They pulled up at the Blue Note, an after hour’s bar in Upper West, Harlem. G-funk rapsters and Hispanics bounced lowriders. A VIK doorman welcomed Rawl and Snook with A-frame hugs. With a snap of the throttle a Harley bumped onto the sidewalk, pipes roaring, a man dismounted with a Sax slung round his back.
“Is there a band?” asked Jimmy.
“Jam session. You play don’t you?”
“I use to, not anymore.”
“We’ll see about that!”
The bar was small and intimate. Blue and pink neons broke dry ice licking up the stage walls. A DJ on the mezzanine dropped mash-ups in between jams. They grabbed some drinks at the bar and moved toward the stage. There was a jam in play.
“Get up there man,” goaded Rawl. Jimmy shook his head. “I wish I could play.
Do you know how many girls you can get?”
“Nah, I’m just going to kick back and enjoy the show. You got a smoke?”
Snook slipped him a pack of Gitanes. He turned round for a light and was faced with a young lady sparking a Zippo. “Thank you.” said Jimmy.
He looked up and was in awe. “Jimmy this is Kayla,” said Rawl.
Kayla was mixed race, French with Malagasy ancestry; not unlike Noemie Lenoir. “Are you going up?” she asked immediately prompting a change of heart.
The Jam came to an end. Jimmy motioned to borrow the guitar and climbed up to play. The drums counted in and kicked off hard and fast. The bassist dropped in solid and tight. Jimmy comped, swapping lines with the keyboardist. The Sax player added a simple melody, a head they could all center around. Jimmy ran with it and after sixty-four bars the Sax broke into a solo hogging the limelight. After the longest while, Jimmy shot glances willing the Sax player to let him blow. As much as Sax would love to have taken the top spot when people think solo they think guitar solo, so all eyes were fixed on Jimmy. Soon as the Sax got out the way, Jimmy inched the volume till it cracked distorted and crept in. Improvisation was the ultimate test of nerves, to create something spontaneous on the fly was a rush, sometimes it worked, sometimes it didn’t but that night he felt the spirits and soared to new heights. To the undying sound of cheers and whistles he went to hand his guitar back but was asked to stay up as he was bringing it, he passed; his energy spent. He retired back to an enthusiastic welcome from the instigators.
“Nice playing,” said Kayla still applauding as he came off.
“Kayla’s a singer,” declared Rawl.
“Excuse me mate,” she said in a faux cockney accent “I’m up.” Her hot breath caught his neck. Her hair gently brushed his face. She climbed up on stage as the intro played, grabbed the mic and instantly lifted the room with a soulful rendition of U2’s classic ‘I still haven’t found what I’m looking for.’ He felt solitary, mesmerised, her words prophetic, reaching out, reading his mind. Rawl passed him a blunt.
“You sure it’s okay?”
The buzz came on deep, instantly pulling him down. The boys were determined to show him a good time and took aim. They downed straight shots, swayed this way and that supping cocktails, running jokes, spilling out in disarray onto the street past closing.
Jimmy woke up in unfamiliar surroundings, groggy and dazed. He tried to recollect the night to the point before he blacked out, but could not.
“I got an appointment downtown later so I’m going to have to ask you to leave,
sorry.” It was Kayla, clean without make up, looking divine. For once he was unnervingly comfortable with the situation. It felt strange. Normally he would panic, make excuses and dart out the door, but not this time.
“Yeah, I should let Rawl know where I am.”
“You don’t remember much do you? He dropped you off.”
“Was I that bad?”
“No you were fine, the perfect gent… Sorry but I got to go.”
“If you’re not doing anything later maybe we can meet up?”
“Sorry Jimmy last night was fun but it’s time to go.”
“Okay.” He was dismayed but left it. He kissed her on the hand and caught her scent. “Anais Anais.” He uttered, it was the same fragrance Kelly used, so distinct he knew it anywhere. She smiled quietly impressed. “Good bye, Kayla.”
Jimmy felt as if he was missing out on something, something great. He left and tried to walk it off. He stopped at a bourgeois cafe, grabbed a macchiato and sat on a window stool smoking one of Snook’s Gitanes. Kayla felt bad about turfing him out. Nagging doubts persisted. One simple fact remained, he remembered her name. Despite blanking out and remembering nothing, he remembered her name. She made her way to the station deliberately taking a longer alternate route and by chance strolled by the coffee house where Jimmy sat. Their eyes met, she did not believe in coincidences; someone was trying to tell her something so went in to find out more. She pulled up a stool and looked at him squinting distrust.
