It is Holdenville, Oklahoma, 1943, and Bobby Lee is
sixteen and naked and in the bathtub playing his trumpet at 1:15
a.m. This is the only room in the house with a lock, and he's
taken the radio in with him: it's blaring "Careless Hands,"
Leon McAuliffe and His Western Swing Band from the
Cimarron Ballroom, tonight featuring Bobby Lee on trumpet. They
are pounding on the bathroom door, his mother and his sister
and his sister's boyfriend, and the neighbors are banging on
the front door of the green-shingled house, old Mrs. Reinert
from across the street and Mr. Dignan, whose two-room house
lies to the east with nothing but a blackberry hedge to separate
it from the open bathroom window.
"Bobby Lee!" his mother is shouting between blows to
the bathroom door, her flowered robe coming loose from the
sash, her hose in puddles around her ankles. "You
open this door right now! I've been on my feet since five this morning . . ."
His sister's voice pitches in, a whine with
"impossible" thrown in every few words, and she's checking the buttons
on her blouse and crying and talking about how Bobby Lee
came home while she was sitting on the sofa, "talking" to Sid,
how Bobby pulled the slop jar up behind the sofa and pissed in
it, right there behind them, just as if they didn't have the
new bathroom right there at the back of the house.
"For God's sake, Nell," and some part of Ethel registers
that Bobby Lee is past warming up, and the volume is coming
on strong. "Not now! And just what is Sid Iverson doing in
this house after midnight anyway?" Her voice is close to Nell's
ear to make herself heard, but before Nell can come up with
an answer, there are more neighbors coming up the walk, and
the lonely women who weren't sleeping anyway are shouting
at Ethel through the screen door, and the gruff, unshaven
men resentful that they were too old to go off to war are
putting their two cents in.
But Bobby Lee plays on in the cool porcelain of the tub,
and he doesn't bother looking to the open bathroom window,
to the faces pressed against the screen, mouths open and
moving. He is free to gaze into the depths of the sweaty green-tiled
wall and give his thoughts over to the three valves of the
trumpet, because nothing will happen. His brother joined up last
spring and is gone, his father was killed on a collapsed oil rig
before he was born, and his mother is a good woman who has
raised three children alone. Even the angry old men will cut
him some slack when he finally comes out.
Right now all that matters is that he can play, he can pull
the music like taffy out of the curves of the brass trumpet,
"Oh, Lonesome Me." The clear notes are ringing off the ceiling
that sweats the moisture of the hot July night, the melody lifting
out the window and past the blackberry hedge and down the
ravine to the dark iron railroad tracks, his trumpet coaxing the
weeds up from between the rails, calling to the dead in the
cemetery beyond, rippling the still surface of the mosquito-dotted lake
on the edge of town, its green water merging with the night. He
can play, and their voices are the background noises of the crowd
at the Cimarron Ballroom, calling out for more.
A Friday evening in the autumn of 1946, and from
Chickasha and Wewoka up to Iola, Kansas, from Neosho, Missouri,
to Siloam Springs, Arkansas, and down, over the Red River
and Lake Texoma and east to the Texas swamps, supper is
over. Silent farmers, the dust of the day's plowing still heavy in
their lungs, have taken to the porches, to the rocking chairs
around the radio. They turn their faces north to catch the breeze, and
the green glow from the radio dial lights the night as they
imagine the green expanse of California and listen to the ads for
Calumet Baking Powder as they wait for the music to begin.
In the kitchen the farm wives, in blue-checked
aprons dusted with flour, are still five days away from the weekly
trip into town, and five years away from owning a
telephone. They're washing dishes and dreaming of Tulsa, of the
wide, deep floor of the Cimarron Ballroom. Their hands move
against the grain of their cast-iron skillets, they can almost feel a
strong hand firm on their waists that will guide them to the
floor when the music starts, they can almost hear the band start
up, Little Jimmy Hall and Robert Bruce playing "Twin
Fiddle Rag." Their skirts move against the edge of the sink to
the melody in their minds, the gingham checks brushing
their calves in a scalloped wave that speaks of the two-step waltz.
And Bobby Lee is waiting with his horn on the
curtained stage at the Cimarron. He waits, fingering the valves,
spitting into the silvered mouthpiece, as he listens to the
changing rhythms, the syncopated chaos from the people below.
