“Storyville,” a short story by Matthew Peel, was a finalist in our recently concluded 43rd Short Fiction Contest. It is published with the permission of the author.
by Matthew Peel
Jeffrey’s fingers hovered inches above the ivory. His heart pounded. The oak bench creaked as he leaned forward, only the toes of his scuffed leather shoes making contact with the floor. The hand-written notes on the page in front of him bounced up and down with every panting breath. He recognized most of the squiggles and lines cascading up and down the staff, but he couldn’t read a single word that surrounded them. Ms. Joetta’s voice echoed in his head, reverberated out of the hole in his threadbare fedora. Play, son. The first chance you get, and don’t look back. He could feel lightning in his fingers, almost driving him past the fear deep in his gut. At the height of his indecision, a heavy hand came to rest on Jeffrey’s right shoulder. Jeffrey started so hard that all ten fingers came crashing down onto the keys, releasing a cacophony of notes that scared him once more. He flew from the bench so suddenly that it tumbled backwards, clanging against the knees of the dark figure standing behind him.
“Mr. Morton sir, I’m so sorry sir, I didn’t mean it sir.” A deep red flooded Jeffrey’s coffee colored cheeks, graciously hidden beneath the rim of his hat as he looked at the ground in shame. He righted the bench and backed away from it, folding his hands behind his back and staring a hole in his scuffed leather shoes. He stole a glance across the empty dance floor to make sure no one else had been around to witness his blunder. He prayed a quick thank you for the fogged windows. The tall, lanky man behind the bench grimaced and rubbed the knees of his suit pants.
“That’s alright now, Jeffy. And I done tole’ you to call me Jelly.” The man straightened up, centered his bow tie, and ran one hand over his short afro. “Now, were you ‘bout to play us something?” Jeffrey straightened up. A bead of sweat ran from the collar of his white shirt down his back.
“Oh, no sir, Mr. Jelly Sir. I was just seein’ if the bench was too far from the keys, sir.”
The man laughed, revealing two dark front teeth. “And was it a little too far Jeffy? Can I reach them keys now?”
“Oh yes sir. I reckon they’re just about perfect.” Jeffrey eyed the long row of black and white from under his hat.
“You done well then, far’s I’m concerned. And that ain’t too far, know what I mean Jeff?” Morton winked at Jeffrey and took a seat at the upright piano. Jeffrey’s eyes still burned with embarrassment, but with Mr. Morton about to play he couldn’t tear himself from the stage. At that moment, a squat man with flushed cheeks and a bright bald spot on the top of his head turned the corner. He sported an apron and an ugly stained vest with a matching gray top hat that threatened to topple off every time he passed through the short kitchen door. The man walked behind a long bar that ran the length of one side of the dark club and began rubbing the bar top with a dirty towel. He spoke without looking up.
“I heard all that commotion from the back door. What’d ya screw up this time, kid?”
Mr. Morton waved a lazy hand in the man’s direction. “I just tripped over the bench, Stig. Ain’t nothing wrong with lil’ Jeffy.”
“Yeah, yeah, cover for the little twerp like always. I heard him blubbering over you. Can’t you get nothin’ right kid?” He addressed Jeffrey directly for the first time, still staring at the bar as he wiped it.
“Yes sir, Mr. Castiglione sir. I’m very sorry, it won’t happen again sir.”
“I bet it won’t. Now get crackin’, shows on in three hours. Get my stage ready, sweep the floor. Do something.”
Jeffrey shifted his weight, almost afraid to answer. “It’s all done sir.”
Mr. Castiglione’s scrubbing hand stopped. “What’s all done?” Jeffrey didn’t answer. Mr. Castiglione looked up after a few seconds of silence. He couldn’t hide his surprise as he took in the neat rows of chairs on stage, all the music stands in their places with music books ready for trumpet, cornet, trombone, and bass.
“Oh,” he managed. Quickly regaining his composure, he dramatically dropped the towel on the counter. “Well then here, do my job.” Jeffrey skipped down the stage steps and grabbed the rag, eagerly scrubbing with one eye on Mr. Morton, who surely was about to play.
“Actually, on second thought, get out of here kid.” Mr. Castiglione said, now leaning back in a heavy wooden chair. “Just be back an hour before the show.” Jeffrey’s face fell. He slowly dropped the rag and walked out the front door. He stopped after only a few steps in hopes of overhearing the rest of the conversation.
“That kid ain’t nothin’ but trouble,” he said. Mr. Morton turned toward him from the stage with his eyes squinted in confusion.
“Look at this stage, man.” Morton said, pointing his long fingers toward the rows of chairs, as good or better than Castiglione himself could have done. “How you gonna say that kid’s trouble?” A rosy hue lit up Jeffrey’s cheeks and he grinned a little at Jelly Roll’s unsolicited praise.