“You know what I think Jimmy?”
“I think you’re a sweet bwoy, strictly hit and run.”
He hated the presumption. True, it was a new facet but he thought himself clever enough to conceal. He fell back defiant.
“I’m worse than that.”
“What’s worse than hit and run?”
“A man who stays. You get over a Sweet bwoy overnight but a man who stays, that’s risky, that takes a bit longer.”
Interest piqued, she laughed “Why would I miss a man that stays?”
“What makes you think I would leave?”
She liked his wit, his attitude “You wanna know me?” Jimmy nodded.
“My ex, Leon dealt blow. At first we were ordinary, like any other couple, managing, just getting by but happy. Then he lost his job and it all changed. He just sold a little at first but got greedy, he wanted more. I told him to give it up, trouble is he didn’t know when to cross the bridge and when to burn it.” She paused getting emotional. “I told him to quit or leave,”
“He left. A day later I get a call from the hospital; he’d been shot, by the time I got there he was gone.”
“I’m sorry. “
“No I’m sorry, a bit intense right? You’re nice Jimmy, one of the good guys but as you can see I’m not altogether there.”
“It’s cool. I’m still here. We’re just two people having a coffee.” He closed his eyes, inhaling the heady rich aroma from his cup, sipped and paused, drawing parallels with Manchester. “I bet Leon was a good man? Deep down you know he was a good man doing a bad thing, that’s all?” Jimmy ordered another coffee lit a cigarette and pulled things back to normal; two ordinary people having a coffee, exchanging star signs.
Kayla scraped a living waiting tables at the Blue Note. On her nights off she would go down and jam. Music was in her blood. Occasionally she got session work laying down backing vocals but secretly dreamt of launching her own career.
They parted without plans to meet up. Kayla met her appointment and Jimmy played it cool, content to leave matters open and let fate work its magic. All through the day she tried to shake him out of mind but with little success. She felt compelled and eventually rang him round Rawl’s, extending invitation to a family do.
He picked up Kayla in the El Dorado still on loan. The party was thrown for her Vietnamese grandma, a step relative who re-settled in America after the war in ’75. “My dad was French his second wife Vietnamese. He worked for the French consulate in Vietnam. When the War came he was shot dead in a fire fight, I don’t know much about him,”
“When did he pass?”
“I was about 4 when they told me. My real Mum used to do drugs, top of the shop tar. They wouldn’t say but her boyfriend was her pimp from what I could make out. So they took me away and bought me up here in New Jersey, they’re my real family.”
They walked in round the back. A pair of stone guardian lions led onto the garden, a pagoda style temple set in a garden with ornate fountains and marble Buddha sculptures. There was an outdoor kitchen with a large fridge, cooker and a brick barbeque with spits of mackerel and honey glazed pigs.
The host was the grandson; a short stocky Vietnamese and Police Detective for the NYPD. He paced around in the backyard, shooting hoops, ignoring Jimmy and the other guests, over compensating for the fact he was not a full blown Irish American. The more extrovert he became the dumber he looked. He made a free throw “Look at this?” he missed. Jimmy smiled and nodded out of politeness. He completely ignored him. Jimmy turned to Kayla “No offence but he’s a bit of a cock.”
“Yeah, don’t worry you’re right to notice. No one really likes him. You see that guy over there?” She pointed to a man sitting by the open fire. “That’s, Toan his cousin, he shopped him for dealing, spent five years in the local pen. Said it was for his own good, two months after conviction he was promoted to Lieutenant.”
“What‘s he doing here, I mean it’s not ideal?”
“They’re ok now, said he did him a favour, helped him get straight. He even gave him money to set up business.” Intrigued, Jimmy edged his way over with Kayla for an introduction. They cracked a beer and sat round the crackling fire shelling Logan buds. Jimmy noticed his tattoos.
“Are they prison tats?”
“What Cobwebs and Teardrops? No not my thing. Got these last month, South Vine best ink in NJ.” He raised his t-shirt to reveal cuts. “I got these on the inside. I did some bad things, I had to atone.”
