Authors: David Corbett
Done for a Dime
Open Road Integrated Media Ebook
I’ll be looking at the moon
But I’ll be seeing you.
Poverty, not skin color, is the sin, and the key to the city of God is composed of property.
Workin’ on the Chain Gang
lancing up through the haze, he saw near his front door a shimmering radiance and wondered if it might not be a spirit, come to welcome him. Blinking the rain from his eyes, he saw it was just the glow from the porch light, filmed with cobwebs shredded by the wind. He lay sprawled in the mud and gravel beneath the bare winter branches of the sycamore—heels splayed, head bare, one arm cocked beneath him like a chicken wing, the other pointed straight up the path toward the house. His hat, knocked free, lay upside down, inches from his outstretched fingers. His clothes, filthy and soaked through, clung to his stone-cold skin. The draining heat, he knew, meant shock. And the pain—it grew so total it stopped being pain at all, more a kind of panic. He had strength to move his head, his hand, nothing more. Bubbles of red saliva formed on his lips. A sensation like drowning took hold.
One bullet had nicked his spine down low; another up high had cut through his lung. A third had carved and twisted through the meat of his shoulder. The exit wounds felt white-hot, and he guessed each one to be about the size of a child’s hand. The blood drained out past his twisted arm into the rain-wet earth and rock.
He wondered if Toby’s girl, the white girl, Nadya, had seen it all from inside the house. So sudden. No warning. Maybe an ambulance was on the way. He strained to hear a siren, at the same time thinking, No matter. Mentally he counted and recounted the money in his pocket—bills, coins—wondering if he had enough …
for what, old man?
His mind lost its grip on the present, his thoughts breaking apart. The night’s events got mixed up with scenes from years ago, like snapshots tumbling out of a box. Scraps of remembered sound, too—music, years of it, a river of mindless ditties and intro hooks, ostinato runs and choruses, the refrains surging in crosscurrents like counterpoint, then trailing away.
In time, it came, like a whisper in his mind. Not a sound—more the sound within the sound. That haunting
—the thing he’d hunted session to session, gig to gig, year after year—the truth of it, the tricky fluid soul of it, driving him slightly mad. Driven mad by music.
He’d sensed it almost every night—real, yes, any fool could tell you that. But so elusive. Too often, after the final set, he’d sat there alone onstage—the big brass ax in his hands, still warm from his breath—puzzling over how, despite every intent and effort, he’d somehow failed to get his talent around it. And so it chased him down a thousand nameless streets to the latest hotel room, horn case in hand, collar high against the wind. He’d left behind the other players at the bar, left behind the woman who’d made a point of hip-sliding up, smiling, saying he was the one she’d watched the whole night—and whose name he forgot almost instantly, long before he forgot that smile, or the spicy-flower smell of her skin all perfumed. And lying awake with a smoke, arm behind his head, he justified his loneliness, this strange madness, by saying it’s an honest business, the pursuit of this sound that isn’t a sound. This beckoning silence. It’s the reason he played, the reason he’d never given up, never just said yes to the woman in the first place, telling himself, “I can live with this.” Never put down the horn and said, “Okay. You win. Enough.”
Like other players he knew, he’d gone so far as to give it a name: The Deep Sweet. And he learned then what a curse it is, to name a thing. For at one and the same time, as it finally feels solid, it somehow also slips away. And so a new word is needed, then another—till one day you’re chasing it down those same nameless streets like a madman jabbering after his own delusions.
And now that elusive, crazy-making thing had come to find him here, on the ground, his life spilling away. It had come to tell him: Rise up. Remember who you are—Raymond “Strong” Carlisle, baritone sax. Veteran of The Basie Brotherhood, The Johnny Otis Revue, Grady Gaines and the Upsetters. Road rocker for the likes of Ray Charles, Lloyd Price, Bobby Blue Bland. Listed on a hundred session sheets beside names like Wild Bill Davis and Thin Man Watts, Eddie Lockjaw Davis, Buddy Tate. Sideman for Gator Tail Jackson and Ruth Brown before their divorce, King Curtis before his murder. Held bottom on the reed sections of who knows how many house bands, pickup outfits, nightclub acts, roaming like a freebooter in cars of every make, buses in every condition—the chitlin’ circuit to the Apollo, Central Avenue in L.A. to the Harlem Club in Atlantic City.
