CHAPTER FOUR HUNDRED AND FIFTY
“What do you want little man?” the man asked. “Why are you here? Someone sent you?”
Before Seth could respond, a beautiful woman came into the room. The woman wore a bright blue silk dress that rustled “swoop, swish, swoop” when she walked. The men shifted at the sight of her.
“Now, come on, Momma!” a beautiful woman said. “Nothing is worth getting so upset about.”
The man’s eyes shifted from Seth to the beautiful woman. Still watching the man, Seth saw the man’s pupils widen at the mere sight of the woman. The man’s lips turned up in a kind of smile. Catching the man’s look, she gave him a slight, knowing smile. Seth had no idea what passed between the man and this woman. He just knew he wanted to have that with a woman someday.
“You’re still wearing your curlers, Momma!” the woman said. “Come. Have some breakfast. You too, Mother. Please.”
The beautiful woman nodded to the elderly woman.
“I don’t want to be a bother,” the elderly woman said.
“You are never a bother,” the beautiful woman said. “We were out late last night at the Fair, so we’re just getting up and around.”
“And my granbabies,” the elderly woman said.
The elderly woman’s face held a kind of desire that caused the man in front of Seth to laugh. When the man laughed, the men standing around the room smiled.
“They are sleeping,” the man said.
The man smiled with such intensity at the beautiful woman and Seth could have sworn that she blushed.
“Where are my manners?” the elderly woman asked herself. She turned to Seth, “This is my youngest son. He’s called Big Daddy because his father thought that would be a good stage name.”
“I’m Bernice,” the beautiful woman said.
Bernice held out her hand to Seth, and Seth shook it. Her hand was cold in his hand. Seth instinctively wrapped her dark hand with his small hands. Bernice gave Seth a curious look. Seth could feel more than see Big Daddy’s eyes on him.
“Your hand is cold,” Seth mumbled.
For the first time, Bernice saw his mouth.
“Oh my,” Bernice said.
Shocked, Bernice let go of Seth’s hand. She jerked her head to look at Big Daddy.
“Your men did this?” Bernice asked.
“They sure did,” the woman in pink curlers, Bernice’s mother, said.
The woman in pink curlers went through the entire thing again finishing with, “and all the boy wanted to do was find someone to teach him.”
“He can pay,” the elderly woman said.
“Can he?” Big Daddy asked with something like a sneer.
Feeling the man’s malice, Seth took a wad of money out of his front pocket. Big Daddy’s fingers moved over the wad as if he was counting. He looked into Seth’s eyes again.
“That’s a lot of money,” Big Daddy said. “Where’d you get that? You steal it? Rich Daddy?”
“He made it,” Claire said. Claire was suddenly at Seth’s side. “He’s a great piano player.”
Big Daddy gave Seth a suspicious look. Not one willing to impress anyone, Seth simply raised his eyebrows. Big Daddy took in the small boy, his pale skin, the swelling at his mouth, and blood on his shirt. Shaking his head in disgust at Big Daddy, Seth put the money back in his pocket. Not willing to give his power to the boy, Big Daddy made a vague gesture to the piano in the corner. Big Daddy sat back down to his breakfast. Seth stood still in front of him.
“Well?” Big Daddy asked after a few moments.
The man raised his eyebrow in a challenge. Seth shrugged at the challenge and nonchalantly walked to the piano. He checked that the piano was in tune for such a long time that Big Daddy finally cleared his throat. Grinning to himself, Seth began playing the song that would someday be called “A Melody for Amelie.” No one said anything when he finished, so Seth kept playing. He played for almost twenty minutes while the people in the room stared at his back. When he finished, a single pair of hands clapped. Seth looked up to see an elderly man standing near the edge of the room clapping for him.
“How’d you do that?” the elderly man asked.
“Just happens.” Seth shrugged. “Since I was four.”
“Talent like that comes from God himself,” the elderly man said. He looked at the men in the room with his eyes settling on Big Daddy. “I only know one other man who can do like you. He your Daddy?”
Seth vigorously shook his head. The elderly man gave him a slow nod. Looking at the people in the room, the man shook his head.
“You’d better clap or you’re insulting the Lord,” the elderly man said.
Everyone in the room began to clap. Claire sat down on the piano bench next to Seth. Seth looked at Claire and she looked really happy.
“I heard you were looking for a teacher,” the elderly man said in a low intimate voice while they clapped.