“You did that to yourself?”
“Shia Muslims lash themselves with metal blades during Muharram.”
“Are you a Muslim?”
“No.” He pointed to the ink on his arm.
“This one at the top is some scriptures I read. This is The Madonna.” He twisted his arm back. “The Crucifixion, Christ my saviour. I’m a Christian. Seven Day Adventist. I found Christ and I’m good now, the past is the past.”
“What are you doing now?”
“Setting up Bam Bikes in Vietnam. They’re bikes made from Bamboo,
Germans love them, pay upwards of $500 apiece. The best part is I can help my people, they got nothing. I’ve be given a second chance; I want to do good pass it on, you know.”
Toan was an inspiration, a perfectly imperfect prospect, he made anything seem possible. Everything was beginning to make sense, coming to America, meeting Kayla he could see a new path emerging, something better, something good. Kayla led Jimmy to the back of the garden and sat him under the Pagoda.
“The appointment I had that day was with my shrink?”
“You have a shrink?”
“Yeah it’s not a big deal over here, everyone has them. I have a condition, Hepatitis B. I caught it from my Ex. That’s why I pushed you away.”
“Is it serious?”
“Yes and no, It’s mild but I am a carrier, I get tired easily. Stupid really, you can be immunised as a child but I wasn’t. Huh, crap way to find out.” She looked down at the floor bashful. “You should know, you can catch it from unprotected sex but don’t worry, like I said you were the perfect gent. If you want to do a 180 I understand.” Jimmy sat unfazed, more impressed by how mature she was about revealing it. He could not let go, fascinated by her life, her choices; he wanted to find out more. He made proposition, an idea he had brewing since inception.
Rawl met Mark in the underground car park and buried the merchandise in the car. He stopped off at the Roti House for Jimmy and Kayla en route. Jimmy was flying on instinct living for the moment. For Kayla it was a voyage of discovery with no discernible plot. Reality was they were making the drop to Vegas, driving two thousand miles cross country with twenty four kilos of cocaine under the rear seats. They gassed up at K-Mart before they hit the open highway. Kayla jumped out, shopping for shades. Jimmy looked across at her sporting rose tinted Cazals. “She doesn’t know.”
“Don’t sweat it. I’ll make the drop alone, this is all on me.” Jimmy forgot about the cargo and eased into the trip.
“Why did you tell Mark you’re just a grunt?”
“Any higher and he would have passed,”
“So what are you?”
“You don’t need to know, trust me it’s better that way.”
“The whole double life thing, the Coaster, wedding and now this; you can handle that?”
“It’s not in me.”
“It’s in you. It’s in all of us. I didn’t ask for this, now it’s all I know.”
Rawl cued up Grandmaster’s - White Lines on the 8-Track, drawing bold and pertinent parallels. He drove all day and through the night popping Prozac, speeding interstate across the desert along the I-15 to the strip. They rolled into town, Las Vegas Boulevard. Dre blasted out the windows as they puffed 1/4” Cohibas, the Eldorado casting mirrored reflection in the Riviera.
They checked in at the Bourbon Club, a speakeasy tavern with casino tables and rooms upstairs. Rawl sloped off to play the tables. Jimmy and Kayla took a stroll and stumbled across Lip-sync impersonators on the concourse. They performed on a red carpet rostra placed innocuously in the middle of some crap tables. They were largely ignored by punters on a walkthrough to the strip but they intrigued Kayla. They stopped and hunkered down chugging on a supersize pitcher as shoppers rushed past obscuring the view. In between performances they served as croupier’s behind the tables. Little Richard was a frail old man approaching 70; Sting and Tina Turner had seen better days.
“God bless them all.” remarked Kayla. “That’s America, two extremes and everything in between.”
They may have lacked the poise of Sammy Davis but they brought something all of their own, honesty.
“After Leon, I hit the bottle hard, a bit like them. I hated him for that… Don’t worry I’m over it now.”
Jimmy was not about to judge. He had revealed little about himself and found his similarity to Leon unnerving. It was almost as if she was talking about him, warning him not to go the same way.
