Thursday, February 14, 2013

Nine Nights in New Orleans - Laissez les Bons Temps Rouler

 

 Laissez les Bons Temps Rouler
 by
Juniper Bell



“Laaaaiiiiissssezzz les boooonnnnnn …” A cat in heat, that’s what it sounded like to Arrietta. A wild, rutting, howling cat on a hot tin roof. Except this caterwauling demon was strutting across a stage, not a roof, and that stage happened to be in the bar next door on Frenchmen’s Street. Which wouldn’t be a problem except that she was trying to sing too. Her rendition of “Blue Collar Boogie” kept getting drowned out by the ridiculous screeching next door, and her overflow crowd of twenty – make that eighteen – seemed to be overflowing right out the door.

She sang louder. “Some say work is good for the soul …” Her voice cracked. Josh, on  standup bass, made a face at her. She flared her nostrils at him. He crinkled his forehead in a way that gave her a funny little twinge and made her stumble over the next word. “… but I see … say … I sold my soul forty hours a week.” She shot Josh a glare, only to be deafened by another blast of sound from next door.

“…roulllleeeerrr! Yow!!! Come on, pretty mama!”

“You’ve got to be kidding!” With a squeal of feedback, Arrietta yanked the mike out of its stand. “Can’t someone do something?”

Josh and Mackie D, her drummer, stumbled to a stop, the music crashing around them like a building in mid-demolition. With a quizzical look, Josh tilted his derby hat further back on his head. Mackie D just stared at her, his big black bulk solid as a mountain behind his drum set. They’d been playing together as Miss Jess for two years in Brooklyn, and were just starting to get some notice. Arrietta had slaved for this day. She’d gone into debt, she’d lived in shithole apartments her entire adult life, done all her shopping at Goodwill. She’d worked as a waitress, a psychic hotline operator, even a secretarial temp to pay the bills. She’d sacrificed everything – friendships, romances, financial security -- for her music.

Sure, sometimes she wished she could just let it rip, like that loudmouth good ol’ boy next door. Forget technique, forget lessons and scales. But she’d hadn’t spent all those years mastering her craft to let Miss Jess’s all-important first gig in New Orleans—on Valentine’s Day, no less--get ruined by a jackass.

She leaned back into the mike and breathed, “We’ll be back in five.” With one more annoyed look at her do-nothing bandmates, she stalked off the stage.

Blank, astonished faces watched her progress through Hurricane City and out the door. No one seemed too concerned about the racket next door. Maybe they were used to this in New Orleans -- one group completely drowning out another. Well, Arrietta hadn’t paid her dues in the Brooklyn music scene for nothing. Maybe other singers didn’t mind straining their vocal chords to be heard over a screeching banshee, but she wasn’t going to put up with it for one more second.

The bar next door was called “Chez le Voodoo”. It had an annoyingly vintage New Orleans look about it, with ornate gold lettering and a dim interior that seemed to be lit by gas lamps. An impassive man sat on a stool outside the front door. He looked her up and down, then back up, then back down.

She thought she looked pretty good, with her hair in pink, marcelled waves, like a fifties pin-up. In honor of Valentine’s Day, she’d added a fascinator with a sparkly heart. Her onstage style was tongue-in-cheek retro, with a poodle skirt that had been altered to feature a wildcat rather than a poodle, and a halter top that showed off the tattoo of an eyelash-batting kitten on her upper back. But the bouncer didn’t seem impressed. He held out his hand, palm up.

 “I’m not staying,” she told him. “I’m singing next door and I need to talk to someone about the sound level.”

When he didn’t lower his hand, she rolled her eyes and reached into her cleavage. With a quick glance to make sure it wasn’t one of her twenties, she slapped it into his hand. He grunted and waved her in.

Bedlam, that’s what it was. As she stepped into Chez le Voodoo, an absolutely wild scene unfurled before her. The walls were black, as if decades of smoke had infused every crack in the wood. Every few feet, flames danced and leaped inside glass wall sconces. The place was so packed, Arrietta couldn’t even make out where the bar was. Couples were romping and whooping; some were executing tight spins and dips and whirls. Fragrant cigarette smoke curled through the air as if the place were an opium den. Arrietta tossed her head, ignoring the seductive pull of all that wild abandon. Talk about old skool. A lot of bars didn’t even allow smoking anymore. 

