Benny's Blues

He has his ballgames and his buddies, his parents’ expectations, and the disasters that plague him, but all Benny really wants is to sneak away to the jazz joints on the South Side of Chicago.

Excerpted from The Jazz Palace by Mary Morris (writing), Illustrations by Jamey Christoph

Jazz Palace

The crack of a bat worked its way into Benny’s dreams. He heard the shouting and, gazing out, saw Moe Javitts with a group of their pals, playing in the lot below. Moe, like Benny, was dark skinned and small, with curly hair. He was pitching and threw an impressive fast ball. Some of the boys from the nearby neighborhoods were good and because it was summer and there was no school the boys played whenever they could.

The vacant lot was a dry patch with a few tufts of grass and weeds, tucked between two buildings, and Benny had lived most of his life across from it. He hung out here with his brothers and the neighborhood boys. It was covered in broken bottles and trash.  Albany Park was only a few blocks away, but this was where the boys preferred to be. They’d played mumblety-peg, hurling pocket knives at their feet. They’d made pushmobiles out of orange crates and old roller skating wheels. As they grew older, they played ball. In the winter they brought girls here and roasted potatoes over open fires. They slipped their hands into the warmth of soft skin and wool coats.

Benny gave a holler across the dusty expanse, and Moe waved up to him. “Come on down,” Moe shouted from the pitcher’s mound. If he hurried, Benny could get in an inning or two before his music lesson. He wished he could skip it. He was tired of Mr. Marcopolis and the Beethoven sonatas that he didn’t want to learn. Though he went through the motions of practicing, he’d never play them right. Now he didn’t bother bathing or brushing his teeth. He just threw on a shirt and trousers, his shirt hanging out, and gulped down a bowl of cold cereal and juice. Despite Hannah’s efforts to run a comb through his hair, Benny dashed out the door.

It was the bottom of the third, and the Tuley High School boys were ahead. He stuck his sheet music under a makeshift bench and took the field at shortstop. He fielded a few grounders and made a good play at second. 
At bat he doubled, and then scrambled to third on a line drive. On a bungled catch he stole home. In the next inning he ran down the line hard to get a single and caught a scorcher barehanded. His palm ached and his fingers burned. For a moment he wondered if his wrist was broken. Protect your hands, Mr. Marcopolis always said. When he heard the church bells chime nine o’clock, he walked off the field. “Come on, Benny,” Moe shouted, “forget about it.” Moe, who played the French horn, thought nothing about missing his lessons.

“Can’t.” He shook his head. “I gotta go.”

“Mama’s boy,” somebody called.

Benny shot a glance and scowled as he walked to the corner where he hopped a streetcar heading west. As the tram moved up Lawrence, Benny brushed the dust from his knees. He rubbed his sore fingers which still smarted from his catch. His hand stung as he got off at his stop. On the street a pushcart peddler was selling rags. Benny walked past the tumbledown buildings whose corridors reeked of herring, pickles, and faulty plumbing. Climbing the stairs, he stood in front of his teacher’s apartment. As he raised his fist to knock, he froze. He wasn’t going in. He didn’t think he could bear to be inside that apartment with its odor of stale tea and unlived lives.

He turned and snuck down the stairs, then dashed back into the street much faster than he had come. He caught a tram heading east and then south. The houses got bigger. There were trees and streetlights. He got off at the river near the Shadows where the dockworkers and prostitutes dwelled. Red-lipped women called to him, but he ignored them. He wandered along the wharves as a crew toted bushels of corn and potatoes, lugging boxes of cargo off the ships.

Somehow the three boys who were left didn’t count. It made no difference when Benny said to her, “You still have me.”

The Eastland still lay on her side while a pitch-black tug with the strange name of Favorite was trying to right her. Benny sat on the dock as the sailors on the hull struggled to secure more lines. He thought about how many people in his neighborhood were gone. A man across the way had lost his wife and his daughter. At night Benny heard his sobs. One woman had lost all six of her children. How could a person go on after something like that?

His mother had only lost Harold. But he was the youngest and the sweetest of her boys. Benny couldn’t help but chuckle as he looked again at the tugboat’s name. Favorite. That’s what Harold was. Her favorite. It had been a knife in Benny’s heart. How Hannah doted on him. She saved for him the juicy chicken thighs, the marrow bones in the soup. The tenderest cut of brisket was never for her husband, always for Harold. And then she’d lost him, and though she’d never say it, Benny really was to blame. She had entrusted him with the boys. She cried for a year, then one day she stopped. But the headaches began, and they’d never gone away. Somehow the three boys who were left didn’t count. It made no difference when Benny said to her, “You still have me.”

“How’s it coming?” he shouted to the pilot of the tug.

“Good as can be expected,” the pilot called back with a wave. Benny lingered on the docks, then hopped the “el” that they called the Alley that would take him downtown. He was happiest in motion. He didn’t want to sit still. If he could, he’d just keep going. He had thoughts of getting away, heading to some of the river towns. Davenport or St. Louis. Maybe even to New Orleans. He rocked with the rhythm of the “el” as it took him down Satan’s Mile past the saloons where Mickey Finn rolled customers for their wallets and left them naked on the streets. Benny didn’t care if the South Side was dirty or dangerous.

He got off at Thirty-First Street and walked the rest of 
the way.

The alleyway smelled of grease and dog shit, of piss and smoldering trash. The stink of a Chicago summer got into his clothes and his hair, but Benny didn’t care.