He marched her out and drove to a club on Freemont Street determined to lift the mood and help her forget the past. They cruised along till eyes set upon Starlight, a glitzy nightclub off the main drag. He tossed the keys to the valet and led Kayla straight to the dance floor.
Run DMC ’It’s Tricky’ played, there was whooping and clapping. A crowd formed a circle round a contender, body locking insane. He broke off and finished with Jackhammers. Kayla volunteered Jimmy, shoving him forward, headlong into a dance off. He fell back hesitant to a chorus of hiss and boos.
“You gonna take that, man-up,” dared Kayla.
Whodini -‘The Freaks Come Out At Night’ featured next. It was a test, his pride was at stake; fortunately he spent many a depraved night with the All Saints trading moves. He paced round the circle throwing up his arms, revving the crowd and flew into a Stanky Legg then African Wu Tang, his chest pumping pneumatic. The crowd cheered his comeback. He dipped out as the challenger stepped back in with some fierce Tru Bop. It was brutal, the crowd grew wild upping the ante, jeering Jimmy to respond. He had to do something sublime to top it or face defeat. He wobbled his confidence shaken, he dug deep but was at a loss. Then the DJ gifted Mr Browns – ‘Sex Machine’. Funk was part of Jimmy’s DNA, he relished the chance to step and scathed defiantly, like it was nothing. He dropped the camel walk straight into the mash potato then killed it with a crip walk, well and truly incinerating the opposition. The crowd hoisted him up on their shoulders for a victory lap. Kayla cheered on as Jimmy took the crown.
Rawl buzzed Jimmy first thing as a matter of urgency.
“Sorry man, I need your help, I screwed up.”
Jimmy left Kayla asleep and met Rawl over coffee in a hotel foyer.
“Did you make the drop?”
“Yeah it went fine; if you call being hauled blindfolded into the desert, fine.”
“Yeah, I mean I didn’t know where the fuck we were anyway. I think they did it to rattle me. lt was cool, nothing I couldn’t handle. They got a bit cute; I showed them my VIK credentials and they backed off.”
“Did you get paid?”
“Of course I got paid.”
“So what’s up?” Desmond Dekker’s - ‘You Can Get it if You Really Want’ played ironically in the background. He shook his head staring into empty space.
“I fucked up, I should have left it.” He focused on Jimmy “I went back to the Hotel and played the tables. I have a rule, set a target and leave. I was up $2G’s so I left.” He rubbed his eyes. “I met a Chinese man in the lift; asked him about his night. He said he lost $30k. I said ‘so you’re calling it a night?’ You know what he said? ’Nah, I’m going back to get more cash,’ Then he says his game is poker, Texas Hold ’Em. Well that’s my game. I couldn’t believe my luck, a bad player with money to burn,”
Jimmy had a bad foreboding. “He didn’t lose $30k did he?”
“Shit no, $30k mi backside, rass. He suckered me in, by the time I realised what was going on, they wiped me out, clean. “Jimmy felt faint. “Don’t worry, I stashed Mark’s cut, thank god I didn’t go back to my room. I lost everything, my winnings, my cut.”
Jimmy composed himself. “Who were they, Pros?”
“Triad I think. I mean Double Ace, bullets on every hand, they played me like a fucking fiddle.”
“Don’t beat yourself up man. I fuck up all the time.”
He poured some coffee and took a sip. “You know Jimmy when we played Ring and Run as a kid I always went up. Once we stopped at Mike Huck’s house; a bigtime Ball Player but I didn’t run. They wanted me to but I just stood there waiting, something told me not to run. He invited us in, showed us his trophies, it turned out well. Always listen to your gut, I’m so pissed,” Rawl took out a smoke.
“There’s more isn’t there?”
“If I don’t get back to VIK tonight I’m toast.”
“Ok we drive back today, no problem.”
He took a puff. “Nah, the El Dorado? I used it as stake. Sorry man I thought I could beat them. I had two kings, I couldn’t lose.”
Jimmy gave him enough for a one way to NYC and was told to deliver the car to a Chinese man named Chung or they’d come looking. Rawl got up to leave. “Be cool and take care of my gal.”
Jimmy and Kayla were alone on a mission to San Francisco with nothing but a few bucks and a chewed up six string Rawl won in a raffle. They cruised up California’s Highway 1 through the dramatic ninety miles of coastal road that is the Big Sur. Twisting roads curved around the steep cliff faces and spectacular vista over the vast Pacific Ocean, across the Gate to the City by the Bay.
