Jane MacDonald

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Grant Park Blues
                                                                                           2000 Jane MacDonald
by Jane MacDonald

Just last June, because he was a blues freak, Arthur Wilson got lucky.
Very lucky.

Arthur lived down by the El in Oak Park, which is a pleasant, close-in
suburb of Chicago. Because he was very good at his complicated
computer-related job, within a couple of years he could easily have
afforded a place on the Near North Side, but he figured it wasn't
worth the trouble it would take to move. Nobody ever came to see him
anyhow.

Rather than go to the annual Chicago Blues Festival alone, he asked
his sister Alice to go with him. She accepted the invitation, but she
warned him that she'd have to leave quite early--she'd promised to go
to a party with her fiance. When the night came Alice met Arthur at
the El station around seven-thirty and they took the train to Grant
Park.

They weren't about to pay to get seats in front of the big stage--like
most people, they preferred their blues free if they could get it that
way. So they walked around behind the little wooden picket fence set
up to protect the paying audience from the unwashed hordes, found a
thin spot in the crowd, and sat on the ground. Actually, Alice sat on
a jacket she'd brought just for that purpose. Arthur just sat; he was
wearing the same old jeans he wore all the time.

"Hey, not bad!" Arthur wanted his sister to be happy.

"Not bad," she echoed. "But I've heard better."

"They just aren't warmed up," Arthur said. In fact, he liked all
blues, good, bad, or indifferent, warmed up or not. But he was right,
and just about the time Alice decided she had to leave, the band
really got going, and the music was as good as music can be.

"Gotta go, Artie."

"Aw, can't you stay a little longer? It was just getting good! Really
good!"

"Nope. Jim would kill me. I promised." She struggled to her feet. So
did Arthur. He gave her a peck on the cheek and she began to thread
her way through the crowd toward Michigan Avenue.

Arthur. All alone. Just a stocky little guy in a crowd of maybe three
thousand people. The story of his life. He was lonely, but he had no
idea what to do about his loneliness. Still, they were playing. It was
dark, it was warm, everybody else was happy, and they were playing the
blues. Loud. Notes stood out, then were swept away in the rush of new
notes. Music flew to the sky. Arthur felt it, in his head, in his
toes, in his stomach. He began to shimmy, just a little. He bent over,
held his left arm as if he were playing a guitar, strummed this
imaginary instrument with the fingers of his right hand. Arthur got
lost in the blues.

He moved a little more. He began, in fact, to dance. People who
couldn't see around him craned their necks or shifted their bodies a
little. Then they could see the stage, and they smiled at Arthur. This
was Chicago, and this was the blues, the real blues, and Arthur wasn't
the only one doing a little dance all by his lonesome.

Ten feet away from Arthur a teen-age boy and his girlfriend were
shimmying, too. They were dancing together. She was slim and young and
she was a dish, so people smiled even more at her than they did at
Arthur. Behind him and to his left a couple of people obviously in
their sixties danced, too, and the people sitting around thought that
was just great and clapped for them when the music stopped. Then it
started again, louder, faster, soaring into the night, getting into
everybody's bones, and Arthur started dancing again, and strumming his
guitar. Behind the bandstand the huge skyline blinked at the crowd; it
just went on and on, for miles. This was the city. Chicago. And they
were playing the blues.

Arthur suddenly felt a tap on his shoulder. Just a touch. He looked to
his left. It was a woman. A tall woman, not skinny, but not fat,
either. Not so pretty, maybe, but attractive anyhow. Tall, taller than
Arthur, strong-looking, curly-haired, a blonde wearing a white sun
dress with big yellow flowers on it. She looked at him and started to
rock, just a little. She smiled.

Arthur forgot about his imaginary guitar and they danced. Hard. Not
touching, but following each other somehow. Arthur really couldn't
dance, not the way you're supposed to, but the music was in him, and
the music was in the blonde, too. And they danced. Moving together,
under the stars, in the crowd, in front of that skyline, soaked in the
blues. They danced a long time; those blues songs can go on and on.
When the music stopped for a minute Arthur just stood there, looking
at that great big woman. That lovely woman, the one who was wiping
sweat off her face with her index finger, shaking it at the ground,
and smiling at him, saying nothing. Then the music started again,
swelling, going all quiet for a minute, getting even louder, speeding
up, going through that crowd like a hurricane wind, getting in their
bones, and they danced. In the park. In Chicago.

