CHAPTER FOUR HUNDRED AND FORTY-NINE
“He picked up Claire and they took the subway to the housing project on Lenox Avenue,” Sandy said. “He met Big Daddy there, in the project.”
“That’s it?” Aden asked.
“That’s what Seth told Dad,” Sandy said.
“There’s no way that’s the whole story,” Aden said. “What would Seth hide?”
“No idea.” Sandy shrugged. “Certainly not anything that makes him look bad. He doesn’t mind sharing every detail of how and when he’s messed up.”
“Who would look bad then?” Aden asked.
“Someone else,” Sandy said. “Something complicated, morally, I mean.”
They fell silent for a moment. Aden cleared his throat.
“So …” Aden said. “Who’s trying to find out the rest of the details from Claire?”
“How’d you know?” Sandy asked.
“I know you,” Aden said with a laugh.
Sandy nodded and got up.
“We should check to be sure we aren’t leaving anything,” she said. She paused by the bed and bat her beautiful eyes at him. “Unless you can think of a better way to spend the last moments of our honeymoon.”
Laughing, Aden led her to bed.
Friday morning — 8:41 a.m.
New York City, New York
“Oh Sissy, I don’t know,” Claire said. “It was a very long time ago.”
“My dad said you left the apartment with Seth and then met Big Daddy,” Sissy said.
Claire gave a slow nod and then shrugged. They were standing in the kitchen of Seth’s Hell’s Kitchen apartment. Claire was making food for a dinner Seth was hosting that evening. Seth was with Bernice, Big Daddy’s widow, helping her with the details of saying goodbye to her spouse of a lifetime. The celebration would start Saturday night and continue all day Sunday ending in Big Daddy’s private burial.
“If that’s what Mitch said, then that’s what happened,” Claire said. “He always had a better memory than Seth and I combined.”
“But …” Sissy started again.
Claire gave her a distracted look.
“You’re not going to tell me are you,” Sissy said with her usual blunt honesty.
“I’m not,” Claire said.
“Why?” Sissy asked.
“Because we’re going to the funeral of a complicated man,” Claire said. “He was good and evil all mixed up into one. Talk to one person and he was the devil incarnate. Talk to another, he was a saint. He saved Seth and I from danger more times than I could count. Of course, some of that danger was manufactured by Big Daddy.”
Claire nodded at Sissy’s confused frown.
“For us, he was our good and bad friend,” Claire said. “In the end, that’s really what matters.”
“Sounds like he was kind of a Wizard of Oz,” Sissy said.
“Like a real life Wizard of Oz,” Claire said. She touched the side of Sissy’s face and gave her a soft smile. “You have known great evil in your life, Sissy. Big Daddy was much more complicated.”
“Then explain it to me!” Sissy said.
Sissy’s exasperation made Claire smile.
“I would that I could,” Claire said. Her smile dropped and she looked sad. Nodding her head, she said again, “I would that I could.”
Sissy gave Claire a long look. In Claire’s face, she saw that telling the whole story would cause Claire a lot of pain. Sissy’s heart swelled for the woman.
“Did Seth break your heart?” Sissy asked.
“Seth?” Claire looked surprised. She shook her head. “Seth is and was the best friend I’ve ever had. Period. He never hurt me, lied to me, or betrayed me. Ever. Not in more than almost fifty years of living.”
“You’re not his wife though,” Sissy said softly.
“I never wanted to be,” Claire said. She took a breath and held it. “From the first moment I laid eyes him, I just wanted to … help him, I guess. My mom felt the same way. He was so lost and alone. Broken. It was like all of that musical talent was a tornado around him. Everything was destroyed in its wake. My mother loved him like a son. He took care of her like she was his own mother. Maresol says he took care of his mother the same way. And he’s certainly cared for my every up and down. Now, he’s taking care of his father. That’s the Seth I know.”
“Don’t worry about this kind of thing, Sissy,” Claire said. She kissed Sissy’s cheek. “If I’m anything, I’m sad that Big Daddy is gone. I know how much he meant to so many people.”
