The publication of Arya Jenkins’ “LULU AND ME” is the 13th 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.”
LULU AND ME
The winter I ran away, I moved into a garret in Provincetown, where I wrote poetry under the light of a candle far into the wee hours. Out my window, two stories up, I could see snow glistening on slanted rooftops that led like an uneven staircase to the bay. Below me, a twisted narrow path led to Commercial Street, peaceful and stark as an unwritten page. It was 1973 and I had run to the end of the world as I knew it to find freedom.
I knew Provincetown from spending summers with my dad and Grandma Tess in her cottage in Truro. It seemed she’d lived most of her life since Grandpa’s passing as a beachcomber. I liked following behind her when we collected beach glass. She walked barefoot, her skirt hem rippling, and squinted when from time to time she cast her eyes over the bay while holding onto her wide-brimmed straw hat.
I also liked hanging with kids whose families like mine vacationed in August in nearby Corn Hill. At least once during our vacation a group of us ‐‐ Jack, his twin, Pete, Marie and her brother Tim, and I ‐‐ walked some 20 miles, partway along the beach, inevitably hitchhiking, to see the sights in crazy P-town.
We bought ice cream cones and sat on the Town Hall benches with other tourists to watch the gays sashay by in their tie-dyed tees and tight jeans, blue and red bandanas dangling like flags from their rear pockets as they raised their limp wrists jangling bracelets in the air while calling, Mary this and Mary that. It was a grand circus and I riveted on the vision of guys applying lipstick and eye shadow like feral kisses on one another. The message was loud and clear. In Provincetown, you could be anyone you wanted and do just about anything.
I had envisioned a lifetime of summers on the Cape with Grandma and dad, but my grandmother died suddenly when I was 15 and a year after that, my father took off. When I finally got the wise idea that I could escape back to the place I loved on my own, I also had the crazy notion I might find my father there, hanging among the queens, happy to have found a colorful nest akin to his lost childhood. I knew when we left my mother and brother for two summers in a row that he was prepping for some kind of separation, never dreaming he would just go and never return.
I ran away the November after my 17th birthday, tired of dealing with a mother who was stoned on valium 24/7 and a brother, who at 15 was an acid-head and thief, stealing even from me. I just didn’t want any more of that. When my father was home he’d spread a kind of lightness like sparkles whenever he spent time listening to his jazz albums. He’d go around whistling and joshing like a happy man then, which made me happy too. Without him there, home was a place I couldn’t take. I felt too young to be hooked on sadness.
You could only think of a garret stepping into my pyramid-shaped woodsy dwelling in P-town, which was really a stripped attic. It had nothing but a mattress in it and shelves made from found boards and cement blocks on which I set my few clothes, favorite books and a journal. Two windows, tall and beveled, faced east and west, so my room was always filled with either sunlight or moonlight. At $80-bucks a month, I knew it was a rip-off, but it meant the world to me having a place of my own. It’s true, what Virginia Woolf wrote, a woman needs a room of her own. That miniscule view of the bay I had from one window was my hook to everything.
I was 17 and traveling light, with only my body and imagination. I thought of my favorite writers then, lying sprawled on my belly while composing poems and journaling in my composition book under the light of a tall, yellow candle. I thought of Hemingway and Fitzgerald, and of Zelda and Hadley and how they made due when their husbands disappeared into drink and literature, and of Anaiis Nin and Henry Miller disappearing into literature and each other. How many women impoverished, full of ideas, restricted by circumstances, had like me written late into the night into the silence of their notebooks, messaging the future.
I didn’t know jazz then, save for the record my dad had bequeathed me at 15, Dave Brubeck’s Take Five, which I loved, not so much for the music, which was unlike any I had heard to date, but because my dad loved jazz and because I loved him, I therefore loved it. I understand now, years after that time of gestation in Provincetown, that coming to love jazz has always been the journey to my father’s heart. In his absence I got into the music, slowly, through the years, finding in it the voice I had missed so much that Bird, Dizzy, Trane, Miles and others all articulated for him so beautifully, the blues of solitary men, alone inside.
