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Authors: Philip R. Craig

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BOOK: Vineyard Blues
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—  5  —

At our house, Zee took Corrie by the arm. “Jeff will tend the grill while you and I have a drink and yak. Come inside and tell us what you'd like.”

Corrie would like a beer. I went into the kitchen, poured vodka on the rocks (with two black olives) for Zee, and got a Sam Adams for Corrie and another for me. When I came back, he was looking around the living room approvingly. “Still got the rods hanging on the ceiling, like you said. I don't remember that stove. Used to be just the fireplace.”

“I put the stove in to make the place more civilized for my blushing bride,” I said. “It's a more efficient heat source. I traded some work for it.”

He nodded. “The barter system is best for them with no money. I see you still got your daddy's decoys. That man could surely carve.”

“It's a talent I didn't inherit, so we show off the ones he made.”

Oliver Underfoot and Velcro, the family cats, rubbed against Corrie's ankles and got scratched ears in return. Instant friendship. Corrie straightened, glanced at the lock and picks I kept on the coffee table in front of the couch, smiled, and moved to the fireplace mantel, where we kept Zee's expanding collection of trophies.

“Well, well, I see that you're a competitive pistol shooter, ma'am. I don't believe I've ever met another lady who does that.”

“Just call me Jessica James,” said Zee with a smile. “Yes, I shoot. It's fun.”

“She's a natural, according to Manny Fonseca,” I said. “She's better than I ever was, for sure.”

“Maybe that's because I'm only shooting at targets,” said Zee. “When Jeff was shooting a pistol, people were shooting back.”

Pretty effectively, too. I had the bullet scars to prove it. Another reason for giving up police work and living the fisherman's life.

“Never was much of a shootist, myself,” said Corrie. “I did some hunting when I was a boy, but since then I ain't had much time for guns. Some of the people I've known down through the years had a different view, of course.” He laughed. “What I get for hanging around saloons and nightclubs all my life. Lucky for me that those pistol packers mostly liked my music, otherwise I might have some holes in my old Martin and in me, too!”

“Well, our guns are all locked up, so there'll be no shooting out the lights this evening,” said Zee. “Come on, let's go up onto the balcony and talk while Jeff looks after the children and gets started on supper. I may be a better shot than he is, but he's a better cook than I am. You kids stay down here with your pa, but don't get too near the grill.”

“A man should know how to feed himself,” said Corrie, following her to the stairs. “I make no claims to being a chef, but I can bake a fish and use a frying pan if I need to. I've lived a long time, and I ain't starved yet!”

The cats and kids trailed me into the kitchen, where I collected the mesquite-marinated bluefish and chopped vegetables, and they stayed with me as I went outside to the gas grill, which was going nicely.

Zee had chopped, sliced, and marinated onions, peppers, precooked potatoes, and some other dibs and dabs of veggies from the fridge. I had more time than I needed, so I put all of the food on the table of the grill, and ran around in the yard for a while with Joshua and Diana.

Just running around was a good kids' game. Our two laughed and screamed a lot, which was the main point, and there weren't any rules except getting caught every now and then, and getting away other times. First, one of us was the chaser and catcher and then another one was. We also did a lot of falling down just as we were about to escape or catch somebody. From the balcony, Zee and Corrie watched and talked, like spectators at an arena game.

When I figured it was time to get to cooking, I fell down one last time and let both kids fall on top of me so we could all catch our breath, then got up and walked the three of us around the house a few times to quiet us down some more. On the last circumnavigation, I informed the audience in the balcony that dinner would soon be served, then shooed Joshua and Diana away from the grill and went to work on supper.

As is often the case with good food, there wasn't much to cooking this meal, especially since the prep work had already been done. I dumped the veggies into the perforated metal wok, put the wok on one side of the grill, and laid the bluefish fillets on the other. I spent five minutes stirring and turning the vegetables as they roasted, then turned the fish and stirred the veggies for another five minutes, and that was that. I turned off the grill and carried everything into the house, where I sliced up some homemade white bread and popped the cork from the jug of the house white—sauvignon blanc.

