The publication of Arya Jenkins’ “VOODOO RUN” is the twelfth in a series of short stories she has been commissioned to write for Jerry Jazz Musician. For information about her series, please see our September 12, 2013 “Letter From the Publisher.”
For Ms. Jenkins’ introduction to her work, read “Coming to Jazz.”
Allie drove her taxi with a smart ass attitude, smacking gum ceaselessly, and wore a Yankees cap backwards on her head on the job, even though she’d never watched a baseball game in her life, didn’t even like the game. Her dad had named her after a pitcher who’d won five straight World Series and Allie was always grateful that pitcher hadn’t been named Lefty or something like that.
Allie’s father had been the true baseball fan and Allie wore his cap in his memory. His real gift to her was love of music, jazz in particular. In her cab, she listened to WBGO, 88.3, remembering times she hung out with her dad in the garage listening to Miles Davis, Chick Corea, Wayne Shorter, experiments in sound, beautiful chaos while he fixed things. The garage was Bert’s space and his peace, or rather, the music was, and the smoke and silence that rose between them accentuated this. Whenever the strangers she drove around asked about her father, Allie always told them, “He went the way of the Marlboro man.” Cancer.
It surprised people to hear that she, a Millennial should enjoy jazz. “Jazz was like my Gerber food,” she liked to say. As a teen she dug hip hop enough to explore its fusion with jazz, but the fusion didn’t make sense to her–each genre took from rather than contributed to the other. It was like oil and water, like her ma and pop.
She understood as she got older that it was she in fact who held them together because her parents really had nothing in common. He was a man obsessed with music, with what could have been, and he tried to fix everything as if it in doing so he could re-create his past. He had wanted to be a musician himself, and played bass once, before opting for the straight life. A family was a sure legacy, his father had told him. Music was not.
Bert’s wife, Lenore, loved only her offspring and traditions from which she felt removed, a fact that sometimes made her bitter. When Allie’s father passed away, Lenore felt abandoned, but she was also free to be herself, a simple woman whose appreciations were limited to whatever was right in front of her and to whatever felt familiar.
Allie’s father passed away when Allie was a junior at NYU, and after that, she dropped out and started driving cabs for a living. It mattered neither to her nor her mother that she would probably never finish college. What did she need that for? She had already come to terms with the life bustling right in front of her. She drove a cab and came home to meals with her mother and dug the routine of her days because for the while she couldn’t fathom any other, even if sometimes with no one else to nag, her mother got on her case.
“Take off that filthy cap. Have some respect, Allie. Don’t sit with that at the table. Let me wash it for you.” But like a child with its blanket, Allie refused to have her mother appropriate what she loved, what meant something to her beyond the reality of what it was. Soon enough, her mother flipped to maternal inquiries — “You OK, all right? Nobody tried to blow your head off today? No customers tried to rob you?” To which Allie typically responded, “I’m OK, ma. How are you?” looking her straight in the eye, like her father used to do. “Is there anything I can get you, ma?” thinking to herself — a joint? Some whiskey? A man?
“I don’t need nothing until God in heaven wills it,” was her stock reply. In her mind, if Allie lost her job, God would feed them, God would pay the rent, God would take care of their business — not the government, not anyone else. In Allie’s mother’s mind, the money Allie made was extra to what she already had in her God bank because to her, blessings were everything.
When weather was bad, Allie heard, “You drive safe. This city is crazy. Half the people shouldn’t even be on the road.” Since the elections, they kept up political banter — “Did you hear what that idiot in the White House said today? I should have never left Cuba.”
The truth was Allie’s mother’s moods never rubbed Allie the wrong way. Her carryings on were predictable, a counterpoint to the voices that made nightly rounds in Allie’s head and sometimes made it hard for her to sleep. Her daily repertoire at work played like music. One long weekend when her mother took off to visit her sick aunt on Long Island, Allie took a stay-at-home vaca and it was like she was in some unique jazz heaven. Conversations she’d had with passengers ran in her head, sometimes jointly like two discs spun by a DJ, sometimes in double time, establishing themselves in her memory like hit songs she could replay. They amplified when she was alone:
“No,” she shook her head, emphatically. “Nothing else but Bitches Brew far as fusion is concerned. I love that album.”
