'Triple step, triple step, rock step. Triple step, tuck turn triple step and out. Perfect, my last dance before the set is up and I'm due on stage. one-two-kick step, triple step, and another basic sugar psuh, alright, here we are boys and girls. Let's make this place shake.'
The place used to be a real dive back in the fifties. Dark club, set back in a dark alley of the French Quarter. With a fiver to keep the brews coming and half a pack of cigarettes you could stay out half the night tapping your foot to the music and crooning some song about the days before the war. Poker games rarely lasted as long, for surely before dawn one patron would accuse another of treachery. The table would be thrown aside so they could pummel each other and fall to the floor, only to be doused with beer and scolded by the matron of the bar. A plausible reason for the fight very begining. Stains marred the kelly green fuzz of felt upon the pool table. And just as a dozen spilled beers had made the material clingy, the settling of the marshy ground had changed the floor enough that one end of the table was heightened by half a dish and an old newspaper. Despite it's state, this pool table caused as many fights as the bar matron, and was, nightly, the battleground for many a competition that led to another dozen rounds of beer.
The band crowds together on a stage once used for more refined entertainment. They manage to squeeze in a set of drums, a few guitar players, a saxophonist, who waited tables for extra cash, a trumpet player who dreamed of going to Miami someday and discovering his latin side, and a cellist, the last straddling his chair across uneven floorboards. He had to sit forward or his chair, would go flying backwards and take out a section of the wall. Something, many of the heathens would have found as entertaining as the music. Three singers managed to form a conglomerate and move with slight swaying motions for a few bars before endangering the glass lights at the edge of the stage. A few lights had been trampled to death during a more lively concert, so the edges were treacherous for movement, but this halted nothing. It was, indeed neccessary when a fourth singer was added, or the trombonist was present. Only the constant swaying kept everyone upon the cramped stage. It could have been used as an example of physics laws.
It was a decent enough dive as dives go. But certainly not the kind of place you'd take a date to dance. More the type of place you'd crash into after your woman left you and there was little left to do but sink into a bottle and wipe away your memory with a shot or eight.
My mother says that all changed the night he walked into the bar and pulled out his drumsticks.
The night had been no worse than usual she said in that tone reserved for vacations of nostalgia. Rico, who had been the main drummer for three years had taken off with Eddie to go seek out their fames in Miami. The move had been expected, though not for some time. Apparently Rico's mounting debts with a local bookie hastened his appreciation of the Florida weather. Ten minutes before the first set and my mother and the band were out one drummer and one trumpeter, the former causing more anguish than the latter.
As they argued over singing a set without beats, a man entered the dusky place. Avoiding the shifting clouds of greenish hued smoke, he crossed the floor and inhabited the bar. Coat pulled tight around him, there was little to see of him save a general wiriness and a sense of energy that filled the air about him. Maud, who was working the bar that eve shifted away to fill his order and as she did his hand beat a rapid tempo upon the lager stained bar.
My mother said the sound of the drumming slowly hushed out the argument as their heads turned to his hands. The man seemed heedless of them all, awaiting Maud's return with some anciness. As smiles spread across the faces of the other members, my mother stepped forward and asked the man if she could have a moment of his time.
She claims still that something about his eyes reminded her of summer evenings spent hurriedly on kisses and naughty looks. The band watched, as a deal was struck. A night of drumming in return for all the beer he could drink and a share of the pooled tips. Anything else could be decided from there.
Old Kyle, who played the trombone and read bedtime stories to my mother, says that night they played the devil out of every song. The beat stayed furious and visitors found their way to our doorway, only to stare open-mouthed at the sight. Maud didn't have to douse any poker players as the game sat unused and not a single shot was sunk on the waste of a table. Kyle swears that at the end the room erupted into applause and the new breed of patrons mixed into the group at the bar ordering beers and electing to stay.
Old Kyle's story is backed by Charlie, who was also there that night and claims the stranger's drumming sent everyone into a weird state of shock save my mother, who responded to him as if the flood gates on her voice were suddenly opened. Every song she knew poured out and for once this back alley bar shook with the strains of blues and jazz inside. Charlie says, by the end of the night the startled applause was as much for my mother as for the stranger.
My mother says she felt like she'd been hit by a lightning bolt. And the feeling didn't fade. After Maud managed to chase the last patrons out at closing, she recalls watching my mother and the band approach the stranger cautiously, like children asking a favor of an estranged uncle and benefactor. Maud swears the man winked at her when he asked if the all you could drink beer offer would continue when he was on salary too. The deal was set.
His name was Rand. My mother speaks it softly and a smile spreads across her lips in brief remembrance.
