Dead Man’s Shoes
by Mjke Wood
You ask me about New York? Jeez, New York. Yeah that’s where the weird stuff started, alright. Before New York Tommy was normal. Kind of normal. He always had that clothes thing, but... Look, he took a pride in his dress, okay? Where’s the harm? He was so... what’s the word? Dapper? Yeah. I tell you, Tommy was dapper. Real particular about what he wore - during the day, on the stand...
Other guys – well, some of these kids, nowadays, they get up on the band stand wearin’ just about anything; their T’s and their hoodies and their Nikes, but Tommy Richardson, well, he always cared to look the part-–zoot suit, black shirt, white tie... And those shoes--shoes so black and deep shinin’, like the silk on an undertaker’s hat. He was one cool dude was Tommy. Your regular sharp dressed man.
His horn, mind--that was a whole different matter. That old Pan American alto saxophone, it kind of spoiled Tommy’s image, you know? Yeah, I know what you’re sayin’, that I’m still blowin’ the clattery old Selmer, with its dents and its once-upon-a-time lacquer that’s gone all green and rubs smears up and down your pants if you let it hang too close. But my sax is a Mark Six, and there just ain’t no tenor sound like a Mark Six--never was, never will be.
Altos though? Not so clear cut. The Selmers are good, but then you’ve got your Cons and your Bueschers. And you can still find that Cadillac amongst altos now and again, the King super 20, if you know where to look. Tommy’s Pan American, though? Man, that is one horn that’s gonna sound like shit if the angel Gabriel himself’s doing all the blowin’.
So why didn’t Tommy buy a new sax? Said he loved the Pan American, but I doubt that’s the whole truth. Tommy was never short of a nickel or two. But, as I said, he was a real clothes horse. Kinda crazy it seems to me. But I guess he kept it under control. Nailed down, like.
Until... Well one day, year or so ago, long before New York, this was--I think it was Minnesota, can’t be sure--anyway, a guy shows up with shoes. Fetched ‘em up to the edge of the bandstand.
“Nice shoes,” he says, nodding to Tommy’s. “Was in here last night and I seen you has good taste in shoes. So I brung you these. Thought you’d be kinda interested. These here shoes belonged to The Prez himself, Lester Young, and if that ain’t the god’s honest truth then strike me dead.”
There was no proof. Course not. Them old shoes could have been anyone’s. But when the guy said they’d been right there, snug on Young’s feet, during his ‘57 appearance with Basie; worn at the Newport Jazz festival no less, well then Tommy just had to have ‘em. Man, he was plum droolin’ fo’ them shoes. Paid more for ‘em, probably, than he paid for his horn--but then that’s not saying a awful lot, is it.
Tommy loved them shoes. Wore them night after night. And he started sayin’ how his playin’ was better when he wore his Lester Young shoes. Can’t say I noticed but I would never say as much, seein’ as we’re mates an all. Tommy would rave about his own performances with not the tiniest crumb of humility, and that was okay ‘cos it was just his way, you know? No harm in it.
But Lester Young, he played Tenor, and Tommy was an Alto man. So I guess he got to thinkin’, if it could raise his game so much, wearing the same shoes The Prez had worn, then how would it be if he could lay his hands on the shoes of a real Alto man, somethin’ from the spring collection of, say, Johnny Hodges, or Bird? Or even Tommy’s own all-time number one, Cannonball Adderly?
Tommy became obsessed. Every night he’d show up for a gig with his poor, wrecked feet squashed into some footwear abomination he’d unearthed at an attic sale. Everywhere we toured he’d scour the charity shops.
“Look at these,” he says to me, one night. “These shoes belonged to Art Pepper.”
“Come on, Tommy,” I says. “How’d you know that?”
“Can feel it,” he says.
We were playing in Echo Park, Los Angeles. Tommy had done his homework--knew that Pepper had lived close by, so he got to seein’ every pair of scuffed old shoes on every sad old garage-sale trestle as being potential Pepper shoes. He really started to lose it about then, you know?
But I will not be too hard on him. Tommy was a mite eccentric but we all have our things, yeah? And I owe a lot to Tommy Richardson. He was a good friend. He was a friend at just about the time when he might have been forgiven for being otherwise. ‘Cos he was there for me when things were kinda’ dark, you know?