“You see, you see,” the hip hop guy said jumping up and down on the seat behind her, while poking up his shades at the ridge so they’d stay fixed and cool. “That’s fusion, man.”
“No, man, it’s New York. That’s why it works. It’s like the city, aggressive and unpredictable. And like this job, man.”
The breathless duo who took that rider’s place informed her, “Dig it, that was Jay Z, the man himself. Did you know that?”
She eyed them in the rear view, a bi-racial couple, she, African-American, a leggy beauty dressed to the nines, and he, in a tux with a bow tie cinching his throat so it looked he might choke at at any moment. His face was deeply flushed. The scent of her dusky perfume and hard booze commingled in the cab.
“Jay Z. Wow. The seat’s still warm, baby.”
“I know it,” she said, squirming, letting her rabbit fur slip a little from one shoulder as she adjusted herself, feeling out the moment.
“Wow,” he repeated. “He and Beyonce must have had a fight. I mean why else would he take a cab?” He tapped the shield between them. “No offense,” he said to Allie.
“None taken,” she replied.
Then she had a passenger named Yolanda whose laughter she could not forget. Allie picked her up on West 10th as she attempted to disentangle herself from what looked like a mélange of relatives. She was one of those who immediately latch onto something personal and use it as a key to intimacy. Her gentle rolling laughter was like orange jello shaking in a generous bowl, and she had a broad, kind face to boot. She sat in back embracing her large pocket book, keeping it like a little family close to her bosom the whole way back to Brooklyn.
“Anybody ever tell you, you look like Carrie Fisher, the star?”
“The writer slash comedian slash actress who died? Naw.” Allie let a beat pass. “I’m just joshing with you. I hear that all the time, like every day.”
“Her death was such a tragedy, tsk tsk. And her mother aftah her.” More tsking.
“My mother just about had a heart attack.”
“My mother too, honey. You live with your mama?”
“That’s a good girl. Children and parents should always live together.”
“Do your children live with you?”
“Oh no. I have five boys. They are all on their own. A couple are married, thank the good Lord. With males, it’s different, you know. If you take care of them, they never marry. They has to find a woman of their own.”
“Is that right? I wouldn’t know.”
“You an only child, honey?”
“I am, and a grateful one.”
“You didn’t miss no games and laughter growing up?”
“My mama played all the games and I did all the laughing, no problem there.”
Hahahaha. “And do you and your mamita get along?”
“Well enough, I guess.”
“A mother/daughter relationship is so special. I wish I had girls of my own.”
“No doubt. Five boys is a handful.”
“You telling me. I got one who’s a barber, married, in Jersey. Tommy in Georgia, married just last year. One in the navy. The second to last, Jimmy, is an accountant. And the youngest, Andrew, is an actor and gay.”
“Yeah. That was never a problem for me. But his father….”
“That is sometimes a problem in Latino and African American and even Italian families.”
“You know, you are so wise for your age and you look so very young.”
“And you know, it shouldn’t be a problem in these cultures where family is so strong. They should be more forgiving, more accepting.”
“Well, all I have to say is your mother must be very proud to have such a smart girl. What is your name, dear? I will keep you in my prayers.”
She told her.
“And mine is Yolanda. God bless you and your family.”
“And you and yours too.”
“And here is an extra something for your niceness.”
“Thank you, Yolanda.”
Allie liked the Yolandas who reveled in the joys of maternity and all things good in the universe. She could always count on being delighted by them, no matter the trials or tribulations of the moment.
Allie could forget a face but never a voice, so she was pleasantly surprised when a couple of weeks after her stay-at-home vaca, she heard Yolanda’s mellifluous voice greeting her in the back of the cab. She could see in her rear view that it was indeed the nice lady from Brooklyn, although at first she did not recognize her because she was weeping.
The crying was like no other Allie had heard before, full throated and bellied, her whole being thrown into it.
“Are you OK, ma’am?” Allie inquired politely.
“I’ll be OK. I’ll be OK. A mother has a right to cry, doesn’t she?”