The lights go down and the curtains open, and the tone of
the crowd's voice deepens, like water at high tide, as their
faces turn toward the dark stage, conversations ending, those
that go on rising in volume. Then Leon's fingers move against
the strings of the steel guitar, "Panhandle Rag," Johnny
Ryan's voice going out over the darkness of the autumn
evening, "Take it away, Leon!" and the lights come up.
Bobby is blinded, he can't even see the rest of the band,
it's just him and his horn, but that's just fine. He closes his eyes
and lets his fingers move loose and easy against the valves, his
lips barely touching the mouthpiece, his tongue teasing the
metal into looping percussion. When he opens his eyes again, at
the fiddle race, the floor is still in darkness, but the men
around him have come clear, the light flashing off Leon's barrel
cuff links, shining off Dave Coleman's drums. From behind
the piano, Pee Wee catches Bobby's eye and winks, and
Bobby thinks of the women he can't see, watching him from the
floor, the dark, shining waves of their hair, their flowered
dresses lifting from their shoulders in capped sleeves, their
lips smoothed into the shapes of love.
He closes his eyes again, letting the smooth notes
promise the women that he could play them just as easily as he can
play his horn, and if he keeps his eyes closed until Jimmy's
last fiddle run he knows he'll be able to see the floor then,
the waiting women there, Liz that stands a head above the
others, and Lucille, who waits every night by the stage door. But
not the woman he's looking for, not yet.
She'll be on the two-lane highway still, with a full tank
of gas and the window down, the pull of the Chevy engine
a promise under her thighs, Jim Reeves begging her for
love from the radio as the red hills rise up underneath her and
the white line of the two-lane unspools north, toward Tulsa.
He saw her in Chickasha last week. She was standing on
the dance floor at the VFW in a red sweater Betty Grable
taught her to wear, turning down the boys that asked her to
dance, the October air full of leaving, and her pretending not to
look at him, pretending not to see his fingers work his
trumpet, "Hey, Good Lookin'."
He figures she's dreamed about his fingers on her at
least once since then, and thought about him more than she
wanted to, and he thinks she's probably decided if she kisses him
once he'll become just one more thing she can walk away from.
She told him her name was Beverly, and he said it to
himself, Beverly, so he wouldn't likely forget, the name like a trill
his tongue was playing, and he told her if she wanted to see
him again he'd be playing tonight, playing his trumpet at
the Cimarron Ballroom.
It's a shimmering Saturday afternoon in 1949, and at
Pickett's feed-store in Chickasha, Ernest Pickett stands behind
the counter, his stiffened fingers tuning the radio to KVOO.
When the call letters come through, the feed store bums
gather around, their overalls stained from whatever work they
last had, their feet moving, their heads nodding, the dust
motes from the red and white Purina sacks swimming in the sunlit
air around them. Above them, tap-tap-tap, the five-year-old
girls in Miss Elaine's dance class, and one unfortunate boy,
are shuffle-stepping to "Turkey in the Straw." When old
Miss Emmy stops pounding out the tune on the piano,
Cookie Mogab can hear "Milk Cow Blues" coming up through
the wooden slats of the floor, and for a second she's standing
on her daddy's shoes as he waltzes around the living room
with her, his belt buckle cool against her cheek.
And in Tulsa, a white Plymouth with gold metallic
fins traverses the spring streets of the afternoon, and Jody Lee,
in the back seat, watches the women in the front, her mother
and her Aunt Janice. They are talking about men, their
husbands and other men, they are speaking of men as though there
are none worth having. "Oh, Beverly," Janice says in a low
voice, laughing as she lays her hand on Jody's mother's arm,
and Jody says her mother's name again to herself. They are
putting on lipstick, they smell good, their dresses have flowers
that seem to spring from the vinyl of the front seat, and Jody can
see parts of their faces reflected in the mirror, their fingers
brushing the curve of an eyebrow, their eyes full of promise.
They are on their way to the Cimarron Ballroom.
Her father is there, in a string tie and pearl buttons.
