The Songbook of Benny Lament – Amy Harmon

I wrote my first song when I was eight years old, a chocolate ice-cream cone in my hand, while my father roughed up a shop owner. My song was a simple little thing with a one-line chorus and a single verse, but I never forgot it. Pop is a scary man. Better do what he says. Pop is hurting Gino’s hand. Better do what he says. That day, in front of Gino’s, I didn’t need a piano to write my song. The melody just appeared with the words. Dissonant. Ugly. Mrs. Costiera would have covered her ears. The only piano I ever got to play in those days was in her apartment, but she let me play it whenever I wanted, and she’d taught me the names of the keys and pointed out the patterns so I could combine the notes into chords. Chords are like families. The notes go together.

Like you and your father and your aunts and uncles and all your cousins. There. Hear that? Isn’t that beautiful? That’s an F chord. F for famiglia. But listen . let’s add a stranger. See? It doesn’t sound so good. That note doesn’t belong in the F chord. I was supposed to be sitting on the bench across the street by the ice-cream cart, lapping up my melting treat while my father paid his visit to Gino. I liked Gino.

He’d given me a harmonica once, and I wanted to see him more than I wanted the cone. I recognized the ice cream for what it was: a bribe to keep me occupied while my father went inside the shop. My father told me to stay put, but I had my harp in my pocket, and I wanted to show Gino how good I was. That’s what Gino had called it. A harp. When I took to it after only a couple tries, instinctively knowing where to move my mouth to change the sound, Gino threw up his hands and said, “He’s gonna be a harp man, Lomento. Listen to that. Kid’s got a knack and an ear.” I could see my father through the window. His big back was to me, the back he carried me on sometimes, and Gino faced him over the counter.

Gino’s face was twisted like he was trying not to cry, and his hands were splayed wide above the display case of his watches and wares. He looked as though he was “reaching for the octave,” as Mrs. Costiera called it, but my father’s knife protruded from the back of his hand. I wanted to shout, but I didn’t. I was shocked, but I wasn’t. I was scared, but I didn’t run or turn away. I sang silently instead, the words clanging through my head, rhyming and rhythmic, the tune fully formed like it belonged with my lyrics. When my father came out of Gino’s shop, I was standing there, perfectly still, but my ice cream had melted all over my hand and pooled on the sidewalk. Pop’s face fell, just like the ice cream, and he took the cone from my fingers, tossed it into the street, and handed me the handkerchief from his pocket to wipe my hands. He didn’t say anything as we headed for home, the sun shining down on our capped heads.

It was warm that day, and the streets smelled like shit and sugar. It was September of 1939, and the paperboys screamed about the Germans and faraway places. But there was no war in New York City. At least, not the kind that involved airplanes and submarines. “I thought you liked Gino,” I said after several blocks. My chest felt as sticky as my hands. “It’s got nothin’ to do with that,” my father answered. “It doesn’t?” I couldn’t imagine hurting someone I liked. “It doesn’t.” My father didn’t seem inclined to explain, and we walked another block before I tried again.

“B-b-but Gino’s nice.” “He was nice to you. Yeah. But he was nice to you because he’s scared of me.” That stopped me cold. My father walked ten paces before he realized I wasn’t beside him. He turned around and came back, took my sticky hand in his, and pulled me along. “Everybody can be nice, Benny. But it ain’t real,” my father said. He sounded so convinced.

“Never?” The stickiness became a tickle that warned of tears. “No. Not never.” He sighed like the discussion pained him too. “But there’s no such thing as good guys and bad guys. There’s just people. And everybody’s rotten inside. Some are more rotten than others, and some just aren’t rotten yet. But eventually, we all get a little ripe, ya know what I’m sayin’? We all have dark spots.” “Even you?” “Especially me.

” It didn’t seem to bother him too much. He seemed accepting of the fact. Resigned to it. We walked in silence, his big hand sheltering mine, and he didn’t complain about the chocolatey residue or my slower steps. We turned onto Arthur Avenue, and the lines of laundry stretched across the side streets, from terrace to terrace, waving to us. “I’m sorry you had to see my rotten today, Benito. I try hard to be a good father. A better father than my father was, but I’m not always a good man.” “Can’t you cut it out? The dark spots, I mean. Mrs.

