By Asma Mammootty
Art by Caroline Wang
Issue: Kalopsia (Spring 2017)
The sidewalk of Laney Walker Boulevard hadn’t changed in the past forty years. It still had clefts in which the cement curled awkwardly and crooked squares coated with age-spots of blackened gum. His own age-spots hidden by his enormous sorrel coat, Joseph focused on the road ahead, his feet stumbling to the music of a street band as an infant does to its mother’s call.
He squinted at the green street signs. Did he need to go to Bruce or Wallace? Or was it 9th
Street? Straightening his back against the side of a building, he tried to shake the wrinkles off his map with his good wrist, but a gust of wind blew it into the face of a man in a suit.
“I’m sorry,” Joseph said, as he got ready to push himself from the wall.
“Oh, that’s okay. I’m-“ the man stopped and stared at Joseph with painfully clear eyes. “Joseph,” his eyes shot down to Joseph’s deformed wrist. He brought his shining eyes back up to Joseph’s dull ones. “It’s really you. It’s me, Levi. Do you remember me, Joseph?”
May 10, 1970
“Joseph, Joseph!” Joseph continued tuning his lute, but Levi wouldn’t give up. “What do you think o’ this?” He slapped his palms on the djembe, and shook his head to a nonexistent beat.
“I think you gonna break that,” Joseph replied, putting down his tuned lute and rubbing his hands over the drum. “Do you know how long it took me ta save up fo’ this thing? Remember; pat it with yo’ palms, like you stroking a cat. Yea, like that,” he said as Levi hit one beat at a time. Once Levi got into the rhythm, Joseph continued, “You know, maybe it’s better if’in you sit out this time. The djembe’s a bit strong fo’ a church hymn.”
“The djembe sets a good beat,” Levi said, echoing what he had heard Joseph say to one of the other street performers yesterday. “Besides, I been practicin’ so hard. Please let me play tomorrow. Please,” he pleaded, shaking Joseph’s arm. Joseph sighed.
“Alight. You can come as long as you follow my lead. Remember the drum gotta be soft. Soft. As in quiet. Got it?”
“You rock!” Levi hugged Joseph until Joseph called mercy.
Even though Levi could not wrap his arms around Joseph’s wide girth, his body was warm enough to shield Joseph’s shivering figure from the cold drafts of the Georgian winter. It was Levi who broke the awkward embrace and titled his chin up to soak in Joseph’s cloudy gaze with his clear blue eyes.
“You don’t remember me, huh? It’s all good,” he said. “Everyone forgets once in a while,” and his sharp staccato laughter was soon lulled by Joseph’s offbeat largo.
The two of them walked together, Joseph’s heavy steps made painfully obvious by the delicate trod of Levi’s. Once Levi opened the door to the tiny café, Joseph claimed the table farthest from the counter and wiped his sweaty hands with a handkerchief. A few minutes later, Levi came back. He pulled the chair back with a slide of his foot and graced the table with two cups of espresso macchiato.
“Joseph, we don’t have to sit here, you know. It’s been over twenty years since segregation was outlawed,” Levi waited for a reply, but Joseph gave none. Levi cleared his throat.
“I know I called you outta nowhere, but you’ve no idea how long we’ve been looking for you. Kayla wanted to come, too, but she’s got a gig two towns over. Oh yeah, I forgot to tell you,” he brought out his hand and pointed to the slim halo of gold around his right ring finger. “We got married. We’re a month away from our next anniversary. Do you remember Kayla? I think she played the clarinet.”
2:30 P.M. May 11, 1970
“This isn’t a clarinet,” Kayla said, rapping Levi’s skull with the flute’s mouthpiece. “You’re only three years younger than me, but you don’t know the difference between a clarinet an’ a flute?” Levi began to cry.
Joseph cleared his throat, and Kayla ran a hand through her hair. “Sorry. This gig’s driving me nuts. Sorry, baby,” she said, and she hugged Levi until his sobs softened into whimpers. “Go play with Jorge. Just remember to come back in a quarter,” and she watched Levi scamper off.
“You know, Joseph, this gonna be a big deal,” Kayla said once Levi was out of earshot. “The boys in blue might be there, and rumor’s going round that in Forsyth County, they told the black people to not ‘let the sun go down on their heads’. Maybe Levi’s too young for this. Can’t we let him be?” She shook back her curls, brought her flute to her lips, and began playing a somber tune.
Joseph shook his head. “He been practicing all day on the djembe.” He tossed her a newspaper to cover her flute and wrapped Levi’s djembe in a cloth bag made of two sweaters. “S’all good. I be playin’ since I was ten, and he done turned ten two months ago. Besides, all the hood’s gonna go.”
“I don’t even know why we’re doing this. They just don’t listen to us no more,” Kayla muttered. “Don’t no one listen to us.”
“We don’t need no listenin’; we just gonna play. An’ I’ll bring the can, just in case if’in anyone’s feelin’ generous,” Joseph said, trying to remember where he had left that empty fruit can.
“Don’t push yourself to remember,” Levi said, stirring the whipped cream and coffee into a creamy blend.
Joseph shifted his feet.
“But I’ll help you get your memories back. I brought all your recordings. Look.” Levi shook the wrinkled brown paper bag that coughed out the CD’s one by one. “Man, did you have the flow. The three of us used to jam just outside this café, on the other side of this wall here. Do you remember?”
Joseph felt bile propel up his throat, and his right wrist throbbed as if it carried an unnatural weight.
