Bonejangles and His Bone Boys
2. Bonejangles and His Bone Boys
Billy "Bowler" Morton tapped his foot in time to the fresh new tune running through his head. He held a newspaper page on his knee, quickly scratching down notes in the margins with a stub of pencil. Chords flew from his brain to his fingers to the paper, his foot tapping all the while. Yeah, that's nice, he thought. Miles and miles above and beyond the hackneyed standards that he'd been playing lately. Sometime soon he'd snap, he'd beat someone with a fiddle, start singing dirty lyrics to Ole Susanna or something. But it paid the bills, this minstrel show stuff. Money in the bank for his own joint someday. Once he'd pulled himself together a bit, got settled. In Chicago, maybe, where he'd grown up and knew people. Or Philadelphia. New Orleans.
Someday. Today found him on a crowded sooty little train stopped at a little station in the podunk middle of nowhere, on the way to their next performance. Bowler'd lost track of where they were. London was behind them, Kiev was next week, and Amsterdam was a distant memory. Only one passenger got off the train here, the only one not affiliated with the show, a big-chinned white man about his age who'd been sitting in the seat in front of him. And who'd been acting like he was gonna get knifed or robbed or both the whole time. Kind of thing Bowler should've been long used to, learned to live with. But you never really did.
Bowler, square-jawed and broad and a favorite with the ladies, was a singer and songwriter. And he planned to make it big. For now he warmed up the crowds, sang songs, and tickled the occasional ivories in little joints, mostly dance halls and the odd bordello. Most recent was this jaunt with a huge minstrel show, traveling all around Europe for audiences who'd probably never even seen real black folks before. This was his first time out of the States.
Good timing, too. Not three days after Bowler and his fellow musicians had boarded ship to Europe, the whole damn city of Chicago had burned down. Lucky for him he didn't have much in the way of family or possessions to worry about. For Bowler, life was the business, his true love was music, and his musician friends were his family.
Just went to show how much he liked these pals of his. If his three best friends hadn't also been involved with this show, there was no way Bowler would've joined up. Minstrel shows were boring and dated, the music uninspired, and were going the way of the dodo. Given how talented and fresh his buddies were, Bowler was surprised they were willing to do this, no matter the pay. It all offended Bowler, truth be told. Play the banjo, stick to what people think you're all about, keep yourself down and right where they want you. Stuck in the past. The future had a whole new meaning and a whole new sound, and that sound was represented by pencil scratches on newsprint.
"Got a great new song," Bowler said, tipping back his hat as he turned to Zed, who was sitting beside him reading the bit of the newspaper Bowler hadn't nicked. Zed was short, stocky, and played a mean bass for a kid barely twenty-three. Bowler'd met him back home in Chicago, when they'd both been playing dance halls.
"You've always got a great new song," Zed replied, unimpressed. "Quit scribblin' on my newspaper, will you? Know how long it took me to find one that wasn't in foreign?"
"'Bout ten seconds," said Blood'n'Guts Murphy from across the aisle. Murphy was light-skinned with enormous hands and feet. Tall like nothing Bowler'd ever seen, and one of the best horn players Bowler had ever met. They'd first heard each other when they were doing olio spots for a melodrama right after the War. "That white guy who was sittin' in front of you left it when he got off."
"I was being rhetorical," said Zed, rolling his eyes. The youngest of them, Zed was also the touchiest. So the other men liked to give him a hard time.
"Ooh, fancy," said Blind Elzy from his seat next to Blood'n'Guts. Old Elzy was from Mississippi, a real nice guy, had a nice wife and some nice kids. Real good for them they'd made it North. Bowler had no idea if Elzy was actually blind or not behind those dark glasses he always wore. It was just part of his persona, right along with his kitten-on-the-keys style on the piano. "The boy's smart, ain't he? Forget the bass, we should send him to Wilberforce."
Everyone except Zed laughed. Bowler gave the kid a punch in the arm. With another chuckle he ripped off the bit of the newspaper he'd scribbled on, folded it and tucked it into his pocket, ignoring Zed's horrified protests.
"Here, I left this clean," Bowler said, handing over the rest of the paper. "Would you just look at that, society page for my fancy friend. Eligible ladies. Pick one and marry up, you could really make something of yourself. Hey, just look at her, ain't she a doll?"
He pointed to a photograph of a white girl about Zed's age. Even Blood'n'Guts leaned over to look. The picture was grainy, but it would've had to have been a lot worse to make the girl unattractive. She had big eyes, a full mouth, and a beautiful head of hair. Probably the prettiest girl for miles around. There was a round of approving nods.