Mom says you can hardly recognize the place now, when she comes back. It's far from the days when Janis Siegel and her little band first started playing. More than twenty years ago Maud bought out the two shops on either side and broadened the whole place. The stage actually fits a whole band now if such a thing can be imagined. So far from a dive, the people who come to hear little Janis's daughter sing drive sports cars and wear thousand dollar retro suits. The woman spend hours ironing their hair to flatness and then creating curls. Stockings with backseams are everywhere, and the kids even brush up on forties lingo before they enter, just so they can announce to each other that 'the jive is jumping'.
Old Kyle still plays the trombone, and daily threatens me with dire consequences should I not provide him another little Siegel to teach the blues to. Charlie sits upon the first bar stool, tapping his feet in time and every now and then he draws upon energy four year olds wish they had and dances a strange jig. Couples from all over the city crowd in our door. They fight for tables sometimes, but Maud says she hasn't had to a drown a single person since Rand. Sometimes, the way she says it, I think she might miss it.
Old Kyle and Charlie say Rand stayed for barely a year, but in that time the groundwork for everything I know today was set. Sometimes, when I was younger, I used to ask my mother of him and she would take that nostalgic trip. With some pressing she would agree on Kyle and Charlie's dates, but it always seemed to me that mother knew far more of Rand than she admitted to. And that she saw him again, long after he left the band.
Last year, after I returned from Juliard, I stopped down by Maud's Place. I still sing there on nights when I'm in town. Even if my singing isn't needed I still like to go to dance. There aren't many places outside New Orleans that play a decent swing song, and none with the atmosphere. Maud still sits behind the bar, though now her daughter Kacie tends it. Old Kyle passed on his trombone talent to his grandson Jubilee. On special nights they do duets. Kyle still hasn't forgiven me for not giving him a child to corrupt yet, but he has fourteen grandkids of his own to worry about and one great grandchild on the way. Charlie still jigs, and he has taken to teaching Kyle's grandchildren much to the delight of the scamps. Mom doesn't come down much anymore, she's always tired I think she slips farther from reality on each sequential departure.
When I got down to the French Quarter, the lines to Maud's Place stretched about the corner. I could have waited but instead I circled and knocked on the back door, to be let in by a very surprised Miles, one of Kyle's grandchildren. A few quick greetings and answers got me past the backstage and onto the dance floor. There was time enough to throw my coat to Kacie, before I was spun out onto the floor and into a closed basic. I didn't know him, nor did I need to. I can follow anything.
Jubilee finished the last set at ten past four, and with the aid of Miles, Maud managed to clear the place out by quarter till five. Leaving me and the staff an hour to talk before we headed towards bed.
So we sat around, laughing until the street lights went out and the sounds of newspaper vans disturbed our musings. The elders had left for long since, as I parted from the rest in the alley. I lifted a single hand in farewell as we strode toward opposite ends of the city. I stayed behind a moment longer, watching their horseplay as they left the alley towards Broad street. They weaved in and out of each others paths their voices raising loud enough for me to hear snippets of the teasing they laid upon each other.
"Family," I murmured to myself, "That is family."
"Perhaps," came the reply, two paces behind me, in a voice tainted by foreign tones. The jolt that ripped through me sent me whirling about to face him just as he pushed off from the wall he had been holding up. A coated figure, taller than I by a few hairs, and inhaling a cigarette with trained breaths. A final draw and he flicked the cigarette from his fingers, it's arc taking it sailing past my form and slightly off to the right. "Perhaps," he said again, his steps bringing him closer to me, while mine, took me to the side as if he had swung me in a parallel break. "Family can have so many meanings." His eyes narrowed slightly, mimicing the action of mine as I brought my hands, fisted to my hips. A smile tugged at his lips as he noticed the action, and his shoulders lifted slightly. I said nothing as his finger sought out the half empty pack of cigarettes in his coat and drew forth another to light. "You Janis's girl?" He asked, the tone almost light, as he brought a snap of fingers across a lighter, striking life into it and across the tip of the cigarette. As my hands left my hips to cross my chest, his eyes ran over my frame. "You must be. You're practically a reflection." His eyes seemed to light up with amusement as his lips curled about the cigarette. "Only the hair belongs to someone else."
My shoulders released as I nodded. "I'm hers." My head canted to the side as I tried to give him as thorough an exam in a glance as he had me. Must be a practiced skill. "You an old fan?" I shook my head nearly a moment after the phrase fell. "No... too young. A retro? My mother hasn't sung in over ten years. You see her once in college or something?"
Eyebrows lifted as a chuckle emerged. "Something." he said softly, chuckling again. "Definately something."
