A stranger was in my regular seat at the diner, hunched and alone. He sat at the end of the counter, a cup of coffee between his hands. His dejected posture and vacant stare spoke volumes, so I just shrugged at Rosie rather than make the man change seats. The only free seat was next to him and I took it.
The regular crowd was in, packing the place. Rosie was busy with pouring coffee, serving pies and shouting orders to Rex while he tried his best not to sweat into whatever slop he had going on the grill. Marge was waiting tables, six months pregnant. She didn't have a hard time navigating tables, the guys moved out of her way, chairs constantly scraping as they shifted. Not like in a white-only joint. We respect our women in Harlem.
I took a few moments to study the man I sat next to. It looked as if he hadn't touched his coffee and the hands wrapped around the cup were cracked and dry, a working man's hands. His head hung down, like a ripe melon bursting out of the neck of his tattered coat. His hat was crumpled and sat askew, revealing hair gone to gray. Wrinkles lined his face, overemphasizing the width of his nose and mouth. He was an ugly man, old and worn, like his coat, but I thought I could sense a vibrancy in him.
Rex shouted to Rosie to change the station. Most of the guys at the counter stopped shoveling pie in their faces long enough to watch Rosie stretch up to the radio, her breasts nicely outlined when her uniform pulled tight. Did I say we respect our women in Harlem? Sure do, but that don't mean we can't appreciate the view.
Rosie put on WJZZ and Clifford Brown's trumpet filled the diner, a song from a few years back.
That's how it was that morning of June 27, 1956, the day jazz died and I became a new man.
"That was the great Clifford Brown and Max Roach," the radio man said when the song ended, "with 'The Blues Walk' from their first duo album. We'll be playing Clifford Brown all day, cats, God rest his soul."
Half the diner erupted in questions then, myself among them. What happened? Clifford Brown died yesterday, someone said. A car crash on the way to Chicago.
"Here's to Brownie," someone in back yelled, "Best trumpet player ever to blow the horn!"
Many cheered and raised their mugs, but another voice countered, "My ass! Miles Davis is the best ever."
The other side of the diner erupted into an argument then, one side chest thumping "bop," the other "cool."
Me, I just said a silent prayer for Clifford and tried to listen to the radio.
"He threw it away, y'know," the man next to me said. His voice was that kind you get from smoking three packs a day and then spending all night howling at the moon.
Surprised, I looked over at him. He hadn't moved, but I was sure he had spoken. "Come again?"
"He threw it away." His voice was raw as he pointed to the radio. "Clifford."
"Threw what away?" I asked.
"His gift. He didn't want it anymore."
I tapped my mug on the counter and Rosie came over to refill it. "What are you talkin' about, Pops?" I asked as Rosie swayed over. Ah, she was something.
The old man waited until Rosie had left before answering. He coughed into a dirty 'kerchief, reached into his pocket and pulled out a cigarette case. Putting a cigarette in his mouth, he lit a match and inhaled deeply. "You think these great artists come by their talent naturally?"
"Sure. Why not?"
"They don't," he grumbled. "It's given to them."
I shrugged, decided he was screwy, and dug in to my slice of cherry pie.
Three bites in, I could tell the old man was staring at me. I put my fork down, turned to face him. The whites of his eyes were the color of faded wallpaper. "Look, I don't know what you're talkin' about, but I'd like to just enjoy my pie and coffee, huh?"
He smiled, yellow teeth as big as a horse's. "You're what, thirty, John?"
I damn near fell out of my chair. "How do you know my name?"
"I know a lot, John," He held out his hand. "I'm Buddy." I took his dry, cracked hand in mine, gave it a pump. "Let's go outside and talk." He dropped two bits on the counter, stood and walked out the door.
I chuckled, nervously, I admit, and scooped another bite of pie. No way in hell I was following him.
The fork stopped halfway to my mouth. He knew my name. How? I was nobody that anybody knew by looking at me. I turned, looking out the window. He stood on the street corner watching the traffic, waiting.
I turned back to the counter, looked at the pie, at Rosie, at Marge, then back out the window. He hadn't moved.
Curiosity, if nothing else, made me move.
I dropped a dollar on the counter, put on my hat and walked out. I lit a smoke and stood next to him on the corner. He grinned and said, "Walk with me, John."
We turned up the street and were silent for most of a block. It was a nice June morning, a promise hanging in the air.
"You can feel it, can't you?" He looked sideways at me. "Something big is about to happen."
I shrugged, stomped on the cigarette butt.
"Talent," his voice took on a tone of importance, "is given. It's borrowed, loaned out. It always has to be returned."
"Yes," he coughed. "Clifford decided he was done with it. I collected and now I'm going to loan it out again."
"Man, you are crazy," I stopped to confront him. "I admit you almost had me by dropping my name. But, you could have figured that out from someone. Most everyone in the diner knows me. Now this garbage about loaning out talent. What are you? Some crossroads devil come to tempt me like Robert Johnson was?"
He chuckled. "No, I just work for him. Think of me as a middle man."
"You're cracked." I hurried my steps and turned down an alley that was a shortcut back to my apartment.
At the end of the alley, he was waiting for me.
"How did you..." I pointed at him then back down the alley from which I came.
"I've been trying to tell you, John. I'm making you an offer. This is very real."
"Wha..." I shook my head. "Why me?"
"Why you?" He smiled. "You are on the cusp to greatness, but on your current path, you will not make it. I'm here to make it happen."
"Greatness, you say?" He had me now, but not entirely. "So, this is a crossroads deal? You come for my soul in three years? That it?"
"Not so harsh as that," he smiled. "You keep it for as long as you like. If you want to give it up early, you can. You want to keep it until you grow old and die, you can." He shrugged. "But the end result will always be the same."
"And what's that?"
He fixed me with his rheumy stare. "You die and your soul goes below. Immediately."
"What happened to Brownie?"
"Clifford grew afraid and began to hate the fame. It happens sometimes. He made the choice to do away with it. I was sent to take it and him."
"And now you want to give it to me? And I can keep it until my end days?" I was starting to warm up to this idea. "Seems like you get the short end, huh?"
"Maybe," he smiled evilly then. "Except for the eternal suffering, John."
I looked at him hard and gave him my answer.
The following year, 1957, I released my debut album.
I called it Coltrane.