See, I got me something of a drink problem. Picked it up playing the cruise ships in the eighties. I’d signed up to play Tenor and flute but when the lounge pianist took a wet walk out into the Caribbean one night, and the guys learned I could play piano some, well then they kind of drafted me. Problem, though, for lounge pianists is everyone’s your friend and they tip you in drinks.
“My Foolish Heart,” they shout. And you play My Foolish Heart. And a doublescotch appears on the piano. You gotta drink it. You don’t drink it, well then isn’t that kinda’ insultin’ to their kindness? By the end of each set they was just about carryin’ me back to my cabin.
Back home the habit kind of stuck. I knew I was in trouble. The musical sound of that ice cracking and clinking in the glass is still all it takes to set me off. Craving’s there, now, even just thinkin’ about it.
Sure, I got me some help, but touring with a band is hard and you can’t count on a friend bein’ in every town and city.
Tommy saw I was struggling. Even in the most down at heel clubs some kind stranger would come up to you and he’d want to buy you a drink. Tommy used to keep a bottle of apple juice in his pocket. Without a word he’d substitute the contents of any whiskey glass with a neat shot of apples. Same colour, see. And he did it discreetly, so’s not to cause me any embarrassment or shame. That’s the sign of a true friend, I believe, is it not?
But then, when we reached New York, that’s where Tommy began to go weird on us. I mean totally, bugshit weird. New York, see, was where Tommy got a hold of Bird’s shoes.
We were playing at The West Village Jazz club and this shifty looking individual sidles up to Tommy in the interval and mentions how he’s heard that Tommy has penchant for jazz giants’ footwear.
He looks over one shoulder, then the other, all conspiratorial like, and says, in this stage whisper voice, “I got Charlie Parker’s shoes. Bird’s own best wing-tips. You interested?”
Well, me and the guys, we knew that Tommy was being stiffed right from the start. But what can you do? Tommy had become a loose mark looking for any kinda sad grifter, and in New York the two just came together like warm beer and flatulence.
Tommy never let on to anyone about how much he eventually paid for Bird’s shoes, too embarrassed I guess. But we all saw how his assets began disappearing soon after that transaction.
Same as, and just as surely as, his sanity.
Tommy was always somewhat... eccentric, you might say. But that second night at The Village, man that was something else. Surreal, you know?
I guess I need to talk some about the band--set the scene so to speak.
Well, I’ve played tenor with the Don Marshall Big Band since ’98. Tommy joined us on lead Alto just in time for all those millennium gigs that were supposed to pay megabucks but in reality paid zilch when all the revellers stayed home in mortal fear of the evil Y2K.
We’re called a big band, but we’re not really--not one of those fine, seventeen-piece forties line ups--the money don’t go that far any more. No, there’s just the nine of us, Don Marshall, the man himself on piano and vocals; then there’s drums and bass; the three saxes--me, Tommy and then Nora on Baritone; and there’s two trumpets and a trombone. We’re close enough to a big band sound to get the work and small enough so we can split the cheque and eat more days than not.
And we’re small enough to be like some big happy family that looks out for one another, most of the time.
Until New York.
So Tommy turns up that second night and he’s already wearin’ his Charlie Parker shoes. And he’s right in character, so to speak, ‘cause he’s been on the pop or doped up on some shit, can’t hardly stand.
Now, we’re friends, me and Tommy, but still... Well, there’s an undercurrent, little jealousies like, separate from friendship. I guess that’s because I always get the lion’s share of the soloing, tenor players always do. In compensation Tommy is our section leader and he gets the tune most times. Nora, on the other hand holds it all together with that warm, deep sound she coaxes out of her baritone. Warm is not an adjective that’s often used when talking about baritone saxophones, but Nora is something special, and she’s only five foot nothing, that damn sax is way bigger’n she is.
So two numbers in and Don calls out Anthropology. It’s a big band arrangement--it features Nora on Baritone and Tommy not at all. But it’s one of Bird’s iconic hits. Up until now Tommy has been happy to sit back and listen to Nora do her stuff, but tonight he’s juiced up and belligerent and calling Don for all kinds.
“Supposed to be a frickin’ Alto solo! Bad enough I have to listen to him all night...” meaning me, “...but now I’m supposed to just watch all my solo work goin’ to the skirt?”
This stopped us all. Tommy was never like this. Yes, he’s a bit of a fool at times, but he’s never been downright nasty--sexist nasty. Don was lost for words for a moment.