But clearly, Chez le Voodoo followed its own rules.

Indecent exposure, for example.

She peered into the smoky crowd. The flickering gas lamps acted as a sort of old-fashioned strobe light, so she could see only in flashes. But she was pretty sure … yes, practically positive … that some of the women were dancing topless.

Well, it was New Orleans, after all. But she’d thought that sort of thing was saved for the tourists down on Bourbon Street. This was Frenchmen’s Street, where all the serious music lovers went. And she was a Serious Musician -- on a mission.

She swung her gaze to the stage, where she spotted the cause of her outrage.

There he was, the devil who’d been ruining her set. He stood with legs apart, hands gripping a saxophone, lips wrapped around the mouthpiece. At least he wasn’t singing at the moment, but his sax playing was just as bad. The man had no technique whatsoever. He just threw notes out there as if they were cheap Mardi Gras beads. Fast and raw, the notes scampered up and down the scale. The dancing crowd gyrated right along with the madman, faster and faster, as if they’d all die if they stopped – or even slowed down.

Then he pulled the sax out of his mouth and yanked the mike to his lips. And Arrietta came close to fainting. The man was … what were the right words? He was like some kind of god -- the pagan kind. He had black hair, thick as blackstrap molasses, with a shiver of black stubble on his jaw. His eyes glittered like midnight swamp water, like alligators sidling alongside bayou skiffs, like wild Southern belles throwing tossing up their skirts on a hot summer night. Every naughty thought, every dangerous, spontaneous impulse gleamed in those eyes. And every woman in the place knew it.

“Laiiiiiissssezzzz les ….”

And those broad shoulders, hunched over the mike as if he was making sweet, sweet love to it. His lean hips thrust in time to the beat. Tendons stood out in his neck. Sweat dripped down his face. The man was sex. Pure sex on a mike stand.


But he still couldn’t sing.

Arrietta steeled herself and marched through the crowd to the edge of the stage. “Hey, mister!” She called to the singer, tilting her head back.

Lost in his crazy caterwauling, he ignored her completely.

“Hey you!”

He swept the mike stand across the stage as if it were a dance partner. But he still didn’t seem to hear her.

Fine. If he was going to play it this way, she’d have to get serious. She opened her mouth and let out a long, penetrating high C, the note no one else in her class at Juilliard had been able to hit.

“Shuuuuuut uuuuup!” She sang. The wall sconces rattled. The cymbals quivered. Even the cigarette smoke seemed to shiver.

And abruptly, her voice was the only sound in the place. All the singing stopped, along with every riff from the back-up band. The dancing stopped, as if everyone was suddenly frozen in place.

Arrietta swallowed hard. Miffed as she’d been, she hadn’t wanted to ruin the party completely. “A little softer, please,” she ventured. The singer’s deep, dark gaze swung toward her, and for a crazy moment she knew that if she didn’t leave now, it would swallow her whole. “I’m trying to sing next door,” she finished, with an awkward gesture toward the front door. “I’m … uh … here from Brooklyn. With my band. We’re a trio. Kind of a blues-rockabilly-swing fusion.” Too much information? Yeah. Definitely. She turned to go. “Okay, thanks bye! Carry on. Just not too loud.”

By the time she reached the front door, she was practically running. The warm, neon-tinted night air of Frenchmen’s Street greeted her as she burst out the front door. The expressionless bouncer showed equally little reaction to her departure as he had to her arrival. She hurried back to Hurricane City, where the crowd, which had gotten even smaller, was listening to Josh and Mackie D pick out an old Cab Calloway tune.

“That’s better,” she muttered to Josh as she made her way onto the stage.

“Are you all right?” he whispered. Trust Josh to think first about her welfare. He was a sweetheart down to the bone. Cute, too. Not sex god cute like the singer at Chez le Voodoo, but cute enough to keep her up at night, wondering why she’d instituted the no-relationship rule for the band.

But she knew very well why. Because she’d been burned one too many times and knew better. The last time Josh had asked her out, she’d been brutally honest and told him she’d never go out with another musician again. Musicians were nothing but trouble. She didn’t need trouble.