“Jazz piano,” Seth said.
“It’s his destiny,” Claire said.
“That so,” the elderly man said. “Why do you think that?”
“I’m here in New York City,” Seth said with a nod.
“You’re already good enough,” the elderly man said.
“I want to learn as much as I can,” Seth said. “Spend my life getting as good as I possibly can get.”
The elderly man looked at Seth for what felt like an hour.
“I’ll teach you,” the elderly man said with a nod.
Seth felt the heat of Big Daddy’s eyes on his back.
“He can pay,” Big Daddy said.
“My son,” the elderly man said to Seth with a sniff. “He won’t be satisfied unless you pay.”
Seth nodded. He took the wad of money out of his pocket again and gave it to the elderly man. The elderly man took the money. He went through the bills, sorting it into denominations, until it was a tidy pile. He pulled a five dollar bill out and gave the money back to Seth.
“If I’m going to teach you, you got to first learn to respect your money,” the elderly man said. “Money for people like us comes fast but goes a lot faster. You need to respect its power. You have to be careful.”
“Yes, sir,” Seth said.
The elderly man seemed impressed by Seth’s simply utterance of “Yes, sir.” He nodded.
“You bring me one of these fives every time we meet,” the elderly man said. “That way you help us out while we help you out.”
“Thank you, sir,” Seth said. He put his hand to his chest. “I’m Seth O’Malley.
“I’m Earl, but everybody calls me ‘Bud,’” the elderly man said. “That’s my wife, Dinah. She goes by ‘Di.’”
“It seems disrespectful to call you by your first name, sir,” Seth said.
Bud met that comment with a belly laugh. Di, the elderly woman, joined him. Embarrassed, Seth felt like they were laughing at him. He looked down at the piano keys. Seth felt Bernice put her hand on his back. Bernice leaned down to Seth’s ear.
“White folks don’t usually call black folks by ‘Mr.’ or ‘Mrs.’ or even ‘Sir,’” Bernice said in a soft tone. “That’s why they’re laughing.”
Surprised, Seth looked up at her. Bernice nodded. He looked up at Bud and the elderly man nodded.
“How often can you come?” Bud asked.
“He’s only in the city on the weekends,” Claire said.
“I go to Eastman,” Seth said. “Music scholarship.”
“That’s just fine,” the elderly man said. He smiled at Seth. He looked around the room, “The boy goes to college for free because of his talent. He wants to spending his own time and money learning jazz from one of us uneducated folk here in Harlem.”
Bud shot Big Daddy a hard look.
“I can see why your men hit the boy,” Bud said.
Big Daddy looked down at the desk. Bud turned his attention back to Seth.
“You come Saturday mornings and Sunday afternoons,” Bud said. “Every week until the end of the year. We’ll see how much you pick up. You going to have a problem with Saturdays?”
“No, sir,” Seth said. “Why?”
“You look Jewish,” Bud said.
“Catholic,” Seth said with a grin. “Same thing.”
Bud laughed. Forgetting all about his mouth, Seth smiled and then regretted it. Soothed by the music, his mouth was now on fire.
“Thank you,” Seth tried to say.
At that instant, Seth’s lip burst open again. He spit blood at Bud. A glob of blood and mucus landed on the man’s chest. Still laughing, the elderly man pointed to the blood on his chest and Dinah laughed at him. The elderly woman’s laugh made Claire laugh. Grinning, Bernice helped Seth up.
“Let’s get you cleaned up,” Bernice said. She glanced at her husband.
“Yes, ma’am,” Big Daddy said.
“Come on, child,” Bernice said, she gestured to Claire.
Claire followed them into the back. Bud and Dinah followed close behind.
“So that’s it?” Ava asked Seth.
She was sitting on the side of their bed in Seth’s apartment. Seth looked at her and sighed.
“There’s a lot more than that,” Seth said.
“I bet!” Ava said.
Ava waited for a moment to see if Seth would say more. He didn’t.
“How long did Bud teach you?” Ava asked.
“Until he died,” Seth said. “Christmas time. The last year I was at Eastman.”
Seth nodded. He went to use the toilet mostly to give himself some time to control his emotions. Ava waited for him to return.
“Big Daddy didn’t like the idea of me taking the train,” Seth said. “He said it was too dangerous as I could lead people to him. He hired the guy who hit me to pick me up outside the dorm on Fridays and drive me into the city. Claire and I still took the subways up there every weekend.”