“Tommy,” he said, quietly. “Shut up and sit down.” Because now Tommy was up on his feet waving his arms.
“Don’t you tell me to shut up!” yells Tommy. “I want the solo on Anthropology!”
“Sheesh,” said Nora. “Give him the damn solo if he wants it that badly.” And she starts to hand over her part.”
“Don’t you give him that music, Norah,” says Don. “You just put that right back on your own stand. Solo’s yours.” Now Don’s shouting. “You wanna be band leader, Tommy? You wanna? Well you shut the hell up and sit down right now or you’ll get every chance. You’ll be needin’ to form your own band, Tommy, ‘cos you’ll never play in this one again.”
Tommy sat down. You could see something was brewing behind those eyes. Suddenly he plays a bum note. A honk. A real attention-grabber.
There was a handful of dancers and they just stopped and gawped, and the ignorant people at the tables who just usually talk over the band, they stopped, and the room is suddenly chock full of silence. Except for the scrape coming from Tommy’s chair legs as he pushes it back. He’s on his feet again an he’s looking all threatening like. Next thing there’s a knife in Tommy’s hand. A knife! What’s the stupid bastard doing coming on stage with a knife?
Well, pandemonium breaks out then. Screaming, glass breaking, running. I don’t remember a whole hell of a lot, I was too much a part of it. I had Tommy by the legs and he’s trying to turn on me, slashing at me. I seen his Alto break free of his neck strap and it goes sailing out over the band stand. Part of me is trying to avoid that blade that’s slashing and scooping out pieces of air, another part of me wants to see what happens to that sax. It was in the air an awful long time. It misses the sprung dance floor, it misses the carpet. That sad ole horn manages to find the only square yard of hard cement floor to be had in the whole joint, and when it lands, man, that’s an ugly sound. I said before, I was no fan of Tommy’s Pan American, but the death cries of a saxophone on concrete, any saxophone, is not a sound a horn player ever wants to hear in his life.
So anyway, there’s blood then. Don’t know who’s blood because the entire brass section has weighed-in now and a couple of the punters are up there too all messed up in the ruckus on stage. The screaming’s stopped because the screamers are gone, long gone out into the Greenwich Village night. In the club there’s just grunting and cursing and assorted animal noises... and a bass line. Yeah, honest to God, Jed’s still walking the bass through Anthropology. He’s oblivious, a real cool dude, Jed, who lives only for the music, and when he plays, man, he’s zoned all the way out.
The blood was mine. Opened up a track from shoulder to elbow. But Tommy was in an arm lock by the time the cops arrived. They wanted me to press charges but I wouldn’t. Because I knew that it wasn’t really Tommy acting that way, it’s them damn shoes. There’s something about them shoes, something powerful. And I know this, too--they’re sure as hell not Charlie Parker’s shoes. Them shoes might be changing Tommy but that night, before the fighting started--I heard. I heard good. Tommy could still not take a chorus worth a damn. I would not tell him that to his face, you know? Tommy’s a good reader an all, but he cannot improvise, no sir, never could.
But he had changed, and that’s for sure. There’s some kind of persona that’s leaking all out of them shoes like a bad smell.
Tommy didn’t go to jail, maybe he shoulda’, maybe it would have put a stop on things--stopped them growing. He mighta’ dodged jail but he certainly would not be playing any further part in the Don Marshall Big Band, that’s for sure. Don paid him what was due for the night then told him he didn’t want ever to see him on the same side of town again.
But like I said, Tommy and me were close. Like family. And Tommy was family in real need of help.
Nora joined me and we walked him back to the hotel. (Don wanted him out of the hotel but we gave Don an argument. It’s one thing to sack a guy, but to put him out on the street..?) I had one arm, Nora had the other. We walked him in his socks--I’d taken those Bird shoes off of his feet an’ stuffed them deep into my jacket pockets. I could feel the evil from them shoes all leechin’ out. I just wanted to be rid of them. I fixed on burning them, first opportunity. All the while Tommy is moanin’ and cryin’ and apologizin’. And wantin’ those shoes back.
Next morning Tommy’s at breakfast. He’s wearin’ those Bird shoes again, and again, he’s as belligerent as all hell.
“Tommy,” I says, “take off the shoes. They’re doing something to you, my friend. Let me take them. I’ll have them put down.”