Castiglione rested his chin on his hand. “He reminds me of me.” Morton threw back his head and laughed, but Castiglione continued. “That ain’t all of it, Jelly. He comes in late, he hardly has more than rags on most of the time. Look at him, he’s about half starved any given day. I just can’t help thinkin’ somethin’ ain’t right with him.”
Jeffrey held his breath and leaned as close to the door as possible so as to hear their conversation more clearly.
“Look out that door, Stig.” Morton leaned forward and rested one elbow on his knee now. The other he pointed toward the glass door, the lone source of light in the dark room. “There’s carriages out there that ain’t got no horse pullin’ ‘em. Now tell me that didn’t look like trouble the first time you saw it.” Castiglione chuckled before Morton continued. “This is Storyville man. Of course he’s trouble, same as you and same as me. You know what they say, we don’t make no other kind.” Morton held both arms out to their full length like a crucifix, smiling as he spoke. “Now quit your yappin’,” he said. “I got jazz to play.”
Jeffrey smiled and high stepped across the street, dodging the white wall tires of a passing Model T, completely forgetting to stop and listen to Jelly Roll play from the sidewalk. He swung between metal columns supporting second story balconies, ran his fingers along the frosted windows of competing bars and clubs. A few loose coins jingled in his pocket. He ducked under the arms of a uniformed man carrying a tray of milk cartons into a corner grocery store before crossing one last street. On the opposite corner he posted himself on a barstool facing an open window. He leaned over the smooth wooden countertop, his feet straddling the rungs of the stool.
“Mr. Jones!” Jeffrey called into the little kitchen. A deep fryer sizzled in the corner. A middle aged man with a kind smile and a fry cook’s cap nestled into his thinning gray hair bustled out of a swinging door carrying a tray of bright red ground beef and freshly cut potatoes. A wooden sign hung over Jeffrey’s head. He assumed it read the restaurant’s name, but the curly writing kept him from recognizing a single letter.
“Hidy ho, Jeffrey.” Mr. Jones set the tray down beside a hot stove range and spun around to face Jeffrey. “What’s it gonna be today? The usual?”
Jeffrey’s face fell slightly as he jingled the coins in his pocket. He pulled out a nickel and three shiny pennies and slid them across the counter.
“I think you better make it a single,” Jeffrey said, not making eye contact. Mr. Jones looked up at the menu hanging beside the sign, feigning a calculation. Jeffrey also looked up at the letters and numbers, straining his eyes, hoping if he just looked hard enough he could make sense of them.
Malt Shake- 5₵
“Well I ain’t no mathematician, but if my calculations are correct you’ve got just enough for a double.” Mr. Jones said, sliding Jeffrey’s coins off of the counter and depositing them in a drawer. Jeffrey’s eyes lit up. “And I’m running a special today: free shake with every burger.” Jeffrey almost fell off of his seat with excitement as Mr. Jones flipped a burger onto a bun and slid it toward Jeffrey, followed by a tall strawberry shake with a red cherry poking out of freshly whipped cream. Mr. Jones smiled as Jeffrey lifted the burger with hungry hands and devoured it. His eyes closed as he chewed vigorously.
“You’re the best, Mr. Jones.”
He chuckled and grinned. “Must be your lucky day, kid.”
Jeffrey wove in and out of swishing skirts and sweaty bodies on the dance floor, smiling contentedly with a large tray of drinks held over his head. Satisfied customers dropped change on his tray as they removed glasses of homebrewed beer and shots of bootleg moonshine from the Appalachians. Castiglione had made sure to have a fresh barrel for tonight’s show. The Original Dixieland Jazz Band. They may have been a little past their prime, but the crowds had been lined up outside the club since two hours before the doors opened. Now Jeffrey swam through the crowd, soaking in every glance of the stage he could manage through the tangle of limbs around him. After two solid hours of hot tunes, the ODJB took an intermission to grab some shots and take a piss. Castiglione ascended the stage steps, now distinctly resembling a wrecking ball in a pinstriped black suit and felt top hat.
