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Drawing by Russell Morgan (UK) (www.kdas.co.uk)
"Eight Bar Blues and You Ain't Goin' Home"
© 2010 by Wayne Faust
All rights reserved
© 2010 by Wayne Faust
I’d been working in Chicago for over twenty years, reviewing nearly every two-bit act that came down the pike. So that makes it all the more remarkable that on the night when I first saw Jake Wilson perform, he blew me away.
It was an icy cold night in February, a hawk wind blowing in off Lake Michigan, and needles of snow swirling in the air. I was heading for the Shady Gator, a new place on Rush Street, nestled in among the trendy dance clubs and holo-performance venues that are so popular these days. I cursed my luck in having to leave my hi-rise to check out a new act on a night like this, but it was live music, so I went. There aren’t a lot of live acts out there these days, but I happen to like them. Call me old-fashioned.
As I walked into the Shady Gator, it turned out to be a lot more old-fashioned than even I would have preferred. There was no enviro program, no holographic wallscreens, just plaster walls with the brick underneath showing through in patches. Imitation cigarette smoke seeped down from tiny holes in the ceiling. Rows of thrift shop, folding chairs faced the stage. It looked like a room that had been thrown together at the last minute for a poker game. Knowing what they charge for rent on Rush Street these days, I didn’t believe it for a second. But the room was warm, so I took off my coat and sat down. I counted twenty people in the audience in a space that held a couple hundred.
Jake Wilson was already into his act. The stage was tiny, barely big enough to accommodate him, and looked like it was made out of plywood. He was sitting on a stool and playing a hollow-body Martin guitar, tapping his boot in time with the music. He worked a metal slide up and down the frets, making it sound like grown men crying. He was singing through a microphone that looked like it could have been around a hundred years ago, back in the early days of radio.
Sweat dripped down Jake’s black-as-pitch face, sending little beads into the air as he swayed his head back and forth. A cigarette that almost looked like the real thing hung down from one corner of his mouth. A single blue light hung from a cord above his head.
He was playing the eight bar blues. I’ve always loved the blues, and in spite of the obvious gimmickry of the place, Jake’s music was the real deal.
You got me runnin'
You got me hidin'
You got me run hide run hide any way you want
Yeah yeah yeah
What was it about that music? There was a slow, easy groove to it that took me to another place. Instead of February in Chicago, it was suddenly a summer night on the Mississippi delta with the air dripping; I was sipping lemonade and Jack Daniel’s on somebody’s front porch with my feet up, listening to a freight train dwindle in the distance. I felt like I had hitched a ride on a time machine, something only a very privileged few have ever done.
A deep sadness nibbled away at the edge of my consciousness. It’s not okay to be sad these days. What’s there to be sad about? Nobody’s hungry. Everybody’s got a nice place to live. We’ve got a billion kinds of entertainment at our fingertips. And pills for every possible situation. But still…
Some of the old recordings I’ve got at home make me feel a little bit like that, at three in the morning with the music coming out of the wall. Like most music critics, I'm a better listener than a player. But back in the day, given the right combination of pills, I would drag my old Gibson out of the closet and play a little myself - until my neighbor once pushed a handwritten note beneath my door. All it said was, “Please stop singing.” I never did it again.
So I write. Tribune Universal is the fifth largest communication
market in the world. I get wined and dined. People respect me. I’m supposed to
be an impassionate observer. But here I was, riveted to my chair by Jake Wilson.
I laid down last night
Tried to take my rest
My mind got to ramblin'
Like wild geese from the west
For a panicky moment, I felt something well up inside and I thought I was going to cry. How would I explain that? But then I settled down, and the music soothed me like my Mama used to do.
At the end of the show, Jake stood up and took a hesitant bow. I clapped as long and hard as I could, hoping to coax an encore out of him, but the house lights came on. The crowd filed up the stairs. No one thought to stay around and shake Jake’s hand or get an autograph. People are jaded these days.
But I waited. I sat alone in my chair and tried to hang onto the feeling the music had given me. A soft hiss came from the ceiling as vacuums sucked up the ersatz smoke.
Jake Wilson left the stage and brushed by me, looking straight ahead. He smelled like sweat and something else, a dusky, clinging odor that could have been what real cigarettes had smelled like in the old days.
I ambled over to Jake, who leaned on the bar with his hand wrapped around an antique bottle of Schlitz beer. They had thought of everything.
I cleared my throat. "Excuse me," I said. "I was wondering if I could talk to you for a moment."
"Ain't got no moment," he answered, looking away. His speaking voice was as raspy as his singing voice had been.