The second floor of the house on Standish was Jane’s and had a kitchen, bathroom and living room I used, as well as two bedrooms. Jane lived there with her kid Dylan, who was three at the time. She had left a heroin-addicted boyfriend in New York City, and an apartment so tiny, Dylan’s bed was the bathtub. Jane always said the rickety house on Standish was heaven next to that, even when the heat didn’t work and we walked around like soldiers, shoulders blanketed, taking turns stuffing our stockinged feet deep into the oven’s belly, even when taking the uneven, loosely attached wood steps to the second and third floors made you feel you were climbing a tree house.
In the basement apartment lived a cook and his lover, Chris, a fisherman and drunk I sometimes saw slipping out early mornings, leaving a zigzag of prints along the alleyway leading to Commercial Street, which led to the harbor, where he had his tugboat. He always looked the same—black galoshes, yellow rubber coveralls, long-sleeved white shirt, short black hair akimbo. He and his partner always picked the wee hours to duke it out with pots and pans and cries of you sonofabith, that surely woke up most of the neighborhood. Although I heard their distant dissonant trouble, I never saw their faces, ever.
Jane and I shared almost everything—joints and meals, conjuring bulgur madness on the stove, grain mixed with peanut butter and honey, stuff so coarse you could barely get it down. We just fixed on the fact it was healthy, so we tossed it into a hot pan and stirred. Dylan climbed the counters, looking for peanut butter and honey which he plumbed with his bare hands. We laughed at our culinary ineptitude and Dylan’s ability to stomach just about anything.
Dylan was always running around half naked, as Jane couldn’t be bothered changing him. Nights, whenever I was home, he crawled the stairs to my attic space with whatever book he could find so I could read to him. I couldn’t read him anything out of Nietszche, although I did read him poems by Adrienne Rich, and made up tales about heroic little boys and a family living in a cabin in the woods in the snow. Once I read him Winnie the Pooh. Stories were all I could give him, and I let him curl up next to me. What, or read it again were his refrains. A grimy-faced Cupid, one hand wrapped around his blond curls, another anchored on my stomach, he gazed beyond at the dark window as I read as if it was my very face.
Provincetown in winter was like nothing I’d imagined. Gone the color and mayhem. The only place open for work was the fish factory. I’d never worked with my hands before and the idea of it sent a challenging thrill through me. The only other job I’d ever held was at a gift shop as a sales girl, saving money to leave home.
Misfits and Portuguese townies who held a proud, longtime legacy to the sea worked with me at the fish factory at the end of Commercial. The old timers with gnarly hands and droopy eyes huddled close to one another in the locker room, eyeing you suspiciously, sure you were up to no good. Nothing you said or did could convince them you were anything but bad seed come to ripen in their town. Of course they knew, having seen too many kids come in from the outside and unravel in their backyard due to drink and drugs. Now there was disco, which was its own kind of drug. By the mid 80s, another decade, half the town would be taken by AIDS, but for now the prevailing belief was we were all ageless and immortal, and there was something like greatness in the wildness we were each determined to sow.
Joe, the geezer who ruled over everybody at the triple F, short for fuckin’ fish factory, took one look at my smooth, untainted hands and haughty mane wound up into a bun, and decided straight away to put me through the mill, sending me first to snip the head, tails and underbellies of scrod on the first floor, then to pack lobster tails on the second, and finally to pan fish for freezing up in the dark frigid recesses of the third floor, all in a day’s routine. Nobody ran up and down those rickety fish factory’s steps more than me. The townies were right, I saw the job as temporary, chalking it up mostly to experience with a capital E.
It was some kind of nightmare staring mornings into a bin of scattered guts and headless fish when you were hung over, which everybody always was. I caught the blood-shot stares of my co-workers, gay and straight, some barely older, all of whom seemed vaguely familiar from the bar scene the night before, and tried not to pass out from the smell of ammonia that was splashed on the cement floor 24/7 to disinfect and cut the fish odor.
