“Me? You askin’ me about true love?” Old Upjohn squinted across the table. “Lamar, you too old to be high this time of the mornin’.”
“Not high. Lookin’ for insight. Figured you might have some. You had a Mrs. Upjohn.”
“I had four Mrs. Upjohns. Not one of ‘em sends me a damn Christmas card. ‘Course now two of ‘em are dead, so they’re off the politeness hook. But the other two? You’d think they’d have softened up some.” He shook out his napkin, dropped it on his thigh. “Well hell. I say that an’ last time I saw Janelle she’d softened up like a vat of unset chocolate pudding.”
“Cold shot, Upjohn.”
“Gots to call like you see ‘em or you’ll end up lyin’ ’bout everything.”
Upjohn flashed his dental work when he saw her coming. The waitress smiled her best clip art smile in return when she eased up on their table. She glanced at the unexpected white man across from Upjohn. “You doin’ alright this mornin’, Mr. Upjohn?”
“Just fine, Miss Deevers. Two of your best customer size slices of warm peach pie. And you can lean a little harder on the butter pecan than you did last week.” He winked, took her temperature by telepathy. “Lamar’s okay. I brought him along to lighten the room up a little is all.” She said nothing, Upjohn turned to watch her walk away. “My, my, my.”
“That right there how you come by four ex-wives?”
“Lookin’ never killed a man. The changeable nature of True Love, what you asked me ’bout. That’s how I come by four.”
“You loved all of them the same, just changed names?”
“Love ain’t never the same, Lamar. Just as good, but different. But now two of those exes, only one of ’em dead, are down to true love. Down to that one you ain’t heard from forever, calls you in the middle of the night, you’re right next door to dreamin’? The one turns your mind into a possum that rolls over and plays dead and the rest of you is aftershave and a hard on and you’re out the door barefoot in the snow. You married your N’awlin’s girl, that right?”
“That I did. I’m a lot of things, with fool right on up there, but not about her.”
“Well, see? You were smart. N’awlin’s girls…” Upjohn got his time machine in gear for a couple of beats.
“You lost two wives to a New Orleans girl?”
The waitress set two plates of pie, and two coffee cups down with more noise than necessary. “Pie’s too hot to eat, gentlemen. Too much ice cream to be healthy for a man your age, Mr. Upjohn. Pie is all? Mmm.” She tore off the green check, slipped it under Lamar’s plate. “Two wives to a New Orleans girl? Something I need to stand around and hear?” She was gone before she got an answer, and took Upjohn’s attention with her.
“New Orleans girl?”
“Miss Aida Marie Charpentier. Should’ve heard her say it. Shar-PEN-tee-ay.” Upjohn kissed the tips of his fingers and opened them like a flower. “The color of expensive milk chocolate. Long, wavy hair. Said her people were from the islands. She never said which ones, exactly, but my money was on the Caribbean somewhere. Or a Frenchman at the back door, maybe. She was all kinds of French. And sass? Damn that woman could talk. She’d talk and men would listen just to hear her voice. She put olive oil on her hair every couple of weeks, slept in it like that before she washed it out. Made it softer than silk. Threw her pillow away after and expected whatever man she was seein’ to buy her a new one. She was the one. In my mind, anyways, but not hers. Long time gone, that one.” They listened to plates and glasses clinking, the hum of conversation and the ice machine for a few minutes while they hit their pie and coffee.
“You think maybe how we feel about somebody isn’t always reciprocal?” Lamar caught half a fork of peach and ice cream trying run down his chin.
“Ain’t enough room in your mouth for some pie and them damn fifty-cent words, Lamar. You mean do I think how they feel about us is the same as we feel about them? Nah. People have their own minds. Even if it’s close, it ain’t ever the same. Most times it’s all kinds of lopsided. Nothing fair about nothin’, usually. Love most particularly.”
“So we’re bangin’ around out here, and we carry a piece of whatever we knock into with us? Maybe they carry as big a piece as we do, maybe not?”