I touched the man's sweaty arm, more to reassure myself that he wasn't a hologram than for any other reason. His skin felt hot and slick. "Please," I said, "I just want to ask you a few questions."
Jake turned towards me. His eyes were bloodshot and there were traces of yellow on his teeth.
"Ain't nobody say please much around here," he said.
"Well, I would just like to talk with you a few minutes. I've never heard anything quite like I heard tonight, at least not live anyway."
"Oh, so you a fan," he said. "Barman will get you a picture."
"I don't want a picture - I mean, a picture would be fine, but what I really want is to ask a couple questions."
His eyes darted. "You a cop?"
"Of course not. I'm a music critic. But right now I'm not thinking about that."
Jake looked up at the ceiling. "Go ahead," he said.
"How do you do that? Nobody sings the blues like that anymore. Nobody has the blues. Why should they?"
"That what you think? Nobody got the blues here? They got 'em all right. It be in their eyes. They got empty spots, way inside. The music reach in there and fill 'em up. Better than any of them pills."
The man was right about that. I'd felt it myself. "And what about you?" I asked. "What does it do for you?"
Jake Wilson took a long, slow sip of beer. "I just play," he mumbled. "That's all."
Someone tapped my shoulder. I turned to see a skinny little man glaring at me. His silver hair was flawless and he wore a suit that must have cost a few thousand credits. His tie had blue music notes on a black background and it was held in place by a diamond pin. I recognized him. To say that Tommy Buechler. had his fingers in a lot of different pies would be a real understatement. In the already shaky world of Chicago politics, this man was an octopus. I’d never met him, but I’d seen his picture a bunch of times. He’d always been a little on the chunky side but in person he looked gaunt, and the gray skin on his face sagged.
"Come on, Pal," he said. "We're closing up now."
"Can I have another minute? I'm Henry Atwater from the Trib. I'm doing a story on Jake Wilson."
Buechler’s face brightened." You with the press? That's different." He stuck out a hand. "Tommy Buechler. I own this dive."
I shook his hand and wondered why a guy like Buechler would want to own a place like this.
"Ain't that the best, damn blues you ever heard?" asked Buechler.
I couldn‘t argue with him there.
"That's why I brought him here,” said Buechler. “I opened this place just for him. I'll send you the official bio. What’s the number?"
"I was kind of hoping I could talk to Jake for a few more minutes."
"Impossible," he said, frowning. "Mr. Wilson has a previous appointment. Isn't that right, Jake?" He glanced sideways at Jake, who set down his beer, stood up, and strolled through a side door into his dressing room. Just like that.
I gathered my wits and turned back to Buechler. "So, business been pretty good, Mr. Buechler?" I asked.
"Call me Tommy," he said. "Everybody calls me Tommy." He flashed a weak smile, and his blue eyes sparkled for a moment. "You know how it is. It takes a while to build up a following. Write us a nice article. That will help."
I gave Tommy my number at the Trib and headed towards the door. I glanced back over my shoulder and saw Tommy walk through the same door Jake Wilson had gone through and close it behind him.
Later that evening I sat at my kitchen table, nibbling on kiwi fruit and rice. I popped a white pill and washed it down with pomegranate juice. I needed peak serotonin levels if I was going to write Jake Wilson the review he deserved. He should have been playing the Jordan Center, and if I had anything to say about it, he would.
I clicked on the wall screen and the rain forest filled up the room. I logged on and dictated my review, starting over several times until I had it just right. I sat back, satisfied. I had given it my best shot. Maybe it would bring in a crowd for Jake.
My brain was still racing from the pill, so I logged onto the Trib's database. Jake's bio said that he had been born in Amelia, Louisiana, so I ran a search of the birth records for the past 50 years. No Jake Wilson. Nothing in Terrabonne Parrish either.
He could have been using a stage name of course, or the whole bio could have been phony but I didn't think so. He seemed like the real thing, and besides, if you were going to come up with a stage name, you would probably come up with something a little more flashy than 'Jake Wilson.’
I planned to ask Buechler for a few more details the next night when I went back to see Jake. For the first time in my life, I had become a fan. I swallowed a black pill and headed off to bed as the rain forest winked off behind me.
The next night I had to stand in line at the club, even though light snow was falling. I squeezed through the door and grabbed one of the last available chairs, way back in the corner. Jake came out on stage and parked himself on his stool. He didn't say hello to the audience, didn't smile, nothing. He just started singing. Thankfully, the music was as good as I remembered from the night before, maybe even better.
I glanced back and saw Tommy Buechler leaning against the bar. He gave me a thumbs up. A waitress brought me a beer and said it was from Tommy.
