(Recipient Dean's Prize in Prose)
“What was I talking about?” Nissa Johnson asked. “Oh, dear. I’m afraid I’ve lost my train of thought again."
Johnson, you were telling Miss Sophie here about your singing,”
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.
know we all love your singing, Miz Johnson. Go on. Keep talking
about Salamander Jones. You know I love that story,” said Doris.
loved it too. I’d 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 Jivin’ Five.
looked at me sitting across the table. “I’m sorry. Who are
you?” she asked.
is Miss Sophie, your visitor,” Doris replied. “She’s come to
listen to your stories.”
nice to meet you,” Nissa said. “I have a good story if you
don’t mind hearing me
don’t mind,” 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.
let’s see.” Nissa settled into her chair and into the familiar
rhythms of the story. “It was the summer of ’41. Harlem was
past its prime but still the hottest place for jazz north of the
Mason/Dixon. Every day after school I’d rush over to my
daddy’s place. Honey, I imagine I spent almost every night at
Salamander Jones’. Now, the club was tiny, but we packed ‘em
in. Oh, it was nothin’ compared to Madden’s 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 Salamander—he
wasn’t crooked like some folk. Plus, we let everybody
in—that 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.”
year when I realized my mother had chosen this story, this era, to
remember, I’d gone to the library and found a news clipping of
her from that summer.
Nissa Johnson with Salamander Jones and the Jivin’ Five.
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 didn’t. Bedroom eyes, they used to say. I wondered
what she had seen, growing up like she did in my grandfather’s
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. Ol’ Salamander let his little girl take the stage
as soon as her voice got tall enough to reach the microphone
went on. “Salamander’d tell me ‘Nissa, you stay out of
showbiz. It’s fine for now, but your smarts are worth more than
your looks. You want somethin’ better than late nights and
nothin’ to show later but a wore out voice and memories. Your
mama and I ‘spec you to get an education.’
I loved it. Started sneakin’ into shows when I was knee-high,
hidin’ out behind the curtain, pretending I was up there dancin’
around. Knew all the words to all the popular songs.”
hummed a snatch of melody. “‘Brokenheart Blues.’ That
brought the house down.”
don’t 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
didn’t 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.
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 “Never you mind, Sophie. I
used to sing and now I don’t. Don’t got no time to be singing
when there’s washin’ and cookin’ and raisin’ 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.” After that
day, the record wasn’t on the shelf anymore.
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.
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 Gogh’s
stars with thumbtacked corners hung precariously between Monet’s
water lilies and an abstract that I didn’t 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 Macbeth’s 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.
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.
daddy had this style, see, of pickin’ one couple in the crowd,
and singin’ just to them,” Nissa continued. “Made them feel
like they were the most special ones in the club. One night the
mayor and his wife stopped in, danced a while. That’s how
popular my daddy’s place had become. Pretty soon we had to turn
‘em away at the doors and the police threatened to shut us
sounds wonderful,” I said.
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 didn’t remember
her daughter anymore. The last time I’d tried to convince her
who I was she started crying and yelling for Doris to make me
I visited every Sunday and we talked. I told myself that even if
she didn’t know me, some part of her still treasured the
company. And there was always the chance that she’d remember me
me about the night you sang, Nissa,” I asked, even though I knew
the story by heart. She’d been begging Salamander for weeks to
let her open, and finally he caved in. Nissa continued. “‘One
song, and then home to bed,’ my daddy told me. He was strict but
he wasn’t no fool. He’d heard me sing, knew the crowd would
love somethin’ different, somethin’ young.”
paused. “I’m not so young now, am I?” she said.
can’t always remember now. What was the name of the song I sang?
I can hear it in my mind, but I can’t think of the title.
Forgive me, honey. Let me just think on it a minute and it’ll
come back to me.”
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
wouldn’t remember anything, that she’d be lost, floating in an
empty space without a map, past or present, to bring her back
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. “Nissa, the song you sang that night was
called ‘Brokenheart Blues’,” I said.
grimace faded and she looked at me, wide-eyed. “Well, honey, I
believe you’re right. How did you know that?”
you’ve told me this story a hundred times, I wanted to yell. Because
you believe it was the most magical night of your life. Because
you’ve 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.
what I said was “You must have told me this story before,
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.
even made a record of me singing. Can you believe it?” She
laughed. “Probably only one copy in existence and it’s long
gone by now.”
didn’t 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.
was the most exciting night of my life, that first time I sang in
front of folk. Strange, isn’t it, how it seems just like
yesterday?” She stopped talking and a quiet calm settled over
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.
that, everything changed,” she said. “By Christmas we were in
the war, and the women didn’t want to come out to the clubs
was new. This was the part I had never heard, had wondered about,
those lost years between my mother’s seventeenth summer and my
earliest memories from childhood. “My daddy told me we
couldn’t afford to keep on the whole band, so I couldn’t 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 tendin’
bar, hoping we wouldn’t get busted ‘cause I was still only
met Tobias in March of ’42 and pretty soon got too big to be
carryin’ those heavy drink trays in my condition. Tobias
didn’t stick around much longer after that. After my baby was
born, I went back to waitin’ tables for a spell, carried her on
my hip until Salamander finally had to close the doors for
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.
happened to your daughter?” I asked, leaning forward in my chair
anxiously, clenching my hands.
shadow passed over Nissa’s face, dark. The sun disappearing
behind a cloud. She frowned and was quiet for a long time.
She’s not around anymore,” she said, confused. Tentative.
Searching. “ I…I’m not sure where she went. I must have lost
her…no, not lost. She died. Yes, that’s it. She died and
that’s why I can’t see her anymore. That must be it.”
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
a few minutes, her breathing changed and slowed. Her head drooped
to her chest. Doris walked over and lifted her easily into her
she remembers you, mi hija,” Doris said. “She brags about her
daughter. Says she’s got a voice like an angel.”
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.
didn’t die, mama,” I whispered. “I’m right here.” I
slipped out of the room, wondering where, and when, next Sunday
would find us.