“Claire went with you?” Ava asked. “Every time?”
“Claire … Well, she should probably tell you herself,” Seth said.
“She won’t,” Ava said.
“You’re right,” Seth said. “She won’t.”
Thinking, he stood in one place in the room and stared at the wall.
“I used to rent this room from the diner owner,” Seth said. He smiled. “I didn’t know about money then. Still don’t really. I paid him next to nothing for the room. I like that I can still come here. Still sleep here.”
“I like that too,” Ava said.
Knowing that she could never make him to talk, she let the silence fill up the room. After a few minutes, Seth sighed.
“Claire’s mother was an amazing woman,” Seth said. “But she was busy. Once I bought the building, Claire’s mother became the building manager. She was paid pretty well, enough to save for Claire’s college …”
“Nice of you,” Ava said.
“She wouldn’t let me help financially in any other way,” Seth said with a shrug.
“Claire’s mother?” Ava asked, hoping she hadn’t stopped the flow of words coming from Seth.
“As you can imagine, Claire’s mother took the responsibility of being the building manager very seriously,” Seth said. “The building was kind of a tenement so everything was a mess. Claire’s mother was either cleaning or arranging repair or painting or waiting tables at the diner. Then, Claire’s brother went down in a helicopter crash …”
“She didn’t have a lot of time for Claire,” Ava said.
“Di and Susan, Bernice’s mother, were very industrious and had lots of time,” Seth said. “They doted on Claire. They taught her how to cook. The women made quilts. Bread. Big pots of amazing food. Pies from ancient recipes. They taught Claire about men; taught her to be a woman. Claire blossomed at that time. They adored Claire and she worshiped them.”
“I bet,” Ava said.
Seth smiled at the memory.
“While Bud and I worked — and believe me, the man worked me for hours, until sweat poured down my back. Sometimes we’d spend the time just doing finger pushups, hand stretches, stuff like that.”
“Those ones you do every morning?” Ava asked.
“Got to have strong fingers if you’re going to last all night,” Seth said.
He dropped down. With his hands in the shape of a claw, fingers pressed into the carpet, he did an easy set of pushups. Standing up, Seth looked even more sad.
“Claire, Di, and Susan laughed and talked,” Seth said. “They made dresses and read books to each other. Claire loved going up there. When Andy and I started dating, she and Claire would hang out with Di and Susan. Di loved Andy. Talked to her about the nights at the Savoy Ballroom.”
“Did Claire stop going when you left New York?” Ava asked.
“Bud and Di were dead by then. Di didn’t last much longer than Bud,” Seth said. “Susan was on her own so she moved into a retirement facility. Big Daddy got into more sinister things once his parents died. That beautiful moment in time just … dissolved away, like it never happened.”
Seth plopped down on the bed to think. After a minute, he looked at Ava.
“Come to think of it,” Seth said. “Claire went to college before I left.”
“Where’d she go?” Ava asked.
“Well …” Seth blushed.
“Claire came to Colorado the Christmas before I finished college. Right after Bud and Di died,” Seth said. “I don’t think of it as her coming with me because she went up to Boulder. Schmidty I-V found a place for her to live by the school.”
Seth grinned to himself.
“When I returned, I was in high school and she was in college,” Seth said and laughed. “My driver was the same guy. The one who hit me. He still lives here in Denver.”
“When we moved back to Colorado, she was sure that she’d never return to New York City,” Seth said. He shrugged. “Her mom had married the diner owner, who was Claire’s father’s brother, Claire’s uncle. They were very happy in a childfree bliss. But near the end of Claire’s college, the diner owner died, Claire’s brother disappeared, and her mom got sick.”
Ava made a soft empathetic sound.
“Too much grief for too long of a time, I guess,” Seth said. “Claire graduated a term early and came back here. Susan was gone by then. Died of TB. So it was just Claire and her mother.”
“Claire left Colorado before you and Mitch went to Vietnam?” Ava asked.
Seth gave a quick nod.
“I didn’t see her again until I brought her brother home,” Seth said. “I mean, we wrote some. Kept in touch. Her mother died. I was at the funeral. I was in her wedding. She was in mine. Came to O’Malley’s funeral, my mother’s … Bonita and the boys. She stayed with me when she got divorced. I came here when I got divorced. Of course, I heard from Bernice or Big Daddy. At least once month. Usually Bernice.”