“Including you?” Sissy asked.
“I think that’s what surprises me,” Claire said. “I’m discovering how much Big Daddy meant to me.”
“Now, you run along,” Claire said. “You need to rest before everyone gets here and …”
Sissy blushed at her attention and Claire laughed.
“You probably don’t need any mothering either,” Claire said.
“I do need it,” Sissy said. “Desperately. It feels really good. I was just wondering if I could come over more often.”
“You’re always welcome,” Claire said. “My youngest is moving out in a month to take a position at a big teaching hospital in Boston. I could use a girl to care for.”
“I can see why Seth felt like you were his family from the very start,” Sissy said.
Claire impulsively hugged Sissy. The woman let go and gestured for Sissy to leave her. Sissy moved out of the kitchen. As she let herself out of the apartment, she thought she heard Claire crying.
A long time ago
New York City, New York
“Are you ready?” Seth asked.
Claire gave him a quick nod. She grabbed her small purse and followed him out of the apartment.
“Where to?” Seth asked.
“This way,” Claire said.
She hooked elbows with Seth and they set off toward the subway. They walked fast for no other reason than they could. They were out of breath by the time they reached the terminal for the 8th Avenue at the 50th Street Subway Station. Because everything about the subway was new to Seth, Claire guided him through buying ticket and how to get down to the platform for the 8th Avenue train.
“The upper level is the 8th Avenue train platform,” Claire said.
Seth nodded as if what she’d said made any sense.
“You’re lucky to be traveling with me,” Claire said. “I won’t get us lost.”
Overwhelmed by the noise and press of people in the subway station, Seth could only smile his gratitude. He was sure he would never ever be able to ride the subway without her. Claire hooked arms again and they stepped onto a train. The subway train whizzed through a dark tunnel. Seth knew that above them Central Park was flying by. From where he sat, there was no indication of anything more than dark tunnels. Claire dragged Seth off the train at 116th Street. They jogged up the stairs until they were on the street.
“How did you do that?” Seth asked.
“I practiced after school yesterday,” Claire said with a laugh.
Seth smiled at his brave friend. She grinned at him and pointed. They walked slowly up the street. Claire pulled a piece of paper from her pocket.
“Let’s see …” Claire said. She pointed up Lenox Avenue. “This way.”
They set off up Lenox Avenue. Claire stopped short.
“This is where the Cotton Club was,” Claire said.
They were looking at a tall brick apartment building. It was almost ten in the morning, but no one stirred. There were a couple of tall men standing on the corner. Claire tugged on Seth’s arm until they were shoulder to shoulder.
“You think there in there?” Claire asked.
Seth gave a hopeless shrug. He noticed the men on the corner for the first time. With his look, the men started walking in their direction. Dragging Seth along, Claire set off walking up the street.
“Do you want to take the subway?” Claire asked with a glance over her shoulder.
The two men from the corner had picked up a third. Seth looked at Claire and then glanced at the men.
“Sure,” Seth said.
They crossed the street and ran as fast as they could back to 116th Street. When they got to the subway platform, the men were waiting for them. Seth looked at the men’s faces to assess what the men wanted from them. The men gave him an angry sneer. Intimidated, he swallowed hard. He and Claire shuffled onto the subway train when it arrived. The men followed them onto the subway train. When the men got off at 125th Street, Claire visibly relaxed. They took the train to 135th Street and got off.
Seth followed Claire up to the street. On one corner, there was a hospital across the street. What looked like a library was catty-corner from them.
“That’s a library for Neg … I mean Black studies,” Claire said. Seth glanced at her and she nodded. “I came here last week to see if I could find out anything. It was the librarian who told me that all of the musicians from the ‘old jazz clubs’ were in these buildings here.”
Claire nodded and Seth smiled at her brilliance.
“Where to?” Seth asked.
His eyes picked up two different men walking toward them. A third man joined the other two men. If Claire noticed the men, she didn’t say anything. She took his elbow and they started down the street. She stopped right in front of another tall building.