“How about the Original,” he paused emphatically between words like he was introducing a boxing match, “Dixieland Jazz Band!” The crowd roared. White and black hands alike raised half full beer mugs above the crowd in a makeshift salute, sloshing precious liquor on drunken heads. “Alright folks, we’re gonna take ten, and when we get back we’ve got your old favorite Jelly Roll Morton taking over on the piano!” Another roar, then the crowd dissipated. Tables in the dark corners of the club filled up as the dance floor emptied. Jeffrey ducked into the kitchen to grab a broom and ran smack into Castiglione’s bowling ball stomach. He started to apologize, but before he could Castiglione placed a hand on each side of Jeffrey’s face and turned it up to face his own. Jeffrey awaited a smart swat, but instead his eyes met a shimmering smile. Castiglione was nearly giddy. Jeffrey saw dollar bills sticking out of his breast pocket and heard change jangling in his pants as he waltzed around the kitchen, still holding Jeffrey by the head. Jeffrey laughed, a little nervously at first, but soon he was swaying with his boss around the small kitchen, bumping into counters and slipping in puddles of water. Castiglione finally released his grip and grabbed a whiskey glass. He poured himself a glass of light amber liquid from the tap in a large barrel on the counter and downed it in an instant. He then filled the bottom of the glass again and handed it to Jeffrey.
“Here’s one on me kid. We’re rolling in it tonight!” His breath reeked and Jeffrey had little desire to consume what was in his glass, but he couldn’t help but smile and raise the glass to Castiglione. “Wait, how old are you kid?” Castiglione’s face grew serious. Jeffrey lowered the glass and swallowed hard. Before Jeffrey could admit he was only twelve, Castiglione burst into more laughter. “Aha! I’m just yankin’ your chain Jeffy, who do you think I am?” He turned and pushed through the swiveling door, leaving Jeffrey alone in the kitchen. Jeffrey held the glass up to his face, examining the room through the golden lens. He then brought the rim of the glass to his mouth and took a sip. The liquid burned from the tip of his tongue, down his throat and into his stomach. His nose wrinkled and he set the glass down on the counter, wondering how people could drink as many shots as they pulled off of his tray on Friday nights. He grabbed a tray and began to fill glasses. He sped up as soon as he heard Castiglione’s voice booming from the stage to announce Jelly Roll. Lifting the tray back over his head, he kicked open the swivel door and headed out into the crowd.
Jelly Roll began to play just as Jeffrey reached the middle of the momentarily still dancers. He started off with a lilting waltz, rolling trills of notes out over the slow moving crowd. Jeffrey stopped still without realizing, mesmerized by the emotions in Jelly Roll’s sound. He closed his eyes and pictured Ms. Joetta, the only other person he knew that could make her own soul come out of an instrument like that. He thought of her sneaking into that church and honky tonking all over the grand piano while he danced in the aisles until a stern man in a black shirt had come and thrown them both out. He thought about how he’d felt when she told him she wasn’t his real mama, that “Lord knows if you even had a mama, the way you were bundled up on my porch that night.” He thought about the funeral, about the last time he’d kissed her drawn cheek, and all the places he’d had to sleep since that day. Last he thought of her words that night after she’d played in the church. Play, son. They came back to his mind in an instant, as if she’d spoken them just this morning. You jump up on that stage just as soon as you see the chance, and you show ‘em what you got inside of you. Jeffrey felt his feet being drawn to the stage, pulled by some force outside of himself. He set down his tray of drinks on an empty table and stopped right at the bottom of the stage steps. Jelly Roll finished his first song and noticed Jeffrey there at the front. Something about the look in Jeffrey’s eyes told him what he needed to know, and he stood up from the piano bench.
“Fine folks of Storyville, I’d like to introduce you to my good friend and musical companion, young Jeffrey Washington.” Washington wasn’t Jeffrey’s last name because Jeffrey didn’t have a last name. They both knew he’d made it up on the spot. Nevertheless, Jeffrey took the three wooden steps with his heart nearly falling into his stomach and exiting through his mouth at the same time. By the time he stood next to Jelly Roll and the piano, however, Castiglione was at the bottom of the steps.
“Jelly, tell me what you think you’re doin’ to me right now,” Castiglione half whispered, half shouted from the steps.
“Ease up Stig, the kid deserves to remember a night like this. Where you think I got my start?”
Castiglione was sweating profusely from under his top hat. “Yeah, I hear you Jelly, but this is business. You even played before kid?” He looked down at Jeffrey, who was wired on the spot, his heart pounding and his fingers itching. The thought now occurred to Jeffrey that he had never played more than the simple scales Ms. Joetta taught him in the church that night. Something about Jelly Roll made him feel like he could do anything, and even with this realization he still believed the music would flow out of his soul through his fingers if he could just get them on the keys.
“Ms. Joetta told me to play,” Jeffrey said simply, staring up at Castiglione with utmost confidence.
“Ms. Jo- who?” Castiglione began to address Jeffrey, then shook his head and looked back at Jelly Roll. “Jelly, this kid can’t play. Why are we doing this tonight? I’m makin’ money man, can you just sit back down and play like I’m payin’ ya to?” Desperation colored his voice. The voices of the crowd rose to a dull drone of whispers. A voice called out for somebody to play the blasted piano. Jelly Roll sighed, looked at Jeffrey, then back at Castiglione.
