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No One Ever Tells You


Harry Buschman

He sat with his hands on his lap and his knees close together. He sat on a cane bottomed rocking chair on the porch of the Retired Musician’s Home. He was too preoccupied to rock, instead, he sat and stared into the mulberry trees that separated the lawn of the old house from the State highway. His brow was knitted in thought, although those who knew him well were aware that Jerry Skinner was not a thinking person.

His thinning hair was a mix of blond and gray. It looked as though it may have been wetted down and combed recently, while his troubled eyes were a mixture of gray and blue and they stared at the mulberry bushes with a mixture of anger and confusion. He made a halfhearted attempt to get out of the rocking chair, then sat back again. He turned and looked at the man in the rocking chair next to him.

“Rudy,” he asked. “You awake, Rudy?”

Rudy and Jerry spent a lot of time on the porch together this summer. The home was not air-conditioned and it got unbearably hot in the afternoon. The two of them whiled away their afternoons looking out through the mulberry trees at the traffic on the State highway. Rudy couldn’t see very well even with the thick eyeglasses he wore and he got bored quickly and often dropped off to sleep leaving Jerry with no one to talk to. Rudy was partially deaf as well. Fifty years ago he was a drummer with the Fats Waller band. Drumming does not necessarily deafen a person, but Rudy’s drum set was always set up next to the trumpets. Rudy took a dim view of trumpeters and tended to avoid them even now - except for Jerry, who played trumpet with the Jimmie Lunceford band. Rudy never played with Jimmie Lunceford so he had no reason to blame Jerry.

They rarely had a thought between them, and It was impossible to tell if they were thinking at all. But who can tell? Who can tell if eggplants in the grocer’s window might not think back to pleasant summer days in some distant farmer’s field.

In a sense Jerry and Rudy were artists, retired artists to be sure, but artists none the less. Their memories were mired in the popular songs of the thirties and forties. They found it difficult to understand the world around them except through the music and lyrics of the past.

It is a rarely recognized fact that most people think in words. Pure, abstract thought is not the province of the common man, instead, he will think in the humble words he uses every day of his life, and so Jerry might convey his understanding of the tragedy of World War II through the song ... “The Boogie-Woogie Bugle Boy from Company “B”.” Like everyone else in the Retired Musician’s Home, Jerry and Rudy thought life was a simple thing, and they thought the answer to all life’s problems could be found in the lyrics of the music they played with Jimmy Lunceford, “Fats” Waller or dozens of other bands in a lifetime of dance halls across the country. Even though they were instrumentalists they remembered the lyrics of all the music they played, for the words make the music memorable.

The two old jazz musicians spent their afternoons watching the trucks roar by on the State highway and, as old folks occasionally do, they would recall their past successes. Their failures had been forgotten long ago.

When one of them dropped off to asleep, the other would have the good sense not to bother him, so when Jerry asked Rudy if he was asleep Rudy knew something was wrong.

“Kinda. Yeah, I guess so ... why?”

“The funniest thing.”

Rudy shifted his weight on the cane seat of the rocking chair, he had an old man’s ass, skinny, bone hard and wrinkled. “Tell me what’s so funny about wakin’ me up.”

“I thought for a minute I was dead.”

“I don’t getch’a.”

“Just now. Lookin’ off into the trees, I lost track and it was like walkin’ into a movie in the middle.” He began to feel silly and a little guilty for waking Rudy out of his afternoon nap. “Ever go to a movie in the middle? I mean, like y’don’t know what’s happenin’ or who the people are?”


“Well, I think that’s the way bein’ dead is.”

Rudy thought for a minute, then shook his head in disagreement. “I think maybe you dropped off to sleep y’self, Jerry. We went to Fletcher’s funeral last week - it was probably on your mind.”

“No, I had my eyes wide open. Watchin’ the traffic comin’ and goin’. I was thinkin’ at the time how funny it was for us to be livin’ in a place where nobody wanted to be.”

“I don’t getcha.”