His trumpet gleams under his fingers, and he can play anything
he wants, anything she asks for on those three keys. She
knows his favorites, "San Antonio Rose" and "I'm So Lonesome
I Could Cry," and what he wants to play is always what
she wants to hear. When the man with the deep voice
introduces the band, he will say her father's name, and her father's
eyes will find her on the floor.
He'll stand on the stage with the other men: Pee
Wee Calhoun, who plays the piano and buys her peanuts and
feeds them to her, one by one, as she sits on his lap, his
knee bouncing, her hair against the cotton plaid of his cowboy
shirt. Cecil Brower will dance and wink at her while he plays
his fiddle, and Leon will stroke the yearning mystery of the
steel guitar, its strings grooved like an earthworm, and she will
run her fingernails down them and hear them gritch at her.
When the lights go down and the music starts she will
be sitting with her mother, to one side of the dance floor, and
her mother will be happy to be the wife of the trumpet player in
the band, and angry that he is onstage and she is not. For as long
as she has to be, Jody will be the good girl her mother wants,
and then she'll become like the boy her father had wished for at
first. One step and she'll be beyond her mother's grasp, five steps
for the music to drown out her mother's voice, she will leave
these complaining women and skirt the edges of the ballroom
and climb up on the stage. If she's caught, her mother will pinch
her and hiss, and they may even go home, and Jody will become
the reason her mother is unhappy with men and isn't on the
stage, and home will be a dark place until her father comes.
But if she makes itif she can climb the dim wooden
steps at the edge of the stage without falling, before her mother
can catch her, her father will see her in her new pink dress and
hold her up to the silver microphone, bigger around than her
arm, its pores large like the nose of an old man, and Leon
will introduce this pretty little girl, and she will sing "Take Me
Back to Tulsa," her voice going out over the dance floor and over
the radio, her knees straddling her father's waist, her arm
around his neck, her hair against the broad fawn brim of his hat.
The stage will be enveloped in light, light off the strings
of the steel guitar and off her father's trumpet, light off the
silver points on her father's collar. The others down on the
dance floor, men who smell of cigarettes and Old Spice, and
women who have come with their husbands but who dance with
other men, will be invisible, a dark mass at her feet. They will be
lost in the blackness, the silver ball on the ceiling flickering bits
of light on their faces and leaving them before their features
can come clear, the curved rim of the stage reaching like arms
to hold them in the darkness, and if Jody's voice can hold
the darkness tight against that rim, her father's white world
will become hers.
The lights go down and she slips away, quiet, she is
quiet, and the stairs are under her feet and hands, and the women
are farther and farther behind her, she is leaving the
women behind, the vibrations tickling her palms as Leon's steel
guitar slides against the melody, "Rose of Cimarron," and the
edge of the light catches her.
Along the Chisholm Trail, in towns like Koweta and
Poteau, church and Sunday dinner are long done, and life moves out
to the porches to watch the coming night. Over the radio,
station KVOO carries the sound of the music up through Kansas
and Nebraska, and over to Missouri, but not as far as it once did;
the farm boys who served in the war, who know what it means
to be called "Okie," have moved their families to the
prosperous cities, to sit shuttered in the darkness of their living rooms,
their gray faces lit by the gray glow of a television.
But in Tahlequah and Broken Arrow, families still gather
on the porch, the women shelling beans, the men with an eye
to the hail sky in the east, the children playing on the steps
and venturing into the yard to catch fireflies in a Mason jar.
When Jody Lee's voice goes out over the heavy air, the men smile
and the women nod, and the children sing along.
In Holdenville, the old men at Ethel's Cafe sit with
hamburgers and fried onions and coffee, the air thick with
smoke, tall tales of the dust bowl and the Depression set aside for
an hour. They turn their good ear to the radio, and there's not
a one of them that won't claim he was there the night they
had to take the bathroom door off to make Bobby Lee come out.
And without the gray picture to tell him he isn't
there, Ernest Pickett, sitting on a screened-in porch with his
pipe, nothing but its fire to light the night, closes his eyes, easy,
and is a young man again, in his WWI uniform, dark and
handsome. He nods to the music, a pretty young girl sidling
up beside him to lead him out to the dance floor to the tune
of "Panhandle Waltz," her hips moving, slow, under his hand,
to the strains of Western swing.