ONE NIGHT ONLY
The only time I ever saw James Brown perform live was through the Lone Star Café plate glass windows on 13th Street in light snow at midnight. It was the week before Christmas, 1981. I was single, in my late twenties, and had made the mistake of asking out the woman who I went to for haircuts at a tiny West Village hair salon. Friends of mine advised that it was risky to date one’s hair stylist because when you broke up, which was inevitable, you’d not only have to find a new girlfriend, you’d have to find a new hair stylist.
I met Cara at her apartment on East 10th Street. She looked beautiful in evening makeup and the little black dress. She played Patsy Cline on her stereo and mixed drinks at a tiny portable bar in the corner of her living room. We talked about politics and our families for a while. When she handed me a drink refill I noticed for the first time that her middle finger was missing the final two knuckles. “Childhood accident,” she said, and turned away.
We had dinner at One if by Land, Two if by Sea. It was gorgeous inside, all done up for the holidays. The food was great, the wine even better. Outside, snow flurries had started while we were eating. We wandered the Village side streets for a while side by side, not holding hands. A bus’s windshield wipers flapped noisily as we stood waiting for a Don’t Walk sign to change. Store windows were decorated for the season, combinations of New Wave attitude and North Pole ambience.
We ended up at a bar on Hudson Street. The snowflakes continued to fall. After a half-hour, Cara headed to the ladies room down a narrow hallway just past the payphone. About ten minutes later her roommate, an attractive Italian-looking woman, showed up at the bar. Surprise. She took my seat at the bar beside Cara. The music was very loud, so I couldn’t hear what they were saying to each other. The date was over. Cara said I didn’t need to walk her home. I bundled up and trekked across town toward the Lex.
The city’s usual hum was muffled by the soft snow accumulating on the streets and sidewalks. I watched my shoes kick the snow. At the corner of 13th and Fifth bright light spilled out onto the new snow from inside the Lone Star. The music was pulsing through the windows and doors, apparently a pretty decent band covering a James Brown tune.
As I got closer and could see inside the club, it hit me. It’s him. In person. The Godfather of Soul, sliding around on the tiny bandstand with drums, bass, keyboards, guitar and gleaming horns arranged alongside him. In those days the “stage” at the Lone Star was a long elevated shelf behind the bar where the band members had to stand side by side, their feet were level with the bartenders’ shoulders.
The frowning bouncer at the door said the show was sold out. Looking through the windows I could see that there really wasn’t room for another human inside the club. So I stood alone in the snow flurries on the 13th street sidewalk and watched as the band pounded out song after incredible song. James somehow did his signature dance steps in a three foot square section of the stage floor. The plate glass windows shook in synch with the bass line and the drummer’s right foot. Inside my Michelinman down coat I could feel my heart beating. I slid as I danced on the snow. Couples passed by me on the sidewalk, chatting with one another. Were they crazy? Couldn’t they see who it was playing inside the Lone Star? Live. Loud. Perfect.
The set ended and I turned to head to the subway. Across Fifth Avenue, Cara and her roommate walked slowly through the snow. Side by side, and holding hands.
Twenty-five years later, James Brown was scheduled to play the House of Blues in New York in late December. He and I hadn’t seen each other since that night when I stood outside the plate glass window at the Lone Star Café in the light snow. On Christmas morning 2006, the local news reported that James had died in Atlanta.
In my Christmas stocking were two tickets to the House of Blues show. My wife held my hand as I stared at them.
The parents sat on the bank of a dry riverbed and tried to fill it with water using their imagination. The walk had taken days which had been filled with hope. Hope that the river would provide them with water for their children, water for their dwindling livestock, and maybe a drink of water for themselves.
The groundwater was gone. Wells were dry, dug by wealthy others who congratulated themselves for their selflessness on their flights back home to comfortable homes in Scarsdale and Tiburon. The pumps sat silent, dirt draped.
So they walked and walked and walked toward the only river in the region. They carried children and belongings. Music played in their heads. It was the music of long ago, when elders taught them to sing words of thanks and foreboding. They had done as the elders wished. They worked day and night, created a dwelling place for many generations. But now there was no water. The elders were gone, dry lipped death coming for them month after month. Singing while walking took too much energy, they could only imagine the music as they imagined the water flowing by in the dry riverbed.
Everything was piled into the SUV: luggage, boogie boards, snorkel and fins, hibachi, cooler full of fruit for the ride. Into the Midtown Tunnel, then out the other side, 100 miles to Amagansett. The little boy wasn’t sure where they were going but he liked the music pouring out of the dashboard. “If everybody had an ocean, across the USA, then everybody’d be surfing.”
The parents in the front seat bobbed their heads. They were in their forties with good jobs, a nice apartment in the city and a Volvo underneath them. The little boy was six. They told him that he loved the ocean, but he didn’t know what they meant. They told him that when he was two they’d taken him to the ocean in San Francisco on Saturdays. But all he remembered was that the zoo was near the ocean and you needed a coat in the summer. Sea gulls stole his zoo fries.
They parked on the gravel drive beside the cottage. The sound of waves crashing wafted between the beachfront mansions. Everything inside the cottage was white including the furniture. This could be a problem, the little boy loved grape juice. Whoever owned this place couldn’t have had any kids. Or any kids that they liked.
The little boy scampered to the water’s edge and felt the remnants of a wave wash around his lower legs. As the water rushed back into the ocean it submerged his feet beneath soupy sand. Doesn’t everybody have an ocean?
The tank truck came yesterday, so this morning there would be water for a sponge bath. The small child shivered as her mother stripped her except for her mask and washed her quickly then dressed her in clean clothes. The Gallup radio station crackled out the news.