After the show I waited for Jake to come to the bar, but he disappeared into his dressing room. As I stood to leave, Tommy came over and thanked me for the rave review.
"You're welcome here any time," he said.
"Don't mention it," I said. "The man deserves it."
"Yeah," said Tommy. "He's an original, all right."
There was something about Tommy’s manner that made me nervous. His eyes kept darting back and forth like he was afraid that he would get busted any minute. I supposed that was normal when you lived a life like his.
I climbed the stairs and stood outside in the snow, my teeth chattering. The rest of the crowd had filtered away and I was alone on the sidewalk. A few cars purred by overhead, the whine of their engines muffled by the cold. The sounds of dance music wafted towards me from down the block but at this distance it was just a rumble of thumping bass notes.
I scanned the building. Was there a back door to this place? Would Jake come out that way? I put my hands in my pockets and strolled into the gangway. An alley cat hissed at me from a trashcan.
There was a door in the side of the building. I paced back and forth in front of it, feeling like a kid waiting outside Soldier Field for his favorite player to come out of the locker room.
The door opened and Jake Wilson stepped through, head down. He bumped into me and looked up. "You again," he said. "What you want?"
"I’m sorry if I startled you. Can I buy you a beer or something?"
"No special reason. I thought maybe we could talk. I wrote that review and..."
"That why all those people were there tonight? You write somethin' good?"
"Thanks. That real nice but the man don't want me talkin' to nobody."
"Look, it won't take long. I know a place just down the block. The beer's real cold."
Jake looked back behind him, towards the door.
"Come on," I said. "Just for a few minutes. There's so much I'd like to ask you."
"I be a little thirsty," he answered. "Besides, I ain't nobody's nigger."
The word slapped me in the face. Once upon a time somebody might have called me that but now it was just a word in the history books.
"Ummmm...okay, great," I said. "Let's go."
Michigan Avenue was busier than usual for a snowy night and it took us a while to find a place that wasn't jammed. We settled on Duffy's, my favorite little Irish place, and one of the few pubs in Chicago that hasn't yet given in to the virtual slots business, with its rows of flashing lights and the annoying sound of credit chips piling up in stainless steel trays. There’s nothing but a mahogany bar, some comfortable booths, and Guinness on tap.
We took a booth in the corner and I ordered us a round. Evidently Jake had never had Guinness, because he coughed when he took his first sip and mumbled something about it tasting like tar. But he drank it down fast and we started on seconds.
"Where did you learn to play like that?" I asked. "From the old recordings?"
"Ain't had no recordings."
"Then who taught you? What program?"
"Ain't had no program."
"Then how did you learn?"
"I just do it, that's all. I sing from here." He pointed to his heart.
I couldn't argue with that.
We drank in silence as I tried to think of something else to ask.
"I wanna ax you something," he said.
I looked up. Jake had never initiated conversation before. He was starting to slur his words and I strained to understand his thick, bayou accent.
"Time," he said. "What you know about it?"
"What do you mean?"
"Travelin' in time. Goin' back. Or frontwards."
"Well, you know. Everyone knows. They have a few machines but the government keeps a lid on it."
"Could they go back and kill somebody?"
I set down my beer. Why was he asking me this? "I guess somebody could," I answered, "but it's real illegal. If you killed somebody in the past you might screw up the present. That's why it's so controlled. But yeah, I suppose you could go back and bump somebody off. Theoretically. Why?"
Jake's hand gripped his glass until his knuckles turned white. "I gotta go," he said, and he stood up unsteadily.
"What? Wait, I'll take you in my car..."
But he was already gone.
Later that night I hit the databases again. My thinking was still a little fuzzy from the Guinness so I popped a purple hangover pill. Something smelled really bad here. I had called Louisiana that morning and no one I talked to had heard of a blues singer named Jake Wilson. I read as much as I could about Tommy Buechler. It seemed that he had connections in more places than just Chicago - my wallscreen lit up with six foot high pictures of Tommy with all kinds of famous people - entertainers, movie stars, rock stars, even the Prime Minister of Japan. I wondered how I hadn’t run across Buechler before, because I’d met a lot of those people myself - except the Prime Minister of Japan, of course.
I shut off the screen and sat back. The pieces of the puzzle were coming together. I didn’t like the picture they were starting to show.
The next night I showed up early at the Shady Gator and grabbed a seat up front. When Jake came out on stage he seemed afraid to look in my direction. It didn't affect his music, though. It was great as always, especially from the front row, and I found myself drifting back into that zone. Jake sang and the lyrics flowed out of him like smooth whiskey.
