Bobby knew Paula would be there, on stage at the Black and Tan.
Tony told him he was playing piano there now. So it had to be her.
Dave and Rose dropped by after working the New Congress,
listening to the two of them conspire to raise the temperature of the room.
The black men loved Paula, kept asking for Bessie Smith or Billie Holiday.
She loved Billie and felt more at ease with Billie’s songs than Bessie’s
matter-of-fact blues, as she liked to say. Though she sang what they asked for,
and if she didn’t know it they brought the words and music to her
and she’d learn it and do the best anyone ever could.
They caught up: She was in school, he was back. She lived in the bungalow,
he slept upstairs in the New Congress. No need to mention La Iglesia.
Nor Christina, who wanted him to come back saying she loved him.
But here he was where he wanted to be, with Paula’s dazzling eyes,
her way of bringing him back to life, body and soul.
Tony gave them a ride to the bungalow, it was two, almost three,
Paula must sleep, she had classes. Tony drove Bobby to the New Congress.
On the way Bobby talked about what Claude had told him.
Tony said he should go to San Francisco.
Bobby thought about it. He tried writing a story about Henrietta Murphy.
There she’s called by another name. She looks like a red-haired Paula.
Her voice is older, someone says she was a child of the fields, back when
they called songs hollers. How could a young woman with white skin know?
That’s what they said in downtown Seattle,
the brothers and sisters. Henrietta, or what’s her name now,
believed in the devil arriving in his limousine at the crossroads,
where she was waiting to be reborn, suitcase in one hand,
red tipped fingers and toes and her sweep of red hair flowing out
and over her tall Irish body, cleavage showing just as the devil asked.
It was a dream story. The dream came to him one night in La Puta.
Another storm woke him, or was up in his head, the window rattling
and out there she was waiting by the crossroads.
The devil takes your soul, in exchange he gives you the blues.
The old story. He read Marlowe’s play. He brushed up on Goethe.
Another night in Black and Tan, Paula did Bessie’s Empty Bed Blues.
Between sets, Bobby asked her to have a drink with him, only him.
In the course of the conversation, she asked where he was staying.
He told her, hesitating to mention the name he had given the room,
and simply said, Upstairs, in the New Congress. She stared at him.
She said, What’s wrong, baby? Why are you so blue? What did we do
to get the blues so bad we can’t even sing without breaking up inside?
Her eyes waited. He wanted to talk about Henrietta. She listened.
He started telling her. She did the last set. He stayed the night with her.
(7, 24 June 2012)
copyright 2012 by Floyce Alexander