“What I’m sayin’ is people remember how you hit them, not how they hit you. Whatever you hit, don’t matter if it’s a ricochet or a full-on wreck fucks you up like the time down in Alabama Tommy Thorson drove that old Buick with all of us in it smack into a water tower. The Buick and the water tower and all of us? We all carry the marks till sooner or later somebody comes along with a bucket of paint, the casts come off. But the dents and dings and scars just get covered up, they don’t go nowhere. And mind you, the water tower come out quite some better than us and that Buick.” He forked up some pie crust dripping with butter pecan. “You recall a bass player name of Talon?”
“Shit, Upjohn. Talon? Where’d that come from?”
“That’s no on Talon?”
“Yep. This is one I haven’t heard?”
“Just like when you was a boy, Lamar. If you ain’t heard it, you need to listen up.” Upjohn waited for the coffee cups to get reloaded, turned and watched his waitress again. He turned back, dropped a spoonful of the ice cream into his coffee. “Where was I?”
“Bass player named Talon?”
“That’s right. Talon, he played bass with one finger. One finger, a thumb and a sometimes useful nub where his little finger used to be.” Upjohn held up his left hand, folded two fingers and half his pinky away to illustrate. “Indian boy. Told a story about some accident workin’ for the railroad, hookin’ up boxcars together or somethin’. Lost two and half fingers, both hands. I’d never seen him before and he turns up on a pick-up job one night, backin’ up some half-famous slick from Dee-troit. I say to the man, you know, can you play the blues, your hands fucked all up thataway? He told me if I didn’t have the blues, he’d give me some.”
“Damn straight he did. Man could play.”
“Seriously, Upjohn. Talon has something to do with what?”
“Out back in the alley, after the slick had hit it? We was drinkin’ together, havin’ cigars we got as parting gifts from Mister Dee-troit. I ask this Talon fella how it would have been to have all his fingers and not be flyin’ all around up and down the neck like he did. He said ‘If what mighta been shoulda been, it woulda been.’ And see, it had always been his dream to play music, not hook up box cars. Maybe the man’s only way outta the train yard was cuttin’ off some fingers. You got a big word for that?”
“Fortuitous? More likely some of that invisible business.”
“More’n likely invisible than fartawhodumas.” The grin lit up his face. “Look here, Lamar. Aida Marie? I didn’t go runnin’ out in the snow barefoot, but there for a time my mind did still turn all possum whenever I’d go down Aida’s road. Thinkin’ how she smelled after she washed the olive oil out of her hair. How she smiled sittin’ at a N’awlin’s café table. How she laughed. Just that much of her in my mind was enough for two wives to quit me. That’s how it works out. One of you thinks it coulda and shoulda, and some of that invisible gets in there like a brick wall and turns coulda and shoulda into never woulda, so you have to let it go. And after a while you hope what shoulda bangs into you goin’ ’round a blind corner.”
“You still think about mighta been with Aida?”
“Nah. Mighta done run its course a long time ago. Never really was much mighta there, I look straight on it. But I could pick up a guitar right now and go on down Aida Marie’s road a ways.” He reached across the table, put an index finger on Lamar’s chest, over his heart. “It all comes from right there, Lamar. Can’t play the blues ‘less you have some. Can’t tell stories if you don’t have none. Nothin’ happens that you don’t carry the blues of it in your suitcase and know the story goes with it. Less you got ice in your veins or live some kinda way so as you always have money in your pocket and don’t never set up to get your heart broke.” He guided the leftover melted butter pecan ice cream from his pie plate into his coffee cup, stirred it. Eyeballed it a second and motioned for another refill.
“The Talon fella? It don’t matter he lost some fingers, he got what he truly wanted. Me and Miss Aida Marie Charpentier? It don’t make no difference who wrote the song I’m playin’ when I think on her, I put her in there. So truth told about true love?” He reached, tapped Lamar’s heart again. “We all write our own fairy tales, my brother. And we all sing our own blues.”
Photo – The Absinthe House, New Orleans.