“They keep passin’ us by. Nobody ever stops, and I figger there must be some place better’n this, and I might have gotten a little look-see at it when I thought I was dead.” He leaned back in the rocker and shoved his feet straight out in front of him. “Y’know Rudy - what I’d like t’do sometime?”

“No, what?”

“When the weather gets a little cooler I’d like t’get down off this porch and walk on over to the highway and hitch a ride outta here.”

“Where to, Jerry?”

“Don’t matter much. Somewhere away from here - wherever the traffic is goin’.”

“They’ll ask you where y’goin’, Jerry. Nobody’s gonna pick anybody up who doesn’t know where he’s goin’.”

Jerry hadn’t thought about that. “I’ll tell ‘em I’m goin’ north. That highway out there runs north and south, see - we’re facin’ west, so the lane nearest to us is headin’ north.”

It was all too much for Rudy. He watched Jerry run his fingers through his limp hair and decided that this might be a good time to go back inside and see if it had cooled off any. He got as far as both hands on the arms of the chair and gathering himself together to stand when the screen door banged open and there was Dixie Robinson.

Fifty years ago Dixie sang with Andy Kirk and Chick Webb. Upbeat. Blues - a little snip of a girl with a bar room voice, she could do it all. Now she was a boneless, inflated woman, unsteady on her spike heels. She walked in a rolling rhythm, pirouetting and dipping at times as though she were dancing with an invisible partner. At times she would turn on her sharp heel and the rug would twist under it. Someone was always there to catch her before she fell. It was almost always an elderly man, unsteadier on his feet than Dixie was, and the two would struggle to stay upright.

She painted her eyelids blue to match her eyes and the effect was to make it appear that her eyes were never closed. Her hair was pink and the consistency of cotton candy. Dixie knew the lyrics to every song she ever sang just and Jerry and Rudy did, and they seemed to run through her head from morning ‘til night. She would mouth them silently as she walked in her trance-like rhythm from room to room. She never appeared without making an entrance, nor would she ever exit a room without a flourish, therefore her sudden appearance on the porch before Jerry and Rudy, although neither man paid much attention, was noisy, tumultuous and worthy of applause.

Before the screen door had fully closed, Dixie passed in front of Jerry and Rudy and then pirouetted on her heel. She looked them over carefully and snapped her fingers. “How come you strangers are out here alone? You should be inside with the others talkin’ over the old days.” She began to hum and closed her eyes half-way. The blue of her eyes and the blue of her lids giving the impression she had two eyes in each socket.

“Love was just a glance away, A warm embracing dance away.”

“Strangers in the night, remember?”

“Why don’t you sit down, Dixie,” Jerry said. “You’re makin’ me nervous.”

“I can never sit, I’m too worked up.” She bent over, snapped her fingers and, stepping up on her toes, she did a shuffle backwards until the porch railing stopped her. “You will volunteer for the new band, won’t you boys?”

Neither Jerry nor Rudy knew what she was talking about, nor did either of them care enough to ask.

“The home’s gonna have its own band -- you knew that didn’t you? Both men looked at her blankly. “What’s the matter with you two?”

“I haven’t blown a horn in twenty-five years, Dixie. It ain’t like ridin’ a bicycle you know. You do forget.”

She was irrepressible, and while she swayed and hummed her way through ... "Fill my heart with song, let me sing forever more” she went on to explain how they were to be known as ‘The Elderly Band’. “I love the name, don’t you? I used to love Bob Eberle.”

“I sold my drum set when I quit,” Rudy said. Jerry said he couldn’t play the trumpet any more ... “the nerves in my upper lip are all shot,” he said. Y’can’t play a trumpet when your upper lip is dead.”

Dixie was both irrepressible and adamant. She insisted they go inside and look over the new arrangements that old Sachs had made. “You can’t tell ‘em from Glen Miller and Jimmy Dorsey,” she said. “C’mon it’s gonna be a great band. We’re gonna play every Saturday night. The home says they’ll arrange to sell tickets ... imagine ... it’ll be like being on the road again!”

