By Melissa Bobe
The E Train
The E train at 3:00. You know what I’m talking about. The E train. It’s air-conditioned now, and has those little light-up schedules on either side, where you can see what stop you’re at, where you’re going, what lines you can transfer to (although you probably won’t want to leave the air-conditioning). The ride’s a little smoother, and at 3:00, it’s not quite packed yet. Rush hour is coming— you know it, I know it— but it isn’t there yet, and you can remain in the car between boroughs without feeling claustrophobic, and maybe even get a seat.
It was 3:00, well, okay, it was 3:14, on the E train, and everyone was plugged in. Mostly to iPods, although there were the occasional technological deviants who had those other mp3 players, feeling special because they hadn’t succumbed to a brand name, and meanwhile wearing Cons on their feet and Moleskines in their back pockets. Those who weren’t into their music were busy on Blackberrys, some Blackberrys were accompanied with music, and a couple even had iPads (those were the ones who had procured seats immediately). Pick your plug—it’s New York, after all, and what kind of city would this be if you couldn’t get your electronic drug of choice?
If someone on the E train had decided to unplug at 3:00 (by which I of course mean 3:14), that person would have noticed the man with the horn smiling at the boy in his stroller, monitored, but not actually watched, by his iPad-entranced mother. The boy was only three, so he wasn’t plugged in, and he was already three, so he was getting quite comfortable making acquaintances, and he waved at the man with the horn, who chuckled and said something to the woman next to him.
She was lovely, with a softer smile than the man with the horn, though it was just as kind, and her hair was piled high up on her head in a classic and elegant way. Her eyes were striking, because they were ever-so-slightly bigger than most, and her brows were articulate, solid and beautifully arched, giving her a look of combined wisdom and sweetness.
If someone on the train unplugged, they would hear the woman call the man Satch, and ask him if he didn’t have another little horn for that handsome little boy. They would hear the man call the woman Pearl, and tell her no, he only had the one horn, but maybe if he held it careful, the boy could get a real good blow or two out of it.
A man sitting opposite the two looked up from one of the free subway papers that are always given out at the entrances. He wore a double-breasted jacket, had a handsome pencil moustache and a gentle but oh-so-slick smile, one that, had they unplugged, the two ladies sitting next to him would have swooned for. “You never did do anyone harm along the way, Pops,” he said to the man with the horn. He took a cigarette from his sharp-looking jacket and patted around for a light.
“Say, let me get that for you, Duke,” a man with a soft baritone-bass voice said, leaning over and offering a light. His icy eyes would have made him appear harsh, had his visage and voice not been so kind and charming, accented by the beautiful, long-stemmed pipe he was biting on. Those two ladies sitting nearby were still preoccupied with their Blackberrys, and apparently no amount of good-looking men in their vicinity could break their focus. The little boy reached out his hand as the blue-eyed man lit the cigarette, and the man smiled and said, “I think you’re just a little young to start smoking, fella.” The man with the horn laughed, and the man called Duke said, “Just give him a year or two.”
A burst of laughter came from the other end of the car, a cackle more than anything, low enough to rival the voices of the men, and with almost as much static as the man with the horn.
“Darlings,” the woman said as she approached, “have you been having a party without me?”
The man with the horn nodded his head towards the little boy and said, “We’re just wishing we had another horn for this here cat to play.”
The woman bent down to meet the boy at eye-level and said, “It’s a shame I had to give up Winston Churchill—you’d have adored each other, Darling.”
“Winston Churchill, the Prime Minister?” the blue-eyed man asked the others.
“No,” said the woman called Pearl, “her lion cub. He was also Winston Churchill.”
“A cat named for a cat,” said the man with the horn, laughing.
It was now 3:17. The E train was approaching midtown. Some people got on, others got off, but no one unplugged.
“We’re almost downtown,” said the man with the paper.
“Remind me why we’re going there? I forget things so quickly,” said the woman who’d had Winston Churchill the lion. She was making faces at the little boy, who was laughing delightedly.
“Why, we’re going to see one of your films, Tallulah,” said the blue-eyed man. “It’s your turn this month.”
“Oh, of course, Darling! How exciting!” And she turned a cartwheel right in the center of the train car. The other four laughed, and the little boy clapped his hands—he was very well-mannered at three.
“Do you think any of these folks are going to join us?” the blue-eyed man asked, looking around.
“If they didn’t join us after that,” the woman called Pearl said, indicating the other woman’s cartwheel, “I don’t think there’s much hope.”
The man with the horn said, “It’s a real shame we can’t bring this one with us.” The little boy had taken his hand and was gripping two of his fingers tightly.
“Always a sucker for the kids,” said the blue-eyed man.
“And why shouldn’t he be? I adore children,” said the woman who’d turned the cartwheel.
It was 3:26. The train was starting to fill up.
“Time to leave, all,” said the blue-eyed man. They gathered their things, and moved towards the door.