It's the last fair deal goin' down
This the last fair deal goin' down, good lord
On this Gulfport Island Road
I'm workin' my way back home
He eased into the solo, bending the B-string and coaxing a soft whimper out of the note, followed by a hammered G in the bass line. It was a beautiful touch that connected to something in my brain. Where had I heard that lick before, on that song?
I have an old recording at home. It's exceedingly rare, at least a hundred years old. It's Last Fair Deal Gone Down by Robert Johnson, still on vinyl, still in the original packaging. I never shared it with anyone, never transferred it over to data, nothing. It must be worth a lot of credits, but I've always kept it to myself. The recording has the same lick that Jake had just played.
Where had Jake learned it? From the same recording? That seemed impossible. There was only one explanation.
For once I wished the show were over. It was time to have a talk with Tommy Buechler.
Jake finished his last song and headed straight to his dressing room. I walked over to the bar as the crowd filed up the stairs. Tommy came out of the back room. I motioned him over.
"You're getting to be quite a fan," he said with his usual weak smile.
"You took him, didn't you?" I said.
"Jake. You nabbed him."
Tommy’s eyes flashed and the air turned to ice. I wasn’t used to dealing with guys like this but I blundered forward.
"You know what I'm talking about," I said, spitting the words. "You got yourself a ride on a time machine and you nabbed him."
Tommy’s hands clenched and I thought he was going to haul off and punch me. Then, without looking away, he gave a quick, ominous flick of his wrist and the bartender went into the back room.
"What are you, a cop?" Tommy asked, holding me with his gaze.
"Then what's it to you?”
"He doesn’t belong here. Can’t you see that?"
Tommy snapped his fingers. “I could have you killed. Just like that."
I should have foreseen this.
"Fine,” I said, improvising. “Then the Trib will run my story.”
"The one that will file automatically if I don't come home tonight."
Tommy hissed through his teeth. "I've got friends.”
I didn’t let up. “If there’s even a hint that you broke the Time Laws, they’ll be here in a heartbeat. Even you can’t get away with something like that.”
Tommy stared into my eyes for a long moment. Finally he turned away. His gaunt body seemed to deflate, and he suddenly looked very tired. "What did I get myself into?" he mumbled, looking down at the floor. There was a long pause as he gathered his wits. Then he stood up straight again.
"Okay,” he said. “You wrote us a great review. I owe you one. So I’ll give you some information. Off the record. And no cops."
I was amazed that he had given in so easily. He clearly wasn’t the intimidating presence he might once have been. Now he looked like a tired, sick old man.
“We’ll see,” I answered.
Tommy cursed under his breath and then held one hand in the air, palm out. "God’s honest truth,” he said. “I nabbed him, just like you said. He was playing the Sweet Lips Lounge, Belmont and Halsted, August 25th, 1957. Can you believe that? It was over a hundred years ago. And I was there. We just wandered into the place. But I did know something about it. There was gonna be a fire in the club that night. Everyone was gonna die, including Jake. Charred beyond recognition. For once in my life I thought I had a chance to do something good for somebody before I kicked the…”
Tommy broke off and gazed at the stage. “You’ve heard him play,” he said softly. “Wouldn’t you have done the same thing?”
"But it‘s against the law," I said. “And for a very good reason. Where’d you get the machine?”
"Now that's something you don’t need to know."
"Why Jake Wilson? Why not Beethoven or John Lennon or somebody like that?"
Tommy shrugged. "I didn't plan this ahead of time. We were there to witness the fire, a nice clean break, so we wouldn’t change anything. But I didn’t expect the music to be so…amazing. He never even did any recordings. It would have been lost forever."
"What if I spill the story?" I asked.
"You go ahead," Tommy said. "File your story. Then they'll come and get me. But they'll also come and get Jake. And they'll send him back. It's the law. And then he'll die. You might as well go stick a gun to the man's head right now and pull the trigger."
I wanted to rekindle my anger, to put my hands around Tommy’s scrawny neck. But he had me.
"Did you threaten to go back and kill Jake's family?"
Tommy's eyes darted. "I had to tell him that. Otherwise he would have taken off. Can you imagine him wandering around a city that's a hundred years ahead of his time?"
"I'm leaving now," I said.
Tommy stood up and I thought he was going to block my path. But he just stepped aside. He must have been pretty confident that I wouldn't tell anybody. As I walked down Rush Street towards my car, I wondered if he was right.
That night I took a whole handful of pills. I felt like an accessory to a crime but what was I supposed to do?
I tried the databases. No one had kept very good records of poor blacks in Louisiana in the early 1900's. I found a Jake Wilson, born in Amelia in 1914. That was probably him. There were a few sketchy details about his life, but nothing else. I shut off the screen.