Costiera cuts the mold off the cheese.” “I can’t cut it out. No. There’s too much of it. I’d bleed to death.” “Am I rotten?” “No. You ain’t rotten.” “But someday I will be?” He sighed like he’d gotten himself into a mess he didn’t know how to get out of. “Yeah. You probably will be.

It’s just life.” He shrugged and shook his head. “You don’t care if I’m rotten?” I squeaked. “Depends on why you’re being rotten. If you have another choice . then yeah. I care. Gino owes Uncle Sal money. He’s been stallin’. Avoidin’ me.

I was patient until I couldn’t be patient no more. He left me no choice.” “Why can’t Uncle Sal get his own money? Why do you have to do it?” “That’s my job, Benny. I work for Uncle Sal. My job is to make sure people meet their obligations. Sal’s a busy man. Runs a big operation. I work for Sal. You know that.” “What’s an .

obligation?” “A responsibility. A duty. You know. Sal was Mama’s brother. So we’re family. And family is our number-one responsibility.” “Our number-one obligation?” “Yeah.” I decided then and there, walking down the street where I was born, toward the building where I was raised, among people who were just like me, that I didn’t want a family if that’s what family meant. I decided the chords I liked most were the ones with notes that didn’t belong. Over the years, those were the chords I kept going back to, the chords I built my melodies around, the chords that spoke to me.

“I tried to cut you out. Now I’m bleedin’ to death,” Izzy McQueen wailed at the mic, and I was catapulted back from the memory of ugly chords, simple songs, and the day, long ago, when I saw my pop for what he was. “I tried to cut you out, baby. Now I’m bleedin’ to death,” Izzy repeated, so mournful, so convincing, no one in the audience could doubt his impending demise. Funny. I’d written “Can’t Cut You Out” for Izzy a year ago but hadn’t made the connection to that conversation on the way home from Gino’s until right now. Maybe I’d buried it deep like I did with so many things concerning Pop, but those lyrics were his. I would have to write him a check. “Can’t Cut You Out” had been my biggest hit so far, and I got a little thrill every time it came on the radio. It wasn’t me singing—I doubted it ever would be—but it was my song.

Pop’s song too, I guess. I’d been writing songs on the same theme my whole life. “You took a little here, and you took a little there, and I’ve given all I can,” Izzy moaned, and my hands flew over the keys. I didn’t usually do this kind of gig. I was a behind-the-scenes man, but I’d been having a drink, listening, and Izzy called me up on stage, announcing me like I was a hometown hero. Next thing I knew I was backing him up. I was hot, and I’d loosened my tie and lost my coat a few measures into the first verse. The Murray’s in my hair was holding up, though, all except for the lock that clung to my brow in a damp swirl. The smoke and the music made the world soft and soundproof, where nothing and no one existed beyond the keys and the curling ring around my head. But I was never alone in New York.

Pop had eyes and ears everywhere. Especially at La Vita. So I wasn’t surprised when my father sat down at a table right in front of the stage. He didn’t get a drink or unbutton his coat. He just sat, listening. I hadn’t seen him in months. I’d been in Detroit and LA and Chicago and Miami. I’d been all over, writing songs for everybody from Elvis Presley to Smokey Robinson. Smokey didn’t need anyone writing songs for him; he was churning out hits for himself and everyone else too, but he said I kept his sound fresh. Berry Gordy, the president of the up-and-coming Motown Records, had taken ten of my songs for his artists just last month.

“Smokey writes light, and you write dark. Sunshine and rain. You should team up,” Mr. Gordy said. “Call yourselves Smokey Lament. It could be huge.” But I wasn’t much of a family man, and Motown had that feel. Like family. Plus, like I said, Smokey really didn’t need me. Izzy didn’t really need me either.

Especially not tonight. Between his voice and his horn, the piano was an afterthought. But I was better with the “lyrics and the lamentations,” Izzy said, and he liked my songs. Luckily his label did too. There was a time, not so long ago, when Izzy McQueen headlining at places like La Vita wouldn’t have been possible. I’d been in the audience when Harry Belafonte performed at the Copacabana, Sal’s biggest competitor, in ’58. But they wouldn’t even let Harry into the Copa in the forties. They turned him away at the door. No Negros allowed. Took him a while to forgive and forget, but Harry came out on top.