We ate on the porch, and everything was delish!

“My, my,” said Corrie, pushing back his plate and touching his napkin to his lips. “I don't remember a finer meal. You folks know how to live.”

“It's hard to beat fresh bluefish and veggies,” agreed Zee. “You'll have to eat with us again while you're down here.”

“You say that one more time and I'll be the man who came to dinner and never left.” He looked approvingly at Joshua and Diana, who were seated across from him. “I'm glad to see your little ones eat big-people food. Some kids are pretty picky.”

“They inherited my genes,” grinned Zee. “There's nothing I won't eat a ton of!”

“I may be an old man,” said Corrie, digging a hand into the pocket of his jacket, “but I still got an eye for the ladies, so you can take my word for it when I tell you that you don't look like some other women I know who love their food. I don't see any sign of that ton.” His hand came out holding a pipe. “You folks mind if I step outside for a smoke? I got a habit that I just can't shake.”

“You smoke right here,” said Zee. “Jeff smoked a pipe for years and still has his rack of briars and corncobs that he can't throw away because he may start again anytime. And I like the smell of a pipe, myself, so you just light up!” She stood and started collecting plates and silverware. “Stay right where you are,” she said to Corrie as he started to stand. “It's the way we do it: if I cook, Jeff cleans; if he cooks, I clean. Division of labor and all that. You're a guest, so you don't get to help.”

“I'll get the brandy and
biscotti
, then.” I got up and did that, and when the table was cleared we all sipped and ate, enjoying Corrie's pipe as we did.

Joshua and Diana stayed with the grown-ups and, after a bit, Corrie reached out a long arm and pulled a shiny penny from behind Diana's ear. “Well, look what I found,” he said. “Don't you wash behind your ears, young lady?”

Joshua, who hadn't known that his sister kept pennies behind her ears, was impressed even more when Corrie found another new penny behind
his
ear. Then Corrie found one in midair. All told, he found ten brand-new pennies in ten unexpected places and gave five to each small Jackson.

“How do you do that?” asked a very interested Joshua.

“Magic,” explained Corrie.

There was still some light when a Jeep came down our driveway, bringing one of the Skye twins to baby-sit. Jill and Jen Skye were the teenage daughters of our friends John and Mattie Skye, and looked so much alike that I never knew which one I was talking to. But they both loved Joshua and Diana and both were at the top of our list of sitters.

The Jeep stopped and a twin got out.

“Hi, Jen,” said Zee, saving me the usual confusion about which sister I was dealing with. “Come and meet Corrie Appleyard.”

“Hi,” said Jen to Corrie as they shook hands. “Zee told me why she needed a baby-sitter tonight, and my dad and mom were pretty excited when I told them that you were here on the island. I think they're going to be there at the Moon Cusser.”

“I'll look forward to meeting them,” said Corrie in his courtly manner, as Joshua and Diana, who liked Jen as much as she liked them, crowded around her.

“Perfect timing,” said Zee, looking at her watch. “Let's head for Vineyard Haven.”

The original Moon Cusser had been in Oak Bluffs, and for a while, back in the roaring sixties, had been a busy and successful place, certainly the island's finest coffee-house. My father took me there a few times when I was little, so I could hear the folk performers who came to play their instruments and sing. The only ones I could remember were Ian and Sylvia, whose voices and harmonies I still had on some ancient, well-worn 33's, but there had been many other performers, all part of the blossoming revival of folk music, which for a time had been a powerful alternative to rock and roll.

The Moon Cusser II was in Vineyard Haven, and in this later age, when traditional, mostly acoustic music was not in strong favor with the younger crowd which spent millions at concerts and on disks and tapes, it still hung on, serving coffee and featuring musicians sometimes unknown to the fans of the latest musical fad. Always on the verge of going under, the café was a small miracle of its own kind. It was the sort of place that you might expect to find a man like Corrie Appleyard.