Rudy stood up reluctantly, but Jerry hung back. “Let’s go check it out,” Rudy said. “Can’t be any worse than what we’re doin’.”

“You guys go ahead, I’m gonna sit here awhile -- watch the night come.”

Dixie figured she got one of them to come with her and that was a start. She took Rudy’s arm and steered him to the screen door, her buoyant step was in sharp contrast to Rudy’s stiff arthritic tread.

Jerry was in no mood for music. He watched the sky darken slowly above him. The sun was low in the west but the state highway was in bright light and the low hills that formed the horizon in front of him stood out sharply against the sky.

He hated his past and thinking back to the band days always saddened him, there was nothing he could draw out of his memory that comforted him, nor was there anything to look forward to in his future - certainly not here in the Retired Musician’s Home. He pulled himself out of his rocking chair and stood at the top of the steps that led down to the lawn that stretched to the Mulberry trees lining the State Highway. The grass was dry, there were brown spots and patches of dandelions had taken over. Inside someone started playing the out of tune piano with their foot on the sustaining pedal, through it all he recognized, “On the Sunny Side of the Street.” Dixie voice was on top of it all. “She’s a pro,” he thought, “Don’t matter how much noise there is, you can always hear the girl vocalist.”

He gripped the handrail tightly and took the steps slowly, one at a time. He stepped out on the dry lawn and stood there looking westward, thinking of the lonely towns he played in. “Empty, more than lonely,” he reminded himself. “Unfriendly to people passing through.” He remembered Natchez, Twin Forks, Wichita - no, not actually remembered. The names he remembered, but none of the people. “I never walked a street in Natchez. Nobody ever said ‘Hello Jerry. Good to see you, Jerry’ in any town -- ever. No wonder we played the blues.”

“No one here can love or understand me,
oh, what hard luck stories they all hand me,
Make my bed light the light,
I'll arrive late tonight,
blackbird bye, bye.”

As he slowly made his way across the field, the music from the home grew fainter. The piano could barely be heard, but Dixie’s voice still hung in there -- “Isn’t it a lovely day to be caught in the rain? She was really reaching back. The mulberry trees were just ahead and the cicadas took over from Dixie Robinson.

He thought back to his wife and daughter, Joanna was his daughter’s name, “She’d be in her thirties now.” His wife? “Well, as old as me,” he guessed. “I just walked off, didn’t I? Never looked back. Never wrote. Never sent them any money. I left her sitting there feeding the baby. Packed my precious horn and a two-suiter and off I went with Lunceford -- never looked back. It was the music ... plain and simple. Playin’ music was all that ever mattered to me.”

He reached the line of mulberry trees, they were higher than they looked back on the porch. The traffic noise from the highway was louder and the cars and trucks traveled much faster than he thought. Back on the porch they took forever to pass his field of view as he sat in his rocking chair - it was more leisurely there. Here it was frightening, they passed with a roar like projectiles and after they’d gone they set up a gust of polluted air that almost swept him off his feet. He realized what a ridiculous idea it was to think he could hitch a ride here. Cars and trucks were passing him at breakneck speed - far in excess of the limit. No one would ever stop to pick him up.

The sun dipped below the rim of the western hills now and it began to grow dark under the mulberry trees. Most of the cars and trucks had turned their headlights on, the glare and noise was more than Jerry could take. He backed under the trees for protection tangling his feet in the leathery vines that grew at their bases. He felt he had made a terrible mistake by coming here, and turned back to see if the house was still there, the lights were on now and he wanted above all to be with his friends again, singing the old songs and telling his stories of life on the road.

As he approached the home he heard the music again. The traffic noise faded and as it did he heard the voice of Dixie Robinson ...

“No one ever tells you how it feels to walk alone, Listening for those footsteps through the echo of your own. Suddenly it hits you all those dreams weren’t worth a dime, But no one ever tells you in time.”

They’d be glad to see him, he just knew they would. It would be like old times again.

©Harry Buschman 2005

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