“You’ll keep your thieving hands off,” he says. “I can see what you’re trying. Figure on taking them for yourself? Figure on playing like Bird?”
“Wouldn’t want them. Them’s not Bird’s shoes, Tommy. Don’t know who wore them afore but it sure as hell wasn’t Charlie Parker.”
Next thing there’s a fork in his hand, poached eggs flying an’ sprayin’ every which way, and the spikes are pointing at my gut. I threw up my hands and backed off. Don’t need that kind of grief. Don wanted Tommy out of the hotel from the word go, but now his wishes are shared by the hotel management and no amount of arguing from me is going to stop it this time. Besides, I’m just about clean out of argument.
So the Don Marshall Big Band got a new lead Alto. Young kid name of Deke. Nice kid. Very intense, very focussed, one of the Berkley Clones, you know? Technique to die for, but hard-assed tone and as much soul as a digital backing track.
The band stayed on at the Village, a kind of extended residency. Good to put down roots for a while. I took the opportunity of doing some asking around, because one night the shoe salesman turned up again, looking for Tommy, then disappeared quick as you like. I asked the barman if he knew something about him, he gave this pained grimace and gave me name, directions and stark warnings all in the same breath.
So the next day I rose early and I took a bus over to the Lower East Side, looking for a junk shop on Delancey, under the Williamsburg Bridge. Took me a while to find, walked past the place twice. The name had been skulking beneath layers of graffiti. Kapinski Clearance.
There was a bell over the door that didn’t ring, just clacked, as I walked in. And there was my man, merging with the dust and grime behind the counter.
“Who wants him?”
“Thought we’d chat, is all.”
“Don’t do chat. Do clearance. No profit in chat.”
“Could be profit in this chat.”
“What kinda’ profit?”
“How about the kind of profit where you save gettin’ your ass kicked,” I said.
I’m no street fighter but I had a head and shoulders and over fifty pounds advantage on him. I can be intimidating in such circumstances.
“Do I know you?”
“No, but you did a little business with a friend of mine.”
“I don’t discuss my dealings with just any dipshit comes in off the street.”
“Well that’s alright then, ‘cos I’m not just any dipshit. I’m the dipshit that’s gonna make your life a whole lot sorrier if you don’t invest in a sudden attitude change, you know what I mean?”
He grunted and managed to look a heap more surly.
“Talking ‘bout shoes,” I said.
“I see a lot of shoes.”
“Not Charlie Parker shoes.”
“Oh. The saxophone guy.”
“Yes the saxophone guy. Memory’s improving, some. Good to see.”
“Look mister. I clear houses. Dead people’s houses. Don’t know nothin’ else. Sure I sold some shoes. Glad to get them out of the shop. Somethin’ about them shoes. Somethin’... unpleasant.”
“So, what proof d’you have they’s Bird’s shoes?”
“Proof? You kiddin’ me? Look around, friend. This look like Bloomingdale’s to you? I sell stuff. Dead people’s stuff. Sometimes you need an angle; an in. I know the music business, some. Saw your man on stage there. Saw his shoes. I thought, there’s a dude can use shoes with back story, you
I nodded. I looked around. This Kapinsky guy didn’t seem to have profited greatly from the transaction, from any transaction, though there was one item that caught my eye. A horn, hanging on a piece of string from a nail. Lots of scroll work on the bell. A price tag. If that horn was what I thought it was then the price tag was either plain wrong or this guy really didn’t know Jack about the music trade. On another day I’d have given it closer attention, but today wasn’t another day. My business here was clear and personal. I guess he was being straight with me. His trading savvy was limited but for once, in Tommy, he’d spotted a market.
“So, whose shoes were they?”
Kapinsky shrugged, sniffed, and wiped his nose with the back of his sleeve.
“Wouldn’t know,” He said. “People die, leave a houseful of shit. I move it. There’s some profit, not much. This guy was some kind of badass. Didn’t die in his bed, if you know what I mean.”
“Well, they say there wasn’t a whole lot left once they’d fitted enough body parts back together to get a make on him. Save for the shoes. Shoes were clean. Just the shoes.”
“He died in them?”
“Sure did. They wasn’t his shoes neither.”
“How do you know that?”