“I will be if we can finish this set so people can actually hear me.” Why did he look so puzzled? Surely he too must be relieved that the dreadful cacophony from next door had stopped.  “Blue Collar Boogie, from the top.” Maybe they could actually complete a song before Cajun Sex God started up again.

No such luck. As soon as the bass notes of the intro had passed and she opened her mouth, the singing next door began again.

Twice as loud.

“Laiiiiiisssssez les Bon Temps …”

“Fuck him and his fucking crappy-ass singing!” Arrietta blurted into the mike.

“Arrietta!” Josh’s shocked voice sounded behind her. 

“I don’t care! This is fucking bullshit!” She threw aside the mike and stormed off the stage. “I’ll be right back.”

This time she was ready with a handful of dollar bills, which she slapped into the bouncer’s hand. This time the crazy scene inside Chez le Voodoo didn’t slow her down a bit as she stalked onto the stage. Not even the sight of the lead singer’s bare chest, revealed by the shirt he’d ripped open, slowed her down -- although every detail of his darkly furred chest and hard muscles registered in her brain.

She marched across the stage until she reached the singer, who still hadn’t noticed her. For some reason this infuriated her more than anything. Taking him by surprise, she yanked the mike away from him.

“Do you really call this music?” she railed at him. “If you ask me, it’s just a bunch of noise!”

A lazy smile quirked the corner of his mouth as he gave her a cocked-head once-over. “And you are, cher?” His accent was thick and Cajun, like warmed honey poured over flapjacks.

“Arrietta Hammond,” she answered, ignoring the better judgment that told her not to reveal too much. “Juilliard graduate and winner of the Jazz Songstress of the Year Award in 2008.”

“2008, eh?” A funny look, almost regretful, crossed his face. “Tres bien, you.”

God, it was hot up on this stage. No wonder the man had ripped off his shirt. Her eyes drifted to his sternum, then to the dark patch of curly hair on his muscled chest. She thought she saw an odd shadow on his belly, but when she blinked, it was gone. And she realized she’d been staring just a little too long for politeness.

“Yeah, well, that was a while ago. And my career hasn’t exactly gone the way I thought it would since then. But I’m here now, and I’d really appreciate the chance to share my music with the people of New Orleans.” Or at least fifteen of them, at last count.

“So, ma petite beignet, you bring your magic to Frenchmen’s street, eh ben? Vas-y, cher. Show us what you got dere.” He gestured to the mike.

“Oh no. I’m not here to sing. My band’s waiting for me at Hurricane City. I just came to ask you if you could turn it down a notch.” She remembered that this was her second trip to the Voodoo. “I asked you before but it didn’t seem to do much good.”

He shrugged. “I have no control over dis. The music, she do what she do.”

“Maybe you should consider voice lessons. Vocal control is an important element for any singer.”

Amusement flashed across his voice. “Control, you say? Is dis hard to learn?” 

She peered at him suspiciously. “Are you making fun of me?” She glanced behind them at the band, who were all leaning on their instruments, looking positively gleeful.

“And if I do? My daddy always say, nothing wrong with a little fun. Isn’t dat what it’s all about?”

“What what’s all about?”

“Dis!” He made an expansive gesture around the room. The crowd didn’t appear to be disturbed by the interruption. They’d mostly turned back to their Hurricanes and their flirtations. Some were still dancing. “Everyone is here for a little fun, no?”

“See? There’s your problem.” She pointed at him triumphantly. “You’re not taking any of this seriously. You act like it’s all a big joke. I’m trying to make a career here. I worked really hard to make this album. I came all the way here from Brooklyn to play these songs. You probably … I don’t know, maybe you play only on weekends with your buddies. My life … my entire life … is music. It’s not a joke to me.” She ended on an impassioned note that shocked even her. Her voice squeaked to a stop. So much for vocal control.

“Then why do you not sing for us, cher? We love music too, I guar-on-tee. If you sing it, they will come.” Again he indicated the crowd with a sweep of his arm. “And a better audience, you won’t find anywhere on heaven or earth. Or down below.” He winked. “And my band will follow a true chanteuse to the ends of the earth. Allez, ma petite beignet!”

For the first time, she seriously considered the idea. This crowd was a lot bigger than the one next door. “Why do you keep calling me that?”  