"Nice, but not as pretty as my girl back home," Zed said as he took the page, tucked it back into the paper, and went back to his reading. Over his head Bowler and Blood'n'Guts shared an eyeroll. Though it was true, Zed's little sweetheart was pretty, and real sweet. Bowler knew very well, had in fact given her the time once or twice before she'd fallen for Zed. Not that the kid knew that. Bowler sure wasn't telling.
"He's a good, loyal boy, that one," Elzy remarked paternally. "Going places." Zed didn't reply, but he looked pleased.
A whistle sounded, and with a clatter and a jolt the train began to move, pulling away from the tiny station platform.
"We're all going places, Elzy," Bowler said, tipping his trademark hat. "Someday we four are gonna make it big. Get outta this minstrel show, get our own place...a club, maybe. A real one, not just a saloon. It'll be something, you wait."
"Yeah, we'll be waiting all right," Blood'n'Guts said, folding his long spidery hands in his lap. "Til doomsday. They let us play the music, they don't let us own the joints. Maybe in the next life, Billy."
Blood'n'Guts always was the cynical type. Got on Bowler's nerves a bit.
As the train picked up speed it got too noisy to talk, so Bowler leaned back and tipped his hat over his face. Relaxing, he let the tune he'd been dreaming up fill his mind, flowing into his whole self. Yeah, nice, he thought again. It was gonna be big, his music. Take that spanking new ragtime to a whole different place. Blind Elzy's muggy bone-deep old-time sound, fresh from the Delta...throw in Blood'n'Guts swinging let the bon temps rollay bayou flavor...Zed's thrumming Chicago soul...and his own charismatic growling voice, cultivated with plenty of whiskey and cigarillos. A whole new style for a whole new world.
Yeah. They'd make it one day, Bowler Morton and His...Somethin' Boys. Still working on the name.
Just then the train car gave an almighty heave to one side. Before he knew what was going on Bowler was thrown heavily to one side and hit the window, knocking his hat off and rattling his brains. He got another rattle when Zed crashed into him. Dazed, he straightened up as much as he could and held onto his bowler, feeling a trickle of wet warm blood running down his forehead into his eye. Damn, that'd hurt.
"What's going on?" he cried, trying to push Zed off of him. His question was lost in the hubbub. The entire car was panicking, everyone yelling and making a mad rush to the front of the jerking car. Wiping the blood out of his eye and trying to ignore the crying and the screaming and the praying and the way it felt as though his head was going to explode, he looked across the way for Murphy and Elzy.
No sign. Maybe they'd made it out some way, without getting trampled or smothered. One of the drummers had been stomped on a little ways up the aisle. Bowler looked away. He righted his hat and closed his eyes, one arm around a pale and shaking Zed. The car continued to rattle and wobble, making a truly hellacious racket.
But Bowler Morton was concentrating on the music. When the train jumped the track for good, when the whole car went tumbling down an incline, as he was flung from his seat and into the luggage rack, he was thinking of the music.
Next thing he knew he was walking down a little street, and for a second he thought he was in Bohemia again, where they'd done their second show of the tour. A pretty little village, this one looked a lot like it. On second glance, though, this one was a little...off. Crooked. Dark, like the whole sky had gone black. What light was there was weird and green and seemed to glow. There were open coffins propped up against the walls everywhere he looked. Weird, but then you never knew with these Europe types. Bowler might've gone on thinking he was just somewhere foreign if he hadn't caught a glimpse of himself in a window. The sight brought him up short.
He was a skeleton.
Damn, he thought, taking in his reflection. Only one of his eyes remained, but it didn't seem necessary for sight anymore. He could see just fine. Could see how he wasn't quite down to all skeleton yet. Skin was still stretched over his skeleton frame, but only barely. Could hardly be called skin at all anymore. He'd burned up all crispy and black, like one of his first wife's forgotten roasts.
"Boiler must've gone. Ain't no way I survived that," he said, taking another look at his sad, sorry, charred self. At least he still had his hat. What a miracle.
Dead. Bowler Morton. Dead. And what a way to go. Instead of being angry he found himself grateful he didn't recall anything about getting roasted. As there didn't seem to be too much else to do, he kept walking.
Eventually he came to the little square, just like the ones he'd seen all during the tour in little towns. There were cobblestones and a statue and some folks milling around over by a little shop. Only all inside out and different. And the folks—the other dead folks, he had no trouble understanding—they were all blue.