“Look mister, plenty other shoes in the guy’s house, but the rest were bigger. Two sizes bigger. Trust me. He must have had some pressing need to go squeezing them great plates into such teeny shoes. Must have hurt like a bastard.”
“So what happened to the rest?”
“The rest of the shoes. The ones that fit.”
“Sold. No problem. Just those wingtips seemed kinda’ reluctant to move on. Folks hereabouts are all kinds of wary, you know? Something bad about them shoes. Folks knew it.”
“So, where did he live, the shoe boy?”
“There’s a client confidentiality thing in this business that says...”
“Come off it, Kapinsy.” I drew on all of my height advantage and moved in close so he had to twist his neck to look up at me. “This is a junk shop, and that’s talking it up. Confidentiality my ass.”
“Okay, okay. S’no big deal. Here.”
He scribbled something on a scrap of paper.
I tipped the brim of my hat and left, more than happy to put a good wedge of breathing air between us.
The house, as addressed on the scrap of paper, was empty. Shuttered, boarded and nailed. A sale board stood outside with the attitude of a sale board that had long given up on once hopeful ambitions.
I went up the overgrown path and stood on my toes to peer through a gap in the plywood window boards. There was a cough at my elbow.
“There’s nobody here anymore.”
She was short. Shockingly short. Dwarf like. And she was of an age between thirty and eighty. Maybe.
“You a neighbour?”
I nodded. I tried a lie. “I’m the guy’s uncle. I’ve been...”
“No you’re not.”
“You’re not his uncle. Ronan didn’t have an uncle, not one he knew. Besides, you’d have used his name. You’d have said, ‘I’m Ronan’s uncle.’ You don’t know his name.”
I could have said, yes I do, his name’s Ronan. But I didn’t. I said, “No, I don’t know his name.”
“So why the lie?”
“Don’t know. Stupid. Just want to find out something about him. I understand he died.”
“So I heard.”
“No. Just trying to help a friend. My friend... acquired something, something that once belonged to your neighbour. It has not been a good experience for him.”
“Your friend got the shoes didn’t he? Always knew it was the shoes.”
“Yes, it was shoes. Tell me about them?”
“Don’t know much, just that the shoes changed Ronan. He was a good kid before. Then he started wearing them, every day, way too small for him but he wore them anyways, and his personality just... twisted. He told me once, ‘I’m walking in the shoes of big men. When I wear the shoes I’m important. They give me stature... power.’ Got him dead, that’s what those shoes got him.”
“Do you know whose they were? Before?”
“Some gangster, I figure. Died violent, too. Not the way decent people die. Then Ronan... Gunned down like a mad dog, you know? Your friend will be next, just see if he isn’t. You get him out of those shoes. You’ll do that if you care anything for him.”
“How long ago since..?”
But she was gone.
I tracked Tommy down. I’d heard he’d taken to hanging around some sleazy bar, and sure, the locals, they knew all about Tommy--they spoke about him with fear in their voices and careful glances over their shoulders. Tommy had gotten to be one unpopular dude in those parts. I woulda’ waited around but I had a gig. I hoped Tommy might be out there too, gigging, sharp suit, new band. But then I remembered his horn and that last, terminal cry as it hit that cement, and I knew Tommy wasn’t doing benevolent, fine things like sharing his music.
I came back to the bar a few days later on a hunch. Couldn’t let it go. Tommy was there. Clothes all torn and covered in days-old shit like he’d made more’n passing acquaintance with the gutter.
It was two in the morning. I’d finished playing and Tommy had finished doing whatever kind of things scum do when they are wrapped-up in the paranormal gangstering business. He was sitting at the bar, staring into a glass. There was country music playing on the juke box and even though he was alone there I found it hard to believe that Tommy might be responsible for that kind of infraction. But he’d fallen a long way.
“Tommy, take off the damn shoes. Take them off and destroy them before they destroy you!”
The knife was in his hand again. It opened with a snap, a fizz, a sound like a single stroke on a barber’s strop. The mechanism sounded oiled and tended. It seems that the knife had become Tommy’s permanent travelling companion. Times were when that honour fell only to his sax.
I guess, this time, I kind of half expected the move. I’d left plenty of space between us but I took another step back so’s to err on the cautious side. Still felt the sting down my arm from the last time.
