(Recipient Dean's Prize in Prose)
ÂWhat was I talking about?Â Nissa Johnson asked. ÂOh, dear. IÂm afraid IÂve lost my train of thought again."
ÂMiz Johnson, you were telling Miss Sophie here about your singing,Â said Doris, the day nurse. Doris was a thin, reedy woman with a thick Spanish accent, her spotless white shoes squeaking on the linoleum floor of the visiting room. She had just finished giving Nissa her afternoon pills.
ÂYou know we all love your singing, Miz Johnson. Go on. Keep talking about Salamander Jones. You know I love that story,Â said Doris.
I loved it too. IÂd spent the last two years hearing it every weekend, while Doris fluttered around making sure we were comfortable, listening to my mother reminisce about her debut performance with Salamander Jones and the JivinÂ Five.
Nissa looked at me sitting across the table. ÂIÂm sorry. Who are you?Â she asked.
ÂThis is Miss Sophie, your visitor,Â Doris replied. ÂSheÂs come to listen to your stories.Â
ÂItÂs nice to meet you,Â Nissa said. ÂI have a good story if you donÂt mind hearing me
boast a bit.Â
ÂI donÂt mind,Â I said. Anyway, I knew what was coming. I looked at her dark eyes, so like my own, sparkling with memory. Even though her skin was wrinkled and worn, her voice lilted, hinting at the girl she used to be.
ÂWell, letÂs see.Â Nissa settled into her chair and into the familiar rhythms of the story. ÂIt was the summer of Â41. Harlem was past its prime but still the hottest place for jazz north of the Mason/Dixon. Every day after school IÂd rush over to my daddyÂs place. Honey, I imagine I spent almost every night at Salamander JonesÂ. Now, the club was tiny, but we packed Âem in. Oh, it was nothinÂ compared to MaddenÂs place over on Lenox and 142nd, but after that tax scandal made him close up shop we picked up a fair amount of folks who still wanted a hot meal, a good drink, and some fine entertainment. One thing about SalamanderÂhe wasnÂt crooked like some folk. Plus, we let everybody inÂthat is, everybody who could fit inside. Folks came up all the way from Jersey just to stand outside and brag to their friends later that they almost got past the rope.Â
Last year when I realized my mother had chosen this story, this era, to remember, IÂd gone to the library and found a news clipping of her from that summer.
Nissa Johnson with Salamander Jones and the JivinÂ Five.
The photo shows her standing at the lip of the stage. Beautiful, poised, but already hard around the edges. She looked like just a girl until you noticed her eyes, hinting that she knew things the other girls didnÂt. Bedroom eyes, they used to say. I wondered what she had seen, growing up like she did in my grandfatherÂs nightclub. In 1941, she was seventeen and light enough to pass. I imagine too many men must have mistaken her poise for experience, until she opened her mouth to sing and there was no mistaking who her daddy was. OlÂ Salamander let his little girl take the stage as soon as her voice got tall enough to reach the microphone stand.
Nissa went on. ÂSalamanderÂd tell me ÂNissa, you stay out of showbiz. ItÂs fine for now, but your smarts are worth more than your looks. You want somethinÂ better than late nights and nothinÂ to show later but a wore out voice and memories. Your mama and I Âspec you to get an education.Â
ÂBut I loved it. Started sneakinÂ into shows when I was knee-high, hidinÂ out behind the curtain, pretending I was up there dancinÂ around. Knew all the words to all the popular songs.Â
Nissa hummed a snatch of melody. ÂÂBrokenheart Blues.Â That brought the house down.Â
I donÂt remember music in our house when I was growing up. My mother stopped singing when my father left, before I was born. We moved around a lot, then, never staying in one place for long. She picked up jobs here and there, secretarial work, housekeeping. We didnÂt starve, but there were no luxuries. The place we called home longest was a tiny apartment on 81st Avenue, where we managed to stay until I finished high school.
When I was sixteen, just before I graduated, I found an old 78 record tucked away in a bookshelf. Her picture was on the sleeve. But when I asked her about it, she said ÂNever you mind, Sophie. I used to sing and now I donÂt. DonÂt got no time to be singing when thereÂs washinÂ and cookinÂ and raisinÂ you up to be a good girl. Times is hard, baby girl, and we got to be focused on the important things like getting you an education.Â After that day, the record wasnÂt on the shelf anymore.
That was 30 years ago. Now my mother was here at River Meadows Senior Community in Park Slope, which boasted neither a river (unless you counted the East River, five miles away) nor a meadow. It was a happy enough place, though, with friendly nurses like Doris and movie nights on Fridays and edible, if not tasty, food.
The visiting room had seen better days, but the nurses tried to brighten up the place by putting silk flowers on all the visitor tables and hanging cheap art prints on the walls. Van GoghÂs stars with thumbtacked corners hung precariously between MonetÂs water lilies and an abstract that I didnÂt recognize, pink and orange and blue paint splotches bordered in shades of green. Three women at the other corner of the room hunched over a small folding table, emitting an occasional cackle or frustrated groan. The scene reminded me of MacbethÂs witches, except that this octogenarian trio wore faded gingham smock shirts, elastic waist slacks, and bedroom slippers, and cast their spells over a game of canasta instead of a bubbling cauldron.
I thought, not for the first time, that my mother would die here, looking at fake flowers and sky. It was a melancholy thought, but River Meadows was safe for her. Time and age and broken neural pathways had taken their toll, and now she lived only in the memories of songs, of bright stage lights and a dancing crowd.