“Because you are so plump and sugary that I want to eat you up.”

As his gaze slid across her, a lush sort of sensual confidence followed in its wake. Normally she thought about her appearance only enough to put together an outfit for her performance. Style and presentation were important to a female singer, everyone knew that. She had to project a certain amount of sex appeal. But it was only on the surface; inside she was all business.

But the way he was looking at her with those sinfully black eyes made something spark to life inside her. Talk about sex appeal -- this man exuded sex from every pore of his body, without any sort of effort. It came from inside, from the relaxed way he moved, the way he talked, the way he took his time looking at her.

As if trying to become worthy of such a look, her body went liquid and lazy inside. She felt her lips curve into a provocative smile that her brain hadn’t intended to produce.

“Ah, now that’s more like it. Now our petite beignet is having fun. When’s the last time you had a good laugh, cher?”

“I laugh all the time.” With Josh, she added silently. Josh could make her laugh with nothing more than a comical lift of his eyebrow.

“Do you now? And when’s the last time you had a good fuck?”

What?” 

“A fuck. A romp. A roll in de hay. A dip in the swamp. A dance between the bedposts.” He looked as if he’d have no problem coming up with a hundred new phrases to describe one simple act.

“I get it, I get it. And it’s none of your business. And if that’s some sort of sexual invitation, forget it. I’m not interested. I don’t get involved with other people in the business.” 

No matter what she claimed, her body couldn’t help responding to his incredible appeal. He knew it – the gleam in his eye told her that.

“I think I could make you very interested. But unfortunately, I’m not free to do dis.”

“Oh.” She ignored her stab of disappointment.

“Like you, I save myself for the stage. I make love to my audience, and to them only. Especially for Valentine’s. Tonight, they deserve extra special loving.”

“Yes. Exactly. That’s what I do too.”

“Den why do you look so out of sorts, ma petite beignet? You sing every night, you make love to your audience, and yet you still look as though some good old-fashion gogo would clear the cobwebs right out, eh.” He snapped his fingers. “Dat’s it! I have the solution. You’re doing it hafass.”

“What?” She gasped indignantly.

Hafass, as we Cajuns say. Means half-hearted. When you open your pretty mouth and start singing, I will know instantly if you’ve been singing hafass.”

Singing hafass? That was it. The final straw.

“Take dis.” He slapped a pitch pipe into her palm. She nearly threw it back at him; she had perfect pitch. Instead she stuffed it into her cleavage and turned to the band.

“C flat. Follow my lead.”

And they did, seamlessly, flawlessly, as she launched into “Blue Collar Boogie.” Except this was a version of the song she’d never heard before. She’d written it, worked out the chords, slaved over the words, but she’d never sung it like this. Her song about wage slaves acquired a sexual undertone, as if it were being narrated by a hooker instead of a temp. Her voice had a husky edge to it that her vocal coach would never have recognized. And the way she was moving, rolling her hips, stalking back and forth across the stage – she never did that. Until now.

The back up band was fantastic. No one would have guessed they’d never even heard the song before. And even though she hadn’t written a part for a horn section, they improvised during the bridge, where Josh would normally have taken the spotlight. The singer stood at the edge of the stage, arms folded across his chest, legs spread apart, and every time she caught his eye, she felt driven further, deeper into the wild side of her song.

And the way it felt … God, it was incredible. A mad, fevered wildness swept through her, the crowd, and the band. Power rushed through her, an electric confidence that arced into the crowd, creating a frenzy on the dance floor. Their stomping and swirling set her on fire, and her voice amped up to a decibel level she hadn’t known she possessed. It was as if they were all connected to her, as if invisible fibers snaked from her vocal chords into their nerve endings, and back again. It was better than sex, better than the best orgasm she’d ever had. The only thing missing … was Josh.

The strange thought barely registered, she was so out of her mind. Nothing else entered her mind either during the madness of the next few minutes … or was it hours … or days … who knew? All she knew was music and singing and dancing and sex, pure, raw sex swirling from her, around her, back and forth in an endless stream of joy.