Then finally your own show: The Mighty Firefly Rhythm & Blues Orchestra. Not a juke joint, union hall, Baptist church, or Shriner Temple north of Monterey failed at one time or another to call upon MF R&B—sixteen strong, best sidemen and session guns on the north California coast. Packed dance floor every night. Smell of cigarettes and frying grease in the cramped heat, mingling with payday sweat and thick perfume. All fights called off with the band onstage. Cocktail waitresses rocking their hips while they call out orders at the bar. Bare-backed women in tight skirts and pumps, legs packed into shiny stockings, climbing on top of their tables, lifting their arms to the ceiling rafters to hoot and holler and sing God’s praise for the Devil.
Years of music. And now Toby, accepting the torch. Father and son tied together, a lifeline of music. A lifeline. Toby. Good God, Son, know I loved you. Please know—
The front door to the house burst open. He arched his neck, craning to see. Through the milky haze of the porch light the white girl, Nadya, stumbled toward him.
very black-and-white to be spared had come, seven of the ten on graveyard, drawn in once the watch commander broke the Code 33. Dennis Murchison studied the crowd while his partner, Jerry Stluka, parked their unmarked Crown Victoria as close as he could.
Onlookers gathered in the battering strobes of colored light. Even though the rain had stopped, umbrellas sprouted here and there. On the perimeter, one older couple, decked in bathrobes and slippers, clutched their pajamas to their throats and craned on tiptoe to see.
Murchison and Stluka pulled out their IDs, put the tabs into their jacket pockets so the badges showed, then drew latex gloves from the dispenser on the dash. Stluka, eyeing the crowd, said, “Am I free to assume this officially kicks off Black History Month?”
He was sable-haired, muscular, compact. A build referred to as
, Murchison had learned once doing a crossword puzzle.
“Got any pills you can take, stem the flow for a little while?”
Stluka inhaled through his teeth, a hard, thin whistling sound. “Yeah. Keep ’em with the antiwhining tablets. Want one?” He stretched his glove tight. “Who’s I-C?”
Stluka cackled. “Sherlock!”
Murchison took stock of the faces swinging their way. Young men mostly, some with eyes like stones, full of what-the-fuck and who-are-you. “Once we get inside the tape, do me a favor. Lay off the Sherlock bit. Think you can do that?”
Stluka groaned. The pain of it. “Seems to me we could stand to lighten up a little. Get a sense of humor. You want, I could call him Maid Marion like they used to down around Dumpers substation.”
“Oh yeah. That’ll work.”
“Hey—you want to be treated like one among equals, you take the damn chip off your shoulder.”
“Whose shoulder? I’m the one asking.”
Stluka made a little wave to suggest further discussion was beneath him. “I’m ready. You?”
They got out of the car and eased their way through the crowd from the back, checking faces. Murchison noted a player or two, known thugs, but that was hardly strange. They lived up here. One guy gripped an open Mickeys, talking smack into a cell phone. Others had their dogs in tow, pits and rotts. The animals strained against their chain leashes, sniffing the air. They’d caught the scent of the victim’s blood.
Hennessey, who had the hill for patrol that night, stood in the middle of the street, ducking under one neighbor’s umbrella as he jotted down her words. The woman wore pink sweats beneath a yellow slicker, bare feet in flip flops, her hair coiled meticulously into French braids.
Murchison came up, placed a hand on the officer’s arm, and said quietly, “Hennessey Tennessee, toodle your flute.”
The man was big, Irish—priestly eyes, wastrel grin. “Murch, hey.” He nodded toward the woman under the umbrella. “Detective Murchison? Marcellyne Pathon.”