I gritted my teeth behind a smile, then uncrossed my arms and took a further step away and to the side, keeping my eyes on the amusement that filled his face. "So very nice to meet a fan." I said, words clipped. "If you'll excuse me, I should be getting home." I pivoted, and started towards Main Street. The laughter started softly, almost as soon as I'd passed him, but he wasn't following me, so I shook it off and made each stride longer.
"I saw you dance." He called after me, and I gritted my teeth, walking a bit faster. The laughter seemed louder as my final steps broke into a jog and I hailed and entered a cab seemingly on the same step.
That night, as I sat at the bar between sets, chatting with Maud the alley stranger pulled the stool next to me and gifted me with a perfect Shirley Temple smile. His lips almost pouted as he looked at me. "You didn't tell me your name Janis's girl."
Maud's eyebrows fled upwards, and then with a look to my face and a shake of her head she turned about and busied herself with the other end of the bar. I, on the other hand, released a pent breath and extended a hand to him. "Tessa." His facial gestures were comical to the point that I felt humor creeping it's way into my thoughts. "Tessa Siegel." I said with a shake of my head as I lowered it trying to hide the smile.
His hand was warm, and when I tried to pull mine away it caught on, not harshly but my hand wasn't going anywhere. I raised my eyes and stared at him meeting his amused smile with a shocked look. And as I stared at him, still trying to discreetly tug my hand away, Jubilee started up his set again and the stranger's smile spread. "Wonderful." he said, the accent almost European in sound. "May I have this dance, Tessa, daughter of Janis?" I aquiesced as I was hoping that in a final free spin I'd have my hand free and could escape to a less grating partner.
Well, I didn't get my free spin, but he was a stunning leader. His form was flawless and I got to do blind extensions, something I never try out on a new partner. By the end of the dance, I was willing to stay with him, and by the end of the set I was hooked. Dancing is a good judge of character. Or so my instructor always said, something about artists sharing media or... oh I don't remember. But even if he turned out to be a real bastard he's still a damn fine dancer.
He disappeared after that dance set, I thought he was going to get a drink, but it wasn't until the next set finished and I had been claimed by have a dozen new leaders that I realized he was gone and I still didn't have his name.
I didn't see him again for another four years. I had graduated by then and was teaching dancing part time to fund a possible stint in graduate school. On Thursday nights I have a group class, and I was halfway through it when Joseph, the owner of the ballroom I was borrowing entered to tell me I had a phone call. I left the class with Russ, my assistant to continue on with sugarpushes and underarm turns. Catching up the phone, slightly out of breath I spoke my name, only to hear Maud's somewhat broken voice inform me of my mother's passing.
I caught the last flight and arrived in New Orleans just as the city was losing it's dusky quality with the rise of the sun. I had a driver take me to a hotel. I left messages for Maud and then I pulled closed the curtains and fell into sleep. The next few days before the funeral were spent amongst Maud and her family, in a stae of dizziness from the constant influx of condolences from fans and old aquaintances.
You'd think days like this should be grey, but her funeral was greeted with a bright gleaming sun and wind that tore at the dark figures clustered about the open wound in the ground. As my ears focused out the crying of Maud and the benedictus of the priest I caught sight of him. Almost a shadow himself, he leaned against a tree, holding it up ever and always with a cigarette alight in his hand. I accepted the condolences of those around me with small amounts of notice. Greetings, shakes and hugs from old aquaintances brought little comfort but a vague sense of gravity to the drifting I felt. As if I viewed the scene through a camera, everything about me was fuzzy and only he was in focus. He waited for the rest of the party to depart and as I stood there, my feet making strange sounds against the false grass they lay over the repiled earth he approached, throwing the cigarette to the side, abandoning it.. A glance at me, and then he passed dropping a dozen white roses, bright against the plasticized green. Then, he knelt, and placed a pair of weathered drumsticks amidst the roses touching them tenderly once before he stood.
And I knew. I knew it before he stood. I knew it before he made the long pivot upon heavy feet to face me. It was in his eyes, blatant and screaming if I hadn't known, but his first glance at me showed him my awareness as well. His hands sank into the pockets of his coat as he faced me. I was still, my arms wrapped about me to hold me together. A stretched silence and then I shrugged. "So what now?" I asked, my voice approaching baritone for once.
His mouth was tight. "You know?" he asked, his voice flat. I nodded and he returned the nod. "I figured you might guess. You're just like she was." I nodded again. He cleared his throat and looked away, his shoulders tensing. "I have a... a strange life Tessa. But I'd like you to be a part of it for a while." He turned then, so I only saw his profile. His chin was set so hard, perhaps it was from him that I was gifted with stubborness. He let out a pent up breath and an obscure word before he turned back to me. "Things are very... very tense right now, but I'd like you to visit for a time. Will you?"