“Once upon a time,” said the man with the horn to the little boy, “I’d have taught you to blow this horn on my doorstep.” The little boy waved good-bye as the subway doors opened, and one woman looked up from her iPad and started upon seeing the group. The man with the horn waved back at the boy, winked at the startled commuter, and stepped onto the platform. The cartwheeling woman took his arm. “Come, Darling,” she said. “The only person who enjoys the sound of their own voice more than you is me.”
The train doors closed behind them. The woman who’d looked up for an instant shook her head and returned to her iPad. The little boy kept waving as the E train pulled away, and 3:30 appeared on the digital clocks on the tops of the cars. The rush was about to begin.
“He Is Just Away”
“Be proud and strong, Lucille, in the knowledge that you were beloved of such a man.”
“Words are never adequate at times like these, but it must be some consolation to know that you were married to, and loved by one of the most beautiful men of this or any century.”
-excerpts from condolences sent to Lucille Armstrong upon Louis’s death
The mail had come again today. She’d never known so much mail in her life, even when Louis was getting fan letters and requests for autographs on a daily basis. It took her two trips just to get all of the condolences to the kitchen counter. She’d worried the other day that the postman might be irritated by the inconvenience; but then, he’d recently given his condolences, too.
The house was quiet. No tape machine running, no children on the front step—even the Good Humor man seemed to have given it a rest. She hadn’t been outside much, either. It was July, surely too hot to be out.
She opened a few of the condolences, reading but not really absorbing. It was strange, like being spoken at but not to. So many people, with their own stories, their own mourning, their own lives, cities and states and countries away from her. Louis was wonderful. Louis was fine. God must have needed him. They’d see him again.
They all read, Dear Lucille, Dear Mrs. Armstrong, Dear Madam Satchmo, Mrs. Pops. But they weren’t messages for her, she began to suspect. It felt like some kind of sick joke someone had planned to confuse her, to make her doubt. But what did she have to be doubtful about? There it was, in telegrams and on stationary: she was Mrs. Satchmo Armstrong. The letters said it, and so it must be true. The wife of a legend.
A car backfired in the street, and she jumped. Her heart was pounding, and she felt a moment of real terror. Who was she, really? Who was this Lucille that the whole world wrote to every day, now that it was summer? The heat was confusing her, perhaps. She was the wife of a genius that all the world loved dearly, but what did that make her? Not even his only wife, she was the most recent in a pretty long line of wives for one man—count them, one, two, three, Lucille makes four—even if that man was Louis Satchmo Armstrong. And was she really the last woman he’d have loved? Or had he just up and run off, leaving a widow at random? If he’d lived longer, would they have parted, too? She could imagine the headlines: POPS TURNS 190, MARRIES 12TH WIFE AT BIRTHDAY CELEBRATION!
What was he doing, letting her outlive him, anyway? You’re not supposed to outlive legends, even if you are married to them. Was this his way of moving on? Had he left her for another woman, a celestial beauty somewhere up there? Were earthly women not enough anymore? Was he trying to tell her she was not enough? She remembered he’d told her that, if he went before her, she should get herself another man. Was that because he’d be getting himself another woman? She was furious; her hands shook. Card after card reminding her to be thankful, to remember that she’d been lucky enough to marry the old dog, and there he was, somewhere she couldn’t get to, making eyes at every singer and piano player in a tight dress that passed him by!
She caught sight of her own reflection in the letter opener. Her eyes were wide and wild, and her hair looked a mess. She smoothed it, tried to stop her hands from shaking. This heat—it had to be the heat. She couldn’t keep thinking right now. She should sort through some of these cards, get them ready for the scrapbooks. Scrapbooking might help ease her mind—it had before he’d gone, she didn’t know why now should be any different. She scooped up all of the cards and telegrams from the counter to bring them over to the table for sorting. As she walked with the pile, one card fell to the floor. Setting the rest of the condolences down, she turned, and with a little effort and a small groan to prove it, she bent and picked the card that had fallen off the floor. She glanced inside.
“Thousands acclaim Satchmo for what he was—a great man—a fine musician. I’ve always thought of you as a pretty great person also, who contributed an immeasurable amount to Mr. Armstrong’s career.”
Well. Maybe the wife of a legend is more than that because that’s exactly what she is. And she’d miss him, wearing that pink shirt, grinning at her from under those big old reading glasses of his, that crackling laugh, that laughing smile.
Sorting the mail could wait. She felt like taking a walk. She slipped her shoes on and stepped into the thick, bright Queens summer.
That Gig in the Sky
It is July 1971.
Word on earth is, Gabriel’s real green over the way Satchmo can let it blow, and will, for eternity, and maybe a little longer.
Down in New Orleans, the Devil has a cafe he’s particularly fond of, with some tables out on the street, old world style, and every once in a while, just to try and rattle him, a few of the seraphim sit and have a latte or two at a table near his. They never seem to succeed in shaking him up, but it was on one of these days that a very young Louis Armstrong was playing in a dance hall down the street. When the first notes of his horn floated down their way, Lucifer glanced over at the table of seraphim, and noted the shift in Gabriel’s face. The Devil smirked in a, well, rather devilish manner, and called the waitress over to ask her to please put the tabs of those three young men sitting at the table near him on his bill. He gave her a 25% tip, and continued to smirk all the way back to Hell.