Tommy swore a lot and warned me off with words like thief and bastard but mostly they were words like... well, cussing, you know? Was like dealing with a rabid dog. There was no reasoning with him. Just an animal making animal sounds, barking and grunting and blaspheming. I looked into his face. I looked hard, but I couldn’t find Tommy in there. I felt saddened. I remembered the friend who’d always taken the trouble to carry a bottle of apple juice around in his pocket for no other reason than to give a friend a life line when one was needed. This is what held me from turning on my heel and just hightailing out of that place. Tommy must have been in there someplace, must have been, and if he was, well, I’m guessing he was one tortured soul needing seven kinds of help right then.
“How are the shoes?” I asked. “You been playing much, Tommy? Playing like Bird?”
This seemed to set Tommy off all the more. He took up a bottle by the neck and smashed it on the bar. I got a long hard look at the jagged end. So he’s there, bottle in one hand knife in the other. The barman’s looking over like he’s seen it before. I see his hand reach down under the bar. It’s a practiced reach. He’s done that before and whatever sack of woe is down there he’s gone straight to it. Shotgun maybe? What was it the diminutive neighbour had warned? ‘Your friend will be next, just see if he ain’t.’ Well that moment could be striding along right now, depending on how nervous or pissed that barman’s feeling. What else did she say? ‘You’ll get him out of those shoes if you care anything at all about him.’ I do care about Tommy, but I plain didn’t know how I was going to get those shoes off of him. In a straight fight I figure me and Tommy are pretty much evenly matched. With Tommy totin’ a knife and a broken bottle I’m guessing the odds are tilted in his favour some.
So then Tommy starts to lurch over in my direction. He’s waving the weaponry in slow, lazy circles, and I saw straight off there was something more practiced in the way he was doing it this time. And it’s not some technique he’s picked up in the last week or so. This is the kind of technique you hone only after years of dedication, like playing scales in all the keys when your friends are out in the street and shouting for you to come out and even up the numbers in a pick-up game. And I see there’s red in his eyes and it’s not the kind of red that shows up after a few bawdy nights. This is the red of evil things sitting in the head of my best friend.
And there’s not a goddamn thing I can do about it. And the barman’s made a move too, because yes, it’s a shotgun all righty. A sawed-off. And it’s sittin’ on the barman’s hip all ready to lay waste to the blade wielding lunatic that was once my friend.
Right then I prayed for a miracle. I’m not a prayin’ kind of man, never have been, but I don’t mind admitting I did some heavy beseechin’ on that occasion.
And then Cannonball came on the juke box.
It was that jazz waltz number, This Here, and I knowed that the Tommy I knewstill had a hideout in that gangster head somehere’s, because only Tommy would have loaded up a juke box, in a badass joint like this, with a Cannonball Adderly chart. It had to be a cry for help. Had to. Oh, Bird was fine, adored and revered by millions, but for Tommy Richardson, Cannonball was always The Man.
And right then, that moment, I knew what I had to do. Clear as font water. I knew how to help Tommy.
“Tommy, I will be back tomorrow,” I said. “I have something for you. Something I found today. Just needed to track you down, man. Hang in there Tommy.”
I looked over at the barman. I nodded to him. Held up a hand. Everything’s cool. Put away the boot blaster. No trouble.
I turned and I ran.
And the next morning I went back to Kapinsky’s. I was playing a hunch. But I knew what I’d seen.
Shop was closed. Shutters pulled down. The shutters--just one more graffiti canvas on a sorrowful street full of sorrowful art. Two doors down was a diner that did breakfasts. I took a table in the window and I ate and I drank coffee and I waited.
Kapinsky showed up at his shop around ten-thirty. I paid for my breakfast and I hurried over.
“What do you want this time?”
I didn’t answer, I browsed. There was the sax, still hanging on a string. No scroll work, though. Sax was nearly new, a cheap Chinese import. Damn. Could I have been so mistaken? I hadn’t looked closely the other day. Could my mind have played tricks, made me see what I wanted to see rather than what was really there? This piece of junk was useless, worse than Tommy’s Pan American, a thousand times worse. I felt defeated. I’d given a promise, ‘Tommy, I have something for you.’
Kapinsky was watching me.
“This isn’t the same sax that was here before?”
“That’s a good instrument. Blows well, I’m told.”
I don’t even respond to this line of foolishness.
“How much?” I ask the question to feign interest, but I wouldn’t be taking it away, not even if he paid me.
