CSULA Department of English | Statement 2007

Jazz, Memory

Jessica Magallanes

(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."

“Miz 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.

“You know we all love your singing, Miz Johnson. Go on. Keep talking about Salamander Jones. You know I love that story,” said Doris.

I 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.

Nissa looked at me sitting across the table. “I’m sorry. Who are you?” she asked.

“This is Miss Sophie, your visitor,” Doris replied. “She’s come to listen to your stories.”

“It’s nice to meet you,” Nissa said. “I have a good story if you don’t mind hearing me

boast a bit.”

“I 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.

“Well, 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.”

 

Last 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.


Salamander’s on 137th

Appearing Nightly.

Nissa Johnson with Salamander Jones and the Jivin’ Five.

Three shows.

Admission $1.50

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 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 stand.

 

Nissa 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.’

“But 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.”

Nissa hummed a snatch of melody. “‘Brokenheart Blues.’ That brought the house down.”

 

I 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.

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 “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.

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 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.

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.

“My 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 down.”

“It sounds wonderful,” 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 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 leave.

Still, 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 someday.

 

“Tell 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.”

She paused. “I’m not so young now, am I?” she said.

I was silent.

“I 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.”

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 wouldn’t remember anything, that she’d 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. “Nissa, the song you sang that night was called ‘Brokenheart Blues’,” I said.

The grimace faded and she looked at me, wide-eyed. “Well, honey, I believe you’re right. How did you know that?”

Because 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.

But what I said was “You must have told me this story before, that’s all.”

 

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.

“They 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.”

I 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.

“That 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 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.

“After that, everything changed,” she said. “By Christmas we were in the war, and the women didn’t want to come out to the clubs alone.”

 

This 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 17.”

“I 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 good.”

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.

“What happened to your daughter?” I asked, leaning forward in my chair anxiously, clenching my hands.

A shadow passed over Nissa’s face, dark. The sun disappearing behind a cloud. She frowned and was quiet for a long time.

“Well. 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.”

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.

“Sometimes she remembers you, mi hija,” Doris said. “She brags about her daughter. Says she’s got a voice like an angel.”

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.

 Â“I 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.