Seth nodded. He fell so silent that Ava worried that he was retreating into himself. She touched his arm to remind him that she was there.
“I …” Seth said. He sighed. “How can you be so close, so very close, to people and have such intense experiences and then … it all just fades away?”
Seth’s sigh was so soulful that Ava felt protective of him. She put her hand on his leg.
“I suppose I’ll fade away someday, sooner than later,” Seth said. “Like Bud and Di and Susan. Bud’s teacher and inspiration was a guy called Art Tatum. Died young, like Mitch. No one even remembers Art or Bud or Di or Susan. Now, Big Daddy gone. No one will remember any of us.”
“I will,” Ava said.
Seth shook his head without looking at her. Ava’s heart broke for him, but she knew he’d stop talking if she said so.
“Bernice is distraught,” Seth said, finally. “Her children are out of state. They don’t want anything to do with their gangster father. He raised them to be doctors, lawyers — law abiding citizens who hate gangsters like him. Oh, they’ll come to his celebration, take his money, but help their mother with the details of everything?”
Ava saw tears form in Seth’s eyes. He shook his head at his own emotions.
“She would never ask, either,” Seth said. “She …”
“What will she do?” Ava couldn’t keep herself from asking.
“I don’t know,” Seth said. “Move in with her eldest daughter, probably. She doesn’t want to. She’s lived her whole life in this city. She doesn’t want to move now. I think it would kill her.”
“Could she move in here?” Ava asked. She gestured to the apartment. “I know you’re here now, but you don’t live here. We can always stay in hotels when we come.”
Seth watched Ava’s face for a few moments.
“Do you need the money from these apartments?” Ava asked.
“The building’s paid off,” Seth said. “We just pay taxes and upkeep. The rent more than covers that, plus Claire’s fee for taking care of the place.”
“Let’s talk to Claire,” Ava said. “I’m sure she’d love the chance to take care of Bernice. Return the favor.”
“Seems like a lot to ask,” Seth said.
“She can say no,” Ava said.
Seth’s eyes never left her face. When she looked at him, he shrugged.
“Would you like me to ask her?” Ava asked.
“Claire already asked me if it would be all right if Bernice moved in,” Seth said. “There’s an apartment upstairs that’ll be vacant at the end of the month. Bernice would have a view of the river and an extra bedroom for her children and grandchildren to visit. I just … It just seems like a lot to ask. Of Claire, I mean.”
Ava smiled at his concern. He shook his head.
“Big Daddy’s estate is a mess,” Seth said. In a very low voice, he added, “It wouldn’t surprise me if the Feds come and take every penny. There are gangsters from all over the world are converging here to split up Harlem. I’ve been dealing with the NYPD since Big Daddy died. Nature abhors a vacuum.”
Ava raised her eyebrows. Seth nodded.
“Big Daddy must have some Fed on the inside, but now …” Seth said.
“Then, Bernice needs to be here,” Ava said.
“You mean, we should take in another stray?” Seth asked.
“Didn’t her mother and mother-in-law take you in when you needed it?” Ava asked.
“They did,” Seth said. “I just wondered if you would be okay with, you know, paying for everything for her.”
“Can we afford it?” Ava asked.
“We’d have to talk to Sandy, but I’d guess so,” Seth nodded.
“Oh, I see. You mean, should we take care of her because she’s a mobster’s wife?” Ava asked. Seth nodded. “My mother was a mobster’s wife. And, we still help her.”
Seth chuckled. The moment shifted, and Seth’s sadness returned.
“I’ll talk to Claire,” Seth said.
Ava nodded. She kissed his cheek, and he smiled.
“I have to go,” Seth said. “I hate to just dump all of this and run.”
“That’s okay,” Ava said. “Claire asked me to help move Bernice’s personal belongings into storage here. Sandy’s kids will be here in a bit to help with the big stuff. Claire’s moving Bernice into a hotel until things settle.”
“You knew all about this,” Seth said.
“I knew that Claire loved Bernice and wanted to help her,” Ava said. “I didn’t know about you and Bud and Di and … everything. Thank you for telling me.”
Seth got up from the bed. Standing in front of her, Seth smiled.
“Thanks for letting me talk,” Seth said.
Seth nodded and left the room. After a minute or so, Ava heard him leave the apartment. She nodded to herself. This was going to be a long weekend. She needed to be ready for anything.
Denver Cereal continues tomorrow…
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