“Hmm, two hundred.”
“Out of my league, sorry.”
“That sax only came in yesterday. Wouldn’t want to drop the price any,” he said.
“Pity you don’t have something older, more in my kinda’ price range.”
“Well, okay, there is the old one that was hangin’ there before. Took it down. New one looks better in the window, all shiny and that.”
“It’s certainly shiny.” I tried to keep the excitement from my voice. “But maybe I should look at the other one. I don’t earn a lot these days, you know?”
Kapinsky gave a sigh and disappeared through a bead curtain into a back room. He was gone a while. I could feel the sweat pooling round my shirt collar. I tried not to look too anxious.
Kapinsky came back. He was carrying a King Super 20. No doubts. It was battered and the keys were misaligned in places but under the grime on the bell I could see the indentations, the scroll work, and the magic word, ‘King’.
“Looks kinda’ in a bad way,” I said. “Needs some work, maybe. What you askin’?”
“I’ll take seventy.”
Seventy dollars. For a King Super 20. Kapinsky seemed fixed on haggling. I just wanted to slap down seventy, grab that horn and go running up the street with it under my jacket. But I didn’t want to seem too eager. Didn’t want him getting nervous, thinking he’s missed something, and upping the price.
So I just sighed.
“I could take sixty,” he said. “But I won’t go any lower.”
Haggling over. I took out my wallet.
“Tommy, I’m here with gifts.”
I unwrapped one of my parcels, the one with shoes. They were old shoes, just any old shoes, Salvation Army shoes, scuffed and worn. They were Tommy’s size.
He looked at them.
“Cannonball Adderley’s shoes,” I said.
I had his interest. But there was something much stronger, something in control. And Tommy didn’t move.
“I... think...” his voice was struggling, like there was a war going on inside. “I think... that you are trying to deceive me.”
“You won’t even try them?”
“How am I supposed to know they’re what you say they are?”
“You could try them on. Then maybe play a few notes?”
Tommy smiled. It wasn’t a nice smile. It was heavy with all manner of bad emotions; sarcasm, superiority, contempt.
“Play a few notes on what?” he said.
“You could try this sax.”
I unwrapped the other parcel.
“I got this in the same shop.” A lie, but only a white one. “It was with the shoes.”
I’d cleaned the sax up, straightened the keys as best I could in the time, fixed the leaks. It looked fabulous.
When Tommy spoke it was his voice, for real, although it came as a whisper.
“That’s a King. A super 20.”
“I believe it is,” I said. “You can make out the serial number if you look closely. 302455. Doesn’t mean much to me, but...”
Tommy’s hands were reaching out. In the fifties Cannonball had played a King Super 20 with a 300,000 serial number.
“The shoes first, Tommy,” I said. “Then you see how it sounds.”
The dead man’s shoes came off, thrown off, and Tommy’s feet slipped into those scuffed old Salvation Army shoes like they was Cinderella’s glass slippers.
He took the horn and he started to blow. The thing about the King Alto is the tone. One of the things. His sound was faltering at first, maybe there was still some residual evil in Tommy that needed blowin’ out of his system. But he soon got up a head of steam, and man, I watched and I listened and the tears rolled down Tommy’s cheeks and the tears rolled down my cheeks and I heard the finest, cleanest jazz I ever did hear. Thirty minutes, forty five, flew by without so much as a pause. Then I took the dead man’s shoes and I wrapped them in the paper wrapping. Tommy didn’t see. He didn’t see me or the shoes. I crept out of the hotel room.
The package was headed for the first dumpster I could find. Then I thought of the danger in that, some bum might find them, or some kid, try them on, and I thought, no, these shoes are coming back with me. I tell you, they were going straight in the furnace.
I held them tight and I could feel them. I could feel the evil in them. I felt I could hear gunshots and screaming and big men crying. I hurried along through that night and I wondered about how all that evil had accumulated, how maybe, like electricity, it had tried to go to ground but then got all caught up in the shoes.
I thought about the furnace back at my hotel, and I wondered, if when those shoes burned, if all the souls of the unfortunate and the damned would be released, and if I’d hear their cries.
But I also wondered how it might be, you know? How it might be if I just slipped them shoes onto my feet. Those Bird shoes, with their creamy soft leather--a fine pair of well-made shoes. And I wondered, those shoes, weren’t they just about my size?