Nobody refused him entrance now. At least not in New York. Berry Gordy had a whole roster of artists he wanted to book at La Vita. He asked me to arrange a meeting with the manager, Jules Patel, but I didn’t know if I could do that. I sure as hell didn’t do it for Izzy, though I wondered suddenly if he’d dropped my name. The thought made me sweat. I would have to talk to Izzy and set him straight. No more pulling me up on stage. It’s not that Patel wouldn’t hear me out. He would.

He would bring up my father and my mother—God rest her soul. She sang like an angel, that woman—and that would be my cue to reinforce my connection to Uncle Sal. The name Salvatore Vitale always got the skids greased. Then Gordy would get his meeting and his bookings, and I would have to pay up at some point. I tried to explain it to Gordy, but he just laughed and said, “That’s how the world works, Lament. Don’t tell me you don’t know that.” I knew it. But I didn’t think Gordy knew what paying up looked like in my family. I didn’t want anyone at La Vita thinking they’d done me a favor and asking for something in return. Start calling on the family connections, and family obligations soon followed.

Pop waited until the number ended, and when I walked off the platform to greet him, he stood, impatient. “Get your hat. I got someone I want you to meet,” he said. Just like that. No hello. No guilt. No “Where’ve ya been, kid?” And I was relieved. Maybe that’s why I didn’t argue. I retrieved my coat, straightened my tie, and picked up my hat from the girl at the coat check. Pop hurried out the front doors and into the cold air.

I followed him, surprised. “You’re leaving Sal?” I asked. My father never left Sal. When Sal was out, Pop was in position. The best, most faithful guard dog in the world. “Sal’s not here. He’s home. I came to find you and hear Esther.” “Esther?” “That’s her name.” “You got a new lady, Pop?” The women liked my father, but he’d never been serious about anyone but my mother.

When he went sniffing, he was discreet about it, the way he was about everything else. He’d never even had a girlfriend. “Shut your mouth,” my father snapped, offended. “It’s not like that.” “No? Then whose kid is she?” I was sure it had something to do with family. It always did. “You owe somebody a favor?” Pop bristled again but didn’t answer directly. “When did you get so suspicious? I don’t owe nobody nothing. She reminds me of your mother. I heard her sing, and I wanted you to hear.

That’s all.” He walked briskly, motioning for me to follow. “It’s a place called Shimmy’s. A few blocks over. We can walk.” “Mom was a mobster’s daughter. I don’t date mobster’s daughters.” “Who’s asking you to date her?” he snapped. “And watch yourself, kid. You’re gettin’ kinda loose with your tongue.

” We walked in silence for ten minutes. My father’s tension put me on alert. I smelled trouble, and not the usual kind. If it’d been anyone but my dad, I would have bailed. But it was my dad, and he never asked me for anything. “How did you ever find this place?” I grumbled. There was no sign on the street, and we had to walk down a flight of stairs and through two doors guarded by men as burly as my father before I heard music. The men didn’t stop my father, and they greeted him by name. “Sal plays cards in the back sometimes,” he muttered by way of explanation. But I was used to it.

Everybody knew my father. The place was packed, but a waiter rushed toward us. My father waved him off, and we found a place to lean against the wall. He pointed at the stage. “That’s Esther Mine,” he said. “You’re gonna want to listen.” Her hair was a gleaming cap of pin curls, and the short softness contrasted with her sharp, square jaw and bold lips. She’d painted them red, and every time they parted I saw a flash of straight white teeth. Her brown skin was unpowdered, and her eyes were unlined, but her lashes were thick, black brooms against her cheeks when she began to moan into the mic. The sound in the room was terrible.

The ceiling was drafty, messing with the mix, and the drums were too loud. The guitar was amped, and the microphones squealed. But as I listened, my chest grew tight and my eyes pricked with tears. I was eight years old again, listening to a voice that covered my arms in gooseflesh. She reminds me of your mother. I knew what my father meant. There was something there in the tone quality and the delivery, but my mother wasn’t the voice Esther Mine brought to mind. Mom had passion, but she didn’t have power. Esther Mine sounded like a female Bo Johnson. The comparison to the huge boxer made me smile.