The current Cusser was located in a battered building near the infamous Five Corners of Vineyard Haven, which is arguably the site of the worst traffic jams on Martha's Vineyard (although others will spiritedly contend that the A & P-Al's Package Store jam in Edgartown deserves the championship). The Cusser's single room was small, clean, furnished with worn chairs and tables, its walls and ceiling decorated with posters and pictures of musicians. The coffee bar was against the far wall, and the small stage with its single mike was in a back corner.

When we came in, there was already quite a crowd, relatively speaking, since a full house was a rarity at the Cusser. People looked up from their cups when we entered, and several straightened and then leaned over and whispered in their companions' ears as they spotted Corrie's guitar case.

There was a “Reserved” card on a table next to the stage, and Corrie led us there.

“A perk for the performer,” said Corrie in an almost whisper. “I called this afternoon and told them some friends would be with me and I wanted them close.”

We sat, and a waitress wearing shorts, sandals, and a T-shirt was instantly there to take our orders. When she left, Aldo came over. Aldo ran the place. He shook hands all around.

“Glad you could make it,” he said. He glanced around the room. More people were coming in. “Good house tonight. You've still got a lot of fans here, Corrie.”

“Good to see them,” said Corrie.

“Well, any time you're ready, then.”

Aldo walked back to the bar.

Across the room I saw Mattie and John Skye and their other twin sit down at a table. They saw us and waved and smiled.

“I reckon I better get at it,” said Corrie. “Talk with you folks later.”

He stepped up onto the stage, opened his guitar case, and brought out an ancient Martin flattop. I was pleased and surprised to note that it was the same model as the one that had belonged to my father and now belonged to me. Corrie touched the strings, adjusted one that already sounded fine to me, and began to play. Although my guitar was the same as his, mine had never produced such fine sound. It was more than note and tone; it rose from the void and imposed order on chaos. Then Corrie began to sing, and his voice was like an ancient boat on deep waters, carrying his listeners through darkness toward light.

—  6  —

Corrie's fingers caressed the strings of the old Martin and his voice melted into the sound of the guitar until I heard them as only one instrument. It produced classic blues sometimes and other music other times, but always it spoke of old and timeless truths. It wasn't a loud sound, but it was strong and haunting and it quieted the room. It told of sorrow, of stony roads and bruised feet, of betrayal and mourning. But it was more than a lament; it went past lamenting toward freedom; it was music out of the experience of black Americans, but it belonged to everyone everywhere. When Corrie finished his first set, the applause was almost apologetic.

He came to our table and sat down. I had coffee waiting for him.

“Great,” said Zee, smiling. I nodded.

John Skye crossed the room and put out a hand, which Corrie took. “Mighty fine,” said John. “Takes me back to when I heard you and Josh White in the fifties.”

“Long time ago,” said Corrie.

“You're better than ever. Did B. B. King learn that last number from you, or did you learn it from him?”

Corrie grinned. “We both got it from another guy.”

John straightened. “I'll leave you alone. It's been a pleasure to meet you.” He went back to his table.

“Our baby-sitter's dad,” said Zee.

“Ah. Nice fellow.”

“He's a professor up at Weststock College,” I said. “Teaches medieval lit.”

Corrie laughed. “Probably explains why he likes my music. It's pretty old, too.” He looked around the room, and most of the smile faded from his face. “Guess Adam didn't make it. There's a few young folks still playing and singing the blues, but most of them are listening to other kinds of music these days.”

“When the new stuff is gone, the blues will still be around,” said Zee, who, like me, was not a fan of most popular music. “Who's Adam?”

“Grandson of a friend. The boy I'm staying with. Thought he might come by tonight, but I guess not.”

“His loss,” said Zee, wasting no sympathy on Adam. She patted Corrie's hand with hers.