He put his ear up to the tavern door and soon the music seeped out as he knew it would. Even at this early hour someone was playing the keyboard. At first he thought it was two people. It didn’t seem possible that it was 
only one. Whoever was playing seemed to be hitting all the notes at once, but the right 
hand ran wild while the left kept a steady bass. The notes swirled in murky colors, and the 
key kept changing. He couldn’t make sense of the chords.

When the music stopped, the silence was slow to reach him. He stood motionless as a huge caramel-skinned man in a soaked white shirt flung open the door. His hair, the color of molasses, was cut short, making his big head look like a balloon. His eyes were molasses, too. Bees must flock to him, Benny thought. The man glared at the boy who stood gaping. “What’re you doing here, son?”

“Just listening.” Benny shook as he said it.

The man gave him a smile, and a diamond stud glittered in his front tooth. He 
was rolling a cigarette, licking the paper with his long pink tongue. “You must be stealing,” the man said nonchalantly.

Benny looked around the alleyway. What was there to take? “Stealing? I never stole anything in my life.”

The man laughed. “Music. That’s what white kids steal.”

Benny shook his head. “I don’t understand.”

The man lit his cigarette. “So what d’you want here, boy?”

Benny tried to find the words for what he wanted, but they eluded him. “Nothing,” he replied, though he knew this wasn’t true. He did want something.

“Then why you keep showing up?” The man stared at him, but Benny held his ground.

A few minutes ago he hadn’t known what he wanted, but now he did. “I want to come inside.”

The man let out a gruff laugh, thick with smoke. “Well, be my guest.” He flashed a smile with his diamond stud and poppy seed kernels between his teeth. Making a deep bow, he let the boy pass through a haze of perfume and smoke. Billiard balls clacked in a corner 
while two girls with red nails and creamy red lipstick leaned against the bar. Their breasts were pushed up almost to their chins and 
they wore black lace stockings hooked onto a garter belt and red bows in their hair. Benny had never seen girls dressed like this before, and he looked at them more with curiosity than desire.

Honey Boy Bailey crossed the room, his buttocks shaking like Jell-O. “Hey, Honey,” one of the girls called, “You gonna let that doughboy sit in with you?”

“He’s not white.” Honey Boy held up Benny’s tanned arm. “Look at him. He’s almost black as us. Besides this boy likes our rhythms. And you can see he’s got the heebie-jeebies so why don’t you go outside and get us some business, Velvet?”

The man pulled up a chair beside the piano. “Okay, you just sit here and watch.” He stretched out his long black fingers that moved like termites in a house on fire. He took up the whole keyboard as his pink nails flitted up and down. His hands went in different directions while his feet danced on the floor. His elbows jabbed the air as he kept the melody moving with his right hand. Benny kept his eye on the left hand as he tried to figure out the chords.

Honey Boy played his rags and the blues, but then the tunes took off on their own, and Benny had no way of following. His right hand crossed over his left and Benny couldn’t keep up. Honey Boy seemed to be using the instrument more like a drum than a piano.

His hands glided for an hour, a day; Benny had no idea how long. All he knew was that he couldn’t follow the tune by just sitting there. And that this man wasn’t called Honey Boy because of the golden brown color of his skin. He was Honey Boy because when he played, what came out of him was sweet and smooth.

He put his ear up to the tavern door and soon the music seeped out as he knew it would.

When Honey Boy was finished, he looked at Benny who was concentrating very hard. “What are you thinking?”

Benny shook his head. “I’m thinking about how you do that.”

Honey Boy laughed. “Well, when you solve it, you come back and show me.” Reaching into a jar, he swallowed a handful of poppy seeds. “Jelly Roll Morton, he thinks he invented jazz. But let me tell you, I taught him a thing or two before you were born. Now you go work on that, then come back for your next lesson.” Honey Boy laughed, giving Benny a pat on the back. “And eat poppy seeds,” he said, holding up the jar. “It’s good luck. It’ll make a success out of you.”

As Benny stepped into the warm air, he was surprised at how dark it was. He tried to ignore the laughter trailing after him. They were making fun of him, but he didn’t care. He was too busy, trying to figure out what he’d just heard. He ran the music over in his head. There were two or three chords he could make sense of. The rest was a cloudy river with no bottom in sight. As he walked, his fingers worked, laying out a melody on top.

Benny caught the “el” north. It was an almost-empty train with two or three other people on it—night workers heading back, sleepy people who had to be at their jobs in a few hours. He collapsed into a seat as the train rumbled along. He hoped his parents were asleep and that they hadn’t noticed he was gone. He didn’t care. If he had to, he’d come up with a good lie.

The “el” clanged as it moved on its tracks. The stifling air smelled of leather and tired bodies. Benny rocked back and forth.

He shut his eyes.

He went to that place by the window where he’d stood listening to the lilt of a trumpet he couldn’t see. “Let me play,” Benny said, making his pact with no one in particular. “I’ll do anything if you’ll let me play.”

Mary Morris is the author of 15 books—seven novels including The Jazz Palace, three collections of short stories, and four travel memoirs, including the travel classic, Nothing to Declare: Memoirs of a Woman Traveling Alone. Her short stories have appeared in The Atlantic, Ploughshares, and Narrative. The recipient of the Rome Prize in Literature, Morris teaches writing at Sarah Lawrence College.