Eves of Louisiana
I’d brought in Johnny’s drum kit—him being so old, and I set it up to his liking as he taught me. The floor tom leaning in like it’s curious to hear what the bass and snare drum were gossiping. I was curious too. Luring and gazing like I didn’t want Momma Om at all –how could a boywant a woman?– but for danger and comfort and everything she possessed all at once and everywhere in between.
“Threw away fifteen years…” began Momma Om, and I tuned the skin on the snare drum’s head. Johnny taught me the skin’s what gives the drum life. When you hit it, it sings.
“Just ‘cause you don’t have a husband no more don’t mean you can take your crazy out on me,” said the Professor. He was a thin, old white man—lean as a stick with skin so loose it looked like it had given up.
“If…I…I can’t—” Momma Om said walking off stage as if she had Follow Me written on the soles of her shoes. She wore stockings weaved like a bird’s wings. One long wing on each leg, and each feather pressed against her skin. When she walked away, she walked all with her femur leading the way—the sexiest part of the thigh always pointing toward the future and desire.
“Kit set?” Johnny asked, walking up to the stage, lifting his knees like an unsteady windup toy. I nodded my head ‘yes,’ but was really looking for where she turned her femurs to.
“Lemme check, go sit with the Reverend.”
The Reverend was the stand up bass player, a behemoth of a man, sitting stage right. He stirred food in a crock-pot steaming in front of him. A milk jug filled with red wine and a loaf of bread lay on a table. He ate the soupy concoction, and in his eyes I could tell he was eager to learn me in.
“Hear that jambalaya singin?" The Reverend pulled a white plastic chair from below the table. I sat down. I could smell his jambalaya and it made my forehead sweat.
“You ever had Cajun?” he asked, and I couldn’t see Momma Om anymore. Like the wings of her stocking took flight and flew her away, and the words dizzied within me, then out me:
“Cage ‘em?” I shook my head so my shoulders wiggled down my butt and shifted my plastic chair.
“Boy, you got a lotta things a learn, don’t know Cajun. Like a Eucharist. I say give me some body.”
He pointed to a loaf of bread in the middle of the table, as he slopped the jambalaya into a white, Styrofoam bowl. I passed him the loaf.
“Now give me some blood.”
He pointed to the milk jug across the thin alter of plastic tablecloth, and I passed it.
“—at’s why Jesus could move mountains—had a right frequency. Why Mohamed didn’t write—and a Quran ain’t a Quran ’til it’s sung. Go ‘head, eat up, won’t bite you.”
But it did. I tasted it, and it bit me like crawfish skewered my tongue with pitchforks. My eyes watered and I coughed brimstone out my lungs in bouts of hellfire. The Reverend became a big black blob through a film of tears. Without water or milk, he passed me the blood, and I swigged it down. I’d never tasted wine, and it was sharp—made me open my eyes even wider.
“Hurry, have some body! Takes some divine out da Cajun.”
He broke off a piece of bread, and I held it to my tongue.
Then he scooped up some jambalaya onto another piece of bread, and pointed the bread in the direction of the Professor and Momma Om.
“See, you put some divine on a body so it not so hot. Like them.”
They stood below a large, decorative Jester’s face hanging above the stage.
An accordion player opened his set. He introduced songs with a thick German accent, while a thicker, black moustache sat on his lips.
The Professor waved his hand so I couldn’t tell if him and Momma Om were dancing or fighting. I had a feeling they weren’t dancing. Or they were, but dangerously. He left her on the dance floor, and even children know the middle of the dance floor’s the loneliest place in the world for yearning.
“—at’s the Professor for you." The Reverend slopped up a quagmire of jumbo onto his bread. “Got a thesis for everything and don’t know shit.”
My heart pounded like the seconds of a clock that told the minutes, hours, and weeks I’d thought of her—every night and at school, and in between sentences. Momma Om was the answer to my math problems. The reason words jumped and syllables quivered. Is this the way men live lives? Heart pounding and knees weak? I wanted to make her sing…without the damned G note. Scream like girls on the internet, and pull her pants down in the garage like the neighbor from next door.
The wine hit hard. I scoured the floor for a cigarette. I hadn’t smoked before, but I felt I needed it. I couldn’t find any on the ground, so I asked a couple in their fourties, and they laughed. Said I was too young, and they were too old to recall yearning. Then I went outside to look for a cigarette on the street.