“You ever decide to go on the road, and if I have any money, I'll hire you to do my publicity,” said Corrie, a new smile appearing on his face.

From beyond the walls of the building we could hear the sounds of traffic and, somewhere far off, that of a siren. Some cop was heading for an accident, or an ambulance was taking somebody to the hospital, or a fire truck was on its way. The island was not immune to blues of its own.

“I better get back up there,” said Corrie.

He returned to the mike and, as the audience quieted, began a second set, this time alternating songs of many kinds: soulful ones, sad ones, comic ones that startled the audience into laughter, gospel songs, songs I remembered from my childhood, followed by others I'd never heard. The sounds of the outer world went away as his fingers picked and stroked the strings of the old Martin, and his ageless voice filled the room like smoke.

Saturday night at Kenney's,
We were sitting in a booth;
Tom Blues walked in among us,
Looking tear stained and uncouth.
Tom says, “Gimme a drink of whiskey,
Gimme a drink of gin;
I'm feeling mighty thirsty,
Though I know that it's a sin.”

Corrie let the guitar speak alone for a while, then came back to the words of the song.

“It's not that I'm a bitcher, boys;
I always wear a smile;
but when I'm feeling low down,
I got to go on down town,
Just to lose those Down Town Tom Tom Blues.”

Drinking liquor to forget hard times. A traditional cure that rarely worked, but one a lot of us had tried, for we all want to lose the blues at some time or other. I wished Tom well, whoever he might be.

Corrie sang three sets before casing the guitar and stepping off the stage for the final time. Looking weary. The audience filed out, many of them coming by the table to greet and thank him before they left. Mattie and John Skye pulled up chairs and sat down with us. Aldo shut the door behind the last of the others and got a bottle and glasses from under the bar.

“One for the road?”

“You bet.”

He poured and we drank. I felt good.

“Never heard that Tom Blues song before,” said John.

“Got it from a fella named Charlie Miller out in Gunnison, Colorado,” said Corrie. “Lot of good songs floating around one place or another. I like to learn as many as I can.”

“It's been a fine night,” said Aldo. “Be glad to have you back again sometime.”

Corrie nodded. “Be glad to come.”

“We'll work it out, then. A lot of folks living on this little island appreciate good music. It's what keeps me open.”

Aldo was right about the island's music fans. There were a lot of them. The Vineyard had more than its share of music makers, too. All kinds, ranging from people playing in rock bands to members of baroque and classical groups. Soloists, too, who could play almost any instrument you could name, and who sang in languages from all over the world. Some of them were famous, but others lived quietly, known only to year-round islanders, and performing only for friends or small groups of local aficionados.

When the island's renowned summer colony of movie and television stars, politicians, writers, musicians, and artists left in the fall, these year-round people, and other equally talented artists, scholars, and writers hidden away in the villages and woods, stayed where they were. They, like the far beaches and other secret spots rarely seen by the summer tourists, were, to me, the better part of the Vineyard's charm. Because of them, I rarely felt a need to leave the island in search of culture. If I wanted a taste of art or literature, I could find it right here, minding its own business.

Zee glanced at her watch and pushed back her chair. “It's save-the-baby-sitter time, folks.”

We went out into the night. Vineyard Haven is a dry town, so there were no bars emptying out, no noisy revelers in the streets, such as might be found in Edgartown or Oak Bluffs, where booze could be bought and sold and where, as a consequence, most of the island's fights could be observed. With no ferries arriving this late, the infamous Five Corners was as free of traffic as the sidewalks were free of barflies, so we got to the Land Cruiser without meeting another soul, and headed for Corrie's house under the star-spangled sky.

You couldn't see things as well as you could in the daylight, but there was no mistaking a Ben Krane house, even in the middle of the night.

“What a bloodsucker.” Zee's voice was nearly a snarl.