I stared at him, my eyes taking in each line on his face, wondering at his accent, his eyes, and the frown that had settled in the creases of his forehead. I finally nodded, as my voice seemed to be lost. He nodded in return, then stepped to me and grasped my arms softly. "Go on to the wake. I'll return for you soon enough." He released me and stepped away. His strides were long and took him quickly from the cemetery, leaving me amidst the stones staring after him.
I dropped a handful of flowers on the grave, and then my steps took me away from his departed form towards a car that waited to take me to a proper wake. A proper farewell for her, and for me. A sojourn with my father was long overdue. As I approached the car, I reached into my pocket for my keys and my hand instead found a card, cool to the touch as if someone had chilled it. I withdrew the foreign thing and lifted it to my sight, only to find upon it an image of my estranged father. Alongside it was a note, scrawled in pen.
'In case of emeregency. -Random'
Emergency indeed. Glad to know he has a calling card. I slipped the card back into my pocket, tightened my coat about me and strode to the car.
'Excerpt from White Jazz newspaper' The jazz community is saddened today by the loss of Janis Siegel, age 61. Born in New Orleans, she spent all her life here first as a young student and then as a brilliant performer. Known best for her jazz and swing musical talent she was both a writer and a performer and will be sadly missed by her cohorts and colleagues both at Maud's Place in the French Quarter and all over the world.
She is survived by her only daughter, Tessa Siegel, age 29. An alumn of Juliard she is the three time winner of the US Open West Coast Swing Competition and a professional dance teacher in the French Quarter. The sole inheritor of her mother's talent, she also has a penchant for both musical creation and performance and has followed in her mother's footsteps as the vocalist of Maud's Place.
Tessa Siegel, like her mother was born and raised in New Orleans and although music seems to have been her calling it is not her only passion in life. Last week the New Orleans Archaic Museum was the beneficiary of a large grant from Ms. Siegel and a large collection of Ancient Greek texts, the prose translated by Ms. Siegel through her nine years of study with the language.
It is however , her musical art that she says she seeks to apply this spring when she studies abroad, leaving her native town. Her voice and her talent will be well and truly missed among the French Quarter, just as that of her mother's will be missed across the world forever.
The package was waiting upon my doorstep when I returned from the wake. A misty rain fell upon the city and the streetlights shone off each puddle. A large padded envelope, with my name scrawled upon it, sat on the steps. I stooped to grasp the package, and then lifted my jingling keys to the door. I didn't bother to glance about for he who left it. If he wanted to be seen he would. I opened the door and stepped into the foyeur of my mother's house, the home of my childhood. I stepped out of my heels a second then let the door close and slid the deadbolt.
A toss let my purse collide with the table and I sank into an armchair throwing my leg over one armrest. I tore into the package and found a note proclaiming the gift of these tapes and manuscripts for me to assess. A little known foreign dialect called Thari he wished me to grasp in the six weeks he was leaving me. My back straightened as my chin raised slightly and I felt the strange heat of determination inside as I opened the first packet of tapes and left the chair to put it one. Six weeks. In six weeks I would have mastered everything he sent me or die trying. My father, my last known blood relative. Just as fate decides to steal, the only member of my blood from me she sees fit to give another. Six weeks of study, and he's going to be proud of me. I'll see to it.
The tape's intro began and I slipped into the kitchen, made a glass of tea and returned. It couldn't have been further removed from Ancient Greek, but I could follow anything.
And follow I did. When the six weeks was up I had gained a basic mastery of everything he sent. The grammar was easy enough, but it was the prose that fascinated me. Much of it read like a modern day fairy tale. Every story heralding a mystical land and the creatures within it. A creature that must have held such meaning in this place where my father lived as it's very image was transcribed upon the back of the card he gave me. A strange land really, from it's prose. Legends of places beyond the horizon and a world of ocean ruled by a queen and reflected above by a glorious city on a mountain.
You can tell so much about a culture by its stories, and as much as I grasped it made me wish I had spent more time with anthropology. I planned to return someday, maybe after visiting my father.
Father. I have a father now. Strange really, I hadn't wondered whether I had a family elsewhere. And now... now I know I do. It was frightening. Would they look like me? Would they share my eyes? Did they know of me all these years? Did they wonder about me as I did them?
Time enough for such worries when my translations were done. Who said homework stops with graduation. Mine certainly didn't.
He never came. Six weeks came and went and not a word from him. I wait still, day after day, hoping him not to be the practitioner of a cruel joke, gifting me with family and then taking it away. I have poured through every book and tape he left me, my only tie to a fathe ronce again lost to me. And I wait, like the faithful bride for her husband, long ago lost at sea. I wait. And I believe.