Yolanda wiped her eyes with the hook of her index finger, then blew her nose. “Thank you for understanding. You are so understanding. Oh,” she shook a finger Allie’s way, “You’re that young girl from before, Alexandra.”
“That’s right. Oh, I’m sorry, hon, to make a scene. It’s my boy, Andrew the gay one. He disappeared.”
“Oh yes. For days. I went crazy. His brothers went crazy. His father was going to go to the police. What do you think happened?”
“I don’t know. He eloped?”
“Oh my god. How did you know? That’s exactly what happened. He eloped. But not with a girl. With a man. So you can imagine.”
“I can. I guess your husband and sons are having a hard time.”
“Hard time? They are getting ready to disown him. My baby. Why didn’t he tell me? Why couldn’t he confide in his mother?” Again tears in cascades that Allie imagined overrunning the back of the cab.
“I’m so sorry. It’s pretty common nowadays for gays to marry, so your family should just get used to that.”
“That’s what I said. But you know how men can be. My husband is also from Cuba. There are rules. Certain things he can not imagine, does not want to imagine.”
“Which is probably why your son took off to do this on his own, right? I would have done that too.”
Yolanda leaned forward, grabbing the back of Allie’s seat, intrigued. “Do you mind if I ask you something, honey?”
“Are you a homosexual?”
“Um. I really don’t know how to answer that because I haven’t given it a lot of thought. But yeah, most of the people I’ve slept with have happened to be ladies. I did have sex with a cop once, a guy, who turned out to be gay.”
“Oh my goodness, dear. I hope you used protection.”
“Of course. He wasn’t gay then. We grew up together. He came out a little after that.”
“I see. And you didn’t see him as marriage material.”
“No, no way.”
“So is marriage something you yourself would not consider?”
“Oh sure. Yeah. Right girl, woman, whatever. Sure.”
“So you would like marry someone of your own gender and whatchamacallit, proclivity, is that right?”
“Listen, honey, can I ask youse a favor. It’s a big one.”
Allie hesitated but was curious. “OK.”
“I need to talk to the men in my house. I don’t want to lose my son. It sounds as if you have had some experience. Would you consider backing me up.”
“Whoa, no. I’m so sorry, ma’am. That is not something I could do. No way.”
“I see.” She sat back, placid, deflated. “I thought you understood. Thank you for your wisdom. I apologize for the intrusion.”
Allie could hear her pulling Kleenex after Kleenex out of her purse, crying silently in the back of the cab. The ride would last another five minutes or so, but Allie was not sure she could tolerate it. Nothing worse than a woman crying, especially a nice one, especially when you are contributing to the tears.
“Yolanda. I’m sorry to hurt your feelings. But I’m just a cab driver. I don’t know shit. Really.”
Yolanda waved her hand apologetically before her face. “I’m sorry. I thought you were very wise. My mistake. I thought you had empathy.”
“I do have empathy. I totally understand why your son did what he did. Families can be difficult.”
“Please, I do not wish to be rude. But I cannot bear to hear you speak, knowing you have answers that could possibly save my family that you are not willing to share.” Then she added quietly, in a voice tinged with pain and regret, “with others, with them.”
Allie blinked looking through the windshield. She was approaching West 10th again, where she would let Yolanda off to commiserate with her relatives. Clouds were in the distance. Rain. She blinked into the rearview where she could see a portrait of resignation, darkly alone, fixing on her.
Allie cleared her throat and then, unbelievably, heard herself pursue the matter. “What exactly would you expect me to do?”
Yolanda eyed her warily, her large expressive eyes shifting momentarily to scan the outdoors before returning to her driver.
“I would like to take you to brunch this Sunday. We meet at Victor’s once a month because my husband has a cousin who is the chef there.”
“I work until five p.m. every other Sunday. This Sunday is OK.”
“Wonderful. We meet at one. I’ll introduce you as a friend. Simple.”
“Please do not put me on the spot, or I will walk out. I’m not a mediator. I can’t promise anything but that I’ll be there.”