“Don’t worry ‘bout her.” It was the Professor’s voice, but it came from nowhere and everywhere.
“No?” I shook my head, trying to find him, and he stepped out from behind the door.
“She’s just toiling and wants to bring everyone into that toil. Everybody toiling. When they don’t realize Time shouldn’t be toil. Time should be just what it is.”
He took out tobacco and began rolling a cigarette. I tried to conceal the snarl on my face for what he had. Or what I didn’t—the knowledge of Momma Om’s shadows and secret parts. Like he had Eve’s apple tasting so good and I wanted it.
“All time is, is a fish down river. Swimming down a wave of light. Because Time and Sound are just waves harmonizing, you understand?”
I did not. He put the filter in the bottom. Licked the seams. Handed me the cigarette.
“So we pretend we’re not fish by putting a harmonica in front our lips as we swim down the river, currents vibrating and bending. Light glistening off our scales.”
I nodded like I understood. But all I understood was this man was discarding the only thing I wanted and I needed to learn how he did it. I put the cigarette in my mouth, but was missing fire. He rolled up his cigarette. Lit it. Inhaled and blew clouds into night.
“And women. They the harmonicas we all dance to.”
I asked for the lighter by extending my fingers toward it. He shook his head, handing me the lit cigarette. So I put the other cigarette in my pocket, saving the kindling for later.
“But the important thing is—remember—Each harmonica is in a key. That key unlocks each scale—where the notes harmonize with one another—and so long as you stay in the right scale, you can’t hit a wrong note. There’s no such thing as wrong.”
I took the cigarette. Dragged. Coughed. Coughed my lungs out—not the fiery cough from jambalaya. A dirty cough like my lungs heaving on pavement.
“And that’s how time works. You can be out of key with someone else, even with your own time; just listen for your key, and you’ll know when she resonates.”
I continued coughing. He took the cigarette from my fingertips and dragged. Talked as he exhaled, so the words blew through smoke interjected between consonants.
He held up something flashing in the light. Like a fish wiggling in his hand. Like Jesus just made enough fish to feed five-thousand.
“Here you go. Keep it.”
I held the scaly fish in my hand, but it wasn’t a fish. It was a harmonica. I stopped coughing.
By the time I came back inside, Momma Om was up on stage, and she spotted me holding my new harmonica. She shook her head, and shouted: “gimme a G,” so I held the harmonica to my lips and played a G and she harmonized with the G, ringing out like a bell, calling people to church. People started collecting at tables scattered in the debris of night. They walked hunched over, the years pulling their shoulders down but their spine up. Like time carried them as a mother cat does, lifting with her teeth, the kittens limp by their necks. Everyone breathed heavy under the darkness and longed for a breeze.
Lights dimmed and I had a table all to myself in front. Red and blue lights glimmered on stage like dawn breaking a horizon. Candles on tables burned twinkling galaxies.
Johnny started. My favorite song, "Sing, Sing, Sing," where the floor tom begins with syncopated eighths, and then he throws triplets and paradiddles while marking time with his feet. Base-drum booming and high-hat cleaving. All that darkness like we were in a cave. A story before time had words and I believed in the shadows.
Johnny kept knocking that flint together, and then there was a spark as Momma Om cleared her throat, illuminating the room, and I could see the shadows more clearly. Then she fanned the spark with her wind. Her oxygen. Vital for living, and essential for burning.
I lifted my hands in the cool blue and hot red lights, and saw my veins like little rivers. Turning my hands over, I read the map of my palm. Blood-wrist-rivers were nothing but a compass pointing to her. When I looked around, I realized no one saw the miracle. That she was feeding five-thousand with fish, but they were too preoccupied with paper cups to see the wine she was making from water. People at the table like the dead unable to look up to the curtains on stage, that doorway separating the living from dead.
Then there fell a silence in that dark, smoky den. Out of the darkness Momma Om breathed my name in that cave, and I came into being. She was calling me onto stage. I lifted my body, but couldn’t feel my legs. I climbed onto the stage and sat down at the drum set. Knees shaking and knots tied in my stomach. All the tables disappeared into darkness. Everything swept away. All that remained was me, in the light. I was her pulse, and she my voice—sing, sing, singing.