A piece of paper on the refrigerator said Wash Your Hands, Don’t Touch Your Face, Social Distance. The small child knew that someone who lived in the city must have written this sign. There wasn’t enough water to wash your hands all the time. She touched her face when she worried, which was often. And five of them lived in a one bedroom house, no distance.
The news said that there was poison water in pipes in Michigan and people there bathed in bottled water. A white man’s voice explained why the poison water was not his fault, though he was the governor.
The small child wondered whose fault it was that there was no running water in her house. The news said that people with a million dollars signed up for tickets to take them from New Mexico to outer space.
The rebels marched the girls out of the school building and into the sunbaked yard where they usually played during recess. The nuns watched, afraid to challenge the rebels for fear that they would use their automatic weapons. In two straight lines, the girls marched away toward the rebel encampment. All were crying.
There used to be farms and farmers, livestock and enough food. Now there was just dust. Wind removed the good soil. Rock and sand remained. Last year when the rebels threatened, the soldiers had surrounded the school to protect the girls. But this year the soldiers did not come.
Mary McGowan was nearing the end of her overnight nursing shift at the VA hospital in Albuquerque. She tried hard to keep her eyes open for another hour. At the far end of the long, cluttered nurses’ station desk an old radio with an aluminum foil antenna was playing nearly inaudible Christmas carols. On most nights music wasn’t permitted, but it was Christmas Eve and no one was around.
The only patient on Mary’s end of the ward was a World War II veteran named Danny Flynn. He thought he was eighty-eight, but his chart said he was ninety-four years old. He was too sick to be discharged in time for Christmas.
Mary rubbed her hands together to warm them as she leaned over Danny, checking his vital signs. His white hair reminded her of an uncle two thousand miles away in Staten Island. When she was a little girl at family Christmas parties, Uncle Marty would sing out-of-tune carols and urge her to dance, which she did gladly, twirling in her red Christmas party dress with the white tights and black patent leather shoes.
“Do you need anything, Danny?” she asked.
“Sorry, we’re fresh out of whisky, but how about another blanket from the warmer to take the chill off?”
In a moment Mary returned and tucked the new blanket around Danny.
“If you need anything else just push the buzzer.”
Back at the nurses’ station, Mary reached into her large leather tote bag, retrieved a dog-eared copy of Love in the Time of Cholera and disappeared into the story.
Knees up in bed, Danny was busy writing a letter.
Thanks very much for the beautiful Christmas card you sent. A neighbor brought it to me here in the hospital where it did me a lot of good. I am glad to hear that you and your family are all doing well. I expect to get out of here any day now and, if Walgreen’s sells belated Christmas cards, one will be on its way to you very soon.
Danny dozed on and off as he wrote, filling Rosemary in on what was new in his life. He wrote about how well his vegetable garden had done this past summer, described the view of the mountains at sunset from his backyard full of fruit trees and bragged about the new Honda in his garage.
He and Rosemary had met at the Pearl Harbor naval base on Saturday night, December 6, 1941. They’d had a few too many drinks, danced all night and ended up in a little motel room not far from the base. Beside Rosemary on the small bed, Danny put his arms around her waist and kissed her neck and shoulders. Then they heard the explosions. Danny pulled on his pants and ran to the door, opening it in time to see a Japanese plane explode as it crashed into a U.S. Navy ship moored nearby. Then another, and another. Fire was everywhere. Rosemary joined him at the door and they held each other as they watched the attack unfold. The air was filled with thick black smoke and the stench of burning fuel oil.
A half-hour later, Mary heard the sound of Danny’s buzzer so she stuck her head into his room to check on him.
“You okay Danny?”
“I’m good. But could I ask one more favor before you leave?”
“Anything for you.”
“I’d like to send this letter, but I haven’t got a stamp.”
“I’ve got stamps,” Mary said. She told him she’d mail it on her way home. Then she tucked him in and wished him a Merry Christmas.
“And a Merry Christmas to you, as well, Mary. God bless you,” he said.
Mary drove through a Starbucks near the hospital before heading home. “Half decaf, half regular Grande, please.” She looked at the return address that Danny had scrawled on the envelope and typed it into her GPS. Despite living in Albuquerque for ten years, she was still unfamiliar with the city.
Danny’s street was only a few blocks away. It was narrow, crowded with parked cars. Some had flat tires, others were missing parts that vandals had removed. She stopped her car in front of the address on the envelope. The building was a very old, pueblo-style motel, surrounded on all sides by dirt parking lots. A rusted sign said “Rooms by the day, week or month.” Another sign taped to the door said “Vacancy.” She dropped off Danny’s letter at the post office and headed home, the car filled with the soft strains of “Silent Night.”
Mary looked out the window over her kitchen sink and put her coffee cup into the microwave, ignoring the cup’s printed warning not to do so. The sun came up from behind the mountains, spreading yellow light across the neat rows of stucco cottages just like hers. A scribbled note attached to the refrigerator door by a Land of Enchantment magnet said “Be back next week, Love, Ed.” The note was six weeks old. The empty hangers on Ed’s side of the hall closet jingled as she walked by. The medicine chest door squeaked when it opened and when it closed.
Mary headed to the eight-by-eight bedroom, coffee in one hand, pill bottle in the other, the Garcia-Marquez novel tucked under her arm. The unmade bed was waiting. She undressed slowly and put her earrings in a saucer on the pressboard nightstand. Then she crawled under the covers and opened the book to the place where the main characters finally find each other after living apart for fifty-one years, nine months and four days.
Mary could hear the sound of the little boy in the next cottage squealing with glee. She fell asleep clutching the pill bottle.