They call him the Bomb ’cause he’s big and loud, they call him the Bomb ’cause he can level a crowd. “She’s loud . but she’s not very big,” I said, arguing with my comparison. “She’s big enough,” my father said. “And don’t tell her that. Women are sensitive about their size. Kinda like someone else I know.” “I’m not sensitive about my size. I just don’t like people looking at me.” “They aren’t looking at you because you’re big.

You’re just ugly.” “I look just like you, old man.” I heard my father snort, but I couldn’t look away from Esther Mine. She was a tiny, beautiful package wrapped in polka dots. Her wrists, her hands, her legs, all slight. She wore the tallest pair of red heels I’d ever seen, giving her some length, but even still, her head didn’t reach the guitar player’s chin. He cooed into the mic alongside her now and again, their heads stacked one above the other, taking the high harmony when she was belting out the melody. He was slender too, but tall, his shoulders hunched over his guitar, his long hands working the strings. The boy on the drums hardly raised his eyes, but he never lost the rhythm or called attention to his skills, which was easy to do on drums. The man on bass was a little less impressive; he wasn’t as good as the other three, but he smiled more than the rest of them put together and seemed to be enjoying himself, which made him a pleasure to watch.

They didn’t have a man on a horn or a man on keys. It was just the four of them, but when the lady sang “Ain’t Nothin’” the audience didn’t believe her. I didn’t believe her. It definitely felt like something. She may have been pint sized, but her voice was all woman. It had the rasp and razor’s edge of Billie Holiday and the wail and power of a trained soprano. They didn’t need a horn with her on the mic. I closed my eyes to distance myself, but somehow it made her even harder to ignore. Her voice seeped in under my lids and made my fingers twitch. I wanted to write a song for her.

“What’s wrong? Why you closing your eyes like that?” Pop whispered. “She’s good, isn’t she? They’re all good. Just as good as anybody singing at La Vita. Just as good as anybody on the radio.” When I didn’t say anything, didn’t even open my eyes, Pop continued. “You got a problem with her color? You been working with Negros for a long time. I didn’t think that would matter to you.” It was a stupid question, and I didn’t respond, but Esther Mine had launched into a new song, and I had to look at her. Her voice was a slap in the face, demanding and sharp. She didn’t smile or flirt with her audience.

She sang like she wanted to shove the number down our throats. Angry. Rough. Her small figure vibrated with the sound. “She doesn’t want to be up there,” I said out loud, not meaning to, but Pop jumped on my words. “She’s been singing in this dump for two years. She needs a break. A big hit. Something that can justify sending her on Erskine’s tour.” “Erskine Hawkins? Erskine is old news, Pop.

He’s big band. That stuff isn’t what people are listening to anymore. They haven’t been listening to that for a decade. Erskine Hawkins hasn’t had a hit since Tuxedo Junction. Is he taking the whole orchestra on this tour?” “I don’t know, Benny. I heard that from Ralph.” My father pointed at the bartender. “Huh. How did you get mixed up in it?” “I’m not mixed up in it. You’re a songwriter.

You’re a big shot now. Thought maybe you could help her.” I immediately started shaking my head. I didn’t want to get involved. I wouldn’t do it for Berry Gordy, and I didn’t want to do it for Esther Mine. But my reluctance disintegrated beneath her rendition of “Maybe” by the Ink Spots. It was a simple little song that shouldn’t have worked with her voice. But she sang it like a threat, and it bored a hole into my chest. “Well, damn,” I whispered. “She’s good, right?” my father murmured, his mouth by my ear.

He sounded pleased with himself. “Yeah. She’s good, Pop.” I stayed for the entire set, standing next to my father, but when we walked outside, I told him to go on back to La Vita without me. “You don’t want a ride home?” he protested. “Nah. I’m at the Park Sheraton. I’ll walk. I think I’m gonna go to Charley’s for a bite.” “Come home, Benny.

No reason to spend money on digs when you can sleep in your own bed.” “I’ve outgrown that bed, Pop.” He stared at me for a moment, stuck a cigar in his mouth but didn’t light it, and turned toward La Vita. “I bought you a new one. Come home. And next time you’re in town, don’t make me hear it from Sal. It embarrasses me.” I didn’t apologize, and I wouldn’t go home. Not tonight. My skin felt hot, and my chest ached.