“You are a blessing. Trust me. You have no idea. I will see you at 1 PM for brunch at Victor’s. This Sunday. Thank you so much. Hasta pronto, my dear.”
The entire way over to Victor’s Allie kept repeating to herself, “It’s a free meal, free meal, free meal,” like a mantra. She was dressed in what was typical formal attire for her — trousers, a white shirt, gold tie. At the last minute, she decided to drop the tie. It would do no good to antagonize the males in Yolanda’s family from the outset. She gazed at herself in the front window of Victor’s, ran a hand through her short punkish hair, took a deep breath and entered.
Almost right away, a male host took her hand, smiled a very white smile and led her to a large table, where sat Yolanda, a portly man with a broad face wearing a constricted expression — Yolanda’s husband — and a nervous young man with nicotine-stained fingers and vaguely handsome features behind dark-rimmed glasses — her son, Jimmy.
“Our son Ron, who is in the navy, and of course the two married boys will not be coming.” After a pause she added, “We are waiting for Andrew,” which made Andrew sound like the Pope.
“We are not waiting to order,” announced her husband, and it was clear from his tone that they would not.
Yolanda tapped one of Allie’s hands reassuringly. “Whatever you like, my dear. We start with appetizers. This is an excellent menu.”
Allie started off with corn grits and shrimp in enchilada sauce. The others all had fried plantain topped with bits of pork. The conversation was jovial and general — the weather of the day, which was idyllic; the political tenor — thankfully they were on the same page, so each one tossed an adjective to add to the consensus of “disaster.” There were polite inquiries about jobs. They toasted and drank Margaritas and were on a second round waiting for entrées of Cuban quesadillas, when a frenetic young man with a cherubic face and dyed blond hair joined the group. Andrew.
He went straight over to his mother, kissing her twice on each cheek, and then approached the father who stretched out a hand to indicate distance, so Andrew merely tapped his shoulder. His brother Jimmy nodded at him cordially. There was no embrace there either. Andrew sat next to Allie.
“I’ve heard a lot about you,” he said to her with a conspiratorial air. “So glad to have a friend join the family.” He smiled. A very nice guy, clearly, expressive like his mother.
“What are you drinking,” said Yolanda. “And eating, honey. You look thin.”
“I’m not, ma. I’ll have the same thing everybody else is having. Skip the appetizer.”
Yolanda ordered for him. Then there was a dense pause. Allie continued eating, her antenna out as if she was driving, looking out for potential accidents on the road.
“Ma says you drive a cab. Very cool.”
“It pays the rent. And it’s fun.”
“It’s nice to do what you like. The one bringing in real bucks in this family is that one,” Andrew pointed to his brother. Jimmy acknowledged him with a slight fake smile.
“Of course, dad is retired,” Andrew added as an afterthought.
“Hey congrats,” said Allie said a little to the side, referring to his marriage.
“Thank you,” he bowed slightly in her direction, putting the napkin on his lap as his drink arrived. He sipped it eagerly, then said, “cheers everybody, and to our new friend, Allie.”
They were all eating their main meal now, and presently, they brought Andrew his plate.
“Frankly, if you were hoping she gets together with Jimmy, she’s getting along better with that one. You should tell her, it’s hopeless,” said Roland to Yolanda out of the corner of his mouth, but loud enough for everyone to hear.
“It is what it is,” said Yolanda to the space in front of her.
Had this been a set up to help, or a set up for a date, Allie began to wonder.
They were all digging the quesadillas, which were out of this world, eating like it was the most important task at hand. In the midst of the symphony of mastication, Yolanda began.
“It so happens Allie has much in common with Andrew. They are, if I can put it this way, one of a kind.” She put a napkin to her mouth briefly and then coughed a little before adding, “Very special people are hard to find.”
Allie smiled nervously. She thought she felt Andrew’s foot tap hers under the table.
Yolanda went on with grace and precision, “There are at least three of us at this table who believe a good marriage can exist with any two people who love each other. Is that right?”
Allie nodded slightly.
“Ma,” said Jimmy. It was a warning.
“Oh gosh, is this what we’re going to talk about — while eating, no less,” said Roland.