Cars lined the dirt road in front of the house and jammed the yard, and it seemed that every light in the place was on. The door was open and we could see young men and women standing on the sagging porch drinking beer, talking, and waving their arms. Over them, under them, around them, and through them blared the throbbing music the younger generation loved as much as I disliked it. Obviously it was party time. I double-parked the truck and Corrie studied the porch.

“Whole lot of socializing going on,” he said. “Well, thanks for the ride.”

He opened the door and stepped out. The sound of the music and voices poured in with the faint fragrance of grass. The word
fire
reached my ears through the hubbub of voices and the pounding music, but I didn't see any sign that they had a grill. Some faces turned toward us, maybe wondering who we were, then turned away again.

“Thanks for the fishing, the meal, and the ride,” said Corrie.

“And thank you for the music,” said Zee. “It's been a while since we've been in a church, but you'll probably see us there when you play.”

“Hey, Corrie,” said a voice. A young man materialized beside him and peered into the truck. The look of expectation on his face turned instantly to disappointment. “Oh,” he said. “Sorry.” He straightened and looked at Corrie. “I thought Adam might be with you. He said he might go to the coffeehouse.”

“He might have started there but he didn't make it,” said Corrie.

“Damn,” said the young man. “That means he probably went after Millie.” He frowned.

Corrie smiled. “I know that young woman. If I had a choice between spending time with her or listening to music I didn't know nothing about, I'd go to Millie, sure enough.”

“Yeah,” said the boy, “but I guess you haven't heard about the fire. The house where she lives burned down tonight, and we don't know if she was there or not. Everybody else who lived there was right here at the party when the fire started.”

I remembered the siren. “Their house burned down and they're here at a party?”

He looked annoyed. “No! They were here when it started. Now they're back there watching their place and all their stuff go up in smoke.” He waved at the noisy house. “These are other people from other houses. We have a scanner. We heard about the fire and we all tried to get to the house to help get stuff out, but the cops wouldn't let us near, so there was nothing we could do, and we came back here.” He looked worried. “I wish Adam would call or something.”

I would have been worried, too.

“He'll show up,” said Corrie, frowning and putting a hand to his chest. “He's probably making up with Millie some place.”

“Yeah, probably.” The young man didn't look persuaded. “Well, I guess all we can do is wait.” He turned and walked through the river of music that was pounding at us.

Corrie, still frowning, peered in at us again. “I'll see you folks again.” He shut the car door and followed the young man toward the throbbing house.

“These kids had better worry about their own place going up in smoke,” said Zee, frowning as I backed and turned. “It looks like a tinderbox!”

I had used the same term not long before, but in fact I had never seen a real tinderbox, and I doubted whether I knew anybody who had, outside of a museum; but Zee's point was sound: Vineyard slumlords, like their mainland ilk, were not famous for the safety features in their rental houses. The wonder was that more of the places didn't burn down before they fell down.

At home we found the Skye twin watching the late show on our tiny black-and-white television set, which had arrived at my previously TV-less house when Zee had moved in. It was part of her dowry, she had explained. We still didn't have a color set, but at least we had a set, such as it was.

“No problems here,” said the twin, gathering up her possessions and getting her money. “How was the concert?”

“Sad and blue and funny sometimes,” said Zee. “Corrie Appleyard is terrific. Your folks were there and they'll tell you all about it.”

“The blues,” said the twin. “I sing them myself, sometimes.”

The twin said good night and left, and we went into the children's room to check on the darlings. They were asleep and looked quite angelic. We adjusted a blanket or two, the way parents do, and went to our own bed. We read our bedside-table books for a while, then turned out the light. Zee threw a long leg over mine and snugged in close.

“I love you,” she said.

I pulled her against me. “Me, too.”

“I had a good time tonight.”

“Me, too.”

“I hope nobody got hurt in the fire.”

“Me, too.”

I thought about the fire and the blues and Corrie's frown. Maybe somebody would write a song about a house burning down. Somebody probably already had. Winners may write the history books, but losers write the songs.

BOOK: Vineyard Blues
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