I was getting sick. Elvis sang about it. About his hands shaking and his knees being weak. “Well, damn,” I said again. Pop was gone. No one was listening. All shook up or not, I would probably be back at Shimmy’s tomorrow night to hear Esther Mine sing. I didn’t go to Charley’s. I wasn’t very hungry. I walked instead.

There’s a freedom afforded a big man in an expensive suit that allows him to aimlessly walk without worrying about the lateness of the hour or the part of town. I kept thinking of another big man, a man I hadn’t thought of in years. Bo “the Bomb” Johnson. It was the oddest thing, but the rumble of his voice wouldn’t leave my head. I’d heard an itty-bitty Negro singer belt into a microphone, and Bo Johnson rose from the dead—or wherever he’d ended up—to walk with me through Manhattan. My grandfather, Eugenio Lomento, emigrated from Sicily at the turn of the century and taught my father to box by beating him to a pulp every night after dinner. My father figured he might as well get paid to get the shit knocked out of him and was only sixteen when he fought his first sanctioned bout. He was so good nobody even questioned his age. In the ring he was Jack “Lament” Lomento, and the biggest name in East Harlem. He was the heavyweight champ for a decade and never lost a fight until Bo “the Bomb” Johnson knocked him out so cold he didn’t wake up for a week.

He didn’t fight after that. At least not in the ring. He started working for Sal Vitale at his club in Harlem, a bouncer instead of a boxer, a fixer instead of a fighter. That’s when he met my mother, Sal’s sister. My father said Bo Johnson did him a favor taking his title the way he did. “Bo knocked some sense into me,” he said. “If it wasn’t for him, I wouldn’t have ever stopped. No Giuliana. No Benny. Just boxing.

” The first time I saw Bo Johnson, I didn’t know how my father ever survived that fight. Bo Johnson was the biggest, strongest man I’d ever laid eyes on, even bigger than my father, and his voice was like the pipe organ at Mass—rich, deep, and resonant. I tried to hum the pitch, but it existed below my register. A few months after my mother died, I awoke to that voice seeping, along with the light, beneath my bedroom door. I leaped from my bed, thinking I’d found heaven, and God was in the other room. God and my mother. The voices were a mixture of familiar and strange, high and low, and a cat was yowling. I threw open the door and stood, blinking at the light, my hands shaking as they shaded my gaze. But my mother was not there. God was not there either, though the stranger in my living room could have been a destroying angel.

No beams of light engulfed him, but he radiated power. He didn’t have wings, but his arms and shoulders bulged with muscle, and his neck was as thick as his shiny, bald head. He was sitting with his back bent, and his head was bowed between his big knees. When he raised his head and met my gaze, my feet melted into the floor. “Bo Johnson,” I stammered and rubbed my fists into my eyes, certain that I was dreaming. “He knows who I am?” Bo rumbled. “He knows the stories,” my father replied. “I know all the stories,” I said, nodding. “I know you’re the best fighter in the world. Even better than Pop.

Everyone’s afraid of you.” “Everyone?” he asked. “Everyone,” I said, nodding emphatically. “I shouldn’t have come. He’ll talk,” Bo said, turning to my father. He looked so tired. A thick blanket was folded beside him on the couch, like maybe Pop had offered him a place to sleep. As I watched, the blanket moved. A soft mewling emanated from the folds; the crying-cat sound explained. “Go back to bed, Benny,” my father said, pointing at my bedroom door. “I won’t talk, Pop. I won’t talk, Mr. Johnson,” I said. “Benny. Bed.” I obeyed, shutting the door behind me, but I stretched out on the floor so I could hear them through the crack beneath the door. They were quiet—even the cat—but big men have big voices and children have good ears. I strained to hear every word, though I didn’t understand any of it. “Did you do it, Bo?” “I didn’t touch a hair on her head. But they’ll blame me. They’ll say it was my fault.” Silence filled the living room, and I was sure they knew I was listening and lowered their voices. But a few minutes later my father asked, “What do you want me to do?” “Take her to Gloria. Give her the cash and the letter. Tell her there will be more. I’ll come back when I can. In Harlem, she’ll just be another mouth to feed. Nobody will look twice.” “Will they be searching for her?” my father asked. “Maude’s family?” “I don’t think so. They wanted nothing to do with her before. Why now? They’ll be glad she’s gone.”

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