And then, suddenly, there was Josh. He was right in front of her, as adorable as ever, a sweet treat she’d denied herself for too long. She leaped on him and kissed him with everything she had. He staggered, then caught his balance and wrapped his arms around her. They kissed, deliciously, endlessly. The taste of him cruised through her bloodstream like an injection of liquid sunshine.

“Josh, I’ve been an idiot,” she whispered against his mouth.

“Does this mean we can go out, since I’ve been a fool for you since day one?” He winked one hazel eye at her.

“Yeah.”

“Does it mean we can finish the set?”

Startled, she glanced into the audience. The group was even smaller than when she’d left, but they were smiling. A few were toasting them with raised glasses of the Hurricanes the bar claimed as a specialty. Who cared how big the crowd was, she suddenly thought. They were her crowd, they’d come to see Miss Jess, and she was going to sing her heart out for them.

“Absolutely. But you’ll have to put me down.”

“Only temporarily.”

“Everything’s temporary. Might as well enjoy it.” 

He gave her a startled look. She wasn’t usually given to philosophical statements. She shrugged, just as surprised as he was.

There was no other way to put it; the rest of the set rocked. Rocked hard. And word spread throughout Frenchmen’s Street, so by the time Arrietta was singing the last song, “Be my Honey Tonight,” people were packed into Hurricane City, a few even craning their necks from outside. Arrietta was soaked with sweat. Even her hair hung in damp, limp waves, her careful marcelled hairdo long gone. But it was a good sweat, the kind you might work up in bed with an especially fine lover.

And she did that too. She and Josh spent the rest of Valentine’s Night rolling around the king-size bed at the Frenchmen’s Bed and Breakfast. All the pent-up lust they’d been holding back exploded into hours of hot, down-and-dirty lovemaking.

“Who would have guessed that a goofy bassist and an uptight singer would have such great sex?” Josh joked, after her third orgasm, accomplished by a demonstration of his skill with his tongue.

“I’m not surprised.”

“Yeah? Then what took you so long to come around? I must have asked you out about fifty times.”

“I don’t know.” She ran her hand down his chest. It wasn’t spectacularly muscled, the way the Cajun singer’s had been. But it was sturdy and firm-skinned, and she loved touching it more than she would have believed possible. “Maybe because I knew it would be this good. I didn’t want to get into all that.”

“All that?”

“This. Sex. Bed. Relationship. Love-type stuff. It’s messy. Complicated.” She said it dreamily, as if remembering something that no longer had any reality.

“It’s not complicated from where I’m lying.” Josh raised himself up on one elbow. “As far as I’m concerned, we’re together, and the only one can change that is you. Because I’m not walking away now.”

She smiled at his utter adorableness. “I think I might hold you to that.” And she yanked him down on top of her for one more go-around.

The only thing that got them out of bed the next morning was checkout at eleven and the fact that they had to hit the road for their next gig in Austin, Texas. When they’d finally torn themselves away from the bed and dressed, Josh picked up a small silver object from the night stand table. “Pitch pipe? I’ve never seen you use one of those.” 

“It’s not mine. It’s from that singer, the one I went to yell at last night. I ended up singing with his band and I guess I walked off with his pitch pipe by mistake. Give it here. I’ll drop it off at the bar before we go.”

Josh gave her an odd look, but she was already packing her bag. “I’ll swing by the bar and then meet you at the CafĂ© for breakfast. Tell Mackie D. too.”

“Sounds good. I could really go for a few more beignets before we leave town.”

The word beignet brought another smile to her face. Really, when she thought about it, she owed the Cajun guy a big thank you. Not only had she given two spectacular performances, but she’d finally given in to her feelings for Josh. Maybe she’d see him at Chez le Voodoo and could tell him so in person.

She dressed in a yellow sundress to match her cheerful mood and forged into the sunshine. Frenchman’s Street didn’t look nearly as dissolute as it ought to, considering everyone had spent the night partying. The brightly painted doors – cobalt blue, blood red – gave the street a quaint, ramshackle flair. There was Hurricane City, with a waiter sweeping the sidewalk outside. And there, right next door, Chez le Voodoo. She blinked. It looked a little different in the light of day. It still had that old-fashioned look, but now she could see that the gas lamps were fakes that held electric bulbs.