“This is where the Savoy Ballroom used to be,” Claire said.
“What’s it to you?” a man’s voice came from behind them.
Seth and Claire whipped around. The scary men were right behind them. A tall, muscular man passed by them and stood about six feet in front of them while two men stood behind them. Having spent all of his life with a bully named O’Malley, Seth wasn’t afraid of these men. He figured they were just protecting their neighborhood from prying eyes. Claire’s whole body shook with fear.
“I am looking for someone to help me learn jazz piano,” Seth said.
He stood up straight like his brother, Saul, had taught him to do. The men laughed at him. Seth shrugged.
“If you know someone, I’d like to meet them,” Seth said.
“What I know …” a tall, rail thin man came right up to Seth and poked him in the chest. Seth stumbled back. “ …is that you’re way out of your neighborhood.”
“I want to learn how to play jazz piano,” Seth said. “No one in my neighborhood plays jazz piano. Claire talked to a librarian who told her that lots of musicians live right here.”
Seth pointed to the building. The men snickered.
“And you think they should teach you? Why would anyone …” The skinny man poked Seth in the chest.
“ … have anything …” the skinny man said with a hard poke in Seth’s chest.
“ … to do …” The skinny man tried to poke Seth again, but Seth jumped away from his finger. “ … with you!”
The skinny man back handed Seth across the face. Seth’s front two teeth flew out of his mouth. Seth collapsed onto the sidewalk. The last thing he remembered was Claire screaming at the top of her lungs.
He was out only a minute or so. When he came around, a thick-set middle aged woman with her hair in pink curlers was yelling at the men. Claire was sitting on the sidewalk right next to his head. Her hand held a tissue to his mouth.
“Get the hell out of here, you hoodlums!” the woman with pink curlers said. Her pink curlers bounced when she talked. “Beating up a child.”
“This little cracker was trying to …” the man started.
“I don’t give one shit about what this child was or was not doing,” the woman with pink curlers said.
Seth heard another woman say, “Uh huh.”
“You disgrace us all by beating up a little kid,” the woman with pink curlers said.
An elderly woman leaned down to Seth.
“Are you okay, son?” the elderly woman asked.
Seth nodded. Claire’s tissue slipped and Seth felt blood poor from his mouth and lip. The elderly woman put a bag of frozen peas on his mouth. Seth tried to smile, but his mouth hurt too much.
“We saw everything that happened,” the elderly woman said.
She pointed to the building they had been looking at.
“What are you doing here?” the elderly woman asked Seth.
“I want to learn jazz piano,” Seth lisped. He unintentionally sprayed blood with every word. “I can pay. I just want to learn. Claire’s just here to help me.”
Seth’s ever present feeling of desperation came over him. His eyes welled with tears.
“Only a tiny, tiny man would beat up a little kid — white or not!” the woman with pink curlers said. “You — whose out there protesting all the time for equality. You explain the equality of smacking around a little kid.”
“Shut the hell up,” the man said.
Seth out of the corner of his eye he saw Claire jump up from the sidewalk.
“You don’t get to talk to her like that,” Claire yelled at the man. “She’s older than you. She deserves your respect!”
The man pulled back his hand to hit Claire, but the woman with pink curlers got right in his face. She opened her mouth to say something to the man, but the elderly woman spoke first.
“They’re here to find a jazz piano teacher,” the elderly woman said to the woman with pink curlers. “Says he can pay.”
“I’m going to Big Daddy.” The woman’s face was less than an inch from the man’s. “I’m going to tell him that you hit this little boy — knocked out his teeth, made him bleed all over the sidewalk — just because he wanted to pay to learn something from someone around here.”
She sniffed at the man and he fell back. He reeled back from the woman in terror. Hooking her arm with Claire’s, the woman said, “Come on, honey, let’s go find Big Daddy.”
Claire gave Seth a horrified look as the woman dragged her away.
“Help me with this!” the elderly woman commanded.
The man who’d been in front of them plucked Seth off the sidewalk and set him on his feet. The elderly woman took Seth’s arm while Seth held the peas to his mouth.