“Why is Rawl giving away his Caddy?”
“Call, in a poker game.”
“Rawl always doing crazy stuff.”
“How do you know him anyway?”
“Rawl? We went to the same school. We dated for a while. Did he tell you?”
“I’m sorry, I promise no more surprises.”
“It’s ok, go on.”
“He was a one with the ladies. We were friends for a long time then one day we crossed over.”
“Why did it end?”
“He introduced me to Leon. I fell for him straight away. Rawl was cool about it. Leon even asked permission. We were drifting, it was over long before. Some people are just meant to be friends.”
They reached The Gate. Jimmy called Chung who gave implicit instructions on where to park and leave the keys, Pier 33 besides the promenade. They parked up Jimmy looked across the bay. “Is that Alcatraz?” Kayla nodded and smiled suggestively.
They caught the ferry from Fisherman’s Wharf. On disembarking they entered a Napoleonic type fortress. They climbed up gentle inclines. The small island was surprisingly pleasant. Ordinarily, a sunny costal back drop would place you in an exclusive resort off the Côte d’Azur, but in this case served as a deceptive prelude to the grey cement processing hall, the last thing inmates would see before incarceration.
Jimmy set eyes on a cell so small you could lie down and touch both walls with your hands. He retraced the infamous escape route; bowled over by the ingenuity used to plan the escape. The grim reality of living under such oppression and fear made him appreciate why men would risk their lives to escape. They sat in the hole, the walls closed. It was pitch black, fusty, he felt disorientated.
“You okay?” He felt a chill, even though the door was wide open he felt trapped.
He left heading toward a daylight exit. They descended the stairs and sat in the middle of the prison yard cross-legged on the ground. Their eyes trailed the barbed wire walls back up toward the prison. Kayla placed his head on her lap messaging his temple.
“Feel better now.”
“Yeah I don’t know what happened.”
“Look up, what do you see?”
“Look closer.” She pointed out shapes in the clouds.
He shook his head, his mouth down-turned “Dunno, chopper with a rope ladder?”
“I’m being serious, try again.”
He cleared his mind.” A kite, my brother Josh use to fly them. He’d let me take it sometimes. Once I caught it on the overhead train wires and he went to get it for me. Dad nearly killed him when he found out.”
“He’s gone?... l’m sorry. Your memories, the ones you keep, tells me a lot about you. They tell me who you are.”
He squeezed her hand. “That’s why I like you. You see it when I don’t.”
“So you like me do you?” She squeezed his hands “Is that all?”
“No there’s more.” she squeezed tighter, he chuckled.
“How much more?”
She cracked a smile. “You found me Jimmy now what you gonna do stay or go?”
“I want to stay.”
“Sweet bwoy!” She laughed.
“That’s not fair.”
“I’m teasing,” Jimmy was silent “London calling? Ok,”
Eerie mugshots of inmates on the walls lingered as they motored back, the prison shrinking in the distance. He smiled as a couple of hard core fans debated the infamous escape of the Anglin brothers to freedom.
“Do you think he made it Jimmy?”
“It doesn’t matter if he survived. The point is he escaped. he beat the system.”
“He escaped prison, he didn’t start a counterrevolution.”
“I think he did?”
“Are you saying a jail break is a noble cause?”
“I’m saying sometimes the system is wrong and you got to fight back, play it.”
“Play it ay?”
“Yeah just a little.”
“Just a little, ok Jimmy we can do that.”
That night they checked. into a Hojo, Kayla set the bath while Jimmy tuned the guitar Rawl gifted. He chopped chords.
“Play that again,” she repeated. “Ok just the bass.” Jimmy obliged. She set down her Walkman and recorded as she sang over the top.
“What would you give if you had nothing? What would you give if you had nothing? Let me tell ya..Love..oh yeahh.” In the next ten minutes they built a track, ’Plenty Love’, chemistry spun off the cuff.
“We make a good team.”
“You should keep that.”
The trip ended, he did not want to leave but knew it was time to face his life in England. “It’s not the end.”
“We’ll work something out.” They hugged, squeezing each other tight.