3:10 P.M. May 11, 1970
Joseph knew the lute case was too heavy to be held in only one hand, but he let his right wrist feel the burn while his left hand covered his mouth. Not now. He couldn’t throw up now. He knew there would be a big crowd, but he hadn’t expected such a swarm of people. Even if those people were his people fighting for their rights, he struggled to find himself. He jumped when a hand tapped his shoulder, but it was only Kayla.
“We done set up near the shop down Laney Walker,” Kayla shouted over the din of the crowd. “It’s a lot quieter there, too. Hurry. Levi’s waiting,” she said, and they pushed through the warmth of the crowd.
Then, a shot broke out.
“Whoops. Kayla’s calling. Mind if I take this now?” Joseph nodded. “Joseph, you’re looking a bit pale. You okay?”
The old man nodded, his head prickling at the shrill overtone in the young man’s voice.
3:11 P.M. May 11, 1970
“Joseph, you okay?” Kayla said, squeezing his hand. “Wait. Where’s Levi?”
Joseph’s muscles tensed as he pushed away the screaming crowd and fought the current of their strides. Suddenly, he saw Levi, trembling under the shadow of a policeman’s baton. He shook free of Kayla’s grip and dashed towards the little boy.
Joseph threw his momentum forward, his eyes still fastened on the baton as it lingered in the air, silently savoring the rich din of the crowd.
Then, it came down.
Joseph lay on the sidewalk, hugging his broken wrist. The club had been so heavy; Levi’s little head wouldn’t have stood a chance.
“Don’t die! Don’t die,” Levi said, shaking Joseph’s shoulder. Joseph tried to shake Levi off, but the pain and Levi’s crying muted his own rasps of protest.
“Mister, we were playing a few tunes, and then those guys came, and-“ Kayla’s abnormally high-pitched voice cracked. “We were just playing,” she began again.
Joseph wished Kayla would stop. Her voice was too sharp. He liked it better when it was full and resonant, like her flute was when it played the first stanza of “Amazing Grace.” Maybe that was why he had chosen to play that song.
“Did you have a permit?” the white police officer asked.
“No, but we just-“
“Didn’t you hear the ruling? Black bands can’t play here any more. Don’t any of you listen? All these riots in Augusta happen because of people like you, kids who just can’t listen.”
Joseph wanted to help Kayla, but his view of the scene was blocked by Levi’s trembling figure. Joseph winced as Levi pulled Joseph’s wide body on his small back and staggered down the cracked pavement of Laney Walker Boulevard. Amidst Levi’s panting, Joseph could still hear Kayla, now yelling above the wails of sirens and people.
Joseph didn’t notice when Levi had returned. When Joseph had opened his eyes, Levi had just been sitting there, tapping his finger at a quickening tempo. Only after a few minutes of silence did Levi continue.
“Do you still write music? Man, you were the bomb. I can play any piece on the djembe, but writing my own’s another story,” he fingered his half-full cup of coffee. “Do you remember when you wrote me that piece? The one that got me into Oberlin?”
Joseph rubbed his shoulder.
“Joseph. Joseph,” Levi nudged Joseph’s shoulder as Joseph wrote out the music on the lined sheet. “Stop it. Just stop.”
“I’m doing this because I want to. I’m not doing this for you, so you can stop crying. Besides, you’re twenty-three now. Have you no shame?” Joseph turned his face, so Levi could wipe his nose in relative privacy. “What’s the point of my reading all these music theory books without writing my own music?”
“But I’ll get all the credit. And if I do well in the audition, then I’ll have to go to that university in Ohio. And then I have to leave you. And Kayla,” he began to sob again.
“Exactly. You’ll leave this dump and go to a great university. And I hear Ohio has none of this racism business. After you go pro and earn some dough, bring Kayla and me over there, too. And don’t forget to save a few bucks for the wedding ring. If you keep Kayla waiting too long, you’ll lose her,” Joseph said, patting Levi on the back.
Joseph ran his fingers over his deformed right wrist. It had grown crooked after the hospitals refused to take him in, being a black boy and all. But that boy was now a man, twenty-nine at that. As a man, he would protect his family. He watched Levi chatter on about his latest date with Kayla, not understanding the slough of words but drinking in the melody of a young voice.
“Joseph, listen. I want you to come up to Ohio and live with Kayla and me. I’ve got a doctor friend who’ll fix up that wrist of yours, and pretty soon, you’ll be back on your lute,” Levi said in a baritone that wasn’t his own. “It’s okay if you can’t remember me. Heck, I don’t care if you have the plague. Just come back to us, okay?” and he stuck a post-it in the center of the table. “Our fight’s over, Joseph. It’s over. Call me when you’re ready to come home,” and Levi walked away, his footsteps a little heavier than before.
Joseph waited till the door closed before exhaling. So that had been Levi. Over his ten-year treatment span, he had only regained memories of that man as a teenager and another girl named Kayla.
Stroking his crackled skin, Joseph remembered Levi’s smooth complexion. He let out a gruff cough and compared it to Levi’s light laugh. He sat alone on that rickety metal table for two and remembered Levi’s gold ring. His fingers clawed into his wrist, but he felt no pain.
The day the doctor had diagnosed him with dementia, Joseph had felt no grief in losing lost memories; in fact, he had had a feeling that he didn’t want to find them again. Now, he knew why.
Only when his mind had been split into two did he realize that he had spent all his youth dancing. Dancing to the same beat to which branches swayed to until they snapped, and to which raindrops fell until they shattered. His wrist throbbed to such a beat. To the painful beat of another person’s heart.
Joseph pushed away the post-it and held one of his CDs. He had no idea what song it contained, or whether it was his song at all, but he liked the sound it made in his withered palms.
A still silence.