She had high cheekbones in a round, childlike face. Behind thick horn-rims her brown eyes ballooned. She shook Murchison’s hand. Her skin felt warm, her palm damp, not from rain. Nearby, a few young toughs in the crowd drifted back, far enough not to get dragged in, not so far as to leave earshot.
“She lives across the way.” Hennessey pointed with his pen. Two little girls stood holding hands in the window, silhouettes, peering out at their mother. “Says she heard the shots, they woke her up, but—”
“Didn’t see nobody.” It came out quick. She adjusted her glasses. “I went to the window, you know, looked out, but—” A shrug. “All dark out here, you know?”
“Your children hear anything?” Murchison nodded toward her house.
Like that, she stiffened. “No, sir. All of us, the girls, too, we gone to bed already. Got church tomorrow.”
“How about a car? Hear one? See one?”
She took in a long, slow breath, thinking it through. “No, sir. Don’t remember no car.” Her eyes held steady behind the Coke bottle lenses.
“Any voices, shouts, an argument?”
“No, sir. It was the shots, like sudden. Just them. Rest was real quiet. Especially for a Saturday. The storm, I figure.”
“Mr. Carlisle hard to get along with?”
She recoiled just a little, as though accused. “How you mean?”
“Just trying to get an idea of who the man was, Marcellyne.”
Her face relaxed a little, and she gave the question long consideration. She seemed conflicted. “What Mr. Carlisle was, was
—know what I’m saying? Spoke his mind. Stand back when he did, okay? But he was no trouble. I can’t say nothing about him hurtin’ nobody.”
“The other neighbors. Any tension?”
Nearby, one guy with a dog craned to listen in. Hennessey edged over, herded him and his animal back.
“Not with me. Not with folks I know.” Her eyes skittered around. Her voice quavered. “Have to ask them, I suppose.”
Murchison nodded, glanced around at the nearest faces. Eyes fled his gaze. “Okay, Marcellyne. Great. Thank you. I’ll get back in touch if I think we need some follow-up, okay?”
He didn’t wait for her reply, but drew away, at the same time pulling Hennessey with him, turning him so their backs faced the crowd.
“This is your usual area up here, am I right?”
Hennessey shrugged. The polyester shoulders of his uniform beaded with rain. “Normally, yeah. Sure. Trade off from time to time—Brickyards, Dumpers—but I know the lay of the land pretty good up here.”
“Look around. See any strange faces?”
Hennessey didn’t have to look. “Here and there. But you know how it is. You’re not a fuckup or his family, I don’t know you.”
From far back in the crowd, a voice shouted, “Pig white po-po motherfuckers!”
Murchison didn’t bother to look. “You’ve got your Polaroid in the trunk?”
“Checked it out beginning of shift,” Hennessey said. “Sure.”
Murchison made a pressing gesture with his finger, the shutter button. “Don’t wait, okay?”
Murchison joined up with Stluka just beyond the yellow crime scene tape, strung in a semicircle to keep the crowd back. An ancient sycamore loomed over a tall fence of rain-streaked dogtooth redwood that rimmed the property. A second ribbon of tape festooned the fence like bunting. A uniformed officer named Truax manned the gate, clipboard in hand, keeping the entry/exit log.
Murchison took a moment to survey the neighborhood. St. Martin’s Hill shared the same high bluff overlooking the river as Baymont, the two neighborhoods divided by a shabby panhandle known for trade. St. Martin’s was generally considered the better locale, working-class and stable, but the spate of foreclosures since the shipyard’s closing had changed that.
Quicksilver mines once threaded the hill, part of a rim of upcroppings known extravagantly as the Sierra de Napa according to some old survey maps. Below, the Napa River flowed out from the salt marshes into San Pablo Bay. Only the western slope of the hill had been developed; the backside gave way to a broad, weed-choked ravine, former site of several sleeper mines. The ground remained too toxic from mercury for home building.