Finally she quietly sank to the ground and sat with her feet crossed,
breathing hard, still smiling at Arthur, still full of the music that
went on and on, soaring, while others kept on dancing, and people
still sitting swayed and let the beat go through them, and the music
went all the way to the stars. Then she reached behind her and dragged
a little backpack along the ground and opened it. She gestured. She
wanted him to lean down so she could talk to him. He did.

"Call me." He could barely hear her for the music, couldn't believe
what she'd said. But when she handed him a white business card, he
believed it. She got up, leaned over and gave him a little kiss on the
cheek, and said, "Gotta go." He couldn't hear her, but he knew what
she'd said. She smiled one last smile, turned and made her way through
the crowd toward Michigan Avenue, just as his sister had. His eyes
followed her until she disappeared. For a minute he couldn't hear the
music because of the roaring in his head. He looked in the direction
she'd taken and saw the crowd and the skyline, blinking, but she had
gone. He just stood there with the card in his hand. He didn't feel
like dancing anymore. Somehow she had taken away the magic, just
carried it away with her. The music soared, it cut through the crowd,
it hammered on his ears, it screamed all around him, and people
danced. But this time he was impervious. He barely heard the music,
there in the park, in the crowd, under the skyline, in Chicago.

* * *

Arthur knew every club in Chicago where they played the blues. The
people who played the blues knew him, too, but only by sight. He just
hung around. He never talked to anybody. But if anybody had asked him,
he could have told that person the name of every man up there blowing
a horn or banging on keys or beating a drum. He knew the black ones,
the white ones, the odd Chinese. He could have sat down at his
computer and written an encyclopedia of the blues in Chicago. When a
big blues man came to Chicago from somewhere else, or a new singer
popped up who hoped she was going to be Billie Holiday all over again,
Arthur found out about it. He read the music news. He went to the
clubs. He knew.

He knew the old man was coming to the Harlem Club. It wasn't in New
York, but they called it that anyhow. He'd never heard the old man,
except on records, and he didn't know whether the old guy could still
play the piano the way he used to. But Arthur wasn't going to miss the
chance to find out. He knew that if he waited until the tickets went
on sale he'd never get one. He had to find another way. It took him a
week to get up the nerve, but finally he went to the club. It was
early. A few people sat at the dark bar, a few couples ate and talked
to each other as a speaker system wafted old blues songs into the
quiet restaurant area. Arthur saw the manager, a man in a silk tuxedo,
leaning against a pillar, his arms crossed. He walked over and spoke.

"Uh, sir. Could you . . . Could you tell me how to get a reservation
for the night the old man comes?"

The man looked down at him. Somehow all sleek black men in silk
tuxedos could look down at Arthur, even if they were shorter than he
was.

"Yeah. I know you, don't I? What's your name?"

"Arthur Wilson. I've been around here a few times." Arthur managed to
look the sleek man in the eye.

"Yeah. I've seen you. Why should I get you a ticket, though?"

"No reason, I guess. I just want one ticket."

" So you just want a ticket, just like that."

"Yes. I just want a ticket." Arthur stood his ground.

"You know the old man?"

"No, I don't. I don't know anybody. But I know he's the greatest, or
he used to be."

"How much you willing to pay for special treatment?"

"Whatever it takes," said Arthur. "I want to hear the old man."

"My, you are stubborn! I know you. You're a music lover. You come that
night. Bring your girl. You don't need tickets. On your way out tell
the doorman Joseph said you could come in that night. He'll let you
in." He reached out for Arthur's hand.

In shock, Arthur took the hand, squeezed a little, shook.

"I don't know how to thank you--"

The man in the silk tuxedo held up his pink palm.

"You just say thank you, that's all. You're welcome."

"Thank you. I really thank you. I'll be there."

"Bring your girl."

Arthur fled. He turned and walked through the dining room. At the
street door, he told the man what Joseph had said and the man smiled.
"No problem," the man said.

Nobody had ever called Arthur stubborn before.

* * *

"Bring your girl."

It rang in his head, that black bass voice, for a week. What girl?
Maybe his sister. He asked her. No, she was sorry, but she and Jim had
to go to some party. End of list.