Everyone I talked to had either split from home or was running from the law or both and headed toward some vision of bliss. For some, P-town was just a pit stop. Ellie wanted to save money to live in a commune in Vermont. Jacques, to run a farm. Jorge, to open his own beauty parlor. Stoner and Marnie, to buy a fishing boat and live off the sea on their own. They came from Florida, where they’d grown their own pot and made homemade wine, which they shared with us at break time. My friends taught me anarchy is the only road, authorities exist only to betray, and it’s a wild world, baby. I absorbed my new set of commandments like holy wine and hosts.
Trudging home in my pin-striped coveralls and scale-splattered galoshes after work, I stopped at the corner liquor store to buy three shots of bourbon in tiny bottles and a half gallon of Tavola Red, cheap wine. Nobody ever proofed me then, maybe because it wasn’t summer, so cops wouldn’t check. I took the bourbon down after chewing on a handful of spinach leaves and picking on a can of tuna in my room. Then Ellie came over and we shared the wine, discussing Erica Jong and her book, Fear of Flying, which was the rage then.
You afraid of flying?
No. But the book means freedom, flying is freedom. The question is, are you afraid of freedom.
We aren’t afraid of anything. Freedom is everything. And we are it, we agree. It’s the only thing worth dying for. We are young, we can do anything. It’s what I tell myself spinning to “Love’s Theme” at Piggies Dance Bar, sure I’ve found heaven, and that my life will unravel only on pink clouds from now on.
A group of women, hippies, straight and gay, find their way to the middle of the room, form a circle, dance together. I’m the only preppie, dressed in suede boots, jeans and a lambs wool vest over a white blouse. My hair is long and I let it sail, sure of nothing but the night itself into which I let go. My eyes snag flared skirts and bare feet kicking air, flying beaded necklaces, casting higher into deeper darkness behind high beams that crisscross overhead hiding secrets. There I am flying.
I go home with a jazz singer named Lulu, who informs me right away she is bi, a new term. She is living in a trailer on someone’s property. Around three am, past all sense of reality itself, after listening to Lulu talk with so much love about music I don’t know but my father knew, I step out naked, skipping patches of snow to peek at Commercial Street, to announce I am here, its newborn. The hand-hewn sign to The Hermit, a cellar restaurant just away, creaks spookily in the wind—welcoming or admonishing me? Overhead the sky brims with stars just for me. I crawl back to Lulu, who places both her hands around my own as I curl up next to her under a quilt. You’re crazy, love, she says. I’m not sure whether she means crazy love or crazy, love. Either way, from that moment on the two words, crazy and love, become synonymous.
Crazy is naked late night struts outdoors, stripping and running into the bay after hours, sleeping with whomever you want, laughing at yourself and at the world. Crazy love is Provincetown in winter, where everyone will love anyone just for warmth, a fire and experience.
Sundays we hang in the Back Room before a fire, listening to opera and drinking Courvoisier. My friend Mel who is 40 and came here from New York loves opera and tries to explain it. Even then I know certain music cannot be explained. After the opera comes classical music, then jazz to which I dance, to and fro, thinking of Lulu, creating myself in the moment through movement, dancing to conquer what I don’t know. I don’t know jazz or how I will move to it, but I am moved by its unpredictability, challenged by it, and unafraid.
Love of music I got from my dad. It was his hand took me to dance classes when I was a kid. I learned about Isadora Duncan from my teacher Miss Jeanine, and about Martha Graham, although it was Isadora I fell in love with, her dancing being like poetry, my other love. As a kid, I danced solo onstage, early on making music my own.
Skipping and turning across the Back Room floor, I am light itself erasing the past making way for the future, unafraid of taking up space, enjoying the feeling of eyes on me. Pockets of men stand together sipping exotic drinks, appreciating my interpretation and expression and applaud when the song is done. Is it because I have somehow managed to articulate something undecipherable, made sense of something un-danceable, brought the mute out of the closet?