“Apparently,” said Andrew.
Immediately, Yolanda made fists of her hands at either side of her plate, her eyes brightening with tears. “I have five sons and unless, heaven forbid, I lose one to death before I myself pass, they will always be my sons until the day I kick! There is no way you can deny a mother, her son,” she said to everyone and no one in particular.
Roland was shaking his head, pushing his plate a little away. He pointed a quivering hand at Andrew.
“Look what you’ve done. See how unhappy your mother is.”
“He has done nothing to make me unhappy. I’m unhappy about you, and you,” she turned to her husband, then Jimmy, whose color was draining fast.
“The kind of support I need is not from him. Andrew has always supported his mother.”
Andrew smiled broadly at everyone.
“You and you are a disgrace. Gay marriage is an everyday thing now.”
“Shhh.” Both her husband and Jimmy tried to shush her at her mention of the word that was like foul language.
“It is. I’ll say it again if I want. You are backwards people. I do not want you in my house if you cannot accept my son. And this is what I have to say to you today. To you, Roland. my husband of almost 30 years. And to you my supposedly smart other son.”
Their mouths dropped. Neither Roland nor Jimmy knew what to say at first.
“Ma, what are you saying?” Jimmy spoke up.
Roland waved her away. “Don’t be ridiculous. I pay the bills. You can’t live in that house alone. I’m not going anywhere and that’s that.”
“Then I will go. Unless you accept my son Andrew and his decision, and his partner, Jose, I will leave our house.”
“Apologies,” Roland said offhandedly to Allie. “This is family business. As often happens, family business can get out of hand.”
“You are welcome,” Yolanda told Allie. She turned to her husband, “She is my guest.”
“Yes,” chimed Andrew.
“And where may I ask would you go, Miss Independence.”
“I will go live with my friend.” She pointed to Allie.
Now it was Allie’s turn to respond and she put a napkin delicately to her mouth and said, “yes,” simply, like this had all been pre-arranged.
“You would leave me to go live with a, a–”
“A young woman who loves her mother and respects gays. Yes.”
“Ma,” said Jimmy. “Think this through. You’re talking crazy.”
“Is anybody listening to me,” said Yolanda.
“Yes,” said Allie again.
“Yes,” said Andrew.
In the middle of this cacophony of voices, Allie began to hear what sounded like horns honking, a mad line of taxis squeezing one another, and somebody snapping fingers signaling a stop or start. And a train passing, drums. She was smack in the center of the city she loved, doing what she knew best, listening to what she loved best, Miles’s “Bitches Brew” coming surely from the distance of the speakers. And she thought, “wow,” how the music was here now, to give the moment some heresy, sense, and truth, providing unification, fusion. And how it was up to her again, she who was always in the middle, and who in spite of herself led the way, like the master himself.
Roland ran his hands exasperatedly through his gray crew cut. “Yes, I’m listening and I don’t like what I hear. But I respect you. You are my wife.”
“And this is your son. Who also deserves respect.” She acknowledged Andrew, then reminded Jimmy—“This is your brother.”
Then Yolanda said to her husband, “At least be man enough to shake hands. Be decent enough to make a start. Nobody is getting kicked out of this family. As long as I’m alive, this family stays together.”
Jimmy did a quick dusting, ridding his fingers of food crumbs and extended a hand to his brother nodding cordially again.
Yolanda told Roland, “If you do not shake his hand immediately, I am leaving.”
“Where do you think you’re going to go?”
“My friend operates a cab, remember?”
“Jesus, Mary, and Joseph. OK, fine. You’re my son. But that man you are with, never. He will never set foot in my house.”
“Shake his hand.”
“I can’t.” He stretched out his hand however, palm down on the table, and Andrew put his hand on top of his father’s and turned to his mother. “Good enough, ma. Good enough for now.”
“Amen,” she said. Another toast, “To my son, Andrew, who is also Jimmy’s brother, and my husband Roland’s son.”
“And to Allie,” said Andrew.
“A good friend is hard to find.” Yolanda winked in Allie’s direction. “Let’s mark this occasion with some flan and espresso. Waiter, please.”