"Bring your girl." Would Joseph even let him in if he didn't bring his
girl? Maybe the woman who worked on the mainframe who had smiled at
him once. But she was married, he knew that.

He knew, of course, who he wanted. He'd known since June. Now it was
August. But she wouldn't come. She was unattainable. He couldn't
imagine why she'd given him that card. She was four inches taller than
he was. She smiled and heaven smiled. But that was two months before;
she'd have forgotten him. How could he call her? He couldn't call her.

He didn't call her until two days before the old man came to the
Harlem Club in Chicago. Her card was propped up against a CD storage
box that sat on his desk at home in Oak Park. He picked up the
telephone and called her at 9:29 p.m.

"Hello?"

He hesitated. "Hi, Elizabeth. This is Arthur Wilson. From the blues
festival, remember?" He waited.

"Long time ago." She didn't sound all that glad to hear from him.

"Uh, yeah. It was . . . a long time ago. I'm sorry."

"So now you called. Finally. What can I do for you?" Not that she
would actually do it, whatever it was. Icicles formed on Arthur's
handset.

"Come with me to hear the old man."

"What old man?"

"The old blues man. Blind Eddie Marr. You know. He's coming to the
Harlem Club."

"Oh, yeah. I heard about that. Day after tomorrow." Little rivers ran;
the ice melted just a bit.

"Yes. I want you to come hear him. With me."

"You didn't want me much two months ago, when I asked you to call."

Arthur cringed.

"Yes, I did, I just didn't have the nerve to call."

"Geez. You didn't have the nerve? To push a few buttons and say
hello?"

"I'm not very good at calling people. I'm really sorry."

"So you must want me a lot now, right? To get up the nerve to push the
buttons and say hello?"

Torture. She was torturing him.

"I want you a lot now. Yes. I do want you a lot now."

"That's better." A little warmth crept into her voice. "You really
like the blues, don't you." She stated it as a fact.

"Yes. I do."

"OK. Meet you there. When?"

"Nine o'clock?"

"Nine o'clock. See you there." She hung up. Arthur thought he might
pass out. He didn't. He went and made a cup of coffee instead and
dared to dream.

* * *

Harlem Club. A few minutes before nine. Pretty lively on that street
at night. Lots of neon. Black men, swaggering, well-dressed; black men
skulking in T-shirts and baggy pants; black whores; black women,
dressed in modest clothes, on the arms of prosperous looking black
men. All kinds. Not a lot of white people, but a few, most of them
standing near the door of the Harlem Club. Arthur wasn't wearing jeans
that night; no indeed, he'd been to the best men's store in Oak Park
and he'd bought a gorgeous dark gray tweed sport coat. The man in the
store had picked out a pair of dark olive trousers, a dark shirt, and
a quiet figured tie for him, and made him buy a pair of dressy oxblood
loafers. He looked good.

A cab stopped and she got out, paid the driver, turned around. Arthur
could have seen her a mile away, but not many people looked at her,
she was just a tall white woman wearing a black pants suit with a teal
scarf, lots like her in the world. You couldn't see the skyline, but
you could hear the El from there. It was Chicago. All kinds of people
in Chicago. When she saw Arthur, she smiled. Heaven smiled. He started
toward her.

"Hi." He put out a hand, tentatively.

"Hi, Arthur." She reached out and took his arm as if it belonged to
her. "Go in now?"

"Yeah. I guess so."

The doorman saw them coming. He stretched out an arm and bowed. "Mr.
Wilson! Welcome to the Harlem Club!" Arthur got maybe an inch taller,
fumbled a little, and slipped the man a five.

Inside, a young black woman in a dark green silk dress with a slit in
the skirt led them to a table, not one right by the stage, but back a
few tables, not far from the dance floor, a good spot where they could
see everything. Arthur pulled out Elizabeth's chair for her. The band
was horsing around warming up. A waiter came, looking like a man in a
hurry, and asked what they wanted. Elizabeth had a Margarita. Arthur
ordered Scotch and soda.

"So now we finally talk." Elizabeth smiled.

"You were awfully nice to come on such short notice."