Jazz is as unpredictable as I am, as my father was. And it heralds Lulu, who is even more unpredictable than me, wearing a flower print dress, a beaded necklace and a peasant blouse covered with a fox fur. She raises paint-chipped, nail-bitten fingernails to scratch the air. Lulu who can sing but not dance but is ashamed of nothing and stands before me clapping upward then down, her eyes slightly closed, familiar with the song that bears her name, although I don’t know it then. She knows and loves where it goes and what I am doing with it that I don’t know. She joins me picking up imaginary broken pieces from the wide-board floor, tossing them up to heaven where they will be made whole, then begins to blow an imaginary horn, happy as I am happy. We are both fixing for a party.
Later, Lulu tells me the song that bears her name, “Lulu’s Back in Town,” and I begin to connect jazz to flesh, to names like Thelonious Monk, and to the moment that sails into heaven and an emptiness that is full and rich. There is a musician named Monk who like Isadora makes holiness out of the incomprehensible, piecing it all together.
We take off somewhere and later return to the Back Room when the disco ball is swirling and the beat is now. The boys take off their tops as they start to sweat, not caring it’s winter, recreating summer heat, which is sexual and endless. The strobe lights deceive us all, hypnotizing those like me who are prey to the most obvious magic, finishing off what drugs and alcohol started. Nobody is sober or straight. Everybody gets too high. The fireplace cackles away, but no one sees or hears it. Only a couple struck immovable, too stoned to move, stretch before it on the floor as if paying homage to a god. Somebody strange, catatonic, eyes frozen too wide, leans like an admonitory ghost against the glass sliding door of an exit.
Jacob, who we met tonight while dancing, pulls me by the hand, and I pull Lulu and we struggle to slide open the door and slip outdoors, ripping off our clothes as we streak naked into the dark blue silvery frigid bay, our baptism into night which we take screaming. Hurrah. What have we beaten? We have beaten the night, death. We are young, young, and will last forever. Even this ice cold baptism will not stop us. We are holy. Lulu! Lulu! We step out, shake off like dogs and struggle to put on sandy clothes, impossible, stumbling and losing our balance knocking against one another. The bar lights flicker so we know it’s last call and have only minutes to get warm before the night’s fire goes out for good. As we run back indoors I see two men, no four, smoking in the alleyway, caressing one another, up and down. Now they are one. It’s always time for love-making when the bars close in P-town. We are only one body when night finally draws to a close.
Come with me to New Orleans, Lulu says while we are recovering from hangovers in the Holiday Inn sauna into which we sneak the next day. For Mardi Gras, she explains. I can’t stand this cold shit much longer. I miss the blues. I miss Mardi Gras. I’ve heard of Mardi Gras but have not yet heard the blues. We are arching stiffly, reluctantly into January, more winter.
Months fly by, she says poetically, breaking into a Janis Joplin laugh, full of mischief. Her gut sags a little like she’s had kids, but I don’t ask, don’t want to know. She looks at my flat, tan belly and long legs, eyes burning with what could be desire or envy. Her hazel green eyes are always burning, summery. Although she’s only older by five years, her body has been through a century. Pale and soft, she is womanly to me, while I still feel like a girl.
We meet up with Jake at the Bradford Gardens for breakfast. Eggs, toast, sausages, and Bloody Marys, the only thing that really takes hangovers away, swears Lulu. The sky is bright blue and we are all wearing sunglasses. I’m skipping work today. It’s only hours before the next party anyhow. Jake is handsome all in black, dark, with curly hair. I wonder where he’s from and admire a loop in one ear, which he removes and offers to me. No, no thanks, man. Men are quick to give you anything when you are young. I don’t want anything but freedom. Jake wants to go to Canada. It’s no longer to escape the draft, so I wonder what he’s escaping, but don’t ask. There is so much I wonder about, but questions freeze in me. I want to find answers on my own. Besides, music can explain anything. It alone knows everything.
