YOU BETTER PLAY THE BLUES
by Lisa Torem
When I first heard that mournful cry, I was snug and warm in my mamma’s belly. First, my little toes bounced gratefully against her flesh and then my checks grew red with excitement. I spent nine long months in her chambers, growing strong and independent. When she ate, I ate and when she drank, I savored that cool icy water. It was not always a happy time, but we stuck together. Let me remind you that I hated her indigestion and when she slept, I got bored and frustrated and restless. She quickly learned that when I kicked her insides, she had better pay some strict attention.
I didn’t know, though, how damn good I had it. You see, one rainy afternoon, I found myself hurling out of her body and when I landed, my head dangled from my neck and my toes were tight as knots. I struggled so hard to stay in that warm oasis but something wanted me evicted and bad.
Butt naked and shivering, I found myself in a room that smelled like day old nail polish and mouthwash. A stranger slapped me on my butt and passed me over to a woman in a green gown. She cradled my head in her breast like she owned the place. I didn’t like it one damn ounce and I screamed.
“Hey, Charles,” she said, to the man at her side. “Our boy’s singing the blues.” When he picked me up in the air, I held my breath. The blues? Isn’t that what old men sing? Isn’t that about men who lost their women or their jobs or their honor? But that ain’t my story. I’m young and I’m helpless and I’m angry.
You see, being born is the cruelest fate. When you’re taken away from all you know, nobody listens. I can barely lift up my aching head and can’t crack a smile. I’m as bald as a Chihuahua and I can’t hold myself up like a man should. So I cry. When I cry those blues out, I’m a drunken twister slashing through a used car lot. I cry so hard my throat scratches and my eyes get so dry that slumber is my only salvation.
I miss my peace and quiet and warm bed and I miss that magic sound – the one I told you about. Well, Charles puts me down and hands me back to the lady in green and pulls something out of his pocket. It’s cold and hard and tiny. He wraps his two big hands around it and makes that sound – yeah, that sound I told you about. Remember? That sound makes my insides feel full and important.
You should see his cheeks clench up and down like a puffer fish and the knuckles on his cinnamon skin bulge. My eyes grow heavy and my breath evaporates and something clicks. This is it. I remember the vibrations against my heaving chest and that woman’s voice. Was it his voice she was whispering? “Play nice and sweet, Charles. Play sweet for our boy.” Was it her face I imagined?
We are in a house and Charles carries me into a dark room. He lays me down on an ivory featherbed in a big strong drawer that juts out from a cedar chest. “Baby, I promise I’ll put that crib together,” he tells her and then lays a blanket over my legs. And I scream. I will not sleep in this man’s drawer because I’m a man myself. I will not.
“Charles, I am so tired,” she says, kicking off her shoes and laying on the bed. “I need some sleep.” I scream so loud again that I frighten myself. I can feel my tongue trembling against my bottom lip. But, you see, it just ain’t right. I need my peace. I need my comfort. I’ve been shuffled around every which way and it’s just not right. I don’t even think Robert Johnson could understand how bad I feel.
I punch at the silver object with my angry fist, like a boxer keeping his guard up. “Play it, Charles. I mean, daddy. Play it or I will not go to sleep.” Charles rubs his eyes and smiles at me before he glides a clean rag against the silver slits. When I hear him make that glorious sound, my eyelashes flutter like the gentle wings of migrating butterflies.
“You’d better play the blues, daddy,” I’d say if I could speak up like a man. “You’d better play the blues,” I’d say with clenched teeth if I had an expensive set.
“You’d better play the blues,” I’d say if I could fold my precious daddy in my little arms. But I guess he understands exactly what I need; he lays me back down in that creaky wooden drawer and waits until I drift off to another world and when I awake I don’t have to scream anymore. I’ve got your back, daddy, now you’d better play the blues.