(Recipient Dean's Prize in Prose)
was I talking about?Â Nissa Johnson asked. ÂOh, dear. IÂm
afraid IÂve lost my train of thought again."
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.
know we all love your singing, Miz Johnson. Go on. Keep talking
about Salamander Jones. You know I love that story,Â said Doris.
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.
looked at me sitting across the table. ÂIÂm sorry. Who are
you?Â she asked.
is Miss Sophie, your visitor,Â Doris replied. ÂSheÂs come to
listen to your stories.Â
nice to meet you,Â Nissa said. ÂI have a good story if you
donÂt mind hearing me
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.
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
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.
SalamanderÂs on 137th
Nissa Johnson with Salamander
Jones and the JivinÂ 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 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
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
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
hummed a snatch of melody. ÂÂBrokenheart Blues.Â That
brought the house down.Â
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.
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.
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 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.
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 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
sounds wonderful,Â 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 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
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
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
paused. ÂIÂm not so young now, am I?Â she said.
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
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
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.
grimace faded and she looked at me, wide-eyed. ÂWell, honey, I
believe youÂre right. How did you know that?Â
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.
what I said was ÂYou 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?Â She
laughed. ÂProbably only one copy in existence and itÂs long
gone by now.Â
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.
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
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,Â she said. ÂBy Christmas we were in
the war, and the women didnÂt 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 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
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
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?Â I asked, leaning forward in my chair
anxiously, clenching my hands.
shadow passed over NissaÂs face, dark. The sun disappearing
behind a cloud. She frowned and was quiet for a long time.
SheÂs not around anymore,Â she said, confused. Tentative.
Searching. Â IÂ
IÂm not sure where she went. I must have lost
no, not lost. She died. Yes, thatÂs it. She died and
thatÂs why I canÂt see her anymore. That must be it.Â
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,Â Doris said. ÂShe brags about her
daughter. Says sheÂs got a voice like an angel.Â
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.
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.