“Can you walk?” the elderly woman asked. “I can get one of these men to carry you.”
Seth nodded that he could walk.
“Good,” the elderly woman said. They started walking in the same direction as the woman with pink curlers and Claire. She leaned in to Seth’s ear. “I wouldn’t have minded making them carry you, but I like it that you’re tougher than that.”
Seth tried to smile but his mouth really hurt. The elderly woman caught his grimace and smiled.
“You knocked those out before?” the elderly woman asked.
Seth shook his head.
“That’s good,” the elderly woman said. “They’ll grow back.”
“Thank you,” Seth said in a spray of blood.
The elderly woman laughed at Seth’s bloody words, and Seth laughed at himself.
“When I was younger, I took care of boys like you,” the elderly woman said. “Rich white folks. Your parents rich?”
Seth shook his head and pointed to himself.
“Just you?” the elderly woman asked. She stopped walking. “I hope you take care of your Mama.”
Seth gave a vigorous nod.
“Where are they?” the elderly woman asked.
“Denver,” Seth tried to say but his mouth was swelling and it same out as something like “Den-bear.”
The elderly woman clicked her tongue against her teeth to relay that she didn’t like it that his parents were far away.
“You on vacation with your girlfriend?” the elderly woman asked.
The elderly woman gestured toward Claire. Seth shook his head. He managed to say something that sounded like “school.” He held his hand out and wiggled his fingers to indicate that he played the piano.
“That so,” the elderly woman said. “I used to work at the Savoy Ballroom.”
“You used to work a lot,” Seth said
The elderly woman laughed.
“That’s a fact,” the elderly woman said.
“I like you,” the elderly woman said. “I didn’t expect to, but I do.”
The elderly woman nodded as if she had paid him a dear compliment. Seth tried to grin but his face was swelling so mostly he just nodded. The woman patted his hand and they kept walking.
“Who’s Big Daddy?” Seth asked, spraying blood on the sidewalk again.
“My son,” the elderly woman said. Not sure what that meant, Seth nodded and they kept walking.
“His wife is her daughter,” the elderly woman said gestured to the woman with pink curlers. “She’s my best friend has been since the day she was born. She’s ten years younger than me.”
Still not sure what she was saying, Seth nodded. As they approached a plain looking building, the elderly woman leaned in.
“You be respectful,” the elderly woman said. “Disrespect here could get you killed. There won’t be a damned thing I can do about it.”
Scowling, Seth nodded that he understood.
“Good,” the elderly woman said. “Glad you understand. Your parents taught you well.”
“Brother,” Seth said or thought he did.
The elderly woman nodded but didn’t respond. She gave him a smile and they went inside. They heard the woman with pink voice from a room ahead. The elderly woman and Seth entered the room. A seated man stood up as soon as the elderly woman walked into the room. They moved closer to where the man was sitting. As if they were guarding the place, a number of burly and bored men stood around the room. Seth and the elderly woman moved into the room and Seth saw that it was some kind of an office.
When the elderly woman walked forward, Seth got his first real look at the man. He wasn’t very tall. Certainly not as tall as Seth’s older brother Saul or his father, O’Malley. When the man hugged the elderly woman, Seth saw that they were the same height. While the elderly woman was willowy, the man was thick-set. He had rings on his fingers, gold bracelets on his wrists, and gold chains around his neck. His hair was short, thick, and tight to his head. He wore a red, long sleeved dress shirt, a suit vest, and suit pants. Seth spied the jacket to the suit over the back of the chair. Malice came off the man like water from a duck.
When the man moved away from his mother, the man’s dark eyes latched onto Seth’s blue eyes. Seth felt a pulse of energy move through him. The energy didn’t feel evil or even angry. Seth knew this man was a powerful force of nature. For reasons Seth would never understand, the man’s power didn’t intimidate Seth. Reading this in Seth, the man’s head went up and down in an almost imperceptible nod.
“What do you want little man?” the man asked. “Why are you here? Someone sent you?”
Denver Cereal continues tomorrow…
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