The Devil never challenged old Satchmo in all the years his horn warmed and sweetened the earth. He was a fiddler, to begin with, and even down in Hell, those swingin’ notes that Satch was playing made their way through the pits and the torture chambers, causing the fires and the demons to still, just a little, as they listened to something they could almost but not quite understand.
Now, on earth, there has been a great outcry at the loss of Louis Satchmo Armstrong. There have been an awful lot of people cursing Hell and Heaven alike. Lucifer doesn’t mind; he’s used to it by now, and has always felt that Louis was likeable, for a human. The angels up in Heaven, well, they’re a different story. Despite the fact that they ought to be used to bitter cries of “Unjust!” from mankind after these many centuries have gone by, they’re not like you and I—angels are jealous by nature, and vindictively obedient. It’s one of the reasons Lucifer up and left for Hell, as he maintains (although he never denies his roots if you ask him about them. Go ahead, next time you see him). Anyway, Gabriel is angry, angry, almost hopping mad about the arrival of the now actually immortal Satchmo, and he’s humiliated because all of the folks down on earth seem to know. He’s read what they’ve been writing: “Move over, Gabriel! Here comes Satchmo!” and “Gabriel will be alright now that he’s got the greatest horn there ever was to teach him a thing or two,” and even “God must need Satch to play that sweet music for some gigs up in Heaven, that’s why he’s gone,” the last of which Gabriel finds particularly insulting, because not only does it fail to mention him, but it also suggests that this man is more important than he could ever possibly be, a base creature like a human being. Where is the humility? Vain creatures, all of them, in Gabriel’s opinion. Lucifer catches sight of this opinion from down below, and laughs, It takes one to know one, Gabriel!
Meanwhile, up in Heaven, Louis Armstrong is getting his bearings. Always fast to make friends, and no stranger to bigotry, he goes right up to Gabriel and offers his hand for a shake. “You’re the cat I’m supposed to jam with at the end of time,” he says, smiling. “How d’you do?” Gabriel feels the other angels looking at him, and knowing he’ll never be able to face the Devil in New Orleans again if he doesn’t, he takes the hand that’s offered. “Now, about that gig,” Satchmo continues when Gabriel turns to leave. He stops, a little peeved that he is unable to make his escape, but more surprised by the fact that Louis seems to want to speak to him, and despite his unfriendliness, doesn’t seem to be discouraged at all. Gabriel nods, signaling Louis to continue; he’s not human, after all, and unless he’s smiting them, he doesn’t really know how to interact in a proper and socially acceptable manner. Pops goes on, “Listen, I was thinking—wouldn’t it swing real good if, when the fires come up on the earth, instead of those grand hosannas and fanfare type stuff, if you and I made it a day of blow, blow, blow on the horns, and played some real jazz to greet all those souls on their way to join us?” Gabriel looks at him, at a loss for words. Lucifer watches intently; he finds this incredibly interesting.
Louis continues, “Now, I know it’s not quite what you all are used to playing up around here, but it’s always been a good time for me, and with the earth in flames and all, don’t you think those folks that are seeing the world burning could use something they’re accustomed to? And me, well, I’ve got ‘em all accustomed to it by now!” And Louis laughs.
Gabriel still can’t seem to find any words. He can feel, all the way from Hell, Lucifer waiting for him to do something disgraceful. As if Pops can read the anxiety in him, beyond that impenetrably perfect angelic face, he says, “Well, why don’t you and I go and jam a bit in the meantime? We can talk about it more; we’ve got plenty of time, after all, and I’d like to hear you give it what you got. Have you got your horn around here somewhere?”
As a matter a fact, Gabriel’s horn is nearby. He goes to get it, and brings it back with him. Louis smiles. “Well, it may seem a little silly up here, but I just feel like playing ‘Saints’ right about now. You know that chart?”
Down on earth, the children in Corona, Queens look up at the sky. They hear something, but they don’t know what it is. Some of them think it’s the ice cream man, but that idea goes away as quickly as it came. The youngest of them, who can’t be more than five years old, smiles and hums a little. He sings quietly, Oh Lord, I wanna be in that number…The moment passes, the children resume their play, and the sun sets. A handsome figure walks down 107th street, pauses in front of number 34-56, smirks in a not so devilish, but rather unusual way, as though sharing a joke with a very old friend. He tips his hat, and continues along his way.
Melissa Bobe holds an MFA in Creative Writing and Literary Translation from Queens College of the City University of New York. In the spring of 2011, she was a writer-in-residence at the Louis Armstrong House Museum Archives. She founded and taught a creative writing workshop for teens at the Rockville Centre Public Library for six years, and has also taught nonfiction prose writing as an adjunct instructor at Queens College. She is currently pursuing a PhD in English Literature at Rutgers University. Her work has appeared in Phantom Kangaroo and Steel Toe Review.
This three-part fiction is the product of a residency at the Louis Armstrong House Museum and Archives, where the author had access to the condolences written to Lucille Armstrong upon the death of her husband. The short quotations used are valid under the fair use act.