Henrietta’s at The Wharf, in La Jolla.
She sings what she wants, her quartet follows.
Bobby languishes in a dark corner,
loving her long red hair dangling in curls,
her tall body full of curves, switchbacks, straightaways,
her low-cut dress, her twenty nails red to lure bulls.
No wonder he can’t stay with one woman,
he smiles inside, he’s hung up on Momma.
No wonder she ran off to take care of herself!
It’s one thing to sing the blues for money,
another to keep living them, time after time
with every man comes along to sap her courage,
put her on his time, feed her whisky,
insist on his nightly need to fuck her.
No wonder . . .
She’s sitting at a table alone,
drinking water when he appears.
She reaches across and hugs him as hard as she can,
barely rising from the chair, her arms long
as her legs. She sits gazing at him with a wide smile.
"Bobby," she mumbles. "You sound better than ever,"
he replies. She asks if he’s married.
He says, "Twice now. . . . You?" She chuckles. "No,
I had enough men for one life."
"You need another lifetime," he says under his breath,
"to learn to sing." He means himself. He didn’t know
how much he owed her until he heard her singing scat
on My Funny Valentine. "You sound like Sarah Vaughan."
"They compare me with Anita O’Day now."
"Didn’t they always?"
"Not her, more like Billie Holiday,
the word day somehow struck a cord with the critics."
After her final set they went for a late dinner.
Henrietta nursed a Coke. "I’m off hootch,"
she quipped. Bobby had a shot of bourbon
with water back. "For old times," he toasted,
"and to long life." "Why did you hunt me down, honey?"
"I missed you . . . more than I know words can say,
I sing now, you know."
"No, I didn’t, how could I? I been here too long.
All the same, California’s been good to me.
You still living in Seattle?"
. . . thus did their conversation go.
She lived in a little house up from the beach,
on the other side of La Jolla’s "main street,"
as she put it. Henrietta enjoyed the old words,
they made it easier to remember phrases in songs.
Or so she thought. She never said this to Bobby
or anyone, not even Danny . . .
Not even . . . especially not Danny . . .
Bobby told her of the bungalow in Seattle
he was living in, "courtesy of the man
who taught me clarinet, and his wife
who encouraged me to write. They adopted me
when Daddy died and you were said to be
dead in that train wreck."
She replied, "I never like to think about it,
any of it. They say I’m dead," she smiled,
"and I plan to stay dead
until I am."
Make me a pallet on the floor, she sang,
humming along under her breath,
making him a place on her front room floor.
Going to bed she rendered Dust my broom.
When he woke in the sunlight streaming
through her window he went walking the beach
and found a copy of John Coltrane Live in Seattle,
the double album with Pharoah Sanders,
and bought a paperback, Soledad Brother,
George Jackson’s letters from prison
with a preface by Jean Genet, the thief
Sartre claimed was now a saint.
Bobby knew there were no saints but whores.
So Sartre was right since Genet was a whore.
How else could he make a living
once freed from stir after his neck was spared?
When he returned, she was at the piano,
singing a medley whose titles he wrote down . . .
The rest of the day they walked La Jolla.
That night she went on at nine and sang until one
when The Wharf began to close.
For four hours, easily, maybe five,
he wrote in his small green spiral notebook
carried everywhere in a shirt pocket.
He was writing down all she said
now that he could sit still long enough to listen
watching her red lips curl words under the music always there.
(22 June, 13 July 2012)
copyright 2012 by Floyce Alexander