As I watched Jake perform the next night my heart ached for him. He sat up there and sang his guts out about losing everything and now I knew it was all real. But I just couldn't bring myself to even think about getting him sent back.
After the show I again waited for Tommy.
"Well?" he said.
"No cops have been breaking down my door. I guess you didn't run that story."
"Her name is Sally," I said quietly.
"Sally. That's Jake's wife. The one he thinks you're going to go back and kill. I don't suppose you're really going to do that, are you?"
"No, of course not," Tommy admitted. "You don't know how many favors I used up the first time."
"I want to talk to Jake," I said. "He needs to know the truth. That's the only way I don't spill the beans."
Tommy looked like a trapped rat. "Okay," he finally muttered. "Tomorrow night. Jake gets here about an hour before show time. You can talk to him then."
All that night I couldn't sleep. I thought about my job. Was this what I was really meant to do? I had been at the Trib for twenty years. If I had ever had any passion for the music I reviewed it was long gone. Jake's music had brought some of it back but there was only one Jake. It would take a lot of pills to keep me doing this for twenty more years. I drifted off to sleep eventually, very late.
I walked into Jake's dressing room the next evening. It was a half-hour before show time and he sat alone, tuning his guitar. He didn't shy away from me so I guessed that Tommy had given him the okay. I pulled up a chair.
"I know what happened to you," I said.
"You mean how they come get me?" he asked.
"Yeah. But I think you should know something. Tommy Buechler isn't going to go back and kill anyone. He can't do that."
"You sure?" Jake's rheumy eyes opened a little wider.
"Promise," I said.
"That good," he said, and he leaned back in his chair. “So when can I go home? This ain’t much of a place to be.”
I knew that this question had been coming. How could I answer it? I decided on the truth.
"They could send you back. As of matter of fact, if anyone finds out where you came from, they have to send you back.”
“Well alright,” he said, his eyes brightening. “Sally be waitin’ for me.”
I paused, feeling hollow in my gut.
“You need to understand something,” I said. “When they came and got you, they saved you from something that was gonna happen later that night. There was a fire and the Sweet Lips burned to the ground. Nobody got out alive. If you go back, you’ll die too.”
Jake pursed his lips. Sweat was running down his forehead even though the room was chilly. "But if I go back and know what happens, why can’t I just leave before it happens?"
I sighed. "It doesn't work that way. You'd have no memory of being here, no memory of what I just told you, and everything would happen the way it was supposed to."
Jake squinted his eyes and he suddenly looked a lot older. I could see the wheels turning as he tried to understand.
“So I go back and I’m…dead?”
“She’ll still be a widow.”
There was a long, long pause. All I heard was Jake’s raspy breathing and the rumble of the crowd gathering in the other room. Finally, Jake looked into my eyes.
"I ain't never goin' home no more?" he asked, his voice breaking.
"No," I answered.”
There was another awkward pause as Jake looked down at the floor and shook his head.
“So I just another sad nigger, lookin’ cross the ocean, knowin’ he can’t swim.”
There was that word again.
"I can check on your wife," I said. "To see how things turned out for her."
Jake lifted his head. "That be good," he whispered.
"And kids. Did you have any kids?"
“No,” he muttered. “We were gonna have some but I guess we run out of time.”
Jake stood up as the sounds of impatient clapping came from the other side of the door.
"What will you do now?" I asked.
"Sing the blues," he said. "Should be easy now."
"Could you teach me a few things? I have an old guitar from my grandfather.”
"Old guitars is best," he said.
The clapping got louder. Jake wiped at his eyes. "Be here tomorrow night, after the show," he said, as he stepped through the door and out onto the stage. Applause erupted as the door closed behind him.
I stood up and took a clear plastic case out of my pocket. I opened the lid and grabbed a handful of colored pills. Clearly, I needed help and this should do it.
I stood there a moment staring at the bright colors in my hand. What would happen if I didn’t take any pills? Would my head explode? Like everyone else, I’d relied on them for so long that it was hard to imagine a world without them. A world like the one that Jake had come from.
I knew it was crazy, and I knew I’d probably regret it. But at the last moment, instead of popping the pills into my mouth I tossed them into the toilet. Then I tipped up the case so the rest of the pills fell into the bowl as well.
The pills melted into the water in tendrils of bright, Easter egg colors. They swirled together until the water was a drab, dirty brown color. There was no bright orange, no purples, no reds. And no blues.
It was then that I knew what Jake Wilson had done. He had brought back some of the colors.
I flushed the toilet and the noise mingled with the sounds of the eight bar delta blues, coming through the dressing room door.
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