Everyone you meet in Provincetown is a guide, a kind of muse. You spill who you are, what little you know, telling everything right away because who knows what will happen next. Moments fly. We burn so fast, all is lost overnight. And we disappear soon, even if we always wake up to love.
Mardi Gras is like every night in Provincetown thrown into 24 hours. My head is splitting and there’s nowhere to escape the party outdoors, even in a room with five people, only one that I know–Lulu. On I-85, near Birmingham, Lulu’s 60’s station wagon broke down. We left it with a mechanic and hitched the rest of the way with a vanload of partyers. Three days it took, stoned all the way.
In New Orleans, the call of trumpets and drinking never cease. Is this jazz? Is this? It’s the one question I now ask and have to know.
It’s all jazz, says Lulu, stretching silkily on the bed, and she means it. I have never seen her looking so happy or so remote, her paleness one with the sheets. In New Orleans, a part of her melds with the very air. She takes her clothes off repeatedly, gyrating once on a balcony, wearing only colorful gold and silver beads and sunlight. I never take off my clothes in New Orleans whose wildness feels foreign and frightens me and is neither young nor innocent. In New Orleans, we are too drunk to do anything but bump into people and spill drinks and listen to music.
In the Allways Lounge on Saint Claude, or some place like it, someone dressed like a monkey makes love with someone dressed as a nun on roller skates right in the middle of everyone and everything. It’s two men, theatre like Provincetown. Another time we follow a crowd to Sweet Lorraine’s where everyone knows Lulu, Lulu who has never seemed more at home. This is where she belongs. Everybody kisses and hugs and somebody passes her a mike, rightly lifting her like a star onto the stage, where she sings, Blue Moon, dedicated to Chase, while gazing at me. I am Chase, I realize, remembering my name. What else do I know?
First piano, then horns, and back to Lulu swinging. Somebody tosses her broken flowers, one of which she arranges in her hair over an ear, so she looks like Lady herself, a white Lady anyway. You saw me standing alone without a dream in my heart, without a love of my own… someone I could care for…. now I’m no longer alone, without a dream in my heart, without a love of my own. People bop and sway. The horns come in again. Lulu’s voice trails and the crowd pops like a champagne bottle bursting open love.
Strangely, it’s then I realize music doesn’t always have to make you crazy, like disco does. This music finds its way to a deeper, grounded place, where there is a placid sea of knowing. It’s my antidote to the future, although I don’t know it yet.
Lulu loses her voice in New Orleans. All the way home, strung out and sung out, we summon images of the sea that we love, hearing it lap against our ears and breasts, remaking us. I dream of how it was even before jazz, my father raising me up to the sun then onto his back when we rode waves home on the sea side on the Cape, me holding onto the chain of holy medals around his neck because his shoulders were slippery with tanning oil, trusting the precarious ride on his back facilitated by St. Christopher and the Blessed Virgin. For seconds, I felt safe, at home, like no one could touch us, until we struck the ground of shore and my father returned to surf the sea on his own. Even then, watching his golden head disappear inside waves, I was never sure he’d return, a part of me always knowing he was destined to go.
Back from New Orleans, we crash for a whole week, sleeping off the damage of alcohol, keeping the best moments of our roller coaster ride. Before we know it, April comes, hammering away, trying to disguise winter’s wounds and pretty up Provincetown for summer. It’s then, as the town fills with strangers that Lulu slips away, no goodbyes, believing in nothing but going on, going back to the one constant she knows, jazz, which waits for her, and is just now calling me.
* * *
References: “Lulu’s Back in Town,” the first cut on It’s Monk’s Time, released in 1964. Thelonious Monk plays piano, Butch Warren, bass, Ben Riley, drums, Charlie Rouse, tenor sax.
Song lyrics from “Blue Moon,” a song written by Rodgers and Hart in 1934. The ballad was sung and interpreted by many notable singers, including Billie Holiday.