ÂMy daddy had this style, see, of pickinÂ one couple in the crowd, and singinÂ just to them,Â Nissa continued. ÂMade them feel like they were the most special ones in the club. One night the mayor and his wife stopped in, danced a while. ThatÂs how popular my daddyÂs place had become. Pretty soon we had to turn Âem away at the doors and the police threatened to shut us down.Â
ÂIt sounds wonderful,Â I said.
And it was. She came alive again when she talked about the past; the years of heartache and struggle and illness forgotten. The downside was that she had forgotten me, too. She didnÂt remember her daughter anymore. The last time IÂd tried to convince her who I was she started crying and yelling for Doris to make me leave.
Still, I visited every Sunday and we talked. I told myself that even if she didnÂt know me, some part of her still treasured the company. And there was always the chance that sheÂd remember me someday.
ÂTell me about the night you sang, Nissa,Â I asked, even though I knew the story by heart. SheÂd been begging Salamander for weeks to let her open, and finally he caved in. Nissa continued. ÂÂOne song, and then home to bed,Â my daddy told me. He was strict but he wasnÂt no fool. HeÂd heard me sing, knew the crowd would love somethinÂ different, somethinÂ young.Â
She paused. ÂIÂm not so young now, am I?Â she said.
I was silent.
ÂI canÂt always remember now. What was the name of the song I sang? I can hear it in my mind, but I canÂt think of the title. Forgive me, honey. Let me just think on it a minute and itÂll come back to me.Â
This happened more often now. Even the stories she knew like her own skin were beginning to wrinkle, scar, fade away. Even the details of this story, the one she relived for me every weekend, were imperceptibly shifting out of reach. I feared that soon she wouldnÂt remember anything, that sheÂd be lost, floating in an empty space without a map, past or present, to bring her back home.
I saw the grimace on her face, the one I recognized more and more lately, hinting at the swelling frustration when she lost another piece of her past. ÂNissa, the song you sang that night was called ÂBrokenheart BluesÂ,Â I said.
The grimace faded and she looked at me, wide-eyed. ÂWell, honey, I believe youÂre right. How did you know that?Â
Because youÂve told me this story a hundred times, I wanted to yell. Because you believe it was the most magical night of your life. Because youÂve traded your life as my mother for the life you had before I was born, and this is the only way I can still love you.
But what I said was ÂYou must have told me this story before, thatÂs all.Â
Nissa told me again how Salamander had agreed to let her open that night, how the crowd went wild, how the receipts were so flush that she ended up opening for six months straight.
ÂThey even made a record of me singing. Can you believe it?Â She laughed. ÂProbably only one copy in existence and itÂs long gone by now.Â
I didnÂt tell her that I had tracked down and paid two hundred dollars for two copies of her record, out of print since 1945, and had them on my own bookshelf at home.
ÂThat was the most exciting night of my life, that first time I sang in front of folk. Strange, isnÂt it, how it seems just like yesterday?Â She stopped talking and a quiet calm settled over her face.
This, too, was familiar. My mother always ended the story here, at the height of her fame. Visiting hours were ending and Doris was helping the eldest Hecate back into her wheelchair across the room. I started to gather my purse when my mother spoke again.
ÂAfter that, everything changed,Â she said. ÂBy Christmas we were in the war, and the women didnÂt want to come out to the clubs alone.Â
This was new. This was the part I had never heard, had wondered about, those lost years between my motherÂs seventeenth summer and my earliest memories from childhood. ÂMy daddy told me we couldnÂt afford to keep on the whole band, so I couldnÂt sing anymore, not really, not like I used to. We hired a jazz trio for Fridays and Saturdays and closed down during the workweek. After a while, we had to let the servers go. Salamander had me tendinÂ bar, hoping we wouldnÂt get busted Âcause I was still only 17.Â
ÂI met Tobias in March of Â42 and pretty soon got too big to be carryinÂ those heavy drink trays in my condition. Tobias didnÂt stick around much longer after that. After my baby was born, I went back to waitinÂ tables for a spell, carried her on my hip until Salamander finally had to close the doors for good.Â
Tobias was my father. I stayed perfectly still, not wanting to break her concentration. She had rarely talked about him before, and this was a new revelation, a breakthrough, hope.
ÂWhat happened to your daughter?Â I asked, leaning forward in my chair anxiously, clenching my hands.
A shadow passed over NissaÂs face, dark. The sun disappearing behind a cloud. She frowned and was quiet for a long time.
ÂWell. SheÂs not around anymore,Â she said, confused. Tentative. Searching. Â IÂ IÂm not sure where she went. I must have lost herÂ no, not lost. She died. Yes, thatÂs it. She died and thatÂs why I canÂt see her anymore. That must be it.Â
I choked back tears. Dead. This was the story my mother had invented to explain away her memories of me. I sat on my hands, forcing myself not to hold her, tell her I loved her, that I was here, and I had been here and would keep coming back until she was gone. But I stayed silent, waiting, hoping for a spark of recognition that never came.
After a few minutes, her breathing changed and slowed. Her head drooped to her chest. Doris walked over and lifted her easily into her chair.
ÂSometimes she remembers you, mi hija,Â Doris said. ÂShe brags about her daughter. Says sheÂs got a voice like an angel.Â
I wondered if my mother really knew me, in her dreams, in her memories. Or if she had just confused my past with her own. I leaned down and kissed her sleeping face.
ÂI didnÂt die, mama,Â I whispered. ÂIÂm right here.Â I slipped out of the room, wondering where, and when, next Sunday would find us.