Not much trouble over what color you are down here, he thought, nodding and tipping his bowler as two dead ladies walked by, nodding at him politely. Charred bits of his skin flaked off and dropped to the ground as he did so, but the ladies didn't mention it, just smiled and moved on. This wasn't much like any of the spirit worlds he'd heard of, not the fire and brimstone his old man had always talked about, and bearing little resemblance to the heaven Elzy rhapsodized on when he was drunk.
But Billy "Bowler" Morton was dead as dust. He knew it. And wasn't quite sure why he didn't really mind.
"Billy," came Zed's voice from beside him, "I don't think we survived that crash."
Bowler turned, intending to ask his smart young friend what on God's green earth gave him that outlandish idea. When he did, he saw that Zed was a lot shorter than usual. A second look revealed that only Zed's top half was there. It looked like Zed was sprouting up out of the square, a weird little monument to train accident victims.
"Damn, son," Bowler exclaimed, tilting his hat back and eyeing his friend there on the ground. "Where's the rest of you?" Zed jerked a thumb.
"On your other side," he replied. Bowler turned, and yes indeed, there stood Zed's legs and lower torso. Thank the Lord he had no need for his insides any longer, as most of them seemed to have disappeared.
"You think Elzy and Murphy made it?" Bowler asked as he hoisted Zed back together. A little wobbly, sure, but it'd do.
"Made it where?" asked Blood'n'Guts, who had appeared at the other side of the square and was coming toward them. He looked Bowler up and down, then Zed, and then gave himself the once-over, taking in the godawful gouge of a wound eaten into his side. "Oh, damn. You're kidding."
"It appears we've gone to that undiscovered country, boys," put in Blind Elzy from behind them. "Ain't half-bad, from what I've seen. I'll miss the kids and the old lady, though..."
Everyone turned to look. Elzy, vibrantly blue but otherwise looking not too banged up, was standing just inside a crooked little doorway across the square. Bowler noticed a simple sign hanging over the door. It looked like a tombstone and had a crude picture of a wine bottle with a skull-and-crossbones label painted on. Death had really improved Bowler's eyesight, and he could make out "Ball and Socket Pub" on the sign, in that old-timey writing everyone seemed to like so much in foreign parts. Could do with an update or two, move with the times a bit.
"I think my old ticker went the second we started to wobble," Elzy went on, adjusting his dark glasses as he leaned against the doorframe. "Don't remember anything past then. Next thing I knew I was in this little place—looks like New Orleans, a bit, don't it, Murphy? And praise Jesus, I can see again. It's a miracle!"
"You're not funny, Elzy," grumped Zed, wobbling around as he tried to keep his halves together.
"Settle down, kid," said Blood'n'Guts mildly. He and Bowler glanced at each other over Zed's head. The kid would probably have a bit of trouble making peace with this whole deal. Again, Bowler wondered why he wasn't troubled. Felt like just another place to be, another gig to play, nothing more profound than that. Bowler Morton had been in plenty of places, and had played plenty of gigs. And he'd long since stopped being bothered about much of anything.
An old hymn his mother had always liked ran through his mind just then, and Bowler grinned to himself, bits of lip crumbling and falling off in ashes as he did so. Where's your sting, Death? Still waitin' on it, he thought.
"Come on over here and see this little joint," Elzy called to them, waving them over. Bowler tipped his hat, picked up Zed's top half, and made his way over to the doorway with Blood'n'Guts behind him and Zed's legs bringing up the rear.
"Nice, huh?" said Elzy, leading them inside. "And the landlady's a peach, real friendly. Least I think she's the landlady, might be a cook...Here, let's get us a drink."
It was a little saloon. A club. Lights, bar, stage, pool table, piano, everything. Colors like he hadn't seen in all his life, not even at the gaudiest music halls. And yet, there wasn't a band. That same deep part of him that knew he was dead somehow knew that, too. This place needed some sound. For a stupid second, Bowler wondered if maybe this was heaven after all. His own joint, set right there like it'd been waiting for him.
"New arrivals!" came a cry from near the bar. Somebody was ringing a dinner bell for all they were worth. More colored lights were lit. Every corpse in the place turned to the fresh group by the doorway and cheered, hoisting their glasses. There was a sense of camaraderie here that you only got with folks who'd been through something big, all the same and all together. All equals.
All that was missing was the music.
Billy "Bowler" Morton, who would have to think of a new stage name to suit his new joint, turned to his band-mates. His very self might've gone up in flames, but he still had that whole new sound thrumming through his skull. A whole new sound for a whole different world.
"Well, boys," he said with a skeleton grin and a tip of his charred bowler hat, "Looks like we might've found a new gig. Long-term. And I've got a great new song."