Inside, the place was empty. The manic energy from the night before had been replaced with a hung-over quality. Onstage, an older black man sat behind a drum set, tapping lightly on the cymbals. She approached him, armed with a smile.

“Good morning. I wonder if you could help me. I was in here last night and I got up on stage with the singer. Well, singer and sax player. I didn’t catch his name, but he gave me his pitch pipe and I’d like to return it to him.”

The man glanced at her indifferently. “Voodoo Ladies de only band here last night. All female in dat dere group.”

She frowned. “That can’t be right. It was an eight-piece band with a horn section. The singer was a tall, black-haired man with no vocal training whatsoever. They were singing ‘Laissez les Bon Temps Rouler’ when I came in. Much too loudly, I might add. The crowd loved it though. They were dancing up a storm. They were shaking the place so hard it felt like an earthquake.”

The cymbals suddenly stilled, as he replaced his drumstick with his hand. “You saw Big Jack?”

“Big Jack? That’s his name? That sounds right. Great, well, since you seem to know him, would you mind returning this to him? I’m sure he didn’t mean to leave it with me, it looks like an antique or something.”

“Antique.” The man chuckled. “Dat dere item’s ‘bout a hundred years old, I’d say.”

“A hundred. Wow. That’s pretty cool. Even more reason to return it to its rightful owner.”

“Ain’t no way to do that. He meant you to have it, sure ‘nough.” He shrank back from the pitch pipe. “I wouldn’t touch anything from Big Jack.”

“No way to do that? What do you mean? You don’t know where he lives?”

“I can guess, right ‘nough. It’s either heaven or hell, and my first choice would be hell. Maybe I’ll find out when I pass. Until den, I don’t want nothin’ to do with dat man. Stirs things up, he does. Always has, dead or alive.”

“Excuse me?” None of that made any sense to Arrietta. “Do you know his last name? Maybe I can look him up in the Yellow Pages.”

The man burst into raucous laughter. “Ain’t no Yellow Pages where he’s at. Just take your little souvenir and go, miss. Dat’s my best advice to you. I’m surprised it don’t smell like brimstone.”

Brimstone? A chill went through Arrietta. “Are you saying…” She lowered her voice. “Are you saying Big Jack is dead?”

“Course he is. Ain’t no man can survive a bullet to the belly. Fooled around one too many times, dat man did. Shot by a wronged woman on Valentine’s Day, he was, right dere on dat stage. About a hundred people saw it happen. Some tried to help, but when your guts are spilled out, ain’t much to do.”

Arrietta stared, her throat gone tight and painful. All she could think was, that glorious, beautiful man … shot in the stomach. And now she remembered the weird shadow she’d seen on his belly.

“Don’t look so burned, girl. Everyone said it was a good death. He died doing what he loved best, gettin’ up on stage and singing his guts out. People say he’s still singin’, wherever he is, and wherever he is, dere’s people dancin’. Some things not even de Grim Reaper can stop.”

Arrietta shook her head, shaking off the strange spell of the man’s words. “He can’t be dead. He was here just last night. He gave me this.” She thrust the pitch pipe forward, but again he shrank away from it.

“You the one with the visitation, girl, not me. Dat’s your pipe. You take it and go now, hear?”

As if in a trance, she curled it into her hand, then blindly turned for the door. Just before she reached it, the man called after her.

“Next time you come to Frenchmen’s Street, stop on by. If you’re good enough for Big Jack, Chez le Voodoo’d be glad to have you sing a set or two. Open invitation, hear? You tell your manager.”

“Thanks,” she managed, before stumbling into the sunny street. Numbly, she opened her hand and looked at the pitch pipe. It looked ordinary enough, though of a high quality that spoke of the days before modern slipshod manufacturing. It didn’t smell of brimstone or scorch her palm. Instead it had a heavy, comforting weight. Peering closer, she saw an inscription in copperplate lettering across the back. She had to squint to make it out.

Jacques Boudreau, May 14, 1890. Laissez le Bon Temps Rouler.

Okay then, Big Jack, she thought. Will do. From now on, the bon temps will be roulez-ing Chez Arrietta.

And she ran to find Josh, who was waiting with a sexy smile and a plate full of beignets. 


1 comment:

Kelly Jamieson said...

Another great story!! Love it so hard, Juniper!