smoking and drinking the czech. The kid kept stopping, gesturing softly at me, counting me in. I finally just stopped, folding my arms over my axe with a sour look.

‘Hell, brother, quit that.’ I wiped a handkerchief along my neck. It was
hot
. ‘What is you damn problem?’

Hiero looked at Paul, like he half-frightened.

‘Well,
say
it,’ I said. ‘What the trouble?’

The kid shrugged.

‘Hiero,’ said Paul. ‘What’s the problem? Sid’s five minutes away from just packing up.’

‘I’m sorry,’ he mumbled. ‘I just tryin to get this line to go
underneath
him.’

Paul smiled tiredly. ‘Sid, this kid’s going to be your
death
.’

He punched a few low ivories for emphasis.

The kid just stood there, waiting. He snuck a quick look at me.

‘Alright, alright,’ I said. ‘We goin back to the bridge. You happy?’

The kid looked sheepish.

‘You boys go on back,’ Paul said, lighting a cigarette. ‘I’ll wait for you here.’

Son of a bitch. We gone back into it alone, me and Hiero. And this time I
felt
it, I felt the kid sort of getting between my strings and pushing back against them as I walked across. He fixed his eyes hard on me. Then he pursed his lips and blasted back into his end of the song, and we played through the bridge. Paul started tickling his way back in.

But it was a damn strange feeling, the kid making me start again. I didn’t like it.

We played on through into the change. Then suddenly the kid lowered his horn again, looking nervous-like out at the darkness.

‘What the trouble
now
?’ I barked. But then I fell silent.

Someone was clapping out there, the applause slow and loud.

‘Ernst?’ Paul called out. He pushed back his stool, leaned an elbow on the corner of his upright, shielding his eyes. ‘That you?’

Ernst come out of the shadows, his cigarette burning so low it like to scorch his fingers. His sleepy eyes look hooded and soft. ‘Gents, break for a minute. There’s someone I’d like you to meet.’

A figure come out from behind him and begun snaking between the tables. Man, it was
her
. That jane with the tiny teeth. She was wearing a tall headwrap, a sleek blue dress that poured off her like water. Hell. Tottering on heels high as dinner forks, she look tall and stiff as a birch. Something happened to my breath then, it sort of snagged in my chest. Not that she was beautiful. Her skin was a odd tawny colour, like oats. And she was rope-thin, with one a them stark bodies, like she built of planks nailed together. I could see the bones in her wrists sticking out when she lift up one hand to adjust that thick headwrap.

‘You boys don’t sound so bad,’ she said in English. ‘For a trio of
Germans
.’

‘Sid’s from the States,’ Ernst murmured.

‘Mmm. Of course he is.’

Man oh man. That
voice
. It was low-pitched, cozy, full of the dark tones of my old life in Baltimore. I found myself giving her a harder look. That small, high chest. Those plum lips that turned playfully up at the edges. Even her boyish hips. She smiled, and her crooked teeth seemed suddenly sensual.

Ernst put a elegant hand on her elbow, like to guide her forward. ‘Gents, this is Delilah Brown. She’s up from Paris. You’ll have to excuse her, she doesn’t speak German, but she has a few things she’d like to discuss with us.’

BOOK: Half-Blood Blues
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