"I liked the way you danced. I wanted to hear the old man, too." Just
then the drinks came, and she sipped her Margarita, looking over the
edge of the glass at him. "I almost didn't come, though. Why'd you
wait so long to call me?"

"I didn't think you wanted me to, really. You didn't know me, and
there's no reason you should want to see me again."

"Arthur. Let's get something straight, OK? I'm not that nice. If I
hadn't wanted you to call, I wouldn't have given you the card. Don't
you ever say anything like that to anybody again, not just me." She
sipped her drink. "I don't care what goes on inside of you, if
somebody tells you to call, and you want to call, you call. If
somebody smiles at you, believe it. Don't listen to that voice inside
of you--take people at face value. No matter what happens, you won't
die." She wasn't smiling then.

Just then the lights dimmed way down. The band started playing, and
the music filled the room. It bounced off the walls, wanting to get
out, looking for cracks everywhere, exuberant, deadly, powerful. Then
it quieted down to a whisper, and the guy with the trumpet leaned into
a mike and told them all what the band was going to play, and
everybody clapped, and the music hit the people in their faces and
drowned them in sound.

Arthur swayed, just a little, and looked at Elizabeth. She stood and
took his hand, and he led her onto the dance floor. Only a few couples
were there when Elizabeth and Arthur began to dance. Then people at
the tables looked at her, and at Arthur, and the two of them danced
hard and fast and Arthur was back in heaven again. Other dancers
backed off, made room for them, for this time they danced and took no
prisoners, paid no attention to the crowd, just drank the music and
poured it out again through their feet, their arms, their bodies.
Elizabeth's head fell back, then forward, her blond curls jerked one
way, then another, then she straightened up, she twisted, she sang
though no one could hear. Arthur watched her, in heaven, and did as
she did; he gave himself to the music, and the music took him and
shook him, tossed him about, filled him with energy that spilled out
and met hers in the charged space between them. And this went on and
on, until finally the music stopped, and Elizabeth smiled, and Arthur
smiled back, and they made their way to their table through the
crowded room.

Elizabeth led the way, pulling him along behind her by his arm. When
she stopped suddenly, halted by somebody's chair pushed too far back,
he bumped into her, felt her solidity, reached out and touched her
shoulder. She turned her head and smiled. Then, freed, she made her
way past the obstruction and fell into her seat at the little table.
Arthur sat, picked up the menu, and fanned himself.

"You're amazing," he said. "You have power."

"Yes," she said. "So do you. Everybody has power."

"If I do, I'm getting it from you." Arthur looked at the watery drink
in his hand. "I never felt powerful before."

"No, you didn't get it from me. You just decided to have it for a
change. That's all it takes."

Arthur had no answer to that, so he asked her what she did for the big
company she worked for, and it turned out that she did much the same
kind of thing he did, except that she was the boss of a division.

"I make people work," she said. "I ask them to work, and they do."

He believed her. Then she went off to the ladies' and he to the men's,
and when she got back he was waiting, because the music had started
once more, and they danced. During the next intermission he told her
about his life, and his family, and she talked of hers. They talked,
too, about music, about the blues. The intermission dragged on,
because the old man was about to come out and play, but Arthur felt
powerful and asked her if she would go out with him the following
week. What he really wanted was to ask her never to leave him, but he
didn't feel powerful enough for that.

That was when she told him she couldn't.

"I'm getting promoted," she said. "They want me back in Seattle. I
leave day after tomorrow."

Then the old man came out and played. Arthur could hardly hear for the
pain in his heart and in his head. But soon, pain or no pain, the
music claimed him; it filtered in, thin, broken at first, and then
with its full force, driving through, filling him with sound. He
heard, and the music pounded in his ears, it rocked him, it shook him,
it rolled right over him as the old man played it the way it was meant
to be played, and Arthur soaked it up, and then, again, he knew what
power was, and he listened. The notes filled the room and filled his
heart and his head and soon he was sure that the blues was saving his
life.

Then it was all over, and he put her in a cab and rode with her to her
big brick apartment house. There on the steps, under the stars, in
Chicago, he took her in his arms and she leaned down to him and he
kissed her hard and said goodbye.

                                          ---THE END--

(This story was first published in the February, 2001, issue
of LoveWords, the e-zine, and was published again in May, 2002,
in The Sidewalk's End.)