“Look Stig-” Jelly Roll began, but as soon as he had spoken he looked over Castiglione’s shoulder and his eyes grew wide. “Stig!” He pointed past him at a shadowed figure pulling the cashbox from under the bar before sliding over the countertop and bursting through the front door into the heavy night air. Castiglione stumbled down the steps and chased him to the door, but only in time to meet the masses of people crowding the streets in the late night Storyville buzz. Even the restless crowd inside the club fell silent under the weight of what they had witnessed, an entire night’s profits gone in an instant.
“Everybody out.” Castiglione said, his words echoing hollowly against the thick wooden walls.
When the last disappointed customer had passed the threshold, Castiglione gently closed the door and locked it. He turned around and stared blankly at Jelly Roll and Jeffrey still rooted on the stage. Jelly Roll broke the silence.
“Stig, man, I’m sorry.” His voice was flat and dejected. “I just thought… I wanted to give the kid a chance.” Castiglione said nothing, but instead walked toward the stage. He started slow, but picked up speed as he crossed the dance floor toward the steps. Jelly Roll moved to the top of the steps, still speaking. “Hey, don’t take it out on the kid now.” But as he uttered the last word, Castliglione mounted the steps and shoved Jelly Roll out of his way. He toppled across the stage, sliding on the seat of his pants until his back smacked against the wall. Jeffrey cowered slightly but found himself unable to move until Castiglione picked him up by the back of his collar.
“You wanna play, you little rat? Then play!” As he shouted the last word, he slammed Jeffrey’s face into the keys , opening a gash above his right eye and causing blood to flow from his nose all over the worn ivory. The disjointed notes played by Jeffrey’s face clanged around the room. Jelly Roll managed to stand up and jump onto the short man’s back, but he easily fended him off with one arm and tossed him back to the ground. Still holding Jeffrey down, Castiglione hunched over so that their faces were even. Jeffrey could feel the hot, liquored breath escaping through Castiglione’s gritted teeth. Fighting back tears, Jeffrey breathed deep panic breaths beneath the weight of Castiglione’s iron grip.
“I hope you never so much as see another piano as long as you live.” He jerked Jeffrey away from the piano and dumped him on the floor beside Jelly Roll before marching down the stage steps and kicking his way through the kitchen door. The two sat motionless on the stage, Jelly Roll rubbing the back of his head and Jeffrey examining his bleeding nose. Jelly Roll pulled a handkerchief from his back pocket with some effort and tossed it to Jeffrey, who applied it to his eyebrow.
“Sure thing boss.”
“So Mr., uh, I mean Jelly, sir.” Jelly Roll laughed painfully.
“Little man, you just can’t quit that stuff can you?”
Jeffrey didn’t smile. “Do you think you’re… you know.”
“Fired, axed, cut loose?” Jelly Roll paused. He closed his eyes, leaned his head back against the wall and let out a long breath. Jeffrey didn’t look at him, but he waited anxiously for his response.
“Could be. Maybe I’ll be playin’ this same stage next Friday night. Maybe I won’t ever beat keys in this town again. That’s the game, ain’t it?”
Jeffrey didn’t respond for several seconds. “Jelly, I don’t think I can make it here.” He held the handkerchief tight over his eye. The blood on his cheek was beginning to dry. “The way you are, the life you live. I’m just me. Maybe Ms. Joetta was wrong.”
“Now son, I don’t know this Ms. Joetta. But if she was the one got you walkin’ up to that stage tonight, I’d listen to every word she says.”
“Said. She’s gone.”
“Well I’m mighty sorry about that Jeffy, but let me tell you a little secret. You ain’t.”
Jelly’s words fell flat. “Might as well be. I mean look at what I did tonight. I just wanted to play and all I did was cause trouble.”
Jelly laughed at his words longer than Jeffrey appreciated, and he grew tired of it quickly.
“What’s so funny?”
“Jeffy, you just described every player in Louisiana. Playin’ and causin’ trouble’s all we do.”
Jeffrey felt the burn of encouragement in his face, but didn’t want to show it by answering with a smile. “What are you saying?”
“I’m saying you done caused some trouble, so you got half o’ what it takes right off the bat.”
“So you’re saying I am trouble, and that ain’t bad?”
Jelly’s grin remained, but it grew solemn.
“I’m saying, welcome to Storyville Jeffrey Washington.”
Matt Peel is a blues pianist and guitarist living in Lexington, Kentucky, with his wife Megan. He works as a Real Estate Photographer. Matt loves learning languages, playing music, and writing fiction. His work has been published in Flash Fiction Magazine and The Scythe Prize Anthology.